By Ann Brown, parenting consultant
I’m sitting on the living room couch as I write this column. My twenty-month old puppy, Phila, is snuggled next to me, her head on my lap. She is snoring happily. I am petting her, completely content. I’m also watching out for Robin because as soon as I see him coming up the stairs, I need to push Phila off the couch and pretend she was never there.
Phila isn’t allowed on the couch. She also isn’t allowed to chew on my shoes. Or get her own treats from the drawer. Or be off-leash in the park. Or do most any of the things I let her do. I don’t like upsetting her so I pretty much just say yes to everything she wants to do.
This is very bad parenting on my part.
I love to point the finger at all of you when I feel you are afraid to draw the line with your kids, or stand by your convictions or when you allow yourselves to be held hostage by your child’s emotions. One of my favorite soapbox rants is the one about teaching your kids that it’s safe to feel sad or mad or bad or frustrated or disappointed. If you are in my classes or groups, I don’t have to tell you this because it’s all you hear from me – blah blah blah let them feel their feelings, blah blah blah, let them be mad, blah blah blah, don’t give in to whining. Sometimes you roll your eyes at me when I get going on this topic. Yeah, I see you.
I really do believe what I say to you, believe me. If we give in to our kids because they have worn us down or because it hurts us to see them so upset, we are teaching them that life is not worth living unless we get everything we want. Not to mention that we are also teaching them that crying – or yelling, or whining, or arguing, or sulking – is power.
The “yes” given by a parent to a child that has within it a long-suffering sigh of “Fine. You’ve worn me down. I hate you. Eat the stinking cookie “ is not a satisfying “yes” to either the child or parent. It is a “yes” that is steeped in dysfunctional manipulation. And teeth-rotting sugar.
Kinda like the “yes” I just gave Phila when she – wet and muddy from the river – jumped up on the couch next to me and put her adorable head in my lap.
“Phila,” I said sternly, “No. You are not allowed on the couch. Off!”
Phila didn’t hear me, evidently. I probably said it too quietly. My fault.
So I said, a little bit louder, “Phila, no! Off the couch!” I made sure Robin could hear me from downstairs since he’s always on my case about being too soft with Phila and letting her get on the couch.
Phila stared intently out the living room window from her perch on the couch.
“Okay,” I said, “I see you’re busy right now guarding the street. One more minute, though, and then you have to get off the couch, okay?”
Then I laughed to myself because I am always telling you guys to stop saying “okay” at the end of a sentence in which you’ve told your kid to do something. It completely invalidates the instruction you’ve just given; it turns it into a choice.
I said, “okay”, however, to Phila because she is so stinking adorable. And I didn’t want to make her sad. Which is a totally valid reason for making bad parenting choices. Also, I have a headache and it’s too much work to follow through with what I expect her to do.
Also, I am so comfortable right now on the couch and I have a deadline of, like, yesterday to get this column in and if I have to stop what I’m doing to get Phila off the couch and keep her off, I’m not going to finish this article until waaaaaay past midnight. And then I’ll have another headache tomorrow.
And so it goes.
It’s so much easier to just give in. Even though I’m going to have to rent one of those supermarket upholstery cleaning machines tomorrow for the couch because Phila has deposited about half of the Willamette River water, mud and funk on my couch. And then I’m going to hope the couch dries before my Monday night parenting group comes over. And then, during group on Monday nights and Wednesday nights, I’m going to have to stop facilitating the parenting discussion to remind Phila about a zillion times not to get up on the couch to cuddle with the people in group. And I’m going to have to pretend that I am shocked that Phila keeps jumping up on the couch, you know, because she isn’t allowed to. And Phila will give me That Look, the look that says, “Please. We both know you’re going to give in, anyway. Let’s stop the charade.” And I’ll be embarrassed and exhausted and I’ll feel like a bad dog parent and after everyone in the group goes home, I’ll have A Stern Talk with Phila about her bad behavior.
And then I’ll finish off the cookies from group. And the wine. And the Ferrero Roche in the freezer from Valentine’s Day. And I will look longingly at the cranberry walnut bread from St. Honore’s that I am supposed to bring to school the next morning. And I will think to myself, “I should never have let Phila get up on the couch in the first place.” I will be riddled with shame and self-loathing.
The only thing harder than making bad parenting choices is making good parenting choices. Well, actually, they’re both hard. It’s just that one (good choices) is harder to do at the beginning because it’s so much remediation and reminding and re-doing. But the other one (bad choices) is harder later because you hate yourself for having been weak and giving in and now you have a fifty-eight pound puppy who does whatever the heck she darn well pleases to do.
I’m lucky. Phila doesn’t whine or argue with me. She doesn’t throw her cup at me because I gave her the blue cup instead of the green cup. She doesn’t throw a fit at Trader Joe’s because I won’t buy the ten- gallon tub of chocolate covered almonds. And yet, I still hate to say no to her.
Which means that I’m going to be buying a lot of new couches. Which I cannot afford. Unless I start more parenting groups. Which I can’t, because all my furniture is funky from Phila and there will be nowhere for them to sit. Because I cannot say no to my dog.
But there’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza…
Next week: Phila will give her rebuttal.
Photo Credit: Greg Westfall
By Parenting Consultant, Ann Brown
As I write this article, we are already encroaching upon 2014. Because I am an old crone compared to you who will be reading this, I can remember, back in the 1960’s, the awe I felt when I imagined what the new millennium would be like. The idea of the year 2014 was mind-blowing to me. It still is.
The world your children will grow to inherit is already so much different than the world I inherited. My world had the first color TV, a man on the moon, polio vaccine on a sugar cube, the Pill. My childhood was filled with wonder, not only at the marvels of the time but also at the natural, almost magical happenings around me. I was five years old when my childhood cat had kittens. My sister and I sat on the kitchen floor while Gigi delivered nine gooey, red and white striped babies (Moses, Hebsibiah-Tzipora*, Pegasus, Penny, Fluffy, Sarah, Rebecca, Piñata and Pierre) onto my favorite Lanz nightgown with which we’d lined a cardboard box from the grocery store garbage bin.
Karen and I watched silently as Gigi did what ancestral knowledge guided her to do. She hadn’t read What To Expect When You’re Expecting Kittens, or gone to Lamaze class or sat in a crowded primary school auditorium with the rest of the fourth grade girls in her class to watch the 8mm movie about menstruation; the movie from which I gathered that when you are around twelve years old you get your period and continue to get it every day until you are fifty or so..
Witnessing the miracle of Gigi’s delivery and the birth of the nine kittens incorrectly answered as many questions in my young mind as it created new ones, and my sister and I spent years afterwards jumping to some alarmingly wrong conclusions about how species procreate, including, but not limited to, my sister’s insistence that babies are made in the shower (my sister recently explained to me that she was pretty sure people were naked when they made babies and the only place she could fathom anyone would be naked would be in the shower) and the belief that if a cat and a dog made babies, half of them would be kittens and half would be puppies. Our homegrown information about the miracle of life also reached, tragically, to the miracle of death where in the process of our extensive research, I am sorry to confess, many innocent pet turtles with painted shells, purchased regularly on Los Angeles’ famous downtown Olvera Street, gave their lives in such heroic ways as being lost behind the living room couch and being abandoned in the blazing LA sun when we grew tired of turtle races in the tall grass of our front lawn, only to be discovered days or weeks later by my mom and flushed down the toilet. I fully expect to see those turtles, their backs brightly painted with the colors of the Mexican flag, waiting for me at the Pearly Gates with a major chip on their shoulders. And well I deserve their wrath. Although I might point out, just fyi, that the paint those poor turtles were covered in was probably toxic and they weren’t destined to live a long, healthy life, anyway. Not that I am trying to worm my way out of my own accountability.
My world still has sources of wonder that are beyond my understanding: installing apps into my i-phone, using the hashtag correctly; things that have turned me into an embarrassment, a dolt, a technodinosaur; someone who, say, would have tried to play a vinyl record on her Polaroid One-Step camera. I kinda like that. I like knowing that every day, if I wanted to, I could find something unbelievable in this ever-changing world.
I’m not so sure that your kids will be as mystified by life as I was and am. Your children live in a world of instant information, of explanation, of empirical evidence. Parents today need to work hard to protect the gift of wonderment for our children. The world is so scientific, so informative, and so little is left to the imagination. Children are expected to learn the way adults do, and adults are expected to learn like machines. There is a dearth of acceptable opportunities for learning by experience or apprenticeship or just plain passage of time. Learning by experience leaves room for misinformation, to be sure but it also makes room for imagination, hypotheses, confidence, perseverance and acceptance of occasional failure. It also makes room for something even more important – the space to not know something until the time is right to know it.
What leaves with wonder is a sense of possibility that lives outside our realm of control – a sense that we might be surprised by life! There’s not much today about which your young children cannot access information. Computers tell them that teeth fall out because of physiological readiness, TV commercials tell them that Christmas toys are made at the Mattel or Nintendo factory, not in Santa’s workshop. Our kids are woefully sophisticated these days about the ways of their world.
I think that’s a shame.
Granted, maybe I am woefully uninformed about certain things – I still say “i-pad” when I mean “i-pod”, and vice versa– but I believe that if we crowd our young children’s minds with facts and information, it will be at the expense of leaving no room for magic and wonderment.
When my children were little I used to cut their apples in half in a way that the seeds made a star shape in the center. Now, certainly there is a botanical answer to why that is so (or so I presume) but my kids thrilled to believe it was magic their mom could summon by saying, “apple, apple from the tree, make a star that we can see!” before she cut into it. I imagine that my cerebral, brainiac boys figured out the scientific reason for the seed placement long before I did (uh, I still haven’t….) but they still enjoyed the flourish and pomp with which I cut their apples. In fact, even though they are both grown up, out of college and out of law school, I cut apples that way every once in a while, just to remember the old days. When I knew more than they did. A long, long time ago.
Children have a way of figuring things out. True, they are usually wrong. But they need the opportunity to be wrong and later discover a new answer. They have a lifetime to learn what they need to learn. The Information Age offers us a tempting buffet of learning everything now, quickly, all at once. It takes willpower to hold back, to give our kids factual information and experiences slowly, in appropriate moderation. It is hard because today there is a sense, in our culture, that we can know, and thereby control “it all.” That we can “fix” life. Yet…there is so much in life that you can’t muscle your way through – tragedy and joy alike. Our culture steps a bit roughly on the hope of the unexpected. In grooming our kids for success from infancy, we squash the “Gee, I wonder where life might take me?” that earlier generations had. At age 6, my son hated for people to ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He shed tears of frustration over kindergarten career day. He felt like they were asking for too much of a commitment. And I don’t blame him. I think it shows great wisdom – not wanting to open that present yet. Why ruin the adventure?
The tradition of misinformation being passed from sibling to sibling was continued when I had kids. One day, I overheard my then-four year old son telling his nine-year old brother about menopause.
“It happens to all of them and it takes a really long time,” my four year old explained.
“How long?” my nine-year old asked him.
There was an awed silence. Then the nine year old spoke. “Explain it to me again,” he said, “because it really doesn’t make sense.”
The four year old sighed with an exasperation I’ve recently recognized when he’s had to explain to me for the gajillionth time how the Electoral College works and why we have the Iowa caucuses.
“Okay,” he said evenly, “it’s called menopause. And she stays in the cocoon for a whole, long winter and that’s where it happens.”
I was rooted to my hiding place behind the door. This was something even I didn’t understand about menopause. Guess my big sister didn’t tell me everything, after all.
“In a cocoon?” asked the older one, “are you sure?” He was beginning to sound alarmed. Frankly, so was I. I had to break in.
“What are you talking about?” I asked them. My younger son eagerly shared his knowledge with me.
“Menopause,” he said, “you know, how the caterpillar goes into the cocoon and comes out a butterfly.”
I was slightly hindered by a weak high school background in science and a college degree in Ethnomusicology but even so, I felt capable of asserting my educated opinion.
“Do you mean ‘metamorphosis?’” I asked him.
He considered my question for a moment. “Oh yeah”, he said brightly.
Albert Einstein said, “there are two ways of looking at the world: that everything is a miracle, and that nothing is a miracle.” I choose to keep some wonderment, some miracles in my life.
Especially when it comes to installing apps on my i-phone.
Ann Brown has a private practice in parenting consultation
By Joe Newman
What do you say to a parent who asks, “How involved should I get in school?”
Before talking about this question I first want to talk about a more important underlying issue. Relations between parents and teachers are at an all-time low. Parents blame teachers for their child’s poor academic performance and teachers blame parents for raising badly behaved children. And while there are certainly parents and teachers who are not like this, it is the unfortunate trend.
So before a parent can know how involved they should get in their child’s school, or what kind of involvement will be optimal, they must first build a positive and productive relationship with their child’s teacher.
First, what to do.
Assume the teacher wants the very best for your child, even if you don’t see it. Remember the saying; first seek to understand, then to be understood. Find out what the teacher is doing, what they see happening with your child in the classroom, what their concerns are, what their struggles in the classroom are, and how you might be able to mitigate any of these.
Ask them directly, “What can I do to support your work with my child?” Then do your best to do it.
Stay informed about what your child is doing in class and what they have for homework. Make sure they’re doing their homework and confirm that they’re turning it in. Set up an effective homework routine -you can find help on Homework Tips.
If you offer suggestions, offer them in the form of questions like, “Is it possible for Rachael to use manipulatives when she does her Math work? This seemed really helpful for her last year.” Or, “Are there opportunities for Dylan to have chores in the classroom? He seems to get into less mischief when he’s given responsibilities.”
Catch them being good. We love to use this with our child but it’s an equally effective tool to build a relationship with our child’s teacher. Find something, or several things, that you like about what’s happening in your child’s classroom and let them know you see it and appreciate it.
Second, what not to do.
Don’t attempt to correct or criticize a teacher until you have established a positive relationship with them. Even well intentioned advice can fall on deaf ears if you don’t understand what’s happening in the classroom.
When parents attempt to correct or criticize a teacher’s approach or method with their child it almost always goes badly. A teacher may listen politely during the conference and say they will consider, or even try, the suggestion. But when the conference is over, the chance that the teacher will actually implement the suggested change is slim. And worse the parent/teacher relationship will be worse for the experience. Why? Because in most cases the teacher has either tried this suggestion before, knows it can’t be realistically implemented, or disagrees with the approach altogether. In other words, the parent didn’t understand before they sought to be understood.
Eight years ago, when I finished my Master’s degree, the agency I worked for immediately made me a supervisor. After twelve years being the child whisperer who could turn around the most difficult children, I now had the opportunity to oversee and train twenty behavior specialists and teachers and pass on all that I knew. To my great surprise very few of these people seemed interested. After six exhausting months with only a little progress I finally realized that I needed to build relationships first, then teach. I had to appreciate the efforts and the insights of the people I wanted to teach before they would hear anything I had to say. I needed to understand before trying to be understood.
Once I began focusing on recognizing, appreciating, and articulating the efforts and insights of those around me all my cases started to quickly improve. When what people think and feel when you walk into the room shifts from, “There’s the guy who always tells me what I’m doing wrong” to “There’s the guy who really understands how hard I’m trying” amazing things start to happen.
It didn’t matter that I knew the right thing to do to turn these kids around (I did), what mattered was actually getting it done. And to actually do it required appreciating and developing positive relationships with the people who would be doing most of the work.
Studies consistently show that children whose parents are involved with their schoolwork do much better than children whose parents aren’t. Just remember that how you get involved is just as important as how much. Assume your child’s teacher wants the best for your child. Make efforts to support them. Ask questions about what’s happening and how best to support. Recognize the efforts of teachers and appreciate them. Then, get involved in school as much as you are able and in the ways that are in unity with the needs of your child’s teachers.
Joe Newman is a Behavior Consultant and the author of Raising Lions. Follow us on Instagram for Parenting Tip Tuesday and share some of your own tips with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. #parentingtiptuesday
By Ann Brown
It’s another rainy afternoon. Perfect for making soup, reading, avoiding work, and napping. You’d think I’d be perfectly happy. But no.
I am not snugly in my comfort zone. One of my toes is hanging out.
Kids start off with a very small comfort zone. It’s pretty much Baby + Parents. In preschool, the circle widens to include Teacher and Friends and, often, Mommy’s Favorite Barrista. As we grow older and evolve, we expect that our comfort zone will stretch and grow, as well. We expect we’ll re-evaluate the original blueprint, move walls, increase space, put on a second story, and bump out windows to accommodate our larger life. Getting comfortable in a bigger comfort zone is one way we know our therapy is working and worth the hundreds and the thousands of dollars we have poured into it for all these years, relegating ourselves to living in debt, driving old cars, running up our Master Cards, and eating government cheese.
Raising kids is a daily practice in venturing out of our comfort zones. Well, at least it is for alarmist, hand-wringing, nervous-stomach, neurotic mothers like me. I am ancestrally programmed to circle the wagons and hunker down. I would totally NOT have left Egypt, choosing instead to bring Pharaoh a nice spinach lasagna and offer him parenting advice in exchange for scoring my sons an easy gig working on the nearby pyramids. It is not easy for me to stretch and grow. And, subsequently, it is not easy for me to push my kids to stretch and grow.
Happily, however, they learned to do it despite my hanging to their ankles, crying, “please don’t go!” I tried telling my youngest, when he applied to Georgetown for college, that there were actually no colleges east of Idaho. That all those names – Harvard, Georgetown, Yale – were made up. Like “Brigadoon”. Unfortunately, West Linn High School did a better job at educating him than I had hoped and he called my bluff. Well, not so much called my bluff as patently ignored me and went off to DC for four years.
This reassures me about parenting. It tells me that even when we mess up – and we are going to mess up a lot, and often – all is not lost. Even when we cannot personally provide everything our kids need, we can share with them the experiences of our own inabilities, insecurities, weaknesses, and failures. And sharing those things does indeed provide a rich and meaningful lesson for our kids.
My kids know that I am an overprotective parent. So I try to make the most out of self-deprecation, to take the stinger out of my fretting, to not make them responsible for it. I like to text them with messages like, “just worried for a moment that you are dead and life has no meaning. Please text back within 24 hours.” Or, “please call me every five minutes while you are on the road. Or at least, please call me when you arrive.”
Because my tiny, cramped, overcrowded comfort zone is not their problem.
I first wrote about this topic in 2000 when my oldest left for college. And then again, about six years ago. And, if I am lucky enough to still be writing parenting articles in ten more years (Yikes -I will be almost SEVENTY years old then -let us pause for a moment to consider that -YIKES), I am certain nothing will have changed by then, either. Because the point is not that I need to change myself. (Well, my therapist might disagree. But let her write her own column.) The point is that I cannot allow my overprotective issues to become my children’s issues.
So, I am making soup this rainy afternoon. And reading. And avoiding work. And even though none of my kids lives near me – one lives in New York even though I told him that New York does not exist –and I wish wish wish we were all together safe under one roof, I am comforted to know that I raised them to live their own lives and follow their own destinies. Despite my offer of a zajllion dollars to stay here. Because, and this is worth repeating from the paragraph above, I do not want my issues to become their issues. Well, I kinda secretly do, but at least I know it’s wrong.
Easier said than done, I know. But we can all get there. Walk this way. And if you are in NY, can you make sure my son is dressing warmly? Much obliged.
By Ann Brown, Parenting Coach
Those of you in my classes and parenting groups have heard me start many sentences with, “after the revolution, when I am in charge of the world and we all live on communes in peace and harmony….” But today, I am going to write about what we can do while waiting for the revolution.
It’s getting out of hand, all the “stuff” we all have. Even those of us who endeavor to buy mindfully wind up with too much stuff. And not only is there too much of it, so much of it is…well, you know what I am thinking.
What do kids need? Other than the basics, of course: love, acceptance, security, a home, clothing, food, and family. And other than the next round of basics, of course: friends, community, appropriate exposure to the beauty of the world (art, music…), laughter, and a sense of being necessary to others.
Hmm….actually, that list looks pretty complete to me. I’d add a few more things: a spiritual grounding (not necessarily religious, but mindful), ritual, milestones, and stories.
Yup, that looks complete now.
But we also live in the modern Hallmark world and gift giving exists. So, I ask you this question – how much is enough? And how courageous are you willing to be in defending your personal definition of “enough”?
Let me repeat myself (yet again), albeit abridged this time. For generations, parents knew that their goal was to make a better life for their children. And those children, in turn, tried to make a better life for their children. My grandparents came from Eastern Europe, fleeing oppression and genocide – it was clear that what they wanted for their children, who would be born here, was safety and religious freedom and a chance out of poverty. My parents, living a better life than their parents, still strived to make a better life for my sister and me. We had a nice home, college educations, summer camp, family vacations, and Barbie dolls. It was a little more difficult for my sister and me to figure out how to make OUR children’s lives better than our own.
Those of you who have enough, who have more than enough, have a huge responsibility as well. What will your children strive for, if all children strive to improve their lives over their parents’ lives? What can they achieve to surpass you, other than an even bigger house, a nicer car, and newer technology?
My father used to tell us that each generation must leave the world in better shape than we received it. This comes from traditional Jewish teachings, but it’s not an instruction only for Jews.
If you are fortunate enough to have enough, then you must teach your children that what they must strive for is helping those who do not have enough. Allow me one more Jewish teaching: “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Beginning to use the word “enough” with your kids is a big first step. It’s a hard word to use with kids because they will fight you on it; after all, “enough” is so utterly subjective. But you must be strong, courageous, and committed to not raising kids who cannot even count how many toys they have in their bedrooms.
I forgot to get her permission to use her name, so I will just say that there is a woman in one of my classes (we will call her, “Mom”) who can afford to get her kids lots of gifts, but has chosen to give them each only three gifts at Christmas. This is a radical, revolutionary act. If every family who could afford to buy a lot, simply chose to give their children three gifts at Christmas, I bet it would make a small dent somewhere. And children would know that being fortunate enough to have money means that we need to be responsible with it. And those three gifts would be really exciting to the kids. And they wouldn’t get lost in the hail of wrapping paper and more gifts and endless crap that turns it all into mindless acquisition. And there’d be some money left over to share with others who are not so fortunate. All because of one pebble being dropped in the water when a family with money chose to give their kids only three gifts at the holidays.
I hear the drums beating. Next step, we buy land for the commune. Now, who’s with me?
By Ann Brown
I’ve been listening to The Four Tops. If you don’t know what I am talking about, if you do not know who The Four Tops are, if you are not familiar with their music, well, then, I really don’t know what to do with you. Maybe a time-out. Oh wait, I don’t believe in them. And I certainly cannot spank you. So, for now, I will give you “what am I going to do with you” shrug and make a note to myself to meet with you later, privately, to give you a quick tutorial in Motown music and to remind you what is truly cool.
“Sugar Pie, honey bunch,” they are singing, “you know that I love you….I can’t help myself…”
Can’t help myself has been a topic in parenting class recently. In behavior speak, this is called impulse control. Which is the stuff young kids lack.
Let’s not even get to kids yet. Judging by the empty box of Wheat Thins and Manchego cheese next to my computer (we will overlook the half-empty wine bottle, but we both know it’s here), I would add that impulse control is something that 56-year-olds aren’t exactly full of, either.
Sure, I told myself that, say, twelve Wheat Thins were enough, and that a few slivers of cheese is all I need (and that opening the second bottle of wine was just asking for trouble) but when push came to shove, my impulses kicked the derriere of my control.
Impulse control is a wily thing. You have it one minute, and the next minute you are completely consumed by other forces. You tell yourself that you are giving up caffeine, that it makes you jittery and gives you ulcers, and the next minute you are face down on the floor with yesterday’s funky old coffee filter stuck to you lips, sucking in the old grounds.
And that’s adult behavior.
Impulse control in the hands of a preschooler, well, you can just imagine. Oh wait, you don’t have to imagine. You are living it. Want some wine?
Preschoolers know a lot of stuff. It amazes us how much they know. It also confuses us, however, because we tend to mix up “knowing” with “being able to retrieve the information at appropriate situations and overpower impulse with intellect.” Easy mix-up.
What does your kid know already? Let’s just name a few things:
Don’t run into the street.
Don’t unbuckle your car seat.
Don’t pull the cat’s tail.
Don’t sneak candy from the Halloween bowl.
Don’t take Mommy’s lipstick and practice making “M”s and “N”s on the wall.
Don’t stick stuff up your nose.
Don’t pick your nose. Or anyone else’s nose.
Don’t scream while you are waiting for the toast. Screaming doesn’t make the toaster go any faster.
Don’t throw your new toy on the ground just because I didn’t open the stupid package the way you wanted me to.
There is no wrong way to open a stupid package, anyway.
Don’t hit your sister even though she’s been bugging you all morning.
Get the idea?
Now…how many of those things does your child NEVER EVER EVER do?
I am presuming none of you answered that your child never does any of those things. And if one of you did answer that way, then why on earth are you sitting around reading an article on parenting? Go. Get up, get dressed and go accept your Most Awesome Parent award at the Kodak Theater. And don’t expect any of us to be your friend anymore. There is such a thing as being too awesome, you know.
When we rely on their impulse control to keep our kids in line, we are not only setting ourselves – and our kids – up for failure, we are not respecting the reasonable expectations of their developmental stages. And, we are going to be feeling and projecting a lot of disappointment, exasperation, and frustration towards our child. And sooner or later, that comes back to bite us.
So, instead, we need to give our children appropriate doses of power, of choice, or frustration; we need to set them up for success. And in doing so, we get the added benefit of not feeling like our heads are going to explode any minute.
A single example:
Your child runs away from you. You say to him, calmly, while he is still in his car seat, in the parking lot, “now remember, you need to be safe and not run from me.” Or you say, “remember to wait for me at the corner so I can cross the street with you” or, “Listen, you little snot-nosed rug rat, I’ve HAD it with your running away” (for the purposes of this article I am not judging).
Your child listens, nods, agrees; she can even recite back to you why it isn’t safe to run away from Mommy or Daddy. You unbuckle the car seat. She bolts.
Yes, she bolts. You yell. You chase. You grab. You lecture. She promises. You reiterate, for good measure. She is contrite (or exultant, high on her victory). You hug.
Then she bolts again.
There is another way, my friends.
Do not give your child the opportunity to fail, to defy you, to get hit by a car. You can do this while still building his confidence that he is capable of making good choices (even when he isn’t making them right now).
You pull into the parking lot and you say to your child, “I am going to help you remember not to run away because it is my job to keep you safe.”
Try not to say too much more than that because after a few paragraphs, we are pretty much nothing but white noise to our kids. And spouses.
And then you unbuckle the car seat, help your child out and NEVER EVER LET GO OF HIS HAND UNTIL YOU GET INTO THE BUILDING.
He will protest. He will negotiate. He will yell. And you will look at him with compassionate detachment and shrug. If you feel an overwhelming need to talk and if he is listening, you can say, “we can try it again tomorrow (or next month, whatever) to see if you are ready to keep yourself safe.”
It’s not a magic strategy. It’s not flawless, but it works. I promise you that it works.
Now, pass the wine and cheese over here. And open up a new box of Wheat Thins, wouldja? And don’t be giving me that “what about your impulse control?” look. I’ve had a hard day.
By: Ann Brown
Doing the work I do and having grown children who no longer pick their noses in public or have screaming tantrums at Whole Foods, affords me a certain amount of, um, flexibility with the truth. I mean, my kids are 25 and 30 years old and they are great kids. They make me look like I knew what I was doing when I raised them.
Which, of course, I didn’t. Nobody knows what they are doing in the middle of doing it. Raising kids is pretty much a leap of faith and a commitment to not keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Yeah, I talked a good talk even back then and I totally lorded over Robin that I WAS A PARENTING INSTRUCTOR and he was an electrician and that meant that I was right about everything, but I was just as clueless as the rest of the hoi polloi.
Which is why it is helpful when my grown kids tell me where I went wrong. And by “helpful”, I mean it is a huge pain in the derriere and nobody asked them, anyway.
Still, you can’t unring a bell. So I endeavor to listen with an open mind when they tell me these things. And I endeavor to share honestly with you about the mistakes I’ve made so you can benefit from my cluelessness. And if you cannot benefit from my cluelessness, then I endeavor to offer really good coffee and snacks in class. And wine in my private groups. Because, you know, raising kids is hard, and eating brownies and drinking wine helps take the edge off. Even when your kids are 25 and 30 and doing great.
Last summer, one of my kids made a comment about my parenting that blew my mind. We were talking about how vehemently he refused to do things he didn’t want to do, and how it was nearly impossible to talk him into trying new things.
He said, “I wish you would have forced me.”
I said, “What are you talking about? You were very strong-willed. And besides, I wanted to give you a voice in the decisions.”
“Yeah” he said, “but you should have just forced me to do some of the stuff. I would have had more experiences, you know?”
Since then, I have been mulling this over. Not only does it fly in the face of my general parenting philosophy, I actually don’t know how I would have forced him to, for instance, go to summer camp. Tie him up and throw him on the bus?
I get his point, however. When it comes to pushing someone (or myself) out of the comfort zone, I tend to err on the side of DON’T. On the side of STAY. On the side of IT’S NO BIG DEAL. CLIMB BACK INTO BED AND HUNKER DOWN.
Clearly, there has to be a middle ground in this. I couldn’t have been the kind of parent who, say, throws a screaming kid into the deep end of the pool. That isn’t who I am. And I had VERY articulate children. Even at age four, they presented strong arguments against my opinions. I remember one of my kids – at age three – saying to Robin, “what makes you uniquely qualified to know if I am tired? It’s my body.”
So, hearing that he wished I had not given him so much power is an intriguing thought to me.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I didn’t let them make all their own decisions about everything. It wasn’t complete Woodstock over at our house back then. But when it came to issues that pushed me out of my comfort zone, I tended to not push the kids that way. So, for instance, if the kids made a stink about, say, taking a hike on a beautiful day and the truth was that I really didn’t want to have to get dressed and leave the house that day, I let it slide. Or if they hated soccer after one game and I was secretly relieved not to have to schlep them to practices and games, I let it slide and let them quit.
And I was probably wrong to have done that. So I tried to remedy it by forcing the kids to take a walk the last time they were here. They said, “we are grownups now. You can’t force us to take a walk.”
I said, “I am old and might die soon.”
We had a nice walk.
I see that the trick, now that I have the benefit of hindsight, to this forcing/giving a voice conundrum is to get very clear about where we – the parents – are on the issue. We so often tell our kids to do something before we have really processed out how important it is to us. And then when the kid refuses or argues, we automatically take an opposite stand. And a fight ensues. And we get stressed. And we run out of brownies and wine. And life sucks.
The trick is to give our kids a very clear message. This is what we are going to do because it’s something that is important to our family. Or, I would like you to try, but ultimately, it is your decision. Unfortunately, we too often give them a message that is nebulously in-between the two. We say things like, “I really, really want you to do this. You will make me very happy if you do it.” Which is really nothing more than guilt mongering for young kids.
I mean, let’s say you asked your child to clean his room, or come with you to visit Grandma or do the extra credit homework or feed the dog or take the SAT or bring you a glass of water or drive the neighbor to her doctor appointment or write a thank-you note. And your child argues that there is no time, or s/he is tired or it’s not important. The first thing we have to ask ourselves is, “how strong is my commitment to having this done? Where does it find into the big picture of the kind of kids I want to raise?” If you figure that out first, your response to your child’s refusal will come easily. And arguing will be greatly reduced. And it will stop raining and unicorns will dance in the meadow.
But you will still be out of brownies and wine.
By: Ann Brown
A parent dropped off a magazine article to me a few weeks ago, saying, “I thought you’d like this.” I am always curious to see what kinds of things you think I’d be interested in because I know I kinda have a reputation for being a bit….well, offbeat. I remember a while back, a parent in my class brought me a book on parenting by the alignment of the stars, certain that I had already read it, perhaps even co-authored it. And I still have the article a parent gave me when I taught in LA, on how to raise your child without ever saying the word no; with a personal note attached: I bet you agree with this, huh?
I hope I don’t need to tell you that I most certainly do NOT agree with that idea. Although I do feel that we say no to our kids before we are committed to enforcing it, and that causes all sorts of problems.
But I digress…
Admittedly, I do embrace some of the more Bohemian ideas in life; however, I have not raised my kids by the alignment of the stars, never telling them no, hydroponically, speaking only Esperanto, in a Skinner Box, or by feeding them food that correlates to their inner temperaments. Okay, well, I did do the food–to-temperament thing but only because my son really did like the fruits that grow high on trees. (It’s a Waldorf thing.)
But this parent last week was right on target with me. I loved that article she gave me, titled, “The Benefits of Boredom”. It’s so refreshing to read something academic; something with scientific data that supports my soapbox pontificating. I knew from years of being a parent and more years of being a teacher that our kids do not get enough “off duty” time. I knew it in my intellect and I knew it in my heart, and here it was in black and white: “…some experts think that allowing kids to do nothing may be the most creativity-building activity of all.”
Pretty revolutionary words in this age of in-utero Baby Mozart.
There was an expression in the article that I particularly liked: unbroken days. That expression evoked in me visions of warm, sunny days, long summer afternoons and full relaxation. As parents, the first thing we relinquish to our new life is the promise of unbroken days. Who among us doesn’t long for an entire month, week, day, even an hour of uninterrupted time? To begin a project knowing that we don’t have to stop until we are done. To sit quietly with our thoughts. To be the master of our own time. To be free of the insidious alarm clock within us that finds us only half-enjoying our free time, never knowing when we will be called away, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Anyone with kids knows what I am talking about. We are so burdened with schedules, time limits, hurrying, doing, doing, doing.
And yet, we visit this burden upon our children. In our sincere and noble quest to enrich our children’s lives we might have forgotten the value of doing nothing. “The moment you start slotting things in and breaking up time, you’re breaking up the opportunity for discovery,” reads the article. It goes on to praise giving kids space to daydream. A first grade teacher remembers scolding one of her students for daydreaming during a lesson on the letter M, but when she asked the child what he was thinking about when he was supposed to be thinking about the letter M, he replied, “I was wondering… if people are flying in a jet that’s going faster than the speed of sound, would that change their conversation?” A daydream worthy of Einstein, to be sure.
Summer is here and with it comes the rite of modern society: summer activity sign-ups. The papers are filled with summer camp advertisements, classes, enrichment programs. It’s easy to get pulled along. It’s easy to think that your kids are missing out on important opportunities if they aren’t enrolled in Advanced Papier Mache class, or Conversational Sanskrit, or SAT for Tots. It’s easy to think that your child needs a handful of playdates during a week-long school break. It’s difficult to swim against the stream, to introduce your family to doing nothing. We all want to avoid hearing the dreaded, “I’m bored” when it’s only 10AM on the first Monday morning of a three-month summer vacation.
My sister and I used to perform “plays” for the neighborhood kids when we were young. These plays were conceived in long, boring, hot summer days when we had given up bugging my mom to take us to the beach, to take us to a friend’s house, to take us ANYWHERE. We flopped around on the backyard lawn for a few hours and then we started on that day’s play. Lucky for us, the rest of the neighborhood kids were as bored as we were, else they would have walked out on our daily musical extravaganzas, which consisted mainly of my sister putting various costumes on me while singing the “ya da da da ta da” theme from The Can-Can. But the point is, we didn’t need to be enrolled in a children’s’ theater class (though our critics might disagree) to inspire us; we simply needed the time and the absence of distraction.
I am not against all extracurricular activities. And spending a summer or a weekend at home, but glued to the tube or in front of the computer is also not what I am talking about. I am talking about giving our kids the gift of unbroken days. Letting them be bored. Letting them discover their thoughts, their inner quietude, letting them discover themselves.
And discovering who you are is a truly enriching activity.
By: Ann Brown
The mistake I want to talk about this month is difficult to label in a few words. I guess I could call it thinking that I needed to entertain or engage my kids when I was home with them. I know that it’s nearly impossible to get anything done when you are home with young children; what I am trying to figure out is why. Well, I know why; what I am trying to figure out is how to get the balance back.
In class, I often refer to other cultures or other generations when attempting to get a perspective on the problems parents face today. I think that one big difference is that parents today have somehow gotten the notion that it is their job to play with their kids. I know that’s a simplistic way to put it and I certainly don’t mean to say that we should never play with our children. But we do seem to devote a lot of time to dealing with the cry of, “Mom! Dad! I’m bored” or “play with me!” Even if we aren’t playing with them, we are explaining to them why we aren’t. Either way, we aren’t getting our things done.
This is not an article about how to be more efficient at home, or how to organize your chores. This is, instead, a more philosophical look at the messages we give our kids when we allow their activities to rule our lives.
Those of you who have sat through my endless analysis of the PBS series of “Frontier House” will have to humor me one more time because I think the lessons learned from that show are worthy of considering. (Quick recap: modern families spent eight or nine months living in conditions that were as close to actual frontier families’ lives as the producers could recreate.)
The parents in those cabins didn’t waste a whole lot of time helping their kids find something to do all day. Not only did the parents have to tend to their chores; so did the kids. It was a matter of survival. I see some tremendously important messages in that: one, that life demands things of us and it isn’t ours to whine and protest and have hissy fits about it; and, two, that each of us holds an essential link in the chain. We are responsible for each other, as well as for ourselves.
In class, I call this a sense of purpose. And I do believe that it is one of the two keys (the other being a sense of belonging) to a healthy and happy life (and a healthy and happy society, in my opinion, but that’s an article for another month).
When a child has a hard time separating from Mom or Dad in preschool, I sometimes like to approach the problem from a new angle. Instead of devoting lots and lots of time to feeding the role of being sad or homesick I offer a new role to the child. I entrust the child with a task, a contribution, a sense of purpose in the class. I do this because I believe that we all rise to a higher place when people are counting on us. Someone in my class a few weeks ago made a parallel analogy. She was in an elevator that got stuck between floors. This woman was a bit claustrophobic, and when the elevator stopped she began to panic, feeling her heart starting to race. She looked to the other woman in the elevator for comfort and help. But before she could say what she had planned to say (which was, “I’m freaking out. I am going to faint”), the other woman started hyperventilating. “I’m claustrophobic,” the other woman told her, “I’ve got to get out of here.” Well, in a remarkable turn, the woman in my class immediately assumed the role of the one in control. She talked the other woman through her anxiety attack and kept her calm until the elevator started up again. It wasn’t until the woman in my class was safely back in her hotel room that she realized what had happened.
When we are necessary to others, to our family, to our community, we rise to the occasion. The mom in my class rose to the occasion. The kids living in the frontier times (or, at least the kids living in the televised recreated frontier times) quickly realized that milking the cows or chopping the wood or taking care of the things they have or even simply staying out of the way of their parents were things that were necessary to eating, staying warm, and having things. And, in the end, having purpose, being a contributor to the family, raised their sense of worth and self-esteem to heights that few modern children possess. In fact, when these kids were interviewed after returning home to their modern lives, they all expressed feelings of emptiness and depression despite their TV’s and CD players and Game Boys and action figures and full refrigerators. They felt happier, more connected when they were back in the frontier house with only one handmade toy and long hours of chores.
To begin a quest for a sense of purpose for our children we need to put our own lives under a microscope and evaluate the lifestyle we’ve created. As I’ve said many times in class, it is indeed a challenge to create a sense of survival in a world that offers pizza delivery, gas fireplaces, twenty-four hour online shopping and already-peeled onions at Zupan’s. It is indeed a challenge to find meaningful contributions our young children can make to their family and their community. But it is a quest so worthy of our time and efforts because with a sense of purpose, almost everything else falls into place.
By: Joe Newman
Our boys are in trouble. They are falling behind girls academically, socially, and psychologically. Consider the following:
• Boys are 30% more likely to drop out of school before graduation.
• Girls outperform boys at all levels of schooling, from elementary to graduate programs.
• Boys are 11% less likely to get a B.A. and 10% less likely to get a graduate degree than girls are.
• Boys make up 2/3 of special education programs.
• Boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed and medicated for ADHD.
There has been a confluence of cultural shifts responsible for this dangerous trend, a sort of perfect storm that is ravaging the psyches of our boys. The shifts fall into one of three categories:
Shifts in what our boys do with their free time, shifts in our schools, and shifts in the parenting. Understanding these three areas will point us in the direction of how we can take practical steps to save our boys.
First, boys are spending a lot of their free time playing video games and watching porn on the internet.
• By age 21 boys have spent an average of 10,000 hours gaming, 2/3rds of that in isolation.
• The average boy watches 50 porn clips per week.
The result of this is that boys are developing “arousal addictions” and they are developing minds that seek constant change, novelty, excitement, and arousal. This makes them unprepared for classrooms that are predominantly interactively passive, static, and analog in nature. It also makes it more difficult for them to develop real relationships which build gradually and subtly (from Philip Zimbardo: The demise of guys? – http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/zimchallenge.html).
Next, the culture of our schools is increasingly alienating boys.
• Boys are expelled 3 times as often as girls.
• They are suspended 2.5 times as often.
• They are 2.75 times as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability.
• They are 3.24 times as likely to be diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.
Ali Carr-Chellman of Penn State attributes the above to three factors. First there is a “zero tolerance” policy toward weapons or violence. This is often translated into not only a ban on real and toy weapons but also writing about these things or about topics that seem destructive or violent in nature. Second, there is an appalling lack of male role models in our elementary schools. Ten years ago 14% of elementary school teachers were male. Today that number has dropped to 7%. And third, there has been a compressing of our children’s curriculum in essence making “kindergarten the new second grade”. The effect being that teachers are under pressure to move children quickly through the curriculum and there is much less tolerance for the child who is active and needs to move (predominantly boys).
Finally, in the last 30 years, our parenting culture has shifted from an emphasis on raising children who respect their parents to raising children who respect themselves. Consequently, our children are more confident, assertive, and willful. Add to this that the ways in which parents deal with conflict has shifted to using more and more communication and explaining instead of action consequences; the result is children who are stronger but more difficult to control. This lack of effective boundaries also stunts a child’s capacity for intimacy and promotes feelings of anger and isolation. (For more on this see my book Raising Lions or my blog ‘The Beautiful Tyrant’.)
Add these three factors together and we can see how boys are slowly being marginalized at our schools and consequently within our culture.
Here are some practical steps parents can take to bring back our boys:
• Move all computers into the public areas of the house. This will prevent a lot of your children’s ability/desire to watch porn. And use a porn filter to make it more difficult when you’re not home.
• Place a limit on video gaming time. Between 2 to 4 hours a week at most. Let your child choose how to divvy up the time.
• Encourage activities that aren’t virtual: Building projects, theater, Cub & Boy Scouts, sports and playing outside.
• Watch the TED talk by Gever Tulley “5 dangerous things you should let your kids do” then do these with your sons.
• Advocate for, and encourage, your sons to write about and express what they find interesting, even if it involves weapons, battles, and things being blown up.
• Learn to set action consequences instead of giving information in response to problem behavior.
• Create real jobs for your children to do that support the daily functioning of your home. This goes beyond traditional chores to include learning to make dinner, changing light bulbs, doing dishes or laundry, spending a day painting the kitchen with Mom and/or Dad. This can contribute greatly to your child feeling a sense of responsibility and connection to his immediate community.
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators, and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.