When Butterflies Aren’t Flying: An Irreverent Look at Childhood Wisdom

My son likes to spend his allowance at the dollar store. He hasn’t learned that cheap toys don’t last. For him it’s all about stretching his two dollars as far as he can.  That’s fine but ten minutes after we get home most of his choices fail the usage test.  Still he smiles and marches to the cashier, generally presenting money before the item being purchased, and week after week buys junk.

Victory! I talked him into saving and with the help of some extra side jobs, he has nine dollars. Now he’ll see the error of his ways. Off we go to Wal-Mart in search of a more substantial choice than a hollow plastic dinosaur or a set of cars with axles already falling off in the bag.  Nope. That’s too much money. Take me to a different store he says, clinging to his green.  Ugh. We need more than nine dollars to shop at Toys-R-Us so now what?  His suggestion … back to the Dollar Store.  Oh for Pete’s sake!

Well, a dollar lighter we are home with a super duper lime green butterfly net which will momentarily be adorned with duct tape to better secure the net to the stick. Chasing butterflies, bugs and hopping critters is a great spring pastime and I applaud his choice in theory.

This spring has been unseasonably cold and we here in mid-America are still getting thermostatic whiplash with a hard freeze following right on the heels of an 82 degree afternoon.  Another freeze is coming next week. I’ve told Munchkin that we are not likely to be inundated with morphed caterpillars while the nights still feel like December. Undaunted, he dons a coat and goes in search of the illusive butterfly.  I get a cup of tea, wondering if the net will survive long enough to ever whip through the air in pursuit of a Monarch.  (No I don’t think we get Monarchs here, but using the word butterfly again in this short blurb would create a grammar gaff that would leave me sleepless. And, well, chasing a Painted Lady with a net just seems kind of inappropriate for a four-year-old.)

A bit later I’m in search of a too quiet Munchkin. There he is, net full of bright yellow flowers, smiling.

Whatcha doing?

Nothing.

Find any butterflies?

Nope. But I got these. What are they?

Dandelions, I say resisting the urge to call them weeds.

Well, Mama, when butterflies aren’t flying, just hunt dandelions!

Eyes watering and fighting back a sneeze I congratulate Munchkin on his catch just as the net full of bounty is bunged beneath my nose.  Back inside I grab a glass of water to wash the pollen from my throat. Munchkin stares at me through my half empty glass. There is something naively profound in what he said I murmur, knowing he sees my glass half full.

Butterfly Hunting

5 things I learned raising mentally ill children

Image by Lynn Kelley via WANA Commons
Image by Lynn Kelley via WANA Commons

1.  Listen, listen, listen

As much as I sometimes want to stick my head in the sand it’s important to stay involved. Good advice for every parent, but vital to those of us with mentally ill children of any age. Clues are everywhere – even in their silence. If you practice listening on purpose you’ll gain insight into their thinking that you wouldn’t otherwise have because they can’t or won’t tell you. You’ll know how they handle pain; you’ll know where to start looking if they go missing; and you’ll learn to know when they’ve been quiet too long.

2.  Take every threat seriously

Don’t put threats from your children under a bushel basket of fear or denial. Whether directed inward or outward, every threat needs to be addressed. Even very young children can be dangerous to themselves and others. I’m throwing myself onto the proverbial sword here but as bad as it sounds children aren’t all fluffy puppy-like creatures and it’s unwise to stereotype them like that. I’m not saying that all children with mental health issues are dangerous and you shouldn’t read that into what I’m saying, but be willing to be honest with yourself and others if you think there is a problem. It’s an act of love. I feel compelled to add this word of forewarning: adults accusatory of the very young will themselves be viewed with mistrust and put under a microscope of suspicion. This is especially true if you don’t yet have a firm diagnosis. Don’t let that stop you.

3.  Isolation comes with the territory

Stigma isn’t just a word thrown about in discussions of mental health. It’s very real pain. There is a stigma that comes with being different, or having someone different in your family, and being different sets you apart – sometimes very far apart. You lose friends. You get shunned and uninvited. Play dates for a kid who overturns furniture without provocation or enjoys shredding paper into tiny bits to create cherished collections are hard to arrange. Even trips to the ER with an adolescent who self-harms can lead to medical professionals publically shouting “it’s the cutter again” and your wish to become momentarily invisible.

4.  Siblings can be peripheral damage

Your other kids can get lost in the shadows. Siblings are victims too. They have lost a person they loved and are faced with someone they don’t know. They fear it will happen to them. It kills them to see you hurting and they want to fix it. But like you, they are helpless.

5.  Love and Rescue are not synonyms

There is a time to stop making things right. It can be hard to define the line where helping becomes enabling. A good first step is admitting that the line exists. Don’t stop looking for resources, but stop replacing wrecked cars, covering debts, paying bail and buying the lies.

Having mentally ill children is frightening whether yours is a child carrying a lunch pail to elementary school, a defiant teenager killing emotional pain by creating physical pain, or an adult who follows voices you cannot hear.

What have you learned from your love of the mentally ill?

Poetry, Mental Illness and Motherhood: A Challenge

This week’s writing challenge is a poem.  Not a good fit for me.  I blog about parenting challenges, childhood mental illness . . . . there’s no Roses Are Red in that.

Or maybe there is.

Here’s my take on childhood mental illness presented in as much poetic format as I could manage. I’ve developed a new respect for WordPress blogging poets who wrangle with formating features on an ongoing basis. My hat’s off to you.

Golden Child, Bronx, NY
(Photo credit: Grufnik)
          The Golden Child

Sparkling child so full of promise,
Wherever did you go?
Do you hide beneath the lily
Waiting to surprise?

     I lift the leaves prepared to start
     As you spring blithely forward.
     No hand find I to clasp in mine
     And show me toward the future.

                      ~

Radiant child once full of love
Why hidest you so long?
Hear you not the blue bird singing
As sunshine warms your face?

     Old things are left behind,
     Outgrown but not replaced;
     Leaving cobwebs in the places
     That used to give you reason.

                      ~

Reclusive child once full of questions,
Queries beyond your age.
Where is the passion of your search
For keys and magic doors?

     Hinges rust and creek
     On doors that lead to knowledge;
     Well greased are portals that devour
     And strip away the nymph.

                      ~

Street child beguiled
By legions of deceit
That lure you into secrets
And darkness in their lair

     Seek strength and wisdom from the light
     And power not your own.
     Hope and Peace are calling you.
     Turn not a deafened ear.

                      ~

Saddened child once full of joy
That cascades onto others,
Your swirling ribbons and gifts of paper
Brought smiles amid the wrinkles.

     So many blessed by little gestures
     You seem to think unnoticed
     Now sit in prisons, hands extended,
     Hoping to catch your glitter.

                      ~

Half child and half adult
Caught in tentacles of self reproach 
Flailing against yourself 
To quash your gilded hue. 

     Fear not refining fire 
     That purifies -- renews. 
     Remember, child, from whence you sparkled: 
     Your heart is solid gold.

©Sandra Lafferty 2013

Lessons From Grandma’s Button Box

The Great Depression taught my parents and grandparents to save. They saved pennies, broken things with usable parts … and buttons.

A Button Box Moment

The button box held a wide array of closures from garments worn beyond repair.  If a shirt or coat could not be passed along to another wearer, the buttons were salvaged and stashed in the button box. Searching through the button box hoping to find a ‘matchie’ for replacing a lost dress button gave me the opportunity to listen to stories of need that my grandmother saw as bounty, anecdotes my mother remembered from her childhood, and the occasional fashion history lesson.

The button box was always a favorite with my own children as well. It has survived the generations, gaining and losing buttons along the way. There are history, math and sensory lessons hidden within the colorful assortment.  The tactile experience as they run through a child’s fingers and the sound of the buttons toppling down upon one another inside the box has delighted every child who shared in the treasure that now belongs to me.

Over the years I’ve gone beyond sharing the family history and incorporated Grandma’s button box into lesson plans and spontaneous learning moments. What does it feel like to squeeze a handful of buttons? Can you find the one that is made from a sea shell?  I try to keep the “planned” learning short and simple so that I don’t encroach on the exploration.  Chances are if I sit back and just share the moment I’ll be answering instead of asking questions. Little minds are always full of questions.

We sort by color, number of holes, size and shape. We match them to the clothing we’re wearing and giggle when they look silly. We search out buttons, huge and wooden, that went on coats. We find small white buttons like the ones on Grandpa’s shirt. We wonder how long rectangular buttons got through their button holes. We rub our fingers on leather covered buttons without any holes at all.  All the while we’re bumping into accidental learning.

Even ADHD kiddos seem to stay focused when using the special buttons as manipulatives for math or arranging into letter shapes for phonics.

Counting, addition and subtraction can easily be hidden in button play for those who don’t relate to flash cards and rote learning.

Autistic children don’t connect well to the interpersonal world but thrive in the button box collection. Often collectors themselves, seeing my collection gives us a touch point to join our worlds.  And isn’t that what life is all about?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

From time to time I will be writing about educational moments you can share with the children in your life. Children of all abilities. Some will involve modern technology and others will need only the magic of creativity like the lessons found in Grandma’s button box.

Do I need a pocket protector to go with my copy of the DSM-5?

I kept my excitement under wraps when the DSM-5 went into editorial review but now that it’s publication date has been announced I’m ready to press my nose to a bookstore window and quiver.   DSM-IV_092DSC_0791

Admittedly, that’s a little outside the norm on two levels. One, that I still prefer brick and mortar bookstores, and two, that it’s an odd book choice since I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or attorney working with the mentally ill. Truth is I’ve had some edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a guide to mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, on my bookshelf for many years.

Yep. Throw a log on the fire, pour a cup of tea, and curl up with the DSM – the perfect evening.  That officially makes me some sort of nerd I suppose. However, nerd conjures up images of tortoise shell glasses, tailored shirts, high-rise trousers and plastic pocket protectors.

Oh….

I think I’m only missing the pocket protector. Kind of an embarrassing image when you consider that I’m a middle-America soccer mom.

Nonetheless, as someone who has morphed from a psychiatric research wannabe to a special ed teacher-in-training to a stay-at-home professional parent, I have an intrinsic interest in mental and educational challenges.   From the day a psychiatrist and room full of social workers told me to choose another child because the one I’d selected had deficiencies and should be institutionalized instead of adopted, I’ve been fighting to make a difference in the lives of differently-abled and at-risk children.  It’s never been wise to tell me something can’t be done.  I have this annoying habit of replying “watch me.”

So, if you see someone in the reference isle of a bookstore snatching up editions on educational methodologies or mental health topics with all the enthusiasm of an avid yard-sale shopper, please overlook the yellow highlighter stain on my shirt.  I don’t have a pocket protector.

Shopping with Toddlers, Then and Now

iPod_0368

Twenty-some years ago when I had four young children at home there was enough pushing, shoving, toy grabbing, and cheerio tossing in the triple stroller to keep my three non-walkers occupied while I shopped.  A generation later when the grand-munchkin arrived I was thrilled at how much easier it was to get a single stroller through the door at JC Penney.  However as time went on he sat up and grew bored. I discovered that traveling with one active child, as angelic as he is, was going to require some degree of entertainment. Voila! The addition of some educational apps and a couple of Disney movies to grandma’s iPod and we were set for a day at the furniture warehouse store.

 

In the old days pacifiers and toys were attached to the stroller with a piece of elastic to facilitate search and rescue. iPods aren’t as easy to tie down so we do have to keep a close eye on the device  to ensure that it isn’t lost overboard or traded to a passerby for a less valuable trinket.

 

My imagination wanders to the capabilities of the next generation’s strollers. Techno travel pods with chillers for organic yogurt, integrated iPads accessorized with yogurt removing towelettes, surround sound, and a communication system to transmit soothing words from Momma to baby without breaking the jogging stride to bend down and make actual eye contact.

 

I think I’m starting to miss that old package of elastic.

 

Me on sourdough with mayo

My suitcase was packed and ready to go – I was organized on schedule with check-list in hand as usual. The phone rang; my brother spoke; my destination changed. No longer would I be touring a Florida art college with my granddaughter and basking on the beach that weekend.

The California coast would ordinarily be a fair trade, but on this trip I would see little beyond hospitals. My elderly father had become ill and fallen, causing a flood throughout his home.  My brother didn’t know how long Dad had been sprawled in the water, but the breadth of the flood made us think it was hours.

Feeling that he had the situation under as much control as was possible, my brother urged me not to fly out there. Maybe it was the left brain of the family scientist or just man-thinking, but his logic didn’t sit right with me. I needed to be there.

By 3AM my husband was driving me to the airport for an early morning flight to Los Angeles. The groggy preschooler in the back seat would be well taken care of by my husband and a nearby daughter who can always be counted on to rise to the occasion when she is needed. Another aunt offered to fly in to help care for her nephew. He was in good hands.

I’ve been a parenting grandparent for nearly four years and we’re settled into a regular family routine which I consider fully functional and healthy.  I was comfortable shifting gears from grandma to daughter.

The weekend getaway I’d packed for was lengthened day after day after day as I waited for Daddy’s condition to improve. The time difference made it difficult but I managed to read a bedtime story several times using FaceTime from iPad to iPad, which offered a smidgen of our regular routine and afforded me a little time to be Nana.

At last it became clear that Daddy would survive the massive infection that nearly whisked him away from us, but his strength was sapped and his vital organs were slow to recover.  The man who could do anything, fix anything, take care of himself and lend a hand to others now had trouble getting a fork to his mouth and toppled easily when trying to brush his teeth.

I only have one sibling and we are essentially both only children, with 13 years between us.  He has young teenagers, a corporate job that keeps him traveling and their home is several hours from Dad’s. It wouldn’t be easy for him and his wife to balance homework, after school activities and commuting to make daily hospital visits and check on contractors.  I was needed and it felt good to help, to give back.

Ultimately I would be forced to let the lion’s share of the caretaking fall on my brother’s family since I live 1500 miles away.  I felt compelled to do all that I could while I was there.

My sister-in-law urged me to leave the huge task of caring for Dad and seeing to the house repairs for her to figure out. It was time, she said, for me to return to my family. Regardless of the loving and capable care of close family members my grandson needed me specifically. In his 3 ½ year old mind I have become his mother and I had been gone too long.  Because his birth mother dropped out of his life, our lives, my sister-in-law felt he would see my distance as a second abandonment.  Her training in counseling and therapy gave strength to her words.

I believed she was right but found it hard to peel back the fingers of my mind that stayed tightly wrapped around my need to help care for the man who had done so much for me.

I felt sandwiched between my father’s needs and those of my child.

The weekend away had stretched into two weeks almost without notice amid the flurry of medical tests and treatment decisions. I wanted to be cloned into two: One woman for my baby and one for my father.

There was a tear in his eye when I last visited the hospital and told my father that I had to leave. I think we both fear the same thing about that goodbye.

I was on the next flight home to tight hugs and whispered words of “I miss you” and “don’t go, stay here with me.”  I still hear those words every day but with less and less intensity. I am again right where I need to be.

Until the next time the phone rings.

Pass the mayo.