Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas catch-up

It has been a busy, busy Christmas season, let me tell you . . . so busy that I haven't had a chance to update our family journal. Here are some of the photo highlights:

Here's the whole family visiting Santa at Lark Toys (in Wabasha, MN)
after much pleading from our youngest daughter, who once again...

...sensibly refused to get anywhere near the big guy in a red suit. I nearly knocked over
the set getting her this far. (After weeks of begging, I didn't want to hear, "But NOW I'll
be brave!" on our way out of the parking lot.) 

Here's the little munchkin trying on a Santa hat in the

Bear, who is in on the Santa secret, was more than
forthcoming about his wish list, his opinions on his
favorite toys, the state of the polar ice cap, fun facts
about reindeer....

Thankfully, he's not too old for the hand-carved

The Catholic Worker house has a humongous real Christmas tree.
We visited on Christmas morning, too, for brunch, with a smaller crowd.

An annual school ritual is the "Holiday bazaar."
Each upper elementary student creates a product and a
business plan and sells it during the holiday breakfast
(for which we all get up at the cheerily dark hour of 6 a.m.).
Bear sold colored "funny putty" this year. (Do you know
how hard it is to find liquid starch anymore???)

Another annual tradition is decorating our Christmas tree. This is Mudpuppy's
first year really participating in that event.

(Every one of the three preceeding pictures was shamelessly posed. Sorry,
but I'm not THAT good of a photographer!)

Visiting friends and family is the best part of the season!
Here is Jaybird dressing up with a playmate from church.

And here she is with one of her Twin Cities cousins.

Christmas morning.

Mouse with her beloved Kaya doll.

On our visit to my mom's, we took a walk around Centennial Lakes, which
has an ice rink. The kids went skating; all of them have improved since
last winter. 

Christmas leaves me exhausted, too, kid. (The girls have been sleeping
on the living room couches as one of the "privileges" they're earning
on their new point system.) Sweet dreams!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Things Mudpuppy can do

It's been quite a while since we had a Mudpuppy update; he's learning to do more every day. 
  • This morning, Starling held him up to the mirror and asked, "Where's Matthew?" And he pointed at his image in the mirror and replied, quite distinctly, "There he is!" He wouldn't repeat it quite so well for me, although you can hear the general cadence and sound of what he's trying to say. He also likes trying to say "Alleluia." He'd been saying something like "ah-lay, ah-lay" when different people in the family picked up on it and started encouraging him to say alleluia. Now he says somethng like "ah-lay-ah." Much to everyone's amusement. He also says "da da da" and "ba ba ba" and "ma ma ma" -- he likes playing echo games with those sounds.
  • He will wave bye-bye on cue, and sometimes he'll imitate the sound of the word.
  • Yesterday, Bear says that he saw him take a step on his own, without holding onto anything. He is definitely in charge of cruising now -- he can navigate from the couch to the manger scene via the dining room table without any trouble. (He likes to eat the manger figurines and then throw them on the ground.) He has been cruising around the kitchen lately; he likes opening cabinets and taking everything out.
  • He can eat a piece of bread and cut-up grapes on his own, but he still won't drink from his sippy cup -- he just bangs it around until there's a mess everywhere. He no longer takes breast milk during the day; he's been on whole milk from the store for a few weeks now.
  • He is still the smilingest baby you ever saw. No kidding, the clerks at two grocery stores, the library, and Target all greet him with, "There's the smiley baby!" Literally -- I walk in, they see him, and that's what they say. He smiles at that, of course.
Here are some other things he can do:

Hang out with the sibs!

Happily make a huge mess

Collect money for the Salvation Army

Conk out for a three-hour nap, still in his coat. 'Nite, nite!

After the blizzard

Well, here are a few last (long-delayed) pictures from the big snowstorm:

The statue of Mary outside our church.

I measured the snow at 17 inches here and
across the street, in the WSU parking lot.
The official total for Winona was something
like 21.6 inches; maybe they're measuring

And here's a short video of me walking through the backyard, covered in snow:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Please stand by....

Sorry there aren't more updates -- we're busy grading papers, helping Santa, writing nominating letters for the teacher of the year, creating bulletin panels for church, organizing a baby shower for Maria's teacher, shoveling, and implementing the point system for the Nurtured Heart Approach that we're trying with our kids. (Day 1 of the point system was great--near-perfect behavior from everyone.)

I will say that our official snowfall total in Winona was 21.2 inches, including 16 inches in a 24-hour period. I don't know how they're getting that measurement, because my snow-depth measurement (in the middle of the huge empty parking lot across the street) came out at just under 17 inches. But maybe they adjust for subsidence or something. I'm no meteorologist!

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Here are a few nice things about a blizzard:

  • A blizzard makes everything look so peaceful (at least from indoors). For once, the busy intersection a block from our house is abandoned; not only abandoned, but obliterated. It's as if the Apocalypse came early, but softly.
  • A blizzard brings neighbors together in grim solidarity. This is particularly true on our block, where we share an alleyway. For some reason, the city does not plow the alley, leaving us neighbors to go at it with shovels. One of us will see another brave soul out there with a shovel, and pretty soon there are a handful of us working in concert, making small talk, catching up on news -- basically, everything that has happened since last winter, which would be the last time we spoke like this. People gladly shovel one another's walkways and driveways. (Easy to do when the driveways are less than 10 feet long.) And then the guy with the snow blower comes just as everyone is about to drop dead of a heart attack and finishes the job off. We turn inside, the informal block party over.
  • A blizzard is exciting. One of my neighbors admitted this sheepishly as she was shoveling the front walk with me. But, deep inside, everyone knows this. The grocery store last night, crazy busy with people stocking up, was a hum of excitement. A common crisis -- especially one that we can weather out in warm homes in front of the TV -- brings out the best in people. At the very least, it gives them something to talk about in the checkout line.
  • A blizzard breaks the normal routine. Can't return those books to the library. Can't run to the hardware store for the parts for that project. Can't go shopping. Oh well; guess I have to stay home and bake cinnamon raisin bread while listening to stories on CD.
  • It builds character. "Go back outside," we tell the kids. "It's only 25 degrees. You'll have fun." Back in my day, we played in the snow until well past dark.
As I write this, it's still snowing -- something like 15 inches and counting. The wind is blowing at the windows, but the kids are asleep and it's warm inside. And I can smell the cinnamon bread baking in the oven....*

* Blizzard enjoyment is greatly improved by a wife who is willing
to shovel the walk at 10 p.m.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Trying the Nurtured Heart Approach

Although we don't say much about it on this blog, anyone who knows our family knows that Jaybird is our "spirited" child. Some would say our "difficult" child. That is to say, she's very intense -- all her emotions are BIG. She is also very sensitive, persistent ("stubborn," if you don't like what she's being persistent about), and has difficulty with transitions. All classic markers of the Spirited Child, as outlined in the book by the same name (see the link below).

She consumes about 30 - 50 percent of our parenting energy on a good day. On a bad day, more like 80 percent. A few weeks ago, we began having way too many bad days. You know you've crossed a line as a parent when you start dreading interactions with your child, or when you start feeling bullied by your five-year-old girl. And just to be very clear about this, we did try just about everything we could think of, including ramping up the severity of the consequences to something just short of corporeal punishment; it was both exhausting and ineffective.

Finally, one night while Jaybird was in an extended time-out, after a particularly bad mutual meltdown (on her part and my part), the rest of the family sat down and prayed (out loud) for help in figuring out how to live with her. And more than that -- how to love her.

The next day at Early Childhood Family Education, I heard another parent tell her story. Basically, she had a nine-year-old who was in day treatment at her elementary school; the school counselors and psychologists were recommending drug therapy. (Apparently, it took four adults to hold her down during one outburst.) Then the mom started implementing the Nurtured Heart Approach. They saw a very quick change: she went from having several calls home every week to going four weeks without any calls home. Everyone was telling the mom that the girl was like a new child.

We started implementing this approach right away, just based on what we were able to glean from it anecdotally. Even with this partial, imperfect implementation, we've seen a remarkable change. The hour-long blowout temper tantrums that were a regular feature of every day now occur much less frequently. She never used to make it through family prayer without reprimands and, usually, being sent to her room. That doesn't happen anymore. More importantly, she is happier and more confident -- you can see the pride she takes in being good. (Her little chest actually sticks out more and her smile gets bigger!)

I'm going to try to outline the approach for the benefit of any of my siblings who may want to try this approach (not that I've noticed any difficult children among the cousins, but you probably never marked Jaybird that way, either). I will also provide a link to the book and the website below; the website isn't very informative, though, which is why this overview might be helpful. I offer it with two warnings: 1) The guy who systematized this approach does not claim that this approach is necessary for all children, although any child could benefit from it; most children do fine with conventional discipline techniques. This approach has proven to be very successful with high-energy children, including those diagnosed with ADHD. 2) Please understand that this is my own personal understanding of the NHA (Nurtured Heart Approach), which I am still learning. I'm leaving out a lot of the nuance, context, examples, and additional explanation given in the book. Read the book if you want more information: Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach.

Here's my summary:

  • The Nurtured Heart Approach is geared toward emotionally intense, sensitive, highly attached children -- your classic "spirited" child. It presumes that these children, more than others, really need a lot of "input" from others in the form of interaction and structure. It also presumes that conventional discipline techniques have taught these kids that it is really easy to get a lot of intense feedback from the people around them by acting up. It doesn't matter that it's negative feedback; these kids just want your energy, in any form they can get it. The NHA seeks to break the kids of the habit of acting up to get energy. 
  • Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley, authors of the NHA book, provide a very helpful analogy that really captures the approach. They observe that most of these "difficult" children strive hard to be successful at video games and/or sports games; more than other children, the difficult child "plugs into" these games because of the high level of interaction, feedback, and energy involved. Glasser and Easley also observe that video games and sports games offer lots of rewards (points, fun noises and visual effects) for positive behavior; negative behavior (breaking the rules or failing) consistently results in a simple, quick penalty -- the lights and sounds go away, or game play stops -- but only momentarily before game play (and the drive toward success) resumes. Glasser observes that these games are highly structured, and focus more on positive incentives than on negative consequences. At the risk of oversimplifying, the NHA strives to recreate the basic environment of a video game -- lots of positive reinforcement, combined with quick, consistent, low-intensity consequences for rule-breaking.
  • The first step in the NHA is to stop giving energy to negative behavior -- you ignore it if possible, or address it as quickly as possible, and as neutrally as possible, if necessary.
  • The second step is to reinforce -- and even create -- success by actively recognizing it and naming it whenever it occurs. Glasser points out that no child misbehaves all the time; so what you do is to give them lots of active recognition (feeding them "energy") when they're behaving in a way you want to encourage. The book spends four chapters outlining strategies for recognizing and reinforcing pro-social behavior. One element that seems important to me is that the positive reinforcement is not vague or unmerited ("Good job!" "Thanks!"). Rather, you're naming and describing very specifically the positive behavior that you're observing: "Amy, I'm really happy about how you asked Jeff to stop; you used your words in a polite voice, and even though you were frustrated when he didn't stop, you used your power to make a good choice by just walking away. It's wonderful to see your powerful self-control and good decision-making." You're not only feeding the child energy in return for positive behavior, you're providing structure by very explicitly connecting that positive input to the exact behavior that elicited it.
  • For especially difficult children, Glasser outlines a credit system whereby the child earns credits for positive behavior -- lots and lots of credits -- that can be traded in for privileges. Credits are never taken away (just as points are never deducted in a game), but the child needs credits to "buy" the privilege. Glasser and Easley call this a "time-in" (as opposed to a time-out) approach. The kid gets something tangible for his good behavior. Again, this is like accumulating points in a video game; in the game, accumulated points result in obtaining new levels or powers. It's the same idea here, except that points = privileges. 
  • Also, like a video game, the rules that one must follow in order to obtain credits are very clear-cut and well-defined. Glasser and Easley advocate formulating rules for the difficult child that are stated in negative terms ("No hitting, no lying") rather than in positive terms ("Respect others") because a negative definition is much more clearly defined than the more vague, open-ended positive definition.
  • Finally, once the positive reinforcement has been established, you set up the companion piece: consequences. "Consequences serve as the all-important limits side of this intervention," Glasser and Easley say. Going back to the video game analogy, they point out that video games do not give any energy to a broken game rule: "No points are scored. There is no payoff. The game's response to any violation is totally predictable: Oops, broke a rule. The consequence: Temporarily missing out on the action." In the NHA, consequences are meted out neutrally, without fanfare or explanation (again, not giving energy to negative behavior). Also, warnings are not given (for the difficult child, warnings are just another "payoff" for negative behavior; they know the rules, or if they somehow missed the explanation, they will figure it out through the consequence).
  • The consequence? A brief, manageable timeout -- what Glasser calls a reset. It begins when the child stops the negative behavior and quiets down, and is over very quickly afterward. The child is congratulated on successfully extinguishing the negative behavior and successfully completing the reset. "The power of a time-out...is not in how punitive or drastic it is, but rather in how 'clean' it is." A clean time-out is de-energized, with a rapid return to the pursuit of success -- much like a penalty in a video game or sports.
Again, I'm necessarily leaving out a lot of nuance and context.

I like this approach for two reasons. First, it seems to be working -- very quickly and effectively. More than once, Starling and I have exchanged raised eyebrows or shocked expressions as the expected blowup fails to materialize (like when we said "no" to a sleepover that she was invited to) -- or even at Jaybird's explicitly naming all the ways she's being good. Second, its focus on positive reinforcement and its presumption of the basic goodness of the child seem to me to be very consistent with Christian values. (Yes, some Christians emphasize the reality of sin, which cannot be denied; but presuming the dominance of sin, or that sin can only be fought with violence or harshness, seems to me to be a denial of the reality of the Resurrection. Grace has, and always will, overcome sin. Relying on that grace is the way to go. Hence the name of the blog, folks!)

The website for the book is http://difficultchild.com/ -- given with the warning that I didn't find it at all helpful for understanding the approach. For that, read the book: Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach.

You may also want to read Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic.

Finally, lest we give the wrong impression, let me just say that one advantage of raising a spirited child is that their joy and loveliness also tend to be magnified. Here's a video of Jaybird heading out into the snow, which I offer as proof of her essential sweetness. (I love her, "Aye, aye!") It's moments like these that make all the effort of parenting her so worthwhile.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Cold sledding, warm bread

The saga of the First Snow continues with our very brief sledding excursion. "Hmm. Wonder why no one's sledding today?" I asked innocently as we pulled up to the hill. The kids helpfully pointed out that four kids were indeed sledding, but normally after a first snow there would be many more.

The answer became painfully clear about fifteen minutes later in the form of my nearly frozen fingers. Ever get so cold that you begin to lose feeling in your hands -- you know, the part where they really  start to hurt (your body basically screaming at you to get them someplace warm). Yeah. That was me. Jaybird lasted only two trips down the hill. Mouse, however, was so enthralled with her newfound snowboarding skills that she hung in there for a whole hour (along with Bear) -- and her jacket was half unzipped. And she wasn't wearing a hat! Or scarf! Or a sweater! And it was 13 degrees out, with a wind! What kind of parent would let their kid go outside in below-zero windchills dressed like that, I ask you?

Oh yeah -- apparently, me. (Note to self: Check fashion-crazy daughter's clothing before going sledding!)

Jaybird, back when she was warm.

Bear, who can snowboard down the hill
and over small jumps without falling down
more often than not now.

Mouse, at the beginning of a successful run down the hill.

After a cold afternoon sledding, the kids want hot chocolate. Me, I like warm bread, which is why I am so glad my brother and his wife (probably mostly his wife) bought me this great book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, for my birthday. I have been wanting to try making homemade bread for several years now, but haven't primarily because of not having the time or an easy-to-understand book. Thanks to this book, though, I'm starting to learn.

And what a learning curve it has been. My first attempt at a baguette was a disaster of epic proportions -- gloppy dough (I think I may have mis-measured something), flour spilling everywhere, missed steps, and finally, an exploding glass cake pan. The recipe calls for steaming the bread in the oven by pouring a cup of water into a broiler pan that is already in the oven (which has been preheated to 450°). Smart me, I decided that a glass baking pan would substitute fine. So, science fans, what happens when we pour water that is, at best, 120° F, into a glass pan that has been heated to 450° F? If you answered that the cooler water causes the glass to cool very rapidly and unevenly, thus causing it to shatter, you're right! A very loud experience it is, too.

Then there are problems with the equipment. I don't have proper measuring cups or measuring spoons (ordered the spoons on Amazon yesterday so I don't have to keep converting teaspoons into half-tablespoons), a pizza peel, a decent baking stone, an oven thermometer, or a dough scraper. This has meant much improvising.

Nonetheless, the bread has been GOOD. Very, very good. Crispy and pleasantly crunchy on the outside (even if the loaves look deformed), and chewy and flavorful on the inside. The book says to let them cool, but we've been having them warm -- we just tear them apart rather than slicing them. Here is my latest baguette:

And here are the people waiting to eat it. Incidentally, the Brussels sprouts just below
the bread caused a major incident later with one of our non-Brussels-sprouts-loving kids.
No one was injured, but we may not be having those things again anytime soon.
As for the book, I think it truly will be a five-minute-a-day proposition in about a month or two, after I've figured out all the little tricks and techniques that forestall kitchen disasters. Since getting this book, I have met or heard about a surprising number of people who are using this book successfully. I can't wait to branch out and try some of the other recipes.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

First snow

We had our first "sticking" snowfall of the season yesterday, much to Starling's chagrin and the kids' delight. Just over seven inches, according to our picnic table measurement.

Jaybird ran out into the snow right away in the morning.

And here is Starling diligently shoveling.

Bear swinging in the snow.

This guy looks cold and hungry!

Hot chocolate after snow play is a tradition around here!

We also visited the light show in La Crosse again this year. Here are some
suspicious-looking reindeer!

The kids in a sleigh.

Pretty decent photo for a low-light situation and no flash.

Bear practicing the violin

"Bear" has been playing the violin for more than a year now, and he's beginning to master some of the basics. Here is a song called "Perpetual Motion" that he played with his violin tutor during a recent lesson at her house. He plays more exciting stuff than this -- I just happened to catch this one:

Friday, December 03, 2010

GraceWatch temporarily suspended by Google

So, nothing funny to report here today. Our Google account was temporarily disabled for a while today. When I logged on this evening and tried signing in to my e-mail account (on Gmail, a Google service linked to my Google account), I got a message saying our account had been suspended due to suspicious activity. It asked me to verify the account by entering in my mobile phone number so they could text message me with a verification code. At first, I balked at this, thinking that our simple mobile phone doesn't do text messages. But the only other option was a link leading me to this page. Among other things, it says:
If you've been redirected to this page from the sign in page, it means that access to your Google Account has been disabled.
In most cases, accounts are disabled because of a perceived violation of either the Google Terms of Service or product-specific Terms of Service.
Google reserves the right to:
  • Suspend a Google Account from using a particular product or the entire Google Accounts system if the Terms of Service or product-specific policies are violated.
  • Terminate your account at any time, for any reason, with or without notice.

 The only option from this page was to contact Google via some form; they said they might get back to you if they had new information to communicate.


Fortunately, our mobile phone does do text messages, as I found out when I went back to that page and requested the verification code. Obviously the account was restored.

When I logged into our Gmail account, it was obvious that someone had been sending out spam and using our e-mail address as a "cloak." That is to say, when they sent the e-mail out from their computer, they disguised the originating information to say that the spam originated with us. There were about 100 bounced e-mails in our inbox.

It's fine that Google has a form for contacting them, but I know from traweling the webmaster forums that Google customer service ranks somewhere below the ninth circle of hell, which is to say that if you ever receive individual attention from a person -- especially if you're dealing with a disabled account -- it should count as a miracle.

What do we have associated with our Google account? hmm.... Our e-mail address, our family blog which is essentially the only copy of our family journal, all the e-mails in our e-mail account, an online photo collection, and our Google Adsense account, which is a very substantial portion of our household income (about 15 percent). It's a little disturbing that Google can turn off such a huge part of our life with the flick of a switch just because some criminal took advantage of us.

This isn't just an issue with Google, though. Increasingly, we're being encouraged to move our digital lives to the "cloud" -- the cast network of computer servers that make up the Internet. Really prolific Facebook users are in a similar position.

What to do to guard against this? I have no idea. Right now, I have a crying baby to attend to.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

"I made it one year."

Today we remember the anniversary of my sister's brush with death -- and of the week-long period of waiting and worrying that followed. At this point a year ago, we were truly unsure whether she would live (the odds seemed heavily stacked against it, since she'd been on CPR for forty-five minutes), and if she lived, whether she would be capable of being a mother and wife to her family. It would take more than a week for us to realize the miracle of her survival and near-complete recovery.

She reflects on this day last year at length in her blog:
Today as I stood outside holding Anna who is now a year old, waiting for Dennis to get the kids out of the car (they had just gone to the sledding hill), I thought to myself, "I'm standing here today. I'm standing here, holding my baby who is a year old, waiting for my husband and kids. I made it one year."
 We're glad you made it, Becky. Truly, let's use every moment as though it were more precious than gold....