Parenting Through the Fog: 8 of My Personal “Truths”

IMG_0505 No one can tell you what kind of parent to be. Instead, it’s a long performance, consisting of attempts, failures, mistakes, experiments, accidents, snips, scrapes and sniffles and — when you’re lucky — unexpected harmony and delirious puffs of joy.

So it’s with that humility in mind that I offer up some insights from the scads of parenting books I’ve perused over the past few years. Through the mist of what made sense to me (an arbitrary lens if ever there was one), I have managed to discern what I could now call a sketchy and ever-subject-to-revision Parenting Approach. Taking all this uncertainty into account, below are a few guideposts from the research I’ve managed to get under my belt that I use currently to light my way.

Some of them may surprise any loyal reader who knows I’m a sucker for fuzzy crafts, because they are not very fuzzy-wuzzy. I’m a strict-ish parent, actually, on matter of behavior. And I’ll be the first to admit that any or all of the below may not work for your family. Every child and parent is different. If one lesson is clear, it’s that paying close attention to our particular child trumps a set of written instructions, any day.

IMG_0503Nonetheless, and for whatever they may be worth to you, I find the following insights both helpful and difficult, often at the same time:

1) Permissive parenting is actually harmful. Several major studies are really almost unanimous on this point: Authoritarian parenting — or overly strict parenting — is actually less damaging than parenting that is overly permissive. Authoritarian (though not abusive) parents generally communicate a lesson to kids that they are cared for and safe, while permissive parents, despite perhaps their best intentions, can leave kids wondering if they are the ones in charge and why. But of course authoritarian parenting also does damage: it undermines self-esteem, and can create life-long scars. The goal is a middle ground: authoritative parenting, which communicates love while holding its ground and conveying firm and consistent expectations for behavior.

2) Emotional intelligence — including hard-to-define and achieve qualities like character, grit, and capacity for failure — will be more important to your child’s success than IQ. Put down the flashcards! What will more likely matter to your child is whether they have the social skills to succeed and the inner resources to keep trying. And parents of young children should not wait for a child to mature to work on these essential skills, because the neural networks in the brain that form the infrastructure for emotional reasoning basically take shape by six years old. Even if you’ve missed this window, though, programs providing coaching to troubled adolescents show that new habits like resilience and resourcefulness can be taught, albeit with a lot of work to catch up to their peers.

3) Attachment is only half the job. It is indisputably critical that parents create an emotional bond with their child, called attachment. This is formed by early and attentive responsiveness to the needs of a new infant. This foundation of trust and mutual love, however, is insufficient by itself as a child grows. The purpose of attachment — to make children feel sufficiently safe in the world — can be undermined if parents do not also encourage and foster responsibility, independence and sound judgment. Being endlessly attentive and nurturing to a needy three-year-old is a recipe for both exhausted parents and bratty kids.

Balancing attachment by making space to say a respectful version of “no” to children is critical. Indeed, helping them create a robust capacity for emotional self-regulation is essential. Emotional regulation is also important to cognitive development, because the more time that kids spend in an agitated state, the less time they have for calm receptivity to input from the world.

4) Too much praise can send the wrong signal and cut off the conversation. This is a hard one, given our need to recognize our child’s achievements as part of our own: empty words like “good job” come out of my mouth far more often than I would like. Substituting acknowledgment for appraisal is a subtle but important shift that can mostly fill in when kids ask us. For example, by saying, “I see you.” instead of “good work.” Or even just engaging in a real conversation by observing the facts: “You’ve used a lot of yellow here.” Praise is a conversation-stopper, after all, leaving nothing more to say, while facts leave room for more facts, and for the child to play observer as well. If you must praise, complimenting effort rather than result is a better thing to say: “You are working so hard on that!”

You can also subtly ask your child to internalize their own framework for self-appraisal by focusing on the child’s feelings rather than the parents: “Did that make you feel proud?” Asking questions and making comparisons to their own past can be another way to engage: “Was that scary?” “Did you climb that part faster than you did yesterday?”

IMG_05075) Our own emotional responses — even negative ones — can be put to use. We  generally do not do kids a favor when we overlook confrontational or obnoxious behavior and ask ourselves, as parents, to exhibit super-human restraint. Irritating behavior can sometimes be a good way to understand when a child needs more limits. So long as we are not clinically depressed, super-tired, sick, or otherwise overly prone to irritability, our own response to our child’s behavior can be a sound guide for imposing a set of (age-appropriate and individualized) expectations for that child.

I also believe this to be the case: As parents, we will spend a significant part of our lives in conversation with our child, and it helps with the sometimes-oppressive tedium of parenting if we enjoy more of this time, rather than less.

While we don’t need to lash out, certainly, and a calm response is preferable to an angry one, noticing our child’s behavior is a clue that something needs to change. A child who is constantly stirring the pot, behaving selfishly or taunting, who often lacks emotional and bodily self-control and can never take no for an answer, is a child who will have difficulty forming friendships, and who may repeatedly “check out” of opportunities for calm attention and learning. These emotionally sensitive and volatile children may need more sensible and consistent boundaries than other kids in order to thrive. At the same time, that child may need more connection with the parent in order to tolerate the new boundaries, so both limits and time together will be critical.

Of course, a rapid uptick in outbursts in an otherwise calm child may also provide a valuable clue that something is wrong, and require investigation. One of my favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting, calls on parents to look for signs of soul-sickness and approach these with the gentle healing we might a cold. Again, this kind of judgment call has to come from knowing our kid and what’s normal and needed for them.

IMG_05026) Our specific language and choices as parents matter a ton to the development of our child. The brain is surprisingly elastic and supple, and is so deeply responsive to parenting cues that the brains of children actually resembles those of their parents in scans. So what kinds of intentional communication with them should we have?

Words that seem oddly “corporate” have sometimes been helpful to me, because they do the work of making a difference of opinion seem less personal: “My agenda here is to get you to put on your clothes, while your agenda is to play. What can we do?” or “I’m trying to understand your goals here.” They can also be useful for asking for more resilience and generating options: “That seemed like a good strategy. What would be another one?” “What’s your plan to fix this problem?” “I would like you to make a different choice.”

Picture-language that paints a clear image of concrete aspirations for behavior also works well for me: “I would like you to have a big, open, generous heart with your friends.”Or, after a fall: “I hope you have a scrambly time at the playground, and climb all over the jungle gym like a brave spider.” And specifically encouraging them to overcome frustration, even through time-worn clichés like, “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” can be helpful to establish a “mental voice” for old-fashioned stick-to-itive-ness.

Rather than barking orders, owning our own perspective is more respectful of a child’s still-developing sense of agency. While it can feel a bit bulky, saying: “I am asking you to do put that down” in lieu of “put that down!” is what I aim for. Similarly, saying “I don’t like it when you stand on your chair because I’m concerned you might fall and hurt yourself, and it’s my job to keep you safe.” clues kids on your motives and role. Even owning our more unpleasant emotions can be helpful: “I’m irritated that you are doing that right now, as I have asked you two times to make a different choice.” (Just don’t be surprised when your child also is able to identify that she is “irritated” by something you do!)

Using please and thank you when making a request is also important in my view, though some books advise against it. As I want my child to use good manners, I personally feel it’s only fair to use them myself when addressing her.

IMG_05067) Getting out of a child’s way is sometimes the best thing we can do. All of us have experienced a state that scientists now call “flow:” a state of productive engagement in which we feel relaxed and time seems to disappear. Creating an environment in the home which allows children to play in a way that facilitates this kind of moment — and being sure not to interrupt them when it is happening as cooperative or solo play — is essential to putting them in touch with their deepest capacities for self-engagement.

This is the main reason why we limit screens in our house. Although we make some exceptions for special circumstances (getting her to sit still for nail-cutting, for example, or for travel on a plane), in general there are no videos or TV at home. This has been helpful with our busy days, as it forces all of us to relax, to have play time or reading or craft time instead.

Some of the job is just creating open space for children to self-direct their activities. Being sure to leave kids alone when they are “in flow” is important. It’s also important, to belabor this point from above a bit, that when they (inevitably) ask for us to look over what they’ve created, we respond with something deeper than a slap-dash pat on the head. The conversation should lead naturally to what could be a follow-on project, and thereby provide them with the next compelling invitation to enter this particular window onto human happiness.

8) Bargaining is bad — except when it isn’t. Capitulation during a meltdown or due to the fear of a meltdown is not a good idea, as it provides the wrong incentives for emotional outbursts. In our house, we think that never bending due to the intensity of an emotional response is sound policy. And reasoning with a child in the midst of a meltdown or temper tantrum, when their responses are coming from their lizard brain, is asking the impossible, because their executive functioning has literally been cut off by the emotional surge to those flight-or-fights parts of their primitive brain.

On the other hand, allowing problem solving that engages the executive functioning of the brain — called the cerebral cortex — is good. So when a child is calmly suggesting alternatives that also meet the objectives of the parent (“Can I take two bites of carrot instead of broccoli?”), that is to be encouraged. This kind of logical negotiation is a basic skill, and may provide a way out before a melt-down gets triggered, even though at times it may drive me a bit batty.

Parenting with Neuroscience, and a Laugh

Parenting via infographic, #8.

I’ve recently read two helpful books that use the latest findings by neuroscientists to help parents — more to come on those soon.

In the meantime, here’s the most helpful tip I learned. While I’ve long had the urge to tickle my daughter mid-fuss, and found it often took the tension out of the situation, now I have the science to know why it works… at least some of the time, when the fuss is basically over nothing much at all.

funny-bone

If you feel a little at a loss when irritated to reach for the funny, and tickling is not working or feasible, here’s a few more tried-and-true mommy stratagems from my own personal arsenal:

  1. Scold an inanimate object, the fake-meaner the better (“Diaper, why are you so uncomfortable?” “Door, why do you keep slamming yourself so hard? You know that’s not allowed…”).
  2. Sing a song the child knows well, but make the words super-silly (“Pi-ickle, pi-ickle, little star…”) If you can get them to correct you or quiet down to hear your next silly substitution, storm over.
  3. Make up a silly simile to communicate what you need to change about the situation (“Is that whiny noise the creaky door? Do you hear a creaky door? ‘Cuz that can’t be a child that sounds like that….” or “You are clinging to my back like peanut butter on a rice cake. Peanut butter, you are toooo sticky.”)
  4. Bumble something. Play like you are trying to reach for them but miss and end up hitting your own nose instead. Nothing is funnier than a grown-up missing the mark.

And here’s 7 more great ideas from another toddler mom. Chances are good that if you can get a child to crack a smile, the emergency will dissipate a bit, giving you both a chance to start over.

And the bonding from laughing together is the best stuff there is, really. It’s magical. Then you can have a conversation about what needs to happen next, with less rigidity from either of you and a little more fun.

Other posts you may like:

My Daughter Will Be Fine. How’s Yours?

Preschool

Preschool (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like an inversion of Project Runway, we were “out,” but now we’re “in.” This week, we learned that Maya could move off the wait list into a spot for the neighborhood’s co-op preschool, which only takes 12 children in her age group.

We were thrilled by this, obviously. The Co-op is close to our house and follows a Reggio-inspired curriculum, with a ton of fantastic literature, music and art.

Of course, getting in, as random as it was (a family is moving), also made us officially feel like Good Parents. We had checked the boxes, found the right school, gotten a babysitter, attended the two information sessions, submitted the application and the check. And, with perseverance and luck, we did it! At 20 months, our daughter is now on the Road to Success. (And we will have ample chance to prove our dedication to the model, as the co-op’s parental contributions are no joke.)

As ridiculous as this seems, for achievement-oriented parents, such ability to deliver the goods does feel, truthfully, like at least one important measure of how well we are doing.  It’s a lot of pressure to put on parents when really terrific resources are scarce, and makes parenting into a far more competitive sport than it should be.

When we were on the “outs,” I’ll admit to feeling a mild despair, along with the exhaustion of having to look around for a suitable alternative. We’d visited several other preschools over the past year, none to our liking. I had also been compiling a mental list of back-ups, including the local Waldorf school, and the Audubon Society’s preschool that I blogged about last week (which is lovely, but not that close to us).

The lack of really strong preschool options stunned me, actually, as we began this search. And it’s a sad statement, really, of how we have not updated our educational systems to take full account of the research, which, for more than 20 years, has pointed unequivocally to preschool (and pre-preschool) learning and environment as the foundation for educational attainment for kids.

For just a few examples, we now know that:

Contrast that with the bad news on this front that I heard on the radio in just the past few days: DC high schools fail to graduate (on-time) 60 percent (!!) of students. And Marketplace, a show I normally loathe for its pro-market bias and triviality, ran a decent series this week on projects happening around the country, some financially doomed, to engage low-income children in learning earlier in order to close educational gaps.

Along with everyone else, I’ve also followed the work in Harlem of Geoffrey Canada in creating the Harlem Children’s Zone. (I recommend the book by Paul Tough describing his efforts, “Whatever It Takes” which is a fascinating read.) Canada set up a system for students that was intended to provide the safety. security and growth of a suburban upbringing. As Tough writes, his supports are “designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhoods.”

One of Canada’s many key innovations was his recognition that parenting classes – for parents of newborns – and access to high-quality preschool programming, would make kids far more ready to attend school, and would create the building blocks for success even among very low-income families with lower educational levels among the parents.

Canada’s pioneering work has been successful in moving children to become academic successes. And he’s been at it for almost a decade. What’s really amazing is that his set of comprehensive tools, commonsense as it is, and his focus on the critical period of infancy and early childhood, remain largely disregarded in practice elsewhere in the country.

There isn’t the money, nor is there the political commitment, to ensure that every child in America gets a learning-friendly environment at home, and that every child attends a quality preschool. In fact, the new budget fight being waged this week by Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) would slash and burn supports for low-income families in order to pay for military spending, which is just sickening, really. According to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D.-Md), a report by the Congressional Budget Office “found some 22 million households with children would lose aid to buy food, 300,000 children would be cut from school lunch programs, and 300,000 children would lose health insurance under the House plan.” To pay for bombers, literally. It’s like a bad joke on a bumper sticker.

In short, we have a long fight ahead of us. But the costs of not doing this are astronomical, both as measured in the quality of children’s lives and in the social and economic price.

Of course, if Maya had not gotten into our preferred school, there would have been another preschool, perhaps less convenient or ideal, but still high quality. And her home environment is nurturing in every way I know to make it, based on both my reading and on how my parents raised me.  Put that with the quality of the food she eats and my persistent (albeit quirky) efforts to provide a healthy environment for her, and the advantages compound quickly.

But even as I do what it takes to ensure her health and growth, I also recognize that for every child like Maya, many more children lack basic things, like enough food to eat, or a caring and attentive adult in their lives. (Case in point: I once spent several days sweeping broken glass and wires out of a DC elementary school classroom, helping to get it ready for a teacher friend. The computers given to the school by some foundation were being used as doorstops, because there was no one that could be spared to maintain a network and lab.)

When you have a child, and must engage in the current, demanding contest for resources directly on their behalf, these sharp distinctions become far more real. And it’s far too easy to “get yours” and move on, being happy because this time, you happen to be on the list instead of off.

But if all the more resource-rich parents merely wangle a way for their family, it will never create the urgency we need for change on a much more fundamental level. Simply put, it’s clear that we will never address the underlying causes of poverty unless we take far more seriously what we must do to provide a strong foundation for very young children, from infancy through kindergarten.

We’re falling far short now, both on addressing poverty and on challenging families to do what they can to develop strong foundations in early childhood. Almost one-third of children 2 and under have television sets in their bedrooms. In their rooms! Which makes them more sedentary and emotionally stunted, studies show. And a shocking one-half of preschool-age children do not get a chance to be outside and play daily, meaning that some of that mental mapping is just … missing. Combine that with the chemicals and sugar in children’s foods and it’s easy to see where the obesity epidemic is coming from.

(And I think the official explanations on this point are facile: chemicals likely play a much larger role than anyone is admitting. The Institute of Medicine’s report this week on childhood obesity focuses on diet and exercise, but fails to explain why those factors alone could possibly be enough to cause Type 2 diabetes in children to go from ZERO in the 1970s to far too common today. Having grown up in the 70s, I remember kids eating a lot of Little Debbie snackcakes while watching Three’s Company all afternoon. If those kids didn’t have diabetes, I’ll submit that there must be something more to it.)

To my larger point on early childhood: perhaps it’s hubris, but I can tell you right now, sitting here today, I firmly believe that Maya will be fine. (Or at least as “fine” as someone can be with nutjobs like us for parents.) But that doesn’t mean I’m ok letting all the other two-year-olds who didn’t make the list, or, more likely, weren’t on any list, just watch TV, inside, eating crap, instead of playing outside and attending a really good preschool that will make them into the kind of kids who will be good pals to Maya and help me cross the street in my old age.

It’s as though the project we all started more than a hundred years ago – this task of publicly educating children – remains half-done. What we now know is that the period before kindergarten is just as critical, and may be even more critical, to a child’s success in life than the time after.

So why isn’t there more urgency on this question? There should be a school like our Co-op on every other corner – so many that there aren’t any lists to get in. And if government funds are needed to make it happen, this modest investment would likely pay for itself many times over, in more productive and valuable workers, artists, and innovators (and fewer prison cells).

Sure, most parents want the best for their children. But there’s a lot stacked against their ability to deliver nurturing and challenging opportunities. What I take away from our own relief at now, as of this week only, being on the “inside” of a good preschool for our daughter, is that what we really need is for parents – and the politicians they vote for – to want the best for every child.

How do we get there? I’m eager to hear your thoughts and ideas…