Wisdom from Storyteller Winston Stephens

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on July 25, 2012.

I am a self-proclaimed “storytelling advocate,” and I believe every parent should tell their own stories to their children.  I’ve been thinking of ways to try to inspire parents to do this, so it was only natural that I should interview my storytelling friend, Winston Stephens.  Stephens is a retired kindergarten teacher, and storytelling has been a big part of her life, both and in and outside the classroom.

Children respond better to stories than they do lectures, and I believe they never forget the storytellers in their lives.  I asked Winston if there were storytellers in her life that she remembers.

“Many!” she said.  “My Stephens grandfather told all kinds of stories to my brother and me, some Br’er Rabbit tales, The Three Pigs and stories from his childhood. My Winston grandmother regularly told me stories about her life (in which she was always the heroine), sang story songs (The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night) and recited one long story poem (Lasca) that I learned by heart. My parents would make up bedtime stories and others for special occasions.”

She says her father got sick of the story he made up for her and her brother because they made him recite it over and over, and if he tried to change one detail, they wouldn’t allow it!

“I felt personally honored to have that special kind of attention paid to me.  Stories have helped me to make sense of actual events in my life,” she says.  “Those who tell stories are revealing their values, telling you what’s really important, imparting their culture. True stories about personal experiences usually impart wisdom that the teller has learned, as well as giving the sense of how ordinary life today differs from what it was like in the past.”

As the oldest child in her family, Winston slipped easily into a storytelling role and imitated the way her parents and grandparents told stories.  Later, she would use storytelling in her classroom.  She says every Friday there would be a told story instead of a storybook, and at the end of the year, she had an extra special story to tell.

“On the last day of school every year I would tell a story about how that class got stranded on a deserted island and had to figure out how to makes tents, find food, and, eventually, get themselves rescued. In the story I highlighted the real kids’ strengths and interests. While I was telling, they would cheer and add more details. It was all a validation of what we had experienced and learned together.”

Today she tells stories too. She regularly tells stories for the Kindergarten classes at a nearby elementary school, and she’s been hired to tell a few stories at birthday parties and family reunions.  For the children she sometimes uses props such as a set of nesting dolls or stuffed animal.  One of her personal favorites is using an Appalachian-style dancing man on a board to tell a story, which includes songs for him to dance to and the children to sing to.

She has also started finding storytelling opportunities for adults in the community.  In January, she took a class at Athens Academy by the Southern Order of Storytellers, which is based in Decatur.  The SOS is eager to encourage storytellers around the state, especially by getting storytelling “clusters” started.  Stephens started her own cluster, which meets at her house on the third Wednesday of every month.  They talk about storytelling news, get advice from experienced tellers and practice telling.  They invite anyone who is interested in attending.

She is also enjoying the new Rabbit Box events, which are currently held in downtown Athens on the second Wednesday of every month.  They provide a forum for people to tell a true story from their lives, but it has to be told in 6-8 minutes and related to a certain theme.  Stephens has signed up to tell a story in August when the theme is “Now I Get It.”

These events prove that storytelling must be just as good for adults as they are for children.  Indeed, whenever you are waiting to hear “what happened next” you are engaged in a story.  Stories are part of our lives whether we’re conscious of them or not.

You can find out more about Winston Stephens’ storytelling at her website, http://mswinstonstephens.com/stories.htm, and if you’d like more resources to help you tell stories to your children, visit my storytelling resources page.

There is no consensus on how to raise kids

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on July 18, 2012.

“As time passes we all get better at blazing a trail through the thicket of advice.” —Margot Bennett, Scottish-Australian writer

Last week my family and I were shopping at the mall of Georgia, and while we were at our obligatory stop at the Disney store, I overheard two women chatting about potty training.  It’s one of those conversations that parents are all too familiar with.

I was standing close by because my two-year-old was playing with some toys in a big bin right next to their kids – you know the bins full of small toys that stores use to lure your kids and your wallet inside.  I couldn’t help but smile and nod at the woman who had a child proving difficult to train.  My eldest son had been difficult too.

The other woman was explaining how well her kids responded to the chart with star stickers.  She seemed to have all the answers.  I said that I had wished it had been that easy for me.  This seemed to sooth the woman with the reluctant child.

I was very tired and didn’t mean to engage in a conversation about potty training, so when the woman with the successful potty training strategy began to explain her method in more depth, I nodded politely and only heard half of it.  My husband piped in with a silly comment and then we excused ourselves.

These kinds of conversations happen all the time among parents, and I have all too often listened to a well-meaning mama tell me how to get my kids to eat right, sleep right, behave right or learn right.  I’m sure I’ve bored other parents with my well-meaning advice too.

Later that night my husband and I talked about the episode in the Disney store, and he said whatever your opinion may be, you’ll find some book or article to back it up.  He said there’s really no consensus on how to raise kids.  Well ain’t that the truth? I thought.

The older my kids get, the more I realize that parents are here to guide and encourage them, and certainly we can influence them, but making them do what they don’t want to do can only lead to stress and frustration.  Sometimes it might be the right thing to do, but it’s still going to cause a lot of stress and frustration.

This is why I’ve tried to listen to the advice and then do what feels right for my family and me.  When it’s possible, I try to err on the side of being fairly laid back with the kids and not force them to do things they aren’t ready for.  After the first potty training fiasco, I’m letting my second son take his time with the whole issue.

There’s so much advice circling out there, I’ve tried to stop listening to it too.  It only makes my head hurt and insecurities mount.  And the pressure to do things “right” weighs in on much more important issues than potty training.

For example, I have a friend who’s returning to work after maternity leave.  Her child is adjusting well, but she’s going through the normal emotions of a mother in that situation – guilt, sadness as well as relief.  But I know she’s making the right decision for her family because she carefully weighed all her options and researched childcare facilities.

I told her that though I’m taking a different path, I still get all those emotions.  Sometimes I think it would be much easier to put my kids in school and go back to work.  No path is without uncertainties.

There may not be much consensus on how to raise children, but I think most people can agree that kids need love, attention and respect.  In the end, they will all get potty-trained one way or another.


Raising Tadpoles

{The Life Cycle of Toads} {Georgia} {Project-based Homeschooling}

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on July 11, 2012.  Scroll down to view a slideshow of all the photos I took during this fun project!

On the afternoon of June 15th, my husband and two-year-old had a surprise for my five-year-old and me.  We had spent the morning apart.  My five-year-old was in a camp, I had a couple hours to myself (yay), and my husband took the two-year-old to a park.

Guess what they found at the park?  You guessed it – hundreds of tiny black tadpoles in a pool of water by a stream.  My husband said that by scooping a cup in the water, he easily got three of the tadpoles.  He also said the two-year-old carefully and proudly carried his cup to the car.

The five-year-old was delighted too, and together the “boys” set about to create a small habitat for the tadpoles. I gave them an old storage container, and my husband found some rocks in the garden.  He used the same water conditioner that we use for our fish aquarium, which takes chlorine out of the water.

That night they took a trip to the pet store and bought an inexpensive filter (less than $15), although we ended up not using the filter and instead let it just circulate the water in the container. This provided oxygen. They also found some frog/tadpole food at the pet store.

We fed the tadpoles the frog food, but we also added some frozen spinach because my husband read online that they like that.  They ate it up!  The boys also visited the stream again and brought home water from it.  We were told that there might be tiny microorganisms that the tadpoles would feed on in that water.

We kept the container on our porch and covered it with some old window screen to keep the mosquitoes out, and over the next two and a half weeks, we watched them grow.  It was exciting for the whole family.  Every morning my two boys got up and went out to check the tadpoles, and they also checked on them in the evenings.

Let me pause here and commend my husband for taking care of the tadpoles and the habitat during this entire project!

Part of the fun was trying to figure out what kind of frogs they were, yet as they grew so quickly, we noticed that they looked very similar to the Fowler toads who inhabit our yard.  In the end, we realized that’s exactly what they were.

Fowler toads breed in this area in May and June, and my herpetologist friend told me that if the tadpoles were very black when they were tiny, then they were definitely toads.  Tree or chorus frog tadpoles are clear, and if viewed from the bottom, you can see an orange-colored circle, which are their intestines.

This made sense because as I mentioned we had recently found baby Fowler toads in our yard, and on our trip to Watson’s Mill Bridge State Park last month, we saw hundreds, if not thousands of tiny black tadpoles in the shallow water near that bridge.

In regards to Fowler toads, the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory’s (SREL) website states: “Females lay eggs in strings with clutches of up to 25,000 eggs in spring or summer after a heavy rain.  Tadpoles go through metamorphosis within 2 months. Sexual maturity is reached in 1-3 years, differing among sex and locality.”

On July 4th – a very fitting day – we released two baby toads and one toadlet back into the wild where we found them.  Since two of them had already lost their tails – literally within one day! – and they were sitting up on the rocks, we feared their diet had changed, and we wouldn’t be able to provide them with the tiny bugs they needed to eat.  The toads were so small they could fit on my fingertip.

One of the tadpoles was always smaller and developed a day or two behind the others.  This one, which was a “toadlet” with four legs, but it was still in the water and had a tail, we placed in a shallow part of the water with leaf cover so it could hide.  I’m sure within a day, it would be hopping into the forest with the other toads.

Most tadpoles and baby frogs become food for larger animals, but we were happy to at least give three little guys a head start.  The pool where we took them from was drying up and in the full sun when we returned to it.  A few surviving tadpoles in it were not as well developed as ours.

For me, it was a wonderful experience – something I had never done before – but watching the delight on my boy’s faces is something I’ll never forget.  And who knows?  Maybe this will become a yearly ritual that will foster even more good memories.

Below is a slideshow of all the photos I took during this fun project so that you can see the metamorphosis.  I’ve put dates on the photos for your reference.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Introverts and Coffeeshops

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on July 4, 2012.

It can only be divine intervention that has brought me to this café/coffeeshop this morning to write a column.  Alone.  Sans Children.  Actually, it’s because my five-year-old is in camp, and my wonderful husband volunteered to take the two-year-old to the park.

It has always been a dream of mine to be able to sit alone and write in a coffeeshop, and I know you are probably laughing at me for that.  But for these past six years of child rearing, any time alone is a dream.  I can hardly believe I’m sitting on this hard seat, listening to dishes clink, the murmurs of other coffeeshop goers and soft jazz in the background.

I used to think my penchant for being alone was unique, but after reading Introvert Power by Laurie Helgoe, PhD, I’ve realized that I’m not “alone.”  Nearly half our population is introverted.

She writes, “What constitutes an introvert is quite simple. We are a vastly diverse group of people who prefer to look at life from the inside out. We gain energy and power through inner reflection, and get more excited by ideas than by external activities. When we converse, we listen well and expect others to do the same. We think first and talk later. Writing appeals to us because we can express ourselves without intrusion, and we prefer communicating this way.  Even our brains look different than those of extroverts.”

Although I’ve always known that I’m introverted, and I thought I knew what an introvert was, I learned much more about myself after reading this book.  She explains how introverts prefer one-on-one interactions with people, and they appreciate deeper conversation.  She thinks coffeehouses have popped up everywhere because introverts need places to “read, write, draw or just chill.”

When I read the book, I thought some of Helgoe’s comments about our culture being extroverted was far-fetched, but after I thought about it, I realized she was right.  When I was younger, I never felt comfortable telling my friends I didn’t want to join the crowd.  When I worked in an office environment, it was difficult to get out of going to lunch with the work gang.  Our culture assumes that you’re being rude if you just want to have some time to yourself.

Now that I’m home with my children, I’m much happier, and I think this is due in part to not having to socialize in large group settings anymore.  While I desperately need social interaction, I am more able to pick and chose when and with whom.

The book has given me a new resolve to cease worrying about the “socialization” of my homeschooled children too.  This doesn’t mean I won’t give them plenty of opportunities to socialize with other children, but it does alter what most people think “socialization” should look like.

It’s pretty clear that my eldest son is an introvert.  Some people may say “shy,” but over this past year, he’s proven that he isn’t shy. He can talk a stranger’s ear off – as long as he’s talking about what matters most to him.  He doesn’t like to jump into playtime with large groups of kids, but he loves to play with one or two good buddies, and he can spend ample time by himself in his own make-believe world.

Helgoe writes, “As a psychologist, I have yet to see a child brought in for therapy because he is too social and his parents are concerned that he seems to have little access to his inner life.  Yet, child after child is brought in for not talking enough, only having a few friends, and enjoying time alone—for being introverted.”

So I am going to stop apologizing for wanting to be alone, for needing breaks, and for indulging in a couple of hours in a coffeeshop.  “You think it’s the coffee?” Helgoe writes about the coffeehouses.  “Half.  More than half of us now have a place to be publicly introverted.”

Tadpole Update #3: We have Froglets!!

It’s been an exciting morning for us in the Pabis household!  We just checked on our tadpoles, and two of them have FRONT AND BACK legs!!  This happened overnight because we looked at them yesterday.  Two days ago I also took photos, and they had back legs then too.  You can see those photos and the ones I took this morning below.  I have put the dates on the photos for your reference.

We are still not completely sure what they are.  They look so much like the fowler toads in our yard, but I think the toad’s cycle would be shorter.  My guess is a Southern Chorus Frog.  I’m going to send this to a couple of experts, and I’ll get back to you on that! (Update: After looking at some more photos in a book and online, we’re thinking they are fowler toads.)

To see the first set of photos, click here, and for the second update, click here.