Sunday, December 31, 2017

In Praise of Broken Crayons

I recently spent a couple of hours with two of my granddaughters in the children's section of a public library in downtown Scottsdale, Arizona. It is magnificent!  It occupies a huge, modern space, with high ceilings and well-organized areas.  There are tons of books and cozy seating throughout the entire department, as well as lots of open-ended toys and interactive computer games.  There are floor to ceiling" trees", and a large play area housed within the facade of a castle. While three year old Shifra played an interactive computer game, six year old Tehilla and I sat at a nearby coloring table.   We emptied the cup of crayons onto the table, and to my surprise, they were all broken.  In such a well thought out environment, I felt sure that this was intentional.  Brilliant! 

In my last years as early childhood director, the teachers and I noticed a growing trend among our young students.  More and more children were entering preschool with weak fine motor skills.  We suspected that this was caused by the growing popularity of electronic toys and devices, where a simple tap or swipe are all that's needed to play.  Children are spending less time coloring, lacing beads, manipulating small cars, animals, people, puzzles and peg boards.  Children with weak fine motor skills struggle to hold a pencil properly, have poor handwriting, and take longer to learn self-help skills.  Fine motor muscles help us in  day to day living; opening bottles and containers, buttoning, snapping, lacing, sewing, drawing, picking up small items,etc.  And some professions, such as dentistry, surgery, carpentry, require precise control of the muscles in our fingers and hands.

The teachers and I decided to battle this phenomena with intentional activities and materials that would strengthen our students' fine motor muscles.  We learned a lot along the way, such as the power of broken crayons!  A broken crayon forces the user to grip it low and tight. And in order to get bright color from a crayon, it needs to be pressed hard.  Markers are terrible for young fingers because they can be held any which way and still produce brilliant color.  There are so many fun ways to help children strengthen their fine motor muscles.  One teacher hid pennies in play dough, so the children had to pull it apart and dig with their fingers.  Boards with locks to open and close or screws to twist with a screwdriver are fun and feel grown-up, as are various sized juice or milk cartons with caps to twist on and off.  Children can use eye droppers to mix colored water, tongs to pick up cotton balls or other small objects, and clothes pins to clip along the rim of a can.  Spray bottles and empty dish detergent bottles make great bath toys.  Children enjoy dropping coins in a piggy bank or chips into slots, like Connect Four.  A vertical writing space helps strengthen hand muscles too, either at an easel or by simply taping large paper to a wall. 

Every area of our children's development is important and interconnected.  While electronic games and toys can play a part in children's lives, we can't allow them to replace active play.  Our children learn much more about the world by using their bodies.  When most of their time is spent exercising their muscles, large and small, they grow to be strong, healthy, and capable.   

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

You Are What You Eat

Young children grow at a remarkably rapid pace. The foods they eat directly determine the quality of their mood, energy, growth, mental development and physical health. The right foods keep a child on the move, playing and learning, while simultaneously building healthy tissue, bone, muscle, etc. A well nourished child can think clearly, manage stress, and heal quickly.  The opposite is true of a child who eats too much junk.  She will be irritable and cranky and struggle to maintain focus and complete tasks.  She will be more prone to illness.  The quantity of food does not compensate for its quality.  A breakfast of sugar cereal, cookies and chocolate milk is almost as bad as no breakfast at all.  Without any real nutrients to feed her body, she will still be hungry.  We literally are what we eat.

Feeding our children is an act of love.  It is one of our primary responsibilities as parents.  Yet children vary in their appetites and tastes.  Some babies are "good eaters" and open wide for all types of food.  Others are picky and rarely seem hungry.  The former are a pleasure to feed.  My grandson Ephraim used to open his mouth wide, like a baby bird.  He'd finish a bowl of food, I'd give him more.  He'd finish that, I'd give him more.  When I thought he had eaten more than enough, I'd try to pull him out of the high chair.  Try.  He would hold on for dear life.  His mother had also been a good eater.  She once toddled up to the refrigerator, banged on it and said, "Mine!".

Other children can be very picky eaters, causing their parents anxiety.  We understand the importance of a healthy diet, but our child will tolerate only a limited number of foods.  We look for new ways to coax him to eat.  We pretend the spoon is an airplane:  "Here comes the plane, flying into the hangar"; or a train:  "chugga chugga choo choo" into the child's mouth.  I did all sorts of things to make healthy food more fun for my children.  The most memorable was adding whole carrots to their lunch boxes, carrots that still had the green leaves attached.  I thought they might pretend to be Bugs Bunny.  Instead, I think they may have been embarrassed.  They were the "only" children who didn't bring junk food to school.  Once, my son traded his sliced cucumbers for a fruit roll.  I was actually more concerned about the boy who gave up the fruit roll; what kind of diet did this poor boy have, where he preferred the cucumbers to candy?

Sometimes parents give children unhealthy food because it's simply easier.  It takes more time to prepare fresh food than to open a box or package of something ready-made.  Children love sweets (don't most of us?) and will whine and cry for it.  Treats are okay occasionally.  Part of the definition of a treat is that we get it once in a while; that it's outside of the norm. A steady diet of treats is a recipe for disaster.  The best approach is to simply not keep junk in the house, and to only allow it on special occasions.  Fresh fruit can be just as delicious.  I call it G-d's candy.  Some planning ahead can ensure that there are healthy options available when our children want snacks.  In addition to fruit, we can keep fresh veggies, sliced cheese, whole grain crackers and pretzels on hand.  

Regardless of our children's individual appetites or tastes, there are steps we can take to make sure that they are eating healthfully.  One suggestion is to limit the choices available at home.  In the early childhood programs where I worked, we offered milk or water to children at snack time.  Every year, parents would advise us that their children would not drink milk.  However, when the only choice was milk or water, the children inevitably began drinking milk. Stating that a child won't drink milk can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I was once in a classroom where the children were eating apples.  The teacher complained that they had been serving apples too often for snack.  One little girl was listening nearby as the teacher complained.  She put her apple down mid-bite and didn't finish it.  When my children were younger, I served salad at most meals.  Eventually, everyone learned to enjoy salad.

Parents' attitudes toward foods strongly impact a child's eating habits.  It's important to keep an open mind and to use neutral language.  For example, we can say that we don't care for a particular food, or it's not our taste.  We shouldn't label a food as "disgusting" or "yuck".  All food is a gift from G-d and children should learn to respect it.  Schools are not permitted to use food as punishment, and this should be true at home too.  Snacks and meals are necessities, not privileges.  Food should also not be the first thing we run to when we're hurt or sad.  We don't want our children to confuse their hunger for comfort with their hunger for food.  

Food is a basic necessity, one that we can't live without.  It is also one of life's pleasures.  Finding a healthy balance of nutritious eating will fulfill our responsibility of feeding our children, teach them self-care, and nourish their optimal development.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Jewish Children and Christmas

Christmas is a magical time of year for young children.  Here in America, it feels like everyone is celebrating.  Houses are brightly lit, Christmas carols play repeatedly on the radio and in stores, Christmas shows and cartoons abound on TV, streets are adorned with wreaths and stars, people seem friendlier, shops have colorful displays and are busier than ever.  It's impossible not to get swept up in the happy anticipation of the big day.  

Before I converted to Judaism, Christmas was the highlight of my year.  My parents took us shopping to pick out a real tree which we decorated carefully, filling the house with the smell of pine.  My mother stenciled Christmas scenes on our windows, and hung the many cards we received in the shape of a tree on our living room wall.  My father strung colorful lights across our front porch. I learned the story of Christmas from the nuns at Sunday school, who also taught us carols in English and Latin. Our school held a fair every year, with games, gifts, and a movie.  We also had a Christmas play.  One year I played the Virgin Mary.  Another, I was a wind-up doll and had a solo singing "White Christmas".  Christmas day, my siblings and I woke up to tons of gifts, which we compared with our friends when we went to church that morning.  Later would be a huge family feast,  more gifts and special treats.  The winter season added to the warm, cozy feeling of celebrating this incredible day.

When I got to high school, my boyfriend and l would attend midnight mass on Christmas eve and exchange gifts.  I continued to send Christmas cards to all my friends, but for  the first time in my life, I had Jewish friends.  I remember feeling sorry for them.  What is life without Christmas?   I would select a few generic holiday cards to send them.  But now that I am a Jew myself, I have a different understanding of holidays and celebrations.  Here's what I've learned.

The beauty of Christmas stems from its religious meaning.  Take that away, and the celebration becomes about glorifying commercialism and materialism.  I wholeheartedly support those who endeavor to "Keep Christ in Christmas". Holidays and traditions are meant to connect us to our history and confirm our beliefs and values.  If we want our children to lead principled lives with pride and confidence in who they are and where they come from, then we owe it to them to make sure our celebrations are authentic to our family values.

Over the years, people have mistakenly equated Chanukah with the "Jewish Christmas".  This probably stems from the fact that they both occur at the same time of year, and that Jewish parents are eager to off-set the influence of Christmas on their children.  This is very wrong-minded.  Here are two videos that can explain this way better than I can:  

 Really cool rap song:

Mayim Bialik:

The Jewish faith is rich in traditions and meaningful celebrations.  Rather than offer children a phony imitation of someone else's faith, Jewish parents should explore and share their own faith with their children.  Years ago, before I converted, I had agreed with my husband Jackie to raise our children Jewish.  One day when we returned from a visit to my parents', Jackie expressed his concern about the exposure our daughter had to Catholicism;  a crucifix in my brother's room, saying grace before meals.  We realized that to raise a child Jewish, we needed to expose her in some way to Jewish things.  He decided to begin lighting Friday night candles with our daughter.  And so our journey began.

Christmas does not have to be an obstacle to raising Jewish children.  There are many ways that parents can bring the beauty and richness of Judaism into their family, through rituals, artifacts, stories, holidays, and family traditions.  Any child who knows the treasure of his own heritage can be happy and proud of his place in the world.  When we adults take the time to examine our values and remain true to those values in every way,  we can pass them on untainted to our children.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Snow White

Last week my six year old granddaughter Nava and I spent a day in Manhattan.  We took some time to look at the display windows of Saks Fifth Avenue, which were beautifully decorated with animated scenes from Snow White.  Each window was intricately detailed and delightful to observe.  I was very surprised to learn however that Nava had never heard of Snow White!  I grew up on fairy tales, and certainly passed the stories on to my own children.  I wondered if her ignorance was intentional or unintentional.  Many of the fairy tales I enjoyed as a child became outmoded with the feminist movement.   Waiting for Prince Charming to come to a woman's rescue became a sign of weakness and chauvinism.  It turned out however that my daughter did not intentionally shield Nava from the Snow White story.  Instead, newer Disney princesses and heroines have taken her place.

As we waited for the train home, I told Nava the story of Snow White.  When we got to my house, I played the Disney video (yes, we still have a VCR).  Some fresh ideas about feminism and role models for young girls came to mind as I revisited this childhood classic.  The first new impression was of Snow White's admirable character traits and the definition of beauty.  Her stepmother had forced her to work as a housemaid, cleaning and scrubbing and dressed in rags.  But Snow White appeared content with her lot.  She worked without complaint, singing and dreaming of a better future.  Her kind and gentle nature attracted innocent woodland creatures and birds, who became her friends. And it was this gracious demeanor that made her even more beautiful than the Queen.

When the huntsman brought Snow White to the forest and urged her to run away, she appeared frightened and helpless.  The shadowy woods seemed to be threatening her, with branches snatching at her cloak and spooky eyes peering out from the darkness.  She tripped several times in her fear until she finally fell down and succumbed to sleep.   She woke up surrounded by curious woodland creatures and told them something I found amazing:  "... you don't know what I've been through.  And all because I was afraid.  I'm so ashamed.".  Snow White understands that only fear can make one truly helpless.  A  brave woman is in control and able to make smart choices.

The little animals led Snow White to the house of the Seven Dwarfs.  They worked at her side to clean and de-clutter the house, and Snow White cooked a big pot of soup. She brought order and a sense of well-being to the lives of the Seven Dwarfs.  She made them wash before dinner, and they sang and danced afterward.  The dancing scene was full of love, happiness and security, feelings associated with home.  In making a home for the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White filled the traditional role of a woman, a role which seems to have lost its value in our modern society.  Political correctness blurs the differences between the sexes and calls for men and women to share in the housekeeping as well as the breadwinning.  But keeping house is not the same as making a home.  I think it's a naturally feminine trait to nurture.  Many men help, but most women tend to remain in control of the home.  

The goal of the feminist movement was to give women choices, to eliminate the restrictions of what might be possible in a girl's life.  Women have made enormous strides in the workplace over the years, and we continue to advance.  At the same time, I think we should appreciate the choice that some women make to stay at home with their young children, and accept that their work is just as important as earning a salary.  Every woman I know works hard and gives her all to everything she does.

Our daughters need adult role models in real life, story books, and history to show them the many possibilities open to them.  Girls should know that they can make choices as they grow up, and control the course of their lives.  We can attend to our daughters' interests and natural inclinations and find ways to help them grow up to be who they want to be.  They can learn that there are many ways to be feminine, strong, successful, kind, and happy.  Like Snow White, the only obstacle is their own fear.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Are We There Yet?

Young children are always on the move.  Their bodies and brain cells are growing at a rapid pace.  They seem driven to play and learn and experience as much as they can during every waking hour.  How many times have you wished that you could bottle that energy?

Waiting times, transitions between activities, are very uncomfortable for children.  Whereas busy grown-ups welcome a chance to stop and daydream for awhile, busy children prefer to stay busy!  Travel becomes problematic as children are forced to stay put and stay quiet for long periods of time.  Most long distance travels are either by car or plane. Each presents its own challenges.  But there are things we can do to make travel time more pleasant for children and parents alike.  

Long car rides with children can be torturous.  Even the most patient parents can lose their cool after hours of whining and fighting in the back seat of the car. Keeping our sanity at these times requires us to plan ahead and prepare.  Personally, I would never leave home with a child under five without some sort of snack.  Eating can be an activity for children.  Of course, it's important to give them healthy snacks, so they don't get sick on the way. Snacks should be easy to eat and not present choking hazards.  Some favorites are crackers, pretzels, juice boxes, fruits, raisins, and string cheese. An occasional treat can go a long way to keep the peace in the car.  My sister had a great idea for long car rides with my kids.  She brought a box of fruit rolls, and handed one out every time we crossed a bridge.

Many parents already have kid-friendly music that they play in the car. Frankly, I find a lot of music intended for children to be of poor quality and irritating.  Children should be exposed to good music. If you enjoy music, of whatever genre, share it with your kids.  There are also great toys and games for car rides.  Car bingo sets get the kids looking out the window for items on their bingo cards.  Finding as many different license plates as possible is also fun.  Children enjoy playing word games with adults, such as Guess the Animal or Geography.  For the first game, you think of an animal and answer yes/no questions until someone guesses the animal.  (You can also play Guess the Person.) Geography is for older kids.  One person names a place (city, state, country, river, continent, etc.) and the next person has to name a different place that begins with the last letter of the first (eg., New York / Kentucky).  Books are a great pastime for kids of all ages, and younger children will enjoy sticker books.  Magnetic shapes and letters can keep them busy too. You don't have to buy a fancy set; a child can maneuver magnets on a cookie sheet.  Etch-a-Sketch is another good toy for the car, as is Simon, an electronic memory game.  And while I don't encourage electronic games or videos, a long car ride could be the time break them out.

Babies often sleep in cars, which is the best case scenario.  Occupying an infant in a car is very trying.  Teething toys, finger foods, board books and rattles will help for a time.  Frequent stops will help everyone stretch and move and get some air. Tossing a ball at a rest stop can be fun, and the gross motor exercise may help the children relax when back in the car.

In addition to restlessness, car rides can cause some children to get nauseous.  These children should be taught to look far ahead, never close up while the car is moving.  Dry crackers, like Saltines, can help with nausea, as can ginger ale.  Bringing a pillow so the child can close her eyes and rest may help the most.

Planes are a bit easier because you can get up once in a while.  But they are harder because you don't want to inconvenience other passengers.  I just heard on the news today that George Clooney and his wife Amal gifted earbuds to their fellow air travelers, as an advanced apology for any crying from their six month old twins.  Many of the suggestions for car rides will apply to plane rides too.  Other good activities for plane travel include coloring books and crayons, mazes, dot-to-dots, magnetic checkers, tic-tac-toe, mini Connect Four, and playing cards.

There is so much that children can learn from traveling, and so much to be gained by experiencing new places.  Planning ahead for those empty stretches of time can help everyone enjoy the ride.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Where Are You?

I just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance.  It is a memoir that describes the decline of white working class Americans, mixing personal experiences with studies and statistics.  The author's family are hillbillies from Kentucky.  He is one of the few in his community to get a college education (Yale Law School, no less) and change his cultural and social class.  His book got me thinking about my own life story.  How does anyone get to where they are in life?

I think of our lives as partnerships with G-d.  He gives us gifts over which we have no control:  where, when, and to whom we are born; our siblings and birth order; our physical characteristics; our individual temperaments; our natural intelligence.  Our role in this partnership is what we do with what we're given; the choices we make that ultimately determine who we become.  Parts of our lives are cultural or familial inheritance.  But the time comes when we need to make our own decisions and assume responsibility for who we want to be.

I would often look at a class of students and wonder what life circumstances and adult decisions brought them to this place at this time. Why is this particular child in this class? Who are his parents and grandparents?  Where did they come from?  What brought them to this school? What can I learn from this child?  What can I teach him?  The decisions we make as adults become part of the uncontrollable factors in a child's life.  For good or for bad, our words and actions will have a lasting impact. 

The picture above is of my paternal grandparents, Anthony and Jenny Cariello, with my oldest child, my Risa.  My grandfather emigrated from Naples, Italy when he was a young boy.  My grandmother came over as a baby with her family from Sicily.  At the time of this photograph, Risa and I were not yet Jewish.   I converted shortly before her third birthday. My husband and I raised a family of fully observant and committed Jewish children. I went on to a career in Jewish education.  Risa has dedicated her life to Jewish outreach and is raising seven children of her own.  Together, we have touched the lives of hundreds, probably more, of Jewish families.

So how does a little Italian baby grow up to teach Jews about Judaism?  In my case, I had a thirst for knowledge and a strong connection to G-d at an early age.  I was the first in my family to graduate college, earning a B.A. and M.A. in Spanish.  I met my husband in undergraduate school. We were married by a Judge after we had both graduated.   I discovered Judaism when our first two daughters were still babies and I embraced it fully.  I  fell into early childhood education by doing some family daycare when my youngest two children were babies.  I went back to school for a second masters degree, this time in early childhood education, and was offered a job as director at a local yeshiva.  I loved my work and continued to grow professionally for many years.

Many of my friends and family never went to college.  Where would I be now if I had decided to get a job right out of high school?  Or even if I had stayed at Iona College, where I studied my freshman year, and not transferred to Binghamton?  It's unlikely that I would have met my husband.  I might have returned to the Catholic church, but cannot imagine that I would have considered Judaism.  And suppose I returned to teaching high school Spanish instead of starting a family daycare?  I probably wouldn’t have pursued a career in early childhood education.  My decisions as a young adult determined the course of my life.  And I think that's true of all of us.

Take some time to think about your own life story.  Where do you come from?  What life decisions brought you to where you are today?  How might your current decisions impact your children's future?  If you're a teacher, recognize that each student brings with her the life stories of her family.  Understand that you have the power to affect her in ways you may not even imagine.  

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Toys: My Holiday Picks

I love shopping for toys, and with 17 grandchildren I get plenty of opportunities to do so.  If play is the work of childhood, then toys are the tools.  Carefully chosen toys give children the means to explore their world and to acquire a plethora of important skills and knowledge.  Unlike traditional tools however, the best toys are open-ended, with a generalized purpose.  In carpentry for example, certain jobs require very specific tools. In play, good toys should be used in multiple ways, only limited by a child's imagination.  Think of a set of unit blocks, which are a staple in early childhood classrooms.  Children can build towers, farms, skyscrapers, zoos, neighborhoods, roads, or any structure that they might dream up.  Blocks are sometimes used to take the place of people or planes or trees. (This sort of representational play is actually quite sophisticated, and is a prerequisite to reading and creativity.)   Some other basic super toys for children of all ages include play-doh, art supplies (crayons, paints, markers...), balls, vehicles, dolls, books, puzzles, and riding toys.  

  Toys are the best gifts to give to children because they are appreciated so much more than anything practical.  And isn't the point of gift-giving to bring joy to the recipient?  When choosing a gift,  the first consideration should be the child's interests and current developmental levels.  A good toy will bring her hours if not years of fun. My own grandchildren range in age from 7 months to 17 years, so I thought it might be helpful to share some of my gift ideas for different age groups.  If you know any of my grandchildren, please don't tell!

My youngest granddaughter is the fourth child in her family.  I'm getting her a soft doll and money for spring clothes.  Toy shopping for Infants can be difficult because they neither need nor appreciate toys.  They are just as happy to grab and mouth a paper cup as an expensive teething toy.  That being said, board books are good infant toys, as are play mats and bouncers.  As they pass their first birthday, they might enjoy walker toys (they hold on and toddle), an outdoor swing, banging toys like balls and hammers, nesting toys, soft blocks, or a toy piano.  A favorite toy I gave my one year olds was a rocking horse.

Twos are ready to manipulate their fine motor muscles.  They like farm houses with little animals, or garages with small cars and an elevator they can crank up and down.  Peg boards, large beads for lacing, Mr. Potato Head, shape sorters, all work their fine muscles and are great fun.  Twos also enjoy bath toys and riding toys that they move by pushing their feet. The best two year old toy I've given was probably a wagon.  Kids love to ride and pull their friends, and parents find them useful at parks and zoos.

Three year olds are busy acquiring language and beginning to play imaginatively.   They're steadier on their feet and ready for large muscle toys.  Previous gifts I've gotten for three year olds were hoppers (to sit on and bounce), trikes, scooters, dolls and accessories, floor puzzles, dress-ups, puppets, tool kits, and basketball hoops.  The most popular were probably the play kitchens I got for each family.  This year, I have three three-year old grandchildren:  two boys and a girl.  I got my granddaughter Spin Art.  I got both grandsons something called Tap and Tack.  It's a cork board that comes with various wooden shapes, each with a little hole, and child-safe nails and hammer.  They'll hammer the shapes onto the board and make up their own designs. 

Fours and fives will enjoy many of the same toys as threes.  As their skills are more advanced, they begin to play simple board games like Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, or Connect Four.  They may advance from trikes to two-wheelers, from Duplos to Legos.  This year, four of my grandchildren are six years old:  two girls and two boys.  One girl is getting a play-school set.  It comes with a chalkboard, chalk, name plates, prizes... she picked it out of a catalog (  I bought her cousin a set of tangrams.  It's a magnetic set, with shapes that can be arranged to look like animals.  One of my boys is getting a set of walkie-talkies, and the other is getting a build-your-own creature with remote control capabilities.  He  picked it from the same catalog.  

There are two eight year olds, one nine year old, one ten year old, and two eleven year olds in our family.   Only one of the eight year olds is a girl.  She chose the same school play set as her six year old cousin. Her eight year old cousin is getting a complete 2017 set of baseball cards.  The nine, ten, and one eleven year old are all getting  ATM style savings banks.  They love money and have collected empty bottles and set up lemonade stands to earn some, so I know this will be a hit.  The other eleven year old is getting Boggle, a word game he can play with his siblings.

We have three teenage grandchildren. They are impossible to shop for.  Even if I think of something they might like, teens in general are very picky.  So they are each getting money, and I know they will be thrilled.

As much as I love buying toys, there are times when the best present is a special one-on-one outing.  Giving individual attention to one child, maybe attending a game or show, is a priceless gift for both the recipient and the giver! 

 It's so much fun to give to our children, to make them happy.  I hope you enjoy shopping and are rewarded with lots of smiles and hugs and days filled with play.