May 202013
 

Last night I watched a Ted talk by Jacob Barnett, a 13-year-old genius with Asperger’s.

His message? “Forget what you know.” “Stop learning and start thinking.” And, while Jacob’s story begins with how the educational and diagnostic systems that we have in our society were not able to meet his needs because he was working on quantum physics at the age of 3, his message still settled with me as, well, nothing short of genius.

The system didn’t work for him because he didn’t think like the system thinks. The system teaches us to learn things, in a certain way, for a certain goal, so that we can produce certain behaviors or outcomes and we can obtain a certain set of already agreed upon facts. Learning is prescribed and our measurement of learning is limited to what we think we want our children to do.

A parent asks, “How do I teach my child to behave in a classroom?” “How do I teach my child to respect authority and not act out?” “How do I teach my child to get along with other children?” “How can I teach my child to share?”

What we are really asking is “How do I get my child to memorize and follow the rules of engagement in specific and defined situations so that they don’t cause trouble?”

But memorizing behavioral standards or facts doesn’t lead to an inherent desire to behave a certain way.

“Stop learning and start thinking.”

What if, as parents, we adopted this as our goal?

I often hear the comparison between parenting and coaching. Coaching is clearly teaching. Last week I watched as a group of four-year-olds tried to play T-ball. The coach directed and guided and helped each kid get around the bases, hit the ball and catch the ball. And most of the kids had a half glazed, mostly confused look on their faces that said, “Sure, I can run to that base over there, but I have no idea why!” They were memorizing, or learning, the “rules” of the game, but they weren’t “thinking” about it.

Thinking is critical. It is creative. It is discovery. It is flexible and exploratory and leads to more ideas and it has no bounds. It leads to more thought. It comes from within us. We own it.

Learning is finite. It is wrong and right. It is given to us by someone else. It is not ours to own.

Jason Barnett is a genius. Maybe he doesn’t really need to “learn” anything. For most of us though, there is clearly a place for learning. But maybe most of us don’t get the opportunity to embrace “thinking” as much as we need to. And maybe if we can start with thinking, we can learn what we need to get where we want to go, rather than go where we can based on what we learn. There is a big difference.

 

So what would this look like, if we stopped focusing on learning and started focusing on thinking?

1)   We would coach less, narrate more. Coaches tell us how to do something. Narrators help us see the picture of what is happening. Coaches say, “Give the toy to your brother.” Narrators say, “Oh, you grabbed the toy from your brother. You really wanted it. Now he is crying! I wonder how you can work it out?”

2)   We would ask questions rather than give advice. “You’re having a hard time at school. What do you think you need?”

3)   We would pause more. Why? Because pausing gives kids time to think. We have a horrible habit of giving kids way more than they need: more lectures, more reasons, more choices, more advice, more direction. Instead, connect (You’re sad). Pause. Ask (What do you think you need?). Pause. Connect (It’s hard, I know, I have faith in you). Pause. Wonder (I wonder if…). Pause. Repeat. Most importantly, stop. When they start figuring things out on their own, back off and let them learn to think!

 

Let’s be honest. Most of us will not discover a new type of physics. Most of us will never be able to use our names in the same sentence with Einstein and Newton. But, on the other hand, every baby discovers gravity. Every child tests and retests empathic responses and reciprocal relationship effects. Our brains are built to figure things out. Our hearts are yearning to do it. Sure, learning can lead to good achievement results. But thinking… that leads to, well, just about anything we could imagine.

 

 

 Posted by at 8:02 am
Mar 122013
 

Join any group of parents and you will hear one universal question being asked over and over again. From the time our kids are born, until they move out of our daily sight, we are constantly looking for something to tell us that our kids are “normal.”

Photo by Tumbleweed Infant and Preschool House
http://tumbleweedinfanthouse.blogspot.com/

Is it normal that my preschooler…cries, hits, bites, sleeps, doesn’t sleep, eats, doesn’t eat, yells, stomps, ignores, stutters, doesn’t like what other kids like…and on and on.

Is it normal that my middle schooler….cries, won’t do homework, sleeps, doesn’t sleep, won’t shower, doesn’t have friends, talks back, stomps, slams, whines, picks on his brother, doesn’t like what other kids like….and on and on.

Is it normal that my teenager….cries, sleeps too much, won’t get up, won’t go to bed, won’t talk to me, talks too much, used alcohol, talks back, stomps, slams, whines, doesn’t like what other kids like…and on and on.

 

 

Is it normal? Probably. Okay, so now what? And if it’s not normal? What then? Just because something is normal, doesn’t mean that it makes it any easier to face in the moment. And even if a behavior is not typical, it doesn’t mean that the same parenting response will have the same result for every kid. That’s because in order to really address any behavior, we have to meet our kids, exactly where they are. And exactly where they are is never the same as exactly where any other kid is.

But still, finding normalcy in a developmental struggle is powerful. Maybe not so much for our children, but for us. When we ask, “is it normal?” what we really want to know is that we are not alone. That every other house on the block is just as crazy. That every other living room has toys strewn about. That somewhere close by other teenagers are slamming doors. That other families are struggling to help their pre-teen with the overwhelming awkwardness of the first school dance or feeling the frustration of hearing a child “talk back”.  When we say is it normal, what we really want to know is “do you feel my pain? Are you as lost as I feel?”

In essence, we want to know that WE are normal, and that this feeling of not having the answer is okay. We want to know that other parents grasp for the same straws that we do.  And for the most part, we can relax. Because it’s true.  If there is a parent out there that isn’t befuddled by sleep or food or poop or emotions or language or whatever at least some times, then they are…well, not normal.

And for the most part, we know that our kids are normal too.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to address the issue. And there in lies the tricky part. Just because something is normal, doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry about it. Experimenting with alcohol or sex as a teenager may be normal, but it doesn’t mean that we just get to shrug it off. Hitting a peer with a truck may be normal for a toddler, but it doesn’t mean we ignore the behavior and walk away.

Photo by Tumbleweed Infant and Preschool House
http://tumbleweedinfanthouse.blogspot.com/

Nope, just because something is normal, doesn’t mean it’s any easier to handle. And when it’s just us, in our homes, face to face with the preteen whose homework woes send them into a toddler-like meltdown, the fact that it’s normal doesn’t help us figure out what to do in that specific moment, with this specific child.

Really, in the moment, for the child, “normal” doesn’t mean much. What works for one child may not work at all for another. Supporting our children through these “normal” developmental struggles requires us to consider our child, our family culture, our expectations, our boundaries. I have written several posts on why this is so important, including Know Thy Child and 7 Criteria for Good Parenting. In the end, knowing what to do in any parenting situation requires us to look deeply at our children and ourselves to find what works, rather than looking towards normal. The good news is that when we let go of trying to find comfort in “normalizing” our child we can do just that. We will listen more intently to what our child is saying, look closer at what our child is doing and trust more in the individual that they are and what their behaviors are telling us. And when we do that, we will be able to move towards what they need, regardless of what the statistics say. Sure it’s hard, but hey, that’s normal.

 Posted by at 4:45 pm
Nov 052012
 

A child zooms around the house, arms outstretched and head held high. “Mama, I can fly!” he yells with glee. “Be careful, you can’t really fly and I’m worried you will get hurt.” His smile fades. It’s true. He can’t fly.

Or….

A child zooms around the playground, arms outstretched and head held high. “Mama, I can fly!” he yells with glee. “I believe you can fly! You’re having so much fun!” He laughs and zooms a little louder, a little prouder, a little higher.  He finds glory in his imagination, feels the surge of joy in his heart and the wind rushing though his hair.  “Tell me more about it!” the mother asks and the boy has the opportunity to weave a story and share a moment with his mother. He takes it further, turns into a bird that flies higher than a mountain top.

I believe you can fly.

Be careful. Don’t climb too high. Don’t jump off of that. Don’t get to close. Don’t move too fast. Don’t go so slow. Don’t put that in your mouth. Don’t pick that up. Don’t put that down. Don’t swing on that. Don’t go too deep. Don’t slide down that. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Be Careful. You can’t really fly.

Yes, parents have a duty to provide a basic level of safety for our children. We keep them away from high ledges, broken glass and poisonous plants. We keep healthy food available and limit screen time and eliminate toxic substances from the air they breathe.

But parents also have a duty to believe our children can fly. It is our obligation to nurture not only their bodies, but their minds as well. To let their imaginations thrive, their dreams expand and their thoughts carry them to heights unseen.  And to do that, we must sacrifice. We must hold back a little bit of anxiety as we let them climb a little higher. We must quiet our own issues and insecurities as we let them run a little faster, dig a little deeper and jump a little further than our comfort level allows.

I believe you can fly. It’s not only good parenting, it’s maybe the most valuable gift we can give our children. When we believe they can fly we are telling them that we love their adventure. That we enjoy their dream. That we want to relish in their joy. We are telling them that we trust their bodies and their courage and that we will be here to share it with them every step of the way. And we are telling them that we are willing to look past our own short sighted view of the world long enough to allow them to have their own experience of things.

A three-year-old pretending to read yells out, “Mama! I’m reading.” A fifth grader struggling with school declares they want to go to Harvard. A young girl professes she is going to play professional football. A four-year-old boy states he wants to be a princess when he grows up. A toddler tells her mom she wants to marry her.

It would be easy to dash their dreams, tell them the truth. You’re not really reading. Harvard is hard to get in to.  The Dallas Cowboys don’t have girls on the team. Boys can’t be princesses. Moms can’t marry their daughter.  It’s true. They can’t. But why? Instead, let their dreams soar, their imaginations flourish and their inner sense of self develop. Ask, “Really? Tell me more!”

Photo Credit to Tumbleweed Infant and Preschool House

Tell me more, a simple phrase that opens doors for kids to tell us what they are thinking.  A story unfolds, a goal develops, and a connection flourishes.  When we ask for more, we may get it. An understanding of where they are at. What they are thinking. The inner dialogue they are building becomes apparent as they voice their ideas and plans to us. A simple statement, a silly childish idea, when shared and supported becomes real, tangible, something to be relished and cherished and built upon. When their ideas and imagination are given space in the “real world,” they become more self-confident, more secure, more ready to take on the world.

Tell me more. You may be amazed at what is going on inside their minds and hearts. Something you may have never known if you just told them the truth.

Yes, I believe you can fly. Tell me more about it! 

 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Aug 212012
 

Over the past week or so, I have found myself having very similar discussions with various parents. Whether it is a mom of a two-year-old boy or a father of an 11-year-old girl I hear the same question: “How can I get them to stop tantruming?” The toddler who wails at the top of his lungs and throws a truck across the room. The child who yells with fury and clenched fists. The preteen who stomps and slam doors and sobs about the unfairness of it all. Oh the pain, the agony, the drama. The emotion!

But what is a “tantrum”? What is it really and what does it all mean? In the heat of the moment, tantrums can feel overwhelming to everyone involved. The child may feel out of control, the parent may feel at his/her wits’ end, other children in the home feel unsettled or even unsafe. From an adult perspective, all of this drama because the eggs were scrambled instead of fried, or because the blue shorts are in the wash, or because a friend can’t be called until chores are done. To our adult brain, the emotional output does not match the input. “All this over something so silly?” Our frustration rises. It can be hard to make sense of it when we think about it with our rational, problem-solving, goal-oriented,get-the-kids-in-the-car-and-on-to-the-next-task parent brain.

When someone asks me “How can I make this stop?” (or I hear myself asking the same question, because I do), I immediately counter with, “Why do you want the tantrum to stop?” Usually this is met with a blank stare, as if I were an alien. What a silly question. “No really, why do you want it to stop?” And here is what we come up with:

Because I don’t want them to turn into adults who tantrum. Okay, so clearly, we wouldn’t want our children to learn that throwing themselves on the floor and crying for 30 minutes when the eggs are scrambled instead of fried  is a reasonable response. But when is the last time you saw an adult do that? Children have been “tantruming” since, well since children have existed, and I would venture to say that the number of adults who do that is statistically insignificant. I’m not saying that adults know how to handle emotion. Many of us don’t. But worrying that your children will forever throw trucks across the room is just unrealistic.

Once we get past the fear of raising tantruming adults, we get to the real reason we want the tantruming to stop. It bothers us. It’s loud. It’s inconvenient. It’s annoying. It’s disconcerting. It’s scary. It’s emotionally draining. I could go on, but in short, we want it to stop because we can’t or don’t want to tolerate emotion.

In reality, adults who have difficulty identifying, processing, displaying, or recovering from emotions do so not because they did or didn’t “tantrum” as a child, but because they somehow got the message that emotions were not safe, tolerated, or respected.  They somehow came to understand that feelings should be avoided, should not be shared, create distress in others. They somehow never figured out what to do with big emotions when they arise, much less what they mean or what they feel like. So in reality, if we are really worried  about our children growing up to be adults who throw themselves on the floor, we should be working towards encouraging as many opportunities as possible to work through big emotion now.  That way, they can become well versed in the language of emotion and develop an intimate understanding and awareness of what emotions feel like and what works and doesn’t work for dealing with those emotions. In short, we may want to actually embrace the tantrum.

Maybe we can start by redefining what a tantrum is. The word itself is fraught with strife, negativity and connotations of “spoiled,” “rotten” children who “manipulate” and “connive” to get their way. I wish this idea could be deleted from our lexicon. Rather, let’s see the moment more clearly. It is Big Emotion in a Small Body. The eggs or the shorts or the phone call are not the point. The emotion is the point. And the emotion IS REAL. And real emotion presents an opportunity for children to learn about themselves, their feelings, their work in this world. And we, as their parent or teacher or caretaker, have the opportunity to help them, or shut it down. They are having big emotion and they don’t quite know what to do with it.

Have you ever had big emotion that you shared with someone and they responded with, “Well, that’s silly, you are overreacting.” Or “I know exactly what you should do instead.” Or, “Well, it’s your own fault, you did it to yourself.” Generally, these responses don’t feel very good. What we want is to have someone say, “Wow, you’re in pain. I’m here for you.” We want empathic connection. We want to know it is safe to feel how we feel. In the moment of big emotion, we don’t want to be told it is our own fault (even if we know that it is). We don’t want to be told that we are over reacting (even if we are). We don’t want to be told how to solve it (even if we really need help). In that moment of crisis, we want to know that the other person recognizes and respects the feeling we are having. In crisis, we want connection. It’s true if we are two or 82.

And if we can do this for our children in the moment of the big emotion, amazing things happen. When we reflect the emotion to them, we help teach them to recognize their feelings. We connect with them and they feel validated and heard and safe. Simply saying “You’re so angry. I get it!” can go a long way. Just feeling validated can often ease the pain and lessen the intensity of the moment. When we give them space and time to feel their emotion and help them process different ways of handling it, we actually work towards our first goal of creating emotionally competent adults. They can learn that feelings are safe and they can experiment with what happens when they do different things.  So here are simple steps to begin practicing a new way of thinking about and responding to big emotion:

1)     Breathe, observe, wait, and tolerate emotion. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Throughout the entire process. Continue to breathe, observe, wait and tolerate.

2)     Reflect what they are feeling. Let them know that you are there, you see them, you hear them. “You’re so disappointed right now. I can see that!” “It’s so frustrating!” “You’re so angry.”

3)     Set safe limits on behaviors, not emotions. “You can be as sad as you need to be, or as frustrated as you need to be, but I won’t let you (hit, throw, bite, etc.)” “I know how angry you are and I see you stomping. But I also know that the stomping is really scary to your little brother. If you need to stomp the basement is a great place to do that.”

4)     Let them be the experts on their feelings. Ask what they need. “What can I do to help you through this anger?” This doesn’t mean that you do whatever they ask. We have to remember that the lesson here is working through the feelings. If the child responds by saying, “I need you to make new eggs” we don’t need to do it. Instead try “Oh, I know you’re disappointed about the eggs. New eggs aren’t available, but I would be happy to support you in another way.”

5)     Back to step one. Repeat.

So the next time your child has big emotion, change the way you think and see and respond in the moment. Change your thoughts from “Oh no, not again!” to “Yes! Another opportunity to practice emotional competence!” Take a deep breath and be amazed at the hard work your child is doing. Learning about emotions is difficult, engaging work. Be there, by their side.

 Posted by at 11:23 am
Aug 142012
 

The other day, after returning from one outing and immediately starting to plan where we were off to next, my preschooler said, “The thing about me, Mama, is that I really like to stay home mostly.”

It’s true. He does. Oh, sure, he loves to go the science museum and ride bikes around the neighborhood and climb at the park, but he also needs downtime at home, by himself, with his own “stuff” and special places. Time when he can just hang out. After a busy day out, back at home we often find him in small, quiet, safe places: forts, cabinets, and the back of closets. He gravitates toward activities he has mastered and is comfortable and familiar with. Legos, puzzles he knows he can do, books he knows by heart. It is as if he is trying to remind himself that the world is smaller, knowable, and predictable. What I know about him is that when I make sure I give him this, we have fewer meltdowns, less transition trouble (you know, those times when you just can’t make it out the door without everything in the world getting in the way), less sibling conflict, and even better sleep.

What I know about me is that I love to be on the go. So, sometimes, I let my own needs take precedence and we can spend days on end going here, there and everywhere.  Over time, his stress builds up and he starts to ask for what he needs in his four-year-old way: tantrums, increased aggression, and more out-of-control moments. I imagine he feels depleted. His time at home rejuvenates him. It is my job to remember this and build time into his world for meeting this need.

Often, when our kids are struggling with something, we look for answers outside. We read books or blogs or we ask our friends what they would do. But, in reality, the starting point should be within the kiddos themselves. When a parent presents a “problem” he is having with his child, I like to start by asking, “What do you know about your kid that could help us understand what she is trying to communicate here?” Most of the time, the parent starts to tell me about his child and, through this dialogue, the “problem” suddenly makes more sense.

We have to remember that, just like adults, kids are individuals. Their personalities, proclivities, likes, dislikes, temperaments, and natures vary indefinitely. When we say, “Two-year-olds are this way,” or, “Six-year-olds should be that way,” we have to remember that these are amazingly broad generalities that don’t account for the infinite personal differences that make our children unique and amazing individuals. If we stop paying so much attention to developmental schedules and what our friends’ kids are doing, and we start emphasizing what we know in our hearts about our own kids, we can respond and offer support in ways that work for them, rather than becoming frustrated when they don’t follow a certain pattern!

In workshops, I often have parents write out thoughts on the following questions. Thinking about these questions can help you to organize your understanding of your child.  This understanding can lead to insights about how you can support your child’s interaction with the world in a way that makes sense for him.

What kinds of things make my child feel safe?

What kinds of things create anxiety for my child?

What does my child like? Dislike?

What five words best describe my child right now?

If my child could choose one place to be, where would it be?

How does my child respond to new situations?

What does it look like when my child has had enough?

How would I know if my child were uncomfortable?

What is the best part of the day for my child? The hardest?

What happens when she is hungry? Tired?

Parents are often surprised to discover how much insight they already have about their children. Sometimes the most difficult part of this process is that:

  1. We confuse what is true for us with what is true for each of our kids (just because I feel the need to be moving constantly doesn’t mean this works for my child), and
  2. We have trouble remembering that kids are dynamic, changing beings. What is true right now may not be true next year.

As our children grow, develop, and thrive, the answers to some of these questions may morph as well. We must strive to see our children with open eyes and a flexible mind. The best strategy for supporting an individual child depends on the picture that emerges as we think through these types of questions. Thinking of our children as autonomous individuals can allow us to be creative and think outside of the “parenting book guidelines” to discover what really works.

 Posted by at 12:01 pm
Aug 092012
 

Trust is amazing. It says so much with so little. It opens doors for opportunities and relationships and experiences. The more I explore the topic of parenting, both professionally and personally, the more I come to believe that trust is a central issue that impacts both child and parent development.  Do we trust ourselves as parents? Do we trust our children? Do we trust our partners? What does it look like when we engage in relationships from a place of trust and how does the feeling of being trusted (or not) impact our decisions and experiences? An experience in the park the other day brought this home for me.

The rule in our family is that climbing is an individual activity. If you want to climb a tree or a jungle gym or a wall, you can. But you have to do it yourself. And you have to get yourself down. I will not lift you up or hold your body. It is your job to listen to your body and keep yourself safe. If it feels safe for you to climb higher, and it works for your body, then it must be the right decision. If it doesn’t work, if your leg just won’t reach or it doesn’t feel safe, then it must not be the right time or place for you to climb.

This rule is very important to our family. I want my children to learn to trust their bodies and their instincts. I want them to learn their own limits and feel their own challenges and revel in their own successes. I also notice that when I break the rule and help them do something, they are more likely to fall!

Yes, it’s true. I have actually tested it. When I notice my child climbing and calling for help, I make a point to move away rather than closer. I want my children to be aware that they are in full control and need to be thoughtful about their bodies. When I move closer, they trust me to do it for them. They trust I will catch them and they are more likely to let go, fall backward, or move without thinking. Their trust in me outweighs their trust in themselves. Almost without fail, when I move away, I see one of two things: either they move slowly and thoughtfully, climbing in a way that keeps themselves safe and they get where they want on their own volition (success!), or they move slowly and thoughtfully, realize they are out of their league and it isn’t safe and they make their way down (success!). Either way, they listen to their bodies, assess the situation and make the best decision for themselves. The value of this is priceless. The message is twofold: I let them know that I trust them and I give them the time and space to trust themselves. It is so wonderful and rewarding to watch them as they revel in their autonomy and feel good about their own movements.

The other day at the park, this process was in motion. My children were climbing. My oldest was attempting to climb up a structure in a tricky way. He called for help and I simply said, “Wow, you’re trying to climb up in a tricky way. I wonder what you are going to do?” He asked for me to “spot” him and I reminded him that, while I was willing to stand under him for support, I wouldn’t help him climb. “I don’t want you to help me climb,” he said. “I want to do it myself!” He struggled for about 20 minutes. He grunted and whined and even cried a little. An outsider may have thought he was in distress, but I knew he was working through it. I also knew that he would find his way down if it became too challenging. Another parent, whom I was chatting with, reached out to try and help him. When I asked her not to help him, she looked at me a little critically, as if I were somehow leaving him hanging. In fact, I was leaving him hanging. He heard me tell her to not help him and he added (through his grunts) that he could do it himself. I saw that she was skeptical, but I trusted him and I trusted myself.

We were all rewarded for our patience when he made it to the top, spread out his arms and yelled, “Look at me! I made it to the top the tricky way!” His pride was overwhelming! He immediately swung down, went directly back to the starting point, and did it again. I asked him whether he still needed a spotter for support. “Nope, I got this,” he said. The second time, it took him only ten minutes. The third time, it took him five minutes and then he was going up and down more quickly than I could follow.

While this was going on, his younger brother had observed and, as usual, decided that he also wanted to climb. I knew that his body wouldn’t stretch as far and that climbing up this way would be nearly impossible. I knew he wanted to do it and I knew he would ask for help. And that is exactly what happened. And, in my typical response, I stepped back and told him he would need to figure it out for himself.

I have to admit that my anxiety always shoots up a bit. I could tell that my decision was making the other woman very nervous. She made it clear that she thought my decision was dangerous and that she did not trust my parenting style in this situation. In fact, she asked, “Are you going to let him climb that?”  As my son started to try to climb, I reminded him to be thoughtful about his body one last time. Then I forced myself to let him work it out. She gasped and reached out to grab him. He looked a little wobbly and I started to question myself. Her lack of trust in me made me question and doubt myself. What if he got hurt? What if my parenting decision isn’t the best one? I wondered if maybe I should have either told him he couldn’t do it, or helped him to the top. I quieted my mind and again asked her to let him do it on his own. I told him that I trusted him and I knew that he was thoughtful about his body.

And he worked through it. He climbed a little bit, cried a little bit and then made his way down. “It’s too tall for me,” he said. “Bummer,” I replied. “Watch what I can do over here!” he called as he ran to climb an area he had already mastered.  I breathed deeply and reveled in his success. He had tried something, found his own limit and kept himself safe. My trust in him had allowed him to explore this on his own. Success doesn’t always mean making it to the top.

What I noticed was how strongly the woman’s basic distrust of my decision had impacted me. I noticed how much I had questioned myself, my child, and the situation. And I realized how true this must be for our children as well. When we send the message, “I trust you and I’m here to support you,” we open the door for them to take charge of themselves and learn how to negotiate the world. The process of climbing becomes the experience, rather than just a way to get to the top. In the same way, the process of allowing children to climb becomes the experience. Rather than just putting my child on the top of the jungle gym and then having to get him down again, I got to witness my child developing autonomy, learning his limits, exploring his body in space and time, figuring out what feels right for him, pushing himself past his comfort level, and also being secure enough to know when to back down. Amazing!

Maybe, because I trusted him and he learned to trust himself, he will go a little further on his own.

Maybe, because I trusted him to know his own body, he will be more comfortable with his own limits.

Maybe, because he is learning to be comfortable with his own limits, he will stand up to peer pressure.

Maybe, because he knows I am there to support him, he will come to me for guidance and “spotting” rather than solutions.

Maybe, because we trust each other, growing up will be a little bit less painful and scary for both of us.

Of course, there is risk in this. Calculated risk. Would I have let him climb if the ground had been covered in broken glass or if he had been on the side of an abyss to nowhere? No. But here is the thing: because I give him room to consider those types of things, I doubt he would have chosen to climb with those dangers there. Yes, I have to consider the overall safety, but I also have to swallow my fear and let my children figure things out for themselves. After all, that is what growing up is all about.

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Jul 162012
 

Let’s talk about sex. Again. Yes, I know I have written about it before, but I’m writing about it again. Why? Because just as in real life, we can’t talk about it just once and have it be a done deal. We have to keep talking about it. Talking until it becomes a topic that we are comfortable with. Until it becomes a topic our kids know we are comfortable with.  I know, this goes against the grain of everything we hold dear in our culture when it comes to sex. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Mantras we live by when it comes to sex. We don’t want to or can’t talk about it with our families, our mentors, or our advisers and our society has this weird belief that if we acknowledge sex with real and meaningful discussions, we will turn into sex-crazed zombies. However, we are perfectly comfortable bombarding ourselves with sex in the media and we often see children oversexualized by the media. See this article in the Washington Post, for example. But talk about it? No! Oh, but I digress.

So we know we need to talk to our kids about sex, and we know we need to do it differently than we have been doing it. And we need to do it now. But how? Why are we so resistant? The message isn’t new. For years, experts have been saying that the current way our culture deals with sexuality is failing our youth.  In October 1984, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote an article called “The Failure of Sex Education.”  In it, she talks about the fact that parents, culture and the education system fail children with regard to their sexuality. She points out how we miss the boat by believing that sexual development happens only during certain ages (6-12), or that it is limited to certain behaviors (masturbation and intercourse), or that information should come from only one source (parents). The article states:

First, children are “sexual from birth.” Like many sex educators, Wilson rejects the classic notion that a latency period occurs between the ages of about six and twelve, when children are sexually quiescent. “Ever since I’ve gotten into this field, the opponents have used that argument to frighten policymakers,” she says. “But there is a body of developmental knowledge that says this is not true.” And, according to Wilson, it is not simply that children are born sexual or that their sexuality is constantly unfolding. It is also that sexuality is much broader than most imagine: “You are not just being sexual by having intercourse. You are being sexual when you throw your arms around your grandpa and give him a hug.”

This is not a message that we are comfortable with. It is not a message that we embrace. When we tell the parents of a toddler that their child is sexually developing as we speak, the parents are likely to cringe and wave their hands in dismay. Often, even parents of teenagers will say, “Oh, not my child. He doesn’t think about it at all. He probably never will.” Right. We are fooling ourselves into not seeing what is right in front of us. And when we fool ourselves, we fail our children.  Unfortunately, failing our children in this arena has dramatic consequences. We make them more vulnerable to sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. And even if they escape all that, we fail them by leaving them alone to navigate scary, lonely and uncharted territory.

But we can’t put all the blame on the parents. Every time I see a new parenting book on the market, I quickly scan the table of contents. Nine times out of ten, the terms “sex,” “sexual development,” “masturbation,” “sexual health,” etc. do not even appear in the index. I get a surge of excitement when I find it and am often disappointed when the sum total of the discussion is a single sentence that equates to this: “Parents should be open to talking to their children about sex.”  It’s slowly changing, but in the meantime, what is a parent to do? Here are four simple things to get you started:

1)       We need to do a check-in with ourselves. Okay, maybe this one isn’t so easy, but it’s the most important. I talk about how our own issues interfere with our parenting here and sex is no different. Talking about sex is so difficult, because it brings up an overwhelming emotional response. Anxiety, fear, anger, shame.  These types of feelings are devastatingly common reactions to sex.  Very few of us come into parenthood without wounds from our past and, unfortunately, these wounds often revolve around sex. From sexual abuse to sexual stigma to sexually repression to painful messages regarding our sexuality, these experiences can make it difficult for us to respond in a healthy way when our children begin to explore their own sexuality.  And even if we haven’t had any particularly traumatic or negative experiences, few of us grew up in households, churches or schools systems that encouraged healthy dialogue about sex. We just don’t have the models or experience to guide us in what we know we should be doing now.  We are like deer in the headlights.

 

2)      Adopt a new mantra about sex. Andy Warhol said, “Sex is the biggest nothing of all time.”  Sex is and always will be a part of life. We need to get over it. If we can stop making it such a big deal, maybe we can deal with it!

 

3)      Realize that sexual development means more than simply learning about how to make babies. Thinking about a preschooler’s sexual development does not equate to teaching him about intercourse. Sexual development and sexual health include: learning to respect our own bodies, learning to respect other people’s bodies, and learning about bodily functions, hormonal changes, relationships, gender identity, social identity, boundaries….I could go on and on.

 

4)      Change your goal regarding sex education.  The purpose of talking to our kids about sex is to lay a foundation so that they will talk to us about sex!  Whitehead wrote:

In the beginning, before there is sex, there is sex literacy. Just as boys and girls learn their number facts in the first grade, they acquire the basic sex vocabulary, starting with the proper names for genitalia and progressing toward an understanding of masturbation, intercourse, and contraception. As they gain fluency and ease in talking about sexual matters, students become more comfortable with their own sexuality and more skillful in communicating their feelings and desires. Boys and girls can chat with one another about sex, and children can confide in adults without embarrassment.

Parents often ask what information they should give their kids and when.  I don’t think there is one specific answer to this. Rather, if our goal in early childhood is to create a culture in which kids acquire the language, ease and fluency in talking about sexual matters, the result will be that they are able to ask for information when they need it and we will feel comfortable and open enough to give it to them!

Let’s talk about it! I would love to hear from all of you on this topic. Post here or on our Facebook page to share your thoughts!

 Posted by at 10:24 am
Jul 122012
 

******Guest post By Sarah MacLaughlin, Excerpted and adapted from her Award-winning Amazon bestseller What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children*******

 

American culture is loaded with hang-ups about bodies—how they look, what we put in them, and their sexual functions. These often warped messages produce untold numbers of mixed-up and unhappy adults whose feelings influence children. What parents and caregivers say to young children about looks and food and sex is vitally important. Just as kids need help with emotional and intellectual growth, they also need guidance in developing a healthy attitude toward their bodies. The process starts with newborns as they learn about anatomy by exploring all their own fascinating parts. As children grow, they gather important messages from the adults in their lives and from the larger world.

 

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Our social environment is obsessed with looks—we are constantly bombarded with media images of “preferred” facial and body types. Unless kids grow up in total isolation, they soon learn which types to aspire to. They also pay attention to how adults talk about appearance, including their own. Do you say things like, “She’s big as a cow,” “It’s too bad about his nose,” or “I hate my thighs”? Children tend to mimic not only your language but your attitude—comments like these imply that putting down others and one’s self is normal and accepted.

 

Talking to a child about his appearance can be a minefield. Many youngsters are overly concerned about how they look, so if you do mention a child’s looks, don’t overdo it.

 

Occasionally commenting on a child’s special features is fine: “You have such beautiful shiny hair” or, “I see those bright blue eyes.” But rather than emphasize appearance, appreciate and acknowledge a child’s special talents and interests as well. Something such as, “You run so fast! What strong legs you have.”

 

Children and Food

As kids develop their relationships with food, adults are key players—grocery shoppers, cooks, and role models. With the alarming rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes among children, parents and caregivers need to seriously consider their part in these sad health trends. Do we pay lip service to the idea of healthy food but take the family to fast food places several times a week?

 

Young children who get whatever they want to eat are primed for not only gaining excess weight but other health problems down the road. Parents need to be in charge of what foods are ordered in restaurants and what is offered at home. The adults in a child’s life can do a lot to offset poor eating habits and influences. Besides taking obvious steps like preparing healthy, well balanced meals, we can educate ourselves on nutrition and talk to kids about it. For example, “These beans have lots of protein, which helps your body grow.” “We don’t buy that snack because it has something called trans fat that is bad for our bodies.” Even young children can be interested in how various kinds of food affect the growth of their bodies.

 

Private Parts

The first principle in talking to children about body parts and their functions—though awkward for some of us—is using anatomically correct language. While many adults use the common terms for elimination, “pee” and “poop,” euphemisms for private parts should be avoided. What kind of feelings does a child have about his genitals if they are kept shrouded in mystery or made to seem dirty?

 

Boys have not only a penis, but a foreskin (sometimes), testicles, and scrotum. Girls have a vulva, labia, a clitoris, and a vagina. As a teacher, I heard the inevitable discussion during bathroom breaks about who was using the “right” term. I learned to keep a straight face while explaining to young ones that “weenie” and “pecker” are words that people sometimes use instead of penis, the correct term. Along with the proper words, youngsters should learn how to wash and wipe their own private areas as soon as they are able.

 

Adults can easily sabotage a child’s positive connection to his sexual self with their own discomfort. Try to respond calmly to a child’s very normal sexual curiosity rather than evoke shame by acting shocked.

 

Doctors Mary Calderone and James Ramey, in Talking With Your Child About Sex, (http://www.amazon.com/Talking-Your-Child-About-Sex/dp/0345313798/) offer some sound insight: “Deliberate adult avoidance of the area between the waist and the knees can hardly go unnoticed by the child, especially when other body parts are freely mentioned. Since the child already knows that this is an important pleasure center of the body, such avoidance can cause confusion and lay the groundwork for later problems.” If you are confused about how to talk with kids about sexuality, reproduction, and self-protection, there are many good books on these topics. Additionally, Darci and Julie here  at Core Parenting have some excellent resources here (http://coreparentingpdx.com/2012/raising-sexually-resilient-children/) and here (http://coreparentingpdx.com/2012/its-time-for-the-talk/).

 

Another advantage for children who are comfortable with their bodies and know the correct terms is they are less likely to be sexually abused. This knowledge empowers them with a sense of ownership over their bodies. Encourage kids to stand up for themselves by saying “No!” in any situation that makes them anxious.

 

A pushover child is an easy target for exploitation. Since children are more likely to be molested by someone they know, make sure that kids understand that they don’t have to do something just because a grown-up—even a family friend—or an older child says so. Teach a child who feels uncomfortable about a situation to say, “That part of my body is private” or simply, “Don’t touch me.” A guideline children can understand is that the body parts their bathing suits cover are restricted areas, to be touched only by the child and certain other people. Even those people—parents, caregivers, and doctors—should honor a child’s feelings about being touched. Adults with their rules, habits, and issues greatly impact a child’s feelings about his sexuality—and about his looks and food. Pay attention to the messages you send.

 

We’d love to know what you think about this topic! Please comment below!

 

Special Giveaway!

Please comment on this post about talking to your children about the body. Your comment enters you in the eBook Giveaway — to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post tomorrow. Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you’re the winner!

 

Other stops and opportunities to win during this Blog Tour are listed on Sarah’s blog here: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com/p/blog-tour.html.

 

Also, you can enter at Sarah’s site for the Grand Prize Giveaway: a Kindle Touch. Winner will be announced at the end of the tour after July 15th. Go here to enter: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com/p/blog-tour.html

 

About The Author

Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Sarah is currently a licensed social worker at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine, and works as the resource coordinator in therapeutic foster care. She serves on the board of Birth Roots, and writes the “Parenting Toolbox” column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family. Sarah teaches classes and workshops locally, and consults with families everywhere. She considers it her life’s work to to promote happy, well-adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at her site: http://www.saramaclaughlin.com/ and her blog: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com.

 Posted by at 10:37 am
Jul 022012
 

Telling parents not to worry about their child is like telling a fish not to swim. Parents worry. It’s what we do. The problem is not with the fact that we worry; the problem arises when we try to eliminate our worry by limiting our children’s experience of the world. It is human to try to eliminate the things that make us anxious. But, in parenting, we are essentially expected to support and work towards the very thing that increases our worry the most: our children eventually being in the world without us! While it would be nice if we could teach our kids how to live while holding them snuggly in the safe cocoon of our arms forever, the truth is that we learn about life through living. Our children have to experience life, the good and the bad, in order to succeed. And in some way or another, they will do just that. And while they do it, we will worry.

I have come to the realization that much of parenthood is about tolerating worry. The balance is in knowing when to tolerate our worry and when it is a sign that we need to provide a mechanism of support. Sometimes we have to swallow our worry and let our kids fall. Sometimes our worry may signal that we need to put a pillow under them so their fall is a little softer. And sometimes it means we need to take them in our arms and move them to safety. Good parenting means providing a warm space, loving arms, an open heart and safe boundaries that children can rely on to support them through the trials and tribulations, successes and joys that make up life.

But how do we know when to take which approach? We can ask ourselves some basic questions.

1)      Is this worry about me or them?

2)      What will they lose if I take this experience from them?

3)      Is this a natural developmental experience they should be having?

4)      How big is their world now?

 

I imagine a bubble. When our children are infants we support them physically. The parent and child occupy a pretty tight bubble. They depend on us and we respond immediately to their needs. Their world is us and we are their bubble. When we are worried about their needs, our interventions are usually physical. We support their bodies, we move them to safety, we hold them tight. But as they grow, their naturally emerging process of becoming their own person pushes this bubble. It grows and starts to envelope other people, things, experiences outside of us. I imagine the parent standing on one side of the bubble and the child, slowing and fatefully pushing against the side of the bubble, expanding their world.

 

As this happens, our worry continues, but our responses change. The way we support our children, the type of safety nets we provide them and the way we encourage their interactions look different as our children grow. They don’t need us any less, they just need us differently. So, what does this look like?

  • A toddler is exploring her world through climbing. One parent worries about the child falling and moves in to ease their own anxiety. “Be careful, don’t climb so high.” Maybe the parent physically stops the child from moving in a way she would naturally. Instead, another parent tolerates some worry, assesses the situation and allows the child to climb, but moves a shelf out of the way or places a mattress on the floor to ease a fall. The child is allowed to climb, in a safe way, and experiences a new relationship with herself and the world. She figures out she can do something she couldn’t do the day before. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.
  • A preschooler wants to help mama by returning the measuring cup to the neighbor next door. This would require her to go outside, walk next door and stay out of the street without adult supervision. The parent worries and says, “No, you can’t go to the neighbor’s house by yourself.” The parent prohibits the child from accomplishing a new developmental task and gaining a little more independence. Instead, another parent assesses the situation, tolerates some worry and allows the child to walk next door unattended. Maybe the parent watches through the window or calls the neighbor to make sure they know the child is coming. The child embraces their new responsibility and returns full of pride and accomplishment. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.
  • A school-age child wants to attend his first sleepover. The worried parent thinks the child isn’t emotionally ready for this and suggests that the child just go for dinner and then come home. The child feels anxious and insecure. Another parent tolerates their own worry and supports the child in the sleepover. The parent lets the child know he can call if he needs to, helps the child make a plan and processes some of the fears the child may be expressing. The parent also makes sure that the day after the sleepover is low-key and supportive for processing residual emotions. The child goes to the sleepover, experiences stress and anxiety AND has fun and success with his friends. The next day he struggles from being overtired and emotionally worn out from all the excitement, but the parent is there to support. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.

Parents worry about how kids will manage life at every stage, from wanting to protect toddlers from climbing to shielding middle schoolers from the harsh words of peers to minimizing the angst that comes from high school relationships. Parents are driven to eliminate not only their children’s pain, but also their own worry. But these “falls” are an important part of life. Without falling we can’t learn balance. Without anxiety we can’t learn calm. Without angst we can’t learn joy in relationships. The job of the parent is to tolerate worry and provide “just enough” protection so that our children can continue to push the bubble. We want their world, their bubble, to be as big as possible. We want it to be full of people and opportunity and experiences. We want it (the bubble, the world, our children) to never stop growing. And in order for that to happen, we have to tolerate the worry.

 Posted by at 12:25 pm
Jun 252012
 

Determined not to be a “do as I say, not as I do” parent and wanting to honor my commitment to be connected and present with my children, I have recently had the surprisingly unpleasant opportunity to find out just how addicted to screens I really am. I must admit that, for many years now, I have hidden behind the fact that my family does not have “television,” meaning we do not subscribe to cable and the only TV in our house is unplugged and in the basement. True confession: we do have a laptop with Netflix and DVD player, smart phones and tablets. And while the kids have had limited access to carefully selected movies, they have almost no access to other screens. So when, one day as we were leaving the house, my son yelled out, “Did you remember your phone? You don’t want to leave home without it,” something inside me cringed a little. I wasn’t sure in the moment why it bothered me so much, but I knew I needed to do something about it.

There is ample information available to suggest that screen time negatively impacts children. For example:

  • A University of Bristol research study found a correlation between increased screen time and psychological difficulties pertaining to behavioral issues, emotional difficulties, social interaction, inattentiveness and hyperactivity in pre-teens.
  • Screen time in children under three is linked to irregular sleep patterns, delayed language acquisition, later childhood problems (such as lower math achievement, reduced physical activity, victimization by classmates) and leads to habit formation (more screen now means more screens later).
  • Screen time is associated with increased aggression. (And this is not limited to viewing aggressive media!)

While it used to be that the focus was just on television, we are slowly becoming aware that any screen time results in the same kinds of results. TV, smart phones, tablets, movies, computer, video games. Even when we try to make ourselves feel a little better by choosing “educational” options, the negatives may outweigh the positives. And here is the kicker, research shows that these negatives not only apply to screen time that kids are actively engaged in, but “incidental screen time as well.” Researcher Daniel Anderson of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that background TV (regardless of what was on) decreased the overall amount of time children spent in play, increased the number of times children moved from toy to toy and decreased the amount of time children spent in focused-attention activities. Why does this matter? Because play is where it is at. Play is how children learn. It’s crucial. Play is their life-work. If we interrupt their play, we interrupt their life.

Amazingly, I saw this firsthand at the park recently. I watched five children playing quietly in a sand pit. The children ranged in age from two to six. A man (notably not connected to any of the children in the sand pit) sat on a bench playing a game on his phone. The volume was high and the game alternated between annoyingly high-pitched music and something that sounded like a missile being launched. Occasionally, his actual phone ringer (playing some type of classical music) would interrupt the game and he would answer, chat and then return to the game. I watched as the children, all intently trying to dig up a dinosaur bone buried in the sand, repeatedly turned their attention to the man and his smart phone. On separate intervals, about every two or three minutes, each kid would stop what they were doing, consider the man and then turn back to their digging. None of them interacted with each other. I could see that they were pulled to the sound and were deciding whether to approach the man to see the game or continue their own work. It was obvious for some of the children that it was a hard choice, while for others it appeared to simply be annoying. What amazed me was how noticeable it was that regardless of how they felt about the noise, they each had to put effort into returning to their play. They would stop, assess the man for a moment, look around, find a new shovel, remember what they were doing, start a new task, focus for a few minutes and then get pulled toward the sound again. After some time, I asked the man if he would mind either silencing his phone or moving to another area. He grumbled but complied and I immediately noticed a difference. I could almost see the children relaxing into their play and the digging continued uninterrupted. Then a magical thing happened. The children began to interact with one another and a cooperative story emerged, four of the five children developed a plan of action to work together. I doubt this would have happened if the background screen time continued.

So could it be that my own screen time was impacting my children’s life-work in a similar way? Over the past few months I have been experimenting with my own screen-free time. I have tried eliminating my use of anything with a screen in different ways: for hour-blocks, after certain times in the evenings and for entire weekends. What I realized through this process is that I am (and, yes, I hate to admit this) intimately connected to my media. Not television or games per se, but email, chat, text message and Facebook. Social media. I realized that it is my primary source of connecting with the world. So while on one hand I tell my children, “No media for you,” I am connecting through a screen on much too regular intervals. Turning the screens off made me realize that I check in with a screen (or at least think about it) every few minutes. Oh, my!

So how does this impact my children? What does it mean to have a phone ring or beep or ding or sing every few minutes as background noise? While the background screens in my children’s lives may not be as loud or pervasive as a TV or video game, it is certainly creating a regular interruption that must be notable to them. After all, my son reminded me to get the phone when I forgot it.

But I also had another realization. And this one connected the dots for me. It made me realize why my own screen time really does matter to my children’s development. When the kids in the sand pit were struggling to work (play) and attend to the media that was around them, the relationship potential between them got put on the back burner. The true interaction occurred when the media was eliminated. It was as if tending to the logistics of managing the media and their work was all they had space for. Once the media was gone, they could go deeper into the moment and recognize what was around them, and relationships and more meaningful interactions occurred.

It reminded me of trying to work while being disrupted by phone calls. I have a flow, get on a roll, then the phone rings. I stop what I am doing, tend to the phone and then return to my work. I have to think about where I was, maybe reread what I already did and adjust my mental state to return to the work flow. If this happens repeatedly, I get less done, feel less connected with my work product, make more mistakes and generally feel less positive about my task.

So what if my “work product” at the moment is parenting? How does my media (answering a text, posting something super cute to Facebook, checking email) or even thinking about my media (wondering if anyone has commented on my super cute post or replied to my email) take me away from my kids? Maybe my son’s concern that I left my phone at home disturbed me so much because I realized he has accepted as truth that he has to share me with my media. And that realization cut me to the core. This is not something he should even consider, much less accept.

So I put away the phone and the tablet and the computer. I’m not going to lie. It hurts. It is an adjustment. I am still working out what specific boundaries work best for me since I can’t give up all forms of media professionally. It is a process. But what I have already realized is that, like the kids in the sand box, when the media is gone, I am less scattered, more aware, feel more centered, have more fun and feel more connected to the people in front of me. I also realized that, when the media is gone, my children don’t have to compete as much for my attention, which leads to less acting out. When the media is gone, we all connect with the moment in a truer sense of the world. When the media is gone, I can do my job in supporting my children in their job. Life-work. In short, we all live better.

So while media is certainly not the only thing that keeps me from being present and aware and centered as a parent, it is impossible to ignore the moment by moment disruption that it has on me, my kids and our relationship. I’m not yet sure what the balance is, and it may look different for every parent, but balance we must find. And not just so our kids can do their life-work, but so we can really be there when they do!

 Posted by at 11:36 am