Thursday, December 23, 2010

Language and Love

            “I want to watch Dora, Daddy!”
            I looked at my daughter and shook my head. This was starting to become a regular occurrence, and I didn’t like it. Not that I am particularly against Celia watching her favorite cartoon. In fact, I use the show among others as an opportunity to teach her Spanish, by switching the audio option on the DVD menu. But it was starting to become a bit of a bad habit – all this insisting to watch stuff rather than play.
            Celia insisted more loudly, “I want Dora!”
            “How about you play with the puzzles over there?” I asked.
            “No! Dora!”
            “How about we go outside and play in the snow?”
            “No! I want Dora!” She was beginning to pout.
            “How about we not watch Dora?” I schemed to myself that no two-year old was any match for the double-negative.
            “No!” Celia shocked me with her unbelievably apt answer.
            In the end, I did manage to divert her. I pulled the old “nibble on the elbow” routine, which can turn any frowny-face into smiles. But the exchange got me thinking about a couple of things. First, the concern I have that my daughter is going to turn into some sort of slothful mind-drivel creature who’s glued to the screen (like the rest of us?). But second, and directly opposed to the first thought, I was completely awestruck that she could come up with such amazing deductions as understanding how to counter-attack the double-negative.
            That is, she knew that she wanted not to not watch Dora. Wow. Two years old.
            Watching Celia’s language develop is one of the most downright delightful experiences I’ve had as a father. At one point I got to wondering if she’s going to be some utterly brilliant Nobel Prize-winning genius, because she can talk better than some four-year-olds I’ve met. I mentioned this to some folks in their sixties, and they just smiled, patted me on the arm, and began to tell all sorts of stories. Some of the kids they’d seen grow up hadn’t developed much language till five or even six, but turned out to be wonderfully eloquent communicators as adults.
            When I heard the stories it definitely deflated my fatherly pride. If all kids turn out well in the end, what does it matter? But then I was quickly reminded of one of the most important aspects of my daughter’s language development – the benefit to her parents.
            Celia can explain what she wants, what happened in her day, and how she’s feeling. This makes a huge difference when she’s throwing up in the middle of the night, or when we’re trying to piece together why she’s cranky at the end of a long day.
            I’ve seen three-year-olds who are obviously having a bad day, and the lack of language they have to explain themselves doubles the frustration on their faces. I can imagine. A year older than my daughter in their actual maturity, but scant words to describe what’s going on – that must be frustrating indeed.
            Girls do develop quicker than boys, but I also attribute my daughter’s young language skills to some of our parenting decisions. I may be wrong here, but I have a feeling that a few of our practices helped spur the language on at a very young age.
            First, we gave her a lot of spoken attention, even as a baby. None of this “Goo-goo” slush, we spoke to her in complete sentences, and with big words. I know my daughter probably didn’t immediately understand words like “consequences”, but after a few dozen uses, knowing that I’m showing her the outcome of her actions, she’s like any young sponge, she picks it up.
            Another thing that’s most certainly helped is all the reading we do with our kids. Celia has had stories before bed nearly every day of her life, and sometimes hours of reading sessions during the day as well. Books are great, because they show lots of visuals of things we don’t come across in our normal day, and it gives our kids training in numbers and letters.
            But the most important thing that’s helped Celia’s language development, I’m most certain, is that we give our kids a positive environment with lots of affection. Positive attention and affirmation works magically to build a child’s self-esteem, and knowing they’re in a safe environment gives them tremendous initiative to explore and learn about everything around them.
            At the end of the day, that’s the most a parent can really offer. We all bring different parenting styles and gifts to the table. Maybe not everybody loves books the way Michelle and I do. But at the very least, everybody, and I mean everybody, has the ability to withhold their sharp tongues and shower their kids in hugs and I-love-you’s.
            That’s the most important thing any parent can do.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Puke, Popcorn and the Christmas Play

            The puking started at 10:45pm. Celia was wailing and soggy popcorn was everywhere. We ran upstairs and instantly got to work – stripping her from the soiled pajamas, holding her tightly, inspecting just how many items in the crib needed to be thrown in the wash.
            She was still semi-hysterical after a few minutes so we took her downstairs and sat on the couch, where Michelle and I had been having a lovely Saturday evening conversation ten minutes before. Finally, she was cleaned up and the environment was calm and quiet.
            Then she puked again. Soggy popcorn and bits from breakfast now all over the couch, her pajamas, and us. We broke into action again, cleaning and comforting her, changing her into yet another clean set of pajamas, and every once in awhile looking at each other to see if the other had some sort of non-verbal cue revealing a deep insight into the matter. Was it the popcorn? Was it food poisoning from dinner? Our minds raced trying to remember every item she’d eaten in the last twelve hours.
            Just when the room had started to feel peaceful again, she heaved and puked once more. This time, we were prepared with towels to catch the vomit. Soiled towels, cushions, and articles of clothing were everywhere. I scooped them all up and threw them out of sight into the kitchen to be dealt with later.
            The vomiting went on for a couple of hours. She started by throwing up every ten minutes, then every fifteen, then eventually every twenty. Eventually she would fall asleep in between vomiting in one of our arms, while the other parent frantically ran around trying to clean up the accumulating mess.
            I paused long enough to shake my head. It had been such a lovely day, with sledding, soaking in grandma’s hot tub, and watching Celia dance and eat popcorn as we watched Mama Mía before bedtime, but now… I imagine the puking episode is probably what she’ll remember most.
            By 12:30am Michelle and I were pooped. Michelle went to bed and I slept with Celia in her room. I said to Michelle, “If she’s still vomiting at 1:30 I’m taking her to the hospital.”
            “Okay,” Michelle wearily nodded her head.
            We didn’t actually arrive at the hospital until 2:45am. I fell asleep, and the puking episodes had petered out to every half hour, so I kept hoping it was over. Finally, we left when Celia herself said, “I want to see the doctor.”
            Yes, she’s only two, but my heart instantly said, “Trust that girl’s instincts!”
            After all our worry, it turned out to be a virus, not food poisoning. They gave her an anti-vomit pill and a popsicle, and we went home completely exhausted, collapsing into bed at 4:45am.
            The next day she seemed better, but had a massive vomiting episode in the early afternoon. Celia impressed me with her maturity – I would never have expected a two-year old to be so brave in the midst of such wretched illness. I tried to be strong myself, even though I was feeling pretty light-headed, nauseous and exhausted. Needless to say, we stayed inside all day.
            I was sad, because it was Sunday and the kids at our church were putting on a big Christmas play. We’d been looking forward to it for months. In fact, Celia and I even put on our coats and boots, thinking we’d sneak in the back, but Michelle caught us before we got out the door.
            “What are you doing!?” she said.
            “Going to the church play,” I replied sheepishly.
            “You’re going to expose all those people to sickness?! That is not responsible!”
            I looked down and said, “I know. You’re right.”
            It was a mellow day, and I took a few naps. Joshua seemed like he’d caught the vomit bug as well, because, although he is The Pukenator, he seemed to throw up a lot more than usual. Only Michelle seemed unaffected. She cleaned, and cleaned, and cleaned some more. We did a dozen loads of laundry, washing Celia's favorite blankets twice by the end of it all, and by Sunday night, the house was sparkling, as if nothing had happened.
            Getting sick is never a surprise, but I never seem prepared for it, either. When I’m feeling well I act as if it’ll last forever. All those bed-ridden days and major aches from my past are but a hazy memory. Illness is a helpful slap in the face to remind me of my mortality and frailty.
            Sometimes I get so comfortable with the life I’ve set up around myself, it takes a vomiting child to shake me awake and remember to appreciate the simple things again. A clean couch. A good night’s rest. A happy child.
            And especially, food going out the right end.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How To Get a Two-Year Old To Do Just About Anything

            Treading on a two-year-old’s autonomy is a risky business. Forcing them to do things not only results in a lot more tears, it makes them feel like they’re being controlled and inevitably leads to rebellion. But let’s face it, there are an awful lot of things we want our daughter to do – that’s life – so every parent needs to come up with a solid strategy.
            For Michelle and I, we’ve read a whole bunch of books that all point to the same thing – if you want your child to have a high self-esteem and to feel like they have control of the decision-making process, you need to give them options as often as possible. Instead of forcing them to put on their jacket to get out the door, you ask whether they want to put it on themselves, or would like some help.
            Overall, giving choices seems to be working out as a great way to get Celia to do just about anything. But figuring out which options to give can sometimes be a challenge. Last night I wanted our reluctant daughter to get into the bath. Michelle tried her hand at giving Celia options, “Do you want to get in the bath now? Or later?”
            “No,” I turned to Michelle. “That’s not the right option.” I turned back to Celia. “Do you want me to put you in the bath, or are you going to get in yourself?”
            Celia looked at me for a moment, then said, “I’m going to get in myself.”
            “Good,” I replied, and held her hand as she climbed into the bath.
            It’s not that Michelle’s options weren’t right, but it was already late, and I needed to get Celia to bed as soon as possible, so to me, waiting any longer wasn’t an option. The nice thing is, with kids, there’s almost always a second chance. And let’s face it, we’re making this up on the fly, so we’re going to get it wrong at times. The important thing is to learn what works to make it easier the next time around.
            I’ve learned a few tricks that I sometimes use when I need to. They’re like my little arsenal that I pull out in emergencies. For example, if there’s one option I’d really prefer over the other, I say it second, because she usually chooses the second one. I noticed this when giving Celia options for neutral things.
            “Celia,” I asked, “Would you like to play inside or outside?”
            “Outside!” Celia said happily.
            “Are you sure? Would you like to play outside, or inside?”
            “Inside!” Celia said with confidence.
            Occasionally, this has resulted in some funny little dialogues. Yesterday at the end of the day I picked up Celia and asked, “What did you do today?”
            “I made a reindeer!” Celia exclaimed, pointing at the piece of purple construction paper with two brown hand prints and a red puff ball in the middle.
            I had to admit, it was a cute reindeer. I even considered framing it.
            “Was that fun, or what!?” I said, admiring her work.
            “What, Daddy. What.”
            I laughed and gave her a kiss. It’s always the second thing.
            Another trick is to “play dumb” so that she feels empowered. One day she didn’t want to wear her winter boots. So, I kicked them into the corner, just out of sight.
            “Where are your purple boots, Celia? I can’t find them anywhere!”
            Celia perked up and looked around. Then, she started walking into the front hallway. “Here they are!” Celia dashed over to the boots in the corner and picked them up triumphantly.
            “Fantastic! Good looking, Celia! Alright, now bring them over here so I can help put them on your feet.”
            These tricks are useful, but sometimes, I admit I give up and simply force her to do things. Like this morning. I was changing little Joshua’s diaper and I heard the clatter of her oatmeal bowl flying onto the floor from the other room.
            I called out, “Celia. I didn’t like hearing that sound. I have a feeling you’re going to have a big mess to clean up.”
            Sure enough, when I came back into the room, oatmeal was everywhere. Celia resisted, but I leaned in and half-forced, half-helped her pick up the dirty bowl and wipe up all the mushy banana and oatmeal off the floor.
            At first she was reluctant, but I praised her every step, “You’re doing great, Celia. Nice job, cleaning up that banana.”
            In the end, the clean-up was a success, and Celia happily trotted off to the next activity. I marveled – I actually was able to get a two-year-old to clean up her mess! And I didn’t give her an option!
            I think that’s what the option thing is all about – you’re building up a reservoir of self-esteem so that they feel like they’re in control and respected. When you have to tap into that reservoir and force them to do something, they’re less resistant than if they were constantly feeling forced.
            At this point, even if I did have to half-bully her into it, I’m sure she knows it was the natural consequence of her own actions. The real challenge is remembering to deal with her nicely.
            Last night Michelle was in the bathroom and called to me, “Come over here and look at this!”
            She was standing in front of the mirror.
            “Now imagine this,” she said. “If you’re a two-year-old girl waking up in the middle of the night crying, what kind of face would you want to see?”
            I looked at Michelle’s face. She made a grimace, which is what I’m sure I usually look like at 3am when my daughter is crying unnecessarily. Then she smiled and her eyes sparkled as she said brightly, “Oh, Sweetie. Are you okay? I’m here for you.”
            I tried smiling and mimicking her but it turned into a crazy face pretty quickly. Michelle laughed. Definitely not the kind of face you’d want to see when you wake up in the middle of the night. But I think it was a good exercise, anyway. A reminder, if you will.
            Sure, we’re going to be giving out some tough medicine here and there, and there will be times when we need to deal with the kids when nobody is at their best. But even then, we could at least try to be nice about it. Even doling out disciplines can be more bearable if it’s done with a smile and a chipper attitude.
            With these methods, I’m pretty confident I could get Celia to do just about anything. Except maybe change her brother’s diaper. Not that she wouldn’t try. Actually, come to think of it, I'll bet she’d love to try.
            I’d better not give her any ideas.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Public Yammering and Parental Buffooning

            The little guy is starting to get everybody’s attention.  He’s completely full of six-month blatherskite, and even though he makes no sense and sometimes erupts into wails, he’s a serious magnet for stares and smiles. I think right now, at this very moment, he’s at the peak age of baby cuteness. And he’s loving every minute of it.
            Every once in a while when he’s been quiet I’ll turn my head to look at him, and he usually gets this wonderfully impish grin. Of course I smile back at him – let’s face it, baby smiles are contagious. A smile from Daddy just makes him smile all the more and gurgle out one of those utterly captivating baby-coos that makes everybody simply have to stop and listen.
            “Awww!” I can hear them all think, “That kid is a darling!” Which, of course, is absolutely true.
            All the new cooing and gurgling have made for some delightful little baby games. My favorite so far is to mimic his babbling and move my head in and out, calling out “Boo!” when I get near his face. This is a wonderful game, although I have to admit that more than once I’ve found myself doing it in random public places.
            “Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-BOO!” I call out to my little son.
            He shrieks with laughter and a humongous grin. The cackles peter out into little giggles as I pull back, then do it all over again.
            Shrieks of laughter.
            Every once in a while I realize what the heck I’m doing and look around. Usually there are least a handful of people who’ve stopped to watch with big smiles on their faces.
            I shake my head at how ridiculous I must look, but then figure, “Okay, I’ve already made a fool of myself. My son loves it so, what the heck.”
            Of course, there’s always that inevitable moment when the shrieks transform from laughter to perturbation. It happens almost instantly, and when it does, the attention from bystanders shifts considerably.
            Last night when the switch occurred I suddenly found myself rushing to get out of the store. The clerk was doing his best to be polite and patient with me as Joshua wailed in his highest pitch available. I winced and quickly paid the bill without looking at the amount. As soon as I stepped outside in the bitter cold Joshua stopped his complaining, and the moment his car seat snapped into the van, he was completely asleep.
            I shook my head in wonder.
            It’s a delightful age – it reminds me how adorable little babies can be. It’s also a challenging age – where parents have to be constantly on guard, ready to placate the next installment of insanity. But most of all, it’s a comical age – it draws out the buffoon in us parents, and leaves us wondering how we ended up yammering in public places in the first place.
            I’ve never liked to think of myself as a buffoon. I remember back in high school hoping I’d never be publicly embarrassed. Part of me still holds onto a bit of that self-conscious worrying. But then, having kids changes something inside, and somehow it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Who cares if “they” think I’m a goof ball? Maybe I am. My son certainly appreciates it, and that’s what matters most.
            And let’s face it, he’s going to grow out of this stage quickly. I may as well enjoy it while it lasts.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Improving Humpty Dumpty

            My daughter is a poet.
            At two years old she can take an age-old nursery rhyme and modify it just enough to make it better. With a marvelous play on words, she easily improves on centuries of inadequate rhyming and proudly presents the new creation to her proud father. Yes, to me, it would seem that she’s got all the makings to be a world-class poet.
            Let me explain. I was trying to get some work done and Celia wanted to see someone singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
            YouTube to the rescue.
            I put the online video service on one screen as I worked on the other screen.
            Both of us sat happily at my desk – my daughter watching the videos circle through different nursery rhymes sung by cartoons, puppets, and people dressed in flamboyant costumes – me, by being productive (although admittedly a bit distracted at times).
            And then it happened. She’d just watched Humpty Dumpty, who of course sat on the wall, and who then suddenly had a great fall. The videos went silent after that, and I was so engrossed in what I was doing I didn’t realize, until I heard Celia speak out of the silence.
            “Humpty Dumpty had a great fart!”
            “What!?” I stopped what I was doing and looked into her face. Did she really just say that?
            “Humpty Dumpty had a great fart!” Celia said again proudly.
            I laughed. And laughed. And laughed. Celia grinned sheepishly and her cheeks turned rosy.
            I couldn’t believe she’d come up with that! It’s totally brilliant – it kind of rhymes with “fall”, plus it would explain why the heck he actually fell off the wall in the first place. Try it, it actually works!

            Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall.
            Humpty Dumpty had a great fart.
            All the kings horses and all the kings men
            Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

            Of course they couldn’t – they couldn’t get near the guy!
            I wonder if the humor behind passing wind ever gets less funny. I remember many years ago, when I wasn’t anywhere near having kids of my own, a veteran parent with five kids in tow was passing through. One of the kids made a “fart” joke, and everyone laughed and laughed, including me.  Everyone, that is, except the mother.
            The seasoned mother looked at me and said straight-faced, “Fart jokes are always funny. You just have to say the word, and you’ll get a laugh out of them.”
            I remember nodding my head and thinking, “Boy, that sure makes sense.”
            And now, here I am with two kids of my own, and my daughter has passed her first fart joke. I suppose it’s the first of many. And perhaps I’ll be like that seasoned parent in a few more years, not laughing along with them, simply acknowledging that they’ve made yet another attempt at humor.
            That may be my situation down the road. But for now, I’m going to enjoy it. Not only do I think it shows that my daughter has the makings of a great poet, that was one funny joke.