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.

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?

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?

 

Silence as Teacher

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The more I think about the great parenting moments that can come out of not saying something, the more I think that maybe we shouldn’t say anything at all. Could we just lay all our words aside and come up with a code using, I don’t know, flags or something?

That’s probably taking it to the extreme (though maybe not, really, because you may have seen how easily babies pick up sign language). But as I’ve written before, children learn just fine on their own; in fact, often it’s us–teachers and well-meaning parents–that get in the way of that. When we ask questions, we’re not comfortable with the silence that may follow. It might have to last a minute, or five. Or a day. I am constantly taken aback by what my daughters recall about events that took place long ago that to me seemed insignificant or routine but which for them unlocked something deep in their world.

Don’t we have moments like that ourselves? One of my earliest memories is of a night that my parents took me to some sort of dude ranch (this was in Colorado. Dude ranches happen) where there was dust, and music, and barbecue…I was so tired out at the end of the night. My mother took me out to the car and I looked out the window, through a fog of exhaustion, at the face of a snarling bobcat.

It took an instant or so. But even my child mind told me that this was not a real cat. It was the logo on an RV parked next to us. Something about that frozen snarl set all the memories around it into permanence.

We clearly don’t choose the experiences that stick with us. It follows that others can’t choose them, either. What matters is that we are given–we give–opportunities for them to happen.

Sometimes we need to use words. For safety: I’m sure you beat me to that one already. And because it’s important what we name things (and what we don’t). But as adults we will always speak louder with our actions. And the silence that we don’t fill will always have more to say.

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.

Family Tripping, Part Two

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Frank Smith, in his classic book on education, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, writes:

“We are learning all the time–about the world and about ourselves. We learn without knowing that we are learning and we learn without effort every moment of the day.”

I was reminded of this premise while we were on our family vacation last week. We had rented a cabin at Silver Falls (in October, because it is our unanimously favorite month and because it was not likely to be crowded; and fortunately, we don’t mind rain). My four daughters took advantage of this time away from school and the routines of ordinary life to learn, vigorously. Here are some of the things they learned.

The five year-old learned to climb up, and eventually down, the ladder to a top bunk. From this vantage point she proceeded to conduct experiments with gravity and velocity using her stuffed animals.

The nine year-old discovered a new species of slug that is exactly the length of a pine needle (she checked) and dubbed it a “pine needle slug.” I think it is more commonly known as a “baby slug.”

She also demonstrated to her sisters that course silt and fine silt could be found in different depths of the stream and they speculated on why this was so.

They all learned the properties of various foods and other substances as they burned in the campfire. They kept “accidentally” depositing them in the fire and took advantage of this opportunity to observe them.

The seven year-old sampled rosehips and found, via droppings, that several different animals had done the same.

Later she found the jawbones of a mouse and declared this to be the coolest thing ever.

Various field sketches were made of the leaves, ferns and rocks along the trail.

Also on the trail they discovered that the mud was actually a fabulous sort of clay, and they brought samples back to the campsite. They fired their sculptures on the grill.

The nice thing about homeschooling is that, depending on how you look at it, you are never really in school and are always in school, whatever you are doing and wherever you go.

And yes, as I had written earlier, vacations are rarely relaxing.

 

The Boat Shaped Bookshelf

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The nine year-old has been asking for a bookshelf for Christmas. When I came across one at work–a wooden shelf in the shape of an upturned boat, which knowing her was literally the most perfect bookshelf that had ever existed–and got permission to take it home, there was no way I was going to be able to save it until then. So I set it up against the dining table so that she would find it in the morning.

She has the best reaction to gifts she really likes. I remember her fifth birthday, on which her older sister, aged seven, had bought her a miniature plastic Schleich unicorn that was very fancy, with rainbows blazing in its mane. The birthday girl silently took it out of its wrapping and, after a pause, ran into her room to introduce it to its new friends. After five or so minutes, she ran back to her sister, hugged her silently but firmly, and ran back into her room, where she stayed for some time.

I tried not to have an expectation for the bookshelf, but her reaction did not disappoint. She stopped in front of it and gazed at it silently. Within 15 minutes, she and her sister had set it up between their beds, under the window, having miraculously rearranged their entire room to accommodate its placement.

I had hoped that she would share it, and had been prepared to dictate to her that she would do so. My big parenting moment was that, taking her cue, I had remained silent. She decided on her own to offer one of its three shelves to the older girl, and to preserve the third for decorations, to be mutually selected (they chose a seasonal theme, as you can see).

Having faith in the grace of which my children are capable (at least when they are not engaged in an endless war of attrition over who was looking at whom the wrong way), is an act I can stand to do more of. These are the children, after all, who routinely use their birthday money to buy each other gifts or take us all out for frozen yogurt. It made me wonder how often my expectation that they would not be up to this affects their behavior. For once, I left the door open and kept my expectations to myself.

Now I have no idea what to get her for Christmas. But she says she just wants to spend time with her family. And, you know, to read.

 

The Family Taste

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A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children. In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.” Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into Enlish. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.

The Right Time for Bedtime

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As I’ve written before, if there is one essential secret to our parenting, it is bedtime.

When the kids go to bed, and how long they sleep, is the foundation for the way everything else works in our family. And I say this knowing just how many things there are to keep track of as a parent: discipline, sibling relations, nutrition, rules, chores, dealing with behavior, keeping up with the changes as they get older. We decided to focus on bedtime.

And it wasn’t easy. In our house we have four kids divided into pairs, two to a bedroom. The two youngest and the two oldest each have their own bedtime and their own set of routines. It has taken years and a lot of experimentation (and thus, a fair share of failures) to hammer out something that works from one night to the next, and from one week to another. And it works, for now. Fingers crossed and nose to the wind.

It was nice, then, to come across some outside confirmation that what we had come up with was recommended by, like, science. This post on the Simplemost blog includes a chart put together (by an elementary school, no less) to show the optimal bedtimes for children, cross-referenced by age and when they get up in the morning (we can have a say in when they go to bed; they wake up when they wake up). Before we pause for a round of high-fives, let’s see how we did:

Here goes. Given that all four kids get up nearly every day at 6:30, our five year-old should be going to bed at 7:15. The seven year-old, at 7:30. I say my goodnights and walk out at 7:45. Not too bad.

Now for the older pair. Our nine year-old’s target bedtime is 8:15 and the 11 year-old’s is 8:45. We split the difference at 8:30 (typically, the younger of the two has more trouble getting to sleep, claiming that just laying there is “boring,” while the eldest is ready to pack it in whenever).

Why do we do it this way? Because we can. We willingly give up a lot of the socializing we could be doing at night because of the benefits that arise from a consistent (and according to many, a strangely early) bedtime. I suppose we’re lucky that a lot of our kids’ friends are also homeschooled, so they don’t know just how weird it is that they don’t stay up until 10 or later. Or for that matter, why they don’t stay up later on weekends.

Just how beneficial this consistent sleep is for them—and how harmful the lack of it can be—is a subject for another post. In that post I will also discuss what is found in their bedrooms at night and what is not (spoiler: no screens).

What is not found in the chart, and something we’re still working on as adults, is when we should go to bed ourselves. I should probably be there right now.