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
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 042012
 

It’s one of those moments: The energy is high. The emotion is flowing. The scales are tipping. The fists are clenching. The conflict is rising. The mood is escalating.

It’s one of those days: We make it though one crisis only to turn around and face another. And another. You know this kind of day. I know them, too. We have all had them. We will have them again.

Even as I write about it, I can feel it welling up inside of me. A feeling of being out of control. Of being one step behind the next outburst, sibling conflict, injury, tantrum. Of just knowing everything is about to fall to pieces. A sense of urgency, a sense of doom, an exhaustion that knows no rest. I can feel my chest tightening, my breath quickening, the frustration building in my thoughts, the tension spreading through my body.

And we want to yell out (and maybe we do yell), “Why are you doing this to me?” “Why can’t you just listen?” “I can’t take this anymore!” “I need peace!” “I need a break.” “Stop it!!!”

Oh yes, the old adage: he who yells loudest… Only, it never works. Not really, not in the long run. Sure, we may temporarily stun them into silence, but the heart of the energy still beats hard and heavy in the environment; and, make no mistake, it will find its way out into the open again.

In order to really help our children be able to find calm, we need to embrace one fact.

No matter what, our children will learn what we do, not do what we say.

We only need to watch our children when they don’t know we are listening to know this is true. How many of us have seen our children play “phone” and copy our words and mannerisms to a tee? How many of us have been shocked by our children’s perfect use of our favorite saying? If we are open, and we watch carefully, we can see ourselves in everything they do. They are learning from us every moment of every day. And, if there is a time when they are not really taking things in, it is probably only those times when we are telling them what to do!

When the emotion runs high and the chaos runs deep, we cannot plead or logic or yell our way to quiet and calm. Rather, we must do it.

Be the calm you want to feel.

Sit down and breathe.

When the world is in chaos, move to the center of the storm, sit down and breathe. I am not talking about taking a “parenting time out” (although I am a full advocate of these as well). I am talking about moving close to the action and DOING the calm you want your children to experience.

 

 

Here is a scenario (and, one that occurs in our home frequently):

The boys are in conflict. This toy, that toy, rules are debated, voices rise, space is violated. I can feel the pulse quicken. Rather than intervene with words, I simply move as close to the epicenter of their conflict as I can, sit down, close my eyes and breathe. Loudly. Long, deep, slow breaths. I connect with my own body and feel it relax. I take my time before opening my eyes. Making sure to give myself time to really slow my breathing and clear my mind.

It’s contagious. The boys notice. Even if they stay engaged in their struggle, I notice that my breathing triggers their breathing to slow. One of them takes a deep breath. The other stops and copies us.

I continue to breathe and stay quiet, but open my arms. A silent invitation for them to join me. I keep breathing.

Almost always, one or both will join me. Sit close, breathe and calm. I can feel all of us melt a little into the moment. The energy dissipates. The urgency falls away.  The storm has passed. The toys lay on the ground between us, untouched.

When everyone is breathing and still, I open my eyes. I say simply, “I wonder what you guys are going to do now.” An invitation to talk about it or move on or make a plan, whatever they need. Usually at this point, they are now able to work it out on their own.

Everything feels different. For me and for them.

I didn’t tell them to calm down.

I didn’t tell them to solve their problem.

I didn’t even tell them why breathing worked.

I didn’t need to tell them anything.

They learned it, and so did I. Of course we need to practice again and again and again. But when the practice feels so good, that may not be such a bad thing.

 Posted by at 3:02 pm
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
Jul 232012
 

What parent hasn’t felt the emotion welling up within? Frustration, exhaustion, anger, confusion. These emotional responses are normal and impossible to avoid from time to time over the course of parenthood. The problem is that when we approach our children from this emotional state, we often respond to the moment impulsively with reactions that actually fuel the fire and have an impact that is the opposite of what we would like to see happen. In other words, our reactions actually make things worse!

Most of us, if not all of us, have been there. They are crying, we are frustrated. We get louder, they cry harder. We feel more frustrated and on and on….Ironically, most of these situations can easily be very different if we, as parents, are able to respond differently. The next time you find yourself responding from a place of frustration, exhaustion, or anger, take a deep breath and try one of these alternative responses instead. You may be surprised at the immediate difference.

 

If you want to say… …try this instead. Why it Works
“Because I said so!” “Why do you think we might need to do it that way?” This response usually signals that we have entered into a power struggle with our child over something pretty basic (putting on shoes, jackets, etc.) The child might be simply refusing to find power. Asking the child what she thinks turns her into a participant in the moment, rather than an object to be controlled. On the other hand, if the best response you have is “Because I said so,” it may be a sign that you need to let it go. Maybe you chose a battle that doesn’t need to be fought.
“I have asked you [3, 10, 100] times not to do that. You’re going to get hurt! Stop!” “I notice you’re doing X, I’m worried about Y. What do you think?” Our kids are never too young to start thinking about the natural consequences of their actions. Modeling and encouraging them to notice and think about the social, spatial and emotional relationships among themselves and others teaches them about the world, rather than simply forcing their behavior. It’s the difference between supportive parenting and micromanaging.
“I can’t take [this, you, it] anymore.” “I’m feeling so frustrated right now. I’m going to take a minute to breathe and think. What are you going to do?” You can and should let your kids know that you have real feelings too. This response lets you model healthy and helpful coping skills.
“STOP hitting your brother!” Physically block aggressive behavior, if necessary, while saying, “You’re so angry! I’m not going to let you hurt him, but what do you want him to know?” The goal is to reinforce the avoidance of violence while at the same time acknowledging the valid emotion and offering a pro-social way to express that emotion. Simply trying to stop the behavior doesn’t work. The child is left with internal angst that she doesn’t have an outlet for. I have written in more detail about this here.
“You are out of control!” or “Get in control!” “Sam, what are your feet doing right now? What are your arms doing right now? Can you feel your tummy?”or “Raise your hand if you can hear me.”or “Can you make your legs move verrrryyyy slllllooowwwwly? Can you make your body into a ball?” Sometimes kids can start spinning out of control. Many times, when this happens, it is almost as if their bodies are on autopilot, crashing around and waiting for something or someone to reel them in. Rather than physically restraining them, try helping them connect their thoughts with their bodies. Bringing their awareness to what is going on with their body can teach them to control themselves, rather than having us do it for them. This also helps to create a space that allows them to get into control. Does your child need a bigger space in that moment? Or maybe your child needs the opposite, a smaller space.
“Why are you crying?!?!” or “That’s nothing to cry about.” or “Stop crying.” “Oh, you’re so sad! What can I do for you?” Why the child is crying really doesn’t matter. Remember, to you it’s just a blue sippy cup. To the child, it’s his world. The emotion is strong and that’s what matters. Sometimes all that children need is for someone to acknowledge that their emotion is real. Asking what they think they need helps them learn how to start taking care of themselves and identify their own coping mechanisms for processing and handling emotion.
“Why aren’t your shoes on yet???”   “Here, let’s do it together….” or “It’s time for shoes. What do you need to do first to take care of that?” If you have had to tell a child several times to do something and it isn’t happening, it may not be about the child. Maybe your expectations are off. Telling the child to do it again isn’t going to change anything. Rather, you need to do something differently. Most likely, the child’s failure to follow through is her way of telling you that she is having trouble orienting herself to the moment, prioritizing, focusing, etc. Breaking down the steps, walking the child through it, or helping the child organize the task will facilitate the process and meet everyone’s needs.

 

Immediate, emotionally driven responses strive for control of a situation and result in shame and the suppression of feelings. They essentially exclude the child from the process. This leaves everyone feeling disconnected and alone. There is a sense of pressure for an immediate expected outcome. In contrast, the alternative responses engage the child, ask for his input, and give him responsibility and autonomy in the process while allowing for flexibility in the outcome. We, as parents, can relax into roles as empathic supporters and guides, rather than feeling pressured to be omniscient rulers of all things—a frustrating job when our subjects have a mind of their own!

Does it work? Try some of these responses and let us know what happens!

 

 

 Posted by at 1:29 pm
Jul 182012
 

Parents of multiple children often struggle with how to handle sibling conflict. Often times, our homes  can be filled with high-pitched cries of “Mom! He took my toy!” and “Dad! He hit me!” Parents find themselves in the role of arbitrator, judge, and referee. In an effort to restore quiet and sanity to the home, tired, overwhelmed and well-intentioned parents end up responding with “Share the toy” and “Don’t hit your sister.”  And while this may result in momentary peace, the lesson for the child is, “He who screams first (or loudest) gets Mom on his side.” The unfortunate result? More screaming and fighting.

But beyond momentary household peace, what do we really want our children to learn? We want them to be able to communicate their needs, negotiate, tolerate, plan, and maintain their own boundaries while respecting the boundaries of others. We want them to be flexible and kind and empathic. We want them to learn to interact with others in a pro-social and responsible way.  We want them to think about others without sacrificing themselves and we want them to explore and gain a solid understanding of themselves in relation to others.  These are difficult concepts that require practice. And what better place to learn and practice all these skills than in the safety of our own home with our siblings? Unfortunately, when we referee as parents, we take away these opportunities for growth and interpersonal exploration. What if we embrace sibling conflict as an opportunity to grow, rather than a hassle to eliminate?

So how do we encourage and allow our children to benefit from sibling conflict rather than suffer from it? Rather than solve the problem for them, set the stage for them to negotiate it themselves. Here are three go-to responses to use the next time you hear conflict arise.

1)    “I hear you’re upset with your brother.  What do you want to communicate to him?”

 

Healthy, thriving individuals are able to communicate their thoughts, feelings and needs with others in a way that is respectful to both themselves and others.  When a child hits, screams, pushes, takes a toy, cries, etc. she is communicating. Our job as parents is not to quiet the communication, but to help shape the child’s ability to communicate in an effective way. When we support our children in slowing down and trying different ways of communicating with each other, they learn not only how to do it, but also that it works. In the long run, kids learn that screaming for mom to intervene won’t solve the problem, but that communicating with their sibling will. Kids learn to identify their own thoughts and feelings about a situation, practice communication skills and build empathy.

 

2)    “Wow, you both have different ideas of what should happen here! I wonder if you can make a plan that works for everybody.”

 

So often, a parent will respond to a scream of, “He took my truck!” with, “Give the truck back!” only to find the truck abandoned by everyone a moment later.  The conflict  between the children and the parent was pretty meaningless, leaving everyone feeling frustrated and agitated. That’s because it’s not about the truck. It’s about the process. Forcing the children to own the process allows the moment to become about the relationship rather than the object. When this happens, it is amazing what plans kids come up with. “I will be done in two minutes.” Or, “I can use this one and you can use that one.” They employ a variety of skills including creativity, problem-solving, empathy, and self-awareness. The children usually share a sense of satisfaction and pride in having come up with a solution and working together. Often the object-focused outcome is the same and the truck is soon forgotten by everyone. But this time, instead of a frustrating moment when a triangular power struggle led to a meaningless decision, the children feel connected, capable and satisfied. They practiced negotiation, empathy, listening, creativity, and teamwork. Success!

 

3)    “Don’t worry, I’ll wait right here while you guys work this out.”

 

Leaning social interactions is hard work. It can feel scary and overwhelming, not only for the people struggling (presumably the child), but also for those who are observing the struggle (presumably the parent). Sometimes, as parents, we create a sense of urgency when conflict arises. We need peace to be restored quickly!  Much of this has to do with our own lack of tolerance for distress. It’s hard to listen to our children fight. Our days are long and our patience runs short. But, over time, this sense of urgency can create anxiety for children around these types of conflicts. Sending the message to our children that we are willing to be patient while they work out their conflict (and that we will support them in the process) allows kids to learn to tolerate conflict as they work through it. It also sends the message that we are not going to step in and solve the conflict for them. This is especially important when we have adopted the pattern of stepping in to referee.

These three responses can be used effectively across ages. The difference may be in how closely involved the caregiver is in the interaction. For toddlers or pre-verbal children, the caregiver may need to do lots of interpreting: “You’re telling your brother you are so angry! You want the truck back!” For preschoolers, it may mean sitting closely to help ground the children in the moment or keep bodies safe. Reflecting back what each child says and modeling a rhythm for communication and dialogue may be necessary. For school-age children or adolescents, it may be simply making the statement and then getting out of the way.  But whatever the age of the children involved, we as parents definitely need to be able to tolerate distress and conflict. Rather than responding with the thought of, “Oh, no! The kids are fighting again!” we can practice thinking, “Oh, yes! Another opportunity to practice communication!” We need to give up the immediate and momentary goal of household peace in exchange for the long-term goal of empowering children to develop the skills needed for peaceful conflict resolution.  The results may just blow our mind.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Jun 112012
 

Last week a father of three wrote to me after reading a blog advocating the avoidance of reward- and punishment-based communication with children. He said:

“I think that it is impossible to avoid rewarding and punishing. I think that is a fundamental part of human experience, intentional or not. I think that done compassionately, correction and teaching is healthy and need not demolish autonomy and self-esteem. I can’t imagine not correcting, teaching, etc, my children at some points during our relationship. I think that some degree of teaching and doing for are necessary given that children are not fully formed, innately capable, autonomous people.”

His letter touched on so many of the points that parents struggle with. When I carefully consider his statement, what really stands out to me is a parental fear of not providing a child with every possible opportunity to learn. Parents, rightfully so, feel that it is their duty to teach their children about the world, about relationships, about life and that this teaching must be tangible, concrete and direct. There is no doubt that children learn from their parents. There is no doubt that how a parent responds to a child teaches them about the world. But what our collective thinking seems to be opening up to more and more is the idea that what a parent teaches through reward and punishment is a small and much less poignant part of a child’s learning experience. What parents, educators, psychologists, researchers and writers are figuring out is that children are innate learners, who learn by experience and that our old ideas of shaping children’s behavior through externally driven rewards and punishments (while moderately successful in cajoling a child into shaping their behavior in that moment) did little for helping them develop the life skills we really want for them: empathy, self-awareness, decision making, morality, cognitive flexibility….

These gifts to our children don’t come out of lectures or sticker programs or time-outs. They don’t come from telling our children how to do something or why they should do it or when it should happen. These are not discrete units of information that we can explain and have them commit to long-term memory. Rather they are higher-level brain functions that require repeated and practiced complex interactions between our children and their world. When children are allowed to really interact with their world, magic happens. We can’t simply “teach” it. We can however, support our children in experiencing it. As I think about this distinction, I notice each point the parent highlighted in his email:

“I think that it is impossible to avoid rewarding and punishing. I think that is a fundamental part of human experience, intentional or not.”

Absolutely true! For every action there is a reaction. Some are positive, some are negative. We learn to interact with the world through a series of these experiences. Essentially, these are Natural Consequences. When I hit another child, a negative thing happens. The other child cries and hits me back. Natural consequence. When I don’t wear a jacket on a snowy day, I get cold. Natural consequence. If I don’t eat a meal, I notice I get very hungry and can’t focus on my homework. Natural consequence. When I offer a toy to my friend, he smiles and offers me one back. Natural consequence. Rewards and punishments. Life is full of them. And when a child is given the opportunity to experience them, an amazing thing happens. They learn how to negotiate the world, they learn that their behavior has an impact and that impact affects themselves and others. The basis for empathy, cooperation, problem solving, morality….

But, somewhere along the way, we lost sight of the meaning of “natural consequence.” Somehow, natural consequence became, “If you hit another child, you will have to go to time-out.” Not natural. The message the child actually receives becomes, “If I hit another child, an adult will remove me from the situation.” The essence of the interaction between the children, the actual impact of the behavior on the environment, is lost and the focus is redirected to the parent/child relationship. In this way, the parent-driven punishment actually interferes with the opportunity for learning that is in fact the fundamental part of human experience. Rather than striving towards “teaching them,” we can instead strive towards supporting them in fully experiencing the learning opportunity that the world is offering them in that moment.

“I think that done compassionately, correction and teaching is healthy and need not demolish autonomy and self-esteem.”

Absolutely true! But I would take it one step further. This statement seems to imply that autonomy and self-esteem will be able to exist despite compassionate teaching. Rather, if we are compassionately supporting our children in fully experiencing the teaching moments that occur naturally in their lives, autonomy and self-esteem will be the outcome! Take the following example of a child that hits another child:

The “teaching” parent steps in, removes the child from the situation, gives the child a time-out and then coaches the child to apologize before returning to play. The learning that occurs is centered between the child and parent. The child learns that someone else will help them control their behavior and someone else will tell them how to make it better. While this type of interaction will probably not “demolish autonomy and self-esteem,” it certainly doesn’t add to it.

The “supportive” parents steps in, gently moves a hand to keep the child from hurting another child and says, “I won’t let you hurt Joey. He looks really sad and worried! I wonder what you’re trying to say?” The child is encouraged to explore how his actions are impacting the environment and practice doing things differently. The parent can support him in learning from the moment by asking things like: “I wonder what you are feeling?” “I wonder what he is feeling?” “I wonder if there is another way?” The parent can encourage the child to find autonomy in problem solving. He may feel good about himself and the situation when he finds a way to communicate his feelings and get his needs met. He may feel connected with his friend and rewarded by the friend’s response to him. The child has the opportunity to actually practice using higher-level processing skills and engaging the world around him in a way that directly results in autonomy and self esteem. What a different experience!

“I can’t imagine not correcting, teaching, etc, my children at some points during our relationship.”

All parents will absolutely correct and teach their children at some point. Our children are learning from us, even when we aren’t trying. Perhaps the bigger questions are, What are we really teaching? And, how are we teaching it? Are we willing to start viewing ourselves as supports and guides rather than directors? Are we willing to allow our children to learn from their own experiences rather than feeling a need to dictate and force lessons on them? If most of us think about our favorite teachers, they weren’t those who sat us down and had us memorize the periodic table or lists of verbs. They were those who set up opportunities for us to learn, provided the tools and then stood by our side while we struggled through. Good teachers make learning possible, but the learning itself has to happen within the student. The same is true for parenting.

“I think that some degree of teaching and doing for are necessary given that children are not fully formed, innately capable, autonomous people.”

There is no denying that children are not fully formed. Their bodies are growing, their brains are growing and they are in the process of acquiring the information and the skills that they need to engage with the world. They need adults to provide them with love and support, food and shelter, and in that way they are not autonomous. But I disagree with the thought that they are not innately capable. They are innately capable of learning. It’s what they are born to do. And the environment is innately capable of providing them with the feedback they need to learn to negotiate it. We just need to trust them to do their job. To play and explore and learn and grow. Good parenting means providing them with a safe, loving place in which they can do just that. Good parenting means taking the time to sit by their side while they struggle though some of the tough lessons and celebrating with them when they take full pride and ownership in the outcomes.

Learning isn’t a neat and orderly task. It’s messy and complicated and sometimes painful, and it’s what life is all about. Rather than trying to tidy things up by forcing our “parental wisdom” on them, good parenting is about making sure they have the tools, the support, the safe arms, the love and the encouragement to experience life fully and to thrive. In short, to learn.

 Posted by at 11:12 am
May 102012
 

“No.” “Stop doing that.” “Share the truck.” “Don’t lick your brother’s forehead.” “Don’t roll your eyes at grandma.” “Don’t use that word.” At the end of the day, most parents have unwittingly made statements such as these too many times to count. It seems that if we aren’t careful, we can get sucked into a never ending stream of what I call “micromanagement parenting.” We can feel like we are hanging on by a thread, trying to keep some semblance of calm while the storm continues to wear at us. We can feel like we constantly have to redirect, maintain control, referee, sidestep disaster and prevent chaos. It’s not very fun (for us or our kiddos), not very rewarding and the biggest downside is that it never seems to end. Just when we get one situation under control, another arises, like we are one step behind in a losing battle. This pattern can leave us feeling frustrated and exhausted as parents.

So, what is really going on here? Childhood is a time of incredible learning. Children are learning not only facts and skills such as math and reading and how to tie shoes and ride bikes, but they are learning how to negotiate social interactions, how to process feelings, how to empathize with others, how to relate. Parenthood is a time not only of protecting and nurturing, but also of teaching and providing opportunities for learning these skills. Essentially, as parents, we are given the job of being our children’s “life manager.” Thinking about how we fulfill this role will give us insight into our own parenting strengths and weaknesses.

Micromanaging. It is about getting people to do specific tasks: when we want them to and how we want them to. End of story. In a business setting, it may sound like, “Take this file, put it in a red envelope and write this address on it.” The manager doesn’t care at that moment if the employee understands why this process is important and they are not thinking about creating long term skills that benefit the employee or the company. They simply want the task done now. Similarly, in parenting, micromanagement might sound like, “Stop hitting your brother, give him the truck and pick up your toys.” This is an immediate solution to a moment in time that feels out of control for some reason. The parent is saying that they need quiet. They aren’t thinking about whether or not the child develops an empathic understanding of why she shouldn’t hit her brother, they just want everyone to stop crying and screaming right now. Micromanagement may lead to an immediate solution, but frustration lies in the fact that it has little impact on future behavior. So while she may stop hitting her brother right now, she will likely need to be told again tomorrow (or in five minutes).

When a child learns to read, we teach them to understand the letters, the sounds and the relationship between these components, along with rules and patterns of language. It would not be possible to simply tell a child to read and have them succeed. This is also true of social skills, empathy, emotional knowledge and relationships. We have to help children understand the nuances of interactions so that they can incorporate and, more importantly, utilize this information later. This learning does not happen when we say: “stop doing that” or “be nice” or “share.”  Saying such things is equivalent to saying: “read.” Rather, healthy social skills develop when we teach a child the rules, nuances and components of social life. When we help a child figure out what is going on in the moment, what options they have and what the outcomes may be based on these options.

When a child is frustrated and hitting, they are doing so because they feel something or think something that they cannot express or solve. The micromanaging parents says, “Stop hitting.” The teaching parent says, “I can see you are so frustrated, and when you hit your brother he got really sad. I wonder if there are other options right now? Let’s figure it out.” The teaching parent is helping a child to develop a language for identifying and expressing their feelings; they are communicating to the child that their feelings are valid and they are taking the time to help the child figure out how to negotiate the social interaction in a way that may be more productive in the future. These are skills that over time, with practice, the child will be able to do on their own. Just like reading. Every parent’s dream!

I often help parents to get out of micromanager mode and into teaching mode using the CORE acronym:

C – Center and Connect – We are all more likely to find ourselves in micromanager mode when we are tired, overwhelmed and distracted. Making dinner, talking on the phone, paying bills, doing laundry and taking care of life can often challenge our ability to be present for our children. It would be great if we could all be present for our children 100% of the time, but this isn’t realistic (and maybe not even healthy). However, it is a worthy goal to be able to redirect our attention when we need to. Taking a moment to breathe and center ourselves first may allow us to have a different view of the situation.

O – Opportunity – After we have taken a moment to breathe, we can get a better idea of what opportunity is presenting itself. Rather than seeing situations as “problems to be solved,” we can start to view these moments as opportunities to help our children learn to negotiate the world. “Not again! They are fighting over another toy” becomes “Great, another chance to practice communication of needs!” We aren’t born with these skills, we need to learn them and the more practice the better. It is amazing what a difference reframing this in our own minds can make.

R – Realize the Moment – What really needs to happen in this moment? This is where we consider all the external forces and situational factors. Is someone going to be hurt? Does this chore need to be done right now? What are the actual demands? Usually when we are in micromanaging mode we feel like something has to happen NOW. In reality, this is usually not the case. If we are honest with ourselves, the truth is that we often want something to happen now simply because there is discord or loud voices or a mess, and we crave quiet and order. Once we have taken a moment, and a breath, we realize that things aren’t so immediate and that the opportunity for learning can in fact be the top priority. What do I want my child to learn here?

E – Engage, Explore, Experiment and Educate – At this point we can think about how to engage our child in this learning opportunity. We can reflect feelings, we can brainstorm options, we can talk through consequences. We can support our children as they practice a new way of doing things. We become guides, teachers and mentors. As a parent, this feels so much more rewarding than being a micromanager.

Admittedly, this can sound like a giant task. But in reality, this process of centering/connecting, considering the opportunity, realizing the moment and engaging our children may not take much more time than the micromanaging style. The first three steps may happen in the time it takes to inhale and exhale a couple of times, and the difference it can make in our interactions with our children will be beyond comparison. After all, unless we plan on being there every moment of their lives to remind them not to hit when they are frustrated, micromanagement parenting is not a sustainable plan. And it certainly isn’t very rewarding. And while no parent is going to get through parenthood without the occasional “just do it because I told you to,” it is reasonable and admirable to expect ourselves to be engaging more than hovering, exploring more than directing, experimenting more than arbitrating and educating more than micromanaging. And, I promise, the outcome will be worth it.

 Posted by at 2:30 pm