ABCDEFG- Academics and Developmental Learning

March 17, 2011 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

Kids Mat

I love reading, and books, and language. I like academia and I’m a bit of a (non-technical) geek. Which means, research shows, that it is very important that I do not push my child in any of those directions, and instead allow her to slowly, developmentally, find her way to her own academic interests. So I resist my inner-desire to help her read at three, as I did. I resist my desire to point out letters, and sounds, and teach her the ABC’s. In fact, so great is my resistance, that we do not even sing the ABC song in my household. Where academic learning is involved, we’re a no-fly zone. It’s all developmental around here.

Or it was.

Somewhere, somehow, just this week, my daughter heard the ABC song. And she loved it! And she started requesting it. A lot. The first day she requested it, she asked me to sing it perhaps, no joke, 50 times. She wanted it for diaper changes. She wanted it in the car. She wanted it for her lullaby.

Two days later, she had not tired of the ABC song. My moratorium had taken a hit. And then, a startling bit of academic development happened. I opened the refrigerator with her in my arms, and she pointed to a plastic tub of S-A-L-S-A, put her fingers on the words, and said “ABC’s.”

Now I realize that all of you with children older than mine (she’s 16 months) have already experienced these learning surges that seem to come from the ether. One moment she doesn’t know something, nor does she know the first thing about it, and the next moment she’s the resident expert.

But still, the alphabet?? Letters? Letters which later make words which then make lines of poetry, or sentences, which lead to brilliant ideas, short stories, and novels? In our non-academic, play-based, developmental household?

I had a brief internal struggle and then thought: Okay, hold onto your onesie, because if ABC’s you want, ABC’s you’ll get. Since last week, I’ve begun to sound out some letters when we read, to say the title of the book and then to re-read it, saying each letter one by one. She pays closer attention to the letters-part of the title and often asks me to do them again.

I know that there may come a point, possibly very soon, when she loses interest in letters, numbers, words, the alphabet. And I hope to remain as committed to play-based learning at that point, as I am now. To leave her with a few vowels in one pocket and a couple of consonants in the other and ignore reading for as long as they do in Sweden (age seven!). But, as long as she is asking for it, demanding it, delighting in it…then a moratorium on the moratorium! For this moment, I am following my child’s lead.

I’m grateful for my knowledge of developmental theory and my continual research which tells me that I have not been given carte blanche to push as hard as I can from now until my daughter is safely deposited at the doorstep of an ivy league college with a full scholarship. This means that even if she retains a childhood-long interest in academics, it will still be child-led, and as much as possible, play-based. But I’m equally grateful for moments when I can see past the general and hear who my kid is telling me she is. And for this moment, she is, like me, a person who loves reading, and books, and language.

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[Photo Credit: camknows]

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Superstoned: Hanging with a Toddler

March 3, 2011 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

kid going for the coffee

Having a toddler is like hanging out with a friend who is super high. When you’re not. I actually have a lot of experience with this. I don’t do drugs and rarely drink, but I do have friends who partake in either or both with great frequency and many times I have found myself with a group of revelers in various states of extreme inebriation and general tripped-outedness while I’m stone cold sober. I know to most folks this sounds like the party equivalent of going to the dentist’s office for a few extractions. But I’ve actually had a lot of fun, and some creative and freeing moments being around others who are acting as wild, entertaining, sometimes-annoying and as totally out there as… well … a toddler.

First of all, when others diminish their inhibitions, it doesn’t really seem fitting to hold onto yours. So if everyone is jumping up and doing Karaoke … well there you are too. This is the same as being with a toddler. I have found myself in line for coffee at my extremely hip local café (celebrity sighting of this week: Tilda Swinton) with my extremely heavy toddler in a carrier, bopping along to the ultra cool indie music that we were meant to studiously ignore, while waxing enthusiastic about the “doggggeee” who goes “woof-woof” and referring to everyone in line as our “Friends!” while blowing them air kisses. It’s now clear why ravers and small children adorn themselves with essentially, the exact same things. My toddler is the only one genuinely without inhibition, but for the purposes of being able to enjoy ourselves together, I’m there too.

When you’re with a toddler, a simple item, or moment, can become the subject of tripped-out awe. A reflection in aluminum foil, the splash of a puddle stomp, a squirrel eating, a helicopter overhead –all of these can be moments of amazement. And not just ordinary amazement, but the kind we only ever see in the adult world when someone is really, really high. My toddler will literally look at a dog with say, a cone around its neck, and proclaim, “Wowwwww!” while turning around to follow it. This being-taken-with and enamored-of ordinary objects can be extraordinarily frustrating when we are trying to get somewhere or do something, just as it can be incredibly frustrating to try to have a serious conversation with a stoned person. It can also be a delight. I am constantly forced to slow down a thousand-fold. And even though I don’t honestly always see the “wow-ness” in the things she seems them in, I am inspired by the energy of watching someone be able to be so wowed.

Lately my toddler has been really into putting on my articles of clothing. She gets into all manner of drawers and boxes and she finds stashes I’d completely forgotten about, like my colorful stretchy winter gloves. She will now often walk around with one glove on her hand, Michael Jackson style. She then not only prances around with her one glove, but also turns it over and over in a kind of wonder, very reminiscent of Beyoncé turning her gloved hand back and forth in the video for “Put a Ring On It,” only if Beyoncé had an amazed, stoner look on her face. My daughter is also very excited about belts lately and likes to not only point out belts on myself and on others, but she also likes to say “Hiyyyyyy” to them with excitement so infectious and robust that I feel I should greet my belt as well. Again, perfectly acceptable club behavior. When I’m with my toddler, I do best when I just go with the general stoned-ness of things. These days, she does have me saying “Hello” to inanimate objects too, and waxing enthusiastic at the sight of the things like the garbage truck. “Look,” I’ll say, “Garbage Truck! Hiyyyy garbage truck, hi! Kisses to the garbage truck!!! Mmmwahh!! Mmmwahh!! Yay, garbage truck, yay!!”

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[Photo Credit: limaoscarjuliet]

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This is Not a Male Bash: Male Role Models, Female Parenting and Social Inequality

February 17, 2011 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

I have a confession to make.

(And believe me, no one is more tired of Mommy Confessions than I am. Mommy Confessions tend to give the illusion of opening the door to honest communication about the real challenges of parenting, but instead they wind up being a false apologia for bad parental practices disguised as shame but actually playing a who-can-be-more-funny about hurting children while secretly thinking of oneself as the hero of the story because of the confessional itself (definitely a column for another day). I digress.)

The confession:

I don’t have enough men in my life. Or I should say, in my daughter’s life. And I wish that were different. It’s not that I don’t give credence to the idea of the importance of male role models in a child’s life because I do. It’s that … it’s that … and here is the real confession: When I think of parental figure role models who we know, almost all of whom are parents themselves, I usually like how women parent much better than how men parent. Egads! I said it!

Now let me just say (hello, friends!), I know of at least half a dozen straight families of which I am blown away by how thoughtfully the male partner parents. But in most straight families I know, the mother is doing so much more of the heavy lifting and so much more of the thoughtful, careful parenting. And worse than that, and heartbreaking to see, I often see fathers who hinder good parenting with impatience – who would rather quickly fix a problem than try to understand what’s going on – and with a lack of sustained time, energy, and attention to issues of parenting, or to their children.

And this is not just limited to fathers I personally know. I have overheard dads talking at the playground or park, or before or after children’s classes and programs. They seem to studiously avoid discussion of childrearing, and if their talk does stray into that realm, they quickly turn to issues of equipment, such as stroller comparisons, or to reporting on their child’s latest feat, and then just as quickly move back to a non-parenting related topic.

I am also on several online parenting boards, and they are primarily filled with mothers. These mothers are seeking peer advice and resources about important and necessary questions related to, say, the nutritional and sleep needs of their children, or how to solve important and pressing family issues. I realize that some of these women are stay at home moms whose primary occupation is parenting and/or the maintenance of the domestic sphere. But many of the women are also working full-time outside of the home and still make time to focus on parenting issues. Yet I almost never see men on these boards in spite of some boards reaching out specifically to men.

I do realize that many women are terrible parents and many men are wonderful parents. However, I am talking here about a larger trend, not individual cases. And in the larger scheme of things, men are not prioritizing parenting.

These men are not bad people. Many are good, wonderful, smart people. And I hear from some of these men too that they feel criticized by women for their failure to be more involved with their children or their failure to parent better (or as they see it, parent more like the other partner wants, which is not necessarily better). These men often express something along the lines of: Give me a break! They want a break from the relentless criticism which is taken as demoralizing and harsh, and brings up feelings of hurt and anger. Of course that would not be fun for anyone.

A long-distance friend of mine, a very enlightened straight father, talks about how people often critique or offer his wife advice when she is out with the kids no matter how well things are going. Yet when he goes out with the kids, he can be practically dangling them by the feet and he usually gets very positive responses … “Oh, look at the great dad!” So society tells women they cannot do enough for their children and tells men they are heroes for simply walking around the block with their children. No wonder it sounds so harsh when women in a relationship try to tell their men otherwise. No one wants to go from hero to villain in the blink of an eye. And the walking around the block hero narrative is so much more appealing. Who wouldn’t want to be seen that way? Yet it isn’t honest.

And it’s important for women who co-parent with men to be honest about the amount of work involved in parenting, and that we as a society work toward shifting our sensibility about women’s and men’s responsibilities toward their children.

Our culture, particularly the perpetuation of patriarchy, hurts these poor clueless-seeming men as much as these beleaguered-seeming women. I would like to see things be different.

What would I like to see?

1. Women demanding and expecting equal partnership in parenting with men.
2. Women, straight women in particular, having children on their own if they can’t find a responsible, giving man with whom to co-parent.
3. Men stepping up and opening themselves up to the time-consuming hard work and attendant joy that is thoughtful parenting.

Is this just an extended male bash? I hope not. Men are acculturated to function in the world so differently from how women are acculturated. They’re taught to take action, to gently let things slide in social relationships, to be comfortable in their bodies and in taking up space, to be courageous, to endeavor to fix problems. Those are all qualities I would like my daughter to be exposed to and to learn from.

I just hope that as some of us are teaching a new generation of girls to take on more traditionally male characteristics, that we’re teaching a new generation of boys to prioritize communication, emotions, and relationships, to be willing to sit with a problem or difficulty before acting, to be vulnerable, and to respect the space of others – so that the next generation of men feel comfortable and at ease with the role of good parent.

To those men who are already are good parents: I salute you. And hope you’ll come hang out with my daughter.

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[Photo Credit: Flickr Image: Disgustipado]

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Modern Parenting: Please Pass the Olives

February 3, 2011 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

child holding mom's hand- setting limits compassionately

I’ve had a fruit fly infestation in my apartment since last summer, when a forgotten bag of potatoes at the back of the pantry rotted. I’ve been at war with them ever since. I scour the web, searching for new ways I might get rid of them and thus finally win. I set up fruit, cider vinegar, and red wine traps. I’ve papered the kitchen with disgusting fly strips. When the population gets below a hundred, I start counting them, awaiting the day it will be below 20, below 10, and then voila, they will be gone and I will have won the war.

We often feel we are at war with our children. We focus our parental resources and attention on minimizing their infractions; we count them when they are finally few enough to be counted, and we await the day when they will disappear altogether. We are so afraid of being labeled a parent whose child is out of control, that a book like “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is debated by parents and pundits who applaud author Amy Chua for her toughness, reserving most critique not for her overall goals, but for the most sensational examples of her authoritarian parenting, such as calling her kids “garbage,” allowing no play dates or sleepovers, or insisting (it’s a house rule) that they be number one in everything they try (except drama and gym). Many pundits are rallying to the familiar cry of how soft modern parents are (the cry of each generation), and how much harder we need to push our children. There is no insult greater than, “You can’t control your child.” Or, worse, “Your child is a spoiled brat.” Compare that to, “Your child is depressed.” Or, “Your child looks very anxious.” We don’t bristle as much at the latter because although these should be greater causes for concern, they are also often assumed to be societal, whereas out of control, or “bratty” behavior is almost always assumed to be a lack of parental firmness. And if a little firmness is good, society says, extreme control is even better.

There is an illusion that we are inundated with parents who dote on, spoil, coddle, and protect their child from any difficulty life may bring. Yet in reality, when parents fall down on the job, it is most often in failing to meet their child’s needs, whether by ambivalent parenting (alternating being too strict and then too permissive), whether by failing to set limits, or whether by over-controlling their children. Yet parents who problem-solve with their children, who listen to their children’s concerns with compassion and empathy, who are creative in their approach to setting and enforcing limits, are very often mocked or caricatured as parents who let their children rule the roost, don’t wear the pants in the family, get walked all over by their children, and every other similar cliché, all by which bully us into adopting parenting styles or using parenting techniques which aren’t best for our children or our family.

Children learn from what they see us do, not from what we tell them to do. If we treat them with compassion, empathy, and respect, they eventually strive to model compassion, empathy, and respect. Some of the best-mannered children I know were never “taught manners.” They were never told to say ‘please’ or say ‘thank you’. The parent simply modeled please, thank you, and excuse me especially when talking to the child. If you don’t believe this will work with your child, do an experiment. Try it for two weeks. Speak to your child with the maximum amount of kindness, respect, and empathy you can muster at any given moment. Do not let go of limits. Don’t mistake empathy for permissiveness. Empathy and respect with limits might look like the following:

During a calm moment, a family discusses limits and agreements about how long children can play in the morning before the family heads out the door to work, school, daycare, etc., as well as how much notice the children want before it’s time to go, and any other logistical concerns. The family talks this through with everyone giving input and ideas. In this scenario, it is now morning; the parent has given notice that it’s time to leave, and the child refuses to stop playing with toys…

“Awwww,” you say, (without sarcasm), “I really see that you want to keep playing with those toys and not leave the house. I see how sad and frustrated you are that we have to leave now. It’s time to leave now, so we can’t play with the toys anymore. Please take mama’s hand, and we’ll walk out the door together…Oh, I see you’re very upset about leaving the toys. I see you don’t want to take mama’s hand. I’m sorry we have to leave now. Please take mama’s hand, or you can go up with mama [carried] and we can walk out together. Thank you for giving mama your hand. That makes it so much easier to go to the car and go to work. [Talking as you’re walking – I know no one has all day here]. I know that was hard for you leave your toys, and you did that for mama. I really appreciate that.”

So the limit is basically: we’re leaving now. The limit is maintained. But the child is approached with empathy, compassion, and in this case, a dose of manners.

In his article, “The Beautiful Tyrant,” Joe Newman gave an example involving giving a time-out to a two-year-old for climbing up on a coffee table and throwing a bowl of olives. This whole scenario begs so many questions, the most basic of which might be: A bowl of olives on a coffee table in a house where a two-year-old lives? Really?

In this scenario, the child, named Jacob, first climbs onto a coffee table. This climbing incident and the coffee table itself get short shrift in “The Beautiful Tyrant,” however we can see here that tracing a child’s behavior to its cause is a much more effective way of solving problems than simply treating the symptoms. In this case, let’s begin with a few words about coffee tables:

-They’re the leading cause of furniture-related injury in the home. From a baby-proofing perspective, many parents ditch the coffee table in the early years – not a bad choice.

-If a family does keep a coffee table, and sets a no-climbing limit, the child needs to always be removed from climbing on the coffee table with a simple, “We don’t climb on the table, here is where you can climb.”

-Lastly, a coffee table is one of the few surfaces that is at your child’s height. It is asking too much of the developmental stage of a two-year-old to pepper it with items that cannot be touched. Try putting child-friendly items on the coffee table.

In the scenario painted in “The Beautiful Tyrant,” after two-year-old Jacob grabs the bowl of olives, “The father catches the bowl before Jacob can throw it and asks, ‘What do you want to do?’” What sort of a question is this? Jacob has just tried to throw a bowl. For starters, he appears to want to throw stuff, in which case, redirect him to a suitable item for throwing. Looking deeper though, at the cause of Jacob’s behavior, he may also want to communicate how seriously he doesn’t like olives and how much he does not want to be offered them again, in which case, empathize with him … “Oh, olives are really yuck-yuck for you! Jacob does not like olives!” Or, he may want an untouchable item removed from one of the few eye-level surfaces in the house. And you know what? That’s a pretty reasonable request. Because we’re not at war with our children and every instance of setting limits is not a battle that has to be won by the parents so the child can see who wears the pants. Our children will learn with our guidance, and our coaching, as they are developmentally ready. And if we feel like we are losing battles along the way, we may want to take a moment to reframe the entire context of our relationship. Our children will take their guidance in what kind of people to be in the world, in how to behave toward others, and in how to give and command respect, in how to give and receive empathy and compassion, by seeing how we behave…especially toward them.

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Parenting: Setting Limits Compassionately

January 20, 2011 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Parenting, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

daughter holding hands with parents- modern family

Dear Mr. Newman,

We have many areas of disagreement, yet also some important areas of agreement:

You and I agree on a central point of this discussion: Children need clear limits and parents who will enforce those limits for the physical and emotional health and safety of their children (and sometimes simply for the needs of the parents). I advocate setting and enforcing limits.

We also agree that using corporeal punishment and shaming does not achieve obedience or compliance in the long run. I, however, disagree that using disconnection and enforced isolation should be used to enforce limits.

You seem to be genuinely concerned that children who are parented without limits can develop a host of behavioral problems as children and as adults. I share those concerns. And yet I add other concerns. Children who are parented with disconnection and conditional love learn to disconnect emotionally and learn to treat others with a carrot and stick instead of with empathy and compassion. They struggle harder as adults to be emotionally present and they struggle with self-discipline issues and a lack of intrinsic motivation. Further, parents who use punishments learn that they must continually up the ante, increasing the severity of punishments as children get older, because their punishments do not curb the aberrant behavior; punishments eclipse the opportunity to understand the root cause and underlying unmet needs of a child, opening a possibility to stop the behavior in the first place, and to give children the coaching they need.

Whether it involves yelling, giving time outs, spanking, or taking away privileges, enforcing limits without resorting to punishment is challenging. It requires commitment, creativity and courage. Evolving one’s parenting techniques from time outs (or any form of punishment) to connection parenting – using empathy, dialogue and problem-solving -involves a learning curve. I recommend that instead of continuing to refine their time out technique, parents should learn how to set and maintain limits without using punishments (reading recommendations to follow and links provided below).

Some points of disagreement:

You write that I do a “good job of capturing the sentiments of the child-centered parenting movement, and in so doing laid open its many fatal flaws.” It’s not clear how you define a “child-centered parenting movement”. In your interpretation, empathetic becomes permissive and connection becomes child-centered. You argue that parenting without rewards and punishments is permissive parenting, but you do not provide evidence of this. Assuming that rewards and punishments are essential to good parenting does a disservice to parents who want to establish and enforce limits in a compassionate, empathetic way.

You attribute to me the belief that “parents must, at all costs, protect children from struggles and difficulty.” As anyone who has a child or who has worked with children knows, growing up is full of struggles and difficulty. From the crying of a newborn, to teething, to falls, to struggles with siblings and friends, to frustration over learning new skills to, most importantly, the extreme powerlessness that all children and youth feel, to the ultimate separation from parents that is part of a child’s development, children’s lives are rife with struggles and difficulty. It is impossible for parents to protect their children from every trial that life throws at them, but parents can and should help their children manage these difficulties so that they can learn appropriate and healthy coping skills to take with them into adulthood.

You also write that, “Parents must learn to allow their children to experience the consequences of their actions, to coach them through difficulties, rather than work to remove them.” I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to coach children through their difficulties (something that is impossible to do when you’ve sent them away from you), but I disagree that they unilaterally need to experience the natural consequences of their actions. We are constantly protecting children against the natural consequence of their actions, as children have no idea what the consequences are of, say, putting something poisonous or choke-able in their mouth, jumping off of a too-high structure, hitting someone, and so on. That is when we need to coach, as you wrote, not isolate and not allow them to experience unacceptable consequences, or apply consequences which make no sense and do not help them better understand what they do not yet understand.

Mr. Newman, if you knew that it were possible to set, maintain and enforce limits without resorting to disconnection and isolation, is that something you would advocate? Is it the time out itself that you believe is so important, or the need to maintain limits?

A New Approach: Connected Parenting

Many parents are told (by an endless stream of popular parenting articles and reality shows) to punish their children, and have not been exposed to alternate approaches of enforcing limits. Punishing a child feels instinctively like a misguided approach, so these parents flip back and forth between being too permissive and too harsh. They repeat empty threats, and they and their children dwell in a cycle of mutual frustration. This is not a productive situation for the parent or the child. These parents often feel like they’re drowning and are relieved to have the work of parenting taken out of the equation by applying a short-sighted, one-size-fits-all principle such as a Time Out.

If they are willing to do the work, parents can parent with empathy while also maintaining limits. In fact, establishing limits creates the space for empathy. Connected parenting establishes deep trust between parent and child, and it results in resilient, compassionate, grounded children.

Connected Parenting does not rely on one-size-fits-all techniques, but instead acknowledges the uniqueness of every situation. Parents have concrete alternatives to punishments. Aletha Solter, Ph.D., lists twenty alternatives here . Alfie Kohn outlines ten principles for parenting without rewards and punishments here . Further, I encourage The Next Family to initiate a Q&A page where readers can present scenarios or struggles and request help from a parenting coach who can offer concrete suggestions that don’t involve rewards or punishments.

Connected Parenting in Action

There are, literally, thousands of examples in the communities where this type of parenting is the norm, of parents who have dealt with an array of problems, from pre-verbal toddler “tantrums” to teen issues of rebellion and defiance. Since there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, parents do have a bit of learning to do before beginning to understand what types of solutions make the best sense for their own situation. Still, I believe it is important to be as concrete as possible. So, what have I done with my child? I try to use an empathic parenting-style as much as possible. Neither of us is perfect, and my daughter is still young, but I believe in modeling the kind of compassion and problem solving that I hope she will use to treat others. I’m certain that the specifics of our interactions are unique to her age, our life circumstances, and her temperament, but the compassion and optimism that I use to approach challenges can be applied to other parenting situations.

For example, recently my daughter started biting me. I examined when and where it was happening and looked for underlying causes. Was she hungry? Frustrated? Bored?

First, I discovered that she was biting me when she was teething, so I began carrying a teething ring in my pocket. When she tries to bite me, I say, “No bite mama,” and hand her the teething toy or ring and say, “Bite this,” and then make a lion-devouring-meat sound, “arrr, grrr, arrr.” She laughs and says “arrr, grrr, arrr” as she bites the toy. It is a playful point of connection for us, and I don’t get bitten! (In a pinch if I don’t have a teething item, I fold up a sleeve of her shirt, or mine.)

Then, I discovered that she sometimes tries to bite me when I’m taking something she shouldn’t have out of her mouth or hands, when she bites me in anger. To identify the root of the problem, I had to understand that she wanted something she couldn’t have and was mad about it.

I also discovered that the times when she would bite were exclusively the times when I would take something away with very little warning, and often when I was frustrated: “Oy, you have my phone again?!?”

I tried a three-pronged solution. First, I used the teething toy, since that was already working. Second, I kept controversial items out of reach as much as possible. Lastly, I worked at creating more connection and giving her more warning before taking an object away. For example, this morning we were taking a walk and my daughter picked up a dirty spoon from the ground and tried to put it in her mouth. I reached for it, saying: “That’s yuck-yuck, not for baby. Give to mama.” Lately this is often enough and instead of trying to bite, she will hand over the object. This time it wasn’t. “Yuck, yuck, not for baby,” I said as I gently took it from her. I went one step further and handed her the wood ring in my pocket. She didn’t want it, but I could see that we had maintained a positive connection, that she felt heard and understood. Later in the walk, we passed a soiled plastic cup lid, an item she particularly likes. She bent over to pick it up and I said, “No, not for baby.” She repeated, “No,” and stood back up without the lid.

By repeating these steps, my daughter has not only stopped trying to bite, but she is learning to give things to me when I ask for them. This is much more effective than yanking them away. And, or course, imagine if I were to have tried to treat all of this biting with a time-out? If I had treated her biting as something that needed to be “controlled” by applying an external punishment or “consequence,” she would likely still be biting me, and I would still be doling out punishments. And even if the punishments “worked,” I still would be missing an opportunity to teach and model problem-solving skills, one of the most important life skills. So I made an effort to understand the roots of her behavior in order to nip it in the bud, and teach her more appropriate behavior.

Time outs, on the other hand, teach children to deal with conflict by using force and coercion, as opposed to using dialogue and understanding. If we use time outs with our children, they will attend school and, when faced with a schoolyard dispute, have one tool in their kit for solving a conflict over turn taking on the swings: Time Outs. Assuming that our kids do not succeed in sending each other to time outs, their lack of tools may lead to frustration, anger, and ultimately further misbehavior. Modeling conflict resolution through forced dismissal is presumably less effective than teaching the tools of dialogue, good listening and creative problem solving.

So I ask, parents, what would be the connected way to handle the issues that you are currently having with your child? If we can maintain limits and connection simultaneously, is that worthwhile? Is it something worth reading up on, or going to classes for, worth learning how to do?

Connected parenting gets much easier with verbal children, where you can practice problem-solving together. As you can see, parenting without rewards and punishments involves creative problem solving and is not as black and white as using the same method of punishment for each “infraction.” Yet the rewards are vast. When parenting this way, the parent-child relationship gets stronger over time instead of more strained. When parenting this way, the solutions get easier and easier instead of more challenging. When parenting this way, teens are able to individuate in a developmentally appropriate way without having to resort to some of the more difficult common teen behaviors. And the benefit is not just for us, as parents. It’s not just about a more effective way of solving problems we’re having with our children (although it is more effective as well). When parenting this way, children learn intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, and problem solving skills. We have the opportunity to model compassion, empathy, integrity, and responsibility and as we know, children are excellent at doing what we do, not what we say.

Mr. Newman, you and I are after the same goals. We want to see our own kids, the kids we work with, and all children raised in such a way that allow them to be happy, healthy, productive, honorable members of society. I have seen so many parents achieve that through empathy and connection, and without the use of rewards and punishments, a parenting journey well worth exploring.

“Instead of child-centered parenting, let’s try relationship-based parenting,” you write. I couldn’t agree more.

BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

This reading list is taken from a response to a comment I wrote in my article, “Time Outs Are the New Spanking.” I’m adding a couple more books to that list here.

Po Bronson, in his fabulous book Nurtureshock (co-written with Ashley Merryman) compares parenting-by-a-book to the old paint-by-numbers kits and talks about how we all have an aversion to feeling like we’re parenting in a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all way. With that said, there are some books that are very worth reading: Books that are thoughtful; books that are based on substantial and impressive research including well thought-out longitudinal studies and other good science, and books that are totally paradigm-shifting. True, these are not “how-to’s” with quick and easy answers, but they are books that will get you to the answers, I believe, in a much more substantial way — one you can sustain through all of the situations that children and youth bring to us. While these are not parenting guides, they are thoughtful and amazing books:

1. If I had only one to recommend it would be, hands down, “Unconditional Parenting,” by Alfie Kohn.

2. And then: “Playful Parenting” by Lawrence J. Cohen

3. “Parenting From the Inside Out” by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell

4. “Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children,” by Thomas Gordon (an amazing book with an unfortunate title)

5. “Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting ” by John Gottman

If you twisted my arm to recommend one more, the aforementioned Nurtureshock, while I don’t always agree with the “what should we do now” conclusions that Merryman and Bronson make in relation to the science they write about, I do love reading their science journalism and learning what good research has shown us.

ADDENDUM – MORE ON READINGS

I am concerned that Mr. Newman is basing many of his ideas on intersubjective psychoanalytic theory, and in particular, Jessica Benjamin, to explain child development and support his position. He and I interpret Jessica Benjamin very differently from each other. Benjamin, a feminist, psychoanalytic theorist who is looking at Freud and, to a lesser extent, Lacan through a feminist lens, argues against female submission and male domination. She also uses Nancy Chodorow’s (another feminist theorist) work on object-relations theory, as well as Daniel Stern’s research on “attunement” (often cited by attachment parenting theorists), and supports the argument for increased connection and, by extension, against the disconnection of time outs.

Benjamin does not take on the topic of time outs directly, nor, as far as I am aware, does she look at any specific parenting philosophy, advice, techniques, studies, or theories. What she does discuss is the need for the child to understand itself as separate and other, to know it has its own will apart from its mother’s, and to know that the mother has her own will, apart from the child’s, so that the child does not ultimately come to see his or herself as dominant or submissive. Benjamin’s work is highly theoretical and abstract and it is difficult to see how her work could be used to support time outs. Because her work is so far removed from practical application, Benjamin is not a useful resource in helping parents digest and apply recent studies in neuroscience, psychological research, or parent education.

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This has been an ongoing debate between Julie Gamberg and Joe Newman.  If you have missed any of the previous articles you can find them in order below.

The Modern Time Out by Joe Newman

Time-Outs for Impulsive Behavior by Joe Newman

Time-Outs Are the New Spanking by Julie Gamberg

Parenting: Being Mean to Kids by Julie Gamberg

Child-Centered Parenting is Dangerous by Joe Newman

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Parenting: Being Mean to Kids

By: Julie Gamberg

I spent years teaching in very tough inner-city schools, and I prided myself on my great teaching, especially my strong classroom management skills. I could take a group of kids who perhaps hadn’t had breakfast, or even dinner the night before, who had somewhat or very unstable home lives, who may have had drug-addicted or prostituted parents — kids who did not come to school ready to sit down, listen and learn — and create a sense of structure, and order. I could make the day feel “safe”and contained. How did I do this? Through the use of a tough, disciplinarian, take-no-prisoners style…one which was very common in the schools I taught in and which involved creating “rewards” with charts on the board and/or a clipboard, and acknowledging and lavishly praising wanted behavior while immediately punishing – with things such as time-outs and loss of privileges – unwanted behavior. There were also promises of future reward and punishments, such as ten minutes’ free playtime, or a withheld part of recess, based on behavior. These “consequences” were applied consistently, compassionately and extremely firmly, with no “wiggle room” which might have allowed for the child’s “manipulation” of me or the situation.

Parents of my students would sometimes ask me to teach them these techniques, so they could “try to get control” of their kids at home. I was thought of as something of a parenting “expert”, although in truth the techniques I was teaching and using were in no way creative, fresh, original, or hard to come by. Parents, if you really want to apply these techniques, you do not need to look very far, and you don’t need to work very hard. They are easy to use and they are ubiquitous. They are, for starters, in every playbook of every mediocre classroom teacher I know of. They are the worst of what a “great” teacher does, and the only thing keeping a bad teacher from a classroom of complete insanity. But they are nothing to be proud of. Although I know on our hardest days it doesn’t always feel like it, controlling kids is ultimately pretty easy. After all, until they become old enough, we can simply manhandle them if we want to. We’re bigger, we’re stronger, and we know a lot more about how the world works. We feed, clothe, and shelter them. They love and worship us. They are completely at our mercy. Being mean to kids in the name of creating order is not a hard feat. Being a little bit mean is also pretty darn easy. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are not being mean, just “firm,” yet even this is relatively easy.

The hard stuff begins when we decide that parenting with control, manipulation, rewards, and punishments, will no longer be in our own parenting playbooks. Letting go of those “tried and true” workaday “solutions” to the behavior of our littles that most troubles us, and seeking to raise our children through connection, listening, empathy, reasonable limits, and yes, some reading, some talking, and some hard work on our end…that is where our highest calling as parents begins.

As I began to come into my own in the classroom, I felt proud of my teaching accomplishments – I could keep a group of kids quiet, in their seat, and for the most part engaged, and happy to be there. I had good relationships with my students. However, something nagged at me. The part of my day that involved classroom management in a very authoritative style (a lot of the day) – one I slowly came to see as downright draconian – always felt…not right. These children were not seals-in-training. They were complex human beings with an array of emotional needs and wants which were going totally unmet. The only acceptable behavior in the classroom was my way. I began to think about alternatives, but really couldn’t envision managing so many children with such diverse and divergent needs, any other way. I think my crisis of thought at that moment – the fact that I simply could not see or envision another way – reminds me of the crisis of thought I hear from parents now. They feel, in their bones, that they want to parent another way, but on a practical, day-to-day level, they just don’t see how it can be managed.

During my last year of teaching, I was lucky enough to be at a small, inner-city public school, which was supplementally funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. The school attracted extraordinary teachers, and for the first time in my life, I began to see (some) teachers who were managing their classrooms without a reward chart, and without explicit punishments and consequences. These teachers leveraged their relationships with the students and the class, to figure out together how to solve any problems they encountered. They worked on building their students’ problem-solving capacity, and gently helped children communicate with one another, and discuss and solve their issues together. I realized, with no small amount of shame, that while I was giving my students “good days” at school –and, through external force, giving them an example of what managing their behavior might feel like –as well as warmth, support, and education, these teachers were going a million miles beyond that. Their students were developing communication, negotiation, conflict-resolution and self-regulation skills that would last them a lifetime. They were gaining confidence and mastery while finding intrinsic motivation and a love of learning. They were seeing a model of problem-solving based on caring, empathy, listening and working together, rather than discipline, fear, and control.

Although I was leaving K-12 teaching, it became clear that this was altogether a better method. Whereas I was working toward being a “great” teacher by the old playbook, these teachers were in a different league altogether. A friend who went to a prestigious law school once told me how brilliant and important he felt in high school and college, and then how dumb and inconsequential he felt when he got to law school. It is a humbling moment to realize that as much as you think you are doing, there is someone doing so much more and, more importantly, to realize that is who you would prefer to be.

I took these lessons into parenting. I vowed that if these teachers, and others, could do these amazing things with a huge group of students who came to school facing enormous obstacles to learning and socializing, then I could surely do that much and more with my one, or two, or three children who would have had (if they were hungry) dinner the night before, and breakfast in the morning, and who would be free from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and who would have a stable and consistent environment. I vowed to read, and join online lists, and talk to other parents, and watch and ask about good parenting when I saw it, and do the work that these amazing teachers did, so that I could give that experience to my child.

I am glad to have had so much teaching experience going into parenting. I know it has helped in many ways. Of course it would have helped so much more had I learned about these progressive and effective teaching philosophies while I was still able to practice implementing them. But ultimately parenting is very different than teaching. It is so much easier in that I have control over all of the variables, so I can stack the deck enormously in my favor. And it is so much harder because it’s 24-7. So far, I’ve found challenges that far surpass those of teaching. Such as having a colicky baby –requiring me to push at the boundaries of human exhaustion to care for her, or dealing with a full-blown tantrum over not being able to play with my cell phone. But I am grateful that in all of the hard and complicated moments, there is no part of me that has longed to return to the draconian days of “if you don’t x, I’m going to y”, “good job -you get a star!”, “time out!”, or any other methods of top-down authoritarian control that were such an important part of my arsenal as an urban educator. Mostly, I’m so glad that I’m able to deal with problems that come up without being mean. To all of the kids to whom I’ve been mean in the past: I wish I had known better. And to all of the kids who I will know in the future: I hope I’m always able to offer guidance and maintain limits without being mean. Because I have no excuse. I know better now.

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Time-Outs Are the New Spanking

December 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Parenting, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

I was dismayed to see not one, but two articles on The Next Family lauding time-outs.

Joe Newman’s piece “The Modern Time-Out,” while well-intentioned, is suggesting the reader resort to a form of punishment which is damaging to a child’s sense of self, to the parent-child relationship, and, ultimately, to the very goal Newman says he is trying to achieve: teaching a child to regulate his or her self. Time-outs are, in fact, so detrimental, that it would not be a stretch to call them the modern parents’ spanking. I have no doubt that an enlightened generation hence will compare notes about whether or not they were given time-outs, weighing the severity of time-outs in their various families and (some) saying forgivingly, “That’s just the way they did things back then” or “They didn’t know any better” much the way my generation talks about whether or not we were spanked, and if so, how severely.

Yet we can and should know better. I am not the first person to write about the serious problems with time-outs. Amongst many others, Peter Haiman writes eloquently about the severe and lifelong detrimental effects of time-outs in his short article here and Alfie Kohn writes about the history of time-outs (they were developed according to B.F Skinner’s behaviorist principals and assume and reinforce that all human behavior is motivated by whether it will be rewarded or punished) and cites copious amounts of research – literally dozens of high quality, peer-reviewed studies and all sorts of good science and neurological work detailing not only the harmful effects of time-outs but why they are also ultimately not effective.

Parents who don’t believe in corporeal punishment, who don’t even believe in punishment, flock to time-outs. Thanks in large part to shows like Supernanny and Nanny 911, time-outs have become normalized. They seem ubiquitous and are presented, especially on the above shows, as sane, rational, gentle alternatives to all of the fussing, crying, screaming, biting, kicking, hitting, and terrible carryings-on that the clueless parents of TV have been letting their children get away with.

I know that we as parents have real and sometimes seemingly insurmountable struggles with the difficult behavior of our children. They do things that embarrass us. They do things that make us worry that they will not turn into moral, caring, empathetic adults. They do things that hurt others, or themselves. They do not “obey” us, which can cause us enormous disruption and inconvenience. We are all looking for a more harmonious, easier way to parent and to have our kids do more of what we want them to do and less of what we don’t want.

But at what cost?

Think about why you chose to be a parent, what you hope for your little one as he grows into an adult. Do you really want shame, overpowering, coercion, and force to be your primary parenting tools? Is that the way you want your child to learn to relate when situations become difficult?

Newman begins his piece by suggesting that time-outs be used frequently for small infractions “before things get too severe.” Can you imagine how controlled a child who is constantly being punished by exclusion must feel? Anytime this child expresses some sort of dysregulation or upset – the expression of some sort of problem – instead of attempting to find and address the root of the problem, their parent is sending them off to “self-regulate.” Huh? The child is given no tools of self-regulation, no assistance with this process that even we adults have tremendous trouble with, and no help understanding how the dysregulation occurred in the first place. This is pure, authoritarian control at its most rigid and uncompromising.

“I also make an effort,” Newman writes, “to let the child know that he has control over when he stops crying and therefore control of when the time-out starts,” Is that so? A dysregulated child, a child who perhaps truly believes in his heart that he has been wrongly accused or misunderstood, who is railing against injustice or who in the middle of huge or powerful feelings that he does not know what to do with, has control over his crying? When was the last time you cried with frustration, rage, or a sense of abandonment? Did you have control over your crying?

There is also copious research about how children experience time-outs. And as you might guess, if you remember a bit about your own childhood punishments, pretty much the last thing they think about during time-outs is how they might not have been at their best and how they might attain greater enlightenment and be their best selves next time around. What they actually experience is anger and frustration with the giver of the time-out, as well as shame, confusion and sadness about the circumstances which created the time-out. Contrast this with real meditation (which can be made child friendly and of which the one-minute time-out is a tragic mockery), where we choose to reflect in a focused way, and which can actually lead to an improved state of perception.

Interestingly, Newman seems to have stumbled upon something like this in his piece, “Time-Outs for Impulsive Behavior.” There he gives an example of a little girl who loves her dance class so much she thinks about it all week and when she gets to the dance class she is too excited to focus. He suggests time-outs for this. Uhm, okay.

In this case however, the “time-outs” are one quiet minute sitting next to Mommy. In attempting to apply the appalling technique of the time-out, Newman bumped into one of the many effective, humane child rearing tools – that of being present with your child in silence and breath. Simply sitting with your child and breathing together or experiencing silence together can be tremendously regulating and is very different from the “time-out” that Newman recommended in his previous article and that he was clearly shooting for here.

Perhaps most importantly, time-outs place conditions on parental approval and, as the child perceives it, our love. If your child is crying and you are pointedly ignoring her, your child will see that as a withdrawal of your love. Your child will wonder what she did that was so bad it caused her parent to stop loving her. And her sense of injustice will be ignited and stomped out time and again because the punishment will never seem to fit the crime. Not the punishment of one minute of quiet, but the punishment of abandonment – which is what the child experiences. Indulge me with a long quote from Alfie Kohn explaining the concept of love withdrawal, from a section of his book, Unconditional Parenting called Time-Out from Love:

Like anything else, love withdrawal can be applied in different ways and with varying levels of intensity. At one end of the continuum, a parent may pull back ever so slightly in response to something the child has done, becoming chillier and less affectionate – perhaps without even being aware of it. At the other end, a parent may announce bluntly, “I don’t love you when you act that way” or “When you do things like that, I don’t even want to be around you.”

Some parents withdraw their love by simply refusing to respond to a child—that is, by making a point of ignoring him. They may not say it out loud, but the message they’re sending is pretty clear: “If you do things I don’t like, I won’t pay any attention to you. I’ll pretend you’re not here. If you want me to acknowledge you again you’d better obey me.”

Still other parents separate themselves physically from the child. There are two ways of doing this. The parent can either walk away (which may leave a child sobbing, or crying out in panic, “Mommy, come back! Come back!”) or banish the child to his room or some other place where the parent isn’t. This tactic might accurately be called “forcible isolation”. But that label would make a lot of parents uncomfortable, so a more innocuous term tends to be used instead, one that allows us to avoid facing up to what’s really going on. The preferred euphemism, as perhaps you’ve guessed, is time-out.

In reality, this very popular discipline technique is a version of love withdrawal…

Newman gives time-outs the unfortunate moniker of taking a “break.” That is a bit like calling being fired “taking a break.” Yes, a break is involved, but I hardly think anyone in that situation would choose that term. Calling it a break, and not a punishment, is pure semantics. And the worst part is, in all of this punishment, love withdrawal, and forced “self-regulation”, we miss the opportunity to uncover the underlying issue. Time-outs will never address the root of the problem. Although we will almost always get temporary compliance – making the child do what we have told them to do or stop doing what we have asked them to stop doing, we will find ourselves in an endless cycle of needing to address each new problem with new time-outs, which will gradually diminish in effectiveness as our children eventually stop trying to win our love back. Further, while we are allegedly teaching self-regulation, we are really teaching external regulation. Time-outs may stomp out one specific behavior, but at a cost that I don’t think we really mean to pay. They will not create connection and dialogue, and they will not give our children the skill set of true self-regulation – the kind that occur without drugs, alcohol, or coercion. Time-outs will not help our children grow into the kind of adults that we are working so hard to help them become.

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To read Joe Newman’s Articles click here

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Do It–Have Kids!

December 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

Since writing the last blog/column for The Next Family, my baby had her first birthday and is now officially a toddler. Getting through the first year is a huge relief – as a friend recently said: the first year is all about survival – yours and theirs. It’s no small feat, so it was both weird and amazing to see my daughter turn one. Looking back to before I conceived, I remember how worried I was about choosing to be a single mom. I anxiously weighed every step of the process – perseverated over minute details, and agonized over decisions. I thought being a single mom by choice was going to be super duper hard. And it is super duper hard. I also thought and hoped that it would be incredibly wonderful – a joy, and worth everything I would be giving up for it. On the heels of this time of year in which everyone meditates on thankfulness, I’d like to say: Thank you thank you thank you –it is less hard and so much more joyful than I imagined. If I could talk to my three or four-years ago self, I would say: Shut up and do it. It will be the most earth shattering, mind blowingly wonderful thing you will ever do and you will be so happy you did. I love being a parent, I love my baby, and I’m so grateful for all of it, in spite of the hard. I want to say to everyone, anyone genuinely considering it, anyone who knows they want to be a parent but isn’t sure if they can do it on their own that yes, you can do it on your own. If you want to and can nurture and love and raise a child, you should. Do it!

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[Photo Credit: Flickr Image: Marian Doss]

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Ah, Language!

November 30, 2010 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

I am not a nonverbal person. I love words and language. I’m a writer! So this first year of mommydom, this year of nonverbal communication, has been tough. I hear folks say that once little ones start talking they never stop, so I should enjoy the wordlessness while I can. But I say bring on the gabfest! A loquacious little is absolutely fine with me. I’ve been thrilled these last few months when my baby has started to identify objects and actions with words –“book”, “laluz”, “nose”, “agua”, “moon”, “dog”,
“abrir”, “uppy”, and so on. However, until this week, my baby had never used a word to clearly communicate a desire that she was not also communicating by nonverbal expression – such as pointing and doing the “eh, eh, eh” little cry. In other words, words had not yet been a primary form of communication.

This week, my little was trying to get into a closed-off area stuffed with all manner of hazard. I led her away again and again but she would not be thwarted. What we needed was a juicy distraction. I brought out her big, fluffy stuffed cat and danced it in front of me, hoping she would come get it. No go. Back to the danger area.

I thought for a second and it occurred to me that maybe, at nearly 12 months, she was somehow ready for a game of catch. I swayed her cat back and forth while counting … “one … two …” and I threw the stuffed animal at her “… three!”

It hit her right in the face and fell to the ground. She looked at me with the oddest expression. Busted, I thought. I just threw something at my baby, and she can’t believe her own mama would do that! I was waiting for the tears to start – the bawling that happens after a hard fall. But no, no tears, just this mysterious expression. And no further interest in the off limits area either.

I was intrigued, but nervous. Did she feel betrayed by my throwing an object at her head? Did she realize we were playing catch and was she trying to figure out what her part was – how she might throw the cat back? Was she dazed from the “blow?” If only she could tell me with words.

I crouched down next to her and maintained eye contact, hoping to unravel the meaning behind her look. Her expression did not change; I still had no idea how she felt about what happened and what she wanted. Did she want me to do the kissy-kissy thing with the cat where I kiss it a bunch of times fast and then have it kiss her a bunch of times? Did she want me to pick her up?

Her expression focused, as if thinking of what to do next, and then it happened. The moment of linguistic communication. She very clearly said, and signed, “More!” Wonder! Words! She liked it! She wanted me to do it again! Could it be true?

I picked up the cat, backed up, and looked at my baby while beginning, “One …”. Her face was delighted. For perhaps the first time in our entire relationship she had communicated a fairly abstract concept – do that weird and unusual thing you just did all over again – and I got it! Oh, what joy. “Two…” She beamed! I had not done the kissy-kissy thing. I had not picked her up. I had done the exact right thing. “Three!” I threw the stuffed cat at her head for all I was worth. The animal “bounced” off of her head and onto the floor, as much as a super plush stuffed cat can bounce. No sooner had it landed on the floor than I heard again that melodious little command: “Mowww!”

And so it began. Of course she could not get enough of this fun new game. My throwing a stuffed animal at her head and her standing passively while it hit her and slid or bounced to the ground. Who wouldn’t want to do that over and over?

Of all the meals where I’ve tried to figure out if she wanted more, or was “all done, of all the bewildered, puzzled times where I could not figure out what she wanted and she was trying desperately to tell me, of all the months that I have been saying, and signing, “more,” hoping she would use that word, it took her being bopped in the head to inspire her to actually say it. As predicted, she did not grow tired of the game, or of commanding me. Eventually I had to say and sign, “All done!” and hope that wouldn’t discourage her from asking for what she wants more often. Somehow I don’t think it will.

Ah, language. Ah, jabbermouth. Yackety-yack. Blah, blah blah. Not one minute of quiet. Bring it on, little one. I love it.

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Cry, Cry, Cry

October 28, 2010 by  
Filed under Family, Julie Gamberg, Single Parents

By: Julie Gamberg

A colicky baby is a gift. Not the kind you put on your list and beam thank you! with a Julia Roberts smile when you open it. And not the kind that only the very religious or new age-y (those who bake raisin cakes and call all adversity a gift) could appreciate either. A colicky baby is a different kind of gift. A colicky baby wakes you up quickly and thoroughly to one of the more nebulous and hard to accept aspects of parenting: that this little creature, your child, is paradoxically completely a part of you and completely unto itself. A colicky baby makes you peer hard into your baby, to see his or her needs as real, and huge, and as unmanageable as all of our mortal needs. In a colicky baby you understand both how impossible it is to make another human totally okay, and yet how necessary it is to continue to be present anyway.

Some folks who have easy babies may not get to see or understand this until the “terrible twos”. Some folks have easier toddlers, or discipline in such a way that they’re not really forced to “get it” until the teenage years. Some folks don’t understand until after their children are grown, and some parents never get it. Yet parents of colicky babies get their child’s personhood, and all that that implies, from the start. If they had any illusions that their baby would be a little doll to dress in cute outfits with ribbons in her hair, or a fireman’s cap on his head, or that their baby would be a prize to show off, or a playmate, they are disabused of those quickly. You put a colicky baby down when she’s tired. You feed her when she’s hungry. You burp her and change her and bounce her and sing to her, and when there is nothing else you can do, you hold her in your arms when she screams and thrashes, and cries, cries, cries. For a colicky baby, you show up.

I have no doubt that colicky babies are the most abused infants. It is very hard to take all of that crying. I’m sure too that there are parents who, once they get through the colicky times, are forever resentful or feel “owed” for all of the work they put in during the early months. Who feel their child better be “good” from now on. However, for those who are willing to get just a little bit grasshopper-here-is-your-lesson with it, a colicky baby can bring out the best parent in you right from the start – the parent who is compassionate, who is able to understand her child’s needs and work to meet those needs whenever possible, and who can be with her child empathetically in his disappointment when those needs cannot be met. These are hard-to-come-by skills for any of us and, depending on how we were raised and what we bring to parenting, a lot of us need to learn these skills and slowly build the muscles of good and compassionate parenting. We need to try, to fumble and fail, and to practice. A lot. And a colicky baby gives you hours and hours, and hours and hours, to practice.

For the first few months of my baby’s life, she cried inconsolably every night and periodically throughout the day. And she did not just cry. She screamed, she shrieked, she thrashed. She would only sleep when bounced vigorously on a yoga ball and only stayed asleep in arms, bounced anew at each toss, turn, or fuss. And when my baby really took to wailing, she could not be comforted. She seemed to me deeply and fundamentally unhappy. To look at your own baby in so much misery and to be unable to help, to not even know what is causing the misery, is a helplessness that calls for some sort of large-scale surrender.

My introduction to parenting had me believing that it was, and always would be, a Sisyphean nightmare. This is why parents are always complaining I thought. And I also thought, I made a terrible mistake. I simply cannot do this. Now I see the difference between complaining because there is a true and unmanageable problem, and the kind of complaining we Jews call kvetching. The day-to-day complaining about a normal state of affairs. My baby is nearly one now and is a bright, spirited handful who gives me plenty to kvetch about, but absolutely nothing to complain about. I know now what makes her unhappy and I know how to help. And when I cannot help, like when she would like to swallow a rock, or put her fingers in an electrical socket, or, more recently, walk her little 29-inch-tall self into the street, I am able to be with her in her disappointment and frustration. I am able to hold her, and empathize, and be very present for her in all of her anger and sadness. I’m pretty good at this because I had an incredible amount of practice. It was a strange gift, this bounty of practice – and not the kind I would have ever put on a parenting wish list. And I do know that my friends who did not have colicky babies are coming into their own as parents quite nicely without all of that crying. Yet, when I see my baby totally lose it over something, and I feel myself breathe slowly and deeply, when I feel how far I’ve come in how well I’m able to tolerate her very difficult feelings, and my own, I cannot help but be grateful for that gift.

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