A Duck in a Princess World

Note: This was written at the beginning of November as a potential editorial. 

My daughter chose a duck costume for Halloween, a decision that took all of 30 seconds. When it arrived, she immediately strutted her fluffiness around the living room, beak proudly perched on head, confidence evident in every waddle. “I love baby animals,” she proclaimed to her daddy, dog, and herself.

Because of this excitement, my husband and I took her to community events where she could wear it. It was at one such event that she seemingly took notice of the other girls her age: shiny wigs, sparkly costumes, uncomfortable looking shoes clicking on the tile. “I hate my duck costume,” she said. I was struck by the emotion, watched her excitement wilt before me, and asked what it was she wanted to be. The response? A princess.

I felt, for the first time, the pendulum of influence tipping in the direction of her peers, the culture, even Disney. All it took was for one hug from a friend dressed up as Ariel and the realization that she was the only girl in what could be perceived as a gender-neutral costume.

Princess costume or not, I simply want her to be her own person: Independent. Free thinking. Confident in her choices. If she is going to dress up as a female movie character, let it be of her own accord.

Although this was our first experience with peer pressure taking hold, it most certainly won’t be our last. Lisa M. Dinella, an associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University, found through her research that halloween costumes actually become more gender-typed the older children become.

As a child, I watched Disney movies, played both Barbies and G.I. Joes, and grew up to be a believer in equality on all gender fronts. It is not the princess culture that has me worried, it is the thought my impressionable child can be so swayed so soon by her peers.

There is much talk about raising our children to be independent in their actions, but how do we encourage independence in their thinking despite any other influences? Or is that a naive notion even to spend time considering?

As a society, we do not encourage independence in our children when we expect all kids of one age group or gender to be interested in the same fill-in-the-blank. Pompoms to the girl, football to the boy; the same items on most children’s food menus; school projects allowing little to no room for choice; gender-marketed food and toys; or even the expectation that all kids have seen a particular movie or show.

We recently waited in the doctor’s office for a check-up. Because pretenses do not exist among children, two girls eagerly brought their mother’s phone to the same table where my daughter was sitting. The popular song, “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen” belted from its speakers as the twins sang along, my girl sitting in silence. The fact that she had not seen the movie nor knew the song by heart was cause for surprise of those nearby and comments were made. The implication was that every four year old should love that film.

A wise colleague once told me it is the stories we tell ourselves and create in our minds which make up our realities. I wonder then how we shift our stories so that more independent thinking can be modeled, encouraged, and valued.

As educators, are we lifelong learners modeling the pursuits of an academic or creative passion? As parents, do we stand firm in the wake of decisions, unswayed by comparison? And as a society, do we eliminate stereotypes and biases in our messages to and conversations with the youngest among us?

In an ideal world, children can dress unique to their taste, spend free time as they choose, and explore the depths of their own imagination.

Diversity should be celebrated, independent thinking insisted upon, and costumes made as unique as the children wearing them.

On being sentimental

I bought the book, “Mein Esel Benjamin” in an art museum in Germany my junior year of college. I chose this over others because 1: It was only 5.90 Euros; 2: It was about a donkey with the same name as my then-boyfriend, now-husband and the jokes seemed endless, and 3: That little girl’s face was adorable.

Riding back on the train from Cologne to Trier, I read the story and lingered over the pictures. I realized then I had actually bought the book for a possible, future child. So, on July 9, 2006, I dated the inside cover and wrote the location of the purchase. I was sentimental already and hadn’t even become a mother.

Linnea and I read this in its entirety for the first time on Monday night before bed.  The passing of time hit as soon as I skimmed that inscription, looked at those chubby cheeks, and read on…

I was waiting for my three-and-a-half-year-old to stop me, “Speak Ennnnnglish, Mama” just like she started to do recently whenever I spoke German to her. Instead, she listened and helped me turn the pages.

There is a part in the story when the little girl, Susi, follows her pet donkey out of her house, down the street, and to the beach. They play with rocks, look at the water, and then decide to go back home. Only, Susi doesn’t know how to get home and she becomes sad. The sadness only lasts one page, however, and the donkey (way to go, Benjamin!) leads her safely home into the loving arms of her “mama und papa”.

As soon as the page was turned and Linnea saw that the little girl and her pet would be safe, she let out an audible gasp and sat up higher on my lap. She started to giggle, letting out all the breath she had, noticeably, held in.

This wasn’t the first time my daughter showed signs of sadness during a story. Even at 18 months, Linnea would tear up at the exact same part of a book about a dog named “Biscuit” who had to say good bye to his ducky friend. She would sit in silence, letting the story soak in before tears cascaded down her plump cheeks.  And her sadness would dissipate only after explaining the happy pictures at the end.

This sensitivity shines through life outside books too. She gets sad when others are sad–regardless of whether or not they exist. Once L.E. offered a leaf and a pat on the back to a little girl who fell down at her preschool.

cousinsAnd if she is anything more than sensitive, it would be sentimental. When we had to say good bye to her cousins after a visit during Christmas time, she would walk to the door slowly, turn around and rush right back up the stairs to give more kisses. My sister was laughing each time she did this (it lasted for a while…) because she would say, “Oh my God, She is SO your daughter.” Let’s face it–I was rushing up those same stairs to give more hugs too. It seemed we both could not let go of the moment; we held on with our affection.

Play_photoAnd when we took her to see the children’s play, “Charlotte’s Web” in February as a Valentine’s gift, she cried. Only, she didn’t cry because of dear, old Charlotte; she cried because the play was over. She wailed, over a steady applause, “I don’t want it be over. I want them to come baaaack.”

Because of all of these experiences with our tender-hearted gal, you would think Ben and I would learn to soften the news of upcoming changes. Instead on a recent Sunday morning, we told our calendar-lovin’ daughter that it was a new month. “February is behind us and March is here. It will be springtime soon,” we exclaimed with gusto. We were met with a furrowed brow, a hesitant voice, and yep–even a few tears…over it being March. (oops, on our part.)

I wonder how parents do this well, this balance between living in the present and appreciating changes as they arise. How to fully embrace a child’s nature to be ___[fill in the blank]_____ while also encouraging them to go with the flow, as needed.

Maybe there is no such balance.

And in which case, we will carry on as usual, while remembering to simply laugh when we need to let the breath back in.

An announcement

(No, I am not pregnant.)

I poured a bowl of cereal because it just seemed fitting.

When I was in college and working in the newspaper office into the wee hours of morning, I would come back to my dorm/townhouse/suite and eat Special K (with berries!) in a bright, hardened plastic bowl before heading to bed. It was a ritual that allowed for reflection as I ate in the silence of the room.

I was reminded of those moments as I was lying with my daughter in her toddler bed tonight. Stories, words, and ideas zipped through my mind as I thought with excitement about this new endeavor. I didn’t get much of a chance to consider it in its entirety while Linnea was still awake. There were errands that needed to be run (library, gas, groceries), dinner that needed to be made (omelettes, toast, fruit) and bedtime stories that needed to be told (Madeline, a family photo book, and Winnie the Pooh).

A number with a Denver area code flashed on the screen of my iphone at 4:39. When the nice lady said, “Denver Post”, I thought for sure they were trying to update our subscription. But, then she asked, “Am I talking to ‘motormouth'” before introducing herself as the editorial page news editor. I knew then she was referring to my cover letter for the writing contest: “…the older I grew, the more I was able to channel my incessant chatter and thoughtful opinions into words on paper.” was how I partially explained the nickname.

“Congratulations–you were selected as one of 16 Colorado Voices for the Denver Post”…and I was elated.

When I told Linnea the exciting news, she burst into tears and said, “I don’t want you to be a writer. I want you to stay a teacher.” (She misunderstood that I would be doing this alongside teaching…) And somewhere between more tears and her insistence that I do not know how to use a computer, I realized she was just tired from a not-long-enough nap.

So, it was only fitting that after I put her down for (an earlier) bedtime, I carved some time for that silent reflection in my life once more.

More cereal and more writing. Life is good.

Time Out for Baby Dolly

My three year old strolls into the kitchen, one arm swinging, gaze forward, saying in a nonchalant tone, “My baby dolly is in time out”. She walks toward her play kitchen, looking every bit like a mother set on cooking dinner, time outs be damned.

“Why is she in time out?” I ask, dicing carrots next to her. And with a shake of her head, disappointment clear in her voice and movements, “Because she said shit”. She looked up. I laughed. And because I didn’t believe it (baby dolly has always been so well behaved), I ask again, “What did she say?” With a twinge of annoyance, body still facing forward toward her pretend sink, she looks up very casually, “Shit, Mama. Baby dolly said shit.”

I am half-grinning as I try to explain exactly how naughty of a word that is. I am not at all articulate and finally ask, “Well, where did baby dolly learn that word?” Her response? “Daddy. When he’s driving.”

So, now we have a plastic baby who has a swearing problem, a comedian of a girl who tells this story often because it gets a chuckle every time, and a dada who–with a smile–denies ever having said such a word.

Letters to Jesus and Other Topics

I turned to my daughter last night in the kitchen, her hands tearing bread to make the topping to a casserole, and asked, “What do you think Dada would like for Christmas?” Her wide eyes met mine as she said, “But Mama, I already got him something. I got him cut-up paper.”

And she had. Two weeks ago, we were working on crafts at her wooden school desk, when she decided to make him a present. She got so excited about the idea that she nearly tripped while getting an envelope, and then again as she walked down the stairs to put it under the tree. I smiled when I heard her say in a warning tone, “Dada, you can’t open this until Christmas. Ok? It is cut-up paper.”

Being present can feel like a lofty goal at times. How to stay present when the grading pile is huge and the to-do list for home runs the length of a paper? Well, to my daughter, it is simple; that is the world she lives in all the time.

I cuddled her while watching one episode of “Daniel Tiger” on PBS. Her neck nestled mine as she sat on my lap, cups of tea nearby. Fifteen minutes left. It was already dinnertime. I knew she would be hungry as soon as the show was over. I debated getting up and making our meal so it would be ready, and then I continued to sit. I sat with her on my lap for the next fifteen minutes and realized how much better of a decision that was when we were “cooking” together side by side [she taste-tested and I chopped].

When I had a rare couple hours to myself in a quiet house, I found myself walking in circles. Put this there. Find this. Forgot something, go back. What was I doing again? After a text to a friend admitting my insanity, I made a cup of tea and sat. By the window and Howard by my side. I fought the urge to multitask and instead opted to soak in the silence. I felt the frenzy float away.

Even though I aim for a simple, stress-free holiday season (don’t we all?), I found myself getting caught up in a to-do list. I asked Linnea if she would help me with the Christmas cards when they came. She glanced up and taught me yet another lesson about living simply and utterly in the moment…

“Let’s make one for baby Jesus instead.” And with that, she chose a yellow piece of construction paper (his favorite color, don’t you know), and grabbed a marker.

I did too.

Environments of Education

We noticed the green mugs first. The handle was the perfect size for a preschooler’s hand, and adorned on each one was a name. Jack. Grace. Ezra. Colby…

Linnea’s preschool felt instantly inviting and cozy on the tour we took over the summer. Plants were on the window shelves, convenient for young hands to water. Pictures were hung closer to the floor than in most homes. There were nooks and crannies scattered throughout the space encouraging youngs ones to explore.

image

I want to go to that school, I told Ben and Linnea in the car as we left. More than myself, I was also thinking of my high school students. The ones who have been in school now for over a decade of their life. Do they feel invited, cozy, welcome in the classrooms and hallways?

The first writing assignment of the school year in my high school English classroom was a literacy autobiography…tell me about your history with reading and writing, I asked. And as I read their memories, I kept thinking of my preschool-aged daughter. I thought of her because most of their memories with school began at her current age. Whoa. I had the epiphany. The epiphany that my little girl will one day in high school.

The high schools I have worked at have white walls, fluorescent lights, and curtainless windows. Not that these are necessarily bad, per se, they just don’t conjure up the same kind of feeling one finds when walking into most preschools. And I believe that students–regardless of their age–want to enjoy  and feel at home in the space in which they are learning.

There have been some positives to the high school learning environments in which I have worked:

-My teaching buddy, Mary, decorates her classroom complete with a Christmas tree, tinsel, and lights for her seniors every year.

-Artwork by students have adorned the walls of both schools’ hallways

-I try to make my classroom bright and inspiring…posters, artwork, student artwork, and pictures and books that matter to me so that student share what matter most to them.  (Although, right now it is in a state of end-of-semester messiness…Christmas break, are you here yet?)

-Following Thanskgiving break this year, students and staff were welcomed with  Christmas, warm, white lights twinkling in all the major hallways, overhead lights turned off.

image

-And one of my students likes to surprise her classmates with costumes such as this… (I mean, who doesn’t love unicorns?)

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Ultimately, I hope my daughter will feel at home and happy in every school she attends just as she feels now in her Montessori preschool of only 24 students. Because as a parent and a teacher, I can’t shake the notion that environment matters…perhaps even, most of all.

Being Three

I have decided I want to be three again. Being this age enables one to…

  • Say exactly what is on his/her mind in each moment
  • Hug someone immediately and closely whenever desired
  • Not care what you look like, ever
  • Sleep whenever you are tired and as often as you need
  • Be excited about the small things in life (i.e. balloons, a sunset, chocolate), or the big things, whatever your perspective
  • Not worry
  • Spend your days coloring, being read to, playing
  • Explore playgrounds and parks while the adults look bored on benches
  • Dance often
  • Snuggle with stuffed animals and cuddle with family
  • Live in the moment

Linnea officially turned three at 3:12 p.m. on Sunday, October 12. We had the morning to ourselves at home to make waffles, read, play, and open gifts. (And watch “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”, her favorite.)

BenandLinnea

When I asked L.E. what she wanted to do for her birthday, she immediately replied, “Go in a hot air balloon”. After explaining how high up in the air they go, she changed her mind to “play with friends”. We settled on a small children’s museum just down the road. With cupcakes, party hats, and dear friends & close family, we celebrated.

Not surprising, Linnea crashed as soon as we got home at 2:30 until about 4:30/5. After an exciting afternoon playing and a long nap, I asked her what she would like me to make for her special birthday dinner at home. Mostly expecting “Mac & Cheese” as a response, I was caught off guard when she replied, “Beer bread [looooong pause], homemade potato soup”. That ata girl, I thought. So, I cooked while Ben and Linnea played in her new dollhouse (a sweet hand-me-down from our friend, BB).

dollhouse

While getting ready for bed, we reflected on her day. I was reminded of what her Auntie Mary observed at her party: Linnea hurriedly coming around the corner following some of her friends saying mostly to herself, “I am having SO much fun!”

And, now a few pictures of the three year old who reminds me often, “Mama, I am a big girl now.” So true.

A few from her birthday (she requested chocolate cupcakes with sprinkles):

cupcakes       LE9

(Not the best pictures–capturing toddlers is difficult!–but here is L.E. with each of her buddies who came to play with her…)

LE8     LE11

And below are some pictures from a recent preschool field trip to a farm in Niwot; Ben and I were able to chaperone. In the car on the way there, we drove Linnea and two of her classmates (one is her buddy in one of the pics below). L.E. ended up tickling both of them most of the way.

Each child played in the hay bale maze, chose a pumpkin and fed an animal. We chuckled during snack time because the kids took upon themselves to raise their hand randomly and say things like, “Raise your hand if you like ________”. Every student asked about type of food. Linnea got brave and raised her hand stating, “Raise your hand if you like giraffes.”

     LE6     LE5

LE7  LE12

And a few recent favorites, a girl on a mission:

LE1   LE4

And life is good…

LE2      LE3   The end.

In Linnea’s Words

Linnea, almost three, has been telling stories nonstop lately. In an effort to remember some of those, I wanted to post a few of them here. Some, and I apologize in advance, are a little gross for my liking. But, I have to admit, her lack of filter is sometimes refreshing, and funny after a long day. She tells most of her stories after her bedtime story and the lights are out. I lie down next to her and it sometimes feel like we are at a slumber party; she thinks of random things to say, and we giggle together. Other times, she shares her feelings about things that happened during the day (mostly at school).

From Linnea:

Do you know why I eat boogers out of my nose? Because they make ladybugs.

My friend went to a farm and her name is Halflaff. And she cries at the farm if her mama and dada are away.

My friend says there’s a poo poo stain in the mountains, but it’s far away from our house. And the guy who owns it, gives people tickets.

When you are three, you get to play a lot, be old, and do EVERYTHING.

Mama, the teachers don’t ask me what day of the week it is. I want to say what day of the week it is. That makes me sad.

Did you play with your mama when you were a baby?

(And her favorite…) Mama, tell me about when I was a baby.

Will it stop winding? (As in the wind)

Last today, we…. (meaning yesterday)

I am a vegetarian AND a meat eater.

Mama, you make me happy when I am with you. (heart melter!)

(And my favorite…while kissing my palm) Mama, I love you wherever you may go.

(She has also been saying “Seriously” at the end of sentences now. As is in, “Baby is really hungry. Seriously. [insert fake laugh from her]” And she still says, “Ska-petti” for spaghetti…)

I am sure there will be more stories and sayings to come…

Running with a toddler

For three days a week during the spring of 2012, Ben drove Linnea to school with him. Her sitter, our family friend, would meet them at Ben’s office in the morning and again in the afternoon to return home by 4:00. Because of an earlier dismissal at the school in which I taught, I would be home by 3:15 each day. Those forty-five extra minutes–sometimes an hour if traffic was heavy–could seem like an eternity when waiting for the chance to once again cradle and kiss my infant daughter.

So, I ran.   

I ran before I could talk myself out of it. I would bypass a basket of laundry and a messy room to get to my running shoes, yoga pants, and leash for Howard. Texted Ben, “Going running, look for us”. Locked the door. And into the fresh air. Out of the too-quiet house that would only make me long for my family to just be home already.

I would run in the grassy boulevard between two one-way streets that ultimately granted me the ideal view for seeing them driving my way. I ran until I saw them, their kisses my reward. I would wonder when I jumped in the car–me in the backseat and Howard in the front–what she thought in those moments. She said nothing, of course, maybe gave me a smile, and let me smother her cheeks with smooches and her little body with snuggles.

Fast forward to this afternoon: Ben and Linnea would be a little later than normal because they were at a soccer game for his school. After a visit with a neighbor and a change of clothes, I made the decision to go for a run rationalizing fifteen minutes would be better than nothing; laundry be damned.

I ran the same path as I took when this was my ritual. Eyes directed toward traffic scanning the cars for the black Honda civic with a carseat in back. They saw me before Howard or I did. My pace quickened when I realized it was them and Linnea gave me a smile that spanned the length of her face while her feet kicked wildly. And for a moment, I saw my daughter as an infant again, happy to see her mama in both the ages of 6 months and 2 and a half. Moments such as this seem to get better with her ability to more freely express her love.

I opened the door ready to rest my non-trained legs on the short car ride home. “Mama, I run with you,” Linnea asserted with a grin. For a moment, I thought how much easier it would be to just drive on and to be home with all of us there: Change her diaper, make dinner, get settled. I also considered how that 10 minute run could take upwards of 30 minutes with a toddler. Then, I looked at her face with her raised eyebrows and expectant smile and knew there was only one possible answer. So, I unbuckled her seatbelts, and said, “Of course.”

Linnea and I held hands and ran along the trail until she got distracted, “Oh Mama, a big leaf. Look!” We crouched to inspect it until she crumbled it with her fingers and giggled. We continued with our run. “Mama, let’s play hide and seek!” After a couple hiding spots behind trees, we ran further. “Mama, look at the big stick!” After explaining the difference between a branch and bark, she wanted me to hold her and reached her arms up as evidence. I looked down and with one swoop, did just that. We walked until we saw Ben pushing a stroller, Howard at his side, still a ways from home.

I realized then that Linnea was not the distracted one. Her comments on leaves, sticks and wanting to play were anything but distraction. I was the distracted one. I get lost in my head while I run not paying enough attention to the simplest pieces of nature that so easily catch her attention. And as a wise friend once told me, It’s not really about the run…or the endpoint…or how long it took me…it is about the view and journey. 

And I am grateful that Linnea continues to remind me of this time and time again.