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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A Dinner Conversation

I’ll admit it. There are some weeks I just don’t know what to write about. I thought I’d quiz some of my coworkers (especially the ones that have promised to write a guest post and are still procrastinating) about a topic. There was a lot of interest in aspects of teenagerdom about which I’m simply not qualified. But I thought I’d go with it, and when I got home I tried something that has proved fruitful in the past: I talked to my kids.

At dinner, I asked my older ones (nine and eleven) what they were most looking forward to when they were teenagers. The nine year-old was pretty decisive. “Not a thing.” She went on to explain that she would prefer not to be any older than she is right now.

My eldest daughter equivocated. Finally I made a suggestion: “Learning to drive?” It was something we had been talking about recently. She was unsure. “It just seems so complicated.” This set my wife and I on stories about our misadventures experimenting with independence. Here’s one of mine.

When I was thirteen I was able to bicycle all the way to an area shopping mall, in which there was a diner we had frequented as a family. I was proud to finally have the chance to dine alone, sitting at the table with my book (something I still enjoy whenever I can manage it). I walked out when I was finished, only to realize several hours later that I had forgotten to pay for my meal.

I was mortified. Seized by guilt, I was not able to tell my parents what happened. I barely slept that night. As soon as I thought it might be open for the lunch shift I sped my way to the diner, cash in my pocket, and made my way, panting and dripping sweat, to the counter. I breathlessly explained what had happened and offered to make immediate recompense.

The boy behind the counter, by the looks of it not much older than I was, was not impressed by my story. He did not immediately have me arrested; nor did he seem to know what to do about it. He left me at the counter and returned with a waitress, who said that she had been working yesterday but didn’t remember any criminal activity. They declined to take my money.

At this point my five year-old interjected that she had no concerns about adulthood because she would immediately find a husband, have many children and collect farm animals. The seven year-old looked forward to having the opportunity to dress like a pirate and not have to wait in line, as she would just threaten to run people through.

Surely there’s nothing to worry about. Right?

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Parent as Accessory

As parents, we want to be able to talk to our children: to give advice, to impart discipline, to encourage and challenge and teach them. As they become teenagers we may find that this is no longer as easy as it once was. We may even find that they don’t seem to want it. Our teenagers may become surly, evasive, and strangely quiet (at least around us). They may even seem to avoid conversation altogether. But recent research supports the notion that they still need us as much as ever.

There are a lot of resources for how to continue to talk to kids as they get older. One I can recommend highly is the book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. But as valuable as it is to continue to make the effort–sometimes meeting them more than halfway–it is especially helpful to just be…hanging around.

A recent article in the New York Times is entitled, charmingly, “What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents.”  It suggests that there is value in being present for our teenaged children no matter what signals we may be getting from them. In the article, Lisa Damour writes:

“Many parents feel that their adolescents hardly need them anymore. Teenagers often come and go on their own schedules, sometimes rebuff our friendly questions about their days, and can give the impression that interacting with the family is an imposition that comes at the cost of connecting, digitally or otherwise, with friends.

So here’s a complaint one might not expect to hear from teenagers: They wish their parents were around more often.”

It has long been known that it is important to an adolescent’s well-being for parents to be home when they return from school, and to share meals together if at all possible (as long as you don’t ask, apparently, “How was school?“). But as Damour explains, when you are home together it can be enough to be a physical presence in the room. “In other words, it’s great if you and your adolescent get along well with each other, but even if you don’t, your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.” Teenagers find comfort and safety in this presence, and if we are consistently around it is that much more likely that they will come to us when they need to.

In this, as in many other aspects, the emotional makeup of a teen is much like a toddler. Writes Damour, “Ideally, children use their parents as a safe and dependable base from which to explore the world and exert their autonomy. Indeed, studies tell us that securely attached toddlers quietly track their parents’ movements from room to room, even while carrying on with their own activities.”

So, it’s great to be a counselor or a wise elder or even a shoulder to lean on. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to just be an accessory. Who knows? Maybe eventually they’ll get curious and start pushing buttons.

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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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The Food Post

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If there’s anything to get one in mind of food in families, it’s Thanksgiving. Don’t worry: I’m not going to offer advice about how to present leftovers in endless combinations (though I bet the internet has something to say about that). In fact, the only thing I have to say about our Thanksgiving is that we had four (4) pies. So clearly we won.

No, the reason this came up is that at dinner tonight (a completely non-leftover related affair) our five year-old was displeased by what was on offer and was invited to wait in her room until we were done and I could help her get ready for bed. I later learned that she had changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, made her bed, tidied the floor and made a drawing, so she was clearly not malnourished.

I won’t say that this is a common occurrence. It’s not. But nor is it unheard of. I can think of a time in the recent past when three out of four children opted out of a meal because of objections to a dish, an ingredient or a method of preparation. And that’s fine. As we say, “There will be food again at the next meal.” Reliably and regularly. And we will attempt to make that meal as balanced and healthy as possible (with the exception of ice cream for dinner, which I haven’t written about for a few weeks). So if a child refuses offered food, it’s really a drop in the bucket.

Growing up, my nemesis was onions. I would not eat them in any capacity, for any reason (though strangely I always liked onion rings AS LONG as the breading did not come off). My mom, who did most of the cooking, didn’t put a lot of thought into accommodating my prohibition but was pretty good about warning me. As a result, I learned to deal with it as much as I was able and only very rarely gave up on the meal. My dad would marvel at my ability to find every trace of onion in a slice of supreme pizza; I would leave a neat pile on one side for future use in landscaping projects.

The frequency with which we deal with refusals of food is related to the sheer number of new foods we introduce to them. We don’t expect kale or beef liver or spaghetti squash to “take” the first time. Or even the first five. It may not happen ever. But given the variety our kids have seen on their plates over the years, the number of times they felt they had to throw in their napkin and walk away has been statistically quite small.

So, food allergies and sensory issues aside, the reason a child may “only eat chicken nuggets and pizza” or whatever is that this is what keeps ending up on their plate. Might I suggest taking a gamble that they will eventually try something new–if not now, then at the next meal?

 

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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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Voting for Kids

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I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s an election coming up. No, really!

Even if our kids aren’t exposed to the back-and-forth of politics at home, whether from discussions between adults (they listen) or from TV news (they watch), they are taking in the political climate. It’s almost ubiquitous this year. My daughters are pointing out signs along the road for the various candidates, both local and national. If your kids are going to school, they may well be privy to instruction about the election in their classes, but they are certainly getting it from other kids, who are absorbing what they can from (again) discussions at home and from TV, radio and social media.

What is the best way for parents to approach this? According to a Time article, it depends on their age:

“[I]n elementary school classes, ‘kids parrot back everything’ parents say. So setting the right tone from a young age is important… Kids may also have deep emotional responses to political conversations, like hearing that a candidate will be bad for women, or get the country into a war. Parents can help by asking kids what they’ve heard about the election, and talking through their reactions.”

If they’re in middle school, we can help “by asking kids what they think, which lets kids know two key things: it’s important to think through political decisions, and it’s O.K. to come to your own conclusions.” Again, it’s important to let them lead with their own interests. In another article, politics professor Steve Snow says, “The thing about kids is, if you start talking about something they haven’t asked about—if they don’t open up the conversation themselves—it turns into a sort of lecture and they’ll tune you out.”

By high school kids are at the ideal age to become invested in the process. After all, they will ideally be informed enough to vote when they come of age: “‘knowing the candidates, how they’re different.’ Kids may form different opinions than parents around this age… or hold similar positions, but for different reasons. But for parents, the goal is to keep kids engaged, both with the political process, and in conversation.”

In Oregon, we have mail-in ballots, and I like to present mine as an exciting piece of mail (who doesn’t like mail?) and an opportunity to affect the world with my choices (without getting into the whole Electoral College thing. Not there yet). Talking about why I would choose one candidate over another should ideally reflect values that are already practiced in our family. Not that there isn’t room for polite but spirited debate. From the Time article:

“While a nonpartisan approach may seem ideal, recent studies show that growing up in a bipartisan household may have its benefits, as well. According to a study published earlier this year in The Journal of Politics, ‘Those whose parents are divided politically tend to become more, not less, engaged in politics…’ the fact that two sides of an issue are represented equally in the home, sparking discussion and greater awareness and understanding of the issues.”

The key thing for me takes us back to the point about “polite conversations.” We are living through the most contentious, volatile and sometimes downright nasty political campaign of our lifetime. And regardless of who or what we may be voting for, it shows our kids that America is a free and pluralistic society, with room for a full spectrum of views. I like to remind them–and myself–that these views go straight to what is important in peoples’ lives. Whatever the outcome, our democracy is something to be celebrated. And who doesn’t like to celebrate?

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The “No”s Have It

 

“My name is ‘no’ 

My sign is ‘no’

My number is ‘no’

You need to let it go”

::Meghan Trainor

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You may have noticed that “no” is a go-to word for children, and that they pick it up pretty early on. Once they start as toddlers, they will use it for all it’s worth. This makes sense, according to Judy Arnall in her book Discipline Without Distress. She writes:

“A toddler’s favorite word is ‘no.’ It is a strong, powerful, in-control word. It sounds decisive, meaningful, and packs a punch.”

A parent’s first impression—and this impression may last, if you’re not careful—is that the child is out to undermine your authority and defy you. You might feel a lack of respect. In fact, it’s rather the opposite (as we will get into below). It is important to remember that this is a natural and nearly universal behavior. Arnall goes on to say that when a toddler says “no”:

  • “They need to assert independence and they need to achieve a measure of control over their lives.
  • They need to begin separating when secure and cling when insecure.
  • They need to explore and discover.
  • They need to express their strong emotions.”

Essentially, “no” is standing in for a whole lot of words that the child doesn’t have yet. According to the author,

“When a toddler says ‘no!’ they mean:

  • I want to do it myself.
  • I don’t want you, but I want you. I am overwhelmed by conflicting feelings.
  • I don’t know what I’m feeling, but I’m feeling it right now!
  • I can’t share because I don’t understand the concept of ownership yet.
  • I want to have some control over what happens to me.”

It should be easy to guess where a child’s mastery of “no” comes from. Most likely they have felt its power coming from us, the parents. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of the excellent book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, explain:

“There will be many times as parents when we’ll have to thwart our children’s desires. Yet some children experience a blunt ‘No’ as a call to arms, a direct attack upon their autonomy. They mobilize all their energy to counterattack.”

Sounds suspiciously like the way we feel when we hear the word from our child’s mouth, doesn’t it? One way to manage their overreliance on the word “no,” then, is to try to lessen it in our own speech. Faber & Mazlish provide some alternatives to falling back on “No” as a way of managing behavior. They are listed below (examples in parentheses are mine):

  • Give information (instead of saying “No” when a child wants to keep playing at mealtime, say “We’re having dinner in five minutes”).
  • Accept feelings (“It’s hard to stop playing when you’re not ready”).
  • Describe the problem (“I’d like for you to keep playing. We have to be at your grandma’s house in an hour”).
  • When possible substitute a “Yes” for a “No” (“Yes, you can keep playing when we come back. I will give you special time for it”).
  • Give yourself time to think (“Let me think about that”).

“No” will always be a powerful word, and as parents we want to keep it that way. When there is an immediate safety concern, we will use it instinctually, and if we haven’t already said it a dozen times this afternoon it will be even more effective. Also, as the child gets older we want “No” to mean exactly what it says: that they want a behavior or situation to stop, right now.

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Just Playing

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In the novel The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins), the protagonist, an extremely dignified but emotionally repressed English butler, resolves to learn the art of bantering in order to better relate to his cheeky American employer. Observing a group of strangers who are soon talking and laughing together as friends, the butler writes, “It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly… Listening to them now, I can hear them exchange one bantering remark after another. It is, I would suppose, the way many people like to proceed…Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically.”

For similar reasons, when I am working with a family and meeting kids who are unfamiliar to me, the first thing I often do is invite them to play a card game (a favorite, which I learned at a residential treatment facility for children, is King’s Corners). I have found that it is the quickest and most efficient way to put a young stranger at ease. Perhaps more importantly, it allows me to talk to them in a comfortable, casual and gently joking way (in other words, to banter) that forms an instant sort of bond. It is then easier to draw the parents, who may be feeling the weight of their own expectations and anxieties, into this comfort zone as well.

I encourage parents to do this in their own families. Kids want to spend time with their parents, and playing card games, board games, charades, etc. (there are a variety of games appropriate for every age level) is a safe, pressure-free way to teach, converse, encourage, make jokes, and practice skills and simply, as I said, to be together. Which is always a valuable thing.

The benefits of playing games with our kids are many and varied. According to this article on the Scholastic website, games that are designed “only” for fun are also rich in educational opportunities:

They satisfy your child’s competitive urges and the desire to master new skills and concepts, such as:

  • number and shape recognition, grouping, and counting
  • letter recognition and reading
  • visual perception and color recognition
  • eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity

The aptly named Geek Dad identifies some of the higher level skills that occur while playing games, among them Taking Turns, Thinking Ahead, learning Actions and Consequences, and Making Tough Choices. All of these skills are essential to social-emotional development and will serve kids well as adults finding their way in the world.

One thing I learned early on is that kids know, always, when an adult is “letting them win.” I am of the opinion that this is not only unhelpful and deceptive, but can actually get in the way of practicing those other skills. I was pleased to find support for this elsewhere. Also, I like to win as much as the next guy. But somehow, it doesn’t always turn out that way. If nothing else, I can keep working on my bantering skills.

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Free, and Priceless

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

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The other night I stopped and looked at my children playing. My youngest was dancing with a lampshade on her head while my nine-year-old was singing into a remote control. Then, my 11 year-old popped out of the clothes hamper to surprise me. I laughed to myself thinking how ridiculous this might have looked to an outsider, while admiring my children for their imaginations.

I thought back to my childhood and played back some happy memories. I remember walking outside in the rain catching earthworms for fishing, playing in a cardboard house, climbing trees, painting the garage with my dad, and exploring the empty field by my house. I realize that all these memories had two things in common: 1. My parents were spending time with me; and 2. these activities were free.

As a parent of six I know that having children is costly. However, spending time with them isn’t. I have to admit that sometimes I get caught up with wanting to give my children expensive toys or take them on grandiose outings. The reality is I really cannot afford it and would regret it later on. As I evaluate my childhood I realize that the most memorable moments involved my parents spending quality time with me for free.

Right now, with Summer vacation coming up, I am challenging myself to schedule time for free activities. Also, I challenge myself to forget the guilt of being unable to afford Disneyland, to picture my childrens’ carefree play with a lampshade and a remote control, and remember that making memories costs nothing and is priceless.

I encourage parents to respond to this blog by posting some low cost Summer activities that your family has enjoyed.

Julie Whitus is a Family Navigator at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

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