Thursday, April 17, 2014

Swimmer of the Month

In yet another post about my eldest...

I just received an email from the swimming company that my kids do lessons with.  They were asking my permission to name Matthew as their Swimmer of the Month for March.  His teacher had this to say about him:
The swimmer of the month is Matthew.  I have been teaching Matthew from the beginning of fall and ever single week I see a tremendous improvement! Matthew went from barely being able to do front crawl to being able to swim over four laps of it without stopping.  He is very open to trying new strokes and is working on whip kick on his front.  I'm so proud of him!  Keep up the great work Matthew!
Although the swim company would have allowed up for four kids in Matthew's class, because we're h/schoolers there was no one else at his level available during the afternoon; as a result he had private lessons for six months (though we haven't had to pay for that).  And as a result, his teacher is absolutely right about how much he improved from end of September through March.  He completed three levels, learned three new strokes, and his technique improved dramatically.

I can't remember if I mentioned this before - a couple of months ago, during Matthew's lesson, I was trying to locate him in the pool and was distracted by a young swimmer in the distance who had a beautiful front crawl stroke.  I watched for about ten seconds before I realize that it was Matthew!  He wowed me.

When he began with this teacher in fall, he couldn't swim quite half of one length of the pool; at the end of March, he swam 16 consecutive lengths, with only three ten-second breaks for the teacher to give him instructions for the next four laps.  He really, really progressed, in both endurance and skill.

The kids are just about to start their spring session of swimming - another eight or ten weeks of lessons that will take us all the way to cottage time in summer!

(I should add that Seth and Lizzie are also progressing well and have completed about 1.5 levels each during the course of the winter.  They also love the water and their lessons, and I'm so glad about that!)

Here's the picture I sent to them for their newsletter (taken in early February, before my computer and photo program began having problems communicating!):

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Let It Go

I don't know entirely what my kids are up to, but I think they're having a good time...together.  They have the song "Let it Go" (from the movie "Frozen") blasting on repeat from one of the boys' ipods upstairs, and I hear stomping and laughing and falling to the floor.  I think they might be dancing...or wrestling...sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.  Every once in a while I hear three quavery, screaming voices singing "let it go, let it go...".   And Lizzie just sang, "let it go, let it go, let my underwear go..." and then she added, in a singsongy voice, "and no wedgies, Matthew or I'll take you down!"

For now, the song's awesome but I can see the day coming when I, too, will want to let go...of that song.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A 'Novel' Start to the Morning

Normally Matthew is still sleeping at 7:15am.  But this morning, I walked by the boys' bedroom door and saw that the light was on.  I knew that Seth was downstairs so I looked in to the slightly open bedroom door, surprised that it was Matthew who must have turned on the light.

There he was, lying in bed, the book that he started reading last night in his hands.  He was reading.  In bed.  Voluntarily.

I must have made a noise because he suddenly looked over at the door.

"Mom," he said, no good morning in the offing.  "I got stuck on a word a couple of pages ago."

A couple of pages ago.  That fact itself sent a few shivers down my back.

It was the word anchor.  I helped him figure it out and then, when he immediately got engrossed in his book again, backed out of the room.  When I came downstairs, I asked his siblings to stay downstairs for the time being, just to give him a little more time before being attacked by the noise of siblings.

We're still adapting to the new normal.  I'm still wondering if this is for real and for how long this will last.  Hopefully forever...but even if not, I'm now completely and utterly convinced that reading is a part  of my children's futures.

P.S.  It's about 11am now and about 30 minutes ago I sent Matthew up for a shower and to wash his hair.  He just now came down and said that he'd read four chapters of the book I saw him reading in bed this morning.  I asked how he'd managed to find time to read that much and he told me that he'd asked Seth to hold his book open and flat against the glass wall of the shower so that he could read while he was showering; and that when he was ready for a page turn, he'd tap the glass and Seth would turn the page!  I'm hoping Seth got something out of that experience...and I'm hoping that Matthew's hair actually got washed!!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Article: Interview with Gordon Neufeld

For anyone interested, here's a link to an interview of Dr. Gordon Neufeld, attachment-based developmental psychologist based in Vancouver.  (Thanks, Joy, for posting it on f/book, and leading me to the link.)  The interview may not resonate with people who aren't already versed in developmental science, but it's a pretty decent encapsulation of a few of Neufeld's core principles.

Interview with Gordon Neufeld

Below is the article itself, from April 22, 2013, in the Huffington Post.

Putting Parents Back in the Driver's Seat: An Interview With Gordon Neufeld, Part 1

Posted: 04/22/2013 1:31 pm

Gordon Neufeld, coauthor of Hold On to Your Kids, talks with Sil Reynolds, coauthor ofMothering & Daughtering, about the need for children to be dependent on their parents in order to become fully independent later in life.
Reynolds: There is some disagreement in the world of parenting about whether we should be holding on to our kids or letting them go. Where do you stand?
Neufeld: I started my career in parent education with the idea that we needed to let our kids go. I believed that parents were suffocating for their children. There was no room for individuality and personhood.
After I had my own children, I became familiar with and immersed in the developmental approach and attachment-based material. It was then that I realized that the opposite is true. It is a parent's responsibility to preserve the connection with their children, to preserve the relationship, so that the children can let go and become their own selves.
Reynolds: One of my favorite quotes from your book, Hold On to Your Kids, is "Our society is so topsy-turvy that we may actually come to value the child's willingness to separate more than her instincts for closeness."
Neufeld: Parents are looking for emancipation in today's world. We get so tired of our responsibilities that we confuse our children's dependence upon others with independence.
One of the things I write about in the book is that we think when children become dependent upon their peers, it means independence from us and that it's actually a sign of progress. But that's a mistake. It is not true independence.
This concern with dependence and independence has been with us for a long time. In the 1960s and 1970s, all parenting literature told us not to do anything for our child. It said they could or should do for themselves, because if they don't, they will never learn to become independent.
Reynolds: I'm interested in the way that you've brought attachment parenting clearly into adolescence, because that's when we can, as you write, "lose our children." You also write about retrieval, about how parents can retrieve that primary connection with their children when they feel they've lost it.
Neufeld: We have lost sight of nature's role in the whole process of maturation and growing up. Parents and nature are a team. And nature can't go on without the parental role of being able to foster individuality and viability unless the attachment needs are fully met. It's only as the dependencies are met that the energy can turn.
We all made a big mistake in the 1950s and 1960s when the prevailing idea that everything regarding children could be divided between nature and nurture. It was assumed that the way children turned out was either a result of genetics or it was a result of learning. But this idea eclipsed the most important factor of all, the factor that every gardener knows about -- the growth factor, the developmental factor.
It's only when a plant's attachment roots find what they are seeking that it can begin to mature and grow. And that's the whole idea about holding on to your kids. Our responsibility is to meet the attachment needs and the dependency needs of our children so they can truly begin to spontaneously emerge as viable, separate beings.
Reynolds: You have said you're committed to putting parents back into the driver's seat regarding their own children's development. How do you use developmental science to teach parents how to trust their own intuition?
Neufeld: Intuition is very interesting. We've been parenting for thousands and thousand of years, and when culture evolves it evolves in synchrony with the developmental needs of children. The wisdom is in the culture. In times past, parents never needed to know why they did something. It just felt right to do so. This happens when the culture is working properly.
The problem we face now is that when we lose our children we have nothing to evoke those natural intuitions for us. The only way of doing this is to find the words that correspond with our natural intuition. I believe good science resonates with inner intuition. I feel my role now is to find the words of developmental science that can help parents articulate what they know, but do not know that they know or don't have the words to express.
This is what I believe is needed in today's world. Our culture has come undone. It no longer supports relationships as a context for raising children. That's why words are so important. Words bring us to consciousness again and again.
Reynolds: Back in the 1960s, peer orientation was deemed important for a child's development. It was from their peers that children were supposed to, as you write, "be attached and get their cues."
Neufeld: Peer orientation is a very new phenomenon, less than 50 years old, which is quite new in the human civilization. Traditionally, children always revolved around the adults responsible for them, be they parents, teachers or grandparents.
But then they began to get their cues, values and bearings from their peers. This happened primarily after the Second World War and was the result of a number of things, such as schooling, urbanization and schools moving outside the child's village of attachment. Children became more and more separated from the adults, and in that void became attached to their peers.
Peer attachments are not the problem themselves. It's when they compete with adult attachments that the problems emerge. It's just like when siblings get attached to each other. If they start revolving around each other, then the parents can't do anything with them because it's a competing attachment. The planets are supposed to revolve around the sun, not each other. And when children start revolving around each other, it pulls them out of orbit from their parents and from their teachers, and this is the phenomenon we're seeing. Children with peer attachments that compete with parent and teacher attachments are very difficult to manage.
These children also lose the conditions that are conducive for their own development. So we have a lot of stuck-ness. True maturation isn't taking place. This phenomenon has become normal. We think that children belong with each other, that they need each other more than they need parents and teachers. It's happening with other generations, too. For example, grandparents are becoming peer-oriented. They would rather be with each other than assume their role with their grandchildren.
Reynolds: Their role as the elder.
Neufeld: Yes. Peer orientation is changing the whole structure of our society and sabotaging the context required for children to be raised. It's making it much harder for parents, and parents don't know why it is so hard, and this is certainly one of the reasons why. You really cannot deal with a child whose heart you do not have.
Neufeld and Reynolds are part of Omega's Hold On to Your Kids conference August 2-4, 2013 in Rhinebeck, New York.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

I Can't Help But Add More...

This morning, even before breakfast was going, Matthew was begging me to read with him - as in, he wanted to read to me.  I managed to get us through breakfast first, but immediately thereafter he asked if both Geoff and I could sit and listen to him continue to read the Magic Treehouse book that he started yesterday.  Turns out, all five of us sat in the library listening to him read...chapter after chapter after chapter.  Over an hour later, he finished the entire thing - over 60 pages of reading just today.

His first completed chapter book:  Magic Treehouse's Gorillas in the Morning.  Not a very hard read re: vocabulary, as I mentioned yesterday, but he became very proficient in reading bits of conversation.  It was the perfect choice for him.

He was so thrilled.  Dancing and running around and singing (to the tune of the old Superman song) "Thank you Lord, for giving me books."

Who is this child??!!  At one point during the morning reading marathon, Seth and Lizzie were getting restless and a bit bored, and they started to make noises and run around and fidget.  Normally, Matthew would find that very distracting and annoying, but this morning he didn't even notice.  Later, Seth asked if there would be jelly beans in the offering today and I answered "no" because it simply wasn't needed as a motivator to get Matthew to continue reading.  We had telephone interruptions, and various other noises enter in to the reading time and nothing deterred him.  I said to Geoff later that I thought a stick of dynamite could have gone off in the room and he would have continued to read and be bewildered later about anything that might be amiss.  He was utterly focused and intent and motivated.

Anyway, after it was done, he asked if we could have a book-finishing celebratory snack with junky food and so we did just that.  We put on the coffee pot, pulled out some cookies and chocolate truffles, and they feasted on the decadence of life alternating moments.

It's a whole new world in this household.  A whole new world.

Friday, April 11, 2014

More on the Reading Front...and Getting Siblings Involved

I feel like folding my hands behind my head, leaning back in a big arm chair, and taking the next decade off.  My job is done.  Matthew is reading and I've done my bit.  Maybe I'll invest a bit more time and effort here and there, but really, it's all over now.  I can relax.

Oh wait...I have two more to go.  I can't rest on my laurels just yet!

Seriously, though, it's going so well.  Matthew finished day 13 of his 21 day reading goal today and he's doing great.

Yesterday afternoon, hours after he'd finished his daily reading session, I was working in the kitchen when I was distracted by some quiet noise in the library.  I walked over to see what was going on and the sight so moved me that I sat down to watch silently for almost half an hour.  (Lizzie was having a quiet time, otherwise there would have been nothing silent about my presence there!)

Matthew and Seth were sharing an arm chair and Matt had my ipad on his lap (normally a no-no unless I've given it to him for a specific purpose, but I surely wasn't going to quibble on this occasion).  He was reading to Seth one of the animal paragraphs that I'd found for him a number of days before, and it looked like they'd been doing this for a little while already.  At the end of the reading, rather than answering the comprehension questions himself, Matthew read the questions and multiple choice answers out loud for Seth, one at a time, and told Seth that he needed to tell him what the correct answer was.  And Seth did!

A few stories later, one of the comprehension questions asked what kind of food pandas most liked to eat.  Matthew read the four possible answers out loud and then Seth asked him if he could point to the word bamboo in the story above.  Matthew found the word and pointed it out to Seth, and Seth proceeded to laboriously compare that word to the words in the multiple choice answers - eventually pointing to the right answer and saying that it had to be that answer because it had the word bamboo in it!  How awesome is that?  My little dude who can't read a word has clearly made some connections himself and was pumped to be answering the questions that Matthew put forward.  And Matthew got to transition from student to teacher...and did so beautifully.

Today, after he'd completed his reading for the day and I'd read out loud to the kids for over an hour, Matthew said that he wanted to read more out loud.  He asked Seth if he could read out loud to him.  Seth (who was very tired of sitting [relatively] still at this point) said that there was "no way" he'd be doing that...and then looked at me, and said, "unless Mom would be willing to give me two jelly beans for listening."  Crafty little munchkin, especially given that we don't often use reward systems in our home!

But still, when considering priorities...

"Done," I said, wishing I had a gavel to pound.  Two jelly beans (per kid, as it turned out!) is a pretty small price to pay for another 15-20 minutes of Matthew reading out loud.

So Seth plunked himself down beside Matthew and I handed Matthew something different to read - one of the Magic Treehouse books (which I think is around a grade 3 reading level).  The vocabulary of this book was easier than what he had been reading, but it added a new element to his reading: Conversation.  Matthew got to learn how quotation marks are used, that new paragraphs are started whenever someone else is speaking, and how to use voice inflection to suit the context and the person's speech.  He also got to understand for himself how a reader can distinguish between speakers in the conversation.  He was a little slower in his reading because of the new variables, but it was fantastic.

After he'd finished the first chapter (a whole chapter! side note: when Matthew last 'read', a couple of months ago, I tried him on Magic Treehouse and he stumbled and bumbled through three lines and it took him over ten minutes), he and Seth both asked if he could read another chapter for another two jelly beans.

"Done," I said again, pounding my fist on the arm chair this time.

Another chapter got read.

And another.

And another.

And he would have continued had we not needed to get ready for piano/music lessons.

Each kid got eight jelly beans for those four chapters; Matthew read 35-38 pages of a Magic Treehouse book over the course of about 45-50 minutes; and mama was very privately thrilled...and so was Matthew.

By the time all was said and done, we'd spent the entire morning in our library, had no time to make lunch before leaving for music and piano lessons, and so picked up Tim Horton's bagels for the road.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Visit to Ontario?

Just wondering if there's anyone potentially interested in getting together with us this spring/summer in the event that we make a little side trip to Ontario???  We'll be in southwestern Ontario, staying just outside of London but would be willing to drive a bit to make possible some connections.

If this is of interest, please leave me a comment with your email address so that I can connect with you privately.  I won't publish any email addresses.

I can't guarantee our plans yet, but we'd love try to connect with a few folks face-to-face!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Developmental Process Works!! So Exciting!

So for about seven years now, I've been working at becoming a parent who takes a developmental perspective with her children rather than a (cognitive) behavioural approach.  If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know of some of my struggles, about some of our successes, about my passion for the work of developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, about our radical shifting of parenting style over the years.

It's all about the attachment-based developmental process which suggests that, provided the right environment, our children will develop and mature spontaneously when they are neurologically and emotionally ready to do so.

I've believed it in my head for many years already, and have demonstrated what has often felt like blind faith.  But we've seen massive changes in our children as a result, and these changes have kept us going.

But now...these days I believe the process to a much deeper level (in my heart as well as in my brain), because I'm in the midst of witnessing the developmental process at work.

Matthew just turned ten a month ago, and if he were in the public system he'd be in grade 4.  He is a very bright, philosophically-oriented, gentle-natured and highly sensitive child who is very resistant to following structure or curriculum.  Hence one of the bigger reasons we are trying unschooling this year (and, I suspect, for the foreseeable future).

I have been waiting for Matthew to read since he was five years old.  For over five years, I have offered opportunities to read, tried (mostly unsuccessfully, given his high level of resistance) to teach him little bits here and there and, most importantly, tried to provide the right environment by being relaxed about it, by trusting that someday it would happen when he was ready, and by assuring him that some day (when he was ready) he was going to be a brilliant reader.  I have ridden the roller coaster ride with him as his interest in learning how to read has ebbed and flowed (mostly ebbed) for five or six years.  And every time there's been interest, I've had to let it go again as his interest died.  Privately, I've wondered if he'd ever read.

As a believer in the developmental process, I simply kept telling myself that he wasn't ready yet.  He wasn't ready yet.  He wasn't ready yet.  But, as any parent might imagine, it's also a scary thing when your aging child shows no interest in reading and professes (as recently as four or five weeks ago) that he will never want to read and never will read.  Again, I have simply always presented a calm and relaxed and unconcerned face about it, and have assured him that this was ok because he just wasn't ready yet.  About two months ago, when he had a (very brief) moment of expressing an interest in reading, he read something that was somewhere between a grade 1 and grade 2 level, and it was very basic, very stilted/halted reading.

Then, about two weeks ago he suddenly decided that he wanted to set himself a three-week goal for reading.  You may have read that post.  I was fine with that, and quietly went along with it, but inwardly was preparing for another letdown - that it was a whim of his that would die a quiet death within a day...or maybe two.

Well, we took a break from reading for a few days during our mini vacation last week, but as of today Matthew has accomplished eleven days of his twenty-one day goal.  Entirely at his own initiative.  No tears, no trauma.  He has been reading with - wait for it, enthusiasm!

When I last presented reading material to him a couple of months ago, he read at the grade 1-2 level, and in a very stilted manner.  "The. dog. went. for. a. w-w-a-l-k."

We have done no work on reading since then, absolutely nothing, until the beginning of his goal two weeks ago.

So when we started day one of his twenty-one days, I pulled out reading at the grade 2 level, which was about where I thought he'd be at, and maybe a little ahead of where he was at.  To my surprise, he sailed through it.  No stilted reading efforts.  Smooth, easy reading for 15-20 minutes.  I honestly thought it was a fluke on the first day, so I offered him different material at the same level the next day and the day after that.  Huh, I thought, what's up with that?  I was dumbfounded.  For three consecutive days he flew through grade 2 reading material, and correctly answered every comprehension question that was asked of him.

Finally, at the end of our third day's reading session, I asked him if he'd be willing to try reading something a little harder.  The night before I'd identified some grade 3 reading materials and so that's what I offered to him.  Blow me away, the kid just read it.  He read it!!  I had done absolutely nothing different than I'd ever done; in fact, had done nothing at all!  And he was suddenly, overnight, reading at a grade 3 level.

Then he said that he was bored and that he wished he could read stuff that didn't sound babyish.  He wanted to read about animals.  So that night I went onto my ipad and found a reading app about animals in the wild, and the following day presented him with this to read on my ipad.

I was a bit worried because the reading was at a level for a grade 3-4 student.  But to my utter shock, he started reading that, too.  Not quite as quickly, and not without having to sound out some of the harder words, but he was doing it, and doing it remarkably smoothly, and when there was a word that stumped him, he figured it out.  In the following days, I had to help with only two or three words - the rest he figured out by himself (in fact, he asked me not to help him).

I honestly don't know how he reads many of the words he's reading.  It's like magic.  As I follow along with him, I see words coming that I keep thinking oh, he's never going to be able to read that one and I inwardly cringe, waiting for the frustrated meltdown, and lo and behold he then just sails right through it like it's nothing or he stops for a few seconds to figure it out.  Words like appearance, orangutans, estimated, protruding, absence, oxygen, efficient, poisonous, majority, existence, domesticated, chambered, elephant, communication, resemble, variety, intelligence, Asia, copper-coloured, distinguished, leatherback, largest, population, individual, captivity, cartilage, plankton, approximately, vegetation, capacity, conserve, undisturbed, Antarctica, protection, tropical, automatically, propelling, Australia, weigh, and so on.  While these words may not seem so amazing in and of themselves, consider that they were read by a boy who, prior to eleven days ago, had to painstakingly sound out the word walk.

People, this is a miracle!  Really and truly a miracle born out of developmental readiness!  This is not coming from any effort on my part.  He's simply, finally ready...and interested...and motivated...and reading!

As if this weren't enough, there's another thing that has fascinated me these days.  But I'll explain by way of context first.  Three years ago, when Matthew was in grade 1, we (in our pre-unschooling days!) were generally following curriculum for grade 1 students.  I was supposed to teach him the difference between the singular and plural spellings of words that ended in 'y.'  You know the ones:  'city' becomes 'cities.'  There were all sorts of grammar-related things that I was supposed to be teaching him and I tried, really and truly I did, but it was like water off of a duck's back.  Nothing penetrated.  It was just frustrating, ending up with him on the floor crying, and so I'd give up, also frustrated.  The following year, and the year after that, when I was still (more or less) attempting to follow curriculum, I re-taught the exact same things.  Still no penetration.  Nothing.  He got frustrated, and I dropped it...just like I dropped pretty much every strategy having to do with learning how to read.

Then a few days ago, well in towards his 21-day reading goal, Matthew got stuck on the word cities in something that he was reading.  He figured it out, more by context than by any other means, but at the end of his reading time, I drew his attention back to the word and explained how words ending with 'y' might change when pluralized.  One sentence - that's all I said about it.  You know what he said?  "Oh, ok." The next day he sailed through the words 'ponies' and one other word that I can't remember.  I asked him how he had been able to read that, and he reiterated the pluralization suggestion from the day before.  Three years I attempted to teach him that when he wasn't ready and it meant absolutely nothing.  Now, I say it when he's ready and suddenly it takes one sentence from me and he's got it.  The same thing happened yesterday when I showed him how commas and colons are used.  No thousand time repetition.  He just got it.  Immediately.

I cannot tell you how pumped I am.  I've never seen anything like it.  I've heard about stories like this from friends who've also allowed their children to read when ready, but I truly didn't know it would ever happen to one of my kids.

Matthew has no idea how excited I am that a whole new world is waiting for him to discover.  In front of him, I'm the same person I've been for the past five or six years - believing that when he's ready, he'll read, and being totally casual about it all.  I don't praise him for finishing his reading time; and I don't praise him for doing it well.  I am not going to train him do this for my pleasure or because he thinks I'm happy about it.  I want, as I've always wanted, for this to be self motivated and for him to want to learn how to read.  By him, for him.  So I don't praise him.  The best I'll offer when he's finished his reading is to maybe say something like "well, that must have felt seemed to enjoy this morning's topics."

Yesterday morning, I even went a little overboard in my (deliberate) casualness, just to gauge his interest.  He asked if we could go into the library so that he could read to me and I said, "really, right now Matthew??  Could it wait for a half hour?"

His response:  "Mom, seriously, you can't stop me.  I love reading and I need to do it with you now.  Please!"

I sighed audibly (while doing inner cartwheels).  "OK," I said in an even tone.  "But then after that, I get to read out loud to you for a while."

THIS IS DEVELOPMENTAL PROCESS AT WORK.  Living proof.  I'm stunned by what's happening every day.  He's reading, I feel like shouting to the world.  He's reading!!!!  It's really happening, after waiting for almost six years!

His next goal, already planned before he's even finished his 21-day challenge: He wants to read well enough in the next few months so that he can start reading Harry Potter.  I still don't quite believe that it'll happen; in fact, I'm still not quite a believer that we've going to hit the current twenty-one day goal.

But I'm more than willing to continue to believe that when he's ready it's going to happen...and that maybe, just maybe, that time is now.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hearing Negative Comments about Adoption and Hair

We are always a visible family...and we get comments on our make-up all the time.  But last week, when we were in the U.S., I experienced a whole new level of feeling conspicuous.  In fact, I've never yet experienced so strongly the sense of being a conspicuous family as I did last week.  We live in a fairly diverse city, but the overall population isn't that huge, and so being in a large city with a dominant black culture was interesting...and a little disconcerting, given a few experiences we had.

The morning after the kids and I began our little road trip, we ventured into Trader Joes to collect a few groceries.  As I was waiting in line to pay, with the kids playing 10-15 feet away, I happened to meet the eye of a (black) woman putting her groceries on the check-out counter.  She was shaking her head and waggling her finger, seemingly in my direction.  I felt like looking behind me to see who she might be referencing, but decided to ignore it, and so I simply offered a small, friendly smile and looked away.  Moments later, however, she approached me, still shaking her head.  In fact, she pointed and waggled her finger at me.  It suddenly dawned on me that her non-smiling face and head shaking might just be about me, and I began to wonder what I could possibly have done.  I quickly skimmed through the past twenty minutes that I'd been in the store, thinking about what the kids or I could have done to cause this look to be directed at me.

I could think of nothing.  But I didn't have to wait long to find out.

In a low, hostile tone, she proceeded to tell me that she was tired of white families adopting black babies.  Directly into my stunned face, my face which still had a hint of leftover smile about it, she said that she knew many families that looked like mine and that she was so terribly tired of it, that it wasn't right that I be parenting black babies.  That tirade went on for a bit, and I can't remember all of the words that she used, but it was hostile and nasty.  She then proceeded to tell me that my further offence was that I was a white mother of a black daughter whose hair I was not taking care of.

She shamed me right there in public and all I could think was thank God my kids were engaged in their own shenanigans and didn't have to hear this.  After a full minute or so of her hostility, the woman (whose own hair, incidentally, looked like it was in as much need as Lizzie's of care) moved off to pay for her groceries, and I went into automatic mode putting my groceries on the counter.  Then she came back to me and said that she hoped she hadn't caused offence but that she was so tired of seeing this scenario.  She said that she would set me up with appropriate people who would take care of my daughter's hair.  I declined.  There were any number of things that I wanted to say, but the feeling of humiliation that would have seen me let loose on her rudeness, the fact that my kids were now approaching, and the pride that kept the tears at bay prevented me from uttering a further word.

The woman left the store.

The cashier saw my full eyes and asked if I was ok.  I just nodded and paid for my groceries in silence.  I collected the kids and began walking towards the car and, as I walked, the tears began to flow.  The kids didn't realize anything was up until Matthew got into the car and asked me a question that I was unable to answer.  I was trying hard to be silent so that they wouldn't notice, but it was too late.  They all unbuckled their seat belts and gathered around and I had six little arms around my body in five seconds flat.  Their comfort and concern brought a fresh wave of tears, and the kids were somewhat alarmed.  I managed to say that I was ok, that I had not fallen or otherwise been hurt physically, and that my feelings had been hurt by something someone had said in the store, and that we would talk about it at another time.  We were all subdued as we drove back to the hotel and I repeatedly assured the kids that I was ok.  I was able to put on a mask of being ok but honestly, it took the rest of the day for me to be able to put it into perspective and behind me.

What's somewhat ironic about this is that the day before was supposed to be hair day - the afternoon Lizzie and I would spend washing/conditioning/combing/styling her hair.  But because of a blizzardy weather forecast in the area we had to drive through to get to our destination, we decided spontaneously to leave on our trip a day earlier than planned, and so Lizzie's hair was left looking rather rakish and unkempt.  Earlier on the morning of the Trader Joes incident, I had told Lizzie that she and I would be working on her hair that afternoon; the hair plan was already in place.

But oh, that incident crushed me.  I felt sucker-punched.  That someone, anyone, would believe that I should not be the parent of these kids I love with my whole being, made me want to throw up.  I've fielded a whole lot of comments over the past almost-three years; I've shrugged off lots of little hurts and offences over this time period; but none of those experiences have affected me the way that woman's hostile voice and choice of words did.  I was shamed.  For being a white mama.  For daring to adopt "black babies."  For not doing my daughter's hair.  It really hurt.

That afternoon, I did get through Lizzie's hair and put it into a simple, two-ponytail style.  I had other plans for her hair, but the comb through took longer than usual and so I saved the more elaborate style for a couple of days later.  For now, it was simple, but neat and pretty.

Shortly before dinner time, Lizzie and I left for the mall where we were meeting my sister/family for dinner.  No lie, from the time I left the parkade to the time I met them at the restaurant ten minutes later, no fewer than seven (black) people commented to me on how lovely Lizzie's hair looked, on how beautiful a little girl I had, on how blessed we were, etc etc.  I was getting nods from black men, black store employees actually exited the stores they were working on to say hi to Lizzie and give her high fives, and I was getting the nods and the comments.

Huh?  The only thing that had changed over the course of those few hours was how Lizzie's hair looked; she was even wearing the same clothes as earlier in the day.  I have learned over the past few years that black women go through a lot with their hair and that there is a special relationship between black women and their hair; what shocked me was the extent to which that affected us.  We are always a unique-looking family; but there we were uncomfortably conspicuous and I found myself even guarding how I spoke to the kids in public because I could see that people were watching me.

Two days later, I styled Lizzie's hair further, in the style that I had planned for her the week before, and for the rest of the week, I can't tell you how many questions and (positive) comments I got about my children (well, the younger two...Matthew was largely ignored).  It was quite an experience in contrasts.

The other thing that struck me was the contrast between the experience at Trader Joes, and the experience I had just a couple of weeks ago with the worker in the health food store who took my hands and blessed me and made me want to rest my head on her shoulder for the warmth that she provided my heart.  (Read this post about that moment.)

The power of our words is just so strong.  Regardless of intentions, our words and tone carry so much weight; hold such power to hurt, or to uplift.  Two radically different perspectives, both offered during less-than-stellar hair moments for Lizzie, and the difference in impact worlds apart.

Three days after the Trader Joe incident I talked to the kids about what had happened. That had been my plan all along but I needed a few days to process things and to figure out what words to use and to plan what messages I wanted my children to receive.  They'd been asking occasionally about what she'd said to me, and I finally just sat them down and we talked for well over an hour about what had happened.  Despite my inner prep for that conversation, despite the fact that I explained what happened matter-of-factly and without any of the emotion they'd seen in me a few days before, it was hard to start that conversation.  Though they never saw my inner trepidation, I found it so hard to say the words, because I so feared that they would interpret her words as being from me, or that I would somehow be ok with what she said.  It's gut-wrenchingly hard to tell your child that someone thinks I shouldn't be their mother, that sometimes how we look as a family is a problem for other people, that not everyone agrees with adoption, and to tell one child that her hair is going to be an issue for some people and might impact what they might think of her/me.  etc etc.

But talk we did.  Talk and talk and talk:  About our uniqueness as a family; that we will likely always draw attention; about community and racial diversity; about the various choices we have by means of response when we experience hard moments like at Trader Joes (because the kids' first reaction, understandably, was to want to hurt her back); about the difference between the two significant comments I'd received over the course of just two weeks; about our responsibility as Christians to act in kindness and love regardless of whether or not we agree with another person; about the impact of our words; about how I would change nothing about our family's make-up; about how proud we can choose to be of our multi-cultural and bi-racial family, etc etc.  I asked them questions; they asked me a zillion questions; and we role-played how we might respond when other people make negative comments, because it surely will happen again and I'm not always going to be there to protect them from it.

Seth asked me towards the end of the conversation if I would change anything about our family and how we looked; maybe for a million dollars, he suggested.  I said, with tears in my eyes, that there was nothing in the universe that could ever make me want to change our family.  Not a million dollars, not a trillion, not a gazillion.  Not anything.  He sighed and rubbed my hand.  Leaned on me.  Said "me either."  Matthew echoed him.  Lizzie just snuggled in.

We four half lay on the couch together in that hotel room and just hugged each other tightly.  We were all drained, I think.  But it felt to me that we also bonded even more deeply, as often we do after a big conversation.

My heart hurts, knowing that my kids will experience these kinds of moments at times when I won't be able to protect them or to prepare my words before diving in to conversation.  I had no idea when we entered the world of adoption that we would experience so many comments, that the kids and I would have so many conversations on adoption/race/family/first family/etc/etc/etc, that hair would be such an issue, that people would feel so free to judge and comment on our family make-up, that it would sometimes be just so hard because of how other people might view us.  These things, these conversations, get so much air time in our household that sometimes I wonder what on earth other families could possibly have to talk about!  I know that's crazy, but it does cross my mind at times, because these and related topics have formed part of the fabric of who we are now as a family.

For better and for worse, we're in this together.

Regardless of what Trader Joes women say.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Judging a Book by Its Cover...and Public Opinion

I have unique children.

It struck me again last week on our road trip when Matthew was willing to out himself as such on a few different occasions.  One day, after attending the Science Centre the day before and purchasing a t-shirt, he wore a largish, oval, 'glow-in-the-dark' sticker from the t-shirt on his forehead for the entire day.  The next day it was a pair of banana stickers that decorated his eyebrows for the better part of a day.  He certainly drew curious looks, but was oblivious to them all - he was just enjoying having the stickers that he liked close to him.  But perhaps the most interesting adornment of choice was the orange mesh bag that he wore on his head one day - the mesh that had enclosed the tiny oranges that we polished off.  He happily capped himself with the mesh pulled down low over his forehead and was totally ok with the look.  He wasn't actually trying to be different or to draw attention to himself...I honestly don't think it even dawned on him that others might be looking at him.  He was simply being himself, and his mama chose to let him be despite her own private feelings of misgiving as she saw the looks he garnered.

This is the same boy who spent our entire six-day vacation wearing the same pair of socks every day, even though both heels had holes in them, even though one entire set of five toes peeked out of a gaping hole on the other end.  And he delighted in those socks, declining a fresh pair after swims and showers and proclaiming that they fit him perfectly and that they were soft and comfy from the days of wearing.

Should I care about these things?  Well, to be honest, I do care, but what I'm really wondering if I should be doing something about these things?  I really question myself at times.  I have friends whose children are beautifully, or least neatly, dressed for all occasions, and have neatly trimmed hair - and they look lovely to me and sometimes I long for that, too.

Seeing Matthew this week with the stickers and the socks and, most strikingly, the mesh bag, reminded me of a conversation I had just a couple of weeks ago with friends about the face that we and our children present to the world.  How much do these things matter?  Really and truly.  The fact is that we will be judged by what we look like and what we wear; and no doubt this factors into the decision many parents make about how their children will dress.  We will be judged if we're wearing too much makeup, dress in goth, wear exclusively pants with holes in our knees, are fat, wear too much clothing or too little clothing, are brown- or white-skinned, have facial piercings or body tattoos, whatever the difference from the norm...we all garner judgment by how we look and by what we wear.

As a society, we do judge a book by its cover.  Despite saying that we shouldn't, we do.  We look at those around us and we see their sum total as being the person reflected on the outside, even though we know better and even though we all crave to be judged by what's on the inside.  We are all mask wearers, and we are all judged for them.

The question is:  How much should this matter?  I really don't have the right answer to this question.  I know how I am choosing to address this with my children, but I don't know if I'm doing the right thing.

When I was a child, I was forced to wear dresses to church, and my clothes never had holes in them.  My mother dressed us well, for the most part - mostly in clothes that she had made herself for us kids.  As a teen, I wore mostly store-bought clothes, and often felt pressured to look and dress a certain way (whether by family or friends).  I remember often walking out the front door to meet up with friends and my mother coming to the door to say good-bye and asking, with wrinkled nose, "you're going to wear that?"  Frequently she would offer a suggestion of a piece of clothing that she would prefer for me to wear.  I don't think ill of her for that - in fact, I think that was a pretty common thing in those days...perhaps it still is.

But here's the thing.  I don't recall ever changing my clothes at her request in those moments; what I remember is answering more defiantly, and with apparent conviction that I was totally fine with what I was wearing and I left the house as I was.

But the further truth is that her comments did bother me, despite my attitude on the face of it.  Despite the mask I wore.  I remember the insecurity of being out in those clothes that my mom (or others) didn't approve of and doubting myself and my own choices.

I understand,  as a mother myself now, that we might prefer our kids to portray a certain image - perhaps one that we ourselves are comfortable with and perhaps one that we feel best reflects us as parents.

Every single time I see Lizzie wearing one of her mis-matched outfits in public; when I see Matthew walking around, oblivious, with an orange mesh bag over his head; when I see Seth exiting the house with jeans sporting a wear-and-tear hole in those jeans he loves so much day after day after day; when I see Matthew's ever-lengthening, shaggy mess of hair...ever. single. time I see these things I am tempted to comment.  Tempted to ask them to please go and change their clothes, to please go and cut their hair, to please take the mesh bag off.  And every. single. time I remember the feeling of walking out the front door feeling just a little disapproved of, and know how that disapproval began to accumulate over time (of my own making, after a while) into what I now know to be part of my own baggage and mass of insecurities.  And so I deliberately close my mouth in front of my children, smile, and choose to run my fingers through that crazy hair, comment on Lizzie's growing fashion sense, and tell Seth that he must be playing hard these days to warrant those knee holes.  Slowly, painfully at times, I am learning with closed mouth to accept and appreciate my children for the unique, different-than-me children that they are.  I don't know if others will view them (or me) the same way - I rather doubt it because of our tendency to judge a book by its cover - but I choose this.

Thus, instead of battling on premise of the clothes issue as I used to, I have reduced to very few the clothing/hair rules in our household over the past two years.  My kids dress themselves, with very few exceptions or rules.  The exceptions might include the day we get photos taken; what we wear to church on Sundays (no sweats; clean clothes); and bigger occasion-type of events (eg. Christmas).  And I ask that Matthew comb his mop of hair before leaving the house...which frankly makes little difference once the fingers follow the path of the comb.

Where's the line?  When do we require certain 'uniforms' of our children as a sign of respect for the place we are going, the people we will meet?  How much do we need to care about the impression we (and our children) leave with others?  Is how our children dress a reflection of their parents and, if so, how much (if at all) should that matter?  What, if anything, do we need to teach our children about the perceptions people will have of them based on how they present themselves?  At what point do we simply let go of those things and let the chips fall where they may?

I'd so love your thoughts as I muddle through these questions.