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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The Gift of Validation

dadteachboy

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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Screening the Screens

Gabe first day

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.

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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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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.

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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)

familywalking

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 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.

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Reading Ahead

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I’m about to come across as not only a curmudgeon, but a hypocrite. Let me explain.

I learned to read quite early. I credit the constant presence of books and, of course, Sesame Street for helping me along with this. And as soon as I could I started reaching for books that were way beyond my emotional maturity. I may have been able to read, as an eight year-old, my dad’s James Bond and Conan novels, but I was not able to process them. This trend continued as I grew up, with the result that I had “book knowledge” of the adult realm of drugs, sex and the intricacies of suffering that I was in no way prepared to live in reality. If I always felt that I was getting away with something, it’s because I was. Only in later years—and especially now that I’m a parent—did I realize that, rather than gaining something from my transgressions, I actually gave up a fair bit of my childhood.

Things are different now after the explosion of what is now called Young Adult literature, or YA. Spurred on by the success of the (wonderful) Harry Potter novels, the category of books featuring adolescent protagonists, largely under the umbrella of science fiction, horror and fantasy but sometimes taking in historical fiction or even stark realism, increased exponentially. As with most styles in popular art, some of it is brilliant, much of it quite good, and most mediocre to awful (this is not the place for me to weigh in on the relative merits of YA books you have probably heard of and/or read).

The new thing about this, and something I have been noticing more and more, is how often younger readers have been encouraged to pick up YA books under the assumption that, since they are not adult books, it is always a good idea for kids to read them. But more than ever before, there is such a wide spectrum of psychological and emotional content, relationship and identity issues in YA literature that it is risky to assume that a given book is appropriate for your young reader simply because of the section of the library or bookstore it was found in.

Let me be clear: the concern here is not that there are books that address all of these things, or that kids may benefit greatly from finding them portrayed in fiction, because both of these are, I think, very good things. The issue is that readers who may be intellectually, but not emotionally, ready to take on particular subject matter will at best not get anything out of it (as I came up empty with the adventures of James Bond) and come away with confusion or misunderstanding, and at worst could be traumatized. Heck, even the Harry Potter series becomes increasingly dark and emotionally complex as its characters age toward adulthood.

As a result, it’s more important than ever for parents to be aware of what their children are reading. There are summaries and reviews online for every book that’s out there, though this can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to look (in my experience nothing is more full of contradictions that two reviews of the same novel). A reliable place for this information is Common Sense Media, a website offering “independent reviews, age ratings, & other information about all types of media.”

Another great way to find out about what our kids are taking in is much more low tech. You can take a look at the book, of course: read the jacket copy and see if there is a recommended age range. Skim it if you can. Or better yet, talk to them about it!

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One Love

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I’ve been thinking a lot about one year-olds. I haven’t had one at home for a few years now, but at work I seem to be surrounded by them. I don’t mind.

The one year-old comes with a unique set of bonuses and challenges. The bonuses are so great it’s as if it’s your birthday whenever they’re around. They love to laugh, and it’s easy for you to be the funniest person they’ve ever met. They are working on their words and are delighted to share them with you. Walking, jumping, throwing things: these are great discoveries and the one year-old acts as if they’re the first one to get there and plant a flag.

The challenges, as with children of all ages, are a matter of timing. I know many well-intentioned parents who want to create structure and set boundaries who become frustrated when this doesn’t seem to be working. Here’s how it breaks down.

There are some things that a one-year old is just not ready to grasp at this point:

  • “No” and “don’t.” I have written about this elsewhere; how there are usually more effective ways to set limits. With the one year-old in particular, they simply don’t know what it means. Saying “no” in a firm voice will often stop them in their tracks, but this is because they know that the parent is displeased. They are not able to make a connection between the “no” and the behavior in question. Cause and effect is not yet part of the wiring.
  • As for directions such as “Don’t drop that applesauce,” The one year-old, scanning madly for meaning in your words, will catch “drop” and “applesauce” and will hear it either as an instruction (after all, testing gravity is a favorite activity at this age) or will simply be confused.
  • Positive directions have a much better chance of getting through. Putting out your hand and saying “Give me the applesauce” may get us to where we want to go, with at least a smaller percentage of applesauce on the floor.
  • Your rules. Parents are eager to articulate the rules of the family, laying out what is acceptable and what is not. But in the present moment of the toddler mind, rules (and their exceptions, because there are always exceptions) are too abstract to take root. So what works? Repetition, repetition, repetition. Give the same instruction enough times in context and eventually it will stick. Remember to keep stating, and praising, the behavior that you want to see.
  • What does work with a one year-old? Distraction will be your best friend. Trading out one toy or object for another, or simply changing tracks with a song, or a hug, or a funny noise, will reset the situation.
  • Ready to leave the house? Calling to the toddler to put their shoes on will look to a bystander like absurdist theater. Going to the toddler with the shoes is a better bet. And actually walking to the door is a pretty clear indicator that it’s time to go. One year-olds love to go in and out of rooms. You might want to let them close the door.
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