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In the Middle

 Recently, a friend said that she has an older sister and younger brother and as a middle child she struggled to find her place in her family.  I thought of one of my Grands.  Annabel is one of five and she’s smack dab in the middle:  boy, girl, girl, girl, boy.  My friend shook her head and said, “And I thought I had it tough!”           

Those who study family dynamics acknowledge that birth order can affect a person’s personality and I saw some of the stereotypical traits while teaching elementary age students.  First-borns tended to be perfectionists and had three sharpened pencils; the youngest felt entitled and searched for a pencil.  Middle-born children were usually flexible, sociable, peacemakers, creative, and liked to try something new or different, even colored pencils.

             Middle Child Day is August 12, but I can’t wait until August to celebrate middles because Annabel is celebrating her birthday this week.  She showed her middleness when she and I talked about her birthday gift. I suggested that Husband and I give her an experience – not a wrapped-in-a-box gift – and offered two things I knew she liked to do.  She didn’t smile or show a positive response. “Tell me why those aren’t good ideas,” I said.

            “Because I’ve already done both of those,” my Grand said.  So, we have talked about a day at a museum and lunch at a restaurant where she’s never eaten.  But we might, in her words, “do something we haven’t thought of yet.”   

            If you have a middle in your life – friend or family member – you know that they made life a bit more fun.  Maybe you’ve accompanied a group of children on a field trip. While most walk calmly on the sidewalk, the middles likely dance, hop and twirl.  An older middle is often the life of the party, the one who tells jokes and pries the wallflowers from the wall.

            Middles are peacemakers and pleasers.  When a group can’t agree on a restaurant, a middle suggests somewhere that everyone will like.  Middles survey the situation and offer ideas for a decision that all can accept. 

            Middles’ need for independence and to fit in can be strengths, but are sometimes seen as problems. Young middles might misbehave and demand their way to get their parents’ attention.  Yet, as they get older, they are sociable and have a need for friends, often labeled as the family’s ‘Social Butterfly.’ 

            Being a middle child can be tough. Middles are younger siblings, but also older ones, and they can be overshadowed by their siblings.  Dr. Kevin Leman wrote in his book, The Birth Order Book, that middle children are tenacious adults because they learn that life isn’t fair so they are more adaptable and value compromise.

            Obviously, birth order is only one possible factor that determines a person’s personality, but most adult middle children say being stuck in the middle wasn’t easy.  And that’s all the more reason to celebrate my Grand’s birthday.


Let Children Play

         A FaceBook picture shows Capshaw Elementary School’s Pre-K students playing in mud puddles.  I applaud their teacher!  It wasn’t just an activity to improve tactile fine motor development – it was a learning experience.           

I’ve searched online and through my hand-written collection of quotes, but I haven’t found three simple words: let children play. I did discover many quotes about children and play.

         Maria Montessori, an educator and physician who was a leader in identifying how children learn, wrote that play is the work of the child.

         The beloved Fred Rogers, host of the educational television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for 33 years, said, “Play is often talked about as if it was a relief from serious learning, but for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” 

            Dr. Benjamin Spock, the child expert of my parents’ generation wrote, “A child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.”

         Play is work?  Yes, play is to engage in an activity, to pretend, to create, and work is performing a task that requires effort. 

         I’m reminded of what my Grand said when he was about six years old and sat under a forsythia brush while I trimmed it.  He used a small garden shovel to level roads for his Matchbox cars.  When I stepped near him, he said, “Watch out, Gran! I’m working under here.” Working, not playing.

         Oftentimes, we adults think we’re giving children freedom to play when we’re actually in control.  The play that Ms. Montessori, Mr. Rogers, and Dr. Spock encouraged is child-led play.  Not an organized team sport.  Not helping to build a tree house.  Not playing cards or board and tile games, which I invite my Grands to play with me.

         Children need unstructured, unplanned, undirected play. Digging in the dirt. Pretending to be a dragon.  Drawing purple sunflowers. Building a fortress with fallen branches.  Climbing trees. Watching an anthill. Throwing a ball against a wall.  Preparing a meal of mud and grass and twigs. Play that children think of and carry out independently.

         It’s the responsible of adults to provide children a safe place to play and supervise them, maybe from afar.  Let toddlers play within sight and give older children privacy.  Provide time, without distractions and directions. 

            Let children make a mess and be responsible for cleaning up.  Let children make mistakes and solve problems.  Through trial and error, lessons are remembered.

            Children need to learn to entertain themselves.  Provide supplies and tools that they request and have safe materials available, but don’t expect finished products. Expect experiences. Expect learning.

         The picture of children playing in mud puddles reminds me of the parents who decided their son wouldn’t begin Kindergarten even though he was old enough, according to school policy.  “He’s going to stay home and dig in the dirt another year,” the mother said. 

          Since I never found the simple quote I searched for, I’ll claim these words:  Let children play.  Give them the gifts of independence and confidence.

When Kids Fuss and Fight

To suggest a topic for a column, a friend sent a link to an article: ‘ReeDrummond Shares How She Stops Her Five Kids from Fighting.’  Drummond is best known as The Pioneer Woman who has a cooking TV program.  Her article took me back to raising my two children.

Drummond and I could’ve gone to the same parenting school that taught parents to let children solve their own differences, unless they bicker just to annoy each other and then tell them to stop and separate them. And if children try to physically hurt each other, adults must intercede.

I never knew siblings argued, sometimes I think for their own entertainment, until I was a mother.  My only brother was almost five years older than me and treated me like a princess.  I remember only one time, a summer day, when we argued and probably shouted mean words.  Mom broke two switches off the cherry tree in our back yard and told us if we wanted to fight that we could “switch” each other. 

I went first and flipped the backside of my brother’s blue jeans.  Then it was his turn.  He refused.  He slapped the switch several times on his own legs. I cried. Mom walked away and my brother hugged me.  I don’t remember what we argued about, but I know Mom never called us down for arguing again. 

            When Daughter and Son were elementary school age and argued, I’d sit them down on the couch, one on each side of me. I told them to complement each other, saying only positive things.  It went something like this.

Son: She has a really nice brother.

Daughter:  His sister is smart.

Son: Her brother can shoot a basketball.

Daughter: His sister can play the piano.

By then, I was biting my lower lip and snickering, and they continued this chatter until all three of us laughed.  When they were older, they’d throw out pseudo-compliments without my direction – I think for my entertainment.

Sometimes when they got into she-said, he-said disagreements, I gave Daughter and Son pieces of paper and told them to write exactly what happened and suggestions to fix the problem.  Most times they’d come to me after a few minutes and agree that the problem was solved. 

When they were teenagers and argued, I sent Daughter and Son out of my hearing.  One winter evening, they bickered in the kitchen while I cooked supper.  I opened the back door and sent them outside and said that they could come inside when they were speaking kindly to each other.  Then I locked the door. 

Son and Daughter tell this story to their children and swear it was freezing cold and they were both barefoot and I wouldn’t let them in no matter what.  I expect they’ll soon say they got frostbite, but both still have all their toes.

The Pioneer Woman tells her kids to shake hands and hug. That probably works.  Parents, whatever it takes to survive kids fighting and arguing, do it.

It’s What Kids Do

“What’s the difference between broccoli and boogers?” Carol asked. 

            Color.   One is yucky.  Well, some people think both are yucky. 

            Carol smiled and her eyes glistened.  “First graders don’t eat broccoli.” Having taught first grade for 25 years, my friend is an authority on six-year-olds.   

            Stop reading now if you don’t want to read about boogers and kids picking their noses and then sticking their fingers in their mouths.  For the past three winters, I’ve moved a post-it note with this topic from one year to the next.  Carol’s riddle prompted me that now is the time.

            Why write about such a topic?  It’s life.  It’s what kids do. Honestly, anyone around toddlers and young children see little fingers in little noses, and if you’re like me, you hope the fingers are wiped on shirts. If you know the children well, you say, “Don’t put your finger in your nose,” then hand out tissues or gently touch hands, not fingers, and move the hands away from faces.

             I’ve said, “Do you need a Kleenex?” Such a silly question.  By the time I ask, the finger has retrieved whatever was in the nose.  I’ve even explained that what’s in the nose isn’t clean, that nose hairs catch dirt and dust and bacteria and that boogers are dirty.  That satisfies my need to teach, but rarely does the kid respond as a learner.

            Nose picking is universal – about 120,000,000 results popped up when I googled why do kids pick their noses.   There were 260,000 results when for why kids eat boogers and 14,7000,00 sites are available to explain how to stop nose picking. 

            Kids usually stick their fingers in their noses because there is something uncomfortable inside their nasal passages and they want to get it out.  Very young children may be exploring their bodies, and for some kids, it’s a nervous habit, an unconscious habit.  

            Kids eat boogers because they are salty, unlike broccoli, and fingers slip so easily from noses to mouths, and again, it becomes a habit.   

            So, what’s the big problem?  In every country, a finger up a nose is taboo – it’s socially unacceptable everywhere.  From a health standpoint, when excess moisture or dry nasal mucus (a more clinical word than boogers) is removed, nasal passages are more receptable to bacteria which causes infection, and nose-picking can cause nosebleeds.

            Supposedly, the best way to stop this habit is to remind children to stop.  To explain the health aspects if the child is old enough to understand.  To keep tissues available and praise children when tissues are used. 

       While researching this topic, I discovered children’s books I’d like to read:  The Boy Who Picked His Nose, Maggie McNair Get Your Finger Out of There!, and  Fairytales Gone Wrong:  Don’t Pick Your Nose, Pinocciho!

            Now is a perfect time to drink hot chocolate and read one of these books to my first grade Grand.  He’ll use a tissue and I’ll insist he wash his hands before lunchtime and I won’t serve broccoli.   




Congrats to Grad’s Parents

He wore his blue mortar board and blue gown with pride.  When his name was called, he held his head high and grinned ear-to-ear as the school’s headmaster placed a diploma in his hand.  Like all graduates, he’d successfully completed the course of study, but no one needed to ask what his plans were after graduation.  When the next school year begins in August, Micah will be in first grade.

            As parents and grandparents took pictures, I thought of my longtime friend who questioned why schools held graduation ceremonies for young children.  In fact, she hardly recognized her children’s high school graduations because they were expected to graduate from universities and then complete masters’ degrees, and preferably, doctorates.  After that, the family would celebrate. 

            Thirty years ago, I understood my friend’s reasoning, but now I’m glad to celebrate each and every successful step of education.  I applauded my Grand as he graduated from kindergarten and his big sister who graduated from 8th grade.

            Across our county many graduation ceremonies, ranging from preschool through doctorate degrees,have been held recently.  Children can graduate many times, depending on the exit grade of their schools: preschool, kindergarten, 4th grade, 8th grade, high school, Tennessee Tech University.

            During graduation ceremonies, speakers congratulate, challenge, inspire, and encourage the graduates.  But who does the same for the parents?  Why isn’t there a graduation speech for parents?

            Congratulations, parents!  Enjoy the moment.  Breathe deeply.  Relax. You did your part. Take a few days off and gloat.  Pat yourself and your new graduates on the back.  Your children’s successes are your successes. 

            You fed, clothed, transported, and bought books, paper, pencils, and poster board.  You helped your children with school work at home and patiently watched, or did your own work nearby, while they finally figured out how to solve the last math equation. 

            You wiped tears and hugged. You heard about teachers who gave too much homework and teachers who didn’t grade fairly and friends who weren’t really friends. 

             Now, challenge your children to continue learning.  Show them, by your example that in real life, outside a classroom, there are opportunities to learn. Challenge them to learn something new every day, even though it won’t be on a test. 

            Read. Read. Read. Read aloud.  Read silently. Read together. Read signs and books and newspapers (printed and online) and the back of a cereal box and Lego directions. 

            Show children that learning is fun.  Play games. There’s a fine line between letting children win and squashing children’s confidence by always losing.  Let them experience victory and defeat.  

            Encourage children to try. The quote I kept on my classroom wall read, “It’s okay to try and fail, and try and fail again.  But it’s not okay to try and fail, and fail to try again.”  Share your successes and failures.

            Parents, no matter the age of your graduates, they will always be your children.  And they’ll always want you to celebrate with them.  So, celebrate all graduations.  You’re making happy memories.

I’m a Can-Do Kid

            “Gran, number 1!” my six-year-old Grand called from the backseat of my van.  So, I pushed the 1 on the CD player and hear the words I’ve heard a gazillion times:  I’m a Can-Do Kid written by David Plummet and John Archambault, illustrated by Lisa Guida.  “Will you skip to the song?” Micah asked because he wanted to skip the reading of the book and hear the song.

In 2008, when our oldest Grand was three years old, our neighbor Joan Tansil gave me a book and CD entitled I’m a Can-Do Kid.  The CD is a four-minute reading and a three and one-half minute song. Every Grand who has ridden with me has listened to it, over and over and over. And I used this book as a prompt when I had an opportunity to do writing activities with kindergarten through third grade students. All kids have a story to tell using pictures or words, or both, of what they can do. 

            The story begins with simple lyrics.  “I can see the sunshine.  I can smell a rose.  I can tie my shoes.  I can wiggle my toes.”  Another stanza includes seasons: “I can build a snowman with a funny nose.  I can plant a seed and watch it grow.”  The book invites conversation about handicaps: “I’m a wheelchair wonder with wishes and dreams.  I can do wheelies and be on teams.” 

            All kids like the stanza about music: “I can play kazoo, bang a garbage can, scrub-a-dub a washboard, clang a frying pan.”  Most kids know what a kazoo is and many have beat a metal pan with a wooden spoon, but most don’t know about metal garbage cans and metal washboards. 

            My Grands and students repeated the chorus loudly. “I can. I can. I can. I can. I can.  I’m a can-do kid, yes I am. I’m a can-do kid, yes I am.”  As I copy these words from the book, I smile, just as children do when they say and sing, “I can.” 

            I just noticed there is not a single exclamation point in the book and in this time of short text messages and social media comments, exclamation points are common.  If there ever was a time to express joy and happiness, it’s while saying and singing, “I can!”

             All of us need a big dose of ‘can-do therapy.’  Youtube.com offers the song and pictures from the book; search for I’m a Can-do Kid.   Listen and watch.  You’ll be singing along with the chorus and those words will rattle around your head for a few days. 

            Last week, using FaceTime I read the book to Micah while he sat in his house across town.  When I got to the chorus, he sang, and when I read the last page, he asked, “Hey, Gran.  Can we hear it again?” 

            Of course, we can.  And then we’ll talk about all the things we can do.  That’s the best part of this book.

I’m a CAN-DO Kid

Let Children Play

A gravel path led to a fifteen-foot waterfall and a pool of water, only inches deep with big smooth rocks. My two Grands leaped from rock to rock and waded in the water to the falls.  They walked behind the falls, but didn’t get wet.

            They played follow the leader and created paths across the pool stepping only on rocks.  Then they explored: one following a path up a small grassy hill, the other cupped her hands under a six-inch water fall. 

            And then, using their hands, they both dug into the silt, made a ball, and put it at the top of the miniature waterfall.  When it quickly washed away, Lucy said, “Let’s make a bigger ball!” Annabel dug up two hands full of silt and squeezed the water from it.  Just as she started to put it on the rock ledge, Lucy shouted, “Wait! Let me do mine too.  We’ll see which one dissolves first.”

            Each girl gently placed a mud ball near the edge of this tiny waterfall and they counted, “Three, two, one!” and dropped the ball.  “Gran! Did you see how fast that mudball washed away?” Lucy asked.

            Standing a few feet away on the dry bank, I nodded and gave two thumbs up. “We’ll do it again! Watch!” Annabel said as she scooped her hands under the ankle-deep water. 

            I watched, applauded, and took in the moment.  These two Grands are 9 and 11, and I was so glad they like to play in mud.  They made big mud balls and little ones to compare how much faster little ones washed away.  They found slightly smaller and slower waterfalls, only two inches tall. 

            These Grands have always played in dirt.  When Annabel was six, I sat outside watching her and her two younger siblings play.  Annabel offered me a drink. “I’m making chocolate milk with soap and mud.  Do you want to taste it?” she asked.  I grimaced and shook my head.  “I did and it’s disgusting,” she said. “Now I’m going to make a pancake with chocolate sauce and it’ll be delicious!”   A flat rock covered with thick muddy water looked similar to a giant pancake and maple syrup.

            According to authorities, playing in mud is not just fun.  Science shows that today’s sanitized world can increase levels of childhood allergies, but exposure to dirt strengthens a child’s immune level to prevent allergies.

            Serotonin, an endorphin that regulates mood, is released for a calming, happy feeling.  And playing in mud provides a connection to nature, an appreciation for the environment.  Mud, cheap and always available, is nature’s play dough. 

           Thinking skills are improved while playing in dirt because unstructured outdoor play leads to critical thinking.  I listened as my Grands casually stated their hypothesis.  They tested, analyzed, compared, counted, and came up with conclusions. They created their own science lesson.          When Annabel, Lucy, and I visited City Lake Park, I just wanted some outside time, some calming time.  And we got that and more – all three of us.

Salute to Parents of Young Children

“One good thing about being retired and this age is that I’m not home with young children all the time,” my friend said.  We’d been talking about what we were doing during this stay-at-home time and how life is different for our children, the parents of young school-age children. 

            I agreed with my friend.  I’m content being home with just Husband and having in-town Grands and their parents come for supper occasionally.  When one Grand spends the night, I’m happy to play Uno and throw a ball and build Legos and do what this child wants to do.  I cook whatever is requested for breakfast:  pancakes or fried pies or bacon and eggs and biscuits.  And I’m just as happy to help Grands pack their bags to go home.  Happy to give them a good-bye kiss and hug.  A 24-hour visit is easy.

            But full-time parenting is difficult, and right now it’s not what parents usually experience.  When our children were six and eight, my mother told me that this time and the next few years were the best of years as a parent.  There was less physical responsibility because our kids dressed and bathed themselves and they could entertain themselves.  And our kids still liked us and didn’t feel peer pressure yet.

            Mom was right.  Those were good years and they were happy, busy times.  There were ball practices and dance classes and piano lessons and birthday parties and trips to the library and family vacations.  Most days, I took our children to school and helped with their homework.  

            That’s not how it’s been since mid-March for parents whose children are with them all the time.  Parents are on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Three meals and two snacks a day.  Early morning awakening time to bedtime.  Parents who never wanted to teach have been expected to do more than check homework.  And some of those parents are working at home, trying to do the job they normally do in a quiet office and with co-workers. 

             Last week, I asked a mother of three children, ages five to nine, how things were going.  She took a deep breath and said, “I guess as well as can be expected – considering there are five people together all the time who usually aren’t and one is trying to work his job and three are always hungry and seem loud and there’s nowhere to go.  We play outside a lot, when it isn’t raining and cold and sometimes when it is.”

            So, if there ever was a time to salute parents of young children, it’s now.  We just celebrated Mother’s Day and will celebrate Father’s Day in June, but parents deserve more than a one-day recognition.  I don’t know how to do that except to say we grandparents appreciate you and know you are doing the best you can.

            My guess is that young children will have happy memories of spring 2020 when everyone was home and they played a lot, sometimes even outside in the cold rain.

School Recess is Needed Playtime

Last week I wrote about the need for children to play at home. But I’m still pondering the American Academy of Pediatrics report, ‘The Power of Play,’ because it also stresses the need for play at school. It encourages educators, pediatricians, and families to advocate for and protect unstructured playtime in preschools and schools. That’s a bandwagon I can jump on.

Elementary age school children watch the clock for recess time. When I taught 4th graders, some struggled to tell time on an analog clock, a round clock with hands that hung in every classroom. But all students knew exactly where the hour and minute hands pointed when it was time for recess and named that time as 1:40 or 20 minutes before 2. When I randomly asked how much longer until recess, students quickly counted forward, using the same skills that were so difficult during a math lesson to determine elapsed time.

Students ran to the playground. Ran. Just for fun and as if they hadn’t played on the swings and slide and merry-go-round and jungle gym the day before. And a pick-up ball game began quickly. Some children played four-square on the painted court on the blacktop. A few, especially girls, wandered off in small groups and walked and talked.

And students played in the dirt. Young children played house and pretended that large exposed tree roots created a home with rooms. Sticks became people and leaves were furniture. Those same roots were racetracks for Matchbox cars that boys brought from home.

Thinking back to the days I played on a school playground, my friends and I had an ongoing game of hopscotch. Using chalk from our classroom, we drew an eight-block court on the blacktop, pulled our best flat rocks out of our pockets, and continued the game from the day before. We also jumped rope. Does anyone else remember jump rope rhymes?   One began, “Cinderella, dressed in yellow,” and ended with all the girls counting aloud, screaming, the number of kisses Cinderella got from her fella.

During my teaching years, recess got a bad rap. The emphasis on standardized testing led some states to shorten or eliminate recess to allow more instruction time. An article defending recess in Time Magazine, October 2017, states, “There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores.” A 2016 study found that young boys who spent more time sitting and less time playing didn’t progress as quickly in reading and math. A 2009 study found that 8- and 9-year-old children who had at least one daily recess period of more than 15 minutes had better classroom behavior.

The Tennessee Board of Education recognizes the need for both teacher-led physical education classes and recess. Elementary students should have 130 minutes physical activity per week, including at least 15 minutes of daily recess. Putnam County teachers and administrators have assured me recess and physical education classes are part every student’s schedule.

Recess – time to exercise, to socialize, to break from work, to play. Children need it.

Let the Children Play

Screen Shot 2018-09-06 at 1.04.17 PMWhen I read a recent news story stating that doctors should prescribe ‘Play’ for children, I did a double take. Surely, everyone knows children need to play. Surely.

A report, “The Power of Play,” was endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Michael Yogman, lead author of the report, stated that play often gets a bad rap as being a waste of time. He said, “Play is really brain building because it has all kinds of effects on brain structure and function. Executive function skills, learning to persist on a task, learning to solve problems, learning to be flexible about how they are learning things. It’s how we learn, not what we learn.”

As a retired elementary school teacher and grandmother of eight, I agree. Children need time to play. Free play. Inside and outside. Time to explore and pretend. Playtime alone, with friends, with siblings, with parents.

I think of when I was a kid and played in the barn loft and struggled to move the heavy hay bales to make a house and a maze. I didn’t know I was learning to plan and carry out a task.

When my childhood friend Elizabeth and I squished mud to make mud pies, we had fun and we learned. How much water was needed to hold the mud together? Where would the mud pies dry fastest? How long did it take them to dry?

I hope every child climbs trees. Obviously, it’s good physical exercise, but it requires decision making and problem solving.   Which limbs are strong enough to climb and which limb can be reached next?

I was probably eight years old when I sat in the top of my family’s cherry tree and thought I couldn’t get down. I was scared. I was allowed to climb any tree, as high as I wanted, as long as I could get myself back on the ground. My hands trembled. I eased down much more slowly that I’d climbed up. No one watched, unless they watched from inside the house. When I finally jumped to the ground, I felt a sense of accomplishment and success. I didn’t know I was building self-confidence.

Last week, I watched 4 year-old Jesse line up about twenty-five matchbox and other small cars and trucks in order. Big to little. Three red cars together. My Grand was learning classification and organization. When Fisher Price little people (two-inch toys) were stuck inside a small plastic playhouse, he turned the house upside down and shook it, but the people didn’t fall out. Then he looked through a small opening to see the stuck people and pushed them with one finger. After several minutes, he got the people out. I resisted offering help. This was Jesse’s problem.

“We’re recommending that doctors write a prescription for play, because it’s so important,” said Dr. Yogman. And he stated that the most powerful way children learn isn’t only in classrooms or libraries, but rather on playgrounds and in playrooms. I agree.