Some Class

 

What’s that old joke that isn’t as funny as we think it is? About how kids don’t come with a manual? (Also, why are there always a couple of extra grommets? Was it just me?)

A corollary to that joke is a serious question: if there were classes on how to be a parent, would you take them?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re already a parent and you don’t need no outside learnin’. Life is the best teacher. Your child is the best teacher. You are the expert on your kids.

All of those things are true. And that’s exactly why you should consider taking a class.

In a plug of epic shamelessness, I would like to recommend the Nurturing Parenting classes offered at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Starting this week, they are offering three separate classes.

On Wednesday:

  • is the general Nurturing Parenting class. It is for moms, dads, grandparents, and caretakers of all stripes (even with stripes!).

Thursdays feature two classes:

  • Nurturing Fathers, for dads and male caretakers only and co-facilitated by yours truly, and the
  • Nurturing Parenting class for parents in Substance Abuse Treatment and Recovery.

All three classes are FREE, and offer childcare, dinner and bus and transportation assistance.

All three classes focus on doing the work on ourselves that help us to help our kids–nurturing ourselves and each other so that we can nurture them.

To enroll in a class, simply call Family Tree at 541-967-6580.

Hope to see you there!

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Volunteers

As much as I write about ways to guide and structure the lives of our kids (as much as that is advisable or possible), I am always surprised by the ways in which our kids can influence the course of our own lives.

On the most basic level, the fact of becoming a parent will (ideally, I believe) stop your life in its tracks as it takes on new passengers. No doubt (also, ideally), you have done your best to prepare yourself for what is to come.

But as you might remember, no amount of preparation really made you ready. Right? No reading, no financial reinforcement (getting a job, say), no supplies, no advice (especially no advice) is sufficient for the journey. Learn all you want about an expedition to Mars, you haven’t done it ’til you’ve done it. And even then, having one kid (or two, or five) is no indication of what the next one will bring.

As the years go by, the compass continues to spin. Kids’ needs change and the ground keeps shifting. Keeping up with the routines, figuring out what they need at each stage, can be exhausting.

What can a parent do?

Sometimes, the only thing to do is let go.

It took me a while to realize that when my oldest daughter kept asking to volunteer–at my work, at church events, in response to other family’s request for help–it wasn’t a whim, but a trait.  And since she’s 12 and can’t drive, she needs someone to go with her. And that is me.

Eventually I saw the pattern. Volunteering makes her happy. As someone who can barely cross the room without the expectation of a reward, I only came around to this gradually. It took me even longer to realize that volunteering is good for me as well. In fact, I’d say it’s still in process. My daughter’s easy selflessness reminds me of how self-absorbed I am.

And that I can change. Still! Who knew?

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How to Fix Absolutely Anything

Q: Is this another one of those posts that promises easy answers but turns out to be much more complicated?

A: No!

Q: Really? You’re not selling some kind of nutritional supplement or protein powder or something?

A: No! This is real.

Q: Okay, go. But keep in mind that I’m going to make up my mind within the first 50 words.

A: We’re at 65 and you’re still here, so.

Q: (Sigh) Fine, go ahead.

A: Thank you. So, I was going through notes for a presentation I’m giving on managing behavior. And while there are no easy fixes, there is a short sequence of things you can do in response to almost any behavior. Do you want to know more?

Q: Are you sure you want to keep going with this Q and A format?

A: I think it’s kind of peppy.

Q: Are you going to get to the point? Or start talking about comic books again?

A: You’re right, let’s just drop the Qs and As.

Q: Fine.

A: Fine.

Q: Okay then.

A: Sheesh. Maybe I’ll go with bullet points.

Q: That’s a better idea.

A: Goodbye!

  • First thing to do is make sure that everyone is safe. Does a child need to move away from other people? Does the child need your help to move? Be sure to let them know. “I’m going to help you move your body.”

 

  • Now, you can get down to the nitty gritty. A child is upset, and now that they’ve had time to calm and are ready to communicate with words, you can support the child’s feelings. Make your best guess about what they’re feeling and name it: “You’re crying. You’re sad about that.” Don’t worry, if you’re wrong they’ll tell you, and either way you’ve moved the ball forward. Also, keep in mind that you’re validating the feeling, not the behavior. But right now is about the feelings.

 

  • The child is feeling safe and supported. The parent is listening. Now you can move on to correct the behavior. Set a limit: “It’s not okay to throw toys at your brother.” Then, present a consequence: “If you choose to throw toys again, they will be put away.” You might need to remind the child about this, especially if they’re younger or their needs are just generally higher. Hold to that limit, though. I you need to follow through, remind the child that the behavior is now a choice. “You chose to be done with your toys. You can play with them again tomorrow.”

 

Q: Wait! What if you’re back to square one now, square one being crying, hitting, or tantrum?

A: Then, that’s where we are: back to keeping everyone safe. Validate the feelings, hold the limits. The child is loved and listened to but may not get that particular thing they want.

 

  • These things work in the moment, but we can avoid repeating this sequence later by making expectations clear beforehand. Remind the children of the rules for playing safely before they play. There are other ways to change the situation before things even happen: will the child be tired or hungry? Overstimulated and needing a change of pace? Some fresh air? As the adult, you are in charge of the environment, and planning for possibilities can make it easier for everyone.

 

Q: That was actually useful. Took a while to get there, though.

A: I’d like to point out that long line of Qs.

 

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Urgent Issues of Our Time, Part II

So, as I was saying. The X-Men were always my jam. They appealed to me because, unlike other superheroes with their fantasies of power that came about usually through accidents (gamma rays, cosmic rays, radioactive bug bites), the X-Men (and -Women, and -Girls and -Boys) were who they were. In the comics, a mutation usually became active with the onset of puberty, which is just about the perfect way of talking about what happens to the adolescent body and brain. Think of Rogue, for whom intimate contact could have deadly consequences for the other person. Or Shadowcat, who in her social awkwardness could become a literal wallflower, fading into the wall and out the other side. Or Cyclops, who had to keep his vision (feelings?) covered up or risk causing limitless damage. Like millions of readers, I identified with these young adults who hadn’t asked for their powers, struggled to understand and control them, and in some cases would give anything to get rid of them.

What happens in adolescence that leads to such perilous places? We have long understood the changes that our bodies go through during puberty, with those new combinations of chemicals; those strange and powerful feelings; that hair.  It would be easy to think that you were going through this by yourself, and were suddenly separate from the human race. A mutant!

Recent work in neuroscience has been trying to understand the changes that take place in the teenage brain. NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston, in her extensive reporting on terrorism, wanted to understand the appeal of extremist groups like ISIS to adolescents. What would make a seemingly “normal” kid from a typical suburban background want to leave everything they knew and enter a life of secrecy and violence? Her excellent piece on reformed ISIS recruit Abdullahi Yusuf (seriously, it’s really good) shows how these questions must lead inevitably into teenage brain development. The teenage feeling of invulnerability, the aggrieved sensitivity to injustice, the penchant for risk-taking, the lack of consideration for consequences, can take an adolescent into any number of far-flung places. What’s missing during this time is that still, quiet voice that (tends to) guide us as adults. In the piece, Temple-Raston identifies it as the “part of the brain that neuroscientists liken to an internal compass, called the insula, can be built up during adolescence through critical thinking and self-reflective practices.”

This kind of strengthening practice, provided in Yusuf’s case through a reading list and assigned poetry, is what the X-Men find under the guidance of Professor X at the School for Gifted Youngsters (having a responsible adult mentor is clearly important as well). With these opportunities for reflection and control, those scary changes can become powers.

Now if only the films could get it right.

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Urgent Issues of Our Time, Part I

I would like to talk about one of the most urgent issues of our time.

It affects young and old, male and female, 1% and 99.

It’s called Superhero-Movie Fatigue, or S-MF.

It’s a feeling that relates to getting exactly what you wanted when you were a child, as an adult, and just getting more all the time without stopping. For me, this relates absolutely to the Marvel movies. For years, attempts to bring my favorite comics to the screen ranged from “good enough, considering” (X-Men, the first two) to “as good as can be expected, really” (Spider-Man, again the first two) to “no” (Hulk, the first one; Fantastic Four, all). Since Iron Man somehow wandered into the proper pacing and tone, thus launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a sustainable concern, geeks like me finally won. We get movies made to our exacting and deeply embarrassing specifications. And they cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s right: the entire economies of nations rendered into grease poured onto the gears of a gigantic nostalgia machine.

Before we continue, I just want to say that now that I have seen the most recent Star Wars films, even knowing that Disney plans to make Star Wars films at the ridiculous pace of one per year for the foreseeable future, I will never get tired of Star Wars. There is no such thing as SW-MF. Not now that I have successfully passed my childhood obsession to my own children.

But we’re here to talk about super heroes. I like all those Avengers. None of them were really my favorites growing up, but it’s, they’re fine. And come on, no one read Guardians of the Galaxy. Don’t even lie.

Now that they’ve figured it out (Disney, I mean, which has figured out, and owns, everything I ever liked as a kid), there’s just nothing to look forward to. Going to see a Marvel movie in the theatre is now pretty much exactly like buying a Marvel comic at 7-11. And much more expensive.

What does all this have to do with parenting?

I meant to get to it, but I ran out of space. To be continued. Hint: it has something to do with the X-Men. And the teenage brain.

Excelsior!

 

 

 

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Friending

Being a parent can be…absorbing. So much so, in fact, that it’s possible to lose track of the things that make up a non-parenting life. Case in point: today I am home with the kids while my wife left to spend the afternoon with her friend, who had managed to find someone to watch her own. Our kids were genuinely puzzled by what was happening. “Where did Mom go?”

“To hang out with her friend.”

“But…what are they doing?”

“I don’t know. Going to lunch. Going to a bookstore. Whatever they want to do, I guess.”

“But…why?”

Etc.

Clearly we don’t spend enough time with our friends. Outside of church or other family-related functions, it just doesn’t happen. For our first several years as parents, it was just hard to manage. One is busy, what with the children and all. It’s hard to spend time with other adults who aren’t also parents. Eventually, it got easier, but I guess it just hadn’t occurred to us until recently. And we’re both relatively (and happily) antisocial anyway. Evenings in this house are a flurry of knitting and book-reading.

And yet…friends! They’re kind of important, aren’t they? From a parenting standpoint, it’s good to model this kind of social interaction (as became clear when my daughters were baffled by the idea of adults hanging out together away from children).

But there’s more! Last night we had accepted a long-standing invitation for dinner at the home of some people we knew from church. It was fun. I forgot. Other people: fun! On the way home, the 12 year-old pointed out what a different sort of household this was, with an open invitation to whomever needed a place to go. People in and out all the time. Long dinner table, guest bedrooms. Stay as long as you like. Definitely different from our rather more insular household (plus, short dinner table, no spare anything).

But again, good to model the interactions. And good for kids to know about other kinds of family.

Sounds like a project! In the new year, I resolve to have some friends. Wish me luck.

 

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A Thousand Bedtimes

Happy Holidays! I wanted to revisit a post from three years ago in which I described an essential component of our bedtime routine. What surprised me about the post (other than the fact that three years have passed!) is how little has changed in our routine. I still recite the words below for the two youngest girls, with enough fidelity that they catch it immediately if I change a word. It is preceded by my “getting the bad dreams out” (usually through their fingers, though occasionally a potential nightmare is lodged in a toe or nostril); putting some good dreams in “just in case” (via kisses on the forehead) and a silly one in the ear. The words are followed by a round of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” For my ten year-old, for whom I first came up with it, I have to be sure to fit some variation of it in before I turn out the light.

Again, I encourage you to use any or all of this, or to come up with your own.

Sweet dreams!

***

If there is a secret to our parenting, it is bedtime.

There is a lot to say about the importance of calm, consistent bedtime routines, and it’s something I will return to in future posts. A lot of information out there, and I’ve found that most of it is along the same lines. There is a good primer on the Parents website, and another on babycentre, focusing on bedtime for toddlers. It’s British, and that’s okay.

Establishing these routines take time and experimentation. It takes a while to see what works, and as the needs of children change with age, and the seasons (and the light!), what worked in the past may not work now. What didn’t work before may work again later.

It is important in a routine to have signposts, things that signal to a child that it is time to get into the space of bedtime. I light candles in the bedroom (one for each of them because, you know, fairness) and, when they have put on their pajamas and brushed their teeth, they each choose a book to read aloud. When the reading is done, they blow out their candle and get into bed. I spend some time with each of them in turn, and I do this:

It’s a relaxation ritual that I have been using with my daughters every night for the last few months. I keep asking them if they are tired of it, if they want to try something different, but they insist on doing it exactly the same way each night. I think there’s something to be said for the comfort children find in repetition that we adults may not share or understand. Have your kids ever asked you to read the same book or tell the same story over and over?

This is how it goes, word for word. I don’t remember how I came up with it, exactly, but I have to give credit to an episode of Frasier in which a character is asked to put their angry thoughts in a balloon and watch it drift away. It’s a good recurring joke in the show, but I must have thought it might work for bedtime.

 

Now I want you to take everything that has bothered you throughout the day

(And only you know what those things are)

And I want you to put them inside a balloon.

It can be any kind of balloon you can imagine,

Any shape, any size, any color.

And when you’re ready, I want you to take that balloon outside

And let go of the string

And watch the balloon drift up, and up, and up,

Further and further into the sky,

Until it’s just a little dot

And then it’s gone

Leaving nothing but clear sky.

No more worries,

No more cares,

And you’re ready to rest.

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Boxed In

As my daughters run about the house dressed as denizens of the Star Wars galaxy (last mention I will make of Star Wars, I promise!), I am thinking about the run-up to the Holiday, which begins in earnest now that I am home for vacation. Granted, my lovely wife broke out the Christmas music I believe actually prior to Thanksgiving this year, which to me constitutes the crossing of a red line. But I was not bothered. In fact, I did not even complain when the melodies stuck themselves inside my head, and did not attempt to stop myself from humming them. What’s wrong with me? Dunno.

I was reminded at work today about the truism that, however impressive a gift may be to a child, it will never be as impressive as the box it came in. The parent in question told the story of having learned this at his child’s first birthday. For his second birthday, he got smart. Instead of spending money and brain power on toys, he invested in as many boxes as he could find. When his two year-old woke up that morning he discovered that the living room had been turned into a multilevel cardboard wonderland: box after box, laid end to end to form tunnels and bridges, platforms and overpasses.

Similarly, when I came home tonight I found the house transformed by Winter. While it rained and gusted outside, within all was white and crystalline: dozens upon dozens of cut-out paper snowflakes everywhere. Magical. And then the eight year-old, evidently done with snowflake engineering, moved on to drawing storm troopers as targets for her rubber band blaster (I lied about the Star Wars! Sorry). Then it got louder.

Still, the magic.

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The Force Awakens

(No spoilers below)

It’s past time to keep you updated on the ongoing saga of introducing my four daughters to pursuits from my childhood. I had felt some ambivalence about this, as is well documented. However, while some of my childhood obsessions–Tintin comics, Jonny Quest cartoons, prog rock–had met with, shall we say, spotty reception, my decision to show the Star Wars films (Ep. IV-VI, of course) set off a lil’ bit of a pop culture bomb in our house.

Observe: within three months of first viewing, the eight year-old was dressed as Princess Leia for Halloween. She is in possession of a lightsaber (which her sisters have protested Leia wouldn’t have, prompting a conversation about how she might have started training after Return of the Jedi: after all, she is Luke’s sister [spoiler! Just kidding. I hope]). She once sent me off to a day of work with the phrase “May the Force Be With You.” She’s got it bad. And the others are right there with her.

My wife, who, though she is of an age with me, was never exposed to the Star Wars phenomenon and is inoculated against geekiness in general, has been very patient with this (while making clear that any consequences of Star Wars-itis are on me alone). But what a benefit this has been, with its opportunities to talk about heroism, morality, the power of spiritual fortitude, the importance of speaking out against injustice. Plus, thanks to her Star Wars workbooks, my daughter’s enthusiasm for math has gone up considerably.

So, we’ve now got a Star Wars Christmas (without, mind you, the Star Wars Christmas Special) lined up. The Original Trilogy DVDs, a new upgraded Leia costume, a cloth Leia doll handmade by the 10 year-old, now that she’s finished her Hobbit collection. We’re cleared for lightspeed, right?

Then I went a parsec too far (unbeknownst to Han, a parsec is a measure of distance, not time). With the new movie The Last Jedi coming out soon, and my indignation over the prequels having finally settled enough to countenance the idea of a new trilogy, I decided to watch The Force Awakens. Which I had not yet seen. And with my children.

Was this a bad idea? Well, let me tell you about it. I had not screened it beforehand, which I heartily recommend for any film not made expressly for children (and frankly, many that are. Ask me sometime for my feelings about the Shrek franchise). And it is PG-13. I consulted the Parents’ Guide on Imdb, but this was not very helpful. And really, my six year-old might have gotten caught up in the mythology of the series as much as anyone–that’s her pretending to be a droid in the photo–but to her this is all just a mass of zooming and flashing and explosions. I should have approached it more carefully.

They…liked it. So did I, though I had some real problems with it that I won’t go into. We each emitted audible gasps and whoops at various points in the film (even me!).

However. For my eight year-old, who so loves the characters from the original trilogy, there is something that happens in the film–and I’m not going to give it away, as I can’t be the only one who hadn’t seen it yet–that is potentially upsetting.

Potentially very upsetting.

And it was. Very upsetting. As in bursting into tears at regular intervals.

So, I failed at parenting for all time.

I was afraid that everything had been ruined for my daughter, and that she would cast Star Wars aside as vehemently as she had Frozen (seriously, don’t even mention Frozen in her presence).

I gave it a few days, then we had a little talk. It was about the theory of multiple universes. In the particular universe portrayed in that film, the upsetting thing happened. In others, it didn’t. In others, Leia trained as a Jedi and carries a lightsaber. In still others, Lucas never made the prequels. That’s right. In those universes, Jar-Jar is fake news.

I think we’ll be able to watch those DVDs come Christmas.

 

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An Invitation

Psst. Hey. Ever thought of taking a parenting class?

Why would you do such a thing? For many who do, the answer is that someone has said you’ve gotta. That’s not necessarily a bad reason, as these things go, but I would like to make a case for just taking one anyway.

Here’s why:

  1. You’re always going to learn something. Even if you already supposedly know it all. Because your perspective is yours and though it may be working 60-87% of the time (I don’t know anyone who claims to be an A parent), it will benefit you to step out of your point of view and into another one. Any other one, really. Heck, even if you’ve already taken an parenting class it will be different this time because things change. Your kids have changed; they have different needs now and different things are coming up. Things might be challenging now that weren’t even on your radar last time.
  2. Other people will be there. Probably people with whom you aren’t friends on Facebook. They most likely haven’t had you over for dinner (at least not yet). These people have a variety of backgrounds and experiences to offer you, and they will almost certainly learn something from you too. Plus, one of them might know how to fix your dishwasher. But seriously (that was serious too). Networking and community-building are two of the most valuable things that can come out of a parenting class.
  3. They’re everywhere. Just look at this very website. Starting in January, there is a veritable cornucopia (an overflowing horn thing!) of classes, offered in Corvallis, Albany and Lebanon, Sweet Home, Philomath and Scio. You can barely drive on the street without passing one. Also, there are the Collaborative Problem Solving workshops, described by people I know as life-changing. And, ahem, the place where I work  offers a full rack o’ classes in the Nurturing Parenting program, something I write about a lot. And I teach Nurturing Fathers, which is the only thing going just for dads, as far as I know, anywhere around. Though I would love to have some competition. Finally, I can’t speak for everyone else, but ours are free, and will feed you and take care of your kids to boot.

I don’t even know what you’re waiting for. See you next year!

 

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