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Dear Kids at School

Forever Family, Go Girl! - Allison Kenny - August 30, 2016

Dear Kids at School,

I know that when you see my little girl, you notice all the ways she is different from you. You see her glasses and her funny walk. You notice that she talks fast and loud, that she grabs the stuff from your hands without asking, how she sometimes tells everybody what to do. You see that it doesn’t take much to make her cry or make her mad or make her break the rules.  You notice that she is different than you. A different race. Has a different kind of family. Gets pulled from class for special ed. Why is she so weird…right? That’s what you want to know. Why is she so different?

Well, these aren’t the only things that make her unique. If you look closely, she has other qualities that might be harder to see. When you say hi, she’ll never ever ignore you. She’ll never leave you outside her house and say you can’t come in to play. She’d never ever want you to feel forgotten. In fact, my girl goes out of her way to make everyone feel special all the time. It’s her superpower. At home, she likes to put the toothpaste on the toothbrush for me and leave it out. A little surprise for me to find at bedtime. She leaves me notes and treasures and drawings of hearts that I find all over the house.  When our dogs were scared of the doggy door, she invented a contraption to hold it open for them. The first time she rode a horse, she petted it and kissed it and thanked it for the ride. You see, my girl’s heart is bigger than the heart of most people. That’s what actually makes her different. She’s sweeter than most. We could all learn something from her.

Another superpower she has is courage. She’s braver than most. Did you know the school you all go to is her 5th school in 4 years? She had to be brave and start over with new classrooms, new teachers and new kids every time. She did the same thing with families. Can you imagine walking into the house of brand new parents when you were 6 years old? Seeing your new room for the first time and wondering what this life would be like? Learning to trust brand new mommies and let them take care of you? That’s what my girl did. She had the courage to start a whole new life in a brand new town.  She had to say good-bye to everyone and everything she knew before. These are big good-byes. She had to have the courage to feel all those sad feelings and let her heart break so it could start to heal.

I can’t end this letter without talking about how hard my daughter works. You know that math packet you just got for 2nd grade homework? The same page of problems that takes you 15 minutes, takes her an hour. Oh no…it’s not because she is dumb. It’s because she was born 4 months early. Totally not her fault! But when kids are born early, their brains don’t get enough time to grow so they learn differently. Can you believe she never gives up? She doesn’t get to. She just has to work harder and harder- yes, harder than you so that she can learn the same things. She also works hard at making friends. She didn’t get to see people being good to each other when she was little, so she didn’t learn about things like sharing or taking turns like you did. She works very hard at this. She has a coach who comes every week and helps her learn to play well. She’s getting better and better at it. She has to work harder than most kids to do things like chew her food, tie her shoes, or even understand directions the teacher gives her. Pretty much all day, she’s working super hard to do things that most of you can do with no problem.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could cheer her on? What would it be like if she knew you were rooting for her instead of teasing her or leaving her out? What if you could see her sweetness, her courage, how hard she works?  What if you could help her along instead of push her down? I bet you’d feel good about yourself then. You could be so proud to know you were a good friend and accepted someone who is different than you. It would mean the world to her and  you…well, you would get a lot out of it, too. When we open our hearts and act kindly, we get to be happy. We get to be connected. We get to have more fun. How does that sound? You with me?

I can’t wait to see what you decide to do.

All the best,

Allison
Go Girls! Co-Founder
Kidpower Instructor
Mama

P.S. Speaking of having more fun,  join me in Berkeley on Sept 25th and see me perform live on stage. I’ll be celebrating magic and power we all have to be ourselves. Go Girls!  New to my blog? Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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How I Told My Daughter That She Has Special Needs

Forever Family, Go Girl! - Allison Kenny - January 25, 2017

We are sitting at the dining room table for yet another teary session of math homework. She has used up all her focusing tools- chewing gum, lighting a peppermint candle, choosing which problem to start with…nothing is helping. Then I see the light in her eyes change. They grow dark and serious in that intense way I know so well. She is fighting for truth.

“Mom, why can the kids around me do math but I can’t? I learn it but I can’t remember it. The other kids remember. Why, mom? It doesn’t make any sense.” There is shame in these words. And desperation.

I’m not planning to have this conversation today. I didn’t wake up knowing that I would be called on to deliver this news in a way she can digest it. My wife and I are still digesting it ourselves.

We go through periods of intense grief and even anger about her special needs. Spending time with other people’s kids can trigger it. After a morning babysitting my dear friend’s toddler, I spend the afternoon sobbing. This three-year-old has social skills that are more advanced than my eight-year-old. We travel to Texas to visit cousins and breathe through frustration as my daughter’s anxiety and hypervigilance exhaust everyone in the house. We go to IEP meeting after meeting and are overwhelmed by how many professionals are engaged each week in supporting my kiddo’s learning. After weeks of her violent PTSD fits, we refocus on caring for ourselves so that my daughter’s needs don’t take over our entire lives.

More like this: Even though My Wife & I Get Away, Our Daughter Makes Us Pay

But here she is, asking for the truth. So, I share with her what gets me through my moments of fear and grief and doubt and anger. I share with her the truth about her resilience.

“I’m telling you the truth. Are you listening? Do you remember how you were born very tiny and that you came out early? One thing that happens when babies are born early is that their brains don’t get enough time to develop. This is not the baby’s fault! This is nobody’s fault. It happens to many babies who are born early. It means your brain has worked extra hard to develop and grow ever since you were born. And guess what? Your brain is doing very well. Very very well. That’s because you have a powerful quality in you. You are FIERCE. That means you are somebody who doesn’t give up. Even as a teeny little baby, you were so fierce that you fought to live. You fought to grow. And now, you are fighting to learn math. It is harder for you. You are right about that. But working hard and not giving up are wonderful qualities to have. You also have mama’s who love you and teachers to help when things feel hard. You are not alone.”

I hadn’t researched what to say. I hadn’t prepared for this question. I just opened my heart up and felt around for what she needed to hear. Of course what really happened is that I said the words I needed to hear.

I think healing the dissonance between our fantasy of parenting and the truth of it will be a long road for my wife and I. But moments to ignite our empathy and focus on our daughter’s amazing gifts help. They help a lot.

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If Your Daughter Fears Being Fat

Girl Power, Go Girl!, Self-care - Allison Kenny - March 10, 2016

How do you respond when your daughter says, “a boy at school called our teacher fat. I NEVER want to be too fat!”

Sigh.

There are so many problems with that sentence. Of course we don’t know the factual details of what  went down- we are only getting a glimpse. But let’s say that’s exactly what happened. 3 reasons that sentence at the dinner table made my skin crawl and my heart ache.

  1. that a young boy would body shame an adult female teacher
  2. that the word “fat” is being hurled as an insult at all
  3. that my chronically underweight first grade daughter is afraid of being “fat” (or more accurately, afraid of being teased by boys for being “fat”)

There is one big reason my daughter’s story made me feel hopeful, though. Empowered even. And that’s that after 8 years of struggling with my own disordered eating, body shame and fat fears, I get to respond from a place of fierce compassion and share what I know to be true. Continue Reading

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Happy Adoption Day…Part 1

Forever Family - Allison Kenny - October 22, 2015

imageI’d dreamt about this day for  years. I didn’t know what to expect but I knew it would feel big. “Forever Family” kind of says it all. BAM! Tied for life. We’d been told by our social workers, friends who had adopted and family therapist that the lead up to the actual adoption could be a hard one.

“You might doubt your decision,” we were told.

“Your child will really start to act out,” we were warned.

“Mostly you won’t remember why you wanted to do this in the first place,” we heard again and again.

Wow. Good times. Can’t wait. And yet, here we are on the other side. Lynn brought our adoption certificate to our daughter’s school this morning and officially changed her name. We’re REALLY a family now. So how’d we get from there to here? Here’s a timeline…

Monday, Oct. 5th

Got an e-mail from our social worker that after fostering Squirrel for one year and 2 days, a court date had been set to finalize the adoption. It would be Oct. 16th. We had less than 2 weeks. Tears of relief, joy, excitement. No more weekly social worker visits. No more reports about us. No more writing for permission to travel, cut her hair or give her medicine when she’s sick. We were free! We invited all our family and friends who had adopted. We hugged a lot. We felt like badasses.

Monday, Oct. 12th

The Squirrel’s best friend asked me, “Are you really her mom?” I stayed calm and asked a few questions. I learned Squirrel had been telling kids on the playground about her birth family and making them promise not to tell. She started feeling different because she has two moms…and is being adopted…and misses where she’s from. Sigh. I hoped we’d have a little more time before the identity angst really started in.image

I HATE being questioned about whether my mothering is real. When you tried getting pregnant for eight years before taking two more to adopt, this question is very loaded…even if the one who asked it is a 6-year-old girl. I put my feelings aside and talked it through with the girls. Then I put my daughter to bed and cried my eyes out. Who knows if I’ll ever feel like a “real” mom.

Tuesday, Oct. 13th

We learned that despite their best efforts, two weeks notice was (of course!) not enough time for most of our family members to fly in from out of state to be at the adoption. I felt deeply sad and afraid. This would be a long road with this kid. Will we get the help we need? Will we ever really feel like a family? It feels like we’ve established a strong attachment, but will her loss and grief ultimately be too much? Fear started eating me alive. I cried most of the day until I picked her up from school. Then we went to family therapy. Help! Help! Help!

Wednesday, Oct. 14th

I met Squirrel at school before the end of the day to help her with “sharing day.” I’d arranged with her teacher to be there and help her present photos of her birth family to the class. She told them all about her past mother, siblings, cousins, grandma, and Aunties. Her energy was focused and confident—she needed her new friends at school to know all this about her. She fielded their questions with the answers we’d rehearsed in therapy. “I used to have a dad.” “I live in Oakland now because there were some problems.” “I don’t want to talk about that part.” She asked for my help only once.

I stayed silent as she spoke her truth even though it was painful to me. Wouldn’t it be amazing if she wanted to tell all her friends about her fabulous new moms and that she’d be getting adopted Friday? WOO-HOO!!!!

I also felt proud of her. And moved by how hard this week must be for her. I’ve never gone through what she has.

It was getting very, very real. I think we were all terrified.


Thursday, Oct. 15th

imageA dear friend of many years gave me some great perspective. “Of course you are panicking and crying uncontrollably and exhausted and feeling alone and slightly desperate. You are giving birth tomorrow…right? Any other mother pregnant with a 7-year-old would feel all those things. Give yourself a break. You’ll feel better once it’s done.” YES.

My mom and her partner arrived that afternoon after driving for two days to get to us. They brought a truckload of gifts. They hugged us and kissed us and made us feel loved. My mom gushed about how great we were doing and how far Squirrel has come over the year.

That night at bedtime, I asked Squirrel if anything was bothering her or worrying her about the adoption.

She asked what would happen in court.

She asked what it meant to officially be a family.

She asked why we picked her.

She asked what happened to all the kids in the group home where we got her from…”Are they still there waiting Mama?”

“Yes, Baby. Many kids are in foster care all over the country. They are hoping for an adoption day just like you are going to have in the morning. They want a forever family who can keep them safe and love them all their lives. I’m so, so happy we get to be your parents now. I love you more than mermaids love to swim.”

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20 “Good Enough” Self Care Practices for Parents

Self-care - Allison Kenny - March 20, 2015

Al in Mexico squareThe pressure for moms to be perfect is killing me. Not only are we expected to look perfect, parent perfectly, and be perfect wives and mothers at the top of our career, we’re also told that self-care is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING and we should do that perfectly, too.

These expectations make me want to do nothing but binge watch Empire and eat Girl Scout Cookies.

One idea that gets me off the couch and into the world is permission to be “good enough.” When being a foster parent is so overwhelming that I feel myself spinning with the pressure to be and do everything my child never got, I know it’s time for self-care.  Not perfect self-care: daily meditation, power yoga, facials, paleo diet and impeccable organizational systems. But self-care that is “good enough”.

Here’s my current list of things that help me feel just 10% better than I did before.

1. Do No Wrong Day- Well-Fed Woman, Rachel Cole first introduced me to the idea that one day a week could be set aside as “Do No Wrong Day.” We can say to ourselves- “no matter what choice I make or how things turn out, today…I can do no wrong.” I love this and claim it more than once a week if I remember.

2. Three Breaths- Sitting to meditate is like mental torture for me these days but I can almost always take 3 deep breaths. Bonus if I remember to feel my feet on the floor. Amazing how this little action can give my nervous system a break.

3. Lying in the Sun- After school, “The Squirrel” might be running around in circles but I lay down on the picnic blanket in our backyard and feel the sun on my skin. No matter what has happened in our day, the sun is still shining (it is in Oakland anyway) – proof that the bigger world still exists and my big life change is only a speck of dust inside it.

4. Spreadsheets- My dear friend is a master project manager with a big, generous heart. After weeks of seeing Lynn & me in a state of total overwhelm, she asked us “what do you need?” We told her. She put our needs in a spreadsheet and shared it with our community as a Google doc. Now we have friends calling & texting, bringing dinner, babysitting, taking us out, sending gift cards for Munchery or Good Eggs, and even treating us to massages. LIFE CHANGING.

5. Tell the Truth- When people I trust ask how I am, I tell them. Usually my answer is “overwhelmed” or “sad.” Occasionally it’s “like a bad-ass.” Telling the truth about this process has been really important. Most folks who love me assume I’m doing great because they have such faith in me. They aren’t picturing that the friend they think so highly of could be struggling. When I tell them, I feel better and can be open to help.

6. Go Away- I started with leaving 2 nights a week to go swim at the Y or out to dinner with a friend. Sure, at first “The Squirrel” screamed her head off and had to be physically removed from my body so I could get out the door but it was worth it. Now she kisses me on the cheek and says, “Have fun Mommy” before I go. I even took 2 nights away with my best friend and actually relaxed enough to do the yoga and meditation that used to be my norm.

7. Dance with my Kid- Put on music and dance. That’s it.

8. Hug my Dog- Finding comfort in the smallest places.

9. Discipline My Child- Meeting disrespectful behavior with “I turn my ears right off when people talk to me like that” has been my most powerful self-care practice. We draw a hard line against rudeness or violence of any kind in our home. This has been 90% of my self-care in the 5 months of foster parenting.  It’s exhausting but also empowering. I never had to consistently stand up for myself like this before.

10. Pay People to Help Me- We get our house cleaned every other week and pay a neighbor to mow our lawn. Budget priorities for me.

11.  Let Friends Do my Dishes- We love hosting friends and their kids for dinners and playdates every weekend. When they offer to unload our dishwasher, get their own food or even make me a drink, I say “Yes. I’ll let you do that for me.”

12.  Tell Grandma she has to come- Grandmas are magic. Even though ours are far away, we called and asked for the help- “You have to come now!” Letting grandmas show up helps our whole family.

13.  Learn to Say, “Let’s Talk About Something Else”- Some folks love telling every traumatic story they’ve ever heard about foster kids in an effort to connect. Other friends want to hear the nitty gritty about our parenting journey when all I want to do is take a break. Either way, this simple boundary does the trick.

14.  Drink Water- Since my caffeine and sugar intake has gone up quite a bit, this is big one. I like a big plastic cup with a straw.

15.  Take to the Bed Like I Have Tuberculosis – If you know me well, you’ve seen me wave my hand through the air dramatically as I inform you that “I’m taking to bed like I have tuberculosis.” Perhaps I’ve even left you standing in our living room at the end of a super fun evening or I’ve just put “The Squirrel” to bed and it’s only 8:00. Mama needs her sleep! Or maybe I’m just going to read my book or do a little restorative yoga in the bed. Either way…I’m out!

16.  Sing Karaoke in my Living Room- Our kid’s greatest talent is sleeping through anything, including amplified karaoke that we sing just a few feet away from where her head hits the pillow.  Our karaoke set up is very simple.  Lynn bought this little amp and a mic on Amazon.  Then, we just look up the karaoke versions of songs on YouTube, pour some wine, and sing.

17.  Play “Cards against Humanity”- My sister sent this game for Christmas and we’ve never laughed so hard in our lives. Laughing= major self-care.

18.  Get a Cute Haircut- I get compliments on my hair almost every time I leave the house. It helps. That’s it.

19.  Remind Myself How Tired I Am- When I start thinking about how bad I am as a parent or how my kid might never succeed in school or how hard this transition will be on my marriage…I interrupt the thinking with “Oh honey, you are just so tired” and I immediately take to the bed as if I have tuberculosis. For me, negative thinking almost always means I need rest. Reminding myself that I’m just tired takes away the temptation to believe those thoughts are true.

20.  Binge Watch Empire and Eat Girl Scout Cookies- That’s what I did last night and today I have the energy and focus to sit down and write this blog post. I even paid some bills earlier and picked up the house.

See? Good enough self-care. Boom.

 

 

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Becoming the parent she needs me to be

Love Wins - Allison Kenny - March 3, 2015

in the dreamhouseI remember hearing this phrase in our early fost/adopt training.  Let go of the parent you imagined you’d be and become the parent your child needs you to be.

Yikes.  I think I froze then and I’m freezing now.

You mean Christmas might not be pure magic? Hikes in nature might be so triggering that they end in disaster? Vacations might be confusing downward spirals of trauma? Making friends at school may prove a far-off dream? Yup. It turns out parenting an older foster-child requires a new brand of parenting. My dear friend, Doug calls it “extreme parenting” as in jumping out of a plane or bungee jumping over a bridge. Weeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

I thought I was prepared.

All those years facilitating play with children on the Autism spectrum, helping parents integrate play into their daily lives, writing a mindfulness curriculum for kids, leading 1000 Go Girls! through camp… I’ve spent 10 years preparing to be a therapeutic parent. But until I had a screaming, kicking, singing, roaring, grinning, collapsing, endearing, outrageous “squirrel” in my house… I had no idea what that meant.

Turns out it means gifting a massage to her teacher for Valentine’s Day. It means creating such a boring weekly routine that I want nothing more than to rebel and smoke cigarettes on my back porch. It means sending carefully worded, fierce and loving e-mails to her principal, to her therapist, to her social worker, to our social worker, to the school founder, to family members…to anyone on “Team Squirrel.” It means calling school twice daily so she can hear my voice. It means breathing when I want to yell. Talking when I want to hide. Reaching out when I want to go to bed.

Parents of kids with special needs, how do you become the parent your kids need you to be? How do you evolve past selfishness, past embarrassment, past perfectionism? How do you learn the promised lessons of compassion, flexibility and a new perspective on what matters?

For me, I take it an hour at a time. I laugh as much as I can. I remember to kiss my wife. And yes…every once in a while…I smoke a cigarette on my back porch.

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About

- Allison Kenny - January 13, 2015

About this blog…

I started my family in October 2014 when I brought home my 6-year-old soon-to-be-adopted daughter.

After 10 years of trying to make a family the old-fashioned way (at home with my wife and a turkey baster), we decided to dive into the fost-adopt process in Oakland, CA and document the journey right here in the privacy of the internet.

We lovingly refer to our daughter as “The Squirrel” because she’s so squirrelly. She’s also hilarious, kind and the bravest person I’ve ever met.

Trauma Mama? YES. Queer, multiracial family? YES. Committed to caring for myself so I don’t totally lose my mind? YES. Determined to raise a girl who knows her power and loves herself? HELL YES. If you care about this stuff, too…welcome. Why not sort through the wonderful mess together? To me, raising a Go Girl is all about becoming the woman I want my daughter to see.


 

More about me…

Photo credit: Jennifer Graham

Author, Blogger, Entrepreneur, Performer

Since I was a girl, I’ve wanted to write books and make plays for kids. I’ve spent the last 15 years doing just that. I’m the author of Starring Celia, a chapter book about a 4th grade mixed girl who takes center stage and changes her world. I also wrote the Go Squirrel Coloring Book Series for early readers to learn social lessons through the mishaps of a gender creative Squirrel. I’m committed to writing books that star girls of all shapes, colors, sizes and textures so they can see themselves on the page and know how much their stories matter.

In 2002, I co-founded Spotlight: Girls with my dreamy wife, Lynn Johnson. Together, we’ve taught thousands of girls in the San Francisco Bay Area the skills they need to keep themselves safe and stand in the spotlight at Go Girls! Camp, a program we’re working to franchise nationally. I’m also a certified Kidpower instructor, teaching kids all over California how to throw mean words in the trash and set boundaries to keep themselves safe. When I’m not writing, parenting or singing karaoke in my living room, I’m performing with the Living Arts Playback Theater Ensemble in Oakland, CA where I’ve been a company member since 2005.

Let’s Connect!

      

 

 

or e-mail me at allison@spotlightgirls.com

Favorite Posts:

 

 Writing is Also Featured Here:

SheKnows.com– How I Teach My Daughter Age-Appropriate Activism

Foreverymom.com– Dear “Typical” Kids At School

Rookiemoms.com– I’m Human and Other Stuff I Tell Myself When I’m Embarrassed Parenting in Public

Spotlightgirls.com– Kidpower is the Answer to “Girl Drama”

 

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