Last month in the Bay Area, we had a spell of miasma as the smoke from the fires lingered over us until the rain fell nearly two weeks later (a deplorable yet far more fortunate circumstance than for people much nearer to this vicious fire). It was melancholic and then maddening to not be able to breathe freely outside. It fell worst on the boys, who are used to spending much time running around outside. After a number of days our boys were not satisfied with the various indoor activities around the Bay Area, looking longingly outside at the treacherous air they could not breathe. They remained dissatisfied with all the various activities we did at home, reading books, playing with Play-doh, puzzles, Picasso tiles, Tegu, Lego, trains, with increasingly elaborate tracks - because as fun as these activities are, they are not physically intensive. Our yoga practice is calming, but also not the most physically intense. As the longest part of our apartment is the corridor, we decided to hold sprints and the boys raced up and down continuously for an impressive period before they became tired enough to feel satisfied to sit back down. The boys came up with a jumping game, in which they took a stool next to their bed and leapt from the stool onto the bed and then somersaulted a number of times on the bed and then ran down to start the process all over again. I finessed their obstacle course by adding a cushioned tunnel slide from their bed down to the floor, which opened into a small maze made from sitting their “stuffies” in a curve to the basketball hoop, where they had to finish the course by shooting into it. The boys loved this course, even though they kept to the rules as much as they breached them. However, as the days wore on, we leant on increased screen time (thank you Planet Earth and Blue Planet!), which was at day's end, the only thing that could calm them down. They understood they were getting away with something and they owned it. It was a grand day when we went up the coast and ran around outside, breathing the rejuvenating fresh air. It is really is all about the simple things.
M has a wry sense of humour. He has discovered the joy of practical jokes and is religiously devoted to his new pursuit. The other day, he brought me to quite a panic. We were playing with marbles and for as long as M has been playing marbles, he has received a lecture from me about the danger of putting marbles in his mouth (I supposed I received what I deserved). While we were playing, M looked at me with apparent shock and said “mama I ate a marble”. I froze in panic and assessed my distressingly calm son. I asked him to open his mouth and as I inspected it, he informed me in a garbled fashion that it was already in his tummy. I decided we had to run to the emergency room and as I took his hand to leave the room, he opened up his first and revealed a marble in his palm. He erupted in a smile and shouted "just joking mama!" with unbridled glee.
M has also taken to pulling faces and chases laughter from us and even strangers.
M self imposes time out. While L needs attention when his downstairs reptilian brain takes his rationality hostage, M revolts against it. L cries and tells me he “doesn’t know how to calm his body” and we sit and do mindful exercises together, breathing deeply and imaging his sadness sailing away. This does not work with M, partly because he is younger and partly because M’s personality is different. L never self-imposed time-out. When M gets overwhelmed, he runs away and says he is going into time-out. It’s a big mistake to follow him because he becomes aggressive and shouts at you to go away. Trying to discipline at this time abjectly fails. After repeated escalations from trying to follow M when he is in this brood, I decided one day to give him his requested space. I watched him in his room, sitting by himself. A few minutes later, M ran out of the room, giggling, as if nothing had happened. Now we know that M understands when he is overstimulated and needs to calm down and how to achieve this and we know to let him handle that.
M knows what he wants. He had not been wearing diapers in the day for a long time, but admittedly, we erred on the side of laziness and gave him diapers when he slept at night even though he was waking up with a dry diaper to avoid the laundry effects of any accident. One day, my two year old looked at me with outright disgust and said “No, mama, I am NOT wearing diapers. I WANT UNDERPANTS! I am a BIG BOY.” Embarrassed, I apologized and retrieved his underpants for him. That was the end of that. No more diapers! Woohoo!
M disapproves of my appearance. He is constantly coming up to me and shaking his head. “Mama, let me clean your glasses” he asks gently and then proceeds to take my glasses and to diligently clean them with his shirt. “Better?” he beams, proudly assessing his work as I nod, satisfied yet perplexed because my two year old had noticed something I had not - and I was the one looking through the glass!
L informed me matter of factly the other day that he wanted to be an earthquake when he grew up. I asked why and he said he wanted to shake things up. I decided this was a good metaphor for his personality, but he was thinking in literal terms. A few days later, L volunteered he wanted to be an orca. Later still, he informed me that he had changed his mind and wanted to save orcas. L is obsessed with orcas at the moment. I gave him a stuffed toy orca, whom he immediately adopted with love and named “Jumpy” and he has now learnt quite a lot about this grand, intelligent mammal. L is amazed at how well they coordinate with each other, the strong family values in their matriarchal pods and is incensed that people have imprisoned orcas in pools. L wants to see orcas the right way and I informed him we will go up to British Columbia and see them from a boat in their natural environment. L continues to want to be a marine biologist focused on orca protection, but he also has cautioned me that he may change his mind, which I’ve advised him is a good thing to keep open.
L is asking many questions I am unprepared for and is realizing his mother does not know everything to evident disappointment. The other day, L asked me why flamingoes stand on one leg. I told him I did not know and that we would have to look it up. He appeared quite concerned that I didn’t know the answer. I explained that are so many things to know, that we cannot know everything and that was why we have different people take on different jobs, so that they can increase our collective learning by their extended particular learning. I told him some people study flamingoes every day. The important thing was not to know everything, which was impossible, but how to access knowledge when you wanted to. He seemed satisfied with this and asked me how we would discover the answer to this question. I told him we would look it up, which we did by using a search engine online. In a few minutes, we discovered various theories, including thermoregulation, but the most persuasive theory was that flamingoes have a passive mechanism for standing when they have one leg up next to their body, so that this action is unconscious, whereas standing in a bipedal fashion involves active muscles. L was pensive for a few moments, digesting this fact. Then he seemed satisfied, concluding that flamingoes are made differently to us, because it was really difficult for us to stand on one leg. Indeed.
L is asking more difficult questions about society and people for which there is no right answer, at least not one that could you easily relate to a four year old. One thing I like about my boys’ preschool is the acceptance of diversity and the celebration of various cultural and religious traditions. The other week was Hanukkah and L made a beautiful menorah which we proudly displayed at home. L asked me why we didn’t have menorah at home. I hesitated, deliberating over an answer about different traditions and different cultures in an effort achieve an answer that was equally respectful of our tradition as of the Jewish tradition and also not to diminish either or culturally appropriate a foreign tradition. My husband interjected and answered in a far simpler fashion, targeted at L's fondness of Christmas trees. He provided L with a simple and false dichotomy. “Both are beautiful, but some families have menorahs and some have Christmas trees. We have a Christmas tree.” Of course this is incorrect, many families have both, but L preferred his Christmas tree to the menorah and that was the end of that. As L grows up, this answer will not be ineffective nor appropriate. I have resolved to be able to better articulate information so that L grows up respectful of all cultural traditions (and when developmentally appropriate, to understand the interaction between “culture” and “power”, such that many “cultural” traditions around the world and throughout history have really been the result of power dynamics, such as men controlling women).
M is very considerate of others when he wants to be. The other day I was recording my human rights podcast (thegravity.fm) at home (the acoustics of my contemporary glass office space are a disaster for recording as I found out through trial and error) and he was informed that he had to be quiet because of it. M was told that if he were loud, it would be recorded and ruin the interview. M understood this and took this task on with rigour. M whispered while he was getting ready to go outside and continually reminded everyone else to whisper -"mama is recording" he admonished them. When L was very sick and went to bed early last week, before M fell ill too, he knew his brother went to bed earlier as he was not feeling well and he had to continually remind me that my voice was increasing in decibels as we read and played quietly until it was M's bedtime. "Shhhh mama, L is sleeping."
A couple of months ago, L had his blood pressure tested for the first time. I was not expecting it and I did not prepare him for it. Big mistake. L was horrified and his blood pressure reading, while still within the normal range, was at the edge of the range. The doctor explained that children required three separate high readings to be diagnosed with high blood pressure to ease my concern and while I knew L was panicked, a second reading when L was calm became priority. I easily inveigled L's stuffed orca, "Jumpy" to aid me in my plan. We played doctor at home, with L being Jumpy's doctor, and we used this experience to learn about blood, why we measure blood pressure and the nine major bodily systems. When we returned to the doctor, L understood that reading blood pressure was important, but he remained concerned at the discomfort. Fortunately our pediatrician played along with Jumpy and we had Dr. L check Jumpy and Dr. L went through his usual routine with his otoscope and stethoscope ending with taking Jumpy's blood pressure, which was alarmingly low. I then asked whether Dr. L could take my blood pressure and we then asked L if he wanted to get his done. L was excited and thankfully, not nervous. He had a normal reading.
SF has morphed into one large mucus ball with a terrible respiratory virus adopting the Christmas spirit and spreading its cheer around the city. My boys were in bed for a week. A few days of L becoming increasingly worse brought me to a panic. Not being a doctor, I noticed a wet cough, a low grade fever and an incarnadine line below his eyes and feared the worst. Fortunately my feared diagnosis of pneumonia was way off. The doctor laughed and told me that the crimson line shocks many parents but is simply the result of mucus build up and that L's lungs were clear. He suggested an expectorant.
There are two effective and natural expectorants that I use. The first is marshmallow root. You have to get the root, not just tea bags. Simply put in the root with diluted water in a 1-4 ratio and leave to set in your fridge for about 12 hours and then drain the syrup. Take a spoonful every 4 hours. It's sweet and children love it. The second is to spread a small drop of Siberian pine oil on your chest (this is also a great anti-inflammatory and works well for joint pain).
Language development fascinates me. Both boys continue to answer in English, yet sometimes, for seemingly no reason, M decides to speak Serbian. This is usually directed at his father, who perplexingly asks me what M is saying. M also likes to translate, so he will run around and say what objects are in both English and Serbian. While he still has trouble with some letters of the alphabet, I noticed he can sightread four words, his name, "MAPS", "MARS" and "STOP". These words are comprised of letters he can recognize. I had not taught him reading yet, as we are still mastering the alphabet, but he enjoys listening to L's lessons. I've recently started to format lessons so that both can participate rather than having one boy directed at another activity while I work with the other. For instance, L has recently been working on recognizing and understanding numbers to a 1,000. When L has 936 to recognize, we break it up for M so that M is only focused on the 9, 3, 6. For letters, M is asked to read out all the letters and then L has to read the words of the sentence. In that way, they both learn together.
The other day my intentional parenting went out the window and my inner reptile took control. M had been playing piano and L and I were putting together a puzzle that was not developmentally appropriate for M. M switched from the piano to drums then he took up a large maraca and started to shake it. I watched him out of my periphery to ensure he was not holding it in a way that would lead to him hitting himself. He seemed to know what he was doing and he needed to learn this lesson, in any case, so I went back to L's puzzle. When we were about to put in the last few pieces, M's maraca crashed upon L's forehead. I would like to write that I calmly responded to the situation, a model parent. Rather, I stood up shaking, shouted at M that we don't hit and aggressively took his arm and stormed him out for a punitive time-out. I told him he hurt his brother for no reason and that he should think about what he did, my voice shivering through shouts. I went back to console my elder son. It was not a model moment by any means. I failed to teach a lesson and rather displayed a tantrum, the opposite behavior that I wanted to model. There are situations in which our reptile takes over and we lose patience, with the world, with other people and our kids. We also require calming methods to reintegrate our brains and our ability to coherently think outside of the shackles of our emotions. This is far more difficult for children, who do not have developed calming skills and who are overstimulated, with a brain full of cranes and construction crews fiercely developing it. I decided I needed to apologize to M. I went up to him, who was crying and not welcoming of my return and apologized, informing him that I overreacted because I was upset that he hit his brother. I explained that mothers experience the physical pain of their children, so that when he hit L, it hurt me. I had shouted in pain. I asked him how he felt. M said he felt "mad". I asked him why he hit L. "Because I was mad" M said. I asked him why he was mad. M shrugged. I asked him whether he wanted to help us with the puzzle. M responded that it was too difficult for him. I asked him whether he felt left out that L and I were doing something that he couldn't and that he got mad because of it. He nodded his head. He wanted attention he admitted. This was of course my mistake from the beginning. I should not have undertaken a puzzle that was developmentally inappropriate for M, at least not unless M was sitting with me and he could participate by watching us at work (which he has enjoyed before, feeling proud when he connected a few pieces that I laid out in front of him to "find" and "match"). I should have noted that M's choice of musical instrument might have been problematic. I've learnt from this experience but I'm probably going to keep making mistakes.
We all mistakes, it's what type of mistakes and how we remedy and learn from them that counts. At least that day I hoped I modeled that while we all make mistakes, it's important to recognize when we do and to remedy them. M apologized to L and explained he felt left out. M asked L to play with him. L had finished the puzzle and he hugged M back and asked him what he wanted to do. The boys were happy and racing cars down their self-made track a few minutes later.