(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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Growth Mind-what?

All this research going on in neuroscience is pretty, ahem, mind-blowing.

Some of the latest studies on student achievement are focused around what is called a child’s “mindset:” their beliefs around how their mind works and whether it can grow and change. According to research by Dr. Carol Dweck, a person can have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And the mindset we have depends largely on what we were raised to believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Writer Sarah McKay explains, “Kids with a fixed mindset believe they’re ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, talented at something: painting, music or football, or not. They may believe the world is made of some gifted people, whom the rest admire from the sidelines. Conversely, kids with a growth mindset appreciate anyone can build themselves into anything they want to be. They recognise [sic] that people aren’t ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, that there are no talented geniuses; only hard-working people who have chosen to take their abilities to the next level.”

As you can see, clearly it is more useful for a child to work from a growth mindset, with the belief that practice and hard work will allow them to develop. What came to mind for me was the state of music in the mid-70s.* On the one hand, virtuoso rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and major-label powerhouses like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin gave fans the impression that there were two kinds of people: rock stars and everyone else. For fans, no amount of virtuosity, charisma or sheer woodshedding would bridge the gap between the audience and the demigods onstage. On the other hand, the punk explosion (and if I may, the much more interesting long tail of post-punk and new wave) exposed the radical principle that anyone could make music. The number of bands whose members admitted they couldn’t play their instruments when they joined bears this out. Not only did it underline the power of confidence combined with practice, it engendered a great deal of experimentation, as artists played “incorrectly” either through naivety or by design (or both). This resulted in a lot of great music.

*I’ve been reading a lot of books about music in the mid-70s. If I had been reading about the history of fisheries, then mindset studies would probably remind me of salmon.

Let us encourage a growth mindset in our children by taking it on ourselves. Start by setting aside the cliche of “I can’t draw” or “I can’t cook” or “I can’t sing.” Instead, just start doing it alongside your kids. What you’re doing may not work at first, but as far as they know, this is all just healthy and normal.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

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Giving in to Self-Care

Are you taking care of yourself?

This question, along with the equally earnest “So what do you do for fun,” never fails to elicit a guffaw of disbelief from parents when I ask it.

Of course we’re not taking care of ourselves. If we’re doing our job then we are putting the needs of the children before our own, every time. This is our lot, our destiny, and admit it, kind of a badge of honor, right? The more we have to suffer for our work the more points we get against other moms and dads. Also, and this is crucial, the more we can justify the poor decisions we make about our  self-care.  By the end of the day we might be incapable of anything other than another one more Chocodile, one more Marlboro, and one more level on Plants vs. Zombies. I was not compensated by the makers of any of those products. Just tellin’ it like it is.

The thing about that is, it’s a vicious circle that tightens right quick. If we don’t devote some energy to replenishing ourselves, we won’t have what we need to do the parenting in the first place. We can’t pour from an empty cup. And if we fly without fuel we crash, hard.

I work in a helping profession, so I count myself among the worst offenders on the self-care front. We even have workshops on the topic, and the very words “self care workshop” make me shudder. Those paper bags full of pipe cleaners and lavender scented erasers and a balloon “for funny.” I would rather do paperwork.

Why? How come it’s so hard for us to make the right decision?

There’s the guilt, for one. Taking time out for ourselves can feel like we’re snatching food directly out of kids’ mouths. Sorry for that image. Plus, you might not be able to relax and leave the work (and the control) to your spouse while you take a break.

More than that, though, there’s just the fact that being healthy is hard. Late-stage consumer capitalism got pretty good at putting the fast, easy empty thing, in whatever form that might take, at our fingertips. Self-care is slow. It is quiet. Unassuming. In other words, the direct opposite of what we’re immersed in all day.

Walking away and taking some deep breaths? That takes getting up and walking. Drinking a glass of water? Finding a faucet. Going to bed early instead of letting the next episode unspool on Netflix? You’d have to– well, close the cover the laptop. You could strain a muscle.

I’m being facetious (the kind way of putting it) because I’m largely addressing myself. It does take effort, and it doesn’t immediately shoot endorphins into your eyeball. Self-care is a hard sell.

A bath, on the other hand. That sounds alright.

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All the Feelings

On the one hand, I think we have way too much discourse in our culture about feelings. As in, the importance of going with your feelings, following your feelings, avoiding stepping on the feelings of others. How important are they, really? Should they be the organizing principle of our lives?

On the other hand, feelings happen. They come and go like the weather, and sometimes they take down trees and flood canyons. And whether they come from outside or from deep within (“I’m a person with deep feelings who feels things deeply*”), the fact is that we can’t avoid them and we can’t deny them. As my great-grandpa might have said, “You can ignore the rain all you want until your boots fill up**.”

This is especially tricky for men, as we are generally raised to minimize and control the spectrum of our feelings.

So if our feelings are really powerful and we can’t stop them, what is there to be done?

Well, according to Nurturing Fathers, there are a couple of things to do.

First is simply to recognize the feelings when they come, and to name them. This takes practice, and as we see from our children, emotional literacy is a learned trait. We need feelings to be modeled for us; we need to see examples, and connect them to a context (“____ makes me feel ____;” “When _____ happens, I feel _____”). The therapeutic classrooms at Family Tree are dedicated to this task.

What if you grew up without very many of these models, these examples? Most likely you are aware of what sadness, happiness, fear, etc. look like, because Netflix. You simply may not associate some of these feelings with yourself. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I don’t get angry?” Back away slowly from that person.

In this case, it’s good to do a little inventory. How easy or difficult is it for you to feel: Happy, Sad, Angry, Afraid, Excited, Jealous?

Then, and this is the other thing…how easy or difficult is it for you to express: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Excitement, Jealousy?

For many of us, there is a disconnect between feeling the feelings and expressing them. So, like, if they don’t come out (which is the definition of “express”), where do they go? Probably, we are stuffing them down. And/or piling food on top. The usual.

Do we have to express all of our feelings? The short answer is yes. Nice if it happens on our own terms, in a safe place, and not in a job interview. All of this takes practice. What constitutes a safe place for you? Who is a safe person? When is a safe time?

Here’s something that comes up in parenting. We see it in our kids, and sometimes in ourselves: should there be a gap between feeling the feeling and expressing it?

Ideally, yes.

How much?

I don’t know, one second? Let’s work on one second, shall we?

Every little bit helps.

 

* Evan Dando, Reality Bites (1994). 

**I actually made it up, but I have no evidence that he didn’t say it too.

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Wait, What Happened?

This photo is totally out of date.

Time for another one of those periodic parenting reality checks. This one’s not so focused on mortality, but as always it’s surprising. What happens is this: I realize that some time has passed, and that my children are all…different. Somehow. And I feel like I have been shirking my duties. How did I miss the changes?

Case in point: my twelve year-old is, first of all, twelve. Missed it. Secondly, she is ready to set off for a week of summer camp in Washington like it’s just what you do. And apparently it is! My ten year-old, who suddenly looks like a miniature woman, has decided not to go. “Too many people.” I get it. All she wants to do is listen to The Lord of the Rings for the I’m not even sure how manyth time because I missed it.

My eight year-old has learned to make bread from her mother. She is doing so as we speak. Most tragic of all is that I think she may be losing her childhood habit of running back and forth a short distance when she is thinking of something. No, no. Never mind. She just did it. Also, she will be a full-blown reader just as soon as she decides it is worth her while.

The most confounding transformation has taken place with the six year-old. There is a gangly, long-legged creature galloping about the house that bears an eerie resemblance to my youngest daughter. She can get herself in and out of the bath. She has picked up an entire package of new facial expressions, hand gestures and vocal intonations that belong to a much older and more world-weary person. It’s as if she downloaded the software.

This happens every once in a while: things aren’t changing, but suddenly they appeared to have already changed. For once, I’m not thinking about how little time I have left to live. Though now that I mention it, that’s a good point. Mostly I’m just glad that I am here to see it, even if I’m clearly not paying enough attention. And if they are able to do more things every day without asking for help. Or permission. Or for that matter, push notifications.

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Fathers, Real and Imagined

So I know Father’s Day was last weekend, but we can still talk about them, right?

Fathers. We all had ’em at some point. Some of us are one! I mentioned a while ago that I was about to start teaching a Nurturing Father’s class at Family Tree Relief Nursery.  Well, we’re a few weeks in now and I am happy to say that it exceeds my highest expectations. There are so few places for men–fathers, grandfathers, stepfathers, godfathers–to get together and talk about the experience of being male and having children your care. Every week I see light bulbs of recognition or the shock of the new. Both are valuable.

The currency of fatherhood is devalued in our society. Worse, this has happened even while the expectations for men to care for children and participate in household labor have increased. At least part of the problem is that it is easy–and largely tolerated, if not encouraged–for men to opt out of parenting altogether. There is a price, of course (in the form of child support payments). But the real cost is borne by children. When it comes to fathers and male caretakers, any degree of (safe) presence and involvement makes an outsize difference.

There are a lot of mistaken assumptions about fathers and fatherhood (and many of them are carried on by the men in question). Here is an excellent piece from the Washington Post last weekend called Five Myths About Fatherhood. Among the takeaways is this explication of the dilemma of men who, like many mothers, want to “have it all:”

“Men with children say they feel continued pressure to be the primary providers for their families (in opinion polls, about two-thirds of Americans say a married man should be able to support his family), and at the same time they want to meet modern fathering ideals (in polls, they are just as likely as mothers to say that parenting is ‘extremely important’ to their identity). Even when flexible schedules and other family-friendly work arrangements are available to men, there’s often a stigma associated with taking advantage of them.”

Workplaces in America obviously have a lot of catching up to do. But so do those very institutions–government and law–that have traditionally not exactly been seen as ignoring the needs of men. I, too, will be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy. But when it comes to the rights of fathers, misconceptions about men and children can skew things the other way. As a parent coach working with families seeking reunification, I sometimes have to explain to state agencies that a father engaging in wrestling and roughhousing with his kids is not necessarily “unsafe” (that’s what I’m there for), but a perfectly valid way for men to nurture their children.

Guys, I hope you had a good Father’s Day. Keep celebrating.

 

 

 

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With Teeth, and Without

I’ve been a little distracted lately. I was finally ambushed by twenty years of dental inaction when the crown on one of my front-and-center teeth snapped off. It was exactly as horrifying as it sounds. After scheduling an appointment and working out with my parents a plan to pay for the backlog of dental work that needed to be done all at once, I tried to become accustomed to making it through my work days with a gaping tunnel in my teeth. Turns out I am both too lazy to take care of these things in time and too vain to suffer the consequences with grace.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about my kids, none of which have ever had a cavity. Heck, I don’t even know if the older two even brush their teeth, and whenever I ask about it I learn that they have “lost” their toothbrush at some indeterminate point in the past. I’m sure it’s fine. Anyway, they have been surprisingly accepting of my temporary defacement; which is interesting, considering that when I periodically shave my beard there is crying in their ranks.

Also interesting is that my experience has paralleled that of my six year-old, who is just about to lose her first baby tooth. Right now, thanks to a temporary bridge that feels to me like a slightly modified version of those plastic fangs we used to wear on Halloween, my daughter and I are both contending with a disconcertingly flapping hinge in our gums that could come tumbling out at any moment.

If I have learned anything from this fiasco, other than not to eat anything crunchy ever again, it is to have rediscovered what it is like to be in a place my children know all too well: that changes are happening that are at the edge of our understanding and out of our control. Every time I attempt to chew something in the only intact corner of my mouth, I experience the helpless fear that a morsel will roll itself between my center teeth and pull my silly fake smile right out. That kind of helplessness is part and parcel of childhood, with its routine lack of answers and its sudden, jarring transformations.

To be adult is to live increasingly in a place where, ideally, the incidences of helplessness and uncertainty dwindle if not entirely disappear. It is humbling to be back in that position. I can only hope to handle it as well as my six year-old.

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A Pirate’s Life For Me

Another month, another birthday. Willa is turning eight today, and her obsession with all things piratical has only become stronger (bolstered, maybe, by her father’s daily encouragement). In fact, it could be said that her penchant for pirate lore is rivaled only by her love of kitties and her total disdain for the Royal British Navy. The rest of her family (crew?) has cast in their lots as well, and bought her a pirate cutlass, a pirate bandana, some pirate Playmobil, a genuine Jack Sparrow hat, and some grog mugs (grog being watered-down rum, of course, though her understanding of rum is something like lemonade that makes you dance).

What else does she know? She can turn to port, starboard, bow and stern. She knows what a foc’s’le is, and a bosun, and how to measure fathoms and leagues. She will never get scurvy. And someone (again, a male parent) may have told her about some of the many democratic aspects of pirate social organization and policy; as well as, of course, those pirate women. There were a few.

When my little pirate was two, her mother broke her ankle rather badly. During the period of convalescence it was very difficult to have the little one sleeping in her bed, because one cannot convince a two year-old to stay off a casted ankle. For the next several months, I slept in her toddler bed, with Willa nestled in the crook of my arm, her head on my chest, until she settled to sleep and could be (usually) lowered to the pillow. I watched most of Breaking Bad on my phone during that period, and read a lot of Kindle books. On one treacherous night I discovered Louis C.K. and tried, with reasonable success, to a.) keep quiet and b.) not shake her right off me in helpless mirth.

I wasn’t paying attention, I realize now (heck, I realized it then, just as I realize that I don’t pay my kids enough attention today). But shiver me timers, do I miss that little head on my chest.

She’s way too big now. Happy birthday, my love.

 

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The Worst Day (and Week) of the Year: The Switch to Daylight Savings Time

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther.

It’s coming…aargh! The worst day (and week) of the year: the switch to Daylight Savings Time.

This can be really hard on families with children and teens. Not to mention every other person.

Here are a few strategies that have helped me as an adult and a few ideas I’ve found online. Please share your own strategies.

Start now by moving bedtime a little bit earlier each night—if you have a lead time of five nights (Monday-Saturday) then 12 minutes earlier each night gets you to an hour.

Some people recommend simultaneously waking up earlier as well. I’d suggest NOT doing that or at least not doing that until closer to Sunday. My rationale is that it’s better to get as much sleep as you can in advance of the change. Many of us are already short on sleep. See waking up strategies below.

Practice healthy sleep habits:

Fresh air and exercise during the day

De-stressing/relaxing times during the day and/or evening

Dark room

Cool room

Shift meal schedule gradually as well (if possible) It isn’t just bedtime and morning that gets thrown out of whack by the time change. If you can’t move meals try to incorporate more snacks (healthy ones and maybe some high tryptophan foods for dinner and bedtime snacks). See this article from the National Sleep Foundation.

NO CAFFIENE!

One hour before you want to get to sleep: No screens. No full spectrum, LED or fluorescent lights. Use a yellow, amber or red bulb for reading (see the linked article on How Blue Light Affects Kids & Sleep). Red Christmas lights work well as nightlights. Googling “blue light blocking products” will get you to many sources of bulbs. Candlelight probably works as well, but please be careful!

Change your clock during the day on Saturday (if at all possible). I got this idea from crossing the Atlantic Ocean by ship. Going east, they changed the time at noon (since they had total control over the schedule, this was possible). I don’t know if part of it was psychological but it really helped. The change made dinner earlier so that also contributed.

Waking up. Just as light interferes with going to sleep, it helps us wake up. Gradually increasing the light in the morning will help you (and the kids) wake up. There are products “dawn simulators” that provide this (sorry to keep you Googling and spending money but it can be a good investment-some are less expensive than others so research options). Or you can do this manually for your children.

Make morning a pleasant time: snuggling, talking, reading with your child can make for a happier transition. Breakfast in bed anyone? Allow enough time for morning routines.

The real key to happy waking up is getting enough sleep the night before. Most of us don’t get enough sleep so this is a good time to focus on more sleep. Here are some more guidelines and resources.

See Sleepless in America by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. She also has a website with a free download of sleep suggestions.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

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The Power of Sharing

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther. 

I remember facilitating a group once when a parent tentatively brought up the subject of his son’s sensitive feet, “he refuses to wear socks—he says they have bumps that bother him.” To his surprise several parents—including me–spoke up. “Oh yes, my son turns his socks inside out.” “My daughter just wears sandals.” “Sock bumps, I’m very familiar with that phenomenon.”

Sharing about his experience benefited this parent and the other parents in the group. How? They all gained:

  • Perspective on what’s normal
  • Sources of support
  • Insight and options
  • Recognition of strengths

Perspective: Hearing from other parents changed this dad’s perspective. He realized he wasn’t facing a unique situation, nor was his son completely unusual. He wasn’t alone. His story also benefited the other parents—they knew their children weren’t completely unusual. Parents unfamiliar with the phenomenon learned that some children have sensitive feet.

We start our journey as parents with different levels of knowledge and experience with children. It’s worthwhile to hear from other parents (as well as from credible resources) about common behaviors. Parents with children in the same daycare or school can also clue us in to what our children’s social environment is like.

Whether we are conscious of it or not we are always asking: Who is my child? How is my child like others? How is my child different from others?

What if no one else had experienced sock bumps? Trained facilitators can provide perspective based on their knowledge about child development and individual temperament. And provide other resources for that parent and child. Whether the experience is common or unusual, hearing about it benefits all the parents.

No matter how knowledgeable we are about developmental stages, temperamental traits, typical behaviors, and parenting strategies, actually being a parent to our own child(ren) is different from reading, watching, and even caring for other people’s children. Because being a parent brings up our own issues. We need perspective on what it’s like to be a parent. How does it feel when my child refuses to wear socks? What does it mean about me as a parent? Am I somehow causing this behavior? How should I react?

Sources of Support: Many studies of workplaces and employees have found that interaction with fellow workers is an important factor in job satisfaction and performance. Parenting is a relationship, but it is also a job. Classes and groups provide support that is centered on the work of parenting. Does support solve the issues? Not necessarily.  But having someone to talk to (and complain to) who understands what you are going through is a tremendous help. And sharing information about everyday challenges helps create friendships among parents which benefit both them and their children. Many groups focus on specific challenges or ages: breastfeeding; postpartum health; toddlers; teenagers; special needs; and many others.

Insight and options: We often gain insight into a situation simply by talking about it out loud or explaining it to others. Questions from others can lead us to think more deeply about possible causes or contributing factors to a problem. Other parent’s experiences further our understanding and help us consider other approaches to the situation.

Facilitated parenting classes and support groups establish ground rules about sharing. These may include: confidentiality, respect, right to pass (not to share something), no judgement, and sharing from your own experience/background. Participants and facilitators DON’T tell others what to do.

Facilitators provide evidence-based strategies that have proven helpful to others and the rationale behind those strategies. Although most parenting curriculums have suggestions for how to handle specific problems, facilitators recognize that what works for one family and one child may not be right for another.

Sharing experiences and ideas respectfully allows other parents to consider and choose how they want to respond to a situation. Respect also helps give parents more confidence in their ability to deal with the challenges they face.

Hearing about the other parent’s experiences provided that father with ideas about how his situation might be handled: maybe turning the socks inside out would work for his child; perhaps together they could find socks that didn’t seem bumpy; maybe going without socks was normal and acceptable and therefore NOT a problem.

Recognition of strengths: Sharing about problems we have experienced and how we handled them also benefits us as parents. Amidst the endless work of parenting and daily life, we often don’t consider the challenges we have already faced and overcome—we are busy with dealing with the latest challenges! Taking time to reflect on our experiences—and sharing them out loud with other parents helps us recognize our abilities and strengths. Maybe it is simply realizing that we survived a difficult time and that it didn’t last forever. Maybe it was that we figured out a strategy that worked well. Reflecting on things that didn’t go well is helpful, too. Instead of berating ourselves for mistakes we can choose to learn from them. Our parenting abilities are like our muscles—they get stronger the more we work with them.

Parenting provides us with many, many opportunities for learning and growing. Parenting education and parenting support groups help us make the most of those opportunities.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

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