Tandem Dessert and Other Secrets

Many toddlers are picky eaters. We know that. Biologically it does make sense to be choosey about what you put in your mouth when you are still learning about the world, lest you eat something poisonous, so I do get why my son flat out refuses to eat all fruit. Well I don’t actually get it, fruit is delicious but whatever, I can respect his distrust of all fruit for now.


I have struggled to feed DK ever since he was 6 months old and I was told by my pediatrician to start introducing cereals etc to him. I found it stressful to introduce new foods to him. I didn’t know what to feed him, he didn’t want to eat it, and he made a big mess. I don’t know that I “tried” a specific method – baby-led weaning or whatever the opposite of that is, I just tried to get him to eat food. He was much better at eating if he could put whatever it was in his own mouth, so baby-led weaning kind of took over. But still, he barely ate anything but breastmilk. After one particularly difficult trip home to Canada, he actually lost 3 pounds and I freaked out, basically force feeding him peanut butter and ice cream. It was a low point for me.


Things did not get better as he entered toddlerhood. There were very few foods that I would introduce that he had any interest in or would try at all. And what was worse, he started gagging just looking at certain foods or at the suggestion that he try something. Seriously, he would gag anytime he saw a strawberry or an apple. In desperation, and in preparation for my next pediatrician visit and wanting it to look like I was at least trying to get my kid to stick to a growth chart, I took a course offered through my doctor’s office called “Feeding Your Toddler”.


The course was taught by a pediatric nutritionist and her goal was to teach us how to get our children to eat – but not overeat. She based her talk on the work of Dr. Ellyn Sater who wrote many books on feeding children in the 1980s and 1990s, among them, “How to get your kid to eat, but not too much.” (1987). And frankly the info in this course BLEW my mind and also completely freaked me out. It was so different…could it possibly work?


The basic premise is that you want your child to see all food (healthy & unhealthy) as neutral and to eat just the right amount so that we feel full, but not too full. Treating all food as neutral means that chocolate ice cream has the same value as raw broccoli (I know, crazy right?). But the goal here is to not develop cravings for those unhealthy forbidden foods. As soon as we put dessert on a pedestal or use it as a reward for eating the healthier foods, we develop an unhealthy relationship with that unhealthy food and it makes us crave it that much more. The second concept, to eat just the right amount, breaks down into letting your child choose how much, or if, they eat at all. Unfortunately, the side effect of requiring that children finish all of the food on their plates makes them lose their natural ability to tell when they are full and begin to associate the feeling of being over-full with satisfaction and reward. Down the road, this can cause weight issues such as obesity. Now, this isn’t my current problem with DK – but with the obesity epidemic predicting that we are now entering generations who won’t live as long as their parents – I want to make sure that anything I do do to get DK to put food in his mouth will not be counter-productive to his relationship with food in the long-term.



The instructor broke meal time down into parent versus child roles.


The parent’s role is to decide: what we eat, when we eat, where we eat.

But the child’s role is to decide: how much to eat or whether to eat at all.


I’ll admit, I had a really hard time with this. Following this advice to fulfill my role and to let DK fulfill his role meant that I had to give up control completely about how much he ate and I was already freaking out that he was underweight. Could I really just put a communal bowl of pasta on the table and let him serve himself what he wanted? What if he didn’t like what I made? I brought my concerns up with his pediatrician, who I saw a few days later and he said to follow the advice of the pediatric nutritionist and just see what happens.


And so we tried the method to see.


We let DK choose how much of anything he wanted to eat and trusted that over the course of a few days, he would get a balanced selection for a healthy diet.


We served a selection of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and dairy with every meal – letting him decide how much he wanted (if any). We didn’t try to push one food over another, but offered them all equally and without pressure or guilt (or at least tried to).

And, the hardest thing, when we served dessert (and the nutritionist’s advice is you should serve dessert at least once per week), we served it in equal portions (everyone at the table gets one cookie) but we served it at the same time as the rest of the meal.


This advice seems SO WRONG and against everything our moms and grandmas taught us. You earn dessert because you ate enough of your peas. You don’t just get dessert.


We were very skeptical. If we served a treat with the rest of the meal, DK would fill up on his dessert first and eat less of the healthy stuff, right? The concept is, if the child feels that all food is of equal value and that the dessert is not conditional on any other eating – they are happy to eat the dessert when they are ready, and not in a “I have to eat this right away before I lose it” binge-eating-attitude. And the long-term goal is to develop healthy eating habits, not binge-eating-junk-food -when-no-one-is-looking-habits


But yes, at first, that is what happened. He ate the cookie first. And would ask for another one. But we said, “We each get one.” and then he’d try to eat ours. But we re-affirmed, “we each get only one” and we would eat ours so that the temptation was gone. But we kept trusting in the method and a few times per week, we continued to serve a single cookie each for dessert, at the same time as the rest of the meal.


And now, I am amazed that what they said would happen, is happening. DK will take a nibble of his cookie and then eat his chicken, or spinach or rice, and then take another nibble of his cookie. Often he doesn’t even finish his cookie before he declares he is “all done” and gets down from the table.


He has become more adventurous for eating more foods and when he tries it of his own accord, he often likes it. Whereas if I encourage/pressure him to try it (which pediatric nutritionist  said not to do…I know, I’m not perfect), he almost always spits it out and says “I don’t like it” and won’t try it again. Case in point, he now eats raw spinach and raw broccoli very happily. I didn’t even bother to offer it to him with any suggestive influence because most kids don’t like those things, so I assumed it would be a flat refusal and didn’t bother even asking, but it turns out when he wants to try it, he will, and he’s more likely to like it without the power struggle.


Some days, DK only eats carrots. And some days, he only eats chicken. And some days, the only food worthy to cross his lips is yogurt. But over the span of a few days, he does get a balanced diet.


Now, to be real, I still wouldn’t say my child (or my husband for that matter) is an adventurous eater – but his palette has expanded and his curiosity about what is on the table is widening. I try not to be a short-order cook, so if I know there’s no way he (or my husband) is going to eat the soup I really felt like cooking and eating – I try to make sure our table is set with communal dishes of things he will eat: fresh cut veggies, bread with butter, a bowl of nuts, etc. And he can always ask for a peanut butter sandwich or toast, which I will short-order cook for him.


All in all, I was very skeptical of the philosophy, but right now it seems to be working for us. Every so often DK will add a new ingredient to his “approved” list. Still no fruit, unless contained in yogurt, but I am very happy to report that he no longer gags at the sight of a strawberry and will touch it and allow it on his plate (although he hasn’t tried it yet).


A Little at a Time

I think the hardest thing when I become a mom was taking care of myself. And not just my physical and psychological needs like showering wearing clean clothes, or spending quality time with my husband, but also taking care of my intellectual needs.

Before I became a stay-at-home-mom, I took courses, I volunteered, and (when I lived in Canada and was legally allowed to) I worked. My day was filled with interesting conversations with intelligent and fascinating people. When my son was born and I was home with a baby who barely even opened his eyes, I became very lonely and isolated with no one to talk to or learn from. My need for an intellectual outlet was still there but I channeled it into over-thinking and over-researching things to do with caring for my kid. I would get stuck in these endless loops debating sleep training or baby-led weaning or how often to give my kid a bath…and the judgment would set in towards those who did things differently from me. ‘Cause I mean, clearly, they didn’t think it through as I had. *Let me roll my eyes at my past self*.

Now, I’m trying to be better. I still like to do research and learn about things to do with childcare and educational philosophies and share all that I’ve learned with people (Hello all my posts on Charlotte Mason!), but I try to not let the judgment police come to dinner anymore. One of the gifts Miss Mason has given me is an even bigger intellectual outlet so that I can do my research and share it and apply it to my life but then take the piece of my brain that was analyzing what other people were doing and give it something else to think about: Mother Culture.

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What is Mother Culture?

Mother Culture is just learning new things for the sake of learning new things. Keeping our minds sharp so that when our kids ask “Why is the sky blue?” we could actually have an answer (not that you always want to have an answer, there is value in long-term pondering for children…but more on that later).

I have found wisdom in much of Charlotte Mason’s writings, but I’m going to share one of my favourite passages with you:

“Is there not some need for ‘mother culture’? But how is the state of things to be altered? So many mothers say, ‘I simply have no time for myself!’ ‘I never read a book!’ Or else, ‘I don’t think it is right to think of myself!’ They not only starve their minds, but they do it deliberately, and with a sense of self-sacrifice which seems to supply ample justification.

Mother must have time to herself. And we must not say ‘I cannot.’ Can any of us say till we have tried, not for one week, but for one whole year, day after day, that we ‘cannot’ get one half-hour out of the twenty-four for ‘Mother Culture?’–one half-hour in which we can read, think, or ‘remember.’

The habit of reading is so easily lost; not so much, perhaps, the power of enjoying books as the actual power of reading at all. It is incredible how, after not being able to use the eyes for a time, the habit of reading fast has to be painfully regained…

The wisest woman I ever knew–the best wife, the best mother, the best mistress, the best friend–told me once, when I asked her how, with her weak health and many calls upon her time, she managed to read so much, ‘I always keep three books going–a stiff book, a moderately easy book, and a novel, and I always take up the one I feel fit for!’ That is the secret; always have something ‘going’ to grow by. If we mothers were all ‘growing’ there would be less going astray among our boys, less separation in mind from our girls…

A brisk walk will help. But, if we would do our best for our children, grow we must; and on our power of growth surely depends, not only our future happiness, but our future usefulness.

Is there, then, not need for more ‘Mother Culture’?”
 Volume III, no. 2 The Parents’ Review

This idea captivated me. Could I find 30 minutes per day to dedicate to “Mother Culture”? I certainly found enough time to watch Gilmore Girls reruns. Surely I could find time to challenge myself. I wasn’t exactly sure what to even start with. A craft? A book?  A walk in the woods? In the end, I turned off the TV and hid my phone away and I started with the thing I’ve loved most: I picked up a book.

I started reading again. Not blogs or Facebook status updates or news articles, but actual books. I took Charlotte Mason’s words to heart, “The wisest woman I ever knew…told me once… ‘I always keep three books going–a stiff book, a moderately easy book, and a novel, and I always take up the one I feel fit for!’”

I resolved to start limiting myself to 3 books at a time (I am notorious for starting many many many books and never finishing one but saying that I am “reading” it, when I’m really not) and to really try to find “living books” as my choices.

  1. A stiff book. Right now I am reading “For the Love of Physics” by Walter Lewin, a physics professor at MIT who is passionate about physics and has won many awards for his  teaching. It is not written “stiffly”, his writing style is actually very engaging, but it is difficult for me because my knowledge of physics is very poor (electricity works by magic, right?) so it requires all of my focus and concentration.

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2) A moderately easy book. Right now I am reading Charlotte Mason’s 6 volumes. When I first started reading them, I would consider her writing style to be “stiff”, but it’s amazing how much your reading skills improve as you get more familiar with the writing style. After reading 3 volumes, I’m finding her writing much easier to get through.

3) A novel. I resolved to read one novel from every majorly famous/renowned author. I want to be familiar with the stories that pop up in pop-culture but I don’t really know much about the original. For example, I know the quote, “Elementary, my dear Watson”, is from Sherlock Holmes, but I have never read anything by Arthur Conan Doyle.  So I brainstormed a list and strive to read one book by:

  • Charles Dickens
  • John Steinbeck
  • Jane Austen
  • Charlotte Brontë
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • J.D. Salinger
  • Albert Camus
  • Agatha Christie
  • Mark Twain
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • George Orwell
  • Stephen King
  • Margaret Atwood

So far in 2019, I have tackled Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (OMG LOVED THIS BOOK), the Plague by Albert Camus (OMG I HATED THIS BOOK. I actually quit ⅔ of the way in because it was just the most boring possible book I could imagine being written about a bubonic plague quarantining an entire city post-WWII. Apparently French writers who wax poetic about life and death are not for me), and I’m now reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. At this rate, it will take me about 3 years to read a novel from each of these authors, so this list is long enough for me!

Getting Focused Enough to Read

When I first started on this resolution in April 2018, I found it really hard to concentrate and focus even for 10 minutes on what I was reading. After years of reading tweets and status updates and endlessly scrolling, my eyes flitting down the page, my attention span was abysmal. So I downloaded an app (yes, kind of an oxymoron to use technology to curtail my technology addiction, but whatever) called Forest.

With Forest, you set a timer (for say, 30 minutes) and the goal is to not touch your phone and to focus on what you’re supposed to focus on for the entire time. If you focus for the time you set out, you grow a tree to add to your forest. If you touch your phone and close out of the app during that time, your tree DIES and you have this little dead tree in your forest. Sad little dead tree. As you can see, in 2018, I was not perfect and killed many trees responding to texts.

This screen shot of my forest isn’t comprehensive of every time I sat down to read because I didn’t need to use the app every time to divert my attention away from my phone. Like a muscle, focus and attention strengthen over time.

Additionally, I’m the kind of person who loves checklists. It helps keep me accountable as I love checking things off. Not everyone is a list person, but I am. So I started a Mother Culture Log Book to check off every day when I did my reading. It is a daytimer where I write in a corner of my calendar 10 minutes on each of the three books I am reading. I also challenged myself to read one poem (I forgot I loved poetry) and one entry from an encyclopedia about nature. Having this daily checklist helped me keep up with my Mother Culture goals even when I didn’t feel like it, because I do always feel like checking something off a list, especially when it only takes ~35 minutes to complete the entire list. I recognize this is next-level nerd, but hey, I say, embrace whatever nerdy system works for you to accomplish your goals. So now, on to explain my other nerdy system, my Book of Books.

My Book of Books

To document my reading and to help me finish what I start (with the exception of the Plague because seriously, I can’t complain enough about this book), I also started a Book of Books. It is a simple notebook, and when I finish a book, I write it in at the top of the fresh page and then I write my personal review of the book and give it a rating out of 5. It’s just for me. A personal diary. But it’s fun to look back on all the books I’ve read this year and remember what I read. And yes, I did write an entry about the Plague so I could forever remember how awful it is, even though I consciously gave up on Camus.

My Book of Books tells me that since April 1, 2018, I have read 20 books totaling 4792 pages. I know, I’m shocked too. And before you think “I don’t have time to read this much”, let me repeat – my goal was to read 30 minutes per day. 10 minutes from each of 3 books. Sometimes I got really into reading and read for longer than 30 minutes after DK went to sleep. But many days I didn’t manage to read at all because I had to binge watch Silicon Valley, The Crown, Escape to the Country, or the Good Place. I am very surprised to see those numbers reflected in nearly one year of reading for 30 minutes per day and I am inspired to see what I can accomplish in 2019.

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So what about you? What’s something you could do for 30 minutes per day that would help you grow and develop as a person and as a parent? It doesn’t have to be reading like me. Maybe you really loved painting in high school and you haven’t picked it up in 15 years. Maybe you loved math but never went any further than what you were forced to do in school. You could pick up where you left off and teach yourself, 30 minutes per day. Maybe you want to learn a second language. Or perhaps you’re craving something tactile and want to learn how to knit. I’m here to tell you you CAN do it. You DO have time. 30 minutes per day over 1 year is almost 200 hours towards learning a new skill or getting back in touch with an old passion. You will be astounded at what you can accomplish a little at a time.

Thanks to the internet, which is both a blessing and a curse – there are limitless resources on learning all of those things with help from experts, guided tutorials, samples, patterns, and step-by-step instructions. And if you do not know where to start, ask me, and I would happily help you find some resources to get you on your own Mother Culture path. 

Habits Habits Habits

We all have habits, good and bad. Habits help us get through our day so that we don’t have to make a million conscious choices every day – we do a lot of things just on auto-pilot. We wake up and get out of bed the same way. We walk the same route to the coffee maker. We brush our teeth in roughly the same pattern each time. Having good, healthy habits make living life a lot easier. We don’t need to question or fight about putting the toilet seat down – we just do it. We don’t battle over going to work or school – it’s just what we do. Of course we’d go to work – when it’s established as a habit, our brain doesn’t even recognize an alternative option.

Charlotte Mason speaks a lot about the importance of habit formation in building a child’s character. When talking about the early years (the years before school), she emphasizes three things.

  1. Reading great books (See my post about Living Books)
  2. Spending time outside (See my post about Getting Outside)
  3. Forming good habits

In this post, I am going to focus on the third point – habit formation.

Charlotte Mason writes,


I have written and re-written this post a few times, because it is hard to write about good habits and bad habits without judgment or without sounding preachy. What I deem to be a good habit of punctuality – others don’t see that as a habit worth going to battle over. And what others deem a critical habit for health, vegetables and fruit with every meal, as an example – I am definitely more loosey goosey on.

Ultimately my goal with this post is not to suggest which habits are good ones to instill with your children and which are bad – but to encourage all parents to take time to think about which habits they do think are important or not important and consider the long term effects on your child’s character.

And it is all about the long term.

In the short term, and before school begins, enforcing bedtimes or breakfast habits seem like a lot of effort for not a lot of return in the short term. We are risking an hour long struggle over wearing pants and do we really care if our toddler wears pants? Often no… but the key is that we, as parents, are playing the long game. It’s not always about the here and now – it’s about your (and your child’s) future selves. By establishing early on that when we wake up – we get dressed, we make our bed, we eat breakfast, we brush our teeth, we leave for school on time – we are helping ourselves as parents in the long term to not have a daily fight against all of those things. If those things are habit, we stop seeing them as “options” or “choices” and more as “well of-courses – who wouldn’t?”.

Establishing good habits is not just for children – in fact I believe you HAVE to start with your own habits if you have any hope of instilling good habits in your children.

Lately, at 2.5, DK has been fighting getting dressed in the mornings or at all. I think that is partly due to the wonderful holiday season where we all stayed in our jammies for the entire day, and partly due to a pretty normal developmental stage for 2.5. Over the holidays, we slipped up here with our habits of getting ready for our day and now we are struggling to get back on track as we leave the house later and later and later. And so I would like to reset.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg outlines the golden rule of habit change. He writes, “To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and the reward stay the same.” (p. 62) For example, you’re more likely to stick to a workout routine if you choose a set time of the day (as soon as you walk in the door after getting home from work) and a specific reward upon completion (a glass of wine).

As part of getting DK back on track with his morning routine, I need to get back on track with my own. It’s so easy as a Stay At Home Mom with no pressing need to leave the house every day to just let the “getting ready for the day” part of our day just not happen at all.  I’d like to try a few different things to make this happen and make our morning routine easier and more “routine”.

First, wake up at the same time every day. Studies show that if you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day you will feel more rested – and damn don’t I need that feeling, pregnant with a 2 year old.

Second, set a time for breakfast. Lately I’ve just been kind of waiting until DK asks me for food to eat breakfast…so it could be at 7 or at 8:30 depending on the day. We have a pretty set lunch time and a set dinner time, so breakfast needs to join this on-time meal train.

Third, and most difficult, shower at night. This would be a major habit change for me because I just am a morning shower person. But it really would make more logistical sense to shower at night. It would also help me get to bed earlier. And I wouldn’t have have to juggle my morning routine around my husband’s morning routine AND get soon-to-be-two kids ready for the day. And so building on Duhigg’s Golden Rule of Habit change, I’m going to try sticking “shower” right after the cue “DK is asleep, it’s party time!” and before my reward “it’s-been-a-long-day-cup-of-tea”.

I’m going to try these changes for a month and see where they land us.


Habits of Focus, Attention, Observation

All these goals for getting us out of the house in a timely way is all well and good, but Charlotte Mason, when discussing the importance of habit formation, meant more than just establishing good habits of cleanliness and orderliness – she also meant other habits of character.

“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.” – Charlotte Mason

As a mom who is involved in many different moms groups, I have seen many posts asking for and giving insight into how to set up good family routines, how to establish healthy eating habits, how to get a two-year-old to brush his/her teeth – but I have never seen anyone ask about habits of character. Mason gives quite a lengthy list of what she means by these habits, which have been conveniently gathered and printed in the same location by Deborah Taylor-Hughes. I think this list is worth sharing here so we are all on the same page.

  • Courage
  • Loving
  • Good-nature
  • Focus
  • Giving
  • Unselfishness
  • Carefulness
  • Joy in others’ success
  • Clean clothes
  • Reticence
  • Discretion
  • Imagination
  • Courteousness
  • Temperance
  • Pure thoughts
  • Perfect execution
  • Pleasure and profit for reading books
  • Making way for elders
  • Not holding a grudge
  • Obedience to conscience
  • Willpower
  • Moral power
  • Thankfulness
  • Cheerfulness
  • Order
  • Propriety
  • Virtue
  • Carefulness
  • Ability to yield
  • Observant
  • Decisiveness
  • Accuracy
  • Tact
  • Watchfulness
  • Persistence
  • Sweet temper
  • Cleanliness
  • Neatness
  • Regularity
  • Patience
  • Punctuality
  • A sensitive nose
  • Care of fingernails
  • Amiability
  • Clean eyes and ears
  • Washed hands
  • Brushed hair
  • Obedience
  • Modesty
  • Caring for possessions
  • To look on the bright side
  • Finishing work that’s been started
  • Sense of humour
  • Purity
  • Putting away toys
  • Promptness
  • Appreciation of beauty
  • Regularity of schedule
  • Sleeping at bedtime
  • Truthfulness
  • Dancing
  • Calisthenics
  • Eye contact with others
  • Factualness
  • Prompt and intelligent replies
  • Good manners
  • Light, springy movements
  • Respect for persons and property
  • Training of ear and voice
  • Pure vowel sounds
  • Pronunciation of difficult words
  • Good humour
  • Musical training
  • Singing
  • Gentleness
  • Self-restraint
  • Courtesy
  • Kindness
  • Candor
  • Attention to detail
  • Respect for others
  • Attention
  • Self-compelling will
  • Reverence for others
  • Sense of duty
  • Desire to excel
  • Be first without vanity
  • Be last without bitterness
  • Trustfulness
  • Thinking of the “why” of things
  • Sportsmanship
  • Handwriting
  • Appetite for knowledge
  • Zeal for work
  • Undivided attention
  • Obedience to the law

Now, yes, some of the entries on this list are a bit “out there” – like I had to do a double take for “light, springy movements”. Is that even a habit? But upon further reflection – yes, I do think it is a habit. I have a bad habit of slouching and dragging my feet around. I wish I sat up straighter. I wish I didn’t have an E.T. neck. This is a habit I could change.

image6And others like “dancing” seem quite dated today (although I’ll admit I would LOVE it if my husband and I actually knew how to dance socially and weren’t awkward AF on our feet…so now I’m really considering signing DK up for ballroom dance lessons someday…)

Others on this list are “of courses” that really don’t require much thought – most parents will naturally encourage our children to be courteous and kind and obey the law.

But there are still others that today we tend to think of more as “personality traits” or “genetic predispositions” than “developed habits”. For examples, “pleasure and profit for reading books”, “a sensitive nose”, “sense of humour”, “training of ear and voice/musical training/singing”, “inclined to make the best of things” and “to look on the bright side”. But when I think about these things, I think Charlotte Mason is right – these are all skills that are developed over time and practice. Sure, some people may be naturally predisposed to certain attitudes or abilities – but that doesn’t mean that these qualities cannot be improved upon.

Lastly, there are the character habits on the list that have almost but disappeared in our fast-paced 21st century culture. We are now so used to instant gratification and (what seems like) the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, that the habits of focus, observation and attention have declined in importance in our lives and in the lives of our children. A friend of mine is a children’s librarian at a school, and she had to discard ANNE OF GREEN GABLES from the library’s collection because it was deemed too difficult for today’s youth reading levels. Another friend of mine is a kindergarten teacher and she struggles to read the same stories to 5 year olds today that she read to 5 year olds 20 years ago because their attention spans haven’t been well developed. Books can’t compete with a video game. In 2018, children are heavily exposed to flashy exciting screens, video games with constant gambling-like rewards, and the ability to ask Siri or Google the answer to any question. We have this idea that if the answer isn’t on the internet, then the answer is unknowable. We’ve ceased to wonder, and this extends to our children as well.

“The child who starts in life with say, twenty good habits, begins with a certain capital which he will lay out to endless profit as the years go on.” – Charlotte Mason

“The habits of the child are, as it were, so many little hammers beating out by slow degrees the character of the man.” – Charlotte Mason

When I first read Miss Mason’s works, I couldn’t name a single species of tree on my property. I had never observed anything about them. Recently, I tried picking up Jane Eyre, a book I had read ravenously the summer I was 15 – and I could barely read a page before I was distracted by something or other. After years of reading Facebook status updates, tweets and Buzzfeed articles, my focus and attention muscles were weak! And I’m not alone here! There has been an 800% increase in ADHD diagnoses over the last 30 years (Kardaras, 2016, p.23-24), which it’s possible that we are just more aware of the disorder now, so we are diagnosing it more – or it could be a combination of factors – one of which being, we as a society have sharply lost our ability to concentrate and focus because of the barrage of hyperarousing screen images flashing across our vision for much of our entertainment hours.

Additionally, a longitudinal study done by the German Psychological Association over a 20-year-period found that our sensory awareness is declining about 1% per year. We used to be able to distinguish between over 300,000 distinct sounds – but today we struggle to hear 100,000 distinct sounds. Study subjects early on in the study could see 350 different shades of a colour – whereas today, it’s only 130 (Kardaras, 2016, p. 29-30).

Our ability to observe the world around us has decreased as we’ve risen through the technological ranks. These realizations made me conclude that there were a few habits I really needed to emphasize in DK’s early years, perhaps more than other habits (like those that society would naturally encourage in him without necessarily conscientious effort on my part). I needed to work on the habits of: Focus, Attention and Observation.

How am I doing this? Well, it’s still an experiment in progress – but for the most part – it goes back to my other two blog posts: time outside away from screens and strengthening our skills of observation; and reading, reading, reading a lot of high quality children’s literature. Books that don’t talk down to DK. Books that contain one narrative, instead of multiple competing pop-ups/blurbs with little flow between them. Books with interesting illustrations from a variety of artistic mediums – not just the flashy/colourful/digital animation-style books.

Books like Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey


Or Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson


Or Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

Or The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

So far, I think it is working. The other week when we were out for a nature walk, he said, “I can hear a crow but I can’t see a crow”. I’m still picking my jaw up off the ground.


Kardaras, Nicholas. Glow Kids, 2016.

The Outdoor Life

These last few weeks I have been posting about Charlotte Mason and her philosophy of education. DK is not school-aged yet, and even when he is, I’m not certain that I’m going to homeschool him – but Charlotte Mason also has a lot to say about children’s lives in the years before school – so I’m trying to let her philosophy guide me in my at-home early years with DK.

There is a lot to sift through, but I think it boils down to three things:

  1. Great books (see my post about Living Books)
  2. Time outside
  3. Establishing good habits

These are the three priorities I now set for myself every day with DK.  Today, I’m going to talk about time outside. I’ve written a couple of posts about how important I think it is for children to play outside. I think that was what initially drew me to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy – her emphasis on long, unstructured hours outside. She writes, “They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of air are inclined to make a new rule of life, “Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.” (Home Education, p. 42)

This is easier said than done though, and it has taken significant commitment on my part to get outside and stay outside with a toddler. In the beginning, it was hard to just get out the door. I didn’t have the right gear, DK didn’t want to go, I didn’t know where to go, it was easier to just stay inside and not go out. But now that we’ve made it part of our daily routine, it has become commonplace and we are usually outside at a park 3 days per week for 3-5 hours.

“3-5 hours?!” you might ask. “What do you do during that time? There’s no way I could keep my kid entertained and happy outside for that long”. Well, dear Internet reader of my imagination, I’m glad you asked! It has not been an overnight thing. It has taken training both for me and for my son to be happy and occupied during these hours. Allow me to tell you, in this blog post, of some of the things that work for me some of the time.

Charlotte Mason writes,

“Supposing we have got them, what is to be done with these golden hours, so that every one shall be delightful? They must be spent with some method, or the mother will be taxed and the children bored. There is a great deal to be accomplished in this large fraction of the children’s day. They must be kept in a joyous temper all the time [Hahahahhahaha See my note below], or they will miss some of the strengthening and refreshing held in charge for them by the blessed air. They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this – that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder — and grow. At the same time, here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers. Then, there is much to be got by perching in a tree or nestling in heather, but muscular development comes of more active ways, and an hour or two should be spent in vigorous play; and at last, and truly least, a lesson or two must be got in.” (Home Education, p. 44-45)

Before we go any further, let’s just address the one hilarious line, “They must be kept in a joyous temper all the time”. Yeah, “thanks for the tip Charlotte, let me get right on that – controlling my two-year-old’s temper” is what I thought when I first read this. But upon further reflection, I don’t think that what she means by this is that they have to be happy and smiling the whole time, I think they have to be comfortable. Or, at least the way I interpret it is “if you don’t feel good, you don’t act good”. DK needs to be warm (but not too warm), fed, watered, well rested and healthy in order to enjoy his time outside. If he isn’t – there’s no point to even being there.

So now, let’s break down the rest in context of my outing today.

Today, we went to a park near our house. We walked there with the stroller and in the stroller we had a toy car, a ball, a monkey mat, a change of clothes and some diapers and wipes in a ziploc bag, a packed lunch, water, sunscreen and hats. We stopped at a Starbucks on the way (mama needs to be kept in a joyous temper too) and instead of going to the playground first, we went as far from the playground structure as possible to a cluster of trees.

I let DK out of the stroller and I let him wander off to wherever he wants (within a reasonable eye-sight-I-can-sprint-that-far-in-5-seconds-to-save-him-from-a-lion-distance). I’m not sure if it’s just DK’s personality or if there’s anything I did specifically that trained him to not Forest-Gump run away as fast as his little legs can carry him, but he’s pretty good with sticking nearby. He likes to wander away and explore but he checks his distance, looks back to see that I’m still there and I’m still watching him, and if I can’t see him, I casually stroll towards him. I suspect it’s more to do with his personality than anything, as I have friends who do the exact same thing as me and their kids are halfway to Timbuktu before they eat a timbit. Charlotte Mason would probably attribute it to habit training, but as my sample size is only one, I definitely cannot say that it’s anything I did specifically that makes him stay within a 40 foot radius of my body. He’s a cautious kid, and I’m taking advantage of that!

There is one tree back there in the park that DK discovered all on his own one day whose roots form little basins in the grass and on Thursdays, after the sprinklers have watered the grass overnight, there are little pools of water at the base of the tree. He loves to poke sticks in these pools, toss acorns, grass, etc. This is usually what he does first. He did not initially think to do all these things with the pools of water. I had to show him once. But now that he knows sticks can be pushed down into mud and stand up straight and that acorns make a satisfying little “plop” when they hit the water, he’s spent hours experimenting with what else “plops” versus “plips”. He’s also expanded his experiments to things I did not show him.

During this time, I can happily sit on my monkey mat. DK doesn’t let me read or do anything singularly focused, he gets too interested in what I am doing, wanting to climb all over me and not playing – so I use this time to heighten my own skills of observation and improve my own nature knowledge. There are at least three bluebirds that live in our tree and I get a special thrill every time I see that flash of blue fluttering in the sky. Our tree is a Pin Oak and has moss growing up the trunk. The grass underneath our tree is patchy and the blades are thin. The sound bluebirds make is different from that of some other bird that is nearby that I have yet to identify. 

Before reading Charlotte Mason, I thought I had to narrate everything DK did, I thought I had to talk to him constantly, to teach him all the time. I would say things like, “Oh you’re picking up an acorn, the acorn is brown, you’re throwing the acorn. Plop goes the water”. But seriously, who wants to hear that?! I would SCREAM if someone did that to my every move. So now, wiser and with better self-control, I sit back in silence.

At some point, DK gets tired of his own scrambles and he comes back to me for a visit. He often brings me a little treasure he found, and I say a something like, “Wow, this acorn has crack in it.” Sometimes I tell him something I noticed in my observations while he was playing and try to draw his attention to it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Charlotte Mason predicted this visit in her writings. She writes,

“Our wise mother, arrived, first sends the children to let off their spirits in a wild scamper, with a cry, halloo, and hullaballo, and any extravagance that comes into their young heads….By-and-by the others come back to their mother, and, while wits are fresh and eyes keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition – Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge, or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson”. (Home Education, p. 46).

So, following her example, I’ve started asking DK to tell me what he saw at the tree. He usually babbles something unintelligible – but that doesn’t matter. This is the very very beginning of composition – learning to tell orally what he saw or experienced. I also like this exercise because whether I understand him or not, I am giving him, a whole person, equal time to share his first person narrative with me.

Then, I’ll usually ask him to go get some nature item for me. “DK, can you bring me a stick?” “An acorn?” “A rock?” “A leaf?” and on and on until we have a nice little collection. Some days DK is super into it. Some days he wants me to go with him, and I do, and we search together. After we have a good pile of objects on the monkey mat, we sort them, count them, talk about which are big/little/soft/hard/wet/dry etc. This is what I consider our “lesson”. If DK wants to go to the playground after this nature ramble, we go.

“This is all play for the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work, she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment — when they ask, “What is it?” and “What is it for?”, And she is training her children in truthful habits, by making them careful to see the fact and to state it exactly, without omission or exaggeration”. (Home Education, p. 47).

On our days outdoors, we often eat an early lunch outside. When we were in Tinkergarten, our leader handed out cloth bandanas to each kid to use as a placemat for their lunch. I couldn’t believe how well this worked to get DK to sit down and eat his food, so I went to Michaels and I got a bandana handkerchief for $2 to throw in our stroller for our al fresco lunches. It takes up no space, is lightweight, and really gives him a sense of formality “it’s eating time now, sit down”.

To leave the park (or go anywhere within the park), we play a great game. It’s called “Touch the tree”. The premise is this: I point to a tree that is in the direction I want us to go and we run up to  touch it. Once we touch it, we find another tree that is in the direction we want to go and we run up and touch it. We can get all the way to the park exit this way.

Sometimes we go to parks that are not near our house (like county parks or state parks). Those days, we often stay too late to avoid a car nap on the way home, so sometimes I just push DK around in the stroller while I listen to podcasts until he falls asleep. Then I break out that monkey mat again and lay down myself underneath a shady tree.

I say sometimes, and I mean twice. It’s worked for me twice. Which I think that since it is more than once, is enough to write it on my blog and say it is “doable and worth trying”, and I am willing to try for a third success, but I don’t want to paint a picture that every day I spend an hour tanning in the sunshine while my son blissfully sleeps in his stroller after a morning of beautiful nature study. That would be misleading. It is not always this way. In the early days of getting outside, we had more bad times than good. But through perseverance and preparation we’ve both gotten better at being outside in nature for 4-5 hours at a time and I think we are both all the better for it.

I think when getting outside with a toddler, the zen phrase, “It’s the journey, not the destination” is very fitting. If we go out with a specific hike to tackle, I will find it frustrating because we aren’t doing it “right” or “at all”. But if we go with the intention to just wander for a few hours and see where DK’s whimsy and curiousity leads us – it shapes up to be quite an enjoyable way to spend the day.

I know I’ll forever melt every time my son picks me a dandylion and shoves it in my face to smell. It’s the little things that last a lifetime.

Living Books Recommendations: Toddlers

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Living Books and filling my home with great books for DK. I love books and I love children’s books and I love sharing good books with great friends! So without further ado is a list of some of our current and past faves.

I would say this list is good for the 0-3 age cohort. There aren’t a lot of words per page, the illustrations are engaging and include items your child is familiar with (and likely excited by, i.e. animals, cars, toys). Many of these books rhyme or have a nice diction when read aloud, which little ones really enjoy.

A lot of these books I was able to find at library book sales or used bookstores because they were popular in the past, but are now considered “dated”. For example, my library doesn’t have a copy of Each Peach Pear Plum to lend because it was published in 1978, but I found it at their book sale because many kids had it in their bookshelves in the 80s! All of these books can be found new on Amazon, however. But you might not find them on the shelves at your local Barnes and Noble or Indigo.

1. A House is a House for Me – Mary Ann Hoberman (1978)

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love this book. It is a poem. The illustrations are extremely detailed and after probably 100 readings (I have the poem memorized now), I still love this book and find new things in the illustrations.

“A hill is a house for an ant, an ant
A hive is a house for a bee.
A hole is a house for a mole or a mouse,
And a house is a house for me”

Seriously this book is amazing. Read it.

2. Boy + Bot – Ame Dyckman (2012)

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DK loves this book. It is about a friendship between a boy and a robot. Is it a bit odd that the parents aren’t concerned that their son is being brought home in the middle of the night by a Dr.Evil-esque robot inventor? Yes. But I don’t let that get in the way of a cute story of childhood imagination and friendship.

3. Clap Your Hands – Lorinda Bryan Cauley (1992)

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This is a great book for burning off some afternoon energy as it gives simple instructions for body movements in rhyme form. The illustrations are colourful and include a cast of children and animals.

“Reach for the sky, wiggle your toes.
Stick out your tongue and touch your nose.”

4. Dear Zoo – Rod Campbell (1982)

Image result for Dear ZooThis is a classic lift-the-flap book for babies and toddlers. I love that it uses repetition as well as rich adjectives (fierce, grumpy) to describe the animals.

5. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus – Mo Willems (2003)

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This book is really funny and DK loves it. It’s because of this book that two of his early words were “bus” and “pigeon”. It is about saying no to peer-pressure and even the youngest speaker can say “NO!” to the Pigeon when he begs to drive the bus.

6. Each Peach, Pear, Plum – Janet and Allan Ahlberg (1978)

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A rhyming find-it book that also introduces fairy-tale characters, Each Peach Pear Plum is a simple and well-illustrated staple on our bookshelf.

7. Forest Bright/Forest Night – Jennifer Ward (2005)

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I love this book for teaching about nocturnal/diurnal animals. The illustrations are beautiful and it shows that while some animals are sleeping, others are awake. It is written in rhyme and the language is very rich.

“Sun light, forest bright, 
After sleeping through the night,
Leap and flash…deep splash.
Climb and stumble…bear cubs tumble.”

8. Freight Train – Donald Crews (1978)Image result for freight train donald crews

This is one of DK’s absolute favourites for winding down to bedtime. Similar to the meditative cadence of Goodnight Moon, Freight Train is a zen reading experience. It includes colours as well as train-specific jargon as a train chugs past the reader off the page [to dream land].

Even now, when DK is upset, I can recite, “A train runs across this track. Red caboose at the back…” and he calms right down. We are actually on our second copy of this book. It is well-loved.

9. Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site –
Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld (2011)

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DK, like similar two-year old boys, is really into cars, trucks, trains and construction equipment. This is a great story about all the different machines going to sleep for the night. It is also told in rhyme.

10. Goodnight Moon – Margaret Wise Brown (1947)

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I did not like this book before I had kids. I thought the pictures were hideous and I thought the story was annoying. But a dear friend gave it to me as a baby shower gift, so I grudgingly read it to DK when he was a baby and it would calm him and help him fall asleep. This book was magic. I now think it is one of my favourite children’s books because as it is read aloud, it almost reminds me of a Gregorian chant. It is so soothing and meditative.

11. Harry the Dirty Dog – Gene Zion (1956)

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DK loves this book and I think he can really identify with its main character – a dog named Harry who hates getting a bath. Harry runs away from his bath to play in train yards, construction sites, and car repair shops, which is probably DK’s toddler-fantasy. In the end, *spoiler alert* Harry gets a bath – so if you’re looking for a book that might encourage cleanliness among little boys – this might be the perfect book for you! There aren’t too many words per page and the illustrations are cute.

12. Jamberry – Bruce Degen (1983)

Image result for jamberry bruce degenThis is a book I dug out of my old childhood book boxes. As a child I loved it because of the verse:
Strawberry ponies
Strawberry lambs
Dancing in meadows
Of strawberry jam.

DK is partial to:

And so the world turns and a new generation reads a beloved classic!

13. I Love Bugs! – Emma Dodd (2010)

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I like that this book doesn’t give a bunch of facts and names for specific bugs – instead it just describes them as a child might – using descriptive adjectives and includes specific bugs in the illustrations. It is very fun to read aloud as you recite fun tongue twisters like:

“I love springy jumpy leapy bugs
and slimy crawly creepy bugs.”

14. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie – Laura Joffe Numeroff (1985)

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For some reason, I thought this book was for older children – like 5 year olds. But my two year old is obsessed with it (as well as other similar titles by Numeroff) and I’m glad I brought it home from the library book sale. I think DK might identify with the mouse, whereas an older child might identify with the boy taking care of the mouse. I know I definitely feel as exhausted as the boy at the end of the day with DK!

15. Motor Goose – Rebecca Colby (2017)

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This book is very well written. It is a parody of Mother Goose rhymes re-written with motorized vehicles of all shapes and sizes as the stars! A two -year old boy’s dream! Sometimes I am hesitant with Mother Goose rewrites because they aren’t exactly right in rhythm and cadence and rhyme…but this one is very well done. I have every single poem memorized now. *humble brag*

16. Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? – Dr. Seuss (1970)

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When I was a kid, my dad used to call me “the girl of a thousand voices”. Maybe that’s why I like this book so much – I can practice all the sounds and voices I’ve been perfecting for thirty years. I love how this book includes onomatopoeia (and I love that I get to use that word in a sentence!) and we can read it either with the word “Pop!” or making a popping sound with our lips. DK loves trying to make all the different sounds with his mouth.

17. Potty – Leslie Patricelli (2010)


I have been trying to get DK interested in the potty since his second birthday. This is the book that he really enjoyed and didn’t slam shut saying “no no no no no” about the potty. It’s cute and DK loves celebrating with the baby at the end of the book when he goes potty.
I can’t claim that this book is the answer to potty training though because I have yet to be successful with that milestone!

18. Red is Best – Kathy Stinson (1982)

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This is another book I dug out of my childhood book box to read to DK. I love how it acknowledges that a child has legitimate reasons for wanting things a certain way and that mom’s reasoning isn’t necessarily better. It meets a kid where they are at and sympathizes with them.

“My mom says, “Wear these. Your white stockings look good with that dress.” But I can jump higher in my red stockings. I like my red stockings the best.”

19. School Bus – Donald Crews (1984)

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Another by Donald Crews! It follows a school bus around the town to pick up and drop off children to and from school. If your little one is into buses, this is a must-have.

20. Sheep in a Jeep – Nancy Shaw (1986)

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Another great book with short rhyming phrasing and rich language. DK particularly loves this one because it includes a jeep, mud, pigs, sheep and a crash.

21. Ten Apples Up on Top – Dr. Seuss (1961)

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This is an excellent book for counting but also for learning other important math concepts like “more”, “less” and “equal”.

22. The Little Engine That Could – Watty Piper (1940)

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There are shorter adaptations of this book, but I just love the original by Watty Piper. I love the illustrations. I love the repetition. I love the extra details and the more difficult language. This is a classic book about believing in oneself and perseverance.

23. The Snowy Day – Ezra Jack Keats (1962)

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When I was a kid, I thought this book was terrible. Now I think I just read it too late to appreciate it’s beautiful simplicity. It is definitely a book for the 2-4 year old crowd as they explore the magic of snowfall. DK loves this book and there is a little 38 minute film adaptation on Amazon Prime that is also very sweet and age appropriate.

24. The Three Billy Goats Gruff – Paul Galdone (1973)

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Fairytales and nursery rhymes are such an important part of English-speaking culture, and I think they are crucial reading for children. Some, however (like Rumpelstiltskin or Hansel and Gretel) are a bit too scary for 2 year olds. The Three Billy Goats Gruff is a good one for toddlers. It’s got great voicing for story-telling, it isn’t very long, it’s not scary, and it teaches about standing up to bullies. I also love that this one is easily adaptable to real life; DK loves to say “trip trap trip trap trip trap” when we cross over foot bridges on our adventures (to imitate the sound the goat hooves make on the wood), and we always keep an eye out for trolls! Paul Galdone has written a really nice collection of the fairy tale classics, if you’re looking for a set. I like that they are all separate books instead of in a big heavy treasury that is difficult for DK to hold himself – but they are all published in the same size and style so they match together on the book shelf.

25. The Train – David McPhail (1977)

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This book was a serendipitous discovery at a used book store. I knew DK would love it, because it is about a train, so I bought it with just barely skimming it. But I love it too! It is about a boy whose train set in his bedroom comes to life at night and he works on the train doing all the various jobs required on a steam train (stoking the boiler, driving the train, loading luggage, clipping tickets, selling food). It’s a very cute book and a great one for bedtime. DK often chooses this one to take to his crib to look at as he falls asleep.

26. The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle (1969)

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I’m sure everyone has heard of this book – it is a classic of children’s literature. Until I read it as an adult to my child, I didn’t realize how it incorporates natural sciences (metamorphosis), math (counting up to 5), the days of the week, and nutrition (healthy food versus junk food, feeling hungry versus feeling full). In such a simple text, so much is communicated and as such I have a deep respect for this book and its author.

27. They All Saw a Cat – Brendan Wenzel (2016)

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This book is about how different critters (humans, animals, bugs) see the world differently. It’s a perfect book to teach about perspective (bird’s eye view, for instance), differences between people, and artistic style. This book is the definition of “a picture tells a thousand words”. They give some great ideas for the mind to chew on.

28. Waiting is Not Easy – Mo Willems (2014)

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I love Mo Willems. He’s probably my favourite contemporary children’s author. I’ve loved every single Elephant & Piggie book I have read so far and I think they are a staple for every child’s bookshelf. The writing is simple and straightforward, but they teach in a by-the-way and funny way about things many children struggle with. They are all-ages in ideas and content, and great early-readers for kids just learning to read.

This year for DK’s birthday party, we did an Elephant & Piggie theme and asked guests bringing a gift to please bring an Elephant and Piggie volume to add to our collection. I’m so glad we did! We get so much joy out of these books. Waiting is Not Easy is one of our favourites! It is also a nice line to be able to trot out when DK is frustrated that he has to wait for something…”Waiting is not easy!”

29. Who is the Beast? – Kenneth Baker (1990)

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This is a clever book about seeing differences and similarities in ourselves and others. The illustrations are beautiful and DK loves finding  similar animal body parts on two different animals as we read (i.e. a tail on a tiger and a tail on a monkey).

30. Yummy Yucky – Leslie Patricelli (2003)

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DK will pick up this book and read it to himself, babbling away and then screaming “YUCK”, before turning the page. It is simple and has given me some great wording and a reference for when DK puts something in his mouth that is yucky (or yummy!).

My husband and I do find it amusing that DK’s favourite (and only) foods he consistently eats are the yummy examples in this book. Perhaps it has done more harm than good?

What are some of your favourite books for toddlers? I’m always looking for more!

Living Books

“They must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told.” Parents and Children, pg. 263

But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible-even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” Home Education, page 152

“The children should have the joy of living in far lands, in other persons, in other times—a delightful double existence; and this joy they will find, for the most part, in their story-books” Home Education, page 153


When I first started looking into Charlotte Mason, I approached her works cautiously. I had found online that many of the enthusiasts of her writing were also enthusiastic about religion, specifically Christianity, and it seemed that a lot of the online chatter and ways people spoke of both Charlotte Mason and of their faith is that there is no room for debate of accuracy, authenticity, or truth. Beliefs that are stated as authoritative, factual statements like “Jesus is the way” or “the Bible is the word of God” are phrases that always set my spidey-senses tingling, and so when I saw that language being used in forums related to Charlotte Mason, I recoiled. While I have no issues with their beliefs and I do share some similar beliefs with this online community, I’ll admit that as a pretty skeptical person, I am skeptical of people who are not skeptical. I was unfairly biased against Charlotte Mason in the beginning because so many of her most enthusiastic supporters are people who don’t share my beliefs and I was worried that I could not trust their judgment. This bias was wrong, but it was there. But still, I was intrigued, so I kept reading.

I agreed with Charlotte Mason’s writings that all books are not created equally and we owe it to our children to fill their minds with great ideas and great literary language. The Bible is a book that is filled with great ideas and great literary language, but I do not believe it is the living book (as so many CM adherents say). So I was curious whether or not I would be able to read what other Charlotte Mason enthusiasts deemed “living books” and come to the same conclusions that they did. I was worried that the living books recommended would be ones published by Christian publishers with a specific worldview and agenda.

I knew right off the bat that I would not always agree with some of the books, as some people recommended books for science that disputed evolution (and they recommended them specifically on this basis) – but I would give it a shot and see if there were any that came highly recommended at my local library.

And I was impressed. There were a lot of books on recommended living book lists that I had never heard of, but there were many that I had as a child, that I love and consider exemplary. Books like:

Living Books Collage

And so I started checking out some books that I hadn’t heard of, that were more obscure, and I loved those too! None of them had the “agenda” that I feared.

Some books that I discovered through these book lists that are now among my favourites are:

Sheep in a Jeep – Nancy Shaw

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(Good for Toddlers)

Make Way for Ducklings -Robert McCloskey

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The Burgess Animal Books for Children – Thornton Burgess

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Each Peach Pear Plum – Janet and Allan Ahlberg

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(Good for Toddlers)

Miss Rumphius – Barbara Cooney

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Pagoo – Hollings C. Hollings

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A Child’s History of the World – V.M. Hillyer

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Inspired by what I read, I headed to the library one Sunday afternoon. Could I identify a living book for myself out of a pile? First, a refresher, what is a living book?

What is a Living Book? Emily Kiser, podcast host of A Delectable Education, uses an acronym (L-I-V-I-N-G) to describe Living Books:

L: Literary Power

I : Ideas

V: Virtuous

I : Inspiring

N: Narrative

G: Generational

Books are “living” when they are written in literary language that isn’t dumbed down for children. They have big ideas that gives readers something to think about, wonder, imagine or ponder long after the story is over. The characters are not perfect but try to make the right choices, or there are consequences for poor choices. In short, they are virtuous. Living books are written by authors who are passionate and inspired by their subject and their enthusiasm flows from page to reader. Living books are narrative in that you can read them and then easily tell back what you read. They flow and are often written as a story. Lastly, living books are generational – they are the books that have been loved by your parents and your grandparents. They are books that adults and children enjoy reading together.

I walked over to the children’s biography section at my local library and I pulled down every single biography written about Charles Darwin (about 12 books in all) and I started reading. Why Charles Darwin? I figured if there was some truth to Living Books – there would be some written on every subject imaginable. And maybe, since I had the anti-evolutionists running around in the back of my mind, I wanted to make a point to see if I could find my worldview in a living book too.

Many of them began,

“Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire….” and I felt my mind gracefully swing shut. Boring. “Okay next”, I said, quickly closing the book.

And then I came upon one that began, “No one ever said, “Don’t Touch!” in the house where Charles Darwin grew up. And there was so much to touch, because the Darwin household was a scramble of children, odd pets, and wonderful books.”

I kept reading.

“Charles’ mother, Susannah Darwin, raised fancy pigeons known for their beauty and tameness. Dr. Robert Darwin, Charles’ father, was an immense man who weighed 336 pounds. He would drive all over the countryside to visit his patients in a single-seat carriage stuffed with snacks. When he returned from a long day of house calls, his six children would swirl about the huge man like little moons orbiting Jupiter.”

Starts to paint a picture of Charles’ childhood, doesn’t it? Makes him seem kind of relatable, doesn’t it?

This one was my second favourite Charles Darwin biography I read that day. It was called “One beetle too many : the extraordinary adventures of Charles Darwin” by Kathryn Lasky.

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My favourite that I read that day began,

“Charles Darwin was too late. His life’s work had been wasted. The exploration of the black land and its mysteries, the years of research, the endless sifting of fact after fact now seemed to count for nothing.

It had been twenty-three years since Darwin, naturalist and future country gentleman, had started his great hunt for the truth. And he was sure he had found it. If only he had managed to finish the book he was writing! If only he had been less painstaking, less anxious to address every possible argument or objection – but it was too late to do things differently now. A rival had arrived at the truth as well: a rival who would soon tell the world what he had discovered. A rival who had, ironically, come to Darwin for friendship and help. As Darwin, stooped and grim-faced, plodded on his midday walk, he knew he was facing the greatest crisis of his life.”

“Charles Darwin, Visionary Behind the Theory of Evolution” by Anna Sproule, written for a slightly older juvenile audience, completely captivated me. It wasn’t just another dry biography that portrayed someone two-dimensionally. Darwin’s life, his motivations, his thoughts, his struggles were written about in such a way that I felt like I was his good friend. I read all 60 pages in one sitting. And I left the library, my mind whirring, eager to find more literary gems.

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A second skepticism I had about living books was that a lot of the books in the recommended book lists were old. Like 50+ years old. This is fine for fiction, but for non-fiction? I was concerned. I’ve grown up in a world where technology is obsolete within five years and where libraries cull books older than ten, citing that the information is dated. Sure, research is progressing and we are learning new things all the time – but what have we really discovered about geology or ants or in the past 40 years that is relevant to a child’s education? Is it really dated?

I did another experiment. I ordered online a book that many Charlotte Mason enthusiasts cite as a living science book for learning about Earth. It is called “All About the Planet Earth” by Patricia Lauber and it was published… in 1962. Again, I was skeptical – how could I rely on the information found in a book about the earth published before man even went to the moon!

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The book was written in response to the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58 during which more than 60,000 scientists from all over the world worked together to make progress on some of their burning questions about planet earth.

I was skeptical that I would learn much of anything from this book. I was worried I would learn a lot of misinformation or disproven theories. But you know what? This book was fascinating to read. I normally don’t sit down on a Friday night and read a book about continent formation or the earth’s crust – but man, I was into this book! And you know what? I was so intrigued by what I was reading, and it was explained so well that I understood enough to ask further questions, I was able to (and keen to) Google what had happened in the world of earth sciences since 1962 (some, but not much). I read up on it for hours. This book held the lighter fluid I needed to think of earth sciences for more than a single second. It gave me relatable ideas that I could chew on and think about.

Now, many months later, I still think of this passage whenever we go swimming, go the aquarium, go to the beach, fly in an airplane…just a lot actually:

“As you read this, a column of air weighing about half a ton is resting on the top of your head. Similar columns rest on the heads of everybody else in the world. That fact comes as a surprise to most people because we do not feel this great weight pressing on our heads. The reason is that our bodies are made to live under air pressure  – and could not live without it. Just as some fish are made to live at the bottom of the seas, so men are made to live at the bottom of an ocean of air.” (All About the Planet Earth, Patricia Lauber, p. 81)

And so, I began to believe in the power of living books to capture the imagination and to teach without “teaching”.

Now, when I choose books for DK, I choose them with intentionality. I don’t want to be a snob about it…but at the same time, there is only so much time, and I want to spend it reading great books instead of just mediocre, cotton-candyesque ones that are painful to read over and over and over again to a young child.

DK has a remarkable appetite for books and a really great attention span for being read to at two years old. When he likes a book, he will sit through the whole thing. When he doesn’t like it, he will close the book and say, “no no no no no”. A lot of the time whether he likes a book or not depends entirely on whether there are cars, trucks or trains in the illustrations, but I do find it remarkable that through reading him high quality books that don’t talk down to him, he will sit and focus and listen for at least 30 minutes, but when I read him “Cow Takes a Bow” or even a simple board book about trucks, he closes it, says, “No, no, no, no” and runs away. Maybe there’s something about the way I’m reading it  that’s tipping him off to not liking a particular book, or maybe there really is something to trusting in his comprehension and not reading him books that belittle him.

I’m glad I didn’t let my original preconceptions of “Christian homeschoolers” or “dated books” prevent me from learning more about Living Books and bringing them into my home. I don’t know if Living Books are “the answer” to children’s literacy and interest in reading – perhaps it is better to read anything as opposed to nothing. But I do know that I choose to feed DK a healthy diet of foods full of nutritional value so that his body grows and he has energy throughout his day (although admittedly he does not always eat the lovely feast I spread before him…ahhhh toddlers, that’s another story), so why wouldn’t I feed his mind a “healthy diet of rich ideas” as well?

Just some food for thought…


Down the rabbit hole…

I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been down a deep, dark rabbit hole of inquiry – pretty much one of my favourite things outside of writing.

One of my guilty pleasures is this podcast called, “At Home”. I’m honestly not sure why I love it so much. The four women who host the podcast are quite different from me. First of all, they are evangelical Christians. Second, they all have multiple school-aged children. Third, they homeschool. I don’t know why I enjoy it, maybe it’s because I have a secret dream to host a podcast someday, or maybe it’s my ever-burning desire to be in a girl-band, or maybe it’s just my love of good conversation with good friends around a kitchen table – but I love listening to these four women. They are strong, they are thoughtful, they are devoted, capable, hard-working moms, and they are friends.

I’ve listened to their ideas and opinions on cleaning products, sibling rivalry, poetry, travel, meal planning and more; but none has sent me off on a new avenue of inquiry quite like their episode on Charlotte Mason.

Charlotte Mason…ahhh where even to start? She was a teacher, a school founder, a homeschool curriculum developer, a writer, an editor, a devout Christian, and an educational philosopher. Oh, and she lived over a hundred years ago, the bulk of her life’s work published between 1890 and 1920.

When I tell my friends that I’ve been fascinated by the writings of this woman, they mostly look at me with trepidation. “Oh dear, what kind of kool-aid has Heather been drinking?” Okay well bear with me while I elucidate exactly what strikes me so about her writing.

  1. Charlotte Mason believed that children are born persons.

Children are not blank slates upon which we impress different templates. They are born whole beings, with feelings, fears, likes, and dislikes. They deserve respect for their personhood for where they are developmentally just as any other person. This seems like a pretty obvious notion these days – of course children are persons most of us would say – but honestly I’m not so sure that we actually practice that in our parenting and our schools. How often we refer to “the baby”! How quickly we are encouraged to dismiss our child’s cries for us in the night in the interest of “sleep training”. How often we tweet with the hashtag #reasonmykidiscrying that, while making light of the complexities of parenting, does nothing to recognize the child’s opinions or desires as legitimate to them (as ridiculous and as frustrating as they may seem to us). I mean sometimes I have to laugh at the absurdity of toddler emotions or else I’d cry – but on the whole I think I agree with Mason that it’s important to respect my kid’s emotions, as over-the-top as they may be.

2. Charlotte Mason believed that “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”

By this she meant that children need to be educated in their own natural environment (a positive, loving, curious, and challenging one), with good habits (learning for the sake of satisfying curiosity and doing things “right” as opposed to “regurgitating memorized facts because the teacher said to”) and reading living books to inspire living, breathing ideas for their whole lives.

She wrote, “Our aim in education is to give a full life. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking – the strain would be too great – but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest.”

3. Charlotte Mason believed in teaching living ideas and through living books.

Not all books are created equal. I guess I always kind of knew that – I’ve definitely struggled through some books and raced through others. But I kind of had this notion that if a book was published it must have been vetted and it must be good, right? It doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you read, right? I no longer think this is the case. There is a HUGE difference in quality in children’s (and adult) literature published today. A lot of it has no plot or characters and is mostly designed with bright colours to grab a kid’s attention and entertain, to compete with all the excitement that comes on screens. But there aren’t necessarily any big ideas for them to chew on, to think about. Many books don’t inspire them to learn more, to ask questions, to put themselves in the shoes of another, or develop their focus/attention span.

Living books can be both fiction or non-fiction. They are usually written by one person (as opposed to a committee or publishing team) who has passion for the subject. They don’t talk down to children but use high quality language (not just “see spot run”) that is enchanting to read. They are the books that you probably still have from your childhood gathering dust in the basement. Pull them out! Share them with your kids! They are the books you hugged, the books your mother hugged, the books your grandfather hugged. They taught you facts about the world without you even being aware you were learning.

Charlotte Mason wrote, “They must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told.” (Vol. 2, p. 263).

Once I cottoned on to the idea of living books, I aimed to only provide DK with the best quality books in our home (although admittedly this is partly for my own sanity – reading Disney’s Cars Best Buddies might actually kill me), as it is my view that as a parent I should expose DK to the best the world has to offer. I was absolutely surprised when I discovered that he has an enormous appetite for reading when the books are actually well written (go figure).

Some of DK’s favourite books right now are:

  • Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion
  • Motor Goose by Rebecca Colby
  • Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems
  • Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman
  • I love Bugs! by Emma Dodd
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Bears and a Birthday by Shirley Parenteau
  • Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
  • The Gingerbread Boy by Paul Galdone
  • A House is a House for Me by Mary Ann Hoberman
  • The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper
  • If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
  • Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw
  • Red is Best by Kathy Stinson
  • The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
  • Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne

He also likes Disney Cars Best Buddies, but just like candy, I don’t read that to him every day because there’s so much out there that is better to feast upon!

4. Charlotte Mason believed in the importance of child’s play, particularly outdoor play.

I would not say I am an outdoorsy person; I’m not a big fan of hiking up mountains, I don’t like swimming in the ocean, I don’t like the greasiness of suncreen on my skin but I burn like bacon without it. However, when DK was born, he would sleep in the stroller as long as it was moving outside, so we went for walks. A lot of walks. I began to need a walk in the fresh air every day just as I needed my coffee. Around this time, I read Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods and I became convicted that the childhood I wanted for DK included time to run freely outside among the plants and the animals that we have lived among for all of humanity and not one hunched over a computer monitor lost in a virtual world.

I want DK to be a child for as long as possible. My childhood was wonderful but I still feel like it was over too quickly. There are so many outside pressures these days, especially in Silicon Valley, to race ahead, read early, to be a code-writing prodigy at 3, to have a leveled-up World of Warcraft character at 4. I don’t want to talk down to him, but I also don’t want him to abandon his childish ways and be too comfortable in the adult world.

I particularly resonated with her philosophy when I read,

“In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet and growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it for the most part spent out in the fresh air.”

Yes. Yes. Let me repeat that: “Perhaps a mother’s first duty is to secure for them a quiet growing time….the waking part of it for the most part spent out in the fresh air.”

DK will have the rest of his childhood once he’s in school to sit inside hunched over a computer screen. He will have the rest of his adulthood to go to work every day and likely sit inside at a desk hunched over a computer screen. So why would I rush it?

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The quote above reminds me of one of my early memories. I was about 5 and I had just spent the entire day playing with neighbourhood children in our townhouse courtyard. We had a water fight and I blew my first bubble with Bubbalicious Strawberry bubblegum. The sun was cooling off and kids were going inside for their suppers. I lay outside in a hammock we kids had made from construction fencing thinking, “This was the best day of my life”. I remember never wanting to forget it. It was the best day.

I don’t remember my best day of television. I remember a lot of wonderful days outside playing freely with my friends. I want memories like that for DK too, and because of the high-tech culture we live in with basically any show or game he wants available at the swipe of a finger, we have to be even more diligent with carving away time away from our gadgets.

5. Charlotte Mason believed in short lessons, no grades, and free afternoons.

I am a self-proclaimed school nerd. I loved school. Of the characters I’ve read of in books, I identify the most with Hermione Granger – a bookworm who’s biggest fear is failing her exams. I love learning and I loved the structured box and safety of school. But I wonder if I’d be better at math if I hadn’t been given grades at all, but just left to plug away at it. The thing is about a lot of learning, you either get it, or you don’t. What does it matter if you score 75% on a math test, suggesting you understood 75% of the material before moving on to the next rung on the math ladder? Wouldn’t it be better if we let our kids move at their own pace and understand 100% of it before moving on? If we expected comprehension, then grades wouldn’t matter. Grades suggest an ideal and a contest with others. But learning should be for the sake of learning, not to compare with others.

I also like how Charlotte Mason advocated for short lessons to avoid the mind-wanderings and need to repeat and re-learn when attention drifts. It does seem more efficient if you give 100% of your focus and attention to the subject when you are learning it for a short amount of time than 40% of your focus and attention when learning the subject over a much longer period.


So much of stay at home motherhood seems to be a slog. It’s a lot of sweeping the floor and composting food scraps your kid spat out. It’s dealing with a lot of tears (most of them not mine), it’s changing a lot of diapers. Society these days seems to prize the working mother who can do it all (does she even exist?) and I’ll admit I have struggled with “being just a mom” and not working outside the home. Charlotte Mason’s writings have truly inspired me that it is indeed a high calling. She has lifted up the importance of motherhood, and even though she lived over a hundred years ago, she has showed me that I can do things differently for my kids.

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Book Review: There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Akëson McGurk

I’m kind of old school when it comes to reading – I like my books in a paper copy, ideally from a library. But, DK doesn’t give me a lot of time to just sit and read these days – so I mostly read on my phone in bits and snips nowadays – while waiting in line for a coffee, while waiting for the shower water to heat up, while rocking DK to sleep in my arms, while sitting in my car while DK sleeps in the carseat…I can log some serious word count doing these activities.

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Akëson McGurk is one book I read in its entirety on my phone while waiting around for things.

It is an easy and engaging read about a mother from Sweden raising her two daughters in rural Indiana. In it, she reflects on her own childhood and Swedish parenting traditions in contrast to how things are typically done in the United States. Whilst growing up in Sweden, she spent tons of time outdoors, in all kinds of weather, and she realized that her daughters were not receiving the same outdoor childhood experiences because so much of American culture is sheltered indoors. And so, she decides to take them for a six month live-abroad experience to her hometown in Sweden to expose her daughters to a different attitude towards the outdoors and simultaneously investigate Swedish parenting trends and whether, just like the in the USA, children’s time is increasingly spent indoors on technology.

I would not consider myself an outdoors-y person. I am a beginner hiker, I hate mountain switchbacks, my bike seat hurts my butt, I am afraid of most wild critters big and small. I find vegetables I’ve grown myself in my garden to be untrustworthy and unappetizing. I know the names of about six plants in my yard (grass, moss, umbrella tree, cactus, chives, rose bush). I’m not exactly sure what a weed is. I have gone tent camping but not without my car, my cooler, my Coleman stove and bottled water. I’ve never slept under the stars. I do not know what “gaiters” are. I do not compost. I’d probably die in the woods before I figured out how to use a compass. Actually, I don’t even own a compass.

So many books in the man-and-nature subgenre seem to be written by hard-core nature people, which I guess is a good thing – we don’t want the blind leading the blind here. I wouldn’t want a nature guidebook written by Paris Hilton when I’m about the trek into the trees, but I was genuinely surprised at how “normal” Linda Akëson McGurk’s life and experiences with nature were – kind of like mine. A lesser writer would have easily come across as holier-than-thou. But Linda Akëson McGurk seems like a pretty normal mom going about and doing her life in pretty normal ways. However, differently from many of her American peers in the Midwest, she gets outside with her daughters and her dogs everyday. She doesn’t let the weather tell her “no”. I feel like we could be friends, she and I, and so I’m going to refer to her as Linda and not as McGurk for the rest of this post, because it just seems more fitting to the friendship I’ve conjured in my head.

As a Canadian raised in the 90s, I grew up similarly – outdoor recess every single day: wind, rain, snow or shine. Linda writes,

“Scandinavians get through the winter by maintaining a sense of normalcy. Snow happens. Sleet happens. Ice happens. Cold temperatures happen. Life goes on. The trains may not run on time after a big snow dump, but society doesn’t shut down either. Weather-related school closures are virtually unheard of.”

The only days I remember recess being indoors is when it got frigidly cold (I think the rule was if it was colder than -22˚C without a windchill, we got to stay inside and play card games). The only time school was ever cancelled for snowfall was March 1998 when we had over two feet of snow so the bus couldn’t come to get us. And school was only cancelled for extreme cold a handful of times (the rule for cancellation was colder than -38˚C without a windchill). You were expected to go to school dressed for the weather outside, and we did, for the most part (until junior high school and we wanted to look “cool” in our Chuck Taylor sneakers and bell bottomed jeans in ankle deep snow. Now looking back, we didn’t look cool…we looked cold).

Basically my winter outfit every day of high school.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing” is a Scandinavian phrase repeated over and over in homes and in schools. I know this is true – when I dressed for Canadian winters, I could walk the twenty minutes to work every day of the year. When I didn’t dress for the weather and wore Chuck Taylors on ice – it was a misery.

Inspired by Linda’s example with her girls, I resolved to get outside with DK every day, rain or shine. This is not hard here in California. It’s beautiful most of the time and even when it rains it is rarely windy and cold. It was a lot harder to do when we went home to Canada for Christmas. I had all the gear for DK. Snowpants, waterproof mitts, toque, snow boots, winter jacket. I even got him a little sled. But oh man did he ever hate the cold air on his face, made even colder by the tears now freezing to his cheeks. He also hated to wear his mitts – ripping them off as soon as I put them on only to cry because his fingers were freezing. My visit home in winter gave me a deep appreciation and sympathy for what my best friend Amanda goes through when she bundles her toddlers up every day in layers and layers of snowsuits to send them outside for a total of the ten minutes they can handle it. Amanda and I may have the same widely-shared Canadian belief that fresh air is good for you – but she truly earns that badge doing outdoor Canadian winters with toddlers.

To keep good on my promise to myself and to DK, today, in spite of the rain went outside. We put on his splash pants, his rain coat and his rain boots, my rain boots, my rain jacket  and my travel coffee mug and we went exploring. I’m glad we did, because DK loves drains. He always has to walk on them when we are out and about and it wasn’t until we were out in the rain that I realized – duh, drains are WAY MORE FUN TODAY! We spent quite a long time following the flow of water, dropping sticks and leaves toward the drain (don’t worry, I didn’t let them clog the drains) and stomping in the “river” of water.

I was further inspired by Linda’s chapter on the Swedish mentality towards environmentalism and building sustainable communities. While living an “eco-friendly” lifestyle is something I had heard of before, I kind of thought of it as either way too hardcore (umm sawdust toilets anyone?) or a way to further pad the pockets of big companies trying to get you to buy the more expensive “eco” version of their exact same product. “Organic” to me, was just an extra tax on the wealthy. To me, the problems on the planet seem so massive and I’m only one person who can control so little – so I’ve just kind of approached it like, “What’s the point? I’m not going to get a sawdust toilet.” I like how Linda frames it that we are not teaching our children to be activists, we are teaching them to love nature and respect nature. She quotes Mulle,

“If you can help children love nature, they will take care of nature, because you cherish things you love.” -Mulle

Teaching DK about taking care of our planet is not about telling him (yet) about deforestation and species extinction and global warming and the plastic island floating in the Pacific ocean. Right now, it is about teaching him what goes in the recycling, in the compost, and in the garbage. As he gets older, it’s about giving him ownership over what he consumes and wastes. And even older, it’s about the major problems our planet faces and what he can do about it.

I already diligently divide my waste into recycling, compost (we recently got a city collected compost bin), reusables for kids crafts, and finally, trash. After reading this chapter, I made a couple resolutions:

  • First, to bring a bag to collect bits of trash Devon always inevitably finds along our walks at the park or around our neighbourhood and pick some up myself.  Currently, most of the time I say, “yucky! Don’t touch”. But really, it’s usually just a candy wrapper, it’s not that gross, and he’s usually already touched it by the time I’ve said anything – so at that point, is there any point to making him drop it? No. He should put it in the trash. And then use some hand wipes that I keep in the stroller.
  • Second, to re-educate myself on the organic/conventional debate for what is better for our planet in terms of what I buy. I looked into this in 2014 when “natural” products were the all the rage. I still think a lot of them are complete hogwash…but I do concede that eating locally equals a much lower carbon footprint in terms of transporting the food from the field to my face.

A third and final chapter that I will talk about (because dang this post is getting long, can you tell I enjoyed this book and it made me think?!) is aptly titled, “A little dirt won’t hurt (nor will a little rain)”. In it, she talks about the culture of unstructured outdoor after school play in Sweden and how bringing her girls there for six months ignited a lot more imaginative play as they played outside with the local neighbourhood kids. She writes,

“Back in Indiana I had always been the one orchestrating outdoor play as soon as the girls got home in the afternoon, trying to entice them with sidewalk chalk, creek investigations, and picnics at the park. Some days it didn’t matter how hard I tried; they still weren’t up for it…[Now in Sweden] For the first time, they will spontaneously stay out and play for hours, and I’m the one saying no when they want to go back outside after dinner. Something has happened and I think I know what it is. I was a good enough playmate for them for years, but what they needed was other children to inspire them.

As I read this, I reflected on my own childhood experiences. We did a lot of outdoor things with my parents – we built snowmen together, we played in giant piles of raked leaves, we played basketball together…and they are all great memories. But the outdoor experiences that stick out far more than any of the other ones are when I was alone with my brother and my peers playing “horses” or “fairies”.

DK is still little – and I *think* I’m a pretty good playmate for him but as he gets older, I want him to be able to have some of these outdoor play experiences with his peers outside of organized sports. While I’m still noodling around with how I can achieve this without moving to Sweden, not too mention the oxymoron of “scheduling” or “arranging” unstructured play time…(is it even possible if it’s not part of the culture?) – I’ve got some ideas – but more on that next week!

All in all, I would highly recommend reading “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” by Linda Akëson McGurk if you’re looking for an easy read to inspire you to try things a little bit differently with your kids. While we all can’t just leave for Sweden, I do think it is possible, following Linda’s example, to encourage more of an outdoor-first culture at home.



There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather – Just Poisonous Things

Silicon Valley is like one endless suburb. Big Head in the aptly named show, “Silicon Valley” said it best when he wondered, “Why is this place so expensive? It’s such a shithole…”

Okay, a shithole is a bit strong of a word – because the weather is amazing and there are thousands of fun family-friendly activities you can do around here within an hour’s drive from your front door. But it is an endless, expensive suburb.

Surprisingly for such a sea of single-story residences, there is a lot of open space reserved for nature. It’s a wonderful spot for hiking, cycling, sailing, climbing, horseback riding, and kitesurfing. But even more surprisingly, natural environments here are not very child-friendly – at least for newcomers it seems that way.

Perhaps it is the lengthly list of horrifying predators your kid can encounter in the open space preserves around here: ticks with lyme disease, poisonous black widow spiders, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and poison oak are EVERYWHERE.

Growing up in the City of Calgary, my friends and I would ride our bikes to “the ravine”, a natural creek-way that ran through the centre of our subdivision. We would build forts from fallen branches and sticks. We would skip rocks across the creek. We would run with our dogs off-leash, weaving together strands of sweetgrass, and come home covered in mud.

Some summers, my family would vacation at my grandparent’s cabin on a lake in Newfoundland. My brother and I would play in the sawdust piles from chopping wood for the stove, wander through “our trails” in the woods, build forts, dig up potatoes in the garden, swim in the lake, and pick wildflowers. We would be outside from breakfast until after supper. My grandma would heat up water on the woodstove for our baths.

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Fishing on the pond with my grandma.
“The bog” a few hundred feet from my grandparents house – where we were absolutely *not* allowed to go, as it was an extremely deep marsh that my grandpa had once tried to measure its depth and never found it. Even though we had freedom to roam – we never went in the bog.

Some day, I’d love for DK to have similar childhood experiences immersed in nature, making his home in the woods. Right now we can’t even afford to buy a primary residence, let alone a summer cabin – but a girl can dream.

Lately I’ve been fascinated by literature about children’s experiences in nature, diving into: “There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather” by Linda Akeson McGurk, “Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators” by David Sobel, “Hands on Nature” by Jenepher Lingelbach and Lisa Purcell,  “Last Child in the Woods”; “The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life”, all three by Richard Louv. I plan to do reviews of each of these books on this blog – so check back for more details about each book in the coming weeks.

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A common theme that runs through each of these works is the importance of unstructured childhood play in nature and how little of it children get these days.

In “Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv writes, ““In the United States, children are spending less time playing outside – or in any unstructured way. From 1997 to 2003, there was a decline of 50 percent in the proportion of children nine to twelve who spent time in such outside activities as hiking, walking, fishing, beach play, and gardening.” (p. 34) At the same time, there has been a drastic increase in the number of clinically obese children, with one in six children in the USA fitting that descriptor (CDC 2018).

We are told to limit screen time and do more exercise – but what kind of exercise? Where? One 2014 survey found that 68% of American parents do not think children aged nine and under should be allowed to play unsupervised at playgrounds and 43% want a law preventing children aged 12 and under from playing unsupervised at playgrounds (McGurk 2017).

There is only so much time for organized sports in a day – but going to the park for thirty minutes before supper is do-able. And while organized sports do teach many things – teamwork, hand-eye coordination – I would argue that running around on a man-made soccer field hardly conjures a sense of kinship with our natural world.

So where do I go from here? I believe in the importance of nature-based play for DK’s childhood – but at the same time, a mountain lion killing a deer mere feet from a trail that I frequent with DK is a little close for comfort.

I asked in my local mom’s group – what did people do as children who were born and raised in the Bay Area? And their answers re-assured me – they ran and played without worry.

  • Mountain lion attacks on people are rare (there have been fourteen mountain lion attacks on people in California since 1986, only three of which were fatal. Of the fourteen victims of attacks, five were children). Mountain lions are notoriously evasive. It is rare to even see one. Keep your toddlers close, don’t go out at dawn and dusk and you’re unlikely to be affected.
  • Rattlesnakes are only really a problem when they are surprised by a silent hiker who steps on them – which children rarely are. The bigger risk is that I drop dead from cardiac arrest if I see one – I am so phobic of snakes. As researchers at the University of Florida put it, “The chances of dying from a venomous snakebite in the United States is nearly zero, because we have available, high-quality medical care in the U.S. Fewer than one in 37,500 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. each year (7-8,000 bites per year), and only one in 50 million people will die from snakebite (5-6 fatalities per year)…you are nine times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snakebite.”
  • Black widow spiders are fearful of people and while they are reputed to be the most venomous spider in North America – their venom is rarely fatal to humans. Black widow spiders are not hanging around on every leaf waiting for DK to come near them – they are seriously introverted recluses who hang out in dark, dry shelters like rodent holes, hollow stumps and shed eaves, generally areas that I discourage DK from sticking his hands. So, it is unlikely that DK will even come in contact with one if one should be around, and if he does – it is unlikely he will get bit unless he provokes it. Additionally, it’s only the females who have poisonous venom, and even then – a bite these days with access to medical care and anti-venom is unlikely to result in death.
  • Tick bites are not ideal – but it is clear when you have a tick bite as their bodies will be visibly burrowing into the skin (k, I know I’m trying to reassure people here, but let’s take a moment to say, THE HORROR!!!!), so while DK getting bit by a tick would suck – it’s treatable and we can send the tick for testing for presence of lyme disease and drug treatment, if necessary. The Mayo Clinic writes, “Only a minority of blacklegged tick bites leads to Lyme disease. The longer the tick remains attached to your skin, the greater your risk of getting the disease. Lyme infection is unlikely if the tick is attached for less than 36 to 48 hours.”
  • Poison Oak. What can I say? It’s everywhere. It has clusters of three leaves – but sometimes five, but sometimes seven, but once seventeen. It is green, but sometimes yellow and sometimes red. Sometimes the leaves are shiny. It sometimes has berries. It sometimes has white flowers.  It sometimes doesn’t have leaves – but the leafless stems will give you a rash just the same. Basically – it’s always a nightmare for a parent of a wandering toddler. I don’t really know what to say other than I expect someone in my family to get a rash from poison oak at some point. It is not fatal. It is itchy and treatable and I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Maybe I’ll buy the child who gets a contact rash a special trophy or medal of honour to lighten the mood and make it feel more like an accomplishment of a well-lived life.

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I guess what it all boils down to is I’m not going to prevent my son from experiencing unstructured play in nature. I’m going to *hopefully* teach him to be aware of his surroundings, announce his presence to the surrounding critters, check for ticks, and stay away from plants with three leaves, or five, or seven…oh what the hell, never mind, I’ll start polishing that trophy.

Being a parent as an Enneagram 2

When I was in grad school, my friend Sarah introduced me to the Enneagram.

“Take this test! I bet I know which number you are but I want to see if I’m right.”

A few minutes later, “it looks like I’m a…Two?” I said.

“That’s what I thought. I’m a Nine.”

Two? Nine? What did this mean? Little did I know then how much I would learn about myself…my strengths and weaknesses as a friend, spouse and parent through studying the Enneagram.

To give you a brief synopsis, the Enneagram is a tool for personal and spiritual development. Through it, you can identify your basic personality type (1-9) as well as wings (sub-types) and learn about unhealthy and healthy practices to help you live as your best self.

You know those times when you do or say something stupid, even though it was well-intentioned? I’ve found all of those ‘mistakes’ can be explained by my Two-ness and where I am on the healthy-unhealthy continuum.

You know those times when you feel deeply hurt by somebody or something and you rationally know it’s silly and it’s not a big deal – but it pierced your heart? Well maybe only Twos know what I’m talking about…but in any case, the Enneagram has helped me explore and understand and accept those emotions so I can move on.

Enneagram Diagram

I’m a Two, the “Helper”. And the more I read about it, the more embarrassed and insecure I became because OMG It’s TOTALLY me.

Here’s a rundown on the 2, from the Enneagram Institute:

Twos are empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. They are friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people-pleasing. They are well-meaning and driven to be close to others, but can slip into doing things for others in order to be needed. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging their own needs. At their Best: unselfish and altruistic, they have unconditional love for others.

I feel best about myself when I am helpful to others. I rarely feel like I need “me time” or a “break” from DK. I love hosting parties for friends, I love introducing people to others I think they will find mutually interesting. I have all the time in the world for my friends and family. I will say, “Yes” to anything. I will “volunteer” for anything. I will say, “I’m good,” when someone asks if I need any help. I will push myself to the point of exhaustion and anxiety to help others. I will bubble like a cauldron of resentment when I do things to help people and they don’t notice. I will force my help and my ideas on people even when they don’t want it and then I will act the role of wounded victim when they say it’s too much. I tell ya, I’m a real treat.

When I think of hell, I imagine lying in a hospital bed surrounded by my friends and family and unable to communicate to them. However, I can hear and understand everything they say – and as it turns out they actually think I’m the worst person on the planet and give detailed examples of every single time I offended them or hurt them. Just the thought of that now makes my palms sweat.

As a parent, I am very attached to DK. I believe it’s important to respond to his needs promptly. I rarely let him cry out – dropping whatever I’m doing to answer his plea. My Two-ness gives me almost un-ending energy to make time for my family. But my Two-ness can also be enabling, smothering and manipulative.


One of the great things about being a Two is that I can easily anticipate needs. I will notice when someone’s glass is empty. I will listen in the gaps of what someone is saying to what they aren’t saying and offer help and comfort in those gaps. I can literally feel when someone in a crowded room feels out of place or left out or uncomfortable and I will turn on the charm like a light switch to engage them in conversation.

But, I will also let people get lazy in my presence. DK doesn’t have to use his words to ask me – I will get him what he wants. My husband doesn’t need to set an alarm in the mornings, do laundry or go grocery shopping – he knows that I will wake him up, make sure he has clean underpants and food in his belly. Shy people stick by my side as I carry the conversation, asking questions and coming up with topics so they don’t have to stand there in uncomfortable silence.

As a Two-parent, I have to sit back and force myself to watch DK struggle. To other Enneagram types, this would not even be a necessary consideration. They would not have to actively think about not engaging – but I have to ACTIVELY and FORCIBLY stop myself from intervening.


As a Two, I love to help others – even when they don’t want my help and definitely didn’t ask for it. I love sharing information (hello, this blog!) that I think others may find useful. But that doesn’t mean people actually want to hear it. So what if I notice you struggling with communicating with your coworkers and I learned about DISC Communication Styles and can tell you how that helped me enormously in communicating with neurosurgeons, engineers, and artists at my previous job? That doesn’t mean I should share it. I have learned that sometimes people just want to vent – they don’t want help, they don’t want a solution. They just want to be heard.

I have read and heard from other mothers further along on the parenting trajectory from me that you do not want to obey your child’s every command. Just because my kid  is in tears, screaming “I want that chocolate bar” at the grocery store – does not mean I should get it for him. In fact, it means the opposite – I must NOT get it for him, lest I raise a spoiled brat. But helping others and putting their wants and needs ahead of my own comes so naturally to me that I know will absentmindedly offer him the chocolate bar before he even says that he wants it – although that still does not mean he should have it. My challenge as a Two-parent is to say “No” more often than I think I should.  


The dark side of the two is an unpleasant sort of fellow. A manipulative, controlling, passive aggressive witch who does lots of nice things for you – but there are a ton of strings attached.

The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile says, “Though they’re not always conscious of it, the help un-evolved Twos provide others comes with strings attached. They want something in return: love, appreciation, attention, and the unspoken promise of a future emotional and material support. Their giving is calculated and manipulative. Twos think if they can wrest appreciation and approval, and evoke a feeling of indebtedness in others, then others will sense when they require help and provide for their needs without their having to ask for it”.

This is my fantasy.

Seriously. I daydream while I fold my husband’s underwear that he will come home, give me a big hug, say, “What would I do without you!? My underwear would never be folded and I’d go naked through the streets. My hyper-sensitive nose can smell the garbage from here, let me take it out now without delay!”

As a Two, I have to actively engage my kids and spouse in household chores – and be okay when they aren’t done quite to my standards. I have to ask for help.

Being Healthy

As moms, we talk a lot about self-care. It is important for all types to engage in self-care – but especially Twos – because we so easily get lost in our giving to others and the more we give, the unhealthier we become with our giving – and soon we aren’t doing things for our kids and spouse because we love them, we are doing things for our kids and spouse because we want them to love us. Not the same, and for a Two – the distinction is a chasm for emotional well-being.

Self-care for me means saying “No” a lot more than I want to and asking myself “Am I doing this because I want to help or am I doing this because I want to appear helpful?”. When I put myself first and do what to me feels incredibly selfish but to my husband and anyone who is not a Two is just normal functioning, I have energy to do things I enjoy, like write.

Cron and Stabile write, “When they’re feeling secure, Twos move to the healthy side of Four, where they’re okay with not having to pretend they love everybody.” You know I’ve been doing my homework  when I don’t care if you like me or not. “These twos have some understanding of the need for self-care and can focus inward, where they invest in themselves by doing creative things, which brings them joy.” (hello, blog!) “This is the place Twos can imagine feeling good about themselves when they aren’t helping someone else.”

So, here is my soul – bared on the page. And now you know, that if I’m saying Yes to everyone else and No to you – it’s not you, it’s that I’m tapped out and to say Yes to you would be to say Yes with tons of strings attached – and trust me, you don’t want that!