First, Character

A modern proverb that we hear frequently is “Don’t compare your kids to other kids.”  It truly is an important piece of advice because every child is different, and each develops at a different pace.  Homeschooling, however, makes following that advice extra difficult, I think.  Since our kids aren’t in a school where all the kids of a particular age are being presented the same material at the same time, we homeschooling parents wonder at times, “Am I teaching what he should be learning right now?”  “Do I have him on track with others his age?”  We homeschooling parents aren’t trying to make a better than/less than judgement call, but just evaluating our own academic plan for our children, compared with what other children are learning.

Of course, in our current society, academics are ranked as Top Priority.  It seems like kids now are learning material a year or two earlier than I did in school.  Even at the kindergarten level, I remember all year learning about the Letter People – focusing on one letter each week.  Mrs. Blakeman’s kindergarten class with the inflatable Letter People hanging from the ceiling is a cherished memory of mine!  But now it seems as though children are expected to know all of the letters by the time they start kindergarten – kindergarten is now time to learn how to read.  (Please correct me if I’m wrong on that.)

The funny thing about that to me is that children are pushed to higher levels of academics at earlier ages, and yet character development is barely in the picture.  Personal responsibility, hard work, perseverance…those seem to have been thrown out the window.  I’ve heard stories of parents contacting their child’s college professors because the work is too hard.  A friend of mine who is a college professor was telling me recently that his students don’t know how to read for comprehension – they can only scan for specific information to answer a specific question.

Last summer as we were preparing for Drama Queen to begin piano lessons, her teacher gave me some assigned reading so I could learn about the Suzuki method.  One quote (from Shinichi Suzuki’s book, Nutured By Love) stood out to me:  “First character, then ability.”  If I remember correctly, it was the motto of his childhood school, and it had a big impact on him.  It really spoke to me as well – to the point that I made it our school motto.

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We love academics around here, we really do.  Drama Queen has made huge improvement in her reading skills over the past few weeks, which is very fun and exciting.  Plus, she is practically giddy over learning any math I put in front of her.  Mr. Bang, meanwhile, isn’t all that interested in his own work, but eats up anything I do with Drama Queen.  When I give her math challenges just in normal day-to-day situations, he almost always spits out the (correct) answer before she even has a chance.  In addition, my little first grade girly-girl has gotten herself interested in some of the major American wars, so at her request, we’re spending this semester focusing on one war a month:  Revolutionary, Civil, WWI and WWII.  Academics are fun; we love learning new things!

However, I regularly emphasize to my children that academics are not the number one priority.  Your character is what really determines what your quality of life will be and what impact you will have on others.  Because of this, I don’t want to leave character development to chance; I want it to be an integral part of the learning that happens in our home.  Last spring at the Great Homeschool Convention (which is much better than its cheesy name implies), I went to a session with Sonya Shafer of Simply Charlotte Mason, focusing on character development.  Her recommendation was to spend a few months really focusing on developing one character trait, which is the approach we are taking.

There are a few different things we do to help develop the trait we’re focusing on.  For one thing, I bought Shafer’s book, Laying Down the Rails, which is a great parent resource to understand what are appropriate expectations within a particular character trait.  I see that she also has one now for children that includes stories and activities and such to help motivate children to develop each character trait.  I don’t have that one yet, but I am certainly intrigued.  (If you have it, what do you think?)

I also bought a We Choose Virtues kit with fun posters to display as we focus on a particular trait.  With each new one we focus on, I hang the larger poster in the upstairs hallway, between their bedrooms.  We keep the smaller cards in the dining room and frequently use lunch time to review them.

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I read lots of stories to them, stories which highlight that particular character trait.  My favorite sources are the Bible and The Book of Virtues, but of course, there are many other good sources.  Two others that we use frequently are My ABC Bible Verses and A Child’s Book of Character Building.

There was one other idea that I received back in February when I was visiting my former church in Virginia.  This idea was sent home with all the parents as a way to continue what the kids were learning at church, and I loved it!  Six months later, I have finally made my adapted version for my family.

Character flowers

We’re using these face flowers as a way to encourage us to watch for the current character trait in each other.  Each morning, the flowers start out flat on the table.  As one of us sees another family demonstrating the focus-area character trait, we get to put that person’s flower in the pot.  During dinner, we are able to share how we saw family members demonstrating that trait.  For instance, right now we’re focusing on one trait a week, reviewing the three we emphasized last year.  This week our character trait is obedience.  When Mr. Bang put his dishes away after breakfast without being reminded, he was showing obedience, so his flower went in the pot.  When Drama Queen put her clean clothes in her dresser as soon as I told her to, Ethan saw that she was demonstrating obedience, so he put her flower in the pot.  Now, obedience is a little different from honesty or self-control or others, because you have to be showing obedience to someone in authority over you.  As Christians, The Brain and I believe that our obedience is to our Lord, so we had the kids brainstorm with us what it looks like when we are being obedient to God.  They are able to watch for those things (disciplining in a calm manner instead of yelling, teaching them diligently, working hard to provide for the family, etc.) to be able to put our flowers in the pot.

The Brain and I took some time at the beginning of this school year to list our highest goals for our children.  Academics, of course, were in the list, but at the very top was that they grow into adults of strong character.  The thing about character development is that all children are constantly learning the level of character that is expected of them.  We want to be intentional about our children’s character development so that positive character traits become just a natural part of who they are.  Charlotte Mason made a great statement about that:

“Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend.”

What do you do to develop strong character habits in your children?   Are there any relevant children’s books that you recommend?


Fire Safety

My five-year-old Drama Queen is fairly sensitive to the topic of fire safety and loves to talk through what to do if there is a fire in the house.  From time to time she has asked about us making a map showing escape routes through the house, but unfortunately, it’s never been a good time right then, and I always forgot about it later.

So this morning during breakfast when she asked again, I said, “Yes!”

A little bit later in the morning, we sat in the living room with a piece of construction paper and a small basket of crayons.  I didn’t have any actual plan in mind, but figured I’d start by drawing a crayon map of the house.  A very, very basic map of the house, mind you, but a map nonetheless.

Once I had drawn the map, I paused to think about how to actually show escape routes.  I wanted the kids to see different possibilities based on where they were and where the fire was.  I decided I could show multiple options if I laminated the map.  As I jumped up to do that, I quickly thought of a whole game we could play with it.

I left them on the couch while I ran to get dry erase markers, an eraser, and a red die.

To play the game, each person chose where he/she was in the house and made a smiley face or some kind of mark in that room on the map.  We usually told the context of what we were doing as well, such as all three of us were in Drama Queen’s room having a tea party, or Drama Queen was doing dishes in the kitchen, I was setting the table in the dining room, and Mr. BANG was playing with trains in the playroom.

Next, someone got to roll the die.  Wherever it landed was the location of the fire.

Now, sometimes they were very strategic with their “rolls.”  Mr. BANG, in particular, liked to make sure the fire was in a room with one of us or even on Drama Queen’s hair.  That was just fine, though, because it gave us additional situations to think through – and opportunities to get down on the floor to Stop, Drop, and Roll!


Once the fire was in place, we strategized how each person could escape the house safely.  If the fire was in a room with a person, or blocking the doorway of a person, that person got the first turn to “escape.”  We talked through the exit and route options, including feeling closed doors and banging on windows.  We verbalized crawling under smoke when appropriate.  With our markers, we drew the path we would take.  They both know very well what our outside meeting place is (a pair of trees in the side yard), so they usually continued their escape lines all the way to that point.

When everyone was safely at the trees, both children would chant, “Again, again, again!”  One person would get to erase the map, and we’d start all over again.

We played at least 15 rounds before it was time for lunch, and even now Drama Queen is sitting and playing by herself.

We certainly didn’t go through all the possible fire situations, but it definitely got them thinking through how to escape a fire safely!

Put your coat on – it’s getting cold out there!

This is a perfect time of year to share a simple little lesson that rocked my world when I was in my Montessori teacher training:  how to put on a coat by yourself.  I had seen many a young child struggle with getting arms in sleeves, especially the left arms after the right arm is holding the coat in place.  And I had helped many a child put on a coat because he just couldn’t do it by himself at all.

This technique for a young child to put on a coat is so simple, and yet I had never encountered it before.

Here are the steps, as you would present them to your child:

1.  Lay your coat on the floor.

2.  Spread the coat out fully extending the arms and opening the flaps.

3.  Walk around to the top of the coat.

4.  Put each hand in the closest armhole and grip material with hands.

5.  Raise arms up, swinging the coat over your head and onto your back.

6.  Pull arms the rest of the way through.

7.  Fasten closures.  (I still frequently help with this part, although he like to try by himself first.)

Both of my children have loved developing the independence of putting on their own coats.  I don’t remember exactly when I gave each of them the lesson, but it must have been around when they turned two.  I know Mr. BANG  was putting on his coat last winter, and he had turned two in December.

Along with putting on a coat independently, it’s great to have a way for children to hang up a coat independently.  There are multiple ways of going about that.  If you have a low hanging rack, you can show them how to use a hanger:  lay the coat on the floor and open it; center the hanger at the top of the coat; wrap one side of the coat over the hanger; wrap the other side over the hanger; zip or button (at least the top button); lift the coat by the shoulder and hook the hanger over the bar of the hanging rack.


Another great idea is to place low hooks for them to hang coats on.  I imagine even something as simple as those fabulous Command hooks would work.

What we did in our house is buy a child-sized coat rack.  Drama Queen can easily use the coat rack, although Mr. BANG still has trouble reaching high enough to hang his coat up.  (Getting one down is no problem for him.)  I’ve considered adding some large Command hooks lower on the rack, but haven’t done so yet.


Dealing with that rumbly in the tumbly

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how important it is to allow children to develop independence, so I thought I’d share one of things we do to foster that development.

In the very first post, I showed a picture of our dishes, down at the bottom of our kitchen cabinets, in easy reach of the children.  We also keep snacks for them down at the bottom of the pantry.  I’ve experimented with different ways to do this, but what I’ve decided works best for us is to have a little bag with about 10 snacks for each of them.  (I love the Subway kid’s meal bags for this.)  The snacks include fresh fruit, Crisps, mandarine orange cups, Goldfish, Cheerios, Wheat Thins, etc.  I also include little cards (like my calendar cards) of snacks that are on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator:  yogurt, applesauce, grapes, cheese sticks, hummus (for spreading on crackers), etc.  They still frequently need help with opening lids and packages, but at least they are able to choose their snack and take it to the table independently.

Drama Queen and Mr. BANG know that they can have a snack at some point between breakast and lunch and at some point between nap and dinner, but they also know to ask permission first, even though it is all within reach.  I usually say yes, but if it’s just before a meal or something, I’ll say no.  When my response is “yes”, I also let them know if they can have one or two snacks, again usually depending on how long until the next meal.

For candy that they get from birthdays parties or holidays or whatever, I keep a little Rubbermaid container in the upper area of the cabinet where they cannot reach.  (Yes, a “little” container works perfectly fine.  I send most of that stuff to the office with the The Brain – neither the kids nor I need all that!)  If it’s in the house, they certainly do ask for candy everyday, but I’ve kind of set up a pattern of every other day.  When they are allowed to eat a piece, it’s only for afternoon snack, and it’s limited to one piece of candy along with one regular snack.  I personally get that down for them, then put it right back in its place. That has worked well for us so far.

The Power of Asking Forgiveness

This may sound weird, but I absolutely love having the opportunity to ask Drama Queen to forgive me for something I did – and trust me, I get that opportunity a lot!

Just a couple days ago, after the kids were in bed, The Brain pointed out an interaction I had had with Drama Queen that evening.  He said he felt really sad for her and that she had looked SO disappointed.  I really wasn’t sure what he was referring to, but as he explained, I could totally see his point.

She constantly is asking me to be a character.  This started as soon as she began talking, and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.  And I would be lying if I didn’t confess that it drives me crazy!!  I get SO tired of it!!  And she apparently only does it with me!  As soon as we got in the car after picking the kids up from a week at the grandparents’ house recently, she asked, “Do you want to be a character?”  I responded by asking, “Did you ask Belle and Papa to be characters this week?”  She briefly paused to think, then replied, “No, I took a break and now I’m ready for you to be a character again.”  (deep sigh)

So, anyway, the other day as we were cleaning up from dinner, she asked if I wanted to be a character.  It was the end of the day.  I could not even guess how many times I had been a character that day.  I was pretty much sick of it.  So…I passive aggressively responded, “Yes.  I’ll be Mommy,” and pretty much just continued in my normal “let’s get ready for bed” routine.  I didn’t really give any more thought to it.

When The Brain pointed out later that Drama Queen seemed crushed that I had said “yes” and then not followed through, I could easily imagine her sadness and confusion over that.

The next morning as she was cleaning up breakfast dishes, I squatted before her so I was eye-to-eye with her.  “I have an apology to make to you,” I started.  As she always does when I’m apologizing, she got completely still and her serious, thoughtful expression settled on her face.  “Daddy pointed out something I said to you last night that was not very nice.  When you asked me if I would be a character, I said yes, and then I said I was being Mommy and didn’t actually play along with you.  That was not a nice thing to do.  I can understand why you were sad and confused.  I’m sorry that I did that to you.  Next time I will give you an honest answer.  Will you forgive me?”

She nodded her head with that same contemplative look on her face.  Then she burst into a huge smile and threw her arms around my neck.  After just a brief moment, she went on her way to put her plate on the kitchen counter.  She didn’t say anything.  She never does.  But her expression of studying and learning about apologies from Mommy, and the total joy of realizing how much her Mommy cares about her, honestly makes giving her apologies one of my favorite parts of my job.

(What character did she want me to be, you ask?  King Darius, as in the king from the Daniel and the lion’s den story.  It’s always King Darius these days.  She’s Daniel, if you wondered.)

On the road again…I just can’t wait to get on the road again

I’m going to be away from the computer for a few days.  I do have a couple posts set to go live (is that correct blog-speak?  I feel like such an old grandma!) during the week.  I would still love for you to leave your comments and questions – just be patient with me in responding to them!

Have a great week!

Q & A: Dishes and Bedrooms and Toys (Oh my!)

Recently, a wonderful comment was left, asking a handful of frequently-asked questions.  I started typing out my response, and quickly realized it was going to be a VERY long reply!  So, I checked with her and got permission to turn it into a Q&A post so everyone could easily get the answers to questions they likely had as well.

Here is the original comment:

*raises hand* I have some questions ;) After tripping over about twelve toys on my way to the computer, I’m wondering how many toys you keep out and if you have certain rooms that toys aren’t allowed in. Also, how often do you rotate toys/books?

Why no plastic dishes?

Are there things in the kids’ bedrooms that make them Montessori rooms or are they “typical” bedrooms? (wondering since we didn’t get to see pics!)

Ask away, ask away, my friend!  🙂

How many toys do you keep out?

You know, I kind of judge the number of toys based on how well they are able to keep them cleaned up.  If they keep leaving toys scattered around the floor, that likely means I’m giving them more than they can handle right now.  I usually keep 4-6 toys in Mr. BANG’s room, maybe a few more than that in Drama Queen’s room, three puzzles in the front entrance-way area, and about 8 toys in the playroom.  There is also a dress-up basket, music shelf, nature shelf, reading area, play table with four bins that store matching sets of toys (trains, building blocks, toy animals, etc.) in the playroom.  I also rotate bigger toys in the playroom, like a toy vacuum, rocking horse, whole wooden train set, etc.

  (This is the toy side of the reversible shelf in the playroom.)

Do you have certain rooms where toys are not allowed?

At this point, since they’re so young, we allow toys pretty much anywhere, or at least have something they can play with in every room.  In the living room, we don’t have a toy shelf, but we have a small rocking chair and a basket of books.  Our house has a very open floor plan, so the art area may be considered to be in the living room as well.  In the kitchen, we have a cabinet with all the tupperware, the ice trays I used to use to make baby food, plastic corn-on-the-cob boat-things, and things like that which are perfectly fine for the kids to play around with.  I put the tupperware containers with matching lids that we use frequently in the back, and all the other stuff in the front so that there’s plenty to tempt them before getting to the stuff I actually use.  In the bathrooms, we keep 1-3 books.  I prefer not to have toys in any of them, but sometimes they get carried in, and that’s okay.  It’s the same with the living room and master bedroom, I don’t keep toys in those rooms, but sometimes they get carried in.  That’s totally fine as long as they also carry them out.  I like to keep in mind that at these ages (2 and 4) playing with toys are a very important part of their development.

How often do you rotate toys/books?

Rotating toys and books is something that I would ideally do once a month.  There is definitely variation on that, though, based on the kids’ interest level and the fact that I am NOT a have-it-all-together mom (which I think is an oxymoron!).  If the kids are still really interested in a particular toy or book, I leave it out as long as they’re really interested.  For instance, for about 6 months, they played with their big wooden train set EVERY day.  It was the first thing they did in the morning, and the first thing they asked The Brain to play with them when he got home from work.  On the other hand, theoretically if I see them not use a particular toy or book in a week or two, I go ahead and switch it out.  Now, that’s where my “don’t have it all together” aspect comes in.  It’s probably been 2 months since I rotated toys at this point, mainly because when I organized my teaching closet at the beginning of the school year, I ran out of time before re-organizing the things I decided didn’t belong in there.  All of that got dumped on the floor of the storage closet – where they remain to this day.  Did you notice that in the pics of my fabulously organized storage closet in my tour-of-the-house post, the photos didn’t go all the way to the floor?   Here’s why…

(I’m totally embarrassed to post that pic, but we have to be real with each other, right?)

Why no plastic dishes?

As for the plastic dishes thing, there are several great reasons to use breakable dishes.  One big aspect of Montessori is for things to have a built-in Control of Error.  A Control of Error allows the child to experience the natural consequence of not using that material correctly – without the adult having to point that out to him.  For example, when a child is working a puzzle, he knows he did it correctly if all the pieces fit at the end.  No adult has to tell him that, the material itself tells him.  It’s the same kind of thing with breakable dishes – if the child isn’t being careful with the dish, it will break.  The adult doesn’t have to repeatedly tell the child not to throw/drop a dish – the first time the child throws/drops a dish and it breaks, the child automatically learns that he wasn’t using that dish correctly.

 (This was a special lunch earlier this week.  They got to make their own cracker sandwiches, choosing between peanut butter or hummus as the spread.  These are types of dishes they use at every meal.)

People regularly ask me if the kids break a lot of dishes.  No, they actually very rarely do.  Part of it is that I’ve always given very clear directions of how to appropriately handle dishes because I don’t want them to break.  When a dish HAS gotten broken, whether because I swung my hand around, forgetting that there was a glass in my hand’s path, or Drama Queen accidentally knocked off The Brain’s full glass of o.j. from the table when trying to reach for something else, the kids have experienced the effect of that:  I immediately directed or carried each of them out of that area and wasn’t able to play with them until I got every bit of glass cleaned up.  They even experienced one time when a piece of glass actually cut my foot, so I had to clean it up and put a band-aid on it.  They learned the natural consequences very quickly and very early, so they easily learned the importance of handling dishes carefully.  I can’t think of a single time that either of them has intentionally thrown or dropped a dish, and only very few times when either has accidentally broken a dish.

  (Three-year-old Drama Queen hand-washing a load of breakable dishes – by her request.)

Another great benefit of using natural materials instead of plastic is that natural materials are so much more beautiful!  And the texture and weight feel so nice in your hand!  The weight  actually helps the children to be more careful with the dish because the weight makes the dish have a stronger presence in your hand.  (Hmmm…I don’t think I explained myself very well at all on that one.)

Last week, I gave Mr. BANG a cutting lesson with a variety of materials.  On a tray, there were 6 separate containers, each holding one type of material.  I was having trouble figuring out what kind of containers to use:  glass bowls would be too heavy, plastic picnic cups would be too light (the cups could all easily fall over as Mr. BANG carried the tray, or even if someone accidentally bumped that shelf), and I couldn’t think of anything else we had 6 of.  I decided to use the bowls and just be available to help carry the tray.  When it was time for the lesson, I carried the tray to the table, but then I was floored when, upon finishing his work, he picked up the tray and carried it all by himself to the shelf!!  It was obviously challenging for him, but kids love the self-confidence they feel when they are able to succeed at doing a challenging task!  (By the way, THAT is the way for children to build self-confidence.  Praising children constantly doesn’t do it – when THEY are successful at carrying out a challenging task, they build self-confidence.  Give them those opportunities!  Stepping off soapbox now…)

Are there things in the kids’ bedrooms that make them Montessori rooms or are they “typical” bedrooms?

When the kids were babies, people were completely thrown off by their bedrooms.  We basically treated the entire room as a crib, so they were very clean and simple.  The kids slept on a round crib mattress on the floor, and there were just a few toys and books on a low shelf in their rooms.

  (This is 1.5 year old Mr. BANG just before we moved him to his current bed.  We would have moved him from the baby bed earlier, but we wanted to wait until after we moved to our new house.)

As they’ve gotten older and taller and developed more self-control, their rooms have become more and more “typical.”  Drama Queen’s room at this point is probably like any other 4 year old girl’s room, with the possible exception of fewer toys.

     (The closet door is open to show her dress-up portion of the closet.)

Mr. BANG’s room is still probably somewhat “atypical.”  His bed is a twin-size mattress resting directly on the floor.  He has two little toy shelves at this point – mainly due to needing to cover up a cable sticking out of the wall!  He has no books in his room right now.  He had been chewing and tearing them, so I took them out.  I’ll give him another opportunity with that in a month or two.  He also has no artwork in his room right now.  The Montessori perspective is to hang artwork at the child’s eye level, but so far Mr. BANG hasn’t managed the self-control to just look at the artwork instead of pulling it down and tearing it up.

Oh man!  I’m glad I turned this into a post!  That is a ridiculously long reply!!  I warned you that once you get me talking Montessori, it’s hard to shut me up!