Jul 092012
 

We all have issues. No matter how wonderful our parenting skills, no matter how peaceful and loving and gentle we strive to be in our interactions with our children, at the end of the day we all have issues.  Often, our issues are clear. We know about them and work on them on a daily basis to try to keep them in check. Other issues may be more subtle or buried deep in the depths of our psyche. Or maybe we feel like we have conquered them. So when our children, our sweet-faced, big-hearted, little bundles of love bust out with something like, “Mama! Your butt looks like a million monsters stuck together!” we may be surprised at our own reaction.

True story. I will give you the full picture.

There I was, getting out of the shower, my children running in and out of the bathroom (I am sure all of you can relate) when my preschooler says, “Mama, you have a very big butt!” Now, he didn’t say it in his maniacal, I-need-attention-so-I-am-going-to-squeal-at-the-top-of-my-lungs kind of voice. Nope, he said it in the way one would notice a lovely tree or flower or maybe an overripe tomato on the vine. A sing-songy, quiet and sweet voice. A just-noticing kind of voice.  I swallowed and held back all of the societal beliefs and pressures and unrealistic notions that were welling up inside me. “Really?” I tried to respond as neutrally as possible. “Oh yeah, it’s like a million monsters all stuck together.” And though I tried to hold onto my self esteem, I could feel it going down the drain with the water.

We can laugh. I laughed at the moment and I laugh now. But I am also aware of how it impacted me. I was acutely aware that he had, quite innocently, triggered an issue for me.  I am also well aware of the fact that he is four, has no idea about body image or ideals or the struggles women in general deal with in our culture surrounding their body. He has no idea that big butts are considered differently from small butts any more than he would think big rocks are different from small rocks. They are just that, different. There was no judgment in his voice, no motive, no devious plot to bring me down. It was just his observation, mashed together with what he was thinking about moments prior. My butt is bigger than his butt. Fact. He was thinking about monsters. Fact. They merged together. He spoke it out loud and went on his merry way. The drama happened inside of me.

So, back to the beginning. We all have issues. We have body issues and food issues and anger issues and love issues and relationship issues. We have guilt issues and mother issues and control issues.  We have deep issues and shallow issues, big issues and small issues. And the unavoidable truth is that our children will trigger these issues.  When our issues get triggered, the drama inside us unfolds. And when the drama unfolds, it tends to come out in ways that we don’t intend. When we react to our children based on our inner drama, a couple of things happen,

1)      We react to situations with misplaced anger, shame, guilt or control. We lose sight of what is actually going on with our children and steal the show, so to speak.

2)      When we let our inner drama lead the way, we have difficulty following through with our parenting intentions and find ourselves saying or doing things we don’t want to say or do.

3)      Maybe most importantly, when we let our inner drama lead the way, we make our children responsible for our issues. When we make them responsible for our issues, they lose their right to learn and explore the world in a safe and genuine way. They now have to learn to manage us as well as themselves.

So what do we do? Or, as a friend expressed it more eloquently,

“What to do when your preschooler rips out your soul, throws it on the ground, and goes number two on it?”

(the true and rightful title of this blog).

1)      Become aware of your issues. Use whatever method works. Journal, meditate, seek therapy, think, have wine with friends, whatever. Just be willing to take inventory and become aware of what your issues are. If you know that one of your buttons is being late, and you know that you become irritated and anxious and irate when people are late, it may explain why you hear your voice rising every time you have to get your family in the car. Dawdling children may trigger something in you that interferes with your ability to respond gently. But children are dawdlers. They just are. Feeling like they are doing it to spite you is your drama, not theirs. Can you identify your patterns and triggers? Can you notice how your responses to your children may be drama-led rather than child-focused?

2)      Once you have a grasp of your bigger-picture issues, practice becoming more aware in the moment.  Breathing and becoming aware of the thoughts and emotions that guide us can have a wondrous impact on our ability to respond gently in the moment. I strongly believe that the number-one, most under-appreciated parenting tool is simply breathing.  When we take a moment to become aware and connected with our breath, we have a chance to also become aware of the thoughts and triggers and emotions that are coloring our vision. This gives us an opportunity to assess the situation. I like to use the acronym CORE. I have written about it in other blog posts, but basically it is:

C- Connect and center. Breathe, take a moment, notice yourself, notice your child.

O- Observe the opportunity. What is actually happening? What do you need? What does your child need?

R- Realize the moment. What path do you want to take?

E- Engage. Sometimes this means doing something, sometimes this means doing nothing. But often, it means doing something different from your first impulse.

The whole process takes the space of a breath and can change a moment drastically.

3)      When you feel yourself triggered in the moment, take note of it and mentally file it away. Then respond to your child in the way that your child needs. Later (and this is the important part), process the issue in some way, shape or fashion. How is up to you. Use whatever you know works. You might try laughing about it with friends, journaling, getting help from a mentor, therapist, or coach, or just thinking it over.

So what’s the bottom line? The issues are our issues. Not their issues. And unless we want our issues to become their issues, we better make sure that we are fully aware of moments when the drama inside us is leading the way.  Because when we feel like our children are “ripping out our soul and throwing it on the ground and going number two on it,” they probably aren’t. They are probably just being kids.  And it’s our job to make sure our issues don’t get in the way of that.

 Posted by at 7:10 am
Jul 022012
 

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

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

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

1)      Is this worry about me or them?

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

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

4)      How big is their world now?

 

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

 

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

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

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

 Posted by at 12:25 pm
Jun 182012
 

Recently, my husband and I went hiking with our boys. I ended up with a four-year-old on my back as I made my way up a pretty strenuous two mile trail. Not being one to waste an opportunity, I decided to turn this into a training exercise and kicked it into high gear. It was rough. My son was heavy, the path was steep and I was feeling pretty toasty. As I neared the summit I could feel my energy waning and my stamina failing me. “What do you think?” I huffed and puffed to my son. Don’t judge me, but what I wanted him to say was, “You are doing a good job, Mama!” And if he screamed it at the top of his lungs, that would have been all the better. I have to admit that I wanted him to praise me. I wanted encouragement; I wanted him to notice how hard I was working and pat me on the back and tell me how great I was doing. In this time when the use of praise in parenting is being thoughtfully considered, when even I have written about avoiding praise in general, I fully admit to wanting  a “good job, Mama” from him.

But he didn’t give it.

Instead he said, “I think that the uphill seems longer than the downhill.”

Huh. “Anything else? Do you notice anything else?” I REALLY wanted him to tell me I was doing great.

“Yep. I notice that you’re very sweaty and you need a shower.”

I couldn’t argue that, but it wasn’t exactly encouraging. He kept going. “I notice the hill is getting steeper.” “I’m pretty tired of riding; are we going to be there soon?” “I’m hungry for my sandwich, I think it’s past lunch time.” “This is taking a long time.” “Can I go back and get that stick?” “I wonder if Mr. Incredible would jump right off this cliff.” For the last 10 minutes of my workout, I got a steady stream of four-year-old consciousness. When we got to the top, he went about his business of scouring the area for bugs and sticks and bad guys while I tried to regain feeling in my legs and convince my lungs not to explode. After a few minutes I shamelessly tried one last time to get some praise.

“I didn’t think we would make it, did you?”

He looked at me blankly. “Why wouldn’t we have made it?”

I realized in that moment that he didn’t feel any need to praise or encourage me because he had no concept that I wouldn’t accomplish the task. He also had no idea what the task was or why I was doing it. For him, saying “good job” would have been meaningless. (I also realized that it shouldn’t be his job to praise me and the fact that I was hoping for it was a little bit silly, but that’s another story.)

But, in that moment, I also recognized that while we may be questioning the use of praise in general, maybe there is a time and place for cheerleading in parenting. There are many times when children struggle just as much with a task as I was struggling up the hill. Maybe they are laboring to complete a new skill, working hard to accomplish something that may be taking all their energy, concentration and effort. Maybe they are on the verge of giving up and what they really need is a cheerleader. Someone to get excited and urge them on and say, “Look at you! You’re doing it! Hooray! Keep working!” at the top of our lungs. I think that this type of praise is different from the “good job” we throw out 10 or 20 times a day for meaningless things. In fact, I think it is less about the words we use and more about being present in the moment. Sometimes the moment calls for reflecting, sometimes it calls for stepping out of the way and sometimes it calls for cheerleading.

And, maybe even more importantly, I realized that we as parents sometimes need the same thing. Parenting can be strenuous, difficult, trying, tricky, stressful and downright exhausting. Our backs creak and our hearts ache and our heads hurt. Sometimes it can feel like we will never make it up the hill with the kid on our back. And not only are we carrying the kids, but we are balancing work and home and partners and day-to-day responsibilities. And, on top of that, we are becoming more and more conscientious of how we parent and why we parent and how we say something and why we say something. We don’t just stop at being loving parents, we have incredible expectations. The mountain is high and sometimes we just need someone to yell at the top of their lungs that they think we are doing a great job.

So maybe we don’t always respond to our kids the right way. And maybe we gave praise when we could have reflected. And maybe we used “time out” as a way to take a breather. And maybe we zigged when we could have zagged or turned left when we could have gone right. Today, more than ever, parents seem to be driven to consider their parenting styles, work to improve their parenting skills and really think about themselves and their roles as parents. And for that I say: “GOOD JOB, MAMA and PAPA!”

I notice how hard you are working!

I appreciate how thoughtful you are about your parenting!

I love that you are struggling and succeeding in being a different kind of parent!

It’s hard and you are doing it!

Keep it up! It’s so worth it!

So, while we may never get it from our children, we should get it from each other. Praise, respect, encouragement, cheerleading, from one parent to another. Parenting can be a doozy of a hill. Together, we will make it to the summit. And, I hear, the view is spectacular at the top.

 Posted by at 3:03 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
Jun 052012
 

Recently, through blogs, communication with other parents and discussion with my own family, I have heard myself talk about helping a child to learn to trust herself. I have become aware that for me this issue is at the heart of raising healthy, resilient children. A child who trusts herself is able to experience the world through her own eyes and heart rather than relying on an adult’s interpretation of things for her. A child who trusts herself can confidently take risks and try new things and also know when she needs a helping hand. A child who trusts herself knows when something doesn’t feel right and can ask for help. On the other hand, she can fully enjoy when something is right and feel empowered, taking ownership over her experience.

I have come to realize that so many of the childhood, adolescent and even adult issues that our children face boil down to trusting and knowing themselves. Three specific topics come directly to mind.

1)      Sexual Health. – In order to be sexually resilient, stand up to abuse and make sexual decisions that are healthy for them, children need to be able to trust their inner instincts. So often abusers use grooming techniques to blur the lines and confuse the child so that the line between fun and abuse is cloudy, grey and easily missed. Sometimes, the only thing that may signal that a playful behavior has turned abusive is an internal red flag. A child has to be able to trust that tiny voice in the back of their head that says, “I don’t like this.” And often, it means saying something bad about someone who is respected within the family. What a huge burden! In order to do this, the child has to trust that tiny voice, they have to trust themself, and they have to know that we trust them.

2)      Food. – Eating disorders and food issues are rampant in our society. We want our children to have a healthy relationship with food and a healthy relationship with their own body. In order to do this, in the face of overwhelming media and peer messages about food and bodies, our children have to trust themselves. They have to know when they are hungry and when they are not. They have to trust that when they feel hungry they really are and that food is a nurturing part of life.

3)      Bullying. – In order for our children to resist bullying (either being a bully or being bullied) and stand up for others and for themselves, they have to trust their own feelings about themselves and others. They need to have confidence that they are powerful, healthy, strong individuals and that others are as well. They need to have confidence in their own feelings and empathy for the feelings of others. But how can we expect them to understand or even consider what others are feeling if they don’t know or trust their own feelings?

I could go on and on. But you get the point. If I could only give my children one thing, it would be this: Trust in themselves.

Of course we all want this. We want our children to have a deep and profound understanding and connection to themselves. It is easy to see how verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse would undermine and destroy children’s ability to trust themselves. But it may be harder to recognize the subtle and tiny ways that we, with all the best intentions, whittle away at children’s ability to trust themselves. How often do we tell a child how they feel or don’t feel. Most of us have responded like this on at least one occasion:

“My leg hurts.” “I don’t see anything, you’re okay.

Or, “I’m done eating.” “Take one more bite, I know you’re still hungry.”

Or, “I don’t want to kiss grandma.” “Go on, kiss her, you love her so much!”

In each of these scenarios, our best intentions give an unintended, yet pretty clear, message: “You don’t know how you feel. I do.

The examples are endless. Statements like, “There is no reason to be scared.” “Don’t be angry at me, this is a natural consequence.” “I know you have to pee.” “She is your friend, you like playing with her.” “This is your favorite color.” “Stop crying, this is not something to cry about” all send the same message. “You don’t know how you feel. I do.” A child who hears this message repeatedly learns that they can’t really trust their own emotional or physical sensations, they don’t know how to interpret internal cues, they can’t communicate these internal cues to others and if they do, someone will tell them they are wrong.

Of course none of us actually wish to transmit this message to our children. Rather, we respond this way for a variety of reasons:

1)      We don’t know what to do. – Children often have unexplained emotions. They have aches and pains and heartaches and struggles and frustrations that we can’t see and can’t fix. When a child is complaining that his leg hurts, and there’s no blood or scratch or bruise, we can’t diagnosis it. Maybe he is having growing pains. Maybe he needs a hug and doesn’t know how to ask. Maybe he needs an adult to come close because he feels anxious. Maybe he saw a sibling with a hurt leg and is expressing sympathy. Who knows! It can be overwhelming and frustrating to a parent, so we respond with, “It doesn’t hurt. There is nothing there.”

2)      We think it’s in the child’s best interest. – Parents worry that their child isn’t eating enough. Parents worry that their child will be cold. Parents worry that their child isn’t playing well with other children. So we tell them to do something because we feel it is best for them. “Eat all your food.” “I know you’re cold, put on a jacket.” “You like Jane, play nice with her.” But the problem is that we are negating and overriding a child’s experience of their own body or feelings. It doesn’t actually help them in the end.

3)      We think we are teaching them something. – Mind your manners. Be polite. Say hi to the stranger. Kiss Grandma. Don’t embarrass me. What we are actually teaching them is how to comply with parental or adult demands to make us happy and ignore their own internal cues. That’s great if we are training show dogs. Not so great if we are trying to raise emotionally intelligent and resilient adults.

Rather, our goal should be to help our children identify their own emotional states and trust that they can get their needs met by communicating this in some way. In order to do this, we have to be willing to let them own their own feelings, experience the world in their own way and explore possible outcomes. We also need to let them know that we trust them to do this.

Rather than directing or telling a child how they feel or what they should do about it, we can strive to support a child through their own process. We can do this by reflecting, sharing and asking.

Reflect what you see: We can help a child understand social context and cues by reflecting back to him what is happening.

Share how you feel: Reflecting our own feelings models a pattern of communication which is genuine and trusting.

Ask what they think: Asking them what they think or feel tells them that you trust and value their thoughts and feelings.

Through doing this, we can help them negotiate the outcome, rather than dictating one. Let them know that you are there to support them through it and that you will be there to help. Finding realistic and healthy solutions is part of the process. So instead of, “I don’t see anything, your leg is okay,” it may sound like this:

 

I notice you are very sad and hurt right now. You’re really holding onto your leg. (Parent reflects what is happening in the moment.)

I feel really worried and confused because I can’t see the owie, I don’t know how to help you! (Parent shares how they feel.)

What does it feel like? What do you think you need? (Parent asks what the child thinks and feels.)

It feels pokey and I think I need to go to Disneyland! (Child identifies a feeling and a solution.)

Oh, I love Disneyland, and I wish we could go there, too! That would probably distract you from the pokey feeling. But since we can’t, is there anything else I can do for you? (Parent validates child’s feeling. And asks to problem solve.)

 A kiss. (Child is empowered to find his own solution.)

Absolutely. (Parent sends message that they are there to support their child.)  

 

Reflect, Share and Ask. It works for any situation. What if a child refuses dinner?

-I notice you didn’t eat any dinner. And I’m worried that you’re going to be really hungry later. What do you think? How does your tummy feel?

– My tummy feels bubbly and I don’t want to eat.

– Is there anything else you need?

-Ice cream.

-Oh man, ice cream is yummy, but it isn’t available for dinner. Anything else?

-No, I’m just not hungry.

-Okay, snack will be ready at 7 if you’re hungry then.

 

This process encourages a child to self-identify and communicate emotions. It sets a stage for a pattern of communication in which each person is responsible for their own emotions and is part of the solution. It tells children that they can be responsible for themselves and ask for what they need. All of these are things that many of us struggle with as adults. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we learned how to do it when we were toddlers? When we encourage a child to explore their emotions and physical sensations, and we believe and support them when they do tell us, we are giving the message that we trust them. And if we trust them, they can trust themselves. And if they trust themselves, they can experience the world on their own, instead of needing others to do it for them. And that is the basis for authentic genuine living.

 Posted by at 3:00 pm
May 212012
 

How present are you for your children? When I ask this question, the response is usually both quick and vague, something like, “I’m pretty present, but I wish I could be more.” Most of us go to great lengths to be there for our kids. We provide them with a safe environment, we take them to museums and to the park and to the library. We attend story hours and play groups and make healthy meals and provide opportunities for art and interactions with other kids and help with homework. We work hard to ensure that their lives are full and busy. In fact, some of us can run ourselves ragged filling our children’s day with these opportunities.

But is that all there is to it? Is this the same as being present? And what does “being present” do for the parent?

When I think of being present with my children, I think of the times when I am truly and genuinely focused on them, in the moment. They have my full attention. I am not thinking about my phone, or my work, or dinner or the house payment. I’m not thinking about whether we are late to an activity or whether their lives are being developmentally enriched or whether I am saying the right thing or doing what my other mom friends would do. In fact, in these moments, I am not thinking of parenting at all. In these moments, when I am truly present, I am simply there, with them, doing whatever the moment calls for, while everything else falls away.

This weekend I took my boys to the park. I automatically took my place on the side of the jungle gym and watched them while they climbed and slid and swung. My mind wandered to work and what I was going to make for dinner and the laundry that was piling up. I looked at the time and nodded and smiled as the boys continually called out, “Mama, watch!” “Look, Mama!” “Want to see this?” That was when I realized that they didn’t really need me to see them go down the slide. Their constant calling was kid language for “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now.” I turned off my busy mind and started to play with them. I mean really play. I became a yellow moon monster hopping through the lava. I chased and got chased and giggled and actually participated in their game. I played. It wasn’t until I saw another parent laugh at me that I realized I had been completely engrossed in the silliness of the game and the interactions with my children. It felt amazing. And notably different from how our outing to the park started.

Another opportunity occurred last week during the hectic madness that comes around 5:30 every night. While I struggled to get dinner on the table, my youngest repeatedly came into the kitchen with a new “owie” which required tending to. There were no bruises, blood or bumps, and my half-hearted attempt to show empathy while making the spaghetti sauce was obviously not doing it for him. He would go back to his activity for a minute, only to return with another owie. First his toe, then his elbow, then his knee. I found myself feeling frustrated and annoyed, wishing he would give me 20 minutes to finish dinner. My reactions to him got less and less empathic, while his attempts to get my attention got louder and more frequent. And then I realized, he didn’t really need a kiss on his elbow; it was kid language for “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now.” So I did. I put down my knife, turned off the burner on the stove and plopped down on the kitchen floor. “Do you need me? What can I do for you?” I asked. He jumped into my lap and nestled his head into my neck, his arms wrapped around me. He held on for dear life. I have no idea what was going on inside his heart, but he felt sad and I found myself holding him tighter. I held him quietly for two or three minutes until he pulled his head away and looked me in the eye. “I love you, Mama” he said, smiled and stroked my cheek. Following his lead I offered him the same, love and gentle touches to his face and head. After a few more minutes, he started laughing, hopped up and ran into the living room to play. I got to finish making dinner without any more owies.

When I consider these two moments, I realize that there is a big difference between providing opportunities for my children and being truly and genuinely present in the moment. Providing opportunities is important. But, the truth is that forced to choose between an “opportunity” with a distracted parent or a few moments of your undivided attention, our kids are going to choose us. And when I think back over the week, it is these moments that stand out for me, too. These are the moments when I really feel the rewards of parenting: these unplanned, unscheduled, unstructured moments when I am truly connected to my children.

Lovely, right?

But, then there is reality. Dinner has to get made, bills have to get paid, laundry must get done. The kids are fighting, work is overwhelming, schedules are full and sometimes we just feel like there isn’t any more of us to go around. How can we be present with our children when it doesn’t feel like there is even room to take a breath? It would be so great if someone could just tell us the secret to easy, sure-thing parenting.

Well, I’m sorry to say, there isn’t a quick fix, magic word or parenting technique that works in all situations with all kids. What I can say is that finding a way to be present, for even a few moments a day, is the closest thing to a magic wand that I have found. So what is it about being present that works?

1)      Being truly present tells your child, “I’m here,” “You’re safe,” “You’re valid”: In the end, this is what a child needs to know. That they are loved, safe, secure, valid. This is what builds healthy, strong, resilient individuals. Our children need to know that they are connected to us and that we are connected to them. And the truth is, they need this more than they need another scheduled activity.

2)      A little goes a long way: Four or five minutes of undivided attention can work wonders and allow a child to feel safe and secure. This feeling of being loved and heard and safe stays with them and bolsters their confidence and ability to trust themselves, which may result in more independent play and give us time to make dinner.

3)      Being present is about quality, not quantity: There isn’t a magic number of minutes per day that children need. Don’t focus on the clock. When the moment is over, you will know it. Both you and your child will feel ready to move to the next moment. Sometimes it almost feels like a magic trick.

4)      Being present benefits the parent as much as the child: Parenting can be an unending, thankless job of never ending demands and needs. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Really, you need to eat again? I just fed you!” Being present allows us to really experience the connection that we have with our children. The joy, the love, the wonder, the fun. Yes, they need to eat…again. But, they also want to look into your eyes and stroke your cheek, and that feels amazing.

5)      Practicing being present allows us to feel the difference: Start to become aware of how present (or not) you are during your parenting moments. It may be surprising how much being present in the moment may impact our ability to know what our children need and to respond to them in a meaningful way, which in turn has a direct correlation with less tantrums, melt downs and power struggles.

So how can we start to increase the amount of time we are actually present for our children?

1)      Set an intention: Choose one of the activities that you have planned for your children and make an intention to be truly present and engaged throughout it. Commit that this time will be screen free (no TV, phone, texting, email, computer, Facebook, iPad). Really challenge yourself to focus only on your children. Sit on the floor, climb the slide, put yourself in their world. You may be surprised at how it looks from their perspective. Intentionally be present; mind, body and spirit! 

2)      Respond to a frustrating moment by becoming fully present and engaged: Often it is the times when I am at the end of my rope, frustrated, pulling my hair out that I know I need to take a moment to fully engage. Whatever I am doing to try to “get control” of things isn’t working, and I’m missing the boat. It’s likely that my kids are trying to tell me something (in kid language, which can often be tricky) that I’m too distracted to hear. We are in a power struggle and I’m probably losing. It is in these moments that I know if I stop, breathe and connect with my child, things will probably feel a whole lot different. Unfortunately, these are the times that I feel the least capable of being present; these are also the times that it is the most productive and rewarding for everyone.

3)      Participate in cooperative play with your child: Many parents can tell you that they were  aware of the moment that their child began engaging in cooperative play (engaging in play that depends on the interaction between two or more children) rather than just parallel play (children playing side-by-side, but not acknowledging each other). But, how often do we engage in cooperative play with our kids? Try it! One idea is to choose an obscure object and ask, “What should we do with this?” inviting your child to play with you. Rather than sitting back and observing, or directing or commenting, go on and actually play. The connection that develops may surprise you. I once asked my child what we should do with wood chips. “Build a boat.” Obviously. So we did, and, as we built, he asked about countries I have traveled to and wanted to hear stories of my life before he was born. We talked and built and dreamed and imagined. All because I was prepared to really be present for a few minutes.

In the end, remember that childhood only happens once. These moments are fleeting and while I will soon forget about the brilliant art project I set up or the fact that dinner was on the table at exactly 6 pm, I will likely always remember my stint as a yellow moon monster and that moment of tenderness on the kitchen floor. I will treasure the moments when they said, “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now!” and I listened. Those are the moments that make parenting great and those are the moments that can make us great parents.

 Posted by at 3:41 pm
May 122012
 

My husband asks what I want for Mother’s Day. Breakfast in bed, time alone, chocolate, wine, dinner, flowers? Of course I want all these things, but none of them really captures what is in my heart this Mother’s Day.  Perhaps I am feeling a bit wistful because I just put away the winter clothes that my youngest has outgrown, or I am exhausted from another sleepless night or exhilarated from the growth spurt that seems to be measurable in inches before my eyes. Maybe I am basking in the kisses of two amazing boys, or drowning in the bathtub that won’t ever get clean, or lost in laundry or stunned by the newest phrase that came out of one of their mouths.

Maybe it is a combination of all these things, but when I think of Mother’s Day, I can’t seem to stay focused on myself. Rather, I find myself feeling a communal connection with women all over the world. Women who live down the street from me who I know, at this moment, are having the same silly discussion with their preschoolers about poop that I am having. Women who live in my town who I know will be up at 2:30 with me giving tender kisses to little ones. Women who live across the country or across the world who no doubt have the same tears and fears and smiles and joys that I do when it comes to this thing called motherhood.

For me, this year, motherhood is about the sisterhood. It is about all the women for hundreds of generations who have laughed and cried with their children and with each other. The women who have whispered sweet goodnights into the ears of little ones and screamed on behalf of their children and left blood and sweat and tears along the path to ensure that their children had it one step better than they did. For me, this year, motherhood is about all of you: The mamas who have come before me and those who are walking with me and those who will face the same path long after I am gone. Because whether I know you and cry with you or not, whether you are a close friend or a distant thought, the stream of motherhood consciousness holds us together.

There is a collective power that mothers seem to hold, embrace and create. And, although at times it can feel like I am trudging down the path of motherhood alone, with no one but a small child to talk to, I can always stop and draw on the millions of mothers around the world that are my sisters. I know that in their hearts they understand me, even if they don’t know me. In their hearts they have been where I am. No matter what I feel or think or experience, another mother is thinking or experiencing the same thing.

Sometimes I sit and watch my children and feel a surge in my heart so strong that I cannot imagine how I can live through it. I cannot dream of how I could ever express what I feel or explain to anyone else just how much I love these small people I am mothering. Sometimes I sit and hold my child against my skin and wonder if I could ever put into words the emotions that I feel for him. The joy, the fear, the dreams, the wonder. The immense ball of emotion that pulses through my heart and veins and out my pores. And then I realize, I don’t have to put it into words. I don’t have to try to explain it. Because mothers everywhere feel the same thing. We are united in this indescribable emotion, and, in that, we are forever sisters.

So here is to you, my sisters around the world, my sisters throughout time. Here is to all the mothers everywhere that share in my experience of this amazing journey.

So, do I want to sleep in? Eat chocolate? Go to brunch? Heck, yeah. Because I wouldn’t turn any of those down any day of the year. But in my heart, Mother’s Day this year is so much more. I am eternally grateful to my children on this Mother’s Day for allowing me to have such a connection with amazing women everywhere. Whether our children are newborn or grown, whether we have one child or ten children, we can find solace in each other and in the common path our hearts take. It is amazing and precious and scary and encompassing and passionate and vital and true. It is motherhood, and it is ours.

Happy Mother’s Day.

 Posted by at 10:42 pm
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
Oct 242011
 

Parents often seek out books, classes or support in parenting because they have difficulty setting limits effectively for their children. Complaints such as, “Nothing we do works,” “I put him in time-out and he just doesn’t care,” or “We have tried everything, but little Johnny still won’t listen” are made by tired and frustrated parents time and time again. Healthy limits help children feel secure, safe and loved, while still allowing a child to explore, grow and experiment with life on their own terms. Limit setting teaches children how to negotiate the world in a respectful and responsible way. And limit setting helps households run more smoothly. Of course, it’s a no-brainer: we all want to set these wonderfully helpful limits for our children. And, with the plethora of resources out there explaining just how to set limits, it seems like it should be a snap.

Google the keywords “setting limits with children” and you can easily learn that limits should be reasonable for the child’s age, they should promote safety, they should be consistent, they should be enforced in loving and positive ways. We learn that we should be calm and firm. We learn that the child should understand the limit and the consequence clearly. And, if we do all that, it should work, right?

But, so often it doesn’t.

So what is going on? Is it that our kids are somehow immune to the touted benefit of limit setting? Is it that we have exceptionally difficult children or that something is wrong with them? Are our children going to forever run the household?

The good news is that it is probably none of these things. Rather, I wonder if the biggest barriers that keep us from setting and enforcing limits have less to do with the children and more to do with everything that leads up to the limit setting in the first place. If you think about it, many of the limits we set are born out of frustrating situations. Even on our best days, we can find ourselves reacting quickly without thinking through what we are saying to our children, why we are saying it or what it will mean in the long run. For example, the mother of a preschooler finds herself saying, “If you choose not to clean up your mess, you are going to have to go to bed early.” The child tests these limits and the mother is left to either put the child to bed at 5 pm or let the limit slide. Nobody wins. I have noticed a few main themes that seem to interfere with our ability to successfully set and maintain limits:

1)      The limits are not reasonable or meaningful: Rather than viewing limits as methods of getting our children to behave, it is important to view limits as tools to help children develop their own sense of self-control and independence within a safe space. In order for this to happen, the limit has to be meaningful, understandable and reasonable for the child. Telling a child that she will have to go to bed if she doesn’t clean up her mess doesn’t teach her how to internalize the skill of picking up after herself. The two things don’t really go together and it doesn’t make sense. For the child, it just feels like the parent threatening something (that they probably won’t follow through on).

2)      We set limits that we (the parents) can’t live with: “If you can’t sit still in your seat, we are going to have to leave the restaurant.” What parent hasn’t heard herself saying something, knowing full well that we are not prepared to actually follow through. Setting limits that we aren’t going to follow through on sends our child an important message, and not one we probably want them to get! This is often true when we use limit setting as a threat to motivate behavior through fear, rather than as a tool to help children make decisions for themselves. The other day, at the end of my proverbial rope, I found myself saying, “If you can’t help pick up the toys, we aren’t going to have toys in our home any more.” My child laughed at me. He actually laughed. He knew I wouldn’t follow through with such an unreasonable threat. He was right, and the message I sent was worse.

3)      We set limits that don’t enhance the developmental milestones our children are negotiating: Stress at transition times, like getting out the door in the morning, results in limit setting and testing on a daily basis. What exactly does “get yourself ready” mean? Is it reasonable to expect a toddler to make his bed perfectly every morning? Probably not. But, is it reasonable that he try? Can an 8-year-old use an alarm clock to wake up on her own? Can a 15-year-old get himself to school on time? If we set limits that are plainly beyond our children’s capabilities, we are doomed to failure.

4)      We aren’t clear about what goal we are trying to reach, and, along the way, our goal changes: When we react in haste, we often make rash decisions and set limits that are misguided. Often this is because we don’t really know what we are trying to achieve. Dinner-time struggles are a perfect example of this. One night it is, “Eat all your dinner or no desert.” The next night it’s, “You can’t leave the table until you eat all your vegetables.” And later in the week it is, “You don’t have to eat, but you have to sit here with the family.” Eating and meal-time issues create angst and drama for so many families. But often the limit isn’t clear because the goal isn’t clear. Do we want the child to eat all the food served to them at every meal? Do we want them to eat a variety of foods? Do we want them to participate in the social aspect of meals? Do we want them to consume more calories, more iron, more vitamins, etc? When we aren’t clear about what it is we are trying to teach our child, then our goals, and thus our limits, continually change. How is the child supposed to become clear on the expectations when we aren’t clear ourselves?

5)      We can’t tolerate the child’s emotion: This might just be the biggest reason that we don’t follow through on the limits we set. We hate to see our children in pain. We hate to see them cry and we hate to have them angry at us. We also hate tantrums, outbursts and tornadoes ripping through our houses. But children need to be able to express their emotions and we need to be able to tolerate that emotion. Crying, stomping, yelling and otherwise emoting provides children with a powerful stress reliever. Limits are not always pleasant and emotional reaction to them is normal. Unfortunately, watching or tolerating their reaction is not always fun and we can be quick to keep the peace (for them and ourselves) by backing down on our limit.

So what can we do as parents to avoid some of these pitfalls and avoid setting limits that are destined to fail? It may seem cliché, but it may boil down to breathing. Slowing it down. Interacting with our child, rather than reacting to their behavior. Specifically, I recommend five key things to remember:

1)      Think through limits beforehand: With a few exceptions of extreme danger (running into traffic, for example) there is usually no reason that we have to react immediately to any situation. We can take a few deep breaths to calm ourselves. Check in with our own emotional reactions. See the situation through the child’s point of view. Ask the child what they think is going on and what they need. Consider developmental skills or milestones. Parenting is not a race, it happens over many years, not seconds. Think the situation through. Usually limit setting is something that we do repeatedly over time until the child incorporates the skill or value into their own sense of self. It’s rarely a one time, one shot event. We have time.

2)      Reflect: Ask yourself questions like, What has worked in the past with my child? What do I know about my child? What do I know about myself or my family that may be at play here?

3)      Talk through a plan with a partner or support person: Get feedback. Make a plan and talk about ways you can support each other in sticking with the limit.

4)      Define the goal, expectations and limits clearly: Once you actually know the goal you are working towards, it will be easier to communicate that with your child. “I want you to eat or else” becomes “I trust you to know when you are hungry or not, but in our family, once you leave the table, the meal is over for you.” The goal, expectation and limit are clear. The child has choices and the parent knows what they have to do to follow through. 

5)      Tolerate  and support their emotion: We have to know that setting limits will upset our children. They may get angry and they will probably express it. That’s good. We can be empathetic to their misery. “I get really frustrated when I can’t do something I want to do also. I know how you feel. I’m available for support if you need it, but the limit remains.” By doing this we teach them that we mean what we say, that the limit is important, but that we also value and acknowledge that it is hard for them. Feelings are real and they are tricky. By supporting them through this, we not only help them to negotiate the limit, but we help them become more emotionally competent as well. What an opportunity!

Happy Limit Setting!

 Posted by at 11:30 am
Oct 172011
 

I have been thinking a lot about fatherhood lately. As a woman and a mother I have been hesitant to write about it, but I repeatedly come back to the importance of fatherhood. Not only on the development of the child, but also on the development of the man and, subsequently, on the development of the partner and the couple. Families are intricately woven patterns of feedback loops with each person having a direct impact on all the other members. Our foundation as individuals and as a couple sets the parenting stage and can mean the difference between barely surviving and thriving as a family. And while this may be a work in progress for all of us, I can’t help but think that in this day and age, with all the changing rules and expectations, it may be especially tricky for fathers.

So what does it mean to thrive as a mother, as a father and as a couple? Is there a formula for success?

Studies have found that fathers who feel more self-confident about their parenting skills when their infant is three-months-old are more involved with their children later on. Interestingly enough, a father’s self-view of his ability to parent is directly related to how much autonomy and support the mother gives him to parent. Additionally, mothers may experience less depression and stress the more involved the fathers are. What does this mean? Mothers feel more supported and happier when fathers are more involved and fathers feel more secure in their relationships with their children the more they are involved. This results in happier mamas, happier papas, happier couples.

And, we recognize the value and importance of a father’s relationship with his children as they grow up. Fathers’ roles in childcare have been changing over the generations. Fathers today do more than they ever have in terms of childcare. Our culture is slowly changing our values. We encourage and reward men for being involved. We even expect it. Long gone are the days of Ozzie and Harriet when the dad came home from work, patted the kids on the head and went to his chair to smoke a cigar. Now, working dads are expected to come home, help with dinner, play with the kids, help with bath and bedtime. They are responsible for childcare, they are involved with decisions about feeding and schools and activities. Mothers want more of this. We know the intrinsic value in it.

So, how do we set up fathers to be involved with their children over the long haul? The take-home message seems to be that fathers should be more involved in early childcare. Easy, right?

For some reason, it doesn’t seem to always work this way.

Often, couples describe the following: During the early months of parenthood, mothers seem to do most of the childcare, and they feel resentful that the fathers don’t do more than they do. While some fathers may feel confident jumping right in, some want to do more, but don’t know how. Others may feel resentful that the mother seems to be devoting so much of her time to the children. Maybe fathers (just like mothers) feel scared to death that they are going to do something wrong. When childcare is needed, the mother steps in quickly and does it, “because it is just easier.” The father steps back and lets her. Mothers feel lonely. Fathers feel lonely and less needed or important in the parenting dynamic. And we wonder why having kids is hard on our relationships.

A couple of important factors seem to be at play. First, men are becoming equal partners in parenting without having a shared experience of what this means. For most adult men today, their role models growing up weren’t as involved with childcare as they are now expected to be. While our culture is moving towards this change, we haven’t really fully made the switch. In general, men seem to get the message that they should be full-time providers (pay the bills and fix the roof and mow the grass) and be equal partners in childcare, and they seem to be figuring this all out as they go.

Another interesting factor at play is biology. There is plenty of research that shows that women get hormonally reinforced with a neurotransmitter called oxytocin. Oxytocin creates feelings of pleasure, warmth and connection. It makes us feel good. Women have increases in ocytocin levels when they respond to an infant (even if that baby isn’t their own). They get more oxytocin from helping and responding empathically. They get more oxytocin from picking up a crying baby. This means that women are biologically reinforced when they take care of their children. There is some evidence that men get this same response, but the jury is still out. It may be that they don’t get the same amount, or that they don’t get the same “good feelings” from oxytocin that women do or that they just don’t get oxytocin from childcare activities. What this may suggest is that men and women get different types of rewards for childcare. Women may do it because we are internally rewarded and driven, men may do it because they are socially rewarded and driven.

And, while fathers have been socialized towards “work” and “providing,” mothers have been socialized over generations towards being the primary caretakers. So, it can be difficult for women to move past both their internal and external reinforcements for caregiving in order to give men the social reinforcement they need. Even as women’s roles have changed with more women in the workplace, the shift towards sharing childcare with the father has seemed to lag behind. The choices for women seemed to go from childcare only to working only to doing both. But, where in that process did we start to encourage mothers to let go of the idea that they have to be the primary caretaker? As men are expected to take a more active role in childcare, women have to relinquish their role as the single childcare expert in the house.

Uh oh. Catch 22.

Moms say, “Help more.” And we also say, “I can do it easier or better.” And fathers say, “I want to help,” but they also say, “I don’t really feel comfortable and I know she will do it.” And then moms say, “I knew you wouldn’t help, I have to do everything.” Even the language of “help” implies that that is all the father is doing—helping the mother, rather than parenting in his own right.

And, hence, the study that found that fathers’ view of themselves as being capable caregivers in early infancy—which is directly related to the mothers’ trust in them—led to more involved and interested fathers down the road.

So what can we do?

We can change the rules. Mothers need to trust fathers to know what to do on their own. We can trust them to love and care for the babies and we can LET THEM DO IT! Fathers and mothers need to realize that they may do things differently. They may interact with children differently. They may comfort them differently. They may guide them differently. The idea is not for the father to learn how to do what the mother does. The goal is for him to realize and embrace his own inner parenting wisdom. Find his own inner papa. The goal is for him to become comfortable and confident in parenting in his own way, so that he will love it. And he can only do this if mothers get out of the way.

We can open up our dialogue about it. We talk so much about what our children are doing, how much they are sleeping and eating and pooping. Especially in the early stages of infancy. But we don’t talk much about what it is like for us to parent, and we might not listen to each other talk about our stresses, our fears, our triggers. The more the couple talks about these transitions together, the more they each develop into thriving parents. But more importantly, they can strengthen as a couple.

Today’s fathers are forging the way for future generations of men, and women, to embrace the role of fatherhood. We have to realize that this road is relatively unpaved and that the men in our lives are amazing for taking on the challenge.

We can be more active in bringing this change of balance to our individual family. Just because society doesn’t have a good template yet, and just because most of us don’t have a framework for a family that really shares childcare, doesn’t mean that we can’t work to create it. But that’s just it, we have to work to create it. And it is more than moms telling their friends that they wish their husbands would do more (because, let’s face it ladies, at the end of the day, that doesn’t really help). We have to work together as equal parents to make this happen. After all, isn’t that what we are looking for?

 Posted by at 7:12 am