Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Subway Experiment

We've been trying a little experiment at my house. It's called "The Subway Experiment" and otherwise known as "Going Out to Dinner without Major Incident." The hypothesis we are testing is that it is possible to eat out without someone yelling, running around, crying, or needing to leave the restaurant mid-meal. We also believe it is possible to do this consistently. It's that last part, the consistently part, that is tricky because no matter how hard we work to control all possible variables, we just can't figure out what triggers our eat-out failures.


To be totally honest, mealtimes are never easy, regardless of where we are having them. They can be especially tough for kids with sensory issues: the smells, the visual stimuli, the tastes, the auditory information, the tactile input, the need to sit still even though muscles might be jumpy and ready to move. And for Sky, dinner time, which comes at the end of a long day of working hard to keep it together, is the hardest meal of all. So at dinner time, we might see any or all of the following: constant vocalization or humming, inappropriate conversation, total focus on the baby (or any other distraction) and not on his food, aimless wandering (away from the table), crying, anger about what is on his plate or how it is arranged, and an inability to finish his meal because he is too tired (he will literally leave the table and fall asleep on the couch within 30 seconds). Or, if we are lucky, we might see none of these things.

It helps a lot to have food on the table and ready to eat by 5:30. This means I start cooking the minute I walk in the door some days. I cook instead of Ren because I have much better timing. By far the superior cook, Ren creates meals that can hit the table anywhere between 5:30 and 7. Unfortunately, most days, we can't manage such a wide margin of error. On the days when I can control for all conceivable variables, we are able to get through a meal with only one or two minor incidents of inappropriate behavior.

When we go out, though, these incidents can be greatly magnified and occur in quick succession. So I've been trying different things.

Before we exit the car and head into any restaurant, I always ask the same question: "What are the rules of the restaurant?" and the kids dutifully respond: "No running, no yelling, stay in our seats, listen to Mommy and Daddy." They say this with such precision, you'd think we were the Von Trapp family minus the singing. But despite their apparent awareness of what is expected, the moment we step into the restaurant, things often deteriorate quickly. Some days, Sky literally takes laps around the restaurant. Most days, he yells, especially when he is in the bathroom (the echo is appealing). Occasionally, he crashes into things and falls on the floor. Rarely, he discovers a new pain or problem that makes it impossible for him to do anything but cry. These are all understandable (though not acceptable) behaviors given his sensory challenges. Unfortunately, none of them are appropriate in a restaurant, nor to they contribute to a relaxed dining experience for us or for the people around us.

For a long time, then, we avoided eating out altogether. As Sky has made progress with OT and at school, we have tried to slowly but surely help him have successful dining out experiences. That's where the Subway Experiment comes in. We've decided to start small, with Subway, and work our way up.

When it became clear my review of the rules of the restaurant and a pep talk about proper social skills weren't working, I tried mixing it up.

Experiment 1:
Assigning tasks. Sky's job was to help order and Pink P's was to help carry the food to the table. Fail. (Running back and forth to the table, inability to settle down and eat).

Experiment 2:
Practicing silence (this has proven effective in other settings). They weren't supposed to talk while I was ordering and during the first ten minutes of eating. Fail. (Screaming).

Experiment 3:
Dinner with video game to distract Sky from various visual and auditory stimuli. Fail. (No food was consumed).

Experiment 4:
Hands-on guidance. I tried holding their hands, walking them to the table, and helping them get completely situated before going to order. Fail. (This one was close. We made it through the meal and almost out the door before Sky decided to act like a race car and crash into the toy display and numerous chairs on his way back from the bathroom).

For my next experiment, I plan to make a visual schedule that incorporates the rules of the restaurant and all the steps involved in a successful eating-out experience. And, if that doesn't work, I may employ the weighted vest and preemptive brushing.

And while we still haven't had a successful Subway visit, we have had a couple of successful trips to sit-down restaurants (two, to be exact), so now I am wondering if my experiment is patently flawed. Maybe it's the abundance of yellow. Maybe it's the air dryers in the bathrooms. Maybe it's the manufactured bread smell. Maybe it's Subway...

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Confession


It has only been in the past couple of years that I learned about the elf on the shelf and how effective he could be. While I can certainly understand the appeal of having my kids behave just because they think a fake elf reports their every move to Santa Claus, I have not felt particularly compelled to employ elf powers at my house. First of all, I know I would consistently forget to move the darn thing, disappointing the kids every morning. Sometimes I'm not good with the small details. Just tonight, Sky and Pink P had to put twenty-one tiny ornaments on our advent tree. That's right. I only remembered to have them do this on December 1st, and for the twenty-one days since then, the tree has gone undecorated. Until today. Now they are super excited about Christmas because they had no idea it was so close.

Second, I have serious doubts the elf would produce better behavior at our house. I think it would only produce bad behavior in rooms without judgmental elves in them. I find the go-pick-out-which-present-under-the-tree-you-want-me-to-return-to-the-store approach to be exceedingly effective.

Besides the hassle that shelf elf represents to me, I am also leery of lying to the kids on a daily basis. Sure I have to evade the truth on occasion when discussing Christmas with the kids. Sky is dubious. Last year, he expressed his skepticism about Santa on a number of occasions, and I was very, very close to spilling the beans (if you don't know what I mean by this, for the love of God, stop reading now!!). Very rarely does one of them ask me directly whether Santa exists or not. If they do, I say perfectly noncommittal things like, "People say Santa has helpers that work as mall elves." Or "I've heard he flies at the speed of sound, but I am not sure I believe it." Actively promoting the elf myth would make it harder for me to keep my conscience clear.

Lest you think I've always been this concerned with promoting trust and honesty in the relationship I have with my children, I feel I should confess a few things about Christmases past. In the spirit of Christmas, don't judge me too much!

1. I've used The Bumble to scare small children.

The year Sky was three, we let him watch Rudolph by himself while we struggled to get the tree up and the lights on. He'd seen the movie the previous year, and we knew he liked it. We hadn't taken into consideration the developmental changes of the intervening twelve months. During the movie, we didn't hear so much as a peep from Sky. He wandered into the room just as we put the final touches on the tree and I pulled out our animated plush Bumble and pushed the button. After a growl and some blizzard sounds, it launched into a rendition of "Holly Jolly Chirstmas," perhaps one of the cheeriest Christmas songs ever. The cute Bumble with its cheery song completely freaked Sky out. It freaked him out so much, we thought he was pretending. He wasn't. So, the Bumble went into the closet, and whenever Sky got out of line, all we had to do was go crack the door to the closet. We didn't have to say a word or, gasp, push the button to trigger the awesome song. I'm not proud, but it sure did work!

2. I believe in manipulating the Christmas wish list.

Sky and Pink P have birthdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I start shopping early. As a hopeless bargain shopper, I buy things on sale and then begin the delicate process of making sure they ask Santa for the toy I already purchased. So in early November, I say, for example, "Sky, wouldn't it be awesome if Santa brought you X? Let's write a letter to him and ask for it." After Sky and Pink P write the letters, I occasionally mention the toys and talk about how exciting it would be if Santa brought them. When we go to visit Santa, I remind them of what they wrote in their letters, so they can remember to ask for it.

In short, I completely brainwash my children. Every year, I think it will no longer work, but it always does. I feel kinda bad, but it sure is nice to have control over what toys become part of our lives and how they impact our wallet.

3. I've bought Christmas presents from Santa while my kids were in the cart and then lied about it (of course).

Sometimes when I am shopping with the kids, I find a deal that can't be passed up! So I say, "Look, Sky, this is the exact present your cousin wants for Christmas! We'd better get it for him!" This is followed by, "Wow! This is a great toy! Maybe you should ask Santa for one, too." And after that, I employ the tactics described in number 2. Since Pink P doesn't have a cousin her age, and since Sky and his cousin are interested in totally different things, it rarely works anymore, but it sure was nice when it did.

So, no, I don't use that cunning little elf, but I'm no angel. Shhh... don't tell my kids!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ten Things that Suck about Childhood Asthma

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that childhood asthma sucks. For those of you who haven't experienced it first-hand, here's a list of the ten things I hate about having a kid with asthma. (This list doesn't include the most obvious thing I hate about it, and that is that my kid sometimes can't breathe and there's very little I can do about it.)


Triggers:

When your kid is diagnosed with asthma, you are told to avoid the things that trigger her asthma. Well, duh? Thing is, each person is different, so you have to figure out the triggers for yourself. The common ones include: smoke, dust, humidity, pets, colds, sprays, marker odor, exhaust, exercise, powders, cleaners, mold, crying, perfumes, pollen, food, and meds. So...just about everything. Not only that, but most of these triggers are essentially invisible.

They sent us home from the hospital the first time with a journal so we could track her condition and begin to identify triggers. I tried using it, I really did. But, most days, nothing happened. And on the days something happened, there were no obvious triggers. None at all. So far, the only thing I can say with any confidence is that she is more likely to have an asthma episode if she is already sick. But what causes her to be sick? Are colds turning into asthma or is the asthma causing cold-like symptoms? Who knows? I know I don't.


The symptoms
:

The triggers are as nebulous as the symptoms. During our "education," we learned to look for symptoms that Pink P might be headed for a flare up. They include: coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightening, wheezing, reduced activity, and inability to sleep. First of all, Pink P has never been a great sleeper, and she seems to have a cough most of the winter, no matter what, so these two symptoms are not reliable signs.The material tells us that we should look for four or more coughs per minute, obvious sucking of the chest, or increased breathing rate. But by the time we get to any of these symptoms, we are headlong into a flare-up and on our way to the ER. There is no going back. I can't tell you how much it stinks to miss the early warning signs (if there are any) and end up with a kid who struggles for every breath. I can't imagine a more effective producer of mom-guilt!


The "zones":

Green = good. Red = bad. When Pink P is in the hospital, we receive a lot of asthma education. Don't get me wrong. I appreciate being educated, but they make it seem so easy. In theory, Pink P's symptoms should alert me to her triggers and also indicate whether she is in the green, yellow, or red zone. Problem is, as far as I can tell, she is all green until she isn't, and then we end up in the emergency room. Using pretty colors as visual cues does not help me figure out when she is slipping into an episode, so the interventions that should go with each zone end up being only marginally helpful. Once she's old enough to use a peak flow meter, I hope this will get easier. For now, I am hanging on every breath...and cough.


ER:

Once you've misread the triggers and find yourself with a kid whose symptoms clearly indicate an asthma episode, you can only do two things. First, you can give her breathing treatments that include fast-acting meds to reverse the symptoms and get her breathing better. After back-to-back treatments, if the symptoms persist, your only other option is a visit to the ER, particularly since asthma is usually worse at night (and on the weekends at our house, for some reason). There's nothing I like more than a middle-of-the-night or early-morning visit to the ER. Nothing. After many hours of waiting and trying to keep your preschooler happy in the confines of a triage room, you will either be sent home (if the steroid they gave her after 2 hours of waiting works) or admitted (if it doesn't).

My new plan is to start the steroid at home (since we have extra) if Pink is slipping into an episode and hopefully avoid the ER altogether. But, even then, if the steroid doesn't work, we will find ourselves right back in the ER waiting to get admitted. This last go around, Pink P and I spent a total of 9 hours in the ER over the course of two days. Asthma already sucks. I really wish it didn't entail visits to the ER.


Sudden hospital breaks from life:

If your kid can't breathe, she gets to go to the hospital. Pink P doesn't seem to mind so much. She has her own TV and can watch it all day long. The nurses bring her juice whenever she wants it, not to mention the occasional Popsicle. Grandparents and friends come to visit and bring toys. It's not a bad gig (except for that not-being-able-to-breathe part of it). Thing is, when your kid is in the hospital, so are you. This means life as you know it becomes frozen in time and space. The world literally goes on without you, and somehow you just have to manage.


Pulse oximeter readings:

Pulse oximeters measure the level of oxygen saturation in the blood. Healthy kids have pulse oxes 95% or above when awake and 90% or above when asleep. When Pink went to the ER during the first episode, her pulse ox was 87%. Once a kid is hospitalized, she gets her very own personal pulse oximeter. Forget the fact that she hates keeping the darn thing on her finger or toe or the fact that it makes going to the bathroom that much more challenging. The pulse oximeter also constantly reminds us of how little Pink P can breathe. Plus, it records and transmits her stats to a command center, so whenever her levels drop too low, a nurse is notified, and Pink P has to use supplemental oxygen. As long as pulse ox readings are consistently below 95% (awake) and 90% (asleep), you can't leave the hospital. There is no get-out-of-jail-free card. You just have to wait and try not to obsess about that little number.


Nasal oxygen cannula:

Supplemental oxygen comes through a nasal cannula--a little tube that is wrapped around the head and placed into the nose. You can imagine how much Pink P doesn't like this thing. It's uncomfortable, and it smells funny, and every time she moves, it comes out (unless they tape it to her face which just seems cruel). Every time it comes out or she removes it, her pulse ox drops and the nurse shows up. Sometimes the nurse is not happy to see us. We've had the biggest screams/cries at the hospital over nasal oxygen.


Medication doses and frequency:

Figuring out the medicine protocol for a kid with asthma requires a graduate degree. At least, this is what I assume since the instructions read like a GRE logic problem. There are a lot of if...thens involved when dispensing this medicine. If your child is in the yellow zone, then use X two times, ten minutes apart. If she is in the red zone, then use Y instead. Pink P left the hospital this time with five different medicines prescribed to her. That's a lot to keep track of! My favorite is the steroid. The instructions on the bottle read: "Take 6.7 ml every day x 2 days, then 3.3 ml x 2 days, 1.7ml x 2 days, 0.8 ml x 2 days, then stop." I don't know about you, but none of the spoons or syringes we have for dispensing medicine is that accurate.


The nebulizer:

Kids under the age of five take most of their asthma control medicines through a nebulizer. I think it's awesome that we live in a day and age when Pink P can get these breathing treatments at home with her very own, very cute seal-shaped nebulizer. Pink P does not share my sentiments. The nebulizer slows her down and cramps her style. Sometimes the treatments can last more than 20 minutes. This means she has to remain in one place for 20 minutes. This wouldn't be so bad if it were only on occasion, but sometimes she has to have these treatments 3 to 5 times a day. To add insult to injury, the mask usually messes up her hair and the steam coming out obscures her view of the television (which is pretty much the only way I can get her to endure the treatments. Thank goodness for PBS Kids On Demand!) This time around in the hospital, I learned that the solution she has to inhale is salty, and the salt burns her lips which are already chapped from the dry hospital air. Note to self, the next time we go to the ER, take lip balm!


Inhaled stimulants:

The medicine that is being inhaled through the nebulizer can cause restlessness, irritability, nervousness, and heart palpitations. In other words, it's a stimulant. There is nothing like a preschooler on speed. Nothing.

*****

I obviously don't have it all figured out, but this is life with asthma as I see it today!

12.21.11 Update: There may be hope after all. Our new pediatric pulmonologist tells me that if we can get Pink P's preventative meds dosed right, we may actually avoid emergencies. That'd be awesome. She also burst my bubble of denial by pointing out that a near-constant cough, three trips to the ER, two hospital stays, and repeated need for steroids means this is not a mild case of asthma.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Birthday Party, Part 3: The Moral

In the end, seventeen of Sky's friends and two of Pink P's joined us for skating. I anticipated Sky would melt down at least once about not being able to skate and that Pink P would melt down about the discrepancy in presents. I also figured neither kid would be thrilled about the big skating panda that helped birthday kids celebrate.

I was wrong. But only slightly. Sky didn't melt down about skating. In fact he loved it, and Pink P didn't notice or care about the presents, especially since I had them open them at different times.

Here's what I didn't expect: I didn't expect the woman from the skating rink to narrate the play-by-play panda skate with,"Neither the birthday boy or girl can skate! Look at Pink P struggle! Poor Pink P...." I didn't expect Pink P to have an existential crisis brought on by her newfound ambivalence about skating. Put the skates on. Cry. Take the skates off. Cry. Repeat. It didn't help that we had to travel half way around the rink to get from our party table to the kids' practice rink. Every time Pink P took off her skates she insisted on going back to the table and putting on her shoes. Then, by the time she walked back to watch her friends in the practice rink, she was ready to try again. So back to the table to put on the skates. Fortunately, while Pink P and I were walking back and forth, Sky had a blast skating with his friends.

In fact, Sky kept it together pretty well. Until time for cake. The very thing I expected to be our saving grace was nearly our downfall. It all started out just fine. The kids gathered at the tables, taking a break from various forms of skating. Candles in place, four for Pink P and seven for Sky, the group started singing. By the time we got to, "Happy birthday de~ar Pink and Sky~...," half of Pink P's candles and three of Sky's seven had fallen victim to a boy who took advantage of each "ha" in "happy birthday" to blow them out. By the end of the song, few lit candles remained. Puzzled, Pink P blew out the remaining two with a shrug of her shoulders. Oblivious, Sky took a moment to make a wish. In that moment, the little girl in his class who wants to marry him, ducked around him and blew out the rest of his candles.

I honestly didn't see that coming.

So, of course, I didn't react quickly enough. If I had, I could have gotten my hands on the matches and relit his candles. But I didn't. Sky leaned in to blow and only then realized the candles had all been extinguished. From the look on his face, I could tell he thought Pink P had done it. Before things devolved into sibling warfare, I had to intervene. With no other recourse, I told him his friends had accidentally blown them out when they were singing. For a brief moment, I thought he might take it okay.

He didn't.

Instead, he stood up and removed himself from the group. (For what it's worth, his ability to remove himself before melting down shows that our time at OT is paying off). Ren tried to soothe him while I corralled the rest of the kids. It wasn't until most of the kids had eaten most of the cake that we managed to secure more candles and reenact the song and candle-blowing sequence. Then, and only then, could Sky be pacified. And after a few bites of cake, he was back to skating with his friends.

In the end, everything turned out okay. And what did we learn? We learned you can never really anticipate what will go wrong, so you might as well stop trying.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Birthday Party, Part 2: Never Underestimate the Power of a Good Cake

Perhaps the woman at the skating rink had a point. What if the kids didn't like skating? Maybe we should go on a test run before the actual party. I left the rink with every intention of taking Sky and Pink P skating the next Saturday. But then a friend pointed out that they might hate skating, so maybe we should wait to make that discovery on the day of the party. After all, any ill-feelings toward skating would naturally be overshadowed by the excitement of friends, cake, and presents. Caaaake... Yummy cake with thick, rich butter cream icing. Mmmm... (See, you've forgotten about skating already, haven't you?)

Venue secured, the next challenge: create a guest list. I planned to have Sky invite all the boys in his class, and Pink P all the girls in hers. A perfect plan except for one minor detail, neither Sky nor Pink P liked it. Sky wanted to invite everyone, and Pink P only wanted to invite two friends. Two friends! This meant the ratio would be 11:1 . No matter how I looked at it, I couldn't imagine how gift opening wouldn't be a complete disaster. Pink P with her two presents, Sky with his 22. That's twenty more presents for Sky than for Pink P, and even though she doesn't get caught up in issues of fairness like her brother does, I was pretty sure she'd notice that difference.

So, I tried reasoning with them some more. I suggested Pink P add a couple of her play date friends and Sky focus on the boys. Nothing doin.' Neither kid showed any sign of budging. So, we mailed 22 invites to Sky's classmates and 2 to Pink P's, and I spent the two weeks until the party trying to get Pink P to add some friends. She wouldn't be persuaded (until of course the day before the party when she decided she wanted to invite the friends I'd been suggesting all along. Sigh.)

Since the skating rink wouldn't let us bring in snack food, and since they provided the decorations, the only other preparation I had to do was to get a cake. (You might question my choice to have a skating party for kids who can't skate, but you have to agree that I'm good at finding a low-maintenance party).

We have a secret weapon when it comes to cakes. Big Sissy is artistic and icing is one of her best mediums. Each year, the kids make a request, and each year Big Sissy delivers in style. This year, they wanted Cars 2 and Hello Kitty.

In previous years, they've requested Star Wars (Sky, 6):



(sorry for the uncool whiting out of their names--they haven't given me permission to tell stories about them online, so I have to keep them anonymous)

Hello Kitty (Pink P, 2):



Speed Racer (Sky, 5):




Shinkansen (Sky, 2):



And when Sky turned 1, Jo Jo the Clown (Ren and I were fascinated by Jo Jo--was it a boy? was it a girl? Sky didn't care, but the mystery was too intriguing for us. It wasn't until the episode when they went swimming that we finally knew the truth.):



Big Sissy pulled through once again, and made this for their party:




If all else failed, at least we would have a cool cake! Preparations in place, we eagerly anticipated the big day.


To be continued...

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Birthday Party, Part 1

Besides managing to avoid decorating eggs for Easter until this year, we also managed to avoid giving Sky a big birthday party with friends. Ever since we moved back to the US when Sky was in preschool, he's asked to have a party and invite his whole class. In past years, I have been able to come up with plausible alternatives to the big party, but not this year.

In a valiantly misguided effort to make the whole process slightly less painful, I decided to do a combined party for Sky and Pink P since their birthdays are within a month of each other. Given Ren's undying habit of being the perfect host no matter what the occasion, I also decided we could not have the party at home. Before you start thinking I'm a great wife because I'm looking out for Ren's well being and trying to help reduce his stress, I should probably admit that my reasons were purely selfish. Whenever we have company, Ren turns into uber-host (think Soup Nazi on steroids) and becomes impossible to live with for weeks beforehand (and sometimes even after).

[Okay, so I know you don't believe me on this, so here are a few pictures from Sky's first birthday:]




In the top left picture, notice the large rice cake that he pounded himself and decorated in celebration of his first son's first birthday. And then there's the money, calligraphy brush, and calculator that Ren used to determine Sky's future strengths. The other two pictures are the foods (red bean rice and pot stickers) he made by hand in preparation for Sky's first birthday party, which, by the way, only included a few family and friends.]

So in a stab at self preservation, I suggested we have a roller skating party. Sky and Pink P embraced the idea. After all, they'd always wanted to try skating.

Now, I know you're thinking I'm insane to plan a skating party for two kids who can't skate, one of whom also has some serious sensory integration issues. And you are probably right. I mean, can you just imagine proprioceptive-seeking behavior on skates?

The lady at the skating rink didn't know about Sky's challenges, but she was still leery--leery enough to try to talk me out of making the reservation.

"This isn't our recommended party for four-year olds," she pointed out, not at all impressed by my forced enthusiasm.

"Only some of the kids will be four," I said. "Most of them will be seven," Then I foolishly added, "My kids can't wait to try skating."

She arched her eyebrows, "Are you really sure you want to do this?"

Of course I am. Why wouldn't I be?


Monday, December 5, 2011

Top 10 Lessons for a New ASD Mom

I'm calling this blog entry "Top 10 Lessons for a New ASD Mom," but I'm not really a new ASD mom. In fact, I've been an ASD mom for 5 or 6 years now. I just didn't know it. Next week marks a year since we got Sky's diagnosis. I've learned a lot of important lessons over the last twelve months, so I thought I'd share them.

Top 10 Lessons for a New ASD Mom

10. We're actually not bad parents.

It's so much easier to see this when you realize your kid is on the spectrum and not ignoring you and doing annoying things just to drive you crazy.

9. When going to case conference meetings at school, it helps to take the following: written documentation, your spouse, a baby (if available), a copy of the special education laws for your state, outspoken fellow moms who aren't afraid to piss people off, a notebook, and your sense of humor (you can't use it there, but it sure is good to have).

8. Sometimes the five senses can be our enemy.

Sky will probably never be much good at sports that require him to run around in a bright gym full of loud voices and echoes. But, on the bright side, he can hear a cotton ball hit the floor two rooms away. Plus, that kid can sing!

7. The best tools are often right under our noses.

I now have a whole new appreciation for surgeon scrub brushes, chewing gum, and just about anything small enough to fit into a little boy's pocket and keep his hands busy when he's walking to and from his desk at school.

6. There are just some people who deserve to be ignored.

These are the people who thought there must be something wrong with Sky but who now refuse to believe the diagnosis and instead imply we are the reason for Sky's problems and are using Sky's "label" to get special treatment for him.

5. Johnny Cash could find a pretty good cult following in kids with sensory issues.

4. Everyone needs a mantra.

Ours is: "It's an explanation, not an excuse." Constantly reminding ourselves of this has helped us keep Sky's diagnosis and all that comes with it in perspective.

3. Social stories really do work despite the fact they have two-dimensional characters and lack a compelling narrative.

2. We are not alone.

There are a lot of folks out there who know what it is like, including some rockin' mom bloggers (and some dads, too) who have helped make this all just a little bit easier.

1. It gets better.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Christmas Story

The coming of the Christmas season reminded me of a heartwarming story from our time in Japan. In the spirit of peace and goodwill for all, I wanted to share it with you.

Hoping to get Sky started on learning Japanese characters, Ren signed him up for the Benesse Kid's Challenge (Kodomo charenji), a mail-order supplemental study series. Each month, we received a book, a workbook, and some kind of hands-on activity. Sky was thrilled to read the fun stories, put the stickers in the right places, and use the cool gadgets that came.


Take this guy, for example, even now, every night at 7:30, he reminds Sky it's time for bed. He came with a lesson about telling time and schedules. Every month brought a different theme related to the season, so the January issue was all about New Year's celebrations, the April issue was about the first day of school, and the July issue focused on stag beetles.

By December of the year we spent in Japan, I eagerly anticipated the new issue's arrival. When I first took it out of the envelope, I was pleasantly surprised to see the theme was Christmas (as opposed to other end-of-the-year festivities). "Ahhh, it's a Christmas tree," I thought, "Sky will be so excited."


Then, I looked a little closer. Wait, a minute. Is Shimajiro eating a Mister Donuts donut? And, aagh! What's he doing in the other picture?

The subtitle on the cover asks: "Where does the food we eat go?"I started flipping through the pages and soon discovered that the theme of the month was the digestive tract, and the focus? Poop. How is it made? What color is it? Where does it go? What happens if you wait too long to take care of your business and you get backed up? This issue had everything a kid (or anyone, for that matter) would ever want to know about poop.

Soon disappointment set in. All the other months had themes that tied in nicely to the season. But poop and Christmas? I just wasn't seeing it.

Then I saw this:



The instructions read: "Let's make a poop calendar! What kind of poop did you make today? Read the key below and color the circle for each day." And the key, in case you can't guess by looking, explains: "For days your poop is shaped like a banana, use yellow. For days when your poop has another shape, use blue. On days you don't poop, use red." It was brilliant. It taught kids to follow directions, to recognize and apply the appropriate colors to the appropriate circles, and to be aware of their bodily functions. This exercise even had the potential to teach kids to recognize patterns!! And the bonus? They end up with a colorfully decorated Christmas tree.

Now, I know I can be cynical, but I am pretty darn sure the only reason the folks at Benesse decided on Christmas and poop for the December 2008 issue is because of this chart. I'm not sure why I was surprised, though. This is the country that brought us Everyone Poops, after all. And that's what I love about my life. I couldn't make this sh*t up if I tried.