Sunday, July 29, 2012

Choices, Consequences, and a Peapod

Jeff and I do not subscribe to any one system of child rearing. We’ve gleaned ideas from multiple sources, incorporated some ideas into our parenting repertoire, and discarded others. One of the main ideas that we have kept is the idea that children should be taught from a young age that choices have consequences. (One system that clearly articulates this idea is Love and Logic, although we do not go as far with it as they do.)

In keeping with our desire for Alexa to develop good decision-making skills, she is allowed to make age-appropriate choices. She chooses her clothing from a pre-selected set, she often (but not always) chooses what she’ll eat for meals or snacks from a selection that I offer to her, and she frequently is offered the choice to walk or be carried, to have help or to do it herself, or if she wants Mama or Miing-Miing or Daddy to change her diaper.

Just from the choices I’ve listed, you may notice one key element of this strategy: Alexa does not choose from infinite options—she chooses only from options that are acceptable to us. She does not have a choice in whether or not her diaper will be changed, only in who will change it. She does not have the option not to go where Mama needs her to go, only in whether she’ll walk or be carried.

The other key element of this strategy is not immediately apparent: Once Alexa makes a choice, she is stuck with it, within reason.  If she chooses leftover gnocchi for lunch instead of leftover pizza, she is not allowed to take two bites of gnocchi and then switch to pizza, or to take two bites and be done with lunch and ready for her snack. Instead, she is told that she needs to eat the lunch that she has chosen, and if she chooses not to eat, then that’s okay, but if she eats anything at all before supper, it will be the lunch she chose. (We do not hold food over from one meal to the next; undesired breakfast gets tossed at lunch and so on, but she isn’t allowed a snack between meals until she’s eaten the meal.) I say that she’s stuck with her choice within reason because there are exceptions—if she’s never had a food and chooses to try it, we allow her to eat something else if she realizes that she doesn’t like it; the one time that she chose to wear her rain pants instead of cotton pants, we allowed her to change when she realized that she didn’t like how they squeak (although we wouldn’t allow her that option again; instead we remind her that they squeak and ask if she’s certain, and so far, she’s always changed her mind when given the opportunity).

As Alexa has grown and developed, the range of choices we allow her to make has increased, and it will continue to increase as she continues to grow and develop. In this way, we give her experience in making choices and safely expose her to the reality that choices have consequences. Our expectation is that by allowing her to make age-appropriate choices and deal with the consequences herself, she naturally will begin to think ahead and consider the consequences before the choice is made. Of course, we’ll need to prompt her to do that at first, as we do when we remind her that the rain pants squeak, and as we’ll eventually do when we remind her that taking a jacket on a warm day means that she’ll have to carry it herself, and not taking a jacket on a cool day means that she’ll feel cold.

And we do deny Alexa the right to make certain choices. She does not choose whether or not to take a bath, whether or not to have her diaper changed, whether or not it’s time to go to bed. If I cook dinner, that’s what’s for dinner, period. When we offer Alexa a choice, she has a choice; when we do not offer her a choice, then it is a foregone conclusion that things eventually will unfold as we have directed—whether that means that her diaper is changed while she screams rather than while she cooperates, or whether that means that she obeys after a spanking instead of obeying without a spanking. This, too, is a lesson that it is important to learn at a young age: We do not always have a choice in what happens to us, but we have a choice in how we respond to it and often in whether or not we make it more difficult than it has to be; even when we do have a choice, the consequences of one choice often are severe enough that it feels as though we don’t—consider the consequences of defying a legitimate order from a police officer, for example.

At the same time, there are things that we, as parents, have to recognize that we cannot force Alexa to do, even at her young age. We cannot force her to eat—we can deny her the ability to eat by withholding food, but we cannot force feed her if she is determined not to eat, at least not without the risk of physical harm. This reality is a primary reason why we developed a strategy for handling the situation when she refuses to eat meals!

We also cannot force Alexa to sleep. We can force her to stay in her crib (at least for now, until she develops the ability to climb out of it), and we even can force her to lie down, if we’re willing to stay with her and physically hold her down. But there’s no point to that, even if we were willing to do it, because she will not fall asleep until she’s ready. We sometimes can’t force ourselves to sleep, much less force her to do so!

And that is the problem I’ve been considering for the last few days. Alexa falls asleep easily in her bed now, after some sleep training using a method written about by Jodi Mindell and recommended to me by a friend who just happens to be a sleep expert. But we’re going to be traveling later this year, and Alexa’s crib cannot come with us. Alexa is sensitive about where she sleeps, and in the past, she’s always slept with us when we traveled. (We had a travel crib, but she never would sleep in it and now she’s too big for it.) Sleeping with us is not a workable solution anymore, however; lately when we’ve tried to bring her into our bed after a nightmare or after she wets through her diaper, none of us are able to go back to sleep—the last two times we’ve tried, we’ve ended up putting her back in her bed two or three hours later, after all three of us have lain in bed awake and fidgety. So we’ve had to come up with another solution.

Alexa's Peapod
Our solution of choice is the Peapod. This tent is lightweight and folds down to almost nothing, making it perfect for air travel. It has an inflatable mattress in its own zippered compartment, which provides a comfortable sleep surface. It has walls and a zippered flap, allowing both easy access and safety, since we’re concerned about Alexa crawling out and roaming around an unfamiliar environment in the dark. And the walls all have large mesh sections, allowing for breathability and enabling us to see in and Alexa to see out.

Sounds perfect, right? Alexa thought so—she crawled in, brought her babies in, even lay down in it. And then she realized she was sleepy. Out she came. We asked her if she’d like to sleep in the Peapod. “No! No sleep Peapod!” she wailed. Ok, ok, no sleep Peapod! We decided to let her get more accustomed to the Peapod during her awake times before asking her to sleep in it.

Why the Peapod went away
A few months have passed since then. Her response to the idea of sleeping in the Peapod: fear and wailing. We eventually put the Peapod up, because we were getting nowhere and the cats wanted to claw it. Alexa had not seen it or heard it mentioned in several weeks. But I’ve been thinking about it. We need this to work. Just yesterday, I posted on my Facebook status, asking for advice. This morning, Jeff and I were discussing the replies, trying to decide what to do.

Alexa must have heard us.

When it was time for her nap this afternoon, she didn’t want to sleep, although she obviously was ready. I followed our normal naptime routine: change her diaper, say goodnight to Daddy, and rock while Mama sings, then prays, then sings some more. Finally, before she falls asleep, she gets put in bed.

Today, when I told her to say goodnight to Daddy, Alexa said: “Peapod!” She started trying to get into the closet, where the Peapod has been living. Jeff and I asked if she wanted to sleep in her Peapod today. “No sleep Peapod! Peapod?” Translation: “No, I don’t want to sleep in it, but I do want to play in it!” Nope, not an option.

We continued with the routine. As I put her in bed, she suddenly started crying. “No sleep! No sleep!” A few seconds later, she realized that I would not be taking her back out of bed anytime soon, and she changed strategies. “Sleep Peapod!”

Time for a quick consultation with Jeff. It was obvious that she was stalling; she’d let us take her and her babies out of bed, put the Peapod in the crib (we’ll get her used to it in a familiar sleep location before we move it to the floor), put the babies in, and then she’d announce that she didn’t want to sleep in the Peapod after all. We knew she’d do this, and we didn’t want her to develop negative associations with the Peapod and never choose to sleep in it again, but we very much wanted her to sleep in it. We decided to preserve some choice at this point, not to force her to sleep in it, but make it clear to her that if she chose to sleep in it at naptime today, she would stay in it during all of naptime today.  We made that decision as clear as we could to a two-year-old, and she insisted—“Sleep Peapod!”

Peapod in the crib
So out came Alexa and the babies, in went the Peapod, in went the babies, and—“No sleep Peapod! Sleep bed!” Just as expected. Nevertheless, in went Alexa. “No sleep Peapod!” We rubbed her back for a minute, told her we loved her, and left the room. A quick consultation in the hall decided that we’d follow the same routine we did when we accustomed her to her bed. At this early stage, that meant that if she was still crying in five minutes, we’d go in and comfort her for a few moments.

Five minutes later, Jeff went in to reassure Alexa that she was safe and we were close by. He found all of Alexa’s babies—maybe 14 of them today; she sleeps with as many as we’ll allow—on the floor. Apparently she’d had a bit of a temper tantrum. He put her babies back in the Peapod, told her that if she threw them out again, they’d stay out, comforted her for a moment, and left.

To our surprise, we didn’t hear another peep from her for almost two hours—a normal nap time for her. Jeff went to get her, and I found her a few minutes later in the playroom, happily playing in her Peapod.

The goal: For this to be real, not pretending!
This is a great start! Our strategy for building on this progress is to put her in the Peapod in her crib for naptime every day—no more choices about that for now. Once she consistently falls asleep in it without protest, we’ll start zipping the flap. Once she’s used to that, we’ll move the whole thing to the floor. When she can sleep in the zippered Peapod on the floor for naptime, we’ll have her sleep there for a few nights. After that, we’ll offer her a choice of her bed or the Peapod often enough to keep her used to it, and if she doesn’t choose it, we’ll make the choice for her as necessary.

So today was a double-win day: Alexa had a lesson in accepting the consequences of her choices, and we got her started on a path toward sleeping in the Peapod. Choices, consequences, and a Peapod.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Spirit Houses

One of many spirit houses at Wat Phnom

Ever since my arrival in Cambodia, I have been fascinated with spirit houses. I see them everywhere—there is one outside almost every building in Phnom Penh; it probably would be more accurate to say that there is one outside almost every building in Southeast Asia! There is even one on the embassy grounds, presumably doing duty for the entire compound.

Spirit house at the U.S. embassy
So what is a spirit house, anyway? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a house for spirits. Although most Cambodians are Buddhist, there is no problem for Buddhists to adopt or maintain aspects of other religions as well. Spirit houses  are highly associated with Buddhism, but their roots are in the animistic religions that predate Buddhism. According to these old religions, there are spirits everywhere, associated with particular areas of land. Some of these spirits are good, some are evil, and some are morally neutral, but most of them seem to be mischievous. They cause trouble for humans, whether deliberately or accidentally, and if you insult them, they cause big problems for you. So, it’s in your best interest to keep these spirits both happy and out of your home or business. That’s where spirit houses come in.
Making an offering
Spirit houses are small structures located outside of buildings. These structures usually are in the shape of an ornate house, and they are located on pedestals. The purpose of spirit houses is to provide a home for the animist spirits. The idea is that if you provide a nice home for the spirits, and keep them happy with food, flowers, and other gifts, then those spirits will not invade your home or business and cause trouble. Placate the spirits, make sure they’re happy in their own houses, and they will have no reason to enter your house (or business).

One of many in the Silver Pagoda compound

Why exactly would I be fascinated with spirit houses? After all, I’m not Buddhist, I’m not animist, and I don’t believe in these spirits. I believe in God, angels, and fallen angels (demons). I do not believe that having a spirit house would protect my home from harm; if anything, I view it more as an invitation for fallen angels (the only spirits who go around causing trouble) to come and make themselves at home not only in the spirit house, but in the entire property upon which the spirit house resides. The act of placating these spirits by providing offerings is an act of worship, something that the Bible teaches we should provide only to God.

Stone spirit house at Wat Phnom

There is one reason, and one reason alone, why I am fascinated with spirit houses: they’re beautiful.

A shop where spirit houses are made and sold

Whether they’re made of wood or stone, these houses are designed to be ornate and beautiful. Some are white with sparkling gold trim. Some are gold with burgundy accents. They almost always have ornately peaked roofs, columns around the front “entrance,” and pretty “porch railings.” The inside is a single open space, usually filled with flowers, candles, and fruit. The whole thing is gorgeous to look at.

Spirit house outside of a shop

I never will have a spirit house on my property, although I do believe that one would be absolutely beautiful in or beside a flower garden, for example. It would go against my beliefs and would send an incorrect message to all who saw it and knew it for what it was. But because they are so beautiful, and because their prevalence here has made them become representative of Cambodia to me, I wanted to share them with my family and friends who may not have seen them before.

Spirit houses outside of businesses

Saturday, July 14, 2012

New Friends

Since we came to Cambodia, Jeff and I have had a few struggles. I struggled with the pragmatic aspects of living here for a long time—primarily with the grocery shopping and cooking, but to a lesser degree with other things as well. As a couple, we have had real struggles finding a church that was a good fit for us—the first one we tried featured an antisocial congregation, funereally paced “contemporary” worship songs, and a nonsensical sermon; the second sported a “Chinese mother” pastor who had a gripe with anyone who didn’t do exactly what he wanted in all areas of life, as well as a serious case of class warfare mentality; the third had sincere and welcoming people, but was steeped in a philosophy that elevates custom to the same level as biblical mandates; the fourth would have worked for us if necessary, but primarily was a church for missionaries, so we just didn’t fit in; the fifth … well, let’s just say it was a feminist’s dream, and we are not feminists. Finally, after almost giving up hope and returning to church #4, we happened upon the church that we think will be our church home for our remaining time in Cambodia. This church was the last one on our list to try because, on paper, it looked like it was the polar opposite of what we need and want in a church. We almost didn’t try it at all. I’m so happy that we did try it, three weeks ago tomorrow!

You see, not only does it seem as though this church will meet our need for a regular gathering of believers for worship, prayer, and teaching, but it has provided the opportunity for something else that we have sorely lacked during our time here: friends that are our friends, as a couple, rather than friends that are more “his and hers.” We had one couple, met at church #3, that filled that role for us for several months … until they returned to Canada back in May. There also was a couple from the embassy with whom we spent some social time … until they returned to the States in early June. And there is one other couple from the embassy that we enjoy, but they seem to have limited time for socializing. Other than that, I have friends from playgroup, Jeff has friends at the embassy, and we don’t have any friends in common. This situation provides enough of what we need to get us through, but there definitely has been something missing. Maybe, just maybe, that missing element has been filled.

You see, our first week at the new church, we met a couple with whom we both got along well. A couple that just arrived in Cambodia and is planning to be here longer than we will be. A couple that lives nearby. A couple that has a 10-month-old daughter and therefore is at roughly the same stage as us in their parenting journey. A couple that shares our faith. A couple we want to get to know better.

It took us a while to get around to it, but a week after meeting them, we extended an invitation to join us for dinner. Later that week, just a few days ago, we hosted them at our house. Although the purpose of the event was to offer hospitality to newcomers and to enjoy some time together, it also served as an opportunity for all of us to get to know each other in ways that were more … evaluative … than exploratory. For example, one issue when socializing with other Christians for the first time often is whether or not it’s acceptable to offer alcoholic beverages—the choice regarding alcohol itself doesn’t matter so much as what else often is revealed: the use or avoidance of alcohol is one of the major areas where a person who is inclined to elevate custom or opinion to the level of biblical command often will reveal that inclination. It was a matter of some anxiety for me, therefore, whether to offer beer or wine with dinner, as I didn’t want to offend our guests if they were of the “alcohol is evil” persuasion, but I also did not want them to assume mistakenly that we were of that opinion. I finally decided to set out the water, Coke Light, and Sprite on the buffet in the dining room, leave the beer and wine in the kitchen, and make a verbal offer—that way, our guests would know it was available if they wanted it, they wouldn’t have to see it if they objected, and Jeff and I would discover much more about them than whether or not they drink.

It worked out perfectly. On the alcohol front, the relief was palpable when I offered the beer or wine—our guests share our opinion on the issue and apparently were as aware of it as we were. Everything else went just as smoothly. The luxuries we enjoy as embassy personnel were acknowledged with humor and grace, with no trace of jealousy or judgment. The conversation never lagged. No one minded when their daughter babbled loudly through the blessing, or when Alexa interrupted the conversation with cries for attention. After dinner, while walking and calming his distraught daughter, our male guest roamed into the living room, only to return with a quip about how only geeks have home media servers—and I was amazed to have met someone who recognized the equipment without prior explanation. We learned a little about each other’s history, and about the hopes we all have for our time in Cambodia. They even made our shy girl smile and laugh. In short, that first fledgling exploration of each other’s personalities revealed real potential for a solid friendship.

I hadn’t realized just how much we’ve been missing “couple” friends. I’m extremely introverted and do pretty well with playgroup twice a week, especially with the addition of a full-time housekeeper for some conversation during the day. I enjoyed spending “extra” time with our Canadian friend before she left, and I have missed having a regular group Bible study to attend, but I haven’t felt a gaping hole in my social life—though I recognize the need for couple friends now that it seems on the verge of being satisfied again. Jeff, on the other hand, apparently has felt the need much more strongly than I have. Our new friends were barely out the door on Thursday night before he told me that he’d wanted to invite them for pizza on Friday night and didn’t do so only because he hadn’t discussed it with me yet. When we discovered they had other plans, he immediately suggested a game day on Saturday. When I balked at that (we have no snack food in the house other than brownies or cookies, and I feel the need to offer … more … when we have guests), he suggested next Saturday. And in the meantime, how about lunch after church tomorrow? You get the idea—apparently he did notice the lack and is very happy that we have a clear opportunity to rectify the situation. (Jeff pointed out to me during editing that a large part of the reason he’s so happy about this opportunity is that he really doesn’t believe me when I say that playgroup is enough—he’s eager for me to have more and closer friends.)

What’s the purpose of this post? I’m not sure. I think I just felt a need to share that God has blessed us yet again. He seems to have provided for our felt need—a church where we feel at home—and also has met a need that I at least didn’t realize we had—friends with whom we can spend time as a family. As icing on the cake, our new friends plan to begin a small group Bible study, so I think He’s going to meet that need as well.

God is good, and I am grateful.