First read-alouds

We’ve recently hit a fun new family milestone: our oldest child is old enough (and has the attention span) to start doing some read-aloud chapter books.

Perpetua still takes a daily nap (long may it so be) and so most days, Anselm and I will take some of that time to snuggle up on the couch and do some reading together. We read a lot of picture books throughout the day, of course, but there’s something lovely about doing these long-form books. We do two chapters a day.

Our first was Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary, the story of Henry and his found dog, Ribsy. I didn’t remember this one very well — I was more into Cleary’s Ramona books when I was a girl — but it was an enjoyable read. Henry and Ribsy get into all sorts of scrapes, but manage to (mostly) get out of them with some creative problem solving. The most tension appears in the final chapter, when Ribsy’s former owner shows up to try and claim him; Anselm was made incredibly nervous by this and didn’t want to listen, which gave us a good chance to talk about how listening to stories even when we’re nervous can help us practice being courageous. He made it through… and so did Henry and Ribsy.

Since then we’ve been enjoying Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series. Siblings Jo, Bessie, and Fanny move from the town to the country and discover an enchanted wood at the centre of which grows a wonderful tree: so magic that it can grow all kinds of fruit at once, inhabited by all sorts of interesting characters, at stretching all the way up to a hole in the cloud, above which lies a magic land to visit, a different one every week! The children — along with their special friends Silky, Moonface, and the Saucepan Man — have all sorts of adventures, and get into some dreadful scrapes, in all sorts of magic lands. These books have had a wonderful sparking effect on Anselm’s imagination, and little Faraway Tree plot threads find their way into his pretend-play pretty regularly.

Note that these are older editions, published in the early 1990s. Recent editions have modernized and Americanized the books’ language (they are very, very British), including changing the children’s names (Jo -> Joe; Bessie -> Beth; Fanny -> Franny). I haven’t read the modern editions, but the changes are pretty well decried on Amazon and other review sites. I wanted to complete the trilogy, so when I bought The Enchanted Woods (the first book), I made sure to buy an older copy from a used book store instead. I’m looking forward to reading that one next, and then — we’ll see where we end up next!

Hallowe’en and All Saints

Sometimes I mostly write a post and then forget about it. Rescued from my drafts folder, an account of some of our Fall:

This year we took the kids out trick-or-treating for the first time! We had previously let the holiday pass by unremarked — not out of any particular objection to Hallowe’en, but just because it seemed a lot of work for kids who were to small to get much out of it (or even eat candy, for that matter).

Anyway, our glorious run of non-participation came to an end this year as Anselm was old enough to clue in to the fact that something called Hallowe’en a) existed and b) looked like fun. Fortunately for me, neither of them has yet realised that children usually get to pick their own costumes, so I was able to (enthusiastically) inform them of what their costumes would be, after I looked around and figured out something I thought I could make relatively easily and cheaply.

Behold, a scarecrow and a bird:

For Anselm’s costume, I cut down an old shirt that my husband was getting rid of anyway, bought a cowboy hat at Party City, and the rest is just strips of yellow felt cut into fringes and glued to the insides of his shirt. The fringes around his ankles are just safety-pinned together with a regular pair of jeans over them.

For Perpetua, I started with a blue t-shirt a few sizes too big for her (I wanted both costumes to fit over a couple of inside layers for warmth), and cut and glued teardrop-shaped felt onto it for her front plumage. I measured her from the middle of her neck down to her wrists and cut two large wings for the back that would be long enough to come down and cover her hands; those were also just glue-gunned in place, as were the little wrist cuffs. The headpiece was all felt: a wide band with two cartoon-eyeball-shaped projections at the front, white and brown felt glued to that to make the actual eyes, and yellow felt cut like a slightly rounded triangle and then folded and glued to more or less look like a beak. I also glued blue feathers sticking up from the inside of the headband — you can just see a few of them in this picture on the sides.

The night itself was a success; we went out after dinner, and they got totally tuckered out after the first two blocks. Little legs get tired! We carried them home, sorted the candy, and that was that. Except, of course, right after Hallowe’en comes All Saints, so we were still celebrating the next day!

Our All Saints was very simple: I put a tablecloth on the table (nothing says “special dinner” like digging out a tablecloth, amirite?), made pan de muerto, and we talked a bit about the saints. Oh, and ate a bunch of candy from the night before, of course. The end.

I used this recipe for pan de muerto again, with a few adjustments. I was able to get my hands on some aniseed this year (last year I left it out), which added a really lovely flavour. I cut the recipe in half to get a more manageable size for our family of four, and I decided to skip the glaze. Last year the glaze tasted good, but it made the whole loaf crazy-sticky, which made it hard to cut and even harder to get off little fingers. The bread is sweet enough on its own, really. I forgot to get a picture of the loaf after it was baked, but here are my crossed bones during the second rise:

And that was that.

One of the most satisfying things to me as we build our family and liturgical traditions was realising that nothing has to be extravagant to be special. Simple works very well, as long as simple is different from our regular days. I look forward to continuing these traditions as our children age — even if it means that they will get to choose their own costumes one day!

On the elevation of parenting

Once upon a time, a woman named Kim Brooks left her four-year-old in the car, with his iPad, on a cool and overcast day, when she ran into a store to quickly pick up an item. When she came out five minutes later, he had been kidnapped! — No, just kidding: he was perfectly fine (of course he was fine). But she wasn’t fine: a bystander (of the concerned variety) had seen her leave her son and come back. Instead of expressing their concern in person, the bystander recorded Brooks re-entering the car and driving away, and then called the police, who in turn issued a warrant for her arrest.

Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear is the book that came out of Kim Brooks’s experience: part memoir, part sociological study, and a fascinating overall read that I would recommend to all parents. Brooks not only explores the overtones of both fear and one-upmanship that surround parenting in this particular cultural moment, but also digs deeps to expose (some of) the roots of those overtones. Why do we approach parenting with such great fear that we, or the world, are going to irrevocably screw up our children? Why is parental competition so vicious? Where has our tolerance for differences in parenting styles gone? In part, the answer is because we live in a moment of where parenting has been elevated far above its historic importance — particularly for mothers. Brooks writes of her own experience,

For more than six years, I’d been embracing, or at least blindly accepting, the assumption that a woman who has small children doesn’t just become a mom. She becomes Mom — that is her name, her station, first and foremost the essential thing she is. In a New York Times op-ed, Heather Havrilesky wrote, “Motherhood is no longer viewed as simply a relationship with your children, a role you play at home and at school, or even a hallowed institution. Motherhood has been elevated — or perhaps demoted — to the realm of lifestyle, and all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman’s life.” (p. 170)

When I was pregnant with Anselm, I was in graduate school, taking a full course load. I wrote papers, went to classes, read interesting things. I had hobbies. Yet for those six-ish months of public, visible pregnancy, it was like all of that disappeared: not because I wasn’t interested in them anymore, but because nobody else was. If someone asked how I was feeling, they meant in relation to my pregnancy. If someone asked how things were going… they meant in relation to my pregnancy. It was like I wasn’t myself anymore, but instead had become this title, “Mother” (or perhaps, at that point, “Expecting Mother”). It was crazy how quickly that switch flipped. I see it now, too, when I’m out with my children, and acquaintances address me as “Mom” rather than using my name.

Although this is all super-duper annoying, I don’t put it down to malice on anyone’s part — nobody is actively trying to discard or denigrate the aspects of my life that aren’t related to mothering. It is, however, indicative of the way many of us think about parenting, even if only subconsciously: that when someone becomes a parent, that is the thing for them. Everything else is (or ought to be) shoved aside to make room for being a parent. Don’t get me wrong; I love my kids and I take parenting pretty seriously. But being a mother is one aspect of my being, not its totality.

Brooks talked to Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun, for insights into this cultural shift:

[Jennifer] Senior offers several theories about how [what sociologist Annette Lareau named “concerted cultivation”] became the accepted standard for middle-class parents. She refers, for example to a century of shifting attitudes about the role of children, one of which the sociologist Viviana Zelizer calls the “sacrilization of child life,” a shift in which children became “economically worthless and emotionally priceless.” Senior speculates about social changes brought on by women’s full-fledged entrance into the workforce over the past five decades, and how this movement has stoked fears about the quantity and quality of time parents (but especially mothers) devote to their children. As Hilary Levey Friedman explains in Playing to Win, a heightening sense of class anxiety permeates much of twenty-first-century American life, and a symptom of that is the fact that parents now view their children’s educational achievement, prestige, and future success as “the only protection, dicey as it may be, against future family downward mobility.”

Senior also details the unprecedented expansion of choice that has changed the way parents approach matters of family life large and small. “Not long ago,” she suggests, “mothers and fathers did not have the luxury of deciding how large their families were or when each child arrived. Nor did they regard their children with the same reverence. . . . They had children because it was economically necessary, or because it was customary, or because it was a moral obligation to family and community.” By contrast, for many parents today from the middle class and above, caring for children is not an obligation or a necessity, but a long-anticipated life decision; we take on parenthood after a level of deliberation and preparation that would have been foreign to our grandparents or even our parents. And because we have our children later, because we have fewer of them, because many of us really, really want children if and when we have them, our identification with both the parent-child relationship and the work that parenting entails takes on enormous significance.

When child-rearing is something most people do for one reason or another (economic necessity, religious obligation, creating future warriors for battling rival tribes, and so on), when birthrates are high, parenthood common, children abundant and well integrated into various aspects of communal life, a baseline level of cooperation and benefit-of-the-doubt-giving pervades. But when being a parent is elevated to the most important thing you will ever do, a thing you in particular have chosen, a special duty and responsibility that only some accept, the stakes rise. If parenthood is no longer just a relationship or a part of “ordinary life” but instead a new kind of secular religion, then true tolerance of each other’s parenting differences becomes a lot more complicated and a lot less common. As Paula S. Fass writes in The End of American Childhood, “Once having children is defined as an individual choice, American parents often imagine that when they do not succeed or are less than completely successful . . . it is somehow their fault. Having made the choice, they are somehow obligated to do it right.” But obligated to whom? (pp. 48-9)

All of that makes sense to me. Because of several historical and social convergences (smaller family sizes, contraception, the shifting “worth” of children, and the rest), parenting is now seen as an extremely high-stakes endeavour. And if the stakes are high, then we are compelled to find and practice The Best Way, to know in our bones that we are doing it right, and that therefore those who chose other ways are doing it wrong. Parenting is something that needs to be “won” over and against other parents, including our friends and even our spouses.

But in seeing parenting as something that has winners and losers, as a situation where there’s only one right way (though nobody really seems to know exactly what that is) we succumb to a mentality that is fundamentally unhealthy and unsustainable — for children and parents alike. Small Animals is a breath of fresh air in many ways, inviting us to reexamine our assumptions, lower the stakes, and loosen our grip — even just a little — on the anxiety-driven need to do everything perfectly. Kim Brooks isn’t a perfect mother. Neither am I. And that, I think, is exactly how things should be.

Explore more: Crime statistics | | Kim Brooks (official website) | Study: No Child Left Alone: Moral Judgments about Parents Affect Estimates of Risk to Children | Jennifer Senior’s TED Talk

Weekend Reading: tech and our children, social justice and the Holy Spirit, and caring for cast iron

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here

1. The Tech Industry’s Psychological War on Kids (

What none of these parents understand is that their children’s and teens’ destructive obsession with technology is the predictable consequence of a virtually unrecognized merger between the tech industry and psychology. This alliance pairs the consumer tech industry’s immense wealth with the most sophisticated psychological research, making it possible to develop social media, video games, and phones with drug-like power to seduce young users.

These parents have no idea that lurking behind their kids’ screens and phones are a multitude of psychologists, neuroscientists, and social science experts who use their knowledge of psychological vulnerabilities to devise products that capture kids’ attention for the sake of industry profit. What these parents and most of the world have yet to grasp is that psychology — a discipline that we associate with healing — is now being used as a weapon against children.

This piece is absolutely worth a read, especially for parents, although it’s something that should concern all of us.

2. Powers and Principalities: King and the Holy Spirit (

Yet in some ways BLM is an example of George Santayana’s axiom that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. For the most part, BLM activists – like the post-1965 SNCC activists, the Black Panther Party, and assorted other radical black groups before them – exhibit little interest in, or comprehension of, the larger lessons of history. This is because they lack the deep spiritual and moral insight that must be the grounding for any sustainable movement. Having rejected the God of their fathers, they have also rejected the fatherhood of God.

This philosophical rejection is an act of spiritual and cultural suicide. Failure to discern the demonic character of white supremacy limits these activists’ ability to understand the fight they are engaged in, and hinders their efforts to develop long-term strategies. They can only describe the sadistic violence they witness and never fully understand or conquer it, so long as they ignore its spiritual source.

More importantly, they fail to use the only means of combatting the demonic: intercessory prayer. Instead, they are easily sucked into the spirit of the demonic themselves as they resort to violence, anger, and hate – a failing less common in the BLM movement than in Antifa, though the danger applies to both.

This piece from Eugene F. Rivers III is a powerful reminder of the spiritual realities that under-gird social conflict, and the only means by which they can truly be dealt with.

3. The Truth about Cast Iron (

There are a lot of myths about how to properly treat your cast iron pan, but thankfully, Kenji is here to set us on the right track. It turns out that using cast iron is easier than we all thought, and I’ve really enjoyed upping my cooking game with mine.

I didn’t expect philosophical conflict quite this early

Anselm and Perpetua were born a mere 20 months apart, and so it’s been easy to predict most of their conflicts. They squabble over toys and compete for our attention — all par for the course at this age, really. What I hadn’t anticipated is that they would be engaging in philosophical debates. And yet —

It all started yesterday, towards lunchtime, when we were taking a long, meandering route home as I tried to find a gas station with a working air pump for my tires. Perpetua started complaining that she was tired.

Anselm objected: No, it’s lunchtime!

Perpetua: I’m feeling very tired!

Anselm: No! It’s time to eat lunch!

Apparently one is not allowed to feel tired before eating. Anselm prefers things to be in their proper order, thankyouverymuch. And as everyone knows, nap follows lunch instead of the other way around.

But it didn’t stop there. I will admit that I was doing my best to tune them out at this point — but when I tuned back in they had begun arguing the root issue of their respective positions on sleep vs. hunger: whether it was day or night.

I ask you.

I had been prepared to side with Perpetua on the issue of whether one is allowed/capable of experiencing sleepiness before taking the noon repast. Unfortunately she was now the one who had taken the unreasonable position, arguing vociferously that it was not day, but night. (I do have to admire her commitment. Nobody sticks to their guns quite like an almost-two-year-old.)

Around this point I was finally able to air up the tires, and the argument had petered out by the time I got back in the car. Anselm was right on its being day, of course, but Perpetua struck a final blow for her side by falling asleep in the car before he got any lunch.

I’m going to call this one a tie.

Tis a gift to be simple

Since I’m the primary caregiver for our children, I consider it part of my professional development, as it were, to read new-to-me parenting books on a relatively frequent basis. I’m often not looking for anything particular out of them — I think we’re all doing pretty ok on the whole — but it’s always good to be able to take a look at things through a fresh lens. And of course, there are always things that we could be doing better!

Enter Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne (with Lisa M. Ross), which is appealingly subtitled “Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids”. And who wouldn’t want that, right? Calmer, happier, and more secure sounds great to me.

Payne’s thesis is that our children are suffering from “soul fevers”  caused by “the four pillars of ‘too much’: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too fast” (p. xi). Kids are overwhelmed with material goods (chiefly in the realm of toys!), whose very excess leaves them unable to appreciate, much less love, what they have. Closely related to this is the issue of too many choices: how to you decide which stuffed animal to play with when you have twenty or thirty? or which clothes to wear when your drawers are overflowing? Choice overload and decision fatigue are not solely adult problems, after all, and our children are even less prepared to cope with them than we are. Kids are bombarded with too much adult information, and overscheduled into activities that deny them the gifts of unstructured time and the boredom that leads to deep play and real creativity. So what’s the solution? In a word, simplify.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. Reduce the number of toys. Hold off on organized sports until kids are approaching adolescence. Save charged political discussions with your spouse until the children are sleeping. Open up the schedule for free time. Build predictability and rhythm into your family’s life. Turn off the TV and let them be bored. Get outside.

Now, in many ways this is all stuff we’ve heard before. What I appreciate about Payne’s approach, however, is that he makes it all seem eminently doable, without any accompanying sense of guilt. Although he presents research which can occasionally be alarming, his tone is not of an admonishing superior but one of someone who is coming alongside you to show the way and cheer you on. It’s entirely refreshing. Moreover, Payne provides a series of concrete actions that you can take in any order, and encourages you to start with whatever feels easiest for you to accomplish. Once you start with the first thing, he posits, the rest comes easier.

And so with that I decided to tackle step one for our family: clearing out the toys. Not that I think we’re doing too badly at all — Anselm and Perpetua have what I would consider a pretty reasonable amount of toys, most of which are of the simple old-fashioned sort that don’t make noise or flash or do the imaginative heavy lifting. But at the same time, I knew we were holding on to toys that they really didn’t want or need. So, armed with Payne’s “10-Point Checklist of Toys Without ‘Staying Power'” (pp. 69-74), I set to work:

  1. Broken toys: we had more than a few of these. Out they went into the trash!
  2. Developmentally inappropriate toys: I don’t think we have any toys that are too developmentally ahead of the kids. I did find about half a dozen baby toys that had been missed in the last sorting, so those got put into storage.
  3. Conceptually “fixed” toys: I did keep some of these — we have some Sesame Street figurines that see a lot of use — but I got rid of anything that came in a kids’ meal.
  4. Toys that “do too much” and break too easily: We somehow ended up with a lot of little toy vehicles made of very cheap plastic. I got rid of all the broken ones and put most of the rest in the donation box.
  5. Very high-stimulation toys: We actually have only one toy of the making-noise variety, which is a talking and singing teapot. That gets a lot of use, but I do have a mental note to not replace the batteries when they (finally) wear out.
  6. Annoying or offensive toys: I didn’t find anything annoying — besides the teapot, which I can live with — but used this guideline when sorting out duplicates, trying to choose the toy that was more touchable or aesthetically pleasing as the one to keep.
  7. Toys that claim to give your child a developmental edge: We didn’t have any of these.
  8. Toys you were pressured to buy: None of these, either. Although the kids watch some TV, it’s all from streaming services so they’ve never really seen commercials.
  9. Toys that inspire corrosive play: Right now, Anselm and Perpetua play fairly well together — I couldn’t think of any toys that consistently get between them. None of these.
  10. Toy multiples: Ah, yes. Toy multiples we definitely had (and still have)! Plenty of stuffed animals that don’t get played with, many many vehicles, and other duplicates. I put a lot of these into the donation box.

The result was a pretty streamlined toy pile. I got rid of a box of toys (to be donated) and another half-bag or so that went to the trash. We still have a wide variety of toys to choose from, but these can now all be seen at the same time — nothing’s buried at the bottom of a pile. For example, I forgot to snap a before picture, but here’s our decluttered vehicles bin:

I got rid of about half of their vehicles, keeping the wood and metal ones and getting rid of almost all of the plastic toys. There are still lots to play with but they form a single layer now! The rest of our bins got a similar treatment. And while it’s only been one morning, Perpetua in particular has been playing with several toys this morning that had been languishing unseen for a long time. Neither of them appears to have noticed anything missing. I’m going to call this one a win.

As for the other suggestions in the book, many of the issues Payne names are ahead of us because our children are still so young, and so reading Simplicity Parenting is more of a prophylactic than a cure. But I like his vision for family life, a lot:

It takes time to reduce, to say “no thanks” and mean it, to the distractions and excesses that have overwhelmed our daily lives. And changing a family’s direction isn’t easy, especially when life feels like a cyclone. Yet perhaps the strongest force on earth can be harnessed for this work: a parent’s love for their children. The process of simplification — a shifting of a family’s core axis — is usually driven by a parent’s simple desire to protect the ease and wonder of their child’s early years. I’ve seen the wisdom of starting small, of beginning with the possible, relishing the results, and allowing success to them fuel the process. I’ve found that what works best is to simplify the child’s life first: to declutter their overload rooms, diets, and schedules, and to increase the rhythm and regularity of the home.

[…] As distractions fall away, a sense of ease takes hold and expands. There’s more time for connection, room for contemplation and play. Boredom, once feared and banished from the home, will be allowed in again, appreciated for how often it precedes inspiration. Contrary to what you might think, regularity is more liberating than “boring” to most children. Rituals that can be counted on throughout the day and week actas powerful affirmations. For teenagers rhythms provide a steady, reassuring counterweight to the volatility and strong emotions that define the territory of adolescence. Rituals loosen a younger child’s grip, relaxing their need to control small and seemingly random aspects of their day. (211-12)

Simplicity Parenting will be going on the list of parenting books I regularly recommend. I found it very helpful, both in terms of giving us some steps we can take now, and as a reminder to stand firm on some family structures and rhythms that we’ve already established.