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!

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.

 

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?

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?

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.

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.

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.

Knock Knock

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I don’t laugh enough. I’ve been told that I’m funny, and also that I’m a sad person. I think that both of these are probably true to an extent. It’s accepted as generally true that people who are funny are also sad. I can’t speak for anyone else in this, but many comedians will tell you that humor is a cover for something else. In fact, actor and comedian Kevin Pollak has made a documentary about it.

You know who makes me laugh, though? Genuinely, unguardedly, seemingly without trying? My kids. They get to me every time. And the only thing that is better than my children making me laugh (with them, not at them, as Robin Williams would say) is the first time that they laughed.

As a parent, do you remember when you were sure that your baby was really laughing, and that it wasn’t “just gas?” I don’t think I’ve ever felt so successful as a father. When our oldest was about six months old I would spend seemingly hours playing peek-a-boo, making faces, doing anything that would produce just one more baby guffaw.

Until recently, there has not been much research into this. But a recent study of baby laughter has some interesting things to say about how they develop a sense of humor, and how they learn, from parents and siblings and other people around them, what is funny and how to respond to it.

From the article:

“At around 6 months old, children often look to their parents for cues before interpreting an event as humorous. At around 9 -11 months, infants are able to recognize what makes their parents smile & laugh and then attempt to elicit these responses from caregivers.”

What is remarkable is how complex this behavior is, and how early it develops in children. They learn how people will respond differently depending on the situation. And this sense of humor will carry over into their adult lives: “The ability to interpret humorous situations and respond appropriately is one that may be related to relationship satisfaction among adults.”

My daughters can crack each other up like nobody’s business, especially when I have asked them to, say, put on their pajamas and brush their teeth. And I know that they will continue to find each other hilarious. I frequently hear my wife giggling helplessly as she is texting her sister. When she tells me what’s so funny, I might not get it. It’s like a secret language. And it seems to do them good.

The benefits of laughter are well documented. “Laughter is the best medicine,” after all. But a sense of humor is also linked to the way we see the world, the way we understand and think about things.

Families are the laboratory in which these skills take shape. The stories we share about ourselves and about them when they were “little,” and the jokes we tell around the dinner table, are actually helping their brains to develop.

My four year-old:

“Knock knock.”

(Who’s there?)

“Chocolate cupcake.”

(Chocolate cupcake who?)

“Oh, I didn’t know you were a chocolate cupcake! Knock knock.”

(Who’s there?)

“Meatball.”

And so on.

I’m grateful that my kids can make me laugh. I needed that.

 

Thanks to Cyrel Gable at Parenting Success Network for suggesting this topic.

The Real Social Media

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Here’s what I hope my children don’t say about me when they’re older:

“But he was always on his phone.”

I am of an age. I went off to college with an electronic typewriter, and this is what I used exclusively for the next seven years. It had a little screen that showed one line of text, and when I hit “enter” it typed out the line. I started using email after I graduated from college. I did not become familiar with the internet until I was out of grad school, and working the swing shift at the front desk of a library. I became an adult, ostensibly, without the benefit of this technology.

I didn’t even have a cell phone, in fact, until I became a parent at 32. It was not a smart one; that came a couple of years later. Once I met my iPhone, though, it was love at first sight. There was no turning back.

My phone was extremely useful to me as a parent of small children. I could look up the lyrics of bedtime songs. I could read in bed while the toddlers drifted off beside me. I could fire up Netflix when the baby woke in the night, and watch Battlestar Galactica while rocking her back to sleep. Before my phone had a built-in flashlight, I used an app.

The trouble started later. It was all too easy to be staring at my little screen instead of looking my children in the face. Somehow, I was always terribly busy finding out about something. Now Facebook was a thing. It is a lot for a child to compete with.

I would like to say that I put my phone away now when I need to be present as a parent. I’m not there yet. For a variety of reasons I left Facebook sometime last year (for one thing, I realized that it’s not healthy to argue with strangers; for another, I just don’t need to have an opinion about everything). This has helped tremendously. But I still find it all too easy to pick up my phone and let it soak up my time and attention. I imagine that this is a common experience.

Is there a middle way? I wanted to learn about how parents could use their devices in a moderate and balanced way. I found a lot of useful information (on my phone, of course). Some articles are more alarming than others. But I have also been working on some principles of my own.

  • If I’m going to spend time reading in the presence of my children, let it be a book. Having books around, reading and holding them, showing that they have value, is a much clearer and more powerful way to model literacy for kids.
  • Writing is also an important thing to model, and I’m often making lists or jotting down notes. I try to do it on paper. Handwriting is in danger of becoming a lost art (heck, a lost skill). As with books, showing the work brings it into the physical world and children notice and will emulate it.
  • When I want to spend time on my phone, I can do it when they’re sleeping, or when they’re occupied elsewhere, or when I’m taking a break in another room.
  • Since my phone is obviously such a useful and fascinating machine, I can use it to share things with my kids. Look things up when they ask questions; show them photos of animals and planets and works of art; let them watch tutorials and documentaries and, yes, videos of cats. They love that.
  • Most importantly, I can put my phone down during times in which I value our being together. Meal times, for example. I would not want them to have devices at the table, and they will do what they see much more than what I say.

Face to face conversation: that’s the real social media.

A Shopping Story

This week’s post was contributed by Kelly Schell. I hope that you find it useful and we look forward to more posts from Kelly in the future.

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I remember my first solo trip to the grocery store several weeks after the birth of my second child. I took my two daughters, one a toddler, to do some grocery shopping. It was my first opportunity to do so since being discharged from the hospital. I was exhausted, and not at my best.

Upon arriving at the store, I looked for a cart and discovered that none of them had built in infant seats. I did not have the type of infant car seat that had a detachable carrier, so I had to juggle my 22 month-old daughter, her newborn sister and a cart. Faced with this situation, I decided the easiest thing to do was to let my 22 month-old walk with me while shopping. I awkwardly pushed the cart with one arm while holding my two week old infant with the other.

My other daughter, being a bright and independent toddler, soon realized my limitations. Taking advantage of this, she took off running through the store, ready to play a game of chase. I called out to her to stop, becoming increasingly frustrated when she kept going. I found that I had to abandon the shopping cart in order to pursue my wildly giggling toddler through the store. I became increasingly frustrated, angry and embarrassed as I unsuccessfully attempted to rein in my errant daughter. My feeling of embarrassment was intensified by the fact that the chase was witnessed by other customers, most of whom openly stared as we passed them. I was sure I was being judged and found lacking as a parent; after all, I couldn’t even control my small child. When I eventually caught up to my daughter, I felt irritated and angry that she had done this to me. I retrieved her, ensuring that she knew how unhappy I was with her, and quickly left the store to go home.

I have used this more than once as an example to underscore how we perceive what other people are thinking often influences us, especially in our parenting. Most of us, especially in stressful situations, have a negative inner dialogue that happens regularly that we may not even be aware of. For example, when I am shopping and my two year old tantrums loudly in the middle of store, I might think things like: “I’m a bad mother,” or “My child is acting awful”. Looks and occasional comments made by well-meaning bystanders often serve to reinforce our negative perception of our parenting. We tend to assume that people are judging us, even if they really aren’t. All of these factors can make it difficult to remain calm and focus on dealing effectively with our children.

There are several tactics you can use to help you remain calm and focused in these situations.

  • Be aware of your negative self-talk and change it to positive self-talk. This is not easy and takes practice. Instead of “I’m a bad mother” you could change it to, “I’m a good mother doing the best I can.” Instead of “My child is acting awful” you could say, “My child is acting like a normal two year old.”
  • Remember that you know your child better than anyone, and ignore unsolicited opinions. People may judge you, and you have no control over that, but you can decide how it will affect you. This is also difficult and will require practice.
  • Avoid or minimize the potential for public outings to become overly stressful. One way to do this is to plan ahead as much as possible and to set expectations for your children. When children know what to expect, things tend to go much smoother for them and for you. Be flexible; you may have to change your plan, no matter how well thought out it is.

I can look back on my experience and laugh now, but if I’d had more tools at the time, it would have been a better experience for both of us.

 

Kelly Schell is the Family Navigator at Family Tree Relief Nursery.