Friday, August 23, 2013

Learning About Rhythms

We just finished moving for the second time in a year (the third time in three years, come to that). This wasn't a dramatic or difficult move, in many ways: we moved only 13 miles, most of our stuff was still packed from the last move, and we had access to a car to be able to make several trips over a few days. On the other hand, this was our first time moving with two kids, one of whom is now old enough to notice and care (and who inconveniently developed a low-grade fever just in time for moving day). This move, though a wonderfully positive one in many ways, threw all four of us off our game. Naps were skipped, meals refused, uncharacteristic tantrums thrown. Now that we are mercifully settling anew into a household and family routine, I've been thinking about the importance of rhythms for family (and indeed, any) life.

Let's be clear: I am not your meal plan, nap schedule, laundry day kind of mama by nature. Oh, no. Nor is my husband the dinner-on-the-table-when-I-get-home-from-work kind of guy. We often do things in a way that he terms "organic" and I call "waiting until something absolutely, undeniably, unavoidably needs to be done right now, or preferably until someone else does it."

But that being said, I am learning. First of all, because young children have a way of forcing even the most laissez-faire into some kind of schedule. And second, because based on the efforts I have made to this end, rhythms and routines, while intimidating on the surface, really do make life easier for parents and calmer for kids.

Routines and predictability are so important for young kids because really, they are just figuring out this big, confusing world over which they have no control. In The Baby Book, Dr. Sears talks about toddlers' need for a feeling of mastery over their environment, and how seemingly small changes may elicit extreme reactions from them.

Imagine, if you will, that you've been at a new job for six weeks, and you are just starting to feel comfortable. Then one day, you arrive at work to find that all of the offices have been rearranged without warning. You can't find your own office, let alone your colleagues'. The next day, they've moved the offices back to normal, but the coffee maker is now on the opposite side of the building. The day after that, you're issued a completely new procedures manual, and all of your work has been changed, effective immediately. I think any of us might throw a tantrum at this point.

This approximates how a toddler might feel when rules, schedules, and surroundings are changed on a regular basis. Obviously, kids enjoy seeing and doing new things, going to new places. But the novelty must be set against the safe and secure backdrop of an environment they have mastered.

And whether we admit it or not, adults also need a home base from which to branch out, try new things, meet new people, and create.

That explains a bit of my motivation behind developing family rhythms. Now here are some of the home routines I'm working to develop.

  • Getting up before my kids - The day goes much more smoothly when I have even a bit of time to take care of myself before the kids call. This also necessitates going to bed at a decent hour. Ahem.
  • Plenty of unstructured time - Every moment doesn't need to be full of appointments and play dates. Kids need time to just play and even be bored sometimes: they can develop wonderful abilities to entertain themselves and be imaginative if we are not constantly entertaining them!
  • "Full" days and "empty" days - Weekends tend to be busy for us, so I try to leave Mondays open for time at home to relax and regroup, as well as catch up on any household chores from the weekend. On "empty" days, a trip to the park or grocery store may be all that we "do."
  • Meal routine - This is an idea I got from Simplicity Parenting. The goal is not to eat only the same seven meals, over and over, but for dinner each day to have a theme: Monday is rice night, Tuesday pasta night, Wednesday soup night, and so on. It sounds intimidating at first, but in reality, it makes planning and cooking each night so easy. What's for dinner? Well, what night is it? The details can change, of course, so you can still serve a wide variety of foods. This routine should also help the habitually picky eater to know what to expect and settle into it.
  • Chores routine - A work in progress for me. I got inspiration for this idea (though it's obviously not a new concept) from Large Family Logistics - though ours is by no means a large family, I figure I have a lot to learn about efficiency from larger families. The book suggests making Monday laundry day, Tuesday kitchen day, Wednesday office day... you get the idea. When I tried this in earnest, my house was spotless without a whole lot of effort. I had only one child, and I still fell out of the routine after a few weeks, but like the meals routine, a concept that sounds overly strict can actually be quite freeing (if you stick with it).  There is no need to decide each day what needs to be done around the house, and in addition, nothing ever gets very dirty if you clean it at least once a week.  Right now, I am trying to decide which of her "days" work best for me, in order to integrate those into our existing routines.
I hope you might find some ideas here to make your own family routine a bit more predictable and just a bit calmer for everyone involved (especially you). 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Walking with Children: The Basics

How has a blog by A Walking Mama failed to address the basics of walking with children as a way of life?  I have no idea.  I must discuss this with the management. Ahem.  In the meantime, if you are looking for ways to incorporate more walking and less driving into your daily life with your kids, here are my suggestions for getting started.

1) Get the right equipment.

When my son outgrew his baby carriage, we decided to buy a reasonably-priced umbrella stroller - not the cheapest, but certainly not top-of-the-line. The idea of spending hundreds of dollars on a stroller our child would only use for a few years seemed ridiculous.  Less than a year later, we had run that poor little stroller into the ground and had to buy a replacement.  This time we went with a Baby Jogger City Mini, which cost more than I would have imagined spending on a stroller... but had we just gotten a high-quality item in the first place, we would have saved ourselves the expense of the cheap stroller, as well as the hassle of finding a new one (on vacation, no less).  Our City Mini still looks and feels new a year later, and I know we will be packing our kids around in it for years to come.  

If your children are too young to walk the distances you will be covering, you will need a reliable and comfortable carrier, stroller, double stroller, or some combination thereof.  My 2 1/2-year-old can walk further than most (and you can bet we're proud of that fact), but after about half a mile to a mile, walking with him becomes, shall we say, inefficient.  You know the drill.  Even as he gets older and more focused, I'm sure there will be times when we will tire him out with the distances we want to cover to get our errands done.  Don't be embarrassed to be seen with your 4- or 5-year-old in a stroller if you're covering long distances (and make sure to have a stroller that will carry them comfortably). 

If walking will be a part of your daily life with your children, allow yourself to splurge a bit on good-quality equipment. Think of this as an investment that will ultimately make it possible for you to save money by driving less. Please take note, I am not giving you free rein here to go out and buy a brand-new, thousand-dollar Bugaboo that will just sit and collect dust in your garage until you sell it on Craigslist in a few years (though if money is really no object, be my guest - they make some pretty amazing stuff). But I am giving you permission to look beyond the low-end umbrella strollers.  Read the reviews - those cheap Disney strollers are for getting your kids from the minivan into the mall, not much more.  Spending a bit more upfront will save you money, sanity, and health in the long run.  If you enjoy using your stroller, you are also going to be more likely to use it more often.

2) Be prepared - but not too prepared.

If you're used to traveling by car with kids, you're likely in the habit of storing everything you could possibly need in the car - extra clothes, toys, diapers, snacks, shoes, hot and cold weather accessories - just to have your bases covered for any eventuality. After all, in the car, you have space for it, so why not? When you're walking, however, you will have less room and, really, less need for all the "just in case" gear. If you will be within walking distance of your home, most emergencies can be handled by just going home.    

When we lived in the DC area, we always marveled at the parents and nannies who had strollers stuffed full of snacks, toys, and extra clothes.  If our child got hungry playing on the playground, we went home for a snack.  If he spilled something (rare because we didn't carry food with us) or got dirty, we took him home to change.  Unless you will be out for the whole afternoon or day, only bring with you what you will need for your trip. And remember, even kids who get bored in the car will likely be entertained enough by the walk, nature, and your almost-undivided attention that they won't need toys or snacks to distract them.

3) Combine trips.

This seems like a no-brainer for parents, even those who drive everywhere, but it is surprising how often we give ourselves more trouble than we need to by not combining trips. If you are walking to the grocery store, is there anything you can pick up at the hardware store next door, or the library on the way?  Does it make sense to go to a different grocery store that is a bit further away in order to stop in at other stores you might need?  
This mindset makes sense for anyone doing errands without a car, but it is especially helpful for parents of young children.  If you can work it out so that boring errands are interspersed with interesting or fun ones, or if you can squeeze in a trip to the park on the way home, then so much the better. 

Beyond combining your own errands, is there any way to make your family's errands more efficient overall?  Perhaps your spouse or a friend can pick up something for you on the way home from work, if it will be more convenient for them. If you need to make a purchase that will take some research, do the research you can online or even by phone first, rather than going to many different stores to see products in person.

One of the things I love about the car-free life is how this kind of thinking becomes second nature.  Much less time is wasted driving around to different stores you don't really need, just because you can.  It can make life with children much more pleasant because you also aren't dragging them to places unnecessarily, tiring everyone out in the process.  Even errands that might normally be difficult with children become easier when the journey involves healthy exercise and fun interaction.