Mar 122015
 

The parenting fairy tale: When I have a child, I will finally know what love is. Having a child will complete our family. I will know joy so big it can fill the whole world. A child is a mirror into my own soul.  My new baby will fit so wonderfully into my world. When I finally have a child, I will know who I am and what I am all about. I will watch my child grow and thrive, and then I will watch them have their own children, and soon I will be the matriarch of this large and loving, growing and thriving family. And they will ride off into the distance on a beautiful horse….

 

Oh, the dreams we dream about what it will be like to be a parent. And sometimes it is those things.

 

Except when it’s not.

 

Despite the fact that most of us end up in therapy complaining about relationships with our own parents, we build sand castle dreams about what having a child means to us. Despite the fact that movies and literature and songs and poems are filled to the brim with painful experiences and stories of both parenting and being parented, we cling to epic fantasies about what it means to be a parent. Despite the number of parenting books that tell us how hard it really is, we build fairy tale myths about having a child that resonate so deeply with our subconscious that we hardly know they are there at all.

The child fairy tale: Family dreams of child. Family waits for child. Family gets child. And it is so good. Family goes skipping through daisies hand in hand.

 

Oh, the dreams we can dream about what our children will be like. And sometimes they are those things.

 

 

Except when they aren’t.

 

 

The fairy tale myths of happily-ever-after relationships depict a battle or struggle built around getting to the relationship or finding the right person or overcoming obstacles like dragons or evil villains that would prevent us from being with our true love. But once we prevail, and we have nailed down our mate, then our journey is over and all that is left to do is bask in love. The sweet-sweet, running through tulips kind of love. No more struggle, no more battle. It’s happily ever after.

Thankfully, we are starting to understand just how significant this myth is when it comes to romantic partnerships. We are coming to understand that the real quest, battle and struggle come once the dragon has been slayed and love is actually available to us. When we look our happily-ever-after straight in the eye and say “okay,  let’s do this tulip-skipping thing,” we go left and they go right and before we even take our first skip we have to figure out how to negotiate in which direction we are actually going. Yep, the actual work starts then. And, as it turns out, there is way more negotiating than skipping.

And so it goes with parenting.

We dream, we plan, we fret over wallpaper and sheets for the crib. We ponder names and wait for kissable toes and worry about every minute leading up to the birth. We slay the dangerous dragons with outlet covers and cabinet locks, and we await the moment when our baby will arrive and the happily-ever-after part will begin. When we can bask and glow and love and love and love and…..

Except that the reality is that parenting is more work than glow. When we give up the myth and really look at parenting, we realize that what we have is two (or three or four or more) human beings in relationship with each other. And at least one of those human beings is terrible at communicating in our language, has extreme difficulty with emotional regulation, is incredibly self-centered, needs an unimaginable amount of support to complete even the simplest of daily tasks, and is excessively preoccupied with their own body’s needs. (I am actually talking about our babies, but I am sure many of us may be tempted to raise an eyebrow in the direction of our partners as well, or if we are really honest, at ourselves.)

And that fairy tale myth? About how it will be all love and starry-eyed gazing upon our offspring as they grow and thrive? Well… not so much. In reality, there is all the love and joy and fun and awe and amazement. But, parenting is also messy and exhausting and boring and tedious and lonely and disgusting and humiliating and much scarier than the dragon. And frustrating. Oh so frustrating. And the worst thing is that when we believe and expect the myth, then feeling these feelings just feels wrong.

But on the other hand, we figured out that that the “happily-ever-after” with our partner isn’t the period at the end of the sentence, but rather the opening to a long road of struggle and growth and challenges and joy and connection and pain and love and that all that IS the path. It IS the relationship. It IS the quest. It IS the love. If only we could take every “and they lived happily ever after” from every fairy tale ever written and replace it with “And so began the adventure” then we would know that the real juicy stuff is always yet to come. The relationship. That’s what’s ahead. That’s what we are in for.

So it goes with parenting. Parenting is all those things because it is a relationship with another person. It is an ongoing, never-ending path that two people walk, and skip, together. And the gross, painful, boring, frustrating dragon-slaying moments are just as precious and important as the joyful ones. Maybe even more so. Because it is in those terrible moments that we have the opportunity to sit back and say to our kids, “Wow, you are a human. And I get to be in a relationship with you.” And so began the adventure.

 Posted by at 2:52 pm
Jun 242014
 

The other day I came across a post touting the virtues of complaining about our children. Bonding, commiserating, empathic connection with other parents over the trials and tribulations of parenthood. It doesn’t really matter what post it was: there are a number, probably countless posts, blogs, memes and status updates, suggesting that this is in fact a wonderful and important part of the parenting path. I don’t want to discount this totally. There is no arguing against the fact that it can feel amazing to know that other parents are in the same boat as us. It can deepen the bonds of friendship, minimize loneliness and remind us that the trickier side of parenting is tricky for everyone. And, in order for us to get that benefit, we do indeed need to be willing and open to sharing those struggles with others. But while I don’t want to discount the positives that may result from venting, laughing or even crying over our spilt milk moments, I do want to take a moment to relish in the other side.

The post that I saw the other day not only touted the benefits of complaining about our children, but it also decried the act of bragging about them. As if, somehow, the very act of voicing our pride, love and amazement of our children is somehow wrong. As if saying to another parent that our kid is great is somehow equivalent to saying that the other parent’s kid is not. And we should not do this. And so we should say bad things about our kids to make the other parent feel better about their not-so-great kid.

But here is the thing. Pride, love, amazement, joy, intrigue, warm fuzzies, curiosity, awe, excitement: these things feel good. And when we feel them about a person, we feel good about that person. And when we feel good about that person, we love being around them. And when we love being around them, we are kinder and gentler. And when we feel these things about a person, we have a different perspective about their downside. And that kinder gentler perspective can help us make better, kinder, gentler decisions about how to interact with (or parent) that downside.

Have you ever been around a new couple? They are so gushy and mushy and, well, in love with each other. Not only do new couples love to talk about each other to others, but they also say overwhelmingly positive things about each other. And they are biologically rewarded for this. This kind of thinking produces oxytocin and dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters, which leave us feeling flushed and excited and generally lovely. Research in marital therapy shows that the difference between couples that “work” and couples that fail in the long run may in part come down to this same concept. Couples that “work” say and think nice things about each other at a rate of 5 to 1. Sure, they still fight and complain and get annoyed with each other. But they maintain a positive narrative about their relationship and each other. They have easy access to the things that they love about each other, and they talk about it. A lot. In short, they keep the gushy mushy side of things going, and that makes the trickier parts of the relationship more manageable. They work hard to stay In Love with each other, even when life gets complicated.

So what does this have to do with parenting? The same pattern applies. Loving our kids may be easy, but being In Love with them takes work. Especially when their developmental needs and behaviors interfere with our vision of what life should be like. I have noticed a consistent pattern that parents, at least many of us, fall into. When our kids get tricky, we focus more on the negatives and less on the positives. We talk about the negatives, vent about them, cry about them. We start to see our kids less as whole human beings and more as just a compilation of those particular problems. The tantrums. The rudeness. The sneaking out at night.

And, when we get lost in the negative, our interactions with our child suffers. We may be less empathic, less tolerant, more reactive. We may feel more resentful, more short-tempered. We may feel more exhausted, depleted, hopeless, frustrated. And when we feel overwhelmed, we are more likely to take their behaviors personally.

It is easy to feel warm and fuzzy when our kid is on stage singing and dressed up like a carrot in the school play, or taking their first step or posing for pictures with their prom date. Less so when they are rolling their eyes at us, or bending the truth, or hiding their homework or having the tenth tantrum of the day. When their behaviors are trying, we take it personally. And it is hard to feel In Love with someone who we believe is intentionally trying to ruin our lives.

But the truth is, they aren’t doing this TO us. They are doing this because they are on a path to adulthood that is paved with rocky, tricky, desperately painful attempts at balancing autonomy and dependence. The work ahead of them is hard and it isn’t always pretty. They are humans with light and dark, good and bad. And it is our role, as parents, to guide, protect, support, help and love. And we can do this so much better when we don’t just love, but are In Love with the little human that is just trying to figure his way out in this world. So whether we are faced with the recurrent and strong-willed tantrums of a three-year-old, or the eye rolling, window-escaping, grunting of a teenager, it is our job to stay in love with them. It is our job to find the thing about them that makes us smile, connect with that quiet sparkle in their eye, access the funny story about that silly thing they did, see the small and often hidden goodness, rejoice in their developmental strides, cherish the way that curl falls over their eye just so, be in awe of the wonder of them, just like we did when we first brought them home. And we need to do this not only in the silence of our own mind, but out loud. With our partners. With our friends. With our children.

When we find ourselves In Love with our children, we find the good in them and in ourselves. And it feels amazing. And when we do this, we make it possible to love parenting. Even when it’s tricky. So I say, vent a little, but gush a lot. I want to hear how great your kid is. I want to hear how much you love them, and how funny they are and how you honestly believe they are going to be President some day. I want to hear you say it because it is good for you, and it is good for me and it is great for our kids.

Don’t know how to start? Write a love letter. However old your kid is, regardless of how tricky their behavior is, or what challenges your family is having, sit down and literally write them a love letter. If they are old enough, go ahead and leave it on their pillow. Put it up on the fridge so you see it as often as you eat. Remind yourself every day that this is the same kid that is throwing those tantrums and that this side deserves just as much, if not, more attention than the dark side. Try it and see what happens. You may just be surprised at how much you have to say.

 Posted by at 2:46 pm
May 272013
 

If there is one thing that is true about families, it is that families, all families, are constantly in transition. They are changing all the time.

And family is always family. No matter what it looks like.

By Aron Nels Steinke, http://www.aronnelssteinke.com

Some families have two parents, a mom and a dad, and everyone lives together in one house. Some families have two moms or two dads, or one mom and no dad, or one dad and no mom. Some families have two parents who live in different houses. Some have parents and grandparents in the same house, and some kids live with grandparents. Sometimes two families with kids and parents join together to form a whole new family.

And family is always family. No matter what it looks like.

Sometimes families start out one way, and change into something that looks pretty different.

Even if families don’t look like they are changing, they are. As kids get older their relationships change. Rhythms and traditions and schedules change. Some relationships get deeper and closer, some grow more distant. New siblings are born. Older siblings move out. Relationships with extended family members change as new cousins and nephews and nieces are born and grandparents, aunts or uncle die. Life changes and families change.

And family is always family. No matter what it looks like.

When a new baby is born, everyone in the family has to shift around and find their places within the dynamics and structure of the changing family system. When parents divorce, shifting and reorganizing the family is one of the biggest challenges. When two families come together to form one, each person has to figure out their new role within both their old family structure and the new blended one. It’s like a thousand rays of light, all intersecting.

Life is tricky. Parenting is tricky. And change may be the trickiest of all. Put them all together, and it’s no wonder we struggle. We are worried about the unknown. When we can’t see the path ahead, we tend to assume it must be dark. But just because we don’t know what it looks like, doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Change brings growth. Growth brings new possibilities. New possibilities bring beauty we never expected. As long as we embrace the change.

So how do we help our children embrace the change in their families, whatever that looks like?

1)   We have to trust the change ourselves. We have to believe in it and move forward with love and light and trust that the path, although unknown to us, is the right path to be on. We can communicate with our children that we don’t have all the answers yet, but that this path (whether it is the path of divorce, or blending two families, or moving in with grandma, or having a new baby) is the right path for our family right now.

2)   We have to honor each person’s relationship with every other person in the family. Relationship dynamics are multifaceted and boundless. Each child should feel safe and supported to interact with each of their family members in the way that is healthiest for them. So, mom and dad may work better if they live in separate houses, but they are still mom and dad and they are still the center points in the child’s family. Over time, as the child’s relationship with each parent changes and morphs, these relationships should be cherished, nurtured and supported by everyone. In the same way, two families coming together need to remember that this same thing is true, but times three or four or ten! Each relationship is different and separate, and at the same time connected to each of the other relationships. Make time and space for each to be honored, nurtured and supported.

3)   We have to maintain old traditions and build new ones. With all the change that happens in families, how is it that we can feel so stable? Traditions, routines, habits. As families change we can find comfort in our traditions. Our family may look really different now, but Sunday is still always blueberry pancake day. And, embracing change can allow for new traditions to be built on top of old ones. Blended families can share traditions, allowing each core family group to bring something special to the table. Honoring these types of traditions, while building new ones, is a great way for families who are moving into two separate households to bridge the change, too. These traditions, patterns, habits and routines tell the story about who our family is.

Family is about relationships. Some relationships are formed through genetics, some through choice and some through the choices of others. Regardless of how a family comes to be formed, one thing is true: It is always changing. Families that thrive do so, not because they look a certain way, or because they stay the same, but because they embrace change and the relationship growth that can happen when change is allowed to occur. Our children are not just along for the ride, they are active participants, in relationships with every family member. When we remember this, we can embrace our changing families and, as a result, find a deep level of stability within a constantly changing world.

How is your family changing? How do you talk about it?

 Posted by at 1:01 am
Apr 302013
 

I previously wrote a blog post, When Mama Has a Bad Day, that resonated with many of you. I received so many comments and notes and emails about that post, and I knew I had struck a chord. It’s true. We all have bad days. And sometimes, the bad days seem to outnumber the not-so-bad days by a staggering amount.

But bad days are not what I want to talk about today.

Actually, I want to talk about the opposite. Good days. Something that doesn’t get enough attention in my book.

Sometimes we have good days.

Yep. And it’s not a fluke.

 

Sometimes we have days that just feel like a walk through the tulips.

 

It’s true. Let me say it again. Some days we have good days. Let’s own it. Let’s talk about. No, let’s scream it from the mountain tops! Let’s take note of it! Because these good days can give us just as much, if not more, information about how we can become better parents than our bad days can.

Maybe this doesn’t quite make sense at first. In our culture of bad-news-is-the-only-news, put-a-diagnosis-on-it-and-find-a-cure approach to life, the good stuff just doesn’t seem as noteworthy. After all, if we want things to get better, we need to first figure out what is wrong. Right? Many of us have communication styles that highlight the negative. We commiserate with friends about how hard stuff is, and it feels like bragging to say otherwise. We connect through struggle. We tell ourselves that it’s got to hurt if it’s to heal. We vent. We judge. We compare. And it seems that all of this reinforces our belief that it is in our darkest moments that we can learn the most.

But, what if we are missing something? Like the light maybe? Is it possible we could actually learn something from our good days?

This past weekend, I had a great parenting day. I was connected, flowing, gentle, patient, loving. I was all the things I strive to be. Things were going so well, that it kind of caught me off guard. I started to blame the weather, developmental strides, the stars…. And then I had a thought.

A strange thought.

What if, just maybe, this good parenting day was happening because I was doing something right?

And what if, just maybe, I could figure out what I was doing right, so that I could create my very own, personalized-for-my-own-family “self-help-guide-to-good-parenting.” So I did what I talk about doing in the tough moments, but have never even considered doing in the great moments. I reflected on what I was thinking, feeling, doing. I became aware and I collected data. I meditated, without judgment, on what was happening.

And the results? Enlightening. I became acutely aware of things that I already innately knew about myself, my children and my family. Things like, my children do better with slow starts in the morning. Things like, days with fewer transitions work better for us, and everyone in my house needs some downtime to balance out the activity. Things like, centering activities like yoga and meditation create connection among all of us, and sugar works better if we get to play outside right afterward. Things like, setting up a quiet writing activity in a quiet space could help avoid an ominous meltdown, and getting my daily run is crucial to my feeling centered throughout the day…. I could go on and on.

The point is, the weekend didn’t feel like a good parenting weekend because it was a fluke or an astrological miracle. It felt like a good parenting weekend because I was making good parenting decisions.

And when I realized what I was doing well, I could then turn these things into helpful hints for the next day. My own, personalized, family-focused, guide to getting through the rough days.

And even better, I already knew (1) that it worked and (2) that I was quite capable of implementing it. So the next day, when I realized I was having one of the more common “bad days,” I could remind myself that I (not an expert or a friend or a book) already had tried and true interventions.

No matter how much we struggle as parents, we all have good moments. We all have good days. We all have times that we feel like parenting rock stars who should be the one writing the books. And the truth is, we should be writing our own books. We already have so much data to go on. We just have to bring it to the front of our minds.

So the next time you have a good parenting day, stop. Breathe. Look around and pay attention. Tell yourself, “This is me. I am doing this. This is my family. We are doing this together.” And then take it all in. How are you speaking? What are you doing? Did you do anything different? Did you do anything proactive? What decisions did you make? How did you respond to stress or challenges? Why did it work?

Make a list. Write it down. Put at the top something simple like “Things That Work for Our Family.” Having this list accessible may be the best gift you ever give yourself. Some of the things you discover will be things that you decide to make routine, some of the things you discover will help you in crisis mode. But all of what you discover will be proof that you are a good parent, and there is so much that you already know. You just have to remember to see, and learn from, the light. And then maybe, have a few more walk-through-the-tulip kind of days.

 Posted by at 3:51 pm
Feb 192013
 

I often find myself writing about parenting young children. But in my day-to-day work, many of the parents I interact with are parenting older children or adolescents. The funny thing is that whether I am talking to the parents of a 2-year-old or a 12-year-old, it seems that the themes underlying the struggles are the same. The good news is that when gentle, respectful parenting strategies are the focus, there isn’t any need to change course as your child gets older. As I read through my “go-to” parenting books (like Dr. Markham’s Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids or Myla and John Kabat-Zinn’s Everyday Blessings) and my favorite blogs (like Janet Lansbury or Finding Joy or Momma Zen or Abundant Life Children), I realize that all of these became my favorites because they share fundamental parenting premises. Fundamentals that hold true across the ages and stages.

For our kids, these writers encourage us to:

  • Support their emotions
  • Respect their space/bodies
  • Trust their intentions /ideas/abilities
  • Let them climb, let them fall
  • Share their journey
  • Maintain expectations (boundaries) with love and support

And similarly, for ourselves, they encourage us to:

  • Be aware of our own emotions
  • Respect our own space/body
  • Trust our own intentions/ideas/abilities
  • Take some risks, understand that sometimes we will fall
  • Know that this is our journey, too
  • Accept and honor our own expectations

These fundamentals apply if our 1-year-old won’t sleep through the night. If our 4-year-old starts showing increased aggression towards their younger sibling. If our 9-year-old suddenly develops school anxiety. If our 15-year-old is hanging out with a sketchy crowd. If, if, if. Our kids will do all these things and more. Every stage is new, every challenge is different in the details. Every struggle is painful and confusing. But at the heart of it, it’s all the same. It’s life.

It’s big emotion. It’s difficult transitions. It’s greater autonomy and higher expectations. It’s tricky negotiations. It’s learning who we are in relation to others. And all that applies not just to the kids, but to us as parents.

So often we can’t see beyond the current struggle. And we think that if we can just figure out how to “deal” with this particular challenge, we will be home free. We will have arrived at the top. But this journey actually never ends. And when we make it through one challenge, our kids will be two steps ahead of us, starting the next one.

It’s what they are supposed to do. Challenge by challenge, they grow. Challenge by challenge, we support them in that growth.

And gentle, respectful parenting helps us do that. With ONE philosophy that spans the ages. Support, Respect, Trust, Allow, Share, Maintain. Let’s break it down:

Support: No matter what the situation or the age, we start by supporting emotion. Reflect emotion. Everyone’s emotion. No one has bigger emotions than 3-year-olds, except maybe 16-year-olds. At the heart of slamming doors and bad crowds and thrown toys are very powerful emotions. Fear, anger, anxiety. Reflect and embrace emotions, your kids’ as well as your own.

Respect: Our children deserve and are entitled to live in a world where their body and space are respected. It’s just that simple. Respect theirs and expect them to respect yours.

Trust: We are often quick to assume our kids can’t do something. Or they won’t do something. Or they don’t want to do something. In the end, that may be true, but it’s a horrible place to start. Believe in your kids. Start with trusting that they are starting with good intentions and good ideas and the ability to follow through. It won’t always work out. They will mess up. But that’s okay. We all feel much better about taking the next step when we are surrounded by people who trust us. On that note, trust yourself. You’re doing great!

Allow: Swallow your anxiety and allow them to do just a little bit more than you’re comfortable with. Let them go a little bit further. Let them climb a little higher. Let them learn to trust themselves. As they grow older, the safety bubble we put around them expands. It’s their job to push it out. It’s our job to let them.  It’s a balance. Yep, they are going to fall. Or fail. Or stumble. They need to. It’s called learning. It’s painful, but necessary. As parents we take risks, too. In that way, we all grow together. One deep breath at a time.

Share: When we see this tiny person (or this humongous kid who is suddenly taller than us) as a fellow human being who we are sharing a journey with, we can suddenly let go of some of the control we tend to want to maintain over them. We need to protect them, but if we try to control their lives, we miss out, not only on their journey, but on our own as well.

Maintain: Gentle, respectful parenting is not about parenting without boundaries. In Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, Dr. Markham talks about the need for maintaining high expectations paired with providing high support. Respectful parenting means that we (1) know what our expectations are, (2) have a realistic understanding of what our kids are developmentally capable of and (3) are available to support them in being successful. So, if our expectation is that our 2-year-old will clean up all the toys, we need to also make sure they have the support they need (staying with them, singing the clean up song, encouraging them, helping them move blocks….). High expectations. High support. (I recommend you read this book for more on this concept.) Likewise, if our 14-year-old cannot go to the school dance because her homework isn’t done, we need to be there to support her through the painful anger and disappointment she will feel. (Her life is likely to be over as she knows it. That feeling is real and shouldn’t be dismissed, but it doesn’t mean that the expectation has changed.)

Support. Respect. Trust. Allow. Share. Maintain. It works across the ages. It’s basic relationship stuff and that’s really what parenting is. A relationship. Maybe our most important one ever.

 Posted by at 4:12 pm
Jan 232013
 

Photo by Tumbleweed Infant House

Remember in kindergarten when we learned the golden rule? Treat others as you would want them to treat you. Remember last week when you heard that parent say to their child, “If you want them to share with you, you might try sharing with them”?

Now, remember that old, wishful parenting saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”? And, remember how that doesn’t work at all? Remember how the research keeps telling us that kids who grow up in houses that utilize spanking generally exhibit more aggression with peers? There seems to be a pattern here.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Maybe he was on to something.

I recently wrote a post called Sit Down and Breathe advocating that calming a storm within a child or house may actually start with us literally sitting down and breathing. This works because the child sees us and feels us do something different. The behavior is contagious. The child learns a new skill because we are modeling it, not because we are trying to force them to do it, too. They step into the new moment with us because it feels better. We have become the change we wanted to see.

It is no secret that if we treat people with respect, we are likely to get respect back. Gandhi knew it. Our kindergarten teacher knew it. Heck even most preschoolers know it. How many of us have asked our child why they hit someone only to have them say, “Well, he hit me first.” We recognize things like this all the time. But, for some reason, when it comes to our own parenting, we don’t get it.

We think we can tell, lecture, bribe, coerce, force, trick or teach our children into being the people we want them to be. Or better yet, we want them to just naturally be born perfect. But the truth is that no matter how much we tell, lecture, bribe, coerce, force, trick or teach our children, in the end our own behaviors will have much greater influence over the people they become. We have to listen to Ganhdi. We have to be the change we want to see.

We have to be the person we want our children to become.

Photo by Tumbleweed Infant House

The other day I told my child that it was time to clean up. He continued to work on the puzzles he had spread all over the floor. I asked him again, my voice raising a little louder, my intention stronger. He continued to work and then finally he said, “I’m in the middle of this right now, I will talk to you in a minute.” In that moment, I saw myself. Cooking, cleaning, whatever. Brushing off his questions to me, focused on my task and saying…well…those exact words. And then I remembered him trying to get my attention, getting louder, his intention getting stronger. Our roles reversed.

If I want him to interact differently with me, I need to be the change I want to see. I need to show him some other options: “I’m really focused right now, can you give me five minutes?” or “I can tell you really need me, let me get to a stopping point and I will give you my full attention” or “Yep, you’re right, we are supposed to be going to the park and I’m not ready yet. Can you help me finish this so I can get through it quicker?”

Be the person you want your child to become.

Ever found yourself yelling, “STOP YELLING!” only to have the child or other person yell back, “I’M NOT YELLING!”? Crazy, but it happens. Be the change. Get close to a loud child and speak very, very quietly. Chances are they will lower their voice to match yours. Magic? Nope. Be the change.

Two Degrees of Suburbia recently wrote, in my opinion, one of the most poignant posts ever. She wrote, “If you want your kid to say please and thank you….just say please and thank you.” Hallelujah. No more, no less.

Be the person you want your child to become.

If you want your child to listen, then you must hear them out. Look at them when they speak. Don’t interrupt them. Respond fully and genuinely.

If you want your child to trust, then you must trust them. Give them opportunities to lead as often as you expect them to follow. Value their opinions and efforts.

If you want your child to be respectful, then you must respect them and others. Speak thoughtfully and graciously. Understand that their bodies and minds are theirs, and behave in a way that shows you understand and value all the other bodies and minds that share this world of ours.

If you want your child to move through life with integrity, then you must show them the value of standing up for what we know is right and challenging what is wrong, even when that wrong came from our own selves. Admitting mistakes and making amends when we break the trust of others, including our children is vital. You can tell a child to say, “I’m sorry,” but if they see you saying you’re sorry in moments when you have let someone down, they may actually see the beauty in it.

If you want your child to be kind, you must be kind.

You get the picture.

If you want your child to be X, then you must be X.

If you want your child to be Y, then you must be Y.

What if it really is just as simple as that? Gandhi was a pretty smart guy. The next time you find yourself feeling frustrated with something your child is doing, or not doing, do a little soul searching yourself. Is there any way you may be modeling this? Is there anything you can do to be the change you want to see?  What are you seeing in your child that is truly just a reflection of yourself? And then, be the change. Think of it this way, even if it doesn’t have an immediate impact on your child, it will have a pretty immediate impact on you. We don’t want our children to be kind, patient, trusting, thoughtful, gracious, respectful, etc just for the heck of it. Nope, we want to help them embody these attributes because we know it will make their lives better. Maybe it will work for us, too.

 Posted by at 5:26 pm
Jan 152013
 

I was recently asked to name my favorite parenting philosophy or strategy. My response: “For what child? In what situation? In what family?” I don’t believe in any one perfect parenting strategy. Rather, I believe in good parents who utilize lots of different tools to make good parenting decisions. Why?

Today I read a blog post by Not Just Cute about giving praise. The author specifically discusses the swing in popularity between loading on the praise and attempting to give none at all. She notes that in the 80’s and 90’s the parenting experts gave us the impression that we couldn’t give enough praise, but that now praise is on the outs. It is easy to get lost in the ever shifting world of parenting advice. In fact, not only does the overall zeitgeist change over time, but different experts may give contradictory advice on the same day to the same family!

If you look online, you will quickly find an unending flood of parents and experts debating the similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses of various parenting methodologies. And it can be tempting, especially for experts, to get locked into one specific view and forget to see the forest through the trees. But, regardless of how much we may wish there was one, there will never be a definitive, works-100%-in-every-situation-with-every-kid parenting standard.

Why? Because kids are different. Parents are different. Families and circumstances and beliefs and values and cultures are different. No two are identical. And times change. The reality is that in 10 years, parenting experts will be saying different things. Sure, some of what we thought 10 years ago has stuck, or we have built on it, but some of it has gone to the wayside. The same thing will happen with what we think now.

 

The truth is that when we are locked into the “right method,” we are likely to fail to recognize what is “right” in the moment. What is happening in our family, with our child. When we get locked into the “right method” and stick to it at all costs, the price may end up being too high. We can fail to meet our child’s needs, fail to see what’s important because we are too busy clinging to the “right” parenting decision. This played itself out in my family recently when over the course of a couple months, my preschool-aged boys who share a room developed a pattern of each waking up numerous times every night and needing something (cover me up, I need to pee, I’m scared of shadows, I’m cold, I’m hot). We tried hard to stick to our parenting plans, consider developmental issues, and respond consistently. Nothing worked and meanwhile frustration, fatigue, confusion and sleep deprivation slowly seeped in. Until finally, I bribed them. I confess. I told them they could have anything (and I meant anything) they wanted for breakfast if they slept through the night without waking me up.

And it worked. From that night forward, they have both slept solidly without waking us up. Even once.

Well rested and clear-headed, I have some amount of guilt over resorting to a parenting strategy that I often advocate against. Some guilt. But at the same time I am aware that my other plan was getting our family nowhere, except into a deeper, darker, hole. And I am also aware that part of what did work in the end (bribe or not) was my ability to realize that what I was doing wasn’t working, and that I was running out of coping skills that would allow me to make good decisions.

Since then, we have reflected as a family on how much better we all feel. How much easier mornings are. How much more pleasant bedtime is. How nice it is when everyone’s needs get met. Since then, we have been able to go back and discuss and engage them in the process. So now sleeping through the night hopefully isn’t just about getting a special breakfast. It is now something that they know they can do and, hopefully, want to do because it feels better. The unhealthy pattern has been broken, and their bodies and minds are capable of repeating the healthy pattern.

I know many people might think I did the wrong thing. But I firmly believe that sometimes, the “right” parenting decision is whatever works for your family, even if others may have different opinions. Rather than focusing on whether or not we are following a specific philosophy, maybe good parenting decisions are more about the foundation on which the actual parenting decision is made. With that in mind, here are my top 7 criteria for good parenting:

  • Lead with Love: Good parenting requires that we first lead with love. Parenting is hard. It requires an unending amount of patience and thought and decision making and intuition. Leading with fear, anger, resentment, etc. makes for bad parenting decisions. Lead with love. Always.

 

 

  • Interact with Respect: The idea that children should be respected is one theme that has slowly evolved in the parenting literature. When we view our children as people in their own right who deserve respect, we make better parenting decisions.

 

  • Aim for Growth, not Control: Often, we make parenting decisions based on what WE need (quiet, calm, a clean house, control). But if we are intentional about aligning our responses with what the child needs to grow and develop, we make better parenting decisions.

 

  • Remember to Self-Reflect: In order to make good parenting decisions, we need to be willing to look at our own triggers, shortcomings, mistakes and patterns. Refusal to do this results in diagnosing the child as the problem, when it may just be our response!

 

  • Maintain Flexibility: Sometimes the problem is that we are going about things the wrong way. Sometimes we make a decision or set a plan or buy into a parenting strategy that just doesn’t work. In order to make good parenting decisions, we need to be able and willing to be flexible in our approach.

 

  • Consider the Child/Parent/Family: Rather than trying to force the child to acquiesce to a parenting strategy, we need to have a strategy that works for the child. Good parenting means asking, “What do I know about my child, myself, my family that would help me determine the right course here?”

 

 

  • Remain Open to Learning from the Child: Our children bring a lot of inner wisdom to the table. Good parents are willing to learn just as much as they teach.

Love. Respect. Intention. Self-reflection. Flexibility. Consideration. Openness. These are the foundations of good parenting. If we work hard to make sure they stay at the heart of all our interactions with our children, we can walk this path of parenting with the knowledge that while we may not always make the best decision every time, we are coming from a place that is thoughtful and true and genuine.

And when we really think about it, aren’t these also seven traits that we would love to instill in our children? What a concept. That’s a parenting philosophy that makes sense to me.

 Posted by at 2:38 pm
Dec 122012
 

Baby, You Rock My World!

Oh, I know what your thinking. But no, I mean it literally. Children ROCK our world. They take what we think is true and right and normal and they squish it up in their chubby little fists and throw it into the toy box to be lost among a myriad of other forgotten treasures. Nothing looks the same, nothing feels the same, nothing is the same. And there is no way to explain it. The only way to get it, is to live it. And even then, sometimes it isn’t clear.

I remember distinctly having the belief that children would be a wonderful addition to my life. I talk to people every day that echo this same sentiment. It was clear to me that the world my husband and I had designed and planned would continue on, simply with the addition of a small person sitting in the back seat. Our plus-one. Our course was charted. Our understanding of the world was clear. Our plans were laid. Our baby-to-be would easily and naturally fit into our scheme, and we would continue on. As you were, soldier.

Yeah. Right.

And along comes baby. Sweet and innocent and amazing. And a vicious destroyer of previous lives.

And we emerge from a sleep-deprived baby fog to find a world that bears little resemblance to the way we thought things would be.

Friends change. Priorities change. Finances change. Energies change. Jobs change. We are suddenly regretfully aware that the words “Yo gabba gabba” have a meaning. We are suddenly regretfully unaware that weeks have gone by and we haven’t returned a phone call to a once-close friend.

Time and time again I hear parents ask the same questions: Who am I? Where did I go? I used to have thoughts, opinions. I used to know things and think about politics and like music. I used to love to travel and I had such dreams and plans. And now?

Well, this baby, who is the love of my life, rocked my world.

And maybe, a part of me is a little bit bitter about that. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone.

I was recently reading a post by Authentic Parenting that talks about a paradox between parenting strategies that seem to hurry kids towards autonomy versus parenting strategies that seem to keep kids dependent. It rang true. In our culture we want kids to potty train early, but make pull ups for kids well into elementary school. We want kids to wean early, but encourage pacifiers. We want them to speak up for themselves (in theory), but not question their elders. We want them to eat solids early, but still have them using a sippy cup in their preschool years. The list goes on and on.

At first glance, it does seem paradoxical. But then I realized, all these things are the same. They are, in essence, attempts to have the child fit into our adult world with as little impact on us as possible. When we want our newborns to sleep through the night, it is not because this has any developmental relevance for them, but rather because we are tired and are used to sleeping through the night. When we want our children to potty train early and wear pull ups longer, it is because it makes it easier for us.

And what’s wrong with that? We have needs too right? What happened to the idea that my baby would fit into my world? What parenting strategies can I employ that will help them fit into my world? I want to sleep through the night. I want to travel and go to restaurants and relax at the end of the day with a glass of wine and a bubble bath. Show me the book that tells me how to do that and that is the parenting strategy that must work.

And maybe, that is what is inherently wrong with all those parenting strategies. Those strategies are aimed to meet parent needs rather than kid needs.  Maybe, rather than trying to figure out how to make our plus one play by our rules, we need to figure out new rules that work for everyone. Parent needs, kid needs, family needs. There is no such thing as “us plus a baby”. There is only a new us.

Our kids enter our world and change it. Completely rock it to the core.

And we hang on for dear life to the idea that we can get our old selves back. If only our kid would (fill in the blank)…. We hang on to the idea that it is possible to have a quiet, well behaved, go to sleep early and wake up late, potty train by themselves, happy to stay with a babysitter, self soothing, I-don’t-really-need-you-because-that-parenting-strategy-nipped-my-developmental-needs-in-the-bud kind of kid, because that is the kind of kid that would allow my world to turn the way I thought it would.

Only it never works that way. Because their needs are constant and changing and ever evolving, and we are their parents. And our needs are constant and changing and evolving. And that is that. It’s not that there is something wrong with them. There was something wrong with the idea that they would be our plus-one to the party.

 

Nope. They are the party.

 

And the party is pretty amazing. As long as we can stop fighting it.

 

 Posted by at 6:55 am
Nov 212012
 

Last night I was asked to talk about avoiding stress at the holidays. (See it here.) It is easy to list off the things that we can do to try to ward off the stressful part of this season: Exercise, take time for yourself, don’t over schedule, know when to say no, ask for help, plan ahead…. But, as I think through this list of to-dos it feels somehow hollow. Rather, I keep returning to the idea that holidays can become less stressful when we really allow them to be what they are truly meant to be. Somehow, for many of us, the heart of the holidays has gotten lost.

Dr. Laura Markham wrote a lovely post about letting go of expectations at the holidays, and I truly believe this is the key. We have unrealistic ideas about what holidays should look like and those ideas get bigger and bigger. In our minds we envision picture-perfect meals and movie-like settings, and as the expectations pile up, so does the cost and the stuff and the stress and the disappointment.

Rather, what if we took a hard look at what the holidays really mean to us, to our families and to our children. What if we went to the very core of the issue and redefined how we move through the holiday season? Is it about religion? Is it about family togetherness? Is it about tradition?

Many of us allow our holidays to be defined by “stuff.” Presents and table settings and the perfect turkey and the perfect party. All of which can be quite overwhelming. But in reality, when we look back on what was memorable about past holidays, it wasn’t about the stuffing or the way the table was set or the number of presents under the tree. What we remember is the funny thing that Grandma did, or when the kids fell asleep under the Christmas tree, or the burned sugar cookies or the pie made with salt rather than sugar (nod to my mom). Some of these things can feel like disasters at the time, but in reality, it is these moments that we should be relishing in. Laughing together and enjoying the moment and savoring every interaction. Not just the perfect turkey.

So this year, let’s move a little deeper into our holidays, beyond the stuff. Here are three things we can do differently this year to get back to the heart of the holidays:

Define what “necessity” really means:

  • Do we need three side dishes or ten presents or a new set of dishes that match the table cloth? What can we let go of so that there is space in our hearts and energy to focus on the parts of the holiday that we really want to cherish?
  • What does giving mean? What does getting mean? Are we simply filling holiday wish lists or making gift giving a process of connecting with each other? What messages are we teaching our children with our gift-giving process?

Find joy in the little moments:

  • Rather than feeling overwhelmed by stacks of dishes, think of these moments as a time to connect. A grandson washing dishes with a grandfather, telling stories about when dad was a little kid can add a bit of magic to an otherwise mundane  and stressful task.
  • Find ways for everyone to be involved in the process. A family that cooks together not only finds connection with each other in the process, but finds more joy in the finished product.

Laugh it off:

  • Letting go of the expectation of perfection can relieve an incredible amount of pressure and stress. Realize that things won’t be perfect and that it is probably these lovely imperfections that you will smile about for years to come.
  • When something goes wrong, smile and embrace the moment. This is a memory in the making!

Holidays can be stressful, but they can also be filled with amazing connections, deepening relationships and lifelong memories. And if we aren’t too caught up with our high expectations, we may just be surprised about how easily these things fall into place.

From our Core Parenting Family to yours,

Happy Holidays!

 Posted by at 5:08 pm
Oct 102012
 

Questions about sibling conflict often go deeper than how to help children learn how to share. Parents wonder how to negotiate and support interactions between children when the kids are just on different pages. A parent asks:

“I’ve been trying to find approaches for taking on a particularly frustrating dynamic that’s happening between my boys. When they grab each other’s toys or both want my attention, I’ve used a number of strategies that I think are working, as long as I have the patience to employ them (-:  Standing by and encouraging them to work it out, teaching them to take turns, introducing other options for play, etc.

Here’s the challenging scenario though: One child is playing and the other just bugs him, gets in his way, drives his train into his brother’s, sings annoying songs, crosses into his space, crawls on him, etc. David, the twin who always seems to get bugged by the much-higher energy, intrusive Sam, is surprisingly learning pretty well to “use his words.” Instead of calling for me all the time, whining and collapsing, he may say, “Sammy, please don’t do that. I don’t want you to do that.” But no matter what he or I say to Sam, Sam doesn’t stop. I’ve also encouraged David to get up and walk away, but of course Sam runs right after him, which David points out to me, “But if I move, Mommy, Sam will just run right after me.” I can talk to Sam, scold him, separate him, find him a different toy, but he keeps coming back. (When I’m alone with them, it’s obviously hard to physically separate them.) Out of exasperation, I end up resorting to threats for “time out” for Sam, or actually doing a time out, but I’d love to find something else to solve the problem.

As I type this I do realize that I don’t really have a good sense of what’s going on for Sam with all this. Perhaps he is just more social and wants to play together more? Maybe by now he knows this behavior rapidly gets me showing up at the scene, showing him attention (negative albeit). Maybe I just need to whisk him off and play with him for a bit to give David space. (Not always possible, but perhaps I should make it a priority for a while?) Anyway, I’m at a bit of a loss. As I said, they are making progress on sharing, but not on learning how to resolve respecting each other’s space…”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

One of the biggest parenting challenges is figuring out how to intervene when needs are colliding. One sibling needs quiet time, one needs engagement. One needs to connect, while the other needs space to work on focused tasks. It gets even more tricky when ages and developmental milestones mean that kids are on different playing fields all together. A toddler has loud angry feelings, while an infant sibling needs to nap in a quiet space. A toddler needs to have routine, structure and quiet time at home, while an older sibling is engaged in numerous activities and team sports that keep a family running around between school and bedtime. A preschooler needs attention, while a younger toddler nurses in mother’s arms.

And then you add in the needs of the parents (oh yes, we have needs too!). We need a space to decompress after work. We need to get dinner on the table. We need to go to the bathroom by ourselves, just once.

A family is a melting pot of needs. Everyone has their own unique issues, desires, needs, boundaries, buttons and cues. Each member has a bubble of needs that is bouncing around the family system, bumping into (sometimes crashing into) the needs of others.

In the perfect situation, we can find a way to meet everyone’s needs with one plan. Maybe David needs to have quiet focused work time, and Sam really needs to connect. The plan becomes that Sam can ask David for a “job.” David offers Sam a job of lining up rail road tracks. Quiet work commences for David, Sam feels connection. Everyone’s needs get met.

But what about when it isn’t that pretty? What if David really needs alone time and Sam really needs connection? What if a toddler really needs a space to be loud, and the baby is sleeping. What if dinner really needs to get on the table or mama really needs a break, and the preschooler really needs to process frustration, and the baby needs to eat NOW, and needs just keep crashing into each other until everyone is frustrated and crying and loud. What then?

Family is about needs colliding, and hopefully merging and melding and meshing, rather than crashing. Family is about learning to express our own needs, recognizing and respecting the needs of others and working to find a solution that works for everyone. This is what we want our kids to learn how to do right? So in order to do this, we need to work towards a couple of things:

1)      We have to know what it is each person needs. – It seems like we know that David needs space and quiet time, but do we really know what Sam needs? If we as the parent can’t identify the need, then chances are that the child doesn’t know either. We want to help each person really understand what it is they are asking for. The parent may say, “It looks like David really wants quiet time. Sam what do you need right now?” Chances are, he may not know. It may take time, practice and communication to help him figure out what he needs. Maybe he needs his brother’s attention. Maybe he needs his parent’s attention. Maybe he needs help calming down. Sometimes out of control behavior is the child saying, “Help me control this body of mine, it’s crazy in here!”

 

2)      Once we have an idea of what each person’s needs really are, we can then help the child to communicate them differently. – “Oh, I see you are trying to get your brother’s attention. Do you want to ask him something?” or “Oh, you’re doing that thing with your body again, do you think you want me to help you find a way to feel in control?”

 

3)      When we know what each person really needs, we can help them say what they DO want, rather than what they DON’T want. – So, rather than David saying, “Stop doing that,” he can say, “Right now I need to be in a quiet room” or “I need space!” When David says this, the parent can help Sam process the request. “You said you want your brother’s attention, but he says he needs to be in a quiet room. I wonder if there is a plan that works for everyone?”

 

4)      As different need patterns emerge for different family members, we can set the stage. Much of negotiating needs happens, not during times of crisis, but during thoughtful and calm times. – For example, the family who knows that one child has a need for quiet, protected space, may work together to identify “David’s quiet spot.” While not in conflict, everyone can talk about the spot as David’s spot that he can go to whenever he wants and it is his spot alone. That way, when conflict arises, and David announces he is going to his “spot,” the concept is already familiar and understandable.

In the end, sibling conflict is going to happen. Often. Over and over again. Their needs will conflict, and our needs will conflict, and we will have many opportunities to practice conflict resolution, negotiating, compromise, empathy and engagement. It is the essence of figuring out how to interact with others that matters. When kids are crashing into each other emotionally, physically or otherwise, we can remember that what is really crashing is their needs. If we can help them to identify what those needs are, we can help them to communicate them better and then work together to find a plan that works for everyone. That’s the goal, right?

*Thanks to Tumbleweed Infant House for the amazing photos!*

 Posted by at 6:55 am