Archive for the 'parenting' Category

Is It Normal To Let Your Kids Get Eaten By a Bear?

Sharon November 9th, 2012

I wrote this five years ago, but I think all the discussion of free-range parenting merits a reconsideration.  My kids are now 7, 9, 11, and 12, and they range much further and freer than they did five years ago, but still I’m more careful than my parents – not because of fear of strangers, but because of the number and speed of cars.

My neighbor and I were discussing a favorite children’s book the other day. The book is Robert McCloskey’s classic _Blueberries for Sal_ in which a mother human and her daughter go blueberrying, and have a minor mix up with a mother bear and her cub. The book is charming and wonderful, and one of my own childhood favorites, now beloved of my 3 year old. My neighbor was telling me that she loves the book, but can never read it without a frisson of horror at what a neglectful mother the parent in the book is. And she’s got a point. After all, the mother of a child who is clearly a toddler tells her daughter to go pick her own blueberries and leave mother alone in peace to pick hers, on a wildlife rich hillside, where bears are known to be.  Mother, the book tells us, wants to pick blueberries to can for winter. Given such parameters, she can’t spend the whole day watching her daughter, who is left to take care of her own needs.

But, of course, the book is of a much older parenting era, from when my parents were children.   My neighbor and I both remember from our own childhoods that the kind of parenting illustrated in the book was normal. By four my sisters and I roamed our housing project with other children, playing in the woods behind it or on the gravelled hillside. We weren’t allowed to cross streets, but otherwise, we were remarkably free. Living on a busy, urban street at 6, my five year old sister and I crossed several busy urban streets walking alone to school.  By seven and six we trick-or-treated alone at night on city streets.

A generation later, neither my neighbor nor I permit or children to walk long distances, cross streets alone, or roam the neighborhood without supervision. Now some of that, in my case, has to do with having an disabled oldest child who cannot be trusted. But most of it has to do with higher parenting standards today. Letting your children roam is perceived as unsafe, and to some degree it is.  In response, “free-range parenting” which grants children more freedom has arisen as well, but there is still considerable debate.

Some of our attentiveness to our children seems to be paying off. Children’s death by accident rates have fallen significantly since 1970, mostly in a reduction of deaths in traffic accidents. In Britain, for example, such accidents fell by 75% from 1970 to 2000, while the population and number of cars grew.

On the other hand, absolute numbers of deaths on playground equipment and by child abduction are about the same – in 2005, 25 children died on playground equipment in the US, in 1970, 28 did, on the old “deathtrap” equipment we used to use and love. So in some areas our greater caution is providing real results – several hundred kids each year who aren’t dying in car accidents, for example, while in other areas, it isn’t making much difference.  Many parents worry a lot about abduction, which isn’t a very big risk at all, and which we really haven’t affected much by anything we’ve done (although we are MUCH more aware of it because of media attention).

The sheer number of cars on the road, the speeds they travel at and the reality that quite a number of kids did die in car accidents and still do  means that we have a real reason to fear letting them roam the way our parents did. And yet, there’s also a cost – by not allowing children the range of independence and freedom we did, our kids lose something. They lose maturity, judgement, independence, autonomy, time in the world as children. They lose contact with nature, and solitary imagination, playtime with other children. Their world is much more processed and managed by adults – safer, but less free.

And, of course, there are physical consequences – fewer of our children may die from road accidents, but more of them may have shortened lifespans from obesity, take medications for hyperactivity that in some cases (not all) is merely shorthand for not enough exercise. In _Last Child in the Woods_ Richard Louv exhaustively documents the effects of nature contact on children, and documents the consequence of  what he calls Nature-Deficit disorder, which include behavioral issues, depression, obesity, sensory issues, anxiety, and slower development of things like independence.

We are the only parents in history to spend this much time and energy protecting our kids. And, of course, it isn’t a hard sell – who doesn’t want their kids to live. If you offered most parents the blunt choice “ok, your kid can live to 68 and die of obesity and diabetes related consequences from being kept at home and indoors too much or your kid can have a 1 in 100 chance of simply dying when a car hits him” who wouldn’t take the 68?

During most of history, most parents provided either benign or not too benign neglect by the standards of the day. Most parents were more like Sal’s mother than like I am – they expected children, from a very young age, to entertain themselves while they worked, when they weren’t working alongside them.   Some historians argue that in the past, in some societies, many parents simply didn’t allow themselves to become deeply attached until it was clear the children had left early childhood and the danger of death. Lawrence Stone argues this in _The Family, Sex and Marriage In England 1500-1800_, but Stone’s conclusions have been disputed, and there is a simple dearth of evidence to be overcome.

Many traditional societies that are or have been in existence until recently are deeply affectionate to their children, despite the high risks of infant mortality. But it is definitely true that most societies have judged children to require less care and attention by a primary caregiver after infancy than we do.

For example, women in all parts of society have always worked both in and out of the home. Historically speaking, poor women who worked often left their children home alone for long stretches, very small children left with nearly as young older siblings, or in the 19th century, perhaps dosed with alcohol or opium to keep them from doing anything dangerous. At home parents in the 18th century made babies where clothes with giant pillows embedded in them to keep them from getting too badly hurt, or tied them to trees or furniture – but still lost children to fireplace accidents, injury, drowning, etc…

What is different about the way we parent now? One of the major differences is the sheer amount of attention we have to give our children. As domestic labor of all sorts has decreased, and many of the traditional functions of homemaking have been dropped, Juliet Schor notes that we’ve transferred that time to parenting. People are still spending about the same amount of time they were on domestic labor 100 years ago – only this time, they are attending their children and vacuuming, both to higher standards, rather than making candles and baking bread.

Barbara Ehrenreich has observed that no human society has ever simply allowed women only the work of childcare and domestic labor – women were simply too valuable, and other needs so basic that the notion of an at-home life with children at the center simply didn’t emerge until the 19th century. Which raises, of course, the question of whether any future, low energy, less industrialized society will be able to give to their children the same degree of safety attentiveness that we are now.

But this isn’t the only difference. One of the major differences is the structure of childhood itself. For example, my four year old sister was struck by a swing at the playground near our home, and lost two teeth and received a concussion. This crisis was resolved by the fact that the playground itself was full of children, including children who to my five year old eyes were near-adults – big girls and boys of 10 to 12. One of them ran for a nearby neighbor, another carried my sister home across the road. One of the most important differences was that all the children of the neighborhood played together this way – it was not a matter of letting a four or five year old wander the streets alone, because older children could be counted on to be present. Similarly, there were many more adults at home, and a custom of adults sitting on porches and otherwise keeping a general eye on things. If we began to do something wildly unsafe, the chances were good someone’s mother or father would stick their head out and yell at you to cut it out. And the chances were good you’d obey - adults had status.

We have learned, gradually, to relax with our children in places like our synagogue, and trust that if one of our sons goes out with a friend, there will be adults hanging about to keep an eye out, and that if someone misbehaves, a firm correction will be issued – perhaps by Mom or Dad, but also by friends who know that they can correct our kids. But there are comparatively few places like this in our children’s lives. In many neighborhoods, there is simply no one home for long hours, older children are at after-school programs and lessons, rather than out playing, and children’s lives are formal and structured. So letting your kids roam the neighborhood means letting them roam alone – much less safe than in groups.

And, of course, there are those cars again. More cars, going faster, with less experience keeping an eye out for young kids, and less reason to expect that kids might be playing in the roads.I live on a rural road, and might reasonably expect that my street, with perhaps one car every 20 minutes except during commuting time, would be a paradise. But I’ve seen folks come barrelling over our hill at full speed with no awareness of who might be on the other side, and have had one close shave myself while walking it – I don’t think I’m entirely ridiculous to fear what might happen to a five year old with less well trained reflexes and less fear of stupid drivers.

On the other hand, I’ve seen how extreme our fears have gotten, and perhaps mine are just as excessive. I’ve seen parents say that their children can’t be considered safe playing on their own front lawns, for fear that the child might run into a busy street. This is certainly true of toddlers and even four and five year olds, but I’ve seen parents make this argument about children who are 7, 8, 9 or older. I’m not sure in our reasonable desire to keep kids safe, we aren’t doing more harm than good.

It is remarkable, to me, how much we’ve consented to sacrifice for our cars. Our children’s freedom to run around is only one thing – our health, their health – cars are the leading cause of death in children, teens and young adults. Our rising asthma rates, and, of course, global warming are prices as well. In fact, it seems that we’re willing to sacrifice anything, pretty much, to keep the cars coming down our streets. What if we weren’t? We parents clearly think that our children’s relationship with nature is something worth sacrificing to keep them alive, and I, for one, cannot say we’re wrong. I want my kids *living* – but I’m not sure we’re making the right trade off. I want my kids living and in nature, my planet to have a sane climate and my kids healthy. Might it not be wiser and more loving to give up the economic and social benefits of cars, in order to have fewer dead and maimed kids?

But all of that is, in part, a side issue, since this column is about the price of parenting while doing other things. What happens if more of us go back to domestic labor, if the time we put from homemaking into parenting has to go back there.  What happens if more of us go back to working from and at home, and fewer of us have the time to give our kids all the attention we have been? Does that mean that a few of them will get eaten by bears? Is the only choice neglect and death or not letting our kids out of our sight?

To some degree, I think the reality is that that is the choice – that we have to risk our kids lives to some degree to give them lives. What degree that is, I don’t know. It isn’t a perfect solution – and it isn’t clear to me what the point of optimization is – the minimum number of children that have to die by accident so that the rest of the kids can have a meaningful childhood. Somewhere between the youth spent in a bedroom, wrapped in cotton wool and Huck Finn’s trip down the Mississippi lies a happy medium, and I haven’t found it.  Nor do I know if it is possible to identify that point.

Going to a less industrialized society means reducing some risks (car accidents), and raising others (fire). It means most likely having less time to supervise our kids, and it means that some parents will probably experiencing horrible outcomes. It probably also means in some ways other of us will get physically and mentally healthier children. Depending on how non-industrial, some of the consequences will be more serious than others. It depends what we lose, and what we can keep up. Bike helmets? Ration vaccinations to those able to pay? Do we try and keep the cars on the road at the expense of things like education and health care? That seems to be where we’re headed.

A few months ago, my autistic oldest son opened a locked door, opened a latched gate and, while Mommy was catching up on sleep and Daddy was changing a diaper, started walking down the road, bouncing his ball. It was 15 minutes before Daddy noticed that he’d gotten out and the gate was open.

We were lucky. Eli happily bounced his way down our rural road for nearly 3 miles before we found him.  He was not struck by a car. He didn’t go off into the pond and drown, he didn’t wander across the fields and get lost, where, unable to call out if we called him, he might have died of exposure. A neighbor spotted him, didn’t remember who he belonged to and stayed with him.  Another neighbor, on his way to work, stopped, seeing me frantically racing up the road calling Eli’s name.   He asked “are you looking for a little boy?” I climbed into his car (not waiting to see if he wanted to drive me somewhere or not, I was a little Mom-crazy) and ordered the poor man to take me to my son. He did. My heart started beating again, and eventually I stopped crying and praying. Eli was fine. We got better locks. It was my personal vision of hell.

The irony is that this escape was motivated, I think, by my seven year old’s desire to get out from under his parents’s thumb. He’s autistic. His judgement is impaired. We can’t trust him to wander – which means that his father and I watch him constantly, are always with him. But he also has a powerful urge to be alone, and an appropriate 7 year old’s desire to explore, have adventures and do cool things. There’s nothing wrong with his intellect and he’s an ordinary kid inside, with ordinary desires to do stuff. It is hard to know what Eli was thinking because he can’t talk to us, but I suspect that some of my fear was created by the protection I’ve so lovingly arranged for him.

It isn’t an irony I know how to navigate, and I’m not sure how other parents should. But I suspect most of us are going to have to risk our children in some way, balancing one risk (not enough food for the winter) against another (accidental death) in a less certain, less secure world. I suspect we may get happier, more confident, more competent children from this harrowing by fire that demands they learn to keep themselves safe, but that will be no real consolation for those of us who pay too high a price.

But there are some things we can do to keep this freer world safer for kids – reduce the sheer number of cars, teaching more safety skills to our children. Perhaps most of us could have “walk only” areas in our towns or communities. More of us could risk a little bit more, so that there were more children of various ages working together to protect one another. And perhaps we can bring more adults home to work and domesticate, so that children need not be roaming their world unobserved or unprotected.

Sharon, who is perhaps reading too much into _Blueberries for Sal_ ;-) .

The Foster Stash

Sharon March 21st, 2012

A number of fellow foster parents have asked me about this, and so my motives for writing this are somewhat multi-purpose.  The first is to give other foster parents who might be interested a look at my stash and a permanent URL to direct them to when potential foster parents want to know what they need to do this.

The second is to point out to other people who might expect extended family arrivals in a crisis (environmental, economic, etc..) what I’ve learned about what I need.  Although preparing to receive foster chidren isn’t exactly the same as prepping for your Mother, your cousin Cece, her two kids and their dogs to arrive at your house, there are some real similarities sometimes, so my hope is that this can be useful to you.

In a way, taking foster placements is excellent preparation for preparing to receive family (biological or chosen, as always) in a crisis.  Most of all, the arrivees are TRAUMATIZED – that is, it isn’t like receiving guests.  Doing this has made me step up some parts of my preparation, recognizing that some adaptations that people under ordinary circumstances would be able to make simply are too hard for people who had undergone trauma.   Comfort and familiarity count for a lot.

When we began to get ready to take foster placements, I took the general advice not to gather too much stuff – I made a quick trip to Goodwill and figured that what I mostly needed was a change of clothes for any kids we got and some PJs.  I bought a few things for summer (it was June at the time), mostly girl stuff (I have plenty of boy clothes as you can imagine), a can of infant formula, etc… I looked at our age range (0-9) and thought about how big my 9 year old was, and figured “ok, I can use him as a model, kids won’t be bigger than size 10…” and figured I was done.  Then we had some actual placements and realized that what we had was woefully inadequate for the life we actually lead..

This information will probably be most useful to you if you either would prefer to have a signficant stash for some reason (ie, you enjoy organizing this stuff) or if you have some of the same criteria we have.  They are:

1. We live out in the boonies at a distance from major shopping.

2. Due to busy work and family schedules, we often have only a few days per week on which we can get out and run errands.  Because we take emergency placements at odd hours, we can’t have to cancel everything/miss work every time we get a placement.

3. We only have one family vehicle and sometimes it is in use and away from the farm all day.

4. We take large sibling groups – we’ve had up to six foster children at a time.

5. My state prescribes obligations like doctors appointments within 48 hours and often immediate visitation that can take up a lot of time, particularly for large groups of children – that is, the first couple of business days after a placement can be mostly spent meeting state requirements, not shopping.

6. I already have a bunch of kids, so dragging everyone to Target or Goodwill at 6pm immediately after they arrive is not my idea of a good time. Neither is staying home alone with 9 children, half traumatized and newly arrived, while Eric goes to Target.

7. We have at least one day per week when we do not engage in commerce for reasons of religion/principle and we prefer not to violate that for foster placements.

8. We take older children who have strong feelings about their situation that sometimes require accomodation – when you’ve just lost everything, liking the PJs you have to put on or the food put in front of you or that there be a suitcase for your stuff is really important.  If,  however, you mostly take very young children you might have less adjusting to tastes.

9. We already had to make space for a stash of many things anyway, both because of bulk buying and pantry cooking and also because we have four boys who go through clothes – so I already had the basic infrastructure in place to expand.

All of which simply adds up to mean that if you plan to take one baby only in planned pre-adoptive placements and you live 10 minutes from shopping, this probably isn’t something you need to do – get a couple of onesies and a can of formula and you’ll be fine.  If at least two or three of those criteria apply to you, you might want to think about getting more serious about stashing.

When we have children arrive on a Thursday night or Friday (which has happened more than once), we often can’t get everyone out shopping until Tuesday.  For five children, that’s five nights of PJS for each kid, a winter coat or light jacket (most kids arrive with little or seasonally inappropriate clothing – think shorts in late November, a light jacket in January, or just a t-shirt and diaper in winter) depending on season, possibly hats and mittens, and at least five days clothing per kid – more if the kids are not toilet trained, have accidents do to stress or arrive in upstate NY in mud season ;-) .  At least one or two outfits have to be nice quality for visitation and trips to synagogue.    You begin to grasp the scale of this – and there’s more. I’ve never, for example, had children arrive wearing appropriately fitting shoes.  We also do not own a dryer, and have a large household so laundry turn-around time isn’t that fast.

When I first started, I assumed that my large stash of boy’s clothes would be fine to use on girls for a few days.  I underestimated how upsetting this would be for some of the girls in our care.  for example, I didn’t bother with girl baby clothes at all, figuring that babies don’t have opinions – and they don’t.   But their big sisters and brothers often do feel quite strongly about what the baby wears, or what they wear.  When kids come into foster care they’ve lost home and parents, often been hurt and traumatized in many ways – it isn’t hard to push them over the edge.  Where you can say to your own comparatively healthy kids “suck it up” ;-) , you just can’t do that to kids in crisis – so I have come to feel that having attractive, gender appropriate clothing for kids who care about this (not all, but some) is a big issue, balm for stressed out little souls.  It is also very helpful in enticing children scared of the tub (because sometimes bad stuff happens in tubs and sometimes kids haven’t been in one often) to take a bath.  Sometimes a pretty dress or a pair of PJs with a favorite Disney character on it can help ease the way into the tub.

Along with meeting the children’s needs, we also had limited funds to spend on this project – and a need for ongoing supplies.  Because we take short-term placements that often go home, to extended family or another foster family they have a prior relationship with, we need to be able to give them things.  Not only is it not fair to other foster parents or family for the kids to arrive with nothing and the whole burden be cast on them, for kids old enough to understand, it is humiliating to arrive with a few ratty, inappropriate things in a garbage bag.  Sometimes family is also very, very poor, and if we don’t send them home with a winter coat or shoes that fit, a hat and mittens, they just won’t have them.  So the things in my stash rotate a lot (actually things have been very quiet here of late, so “a lot” is relative -but we’ve also had busy stretches) – they get given to children and we have to replace them – cheaply.

The state does subsidize some of this stuff, but in New York, some of it is reimburseable, while others are compensated over time.  So, for example, children in my care get about a buck a day (depending on age) as a clothing allowance – but of course, we have to buy them clothing at the beginning, and it would be months before that money was paid back normally.  If they leave in five days, we get $5 for all their clothing – but often send them with much, much more.  Formula is reimburseable until we get WIC for them, but most other items are not – they are part of the board payments (about $15 per day) – again, which is fine, except that costs are  heavily front-loaded to the first couple of weeks, so in short-term placements, they rarely get reimbursed totally.  This is fine, and something we don’t begrudge – but in order to do it, and keep sending kids off fully outfitted with basic needs met, we have to do it cheaply.

We also don’t benefit from some subsidies.  Technically children receive WIC payment to help with food costs, but in practical terms, I have never used them because the quality of most of the food covered by WIC is so low – no organic or locally produced milk, only the cheapest, only sugary peanut butters, etc…  So we don’t get that subsidy, and simply pay out of pocket for much more expensive, higher quality food for them.  My estimate is that half of the daily subsidy gets spent on meeting their food needs because a decent diet is so fundamental to helping them get better.

Sometimes the county will reimburse for some things, but only after placement – but I need them right at the moment of placement. The critical issues here for us so far are formula and car seats.  In both cases, the county will pay for them – but only for children already in our care.  But given that one of our first placements involved an almost immediate trip to the ER, not having a suitable carseat is not ok – because we can’t take them to the ER in anything but an ambulance.  In some cases we’ve had to pick the kids up, and we need appropriate car and booster seats for that.  The same issues apply to formula – kids arrive without it, and they need to eat now, but the county will only reimburse for purchases after the kids are in our care.  So we simply have had to eat a few of these expenses to make things work.  You can get used car and booster seats, but be VERY careful with the carseats and ask about any accidents since they can affect their safety even if not visibly.

We have been incredibly fortunate to have lots of supportive friends, families and blog readers help us out – from my teenage friend who gave us her childhood dollhouse to my friends who pass on their daughter’s clothing, to readers who have sent cloth diapers, bedding and clothes, to my family, we’ve been blessed.  My mother takes it on herself to buy some new clothing for each placement so they will have a dressy outfit to go to visits with, an scours her local used clothing store for me to fill in gaps.  My youngest sister passes on clothing from her three daughters and friends with daughters.  My MIL has helped stock us with all the little things that have to be bought new at each placement – underpants, socks, bottles and pacifiers…  We’ve been so lucky to have so much support.  Given the lack of placements and all the help we’ve received, we’re in a really good place right now, even able to share with other foster parents.

Some of the items on the below list may not go with your sense of “Sharon sustainability nut” – some of them are driven by explicit legal or implicit real requirements of fostering.  For example, I legally can cloth diaper, but I must send disposable diapers for visits with family – which means keeping disposables on hand.  I can’t feed my own milk even if I pasteurize it, so I must buy milk.  The expectation is that kids will be clean whenever they are seen by social workers and family – so, for example, I can’t just send the in their farm play clothes the way I might take my own kids out in the world.  Moreover, unfortunately, it doesn’t make economic or social sense for me to buy a high-quality wooden-handled toothbrush with replaceable bristles for kids who are going with their grandparents in a few days – nor would the grandparents thank me for giving them something unfamiliar instead of a regular old plastic toothbrush.  Ultimately, there are some compromises we make to improve the basic situation for the kids – and that’s ok with me.  I’m trying hard not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good we can do.

So, after all that lead in, here’s what we stock and how we get it:

- Clothing in every size for boys from preemie to men’s medium.  This is something I didn’t buy specifically for foster care – my kids have worn all these sizes, and I just didn’t give it all away.  Some sizes I did need to stock up on, particularly boys clothes 18mos to 4T, most of which I’d passed on already, but I got some of what I gave away back and have received more.  The rest is just part of the stash I’ve always kept for my four sons, buying several sizes ahead when I get good deals.  I keep one big bin of clothing for all sizes I currently have need of or will have need of for my sons, one small box (standard cardboard) of all other sizes except baby stuff, where I keep less.

- Clothing for girls in every size from newborn to 16.  I originally kept a much smaller stash of girl’s clothes, and stopped at size ten, since I figured our oldest son at age 8 had only been in a 10, and he was tall.  I then had a placement involving 5 kids, 13, 12, 8, 6 and 8 months and discovered my error.  The 8 year old was wearing size 14 already, the 13 year old could wear some of my clothes.  Kids come in lots of different sizes, I was reminded.  We don’t normally take kids that old, but just in case we do again, I upped my sizes considerably.

(In a total digression, I’ve found myself giving away a much higher percentage of the things I get for free for girls than boys – while most of my close friends and readers seem to have similar parameters to me, a few of the bags I’ve gotten have included clothing that straight-out appalls me.  With boys I generally only get rid of the truly militaristic or violent image clothing, or those things with advertising on them, there’s just a lot more girl’s clothing out there that I wouldn’t let a child of mine (however short-term) wear for any sum.  You probably know what I mean – a recent bag included, among other things, short-shorts with the word “Cutie-Pie” or with advertising across the butt.  Seriously?!?!  Those were umm…rehomed.)

How do I get so much clothing affordably?  There’s a lot of kids clothing out there – the first thing I recommend you do is ASK – tell everyone what you need. I’ve gotten so much wonderful clothing from friends and friends-of-friends, much of it just beautiful.  The rest I buy at yard sales and used clothing stores.  Because I’ve been doing this for 12 years for my sons, it isn’t that hard to build up a stash this way.

- Winter coats in most sizes, boy, girl and gender neutral.  All kids arrive inappropriately dressed in my experience either with too-small, too big, filthy or no winter clothing.  Or if they do have it, it may need significant cleaning that takes several days, and the kids can’t wait.  My stash comes from a mix of kind friends and readers, family and my sons’ own things.

- Shoes.  I haven’t officially stocked up beyond what I always kept for my kids (we do pass down good quality shoes in my family, which btw, the American Academy of Podiatrists says is fine, as long as the shoes aren’t terribly worn), but I’ve always kept a fair number of shoes because my kids can surprise me by growing fast, and at some times of year might need several pairs as others go in the wash.  When shoes have come in with the various bags of clothing, I’ve added them.   Nice girls’ dress shoes were particularly welcome since a friend gave us a large stash of dresses of various sizes, and most of the little girls I have had have loved dressing up.

- Hats and mittens – I didn’t buy a lot of extra here, and I don’t feel an immediate strong need to worry about gender – my kids often have red or green hats and mittens anyway, but I did use up some pink and purple yarn I had lying around from another project making a few hats and mittens, and have tried to keep enough to give away.  Kids never have these.  Now that winter is winding down, I’ll knit some more for next year’s stash.

- Underpants and socks – these need to be new (at least in our county, although I doubt they check), and my wonderful MIL has kept me stocked, so that I can send a whole package home with kids and not worry.  If you don’t have my wonderful MIL helping you ;-) , I would look for those with minor imperfections sold more cheaply.  I also keep some tights around for girls winter wear – got ‘em cheap on sale.

- Diapers, pull-ups and goodnites.  I have pretty much every conceivable size of diaper and pull-up out there.  Most I bought new with coupons from the diaper sites (often very large coupons).  Some I got for free from parents who kids had toilet trained recently – half a pack will get me through a good bit.  My oldest, disabled son wears Goodnites to sleep anyway, so we already had those.  If you are going to only have a few sizes, I’d go with newborn (size 1 will not fit most really small babies, and you’ll have a mess, so if you might get a brand-new or preemie child have these on hand), 1, 3, and then a couple of sizes of pull-ups to get through a few days.  I also keep baby wipes around for bringing to visits, even though I use cloth at home.

Thanks to two kind readers and what little survived four boys ;-) , I also have a good stash now of cloth diapers and plastic pants.  These are primary for us – and awesome.  Cloth diapers keep getting better and better.  I also have plenty of five gallon buckets to use as a diaper pail (make sure they have a tight-fitting lid so that toddlers can’t fall in).

(Bedwetting is absolutely normal in these situations, even more the norm than not.  Kids first of all regress under stress, second of all, accidents are just a normal consequence of extreme trauma, and kids may be afraid to get up in the night or confused about where the bathroom is or have many other issues.  I think some larger pull-ups are great for older kids who have ongoing bedwetting issues, but I wouldn’t put kids in pull-ups all the time unless they say they were using them before immediately – it may just be stress and a new place.  But having diapers and pull-ups, even for kids older than you would have anticipated needing these things is a good idea.

The more you can do to make bedwetting not a huge deal, especially with older kids that may have been punished for it or who may be humiliated, the better everyone is.  I have a friend who takes only teens, and recounted the story of a 15 year old girl who had an accident the first night in home and was terrified and thought she would be beaten for it.  One of the sibling groups in our home arrived having been treated VERY punitively for wetting the bed – and they were only 3 and 4 years.  Having the supplies on hand to get deal with it quickly and easily when it inevitably happens – changes of clothes or PJs, plenty of bedding, mattress covers and pads, and pull-ups or Goodnites can be a huge help for scared kids – once they see it isn’t a big deal for you, the situation often gets better.  Several of my biological children have wet the bed and we’ve gotten accustomed to it – I think parents respond most calmly when they have all the tools to just adapt, deal and get everyone back to bed quickly, while keeping kids as comfortable as possible.

I say this because bedwetting is famously a huge issue for foster parents – I didn’t understand initially why they kept harping on bedwetting (which has been part of my life for nigh-forever) as a big issue, until my mother, who was a social worker for DSS in MA for years observed that people often ask for kids to be removed from placements because they can’t deal with wetting – that it is a common “push people over the edge” issue.  I think it is frankly unacceptable to further traumatize a kid because they wet the bed, so it is really important that foster parents be set up to deal with it so that they don’t get overwhelmed.

- That brings us to bedding, and plenty of it – even the best protection sometimes gets leaked through.  First of all, mattress pads for all beds, even if you don’t think they will be slept on by kids of the bedwetting age.   Remember story about the 15 year old – losing your home and family is incredibly stressful for kids and it causes issues that wouldn’t come up in kids not in those situations.  Waterproof mattress protection, plenty of sheets, plenty of washable blankets (don’t use grandma’s heritage bedspread ;-) ), and pads that can go over the sheet are a great tool.  You can actually put sheets on a bed, put a soft mattress pad OVER those sheets and make it again, so that if the wetting is chronic, you can just strip off the bed and put the child immediately back into a made bed.  Just keep clean PJs out and the whole thing (except the wash) can be resolved in 3 minutes.  I would have at least 3 sets of sheets for each bed, summer and winter (if you want flannel).

- On the subject of beds, if you are going to take larger, multi-aged sibling groups, flexible arrangements are the key to making everyone fit.  Every state has different rules about how old opposite gender kids can be and still share a room, or whether babies can be in your room or not.  We’ve had to use as many as three bedrooms for a placement, and as few as one, even though they were four kids.  In NY porta-cribs are allowed for a couple of days or while travelling, but not as a permanent arrangement.  We have three single beds, a crib, a porta-crib and several double beds or futons so that we can adapt to a lot of different situations.  Again, ask around for things that people aren’t using – we got our bunk beds that way (not legal in every state) and a toddler bed as well. Do check the recall lists on anything for babies or young kids.

- Car seats.  We have to take kids to the doctor right away, we have to meet other needs, and we can’t risk not being able to drive a kid for medical care right away, so having these on hand is essential.  What we did was when we opened, we bought a car seat and paid full price for it, and we had several extra boosters (my own children’s old car seats were long since given away), and then we have purchased others as younger children have come into our care.  Car seats are expensive, especially the good quality ones that go to reasonably high weights, so this is a fairly large cost – but important.  I would not want to wait until the next day to have a carseat with a child that might need immediate medical care – on the other hand, I don’t mind using a safe but not perfect (ie, not the one I want in the long term in terms of weight and design – safety isn’t a compromise) car seat someone gave me until I can buy another.  I do see these for sale at yard sales, but wouldn’t buy carseats (as opposed to boosters) without talking to the owner extensively.  Do check recall lists before you use anything used as well.

- Stuffed animals.  I’ve never had a kid of any age who didn’t need something to cuddle when they came to my home.  I take used stuffed animals from my friends with college-age kids (who often have a big pile that they’ve abandoned) and from other friends cleaning out. Kohls also sells large, high quality stuffed animals for $5 as part of a charitable fundraising project, and I’ve bought those twice.  My kids also shared some of theirs.  Soft and snuggly are the watchwords here.  Make sure everyone gets their own and all are different so there’s no fighting.

- Formula, both dairy and soy.  You never know what a baby is on already, and babies can’t wait for food.  If you sign up with the major formula companies, they will send you, besides a lot of advertising designed to gently discourage you from nursing ;-P, free cans of formula.  This is well worth it despite the propaganda, since even if you can re-lactate, it is not legal or supported in my state (some few states have programs for supporting foster-breastfeeding, sadly NY is not one of them).  Even if you live in a state that supports foster-nursing, the majority of babies probably will have been started on formula and may not be able to switch.

- Bottles and pacifiers.  I have a couple of different kinds of bottles and nipples, and a few packages of pacifiers.  Most babies we’ve gotten use pacifiers, and you do not want to take away ANY source of comfort for a little person in tough times.  You can get these cheaply if you save coupons or get friends to do it.

- Hair supplies.  Besides the regular stuff for any kid, two issues arise here.  First LICE – ugh.  One of our placements came badly infested with headlice, and most of them were too young to treat chemically (even if I’d wanted to, which I didn’t, but the SW wanted me to do so).  I keep tea-tree oil shampoo, tea tree oil (for dilution and combing through hair) and a high-quality metal nit comb as part of my stash, and all kids heads are checked in the first 24 hours (another reason to have plenty of bedding on hand).  If there are lice you need to deal with that right away.   This is very, very common and lice are just part of life – but being able to deal with them lowers the stress.  Second, African American, African and biracial hair and skin are very different than white hair and skin, and the appropriate tools to oil and braid hair for both boys and girls are important – the AA community feels very strongly about hair care for their kids and judges foster parents on it.  We have a small stash of decorative hair thingies for kids that I bought, plus rat-tailed combs, oils and products suitable.  If you don’t know much about this, this site is a great resource – but all non-AA foster parents need to know what they are doing so that children don’t become uncomfortable and suffer from our ignorance.

- Other hygiene items – toothbrushes, brushes and combs for each kid (especially don’t want them sharing if there are lice), skin oils and lotions, baby supplies, hair doodles etc… You can ask friends who are coupon queens to save coupons for many of these products or buy some in dollar stores.

- Familiar foods (which mostly means processed foods).  Most kids who come into care won’t have had much exposure to fresh foods – and dietary changes in the midst of trauma are tough.  We are asking kids to a adapt a LOT – and it is reasonable for us to expect to go part way.  Some kids have eating issues and are very underweight, and also need food that they will eat more than anything upfront.  We haven’t had much trouble adapting a majority of their diets to healthy stuff – but treats and familiarity go a long way to help kids settle in.  So we keep animal crackers, lollipops and some other familiar treats around so that kids don’t have to go all the way on the first day – time enough to work on that stuff.  I also keep some healthy but familiar snacks around to send home with children so that they get enough food for a bit at home – sadly that can be an issue.

I also keep children’s multivitamins and vitamin D supplements (the latter especially during winter).  Most kids  have had appalling nutrition and probably could use these – it can’t hurt.

- Baby food.  You don’t really need this, but it can be very convenient in the chaos of the first few days to just be able to take a jar of high-quality organic baby food and put it in a diaper bag.  Sometimes babies with reflux or failure to thrive may be prescribed to have rice cereal added to their formula to thicken it as well – having it on hand for a baby who has this recommendation is convenient.  I keep a few jars of baby food and a package of rice cereal, and again, it can be good to send home to parents who couldn’t afford this or don’t really know how to feed babies appropriately.

Basic kid medical supplies – infant tylenol, band aids, benedryl diaper cream, etc…  if you don’t already keep this stuff.  Kids may arrive with injuries that haven’t been treated or health problems like ear infections, etc… Medical neglect (the inability to take care of a kid’s medical needs) is a very common reason for removal.

Baby sling: Newborns who are drug exposed or premature particularly need a lot of holding and a lot of body contact.  There are a lot of kinds of slings and carriers and you may eventually want something different, but simply being able to get through the first couple of days with the baby up against your body will improve your sleep, the baby’s sleep and everyone’s outlook a lot.

- Toys and books.  You don’t have to go overboard on this, but if you don’t have kids, I would recommend having some of this stuff on hand.  We had tons, of course, because we have kids, but found that we really needed some dolls and a dollhouse, particularly dolls of color, since all of our placements have been non-white (AA, biracial or of Indian subcontinental descent).  This is partly, of course, because the children need toys that look like them, but also because you may have to act out complex narratives with pre-verbal or kids with speech delays – and trying to explain with a white fisher price character and a toy castle that they are going to live with their grandmother just doesn’t work – ask me how I know.

Ask around, but you may have to outright buy new dolls that are not white – these just don’t show up that much at yard sales around here – even in diverse neighborhoods.  Fisher price makes an AA doll family (dollhouse dolls with bendable bodies, not “little people” including Mom, Dad, babies in carriers and sister and brother, and there are lots of nice, high quality non-white baby and dress-up dolls out there.  We bought the full fisher price set and a “journey girl” doll (attractive much cheaper American Girl knock off) to add to a few other dolls we already had, and have never regretted the money spent on these.  I also really like “groovy girls” which are soft dolls of ambiguous ethnicity.  You can often get good dolls on ebay or ask others for their pass ons.

For other toys – classic and flexible is what you want – blocks, stacking rings, board games, balls, legos, a toy farm, puzzles – that’s 99% of what gets used in my house no matter how many kids are there.  Have a few chewable baby toys as well – these are easy to get used from friends.  A good set of blocks can be pricey, but you may find them at yard sales.  I often find large boxes of legos that way.  Ask around.

There are some specific books you may find you want if you are going to take foster children, designed to help kids deal with foster care and other issues.  _Maybe Days_ is by far the best of the books for kids 4+ to help them understand what foster care is.  _Murphy’s Three Homes_ can help out the younger set, from 2 and up.  _A Terrible Thing Happened_ is good for helping kids understand their feelings when they are traumatized by violence.  I like _The Surprise Family_ (about a boy who adopts a hen who then raises a clutch of ducklings) for talking about how families can adapt to change “the boy was not the mother the chick had expected, but she loved him anyway.”  _Gregory the Terrible Eater_ is great for helping kids talk about food issues.  For older kids _Understood Betsy_, _Bud, Not Buddy_ _The Ocean Within_ and _The Great Gilly Hopkins_ are really good books that deal with loss of a family, foster care and trauma.  Most of these (except a couple of the older kid books) may not be found at yardsales, but otherwise you can just choose cheap sources of classic children’s books, with an emphasis on diverse images.  BTW, M. and several other foster kids in our home have loved _The Neighborhood Mother Goose_ and _The Neighborhood Songbook_ by Nina Crews, both taking classic songs and poems and placing them in familiar, urban and diverse settings – the kids loved them.

I try and buy cheap duplicate children’s books and nice toys for sending home with kids – again, often there isn’t anything in their new or old homes – and they may not have much experience of age appropriate toys or being read to.  Giving the tools for those things is really important.

- Suitcases, backpacks and bags.  Kids arrive with nothing – or their stuff in garbage bags.  That’s egregiously humiliating and sends the message that they are worthless too.  With all this stuff going home with them, it is important it goes back in a bag that says “this is my stuff and it matters” not a garbage bag or a cardboard box.  We have been able to use suitcases left over from Eric’s grandparents for this, and of course bags are common thrift shop and garage sale finds – a stash is worth having.

Ok, that’s a lot of stuff, I know – but it has made my fostering so much easier and so much more relaxing.  The lesson for those of you not interested in fostering – that taking in those who are traumatized can be more complicated than we perhaps thought.

Edited to add: I’ve had a couple of questions from people about things that AREN’T on this list – for example, strollers and other baby equipment.  My feeling is that if you have a crib and a carseat, clothes and food, everything else is gravy – the easiest way to bathe a baby is to get in the tub yourself and hold the baby there with someone helping you.  A stroller is great, but for a few days you can carry a baby around.   Also, different people have different needs – someone who really feels that a stroller is a great aid from moment one will probably want one.  My observation is that with babies, people usually have too much stuff (I was not excluded from this).  I do actually have a stroller lying around from previous kids, but I have yet to take it out, despite the fact that we’ve had several babies and quite a number of toddlers.

Sharon

The Read-Aloud List

Sharon October 18th, 2011

I will finish my 150 Children’s books list one of these days, but one of the great things to do when times are tough, nights are late, power is out or when everything’s normal for that matter, is read to your kids.  If you don’t have any kids, I encourage you to borrow some if you can, because frankly, reading to children is one of the great pleasures of the universe.  There’s nothing like reading an old favorite (or one you never knew about) and watching someone discover it for the first time to make you happy.  If you don’t have any kids, reading aloud to a partner can be lovely as well, but  a small person snuggled on your lap is nice addition.

With my oldest at 11 1/2, I have now read My Side of the Mountain, the entire Little House series 3 times (and will shortly embark on the fourth), Winnie the Pooh and the Mary Poppins Series four times.  We’re still discovering new books to read and re-read, but I thought I’d mention some of the best, including a few less obvious ones than the classics above.   I’ll also mention a few classics we’ve had less than total success with, although, of course, your mileage may vary.

Every kid in my house gets a story at bedtime (sometimes both of us reading simultaneously) most nights, and the range of preferences is pretty large.  Isaiah likes animal stories and  adventure, Simon likes everything, especially stories that seem real to him,  Eli loves poetry and Asher jumps back and forth (at nearly six) between picture books and chapter books, and has a taste for magic and fantasy.

Good books and good read-alouds are different, I find.  There is considerable overlap between them, of course, but some books that aren’t quite as compelling read to yourself are fabulous read-alouds if you hit them at the right moment in childhood, and some wonderful classics aren’t ideal read-alouds unless you do considerable on-the-fly editing.  Different families will have different opinions, of course, but I find a few ingredients make books especially good for reading out loud.  Many of them come from the virtue that for most of us, reading out loud slows you down, and forces you not to skim over anything.  As a fast reader, what I find is that I am required to take full notice of parts of the book that I might not attend to fully were I not simultaneously reading (or listening to Eric read) and listening.

1. A certain kind of dry humor.  There are some books that are simply funniest when you read the jokes out loud.  My favorite example of this is _Cheaper by the Dozen_ where much of the humor involved is most effective when you hear it read – even the reader will find it funnier that way.  _Three Men in a Boat_ which incredibly wonderful anyway, is another book where simply slowing down to read it out loud makes the comedy more effective.

2. High adventure of a certain sort – storms on boats, pirates, sword fights, horseback races, etc… all demand to be read aloud in minute and meticulous detail – every sword slash or adventure is detailed.  For someone reading silently to themselves, it can be hard to fully savor every detail in the way you can when voices and description beg to be read outloud.  _Treasure Island_, Howard Pyles _Adventures of Robin Hood_ and _The Hound of the Baskervilles_ are obvious examples, but this is, of course, one of the appeals of the Harry Potter books and books like _The Tale of Despereaux_ as well.

3. Certain kinds of style and language.  There isn’t one kind of writing style that is suited to being read out loud to children – wonderful children’s books come in all sorts.  At the same time,  it is harder to hide weaknesses of style when reading aloud than reading to oneself.  I know for example, that I wept at _Black Beauty_ as a girl.  I made a stab at reading it out loud to my kids, however, and we were all bored stiff.  Some children’s books substitute extensive description for good description, frankly.  Particularly for younger children (or for everyone when it is well done) I’m partial to a certain unadorned quality in my language – just good, clean, elegant bare prose (of the kind I never write myself, sadly).  Laura Ingalls Wilder (particularly in _Little House in the Big Woods_ which was the book of hers least amended by her daughter), Robert Heinlein (whose juvenalia like _Have Space Suit Will Travel_ makes for delightful read alouds) and Patricia MacLachlan are all very different practitioners of the art of producing amazingly clean prose for children.  When the writing is more elaborate and stylized, there’s a certain flow and grace to it that allows for good reading – why children who don’t really understand all the words can enjoy _Ivanhoe_ or _Midsummer Night’s Dream_ or _Robinson Crusoe_.  There are some children’s book authors who really have this gift down – Sterling North, E. Nesbit and Jane Yolen can be counted on for stylized prose universally perfect for reading aloud.

I do have one rule for reading children’s books – never assume you want to read a sequel – and never start a book with a thousand sequels unless you are ready to read the other ones.  I admit, my children’s passion for the _Redwall_ books has worn me down some – they are all exactly the same, and while one is delightful, nine is not better.  Also, beware the tagged on sequel – _Ella of All of a Kind Family_ (the last of Sidney Taylors series about a Jewish family in WWI era NY), _The First Four Years_ , _Jo’s Boys_ and all the books after the second Anne Shirley book get old pretty fast for the reader.  Some children are content to say “ok, this isn’t very good, let’s stop” others must complete a sequence.  It certainly won’t kill me to read books I find dull, and I do (and hey, it is better than the years of reading _Green Eggs and Ham_ nine times a day, or worse when Eli at about a year had to read the thrilling cliff-hanger _Who Says Quack?_ over and over again), but it can save someone some trouble to establish a stopping point early on.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich  A wonderful, charming, funny book about growing up among the 19th century Ojibwe.  Frankly, if I was going to read the _Little House_ series, with its problematic relationships to Native Americans and westward expansion, I thought it was important that my kids read books that were just as compelling and brilliant about the Native Experience – and this is a glorious book to balance the expansionist, manifest destiny narrative that underlies so many westward bound children’s books.  Elizabeth Speare’s _The Sign of the Beaver_ is another good one.

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.  We first read this on a car trip into Vermont (if you can read in a car without getting sick  (I can, Eric can’t)  and have an adult or teen to do so, it is a wonderful way to make trips pass) and read the entire book.  It is a wonderful story for younger kids about a little girl who has been denied competence by her loving aunts, and who gains it when she comes to live with a Vermont farm family.  Simon has asked us to read this several times, even though he’s really a bit too old for it, because it is so beloved.

Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan  There is no real evidence that this ever happened, but that doesn’t change the fact that the story of young Norwegian children sneaking gold past Nazis on their sleds isn’t just one of the most enjoyable children’s books out there.  I adored it as a child, and after reading it out loud to my sons, it received the encomium “It is just too short.”  It also has a somewhat unique narrative in that this is a story not about children shedding the adults in their lives, or about malicious or foolish adults, but about adults and children of both genders working in tandem together, and respecting each other’s capacities.

Rascal by Sterling North  I loved this book as a child, and particularly enjoyed reading it to my sons.  Isaiah, especially adored the stories, which are tinged with both nostalgia and sorrow, and regard the adult world with a critical eye that I think resonates with children.  Rascal is Sterling North’s pet racoon, and his stories of growing up in a world only marginally touched by adults are glorious.  This is the ideal animal story book.

Meet the Austins by Madeline L’Engle.  My kids liked here Wrinkle in Time and the Murray/O’Keefe series a lot, but somehow the Austins, without the science-fictiony details have appealed to them more, perhaps because they feel very real.  We picked this one because it deals with some of the issues of adding difficult children to your life, but it also is a book that simply describes what it is like to be a kid in an unusual family very well.  Unfortunately, most of the sequels deal with Vicky Austin’s love life and aren’t of any particular interest to my boys, all of whom are too young to regard that as anything but revolting.

Captains Courageous I admit, I’ve often Kippled. I like Kiping’s children’s literature quite a lot, and this is my favorite – perhaps because I grew up along the New England coast in a family that included a number of fishermen, I have a taste for boat literature.  We’re working our way on this now, and loving every second of it.  This is the perfect children’s adventure story in many ways.

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis – my sons loved this story of Great-Depression era wanderings of an orphaned Michigan boy seeking to find his father.  Through tent cities, bad foster homes and into the jazz world, Bud is just a delightful character and again, very real seeming.

Some failures:

The Swiss Family Robinson I remember liking this one, but my kids hated it.  Besides the heavy handed Christian moralism, which didn’t bother me as a kid, but does annoy my children, their main objection was the perfectly correct statement “but every time they see a new animal, they shoot it.”  Plus, they correctly thought that it was too convenient that everything anyone could want was always available on the ship.

On to Oregon by Honore Morrow.  You know, I’m a big proponent of addressing the problems of racism and sexism in older children’s books by discussion, rather than demanding that all great books be untroubling in those regards.  At the same time, there are a few books we’ve taken a shot at that turned out to be so appallingly racist without having much else to redeem them that I simply couldn’t read them.  _On to Oregon_ was one of them – the “all indians should be murdered” rhetoric is just to revolting to bother with.  I found _Half Magic_ (which I’d loved as a kid) and _Hitty: Her First 100 Years_ to also be simply without sufficient virtue to justify working through the worldview they arose from.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri  I’ve never been able to get my kids into this, even though they should like the goats, the reasonably light-handed German romanticism and the story.  I admit, when I was a kid I kind of skimmed lightly over the long section about Heidi’s exile in the city myself, preferring her life on the mountain, but my children just got bored there and started to wander off.  I don’t think it is the gender thing (plenty of books about girls in our repetoir, giving the lie to the claim that boys won’t read about girls – although if they start kissing, boys or girls are right off Simon and Isaiah’s list), and I’m not sure what it is.

This is only a partial list of some of our favorites, but perhaps you’ll have suggestions of your own!

Sharon

Doing Has No Need of Wishing

Sharon April 29th, 2010

This weekend we attended an event at the library designed to get kids excited about poetry – each age level had a different writing and art project to do.  The project for first graders involved making  a list of wishes, and Isaiah set laboriously to writing down his most secret desire.  At six, he does not write easily or fluently, although his spelling is quite good.  And there, scrawled across a whole page, meant the long list of wishes that one assumes fill the dreams of small children, was this “I wish I had a farm.”

This occasioned some comment among the event’s organizers – a number of the adults mentioned that they too had the same wish, and expressed surprise that a child should wish for this.  There was amusement when I said that we did, in fact,  live on a farm.  But I also knew what Isaiah meant.

You see, Isaiah from as early as I can remember, took to this life in ways my other children did not.  They all love the animals and the open spaces, the creek and the gardens, the climbing trees and the woods to play in, but of all my children, Isaiah is organically, naturally, innately a farm child.  Of my sons, he is the most fascinated by plants and animals, most anxious to participate in anything domestic.  When he was younger, he hated to leave the farm, although he’s grown more adventurous with time.

Isaiah loves to cook and can bake a mean pan of cornbread almost by himself or a sheet full of chocolate chip cookies.  He can name more plants than Eric can, and when Asher scraped a finger recently, Isaiah was the one who ran to the lamb’s ears to make a bandage for him.  Every animal on the farm likes and trusts him, and he alone can pick up every bird on the whole farm.  He loves to build and mend things.  When he was two, as we left for a visit to his Grandmother in New York City, each child was allowed to pick something to bring with them for the trip.  My other children brought favorite books and toys.  Isaiah brought a salad he’d picked himself – sorrel, mint, lettuce, mizuna, arugula – as a gift for his grandmother.  I think that salad still says something deep about my child.

He’s not a perfect child by any means – he can be just as cranky and mean to his brothers as anyone else –  but he has an astounding generosity for a child his age, something that seems innate in him, since he has had it since birth.  When there isn’t enough candy to go around, Isaiah is the first to offer his up to a friend or a brother.  He likes giving things away so much that he saves up his money to make more donations of trees and animals to the Heifer Fund than the ones we subsidize.  If he does spend his money on himself, it is often for plants – while his brothers want candy or toys, Isaiah just bought himself a bamboo plant which he carefully carries out to the porch each morning and in every cold night.  I take no credit for any of this – it all comes from deep inside of him, and we are fortunate that he is so well suited to his place.

And I know, because he tells us, what Isaiah’s farm dream is – he wants more animals, more kinds of creatures.  He wants a tall, two story barn with a hayloft, and ideally, barn cats to chase and bales of hay to climb in.  He wants more of the animals to be his own special ones, his to care for and choose.  He wants to sell more things, be a true working farm with people coming down the drive to buy eggs and plants – and sometimes from him.  He wants it to be beautiful to others, beautiful to us, integral to the landscape and to the community – the place our neighbors come to buy what they need that we can provide.  He wants to be part of the diversified small farm of every child’s dream.

I admit, I dream of a hayloft myself, but I can’t give him that…as yet.  Our hay barn remains a small, low building.  But what we can perhaps give him is precisely the rest of it – slowly, slowly we are returning from days Isaiah can barely remember, to being a true working farm.  Over the years of my intensive writing projects, we’ve let many of things we did in our first CSA years fall apart – the gardens were enough to feed us but have gotten smaller, many maintenence projects were deferred for lack of time and energy as the computer took up more and more of my days.

I still have to finish one more book (by spring of next year), but the pace has slowed and I am able to focus on our next steps.   Like Isaiah, I have a “real farm dream” – but it is slightly different.  It has more perennials in it, and different animals, a hoophouse for winter greens, summer heat lovers and rapid solar drying of my herbs.  It has a small building for displaying our wares – the eggs, the bedding plants and herbs, the tinctures, salves and creams, salad greens and flower,  a list of other products for sale - rabbits, dairy goats, baby chicks. 

Eventually it has a two story barn with a hayloft and room enough for all the creatures that eat our good grass and grow fat and rich with milk.  Eventually, I dream there will be hayloft.

Someday I dream of  barter with the neighbors for pasturage, perhaps, for a pair of working horses to haul logs out of the woods for firewood and cut hay.  Or maybe we’ll finally break down and get a tractor, who knows.  I understand the horses better, though.

Eventually the young perennials I am planting right now will grow large and begin to produce, and I will have nuts and new fruits to sell, and elderberry syrup and currant and aronia juice to sell.  I’m waiting until the children have the fun of climbing up the trees to help the harvest – it is hard to believe that someday they will need to climb.

Eventually, we will begin seeing the fruit of our breeding and selecting of small backyard dairy goats for thrift and hardiness – and I hope we will begin to see them popping up in yards.  I find that the best advertisement for the goats is the goats themselves – it is not possible to meet them without beginning to consider ways you could bring these small creatures home to your own yard.

I’m still mulling over sheep in the long term, and a host of other projects.  My goal is a year round income – products that come and go with each season, workloads that move around the year, if not evenly, gracefully. 

I dream of a place to teach classes, to invite people in.  I dream of neighbors all sitting down to a homegrown thanksgiving turkey.  I dream of open-farm days and tomato tastings. 

I have no idea how many of these dreams will come true, or whether Isaiah will ever get the farm he dreams of.  I hope he does – at least some of it – with us. I hope as he grows bigger, we are wise enough to let him make as much as he can of our place in his image, so that he doesn’t feel he has to go off, seeking a farm that he could never find at home.  I tell him that we can try and make our farm into what he wants – that it will take time and determination and work, and if he’s not afraid of those things, it may well happen.

The old saying “Doing has no need of wishing” is only partly true, you know.  It is true that you need not stand about in hopeless desire for something that seems so far away an unattainable if you set to making it happen.  But there is a time and a place for wishing, for the innocent dreaming of what could be.  I’m glad my son wishes a farm, and I’m looking forward to a long future of doing the work of making both our wishes come true.

Sharon

Come and Play…

Sharon November 18th, 2009

There was a lot of attention last week to Sesame Street’s 40th birthday.  For Eric and me, 39 and 37, well,  we just can’t remember a time when Sesame Street didn’t exist.  My family didn’t always have a television, but Sesame Street is one of my enduring childhood memories – and my parents liked it too.  My father sang the number songs to us – the Alligator King and his 7 sons, the 8 penny candy man, the 12 Ladybug picnic.  It was an often-present part of my childhood in all the places we lived – the apartment in New Haven, the housing project in Naugatuck, CT, the apartment in Lynn, MA.

None of these were affluent places, and one of the things I remember best about Sesame Street is that it looked like home – the stoops were a little worn looking, the people looked more or less like my neighbors, and did the same things urban, working class people seemed to do, except of course, for their strange obsession with the alphabet and the presence of muppets. 

Sesame Street tracked me even after I got too old for it.  My youngest sister, 7 years my junior, still watched, and I would pass by and find myself stopped in front of the “D” song again.  Then I went to college, and our Sesame Street memories would come up in conversation – there was something foundational about it for many of the people I knew. One friend remembered how she learned english, a new immigrant child, from Sesame Street, heartened by the fact that there were people with accents on the program. 

I know there’s a lot to be said against television, and I can agree with almost all of it – but I have a hard time thinking that Sesame Street did me any harm.  In fact, I think it was the opposite – and I admit, while we went into parenthood wanting to minimize television exposure, Sesame Street was a single exception.  Both Eric and I loved it, and we wanted our children to know Cookie Monster and have the same sense of familiar comfort.  Our debate about whether to allow the occasional video was ended when Eli, autistic, responded to television in ways he could not respond to human teaching – he learned to read from Sesame Street and Between the Lions.  The judicious application of Kermit was in.

The problem was that the Sesame Street we’d loved was gone.  By the time Eli was old enough to watch, Sesame Street had responded to pressure from cable and other sources of television and dumbed down.  Faced with more competition and pressure on public television, Sesame Street responded by choosing a much younger audience, shortening the required attention span, cutting back on real content and replacing it with a lengthy “Elmo’s Room” segment – and it had switched from telling kids “it is ok to live an ordinary, lower-class or lower-middle class lifestyle, that lifestyle has a culture that is valuable” and had started telling them, along with everyone else “it is good to be affluent.”

The first Sesame Street had begun with Stevie Wonder singing “Superstitition” and had encouraged, with in-jokes and smart material, parents to watch with their kids.  My father recounts sitting with my sister and I and hearing the Count tell children “I am the finest counter since formica!”  That’s gone from contemporary Sesame Street, which talks down to kids, and is intolerable to every adult I know. 

Now it is not wholly Sesame Street’s fault that these changes came about.  There are a lot fewer parents home to watch tv with their kids, so why spend time writing scripts that are compelling to adults?  Now kids as aged as four or five are “far too old” for something as slow paced as Sesame Street, and have long since graduated to more advanced material.  And the culture has suburbanized as well – now more than half of the world’s poor live in the suburbs.

But some of this was Sesame Street’s fault.  Consider the rise of  Elmo as an example.  Consider Elmo, if you can bear it.  Fully 1/3 of Sesame Street’s content was at one point devoted to the happenings in Elmo’s bedroom.  What do we see in Elmo’s room?  Well, first of all, he has a lot of private media – he has both a television and a computer in his own bedroom.  The drawn landscape outside his window is resolutely suburban.  His room is full of possessions, and Elmo rarely goes out of it in these segments – instead, he watches people demonstrate things on his tv, or through his computer.  When he wants to learn more about something, he doesn’t go to the library, but back to the computer – that is, his is a multiply-mediated experience.  By now, I’m sure he has a blackberry too.

There’s something really troubling about setting your three year old to watch a muppet watching something on tv.  What does that teach? What was valuable about Sesame Street to millions of children was that it mirrored their own material reality, and validated it, and said that they could learn in that context.  It said that your real home, small, not wealthy, often ethnic, not shiny, clean “American” but a mix, somewhat gritty, filled with people like you and unlike you in close proximity, hanging on stoops and out windows, was ok, and good, and a wonderful place to learn and grow.  It reminded us that community was more important than affluence – I knew suburban kids growing up in the 80s who envied Sesame Street.  It was one of the most powerfully formative counter-balances to the growing culture of white flight, suburbanization and the valorization of affluence.

Contrast the indoor sequences of Bert and Ernie with the indoor sequences of Elmo.  First, and most importantly, Bert and Ernie had each other – it is implied that Elmo lives with his parents, but the experience he offers is primarily solitary (with the occasional exception of  a guest that comes out of the closet) – people mostly appear through screens.  Bert and Ernie read books and interact, and Ernie drives Bert crazy – but they also care for each other.  Elmo interacts with a variety of animated household objects – lots of furniture and machinery, but no people – he loves his blankie, and his tv and his computer.   

It is true that many low income children do have tvs in their rooms – but Sesame Street presumably sets out to validate not pernicious trends, but good ones.  And we know from every sort of research that one of the worst possible things for children is for them to be left unsupervised with lots of media.  Ideally, no one would watch tv, perhaps.  But in a world where most people do, Sesame Street can at least be minimally expected to respond to that trend by emphasizing community – instead, they gave us Elmo and his room, and his private intimacy with the screen.

And that’s the big loss from Sesame Street over the years (we’ll skip over the depressing Abby Kadavy entirely here) – is that there’s no there there anymore.  As Sesame Street became more suburbanized – it added a playground, spiffed up and reduced the communal elements of its programming, it gave us a vision of childhood that is probably accurate, but empty of the culture that Sesame Street once offered.  And since by sticking to its past, Sesame Street had the chance to offer a vision of what we could get back – but instead, it accepted the emptying of culture into an affluent blank.  Moreover, we got the dumbing down of everything.

It is true that most neighborhoods don’t have as many people hanging out on stoops anymore. It is true that more parents are gone during the day, and more kids are alone with their media. It is true that community isn’t something we value anymore.  It is true that parents don’t let their kids out into the neighborhood as much anymore.  It is true that we hate anything that smacks of being poor, and we have a harder time imagining validating it.  And it is true that in some small respects, the actors and writers of Sesame Street have truly tried to make it possible for children to imagine a place where you play outside, where people talk to one another and help one another out. 

But in the main, Sesame Street gave up on its most basic message – which is “here are the things you need to know – that these numbers and letters are important – but also, that people are important, and how they live together are important, and how they get along is important,  but stuff isn’t important.”  The culture of low-income urban life was a communal culture at its root – people needed each other. I grew up in that culture – my mother babysat for the neighbors’ kids, they babysat for us, the big kids walked with the little ones to school, the parents shared tips and gave each other rides.  It wasn’t perfect or idyllic, but it was valuable and worth having – and the only way to live a good life in a place where no one had enough money – the community compensated.

The culture shift that overtook our society overtook Sesame Street.  It wasn’t acceptable to be poor – the backgrounds got shined up, and Elmo got rich.  The community stopped being the center of things – and an hour of fairly sustained, repeating narrative that covered a theme got shifted to short segments with a letter here and a number here, but no overarching context for the child’s mind to return to.  Elmo got his own spot, and so two and three year olds got to spend their time watching Elmo, in his room, a priveleged little boy with talking tv, watching more tv, so that things were happening only very faintly and far away.

The friendly neighbors, there, that’s where you meet – you don’t meet them as much anymore.  I admire Sesame Street for its ability to continue, and to preserve it’s cast – there’s a part of me that is pleased that the Maria of my childhood is still the Maria of my children’s childhood.  But as we head back to a time when then neighbors are more important than anything, when learning in community, and the ordinary acts of every day, low income life are more normative, I wish that Sesame Street had been able to continue in the courage of its own convictions – but maybe that’s asking too much.  Asking Sesame Street to keep valuing things that we as a society have not valued may be unfair.  And yet, that’s how it started.

Sharon

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