Kids Hitting Kids

As you know, occasionally I like to delve into an internet search (well, it’s not really delving, per se, since it takes three microns of a second) on a parenting topic. This time it’s something that’s been coming up in my work with families: namely, siblings wailin’ on each other. Parents have been asking me what to do in this situation, and as all parties (including the kids) agreed that it wasn’t a good thing to hit each other, we were at a bit of an impasse.

So here goes. One of the first articles to come up, at least in my info bubble, was kinda preachy and alarmist: the title says it all. Aside from pointing out in no uncertain terms that it is bad for people to hit each other (we’re in! We bought a ticket!), we’d like to know how to get to the bottom of it. How do we help our kids to try something else next time?

This next one was very promising. It focuses on how to talk to siblings about hitting when one is able to express himself in words and the other is not. It was written by an extreme parenting genius with perfect recall of a 15-minute conversation (did the author transcribe it from tape? Does she have a dictation team?), and really it is totally worth reading. She makes sure both of the kids are able to talk, and able to listen to each other. Which is really what they wanted in the first place.

Because, say it with me: “all behavior is an unmet need.”

Which is one of the 31(!) tips featured in this list which turned out to be the winner of the parenting internet this week. Note the first one: “Remember that this is normal,” and note as well that this makes it the complete opposite of what the first article said. Maybe it’s useful to tease out the meaning here. By “normal,” I think we’re saying both that it’s “something that happens” and that “the world does not end when it does.” The children do not explode (unless they are actually attaching explosives to one another, in which case it’s a more serious problem than this post can address), and one presumes that the hitting is not so frequent and vicious as to spill over into something else, which is called abuse, no matter who’s doing it to whom. Again, different blog post.

The fact is, though, when children are siblings (or in the same classroom, or sharing playground equipment, etc etc), sometimes they whack each other. What does it mean? In almost every case, it’s frustration, or tiredness, or hunger, or some combination thereof (“It’s an unmet need.” Everybody, now).

What do we do about it? That’s where it gets tricky, and where the author is smart enough to not give a straight answer. Or at least, a single answer. What I like is that she wants us to mostly look at ourselves. Should we interfere? If we do, are we actually just performing for the other parents in the room? Are we bringing our frustration into it? Are we blaming (this time or every time) one child or the other?

One of the answers is “do nothing.” I love when people give that advice. What if they can work it out? Isn’t that a skill?

Another is “make sure they have their own toys.” If they have things that they don’t have to share, there are no grounds for disagreement. Also, “don’t make toddlers share.” Word.

Also, too, “take them outside.” In my work that sometimes means to literally take them outside (we have swings, and a lovely meadow), but more generally it means that we need to change the environment. Move to a new place, find a new activity, take the energy up or down. Make it different.

Who knew there were so many things we could do about it? Come on kids. Bring it on.

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Tell Me When to Panic

I keep coming across a study that makes a remarkable correlation. Namely, that drug use among teenagers has gone down across the board in the last few years, just as use of personal technology such as smartphones and tablets has gone up. According to a New York Times article about the study, “researchers are starting to ponder an intriguing question: Are teenagers using drugs less in part because they are constantly stimulated and entertained by their computers and phones?” The piece sort of stumbles around a bit, assuring us that correlation is not causation (it’s not) before suggesting, “it might be that gadgets simply absorb a lot of time that could be used for other pursuits, including partying.” Which is a sentence guaranteed to make teenagers laugh.

An interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Adam Alter, the author of a new book about the perils of media saturation called Irresistible, builds on this study to present a case for the increasing prevalence of addiction to devices that connect to the internet. Alter, who has done work in this field, makes the argument that online games and other content are “designed to be addictive and that the gratification it provides is similar to that of other addictive behaviors, such as drug abuse or gambling.”

So far, so alarming. This is not a post about how we should rip iPhones from the hands of our teen children (I’ve sort of done that already). I do think that we should consider not putting them in the hands of anyone under 10 (and definitely under two, no matter what doctors now say). If anything, I think the most important thing for us parents to consider is our own use of those devices. What sort of behavior are we modeling? What are we presenting as acceptable? Etc. You know, the old “walk the walk” line (just heard Johnny Cash as I typed that).

No, what I found really interesting was this article in Teen Vogue, which has been enjoying a reputation of late as the source of some astute, if unconventional, journalism. The short piece presents the correlation between the fall of teenage drug use and the rise of phone-and-tablet use, and finds…nothing alarming whatsoever. “So next time you’re at a party and passing on that drink, joint, or something far worse, don’t feel bad about looking down at your phone — playing a quick game of Words With Friends could be exactly what you need to stay sober and on track.”

Yeah, but. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we. What about. How can we not consider.

Oh, forget it. I’m packing it in. With a book. That doesn’t light up.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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The Breaks

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I’ve written a lot on this blog about the importance of routines, and of keeping things consistent and predictable for children. I do think that this is one of the most important things we can do for them, in order to keep them feeling safe and nurtured. It helps them to sleep, to focus, to transition from one place to another.

Recently I was asked, when is it okay to break from the routine? How do you know when it is more appropriate to switch things up, or to make exceptions to the rule? In other words, are there situations in which it is better to just let things go?

I have to admit that this is hard for me. Those routines, I think, are often at least as important for my well-being as for my kids. Or at least it feels that way to me. But I ran into a situation that made me question this. It was bedtime, and as usual I was in charge of moving everyone through the pajama-donning, the tooth-brushing and the story-reading into the sleep zone. But my five and seven year-old, who had spent the day immersed in the high energy of their Nana (my dear mother-in-law), were not having it. They could not calm down. My attempts to keep the energy calm and cozy were calcifying into a general sternness and lack of amusement.

I sent them to say goodnight to their mom, who at this point, having had them for the day, was taking a well-deserved break. Her part in the bedtime routine has been scaled back considerably, consisting mostly of this last round of hugs and kisses. My two girls went to her and almost immediately I heard a round of giggling and whooping. She led them back into the bedroom in this state of tickling and joking and dancing around, and I was, needless to say, not amused. I have trouble with what I regard as excess jollity, whether in children or adults, that I just don’t have time to go into here, or really anywhere outside of therapy (though I do like to quote Mel Brooks from The Muppet Movie: “I detest the surfeit of provincial laughter”).

It quickly became evident, however, that this method of going with their rollicking energy, rather than attempting to put the brakes on it, was exactly what they needed. They were now able to transition into bedtime feeling understood and valued rather than badgered and thwarted. Point to Mom.

How do we know when it is appropriate to switch up the routines? When what we’re trying is clearly not working, especially if it usually does, it may be time to switch tack. Often it involves simply waiting and giving kids time to do what they feel they need to do. After all, when they are ready, they will be eager to return to those comforting, predictable rhythms.

And sometimes the impetus comes from the parents, for whom the usual expectations are just not working. For me, the iconic example is that summer evening (you know the one), in which ice cream for dinner really is the only answer.

Regardless of where the dissonance is coming from, it can be valuable to know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, and when to let it go. They’ll come around to the routines when they’re ready, and be glad to do so.

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