Practical Life with Little Ones

I was going to write a full-blown post on the Montessori approach to practical life.  Then, I remembered that Rebecca has already written two and they are awesome.  She wrote about care of self and  little ones in the kitchen.  I encourage you to read, absorb and implement the wisdom there.

So that frees me up to answer CityMom's pressing question.  She writes: 

Thanks for this and the great preschool arts and crafts post. I am wondering how you manage your time. In theory I love the poem you post about childhood, but the thought of fingerpaints right now makes me want to cry -- so much of the preschool work (even when done in Montessori fashion) requires Mom to be right there with them. My 4 and 3 year old had been in a surge on independant work, but now the twins (almost 2) want to do painting and play dough and things, and it all breaks down so quickly into a huge mess!Do you have a seperate time set aside for these kinds of work? How does this fit in with the older children's school day?

My introduction to motherhood was much more of a gentle slope than yours, CityMom.  You definitely ended up in the deep end very quickly after getting your feet wet! I had one child for almost four years before our second was born.  During that time, I had cancer and underwent chemotherapy and radiation.  Lissa and I were chatting recently about some lessons learned during times of compromised immunity that I'd never really recognized until recently.  They were just a part of me without being officially analyzed (which makes them a pretty rare part of me since I analyze everything). 

During chemotherapy and radiation and for several months afterwards, I couldn't be exposed to the germs of the "the world."  That meant that the pool was off limits.  So was the playground, playgroups, most play dates, grocery stores, children's museums, zoos--pretty much anywhere with people. Add to that the fact that we only had one car and Michael and I pretty much lived a cloistered life.

But, I embraced that life wholeheartedly.  I didn't care about the inconveniences of the illness.  What I cared about was that I was alive and I had my husband and child with me.  In His providence, God had put us in a tiny townhouse that backed up to Pohick Valley Stream Park.  A creek ran through the park property behind mine.  And Michael and I had that whole wooded, leafy, creek-fed park and all its inhabitants to ourselves.

We also had a fully stocked art cabinet (brought home from my classroom two years before).  At the risk of dating myself, children's television (4 network channels and PBS) was limited to Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow. We had no computer.

So what did I discover? I discovered that I could spend hours a day being fully present to my child.  We ate together, walked in the woods together, did messy art projects together, gardened our very small plot of land together, played in the wading pool on the deck together, read stacks and stacks of books for hours together and napped together every day.  Essentially, I literally clung to him for dear life. Yep, I was right there with him all the time.

As I recovered, our world widened a bit.  But we had learned certain habits so well that they were inculcated into our beings.  For me, the key to being a mother at home was to be at home.  And my happiness there depended upon my being able to limit my television and telephone (and later, computer) time--because those things could easily take me from home without my even getting dresssed! The key was to be fully present.

Lest you think that Michael suffered from his cloistered early childhood, let me assure that is not the case.  The boy, now 17, has traveled all over the USA and the UK.  Last weekend, he got himself from a soccer field to an airport in North Carolina, flew to DC only to discover his connecting flight had been cancelled, booked himself on a later flight, and flew to LAX late at night.  There, his father was waiting for him.  The two of them will spend the week on one of many California adventures, this one planned entirely by Michael.

So, let's go back to the fingerpaint question.  Right now, we have Michael, a 14 year-old, an 11 year-old, a 9 year-old, a 7 year-old, a 5 year-old, a 3 year-old, and a friend's 2 year-old in our home every day. 

The 14 year-old is young in many ways, so is likely to be interested in a painting project but absolutely cannot be sent off to complete schoolwork on his own.

So, here's how the hands-on messy things unfold in my house:  someone little suggests fingerpaint or dough or I have planned a project.  I'm at the kitchen table (where I try to keep messes) or the backyard picnic table (if weather permits) with them.  Sometimes, I even have my own paper. I sit with them--all of them are invited to particpate; I paint with them.  I talk with them.  Then, when someone is tired of the activity and the others are engaged, I follow the one who is leaving.  If he's old enough to do something different, independent of me, I let him go, after ascertaining exactly what it is he plans to do.  If he's a tiny person, he gets scooped up in my arms and we go together to find something new.  I plop down in front of the Tupperware cabinet and help him pull everything out.Then I teach him how to put everything away. We're still in the kitchen, so if someone else is finished with the painting project, I see that, too. What usually happens is that the children who remain at the table are engaged enough to carry on properly without my direct presence.  I've already demonstrated the correct way to use the materials and they know that if they use them inappropriately, I'll put the project away immediately. That leaves me to guide the ones who are not interested. Those are either old enough to do something purposeful on their own or little enough to be contained in my arms or within my reach.

If we're talking about the shelves in the schoolroom, the principle is much the same.  The older children can be started doing seatwork--a math page, a grammar lesson, copywork.  Then I sit on the floor with the little ones.  I have several mats rolled up in a basket.  They get a mat each and unroll it in front of their workspace.  They know (because I've taught them) that the work stays on the mat and that they can expect to keep the mat all to themselves.  No one else is to encroach on somebody's mat.  I present the lesson, usually to more than one child.  After I finish, they are free to continue to work with that material or to choose another material I've already shown them.

If the littlest ones are engaged, I can work with the older ones, still in the same room.  Some days, the little ones are really needy and my time with the older ones is limited to naptime for the little ones.  Usually, by the time you would need large chunks of discussion and instruction time with big kids, you have enough big kids to help you rotate and supervise the little ones.

Babies are with me in a sling or front pack pretty much all the time.(I've never had twins, so I invite mothers of multiples to help CityMom with that aspect.) Crawlers are on my lap with an interesting rattle or such.  Alternatively, they are on a mat next to me with a basket of baby toys and a sibling to show them how to stay and play.  At eighteen months or so, they are learning--with my constant reminders--not to pull things off the shelves and they are incorporated into the routine by the example of their siblings.

It's not always perfect. I've picked up plenty of dumped baskets of blocks.  But I'm right there. So, there's no way he can wreck the whole room before he gets scooped up and redirected.  Often, the re-direction is a book.  Toddler dynamo on my lap, I read to whoever wants to listen.  The situation is defused and we're back to business. Also, babies and toddlers are nursing, so there's no leaving for bottles and such (with the exception of the neighbor's child).

Now that I have older children, a toddler on a backyard swing with a nine-year-old sister is a good option.  That nine-year-old can easily finish her schoolwork during naptime and the outdoor break does them both good. The 11-year-old is only too happy to take two little ones outside to kick a soccer ball around while I read with an early reader. As I type, I'm realizing that these are not great options for someone who lives in the heart of New York City!

I'm trying, for CityMom's sake, to remember a time when everyone was under seven.  And I can feel the tension in my shoulders.  Those were days when bubbles or fingerpaint in the bathrub were great stressbusters for all of us.  The mess is contained and it can all be rinsed down the drain.  Water play is a great calm-inducer.  We baked lots of bread in those days, too. Little people standing on chairs, pulled up to the counter, can pound and knead and shape and take pride in baking "daily bread" daily!  Yes, it takes time and effort and energy, but it also keeps them engaged and happy and learning.  What could be a better use of their time or yours?

And then there was my refuge to that well-forested park.  I know getting outside is a much bigger deal when one lives in a highrise in New York City, but I encourage you to find those places of green where you can go inhale deeply and try to get there every day. It's worth the hassle with the stroller and the packing of drinks and snacks.

Those early days where everyone is so needy are limited, indeed. But they can feel endless, can't they? I remember going to bed at night sometimes, wishing I could sneak out and head down Route 29, back to Charlottesville and college life and just a week or so when I was responsible for no one but myself. Then I'd fall asleep and find that everything truly is better in the morning.

Trying to escape the children, to compartmentalize them into only part of my life, to maintain a large chunk of "identity" apart from them, has always proven counter-productive to me.  We're all happier and even more efficient when I embrace them and this all-encompassing vocation wholeheartedly.  That doesn't mean I don't have my own private reading time (at night) or my own writing time (early in the morning).  Before this pregnancy, I even had a daily workout at the local Curves (I could be home and back before anyone awakened).  But when my children are awake--I'm theirs. (Warning:  once you have both babies and teenagers, there's rarely a time when everyone is asleep.  That's another post entirely.)

I start and end my day with prayer. And then I pray all day long. I ask specifically for patience and grace to be what my children need.  And often, I ask for time.  If I have something I want to write or a pressing project better done without little hands "helping," I ask the Blessed Mother specifically to take that request to her Son.  If Jesus wants me to do it, He'll provide the time.

Inocorporating Rebecca's ideas, the children are a part of the daily household routine. Once our home is running smoothly, we go about the "rest of childhood."  What can I be doing that is more important than forming my children? Something on tv?  Someone on the phone?  A great thought on the computer? Well, occasionally.  I had a day last week when a genuinely urgent computer issue had me both in front of the monitor and on the phone way too much. It hit and snowballed before I could plan for its intrusion.  I suffered.  My children suffered.  The house suffered.  This has occurred enough times for me to guard myself against it as much as humanly possible.

On the flip side, I also have to accept that "stuff happens."  I don't have perfect control over our lives.  Actually, I have little control.  All I can do is beg for the grace to be obedient to my calling. I pray for the self-discipline to "come as soon as I am called."  And to recognize that usually God calls me in the voice of my child.