You Can Learn a Lot From a Cardboard Box

This past holiday season my daughter had quite an extensive list of toys on her wish list, and at the very top of her list was a larger-than-life doll house. And so, much to her delight, on Christmas morning, her wish came true. She received a 47” tall doll house complete with furniture.

Because the dollhouse was so big, so was the box that it came in. I put the box in the basement and forgot about it.

Until a few weeks ago.

It was another cold and dreary Sunday afternoon and my daughter was bored, proclaiming she “didn’t have anything to play with.” Shocking, huh? I rattled off a litany of her toys, including the new amazing dollhouse, and she quickly told me that she had already played with it.  She wanted something new to do.

She asked me if we still had the box her new dollhouse came in and I told her we did. Then she asked me to bring it upstairs so she could make something. I complied and for the next few hours she built a dollhouse out of the cardboard box. She had a blast! My husband and I helped her, but she was the architect. We talked about measurements and how to make levels in the box so that her dolls would fit on every floor. We talked about weights and how to make the house sturdy so that it would hold the dolls. She made furniture out of some of her other toys and even built a staircase for the house. There was cutting, taping, gluing and decorating. It really was incredible to watch her work and see what she would think of next. She left no detail of the house undone.

Privately, I joked with my husband that we should have saved our money on the elaborate dollhouse we bought her for Christmas. She was more interested in, and having more fun with, the dollhouse she built from a cardboard box. Of course, I don’t regret buying her the dollhouse; she does love to play with it. But it is a good reminder that sometimes we forget about the joys of simple toys and imaginative play. Thanks to being inundated with marketing, our children want the latest phones, tablets, gaming devices and toys. And while I am happy to buy some of those things, the key is finding an acceptable balance.

I believe that the hours she spent building a dollhouse out of a cardboard box were invaluable to her overall development. And to top it off, our family spent that time together.

What are some ways that you encourage and incorporate imaginative play with your child?

Enjoy the Weather

A lot of the people I’ve spoken with lately are done with winter. Repeatedly digging out the car with cold, wet, dirty, icy and frozen fingers has really taken its toll and they just want to move on. I have a different view: Cherish these days.

Let me explain.

My family looks forward to the snow and ice for several reasons. For one, it gives us something new to do. Just today we made airplane seats out of a mountain of snow shoveled from the driveway, complete with arm rests and cup holders. We basked in our seats for awhile before Schmee decided to head off with his “jet pack” to another place. The ice blocks found lying around became crashed asteroids from space and we needed to get them to a safe place before the dinosaurs smashed them. Or Sweet Pea, whichever came first.

Little Pea doesn’t really like slipping and sliding on the ice, but I know she is further developing those muscles and learning to balance better because she’s working on not falling down. You can see the wonderment through the tears as she stares at the forms created with her hands and feet. The other day after taking a few steps she looked back behind her and pointing said, “Guh!” Then cracked a crazy chuckle as she took some more steps.

I want to be there with Schmee and Sweet Pea through everything, no matter how cold it gets. Truthfully we don’t really have that many cold days here in Cincinnati. We average only 81 days a year below 40 degrees. The other 284 days are spent in relatively warm weather. Besides, if properly bundled and layered, you’d be surprised how much cold we humans can tolerate.

In our region we have the luxury of enjoying a wide variety of weather patterns, and winter is just as important as summer. To those wishing for warmer days, I say, “Bring the kids. We’ll make footprints and first-class plane seats.”

Are You Guilty of Garboflage?

Garboflage: the act of camouflaging your kids’ art in the garbage.

Admit it. You’ve hidden a drawing or two underneath the junk mail and leftovers. I commit garboflage weekly. It’s not that I don’t adore their work, it’s just that I’m just trying to keep our family off of the A&E show Hoarders.

 

I have three children and everyday they come home with backpacks bursting. As soon as they unzip their bags, out pops an insane amount of papers: worksheets, PTO letters, art projects, sale order forms, notes about book fair, behavior charts, reading logs, homework. It’s overwhelming. So I make piles of what to keep, what to return to school, and… garboflage. Over the years I’ve learned what is keep-worthy for me and what I can let go.

One item that always escapes the trash can? First grade writing. It seems like first grade is when children’s writing really comes alive.

By first grade most children recognize the relationship between sounds and letters. They are encouraged to write without worrying about spelling, which often results in writing words according to how they sound. For example, mornen = morning. For the child it makes perfect sense. For adults it’s like translating a secret code. It’s so much fun!  Decoding these messages gives me little clues into how my child’s brain works. How cool is that?!

Just the other day my first grader came home with a letter proclaiming his desire for a pet fish.  After decoding/reading it, I glanced up to his eager face as he asked, “Did I convince you?”

You bet he did.

So he got a pet fish and I got a cherished memory. It’s a win-win.

Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

I am typically one of those people who professes a love for all seasons. I find things in each season that brings me joy: sitting poolside, watching football, walks in the snow, gardening.

But this winter has been very different for me, and I have been feeling a bit unmotivated. Which puzzles me – is it that we haven’t had enough snow? Is it a lack of sunshine? Is it being stuck more indoors?

Whatever the cause, I have spent more time on my couch than I typically do. And though I have found joy sitting in my comfy clothes under a blanket watching movies, I have felt a little selfish. There are many tasks on my list to accomplish this winter. You know the list – the one with cleaning out the clutter and making ready for spring. But my biggest accomplishment this winter? Watching all three Lord of the Rings movies!

So, where does this feeling of selfishness come from? If I am finding joy in cocooning indoors, why do I let the thoughts of what I “should” be doing creep into my mind? I think it comes from two places. One is that I’ve always measured success by what I have done. The other is a place of negative feelings associated with being selfish.

I have noticed that the men in my life do not have the same angst about doing what they want. They tend to assess their level of energy, weigh their options and make a choice. Yet I, like many women I know, consider the needs and desires of others when I make decisions. I think to myself, I can’t just sit here, there are so many things I should be doing. But do I really believe that cleaning out the closet is more meaningful than paying attention to what my body and heart want to do?

Of course not. My well-being is very much connected to how I take care of myself. There have definitely been times in my life that I have ignored what my heart and body needed, and those times have taught me to be much more in-tune with the messages I am receiving. Sometimes my body lets me know when it needs more rest, or I get the urge to be creative. Other times I recognize that I need some quiet time to turn off my mind, or the laughter of friends.

The trick is to ignore the tendency to describe taking care of myself as selfish. If I frame my current desires to create a cocoon as taking care of myself, then I am more apt to give myself what I need. Mothers of daughters, this one is for you, too. Your self-care encourages them to give their own needs as much attention as the needs of others, to value their own feelings in the same ways we teach them to value others’ feelings.

 

Good Neighbors, Great Friends

We’ve lived in our cul-de-sac for a little over four years and up until this summer my nine-year-old son Levi has been frustrated that he didn’t have a buddy in the neighborhood. Sure, we’ve got triplets with two boys right next door, but they’re a year older and not in quite the same place as he is developmentally. So, I was beyond excited for Levi when a friend who is the same age and attitude moved into the house two doors away.

After a little bit of a rough start, Levi and (I’ll call him Michael), soon became best buds. They act, behave and even seem to think alike. It’s been so much fun watching them run between houses playing Nerf wars, dressing up in Star Wars costumes and bringing Minecraft to life with pick axes and diamond swords when I’ve run them off of Xbox. And sleepovers are hassle free. No packing, dropping off or picking up required. Best of all, when one or the other has had enough, they just zip back across the yard. Boom. Done. They’re great friends.

Given how well the boys have gotten along, the fact that they had their first fight on Christmas Day was unfortunate. Sometime that afternoon Michael popped in as we prepared to leave for vacation. Levi had gotten the Diamond Edition Minecraft sword and pick axe and I could hear them battling downstairs. They were a little more rambunctious than usual but I chocked it up to too much Christmas excitement. The next thing I knew, I heard the front door close and assumed Michael had to get home. When I came downstairs, I could see from Levi and his eleven-year-old sister Liv’s expressions that something had gone wrong. “I told him to get out,” Levi explained angrily, but I could tell tears were close to the surface. According to Liv, when Levi kept boasting about defeating him, Michael punched him in the nose! “I’ve lost my best friend on Christmas,” Levi shrugged, again trying to act macho about it all.

Of course I wanted to rush in and help the boys patch things up, but had to finish packing, so I only asked Levi to think about whether there was anything more to the story and if he wanted to go out of town with things the way they were. As much as I wanted him to, Levi didn’t go talk to Michael that night before we left and it hung like a cloud over him for most of the trip. Time and again I had to fight the urge to contact Michael’s mom and intervene, fearing that the longer the silence stretched, the more awkward things would be, not only between the boys but between us as moms who’d formed a bit of a relationship through them.

I needn’t have worried. On our way home, Levi asked if he could text Michael. Apparently there was more to the story, and he wasn’t merely an innocent victim. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Michael should have resorted to violence, but I also know my son’s behavior can be provoking. Levi must have known it, too, because his text simply read, “I hope you can forgive. Your best friend – I hope.”

Everything turned out well in the end. For Levi and Michael, and for us moms too.  What a relief! We get to choose our friends, but not our neighbors. Life is so much better, for children and their parents, when you’re both.

Brothers and Sisters

When Sweet Pea was born, Schmee, then a 3-and-a-half year old, thought that his sister would come into this world a primed, ready and willing playmate. Someone he could tumble around with, run through the grass with and enact intricate and dramatic scenarios with dinosaurs and robots.

He was sadly disappointed.

 

Since then, he has been attempting to engage in cooperative play with her on a daily basis, getting more frustrated as time went on. If he only he’d known that soon she would be interested in what he was doing… just not in the way he intends.

Sweet Pea’s has gained a little more stable footing as she runs through the house, her reflexes as quick as a striking snake. She seems to be saying, “I’ll gladly play with you, but first I’m going to take your robot, see what it tastes like, and then run off in a random direction and see what you do about it. How’s that for playing together?”

Schmee seems conflicted. He so eagerly wants her to play with him but when they do it’s usually on her terms and that is frustrating for him. So what can I as a parent do about this? What should my reactions be?

For the most part, I let them work it out. Sure, I set boundaries so no one gets hurt but I let them engage in a kind of give-and-take and talk to them both about how they feel and what they want. It’s certainly not easy and not everyone always gets what they want.

Recently, Schmee had worked really hard on a drawing of a train. He insisted it was his best one yet and he wanted to share it with Mom. But it was not to be. Sweet Pea, only trying to see what he had made, accidentally crumpled the paper, “Ruining it forever!”

So what did I do? I talked with Schmee, showing sympathy and compassion for his lost art. “That stinks,” I commiserated, “But maybe you could draw it again?” I explained that Sweet Pea must’ve really liked his drawing, too, and set them both up with their own paper and crayons. Though initially he had his arm raised and fist clenched, he soon relaxed, allowing me to help him draw another train. He even gave Sweet Pea a couple crayons to use for her own work. Things don’t always get resolved so quickly or so well, but we do keep trying to communicate our needs.

Angels Among Us

“I believe there are angels among us, sent down to us, from somewhere up above. They come to you and me, in our darkest hours, to show us how to live, to teach us how to give, to guide us with the light of love.”

– Alabama

These lyrics are really resonating with me lately, given what my family has experienced over the last few months.

Upon returning home from work one evening, I noticed something was terribly wrong with my daughter, Gabrielle. Her stomach was extremely distended and hard. Immediately we proceeded to the emergency room. Upon reaching the hospital, my husband and I learned Gabrielle was very dehydrated, her kidneys were shutting down and her heart rate was extremely high. Lactic acid levels revealed that her body was in distress. I was very scared. I knew the information doctors were sharing with us didn’t look good.

Although surgery was not required, the doctor proceeded to tell us Gabrielle’s breathing was labored and a ventilator would provide the support she desperately needed. We consented to these measures, despite the risks of pneumonia and an inability to wean from the machine.

Our first angel appeared when our friend came to the emergency room and sat with my husband and I until early morning. She was our extra set of ears who listened to information objectively and articulated questions to the emergency room staff when we were unable to.

Little did we know that one week would turn into two, three, five. My husband and I took turns keeping a vigilant watch over our girl while still trying to be present for our sons at home. By week two, my husband and I were exhausted. When others realized this wasn’t a short term situation, they asked how they could help.

At first, I declined help as I thought we had this and I didn’t want to burden others, but as time went on, I knew we needed help. We were in crisis. It felt uncomfortable accepting help initially but there were more “angels among us,”  the family, friends, co-workers and hospital staff who carried us through a very difficult and lengthy situation.

People were checking in with texts and phone calls, even daily cards in the mail. We were given meals and gift cards. Coworkers helped out with my workload. Friends and family came and sat with Gabrielle to give my husband and I a much needed break. My sister was such a tremendous help: she spent many nights at the hospital with Gabrielle, sacrificing time with her own family to support ours.

After 5 weeks of hospitalization, Gabrielle is now home and recovering. We couldn’t have made it through this ordeal alone. Our “angels” were ready and willing to help. All I had to do was to take hold of their outreached hands.