“All Too Much for Oliver”

I’m always on the look out for books about and for highly sensitive children, or books whose characters I know Martin could relate to at this point. This book, All Too Much for Oliver is one that many sensitive kids would find a very comforting read. It is written by Leila Boukarim, and is inspired by her own experience growing up as a sensitive person, and as a parent to a highly sensitive child. You can learn more about this book and her other project on her website.


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Life with a 2.5 month old: Baby Grins

You know that magical moment when your baby suddenly lets go of the boob to which she has been almost permanently attached since the moment of her birth, looks at you for a second and suddenly breaks into her first toothless baby grin? You jump up with excitement, elated that the baby has finally recognised your existence. But then, the said baby emits a series of distinctive pooping sounds, which crudely bring you back to reality, making you realise that her smile probably wasn’t directed at you but at her pooping efforts, and actually wasn’t a smile at all but a random pooping grimace. The same scenario plays out day after day, taking its toll on your confidence, and making you question more and more your importance in this little pooping person’s life.

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7 Habits of Highly Perfectionist Children

1. Always make sure your bingo cards are perfectly aligned with each other AND with the hardwood pattern on the floor, or whatever surface they are lying on.

2. Every time upon leaving the house, inquire how much time you have left to be outside before you get a sun stroke. Repeat the same question at approximately 2.5 minute intervals. Keep asking until you realize that your mother’s anger is a more imminent danger than any possible damage from the sun.

3. Demand bottled water when brushing your teeth.

4. At a breakfast buffet, don’t forget to inquire which dish has the largest protein content (in strict adherence with your plan to grow 5 cm in two months so you can easily stand on your feet at the shallow end of a grown up pool.)

5. Arrange the toiletries in the bathroom by colour, size, and designated user. Patiently rearrange it every time any of the irresponsible designated users dares to disrupt the established pattern.

6. When signing your name, make sure that all the letters are the same height, width and angle (but don’t worry about the direction they are written in). Scratch and start all over again, as many times as needed, ignoring comments by puzzled non-perfectionists whose untrained eye cannot discern the crucial difference in size between 6 and 6.1 millimetres.

7. When going to a zoo, take with you a carefully prepared and pre-approved plan of the trip, listing the animals in the order they have to be seen. Refuse to deviate from this plan under any circumstances, even if that means that the viewing of a lion at one end of the zoo must be followed by visiting the bear in the other end, skipping tens of of unplanned animals on the way. “Mama, DON’T LOOK AT THAT CHIMPANZEE! We have a bear next on the list!”

P.S. Sadly, it is not always as amusing as it sounds. But that’s what we’ve got. Koopa 🙂

Talking about death and…. koalas

Not exactly sure how to talk to kids about difficult stuff like death. My grandfather, who lived overseas, died some time ago. I was not sure how to present this news to Koopa without making him too distressed. So one day, after picking him up from school, I waited for a moment when I had his undivided attention, and just shared the news with him. He studied my serious and sad face, looking a little nervous, as if measuring up my emotions and trying to adjust his own, didn’t say anything. We had talked about death before, in quite simple terms, he knows that all living things die, people grow old and die, but he never encountered it, and so there was no reason to discuss it in much detail. So I don’t know what was going on through his mind when I told him the news. He was silent for a little while, then inquired if my grandma was ok. I said yes, she is. Will she live alone now? Yes, she will live alone now. And that seemed to be it. After that he seemed satisfied with the conversation and ready to go about his five-year-old business.

But as it often happens with five-year-olds, after he digested the information, he was ready for more. Several hours later, unprompted, he suddenly asked “Where will I go when I die?” “You mean you want to know where my grandpa is now?” – I rephrased his question, probably for my sake, because it was easier to handle it this way. I paused because I realized just how poorly prepared I was for this question. I wished I had rehearsed or something, beforehand, or read some stuff about how to answer such questions. I wished I was religious or at least held some deep beliefs about this stuff, that would give me something coherent to say, and that would help him feel safe. But I didn’t have anything like this. So I said honestly and probably quite unhelpfully “I don’t know. Nobody knows for sure what happens to people when they die.” From the look on his face I wasn’t sure if my answer was too terrifyingly uncertain for his five-year-old mind, or if the uncertainty of it just made it meaningless. I decided that maybe offering some concrete ideas would make it more easily digestible, so I added: “Some people believe that when people die, they don’t disappear completely, but they turn into something, like a tree or an animal.” He was quiet. Then I asked “What do you think?” hoping it won’t be too burdensome of a question for him. It wasn’t. He immediately frowned his eyebrows and held his index finger to his forehead as if trying to solve a math problem of intermediate complexity, and a moment later announced, very seriously, “I think he turned into a koala!” “A koala?” I barely managed to suppress a chuckle. Certainly didn’t expect to hear that. “Why?” “Well because its one of my four favorite animals (he started counting on his fingers): panda, mouse, rabbit and koala!” he explained quite reasonably.

Well, it’s all clear then, I guess. I’m so glad this all went so smoothly. And I’m proud of myself I managed to explain death to my five-year-old. I’m just hoping he won’t go around telling people that, according to his mom, his great-grand-dad turned into a koala.

Paddling along

We took a walk on the Toronto lakeshore the other day and passed this little pond where people could rent a canoe or an individual paddle boat for a 15-minute ride. The little paddle boats were clearly for kids but most of them were occupied by 6-8 year olds or so it seemed to my critical motherly eye.
So I was surprised when Koopa suddenly requested one. I was surprised because I know how cautious he is with new things, and how freaked out he was when we first put him in a canoe with us about six with ago. So I fully expected it to be a waste of 5 bucks because I thought he would bail out as soon as he sets his feet in it. But boy was I wrong! He sat down, grabbed the handles and headed towards the middle of the pond like he’s been doing it all his life.

“Mama, I tried to paddle as fast as I could!”

Go, Koopa, go! Well, maybe our canoe trip in a week will go ok afterwards.

Koopa talks

I think it is safe to say now that Koopa’s selective mutism is a thing of the past.

About a month and a half ago he started talking freely in most settings, chatting to friends at daycare and on playgrounds, and even occasionally replying to grown ups he doesn’t know too well, like his dentist. If you just met him for the first time in July, you probably wouldn’t even know he ever had a talking problem.

Not just that: he initiates conversations. One day a few weeks ago I witnessed him introducing one boy to another on the playground, without anybody’s prompting! Another time, from the safety of our first floor balcony he yelled “Hi!” to a kid he never saw before, and introduced himself. The kid ran away without replying, but Koopa didn’t seem discouraged: he just looked mildly surprised but not upset: “Mama, I said hello to the boy but he didn’t reply!”

I’m not sure what helped and why he had decided to stop talking for a few months in the first place. Just like nobody really knows why some kids develop anxieties and others don’t. Maybe it was his way of dealing with some family stress that now subsided, or maybe it was just a developmental stage that would have happened anyway. As with most other things in life, we will never know for sure why and how exactly it all unfolded. And I’m not sure what helped it. The only thing we did actively is try to offer our friendly presence and support when he wanted to interact but was anxious (“Do you wanna say it together? In whisper?”) and always give him the opportunity to interact non-verbally. But mostly I think things just unfolded on their own in his case. And I’m so glad to see him talk again. I don’t think I was as excited when he first started talking as a toddler as I am now!

And now we’re in a new city. A new environment, new playgrounds, new kids. And in September he’s going to start school. And I’m not even worried about him. I know he will be fine. I know that even if it takes a little time, he will talk and find new friends and will adjust. And maybe I’m secretly hoping that the months of his SM and his overcoming it gave him some immunity against fear of interactions in the future? Maybe now he will always be able to yell “Hi!” to a stranger and not be discouraged to hear nothing in response? Nobody knows, but this is my motherly hope for him.

Well, we’ve graduated. Both of us.

It’s not that Koopa’s graduation party went badly, exactly, it just was… overwhelming, I guess. For him. And for me too. And its not that it left a bad taste in my mouth, no, it just left… well, more of the taste of the reality than I usually have.

At the beginning, they sang songs (Koopa sang in whisper). This part was nice, actually. Very cute and touching. They’d been preparing for this performance for weeks, which made it that much more touching. The hard part came after the singing, when the random mingling and snacking and running around started. First, Koopa got upset  because his best friend was playing with other kids when he wanted her to play only with him. We figured that out somehow, but that minor incident seemed to set off the ‘overwhelmed’ mode.

Then there was that stupid mic. Not sure why Koopa wanted a mic, but before I noticed, he was fighting with a bunch of other kids over it. I stepped in in my most grown up manner, and organized a very helpful system whereby they’d have to take turns to use the mic. Obviously, they had to comply, because I’m taller than them (i.e. so I could hold the mic very high if I wanted to and nobody would be able to use it! ha!). But they were still kind of impatient with each other. So when it was Koopa’s turn and he started whispering into the mic, one of the girls wanted to grab the mic from him, and when I didn’t let her, she yelled at him really really angrily: “But he doesn’t sing anyway, he only whispers!”  Just like that. Really mean. Koopa didn’t react right away, but I immediately felt like I was about to break down crying right there and then, and the fact that I was taller than that girl (and, like, seven to eight times older) didn’t help a bit at that particular moment.

I’m well aware that in situations like this I’m supposed to come up with something helpful to say, something that would fix the situation, and be educational and beneficial for all parties involved. But, somehow, in such moments all my grown-up-ness just melts away, and leaves me feeling just like another four year old, ready to break down crying because my classmate is being mean to me.

I did manage to get myself together somehow and say in an educational and authoritative (albeit perhaps way too friendly) tone of voice that everybody is allowed to sing any way they like, even in whisper, but I’m not sure if it registered. By that point they resumed their fighting and Koopa wasn’t whispering any more, instead he was SCREAMING on top of his lungs INTO THE MIC, which, needless to say, attracted the attention of every single hearing (and hearing-impaired?) individual in the room. And he doesn’t usually even need a mic to scream real loud.

We had to leave very shortly after that, not so much because we were expelled for endangering everyone’s hearing abilities, but because Koopa wasn’t able to calm down (and from that point on, every little thing was a stressor). But also, and mostly importantly, because I wasn’t able to calm down.

Another kid was mean to my son… Another kid was mean to my son…  This is WRONG. It’s not SUPPOSED to be like that. Yeah, right. Wake up and smell the coffee. Kids are mean to each other every day. People are mean to each other every day. The world is a real cruel place to live in and I can’t change it even a little bit to better suit my sensitive child. I know, this is a really profound generalization right there. But I am seriously still trying really hard to internalize it and not fight it. The stressful part is that, even though I know I’m not expected to mold the world to better suit my child’s needs, I am still the one responsible for fixing a situation like this for him somehow. As a parent, I am the one who is supposed to come up with the right thing to say in the heat of the moment. I am the one who is supposed to spell it out for him that although people are often mean and cruel, it is never ok. I am the one who is supposed to make it very clear to him that it is ok to be whoever he is, despite what other people may think or say. All this feels like a huge responsibility. And I’m terrified that in critical moments I won’t be able to fulfill it, because I’ll just sit there all hurt on behalf of my kid, just like another unhelpful four year old.

God knows I could never even conceive that this would be one of the challenges of parenting. I was convinced that by becoming a parent you automatically become a ‘grown-up’ (and get to carry around some kind of grown-up certificate in your wallet?) which basically means you know what the right thing to say or do is at any given moment. I never imagined that it’s quite the opposite: all that parenting does to you is stir up all your childhood fears and vulnerabilities without giving you a single clue about how to solve problems you never solved as a kid.

Or, maybe it gives you a second chance?

Boys and girls, hairstyles and insects

When the face-painting lady at a recent event in our local park asked Koopa in the gentlest of voices, “So what do you want to be, sweetie?” I had a suspicion that she thought she was talking to a girl. But when she added “Do you want to be a… butterfly?”, I had my suspicion confirmed.

Isn’t it creepy that I could tell this merely by her intonation and by her choice of pattern (because, as we all know, butterfly is not a manly enough creature for a boy to have painted on his face)?

But I was happy she made that assumption because it brought Koopa into the range of options that he actually likes. He seriously considered her suggestion for a couple of seconds and then opted for a different insect: a dragonfly.

Now that the summer is finally officially here and Koopa is free to run around hatless with his long hair and with pink shoelaces on his running shoes, everybody just assumes that he is a girl. It took me some time to realize this. The other day the two of us came to a playground and took our shoes off to walk barefoot in the sand. Then I heard a little girl playing nearby gasped to her mom, “Mom, how can that girl put her feet in the sand?” (probably because it was still a bit chilly), and I was totally convinced she was referring to me. Of course I was a bit puzzled (she’s 5 and I’m 31: is it possible that she is referring to me as a ‘girl’?). But there was nobody else around, and I considered myself the closest to a ‘girl’ in that setting, so I just concluded that I looked particularly good that day, and went on about my business. It’s only later, on our way home, that it struck me that she was likely referring to Koopa, not to me.

But now I know. My initial impulse was to correct everybody adamantly: “He’s a BOY! Can’t you SEE?” But then I thought, who cares. Koopa certainly doesn’t seem to care. One evening when we were discussing different hairstyles, he said simply “And my hair looks like a girl’s”, and I didn’t detect any note of regret or resentment in his voice. I said “Yeah, I guess, because many girls have long hair?” He replied, “Yeah.” “But boys do to, you know, just not as often”, I added. He said “Yeah, I know.” And that was it.

So he doesn’t seem to care, it seems. He does get upset though when some ignorant adult confuses his elevator with a can opener.

A peek into a kid’s world

What do you think Koopa is doing in this picture? Please choose an answer that, in your opinion, best describes the situation:

(a) Waiting for potatoes to cook so that he can make mashed potatoes for dinner;
(b) Contemplating the idea of buying me a new potato masher for Mother’s day;
(c) Blowing on the potato masher to see if he can knock it down while also holding it pinned down to the table with his fingers;
(d) Playing elevator.

The correct answer is (d). There is an elevator game going on here.

In the past a couple of years, I have seen him playing train with a dishwasher (“The next station is Bloor, Bloor station”, he would say while slowly guiding the dishwasher rack out), playing printer with a chair (giving me the lead role of a piece of paper), and pretending that street lights are monsters. And these are just some of the many amazing transformations I’ve witnessed in my budding parenting career. I never know what will turn into what the next moment. I just know that I can’t take anything for granted any more, or think that I know anything about anything based purely on my knowledge of the world acquired in the past 31 years.

These days everything turns into elevators: a French Press, an Aeropress, Koopa’s sunglasses, a can opener (?!?), windows, closets, shoeboxes, notebooks. You name it. If you can name it, I bet it can become an elevator.

Clearly, toy companies cater mostly to adults. You know, in those dire moments when you’re desperately trying to get your kid to do something/stop doing something, you’re not gonna say “If you’re a good boy, Santa will get you a new…   potato masher, so you can play elevator with it!” That’s just not gonna work. That’s what toys are for. Other than that, I don’t see how they’re superior to can openers. Koopa has plenty of toys but he either turns them into elevators or simply prefers kitchen utensils.

Same probably goes for any kid that ever walked the face of earth. My soviet childhood didn’t provide me with many exciting toys, and you would think that because there wasn’t so much stuff back then, I’d be particularly attached to what I did have. The truth is that I hardly remember what they were. What pops to to mind when I think ‘toys’ and ‘play’ as a child, is stuff that you can’t buy in a toy store: princes and princesses, and kings and queens from my mother’s extensive button collection (I remember very clearly what colors my favorite buttons were, and what names I gave them), little plain paper people that my grandmother used to cut out of paper for me, and little blond dolls made of dandelions and sticks. These are the things I can’t imagine my childhood without. Not stuff that was occasionally bought in a store and wrapped in pretty boxes and put under a tree.

So why do we need to bombard our kids with stuff then? Also, why do we have such an urge to fill our own lives with as much stuff as possible? Perhaps, if people, growing up, didn’t lose their ability to turn potato mashers into elevators, the world would be a much healthier and happier place.