Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lenten/Spring Centerpiece

I'm amazed by how things come together at times. Here was our centerpiece for last Sunday. I had bought the flowers in honor of my aunt who was visiting, and when she came, she brought me a present from another aunt: the blue glass candlestick holders. And when I wasn't looking, my young daughter found the purple candles and put them in the holders. It's always fun when the weather gets warm to change the dark purple palette to lilac, just before Easter. Anyhow, it was a beautiful centerpiece, and a joint effort, and I thought I'd share it. :) Peace to your day.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


What I love about babies is what I call "whole-body looking." This is my youngest, encountering our pond for the first time this season. I love the wind blowing ripples in the background.

Thank God for beautiful spring days.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Toddler chores

Since we were talking about toddlers doing "adult work" in the Montessori thread, I thought I'd post this picture of my Thomas's bed after he finished making it (with adult help). He was proud of how it looked and so was I!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Here are some of my favorite pictures of my sons Joshua and Thomas sword-fighting in our front yard this past spring.
Like a lot of parents, I'm not comfortable with my toddlers playing with guns. But since young boys need to fight, I've found that swords are a great option.
A sword (as Ben Kenobi says of lightsabers) is "a noble weapon, of a more civilized age." What's so civilized about stabbing and cutting? Isn't killing someone with a sword more horrible than using a bullet? Why is it morally better to encourage our sons to approach fighting this way?
For one thing, swords force you to fight your foe face-to-face, man-to-man. When swordfighting is done to the death in real life, it literally forces you to face the bloody mess that is killing. Unlike the wielder of a machine gun, who can kill with detached mercilessness, killing with a sword takes effort - lots of effort. Killing is a weighty, grave business, and it should take effort. You should realize what you are doing.
And of course, you don't have to swordfight to the death. You can spar and duel for fun with blunt swords (you can't do that with machine guns!).
My friend Dan Nichols came up with a "sword code" that he taught his sons, which our family has also adapted.
Rules for Sword-Fightin':
1. Sword warriors don't fight an unarmed opponents. If you want to fight someone, make sure they have a sword (or stick) too.
2. No attacking babies, younger unarmed sisters playing dolls, pets, or other non-combatants. Sword warriors only fight other sword warriors.
3. You can't kill an opponent who surrenders. Show mercy.
4. Only cowards and villains stab in the back. Real sword warriors are always just and fair.
5. You can't bring your sword or weapon into church. This is an ancient rule: even St. George couldn't bring his sword to church.

Our favorite swords are the rubber ones we used to get from IKEA, though we've had some nice wooden swords made by Uncle Mike. At some point, I'll have to post about the homemade swords developed for serious boy combat by the Robinson family.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

St. Patrick's Day Breakfast

Being 1/4th Italian and not a bit Irish, I cultivate an air of studied disinterest about St. Patrick's day. But my husband, who has Irish in the mix, and my children, are much more enthusiastic. My daughter Rose spent several weeks planning the celebration, which began with one of our big family breakfasts. Rose created green orange juice and a green fruit salad and I got in the spirit with some green-marbled scones. Then we set the table, using lots of white for contrast, and every green table linen we owned (pressing some quilt fat quarters into service to round out the place settings). My husband read St. Patrick's Breastplate as grace before the meal. And after breakfast we spent some time tracing some of their Irish ancestors back to the 1850 potato famine, which made me (whose Slavic/Italian forbears seemed to have quarreled with their families before setting out to America, since they never passed down any sort of contact information to the rest of us) feel a little jealous! And it was a delicious breakfast -- many thanks to my Irish Rose!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Montessori Questions

A few posts ago, Loraine asked me about whether or not the Montessori method was compatible with Catholicism, because “I am wary of the idea that children need always to be choosing for themselves. This seems contrary to the Catholic understanding of human nature – since the Fall our desires tend in the wrong directions.” And she had a few other questions I’d like to address. It took me a while to prepare a longer post, but here it is.

In answering Loraine’s question, I’m going to speak about the Montessori Method for children aged 3-6 (there are other methods for ages 6-12 and 12-18).

One generally unknown fact about Maria Montessori is that she was a devout Catholic, and her method is steeped in the Catholic understanding of the human person. She believed in the Fall, and understood that small human beings need moral guidance. But because she also believed in post-baptismal innocence and that our God Himself became a Child, she recommended that the Montessori teacher approach the child with a humility and reverence that is still as counter-cultural today as it was in the 1930’s. She didn’t have a romantic view of the child as a “noble savage” or any of the usual secular errors, and yes, she did design the environment to limit a child’s choices and encourage order.

What I find wonderful and mysterious about the method is that it works – children really do work and focus and learn in a Montessori environment. You have to see it to believe it. I always recommend that folks visit a Montessori school and simply observe. You’ll come away with a lot of ideas, and you’ll appreciate the peacefulness and order.

It’s important to remember that the Montessori method was designed to be used in a classroom situation, with up to thirty children in the charge of one adult. The Montessori classroom was to be beautiful, neat to a fault, and full of high-quality materials. The teacher (usually in possession of an MA in Montessori education) was to be completely focused on the children and guiding them in learning. As Lorraine correctly notes, since the classroom was designed to be solely a learning environment, fairy tales and imaginative figures such as Peter Rabbit or Mickey Mouse were not allowed in the classroom. The classroom focused on teaching young children about the real world.

All of this means that it is difficult to translate the Montessori Method strictly to the home. Parents are not gifted with the detachment of teachers: they have the responsibility of teaching children to obey, to be kind, and so on. And it is really difficult to maintain a fully-equipped Montessori classroom in the home as a homeschool. It takes energy to maintain it neatly, and further energy to acclimate the children to using the materials as tools, not toys. It *can* be done – I’ve seen it done – but it’s difficult!

“MegaMommy” Barbara Curtis is a mother of twelve (biological and adopted), Montessori teacher, and author of many books, who has thought deeply about applying Montessori principles to parenting. I highly recommend her book The Mommy Manual that suggests good habits for moms to acquire, such as watching your child without helping them (Montessori teachers learn to sit on their hands to stop from interfering unnecessarily). When you’re always in a hurry, it’s easier to do things for kids. But it’s so important to slow down and simply let them do something (ie: put on their own shoes, pour their own milk, put scotch tape on their present) all by themselves. This is how they learn, and they learn faster and more deeply when moms have the time and patience to watch and let them learn.

You might want to read her page about child-sized furniture, and other products (some great ideas!). The reason for giving children real things instead of toys is because children yearn for real things, to do things “myself!” They yearn to grow up and be like Mommy and Daddy. And as an artist myself, I can say that a solid grounding in the real world is a terrific launching pad for the imagination.

As for fairy tales – our home is a school, but it’s not only a school, so we do have fairy tales in our home. But I do think it’s important for very young children to learn about the real world first, so we have lots of DK books for our toddlers, the sort with real photos. We save the fairy tales for the next-level-of kids, ages 6-12, when even Montessori agrees that moral education begins in earnest, and then fairy tales are helpful.

I think that Montessori doesn’t necessarily distrust the imagination, but it’s important to remember that it’s a classroom philosophy, not a parenting philosophy. However, I’m trained in the Montessori Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and I find it wonderfully imaginative and very reverent. Montessori was a scientist, and yes, there’s room for the imagination in science, but only after you’ve learned a lot of the basic rules. A Montessori education focuses on helping you learn those rules.

Waldorf education is sometimes portrayed as the polar opposite of Montessori, but I’m not sure that’s true. However, it is based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, whose ideas are more New Age than Christian. What is remarkable is that despite his quirky and sometimes (to me) very bizarre ideas, the material end product of the philosophy is a lot of very beautifully-crafted chidren’s toys. I personally don’t care for or recommend Waldorf education (I’m a Montessori preschool alumna myself) but I certainly do love their toys!

Those are a few thoughts on Montessori – let me know if you have any further questions!

Thursday, March 15, 2007


Spring stole upon us this week ... the air was so warm and sweet it was intoxicating, it pulled you outside into the sunshine, blinking and stretching, and urged you in melodious tones to sit down and put your feet up and just breathe...

So I have been getting next to nothing done.

But I did take this picture of our ancient House Tree outside the girls' window. I really want to respond to questions you all have asked me, and thank so many new people for visiting ... but ... I'll be getting around to it, I promise!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Personal Grooming

When I was a kid, I had the perpetual "absent-minded professor" look, with everything that implies. My own kids appear to have inherited my genes in that regard, plus my super-fine hair that looks bedraggled again five minutes after it's brushed... Last week, at my husband (who is meticulous about his personal appearance, thank God) suggested we add "personal grooming" to the homeschool curriculum. So I set up a mirror, a comb, brush, and cup of water and tried to demonstrate combing and wetting down hair to the three-year-old (the older ones fortunately had more of an idea of what to do). He became really enthusiastic, and when he finished, our baby took over. For about a half hour she sat and brushed and combed her hair till it was wet and dripping... Maria Montessori says to notice when kids are engrossed in a motor activity such as this one, and when at all possible, don't disturb them until they've finished. Scientists say they're growing brain cells by the repetition. So I didn't disturb the baby -- but I DID take her picture.
If we had the space, I'd love to keep a baby-size grooming area like this set up in our home (Montessori schools have such an area). But since this one was set up on the block box, I had to dismantle it. I've seen friends of mine set up places in their bathrooms -- when I get a chance, I'll have to post some more pictures of theirs.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Lenten Clothing Fast

When she was a teenager, my sister Alicia Hernon came up with the idea of the "clothing fast." During Lent, she limited her wardrobe to a handful of multipurpose garments, about ten, for the duration of the forty days. It was she who gave me the idea of applying Catholicism to the wardrobe in ways beyond modesty. I've experimented with different ways of dressing ever since: when I was single, I conceived of the idea of the Seven Dress Wardrobe, which I've long since abandoned as impractical at this stage in my life (But it worked great when I was single!).

These days I keep "liturgical dressing" to the barest outlines, but one easy parameter to meet is Lent. My Lenten clothing fast is as simple as this: I put off changing from my winter wardrobe to my spring wardrobe until Easter.

Now that the weather has taken a decided turn for the warm here in Virginia, this is when the "clothing fast" becomes hard: it's hard to wear black shoes and carry a dark purse (or wear black anything!) when spring is bursting out all around in pastel and sunny yellows. You're so anxious to shake off the brown winter sweaters and pull out the short sleeves and the sandals! Even beige and khaki seem airy when compared with the forest greens, ruby reds, dark blues, and yes, blacks that I wear all winter.

But what relief and fun it is to pull out the white shoes, white skirts and pale pinks on Easter Sunday! Easter comes to me now in floral scarves and wicker purses, in everyday clothes as well as the once-a-year Easter bonnets. My girls look forward to getting into the seasonal storage almost as much as I do. It's a lot easier for us to celebrate forty days of Easter when we welcome back the spring and summer wardrobe.

And even though I do wear black even in the summer (New Yorker, can't help it) I try to save it for after Pentecost Sunday. :)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Random Moment of Beauty: Kid's Art

When we first moved into our house, I hung this picture as a place-holder to fill the gap between bedroom doors, and it's been there ever since. I can't get over how nice it looks. My daughter Rose had a school assignment to paint a bird, and she executed this really lovely bluejay. I didn't want to lose this picture, so I stuck it into a frame -- a cracked cheap pink frame. I didn't have a mat, so I just positioned it in the center of the gray cardboard backing.

But .... it works. Better than some of my professionally-matted pictures. Go figure.

Just goes to show that Beauty can alight anywhere it chooses....

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Anna's Toy Corner

I love Anna's toy corner for her two girls. Their house is too small for a playroom, so Anna stores her toys on a shelf and in baskets in the corner of their bedroom. I believe Ben made the shelf, but I'm not sure. A soft rug delineates the play area and separates it visually from the "adult" area of the bedroom. Notice how the kids are instinctively playing with their blocks within the confines of the rug - the rug is just the right size to give them a "boundary."

Maria Montessori recommended shelves for toys instead of toy bins, so that a child can pick out what he wants (without having to dig out and hurl away everything he doesn't want, which most kids tend to do). As a mom, I find shelves help reinforce (not that I always get around to enforcing, let alone reinforcing, btw) the idea that you play with one toy, you put it away, and then you choose another toy. When you take a toy off of a (neatly arranged) shelf, it leaves an empty place that the child psychologically feels a tug to fill, which they can fill by replacing the toy when they're done. (And I can say that keeping the shelves neat really does help keep the floor clean.)

What do you do when you have more toys than will fit on a shelf...? Easy: toy rotation. You put the rest of the toys in a storage bin in the attic, and periodically rotate them out as you need to. (This is the mechanism Anna and I both use for getting rid of extras, btw -- they just 'disappear' sometime during the cycle.)

Another Montessori idea Anna incorporated into her area was posting pretty art postcards at kid-eye-level around the room. I never remember to do this myself, but I love it when I see someone else doing it (she's married to an artist, so I think the idea comes more naturally to her!). A variety of baskets in the play corner helps the kids (and mom) sort them according to type, and if a toddler wants to play with wooden food in the living room, all she has to do is grab the basket and take it with her. (And mom can use the same basket to return the toys back to their place at night.) Thanks again, Anna, for letting us peer into your home!

(BTW, blog readers, if you want to share any photos of your own arrangements to give us all more ideas, please email them to me at

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Waiting For Tea

Another cold morning here... I took this picture a few weeks ago when I was waiting for my herbal tea to steep. Delicious anticipation.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Plastic Elimination Campaign: Plastic Toy Gift Substitutes?

A child can't have too many beautiful good books. Leastaways, that's what I feel (my husband has begged to differ). So whenever relatives or friends wanted to give our children toys, and I had a feeling they would send us plastic toys, I would suggest that they give us good and beautiful books. This can be a wonderful strategy for reducing gift-toy clutter and it's worked for us!
But of course, not all children's books are created equal, and some toy-spinoff books (ie: Barbie, Transformers) are just as as obnoxious as the toys themselves (and create the need in the child for the featured toy). Plus there are some children's books that are simply stupid.
So what to do...? You can suggest titles. And I had another idea from Sandra Miesel: she observed that the best children's illustrators out there won't illustrate junk. So if the pictures are breathtakingly beautiful, chances are the story is up to par.
And for older kids, you can always recommend your relatives buy something out of the Bethlehem Books catalog, which specializes in timeless and beautiful literature for children (and yes, subtle plug, I am one of their authors!)

Monday, March 05, 2007

Random Moment of Beauty: Napping with Cat

Ah.... what I would be doing if I wasn't a grown-up. As today has been one hectic day, I thought that in rebellion I would post this old picture of baby Joan in her bassinet on her lambskin with Earendil the Siamese Cat. Enjoy the day!