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.

5 Toddler Transition Tips That (Sometimes) Work for Me

IMG_5777Just this morning, we were rushing to get out the door, late and harried, and I was putting our bags in the car when I heard Maya start to loudly bawl behind me. She had wandered out and was standing on the sidewalk leading up to our house, in bare feet, and she evidently didn’t much care for the cold. I ran and scooped her up and into the car. Just another morning with tears, I thought, wiping her cheeks and kissing her while I buckled her in.

There are many mornings I would like to throw a tantrum of my own. After all, like Maya, I would prefer to hang out and play instead of throwing us all willy-nilly into a vehicle. One of the hardest things about modern mommyhood is, perhaps, the amount of schlepping we all do. School, playdates, classes, even a trip to the library can be the trigger for an episode of push-a-me-pull-you that wears both parent and child to the edge.

For this reason, among others, I’m a big proponent of a simpler schedule for kids, especially younger children. As adults, we forget how stimulating the world is, more or less all by itself, and the lessons that come from being able to interact with relatively simple materials. To find that reverie in a quiet moment of play, children need lots of space and time. Rushing from yoga class to music class to kiddie gym does not allow enough stillness for kids to catch up to themselves or to invent the games and fantasy play that they need to experiment with the world on their own terms.

Yet life is full of schedules even when it’s not. Dinnertime, bedtime, the need to leave to meet up with friends — all these things require a toddler or older child to come along for the next thing, to get on board and with the program.

Of course, the gold standard in this area is the three “Rs:” Rhythm, Ritual and Routine. When we are really doing well, we use the natural rhythms of the day, their repetition and predictability, and the nature of our routines to establish the order of things. Around bedtime is the easiest, given that the order is so easy to maintain. But even for dinner times, our very simple ritual of lighting a candle when we sit down to eat can bring Maya to the table and establish the right mood for a nicer meal together.

And then there are the other times, when chaos and change rear up and obliterate all our good intentions. Maya, like me, is a dawdler and a homebody, and she often needs that extra push to leave the house. So here are five tricks we use to move things along that work at least some of the time:

1) An advanced warning and joint review of “the plan:”  I try to tell her, when I remember to, what the plan is for the coming day, highlighting the things I think she might find fun. Then I provide a 3-minute or 2-minute warning for each new thing — “In two minutes, we are going to stop playing and get ready to leave for Grandma’s house” — and ask for her “ok.” This tends to work best when the plan is something she’s genuinely excited about, and not so well for more hum-drum affairs, but even when it’s not enough on its own, the clear communication can’t hurt.

2) The direct request with consequences: I will ask her to come along a few times, but no more than two. If she is unresponsive, I will say, “If you won’t come, I will have to pick you up.” If there is still no agreement between the parties, a last step is to say, “Ok, I have asked you to come by yourself and you are not listening to me. I will count to three and then pick you up if you are still not coming along.” Sometimes, she makes me count and then comes along; other times, she just stares defiantly and makes me pick her up. Either way, the impasse is resolved. (In general, providing some warning with a count-to-three before swooping in tends to be a good strategy for preventing some meltdowns, and works in many situations, including when an interaction with another child has gone south.)

3) Beginning the action by skipping a step: If I think she’s unlikely to come to eat breakfast without a fuss, for example, then rather than asking her to come over, I’ll invent a question that will bring her to the table, like, “Would you like molasses on your oatmeal? Yes? How much?” She always, predictably, wants “a lot” of molasses. More importantly, she wants to come monitor the amount I am pouring, taking her seat as she counts the drops. Mission accomplished.

Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) Bribery: Since we’re all in on it, let’s be clear: parenting a toddler is an unexpected education in all available means of extortion, in ways that might shame Tony Soprano. Phrases like: “if you come to the table/eat one last bite/clean up that mess… then I will read you a story/wear that silly hat/give you a treat” slip without much hesitation from the lips, because blackmail is preferable to a physical wrestling match which you will inevitably eventually lose, with your dignity (or even your shirt!) in tatters. The real art is in picking an incentive, as we can call it among friends, that doesn’t unduly compromise your values. Enticements like attention and special time together can work just as well as sugar, I’ve found, though they can also add delay. (And sometimes a little “chocolate-ish” milk can go a long way towards domestic tranquility and achieving a decent bedtime.)

5) Setting an alarm: Maya’s insightful preschool teacher suggested this, and I have to say, it works like the charm it is. I will set the timer on the microwave (or my cellphone if we are out and about) for 30 seconds, and warn Maya that “when the beeper goes off, it’s time to stop playing and come to dinner.” If we’re at home, I usually step away from the timer to let her know: hey, it’s not me, it’s the microwave that’s running the show. I’m shocked by how well she listens to the microwave. And unsure, really, whether to be pleased or insulted…

In moments of timer-less desperation, I have even been known to beep myself like an insistent and inane machine, and, believe it or not, that works as well, although I do tend to get odd looks from other parents who have apparently not yet learned the persuasive power of imitating household appliances.

Mikrowelle, microwave

The new Parent in town  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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What transition tricks do you use with your reluctant child? Do tell!