Choosing the Best School / Preschool

On a regular basis, I see posts on social media from parents asking for advice on choosing “the best” preschool, or the best private school in the area, or asking which is the best public school as they plan a move. (And, of course, parents of older children agonize over what is the best college.)

There truly is not a “best” school. There are LOTS of great schools, and some mediocre ones, and a very few bad ones. What’s best is the school that best meets your family’s unique needs and goals, and best suits your child’s unique learning style.

Here are some steps to take to figuring out YOUR best option:

Step 1 – Needs Assessment

Before you bother researching all the options, and before you fall in love with an option that won’t meet your needs, let’s start with the pure nitty gritty essentials:

  • Schedule: Are you looking for full-time or part-time, or are you flexible? If the regular school day isn’t long enough, do they offer extended day care? What days do you need? What wouldn’t work?
  • What times could work for you and what just doesn’t work? (e.g. if you’re not a morning person, choosing an early morning program may not be a realistic bet)
  • Location: really think through the commute and whether it will work – I can’t tell you how many parents have chosen what they thought was a great school, but by October were miserable about having a cranky kid in the car in never-ending traffic)
  • Cost: there is a wide range in costs – be realistic about what’s affordable for you. If you stretch your budget, then it can make any little frustration with the school really stressful as you think – “I can’t believe we’re paying this much and this is happening!”
  • Drop-off or stay? For younger children, there are often parent-child options where you always stay, or co-ops that are drop off some days and have you work in the classroom on other days. These are generally cheaper than drop-off programs and also allow you to be closely involved in your child’s education.

Step 2 – Goal Setting

What do you hope your child will get out of the experience? Are you hoping for academic development? Social-emotional skill building? Art? Music? Physical education? Science? Religious education?

Are there things that you know you could do a great job of teaching your kids? Then you may not need the school to cover that well. Is there something you think you won’t be good at teaching? Choose a school that does it well.

Do you prefer a very structured teacher-led program? Or more of a play-based or inquiry-based program where the teacher works the lesson plans around the children’s interests? How do you feel about homework – are you happy to guide practice time at home for them to improve on their skills? Or would you like out of school time to be free choice for your family?

Is the school’s approach to learning compatible with yours? When our oldest was little, we looked at one school which discouraged use of technology and screens, and actually discouraged reading before age 7, instead focusing on things like oral story-telling. This did not work for our tech-heavy family and also didn’t make sense because my kids all learn to read by age 3 or 4. (Not because we drill them… but because we love books so much in our family that they couldn’t wait to read themselves.) We looked at another school where there were only non-fiction books on the shelf in the kindergarten classroom, and I asked “where are the story books?” They disdainfully said “they have plenty of time for that sort of reading at home…” I knew that wasn’t the school for us!

Take a good look at your child’s temperament and learning style. I had a very social chatty child, and we looked at one school where the children were expected to work quietly and independently and not chat with each other. Not a good match for that child. I had a high energy child who tended to get overstimulated in indoor classrooms, but stayed calm and happy outdoors, so we sent him to outdoor preschool. You want to choose a school where your child will feel competent and valued, not one where they never fit in.

During goal setting, it’s also worth asking: What do you hope to get out of their school experience? Some preschools and schools offer parent education and support. Some actively work to encourage community building amongst families. Cooperative preschools and home school coops are the ultimate example of involving parents in school in meaningful ways. On the other hand, some parents may prefer to outsource school, and have a pretty hands-off approach, and there are certainly schools that will also support that.

Step 3 – Learn about Your Options

OK, now it’s time to turn to the internet and social media.

In Facebook groups for parents, you probably don’t even need to ask a question – you can typically search the archives for preschool or school, because probably 50 people before you have asked “what’s the best school” and you can just read through all those answers!

You can look at Yelp and Google reviews and such – but, as always with reviews, you’ll see a lot of 5 stars and a lot of 1 stars and nothing in between. People only bother to write reviews when they’re really happy or really mad. So, reviews never tell the whole story. But, they can give you some hints of what to watch for.

Look for directories, and look for school fairs and preschool fairs, or special issues of local parenting magazines. For example, in the Seattle area, for preschools, you’ll find the directory for the ParentMap preschool fair and the preschool night at Lake WA Toddler Group. For private schools, here is the directory for NW Association of Independent Schools and Puget Sound Independent Schools. Search online for ratings of local public schools.

Once you’ve got the names of schools, it’s easy to do lots of internet research on them. Check out their websites. Don’t just read the words, but also look for what’s NOT said. (For example, in my experience, if they don’t tell you the tuition up front, it’s probably high.) Look for what the pictures show, and what’s missing in the pictures. (For example, many schools try to portray diversity in their photographs to let folks know that everyone is welcome, but I’ve been involved in schools where we didn’t yet have a lot of racial diversity, and so we had the same few kids appearing over and over in several photos. I believe that we were welcoming, but when BIPOC kids came, there would not yet be many peers for them.)

Look at ads. But note: you may see a ton of ads for one school that make you think they’re great, but it could just be a big school with a big marketing budget (and likely high tuition to support that). Some really great small schools never run ads, because they’re trying to keep costs low to increase accessibility for families. They count on word of mouth – current and alumni families who had great experiences and tell their friends and family.

So, that leads to your best source of options: word of mouth. Ask friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, parents at the park! If you ask on social media, instead of just saying “what’s a great school”, say “we’re looking for a part-time, play-based, affordable preschool – what do you recommend?” Or whatever other criteria you want to state. That makes sure the recommendations you get are relevant to you.

Step 4 – Questions to Research

What do they teach? What would your child learn there?

What is the daily schedule? How is time divided between activities? Play time? Quiet time? Outdoors? Snack? Young children have short attention spans for structured activity, so it’s best in short doses, with plenty of unstructured time in between to explore and discover, and quiet time to process what they’ve learned.

How do they teach it?

A couple big picture ideas: A teacher-led curriculum means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (and may use a standardized curriculum) and sticks to them. A child-led curriculum (a.k.a. emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests and adapts to what the children want to do.

A structured class might use group time, worksheets, and formal instruction to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. A play-based class typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations, and asking questions to further the learning.

Who are the students?

  • How many students? How many teachers? The number of kids matters as much as student to teacher ratio. A 8 student class with 1 teacher (8:1 ratio) feels very different from a 16 student class with 2 teachers (8:1). And a 24 kid class is really different from a 6 kid class no matter the ratios.
  • What is the age range of the class? Some parents prefer that all the kids be as close as possible in age, but many programs tout the benefits of multi-age classrooms. The oldest kids have a chance to lead and mentor, and the younger ones benefit by the presence of an older role model.
  • What are the cut-off dates for age? Your child will do best when they’re in the middle of the recommended age range. If your child is a fall baby (born in September or October), I do NOT recommend trying to push them ahead… if they’re the youngest child in their class, they’ll always feel small, slow, and socially behind, even if they can keep up academically. Let them be the oldest – it’s a confidence booster. If they need more academic challenge than their classmates, most teachers are happy to give extra challenges to kids who can handle it.

Who are the teachers?

  • Training and experience: Where and how did they learn the content that they are teaching in the class? Where did they learn about how to teach? Do they participate in continuing education?
  • Longevity / turnover. As a general rule, the longer the teachers have been there the better. (Unless you get the sense that they’re burned out and only there due to inertia….)
  • Do they enjoy kids? Do they sit on the floor with the kids, smile, and engage with them? Or are they standing on the edges talking to other adults, occasionally calling out instructions to a child?
  • How do they handle discipline?What are their rules and how do they reinforce them?

What is the learning environment like?

  • Is the environment clean? Safe?
  • Is there a wide range of materials and supplies? Are materials in good condition?
  • Vibe:  The most important thing you’re “looking” for is something you can’t see. How does it feel? Is it warm, nurturing, full of exciting learning experiences, and full of happy children and teachers? Or is it cold, institutional, uninvolved?

What is the parent experience?

OK, now it’s time to go back to social media with specific questions: “We’re trying to decide between X School and Y School. We’d love to connect to parents who have recent experience with them – we’re especially curious about _____.”

Step 5 – Go With Your Gut

We know from the science of brain development that children learn best when they feel safe and are happy, so look for a place where they will be happy and engaged. Look for a place where you would feel great every time you drop them off to spend time there. Our family has been lucky to participate in some schools where I just felt blessed to have found that environment for my child.

So, all the steps above are logical and focus on practical evaluations. But I think this final decision point often comes down to what feels right to you? That’s the best school.

Learn more:

Parenting Advice is not one-size-fits-all

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I remember very early in my parenting career (in the mid-90’s) looking at a parenting book and feeling uncomfortable about the advice I found there – perhaps it was advocating for cry it out as a response to sleep problems or perhaps it was saying to not immediately respond to your child’s cries because it might spoil them. Those types of advice did not feel right to me as a parent at a gut level. Then I found other books that did feel right – (the Baby Book, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, and Our Babies, Ourselves) and I found parent education classes as well. Those resources offered me the opportunity to learn that there are lots of different ways to parent children and no one-right-way-that-fits-all.

All parenting book authors are sharing ideas that worked for them as parents, and worked for their children or maybe that worked for their clients. If their methods work for you and your child, that’s great. But if not, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent or you have bad kids, it just means you need to find different advice. And you especially need to find advice and support that is strengths-based and responsive – instead of things that say / imply “if you do it this way it will always work, and if it doesn’t work then you’re a failure”, seek out things that say “here are some ideas that work well for many families. If they don’t work for you, here are other resources you could try.”

After 27 years of parenting and 23 years as a parent educator, I believe that even more strongly. And, as the parent of children who are “thrice exceptional” – gifted and autistic and ADD/ ADHD, I especially know it’s true. Different children need different parenting styles, and neurodiverse children may need different parenting approaches than neurotypical children.

For example, let’s talk about “picky eaters.” First, I’m going to say that 30 – 50% of parents say their preschool-aged children are picky eaters! So, if you’re in the 50% that doesn’t have this experience, count yourself lucky! (And don’t pat yourself on the back too much… it might be more about the kids’ temperament than about what you did as a parent.) I work with parents to re-frame some of their assumptions about picky eaters, and see things from their child’s perspective, and I give them lots of great tips I’ve gleaned over years in this work. But then someone says “but my kid is really picky – I’ve tried all those tips, and they still won’t eat!” And I say “I know… I’m right there with you.” Because my first child was a flexible, easy kid with food. My second was picky – turns out she has lots of allergies and intolerances and she knew that some foods made her feel sick or in pain – she couldn’t articulate that as a young child – she just was “picky.” And my third child is a whole other realm of picky eater – he has a VERY limited set of food he’ll eat. He is autistic with sensory issues, and has a hard time trusting food – if he has one bad blueberry, then it takes weeks or months to coax him back into trying blueberries again. So, I have another collection of tips for those super picky eaters, and I have a lot of empathy (and no judgment!) for the parents who are managing that.

And toilet learning… well, based both on all the reading I’ve done and classes I’ve taken, plus my own experiences with my 3 kids, I’ve got one set of standard issue recommendations on potty training, and then advanced tips for children who resist toileting. 20% of children go through a phase of refusing to poop in the potty. And 10% of children (usually boys) will have challenges with bed wetting up to age 8. For the parents who are already struggling with challenges, getting well-meaning advice from others who say “it’s easy – just do this and it will work” just makes them feel worse about themselves as parents. It is so much more helpful when someone says “wow, I’m sure you’ve already tried all the usual fixes – I’m sorry they haven’t worked for you. Can I help you find other resources or do you just need someone to tell you – ‘it’s OK, you’re doing your best’?”

Sometimes these challenges and delays will work themselves out if we just wait for it. Sometimes it may be helpful to seek professional support or testing to figure out if our child has particular challenges that need extra intervention. And as you’re working on challenges, it helps to find books, websites, educators, and/or other parents who offer advice that is helpful and relevant to you and to your unique child.

Today, I was reading advice on a parenting site, and I found something that troubled me. (I am not going to share the source, because otherwise the advice on the site was excellent, and I do not wish to criticize their whole approach – only this particular content which I will be contacting them about.) Here’s what it says:

These signs – things they say show you it’s time to set a limit – almost perfectly duplicate any list you can find of common symptoms of autism.

This troubled me, so I wanted to double-check myself on this. I showed this to my 23 year old, who is autistic, and just said “I was reading this blog post on parenting advice, and wanted to know what you think of it.” She immediately said “These aren’t signs that you need to set limits… it’s like they cut and pasted in the wrong list… these are all things that are normal for an autistic kid. They aren’t signs that ‘truly difficult behavior’ is coming… unless you try to force this kid to act neurotypical, and then yeah, you’re going to see some misbehavior!”

I told her that was exactly my impression. And I worry about parents of neurodiverse kids who would see this site and think… “oh, every day my kid shows all these signs! Either I’m a bad parent who is failing to connect with them, or they’re a bad kid with too many behavior problems.”

I do agree with the overall message of the parenting site that image is taken from – the idea that connection is important for discipline. When our children feel connected to us and valued by us, they want to behave well, and are responsive to our guidance.

I think it’s so important for parents and teachers to understand that connection and disconnection can look different for different kids. For example, for some children, it is absolutely true that eye contact shows they’re feeling connected and avoiding eye contact says they know they’re in trouble. However, many (not all) autistic people are uncomfortable with eye contact, and in many cultures, direct eye contact is a sign of disrespect. Demanding eye contact could set off behavioral problems rather than serving as a path to resolve them. For some children, placing your hand on theirs and having a conversation about what is happening will calm them and resolve problems. For other children, when they’re already on the verge of a meltdown, uninvited touch might set them off, or being asked to talk it through may overwhelm them.

If you do have a neurodiverse child (autism, ADHD, ODD, etc.) or if you have any child that seems particularly challenging to manage following typical advice, you may find that some resources are much more helpful to you than others, because they are either specialized for the neurodiverse population or are at least sensitive to it. Things I find particularly helpful are the Incredible Years program and challengingbehavior.org, the work of Ross Greene (“kids do well if they can“), the Zones of Regulation, and webinars from Bright and Quirky.

Another issue with parenting advice is that the vast majority of it is written by white, middle class folks, raised in the United States. (And yes, that description includes me, and I know it creates unintentional biases in my work, so feel free to call me on them!) And the research it is based on was primarily done with white, middle class folks in the United States. (Read this article on why that matters – as they say “the research, and the parenting advice based on it, might not apply to everyone who receives it.”) Thus, advice might be unintentionally racist, or classist, or may simply not be relevant to your life circumstances.

Based on their cultural backgrounds, parents may have different goals for their children, in areas such as independence, individualism vs. collectivism, self-esteem, and behavior, and thus may have different approaches to achieving those goals, such as differences in warmth / affection, responsiveness, and discipline. For example, physical punishment may be more common in some cultures than others, but to understand its function in a family, it helps to understand it in a broader cultural context. While co-sleeping with an infant may be viewed as unusual to some, bed-sharing is common in many cultures around the world, and education related to safer sleep practices should inform parents of how to minimize the risks, rather than condemning the practice. The best advice is responsive to cultural and socioeconomic differences, and acknowledges challenges, and build on strengths. If you feel like what you’re hearing and reading doesn’t suit your cultural values, seek out materials from those who share your cultural background. It is easier to find diverse view in the days of the internet than it was when all publishing was managed by white, middle class folks.

When you seek out parenting advice, I do encourage parents to check out a wide variety of sources to stimulate your thinking – I get really good ideas even from reading things I fundamentally disagree with. They broaden my perspective and cause me to further examine my own parenting choices to be sure they reflect my values and goals, and are helping my child reach their potential. They help me to notice differences between my parenting style and those of others in my community which helps me better explain and interpret what my child and I might see in their classmates’ experiences. And they help me double-check myself to be sure I’m not making any big mistakes. So, do read things outside your comfort zone for the sake of mind expansion.

But, when you’re struggling with a parenting challenge, and feeling discouraged about your parenting skills or your worthiness as a parent, or when you’re feeling really frustrated at your child, seek out the parenting advice that speaks to your soul. Advice that includes methods you can see yourself doing and doing consistently. Advice that seems like it could work for your unique child with their unique personality, strengths and challenges. And seek out the people whose advice acknowledges your strengths at the same time it supports you as you work to overcome your challenges.

Teaching Problem-Solving to Children

On developmental screenings, the categories of development are communication, gross motor, fine motor, personal/social and problem-solving. I think many parents feel like they have ideas on how to teach the other categories, but aren’t sure how to get started on teaching problem-solving. The best way to learn anything is by doing, so one of the best ways to teach problem-solving is to let your child have problems.

When challenges arise for your child, don’t always leap to their rescue. Sometimes it’s best to sit back for a few minutes to see if they can figure it out on their own. If your child is a little cranky and frustrated about a problem, that’s OK. Frustration can push us forward till we have a break-through to a solution. (Note: However, if frustration is turning into misery, that’s no longer helpful, so step in BEFORE that switches over to meltdown. Or, if they’ve totally flipped their lid and it’s too late to help with problem solving, then check out these tips for managing a meltdown. AFTER they’re calm, you can go back to solving the problem.)

If your child is still fairly calm, but needs some support with a problem, don’t just jump in and fix it for them. They won’t learn anything from that. (And we all know from tech support how frustrating it is when we’ve struggled and struggled with an issue, and someone else steps in, presses a button and fixes it. We’re glad it’s fixed, but we may also feel embarrassed and feel incompetent at fixing future challenges.) Instead, help guide them to finding a solution.

Here are some steps to walk through.

Step One – Define the Problem

Clarify what is the problem they’re trying to solve? Start off with a little empathy, and listening to their concerns. “Hey buddy, you seem really frustrated. What are you trying to do right now?”

Sometimes they can tell you exactly the problem (“I can’t find the puzzle piece!”) and it’s something you can see several clear solutions to. Sometimes they tell you a problem that you can see is unsolvable (“I want the broken glass to be unbroken”) – you may need to help them re-frame this into a problem that is solvable. Sometimes they’re not even certain what’s wrong – sometimes they’re just having a rough day and just need a cuddle.

And… honestly, sometimes you have to re-define what the problem is. They may say “the problem is that Bobby has the toy and I need to make him give it to me.” You might change the problem definition: “I know you want that toy Bobby has… since you can’t have it right now, let’s think about what else you could do.”

Step Two – Brainstorm Solutions

If you’ve got a child who is five or older, they may be able to come up with lots of possible solutions with just a little guidance. After your child has some brainstormed options, you can help them figure out if those solutions are a) actually possible now, and b) if they would actually solve the problem. Sometimes you can defuse the tension around problem-solving by suggesting some crazy wacky solutions that make them laugh.

For a 3 – 5 year old, you could help them build a repertoire of possible solutions in advance so they have ideas to draw from. For example, if you’re working on challenges playing nicely with other children, you could offer a solution kit like the ones from Headstart, or Center on Social and Emotional Foundations. You could teach these as part of a curriculum, then when the child is having challenges, you pull the cards out and ask them which tools might be helpful at that moment.

If your child is 2, you won’t really ask them to brainstorm. They won’t be good at this kind of abstract thinking. You’ll likely have to just suggest 2 – 3 options to them as choices they could make.

Step 3 – Try Out a Solution

I teach an engineering class for kids. We talk a lot about tinkering – trying out different ideas, and tweaking – making minor adjustments, then testing to see if it’s better. That applies to any kind of problem solving for kids. Sometimes the first solution works perfectly to solve the problem. Sometimes it “almost” works and we just need to tweak it a little. Sometimes it fails completely and you need to start all over again.

Once you’ve got a couple brainstormed options, help the child plan for what they’ll try first, and then what they’ll do next if the first idea doesn’t work. (Sometimes the best thing to tell them to do next is to come back and check in with you for new ideas.)

Although you don’t have to jump in every time to help a child problem-solve, it is good to keep an eye and ear on them when they’re testing out solutions. My child once set down a stick he was playing with, and another child picked it up. My son tried to use his words and his manners to get it back. He asked nicely for the stick – once, twice, three times… When saying please didn’t work, he gave up. And tried out biting!

Step 4 – Reflection

If your child solves a problem, give them lots of praise and positive attention. Don’t just praise the result (the solved problem) but also praise the process: “you worked really hard to come up with a solution!”

If they tried, but failed, still give positive attention: “I really like that you came up with some ideas and tested them out. I’m sorry it didn’t work – sometimes problems are just really tricky to solve.”

At bedtime that night, or some other time, reflect back on lessons learned. Keep it positive, and use a growth mindset approach – “you haven’t figured it out YET, but if you keep trying, I know we’ll get there.”

When / How to Teach Skills

You can certainly teach problem-solving skills in the moment when problems arise. (But remember – timing matters! Don’t intervene too soon or they’ll never know if they could have solved it on their own. Don’t wait too long until they’re in meltdown or until they’re making bad choices you’ll have to impose consequences for.)

You can also build a repertoire of skills they can apply when needed:

Whenever we’re teaching any challenging skills, whether that’s cutting with scissors, putting a puzzle together, riding a bike, throwing a basket, and so on, we can teach skills they may need to solve problems in the future. You can also teach when playing side-by-side with them. For example, you could build a tower that’s really shaky and ask them for ideas for how to make it stronger, then model for them some ideas you have. You could accidentally mix up two paint colors by putting the wrong brush in a cup, then talk with them about possible solutions. You’re giving them tools they can use for future problem-solving, and also modeling how to stay calm in the face of challenges.

You can use dramatic play to teach: puppet shows and role plays. When reading books, if a problem comes up, pause your reading and ask them: what’s the problem? what are some possible solutions? what do you think the character will try?

Our goals with teaching problem-solving are to build independence, to build good decision-making skills (though remember, due to the stages of brain development, consistently good judgment and decision-making skills may not arise till their late teens!), and to create flexible thinkers (fluid intelligence) who can respond to a wide variety of life circumstances with resilience.

Resource for Learning More

The Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center has a great webinar for Head Start teachers, which is also helpful for parents, called: “It’s a Big Problem: Teaching Children Problem-Solving Skills.” It’s a video, or you can read the transcript if you prefer, and also be sure to check out the additional resources page they link to for follow-up.

They have helpful suggestions. Like when defining a problem, you can ask the child whether it’s a mouse sized problem they can solve or an elephant size problem they need help solving. For older children (age 4 and up), you could ask them to evaluate possible solutions by asking themselves these questions: Would it be safe? Would it be fair? How would everyone feel?

If you like acronyms to remember an idea, try this one: STEP = State the problem, Think of multiple solutions, Explore the pros and cons, and Pick a solution to try.

King County Library System

If you live in King County, Washington, you have access to one of the best public library systems in the entire country! And it’s all free of charge. Here’s an overview of the services they offer, with links for more information on how to access resources during pandemic closures.

To get started: If you don’t already have a library card, go to https://kcls.org/library-cards/ to get one.

On their website at https://kcls.org, you can search for any book you want. The results will look something like this:

You can choose a physical book (and sometimes a book with a CD of the book read aloud), an ebook that you can read on a browser, or download to a device, or a downloadable audiobook.

If you choose an ebook or audiobook, and a copy is available now, you can download it right away. (Learn more about downloading e-books.) If a copy is not currently available, put it on hold, and you’ll get notified as soon as one is available for download.

If you want a physical book, then place a hold. You’ll then choose a library branch to have it delivered to for curbside pick-up. There are lots of locations all over King County.

When your book arrives, you’ll get an email and can schedule a pickup using an app, or just go to the library during open hours. All pick-ups are contactless curbside pickups, so if you’ve scheduled your pickup, you walk up, find your bag on the table and walk away. If you haven’t scheduled one, typically you hold up your library card at a window so the librarians can see it and they fetch the bag for you.

Once you’ve checked out a book, you have it for 28 days. If you want it for longer, you can renew online, unless someone else has placed a hold on that book.

If you’re not sure what book you want, just request a surprise bag, and they’ll gather five fun books for you: https://kcls.org/faqs/how-do-i-get-a-surprise-bag-of-book-titles/

KCLS has books available in over 20 languages. You can do an advanced search that limits your results to books in that language. Learn more at: https://kcls.org/world-languages

Online Resources available through KCLS

There are several libraries of online children’s e-books. We can access LibbyHooplaTumble Book Library and BookFlix for free through our library Learn more at: https://kcls.org/resources-types/ebooks-format/).

Libby has ebooks and downloadable audiobooks. Hoopla has movies, music, audiobooks, ebooks, comics and TV shows to stream or download for free. Tumble Book Library has video storybooks and read-alongs for readers in grades K-6, including some in Spanish and French. Bookflix is for preschool to 3rd grade and has classic video storybooks paired with non-fiction eBooks.

For more information on where to find book recommendations and how to preview books on YouTube and through online reviews, check out https://gooddayswithkids.com/2020/09/29/choosing-books-for-your-child/.

Holidays and Resilience

The identity of a family is wrapped up in its traditions: the daily routines and the annual rituals. As a parent educator, I talk a lot about the power of routines – the ways we move through each day that help us feel like the world is safe and predictable and manageable even in the midst of chaos and change. Rituals are also important – whether it’s how we do the tooth fairy in our family, what we do on the Fourth of July, or how we spend our winter holidays. Rituals honor our cultural heritage. They show our children what we value by what we pay attention to. They make our children feel special and loved. They help to define who we are as a family.

2020 has messed with all our routines, and with all our rituals. We may have found new daily routines that are working for us. But rituals… so many of which revolve around gathering in-person with the people we love and gathering with our communities… may seem out of reach. It’s natural to have a lot of grief over all the things we can’t have this year. (Here are tips for managing the grief.) But we can also work to figure out ways to adapt our traditions to this year’s limitations. We can create new rituals. And we can use this as a year to focus on resilience.

Resilience is often thought of as the ability to bounce back from challenges. Another way to view it is ““being able to continue functioning relatively normally” in adversity.

There are lots of ways we can build resilience in children, but one important one is to tell our children stories of the family’s history that are not just about the family’s successes, but about the ups AND the downs… “we had plenty of hard times, but we made it through together.” It creates a story for the child that “our people” are resilient. (Learn about Marshall Duke’s research on family stories and resilience.) This year is a great year to find a way to incorporate these narratives into your holiday celebrations. I’ll share something I’ve done here, and encourage you to reflect on how you might celebrate resilience through the holidays this year.

Honoring Your Family’s History

At my church, one Sunday in every December, we ask members to share a photo of their family’s holiday traditions, and we gather them into a slide show. Watching those slideshows always brings smiles, and warm cozy feelings. But this year, when I went to find a photo from a previous holiday, it made me very sad. At first, seeing all those photos of large family gatherings just made me grieve all the things that I couldn’t have this year.

Then going into Thanksgiving, I realized that I needed to reclaim those memories, and re-define their meaning for this year. For our family’s Thanksgiving over Zoom, I went through 30 years of photos, and for each year, I found one photo of a family meal or holiday gathering. The first slide read: “Our Family, Gathering Together for the Holidays… The location changes, the guest list changes, loved ones pass away, and new loved ones join us, and through it all, the family goes on.”

We watched it together on Zoom, talking and sharing memories. We talked about the loved ones in the photos that have passed away and shared stories about them. We puzzled over a stranger in one of the photos… who was it? Maybe the nephew’s “holidate” for that year?? We remembered the year my partner and I were divorced, before we got back together again. (We’ve now been back together for 20 years!) We smiled as the babies appeared – including a baby who is now 27 and all those who came after him. We welcomed the new family-in-law members who have joined us over the years. I included a picture from this year, with three of us at one table, and the laptop showing everyone else on Skype. The pandemic reality seems all-encompassing now but it’s helpful to think that someday, 2020 will be just one picture of many, and we’ll chuckle as we remember “the year we all stayed home.” In our holiday pictures, we clearly saw that although the family changes and evolves every year, the love and connection stays constant.

If you look only at this year, it seems so disconnected from all that came before. But it’s not. It’s just the current chapter in a long history of a family. A history that includes good times and bad, that has been through challenges before and still is strong. Taking time to acknowledge that was helpful. It led me to think more broadly of the stories we could tell with this year’s celebrations.

Honoring Your Family’s Traditions in a New Way

Remembering What Connects Us

A Jewish friend of mine said: “Maybe to bridge the separation we are all feeling this year, think as you light candles over Chanukah of the connection you have to Jews all over the planet who are lighting candles with you. There is synergy this year as remembering a holiday that celebrates our perseverance and faith that things will get better.” Your faith traditions can help to link you to the history of your people, and also to others around the world who are walking through this challenging year with you.

Every year, my church ends our Christmas Eve service by holding candles as we sing Silent Night, and passing a flame from candle to candle till all are lit. This year, on Zoom, we’ll share a slide show of all of us holding candles, and we’ll all light our own candles at home as we sing along. Our community still unites even as we are separate.

Gather Around the Virtual Table

Many families have long been gathering on Zoom (or Skype or Messenger or Teams…) for family dinners and celebrations. (If you don’t know how to use Zoom, I have a full guide to Zoom which can take you from beginning to expert.) My own family’s tradition of a family dinner every Sunday for those of us who live in Washington has now evolved into weekly dinner calls including family in Nebraska, New Jersey, Wyoming, and England. This Thanksgiving was the first year EVER where my husband and I saw ALL of our siblings and ALL of our parents on Thanksgiving. Zoom gatherings are not the same as in-person, but they have their own blessings. (If you need ideas for fun interactive things to do on a telechat, check out this post.)

At a holiday gathering on Zoom consider doing a Year in Review. Share the highs and lows of your year, and celebrate the roses you’ve found amongst the thorns of 2020. That celebrates our strength, resilience, and adaptability.

Deck the Halls… or the Yard

Some people are saying “why bother decorating – no one else will see the decorations.” If you always find decorating exhausting, then 2020 is a great excuse to skip it. But if any part of decorating gives you joy, go for it! Do whatever small portion of it has meaning, or go way over the top beyond what you’ve done before. Take pictures and share them on social media! Or decorate the OUTSIDE of your house so neighbors get to enjoy. That outdoor décor can also be helpful if your family gatherings will be outside in the back yard this year.

As a preschool teacher whose classes haven’t met in person in months, I have an overabundance of bubble solution in my life… and I have a bubble machine! So on Christmas Eve, we plan to send bubbles streaming from our deck to anyone passing by. It’s just a small way to connect with a community of neighbors that we value.

How Can We Keep From Singing

Music is important to our family… particularly singing. It’s something we do together as a family. If you miss singing out loud:

  • can you just crank up the tunes out home and sing along?
  • can you sing “with others” online? On a Zoom call, one person sings aloud (learn how to make music work on Zoom) and everyone else is on mute, but sings along at home and can see the others singing- it’s more joyful than you might think!
  • could you go for a Christmas Caroling walk through your neighborhood, belting out the tunes? (Just be sure not to sing when anyone else is within 25 feet or so, because singing does carry a higher risk of transmitting any virus we might have.)

Enjoying singing is claiming your right to find JOY even in these challenging times.

The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol?

Theater is a big part of our family culture. If your typical holiday season includes viewing live performances and the arts are important to your family, try a “dinner and a show” night at home. Get dressed up, pick up a fancy meal takeout, sit at the table and eat a celebratory meal. Then go sit in your living room with the lights off as if you were in a theater, and watch many of the holiday shows that are available for streaming online via your local arts organizations, Broadway on Demand and Broadway HD. (We did this last night and our son pretended to be our “usher” – he escorted us to our seats, asked if we needed anything to be comfortable and reminded us to silence our cell phones before the show started. We clapped at the end of each number.) After the show, remember to donate to an arts organization that has fed your family’s soul in the past.

Giving To Others

Many experts recommend thinking about gratitude and celebrating all the things your family DOES have this year, and then consider spreading your “wealth” – whatever form that takes – to others. Donating money, or time, or sharing beauty through art, or sharing kindness with others, or donating to food banks and gift drives could all be ways to acknowledge that your family has enough blessings to share.

Letting Go of What Doesn’t Bring Joy

This article from Mental Health America has a good point: “Don’t Romanticize Your Typical Holiday Plans. Remember that while your holiday season may normally be full of excitement and joy, it can also be a time of high stress. Long days of travel, endless to-do lists, and dinners with that one family member you don’t get along with are all part of the holidays too…” This year may be a great chance to free yourself from the stale habits and burdensome obligations, and re-focus on what your true priorities are and what things would actually make your holidays happy.

Talking with Children about New Traditions

If you’re parenting young children this year you may feel like you have to put on a smiling face all the time. I think it’s fair to share with our children when we’re feeling sad – “This year, I miss the fact that we can’t do _____ like we usually do.” For older children, honor that this may make them sad too. (Young children may have no memory of what you “normally” do.) And then we can say (to ourselves and to them) – “But I know our family has many many years we’ll be able to do that exact tradition. The part of that tradition that is important is that it honors ______ because that is something that is important to our family. Here’s how we’re going to honor that this year.”

If you have older children, involve them in planning. Time has helpful tips on adapting holiday traditions for COVID, as does AARP.

I would love to hear ideas for how you are adapting your holiday traditions for your family and how this could tell a story of how “our family is resilient and comes through hard times even stronger than before.” Click on “Leave a Reply” at the top of this post to share your ideas.

Muddling Through Somehow

The lyrics of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas say:

“Next year all our troubles will be out of sight… Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more. Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow…”

As we admit that we’re muddling through this year, we can also embrace that we are learning how to be resilient, how to adapt, and how to find the light in the darkness.