Archives for December 2015

On this Ship Together

Pirate

I intended this week to write about something that has been coming up a lot in my work with parents and, inevitably, in my own parenting. Namely, how to discipline children without getting our emotions involved. This is much easier to do when the children are not our own: as a parenting educator, I can see the behavior for what it is, and know that it is not connected to who the parent is.

With my own children it is not so easy. I have expectations for how our relationship is supposed to work; I expect them to trust me and to know that what I am asking them to do is the best thing for them. When they do not seem to understand this, it is impossible to keep myself, and our relationship, out of the equation. I feel that their difficulty in meeting my expectations is personal: that I am, or the child is, failing to honor the connection that we have. And that is when as a parent I start to “lose it.”

Here is an example. I have written before about my challenges in getting my six year-old to sleep through the night. I used to be able to comfort her and simply sit with her until she went back to sleep. Having a book to read on the reading app on my phone kept me busy. But then it stopped working. She would wake again in distress as soon as I tried to sneak out of her room. And my emotions would take over. I got frustrated, she reacted to this, and a drawn-out struggle ensued. Sleep would now be a long way away for either of us.

For a while, my solution was to move her to the other bed, next to her mother, and sleep in hers (it is…shorter than I am). Or, when all the struggling woke the four year-old sister, to move her to the adult bed and sleep in her (even shorter) one. As long as I was in the room, the six year-old could sleep and so could I, after a fashion. But this, I finally realized, was not solving anything.

So I had to set the boundary: adults needed to sleep in their bed, and children needed to sleep in theirs. Since I could not wait her out, I told her that I would tuck her in, give her many hugs and kisses, and sit with her for five minutes before going back to my room. This was the only logical solution, but after so long accommodating her by working around the problem, this was very difficult for her. For a few nights she would simply have to be sad in her bed after I said goodnight. There was much crying and calling out of my name. Though I am sure this was much harder for her, there was no way I was going to sleep next door until she settled. But I persevered. If she came back out of her room, I could tuck her in again and say goodnight, but I would be going back to my bed.

And so it went. It got easier, eventually, when she (and I) realized that this was going to be the expectation every time. She simply would not believe that five minutes had gone by until I started setting a timer (for some reason she believes my timer). And it got easier. Some nights are easier than others. But through consistent repetition of the plan, she is now able to put herself to sleep.

What happened? All of those struggles we were having with our relation to one another—namely, that she thought she was losing me and I thought she was staying awake to torture us both—were replaced by the expectation itself, and by our willingness to work together to make it happen. I agreed to be available when she woke in the night, and she agreed to go back to her bed because she knew what would happen. It is no longer about us.

Looking back, it is easy for me to see that this plan is the one I should have gone with in the first place. But my guilt and uncertainty (am I doing this right?), and her fear and anxiety (how would I react this time?) kept the struggle going. Having the expectation and sticking to it was the only solution.

How will it go tonight? I have no idea. But finally we both know what to do. We are on this ship together.

Share

Breaking Down the Break

becerraphotography-4

So, the kids are home from school. How is that going?

We are taking a break from homeschooling as well, so we’re all home and in full Winter Break mode. Add up all that family time, the change in routines, and the excitement of the impending holiday and the results can be unpredictable, to say the least. What can we do to ensure that these days at home go as well as they can?

  1. Keep the routines that you can. It is be tempting to let everyone (including ourselves) sleep in, and that can be nice, for sure. But if your children are accustomed to the way the morning goes in getting up and getting ready for school, pushing the day back can be disruptive. We try to keep the structure of the day intact as much as possible, sticking to predictable mealtimes, bedtimes, chores, daily activities and downtimes in order to keep things predictable. The more things that they can anticipate happening in the usual way, the more comforted and settled they will feel.
  2. Pace yourselves. Just because we are faced with all this unstructured time does not mean that we should try to fill it with activities. Even the “fun” can be overwhelming without allowing for the quiet periods we all need in order to recharge. The adults will need to do this to, and if you are used to having time to yourself during the day, be sure to allow for that as well.
  3. Prioritize the holiday stuff. Every family has its own traditions and the children especially will delight in those activities—decorating the house, baking, taking in the lights around town—that they associate with this time of year. But I’ve found that trying to force it can be more stressful than it is worth. One of our favorite traditions has been to visit a tree farm to select a tree and cut it down. This year, however, due to a variety of factors (the extra soggy weather, a general lack of funds and a general lack of tree space), we decided to scale back on that particular adventure. We stopped at a tree lot in town and took home a smaller and cheaper (but completely charming) tree, a process that took ten minutes instead of most of an afternoon.
  4. Get outside if you can. Especially if the kids are spending more idle time at home, and adjusting to the slower pace away from school, it is all the more important to spend time walking, hiking and moving around out of doors. We have been taking advantage of those brief windows of non-rain.
  5. Transition back to school time. If we have been keeping a predictable schedule and balancing periods of activity with down time, this will be easier to manage. Going back to school at the end of the break won’t be as much of a jolt if everyone knows what to expect.
  6. Be patient with each other, and with yourself. Everyone in the family is dealing with changes, and even pleasant changes can be difficult. If we remember that everyone has to adjust on both ends of the break, we might avoid the feeling of desperation that comes with having everyone just…around for so many days. Also, keep in mind that it’s normal for kids and adults to feel a bit of a crash when all the excitement is over. Anticipating that is a job of parenting, it’s true. But the easier and more predictable it is for our children the saner we will be.

Happy holidays!

 

 

Share

About Time

becerraphotography.com-1

I’ve been thinking about time.

In a book featuring daily meditations for the Advent season, I came across this passage:

“The greatest gift I ever received,” said a successful young attorney, “was a gift I got one Christmas when my dad gave me a small box. Inside was a note saying, “Son, this year I will give you 365 hours, one hour every day after dinner. It’s yours. We’ll talk about what you want to talk about; we’ll go where you want to go, play what you want to play. It will be your time.”

In addition to wishing that I had come up with this myself, I was reminded of that phrase we always hear as parents, usually from older folks, about our children: “They grow up so fast.” It’s a cliché, of course, something that is said so often it threatens to lose its meaning. But like so many clichés, it is repeated because it’s true. We often hear it as a plea, its message being, “Pay attention to them. Give them time now, learn to be in the present moment with them, before it’s too late.”

This is a particularly hard lesson for me to keep in mind when parenting is difficult. My six year-old, who was once a champion sleeper (and, I have to keep reminding myself, surely will be again), has been waking in the night and struggling to rest without the company of an adult. So when sitting with her and waiting for her to drop off again proved arduous and ultimately unsuccessful—she almost always catches me on the way out—I had to choose between putting her in my bed, next to her mother, and sleeping on her toddler bed surrounded by stuffed cats, and moving her four year-old sister when she inevitably woke from the noise and sleeping in her (much shorter) one. I do not find this amusing, and neither do my knees.

What my daughter needs, though, in the middle of the night, is time with me. When nights are particularly hard and I am particularly tired, this is the last thing I want to give her. The message I am sending her is that I do not have the time. “Daddy needs to sleep too,” is what I keep saying because she does not seem to get it. “We all need to sleep in a bed.” She is not convinced by this logic, nor will she be comforted. And all I can think is that I need this time to pass and for her to become seven (and thus, developmentally, more likely to soothe herself back to sleep).

By refusing to be in the present with her, I am withholding the gift of time.

Being reminded of the value of this time, I think that the many wonderful and precious qualities of my daughter at this age, right now, will be changing as well: her wide-ranging imagination; her endless questions and charming observations; heck, the fact that she wants to have her dad around, just to be there.

My time may be a gift to her, but just as important is the time she is offering me.

She grows up so fast.

I need to pay attention.

Share

The “No/Don’t” Problem

iStock_000016374221XSmall

There is something that comes up a lot in my work as a parenting educator. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is something that also comes up a lot in my work as a parent. I call it the “No/Don’t” statement.

You can guess what it sounds like. A child is grabbing something (your phone, the edge of the tablecloth, a sibling’s toy) and you say, “No!” Or alternately, “Don’t do that.” Or alternately, “Stop!” Sometimes it takes on extra dimensions, such as, “How many times have I told you not to do that?” You might even provide an answer to the question, giving a possibly spurious and invariable round number: “I have told you a hundred thousand times not to do that.”

Having fallen into this rut again and again myself, I believe that it is a response that comes fairly naturally to us. Just as every kid I’ve ever met will walk straight into the path of someone who is swinging, so every parent defaults to the negative when attempting to teach proper behavior to a child.

So what’s wrong with that? Are there occasions in which it is perfectly appropriate, or at least when it will do in a pinch? I can think of a few. When your child is about to walk into traffic, yelling “STOP!” with startling volume is probably the way to go (the nuances of why can come later when the child is out of danger). Similarly, if the child is currently holding the cat upside down by the tail, “Don’t do that to the cat!” may be the way to go, and will certainly be appreciated by the cat.

As a general practice, though, the “No/Don’t” statement runs into problems when we look at how we can teach things to our kids. Here are a couple of points (I’m sure there are other good ones as well).

  • Specificity. Younger children especially may not be ready to place actions, causes and effects into different contexts. So, knowing to not grab, say, the doll stroller from a sister in this instance may not translate to the time five minutes from now in which the sister is still playing with the stroller and you still want it. Or to taking the book out of her hand tomorrow because a book is nothing like a doll stroller. Here we get into philosophical conundrums as parents that we probably frankly don’t have time to go into.
  • Negativity. By this I don’t mean that it’s bad or wrong to say “no,” but simply that children respond better when we describe the behavior we do want to see rather than negate behavior we don’t. In other words, if we can help the child to see what it is we want, they are much more likely to accomplish it. “Put the cat down” is a start. That’s an action. They can do that. Then, “Pet him like this. He likes that. There. Nice kitty,” etc. Or, “Let’s make a sling for your doll so you can take her for a walk.” Or even, “See if your sister will trade the doll stroller for this toy.”

I have found that the extra work we put into describing what we want to see, or providing a positive alternative, is almost always worth it. And as a bonus, the child has learned something. Just as importantly, they are able to accomplish something. Kids want to be helpful, after all. They want to do the right thing. It’s so nice to give them the opportunity.

Share

The Family Bookshelf

Books

I have talked about the prominence of books in our household and the importance of having them around. I wanted to share with you some of our enduring favorites, and I encourage you to share some of your own.

Many people have pets they consider to be family members. We have a cat (she is named Jenny Linsky, from a book), and she’s pretty great. But we have many books we consider to be part of the family as well. Here are a few.

  • Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire were a married couple who worked as a team, writing and illustrating an array of books ranging from Norse and Greek myths to rather eccentric and charming biographies of such figures as Benjamin Franklin, Abe Lincoln and Christopher Columbus. I had the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths checked out for the entirety of my elementary school career. Because I was a rule follower, and properly intimidated by librarians (what could be worse than losing library privileges?), I would return it when it was due and, when no one else had snagged it by the end of the school day, check it out again. I read every page and pored over every lively, sometimes bizarrely vivid drawing so many times that they took up permanent residence in my brain: for example, the spectacle of Athena springing fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus (leading me to believe that headaches could produce children). Eventually I moved on to junior high, and no longer had access to the book. After much persistent hinting my parents bought me my own copy. I have since purchased it at least three more times, and it is a favorite of my children as well.
  • Another childhood favorite of mine was more obscure and has entered rotation among my kids largely due, I think, to my enthusiasm for it. Mercer Mayer is known today for his series of Little Critter books, which can still be found in bookstores and classrooms alongside the Berenstain Bears and, more recently, that tragically ambitious pigeon. But my jam was Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-A-Zoo, in which a very small professor with a very long mustache ranges over land and sea and finally underground to find an elusive creature which (spoiler) turns out to live in his house and which comes out to play only when the professor has given up and fallen asleep. I had to scour the shelves of Powell’s for a few years before I finally came across it again. As a child I loved the incredible amount of activity in the margins of the pictures, the countless little stories and monster-human interactions that only a patient eye can catch; it is a book that makes you feel as if you have been rewarded for really looking.
  • Probably the most famous author of closely-looking-at books is Richard Scarry. Titles like What Do People Do All Day? and Busy, Busy Town are crammed with all sorts of animals driving all sorts of cars—many shaped like food, or other animals—and living all sorts of intriguing lives. As much as I loved poring over these as a child, I learned to appreciate them even more when a college professor pointed out that Richard Scarry was a master of presenting information in a nonlinear way: here the complexity and richness of life in the city is organized not in a story or mere descriptions but in a tangle of interactions and causes and effects (they sure crash into each other a lot) that go in all directions at once.
  • One of our very favorite authors is someone I missed as a child, possibly because I was too much a boy. Barbara Cooney wrote and illustrated books through a period of nearly half a century, and in our family the most treasured of all is Miss Rumphius. I appreciate it for the way it tells the story of a girl who grows up into a woman, lives a rich and fulfilling life, and eventually grows old, in a way that most children’s books avoid. She hurts her hip riding a camel, for example, and later gets sick and is bed-ridden for a whole year (she gets better). Cooney’s style of illustration is a major influence on my daughters’ artwork. It is a rare picture book that I feel I can get as much out of as an adult as my children do.

What are some favorite books in your family? What do you have to recommend?

Share