(Small) People Who Need People

How do we know, beyond a doubt, that humans are social animals?

1.) Archaeological evidence of milkshakes with two straws.

2.) Can’t read anything without sharing it on Facebook.

3.) Babies have “critical windows” for development during which parts of the brain need to be stimulated through interaction with others.

The first two are self-evident, but the third answer I  learned from our Nurturing Parenting class. What does it mean, though?

As I understand it (and keep in mind that I’m not an expert, but I play one on this blog), infant’s brains have an optimal period–anywhere between 6 months, in the case of vision, and four years, for logic and math skills–in which to make crucial connections that will carry them through the rest of their lives.

That’s one of those double-edged sword things. Clearly the stakes are pretty high, as children that don’t get what they need in the first few years–affection, interaction, a sense of stability and safety, opportunities to move and learn–will not have the skills they need to function as adults. That’s a bit scary.

To be clear, just because those connections aren’t formed in the brain during those critical windows doesn’t mean that it’s too late. What it does mean is that it will take a lot of work. And probably long-term (as in lifelong) support. See what I mean about being dependent on others? There’s just no way around it.

But this presents a great opportunity. Parents have a vision of the sort of people their children will be as adults (even if that vision is not always articulated, or even consciously crafted). Most often what we come up with is that we want our adult kids to be confident, capable, creative and well-rounded.

Those attributes don’t have to be shaped in school, or daycare, or summer camp, or anywhere outside the family. If we give them what they need when they need it (we’re talking birth to age four), they’ll be good to go.

The rest is just writing checks.

 

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Screens Revisited

It’s time to raise my quarterly alarm about the effects of screen time on children. Don’t worry, I’ve already laid the basic foundation of ranting, so I won’t get into that here.  Moreover, I have offered up an alternative use for a smart phone or pad that will allow you to make dinner unhindered while eliminating the perils of the screen (ie: cover it up and let it talk).

Well, it’s time to be alarmist again. New research as presented by psychologist Sue Palmer supports previous warnings about “links between excessive screen-time and obesity, sleep disorders, aggression, poor social skills, depression and academic under-achievement.” Along with this, “a rise in prescriptions for Ritalin, a drug for attention deficit and hyperactivity – a four-fold increase in less than a decade.”

So much, so familiar (at least, I hope it’s familiar: enough so that parents would not put their child/toddler/oh-my-gosh infant to bed with a tablet). But here’s what I found interesting about this particular article.

Writes Palmer, “It’s not just what children get up to onscreen that affects their overall development. It’s what screens displace – all the activities they’re not doing in the real world.” In other words, if they’re swiping a screen they’re not interacting with others. They’re not looking around at the inscrutable people and things around them. They’re not experiencing (take a deep breath) boredom, that charmed state that has led, historically, to all the great artistic and scientific breakthroughs (and not a few of its greatest crimes). In other words, if your small children are captivated by and absorbed in the screen in front of them (we know how that works, don’t we, fellow addicts?), then they are missing out on all the perception, interaction and processing that makes a brain grow, and that prompts them to seek out new information and challenges in the world.

Perhaps most important of all, they’re missing out on that most essential element in child development: play. Writes Palmer, “Each time babies or toddlers make something happen on screen, they get the same sort of pleasure hit as they would from a cuddle or a splash in the bath. When they can get instant rewards by swiping a screen, why bother with play that demands physical, social and cognitive effort?”

I recently picked up a used copy of Neil Postman’s classic work of cultural critique, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I saw that it was published in 1985, long before civilian use of email, and looong before social media, search engines and streaming claimed victory over the 21st Century human cortex. Postman’s dire prognostications about the melding of public life and entertainment technology are becoming more relevant by the second. Not bad for a grumpy old cuss.

At the risk of sharing in the general grumpiness, I imagine that our children will be at least as resentful of our current compulsive phone-gazing behavior as previous generations were about growing up with the TV as the altar of the house. Let me just raise my hand right now.

Guilty!

I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

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How Do We Even Know Anything About Parenting?

Okay, so this piece from Longreads, My Bad Parenting Advice Addiction, is pretty funny (be advised of a single strategic use of profanity within). In the essay Emily Gould spends the first few months of her new motherhood desperately reading parenting books. She finds, as one would, that there are rough schools of thought around parenting practices that cancel out, if not fiercely oppose, others. Without pledging loyalty to one camp or another, then, it can be mighty hard to find a way forward that isn’t mined with confusion and contradictions. Gould explains her dilemma in this way: “There seemed to be only two options: to raise a patchouli-scented wild child, or to engineer a dead-souled automaton whose early ‘sleep training’ paved the way for a lifetime of blind obedience.”

Of course, it isn’t really like that. As someone who participated in a fair amount of attachment parenting (holding our babies or slinging them, breastfeeding, co-sleeping) I find this assessment of the movement, as embodied in print by the prolific Dr. Sears, to be unfair, if kind of hilarious: “Critics of this approach tend to assume that there is a natural progression from babies who can’t fall asleep unless they’re rocked and nursed and cuddled up next to their parents, to children who are going to scamper all over a restaurant, ignoring their parents’ weak-willed cries of ‘Rowan, please sit back down!’ Wrap carriers, food co-op membership, hollow-eyed mothers whose looks and dreams have drowned in an ocean of their own breast-milk—these are the things, rightly or wrongly, that most people associate with ‘attachment’ parenting.”

I can certainly understand Gould’s feeling of being overwhelmed and bullied by so much disparate parenting advice. She claims to have read 25 parenting books in a row, which strikes me as fairly reasonable (she does not mention looking at parenting blogs, forums, social media groups, or other online sources; this means either that she was careful to keep herself out of that endless swirl of potential madness or that she just didn’t want to talk about it).

What Gould highlights in her entertaining and often insightful piece is how difficult it is for a parent to find what works for them. There are no lack of authors, experts, companies, organizations and agencies who are ready and willing to dump advice on us (and in the process, generally make us feel as if we are failing and/or totally irresponsible if we don’t follow their path or buy their product). There is certainly nothing wrong with reading books and taking what we find to be useful. And no parent can be expected (heck, is even able) to go all in with one particular method or another.

Rather, what Emily Gould leaves smartly between the lines of her essay is that instead of turning to experts on how to raise our own children, we ultimately have to just get to know them, and figure it out, day by difficult day.

Much easier to read a bunch of books, right?

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Parenting Made Easy

Why, hello! I wanted to take the opportunity this week to share one of the most valuable resources out there for families in the Valley. The wonderful Community Services Consortium has put together a handbook of information on services for folks in Linn, Benton and Lincoln Counties, and it has been my secret weapon in working with local families.

I don’t know who did all the work to put this thing together, but I would like to thank her/him/them for making my job so much easier. The handbook covers resources like housing, financial assistance, medical and dental, parenting education, pre- and postnatal services, clothing and food boxes, childcare, and just about anything else you can think of.

So, print it out and staple it, keep it on your phone, share it with friends. It’s too good to keep secret.

Now what are you waiting for? Go out there and keep on parenting!

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Wait, What Happened?

Well, it happened. Our youngest daughter, who was supposed to always be (as far as I remember from description in the catalog) the baby, turned six. This means that all four of them have crossed the border, out of the land of infant and toddler care, with its diapers and nursing and teething and burping and spitting up and constant vigilance and all those snaps, and into something else.

What is it? What’s the name of this country?

In some ways, it seems like this is easier. We are up fewer times in the night, for one thing. And it is nice that they can dress themselves. The oldest one (eleven) can babysit the rest. And fry an egg. And bake a cake! It’s a miraculous thing.

And yet.

Now the stakes are higher, somehow. The things they need are more complex, less material. Things like privacy, validation, and just enough guidance but not, if we know what’s good for us, too much.

And there’s the purpose thing. As a parent with young children, you will understand the beautiful and terrible burden of all that responsibility, of knowing that a tiny creature, one that can’t run away or make an emergency phone call, depends on you entirely. Once we take on that burden, it can be hard to put it down. Because when we do so, we have to start thinking about things like what is the purpose of my life now? and how will I start a conversation with someone without a child on my lap?

And somehow, this shift has brought with it all the existential questions, about mortality and age and how will I ever be a grandparent, and what if I’m not? Granted, we started a bit late with parenting, statistically speaking (I’m 43 now). And logically, I know that having another baby to raise would not actually make me younger again. Plus, it would be even harder to bend over.

What about a puppy?

Anyway, happy birthday, Molly! You are, like all the rest, so big now.

 

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Kitchen Think

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I had one of those moments the other day. I had asked my eleven year-old to help prepare lunch, something involving the stove and the broiler, and was giving her instructions when I realized that I didn’t need to be telling her what to do. Not only was she perfectly capable of measuring the ingredients, watching the time, and reasonably avoid burning herself, she was already carrying out the instructions. My continuing to “help,” in fact, was only going to get in the way.

I stopped short. I felt pride, and a little bit of shock, and found myself pulling back from the moment–to what a journalist would call a higher elevation–and saw that the little girl I had been raising and guiding was now at least as competent a cook as I am. And I didn’t learn any of this until I was in my thirties.

While I was up there, above the kitchen at around 10,000 feet, I started thinking about how my role as a parent had been shifting and reconfiguring itself all along. Those tasks, those bits of information and those thought processes which used to require close supervision and physical proximity were now hers to explore, to push against and expand to the limits of her new older self. My gosh, I thought, she’s approaching adulthood before my eyes.

As I have come through my own journey as a parent raising four daughters, I have been through a similar process. With each new stage and new situation I come up against my limits and have to start again, a beginner on a new level. Some parents I know talk about having favorite ages, or conversely, struggling in particular ways with the developmental challenges of three, or seven, or twelve. I can’t say that I have a favorite age (or one that throws me for a loop). I like babies. I like toddlers. And so far, so good in the interim between that and teenagerdom.

I do look forward to being able to share more of my life and my self with my children as they become old enough to process it. To someday have adult conversations about how we got there, and what we took with us or left behind. Standing in the kitchen with my large-hearted, sensitive, stolid, quietly competent eldest daughter, I realized that teaching her to make a tuna melt was no longer enough. So what’s next? Will she tell me? Or do I need to spend some time here, at the edge of myself?

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All the Answers

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One thing that all parents share is that, no matter what we’re doing, there will be people who think what we’re doing is wrong. If we’re lucky, those people won’t bother to tell us about it. If they do, and we’re still lucky, those people won’t be members of our family. If they are, then we’re probably out of luck, but we hope to have the fortitude to ignore them. Or at least to take it in stride.

I sometimes go online to research the trending topics in parenting. This research consists of typing “parenting topics” into the search engine and hitting the return button. There are the inevitable lists of “hottest parenting controversies” and “parenting topics that draw the most heat” (actual headlines that I won’t bother to link to). I can place these topics into one of a few categories.

One category involves practices that simply go against the research about what is effective. An example, about which I’ve posted before, is the question “Should I spank my children?” If you’re asking, my answer will be “Not if you can do something else.” And there are a lot of other things to do, many of which can be found in this blog and elsewhere on the Parenting Success Network. I would encourage you to check it out.

Another category involves practices about which it is easy to find research, and strong expert opinions, that go either way. Examples of this are “Should I breastfeed after the age of two?” and “Should I cosleep with my children?” and “Should I find out the sex of my baby beforehand?” These are things which as parents we just kind of have to figure out for ourselves. We have done all three of these in our family: two of our kids continued to nurse into toddlerhood and two did not. Circumstances were different for each. Cosleeping worked for us, but we had to get used to not having a bed to ourselves. And we happened to learn the gender of each but it wasn’t something we sought out; it was just right there in the ultrasound. So, I can’t really tell you one is better than the other.

My favorite category includes controversies that I really couldn’t care about one way or the other. “Should big kids ride in strollers?” Really? Do they want to? Will they break it if they do? Do you want to push them around all day? Personally, I always preferred to keep the stroller empty to leave more room for groceries.

As a parent I am full of opinions. And as a “parenting expert,” a position in which I am actually paid money (I know, it’s wild), I find little need or opportunity to share them. I have never told a family I work with whether or not they should nurse or cosleep or carry a baby in a sling instead of a car carrier, even though they were adamant choices in my family and we would not have done it any other way. The fact is, parents have been raising children for many thousands of years (millions, if they’re not mammals) and those children have tended to mostly survive to have their own.

Is it fun to argue about these things? Only you can answer that. That’s why there is social media. In the meantime, I advise you to just do what works, and avoid what doesn’t.

Not much of an answer, is it?

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Tending the Childhood Garden

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Most of us would appreciate having some rules for good parenting; some ironclad procedure to follow in order to give our children the best of what we have. New research in the burgeoning field of neuroscience is taking what we know about the brain, how it works and how it grows, and giving us some clues. But because it’s the brain we’re talking about, there are no simple answers. What has been emerging is some support for certain approaches over others. And often this research brings us back to older ways of thinking about children and what they need to grow, thrive and succeed.

Alison Gopnik, in her new book The Carpenter and the Gardener: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (say that three times fast) offers this very thing. Her central metaphor contrasts the model of the carpenter–the parent who attempts to construct their child through micromanaging and fine-tuning–with that of the gardener, who allows space and nourishment for a child to grow in the way it naturally wants to. Guess which one is more effective?

I have written about the metaphor of nurturing as cultivating the things we want to grow. We give our positive attention to the traits we want to encourage rather than focusing on the negative traits we would like to see less of. This is both a good and useful thing. However, there is more to it than that, and also less.

As Gopnik tells us, it is easier to allow children to do what they do best–learn–than try to will them into the shapes we want to see.  It sounds great, and quite a relief besides, to just move out of the way and let children grow. But that’s when we see that some approaches work better than others.

I encourage you to read the linked article, which provides a great summary of Gopnik’s research. And, of course, to read the book (I have it on hold at the library). Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Let children under 6 just…play. Academic preparation is just not effective for small children. It’s not a matter of getting them ready earlier, because that’s just not where they’re at. They learn through play. So give them ample opportunity to do so.
  • School age children are ready to learn. So give them things to learn: cooking, building, cleaning, making. Show them, watch them, offer ways to improve the skill.
  • Teenagers benefit from practical skills. Less homework, more real-world experiences. Teens used to enter the adult world through apprenticeships, and we can offer them internships, community service projects, and guided projects such as putting together a newspaper or, heck, starting a garden.

In each of these stages, children learn by doing. Our job as parents is to let them do, in a safe and nurturing environment. Sounds simple, right? Simple work is often the hardest. But really, the hard part for modern parents is just letting it happen.

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A Few Words on Empathy

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If nurturing means watering the plants you want to grow, what is at the root of those plants?

Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s empathy.

In our Nurturing Parenting programs, empathy is the cornerstone, the trigger, the fuel, the baking mix. See? I could have used a lot of different metaphors. But the root sounds good so we’ll go with it.

What is empathy?

It sounds like “sympathy,” but should not be confused with it. Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is the act of feeling what that someone is feeling.

It’s walking in their shoes.

Even if we can’t understand another person’s exact experience (and we probably can’t, most of the time), we can understand the feeling they have. Maybe we have been through something, good, bad or more complicated, that put us in the same state. And the ability to go there with someone else is empathy.

Empathy is learned.

Some things are determined by our genetics and our family history. Things like whether you will cheer for the Beavers or the Ducks. Empathy is a skill that must be learned. It gets stronger with practice, and more powerful with intention.

Which is not to say that we start out with nothing to work with. When a baby sees and hears another baby crying, they will begin to cry too. Is this empathy?

In any case, it can certainly be unlearned. And that’s where Nature passes the ball to Nurture.

So how do we learn it? And how do we teach it?

Like a lot of learned behaviors and skills, we pick it up from the people around us. Or, and this is important, not. As children, we need to see it modeled by other people, particularly adults.

As adults, we can give kids opportunities to act with empathy. We can discuss with them what another person must be feeling. This person can be real or fictional (how does Sleeping Beauty feel when she pricks herself on the spindle? How does Maleficent feel when she is excluded from the birth celebration?).

More importantly, we can approach them empathetically. We do this by helping them to identify their feelings (“Your words sound angry.” “You must be very disappointed.” “That’s scary.”) and to–and I like how the Nurturing Parenting curriculum puts it–to honor those feelings.

When children know that what they are feeling is acceptable, and normal (even if they don’t know why), it helps them to respond empathetically to others.

Telling this to ourselves doesn’t hurt, either.

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Rest Time, Anyone?

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A couple of weeks ago I told you about a typical day in home school. I stopped at what is, to me, the most amazing part of the day: what we call rest time.

Rest time is a magical thing. It serves as a sort of hinge upon which the whole day turns. And I don’t know how or why it works so well. But I’d like to tell you about it.

Rest time, as I understand it, grew out of the days (actually the several years) during which we had one or more children young enough to need a nap in the middle of the day. As you probably know, it’s kind of important for the kids that are not sleeping to be, you know, quiet, and not jumping on their younger siblings’ beds or undertaking construction projects right outside their door. So, that’s a challenge.

The solution was to set up a routine for the others in which they had the opportunity to engage in a quiet, peaceful activity for the duration of naptime. As the little ones grew older and the need for naps subsided, we continued the practice of rest time for the whole family. Here’s how it works:

Like any routine for children—or anyone, for that matter—the transitions are the tricky part. It’s hard to move from one place or activity to the next, and this is precisely where many behavioral issues, tantrums, and resistance to adult expectations come about. So there are built-in rituals for moving into and out of rest time.

  • To set the stage, the kids know there are certain things they have to do when lunch is over: wash hands and face, make their beds, and tidy the area. Those that need help with these things may receive it, but at this point even the four and six year-old are able to undertake these tasks with minimal interference.
  • Once everyone is ready, rest time can begin. In our house the two youngest and two oldest share a bedroom, so there are two separate activities going on at once. Many parents find it easier to give everyone a separate space, or to keep them together; in our case, this is what works best.

The idea of rest time is spend an interval in some form of tranquil concentration, without a lot of movement and without noise or talking. We listen to a lot of audiobooks in our family, and rest time is a good opportunity for them to catch up on their stories. Right now the younger pair is listening to The Secret Garden, an old favorite, while the two oldest are deep in the latest book in the Redwall series. While they listen they remain in their room, and may have paper and drawing supplies, or books to look at, or puzzles to assemble. On other days, this would be a good time for them to watch something: a movie on Fridays, or a couple of episodes of Sesame Street or (for the eldest girls) a documentary series like Edwardian Farm (their choice, I swear).

  • If you are wanting to establish a routine like this, you might try starting out with smaller chunks of time—15 to 30 minutes, especially if you have toddlers or preschool aged kids. At this point, our grizzled veterans engage successfully in rest time for an hour to 90 minutes a day.
  • It’s just as important to have a way out of this activity and into the next, so in our house the end of rest time means afternoon tea (or snack, as the Americans call it). After that there is usually an outing of some sort, or it’s time to play outside. The upshot is that now it’s time for some movement and activity.

How does this work so well for us? Frankly, I’m baffled every time. Like any routine, consistency is the key. And of course, for a homeschooling family this is more or less a daily practice; you might want to try it on the weekends and experience the magic for yourself.

By the way, while the kids are in rest time, this is a great time for the adults to catch up on housework, pay the bills, or paint the porch, right?

Not so fast, pal. You should be resting.

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