Getting back on track

Published by Lori Pickert on April 14, 2009 at 12:50 PM

I have read several blog posts recently by parents talking about how sometimes they get off track and their routine starts to drift. (If this doesn’t happen to you, please don’t comment — we don’t want to know!)

How do you get back on track?

When this happens to me, I break the routine, clear away the clutter, and pull my attention back.

Breaking the routine seems key to stopping my inertia slide. We do something really different for a day or two. This usually reenergizes all of us as well. It’s like throwing the windows open and letting the breeze in.

I am always surprised by just how much my attention (or lack of attention) affects what is happening with our days. I set the tone. When I pull my attention back to what is important, their attention follows.

I clear away the clutter from the studio (it does tend to accumulate) and that’s all it takes. No new art materials, no interesting provocation — just a clean table and a clean easel and re-sorted supplies, and they are suddenly drawing and painting and building.

I put my finger on a (dusty) half-completed model that was hidden behind a spilling-over bag of new recyclables and suddenly the maker is deeply involved in finishing it.

I put my finger on a map inside my other son’s project journal and suddenly he remembers he wanted to remake it on giant paper and paint it.

I crack open my own project journal and start reading back, and I remember where I dropped the threads of what we were doing and start picking them back up again.

My attention has gravitational pull.

I set the tone.


Comment by Ellie - Petalplum on April 14, 2009 at 02:03 PM

My attention has gravitational pull!
Arhhhh. this I need to remember in my days, thank you.
Yes, now I think about it - the days when I am low and lack-lustre, so are the kids.

I did a big kid-room tidy and rearrange today - I love the way they start playing new games with the previously hidden away half-forgotten pieces.

Tomorrow I will set a good tone, for myself and for them.

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 14, 2009 at 02:33 PM

a good goal — it’s mine, too. :^)

yes, it’s so funny how tidying their toys or supplies and setting them neatly on a clean shelf makes them so irresistible. things they haven’t looked at in months are suddenly pulled out and used.

i also notice that as they work (and produce clutter), the free space to work in gets smaller and smaller and smaller — and so does their work. soon they are just drawing on a single sheet of paper on the last clear spot in the studio, then *poof* that spot is filled, too, and they’re not working at all! when i clean off the tables, not only do they start working again, but they are working on much larger projects.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on April 14, 2009 at 02:57 PM

I think you're so spot on with setting the tone making the difference. If I'm in a rut, we're in a rut. I have to walk a very fine line between being attentive and squishing her interest out of her with my over-interest. But if I back too far away and do things that she doesn't see as productive, then she won't be productive either and will try to slink off with an electronic device (sort of like her mama). What I'm slowly finding is that a) I need to be doing productive work if I'm not actively involved with her, and housework doesn't count; b) a change in routine is sometimes necessary for both of us; c) social time is more important to her than it is to me, and if she doesn't get it, then we sink into a funk.

I'm also trying to steer her into more visual representation of her work, so the visual reminders trigger more work. She's such a reader, that she'll forget to take the time to do the hands on work that is a more tangible expression of what she's learned. I think having the visual stimulus will help keep her moving forward.

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 14, 2009 at 05:00 PM

sarah, that is such a good observation. i have found the exact same thing. how i occupy my time *away from them* has as much of an effect on them as when we are doing something together. when i am filling my days with reading, making, good conversations, and meaningful projects, so are they!

interesting, too, re: visual representations — not only are they manifestations of things that have been learned, they can also be a way of learning. children can really work out their ideas about something with their hands. it can really engage a different part of their brain.

pre-building/modeling, children can have a pretty vague idea about how something works (say, a Mars rover or a bread-kneading machine); afterward, they really understand how the components work and fit together and they’re able to articulate clearly what they know.

not just with machines or 3D representations, either — detailed maps, a model of a medieval village .. they take the knowledge they’ve gathered and put it to use, bending it this way and that, and really examining it along the way. it also tends to produce questions, which keep driving the whole project.

Comment by Molly on April 14, 2009 at 05:38 PM

Thank you for writing this specifically for me. I hear you, oh wise one.

Comment by Theresa on April 14, 2009 at 07:18 PM

Well, isn't that the God's honest truth. My attention and attitude's gravitational pull is immense around here. I often wish it wasn't, that my kids' attitudes and impetus were more self-directed. My older son is gradually becoming more autonomous. But for my daughter, that simply is not the case. I often read that a mom is the heart of the home and that is true in so many ways. If the heart gets sluggish, then it drags the rest of the body down with it. But a steadily beating (or better yet a racing/pounding) heart can energize everything connected to it. Family metabolism.

Comment by Cathy T on April 14, 2009 at 09:14 PM

This is so true - if I turn off the computer (that is in my kitchen) and get busy with other things, so do the children!

How to get back on track? Good question! I think a break in the routine by going to a playground or a museum or on a hike all help. Clears the air and refreshes both the body and the soul. And yes, certainly cleaning up the clutter helps too!

My older children are gone for the week to camp so today the younger ones and I went to a museum to find out more about dinosaurs. My four year old wanted to ask questions to the museum docents but no one was around - we looked at the dinosaur exhibit and read a little of what was on the plaques. The size of the dinosaurs is what struck him the most; ones are larger than he and there are some that are smaller than him. He thought that was cool. The toes or claws on the feet also were interesting to him. Now I get to figure out how to take that information and bring it back home.... I think we'll make tracks of our own with paint and a long piece of paper. Tomorrow is supposed to be nice once again. Love this blog, it inspires me!

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 15, 2009 at 12:08 AM

lol, molly. ;^) ((returns bow))

theresa — family metabolism! perfect!

cathy, did you have your sketching stuff with you at the museum? ;^)

and thank you! i really appreciate that. :^)

Comment by debra on April 15, 2009 at 01:08 AM

YES! unfortunately, in an anticlimactic slog, post-houseguests and mid-nasty cold, i have been depending on my girls to generate their own play, work, creativity, which they can certainly do for short periods of time, but it didn't take long for my temporarily negative view of things (too tired! too achey! too sad!) to pull them down with me - a crystal clear illustration of the downside of that gravitational pull.

i lurk here daily, and really appreciate the inspiration and the conversation that takes place in this space. thank you!

Comment by SnippetyGibbet on April 15, 2009 at 01:33 AM

I believe that is profoundly true. thanks for the reminder.

Comment by Karen on April 15, 2009 at 01:45 AM

What a great post - we shifted gears radically today, by prepping our porch for a new coat of varnish (scraping, lots of scraping) and using our plastic eggs for a just-because treasure hunt... after reading your post, I see how important it was for us to break our routine, in order to get back on track.

PS My blog is at, for some reason url bar rejected it as being invalid.

Comment by Deirdre on April 15, 2009 at 02:04 AM

Yes Yes Yes Yes.

"I set the tone." I try to remember that, especially when I don't like the tone in my home. Some good friends and I were discussing this around Xmas---how we have to consciously create joy in our families because nothing influences the mood in our homes as much as our own moods.

And clear space---how true that is for any artist. You need space---mentally and physically---in order to create. We just moved our dining room table into storage in the basement in order to set up more space. And I'm finding I have to be fiercely protective of any "white space" in our home because it will immediately become filled or piled on.

I find myself sneaking boxes to good son is as much a pack-rat as I am. If he sees me box anything, he'll lift it up and say "This would be perfect for..." or "I was planning to use this to make..."
And he would...but there is too much. Are your boys any better at letting go of their own stuff, and any suggestions on this?

Comment by Mountaineer Country on April 15, 2009 at 02:49 AM

I do this! When things slow down, when attitudes (my daughter's as well as my own) regarding school need adjusting, I clear clutter. And, most of the time, my house seriously needs it at that point. It stagnates our creativity. I just never quite thought about it before now. Your post was like a giant lightbulb.



Comment by Dawn on April 15, 2009 at 03:56 AM

Oh, the clean up! Yes. It works every time around here too!
So tomorrow I am going to get on that clean up!!
"I set the tone"... so very. very true!
Thanks once again Lori!

Comment by Kerry on April 15, 2009 at 04:39 AM

This is completely true for us, as well. Last week we took a few days "off" and I totally cleared off our work table and cleared out the room. Projects had been piling up since January, and I could no longer think in that space. On Monday, the kids were just literally sighing with pleasure at a perfectly clear work space! I didn't have to do anything else - new ideas started emerging immediately. My daughter has a really intense "first aid" project going on now. Very cool. My son is now into medieval armour and has gotten back into making lego movies (thanks to the clear work space!)
As to having Mom do something productive, my kids are responding really positively to watching me work on my thesis. They enjoy talking about it with me, and they like to work alongside me. I love that they have the opportunity to see me do something that is meaningful to me.

Comment by maria on April 15, 2009 at 05:08 AM

so true
and in my opinion something you can never be reminded of enough.
when I find "the crazies" getting out of control with the kids I can usually find a direct link to my own "crazy" being pretty high. I always find it an amazing reminder how important it is to keep myself on track for their own good.
So happy to know I am not the only one that sometimes needs to regroup.

thanks for a very helpful and inspiring blog

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 15, 2009 at 01:34 PM

debra, thank you! i love when people delurk. ;^)

hi jan! ;^) it’s the same in the classroom, as we know!

hi, karen. gah. we need to paint our deck railings. but this spring is so soggy and cold! your url actually has no “www” — it’s :^)

deirdre, my only suggestion is to work fast and use dark green garbage bags! the only way i get anything to goodwill is if no one sees what i’m doing!

i can’t keep things cleared out, but i have accepted that it is a cycle — we start off with nice blank space, the boys are energized and inspired to fill it, then .. that’s when i have to remember to clear it out again! i’m better now about recognizing that things have stalled and we need a clean sweep. it’s tricky, though, when they’re still into the things they’ve made. i’ve been making use of shelves more, to keep things out and on display but still have space to keep creating.

thank you, shannon!

i need to, too, dawn, but this weather is just not motivating me. ;^) i’m afraid today the only tone i’m setting is rain + reading + popcorn!

kerry, my boys make LEGO stop-motion films, too, and talk about clutter .. there is nothing like a huge movie scene that was left in the middle (you can’t MOVE ANYTHING, mom!!), not to mention the piles of weird packaging we collect to use as backgrounds. :^) i am constantly trying to “fix” their LEGO area so i can shift things around to make new blank spots — it’s the only thing that keeps them moving!

i feel the same way about sharing my work with the boys. it is truly a gift to be able to work at home alongside your children while they are doing their own work.

thank you, maria!

Comment by Andrea on April 15, 2009 at 02:14 PM

yep, I think that's it. I need to set the tone. great post! now I need to get off and start setting the tone. =)

Comment by Amy on April 15, 2009 at 04:06 PM

I think this is why I'm about ready to give up. I'd say we're 80/20 in favor of sending my oldest to school next year. I have no space in the house for anything. I wish I had a studio to declutter, but the whole house is cluttered and I can't do anything about it. It was really, really stupid to homeschool this year with a baby due in October. Six months later and she still won't nap without me, but she's old enough to be disturbed easily while napping, so it's really a no-win situation for everyone. I am tired. I am cranky. I have no sense of humor. I hate being responsible for the learning experiences of children who have no interest in listening to me. The tone I am setting is a bad one, and while I think homeschooling is better for their educations, I think perhaps sending them to school will be better for our relationship. I wish I had the energy to be the sort of mother I would like to be, the kind I am in my head. Instead, I am always the tired, humorless mother.

Comment by keri on April 15, 2009 at 05:34 PM

Hey...I do this too!
Usually it begins with a cleaning or sorting of some sort.
Because when I'm not enthusiastic about something...the kids aren't either.

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 15, 2009 at 07:07 PM

thank you, andrea!

i’m sorry, amy — i know you’ve had a bumpy year. and relationship is more important! it’s hard (impossible?) not to be the tired mother with a new baby.

Comment by Tracey on April 15, 2009 at 08:44 PM

Ok... so the super cute colored pencils? Where? ~:-)

Comment by Kerry on April 16, 2009 at 03:12 AM

Amy - it gets better, really. I started homeschooling right after I had my third baby. It seemed like a really dumb time to start, but due to circumstances I needed to do it that way. It was really, really hard that year. The next was a little easier, this year has been great! There have been easier times, when the baby was napping great, and harder times when naps weren't happening, and the baby was getting into everything, but it all evens out. It's just so hard on you, I know. I was really beating myself up about it. Lowering some of my "schooling" expectations has really helped. I go back to some of the really good books (like John Holt) when I need to be reminded that "slacking off" can be ok.

Comment by Barbara in NC on April 16, 2009 at 12:35 PM

Lori, just wanted to say that I've been thinking about this post a lot since I first read it.

"My attention has gravitational pull."

Yes, yes! This is something I have instinctively understood but haven't articulated. If I am scattered or distracted (not unusual for this sleep-deprived mama!), than so are the kids, If I have focused energy, so do the kids. Duh!

I read somewhere once that the role of unschooling parents is not to provide CONTENT for their kids but to provide ENERGY. I always liked this idea and I think it's a similar one.

Comment by nancy on April 16, 2009 at 01:34 PM

i like this advice because so many times i get frustrated when a project doesn't go anywhere and is not completed. i like the idea of picking back up later when the excitement returns or it's rediscovered. oh, and anything about reorganizing is right up my alley.

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 16, 2009 at 01:56 PM

tracey, they were a gift from a friend, so i’m afraid i don’t know where you can get them! they are super cute, though. :^)

kerry, excellent advice!

barbara, it’s one of those things that is easy to forget — i am trying to keep it uppermost in my mind!

nancy, that is a really good point .. it’s doesn’t do much good to try to force things .. better to wait for authentic interest and energy to return. (and they always do!)

lol re: reorganizing .. you are a better woman than i .. although i’m getting better!

Comment by Amy on April 16, 2009 at 02:35 PM

Thanks, Kerry.

I meant to say more, but as usual, I'm too tired and scattered to figure out what I meant to say. ;) But it always helps to hear from people who have been there, done that, and lived to tell about it.

Comment by Cathy T on April 16, 2009 at 08:36 PM

Amy - I've been thinking about you all day. I have kids 13, 15 4 and 2. I've been homeschooling forever and each year has its ups and downs. I took a lot of time off or formal schooling after each baby and that helped - the kids learned in spite of me. I just worked to make fun project supplies available and we went on a lot of field trips to area museums, hiking trails, and the like. I questions myself every year and then when it comes time for me to write the kids' annual progress notes for the school dept., I'm always surprised at how much we covered. But I do think every family has different needs and you need to do what works best for you. I do have friends who took off a year from homeschooling and they went back later... It worked for them. Trust your heart but give it time. And talk to dear hubby. A supportive husband is always helpful to have!

Comment by Barbara on April 20, 2009 at 03:33 PM

you totallly just motivated me to pick up the living room. thanks, lori. lol :D

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 21, 2009 at 06:16 PM

haha, barbara, and now you can encourage me! i am trying to get our main work area cleaned out for spring and i’m stymied by how much paper we have that i’m not ready to get rid of … drawings, stories, paintings, sketches, plans, maps, augh!! :^)

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