Use Your Words

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“Use your words.” This has been a familiar refrain in my household. Maybe you can identify. We want our kids to articulate their feelings and their needs when they are able to do so. This often turns out to be more complicated than it seems.

First, the child has to be old enough to have the words. My daughters, through a combination of exposure to wordy adults and siblings and a steady dose of audiobooks (often read in an English accent), have a lot of words at their disposal and know how to use them. The assumption I often make as a parent, then, is that they are able to connect the words to their feelings: that they know what it is they are feeling, and can identify to themselves what they need. You know what they say about assumptions, right?

Most behavior in children is the expression of an unmet need. We know that when they are cranky, or suddenly burst into tears, or are uncooperative with our requests, or mean to their brother or sister, there is something they need that they either can’t put their finger on or don’t know how to tell us about.

  • The first step for parents is knowing that this is what is happening (and not, say, that they are being defiant or trying to manipulate or thwart us in some way).
  • The second step is helping the child to recognize this. In our therapeutic classrooms at the Relief Nursery, there is a lot of work put into helping kids distinguish their different emotions and what they look and sound like. If they can see them in others, they can better negotiate their tiny social milieu and know how to respond to kids and adults. If they can see them in themselves, they can develop a vocabulary for the changes in their own moods and emotions and, ultimately, to tell us about them.

A toddler can tell us he is angry by biting us in the ankle. This is a very effective way of communicating a feeling, but for obvious reasons it is not ideal. The goal is for him to be able to know that he is angry and to tell us in a safe and appropriate way: through facial expressions, through body language, and ultimately with words.

As with pretty much any skill, there is a learning curve, and there are steps that we can take to bring us to understanding. Here’s how it works most often in my family:

Four year-old: (taking swings at her sister.)

Parent: “You’re feeling angry right now. We need you to be safe. I’m going to help you move away from your sister.”

Four year-old: (crying loudly.)

Parent: “You sound sad. Do you need a hug?”

Four year-old: “YES!”

(Hugging ensues).

 

Or:

 

Seven year-old: (Sitting at table, making loud huffing sounds.)

Parent: “I can tell that you need something. Did you want to ask me for help?”

Seven year-old: “No one is getting me oatmeal.”

Parent: “You’re hungry and you would like some help. What does that sound like?”

Seven year-old: (Still clearly not amused) “Please can you serve me some oatmeal.”

(Eating ensues.)

 

Or:

 

Nine year-old: “I’m COLD.”

Parent: “You’re feeling cold. Is there something we can do to solve that problem?”

Nine year-old: “I can’t find any SOCKS.”

Parent: “You need help finding some socks to wear.”

Nine year-old: “They aren’t in my DRAWER.”

Parent: “You didn’t find them where you expected them to be, and you’re feeling frustrated. How can we solve this problem?”

Nine year-old: “But I’m COLD.”

Parent: “Have you looked in the clean laundry?”

(Dressing ensues.)

 

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Just Playing

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In the novel The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins), the protagonist, an extremely dignified but emotionally repressed English butler, resolves to learn the art of bantering in order to better relate to his cheeky American employer. Observing a group of strangers who are soon talking and laughing together as friends, the butler writes, “It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly… Listening to them now, I can hear them exchange one bantering remark after another. It is, I would suppose, the way many people like to proceed…Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically.”

For similar reasons, when I am working with a family and meeting kids who are unfamiliar to me, the first thing I often do is invite them to play a card game (a favorite, which I learned at a residential treatment facility for children, is King’s Corners). I have found that it is the quickest and most efficient way to put a young stranger at ease. Perhaps more importantly, it allows me to talk to them in a comfortable, casual and gently joking way (in other words, to banter) that forms an instant sort of bond. It is then easier to draw the parents, who may be feeling the weight of their own expectations and anxieties, into this comfort zone as well.

I encourage parents to do this in their own families. Kids want to spend time with their parents, and playing card games, board games, charades, etc. (there are a variety of games appropriate for every age level) is a safe, pressure-free way to teach, converse, encourage, make jokes, and practice skills and simply, as I said, to be together. Which is always a valuable thing.

The benefits of playing games with our kids are many and varied. According to this article on the Scholastic website, games that are designed “only” for fun are also rich in educational opportunities:

They satisfy your child’s competitive urges and the desire to master new skills and concepts, such as:

  • number and shape recognition, grouping, and counting
  • letter recognition and reading
  • visual perception and color recognition
  • eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity

The aptly named Geek Dad identifies some of the higher level skills that occur while playing games, among them Taking Turns, Thinking Ahead, learning Actions and Consequences, and Making Tough Choices. All of these skills are essential to social-emotional development and will serve kids well as adults finding their way in the world.

One thing I learned early on is that kids know, always, when an adult is “letting them win.” I am of the opinion that this is not only unhelpful and deceptive, but can actually get in the way of practicing those other skills. I was pleased to find support for this elsewhere. Also, I like to win as much as the next guy. But somehow, it doesn’t always turn out that way. If nothing else, I can keep working on my bantering skills.

The Parent as Coach

Baldhill kids

I mentioned that I’m managing a softball team, and that this is a completely new thing for me. In this post, I wrote in pretty vague terms about how a family can work as a team. This week, I have some thoughts about that, from the other side of the fence.

One of my duties as manager is to place the players in the most effective positions on the field. In softball, this will ideally be based upon each team member’s talents, limitations, and dynamics when playing with others. Let me just say that there has been a steep learning curve for me. But it got me to thinking about how the creation of a team relates to the shape of a family.

In debriefing with my coach about our last game, I came across some examples.

  • One of the first rules of coaching a sport is to always use positive language. To exhort a player to, say, “stop twisting the bat at the end of the swing,” is not nearly as respectful, or effective, as giving the positive direction to “swing level.” In the same way, reminding our children to put their “feet on the floor” is preferable to “don’t you lean back in that chair!”
  • Some players have more knowledge of the game and its workings than others. Sometimes this knowledge will lead a player to take on the role of “micro-coach” and tell other players what to do. When we talked about this, I immediately thought of my oldest daughter, who often takes on the responsibility, usually unasked and without—to put it lightly—the appreciation of her younger siblings, to impart the Family Rules to them. I try to remind her gently that this is not her job, and that there are already two parents here to take care of it. It’s a matter of appropriate roles in the family. When her mom or dad, as coaches, ask her to watch her sisters or put her in charge of a task, this is an appropriate role. When she takes it upon herself to do so, not so much.
  • Finally, trying to figure out what is not working with a player might be a matter of determining what their unmet need might be. Does the infielder who misses a grounder need glasses? Or maybe to switch corners so the sun is not in her eyes? Does the third place hitter need more time in the inning to prepare? Could he go to bat further down the lineup? Did the manager (ahem) decide to eat a heavy dinner before the game, thus giving him a poor chance to run bases today? Similarly, when our children are not doing what we expect, or what we know they’re capable of, are they tired, hungry, feeling unappreciated? Have they outgrown their shoes?

My interest in the ball game started as a way to teach family dynamics to fathers. This father, at least, has already learned a lot more than he bargained for. And there are still eight games to go.

Exciting Conclusion (Family Rules, Part 4)

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This week we come around full circle on creating Family Rules. In Part 1, I wrote about the importance of knowing what the rules are, and the consequences of not making them explicit. In Part 2, we discussed Values and Morals and how we express them, whether we intend it or not. And in Part 3, I compared the family to a team (by the way, our softball team played its first game last night. It was a lot of fun, thank you).

Throughout this series of posts, I have been stuck trying to figure out what our Family Rules actually are. I couldn’t say, and neither could the various parents and parenting educators I had talked to. So finally I did what I probably should have done in the first place, and asked my kids. They did not hesitate. Below are some of the Rules for my family, and questions and answers about them.

First of all, some FAQ I just made up.

Q: Are your Family Rules written down?

A: No. Turns out they don’t have to be. Though it is recommended in Nurturing Parenting that they are actually written and ideally posted on the wall somewhere, our Rules have been instilled through sheer repetition over the years. My girls know them well enough that I have to ask that they not constantly recite them to each other.

Q: Are your Family Rules connected to your Values and Morals?

A: I think so. At least, I could comfortably make that argument. But really, they mostly arose from situations in which my wife and I felt them just come up.

Q: Do my Family Rules need to look like yours?

A: No. It’s your family.

 

With this in mind, here are some of mine:

 

Eat What You Like, and Leave the Rest.

This is the cardinal food-related Rule, though my kids were able to come up with several corollaries, among them “Finish What is on Your Plate Before Taking More,” “Ask if Anyone Else Wants More,” “Wait Until Everyone Has Finished Their Firsts,” and “There Will Be More Food at the Next Meal.”

 

Use Your Words.

Often alternated with the question, “Did You Want to Ask for Something?” with the implication “Because I Didn’t Hear You Do That.”

 

No Means No.

This is fairly self-explanatory. And since I have daughters, I pay a lot of attention to this one.

 

There Are No Mistakes in Art.

My nine year-old, who is a very talented artist, disputes this Rule. But she is not writing this post.

 

So, there you go. This is my Family, so these are our Rules. I hope that this helps you to articulate your own. If that doesn’t work, maybe you could ask your kids.

The Perfect Parent

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

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Are you the perfect parent? Chances are, probably not. But possibly, secretly, do you really want to be the perfect parent? I know I do.

Most adults (my children included) can tell you all the things their parents did wrong. Some parents definitely qualified as Toxic Parents (a term coined by therapist and author Susan Forward). Other parents, well, they were somewhere on the scale between tolerable and pretty good—all things considered.

No matter where our own parents fell on that scale, many of us want to do better than them. That’s a good thing. But in wanting to do better, some of us fall into the perils of perfectionism:

  • We have unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others.
  • We focus on what we did wrong—not on what we did right.
  • We self-criticize and may be highly critical of others.
  • Criticism from others (or even helpful suggestions) may increase our feelings of inadequacy. We may respond with defensiveness and hostility. We may be unwilling to admit being wrong.

Full disclosure: I’m a recovering perfectionist. But I’m also an educator. I believe in improvement. I believe people can learn new skills and change their behavior.

As an educator, I also know that learning takes having access to accurate information and getting encouragement from others. It takes time and practice. It takes making mistakes and then learning from those mistakes. For some reason, when it comes to parenting we think we ought to know how to do it just because we want to. After all, we can identify all those things our parents did wrong.

Here are some ideas that have helped me focus on improvement and step back from perfectionism:

Asking myself: is the issue one of health and safety?

Are the goals my goals or those that others think are important? One study found that parents with “self-oriented parenting perfectionism” had higher parenting satisfaction, whereas those with “societal-oriented parenting perfectionism” were more stressed.

Noticing what is working well and what got done. Being specific. Praising myself and others.

Admitting to messing up, apologizing, making amends if possible, thinking about how to do it better next time.

Asking myself, what do I need to do this—information, encouragement, practice?

Perhaps what is most helpful is accurate and honest information about how other people have succeeded in doing what I would like to do. No one is exactly like me, of course, but parents share many things in common. Realizing that others struggle with challenges and hearing how others dealt with similar situations can spur me in problem-solving, even if their solutions are not the same as mine.

 

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.

Extra Inning (Family Rules, Part 3)

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I’ve been writing about the process of coming up with Family Rules. Last week I was stuck with the consequences of my family’s Values as they showed up in my actions, whether or not I intended to model them. This time I want to pull back and tell you what I’ve been doing lately.

The genesis of this was in a post I wrote I few weeks ago about how I haven’t introduced my girls to sports. As a consequence, they can’t throw or catch a ball, and I had a bit of an existential Daddy crisis about this. I got over it, sort of. But in preparation for the upcoming Nurturing Fathers training, which uses sports as a metaphor that runs throughout the program, I started thinking about this again. If I’m going to teach this program, I thought, I need to set aside my lifelong lack of interest in sports and, basically, pick one and become interested.

I grew up in a house of football fans, but for a variety of reasons this never clicked with me (to be honest, the game just makes no sense to my brain. Don’t be offended; it’s not you, it’s me). I’ve learned in recent years, in my work with children, how to lob a basketball into a hoop, but again, not much about the sport resonates with me. Soccer is fine, hockey is fun, and I’ve always enjoyed the Winter Olympics. Whatever.

But then there’s baseball. Still the National Pastime, at least in name, and a sport with a long and hallowed place in American history and culture. The rules make sense; the gameplay is elegant and aesthetically pleasing. There’s no clock. It’s a nice way to enjoy an idyllic Summer day. It’s full of unwritten rules, superstitions, traditions, stories and lore, and plus I’ve seen The Sandlot more times than I can count. The more I thought about it the more I realized I was ready to become a baseball fan.

Somehow in the midst of this newfound hobby I volunteered to organize a softball team at work. I just kind of pitched the idea (see what I did there?) and to my surprise was met with overwhelming interest. Suddenly I am occupied with putting together a team roster, ordering t-shirts, commissioning artwork for the mascot, and cramming to learn the rules of the game. I’ll let you know how we do this year.

What does all this have to do with Family Rules? If we accept the premise that a family is a team, we understand that everyone’s contribution is essential. Everyone’s efforts are needed and valued. This is as true in setting up a regimen of chores as it is in the routines of getting ready for school, taking a bath, visiting grandparents, playing with siblings. Everyone has different talents and abilities (especially if they’re all different ages) and we have to figure out, as a team, how best to use them, and how to support each other in areas in which we’re not so proficient.

And just like in baseball (or softball), everyone has to go up to bat eventually.

Values in Action (Family Rules, Part 2)

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Last week I wrote about the process of establishing Family Rules in accordance with the Nurturing Parenting philosophy. As you’ll recall, I fumbled around a bit as I realized that in my household we didn’t really have an established set of rules, and that a lot of the parenting educators I spoke to didn’t have them either.

For the sake of emphasizing their importance, however, I decided to go through the process as I understand it. I want to make clear that the Nurturing Parenting curriculum is not responsible for any of my fumbling.

The first step is to talk about the Morals and Values that are practiced in my family. There is a distinction to be made between these two things.

Morals are the understanding of what is right and wrong according to our belief system. They come from religion, spirituality, or what they refer to in recovery as our higher power, whatever that might be.

I have a pretty good idea about what these things are. I came up with a list that puts things such as Honesty, Forgiveness, and Loving Words and Acts in the “good” column and such things as Lying, Blaming and Cruel Words and Acts in the “bad” zone. Easy enough, right? These are ideals of behavior that we can all agree on.

They are not Rules, because they don’t describe the behavior that we want to see. They are the blueprint for how we want our family to work. They don’t originate with us, but shape our Values from without (I defer to C.S. Lewis, who in his book Mere Christianity explains this much better than I could hope to do).

Values spring directly from this blueprint. The term “Family Values” has a lot of political and cultural baggage, but for the sake of this exercise we’re using it in its most generic sense: they are the things that we hold as important or sacred in our family. Every family has its own culture, and thus its own set of Values. Ideally, of course, the things that are demonstrably important to us will fall in line with our list of Morals (the “rights” rather than the “wrongs”). So, my list of Values is made up of many of the same things I listed above:

Honesty

Forgiveness

Loving Words and Acts

Other Values I came up with are offshoots of this, such as

Helping (being in Service to others). So far, so good.

The tricky part here is that, while our Morals come from outside the family, our Values are manifested in the things we actually do and say. With this in mind, I can look at a line of children and adults sitting on the sofa with books open on their laps and see that

Literacy

is a Value in our family.

So I wrote that down. And given that when my kids are not reading they are most likely making artwork, learning, or playing, I added those as well:

Creativity

Learning

Play

Good stuff, right?

This is where I stop and take a look at my actions and make some surprising discoveries. Very often in my interactions with others I value

Being Right.

I practice

Judgment, a lot.

And much of the time I obviously value children being

Quiet.

When looking for guidance, I am more likely to value

My Smartphone

over the contributions of people right in front of me.

Jeepers, what happened to my list? This last batch seemed to come out of nowhere, and it doesn’t exactly jibe with my Morals. In fact, it is arguably in conflict with the other things on the list. This is because we pass along our Values through what we do and say. We model them for our children, and reinforce them through consistency and repetition.

And that’s how our children learn, right? So what do I want them to learn? And how am I living those lessons?

Clearly, we’re not done here.

The Count (Family Rules, Part 1)

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I had thought this post would be easier. After attending a Nurturing Parenting training at work last week, I wanted to write about the importance of establishing Family Rules. According to the training, it is valuable for a family to identify their own Morals, Values and Rules, to have them written down and displayed somewhere for reference, and for parents and children alike to understand what they are and be able to recite and follow them.

My family has not done this. In thinking about what our Family Rules might be, I came up empty. Surely we have them, right? But I wasn’t able to say what they were. I looked to some of my coworkers, parenting educators all, and asked if they knew what their Family Rules were. No one was able to tell me. No one had written them down.

I’m an advocate of being transparent about these things in my own work with families. When a parent recites the Count—you know, when your child is not listening and you start that mysterious Count (by “you” I’m including “me,” because I have been known to initiate the Count): “One. Two…”

I ask, “Does your child know what this means? Do they know what they need to do? Do they know what will happen when the Count is over?” Most likely, the parent’s response will be that the child does, in fact, know. So I ask, “What will happen?” And the parent cannot tell me. “I usually don’t have to finish counting.” The answer, of course, is that there is no answer. No rule has been established, no consequence agreed upon.

The answer, in that there is no answer, turns out to be the answer. Don’t worry, I understand that this makes no sense. And that’s the answer. It’s unknown. Fear of the unknown is what gets the child’s attention. And in that sense, it does work, because it is based on fear of the unknown. The child knows instinctively that finishing the Count is not a good thing. And the behavior may change, at least for the short term. At least for right now.

You can probably see what’s wrong here. This is the opposite of establishing a Family Rule, something that the parent and the child understand and have agreed upon. It implies, rather, that if it the Count does not achieve the desired affect (for the child to stop doing what they are doing, or to do what the parent has asked, possibly several times already), then we are going to go outside the Rules. All bets are off. The child does not know what will happen, and possibly neither does the parent. This is scary. And no one is learning from it.

I cannot criticize a parent for breaking out the Count because I understand where it comes from. It stands in for an absence of agreed upon rules. And it is usually a good place to have the conversation: what are the Rules in your family?

I have asked myself that very question. Next time, I hope, I will have an answer.

Free, and Priceless

This week’s guest post is by Julie Whitus. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Julie.

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The other night I stopped and looked at my children playing. My youngest was dancing with a lampshade on her head while my nine-year-old was singing into a remote control. Then, my 11 year-old popped out of the clothes hamper to surprise me. I laughed to myself thinking how ridiculous this might have looked to an outsider, while admiring my children for their imaginations.

I thought back to my childhood and played back some happy memories. I remember walking outside in the rain catching earthworms for fishing, playing in a cardboard house, climbing trees, painting the garage with my dad, and exploring the empty field by my house. I realize that all these memories had two things in common: 1. My parents were spending time with me; and 2. these activities were free.

As a parent of six I know that having children is costly. However, spending time with them isn’t. I have to admit that sometimes I get caught up with wanting to give my children expensive toys or take them on grandiose outings. The reality is I really cannot afford it and would regret it later on. As I evaluate my childhood I realize that the most memorable moments involved my parents spending quality time with me for free.

Right now, with Summer vacation coming up, I am challenging myself to schedule time for free activities. Also, I challenge myself to forget the guilt of being unable to afford Disneyland, to picture my childrens’ carefree play with a lampshade and a remote control, and remember that making memories costs nothing and is priceless.

I encourage parents to respond to this blog by posting some low cost Summer activities that your family has enjoyed.

Julie Whitus is a Family Navigator at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Insert Cliché Here

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If there’s one thing that makes me itch more than excess jollity, it’s clichés. I try not to use them in writing or in speech, and I cringe a little when I hear them from other people. Call it residual English Major snobbery. I’m fine with that.

But I know what you’re going to tell me. You’re going to say, “The reason it’s a cliché is because it’s true.” And I know that. But first of all, “the reason is because” is redundant (see? Snobbery). And second of all, I’d say that’s no excuse to not try to say things in a new way. That’s why we have poetry. And those teabags with quotes on the tag (and by the way, sentence fragments are okay if they establish style).

Of all the clichés that are trotted out, the most bothersome are those that have to do with children. Here are some:

“Boys will be boys.” Seriously, what does that even mean? Girls will be girls too; why isn’t that a thing?

“Well, you’ve got your hands full.” Heard while shopping with any number of children greater than one. No comment.

“I haven’t seen you since you were knee high to a grasshopper.” Actually, that’s more of an idiom than a cliché, and it’s kind of good. Don’t hear that often enough.

Here’s one, though, that gives me some trouble: “They’re growing like weeds.” I want to dismiss it offhand, because you could easily say my children are growing like…something else that grows really fast. “They’re growing like bamboo?”

But the fact is, weeds not only grow fast, they do it when you’re not paying attention. They do it whether you are involved or not, and even if you’re paying attention to other things in the garden, and trying to keep bugs off them (I try to keep bugs off my children as well).

Nevertheless, children actually do grow that way: inexorably, relentlessly, ruthlessly. They can’t stop, won’t stop. In fact, that’s a related cliché, and one just as undeniable: “They just won’t stop growing.” Tell me about it!

And that leads to the ultimate parenting cliché, and one to which my resistance, in spite of my best snobbery, has broken down completely.

“It all goes by so fast.”

That one just stops me in my tracks (“in my tracks:” is that a cliché? I’m going with it). It brings me up short. Takes the wind out of my sails (well, now I’m doing it).

Is there a phrase in the English language that packs more punch than “It all goes by so fast?” That punch is to my gut. It opens up a veritable steamer trunk of feelings, encompassing regret, nostalgia, panic, pride, helplessness, resolve.

That’s one true cliché, and I let it stand. With a child in the double digits now, and a “baby” who just turned five and can prepare toast with all the fixings unaided, I can’t think of a more pithy or succinct way to express what’s happening here. It’s so solid, in fact, that I find myself saying it to first time parents.

No, really. Listen. You just have no idea. It all goes by so fast.