The Gift of Validation

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I went to a memorial service for a friend today. He was a husband and father, and an exceptionally good one, on both counts. A lot of what I have learned about working with children came from his example. He was gifted in the art of validation: he would listen without agenda to a young person’s feelings and reflect them back, then help to come up with solutions that worked for everyone. In the four years that we worked together, in a residential facility with some of the most “difficult” and “troubled” children in the state, I never saw him lose his patience (perhaps because he also knew when it was time to walk away or to seek help).

Working in this field can give a lot of people the idea that maybe they don’t want children of their own. But it can also instill, or reinforce, the foundation from which a parent can bring these skills home, to the benefit of their own kids and to parents all around them. My friend was an example of the latter (I am fortunate to know others as well).

It can be difficult for a “parenting expert,” regardless of one’s knowledge of child development and strategies for turning conflict into cooperation, struggle into growth, to make these skills translate to their own parenting. I often say that I forget to take these skills home sometimes to my own kids, in my own home. This is why the cobbler’s children have no shoes.

When I am in these moments, I often think of what my friend has taught me about the virtue of really listening. He would sit with an escalated child, through minutes and sometimes hours of rage, confusion and hurt, and that child would come to know that he was there as a witness, validating his or her feelings and holding out quietly for the time when they would be able to move on together.

I try to do this. In some cases I am more successful than others. Sometimes I picture my friend next to me, helping me find the strength to lend to the child.

I’ll miss you, friend. But I’ve got that.

Screening the Screens

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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about bedtimes and how to make them work. I hinted ominously about the importance of keeping electronic devices (“screens”) out of kids’ bedrooms. This week I want to talk more about those screens and what battles to pick around them.

 

I am not going to tell you that you shouldn’t let your children use a phone, laptop or tablet. It’s the 21st Century, they probably use these devices in school, you’re using them, I’m using them, and Grandpa is downloading old war movies on BitTorrent right now as we speak.
I am going to suggest setting firm limits around the use of these devices and I am going to SUGGEST, in all caps, two places where they should not be in your house: at the table during mealtimes, and in the kids’ room at night.
Last things first: keeping phones and other devices off the table allows mealtimes to be quality interactive time for your family. This is mostly up to us as parents, because they do what we model to them (I have to remind myself frequently not to do this). Sharing food with your family is a crucial time to stay connected—in the human relationship sense—and to keep up with what is happening in kids’ lives. Those screens are jealous of our eyeballs.
As for the bedroom, why should these devices be taken out at night?
Because of sleep. There is a strong correlation between sleep deprivation in kids and the presence of devices in their rooms. Dr. Leonard Sax, in his punitively titled The Collapse of Parenting (I recommend reading it, but prepare to feel guilty), presents a stark example:
“He’s staying up ’til 1 or 2 in the morning playing video games night after night. He’s sleep-deprived. And if you’re sleep-deprived you’re not gonna be able to pay attention and all the standard questionnaires, Conners Scales, etc. cannot distinguish whether you’re not paying attention because you’re sleep-deprived or because you truly have ADD.”
Sax suggests that much of our nation’s overmedication of children (and the rates here are way, way higher than anywhere else) could be a misdiagnosis of what is actually lack of sleep. And that, thank goodness, is easier to treat. If we know how to help. And now we do!
Regardless of how we use them, iPhones, tablets, laptops and old-fashioned TVs (remember them?) emit light that disrupts the tendency of kids to wind down. Dr. Claire McCarthy writes:
“Not only does it get in the way of sleep because kids are, well, watching it, but it gets in the way of sleep because the blue light from the screen tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime–and delays the release of the natural chemical melatonin that helps us fall asleep.”
But how we use these devices is important. Many adults have difficulty with addictive behavior around games, social media and other uses of our phones and computers. And children, especially under the age of 10 or 11, are much more susceptible. In the dystopianly titled Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids—and How to Break the Trance, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras raises the alarm:
“Video games, computers, cell phones and tablets are all ‘digital drugs’ in Kardaras’ estimation, and there is more and more evidence to back him up—recent studies have shown that electronics activate pleasure circuits in developing brains. The amount of dopamine in the brain doubles (food and sex have the same effect) while the amount of gray matter shrinks, compromising the frontal cortex (the decision-making center of the brain). This leads to delays in neurological development and verbal intelligence.”
The upshot is, no screens at bedtime, kiddos. Sorry. We’re the parent.
Being the parent, setting limits around our kids’ use, is the key. There is no reason that our children need to do anything on the internet outside of our supervision.
The hardest part, of course, is to model it. Put down the phone and pick up a book instead. Or a tennis racket. Or a watering can.
We can do it. We’re the parent.

“They Believed Me”

This week’s guest post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Esther.

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“They Believed Me.”

 

I recently heard the British journalist John McCarthy say these words. McCarthy was kidnapped and held

hostage for 5 years– some of it in solitary confinement. When asked how he recovered from this terrible

ordeal, he spoke about the help he had received from professionals and family and friends. He noted

how important it was that they knew and acknowledged what a terrible ordeal he had undergone.

McCarthy is now involved with Freedom from Torture, an organization that helps survivors of various

forms of torture and abuse. He explained that some survivors of abuse aren’t believed initially. He

stressed how important it was to have others believe him.

 

What in the world has this to do with parenting? A lot.

 

Our relationships with our children are filled with times when we choose to believe or choose to ignore

or choose to outright reject what they tell us.

 

Our children tell us daily how they feel: happy, frustrated, scared, confident, confused, excited, hurt.

They tell us what they think they can or cannot do. They tell us what they like. Sometimes they can

express these things in words, sometimes in frowns or smiles or body language. When we don’t listen,

or when we listen but don’t believe them, they may express themselves with fists or temper tantrums

or, as my son did on one memorable morning, by barricading himself in his room because he didn’t want

to go to kindergarten.

 

My son complained he was bored. I could understand why some of the kindergarten curriculum was

boring, but it wasn’t like he had mastered everything on it, the teacher seemed nice, and he was making

friends. It was hard to believe it was that difficult for him to go to school.

I know I’m not the only parent who has struggled with believing a child.

 

First of all, it is hard to actually listen to a child because of all the other things we have to do as

grownups: work, responsibilities, worries, self-care.

 

Then, it’s hard to believe a child when what they tell us doesn’t mesh with our own view of reality. Since

we know more about the world than they do, we assume our view is accurate and think the child must

be mistaken.

 

And it’s hard when we are afraid of what might be asked of us. We are afraid of the broader implications

for ourselves and others if we accept that the child is telling us the truth.

 

And, of course, sometimes children deliberately lie to us.

 

What can parents do overcome these barriers to believing our children?

 

  •  Establish times when we are available to listen to our children without other distractions. These

might be dinnertime conversations where each person shares something about their day. Or

bedtime routines. Or a weekly date with each child.

 

  •  Get to know your child. Learn about child development and temperamental differences. Get to

know your child’s world. Visit daycare and school. Talk to teachers and other parents. Talk to

your child’s friends.

 

tell us does not mean that we can or should do something. Believing and validating how a child

feels may be enough. Even when it isn’t enough, it conveys trust. Our trust allows a child to tell

us more about the problem. Trust can give us time and patience to investigate further and

explore options.

 

  • Even when we suspect a child is lying, it may be worthwhile to look at what is behind the lie. Is

the child afraid? Feeling helpless or overwhelmed? Dealing with some larger complicated issue?

 

  •  Don’t be afraid to seek outside help. Know that it may take time and effort on your part. If the

recommendations don’t make sense to you, keep looking for more information and help.

 

The Whole-Brain Child by Siegel and Bryson is an excellent resource for understanding how children

think and grow. It explains strategies parents can use to help children understand their emotions and

fears. And strategies to help children deal with those feelings.

 

And my son? After several conferences with teachers and staff we sought an evaluation from a child

psychologist. The psychologist told us, “he says he’s bored because he is bored.” We believed the

psychologist and so did the school. Some changes were made that helped. It wasn’t smooth sailing for

the rest of his childhood but we all survived. He now has a college degree and works as an engineer.

 

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

The Right Time for Bedtime

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As I’ve written before, if there is one essential secret to our parenting, it is bedtime.

When the kids go to bed, and how long they sleep, is the foundation for the way everything else works in our family. And I say this knowing just how many things there are to keep track of as a parent: discipline, sibling relations, nutrition, rules, chores, dealing with behavior, keeping up with the changes as they get older. We decided to focus on bedtime.

And it wasn’t easy. In our house we have four kids divided into pairs, two to a bedroom. The two youngest and the two oldest each have their own bedtime and their own set of routines. It has taken years and a lot of experimentation (and thus, a fair share of failures) to hammer out something that works from one night to the next, and from one week to another. And it works, for now. Fingers crossed and nose to the wind.

It was nice, then, to come across some outside confirmation that what we had come up with was recommended by, like, science. This post on the Simplemost blog includes a chart put together (by an elementary school, no less) to show the optimal bedtimes for children, cross-referenced by age and when they get up in the morning (we can have a say in when they go to bed; they wake up when they wake up). Before we pause for a round of high-fives, let’s see how we did:

Here goes. Given that all four kids get up nearly every day at 6:30, our five year-old should be going to bed at 7:15. The seven year-old, at 7:30. I say my goodnights and walk out at 7:45. Not too bad.

Now for the older pair. Our nine year-old’s target bedtime is 8:15 and the 11 year-old’s is 8:45. We split the difference at 8:30 (typically, the younger of the two has more trouble getting to sleep, claiming that just laying there is “boring,” while the eldest is ready to pack it in whenever).

Why do we do it this way? Because we can. We willingly give up a lot of the socializing we could be doing at night because of the benefits that arise from a consistent (and according to many, a strangely early) bedtime. I suppose we’re lucky that a lot of our kids’ friends are also homeschooled, so they don’t know just how weird it is that they don’t stay up until 10 or later. Or for that matter, why they don’t stay up later on weekends.

Just how beneficial this consistent sleep is for them—and how harmful the lack of it can be—is a subject for another post. In that post I will also discuss what is found in their bedrooms at night and what is not (spoiler: no screens).

What is not found in the chart, and something we’re still working on as adults, is when we should go to bed ourselves. I should probably be there right now.

ABCs of Parenting

 

Baldhill kids

A is for Affection, with hugs extra tight,

B is for Bedtime, same way every night.

C is for Consistency, a rule that’ll guide us through the thick,

D is for Discipline, best when intrinsic.

E is for Even, in portions of fours,

F is for Fun, even when doing chores.

G is for Games, bringing families together,

H is for Happy in all kinds of weather.

I is for Ice Cream, for dinner, or part of it,

J is for Justice, no matter who started it.

K is for Kangaroos (they live in Australia),

L is for Laughter, for with jokes they’ll regale ya.

M is for Meter, never my forte,

N is for Nature, at least an hour every day.

O is for Outside, where everything’s better,

P is for Playing, all day if you let her.

Q is for Questions, of which they are full,

R is for Reason, ineffective as a rule.

S is for Stories, the currency of kids,

T is for Trust: if rules are jars, these are lids.

U is for Under, remembering they’re younger,

V is for Vittles, every two hours when they hunger.

W is for Water, always better than Juice,

X is for I Don’t Know, but it has to rhyme with Juice.

Y is for Yarn: sweaters knit by my wife,

Z is for Zest, which fills kids with life.

Lifeschooling

This week, I am sharing a guest post I wrote for my wife’s homeschooling blog, Little Snail. I invite you to go there and read her insights about homeschooling and family life. 

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I wanted to write about Kyrie’s homeschooling from my perspective. It’s a pretty good one. My evenings and weekends with my family are the most important part of my life, and I see the evidence of her work in happy, healthy, curious children. I see it in the burnish of sun on their faces, and in the stories they can’t wait to tell me, simultaneously, as soon as I get out of the car. I see it in the projects they have laid out from the day, in the books across their laps (and stacked precariously on every surface), and in the baskets full of pinecones and flowers and eggshells and stones. I hear it in the questions they ask and the insights they unfurl at the dinner table. I know that whatever she is doing, she is doing right. I would not want their education to go any other way.

I work as a “parenting educator,” a title I will speak as well as type in quotes. The truth is that everything I know about parenting I learned from Kyrie: from her reading and her posts (hers is the only feed on my Instagram page); from the many links she shares with me; from the words she uses and the way she moves her body. The routines she has put in place I regard as sacred: I can only hope to help them run smoothly. In fact, I would be satisfied to work as a sort of machinist to her inventions; an acolyte; a bureaucrat of nurturing.

But I am much more fortunate than that. I have been in a unique position to see the evolution and the struggle of her schooling, in long conversations on the porch or in the car. I know that Kyrie has been building her curriculum from any and every material she can reach for (and many that are hidden, or obscured, or even broken). I have seen the strands of Waldorf, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, John Holt, Orthodoxy, unschooling, subschooling, counterschooling and just plain schooling, as they braid and unspool into new configurations, new structures. I know her struggles to come at content from historical and natural and philosophical perspectives. I know enough, from my foray into high school teaching, to grasp how difficult it is to scaffold material and to differentiate by age, ability, and developmental level. I know that much of the last year she has been occupied with finding the right rhythms and that she has often felt it simply is not working.

Recently we talked about what lies beneath all of this painstaking planning and restructuring, and that has been the subject of her recent posts: it is the day-to-day movement of life in our family, and the opportunities presented to our girls in such seemingly nonpedagogical routines as going outside, playing in the river, trips to the library. It is in cooking, chores, music, Church, and play. I see that regardless of the content that hangs on this bough, the roots of their days go deep, and the branches yearn their way into space. I see that homeschooling is not a structure, nor an ideology, nor a machine. It is simply life.

And my goodness, it is work.

The “No”s Have It

 

“My name is ‘no’ 

My sign is ‘no’

My number is ‘no’

You need to let it go”

::Meghan Trainor

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You may have noticed that “no” is a go-to word for children, and that they pick it up pretty early on. Once they start as toddlers, they will use it for all it’s worth. This makes sense, according to Judy Arnall in her book Discipline Without Distress. She writes:

“A toddler’s favorite word is ‘no.’ It is a strong, powerful, in-control word. It sounds decisive, meaningful, and packs a punch.”

A parent’s first impression—and this impression may last, if you’re not careful—is that the child is out to undermine your authority and defy you. You might feel a lack of respect. In fact, it’s rather the opposite (as we will get into below). It is important to remember that this is a natural and nearly universal behavior. Arnall goes on to say that when a toddler says “no”:

  • “They need to assert independence and they need to achieve a measure of control over their lives.
  • They need to begin separating when secure and cling when insecure.
  • They need to explore and discover.
  • They need to express their strong emotions.”

Essentially, “no” is standing in for a whole lot of words that the child doesn’t have yet. According to the author,

“When a toddler says ‘no!’ they mean:

  • I want to do it myself.
  • I don’t want you, but I want you. I am overwhelmed by conflicting feelings.
  • I don’t know what I’m feeling, but I’m feeling it right now!
  • I can’t share because I don’t understand the concept of ownership yet.
  • I want to have some control over what happens to me.”

It should be easy to guess where a child’s mastery of “no” comes from. Most likely they have felt its power coming from us, the parents. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of the excellent book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, explain:

“There will be many times as parents when we’ll have to thwart our children’s desires. Yet some children experience a blunt ‘No’ as a call to arms, a direct attack upon their autonomy. They mobilize all their energy to counterattack.”

Sounds suspiciously like the way we feel when we hear the word from our child’s mouth, doesn’t it? One way to manage their overreliance on the word “no,” then, is to try to lessen it in our own speech. Faber & Mazlish provide some alternatives to falling back on “No” as a way of managing behavior. They are listed below (examples in parentheses are mine):

  • Give information (instead of saying “No” when a child wants to keep playing at mealtime, say “We’re having dinner in five minutes”).
  • Accept feelings (“It’s hard to stop playing when you’re not ready”).
  • Describe the problem (“I’d like for you to keep playing. We have to be at your grandma’s house in an hour”).
  • When possible substitute a “Yes” for a “No” (“Yes, you can keep playing when we come back. I will give you special time for it”).
  • Give yourself time to think (“Let me think about that”).

“No” will always be a powerful word, and as parents we want to keep it that way. When there is an immediate safety concern, we will use it instinctually, and if we haven’t already said it a dozen times this afternoon it will be even more effective. Also, as the child gets older we want “No” to mean exactly what it says: that they want a behavior or situation to stop, right now.

Different Pages

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The Nurturing Fathers program is a parenting curriculum that runs parallel to Nurturing Parenting (about which I have written often). Its intended audience is men with children in their care—not only fathers, but uncles, grandfathers, teachers, mentors. It recognizes the importance to children of nurturing by adult males.

Sadly, many men in our society don’t realize the importance of this, and often don’t understand how to use their role to guide, love and nurture families. I am lucky that the place I work, at which I was for several years the only male employee, now has four. One of them is now in a therapeutic preschool classroom, and the benefits of a positive male role model can be clearly seen in reports from parents and from the look of joy on the children themselves when he greets them each day.

In addition, we are now able to facilitate a support group for fathers (Dads United was my generic but impressive sounding title). We work with men whose children may be home, or in foster care, or in the care of other family members. Some have adult children; some have been out of contact with them for years. We emphasize that all of them have the power of nurturance within them, and that their children need—and will thrive with—anything they can offer.

You are probably familiar with the “traditional” role of fathers in our society. We are most comfortable with, or at least most responsive to, the role of provider. We work, we bring money and resources back to the home. The work of nurturing—recognizing and expressing feelings, fostering relationships and communication, modeling acceptance and forgiveness, expressing love with words and safe touch—is relegated to the mother, grandmother, or female caregiver.

There is at least one good reason for this, and it is that those traits especially are more common to females. Let me qualify this: many of these things come at least as much from socialization and environment as from genetic disposition. As our Nurturing Parenting trainer is fond of saying, “The nature vs. nurture debate is over” (it’s about 30/70, in case you were wondering). Regardless, this territory is not commonly accepted as the province of males.

The fact is that there are many qualities of nurturing that are shared by males and females: things like expressing love, encouragement, listening, and setting limits. But males have their own particular ways of nurturing that can be forgotten, or even discounted, in our culture; even, unfortunately, in the realms of childhood education and parenting programs.

How do men nurture? We tend to be focused on doing rather than being: practicing skills, solving problems, performing and fixing. Putting things together and taking them apart. There is a focus on boundaries and structure, and also on notions of fairness, justice, and a sense of what the “rules” are. We tend to foster independence and risk-taking. Again, many of these traits come from the way we were raised as boys. But as even the most progressive, gender-neutral parents may learn to their surprise, little boys will be interested in trucks and tractors just as surely girls will discover their inner princess. Wherever these things come from, there they are. And to be clear, these are tendencies: all of us contain within us both masculine and feminine traits.

These male forms of nurturing are important to children, and should be recognized as such. I realized in the course of my recent training in Nurturing Fathers that I may have been too hasty in insisting that parents be on the “same page” about matters of parenting. The fact is, there are different pages. A father may have very different ideas about how to go about raising a child, from how to behave at the table or in public to how to deal with a crying child with a skinned knee. And they are valid, and valuable, when directed with intention toward the love and growth of a child.

After all, kids need more than one page. They need the whole book.

Bored Games

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up, because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

Performing Parenting

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Do you ever find yourself performing as a parent? I know that I do. When we’re in a public place, among other parents and children (and especially other adults without children), there is a tendency to want to show them that we are doing the right thing; that we are not neglecting our duties; that we are on top of things.

There are a lot of reasons for this. We have four girls, and according to some yardsticks this is classified as a “large family.” Having a “large family” prompts such statements as “you must really have your hands full” and “you must be busy!” These can feel like judgments even when they aren’t (and sometimes they are). When another person is trying to walk down the aisle in the grocery store and see that we are taking up the entirety of the space, it’s easy to notice what we perceive to be a sigh of exasperation or a narrowing of eyes that suggests annoyance. We don’t want to inconvenience people with our big (even if often joyful) presence. And when our kids are having a hard time to boot, that feeling is increased exponentially. Really, we might think, why are we trying to shop for food right now? In public?

Or how about this: we’re at the library and there’s another family whose children are maybe not as well put together as ours just now. We might put on our best parent voices and say only the most positive, affirming things, thus reinforcing our superior skills and making a display of how good our children are. We did this, is the implication we are trying to get across. Or maybe we are the other family, whose children are struggling, and are probably hungry or tired or in any case just not wanting to be at the library right now. In the face of this pressure, we feel the need to show we are in control, so we begin to perform this for our audience. We chastise the kids for making noise, for not keeping still; maybe threaten a time out. The message is: We got this.

In all these cases, what’s happening is that we are not parenting authentically, but giving a performance: rather than meeting the needs of our children, we are accommodating the other people in the room. And this is not helpful.

What’s the solution? We have to hold our kids in priority over what we imagine will be thought or said by others. After all, we probably don’t know what other people are thinking anyway, and in any case they’re not coming home with us.

I often say that the toy aisle at Wal-Mart is a fabulous place for a toddler to have a tantrum. It’s roomy, it’s well lit, and the muzak is not that good anyway. Let the child do what he or she needs to do. In the end, they’re the only audience that matters.