Teaching the Test

Though it is frowned upon in the educational community, I am teaching the test. The test is "survive in a house in which the parents are outnumbered by the tiny humans," and I am teaching my family.

Madeline, through no choice of her own, has enrolled herself in a 4-month winter intensive called "Self-sufficient Big-sisterdom 201."  Also known as "Put On Your Big Girl Panties (Literally)," "Do It Yo'self," and "C'est la Vie, Honey; It Builds Character."

She passed Big-Sisterdom 101 with flying colors, so we're optimistic.

I have a working list of life skills that each family member will need to master to make everyone's life (read: my life) easier come March.  Dan's list mostly involves how to put a trash bag back in the garbage can after taking out a full one.  Also some light cooking (see: thawing soups).  He is selfless and patient and very competent; just a few weeks of instruction and he'll catch on in a snap.

Madeline's list is a little more challenging.  Some of the things I'm teaching are age-appropriate, next- step kinds of things, but most are visual skills.  (This is such a weird statement, because to me, everything is a visual skill.  What wouldn't be easier with vision?)  This means we'll have to be extra patient/diligent/creative in teaching them to Madeline.  I've shared a lot of her story here, so for the interested, the curious, and those who adore her, here is what we're working on with our 4 1/2 year-old daughter who doesn't see quite like everyone else.

Get off of playground equipment by herself. I want to be able to let the kids run around while I sit with the baby on a bench, rocking, nursing, whatever.  Madeline is excellent at avoiding obstacles and fearless when it comes to climbing, but getting down is a totally different story.  Field loss (tunnel vision) and a total lack of depth perception make it really hard.  Mustering the courage to go down a slide is 100% out of the question for her [the slide-related nightmare she relayed to me between sobs a few months ago was enough to give me a scare], so this means getting down the playground stairs safely. In the words of Rafiki, "IT IS TIME."   She'll be able to actually play instead of just amusing herself in the mulch, and she'll be able to navigate without fear.  She'll be less likely to get left behind by other kids, AND it means we'll go to the playground much more often - getting us out of the house I won't be cleaning.  Everybody wins.

Fasten her own pants. Fine motor skills are hard.  Anything requiring hand strength or finger dexterity is hard.  Add that to the fact that she can't see the buttons/snaps on her pants while she's wearing them and it means ALL OF US in crammed into a public bathroom stall so that Madeline doesn't just give up and come out naked (there is precedent for my child leaving a public bathroom naked).  No thank you.  We're practicing on pants that are off, spending inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom (where I often have to meditate and count to 10 while Madeline "tries again" so as not to completely loose it and do it myself), and steering clear of leggings and elastic waists until she gets the hang of it.  Toys like Play-doh and lacing beads help build hand strength and dexterity, but they also mean that I get Play-doh smooshed in the carpet and Sam ingests a lot of little beads.  Prayers for grace and patience are appreciated.

Buckle her own seat belt. OH MY GOSH.  I posted this status on Facebook the other day:

122 of 122 moms agree, when the kids reach this glorious, glorious milestone, you get at least 10 hours of your week back.  It eliminates the lifting, the digging under little bottoms for straps, the clicking, the angry-toddler-back-arching, and the climbing into the backseat of a minivan with your duff hanging out the door trying to find the buckle that's wedged down in the seats, bloodying your hand in the process.  I'll be buckling Sam and our newest arrival for a lot of years still, but every day I can keep my postpartum butt from hanging out the side of a minivan is a good day.  It's a tough skill (again, because of hand strength and dexterity), but also because some buckles are so finicky that they won't buckle unless they are lined up just right.  Hard to do if you can't see.  More Play-doh, more beads, more practice, more time, more prayers.

Pick up. Despite her hoarding tendencies, Madeline actually appreciates a clean space.  I should rephrase this teaching point - she knows how to pick up; she needs to learn how to find the things she needs to pick up.  We have no problem with things like stuffed animals and dress up clothes (and she's a pro at shelving books), but THE LEGOS.  THE BLOCKS. THE KITCHEN FOODS. THE 7 BILLION THOMAS THE TRAIN CHARACTERS.  We have more Thomas the Train pieces in our house than there are people on the planet, of this I am confident.  I am also confident that if you asked her to, Madeline would name every single one, right down to the obscure Alfie and Ivo Hugh.

Because a big part of Madeline's vision impairment is field loss (no peripheral, very limited central - imagine looking through a drinking straw), seeing the "big picture" is hard work.  She has to scan back and forth and put together the whole picture in her head.  If toys have been dumped out (the toys are ALWAYS dumped out) she can't find them without narration from one of us.  "It's behind your left foot.  Almost, now drag your hand in - it's closer to you."  "It's over by the red couch.  Other side."

This one is hard because I'm not really teaching a skill (she knows how to scan) I'm teaching diligence.  This will ALWAYS be harder for Madeline than it is for other children; it will always take her longer.  It will always feel like I'm expecting too much, or that it is unfair.  But that's another thing that all parents have to teach their children; sometimes life's not fair.  Similarly, we had to teach her that sometimes she has to sit still on her carpet spot at school, even though she can't see the board, and listen to the story even though she can't see the pictures.

I can teach Madeline a lot of tips and tricks to help her clean, I can encourage her and reward her, but I can't regrow nerves.  If it were possible to wish and hope and pray and beg and cry them into existence, she'd have them by now.  The best optic nerves ever.  So for now, we're working on habits:

-Pick it up immediately, before getting out another toy (less confusing and less clutter this way). -Don't inspect a thing before putting it away.  You don't need to know what the block looks like, you just need to put it in the box. -Pick up handfuls, not individual pieces. -Use your hands and knees and feet; sometimes crawling is easier than standing. -Do the whole job.  Don't quit.

And of course, there is much gratitude and praise from us.

Those are the big ones.  The rest are just self-help and life skills that all 4-year-olds are learning.  Basic chores like clearing the table, basic manners like LISTENING and OBEYING.

I'm telling you what though, I've never seen a little girl who so delights in her little brother.  She literally screams her praise of him, "MOM, SAM IS STANDING UP ALL BY HIMSEEEEEEELLLLLLFFFF!"  Nevermind that he's been doing it for months - her sisterly heart is swelling with pride.  She's nicknamed this new brother "Pencil" (no explanation, believe me, I've tried) and shouts praise at him through my belly button like it's a megaphone.  This girl is - the best.


Moms of 2, 3, 4 and more, what are some of the most helpful things your "bigs" did to help you out with the "littles?"  What do you wish you'd taught them before the new ones came?

Teachers, what tips, songs, tricks, motivations do you use to teach these skills to sweet little hands?