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

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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 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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On this Ship Together

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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.

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The “No/Don’t” Problem

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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.

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Yelling and Screaming and Time Outs (Oh My)

 

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

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I was a mom of a very angry 3 year old, just a small time ago. My daughter was angry for many reasons and like most first time parents, I was at a loss as to how to help her. She would yell and scream, slam doors, and throw things, so I did what every “good” parent does, I watched Super Nanny. You know the show, where the British Nanny comes in and saves the whole family through time outs.  So I followed her example and used time outs regularly.

My poor daughter would be throwing a tantrum and I would pick her up and sit her in the “time out spot” and tell her that she could get up in three minutes. When she would get up–and she would always get up–I would put her back and add another minute. I remember at one point she was up to 15 minutes in the time out spot! I thought this is ridiculous. At that point I had no idea what she was in trouble for and neither did she. All I knew is we were both very upset and exhausted. That night I decided we both needed some help.

I found the most amazing counselor for my daughter. He taught me that there are other ways to handle difficult problems.  First he gave my child and me the language to keep each other accountable. He would ask my daughter, “When that happened and you were upset, were you growing up or growing down?” He told me that this was easier for children to understand because it was more visual. He even told me I could use it as a reminder: “Are you growing up right now, or growing down?” Now, when my child was super upset, she would say “I don’t know.” The response from her counselor was, “Oh well, you have time to think about it.” I thought, “Wow, what an idea, to give them time to come up with the right choice.” I started using it at home, and it helped so much.

The next step was addressing “time outs”. He told me that they don’t work. It only becomes a control issue; your focus is on time and control rather than the real problem. This is where he gave me the best gift ever. I can let go of the control and give it to my child. This may not sound like a good thing, but it changed my relationship with my daughter.

How I did it was the key. “Time outs” turned into “Taking a break” or “time away.” When my daughter was getting worked up and started doing things she shouldn’t, I would ask her if she was growing up or growing down. If that did not help her to calm down I would ask her to go to her break spot. (We had discussed with her counselor what was going to happen during these “growing down” behaviors. Then my daughter could choose her break spot). She did not take it as a punishment, because she got to choose when she was ready to come out and talk again. When she came out we would talk about what happened; she would give me a way to handle it better, and I would give her a way to handle it better (if you are trying this with your child and they cannot come up with a way, give them ideas). We always ended with a hug and “I love yous.”

The first time we did this, my daughter sat for fifteen minutes before coming out. Sometimes it was shorter. When she was really worked up, she would come back and still be upset. In that case I would give her a hug, acknowledge how upset she still was, and tell her that she may need more of a break to talk. She would always go back to the break spot until she felt better.

 

Tara Webster is the Home Based Supervisor at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

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The Scientist on the Bike

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

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Several years ago researchers Alison Gropnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl wrote The Scientist in the Crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. In it, they examine and explain how children develop their understanding of the world from birth through the preschool years.

Babies, they explain, act like scientists: they observe, investigate, form hypotheses, and test them. And, like good scientists, they try to replicate the results of their tests. Simply put: babies learn from everything that happens and from everything they make happen. Baby throws food on the floor and learns about gravity (and, in some cases, that dogs like to eat some kinds of people food). Baby also learns whether Dad finds this behavior amusing or annoying or doesn’t notice it. Baby repeats the experiment—are the results the same? What if I try it tomorrow? What if I try it with Mom? The experiments and the learning go on and on and on.

The experimentation doesn’t end in preschool; it continues—potentially throughout our lives. The drive to learn and figure out how the world works is powerful. And when we figure something out for ourselves—what a rush!

The other day I reflected on a child’s innate need to learn while watching a seven-year old riding his bike. He was with his younger brother, a friend and some neighbors. He was meeting lots of needs: exercise, fun, socialization. He was experimenting with what he could do with his body while riding a bike and learning about physics. He also conducted another experiment by riding off briefly with one of the neighbors without checking with his mother (or his friend) first: an experiment in social relationships and impulsive actions.

When he returned, his mother reminded him of the ground rules for bike riding, redirected him to some other activities for a while, and explained that he would not be able to ride his bike if he didn’t follow the rules. She also pointed out that riding off with the neighbor was rude to his friend.

She didn’t overreact to the incident (he is a sensitive, conscientious child, and lives in a safe neighborhood).

She didn’t embarrass him.

But she didn’t ignore it, either—she gave him information that would help him to learn.

That’s another great thing about babies (and all of us): we can learn from other people. We don’t need to experience everything ourselves.

Many parenting advisers talk about kids testing the limits of parental rules. Unfortunately, this is often phrased in terms of “parents vs. kids” or “you have to show them who’s boss.” But, most of the time, kids are not challenging parental power or out to annoy their parents—they are experimenting with how things work. They are trying to learn.

All of us learn best when we respect and trust the people who teach us. We learn best when our teachers have confidence in our ability to learn—when they don’t overreact to our mistakes or embarrass us. We learn best when our teachers have patience and treat us with respect.

Children need parents for guidance and protection and limits and supervision–and yes, they annoy us a lot and we often do overreact. We’re experimenting, too. And learning, and learning, and learning.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to two 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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