My favorite blogger, Kristen Howerton, used to run a “What I Want you to Know” series on her blog, Rage Against the Minivan. Readers could submit stories sharing what they wanted others to understand about their unique life circumstances.
Here is my “What I Want you to Know.” Please note that the name, age, and other details about the child have been changed to protect his/her identity.
It must have been awful to experience the out-of-control tantrum of a child who by age and size was too old for such behavior. The screaming, thrashing, kicking, spitting, biting, throwing, and swearing were painful and scary to watch. It shattered the idyllic afternoon of swimming we were all enjoying with our children.
I know very little about the child I had in my care today. The coordinator at Family Services asked if I was available to do respite care for an 8-year-old girl with no known behaviors. My three bio kids all agreed they would like to have her spend the day with us, so I said yes.
I don’t know anything else about this girl, whom I’ll call Millie. I have no idea what circumstances brought her to foster care, where she used to live, if she has any siblings, or where she goes to school.
I can imagine a possible scenario based on the many foster kiddo stories I do know. More kids come into foster care at the beginning and end of the school year, so perhaps in the last few weeks of school, Millie put into words an event or picture of her home life that alarmed one of her teachers, who reported the concern. Or perhaps an injury occurred that resulted in Millie being taken to the hospital where questions were asked and a report was made. An investigation followed and it was determined that Millie was not safe at home.
Probably an emergency foster family was found for Millie – a family who was able to commit to her for a few days while the foster care coordinator put out pleas for a family to open their home to Millie more permanently.
A social worker probably picked Millie up after school and took her to this new, temporary home, somehow explaining to the 8-year-old that she could not return to her own home. Hopefully, the social worker would have had time to go to Millie’s home and make her best guess at what toys, stuffed animals, and clothes were Millie’s favorites so she could bring them (at least what she could fit in a bag or two) to Millie. Ideally, a long-term foster family would be found quickly. If not, Millie would have to transition through more temporary homes before moving into her permanent placement.
If even part of this imagined scenario captures Millie’s story, Millie is dealing with more stress and uncertainty than most adults can handle without losing their composure.
I was called on for respite care because Millie’s foster parents had to work. Likely they are scrambling for a summer childcare plan and need help while they get that challenging piece of foster parenting figured out. Millie would have to spend the day with yet another set of strangers she would likely never see again.
When Millie arrived at our house at 7:45am, she walked right in and explored all the rooms, finally settling down at the dollhouse where she began to play. My youngest daughter joined her. They got along well.
The morning went smoothly. Millie seemed to have fun with my kids – she did puzzles, explored our toys, and played on the swing set in the backyard. After lunch we packed up the car with towels, sunscreen, snacks, and kayaks and drove to the pond.
Millie walked right into the water, the same way she walked right into our house: determined to take it on and figure it out. She watched my two older daughters kayak over from the boat launch and asked for a turn. My three kids agreed to share one kayak amongst themselves so Millie could have her own kayak the entire time – after all, we can kayak whenever we want and Millie was our guest.
Millie loved the kayak. She paddled into the weeds and explored the little fish, plants, and bugs close to the shore. She paddled out into the deep water, stood up on the kayak and flung herself high in the air as she jumped into the water, delighting in the splash and cold water on the hot day. She paddled, rocked, tipped, and jumped off the kayak over and over again. She was having so much fun.
Two hours (and a couple snack breaks) later, it was time to go. Kids were getting tired and we needed to take Millie home to her foster parents. I gave the ten-minute warning, then the five-minute warning. Millie came out of the water. I explained we were going to pack up and walk back to the car. She did not want to leave. She threw the container of cherries into the water, stomped her feet, and started crying. Her emotions escalated quickly. She picked up a rock and tried to throw it at me. She started punching, scratching, and biting. Suddenly she was out of control and it was not safe. I held her hands so she could not hurt me and I avoided her kicks. I talked to her softly. I know you love kayaking, you were having fun, it is so hard to leave. Over and over, soft, gentle words. In between the “I hate yous” and thrashing around she sobbed, I want to keep kayaking. I just know I won’t ever get to kayak again.
It went on for more and more minutes. The people around me realized I wasn’t making any progress towards calming her and I did not have full control over the situation. I was not able to let go of her so I could pack up our belongings. Her rage was loud and scary. I was barely able to keep her and myself safe. I was aware of the disruption we were causing and unable to do anything differently.
My friend, who was at the pond with us, asked if I needed help. I did need help, but didn’t know what that help should look like. Strangers began to come over to ask how they could help. I was so grateful for these offers, but unable to direct them into anything useful. I was paralyzed holding onto this raging child.
What I couldn’t put into words in that moment was that Millie and I needed time and space to sit together through her entire tantrum. She needed to be able to scream and kick and punch with me sitting right there with her in the scary tangle of rage. She needed me to calmly and soothingly reassure her that I would stay and keep her safe. She needed to experience my relentless acceptance of and compassion for her emotions.
The action I needed from the adults offering help was reassurance that Millie and I could be there despite the disruption. I needed them to come over to me and say, You are fine, stay here with her. She needs to do this here, now, with you holding her. There is no rush. Stay. We’ll be here to help you when you are ready.
Instead, the offers of help felt like kind but firm nudges that I was to try to leave the area as quickly as possible. I worry this expectation sent Millie the message that she was doing something wrong - that she was misbehaving. But she was not misbehaving. This is what child trauma looks like.
I, unfortunately, reinforced that message by trying to end Millie’s tantrum and take her and her emotions away from the pond. My friend helped me as we struggled to carry her kicking and screaming to the path that led back to the car. She was scared; she didn’t know what we were going to do to her. She asked if we were going to kill her. At this point I started to cry as well, overwhelmed by how frightened and hurt this child was, overwhelmed that she was in my care and I was unable to meet her needs.
We made it a little ways down the path where we felt we had more space to let Millie rage. We set her down and sat with her. She eventually calmed down. I was able to make the decision that I needed either the social worker or foster mom to come to the pond to take Millie home. I did not feel safe driving her. A woman I didn’t know offered to drive to where there was cell reception to make that call for me. She returned 20 minutes later confirming the foster mom was on her way and would be there in about half an hour. I am so grateful for that woman’s help.
We spread out a beach towel in the shade on the side of that path for Millie to sit on, we sat on either side of her. We talked about seemingly mundane things. Her favorite class at school is art. She misses her dog she had to leave behind. She probably has to start a new school in the fall since her foster family lives in a different town. She collects Hatchimals. Another woman I didn’t know brought us cold drinks – sparkling flavored water and lemonade. My friend stayed with me the whole time.
Our bio kids played quietly and patiently, understanding without being told that Millie needed both adults’ full attention. Millie’s foster mom arrived and we made plans to meet the following week so Millie can kayak again, this time with the support of her foster parents.
Hours later, as I process the experience, I wish I could have a do-over. I wish I had had the confidence to let Millie rage right there by the pond with full respect for the emotions she was experiencing. I wish I could have verbalized that the help I needed was reassurance that I could just sit there with Millie for as long as she needed, rather than trying to remove her.
What I want you to know is that this is what foster care sometimes looks like, and we can support foster kiddos by sacrificing our idyllic afternoon and telling their caregivers, You are fine. Stay here with her for as long as she needs. We’ll be here to help you when you are ready.
I remember fighting with my sister. I don’t remember what we fought about; it was probably inconsequential, like who got which placemat for dinner. But I’m pretty sure we drove my parents crazy. Now my kids fight, and it drives me crazy. In a typical day, this is what I hear hurled at me from various parts of the house:
Mom! She’s smirking at me!
Mom! She’s burping again!
Mom! She’s looking at me!
Mom! She smells and she’s sitting next to me and she said shut up!
Mom! She got more screen time than I did – IT’S NOT FAAAIIIIRRRRR!
Oh, the meanness… the unfairness… nothing I do seems to help.
Last week, we met up with my long-lost friend Ciara and her family in NYC. We had one day together and we spent it well. As we walked through Times Square, our kids saw M&M’s World. They were so excited. “Mom,” they pleaded, “we have to go in! You love M&Ms!” It’s true, I do love M&Ms. We had to go in.
The kids spent what felt like an hour searching for the perfect treasure to buy. I said no to a dozen items covered in the M&M logo (coffee mugs, beach towels, plates, raincoats, slippers, candy dispensers, bathrobes…you name it) before they came across an M&M cleat – a clear, plastic cleat filled with M&Ms. I have no idea who thought of making a plastic shoe and filling it with candy; it is a perfect example of what I refer to as useless plastic crap. But it exists, and my kids saw it and wanted it.
Ciara generously offered to buy one for her kids and one for my kids – a souvenir to remember our whirlwind reunion in the city.
My soccer-fanatic kids were ecstatic. A cleat filled with candy! As Ciara offered each of my kids a few M&Ms from her family’s cleat, I had a flash back to the ancient babysitter my sister and I had when we were kids, Mrs. Binfield. She was a Norwegian woman in her 80s (90s?) who served dinner at 4:30pm, let us watch The Love Boat and TJ Hooker while she knit sweaters (always counting stitches in Norwegian), and unfailingly paused her knitting at some point during the evening to carefully dole out six M&Ms to each of us from a little container she kept in her knitting bag… if we behaved well.
The anticipation of those six M&Ms made up for the otherwise dull hours we endured with Mrs. Binfield until our TV shows began.
And here I found myself with a small container filled with M&Ms, it’s purpose obvious. A Kindness Cleat. I would dole out a few M&Ms each time I observed an act of kindness from one sister to another. I explained the concept to my kids when we got home from our trip and carefully placed the Kindness Cleat on a shelf in the kitchen. I was sure I had finally found a solution to the constant bickering and meanness. I would reward kindness until it became our new norm.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been effective. It turns out an act of kindness towards a sister is not worth a few M&Ms. The cleat sits untouched on the shelf, still full of M&Ms.
I’ll give it another week… then I’m turning it into the Meanness Cleat, and will help myself to a few M&Ms every time my kids fight.
*Linguistic side note – I love the word meanness. It has a long consonant, called a geminate (from the Latin root Gemini, which means twinning). English doesn’t have consonant geminates the way some other languages do. For example, Italian has a short and long [l], as in pala (shovel) and palla (ball). In this case, consonant length is a distinctive feature that can distinguish meaning between two otherwise identical words. But in English, consonant geminates only occur across word or morpheme boundaries. In other words, it only occurs when the same sound occurs twice in a row as part of separate words or syllables, such as in ‘calm man’ or ‘misspell’, and even then, lengthening or not lengthening the consonant typically doesn’t change the meaning. Only in a few cases would gemination change the meaning… as in unaimed vs. unnamed. So yeah, ‘meanness’ is a cool word with a rare-to-English consonant feature. Lucky for me, pointing out my kids’ meanness gives me lots of opportunities to use a geminate.
Two years ago, a care package arrived at my door. It was from my mom, as packages usually are. She has what my sister and I call the “post office gene.” She is genetically programmed to go to the post office and mail things - Post cards, letters, packages of all shapes and sizes… My sister and I did not get the post office gene. We can barely mail a letter even when our mom leaves a pre-addressed, stamped envelope casually on the kitchen table after a visit.
My mom’s packages are always exciting. The box is covered in several dollars’ worth of stamps since she finds that more interesting than just paying to send the box with a generic price sticker. She will often cover the remaining surface space with little sketches or stickers, and even tie long strands of string or ribbon to it for decoration. She goes crazy with the packing tape. It takes industrial strength scissors to open her packages.
Inside the box there is almost always a pair of socks and a random treasure from nature, like a milkweed pod she found to be extraordinary. There is often glitter. Sometimes the glitter is in a little jar for my kids, sometimes it is glued to a pinecone, and once in a while it is just sprinkled throughout the box, like maybe she didn’t even realize how it happened. I love glitter. We share that gene.
Nestled among the socks and nature items is the package surprise, which could be anything from my old high school tennis T-shirts, to a fancy dog harness that will magically train my dog not to pull, to a random cake pan in the shape of a bunny (“For Easter!” says the card, even though it is September).
I admit that sometimes the contents of the package are stored away for the annual Holiday Yankee Swap or sent directly to the dump with a lot of grumbling about the expense it took to send it to us so we could pay even more money to throw it away (couldn’t we just have the money, please?).
But two years ago the care package was filled with a treasure from my childhood. Sweet Valley books.
It’s hard to explain what these books meant to me. When I was 10 years old, away at summer camp, a cabin mate was reading the first in the series, titled “Best Friends.” The book was pink and had a picture of two beautiful girls – identical twins - with long, straight blond hair, blue eyes, and big smiles. I didn’t ask for a turn to read the book as it was passed around my cabin because I was pretty sure those two girls would never want to be friends with me. That was how I often felt at that time in my life – like even characters in a book wouldn’t want to hang out with me. Plus reading was still hard and I was never sure I’d be able to understand a new book. It wasn’t worth the risk of not understanding and feeling like I wasn’t cool enough to relate to the main characters. So I admired the two girls on the cover from afar.
When I got home from camp, I saw the same book in a bookstore. Knowing I could give it a try in the privacy of my room and desperately wanting to read what looked like a cool kid book, I took a chance and begged my mom to buy it. She did.
I read the book easily (#thirdgradereadinglevel) and the girls on the cover didn’t seem to mind my presence at all. Jessica and Elizabeth were pretty wrapped up in their own junior high drama – the school newspaper, ballet, boys... I actually fit right in and sank happily into their world as a way to escape my own.
Sweet Valley books had it all – a reading level I could access, beautiful, fun friends, and never-ending teenage drama that met my own angst quite well. Plus there were hundreds of these books.
November two years ago was the start of a pretty awful time for our country. When the box full of Sweet Valley books arrived, with glitter sprinkled on top, it was the best care package ever. I once again happily sank into the dreamy bliss of my childhood escape.
My oldest daughter, Katherine, was very aware of what I was reading, despite (or because of) my effort to disguise the pretty pink books with kids on the cover and big print inside. She was fascinated and begged me to let her read them.
I had no intention of ever letting her read this horrible, white-washed, 1980s crap where all the characters were white, slim, well-off, and living the American dream in sunny southern California. It was ok for me to read them since they were a comforting relic of my childhood. And I needed it – after all, look who our country had just elected. Yes, I am fully aware of the irony… but the comfort of childhood memories is powerful and I could not resist. But no way would I let my daughter read them. Nothing about the characters or storylines represented the culture I want my children to grow up to value.
“Maybe when you’re twelve…” I responded vaguely to her pleas. At the time, twelve sounded awfully far away, and she’d likely forget.
It only took me a couple of weeks to read them, after which I stored them in a Tupperware bin under my bed with the intention of getting rid of them some point soon (getting to read them again was totally worth the cost of later having to take them to the dump).
But I didn’t get rid of them. Maybe I like that those old friends are there under my bed… just in case I need them again in November 2020.
Well, Katherine turns twelve on Thursday. And today was a snow day. And she left her book at school and has read every other book in the house … except for the Sweet Valley books in the bin under my bed. And she had not forgotten.
“You said when I was twelve, mom, YOU SAID!”
Sigh. What can I say? A kid without a book on a snow day? Begging to read a book I loved at her age? Anyways, what happens on snow days doesn’t really count, right?
I let her read one.
Luckily, Katherine is a far more discerning reader than I was at that age. She read it in about 25 minutes, didn’t like the characters that much, and was generally unimpressed. She put it away and found something else to do.
Maybe one of these days I’ll sell them on Ebay - I think they go for about $1.99 per book, which is probably their original value. Or maybe I’ll ceremoniously take them to the dump in November 2020.
In my last post, I talked about the challenges of fostering two littles for a month. But there were many beautiful moments –with Ryan and Linda, but also with our bio kids. In this post I’ll share the beautiful moments I saw for Katherine, Clara, and Alexandra.
When we made the decision as a family to welcome R and L into our family, all three kids were excited. They immediately began making plans to make sure R and L would feel included and comfortable in our home – what books they would put on the shelf in their room, what stuffed animals they would give to them, where their seats would be at the table, who would read them bedtime stories, how they would share the family sleds... Dave and I were a little skeptical that the novelty would wear off and our kids would quickly become irritated with two more little kids.
We were especially concerned about our oldest, Katherine, who we were pretty sure lacked maternal instinct, compassion, and patience. We suspected that after a few days she would disappear into her room to read and generally ignore the whole family, disgusted with the proliferation of younger siblings. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Turns out she has strong maternal instincts and a great deal of compassion and patience – just not towards her bio siblings.
Katherine spent hours carrying L around and snuggling with her, and even let L climb all over her while she was engrossed in a book. This was a big deal because if a bio sister so much as looks at Katherine the wrong way while she is reading, she’ll likely kick the sister and shriek for all to hear that her space is being invaded. Katherine made R dozens of paper airplanes – whatever size, shape or color he wanted. She’d even work on them while he was at school and have a new one waiting when he arrived home. Then she'd spend hours testing them out with him. Both R and L light up in Katherine’s presence.
We’d seen glimpses of Katherine’ generosity towards others - when she was in the mood - but for R and L, she was always willing, even when it was clear she wasn’t in the mood. One of my favorite moments was when I was struggling to get R and L bundled to go out and we were running late, as usual. Katherine appeared in the mudroom and said, “Hey mom, I’ll do this for you.” As I frantically got my own stuff together, Katherine got two squirmy kiddos into their boots, coats, hat, and mittens.
It was a gift to see my child in this light. So often I am frustrated with her stubborn refusal to help with chores and the constant bickering with her sisters… to see her capacity for generosity and love was a healthy reminder of who Katherine is as a person.
Our middle daughter, Clara, is a natural caregiver, so we were not surprised to see her suggest numerous ways to integrate R and L into our family life. She was especially sensitive to the subtle details of ensuring we shared equally among the five children. She was the first to offer her turn to them and took great delight in sharing our family traditions. Again, this contrast to the usual fighting over who gets to go first and what belongs to whom was reassuring. It was also fun to see how much our children value simple routines like snuffing the candles after dinner and receiving the gift of scotch tape for Hanukkah.
Alexandra had the hardest time. When our family discussed fostering children, the kids did not want to disrupt their age order – Katherine wanted to remain the oldest and Clara the second oldest; Alexandra did not want another older sibling, she desperately wanted to be a big sister too. So we agreed we would be open to fostering kiddos age three and under. But I don’t think Alexandra realized that meant she would no longer be the “baby.” When R and L gravitated towards Katherine and Clara for comfort and attention, Alexandra felt slighted… she was not being treated as a big sister and she was no longer the baby. Nevertheless, she was a great playmate to R. They played hard and happily together, and without even realizing it, Alexandra was his big sister. Despite Katherine saying once that Alexandra did not have the skills to be a big sister, she does indeed have the skills. She was a great big sister.
Now that R and L aren’t living in our home, all three kids ask eagerly when our next respite care day with R and L will be. They look forward to having them in our home for a day and plan out all the fun things they want to do with them. And I look forward to those glimpses of generosity and love that come out so clearly for R and L.
Conversations about adoption started for us after my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. We started down the adoption path twice; international adoption after the miscarriage and adoption through foster care after our second child was born. But for various reasons, we did not continue on that path. Instead, we had three bio kids and decided we would foster at some point in the future. That plan stayed tucked away in the back of my mind with the hope that someday we would have the capacity to do it.
Last spring, when our youngest hit five, it suddenly felt like the time was right, like our family was ready. All three kids were more independent now: they could use the bathroom and get a glass of water without my help – my criteria for when parenting shifts to an easier stage. We had the infrastructure in place for children and were grounded in our routines. We felt able to open our home and our lives to children who needed a safe, loving place to live. We felt we had something to offer. We were ready. And with the opioid crisis, the need for foster families in Vermont is high.
So we filled out applications, had a home study, participated in the six-week training on grief, loss, trauma and the foster care system. All summer we waited for a placement. In the fall, we started to do respite care for Ryan, a 3 ½ year old boy and his 2 year old sister, Linda*. The week before Thanksgiving, we became R & L’s foster family. They lived with us for a month.
It was a difficult month.
Garbage bags filled with clothes arrived at our home a few hours before R & L. A dozen pairs of impractical shoes, outrageous dresses that looked more like Halloween costumes, t-shirts with images of weapons and destruction and sassy retorts scrawled across the front confronted the gentle nature of childhood I have worked so hard to protect for my own children. A doll that belted out a bible song in a high-pitched, fake, baby voice. A crib and bedding that reeked of cigarette smoke. The sheer volume of stuff, the noise, the smell, the images affronted all my senses. But R and L’s stuff was important; it represented a link to their old home and to their parents. I stored away a few items, but accepted that having their belongings accessible was an important component in helping R and L feel at home here.
The real challenge was the logistics of five kids in four schools. I can go into the complexity of our schedule by adding details: I was juggling two jobs, one a teaching job with an inflexible schedule; R & L needed to be driven to 8am family visits and then picked up from their respective school and day care by 5pm, all of which were located in a town half an hour away. Getting the dog walked, the chickens and goats fed and watered, and five kids up, dressed, fed and out the door by 7:15am was painful. The afternoon driving needed to fit into an existing carpool schedule of after-school activities for our “big kids.” The dinner and bedtime routine required more hands and time, and perhaps more patience and compassion than Dave and I had to offer – at least to meet the needs of all five children in the way we believed they should be met. Remaining sensitive to R and L’s grief and loss and learning how it manifested – through defiance and spiraling out of control for R and nighttime sobbing for L – took emotional energy on top of physical exhaustion. And this picture would be incomplete if I didn’t at least mention the diarrhea. There was a lot of diarrhea. New diet, trauma from changing homes, toilet training regression, perhaps a virus going around… who knows, but there was a lot of diarrhea.
We were not surprised by any of these challenges, they were all described in our training (except the diarrhea, no one told us there would be so much diarrhea), but that didn’t make it less hard to live it.
Despite the strong desire to be a foster family, opening my home to others is not an impulse that comes naturally to me. It is uncomfortable. Even having guests over can make me feel prickly. I like having full control over my physical space and time. The physical act of adding two people and all their belongings to our home pushed me to the outer edge of my comfort zone. The challenge of the experience sometimes felt so overwhelming that I couldn’t see the beauty in the bonds that were forming.
A week before Christmas, R and L moved to a new foster family. We were never intended to be a long-term placement for them and this move was the right decision. The day they left I felt intense relief. Everyone asked how I was doing, and I could honestly answer that I was great. I had time to take care of the goats in the morning (a routine I love), instead of passing off the barn chores to Dave. I had quiet moments with our kids after school instead of arriving home at 6pm, exhausted and edgy from having been in the car from 3 - 6pm picking up kids from their various locations. I was able to get dinner on the table before my kids melted down in hunger. I had emotional energy left for Dave after the kids were asleep, and our conversations moved past the next day’s complex driving schedule. There were moments of calm when nobody needed me. Dave and I could leave our three kids for half an hour to walk the dog in the woods. We regained a quality of life that we hadn’t realized was so critical to our emotional health. The relief of R and L moving out of our house was real.
But the grief is real too. I felt it first when I picked up R and L at their new home for a day of respite care (something we have committed to doing weekly for the foreseeable future). R was standing in the front window – he broke into his sweet smile when he saw our car pull in the driveway. At that moment, I felt intense sadness that this little boy, so full of light and laughter, so ready for fun, no longer lived in our home. I have felt the same sadness several times since, each triggered by the little gestures that had become so familiar over the past month: L’s stubbornly slow and methodical eating, R’s enthusiastic stride as he tries to keep up with the big kids, L’s deep belly laugh – the best laugh ever… As the relief from the strain of five kids in four schools, hours of driving, and more stuff than I had mental space for wears off, the grief for these two kiddos and what we can’t be for them sets in.
We are undecided as to whether we will foster again. It was really hard. We have questions too… Is there more support around transportation? Would one kiddo be easier than two? Could we better manage our own needs so as not to become overwhelmed? Would we build up a stronger community of support from other foster families? Is it right to foster when we are not open to adoption should that possibility arise? Are we ready to do it again? Do we want to?
I don’t know if or when we’ll find the answers. Maybe it will become clear one way or another if we get a call for a new placement… But for now we’ll focus on continuing our relationship with R and L and soaking in their sweetness when we get to spend time with them.
*Ryan and Linda are pseudonyms inspired by my childhood next-door neighbors. "R" reminded me so much of three-year-old Ryan!
‘Tis the season for goat breeding, so this fine but stinky fellow has come to join the does again. Romeo Santos (pronounced ro-MAY-o) seems happy to be here and is making the rounds. We’re trying hard to keep the stink confined to the barn, but already in the two days we’ve had him, the buck odor has made its way into our mudroom and onto my hands.
In case you don’t know what bucks smell like, they smell like urine. Buck urine. They pee all over themselves in order to appeal to the ladies. The odor is so strong that baby goat Kasia smells like buck just from snuggling up with her mama after her mama had spent the day with Romeo. Not realizing this, I pet Kasia this morning with bare hands (she’s so soft and fuzzy, how could I resist?). Now I get whiffs of buck no matter where I am.
Last year we just put Romeo in with the does and let them hang out for a month. It’s a little trickier this year. We have to keep Romeo and Kasia separate since Romeo is Kasia’s father... apparently they are unaware of their genetic relationship and would love to get together. We also have to keep Kasia with her mama (Temperance) at least part of the day since Kasia is still nursing. But we want Kasia to have a sibling or two this spring, so Temperance and Romeo need time together. Because no goat can be alone (it is distressing for herd animals to be on their own), we have come up with a complicated rotation to give Temperance, Clementine, and Mabeline stretches of time with Romeo, without leaving Kasia alone.
Of course moving fat, stubborn goats from one stall to another is challenging and requires chasing, pushing, and sometimes dragging. It’s no wonder out coats and mittens, and hence our mudroom, already stink. Fortunately, we'll only have Romeo Santos for 6-10 days instead of a full month, thanks to a little fertility boost that should help ensure the girls are in heat this week.
To top off this fascinating goat breeding saga, here is a video of Kasia. It doesn’t show much, but you can hear her screaming. I’m not sure why she’s screaming – she often does this. It could be that she is hungry, mad that her mama is in a different stall, or frustrated because she wants a turn with the buck. Or maybe she is just singing.
If we get goat kids in the spring, we will plan to milk the does. With the direction our country is headed in, breeding and milking goats maybe become a survival necessity instead of an expensive hobby.
As the horror of what is happening in our country sinks in, the only way I can keep the panic and utter despair at bay is to try to do something about it. Something, anything to help counterbalance the surge in overt racism.
My friends, Danielle and Susan, and I have been working on racial sensitivity together for several years. Hours of conversation around the dinner table, workshops, discussion groups, reading, and research have come together in the form of a website intended to raise awareness, share resources, and above all, encourage people to help counterbalance the whiteness that dominates our society.
Color Counterbalance is a website, a bookshelf, a blog... a space to provide resources to help counterbalance the whiteness that dominates our society. Filling our homes with books, dolls, toys, and media featuring non-dominant races and cultures is a start to reflecting in our lives the diversity we want our children to value.
Please take a look, please share far and wide, and please consider the books and products we feature* for your holiday gifts this year.
(*We connect people to books, artists, and products, but we do not receive any benefits for purchases made)
Everyone has their own analysis of what happened, some informative, some frightening, some reassuring.
Scientific illiteracy. We just elected a president who doesn’t believe in global warming; there’s no denying now that our school system fails at teaching scientific literacy. This is not an issue of “educated” versus “uneducated” (I know many college graduates who are scientifically illiterate), it is an issue of our country’s inadequate primary and secondary curriculum. When we reform our education system, in addition to scientific literacy, I hope we include a renewed emphasis on ethics, logic, and anti-bias curricula.
Educated Elite. Somewhere along the line, we began to place an excessive value on college education. Maybe this began in the 60s when going to (or staying in) college meant less chance of being drafted; this was the start of grade inflation as well, making academic success easier in order to protect students from failing out and being sent to Vietnam. The message was clear: the college-educated were more valuable members of society than the uneducated. As a result, society has come to place in an increased value on academic learning and a decreased value on vocational skills. Postsecondary degrees are a requirement for success, regardless of whether academic study is relevant to a particular job or career. Higher-level academic learning is perceived as more important than the vast range of practical skills our society relies on.
This shift benefits the wealthy who can easily obtain a higher education with no financial consequences, but burdens the middle and lower classes, who have to take on great debt in order to compete with the upper class for jobs. It also ensures the wealthy maintain positions of power in our financial, educational, and political systems. Excluded all together from the self-proclaimed “elite” are the people for whom college was not an option financially and/or people with skills not learned in college classrooms. This group has been penalized financially and socially, their contributions to society grossly undervalued, and their voices ignored by the educated elite. I’m pretty sure this divide played a role in the election.
Liberal Bubble. I have to start this one out with Michael Moore’s words:
Everyone must stop saying they are "stunned" and "shocked". What you mean to say is that you were in a bubble and weren't paying attention to your fellow Americans and their despair. YEARS of being neglected by both parties, the anger and the need for revenge against the system only grew. Along came a TV star they liked whose plan was to destroy both parties and tell them all "You're fired!" Trump's victory is no surprise. He was never a joke. Treating him as one only strengthened him. He is both a creature and a creation of the media and the media will never own that.
We all love our echo chambers where we self-righteously preach to the choir. How many of us left our safe havens to take a look at what others were thinking and feeling? If we did step out of our echo chambers, did we really hear and try to understand what they were saying? Or did we just reject what we perceived as offensive opinions without exploring where they come from or what they might really mean underneath?
As an educated, straight, white woman whose skills and education are valued by society, the current system generally works for me, at least compared to many other groups of people, namely people of color and the LBGTQ community, but also poor working class white people. Just driving the six miles on back roads to my kids’ school, I see several homes whose state of dire disrepair indicates the system is not working for the inhabitants. Being in my sweet, safe, liberal bubble, I’ve never had to acknowledge their struggles even though they are my neigbors. The rage they express about our system? I guess we should have listened.
The Republican Party. Before the rise of the tea party, I could at least relate to my republican friends. We generally agreed on social issues (social justice, women’s rights, etc.), and disagreed on the role of the government and taxation. Our biggest difference seemed to be our weighting of the issues. The social issues I thought should take precedence were not their priority when it came to electing officials. Unfortunately, the party was so successful at convincing their people that less government is better that the only candidate they could get support for was an anti-establishment reality show business man.
As for the conservative republicans? Their agenda has always been to preserve white male privilege and power, something an effective government that values basic human rights and justice for all would threaten. This is often disguised under the veil of Christianity. Our country was built on white male privilege; it’s certainly not a new phenomenon.
The Democratic Party. I stepped outside my echo chamber for a minute the other day and saw a Trump supporter’s post about whiny liberals… the post hurt, but there was truth in it. We are whiny. And entitled. For those who didn’t get the democratic candidate they wanted, the response was to whine and fuss instead of jumping on board and supporting with full force our party’s agenda, or if you prefer, fighting against the republican agenda. We know now that there was no room for wavering. We needed all hands on deck to prevent Trump from winning. The way our elections are set up, we are not in an era where we get to vote for the independent progressives - or not vote at all - because Hillary wasn’t the first choice. There was so much at stake, and we lost.
Racism. My initial reaction was shock at the blatant racism in our country. But really, we’ve been experiencing blatant racism for a long time. How can we be shocked that people tolerate and, even worse, agree with Trump’s racist views when black children are regularly shot in the streets? We should have known. Then again, as liberal white people, the racism and violence people of color experience haven’t been truly perceived as our problem. As ashamed I am by our country’s racism, I’m equally ashamed that we’re only now tuning in to how very racist our country is… now that it may actually directly affect us.
Hope. The damage Trump will likely cause to our country is enormous – both socially and fiscally. But perhaps nothing would reunite our divided country better than a severe depression, in which we are stripped bare of all we have. When it comes to watering the potato plants for our survival through the winter, I bet we come together. There is hope in that.
It’s been a full summer. Here's the update.
Picking up where I left off… Temperance’s kidding was difficult, and the kid who survived, Kasia, had a rough start. At one week old, it was obvious she was not thriving. The vet determined she had floppy kid syndrome, and likely pneumonia. Floppy kid syndrome isn’t well understood, but apparently the gut doesn't work properly and the kid can’t digest the mama’s milk. The milk becomes toxic and the goat quickly declines. Our vet saved Kasia with several doses of a baking soda, vinegar, water solution that reset her digestive system. After two weeks of very intensive care, including a couple of midnight and early dawn trips to our vet’s house with Kasia in the cat carrier, she came around and turned into a silly, playful goat kid. Our vet told us we’d know she’s healthy when she makes us laugh out loud with her ridiculous antics. Kasia definitely makes up laugh out loud. And just look, is she not the mini-me of her mother?
In other goat news, I have mastered a new skill. Three times a year we need to check the goats’ feces for parasites. For the past two years, I’ve done this by standing in the goat stall with plastic baggies, staring at the goats’ rear ends waiting, willing them to poop, and then scrambling to catch at least a few fresh “berries” to send off to the lab. The first two goats always poop right away, but the third will inevitably hold out for at least an hour. It is particularly unpleasant waiting around in the winter, especially because the minute you decide you can probably just sweep up this pile of hay or shovel out that pile of muck (to stay warm more than anything else), the goat will poop and you'll miss it and, even worse, you might not even know you missed it. But there’s another way. A more efficient way. You can go in and collect fresh berries. That is what I did last weekend. In fifteen minutes, I got what I needed. Why did I wait two years to figure this one out?
We have bees! The queen and her 15,000 worker bees arrived in May and seem to be settling in quite nicely. We see them doing their thing around the garden. Dave does all the work of taking care of them and I watch from a distance hoping they don’t (1) swarm, (2) lose their larvae to the bear in our woods (larvae are a crunchy, protein-packed snack for bears), (3) get mites, (4) get too hot or too cold, or (5) die/leave for some unknown reason. Dave just hopes this hobby fares better on the expense/gain tradeoff than my goat hobby. Maybe next year we’ll get some of their honey…
The garden is sadly neglected. But underneath the thick growth of weeds we have a fall harvest ripening: corn, pumpkins, carrots, sweet potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. We also have way more garlic than we’ll ever use. But I have to grow that much garlic in order to satisfy my garlic scape pesto cravings. Tonight’s garden chore is making many batches of tomato-garlic soup.
We said goodbye to our old man cat. Alfred was 18 years old. He came to us off the streets of DC when he was three. He was the best cat ever. He was so great, I’ll hashtag that. #bestcatever. This spring he seemed to lose his spark. The vet diagnosed him with “outliving his kidneys and a touch of kitty dementia,” meaning he couldn’t make it to his litter box if he got too far away from it. We finally decided it was time for him to move on to whatever comes next for cats who, as our kids say, are “all done living.”
We welcomed a puppy into our family (unrelated to Alfred's departure, although perhaps not unrelated to Dave’s limit of two furry indoor pets at a time, implemented after we adopted Caroline the cat last summer). Finn is a sweet little lab-mix rescue (anyone want to guess what the “mix” part is?) from Virginia. He’s a good pup, and even though everyone says puppies are a ton of work, I don’t notice it all that much. It’s just another layer of care on top of our already complex schedule, and Finn's routine fits in quite well. He is good in the car, so he keeps me company when I drive the carpools, gets his exercise at soccer practice, and even has a puppy friend for puppy playdates. What I do notice is that I now see the stars every night (at 1:30am and again at 4:30am), and it is awfully nice to have a small being submit to me, and eagerly at that. Unlike the other three small beings in this house who may or may not listen to me.
Once Finn learns his golden manners, he’ll be a fine dog.
Having a dog has also gotten all of us into the woods and out on hikes more often (if Finn goes, the kids want to go). Now that they can keep up with us (thanks to Katherine’s 9-year-old strength, Clara’s stamina, and Alexandra’s sheer determination to keep up with the big sisters), family hiking & biking are turning out to be a lot of fun. Perhaps we are finally entering that era of fun family outdoor activity that, according to Facebook pictures of #blessedfamilyhikes, everyone but us has been enjoying for years.
Temperance had her babies. One survived, one did not.
As we waited for the big day, I imagined announcing the arrival of baby goats on FB and in this space. “Goat kids are here!” “Welcome baby goats!” I was nervous about my role as “goat doula,” having only watched one goat birth and done a rather limited amount of reading, and I am well aware that sometimes pregnancies/births work and sometimes they don't. But still, I let my mind wander ahead to the image of “at least two kids” frolicking together in the paddock.
Temperance had her babies early in the morning. The first one took a long time to come out – it made me nervous. Dave called the vet and she gave us some advice, which worked. Kid #1 came out. I immediately put her under Temperance’s nose, and Temperance began licking her right away. The kid perked up, responding to her mama’s care.
Kid #2 came out quickly, but was limp. Maybe she was already gone. Maybe she was stunned by the quick exit. I immediately put her under her Temperance’s nose, but she remained limp. I rubbed her all over, though I know now that I should have focused on her face, maybe even helped with the first few breaths. She never responded, and it soon became clear that she was gone.
Had I not been home when the babies arrived, the second surely would have died. If I had had more experience, perhaps she would have lived. I think it is best if I just leave it at that.
We’re all so happy about the kid who is doing well, and very sad about the one we lost. It’s tricky holding both the joy and the sadness at the same time. But this duality is nature at its truest, and it reminds me of two of my favorite quotes.
The first comes from Eula Biss:
“…the use of natural as a synonym for good is almost certainly a product of our profound alienation from the natural world."
As a reaction to the synthetic and processed aspects of our society’s lifestyle, Biss points out the cultural shift towards epitomizing nature as good; the idea of natural has come to represent safe and benign. But natural is not a synonym for good. Nature may be good, but it is not safe.
Which leads me to the second quote.
I came across this one years ago when I read the Narnia Chronicles to Katherine, and it has stayed with me ever since. One of the characters described Aslan, the lion king of Narnia, to the children:
“Safe?…Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good.”
C.S. Lewis intended this as a reference to Christianity and God, but for me, it perfectly captures the essence of nature.
Nature cannot be defined by the prototypical duality of good and evil. That is a human phenomenon. But there does exist a duality in nature: the vegetable garden that flourishes, the beetles that devour and destroy; the plants that heal, the plants that poison; the goat kid who thrives, the goat kid who dies. This duality is not the classic good and evil, rather it is one of good and unsafe. Nature is good, but it is not safe.
I find comfort in these two quotes. The goat that thrives and the goat that dies; this experience is the product of a profound connection to the natural world.
For all those wondering... no goat kids yet. Everyday I check for signs that labor is near, but the only sign is that my usually affectionate goat is avoiding me. When she see me coming into the stall, unless I have grain, she runs away. I've read that goats can get like this weeks before the babies come. Then again, it could be because I've been chasing her around pinching her tail head to see if her back ligaments have loosened (a sign that labor is imminent).
I had hoped the babies would arrive this weekend, but looking at my schedule for this week, now I hope it's not until at least Thursday.
In the meantime, we've named our farm! Well, it's not official yet, but once the paperwork gets processed, it will be "Kózka Farm." Kózka (pronounced koozka) means "little goat" in Polish. A nod to our Peace Corps days in Poland. We have this great idea of giving all the goat kids Polish names: Kasia, Basia, Magda, Lukasz, Mateusz... I love Polish names. Our human kids, however, object. I'm sure they're thinking up all sorts of original names, like Dora (we had several chickens named Dora) or Dumbledore. Luckily for Dave and me, those who do the barn chores get to name the goat kids.
Hopefully my next post will be about happy, healthy, little goats.
Our wonderful vet, Alison, came with her super cool vet truck to do an ultrasound on the goats to check for pregnancies. After hosting the handsome Romeo Santos for a month, we were hoping at least one of them had kids on the way.
Before I get to the results, let me just say that as far as my (human) kids are concerned, Alison’s visits are all about her pickup truck. She has everything in there: refrigerated compartments, vaccines, vitamins, medicine, tubes and funnels for dealing with rumen aches, a portable ultrasound machine, and even a water source with hose for sanitizing her boots after farm visits… and that’s only what we’ve seen. I’m sure she has all sorts of other supplies and equipment tucked away. Whenever she comes, Katherine, Clara, and Alexandra circle her truck in fascination, oblivious to the vet visit that is taking place. If anyone out there wants to make millions, I suggest a “veterinarian truck Lego set.” Can’t you just picture this truck in Legos?
Alison started by checking Mabeline. I had a feeling Mabeline wasn’t bred since she went into heat after Romeo Santos left. Mabeline loves the bucks, but if no buck is around, she goes for Clementine, and she was pursuing Clementine a few weeks ago.
I was right, no kids for Mabes.
But I had high hopes for Clementine. I know she “connected” with Romeo Santos, and I also really want Clementine to have kids since we separated her from her two boys (Walter and Caramello) when we first got her. Sometimes Clementine stands in the barn doorway wistfully looking off into the distance, and we wonder if she is “missin’ her boys,” as Alexandra says. Perhaps we can make it up to her if she gets to have kids again, and this time stay with them.
But alas, no kids for Clem.
Oh, the disappointment. As fond as we were of Romeo Santos, how frustrating to have no pregnancies after the work, expense, and stink of hosting a buck for a month.
Finally, Alison asked if we wanted to check Temperance. I almost said no… after all, I was sure she and Romeo Santos never connected. As I’ve said, Temperance seems indifferent to the whole reproductive process. I’ve never been able to tell when she’s in heat (unlike Mabeline, who is very obvious about it), and she never seemed interested in Romeo Santos. But you never know with Tempe. Why not just check? Might as well.
Right away, Alison said, “this one is bred with at least two kids.”
Quiet, subtle, sneaky Temperance will be a mama! Just goes to show I have no idea what happens in our barn. If all goes well, she will birth at least two kids sometime at the end of May.
Our own kids are already fighting over who gets to “claim and name” the goat kids. Fingers crossed Temperance comes out with three instead of two.
We had the joy of hosting a buck in our barn for a month over the holidays in hopes of getting at least one of our does pregnant. If you don't know anything about goat bucks, well, they're stinky. Really stinky. They fragrance themselves with their own urine in order to appeal to the ladies. Their fragrance permeates the barn and travels on the wind so that you can smell it while walking in the woods on a breezy day. If you brush against the buck (or a doe who has been friendly with the buck) while you are bringing them hot water on a bitter cold winter night, then your coat will smell like buck for days, as will your mudroom, and also your car, especially if you forget to switch out of your “barn coat” during the morning rush to feed the goats before you drive the carpool.
If you get used to the smell after a while (as women are more likely to do than men), then your children will remind you regularly that you do indeed still smell like buck. You will start to feel self-conscious at your kid's basketball games because, although you are used to the smell, you get whiffs of it coming off your boots and realize everyone else who is not used to it can probably smell it too. You worry about the carpool kids being so disgusted by the smelly minivan that you'll lose your wonderful carpool arrangement until the smell fades away. You start to threaten your children with timeouts in the barn when they misbehave (and then have a few weeks of very good behavior).
But you really want goat kids and the one-day effort at the neighbor’s farm last year didn’t work. Having a buck in your barn is supposed to help bring the does into heat. Having the buck for a month helps ensure he will be there when the does go into heat.
So, this fine fellow, Romeo Santos, took up residence on our little farm. I kind of wish the smell could travel over the internet so you could experience it just for a minute.
Mabeline took to him right away, which wasn’t a surprise to any of us. She has a bit of a reputation that way. Don’t they make a cute couple?
I know Romeo Santos enjoyed his time with Clementine as well, although she was never enamored with him the way Mabeline was. We didn’t see any “connection” between Romeo Santos and Temperance, which also wasn’t a surprise. Although Temperance is the most affectionate of the three, she seems rather indifferent to the reproductive process. But who knows? Maybe they snuck in a moment when no one was looking.
It’s been about three months now, so we have our wonderful vet coming this week to do an ultrasound. She’ll tell us if any are pregnant, and with how many kids. If we have several kids on the way, we want to be prepared. But while we wait for her visit, we can speculate: Pregnant? Or winter weight?
Anyone want to place bets?
Every year I reflect on how much I love Halloween. I know our culture goes a little overboard on holidays, and this one is no exception, but at the heart of Halloween is creativity, generosity, and community.
Two years ago I wrote about how the duality that exists in humans – the animalistic, gluttonous side and the kind, virtuous side – is mirrored in this holiday, with Halloween representing avarice and All Saints’ Day representing morality.
This year I decided that the duality exists in Halloween alone. Children have the opportunity to imagine themselves into any creative creature they wish: scary monsters, wild (and domesticated) animals, heroes who save the day, and kind, gentle beings who model goodness for all of society. The whole range of human nature is represented in Halloween costumes.
The greed and generosity coexist as well. As these little people tear through the neighborhood collecting as much candy as they can, there is a pause at each house: a “trick or treat”, a moment of connection as the treat-giver admires the costumes, and a “thank you” as the treat-takers acknowledge the gift before going on their way. It is brief, but it is real. The community opens its doors and gives to anyone – good or evil – who asks.
I can’t help but see Halloween as a metaphor for the best and worst of society successfully coexisting. Maybe Halloween is the one holiday that brings out the little bit of optimism in me (thanks to the large quantity of chocolate that ends up in my house), or maybe I just love the sense of community, the mutual understanding, and the openness to all that seems so rare in general, but is so evident on Halloween.
Whatever it is, I love Halloween.
This year we had a cheetah, a mouse, and a fairy of sorts.
Continuing on the topic of social activism and children, one of the most interesting parenting challenges I’m facing is figuring out how to integrate racial sensitivity/anti-bias education into our family life.
Many of our parenting choices are based on the Waldorf philosophy, which places great value on the wonderment of childhood. In practice, and as I wrote last week, this means protecting childhood from the burdens of adulthood so that children can deeply and freely be children. In other words, it feels like a violation of childhood to tell our children that black people are being murdered by police officers. Of course this is an extreme example – we don’t have to tell our children that black people are being murdered in order to bring conversations about race into our daily lives. But even so, I admit it is a struggle for me to talk to my children about race.
However, all the research shows that talking to children about race from a young age is necessary in order to raise anti-bias children. For those invested in the Waldorf world of childhood reverence, this can be difficult to accept. After all, if we revere childhood as a time of wonderment, and as parents and educators we seek to create a warm, beautiful, and loving environment that is protected and secure, then when, where, and how do conversations about racism fit in?
I’ve gotten the impression that Waldorf education, in general, does not encourage overt and explicit conversations about race with young children. It is also fairly common for white parents – whether invested in the Waldorf philosophy or not – to feel uncomfortable discussing race with their children (Derman-Sparks & Ramsey, 2006).
But Rudolph Steiner, founder of the Waldorf education movement, had the goal of inspiring “individuals to take up a path of inner development, and to give practical guidance in creating the seeds for a new culture of true human freedom” (WECAN). This goal not only provides space for racial sensitivity/anti-bias work within a Waldorf approach, it also obligates us to bring this work to our children, especially if we truly want to achieve a new culture of true human freedom.
As I reflect back on the work I’ve done on this issue so far, I realize that I started out with the question “Do we” rather than “How do we” bring racial sensitivity /anti-bias education to young children. Viewing childhood as I do, the idea of bringing conversations about racism to my young children feels uncomfortable. But over the past year, I’ve attended workshops, read books and articles, and participated in discussion groups, and from this work, two main points jump out at me as especially salient in moving from “Do we” to “How do we.”
First, children as early as kindergarten discriminate according to gender, race, and disability. Children are “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism… the attribute they rely on is that which is most clearly visible… once a child identifies someone as most closely resembling himself, the child likes that person the most.” (Bronson & Merryman, 2009, p. 53).
Dr. Rebecca Bigler, a professor of psychology at University of Texas at Austin, ran an experiment in a kindergarten class to look at how this tendency for in-group preference plays out. Half of the kindergarten children were given blue t-shirts, and half were given red t-shirts; the children wore their t-shirts everyday for three weeks. The teacher never mentioned, pointed out, or grouped children according to the t-shirts. During the three weeks the children played with each other regardless of t-shirt color; however, at the end of the three weeks, children liked their own color better and believed the children in their own color group were more likely to win a race, be smarter, and be nicer. They also believed their color was a better group to belong to.
Bigler concludes, “We might imagine we’re creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender – they’re plainly visible. We don’t have to label them for them to become salient. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use t-shirt colors” (p. 53).
Study after study shows the same tendency for in-group preference. Regardless of how we view childhood or what measures we take to protect our children from the concept of racism, children will develop biased views according to skin color. If adults and educators say nothing about race children will develop racial preferences.
Second, no matter what measures we take to protect our children from the concept racism, racism is an institution and it is impossible to protect our children from the system that we are all a part of. Here are just a few examples of how my white children will experience the institution of racism:
- Most of the books and movies my children are exposed to will feature main characters who look like them.
- When my children go into a pharmacy, they will be able to find Band-Aids in their skin color.
- My children will be able to shop alone without being followed, harassed, or suspected of shoplifting.
- Society expects that my children will go to college, and when they are in their twenties, society will assume they are college educated.
- When my children rent their first apartment, they can be pretty sure their neighbors will be neutral or pleasant to them.
(adapted from McIntosh, 1990)
None of these statements are true for a person of color; and these are just a few examples of how the institution of racism affects all of us, whether we live in a diverse community or a community that is mostly (or all) one race. My family experiences being white as a privilege, but "white privilege" is an unjust system and detrimental to society as a whole; breaking down the institution of racism and achieving racial justice is the goal. In order to succeed, we need to bring racial sensitivity/anti-bias education to our children.
So here I am faced with a duality: on the one hand we subscribe to the Waldorf belief that childhood is to be revered and protected from adult concepts, and on the other hand, research consistently shows that in order to raise anti-bias children, we need to talk early and openly to our children about race.
I am sure it is possible to bring anti-bias education to children in a way that still preserves the reverence and wonderment of childhood. As I dig deeper into this issue, my focus is on the question, “How do we talk to our children about race in a way that feels comfortable within our parenting approach and is effective in breaking down the racial institution that currently cripples our society?”
I don’t have answers yet, but as I said in the beginning of this post, I find this type of question – the kind that calls on a blend of intellectual discernment and parental instincts – to be interesting and inspiring. I am fortunate to be taking on this work with people who come from different parenting approaches – those who hold dear the Waldorf values and those who do not – and who bring a wealth of knowledge about racism, anti-bias education, and childhood development.
I do believe we’ll learn a great deal as we explore this topic and share our knowledge and resources with each other and within our community.
Bronson, P. & Merryman, A. (2009). Nurture shock: New thinking about children. New York: Twelve.
Derman-Sparks, L. & Ramsey, P. G. (2006). What if all the kids are white? Anti-bias multicultural education with young children and families. New York: Teachers College Press.
McIntosh, P. (1990) White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Excerpted essay reprinted in the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.
Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America. http://www.waldorfearlychildhood.org/wecan.php
Social activism has been an important part of my life over the past few years. Gun safety, public health, human rights, and racial justice have been the topics of conversation around here. My children know I am involved in this work, but we are mindful of the information we share with them.
The question of how much of reality to share with young children recently came up at one of my activist meetings. It is a tricky subject to write about; I hope to place the conversation in context and share my views without coming across as either judgmental or defensive.
In working with other parents on various causes, I’ve come across a range of opinions regarding what to share with young children. Some parents engage their children in social activism from a young age and opt to share all the details of a particular situation; other parents protect their children from these injustices.
To provide some specific examples, here are a few statements that demonstrate the range of both the type and amount of information that parents may choose to share with their children.
- Some people are treated unfairly based on the way they look.
- Many people are working to make the world a safer and fairer place for everyone.
- Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were strong and brave advocates for civil rights.
- Martin Luther King was assassinated because of the work he was doing.
- Police have murdered several innocent black men in recent months.
- There are people who live in a country where the government doesn’t work properly. These people are trying to leave in order to find a better, safer place to live.
- Millions of Syrians are no longer safe in their home country. They need a new place to live. Unfortunately, other countries are not always welcoming, and it is hard to find homes and food for so many people so quickly.
- Thousands of Syrians are risking their lives to escape the civil war in their country. Many sneak out in the night and travel in boats across the sea. Many lose loved ones or die trying to escape.
- Many Americans own guns, but they are not always used safely.
- Anyone in the United States can buy a gun, even people who want to hurt others.
- Thousands of people are injured or killed by guns every year; it’s a very real and scary problem.
- Three years ago, a gunman killed 20 children in their classroom at school. There have been roughly 100,000 gun deaths and nearly a hundred school shootings since.
In our family, we tend not to share the harsh, and in many cases, violent realities of society with our children. For example, we tell our children that sometimes people are not treated fairly because of their skin color and that many people are working hard for civil rights. They know the story of Rosa Parks and they know Martin Luther King was a great leader. But we do not tell them that innocent black men are unfairly arrested, and sometimes murdered, by police officers.
My children know that I work on gun safety legislation to help keep guns safe, and they know that this work can be challenging, but we did not tell them that a gunman murdered twenty children in their classroom, nor have I told them that a gunwoman shot six children in my town’s elementary school when I was a kid.
They know there are people who need food and clothes, and they set aside one third of their savings to share with people who don’t have as much as we have. But they do not know that families who have lost everything are risking their lives in order to escape on rickety boats.
Our reasons for “protecting” our children are not centered on keeping them blissfully ignorant so as to spare them the harsh reality of life. Rather, our goal is to give them a childhood in which they can develop the compassion, skills, and hope they will need to make the world a better place.
Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking about why we take this approach, as opposed to engaging them more fully in our social activism. It has been difficult to try to articulate, but with my husband’s help, I’ve come up with these four reasons:
1. I want my children to grow up believing the world is a good place. I personally don’t hold this belief. As an adult, I tend to see the world in equal parts of good and evil, and I struggle to reconcile the atrocities so many people experience with the comfortable, safe, and blissful life of others. But if each new generation of children can carry a vision of a better world into adulthood, perhaps we will succeed in actually bettering the world.
2. Childhood is so short and our children will have their whole lives to live in reality. What's the rush in pulling them into it at a young age? I often think of an excerpt from Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting about a little boy who was struggling with anxiety, had difficulty sleeping, and chronic stomach aches. Payne describes his observations of the child’s day-to-day life:
“Their daily lives were colored by world issues. Both parents were avid news followers…Politically and intellectually oriented, they would discuss issues at great length, particularly environmental concerns. From an early age, James had been listening to these conversations. His parents were proud of his knowledge. They felt that they were raising a little activist, a ‘citizen of the world,’ who would grow up informed and concerned…” (pp. 3-4)
When the parents made an effort to hold back on engaging their son in world issues, his stress symptoms disappeared. Payne went on to emphasize the importance of protecting childhood in order to give children the “freedom to be more deeply and happily [their] own age” (p. 5). This story spoke to me: I want to give my children a childhood.
3. Children can learn the skills they need to deal with reality without being faced with the specific horrors that exist in society. We can teach the importance of protecting communities, helping those in need, and standing up to evil forces through fairy tales and stories. I find that in our family we find ample opportunity to explore and apply the themes of compassion and generosity through sibling rivalry and natural classroom dynamics! Intuitively, this feels more age appropriate than discussing civil wars and gun violence.
4. We already influence our children so much. Exposing them to the realities of the world at a young age will also result in transferring our own views onto them before they are cognitively capable of questioning and critically evaluating the different points of view. I would rather present them with stories (fairytales, mythology, fables) that embody the forces of good and evil that I am not emotionally invested in. That way they will learn about the world and develop the understanding and skills they need to address real world problems on their own when they are older.
Social activism is an important part of our family life and we want our children to understand the responsibility of participating in society in a way that supports social justice for all. We try to model social activism and humanitarianism, but we carefully consider how to protect their childhood so that they can grow up to be informed and skillful activists as adults.
We have a beautiful swing set built into our tree. It has two swings and a bar with rings, so there is a spot for each kid.
Apparently, the two swings have their own good and bad qualities, and Katherine and Clara have each claimed the one that fits them best. Alexandra is usually happiest upside down on the bars.
But after two months at home with each other, the girls have started to fight over who gets which swing and who gets the bar with rings. Some days they all want the same swing, or they all want the bar, or they simply want what another sister has.
Just when they are about to drive me mad with their bickering (and I threaten to take the whole thing down with my handy pruning saw), they’ll find their groove and do this for hours.
I'm not sure it balances out the hours of bickering, but it is pure joy for all of us when they find their play together.
This is my new go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe. The buckwheat flour gives the cookies a nice earthy flavor and goes well with the chocolate, and they aren't too sweet. Plus, they're quick and easy to make and good for gatherings because they are gluten-free.
1 1/8 cup light buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 cup chocolate chips
Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. In a large mixing bowl, combine egg and sugar and beat with an electric mixer on high until light and fluffy. Add butter and beat on high until combined. Add vanilla and beat briefly. Add dry ingredients and mix until combined. Stir in chocolate chips
.Drop cookie dough onto parchment baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and bake at 375° F for 9-11 minutes.
I originally found the recipe here.
I’m back! Kids, my job, the garden, and some exciting social justice work has kept me busy all summer… but I continue to miss this space. Maybe this time I’ll keep up here.
First things first: let’s go back to early June. This pretty kitty showed up in our yard. We assumed she belonged to a neighbor, but day after day she seemed pretty determined to make our home her home. She hung out by our door, meowed on our windowsill, and even followed us on our loop trail through the woods.
After going through all the steps of looking for her owners – the humane society, the local vet, our neighborhood list serve – our animal control officer gave us the go ahead to take her in. So four weeks and a big old “taking in a stray cat” vet bill later, little black cat became ours. The girls named her Caroline and we let her inside.
This is Alfred, our old man cat. He has been with us for a long time. Despite his autoimmune disease (Pemphigus Foliaceus – I’m pretty sure the vet pulled that straight out of Harry Potter) and his daily puking, he’s hanging in there, as handsome and regal as always. We love him dearly, but he’s a wimp and always has been.
We kind of hoped that Alfred would on some level be happy to welcome in this sleek, new, shiny black beauty into his life… I mean, what sickly, old man cat wouldn’t? But he cowered and she attacked. Viciously attacked. As in, hiss-screech-jump-on-his-back-and-scratch attack. This went on for a few weeks until we decided it wasn’t fair to Alfred to let Caroline torture him. So she moved back outside. She gets the porch and garden, he gets the house. Both get lots of attention from the kids.
When Alfred moves on to his next life, Caroline can move back in. But for now, she is our outdoor cat.