Parental Pressure

This past week, I was fortunate to be trained to give an assessment, the Gesell Developmental Observation-Revised. My school administers it to all PreK3 students and any applicants for PreK4 and kindergarten. Although I may not ever be the examiner, I will need to know how to interpret this assessment’s results and share them with parents.

During the Gesell Institute‘s training, I realized that the information I gained about child development is crucial – not just for teachers, but for parents, as well. After being a mother for nearly eight years and being in the classroom almost three, I’ve figured out a lot of things, but some facts came as quite a surprise.

For instance, did you know you can do your child a disservice by teaching her to read too early? And the reason isn’t what you might initially think. Like everyone, I’ve been told that young brains are sponges, and this is absolutely true. But young bodies are still developing, and while a child’s brain might get that A is A and B is B, his eye muscles aren’t able to track from left to right (which we Westerners do when we read) until, on average, age five-and-a-half. In fact, you can usually tell a child who has learned to read too early because he turns his whole head in order to read across the page.

I can already hear outraged parents saying that their children learned to read on their own or that reading is a wonderful thing – we should promote it in any way possible. Number one, I know it’s possible that some kids just figure it out – my younger son certainly did, surprising us when he started reading the letters off my husband’s shirt a few months ago. It was not something we’d taught him at all. Number two, I absolutely agree that reading is wonderful and should be encouraged.

But could it also be possible that, underlying the desire to do what’s right for our kids by stimulating their little intellects and filling their minds with lots of valuable information, there’s something else at play here? Something a little selfish that you don’t want to admit?

I’m talking about peer pressure morphed into parental pressure. Peer pressure is an ugly thing when you’re thirteen, and your best friend makes a stupid decision and wants you along for the ride. It can either make you also do said stupid thing, or it can ostracize you from that friend when you say no. Either way, no fun, right?

But it doesn’t end when your zits disappear and your braces come off. It continues in fraternities and sororities, in the work place and across your neighbor’s fence. It’s the whole “keeping up with the Joneses” mess, which can turn expensive if you’re susceptible to it. It can wreck marriages or throw a kink into what you thought was a lifelong friendship.

And if you’re a parent, you can drag your innocent children into it. You have the best of intentions, but you’re actually doing damage to the precious people that you love so dearly.

I’m not saying that I’m immune. Far from it. When my son Peter was a toddler, I was talking to a mom whose child was a little older. This other child knew the entire alphabet and most of the sounds the letters made. While impressed, I also felt guilty. My son could sort of sing the alphabet, but that was the extent of it. Knowing little about early education at the time, I thought that I was remiss as a parent because my own child’s brain wasn’t brimming with this knowledge. So I came up with a brilliant plan.

Peter had a cute, wooden train, each car holding a different letter. I decided that every time he mastered a new letter, I would put the next car on. He loved trains. It would be a fun reward for him. We never got past B. I tried computer games, but the only ones he liked had nothing to do with letters. I was frustrated when nothing seemed to work, and I assumed that there was something wrong with how I was trying to teach him. But there was hope: in preschool, the problem would be solved because he would be with a person who was qualified to teach him.

Except letters didn’t come any easier in preschool. By the end of his first year, he could almost always tell you how to spell his name (and when he couldn’t, it was because he mixed up the order of the middle letters), and sometimes he could even recognize those four letters when they weren’t in his name. Otherwise, he knew the letter O.

Although it took until he was almost seven to get the formal diagnosis, we now know that Peter is dyslexic. When he couldn’t learn his letters, it wasn’t his fault, wasn’t my fault, and wasn’t his teacher’s fault. I could have saved myself a lot of frustration if I hadn’t tried to push him to do something at an age that was young for a normal child, not to mention unachievable for a dyslexic.

And reading isn’t the only place this happens.

Moms of babies, how often do you compare milestones with friends?

My child is seven months old and pulling up, but poor Susan – her baby is eight months old and hasn’t even crawled yet.

It’s hard not to feel that pride when your child does something that you think is Facebook status-worthy. I was thrilled that both of my boys walked at ten months, and I wasn’t shy about spreading the news. But that didn’t stop my elder son from having dyslexia. It didn’t teach my younger son how to behave.

One excellent resource that the Gesell Institute puts out is a booklet entitled “Ready or Not: Is My Child Ready for Kindergarten?” It points out that while the average child is able to walk at twelve months, the normal range is anywhere from eight-and-three-quarters to seventeen months. By two, all normal children can walk. Where is the relevance of my ten-month walkers now, when they’re seven and three?

Just as you don’t expect your newborn to get up and walk, you shouldn’t have ridiculous expectations for your child when it comes to reading. That’s not to say that exposure to words is bad or that certain children won’t start reading spontaneously. But it does mean that when it comes time to fill out college applications, the child who was seated in front of an encyclopedia at age two won’t have the upper hand over a child who learned to read in kindergarten.

So what are we parents to do? Are we not supposed to be proud of our children? Are we not supposed to encourage them when they show potential? A dad sees his four-year-old son chuck an acorn at a tree, and Dad immediately signs the kid up for the t-ball team (where he has just as much trouble tracking the ball flying toward him as he does reading without turning his head). A mom hears her two-year-old daughter singing along with the radio and starts looking for private music instruction.

Sometimes wonderful things happen. Star baseball players are discovered. Young musical prodigies attend Julliard and become famous concert pianists.

But sometimes Bobby complains that he doesn’t like t-ball, and then what do you do? It seems that parents are either reluctant to let him quit, thinking that he’ll get there one day if they keep pushing him, or they’re quick to involve him in another sport or activity because he’s got to be brilliant at something, right?

Maybe – and I know that I’m really going out on a limb here – maybe children need to be children. Maybe they are brilliant, yes, but that in no way means that they’ll miss their true calling unless they’re turned into little professionals right now. When they’re one or three or five or even ten, their true calling is to be a child. It’s to run around outside and catch lizards. Or to learn to ride a bike and even scrape their knees in the process. Or to have weekends that aren’t packed with activities, where they can bake cookies with their moms, help their dads wash the cars. Where the whole family can sit around and read a book together.

Through play, believe it or not, children learn. Play is their work. Putting puzzles together is a pre-cursor to reading. Building with large blocks can help them with math. Smooshing clay into pancakes or working it into balls with their little fingers develops fine muscles. Finger painting encourages hand-eye coordination, and cutting scrap paper with a pair of safety scissors teaches organization. (And I know, as a pre-school teacher, I might sound like I’m bashing my own job, but it’s nurturing and guided play that happens all day long with us.)

And reading… This one has a special place in my heart. Reading lessens discipline and self-esteem problems. It keeps kids in school, keeps them out of trouble (of course, good parenting is a big contributor, too, but then good parents often read to their children).

Since I’m such a big proponent of reading yet am getting onto parents for pressuring their kids to learn to read too early, what’s the solution? Read to your kids, of course. And not just moms – dads should be involved, too. Most nights, my husband reads a book like Goodnight Moon or Brown Bear, Brown Bear to our younger son, and I read a chapter book with our elder son. Right now, that chapter book happens to be Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but at other times, it’s something easier, like Magic Tree House, that Peter can read to me.

Parents, quit pressuring your kids to be little adults. Quit expecting your schools to turn out mini physicists and doctors and poets by age four. And quit the boastful comparisons with other parents.

I don’t mean for everyone to immediately pull their kids from all ballet and music lessons, all gymnastics classes and tutoring sessions. As ever, you have to find the balance that’s right for your family. But that balance needs to include time to breathe, time to make a pile of leaves and jump on it, time to say yes to a trip to the park because you have plenty of time and aren’t stressed out about your packed schedule.

And when they’re tired and ready to rest, sit together and read a good book.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a list because, why not? Lists are cool. I wish I could take credit for it, but I’ll give credit where it’s due: my trainer from Gesell passed it out to everyone in our workshop, and I’m passing it on to you.

10 Reasons to Read to Your Child

  1. Because when you hold children and give them this attention, they know you love them.
  2. Because reading to children will encourage them to become readers.
  3. Because children’s books today are so good that they are fun even for adults.
  4. Because children’s books’ illustrations often rank with the best, giving children a life-long feeling for good art.
  5. Because books are one way of passing on your moral values to children. Readers know how to put themselves in others’ shoes.
  6. Because until they learn to read for themselves, they will think you are magic.
  7. Because every teacher and librarian they encounter will thank you.
  8. Because it’s nostalgic.
  9. Because for that short space of time, they will stay clean and quiet.
  10. Because, if you do, they may then let you read in peace.

And I’ll add my own #11: Because when the time is right (and it will be), they will read to you.

Why No One Comes First in My Family

Spending Time with One of My Precious Men

Spending Time with One of My Precious Men

Earlier this week, I read an article entitled, “Why My Husband Will Always Come Before My Kids.” (Read it here – really, please read it; I promise, it’s short.) The title evoked all kinds of nasty thoughts. It might as well have said, “Why My Children Will Never Come Before My Husband” – doesn’t sound as nice that way, does it?

But what if it’s one of those articles with a cool twist? I wondered.

So instead of continuing to judge, I read it. Then I got my husband to read it, then my mother. My husband – and this is the man who should be all for this kind of article – noted that author Amber Doty had a good point when she said parents should be good role models of what a marriage should look like. “But the rest is just crazy,” he said. (What’s he talking about? you ask. I told you to read the article.) He thought Doty was making excuses for relinquishing parental responsibility. Ouch.

My mom’s reaction was quite different. As soon as she finished it, she was full of praise for Doty, who values her relationship with her husband and has discovered that a child-centered lifestyle is not ideal for either parents or children.

I came away wondering who I put first – husband or kids? What does always putting one before the other look like? According to Doty:

With very few exceptions, you will not find our kids in our bed at night. If we can only afford one vacation a year, we take it alone, and I feel no guilt about soliciting the help of family so that we can have a date night where we talk about anything but our children.

Our household is not a child-centered one, but I can’t say that I follow Doty’s prescription, either. And I think the reason is because I don’t boil my life down to a marriage that has remained unaffected, despite the birth of our two children. Maybe this is where many people go wrong because they assume that a baby is simply another person sleeping in another room. They don’t expect the sudden wellspring of love that is born with the baby. Nor can they comprehend exactly how much care that baby will require. So there are pros and cons, and both can blindside new parents.

There’s a certain amount of preparation new parents can and should do to avoid this (although parenthood isn’t like the SAT, where you can just try again in a few months if you don’t like your results the first time). When I was pregnant with my first child, my sister-in-law gave me her copy of On Becoming Baby Wise (read my review here), and one point that authors Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam stress is the importance of marriage. Baby Wise parents are encouraged to welcome the new baby into an already-established family of which everyone is a contributing member. Children are raised in a household where they are loved and where they grow to learn to respect others.

So when Peter was born, even though there was that incredible insta-love that kept Thomas and me glued to his bassinet, watching in wonder as he slept, ours was not a household that centered around our new little guy. (But don’t read this to mean that we neglected his needs in order to not be child-centered – please!) We already had a structure in place that allowed us to take care of Peter while still taking care of us – the new, parental us.

Unlike Doty, who seems to think that one person must be ranked first, I’m not big into hierarchies. To use an absolute like “always” or “never” suggests that if I put Thomas before the kids, he might get a hot supper while the baby wails to be nursed. In reality, needs change from moment to moment. After changing my newborn’s diaper, I helped Thomas carry his food from kitchen to table because he was on crutches and couldn’t carry anything. (Yes, Thomas actually sprained his ankle within a few days of coming home with our first baby.) But you know what? Thomas also realized that I was sleep-deprived (so much so that, once with each baby, I referred to my new son as “her” because I was too tired to remember that I had not, in fact, delivered a healthy baby girl), and he hopped around on one foot and changed diapers in order to give me a few extra minutes’ rest.

This isn’t some sort of magic but rather how a good marriage turns into good parenting. We were and continue to be attuned to each other’s needs, as well as those of our children.

Baby Wise suggests parents have couch time every night, so the kids can see that the parents make time for each other. Couch time has never been my thing. It wasn’t before we had kids, and so I wasn’t about to contrive something to “show” our boys someone else’s idea of effective communication. Thomas and I cook together and bathe the kids together and talk as we go, and sometimes that means telling the kids not to interrupt us while we catch up. Sometimes we get away to see a movie. Even more rarely, we may go out to eat without them. And I don’t consider us martyrs because of this; I actually like spending time with my husband and my kids. It’s something I did with my parents growing up, and since it was a positive experience, it’s something I want to continue with my kids, and the way I see it, my time with them is short.

And here’s a shocking revelation: when we are away from our kids (and this isn’t often, especially on vacations – I’m a family vacation girl all the way), Thomas and I can love being together but miss the boys at the same time. Yes, we talk about them. We marvel that we made two such amazing, unique people. No one loves our kids the way we do, and that is something very special that we share.

The two main points of Doty’s article are that 1) she wants her kids to be able to have the same kind of loving marriage that she and her husband have, and 2) she doesn’t want to discover, as an empty nester, that she no longer knows her husband. Some people are so wrapped up in their kids that they lose each other. They allow their children to be the glue that holds the marriage together. This isn’t fair to anyone in the situation, and when the kids fly away, so does mom and dad’s relationship. Sometime over the years, the kids were nurtured, but the marriage wasn’t.

One commenter on this article mentioned that on airplanes, adults must secure their oxygen masks before tending to children. So in the same way, parents need to make sure that their needs are met in order to take care of the kids. This makes logical sense. Sometimes that means “me” time or time apart as a couple, but as Thomas pointed out, we can’t use this as an excuse to ditch our kids on a regular basis. What are the oxygen masks of our relationships? By all means, let your kids see you and your spouse in a stable, loving relationship, but also give them the time and attention they crave.

What makes me sad is Doty’s answer: “I love my kids and would do anything for them. But I love my husband more.”

Wait a minute. Does that mean we have to make a choice between the two?

My choice is for a healthy balance. My choice is for my family. I love my husband and chose to marry him because he’s the man I want to grow old with. And he’s also the guy I wanted to have a family with, not so we could get away from our kids, but so we could be a family and grow together. We love our kids more than we ever imagined we could love anyone. And in loving our boys, our love for each other has grown. Even though Doty seems to think so, I don’t believe that love is quantifiable. Just as I don’t love one son more than another, I don’t love Thomas more than the boys – or vice versa.

If your marriage is solid, your children will see it played out in everyday life, not just in the times when you get away to prove how much you love each other. And while Doty seems to think “sacrifice” is bad, what I thought would be sacrifices (like not being able to go out on a whim or patronize my favorite restaurants as often because diapers eat up the former entertainment budget), don’t matter to me as much now as they used to. Spending time together with one or both of my kids and as a family is precious, and when Thomas and I do get to have an evening together, it feels more special. But also, some of the sacrifices, such as spending time and money on my kids’ education rather than the latest technology and our dream home, are the kinds of things my parents did for me and that Thomas and I want to do for our kids because it’s part of being responsible for the people we brought into this world, and we want to show them what it looks like to do something special for others besides ourselves. And I guess if it’s something you want, it’s not really a sacrifice but another act of love.

I know the nest will be empty one day, and while Thomas and I will be grateful for renewed freedoms, my hope is that our boys will realize how special our family is – and they will return to the nest often.

Don’t Live for Another Day

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard or read that we should live in the present moment, and being a planner, a goal-oriented person, it can be easy to scoff at such a notion. I’m always preparing for the next thing, which is good, for instance, when I’m crunched for time and I already packed my lunch the night before. But it can also make it easy to ignore what’s going on around me when I’m always focused on the future.

My morning commute is 30 to 40 minutes, time that I use to think about whatever’s next in my personal inbox – doctor’s appointments, writing projects, the household budget, all the activities that I have planned for the day or week. Couple that with the fact that I’m usually very tired, and I make for a poor conversationalist. This, naturally, is when my seven-year-old gets chatty. I’m liable to snap at him (he always pipes up right when I’m trying to listen to the traffic report or extended forecast), only to chastise myself moments later. The very last thing I want is to stifle my child and make him feel like he can’t tell me what’s on his mind – or his heart. One time recently, I nearly bit his head off, and as soon as he heard that the weather report was over, he asked in a quiet voice, “Can I talk now, Mommy?”

It’s during these moments that he opens up to me about his theological quandaries or epiphanies, some of which are very deep, or he’ll tell me about something he’s excited about at school. These are precious conversations, ones that I don’t want to miss. There’s nothing earth-shattering about them. These aren’t Kodak moments that I can post on Facebook, so all my friends can go “ooh” and “ahh” over them. But they’re special, the small moments that mean nothing to anyone except us, and they’re what build our relationship as a family.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other, special times. We all enjoyed our recent trip to Disney World. We looked forward to that trip for weeks, and we’ll always remember it as a great family vacation. Life is made up of these memorable occasions, balanced with hard times – sudden losses and deep sadness. But we can’t forget the moments in between that hold them all together, the conversations in the car, the nights reading books together on the couch, the activities that are so routine that we don’t give them much thought.

It is these in-between moments that make up our lives, even if they don’t stand out. They are the background that can be easily ignored. Unfortunately, many people allow the foreground to get so crowded with mountaintops and valleys that they leave no room for anything else.

I notice this in people who trudge through their weeks, hardly able to stomach the normal routine, living completely for the distant promise of a two-week break from it all, only to become depressed at the end of the vacation with the knowledge that an unsatisfactory “real life” awaits upon their return.

I met a woman some years ago, who shared the story of the hopes and dreams she and her husband had for after his retirement. His retirement came, along with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. They spent his last weeks laughing at the dark joke of it all – he struggled and worked hard for 30 years, only to die before he was able to enjoy the fruits of decades of labor.

I’m not advocating that we throw responsibility to the wind and do whatever makes us happy right now. Nor am I saying that we should give up on long-term plans. Rather, we need to find a balance between the two, but more importantly, we need to learn to be grateful and satisfied with what we have, even as we strive for better.

To put this in perspective, a dear friend of mine recently decided that she’s done battling cancer, and she’s now under Hospice care. This friend has been on disability and unable to hold a job for a number of years, but that hasn’t kept her from making her life a blessing to others. While her means aren’t great, her heart is. She embodies the ideal of a Christian servant, yet shies from receiving service for herself. Even in great pain and with ever-waning strength, she has never ceased being faithful, thoughtful, and an inspiration, even from her hospital bed. She could easily choose to let her situation weigh her down and fill her with despair, but she refuses.

How does she do it? How must it feel to know that there may be some good days, some bad, but there will never be a recovery? Her life is in that hospital room… yet her influence still extends beyond it and into the lives of her friends and loved ones. I have a lot to learn from my friend, not the least of which is that my complaints are pretty trivial.

I will never give up creating goals for myself or trying to improve my skills or situation. I want the world for my kids, and I look forward to our vacations and special times together, like any normal person. I understand there will be disappointments and stretches of days when I’m too tired to eek much joy from the moment, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. Who was it that said it’s the not the destination but the journey? (The answer is that lots of people have said it, and it’s only because it continues to be true.) So even though the destination may be wonderful when I get there, I’m going to be more conscious of the road I take to get there and the people traveling with me.

Overcoming Dyslexia: 10 Things You Should Know

Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.

Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.

Right around two years ago, I realized there was a serious disconnect with my then-five-year-old son Peter. He was at the end of his second year of preschool, but this intelligent child could not learn his letters or their sounds. Today, I know that he has moderate dyslexia, and it’s been quite a journey. For my sweet boy, it’s a journey that he will continue to take for the rest of his life.

The teacher who tested Peter and helped formulate the blueprint of what the next few years will bring for him lent me her copy of Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. I recommend this book to all parents and teachers. Even after I knew that Peter had dyslexia, I still didn’t fully understand what it is – certainly more than mixing up letters, which is a common misconception.

There’s no way I can boil down every point, so I’ve chosen the ten that I found most important:

  1. Dyslexia Affects More People than You Think

In a 20-year study that followed 445 children from Connecticut, Shaywitz discovered “that reading disability affects approximately one child in five” (30). Some of the personal accounts that Shaywitz shares in her book are of bright kids who were left behind because they didn’t “qualify” as students who needed help reading. One was even unfortunate enough to attend a school in which the administration didn’t believe in dyslexia. There are many more children who can benefit from reading resources than are currently receiving help. If you think you don’t know anyone with dyslexia – think again. Especially if you’re a teacher, you likely have a child who desperately needs help right in your classroom.

  1. There’s a Reason Some Smart People Can’t Read

In her chapter entitled “Why Some Smart People Can’t Read,” Shaywitz introduces the Phonologic Model. In subsequent chapters, she breaks down why this model doesn’t work for dyslexics. They have what she repeatedly refers to as a “sea of strengths” – lots of pros surrounding one big con, the inability to decode phonemes (the smallest unit of speech). While good readers can quickly decode phonemes to make the sounds k, aaaa, and t become cat, dyslexics’ brains are not wired to do this efficiently. The frustrating part is that phonology is the lowest level of the language system, followed by semantics, syntax, and discourse. While semantics, syntax, and discourse are all intact in a dyslexic person’s brain, these higher-level abilities are trapped behind the wall of un-decodable phonemes because…

  1. Dyslexics’ Brains Are Wired Differently

There are now scientific tests that show just how a dyslexic’s person’s brain is wired. Starting in the chapter “Reading the Brain,” Shaywitz goes into great detail about how our brains decode words. A dyslexic person’s brain uses a different path – one that is not automatic and therefore much slower. The functional MRI (fMRI) is the test that shows exactly how dyslexic versus non-dyslexic people read. These tests aren’t necessary to diagnose dyslexia, but they prove that dyslexics aren’t missing a part of their brain, and they’re not brain damaged; they simply read in a different way than “good” readers.

  1. Training Kids Before School Age Helps

Unfortunately, dyslexia often goes undetected in children until they reach the third grade. At this point, they are very far behind because they are still struggling to sound out words, while their peers are transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn.

One way that we can save these kids so many years of frustration is by catching it sooner. Kids enrolled in preschool are ahead of the game (which is how we were able to catch Peter’s dyslexia so early), but even if you keep your children at home, helping them differentiate beginning, middle, and ending sounds of simple words (pig and pan, hen and pet, and hen and pin are the examples Shaywitz uses) will not only help them when they learn to read, but it will also help to identify if there is a problem.

With Peter, while I could say a word like “bird” to his four- and five-year-old classmates, and they would hear b, rrr, and d, he might only be able to pick out the beginning or the ending sound – forget the middle. Peter’s dyslexia wouldn’t let him distinguish the different sounds.

  1. The Severity of Dyslexia Differs from Person to Person

While “one-quarter [to] one-half of the children born to a dyslexic parent will also be dyslexic,” the way in which dyslexia manifests itself differs from person to person (99). Shaywitz writes that “the ultimate expression of dyslexia depends on an interaction between a child’s genetic endowment and his environment.” So if your child is dyslexic, don’t throw your hands in the air and give up. Continue to read aloud to him at home; expose her to as much language as you can. This particularly helps dyslexic children develop larger vocabularies because they will not read and pick up new words as quickly as their classmates who can read fluently.

  1. Dyslexics Have High IQs

High IQ’s and difficulty in reading just don’t seem to correlate, but that’s exactly what happens with a dyslexic person. In fact, dyslexic people are often amazing problem solvers; their dyslexia forces them to be creative in order to read, and they carry this skill into other areas of life.

Dyslexia should never discourage someone from pursuing his or her dream. The last chapter of Overcoming Dyslexia is devoted to the personal accounts of highly successful people, such as author John Irving, American businessman and finance expert Charles Schwab, former West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton, and a number of others. These men and women struggled in school and failed entrance exams that could have kept them from getting higher education – yet they persevered and proved that a reading problem would not force them to give up on their dreams.

  1. Retention Does Not Help Dyslexic Children

While retention is sometimes helpful for other reasons, dyslexia should not be one of them. Not only does holding a child back a year in school avoid the problem (which is decoding words), but it can also be a psychological and emotional hindrance.

Ignoring the problem is just as bad. Waiting a month or a year to see if the problem straightens itself out only robs your child of much-needed help. When I first thought that Peter might have a problem, I hoped that a little tutoring over the summer would solve it. But that tutoring didn’t address his specific issue, and the frustration we both faced the first few weeks of his kindergarten year were enough to make me wish I’d had him tested sooner.

  1. Common Indicators of Dyslexia
  • Delay in Speech While children typically start saying words by one year and phrases by 18 to 24 months, a delay could indicate dyslexia.
  • Trouble with Pronunciation This can manifest itself as baby talk, the right syllables pronounced in the wrong order, or whole syllables (such as the beginning of words) not being pronounced at all.
  • Inability to Rhyme Because they have a hard time separating phonemes, dyslexics may not be able to ascertain what rhymes and what doesn’t because they are not able to distinguish what the last sound of a word is.
  • Talking Around a Word If your child is a regular Mrs. Malaprop, that’s another indicator. Two examples that Shaywitz uses are lotion used in place of ocean and tornado used in place of volcano. The children who made these mistakes knew exactly what they were trying to say, but they simply could not recall the proper word. (This can be very embarrassing in dyslexic adults when speaking publicly.)
  • Difficulty in Learning the Alphabet They may be able to sing their ABC’s, but when shown the actual symbols that match the sounds, dyslexics may not be able to identify them.
  • Inability to Learn by Rote While dyslexics generally have strong math skills, when it comes to rote memorization of times tables, they may suddenly have trouble. The same goes for memorizing words that don’t follow the rules, people’s names, place names, and even phone numbers. I wondered, since dyslexia is a phoneme problem, why dyslexic people often dial the wrong phone number – especially since they’re often so good at math. It’s not because they can’t see the difference between the numbers but because those seven numbers seem random. There was no logical way to arrive at them (as in the answer to a math problem).
  • Inability to Focus While Reading Especially in a noisy classroom or study hall, a dyslexic person may not be able to complete a homework task because she needs quiet to be able to concentrate. Dyslexics use a lot more brain power to get the job done, so it’s harder for them to focus.
  • Discomfort When Reading Aloud Some kids will act out or fake being sick when asked to read aloud because it’s so uncomfortable for them. They may even be misjudged as ADHD by a parent or teacher, but the problem here isn’t inattention but discomfort. Be sensitive to dyslexic people when they ask not to read aloud.
  • Misspelling Even if a dyslexic person is able to read difficult words, do not expect him to spell those same words from memory. In the same manner, if shown a new word out of context, he may not be able to read it, even if it seems simple to a non-dyslexic person.
  • Terrible Handwriting This is another tell-tale characteristic of many dyslexics. The word processor is the dyslexic person’s best friend.

A dyslexic person may exhibit only a few of the above – or may have other indicators not mentioned. But if your child or someone you know shows a number of these, it would be prudent to have him or her tested for dyslexia.

  1. Common Strengths of Dyslexic People

In addition to the individual “sea of strengths” that dyslexic people have, there are common strengths that most dyslexic people share. Many dyslexic children fly under the radar because they are extraordinary auditory learners. They can hear a passage read aloud and memorize it, therefore making their teachers believe they’re reading. They are also usually skilled at math, and they are very creative. (Now, don’t worry if your child doesn’t fit this model 100%. Peter is a poor auditory learner, but kinesthetically, he’s off the charts. And I know some dyslexics who also aren’t skilled at math.)

What marks dyslexics as different than other poor readers is their reading comprehension skills, which are intact. Let them hear a book (instead of making them struggle with decoding all those words), and then open a discussion with them, and you will find that they understand the text just as well (or better) than a fluent reader. When dyslexics are not hindered by people who misjudge them, they are able to prove themselves just as capable as fluent readers, and many successful dyslexics wouldn’t have it any other way because they can easily think outside the box, unlike colleagues who never had to struggle to read.

  1. How to Help Dyslexic People in School and Beyond

The Orton-Gillingham approach of scientifically-based instruction is what Shaywitz recommends for dyslexic children. Although she lists many different ways in which parents can help their dyslexic children at home, having one-on-one instruction with a tutor who is trained in this systematic and structured method is what really helps. (Peter’s tutor uses Barton, which utilizes Orton-Gillingham and has been very beneficial to him.)

There’s also good news for dyslexic adults who have gone undiagnosed: there are programs for adult literacy, and although they do require a commitment of time, they produce dividends that improve quality of life. Many undiagnosed adults either flunked or dropped out of school and, thus, have few options for employment because of their inability to read. It’s not that they’re unintelligent, just that they were never given the proper instruction for the way that their brains are wired.

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) of Princeton, New Jersey provides audio copies of books, so dyslexics can listen to their material and follow along with the hard copy. Requesting more time and a quiet room for multiple choice exams is also a must, although oral or essay tests are preferable. (As Shaywitz and so many others have pointed out, these multiple choice tests really only prove how proficient people are at test-taking.) Shaywitz lists a number of computer programs that help dyslexics, as well as study tips. In a world that is not very friendly to dyslexics, there are still ways in which they can excel.

In Conclusion

There are so many more points that I wish I could list, but this post is already very long. Please, if any of this rings true for your child or someone you know, get the book! It’s scientifically-based, and one of the many case studies included may remind you of someone you know. I know the first one I read almost made me cry because it sounded so much like my son and reminded me of his early struggles.

The great news is that there is help. As I said, Peter is being tutored in an Orton-Gillingham program, Barton. After not quite five months, his reading has improved more than my husband and I ever thought possible. Over the summer, I saw that one of his friends was reading at a level two, and Peter struggled to get through “My First” books. Now, he can pick up a level two or even books that aren’t leveled readers.

Last week, we took turns reading a Magic Tree House book aloud – Peter was even the one who volunteered to read. About halfway through a chapter, he said, “Chapter books are fun!” I couldn’t agree more, buddy.

A Potty Training Miracle

The Potty Training Years 1988–1992

The Potty Training Years (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Considering that my children couldn’t be much more different, I shouldn’t have been surprised that potty training the second one would be absolutely nothing like the first. Yet I had this idea that I’d done it before and knew what to expect.

We learned our lesson with Peter (child #1), starting too soon, and had to put potty training on hold for six months. Then it was a month of on-and-off frustration before he got it. What really helped were the incentives. We promised him that he could move out of his crib and into his big boy bed once he potty trained. But the biggest motivator was that we would use the money we saved on diapers toward a trip to Disney World.

Disney? No, problem. Peter was potty trained like that (imagine me snapping my fingers). And ever since, he’s only had one daytime accident. Ever.

With Ian (child #2), I didn’t even pull the potty chair out until he was two-and-a-half. Why cause myself more angst than necessary? I had no idea what was coming. One Saturday last June, I decided to dedicate my day to potty training, giving Ian juice and treats and sitting him on the potty until he got it, Peter-style.

Nothing happened. On the potty, that is. As soon as I put underwear on him, Ian had an accident. I was on the third or fourth pair of underwear when my husband got involved. Miracle of miracles! Ian sat on the potty, and when Thomas told him to go, Ian went.

About a minute later, he had an accident in another pair of clean underwear.

That was when we discovered that Ian knew exactly what was going on, and he simply didn’t care.

We tried everything. For nine months we tried, and we took advice from any- and everyone, and we would take two steps forward and giant leaps back. We offered him candy for keeping his pants clean and dry, but usually he just didn’t care. Other times, he would ask for candy after having an accident. There was no problem at all getting him to use the potty, but we couldn’t get him to quit wetting his pants, too. People advised us to just put him in underwear, and he would learn his lesson when he had an accident. I can’t tell you how many times we tried this and failed.

Our solution was Pull-Ups, which many people say is a potty training no-no, but he didn’t need diapers, and I didn’t want to have to wash every pair of his underwear five to six times a week. We bought Pull-Ups for eight months. I hope and pray that I’m finally on my last box.

His pediatrician assured me that we were on the right track with incentives, but I tried to explain that Ian and incentives aren’t the best of friends. The candy was hit or miss. Sometimes he got excited about moving to his bed. But when it came to visiting Mickey Mouse (whom Ian adores), he would flat out say that he didn’t want to go. Still, I persevered. I was determined to reward him with a trip to Disney before he turned three (mainly so his admission would be free).

Naturally, there was little improvement until a couple weeks after his third birthday, when Ian finally seemed to turn the corner. Although still in Pull-Ups, he would sometimes tell us when he had to go, and he even woke up dry some mornings. He even seemed willing to undress and take himself to the potty (but only if we asked him to).

I finally decided we were going to Disney World over spring break, and if Ian still wasn’t potty trained, I would just tell him we were proud of his progress.

Then last Tuesday (three days before our trip), I decided that if Ian was going to be rewarded for supposedly being potty trained, I was going to go ahead and put him in underwear. If he messed up his clothes or his car seat, oh well. Maybe if he had an accident and had to sit in it, he would learn his lesson.

So that’s exactly what I did.

There were accidents – none in the car, thank goodness. It was the panicked, “I gotta go potty, Mommy!” about two seconds too late. But at least he finally cared.

For our first day at Disney World, we decided – even though we hadn’t chanced it with Peter – that we would put Ian in underwear. We were armed with multiple changes of clothes, and I even lost sleep over it, but he was fine.

Disney fireworks

Disney fireworks – appropriate for how I felt after Ian’s success

I figured a good thing couldn’t last two days in a row, but it did. In fact, all three days that we were in the parks, Ian was 100% accident free. Every time I took him to the bathroom, I praised him, wondering if he would make it another hour. Was it giving him the reward that he hadn’t fully earned that made him finally earn it? Who knows, but I’ll have to say that it worked – and it’s still working (at least as far as #1 is concerned). He even wakes up dry from naps and overnight. I’m not going to hold out hope for only one accident ever, like his big brother, but so far so good. (#2 is still a work in progress, but for the first time in nine months, I think he’ll actually make it.)

After all this success, I’ve been beating myself up about it. If I had decided to put Ian in underwear and live through the accidents back in November or December, would we have had similar results? Would he have gotten one last free trip to Disney? Or would I have pulled my hair out even more and caused myself more frustration than was necessary? My husband thinks that, even though Ian didn’t care about Disney World until we actually go there, he had so much fun that he didn’t want to deal with the hassle of multiple wardrobe changes. I guess it will always be a mystery, but I’m glad it finally happened.

For all frustrated parents out there, please know that if someone promises there’s one proven way to potty train every single child, it’s a lie. Every child is different and will take a different method. I would love to hear other potty training stories (the good, the bad, the ugly) and encourage you to keep trying. As people have often assured me, there isn’t a kid yet who’s gone to college still in diapers. I thought we were getting close, but it seems that Ian will make it to preschool next year, after all.

Next on the agenda… how to get him to eat healthy food.

“He Has a Tutor? But I Thought He Was an Honors Student!”

This is a line that I heard in a commercial for a local tutoring center earlier this week. I’d seen the commercial before, but I guess it had been a while. Since, let’s say, my own son, Peter, started going to a tutor after school. Whereas I never gave this commercial a second thought before, it really bothers me now.

Of course, I’m glad that the tutoring center is there, doing what it’s doing to help kids. What bothers me is that it has to fight the assumption that smart kids couldn’t possibly need to be tutored.

And I have to admit, I used to be one of the parents this statement targets. I’m an overachiever. I skipped the 8th grade. I got my BA when I was 20. While I’m not one of these geniuses who gets a PhD at 15, if I ever got a B, that meant I was doing poorly. I was always embarrassed for the kids who tripped over words when we had to read aloud. I often thought they were stupid. I mean, how hard is it to read?

After Thomas and I admitted that, despite all our efforts, Peter needed help, we saw a child psychologist. We answered all of the usual questions, like if I had a normal pregnancy, if he often gets distracted, if he can keep eye contact, etc., etc. I could see that the answers to many of these questions could point to children with attention deficit problems, but our answers did not lead down that path at all. When we got done, the doctor asked us why we’d come to see him.

It was because Peter was almost six, and he still couldn’t identify all of his letters. He’d been in preschool two days a week for one year and five days a week for another. Yet kids who’d never had any kind of schooling before kindergarten were already running circles around him. They knew the alphabet and all the sounds that the different letters made. What was wrong with my child? I felt like I’d completely failed as a mother.

It was after Peter’s diagnosis that, with a shock, Thomas and I realized that his was an inherited problem. Neither of us has a learning disability, but the more we asked around, the more we realized that people in Thomas’s family have the same problem – and have been trying to cope with it all of their lives. Many hate to read because the task of decoding words is just so difficult.

I’m a reader. I carry at least one book with me everywhere. I didn’t want my child to grow up to hate books. It didn’t help that other well-meaning parents would say, “Did you hear about So-and-So? She’s being tested today. I knew something was wrong with her.” Oh the horror of being tested! I was embarrassed to say that Peter had been through the same battery of tests.

But I got over it soon enough. The problem wasn’t anything to do with how we’d parented our child. It’s all genetics. But even if it weren’t something he’d been born with, I still couldn’t just ignore the problem. When you’re a parent, your ultimate job is to help your child, and sometimes that means – gasp! – hiring a tutor.

Unfortunately, many parents of dyslexic children continue to ignore the problem, or sometimes they don’t even know it exists. This is because most dyslexic children have an extraordinary auditory capacity and are able to memorize, skating by for years when they could really use some one-on-one help.

In Peter’s case, his weakest area of learning is auditory, and he also has a deficient working memory. For years, I got mad at him for only completing one task, when I would ask him to do two or three. Imagine how terrible I felt when I realized he simply couldn’t complete more than one task because couldn’t remember what I’d asked. But this additional problem carried with it a huge advantage: I knew something was wrong much earlier than most parents, and we were able to get him help.

As soon as Peter was diagnosed, some people told us how shocked they were that he has a problem. He talked early and well. He’s a great problem solver and extremely creative. And while letters are his nemesis, he excels at math. Many of these are common traits among dyslexic people, some of them developed in order to survive in a world that is not very dyslexia-friendly.

One good thing, though, was that I was no longer afraid to talk about it. I started asking around about tutors and tutoring centers, and parents came out of the woodwork. Parents who do not have the mistaken idea that tutoring equals stupidity.

The improvement, the confidence in my child, has been amazing to watch. I am so grateful for the people in my life who have helped Peter, who continue to point out his great strengths (math and anything art-related). I am a little confused, however, by the people who continue to insist that I shouldn’t talk about Peter’s learning disabilities. Like it’s a shameful venereal disease or something. The more Peter understands about what we’re doing for him, the more compliant he is. He loves books and wants to be able to read them fluently. He knows that his tutoring will help him achieve this, and he also knows how to defend himself, if ever a kid (like I used to be) dares to make fun of him.

Sadly, many children are not diagnosed until the third grade or beyond. Many people slide through until adulthood and struggle all their lives with no help. If you are a parent or a teacher, pay attention. I hope your kids don’t have any problems, but if they do, don’t do them the disservice of acting like they can’t achieve great things if they need a tutor.

For further resources, check out Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. and Barton Reading & Spelling System.

Post-Christmas Survival

Where in the world are we going to put that tent?

Where in the world are we going to put that tent?

At my parents’ business, we’ve just survived the busiest season of the year. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, we just have to hold on and pray we make it. As Christmas draws closer and closer, my mom starts to panic a little because there’s still so much to do and not enough time to do it. Last year, she worked so hard that got very sick when she had her first chance to slow down, and it was weeks before her body recovered.

As for me, I savor the days leading up to Christmas. There’s the anticipation of the day, of course, but I love the music, the lights, my collection of Christmas socks. It’s after Christmas that becomes a little much for me to handle.

Why would we need to eat at the dining room table, anyway?

Why would we need to eat at the dining room table, anyway?

As I look around my house, I think it looks rather like Santa’s bag of toys threw up all over the place. My elder son, who is into everything Lego, received umpteen million sets of Legos this year, and he builds them so quickly that he just wants more and more. We had to clear the dining room table to hold his new Lego train track, and as I surveyed the carnage, I thought that all I want for Christmas is a container to hold all the pieces.

You may be thinking, Sarah this is nothing. My house is ten times worse. But this is how my house looked after I cleaned up. Things will get slightly better after we put away all the Christmas decorations, but the new normal will still include a lot more stuff than before. And I worked so hard to clean our house this summer. Until Christmas, I was able to keep up. The OCD part of me loves “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Well, there’s not a place for everything anymore.

I finally said to my husband that something has to change next year, and although I would love a larger house, that’s not the solution to this particular problem. I love buying gifts for my kids and watching the joy as they open them as much as everyone else, but then we parents are left to deal with it all. We can’t get away with asking for nothing but clothes and diapers anymore. Those were the good old days, weren’t they? Now, the kids actually have expectations, and no one would want to let them down, would they? My goodness, they might feel like they’re not loved. I can’t help but think of Dudley Dursley counting his birthday presents in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

I had to lecture my seven-year-old a few too many times this past week about Christmas being Jesus’ birthday first and foremost. He was begging to open presents days in advance, and even after letting each of the boys open a book on Christmas Eve, they wanted more when we went to story time at the local bookstore later that morning. It continued after Christmas. They got everything they wanted from Santa, plus a roomful of bigger and better toys from everyone else, but they still wanted more.

I know I’m partially to blame. I love the sacred aspects of Christmas; every morning from December first through Christmas Day, my kids and I read part of the Christmas story from the Bible, and it doesn’t feel like Christmas for me until my church’s candlelight service on Christmas Eve. But a few short hours later, it’s on to the secular: my husband and I are arranging presents under the tree, and I’m the one who’s too excited to sleep because I can’t wait to see my kids’ excitement as soon as they get up.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Well, maybe other parents sleep better than I do on Christmas Eve, but I think they have just as much fun watching their kids on Christmas morning as I do. And so they go crazy. They spend thousands because it’s only once a year, right? Then they post pictures on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s like keeping up with the Joneses, kid-style. We can’t let someone else’s children have a better Christmas, can we?

At least at my house we didn’t go crazy with our spending – and thank goodness because after all the presents were opened, it wasn’t even the things that Peter asked for that he liked the most. So we have a house full of toys that may not all get played with. Peter knows we’re running out of room, and he’s offered to give away some of his old toys, but I know it will take me combing through all the kids’ stuff when they’re not looking to a make a dent. And when I do that, of course, it’s like flushing money down the toilet. (I do donate the toys, but still.)

I read a blog a few weeks ago about non-toy gifts for kids like books, trips to the movies, museum or zoo memberships. Aside from the books, these aren’t things that kids can open and use on Christmas day. But isn’t that okay? Wouldn’t it be great to get more than a few minutes’ or hours’ enjoyment from our presents? This year, I already started doing this for birthdays by not giving my kids a party but taking them to the zoo instead – why not extend this idea to Christmas, too?

I’m not nixing all presents, but it would be nice to have a Christmas when we can come home and not feel overwhelmed with piles of stuff. The most fun we’ve had this past week was going out to buy our own gifts with gift cards. My mother-in-law, who usually gets us great gifts, was focused on helping my father-in-law recover from back surgery this year. And although a gift card isn’t all that exciting to play with, my kids certainly enjoyed going to the store and picking out their own toys. They’ve also enjoyed reading and making puzzles together, not to mention listening to all the new music we downloaded and watching the movies we bought with our iTunes gift card. The whole Christmas season has been a lot of fun, of course, but I still think I feel a change in the wind.

Maybe 2015 will be our trial run. It will mean retraining my family. It will mean working harder with my kids to focus on what really matters. It will mean taking time to be with them – instead of cleaning up their stuff.

Hey, I think I could live with that.

Could You Use 20 Minutes of Stillness?

Man thinking on a train journey.

Man thinking on a train journey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I probably use this blog to harp on about my busy life a little too much. We’re all busy, right? You don’t have time to read about someone else’s busy-ness. But that’s my life, which I’ve had to accept. At least I can say that I never get bored. December seems even more crammed with obligations than November – or maybe that’s how it always feels when you’re living in the middle of it.

There are times when I am so busy that I don’t realize how much my kids are growing. Then someone points it out, and I realize that they are big. What happened? How did I miss it? I have to remind myself that I need to slow down and be with them. No, I don’t really want to line up all of our toy cars and count them, but my three-year-old does, and as long as he still wants me to sit with him, I should take advantage of it instead of throwing this opportunity away.

Still, there are many nights when I have the best intentions only to realize that it’s past their bedtimes, and we still haven’t read or done something fun together. If only I could just slow down and be present for a while, then maybe it wouldn’t feel like I’m living with they’re-growing-up-too-fast-itis.

This past week, I was forced to slow down when I had my first acupuncture session. My doctor kept up a steady dialogue while she was placing the needles, I suppose to keep me from focusing on what she was doing. She asked for advice on finding the perfect home-baked something to give to her two very different neighbors. We talked a lot about our dietary lifestyles, which have a lot to do with treating the hypothyroidism from which we both suffer. I was settling in to enjoy a nice conversation.

But with all the needles in place, she turned off the lights, gave me a bell to ring if I needed anything, and told me she would be back in 20 minutes or so.

My first reaction was to wonder what in the world I would do for 20-or-so minutes. And I had no way to track the time; I wasn’t wearing my watch because there were needles in my wrist, nor did I have my phone. All I had was me and some needles on this cushioned table in a little room. What in the world was I supposed to do?

If I had been at home instead of on that table, there’s no way I would have just lain down with no stimulation except for the darkened room around me and outside noises. I would have gotten up every couple of minutes to do something or other. My parents should have named me Martha.

Instead, when I had no choice but to be still, my body grew calm and comfortable – a gift that I very much needed in the middle of a very hectic month.

There are so many people I know who push themselves past the limit, especially this time of year. On the one hand, many of them have to because of their particular jobs, but on the other, staying so busy and so stressed eventually takes its toll. Last year, my mother’s body succumbed to a vicious virus right after Christmas because her body gave up when it finally had the chance to slow down.

Sometimes, the only way our bodies can grab our attentions is to force us to stop. The busy-ness… well, it can wait.

And I guess waiting is hard for people like me because we want to stay active. We always want to move forward, to do something. Slowing down isn’t just a luxury but almost a sin.

Except that the stillness is healing, reinvigorating. As painful as it may seem at the time (especially if you’ve never tried to do anything like meditation or even failed miserably at it), the results are positive.

That day on the table was still busy; I had no time to write. But I spent a long time thinking about my novel and what should come next. I prayed for several dear friends, finally with the time to reflect on their particular situations. And I just laid there doing nothing. Imagine that.

My challenge – which I extend to myself, as well – is to choose to be still from time to time, to choose to watch and listen. To relax at what seems an inconvenient time and recharge. To be present. I can’t slow time or my boys’ growth spurts, but I can use that time to its fullest.

Which sometimes means leaving it empty.

The Challenges of Parenting the Second Novel

When I had my second son, people warned me not to compare my children to each other – something that’s nearly impossible to do. And the same is true, I’ve found, with novels.

And so I come to NaNoWriMo again. (It’s November; get used to it.) The first two weeks have been rough this year, which blindsided me (and I can say the same of the early days of being a mom of two). If you followed me last year, you know that I “won” (which means that I reached the 50,000 word minimum) by the 14th of the month. (And if you didn’t follow me then, you can read about it here.) I had inspiration on my side with a brand new story that wouldn’t quit. I wrote well over 4700 words on the first day, and I didn’t slow down much from there. By the end of November, I was at 80,000 words and continued writing until February, when my first draft clocked in at 148K. From there, the challenge was to trim it down to under 100,000 (which I did two weeks ago, thank goodness).

Fast forward to this year: last week I wrote about middle-of-a-trilogy blues. I get stuck constantly. I carry my MacBook with me everywhere (just like last year), and any time I have a spare minute, it’s open to my novel. Whereas last year, scenes competed for my attention and I couldn’t get them down fast enough – bombarding me when I was in the shower or chauffeuring the kids or researching an article – this year, the computer sits open, the cursor flashing, waiting for me to type. Mind you, I am extremely busy, but still, the story isn’t constantly running in the background like last year. There’s no backlog of scenes waiting to be written at my earliest convenience.

Today is the 15th of the month, the halfway point. If you’re serious about finishing, you should have 25,000 words down, and I do, thank goodness. My goal is to type 2000 a day, just to give me a little cushion in case I have a rough day. November 1st I did pretty well with 4000 words. Not as much as last year, but it got me a day ahead of my goal. And I used up that 2000-word credit five days later when I only managed to get 200 words down. Determined to catch up, I pulled my average back up to 2000 words per day, but it’s been tight. I’m an over-achiever, and surpassing my goals is kind of my thing. I still have over 1000 words to type today to make it to 30,000, so forget last year’s astronomical word count.

It’s not the word count itself that bothers me as much as my difficulty in getting the words down. Again, I can see a parallel with my kids. The first baby was a breeze. Yes, we had some challenges early on, but looking back I realize what an easy kid he was and still is. Contrast him (I know, a no-no) with his little brother, and the story changes. That little dude was a challenge while still in the womb, and the challenges only escalated after he was born. Even the nurses at the hospital were perplexed by his inability to be consoled – and those maternity ward nurses have some sort of baby voo-doo that almost always works. We’ve tried to parent both kids the same way, so why are they so different?

The difficulties, the challenges, the things that make me want to scream and rip my hair out at times are also the beauties of these two very different people – if only I can take a deep breath and remind myself that no two people are exactly alike. It’s amazing to watch them grow into their personalities. Sometimes they’re predictable, and other times they take us by surprise. It’s the times that I try to force Ian (the younger one) to be more like Peter (big brother) that I frustrate him and unnecessarily disappoint myself.

So it is with my stories. I guess you could say that last year’s was the big brother: sometimes challenging but always a joy. There were so many new discoveries, each one a kind of adventure.

My NaNoWriMo 2014 novel is the second child. I’ve been there and done that – wait, wait, wait. It still has surprises, if only I can allow it to follow its own path. But in order to do that, I have to give it the freedom to do so.

One day last week, in the effort to plow through another 2000 words, I realized that I was going through the motions yet again.  I had allowed my so-called experience to make me complacent and fall into a predictable and not very fun routine. My novel has certain plot points, not unlike milestones for children. My characters have to travel in my story, and since I’m averse to writing outlines, I don’t know much of what happens on the journey from Point A to Point B. I just know that I somehow have to get them there. And that “getting there” part can be a real slog.

Last year, I had even less of an idea how I would move the story along, but I didn’t let that bother me. Scenes kept popping up in no particular order; I typed them, and when I had time to breathe, I tried to connect them. It was these bursts of inspiration that kept me on the edge of my seat, that made me excited to get up every day and write.

I was thrilled that my word count exceeded my expectations. It was great to not have to worry about it. This year, sometimes it seems that the word count is the end goal, but it shouldn’t be at all. The point is to write, to finish something that I otherwise might give up on halfway through. That’s what’s beautiful about NaNoWriMo to me.

I mentioned in a previous blog that I already know how my current novel will end (even if I don’t know all the in between stuff). Hard-pressed to finish a scene, I realized that I could give myself a break and jump ahead to the ending. Why not? Words count, after all, no matter where they fall sequentially.

While I was thinking through that scene, my fickle little muse stopped by for a visit. It was one of those moments when I realized that something I was already planning to write would make so much more sense if… well, I can’t tell you, but it was one of those brainwave-y moments that authors live for (or at least this author does).

It’s the kind of thing that happened all the time last November, when I was new at the whole writing a novel in a month thing, when it was exciting and much like embarking on a voyage into unknown waters. It was with a kind of joy that I realized new and surprising things can still happen with the second novel of a trilogy. Instead of coaxing it along and expecting it to be a good little novel that writes itself –surprise! – I need to be open to all the scenes that want to be written, even if they’re out of order or don’t seem to belong. After all, this is a different novel, and it deserves the same chance, the same attention, I gave its big brother.

Much like parenting my second child.

Here’s to second children, and here’s to second novels.

Here’s to writing first and counting my words second.

Here’s to another 15 days of creativity and exploration, and best of luck to all my fellow WriMos!

Mommy’s Summer Break

Flagler Beach

Flagler Beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This summer, I’ve been more aware of the passage of time than ever before. I think part of that is due to updating the calendar with my six-year-old every day. It’s something he did in kindergarten and will continue to do in the first grade, and I figured it was an easy way to sneak in a little learning all summer long.

So when we turned to August, and I saw that the first day of school was less than three weeks away, I felt like our summer break had evaporated without me taking much notice. Then Peter asked me how many days were left, and I turned it into a quick math lesson. We counted the days of summer break up to that point, then counted the remaining days until school started, and we added them up for the total number of days.

Eighty-one. From the day after he finished kindergarten to the day before he starts first grade are 81 days. Not even three full months. I have to admit that I feel a little cheated. When I was a kid, we were out at the beginning of June and didn’t go back until the day after Labor Day.

A little past the mid-point of July, we were invited to a play date at the beach. I was talking to another mom, whom I hadn’t seen since early June, and she asked me about our summer. I was at a bit of a loss and had to admit that standing on the beach with her and our children was the first “summery” thing I’d done. Yes, my kids had occasional play dates and day camps or classes, but I hadn’t taken them to do anything that smacked of summer.

Before I had kids, I was rarely asked the “What have you done this summer?” question. After all, if you don’t have kids, you’re not in school yourself, or you’re not a teacher, summer is merely a hotter time of year. And when you live in Florida, it’s hot about eleven-and-a-half months, anyway, so it all kind of runs together.

But this summer, I’ve encountered this question a lot, and I’ve finally resorted to the, “It’s been very busy” answer. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I have completed three big projects since the end of the school year, but for every one of these projects, I’ve picked up at least one more. So my busy-ness has just shifted into other areas.

I’m not complaining. I love freelance writing and the flexibility of being able to go to the store when I need and to be available to take my sons to their various activities. Even being busy isn’t all that bad, except that I’ve had to utilize to-do lists more than ever in my life the last couple months because, otherwise, I might forget to brush my teeth or something.

I will have to say, though, that some things have suffered. Like the house. Because of my husband’s odd work hours, it seems that the only days he’s available to mow the lawn are when it rains. Consequently, our grass grows so thick and so high that we run through lawn mowers like candy. We finally gave in and hired a lawn guy (something I’d been rooting for since last fall), and when he showed up one morning this week and did what would have taken Thomas two days to accomplish, I said that my dreams had come true. Of course, that’s a gross exaggeration. He wasn’t publishing my book, cleaning the house, potty training my toddler, and mowing the lawn, but I’ll take what I can get.

Ick – do we live like this?

Ick – do we live like this?

As for the interior of the house, it’s been the pits since before spring break, which was in March. People say that trying to clean while you have kids is like trying to shovel snow in a blizzard, which is true, but still. I have a nice little shelf with bins that will hold toys, if only the kids will use it. Then my elder son decided he wanted to sleep on the floor over eight months ago, and he’s slept there ever since. (Really – check out the picture.) So his floor is mostly taken up with a sleeping bag, which never gets picked up. Every once in a while, it gets so messed up that I straighten it, only to find a number of toys that we thought had disappeared.

Sleeping bag… and no more sleeping bag :)

Sleeping bag… and no more sleeping bag 🙂

With my summer dwindling – and although I’ve been busy, I have more free time now than I will when I start substitute teaching again – I need to take care of my house before it gets even more out of control. So this weekend is my opportunity. My in-laws are taking the kids for a couple days, and although I swore I would clean the last time they kept the kids, I didn’t. But this time, I’m tackling the mess. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like being able to vacuum at three in the morning and not bother anyone, except for maybe the cat. (And sleep late because no one’s going to yell, “Mommy!” at six A.M.) It’s also nice to be able to pack away toys that my boys will never miss and donate them to children who will actually play with them instead of leaving them in the middle of the foyer.

So my life has come to this: it makes my day to pay someone to mow the lawn and to get rid of my kids long enough to clean up after them. Am I nuts, or what? My mommy-cation is not glamorous, nothing to write home about (although it does make for a convenient blog topic). And after all, my six-year-old gave Thomas and me his blessing to go out and have ice cream, see a movie, and have a romantic dinner. So, who knows? We may take him up on it… and come home to a house that looks like it belongs to civilized people.

The Happy Ending

The Happy Ending