G is for Girls

When I first became a mother, by marriage, to my beautiful blonde adolescent step-daughters, I took my new position seriously.  The girls, aged eight and nine, were at a critical period, I thought, where body image woes, wavering self esteem, and the over-reaching influence of peers were gathering just beyond our peak of sunny, carefree childhood and about to move in like storm clouds heavy with preteen angst and disdain.

I decided to take the offensive position.  I tossed any women’s magazines with images of unreachable, photoshopped beauty.  We chose which TV shows (and attached commercials) to watch more carefully.  I made the sweeping declaration that there would be no more negative comments about the sad shape of our collective physiques (real or imagined) and if any one slipped, other family members got a free pass to pinch the offender as a gentle, slightly painful reminder to be kinder to ourselves.

Our time spent together as a family, for a few weeks in the summer and long breaks from school (Christmas, Spring break), we tried to make as active as possible; swimming, hiking, ice skating, walking the dog, wrestling… We never went shopping “recreationally”, we read books aloud together starring strong women, we listened to the least offensive music (mostly country), and had discussions about the sexualized media we did encounter.

It’s hard to say if our efforts at keeping our girls, *girls* for a little longer made a difference.  Our daughters are nearing the end of their teens.  One is a college student, the other graduating from high school in a few weeks.  They have many interests, loads of talent, are involved in their community and are absolutely full of life.  Whether our summers and school vacations together influenced any of the outcome will always be an unknown, and in the end, all we can do as parents is assemble the best arsenal against the consumer culture club.

We have two young daughters now.  They are 3 and 1–at least a decade away from the preteen storm front I fretted over, well, a decade ago.  Or are they?  According to Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate my Daughter:  Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, I should already be suiting up for battle.  The “gateway” to sexualized media images and the eventual associated risks of depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem?  PRINCESSES!  Or more specifically, Disney’s animated princess characters.  Orenstein argues that the adaptation of the notion that one’s identity comes from how one looks starts slowly and subtly.

“Princesses are just a phase,” Orenstein writes, but they mark a girl’s “first foray into the mainstream culture…. And what was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants — or should want — to be the Fairest of Them All.”

Now, as a child of the 70’s “Girls Can Do Anything Boys Can Do” “Free to Be You and Me” culture, I already had plenty of finely cultivated disdain for wimpy, whiny, female characters well before reading about the danger they present to my toddlers’  future mental health.  I figured steering clear of the movies I didn’t prefer would be easy.  I assumed without knowing the story, without any familiarity with the characters, the media images and marketing wouldn’t affect my little girls.  Or my boys.  WRONG!  Even without commercial TV (they only watch PBS), the overarching influence of peers (we homeschool), or the accumulated fast food meal “toys” or  movie-tie-in “literature”, they still got the message.  My three-year-old squeals with excitement when she sees anything that sickly bright pink ablaze with princess images.  My six and five-year-old sons exclaim, “Yuck!  That’s for GIRLS!”

I don’t believe the princesses or their stories are inherently wrong.  There is great historical and literary value in knowing the tales–the original tales, though, not the watered-down, saccharine sweet Disney versions.  I also enjoy the examination of the classic fairy tales, the parodies, the interpretations, the well written and/or illustrated children’s adaptations.  So, I’ve begun sharing these with my children.  I will consider the viewing of the Disney films at some point.  They are part of the culture whether I like it or not.  Presenting them as a contrast to compiled prior fairytale knowledge, though, will hopefully encourage critical thinking.

As we did with our older girls, we encourage activity over passivity.  We limit exposure to sexualized images.  We talk about virtue and choices and truth.  Our toys are generally open-ended, gender-neutral, and shared.  The children ride horses, ice skate, take karate,  cheer for monster trucks and play “house” alike.

What we didn’t know about yet with our older daughters that we know about now is the power of attachment.  With the framework of our parenting focusing on relationship and connection, and that supporting the activity choices and experiences we provide, will our kids be able to remain kids while the consumer-minded, gender-biased, hyper-sexualized culture whizzes by?  Will it all be enough?  As with everything, time will tell.  In the meantime, we’ll be here building Lego, playing pretend, and reading Paperbag Princess.

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F is for Feast Day

I love the internet.

It makes learning about and sharing stuff with my kids incredibly easy.  And almost incomprehensibly fast.  With my smart phone,  I never even have to say, “we can look that up when we get home,” because I can instantly find the answer to whatever the query is that I don’t have an answer for.  Immediately.  Isn’t that amazing?  In college, we had to use microfiche to access archived media.  It was still possible, and often preferred, to look up something in the card catalog file or reference encyclopedias.  Seems archaic, now, right?  But it was less than 20 years ago!

What I especially love about this constant access to information right now is how I can use it to practice and grow my Catholic Faith.  From the daily mass readings and Liturgy of the Hours app on my phone to the blogs of fellow Catholic mamas who post their efforts at enriching the “domestic church”, I am encouraged to do more and share more with my children.

This advent has been especially busy for us, so far, with the help of Holy Heroes Advent Adventure email series, Catholic Icing, Paper Dali, O Night Divine, and the seemingly endless links to other blogs full of ideas, thoughts and inspiration.  We’ve also been enjoying celebrating the Feast Days of the Saints.  This is a new venture for Mark and I, as well as the children.  Neither he nor I went to Catholic school and we didn’t celebrate feast days at home as children.

December is particularly full of fun feast days and we’ve enjoyed learning about St. Nicholas, St. Juan Diego, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and St. Lucy (Lucia), so far.  Here are a few photos of our St. Lucy celebrations:

First up is Ella Rose as St. Lucy with her Star Boy attendants posing in front of our St. Lucy braided bread ring–yum!

Then we have Ben in his Star boy hat and Ella Rose modeling her felt candle crown.

Prayer to Saint Lucy of Syracuse

Saint Lucy, your beautiful name signifies light. By the light of faith which God bestowed upon you, increase and preserve this light in my soul so that I may avoid evil, be zealous in the performance of good works, and abhor nothing so much as the blindness and the darkness of evil and of sin.
By your intercession with God, obtain for me perfect vision for my bodily eyes and the grace to use them for God’s greater honor and glory and the salvation of all men.

Saint Lucy, virgin and martyr, hear my prayers and obtain my petitions. Amen.

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E is for Episodic Memory

A decreased reliance on episodic memory is one of the core deficits of autism, as defined by Steven Gutstein of RDI.  Episodic memory refers to autobiographical memory, or more colloquially, personal memory.  Kids on the autism spectrum have a natural tendency to use more semantic memory skills–lists of facts, names, terms–the opposite of dynamic thinking which requires more complex reasoning and reliance on personal experience.  Encouraging use of Ben’s episodic memory is one of our ongoing efforts through RDI.  A really sweet example  happened the other day, especially because it was spontaneous and organic and developmental and ALL Ben.  I can’t describe the feeling of seeing cognitive development unfold so simply and on it’s own, once it’s been righted and set on the right course.   Here’s the story:

We had been looking at the globe, naming countries and continents, talking about who lived where, when I wondered aloud (a technique I use in place of asking questions to encourage more dynamic thinking versus spouting out memorized facts) where Santa Claus lived.  Without missing a beat, Ben exclaimed “Home Depot!” which is where we happened to end up visiting with the man in red and his elves last year.  To this, I laughed, and shortly after reading my face, Ben joined me in giggling and said, “no, the North Pole–right here.”  What is so important about this exchange isn’t the “mistake” or the correction or even the exchange between us, but what happened “behind the scenes”, so to speak.  When presented with a quandary, Ben’s first and immediate reaction was to reach for the personal memory of our visit with Santa, not the memorized “facts” of the story of Santa Claus!

It’s beautiful, I tell you.  Truly beautiful.

Thank you, RDI.

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D is for DiaperFree!

My parental learning curve took a sharp left when I first decided I might want to consider a natural birth during my first pregnancy.  And wow, what a world of wackos!  And also, amazing, smart, grounded women who knew things and shared about things I didn’t think existed anymore–cloth diapers, family beds, “elimination communication”.  Um, what?

I like to think of it as “Freedom from Diapers.”

My babies use the toilet or potty and wear underwear from birth.  It sounds crazy in our modern, disposable Western culture,  but it’s actually how most of the world handles the business end of their babies.   Others have written about it much more eloquently than I, so I will not recreate the wheel here.  I’ll just offer up some adorable “proof” that it is indeed possible to take a different route–that there are always other choices available if you’re open to the possibilities.

Ben

Will

Ella Rose

Brooklyn

Want to read more?

http://diaperfreebaby.org

http://www.bornpottytrained.com/

http://freetoec.webs.com/

http://www.pottywhisperer.com/

http://tribalbaby.org/

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C is for CarWash

It’s the latest in a long string of “special”, “unusual”, or “narrow” interests, as they are called when in reference to children on the autism spectrum.   Others may even call them “obsessions”.  Whatever words you use to describe a focused interest,  it seems most kids really really like something, sometimes intensely so, at one time or another.  For many it’s trains, or cars, or wheeled things in general.  Others like numbers or letters, even learning to read at a relatively young age.  Lots of kids find certain movies or movie/TV characters endlessly entertaining or interesting.  And I mean *all* kids, not just kids with autism.  What makes an interest “special, unusual, narrow, or an obsession” is based on intensity.  For kids with autism, in addition to being a favorite topic of conversation, it is often the ONLY topic of conversation.  It seems to permeate every thought, every word, every interaction.  Every attempt at play or connection is highjacked by the high interest topic.

As a teacher, I was trained to treat the intense interests of children on the spectrum as flaws, as something that interfered with “functioning”.  “We’re not talking about trains right now.”  ” We are ALL DONE talking about fans.”  The thinking behind this approach was that we needed to teach children what was “appropriate” by rating their conversational subjects as okay or not okay while they were happening. We rewarded appropriate comments with attention, we punished “inappropriate” attempts by ignoring them or by admonishment.  Now there is obviously merit in learning how to maintain a conversation, how not to bore your audience to tears, how to follow a dialogue, but the problem with this behavioral approach is that it never really addresses the reasons WHY you might want to participate in a dialogue or conversation successfully.  Nor does it recognize that the high interest topics are often a great source of comfort for a child with dynamic thinking deficits.  The solidity of knowing something in and out often provides an anchor for a child who finds it confusing and disarming to be in the middle of ever-changing, fluid, back and forth interactions that move and flow due to added variations and unpredictable contributions of others.

As a parent using RDI, I find the approach above to be not only lacking as a helpful intervention, but also disrespectful.   The developmental nature of RDI handles this issue from the bottom, up.  By providing opportunities for the brain to create the connections and pathways that make up the foundation for greater understanding of relationships, children gain the “missing piece” of most behavioral approaches.  It’s often described as the “Why Bother” of learning anything.  Piece by piece, step by step, RDI allows parents and children a “do over” of cognitive-social development.  Children learn in a natural and organic way the importance of shared experience, the significance of sharing emotions with others, the joy of joint understanding and co-creating.  From there, the finer points of topic maintenance and not boring your partner make sense.  The Big Picture of interacting with others gives context to the otherwise arbitrary rules of appropriate and inappropriate conversation.

Ignoring or redirecting Ben’s high interest conversation topics never really worked in stopping the behavior.  If anything, the anxiety my negative reactions produced in my son appeared to actually extend the length and intensity of the interests.  I really thought we’d never get through his vacuum phase, until I decided to take a more RDI friendly approach.  Instead of changing the subject or ignoring Ben when he started reciting the names of vacuum cleaners, I engaged with the topic.  I expanded on his static, repetitive comments by asking open-ended questions.  I offered my opinions.  I asked him to share his.  We looked online at different vacuum models, we asked the librarian for books about vacuums (they had one!), we visited the vacuum aisle in Lowe’s,  took our vacuum apart, looked inside, learned the names of the parts, drew pictures, wrote stories (the Three Little Vacuums),  and created our own vacuum models out of cardboard, tape,  and toilet paper tubes.  All of these activities thrilled Ben.  He took part with gusto, often spearheading a project himself, asking to Google “Dyson vacuum” or to help him make a beater bar for his Hoover.  I took advantage of his enthusiasm to incorporate RDI and home learning goals.

We had a ton of fun and as quickly as it appeared, the vacuum interest was over.

And so we are taking a similar approach to Ben’s latest interest.  Working with instead of against and within the steps of development are the keys.  It’s much more enjoyable this way, and we’re able to talk more about the “why bother” of the social rules.  It all makes more sense to my son without the anxiety of trying to learn seemingly ever-shifting rules of conversation.

I can’t express enough how much RDI has added to our lives.   And as time goes on, as my son grows, my understanding of the principles only gets deeper and more thorough.  There is always more to learn, especially if you keep all your options open.

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B is for “BOO”

Will loves to make stuff.

He also loves holidays.  We’ve had the most fantastically decorated house this year, thanks to his efforts.  I’m documenting a bit of the construction paper madness we’ve had around here the last month, along with a few other creations.  My favorites are the crayon drawings and writing–such perfect examples of emerging literacy, and an embodiment of the understanding of empathic communication.  We write for others to read and understand, to inform, to warn, to express emotion, to entertain.  Writing and drawing are ultimately about sharing a part of yourself with others.

I, like many others,  claim to write this blog for myself.   And that’s partly true.  Putting thoughts to words and thinking about my thinking (meta cognition) is a great exercise in self-awareness.  Mindfulness is an exquisitely human trait and as a person created in His image, I believe it’s my responsibility to practice.  Through all this practice, I hope to extend outward and be mindful in my parenting and relationships with others.  Which, ultimately, is what it’s all about, right?  So, there you go.  Someday I know my children will read these words, too.  So, in a way, this is direct communication with them.  Listen up, kids, my love for you is infinite.

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A is for Autism

I’ve been inspired.  A friend just started a blog using the ‘ol ABC writing prompt trick.  Her posts are short and sweet.  And frequent.  Not too frequent, but way more regular than mine lately.  Like many things go, writing begets writing.  The more you do it, well, the more you do it.  And more writing is a good thing.  For me, anyway.  Not necessarily for you.  <wink>  So, here we go.

A is for Autism.

So much for short and sweet, right?  Ha.

My oldest son is six.  He has been reading for 2 years now.  He loves words.  He is constantly reading over my shoulder, picking up books, magazines, navigating media and interpreting warning labels.  His curiosity keeps him asking what things mean.  In two years, he has surely seen the word ‘autism’ written in a zillion places in our home–book covers, blog posts, journals, web pages, articles, supplements.   He has certainly heard the word in conversation.  And yet, not one. single. time. has he asked about the word.

Does he have some sense that the word means something about himself?  Could it be possible that he inquires about every other word except this one intentionally?  It’s impossible to know, of course.  And yet, I know the questions will be coming soon.  I can’t say how I know this, but I do.

I’m not worried.  As far as I’m concerned, autism is just a way to describe the results of a “brain interrupted”.

“Some things are easier for you than for other kids AND some things are more difficult for you than for other kids, ” I’ll say.  “Your fantastic brain understands how machines work better than many other people AND your brain finds playing with other kids tricky sometimes. ”  “When you were a baby and your brain was growing so fast and there were so many important things to learn,  we missed some of those important things.”  “And because your brain was too busy to learn those things when you were a baby, we do things together and play special games to help your brain learn them now.”

The cognitive-developmental, family-based program we use is not easy.  We work at it every day.  Just like everything else that matters.  The road is long.  Sometimes narrow; oftentimes rough; surely paved with equal parts hate and love.  But we all hold hands, stick together,take it step by step, and do our best to enjoy the journey together.

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Still here

There’s nothing like a new baby to speed up the hands of time.  Brooklyn is five months old now and still the happiest baby ever.  She is a dedicated thumb sucker, and I have to admit, it’s fantastic.  No binkie to drop in the dirt, forget to bring along, or fumble around to find in the dark.  I never intended any of my kids to use a pacifier, but I simply cannot handle screaming infants while driving in the car.  If it weren’t for binkies, we would have never gone anywhere, at least for the first year.  Our Brookie doesn’t have any problems at all traveling, so far.  She just pops in her thumb and puts herself to sleep.  Same for naps.  I love it.

Ella Rose is two and three quarters years old.  She is *wide open*:   full of spirit, love, eagerness, adventure, and a little bit of vinegar.  Fearless in the swimming pool, cautious on her trike, she can scream nearly as long and loud as any horror movie actress or oppressed two-year-old you’ve met.  She has a unique relationship with each of her siblings and is, without a doubt, Daddy’s girl.  She challenges me to reach for depths of patience I did not know existed before.  I’ll admit, I often fail, but she is a persistent teacher and doesn’t, er, won’t let me quit.

Will is four and a half.  Wow, did I just say that?  He is crazy curious about the world and loves to explore.  His favorite question is “why?” and will drive you insane with the asking.   “Making stuff”, crafting, and using tools (art, office, or hardware) are favorite activities.  True to his artist’s heart, he appears to work best amidst clutter and chaos.  In this area, he is a determined creator, despite my nagging encouragement otherwise to ‘clean as you go’ or ‘put one thing away before you start another’.

Ben is six.  He is currently interested in yoga and likes to practice along with a DVD we own.  He also continues to enjoy reading, playing computer games, and pretend playing with his brother and sister.  Like his sister, swimming is a favorite activity.  We continue to support Ben’s learning and development through home education and RDI and see steady gains in neural connectivity.

Our “big girls” are doing well, too.  Taryn graduated from high school last month and Sheridan *finally* received a kidney transplant in May.  They both work at the local burger joint part-time.  Sheridan still rides her horse and plans to compete/show at the Fair this August.  Taryn will be attending community college in the Fall.   Although it’s a challenge to accommodate everyone’s schedule,  we hope to have them visit soon!

Mark and I keep plugging away at this Parenting gig.  So far, it’s been the best job I’ve ever had.  Harder than any work I’ve ever done, but hands down, no contest, the most rewarding.  We are so so blessed.

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The Birth of Brooklyn Marie

Our child arrived just the other day.  She came to the world in the usual way…

I won’t get all weird and mess up the beautiful lyrics of Harry Chapin in order to fit our story, but I am stuck on the line that describes birth as “the usual way”.   It certainly feels that way this fourth time around.  I, in no way, mean to diminish the miracle of our little angel’s arrival, but instead add to the collection of stories that represent the un-dramatic, run-of-the-mill, normal, natural, unhindered births that comprise the majority of all births since time immemorial.  The story is simple and straightforward, the ending the same as most.  The details aren’t that significant–the duration, the timing, the “numbers”.  There was the onset of labor, there was laboring, and then there was birth.  To spell it all out and explain or dramatize every moment doesn’t seem right to me this time around.  It was just a birth.  It was just how it should be.  God’s plan.  There was no intervention, no paid professional to direct or “guide” me.  Just a mama mammal left alone to listen to her body and respond.   There is way too much to compete with to attempt to normalize birth within our current media filled, fear based birth culture.  And yet, I submit our humble story as another example for those who seek them.  I also document this story for my children, who can add this to their very real, irreplaceable memories of participating in their sister’s entry into our world.  As they clamored around the tub, jockeying for position, asking questions, and making comments, they were given a gift that no dramatized TV birth can take away–firsthand knowledge that birth is normal, natural, joyful, and full of peace.   Brooklyn Marie is truly a peaceful baby.  She is happiest, though, when she is surrounded by her family.  She finds it difficult to fall asleep if it is “too” quiet.  Her siblings adore her and she gazes at each of them so intently when they hold or talk to her.  When her Daddy holds her, she often seems to “melt” right into his arms.  Her attachment to all of us is clear and strong.  The significance of being surrounded by the loving arms of your family, and *only* those familiar loved ones upon your arrival Earthside is apparent to us.  We are utterly blessed.  In the most usual of ways.

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Will is FOUR!

Little Big Man turned four years old!  And he planned his big day all by himself.  There were pancakes for breakfast, hotdogs for lunch, bowling the next day, and a yellow firetruck cake.  With sprinkles.  I worried about the sprinkles, but our resident artiste was very judicious about the placement of said sprinkles.   No worry necessary.  I put off planning a big shin dig birthday bash since we were expecting Baby at any moment.  She failed to make her appearance until way after Will’s day, but he didn’t seem to mind celebrating with just us.  I rather think he may have preferred it, after all.  I know I did.  :)

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