Monday, 26 November 2012

Lamenting Lost Solitude

During my high school years (eleven to eighteen) I went to a boarding school.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but living with a few dozen other girls in one house means that you don't get much alone time.  Early on, I learned where the nooks and crannies were, the places you could go when you just wanted a moment to yourself.   In my first boarding house, the bathrooms had high windows with a wide stone sill, which were set behind the door.  I must have scrambled up to that perch dozens of times, not to cry or hide in particular, but to sit and think in a place where I was unlikely to be bothered.

The great thing about boarding school was that there was so much company available that it was unlikely somebody would be seeking yours out in particular, so solitude was obtainable if you desired it.  As a middle-class mother, I have ample rooms to disperse myself and the children in, but my company is highly coveted, and solitude has become a commodity rarer and more valuable than diamonds.

This is obviously not something unique to me; it's standard parenting procedure.  Going to the toilet with an audience (and sometimes audience participation) is par for the course.  Having a few toys or activities in every room of the house is a common tip.  And, obviously, clinginess is desirable in general, since you want your child to stick near you when you're out and about.  Never mind the fact that my children are usually quite happy to go off on their own when we're out of the house.  Perhaps it's a reverse psychology thing; should I insist on holding their hands while we're in the house too?

However, I'm an introvert.  One of the reasons I blog is because the spoken word isn't something I'm comfortable with.  I do enjoy talking with friends and I definitely need a sympathetic ear on a regular basis, but I will eventually find conversation wearing.  When I've got something preying on my mind, I usually need to get some time to myself to think about it in peace and quiet.  Or I'll need to write about it.  In those moments, I hate being disturbed... I'm not good at switching focus.

I've accepted that this is something I have to sacrifice for the sake of having my children, and to an extent, I've learned to take my introspection while cuddling a child or to have my switch off moment while reading aloud.  I'm guessing that the transition from my presence being necessary to my presence being unwanted will be shockingly brief, and I want to cherish this stage while I have it.

Yet sometimes I quietly fail at dealing with it.  Like the past week, or so when colder weather has brought with it sore throats and congested noses.  None of us have really been sick, but my daughter and I have definitely been scratchier than usual, and she's been incredibly clingy.  I don't know whether that's due to the change in sleeping arrangements, or because she's feeling lousy, but what I do know is that I've spent a good proportion of my time wandering around in frustration with a toddler glued to my hip and preventing me from doing anything I want to do.

Of course, my son hasn't outgrown the wanting my company stage either, so I'm just as likely to be trailed around by him babbling away as only a three or four year old can.  I was always petrified of this verbal diarrhoea stage, but it hasn't been as draining as I expected.  Partly because it's worryingly easy for me to zone out when he's talking.  My son has a habit of yelling "Speak!" at me, since I ignore him without realising I'm doing it.  It's a huge guilt trip.

I should be more capable at this point really.  I can do lots of things one-handed, and as a woman, I am supposed to multi-task as a matter of course.  Nevertheless this past week I've been tired and inclined to headaches, my mind is taken up with a million and one things to keep track of (Christmas!  Birthdays!  Flood damage!  Survivor!).  The weepy toddler is enough to keep me from focusing.  The weepy toddler and vociferous child is a devastating combination.

Suffice to say the housework is suffering.  It's incredibly demotivating when there's a child wailing into my knees.  Either I stop to soothe her, or I keep going and am slow and ineffectual.  Then I get stressed, and because I'm stressed, I want a moment to myself.  Because I want a moment to myself, my daughter gets insecure and becomes more clingy and I become more stressed and hello, vicious circle!

At the end of the day, it's up to me to break that vicious circle because I'm the grown up (darn it).  Besides, one way or another, the house has got to be clean and tidy for my son's birthday party this weekend.  So I'm pushing through, and trying to resist the constant temptation to slip away from the children for a moment of peace.  Unlike love, it's better never to try for solitude than to find it and lose it again.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Lessons Learned in Balance Biking

Earlier this year, we bought our three year old son a balance bike.  That's a pedal-less bike, designed to teach children how to balance.  They scoot along on it, coast down hills, practice steering etc.  Training wheels or stabilizers as we call them in the UK tend not to work well, since the child gets into the habit of riding slightly tilted so that one wheel is going on the ground.  The balance bike teaches balance-skills first, and stamina for pedaling will be learned once the child graduates to a real bike.

Getting Started

I'm not going to spend a lot of time writing about the pros and cons of balance bikes.  There's plenty of stuff out there for that.  If you're intrigued, the Strider blog invariably has videos and pictures of children using them.  We have the Strider brand, but The Parent’s Guide to Balance Bikes, Complete Reviews & Comparisons of 16 Different Brands gives as thorough a discussion of what to look for when purchasing as you'll find anywhere.

What I am going to write about is our experience with my three year old son on his.  Obviously, my husband and I never had balance bikes when we were kids.  My only experience was seeing one of the children ride one to school, but we loved the concept.  Our son loved his tricycle and riding in the chariot (a bicycle trailer).  My husband is a cycling enthusiast who likes the sound of our son's name followed by "winner of the Tour de France!"

We bought the bike at the start of summer right before it was blisteringly hot and we only made a couple of half-hearted attempts to go out with it, because I am a wuss when it comes to heat.  In September, we tried again.  My son took a little while to get the idea of how to sit and scoot along, but he was game to persist with us.  It was when Daddy demonstrated on his mountain bike that he really caught the idea.

I took him to the same park with short paved trails that we'd used with his tricycle, but I soon realised that the advantage of the balance bike is that it's lighter and easier for the child to control (he can just plant his feet and hitch it over an obstacle for one thing).  So we started doing more ambitious walks with me pushing his sister on one of those long-handled tricycles.

This is, of course, the key.  Practice as much as possible.  But there are a few things to bear in mind:
  1. Your child will go faster than you, particularly if you're pushing another child.  He's never going to get up to full cycling speed, but two months on, my husband has to run to keep up with him.
  2. Your child can balance for longer than you think... especially when motivated.  An early shock for me was when he attempted a long incline.  I was sure he'd fall over before he reached the bottom, but instead he kept going--and accelerating.
  3. For your child, the most logical way of stopping is to crash into something.  That hill from point 2?  He was terrified by his own speed, so he steered straight into a massive stone block.  And so I got my first (and preferably only) sight of my son flying over his handlebars.
So, and I cannot stress this enough, buy a helmet to go with the bike.  My son was completely unhurt by the crash I mentioned above, but I had been so close to not bothering with the helmet that day.  We've been religious about it ever since.  Also, getting them straight back on the bike is good for both of you.

The Skate Park

After the experience of a crash, I wanted to find somewhere suitable for him to practice on the bike, learn how to moderate his speed and deal with inclines at his own pace.  It never occurred to me to try the local skate park until I saw an online video of a family doing just that with their two year old.  I realised that that would be a great place.  The only problem was that I was even more unfamiliar with skate parks than with balance bikes (they didn't have those in our day either), and the concept of letting my barely-out-of-toddlerhood son loose in one was terrifying.

So we attempted to go at a quiet time of day, but there were still up to a dozen people on bikes, skateboards and scooters whizzing around.  My son and I (and twenty-one month old daughter) stopped at the entrance, hugely intimidated.  He declared he didn't want to go in, and rode up and down the entrance ramp a few times instead.  I privately agreed with him, but I was determined not to back down.

So I talked him through the gate and we self-consciously tried to find an out of the way corner in which to practice on a couple of small ramps.  There really aren't any out of the way corners in our skate park.  Not being a connoisseur, I have no idea how it compares to others, but I thought it was a fantastic piece of stunt architecture--and felt ever more out of place as I held my squirming daughter and encouraged my small son on his tiny bike.

Eventually, we did find a good spot where I could sit on a bench and my son could practice on one ramp over and over.  There was another one behind it, for a sequential effect, and after a few minutes, he tried going up to the top of that one.  Once at the top he shook his head and pushed his bike back down, but a few minutes later he was back to the top, and this time he rode down.  After ten minutes, he was pushing off from the top ramp, coasting down the second and holding his balance to go up the ramp opposite.  He was ecstatic.

The other great thing was that the other adults and children using the skate park (who were five to twenty years older than my son) were thoroughly considerate of us and if anything seemed tickled to see my son having a go at it.  My son, fortunately, was also pretty good about watching out for other users, though I prompted him to wait or stop on occasion.  

Despite my fears, having other skaters around was helpful.  Seeing how other people used the various ramps, whatever they were riding, was a good example for him.  And there were enough stunts going on for my daughter to sit quietly in sheer fascination.

We went back again today.  It was colder and quieter, and my son took off all over it, scooting around to try different coasting routes and shrieking an incongruous "Whee!" as he shot down the ramps.  The plan is to become hardcore skate park visitors, sticking it out through the winter while it's quieter and my son has the added padding of warm clothing.  He took a couple of falls today and was absolutely fine.
Come next spring, he might well be able to hold his own alongside the skater boys, but we expect to be buying him a proper bike and hitting the trails.   We will of course be handing the balance bike over to our daughter, who will be two by then.  God only knows, she's already itching to have a go!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Room Sharing

While my parents were here, we moved my son into my daughter's room and turned his room into a guest room for the fortnight.  We'd done something similar at the start of the summer, and though juggling the children's sleeping schedules had been a bit awkward, it had worked well enough.

This time, it worked splendidly.  He's almost four, she's twenty-one months and our timing seemed to be perfect.  The big difference between now and then was that they now go to sleep and wake up at the same time (or at least for all practical purposes).  Not only was it no problem at all to coordinate sleeping arrangements, but it actually worked to our advantage.  If they woke early, they just started playing with each other until the traffic-light alarm clock turned green.

Beyond that, they seemed to be getting on better with each other and playing together more, while our son had completely stopped his whining over night and finding excuses to come out of his room.  It was clear they enjoyed having each other's company at night time.

It had never really occurred to me to give them a shared bedroom.  We were able to give them a room each, and I assumed that was the more desirable scenario.  But it only took a week of them sharing before my husband and I started discussing making it permanent.

While my parents were here, we'd simply moved my son onto the twin bed in my daughter's room.  She was sleeping on the crib mattress on the floor next to it (explanation of that posted here)--she'd not yet been motivated to sleep in the bed.  However, her bedroom was considerably smaller than her brothers, so we decided to turn his room into a shared room once my parents were gone.  And then I put it off for a week, just because it was going to be such a big job.

But today I went ahead and did it... it took the better part of the day and I might not have finished in time, if my neighbour hadn't had the children over with her son for the end of the afternoon.  One of the big motivators is that my daughter's just getting over a cold and she's waking up early at the moment with coughing.  I expect the transition will also trigger some early wake-ups, so I'd rather do it while she's waking early anyway. 

For the same reason, I've moved her into a twin bed.  I've put the crib mattress on the floor between the two beds, but her glow-worm and pillow are on the bed and that's where she had her nap today (which was fine after one false start).  She's got a wall on one side, and the mattress on the other, so I'm not concerned about her rolling out of bed.  Mostly, I'm glad she's underneath a proper duvet now.  I had a fleece blanket over her on the floor mattress, but she always rolled out of it and it wasn't really thick enough for winter anyway.  Hopefully she'll stay warm this way!

Anyway, both children were pretty excited when getting into bed tonight, and they've got up several times while I was writing this post (I only had to get up twice, at least!).  But--touch wood!--it's all gone quiet now.  I'm expecting to have to go up at least once overnight to put my daughter back in bed after she falls out.

It'll take me another few days to get all the furniture, toys, clothes, etc arranged.  But then we can convert our daughter's room into a full-time guest room / gaming room.  We're hitting the point where it's difficult for us to watch our shows or (in my husband's case) play video games that aren't appropriate to have on in front of the children--or that we just want to watch without being hassled by them.  Having a second television will be nice, and I don't really want one in our bedroom, so this is the perfect solution for me.

Meanwhile, a few more rough nights are ahead, which is not something I'm looking forward to.  But I'm loving how excited the children are to sleep together and this is one of those parenting things where it just feels so obviously right that I'm excited too.  Here's hoping it doesn't all feel wrong again in two months' time!