Kid Clutter: Experiments in Decluttering Toy Tornadoes

The floor: for many of us parents, the sight of a bare floor is an amazing and rare spectacle, rather like the sighting of a double rainbow or a shooting star–beautiful and hauntingly brief–before it is submerged under a deluge of toys again.

I’ve tried many things to deal with this problem, like buying more toy bins from ikea and sorting the toys into them…repeatedly! Storage is not the solution, when everything is just going to be dumped out again. I’m also constantly decluttering and making give away bags of clothes and toys for Big Brothers Charity to pick up from my doorstep. I’ve even tried my sister’s method of toy jail, except sticking a box or bag of toys out in the garage temporarily. She told me:

I grabbed a garbage bag every night and a laundry basket. Set the timer. If things weren’t put back where they belonged they went in the garbage or into the “toy jail”. Then the jail went up on the fridge till they earned their toy’s freedom.

She was much more disciplined about doing this every night to establish a habit of tidying up. By the time I hit evening, I’m often too done in to do this. Or I’m just as overwhelmed as the kids by the sheer amount of tiny things to be responsible for. Hundreds and hundreds of little things to pick up, sort, organize, and put away. It’s a lot of pressure to deal with all this stuff.

So I finally hit a wall of frustration last weekend and decided to be a little more drastic. I brought in huge rubbermade bins from the garbage and dumped all the toy bins in them. I gathered up all the toys from the floor, everything but the toy food from in the toy kitchen, and a stuffie or two on each bed, and I put it ALL in the garage.

I waited for an explosion of outrage. For complaints. For tears. For…anything! But nothing came. The kids barely seemed to notice. My three year old Eddie turned all the empty toy bins into a toy train.

In his bed he has his Spider-Man doll and his Star Wars book. He’s perfectly happy. He has his siblings and his imagination. He has space to run and jump and play, instead of living in a toy tornado. We might bring some toys back in after a while, but not until they are specifically requested. So far, in a whole week, only one toy has been asked for, so I’ll go fetch that one thing.

I share this anecdote to demonstrate that sometimes we put too much stock in material things, thinking our happiness depends on them. It is a greater happiness to live the adventure of participating in making the world a better place. Life has much more savour and zest when we are not trapped in the tunnel of thinking mainly of ourselves. I read a great comment by a woman named Lauren in comments in We Are That Family blog:

My pastor said that we expect our children to be grateful when we shower them with gifts, but the only way to be really grateful is to live without.

I think the sheer amount of gifts children receive really cheapens everything. It’s so hard to really care about that many things. Especially when an empty box is just as fun to play with– or more!

We are still a fair way away from Christmas, the season in which loving relatives attempt to drive mothers insane by dumping down the chimney a sparkling deluge of tiny toys, to be picked up and sorted and lost and cried over and fought over approximately 2946393 times.

May I suggest, for those who may be thinking ahead, to consider experience gifts instead? Like taking the kids to a play or paying for an art class? Kids will love it! Nothing has brought my 6 and 7 year olds greater joy than their art class at 4 Cats art studio this fall. They are growing in confidence and learning new skills. Mothers all around the world will thank you for not bringing a million more tiny collectible toys to their house, especially every night when they go upstairs to read their kids a bedtime story, and can actually see that much coveted and beloved object: a clear floor!

As an added bonus, buying less toys is better for the environment, and helps preserve a more beautiful world for our kids to grow up in. Win-win!!

Some days

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

Spread far and wide

And though I’ve tried

My patience fails

My heart, it quails

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

The toddler roars

And slams the door

He lets me know

Who runs the show

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

The baby cries

The empress queen

Will be obeyed

Or price be paid

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

I’m losing sleep

And with is goes

All the wisdom

That I know

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

Chalk in the sink

Paint on the floor

Stamps on the wall

Pens on the door

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

My mind forgets

My plans do fail

Behind me lies

A messy trail

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

Mistakes rubbed in

Do sink my heart

Under their weight

I fall apart

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

I write this poem

Take refuge in

The secret world

I hide within

Some days

Stretched thin

My heart, my skin

Every Child Matters: September 30th

This September 30th was the 5th anniversary of my daughter Josephine’s birth. And death. Stillborn. It’s a bittersweet day for me, as we mourn and remember and celebrate her, especially by planting fall bulbs which will fill our garden with colour in the spring. We try to fill her birthday, one haunted by painful memories, with as much love and beauty as we can. We feel the wordless warmth of her love in return, across the temporary divide into the next life. The prayers and kind messages of friends take the sharp edge off this poignant day.

Josephine’s birthday is also Orange Shirt day, the special day assigned to commemorate the suffering of First Nations children separated from their families and put in residential schools. Having lost a child myself, I feel a stab of sympathy when I think of these families who had their children torn away from them. They had the additional torture of anxiety for their children’s happiness and well-being, knowing these were being violated. So from the heart of a mother which has been broken by grief, I send all my deepest wishes for healing and hope to all who have suffered in this way.

I was touched by the slogan below when my sister sent me this poster:

Every child matters.

No qualifying statements: no ‘if/then clauses’ like if they’re wealthy, they matter; if they’re white, they matter; if they’re wanted, they matter, if they’re old enough, they matter. No.

EVERY CHILD MATTERS.

When I saw a petition for equal health care for Inuit babies, I was a bit naively shocked….what do you mean, some babies in Canada often don’t receive equal care?? It seems that in their more extreme climate, many Inuit babies suffer seriously from RSV (respiratory virus syndrome), and some even succumb to it, despite the existence of a preventative antibody that is normally given to at-risk babies. It is not standardly given to them. I’m at a loss to know why. Cost, perhaps? Since when have we put a price tag on human life? Moreover, why is that price tag different depending whose child you are? Every child matters.

To say that some babies matter more than others is to commodify human beings, that is, to turn them into objects of variable worth…mere things whose value is determined by other frail human beings. This makes no sense. Either all babies matter, or none do.

Canada is such a gift. A beautiful country which is filled with so many diverse peoples. Let us please work towards making it a place where it is truly clear that every child matters, no matter what.

10 Homeschool Hacks from an Experienced (not expert!) Parent

Often when people hear I’ve had eight kids (seven here on earth and one gone ahead), they get wide eyed and exclaim something like,

Oh, how do you do it!? You must be an expert!

I always feel a little awkward, because how do you tell someone you just met,

Actually, I struggle just as much as the next mom…my only expertise could be in making mistakes. I’ve probably made more than most people.

I’m no expert; I’ve had lots of experience with babies and kids, but I’m still learning every day. So I don’t have an expert e-course to offer, or a fancy printable for your fridge, helpful as these things can be. When I share any of my adventures in parenting with you on my blog, it is in the spirit of one friend speaking to another over coffee. I hope we will both laugh and come away encouraged. Maybe you’ll be able to skip making some of the makes I have, or at least to know you’re not alone if you do!

Many things that come to some people a bit more naturally, like being organized or planning ahead, are a huge challenge for me (squirrel!) so lots of the things I’ve learned might be things you already know. Hurrah! You’re doing great.

Homeschool Hacks

  1. The Myth of Multitasking…Make a Time for Things

Women are often praised for being great multitaskers. It’s true that we often need to juggle many things at once, and can. But is it ideal? Is it actually the best approach? For years I’ve been trying to homeschool the kids, answer the phone, plan activities, cook meals and clean the house at….well, basically the same time. It’s exhausting.

Finally I took an awesome, practical and insightful online homeschool planning course from Pam Barnhill, called: Put Your Homeschool Year on Autopilot. One of the best takeaways for me from this course was the idea of having a basic but flexible schedule so that I wouldn’t always have to be deciding what’s next. I always resisted the perceived constraint of a schedule, but I realize now that having a set time for school to end, for example, means after that, I’m free to do other things…like mark and plan, or cook and clean, without feeling like I should be doing educational activities with the kids at the same time. Relief.

2. Professionals Don’t Pick Up

Another thing that’s been helpful this year, because I’m more clear when is school time, and when is not, is that it’s easier to be more professional about my teaching, and avoid distractions. So I leave my phone and iPad upstairs when we are in session in the school room, and just check messages at lunch and after school. It’s hard for me to resist being always available to everyone who might call or text, but it’s more important that I’m fully present to the kids while we homeschool.

3. There’s no such thing as “just one more thing.”

It’s easy for people to assume that because we homeschool moms are generally home, we are generally available….and therefore free to do them little favours or errands…”just this once,” “just once a week,” “just for an hour,” or whatever. All these little “justs” can completely derail homeschool days. Also, for the busy mom with an ongoing to-do list of 18,264 things, the last “just” could be the straw that breaks the camels back.

I would encourage homeschool moms (actually, any moms) to really mull over any new activities before agreeing to them, and even to consider any current extra obligations: do these things bring you life and joy? Do they fulfill you and make you feel enriched? Great! But if they cause stress, emotional drain, or additional fatigue…then…maybe they just need to go! Quitting some extra’s is not failure; it’s intentionally choosing where to invest your precious and limited energy, so you can give your family your best.

4. Accordion Binders are Magic

As I already mentioned, I’m pretty scatterbrained, and while I have lots of good ideas, I’m also good at forgetting them. And losing things. And wasting time trying to find them again. The dollar store came to the rescue with lovely accordion binders. I got one for each child, so they can easily slip their work into the right labeled slot, and close it up, instead of piling their work on my desk to get lost. Little ones have no trouble with this, the way they often do with using a hole punch and metal ring binder. Also, when our homeschool coach comes to visit, their work should be much easier to find!

I also use a binder for my own projects, such a my second poetry book that I’m slowly compiling and editing. Now my precious papers aren’t lost, and I can grab the whole thing to take with me on rare times I’m out alone and can work on it…even if it’s just on the skytrain.

5. Sticky Notes Save the Day

I can’t believe it’s taken me till now to realize how awesome sticky notes are! I got beautiful coloured ones, a different shade for each child, for them to keep their places in the textbooks and workbooks. It makes marking so easy because I know where the kids’ current work is. Sticky notes make their work easy to grab and get started without wasting time trying to remember what we did last and looking for the right page. When you multiply 4 text or work books by 5 kids–considering it takes a minute to find your place if it’s not marked–I figure sticky notes save us at least 20 minutes a day!

When they don’t have mistakes, I move their sticky note forward to the next new page. When there are corrections to be made, I leave it where it is, and move it after marking the next assignment. If we miss a day of a subject, we just look for the note and start again. No problemo.

6. Clipboard Checklists Keep Things Running Smoothly

One of Pam Barnhill’s great tips was to give each child a clip board with a notebook on it, and to write their daily checklist of assignments on it each day. When I take time to do this, usually right after school while the kids have a quiet time show, the next day runs more smoothly. Right away the kids know what’s expected, and can work ahead. If they don’t feel like doing the first one right away, they can also choose to do a different activity on the checklist, knowing they are still getting the day’s work done.

The clipboards are also super handy for filling with any printouts the kids will need that day, as well as additional quiet activities like colouring sheets, mazes or word searches in case they finish before the others. I have a clipboard, too, which I write my basic daily plan on. When I’m writing it, it reminds me to grab all the books I need and stick them in my teacher basket on top of my desk. (You guessed it! Another handy tip from Pam: visualizing your school day to make sure everything you need is at hand.)

7. Plan as if you’re having a new baby

This year, before starting our new homeschool year, I did the same prep I’d usually do if I was expecting a newborn–that is–anything to make life a bit easier! First we delayed starting school for an extra week in order to clean the house. Then my Dad bravely took me on a giant Costco shop (we don’t have a car) and we filled the poor vehicle to the brim with every possible staple, easy school snack, freezable meal, and even some really cool homeschool books and science kits.

I got the toddler, who thinks that she is Van Gogh and every surface is a canvas, a giant erasable-marker ABC book she can lie on the schoolroom carpet and scribble on. I picked up some new alphabet stacker blocks for her, too, and some superman books for her preschool brother, who has a desk and sits with us, too, during school, when he’s not rolling around on the ground wrestling his older brother or attacking people with a sword.

8. Not every meal has to be fancy

Since the kids are often out at extracurricular activities later in the day, my husband had the good idea that we have our main meal at lunch and then do simple sandwiches and fruit, or wraps and veggies, etc, for dinner. This way I can pack sandwiches for kids who will be out, and have them ready for the others who are home. Also, I don’t have to spend the evening doing tons of dishes, because dinner was really simple with minimal mess.

I find I have more energy for cooking mid-day, anyway, and it gives the kids a welcome break mid-school day to go practice music or hang out a bit between lessons. My handy instant pot makes it easy to make things like curry or stew quickly. I save leftovers for my husband’s dinner, and with the kids help, get things cleaned up from lunch before we continue school.

9. Loops are Lovely

One of the other insights tips from Pam’s course was how to use loop schedules. We have basic blocks within which we do certain topics, but they are on a loop. For example, I have a language arts loop, with things like spelling, writing, and grammar, and in that block the kids just do one topic after the other until the time is up, and then start at the next part of the loop next time. There’s no need to feel pressured or behind, or to assign dates to every page…you simply keep swimming! Here’s a list of potential topics for various loops:

This concept of flexible routine is so helpful, kind of like a dancer’s arms: they are firm enough move their own body with them, but supple enough to respond to changes in their partner. Have a plan to ground you, and be flexible enough to smile and give the chocolate pudding covered toddler a bath in the middle of math class! (Math and morning snack always go together for us…but this time was a rather sticky combo!!)

10. Kids Matter Most

All of these plans and tools are meant to serve your family, not to cause stress, if they don’t go exactly as hoped. To paraphrase Todd from The Smiling Homeschooler: Ultimately, curriculum doesn’t matter, your plan doesn’t matter, your schedule doesn’t matter, your kids matter. They are the reason for it all. Watch their faces….little smilo-meters. If they’re generally smiling, you’re doing well. Not that there won’t be challenges each day, but if they’re always frowning, stop and reassess your priorities. Relationship is first.

Todd’s wise wife Donna’s motto is: “If we’ve laughed a little, and learned a little, we’ve accomplished a lot.” I love that! When things go sideways, and kids are too worn out for another lesson, I remember it and pull out the storybooks for a cosy break. Sometimes the unplanned moments create the best memories.

Do you have any favourite homeschool tricks or general teaching tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you!

The Case of the Missing Mom

It’s been kinda quiet on the blog lately and you might be wondering…where’s my mother? Didn’t she come back from summer vacation?

Is she off having a wild toga party??

Did she shrink into a fairy and get lost in the wild chives in our garden?

Is she a total basket case who forgot she loves writing??

No, she’s homeschooling us! She misses you all and hopes to appear again soon!

We’re working really hard…see? Look at the floor!

Upstairs, Downstairs

This poem was written for my former downstairs neighbour and dear friend who has now returned home to Egypt with her husband and children. It was an honour and a joy to share our lives with them, and to find a warm connection that overcame any differences.

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms everywhere!! Peace be with you. May you always be supported, embraced and encouraged by your fellow moms all over the world! Go team! 🙂

 

Upstairs: a crazy crew of kids

six littles bouncing, dancing, singing, banging.

Downstairs: two small sweeties,

running, shouting, playing, laughing.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the mothers scold, cook, cuddle and caress.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the mothers mother

day and night.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women sing

in Arabic and English,

songs of faith and lullabies

unique yet universal,

of one heart.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women weep,

mourn lost babies–

precious ones snatched away too soon–

in each other’s arms

these mothers find warm comfort.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women pray,

observe Lent and Ramadan,

break their fasts and rejoice together

over homemade sweets.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women hope,

cherishing the new lives

nestled in their wombs…

little tiny babies

due at the same time.

May they be best friends!!

 

In the world there is hatred

but not in our house.

Upstairs, downstairs

there is love.

 

Compassion

Let it go, little mamma.

You have deeply entered their pain,

lived it with them,

prayed and suffered.

Their burden is not yours.

You can love

but you cannot hold the whole world

in your heart.

Don’t try to steal God’s job.

Only He, the eternal one,

can bear all the world’s suffering

without breaking to pieces…

Your call now,

is to go dig in your garden

and plant flowers of hope

in the simple brown earth.

Your call is to smile again

and find joy in the little gifts of each day.

Tears have washed you clean.

Now, little mama,

let it go,

trust more,

be silly and laugh again.

Insecurity

There is the illusion

that ‘the woman next door’ has everything figured out–

that the insides of her underwear drawer

are as neat as her perfect front lawn–

illusion of insecurity.

There is the nagging feeling

that you should be more like her,

so confident and productive…

It eats you up inside

until your walls crumble and collapse

into emptiness.

Voices of self-doubt echo

in the hollow chamber of your head:

“Are you sure you’re good enough?

Can you really do this?

What gave you that silly idea?”

You’re tempted to crawl under the covers again

but that’s just where the demons are hiding–

alone in your head.

Instead, throw back those blankets and step into the sun,

don’t give up without a fight,

empty rooms are good for being filled with light.

Empty hands are good for holding little hands.

Empty hearts are good for being filled with love.

Empty heads are good for listening.

So, instead of dwelling alone

in the harsh prison of your self-judgement,

reach out,

be open to other people’s stories,

listen to their hopes and cries of pain.

Everyone has their struggle,

and everyone has their blue flame.

Realize you are not alone

in all your broken beauty…

like them you’re just a tiny little human

entrusted by God

with the great task of love.

Beautiful

Yesterday I stumbled across this poem I wrote some time ago for dear friends who had suffered yet another painful miscarriage. As a number of people in our church community have either recently lost young children, or are approaching anniversaries of loss, I decided to share it.

Beautiful the face of a mother,

who suffers and who loves,

endlessly giving her all,

her very self, day and night.

Beautiful the face of a father,

whose word of love has become flesh,

and brought him joy,

and the necessity to serve,

forgetting himself.

Beautiful the hearts of husband and wife,

who give up pieces of themselves,

and let them to walk around outside their bodies,

tugging on their heartstrings

until they break.

Beautiful the sorrow of those who trust in God,

while they ache inside and long for the gift

that was briefly theirs,

but has flown to Heaven.

Beautiful the “Amen’s” that cost us the most,

the letting go,

the giving up what we only loved,

but never owned.

Beautiful the hearts that don’t lose faith,

when all seems cold and incomprehensible.

Beautiful the love that is stronger than death,

that stretches into eternity,

and bursts into God’s light with joyous triumph

on that day of reunion

which is to come.