On Farming Ants

Last year for her birthday, Fiona received an ant farm. My friend, who gifted it to her, had purchased two, one for each of our daughters. She gave one to us, she said, so that someone else could try it out and tell her how it was before she tried it. A resounding endorsement.

I’m such a good guinea pig, that I put off trying it until now, eleven months later. Fiona has been pushing me to get her a ” ‘spirment animal” like tadpoles or caterpillars that she could ” ‘sberve”. So, I being a little cheep, thought, “What the heck, we’ll order some lousy ants and let her watch them.”

And so I set up the farm, and wrote a check for a bizarre amount of money. You want $12.95 for 30 ants? I could probably pay the neighbor kids a quarter each per ant and save money. ant_farm_1  In retrospect…

 

So several weeks pass, Fiona impatiently asks me every day when her ants will arrive. “Soon. Soon,” I assure her.

Have you ever noticed that no matter what happens it will always happen at the worst possible moment? It’s a weird universal constant that the dishwasher only breaks, the sink only backs up, the fridge goes out the day you have people over for dinner. The washing machine only breaks right before an important meeting or a long trip.  I believe that’s why the ants arrived on Saturday.

You see on Saturday I was helping to host a baby-shower for one of my friends. I had to move locations at the last second because of the heat. I had baked a cake and frosted it, decorated, planned games, and ran from the moment I got up. So, at 12:30 when the mailman handed me an envelope as I was running between the outdoor picnic area where we were meeting and my home where I had everything I needed. I hardly paused to glance at it.

Except that it had a giant sticker on the outside, “LIVE ANIMALS. OPEN IMMEDIATELY.”

What? Really? Today? Blah, later. The ants will be fine for a couple of hours while I finish what I’m doing. Right? Right? I don’t want to kill the expensive little buggers.

Okay, well then, oh well. I can’t deal with it at the moment so they’re going to have to be tough.

 

Five hours later, I was feeling remarkably guilty and frustrated as I had been coerced into an outing to the pool after we were finished with the shower. Jeez. No problem, I’ll just take a quick minute and shove these little guys into the farm. That way I can go enjoy the pool and not worry that I’m being a horrible ant killer.

I pick up the tube of ants, they look pretty lethargic. I pop the top off the farm. I pop the top off the tube.  I begin to gently try to shake the ants from the tube into the farm.  Only ants. Suddenly, lively, active, fast ants are on the move. Lively, fast, FREAKING RED ANTS!  I jump back and recap the tube in my hand while yelling at my husband to grab some cups. We slap cups over the escaping ants.

One, two three, four, five, and five in the  farm. Seriously, what the heck kind of system is this? The mouth of the tube of ants doesn’t fit in the opening of the farm. The ants are wicked fast. And as I stare at the horrible little bastards through the glass wall of a shot glass they wave fierce huge mandibles at me. This is, for the record, not at all what I signed up for. Where are my happy little non-biting black ants? This is not intuitive. I grab the directions.

“When your ants arrive, be sure to read the directions that come with
them. Before you open the tube of ants, put it in the refrigerator (not the
freezer) for about 15 minutes. This makes them less active and much
easier to put into the habitat. They will soon “warm up” to start working. “

Oh. Well then. If at first you don’t succeed, read the owner’s manual.

I put the tube in the fridge, set a timer and tried to fathom how to retrieve five ants from under individual shot glasses while Fiona danced around me nervously, “Are those my ants? Will they bite? Maybe I should go change my dress? What if they get on me? Can I hold them? Can I put them in, Mommy? Are those my ants?”

Jeff meandered over to help. What had been a quick, toss them in, and go to the pool, was rapidly turning into a difficult task.

We found a piece of card stock and working together carefully jostled one ant from the cup into the farm. The next one escaped us and a quick frantic search of the table ensued. After recapturing it under a cup we finally we put those five alarmingly fast ants into the farm.

The timer beeped.

Ten in. Twenty to go. Still, these should go easier, right? The instructions state “less active and easier to put in”. This time it will be fine. We read the directions. No probs.

Right.

I would like to note, it was NOT easier. They were NOT lethargic. They were still wicked mandibled little speed demons on crack.  (Uncle Milton, you’re a jerk!)

Still, practice makes perfect. We got many of them in. Only four escaped. This time Jeff waved me away, “Go to the pool. I’ll get them in.”

And he did.

So, my friend, Gift-er of Ants,

Having been your guinea pig in the farming of ants, I have advice for you:

1. The ants you will receive by mail are red, biting ants.

2. They are freaking fast.

3. Follow the directions, but I would recommend at least 25 minutes in the fridge.

4. The plastic tube that comes with the farm to connect it to another farm? That thing fits into the openings on the sides of the farm and also slides neatly into the ant shipping tube. I think that using that tube to get the ants into the farm would be a big improvement over the “gently shake the ants into the farm” method.

5. Keep a shot glass (or five) handy.

6.  I love you, Sweetie, so this one is the important part:  Give the other ant farm away. Preferably to someone you dislike. Intensely.

Reality Check

I need a reality check as a parent. I need to ask a wider audience of parents what it’s really like to parent a preschooler.

Tantrums are normal. Everyone says this. Other moms tell me this, when I say she’s kind of intense. That she throws tantrums. Her last pediatrician said it. Her Grandma’s assure me that tantrums are normal.

And I hear everyone tell me this and I flinch. Because I’m being discounted. My sense of unease about the frequency, intensity, and nature of her tantrums is being dismissed. Again. Always.

Like in Target yesterday, when we entered the store all three of us were happy. Cheerful. We were having a good day. I just needed to pick up a few cleaning supplies and then we were going to go explore a little. We planned to wandered into the kitchen aisles to see if we could find a bread maker, because at five dollars a loaf we’d probably see cost savings in just a couple of months.

No big deal. Then we got out of the car. Still happy. We walked across the parking lot. Fine. We crossed the parking lot into the store. She tried to pull away from me and when I wouldn’t let her began crying. I picked her up, trying to determine the source of her sudden upset. She began to scream and try to hit me.

I held her hands away from me and gently asked her, “Fiona, Baby, what’s wrong? I want to help you, but I don’t know why you’re upset?”

After a few moments of this, walking, while she struggled and screamed and tried to convey to me at a full crying yell what the problem was, I was able to make out a few words.

“Walk where the lines are!” She cried, pointing at the painted lines marking a crossing about six inches from where I stood. I stepped sideways and she began to cry again. “There’s a car and Mommy and Daddy have to be safe.

The car was stopped a dozen feet from where we crossed, engine idling as it waited for us to walk.

Briefly, in the lobby, I reassured her, “It’s okay. Mommy and Daddy are safe from cars. We won’t walk where it isn’t safe. Mommy and Daddy can keep you safe. It’s okay. Trust me.”

She responded, “Teacher Diana says to walk in the lines.”
We stand quietly for a moment and I try to regain the sense of happiness and calm that we had only moments before.  After a few moments, when her breathing is calm and she seems ready to go, I review the rules of being in a store. She stays close to me and Daddy. She doesn’t go running off. She doesn’t pick stuff up. She does what she’s told when she’s told. If I count get to zeros (I count backwards from 3), then she has to sit in the cart for a few minutes.

We’ve had these rules for most of a year.

We walk down an aisle with chairs and she’s off like a shot. She’s almost obsessive about testing chairs in stores.  She has to sit in all of them. Even the identical ones. If I am holding her hand and try to walk past them she will pull away. If she’s not permitted to sit in any of them she will start screaming. At the top of her lungs.

I remind her that she’s not allowed to run away from me or Daddy and that if she wants to do something she needs to ask. She asks if she can sit in the chairs. I summon my patience, “You may sit in one chair for 10 seconds.”

She scrambles into a chair and I begin to count backwards from 10. As I get to 1 I hold out my hand and say, “Alright, time to keep walking.”

(As an aside, she is as of this moment in her room wailing that she wants to break everything, and that she wants to hurt Mommy and make Mommy sad. The reason? I told her she couldn’t have more time watching the Kindle.)

She refused and began to climb into another chair. “Fiona,” I reminded, “If you can’t walk with me you’ll need to sit in the cart.”

“3..2..1..” She hasn’t moved from the chair and is trying to cling to its armrests. So I gently pry her free and place her in the cart. She begins to thrash and scream. I put my face close to hers and say softly, “Fiona. You are making a choice. If you keep screaming, then Daddy will take you out to car and wait for Mommy to finish buying stuff and you will just have to sit in the car and be bored while you wait.”

After a few deep breaths she calms herself somewhat and begins to whine. She wants down. She wants a snack. She has to go potty. She wants to go home. I acknowledge each complaint, “When we are finished here, I will help you with that.”

We find the breadmakers and I nudge a wafflemaker aside to see the sidepanel more clearly. Just what does this thing actually do?

“Mommy,” Fiona demands, her tone close to yelling, “What does it say?”

“Fiona,” I reply, “you need to use a nicer voice when you talk to me.”

“Argh!” She starts to hit me, and cry, and half scream, “What does the no say? Not that one! Put it back! Push the box back! Mommy tell me what it says!”

“Fiona,” I say firmly. Having reached the full and utter end of my patience. “You need to take a deep breath and calm down. I can’t help you if I can’t understand you. ”

She takes enough of a breath to ask a question, “Mommy? What does the no say?”

I look at the boxes and can’t see a “no”. “I don’t see it, Baby, can you point?”

“Mommy!” She shouts. “On the box. Put it back!”

I then see the no she’s talking about. On the side of the wafflemaker it reads, “No mess. Stops drips.”

If you think that our morning ends here you would be mistaken. She whined for the rest of our time in target then through another huge fit once we were in the car. For reasons I have yet to fathom. In fact, the fit in the car lasted the whole way home and including kicking the back of the seat and biting herself hard enough to leave marks at least five times.

Imprints of her teeth all up and down her arms.

And before you ask. No, she isn’t sick. Yes, this was going on before we moved. Yes, this happens at home. (She’s still shrieking and has crumpled up her toy money and is “happy it’s all broken and gone.”) This happens outside. This happens when she’s tired. This happens when she’s well rested. This happens in places with lots of stimulation and places with almost none. This happens at least a couple of times a day and sometimes all day long without end. It doesn’t stop until she gets attention and calming from me. She doesn’t “eventually wind down” (though I’ve been told she will – at length). She says she wants to break everything. She says she wants to make me sad.

And I think it’s not normal. I think it’s a problem. I think there is something wrong and though I love my sweet, amazing, intense little girl, I know that what’s going on now is off. It’s more. I don’t think it’s bad parenting. I don’t it’s intense personality. It feels like something else. Something that we’ve been brushing up against since she was born.

And I’m scared. Because I don’t know why. I don’t know what it is that makes her this angry. That’s making her this violently emotional. That makes everyday with her a tightrope walk of patience and calm to get her through it without her trying to harm herself or me.

But I don’t think it’s normal. And I need a reality check. Is this just what it’s like for parents? Is this what it’s like to parent an intense, spirited, difficult child through the preschooler years? Or is there something else? Is my gut right?  Let me know, because I’m out of my depth and have been for a while.

And I’ve made an appointment with her pediatrician, but I have to get through another six days before I can ask an expert. So, help me out?

Help? I need some new tools.

I’m looking for some positive parenting advice on a particular issue. Fiona has started hitting, biting, slapping, and screaming at me when she’s directed in any way. It’s probably a three-year-old thing, but it has me more than a little frustrated.

For instance, early in the day yesterday, I asked her to climb down from the table.  “Fiona, get off the table. The floor is for standing on.”

She looked at me and screamed at the top of her lungs.

“Ugh. I don’t like being screamed at. Let me help you get down and go to your room to scream.” Go over to lift her down and carry her to her room and she starts hitting me and trying to bite me, screaming and crying.

I put her in her room, set a timer for three minutes and wait until both the timer goes off and she’s quiet. Then I go in and this is the conversation that results.

“Fiona, what are the rules?”

“No hitting, no biting, no yelling.”

“That’s right, and..” I prompt, “Do what you’re…”

“…told.” she finishes.

“Was screaming, biting or hitting me okay?” I ask.

“No.” She says. “I sorry, Mommy. You forgive me?”

“Yes, Baby, I forgive you. I love you!”

And then we go back to our day, but this repeats upwards of five times a day. It’s not getting better. What do I need to be doing to teach this? I’m sick of it and I need some new tools.

(Don’t bother to suggest spanking her. It’ll only tick me off. That option is not on the table.)

To Preschool, or not to Preschool?

Well, it’s my question anyway. I kind of wonder how other parents make these choices for their kids. How do you choose whether to send your child at three or at four or at all? See, this keeps coming up as a choice, primarily because Fiona keeps asking to go. We have added pressure now because one of her friends, who’s only a few weeks older than her, is going this year.

I can see a lot of pro’s and con’s. I can also see my own inherent bias. It’s hard to argue with the idea of a three-hour break every day.

On the list of Pro’s

Fiona wants to go.
Fiona is bored at home.
Fiona wants more time with other kids.
Preschool is healthier than screen time.
Preschool will be good socialization.
The teachers have training in teaching.
It would be a three-hour break every day.

On the list of Con’s:

The preschool I’d like is very expensive (Montessori). Though there is a free option (State).
Fiona may not like it as much as she thinks.
Fiona may struggle with the other kids.
Fiona will be one of the youngest kids in the class.
Fiona doesn’t really sit still for long yet. (Though she can when she’s engaged.)
I would be shortening the part of her life where she gets to just be a baby and nothing else.
I would probably miss her.
Fiona might pick up bad habits from other kids.
Jeff isn’t at all convinced that she should go this year.

 

So, we’re left with a dilemma. Do we send her to preschool? Do I let her have another year of being a baby? What do I tell her when she argues that her friend gets to go? What is the right answer? What did you choose? What do you think?

Paul Zak, Oxytocin, and Parenting

Okay, so over the weekend I got to watch a great talk by Paul Zak at Ted Talks. In it he talks about the purpose and implications of the chemical oxytocin, in the brain.

Now, to me the interesting thing about all this is that oxytocin response is what determines both trust/trustworthiness and empathy. Those two things are at the heart of morality and social connection. They determine the quality of relationships all of us have with those around us.

They’re also things that any parent should be acutely aware of. When we pick up and cuddle our babies when they cry, their brains release oxytocin. When we nurse them, oxytocin. When we laugh with them, tickle them, play with them, talk to them, change their diapers, comfort them at three in the morning – oxytocin!

It sets the stage. When our needs are met when we are small, then our brain is conditioned to view the world with trust and empathy and to act with trustworthiness.

When our babies are little we talk about this as attachment. Secure attachment occurs when enough needs are met. Insecure attachment happens when they aren’t. Researchers have known for a long time that attachment is predictive of long-term emotional health, but Paul Zak actually demonstrates why.

Oxytocin.

That’s amazing!

That means that as parents we are daily responsible for the long-term success of our society. We control the future. (Mwa-ha-ha-ha!)

It also means there are a few things that can really mess this up. Cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that works against oxytocin. Cortisol is released when we yell at our kids, when we spank them, when we leave them to cry alone, and when we ignore them.

So, if we trigger oxytocin in our kids brains they learn trust, trustworthiness, and empathy and long-term are happier, more productive, better citizens of planet earth. On the other hand, if we trigger cortisol, we set them up for health problems, distrust, untrustworthiness, and a lack of empathy. What we do today sets our children up to succeed. Or fail.

We control the future. That’s sobering. (And I was having so much fun…)

There are a lot of various parenting books out there that tell us how to parent. So many that there are now whole books telling us not to worry about it. I honestly side with the books that are trying to help us be better parents.

This isn’t unimportant. There are long-term consequences to decisions that we are seeing increasingly minimized. It does matter whether you let your child “cry-it-out”. It does matter whether you spank. It does matter whether you respond to your child when they cry. And it matters today AND thirty years from now.

This is why I think about and work hard at parenting. Our every action will echo through the future. This isn’t some feel-good hippy-dippy stuff either. This is science. This is measurable. This is predictive.

You want happy, productive, healthy, moral children? You watched the video. You read this. Go hug your kids.  Work on your tool-box.  Love more. Punish less. Worry more about attachment and less about behavior.

Stand Up To Bullies

What do you do about bullying?

How do you handle hitting? Hair pulling?

I’ve decided that I don’t like other children. Or maybe I don’t like their parents. Whatever the cause, I don’t like it when I have to step in and stop someone else’s child from hurting mine.

I don’t like it because it’s (a) impolite to interfere with someone else’s kid, and (b) it is not my job, and (c) it is not as effective as the other parent teaching their own child.  I don’t want to step in because I can’t guarantee that it won’t result in the other parent screaming at me. Ideas about parenting are so incredibly variable.

At the same time, I can’t just sit back and do nothing. Maybe I could if Fiona were a different child or had more practice standing up for herself, but she’s not that child. When someone snatches, she either explains sharing or just lets it go and walks away. When they hit or push, she walks away.

When she got her hair pulled yesterday, that’s what she tried to do. Walk away. The other little girl didn’t let go. I watched Fiona’s face scrunch up in pain and I intervened. I told the other little girl, “No. No pulling hair.”  I admit, I was close to yelling. I untangled her hand from Fiona’s hair and removed Fiona.

I explained to Fiona that she doesn’t have to do what other children want her to and that she can say “No, No pulling hair” really loud if someone is pulling her hair.  She chased after the little girl yelling, “No pull hair!”, then went back to playing away from the other child.

I’m trying to teach her to stand up for herself, but it’s hard.  I don’t know if this is the right answer.  I wish other parents would just teach their kids not to hit, not to pull hair, not to shove, and not to snatch.

I want to march up to them and say, “Could you please parent your child?”  I don’t though, partially because I don’t know what the result would be. I don’t want to provoke a parent who has taken their child to the play-land because they’re at the end of their rope.

So, I’m trying to teach standing up for herself. I’m doing it now, because I’m worried about school. She’s smart and so very dramatic and so sweet, but I’m scared that she will struggle with bullies.  I have yet to meet a bully who understands anything other than direct strong opposition.

I’m terribly afraid that Fiona’s innate nature is going to put her at a disadvantage. I’m worried that her tendency to simply walk away will not stand her in good stead in a few years, though it will in adulthood.  I wonder if more exposure to other children will teach her to stand up for herself more and fight back a little.

I think it would be easier to teach her to hold back a little, than to teach her to confront. I’m not great at confrontation. I, too, would rather just walk away. I know from experience that it’s not the best option.

I’m looking for ideas. How do I teach my gentle little girl to stand up for herself? How do I teach her that she deserves, and should expect, respect and gentleness from those around her? How do I teach her to insist that others treat her well?  How do you start the process of helping a child stand up to bullies?

 

“They’re only two once,” and other lies

I cannot leave my home without a well-meaning but meaningless barrage of unhelpful advice being flung at me. Much like rotten tomatoes, it leaves me angry and defensive and it usually stinks.

“They’re only two once.” Says the woman in the cereal aisle, as I tell my girl to leave the cereal on the shelves, and my body language says that I’m a hairs breadth from losing my cool. 

She’s wrong, of course. Children are two for 365 days. Except this year. This is a leap year.  I get a whole extra day.

A few aisles further down, as I tell Fiona ‘no’ for probably the hundredth time since we’ve entered the store, an older woman says, “You’re going to miss this.” 

No, I’m not. I love my daughter. I’m going to miss her blowing bubbles in her milk. I’m going to miss the way she feels when she’s a solid sleeping weight on my chest and I carry her to her bed.  I’m going to miss hundreds of little moments when they’ve passed. Grocery shopping with a two year old is not one of them.

“Those are beautiful curls. I wish my daughter had hair like that.”  She smiles as she says it, and I understand what she means.  I say, “Thank-you.”

What she didn’t get to see was the special-ops chase and restraint mission that I went through to leave the house. This nice woman in the store didn’t have to chase down her two-year-old, wrap her in an old towel, soak her head, slather her head in conditioner, and then comb it out slowly, painstakingly, all while using two legs and one arm to restrain her and listening to her scream. Every day I wonder if I should just shave her head.  I find myself wishing that the sweet, silly woman’s daughter had hair like that, too.

The advice is well meant. It’s sympathetic. Not a single one of these women is trying to be mean or awful. They still manage to tick me off.  They simply don’t understand or don’t remember what it’s like to be in the trenches of motherhood.

There is no way to avoid the advice, the comments, and the compliments. I’m beginning to believe that the only thing to do is to arm myself in return. Maybe a small Tupperware container of tomatoes should join the Cheerios in my purse. Yeah, that’d show them.