Taking care of young children is not exactly a walk in the park.
Aside from the poopie diapers, the endlessly runny noses and the need to feed them every 15 minutes, there is also the constant pressure to keep them occupied.
Safely occupied. (Because we all know how quickly a three-year-old can find a way to swing from the ceiling fan.)
In our desire to keep the kids busy, it can be tempting to overreach. Moms, grandmothers and daycare folks sometimes wake up the middle of the night with the BEST ideas. Like, the BEST!
One night, for example, I woke up at 3 AM. It was the week before Halloween. There were already plastic bats and orange twinkle lights hanging in the living room and I was running out of orange paper. I needed a plan to keep the kids busy on the following rainy day.
The words just popped into my head. I drifted back to sleep imagining the kids and I making adorable, slightly smooshy ghosts with a variety of facial expressions.
The reality, as any parent out there knows, was far from perfect. The icing didn’t turn sticky. The marshmallows were either totally melted or totally firm. And it turns out that my little tubes of icing aren’t subtle enough to make tiny frowns.
So what did we do?
We used mini chocolate chips and just shoved them into the marshmallows. Plop on a candy corn hat and, boom! Marshmallow ghosts. Sorta.
Obviously, these would not be worthy of a food blog or a Pinterest page.
But you know what? My grandkids had a blast making them, they thought they were the best creation ever, and they were hugely proud of themselves.
When you add in the time it took to get everything ready (“Johnny, put this dish on the table, please.”) and the time it took to clean up (“Who wants to wash the table?”), we had burned through an entire rainy hour.
The lesson here is not how to create super cute, elaborate artwork or decorative food. The lesson is simple.
Stop looking at the pretty, pretty pictures on-line. Stop reading the breathlessly happy blog posts by the beautiful young women who brag about “sensory-science fun” projects made of 47 ingredients you can only find in boutique markets.
These Mommies are no doubt wonderful. They no doubt have floors so clean that you can see your face in the reflection. I’m sure they only feed their kids sustainable, local, GMO-free, no sugar foods.
But we can’t all achieve that level of perfection, and when it comes to raising happy kids, we should stop trying.
Research shows us that an increasing number of American children are being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. As a retired teacher, and the wife of a clinical child psychologist, I have seen this anxiety first hand. I’ve seen children who are so afraid to fail that they literally cannot put words on paper. I’ve seen them so anxious about art that they are in tears at 6 years old because they don’t like how their pumpkin is shaped.
While the causes of childhood anxiety are varied and complex, there is a body of research to support the idea that perfectionist tendencies are a contributing factor.
Fear of making mistakes can completely immobilize a person, at any age. Young children are particularly susceptible because they so often see our approval as contingent on their success.
When we, as adults, present our young children with creative projects, we must be very careful not to let our expectations of perfection come through.
I recently went on Pinterest (a source of constant inspiration, humor, and head shaking). I found some great ideas for turkey crafts. So after breakfast and before the first round of snacks, I pulled out our “art box.” This big Tupperware box holds paper, colored pencils, crayons, markers, googly eyes, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, yarn, glue, paste, glitter glue, paper doilies, a stack of coffee filters, the cardboard tubes from toilet paper rolls and anything else I come across that might make a “craft” project.
I did NOT look at the perfect models from Pinterest. I did not make a turkey myself first as a model. We talked about turkeys and what parts they contained, what colors they are and what we could use to make them. Then I put out all the materials, poured myself some coffee, and let them go. Sure, I helped with the gluing, but the creations were all theirs.
Ellie is four and a half and loves to take her time coloring carefully. This is her turkey:
Johnny is only 2 and has less patience for art that doesn’t involve squirting water or melting crayons. Nevertheless, here’s his creation:
I could write now about how much sensory play was involved in this project, or I could go on and on about the language stimulation that occurred.
But those were only the byproducts of our efforts. The real achievement was having two little kids who felt free to make turkeys the way they wanted them to be. And who were proud and happy at the end.
And let’s not forget that Nonni here got through a full hour with neither a tantrum nor a snack break.