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 Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC
I attended a Bat Mitzvah recently where the Cantor spoke about peace.
“Peace,” he proclaimed, “is desired by all people, in all nations. Problems arise not because we don’t want peace, but because we each define it according to personal, cultural, religious, or other differences.” Same word. Contrasting meanings.
Instead of subjective notions of peace, Cantor Maseng offered a universal concept: “True peace,” he said, “is about wholeness, and wholeness is only possible when we bring all our diversity, all our differences together.”
In other words, it’s easy to be at peace with those who agree with us; true peace is about connecting with those who don’t.
What does world peace have to do with our relationships and co-parenting? When I work with couples, I always mention the importance of mutual understanding up front:
Mutual understanding is a major ingredient in relationship satisfaction and successful co-parenting. Understanding isn’t the same as agreeing; instead, it’s about getting curious about our differences, accepting them and working with, not against, them.
In other words, relationship happiness depends on world peace at a micro-level. Understanding others’ differences can be difficult. Many, if not most, of us grew up in a family, community, country and/or world where differences are grounds for intolerance and conflict, not compassion and cooperation.
Meaning, while we might say we want relationship peace, we often define it as sameness. Then, we waste precious time failing to get others to be like us.
Despite the now-commonplace acceptance of the gender differences* claimed by John Gray almost 20 years ago—you know, Men are from Mars and women are from Venus—most lesbians and gay men either don’t buy into (or fall into) those assumptions. Truth is, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, we’re all from different planets.
Understanding our partners is, then, less about embracing gender differences and more about getting curious about their unique differences from us. Doing so truly allows us to “keep the peace” in our relationships, and honor the sense of wholeness noted earlier:
Our relationships can be truly whole—i.e., peaceful, fulfilling and satisfying—not because we’re the same as our spouses, or always agree, but because, together, we embrace, respect, and work productively with and through our differences.
There’s no simple way to understand our spouses, but there are steps we can take to begin to do so. Marita Fridjhon and Faith Fuller, founders of the Center for Right Relationship, have developed a great technique to increase mutual understanding, which is called: Lands Work.
Lands Work starts from the assumption that every individual is like a nation unto him or herself, with its own cultural practices, cuisine, communication style, justice system, import and export policies, etc. While Lands Work doesn’t translate well to the written page, the starting point for the exercise does:
Imagine you’re an ideal tourist, guided by curiosity, openness, exploration and a suspension of judgment. Now, imagine you’re visiting your spouse’s land as this ideal tourist, eager to learn more about their reality, their priorities, and what’s important to them about what they believe, how they act, parent, etc.
If we can truly stay curious with and about our spouses, if we can suspend judgment, we can also ramp up our understanding and compassion for them. In turn, we can work with our differences, even if we don’t agree with those differences. Genuine and sustainable compromises emerge out of mutual understanding, not agreement.
One of relationship expert Harville Hendrix’s tools for increasing mutual understanding is what he calls “The Imago Dialogue”, which includes 3 steps:
(1) Mirroring: When you have something important to say to your spouse always use “I” to express it. Then, ask your spouse to paraphrase what you’ve said and then ask you: “Did I get that right?” Repeat these steps until s/he does get it right. To ground this, Hendrix suggests adding: Is there more? Or: Tell me more. I’d include: Tell me what’s important to you about this?
(2) Validation: Once you’ve got mirroring down, add comments that indicate that what your spouse has expressed makes sense to you, given their logic or priorities or concerns. As Hendrix notes, the idea is to “affirm the internal logic of each other’s remarks.” Here, it’s important to distinguish agreeing from understanding someone else’s logic; you can understand without agreeing.
(3) Empathy: Hendrix’s final step involves acknowledging the feelings we know, or imagine, are behind our spouses’ remarks. This goes something like: “Given that you think I’ve done such-and-such (or that such-and-such has happened), I’d imagine you’re feeling x,y,z. Is that true?” If you’re wrong, ask: “Then what are you feeling?” And offer empathy for those feelings.
It isn’t easy to retrain ourselves to dialogue in the way Hendrix suggests and, in truth, even if we can learn to master the first step, Mirroring, we’ll be ahead of the curve in our communication tools and our ability to begin to understand our differences.
If we feel committed to our relationships and to co-parenting effectively, we’d benefit from grabbing our passports (or mirrors) and traveling into our spouses’ experiences. Doing so doesn’t guarantee we’ll always end up feeling peaceful or with 50-50 compromises, but it does mean that whatever decisions or actions we make together include both our experiences and respect our differences.
* If you’re interested in how gender myths impact our relationships and families, read Same Difference, which teases apart research on which these myths are based.
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 Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC
Whether we argue consistently with our partners, or only lock horns on rare occasions, when we’re in the thick of a conflict it’s natural for us to ask: Why are we fighting?*
While finding the answer might seem important in the moment, given how precious our time and energy is, it’s wise to shift our emphasis from “why” to: How do we fight?
I’ve coached a few couples in which one or both spouses insist they don’t fight. What they don’t realize is that conflict-avoidance is how they fight, despite their insistence otherwise.
Whether or not we’re comfortable with conflict, not only is it a normal part of relationship, it’s a necessary one.
In fact, research-psychologists Lawrence A. Kudek and John Gottman maintain that our satisfaction with our partners is tied to how well we resolve conflicts with them and how effectively we manage the negative fallout of disagreements on our relationships and on us individually.
The problem with arguments, then, isn’t that we have them, it’s that most of us are neither skilled at resolving them nor adept at ensuring that their impact on our relationship and our family is productive instead of destructive.
Importantly, learning how to better navigate conflict is crucial to parenting. Why? Because the stakes aren’t solely about our relationship satisfaction, but also include how capably we model conflict-resolution for our kids and with our kids.
Developing the ability to “fight well” with our spouses enhances how we handle disagreements with our children, now and in the future, and also influences how they manage relationship conflict in their own lives.
I’m a big fan of John Gottman’s work on this topic and appreciate his simple, yet compelling, list of four primary negative attitudes and behaviors—what he dramatically calls: “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—that erode relationship happiness. This list is pretty much a blueprint for how most of us handle or instigate conflict:
1) Disrespect (a.k.a., Contempt; the most destructive, according to Gottman)
To be clear, we’re talking about actions as much as words, e.g., disrespect can be rolling our eyes or a sarcastic comment; stonewalling can be walking out of a room or announcing we’re done talking.
Whatever our personal predilection, becoming more aware of how we fight is an important step in improving our conflict-styles. In truth, when we’re being disrespectful, pointing fingers, shirking responsibility, or refusing to interact with each other, we get so stuck in our style of conflict that resolution becomes impossible.
When I start to coach a couple, I ask the following question pretty quickly:
What’s your favorite conflict-style?
I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have an answer. (Although some of us, myself included, find it hard to choose just one!) Once you’ve picked the style you default to most, share it with your spouse; this works best if you share with each other.
By the way, don’t be surprised if you have matching styles. Embarrassed as I am to admit, given that it’s so toxic, I’m quite adept at disrespect and no slouch at criticism. My wife, on the other hand, excels at defensiveness and stonewalling. In other words, if left unattended, our conflict styles feed off each other and accelerate arguments.
That’s why copping to our styles is important, followed by spending a few minutes talking about how we, together, can shift the emphasis from our current preferred conflict-styles to conflict-resolution.
Here’s what some couples, my wife and I included, have tried: Give your Horsemen names (preferably, ones not associated with friends or family) and agree that if either of you notices, say, Defensive Dave or Critical Clarissa make an appearance in your conversation, call them out and ask them to leave.
Whether or not we agree with our partner’s belief that we’re being defensive or critical isn’t important in that moment. What matters most is our willingness to pause, assume that she or he notices something that we might not be aware of, and try to shift how we’re approaching the topic at hand.
A great way to make that shift is to invert Gottman’s list. Doing so gives us four powerful ways to fan the flames of relationship satisfaction via:
If you’re adept at disrespect, ask yourself: How can I discuss this subject respectfully?
If criticism is your forte, consider: How can I appreciate my spouse even if I don’t like something he or she does or says? How can I share what I’m thinking or feeling without pointing fingers?
If you’re prone to defensiveness, think about: What’s my part in this?
And if stonewalling is your thing, consider: How can I stay connected to my spouse, even if I want to shut down or run away?
Asking these questions, like owning our Horsemen, doesn’t magically resolve our conflicts or ensure there’s no negative fallout. Yet the more we’re able to shift how we approach conflict, the more we can infuse disagreements with respect, appreciation, personal responsibility, and engagement. That’s bound to enhance our relationship satisfaction and expand the scope of our parenting skills.
* If you’re keen on delving into the “why” question about conflicts, here are a couple of books that offer interesting theories and techniques: Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want; and Stephen Betchen, Magnetic Partners.
Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a Relationship Coach and Founder of Parent Alliance® , a relationship resource for expecting couples and parents. She helps couples coparent successfully and maintain relationship satisfaction. In other words, she helps us stay sane and stay together.
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
Sara, the mother of seven-year-old Aiden told me her son was complaining that his friend of several years, Noah, a boy a year or two older, had been bullying him. Apparently, Noah had pushed him into a closet where he and another boy hit him. This had happened a few times and always out of view of any adults. Additionally, the boy told him if he tattled that he would hit him again when no one was around. This was happening when both boys were at either at Aiden or Noah’s house.
Although the occasional abuse made her son reticent, he still wanted to visit and play with his friend. His mother was concerned because this was one of very few friends Aiden had and she and the boy’s mother were also friends.
What to do?
To understand how to respond to bullying we must first understand its motivations. Bullying is an attempt to exert social power. Bullying is not the result of the bully’s lack of understanding about right and wrong, or their lack of empathy. Quite often a bully is conflicted between his desire for power and his empathy. It’s not that a bully doesn’t understand or feel empathy, it’s just that his desire for social power is stronger.
Social power is increased when a child shows disregard for the opinions of adults. Grade school children are uncertain about who they are, and there is nothing cooler to their peers than a child who shows that he not only doesn’t need the approval of adults but is unafraid of their opinions or outrage.
Consequently, there are generally two effective approaches to handling bullying. One is to consequence the bully and the other is to coach the bullied. The biggest mistake adults make is to intervene by lecturing the bully or otherwise telling him how his or her actions are wrong, bad, shameful, or disapproved of. Berating or lecturing the bully in front of his peers is particularly ineffective as it provides a perfect platform for the bully to display social status and power.
So what to do with Aiden and Noah?
I suggested the mom start by coaching her son in effective ways to handle the situation. Ask him to look out for the first signs of the bullying and when he sees it going that way he should say to his friend, “I don’t want you hitting me. If you hit me I won’t play with you.” Then if his friend does hit him, he should immediately tell the adult who’s at the house that he wants to go home or he wants his friend taken home.
Sara asked me if she should sit Noah down and tell him that she knows about the bullying and that it isn’t okay and I told her no.
There are two problems with Sara, not Aiden, confronting Noah about his bullying. First, it undermines the power of Aiden by demonstrating that he must rely on his mom’s power and can’t assert his own and it denies him the opportunity to assert that power himself. Second, it gives status to Noah’s actions by allowing him to flaunt his opposition to Aiden’s mom’s wishes and approval, inadvertently increasing Noah’s social power.
Then Sara asked me if she should talk to Noah’s mom and have her talk to Noah about his behavior. My answer was no. Again this will increase Noah’s status and show Aiden’s lack of power and status. If she does talk with Noah’s mom it should be to ask for her support of Aiden as he negotiates this problem while specifically asking her not to talk to her son.
This way Aiden can exercise the power of following through with what he said he would do. When Aiden comes to either adult he should be coached to say simply, “I want to go home now” or “I need you to take Noah home now.” And the adults should honor his request immediately without questioning him or reproaching Noah.
The other effective approach to bullying is hard to do in this situation since the boys are always playing alone when it happens. However, in other situations I would advise the adults to stay close and within eyeshot when possible and intervene with an immediate action consequence that lowers social power. Telling the bully to take a break for five minutes away from other children, without discussing with them why, can be a good way to do this. Once the adult says why, or what the bully did was wrong, they inadvertently increase the status of the bully.
My wife told me about a teacher she had as a child who insisted that any child he caught bullying wear a big pink bow for the rest of the day. While I’d never recommend this kind of shaming, her teacher clearly understood the root cause of bullying and attempted to counter it with something that diminished social power and status.
As we move forward in our attempt to eliminate the growing epidemic of bullying it’s essential that we respond with more than simple outrage and moralizing for the bully and empathy for the bullied. Our responses must consider why it’s happening and which actions will undermine, or strengthen, the true motivations for it.
By: Joe Newman
A passive tantrum is when a child feigns inability or lack of understanding in order to avoid difficulty, frustration or effort.
Jackson was an eight-year-old who was very inconsistent in his ability to focus and complete most class work. Most of the time he sauntered slowly through his assignments and needed constant prompting to stay on task or he would slowly drift into doodling on the sides of his papers, playing with something in his desk or talking quietly to the boy next to him. When prompted by Ms. Gibson (his teacher) he would often tell her he didn’t know what to do next or he didn’t understand, despite his apparent understanding only a few minutes before. Because Jackson showed difficulty comprehending social interactions and communications and had some difficulty making friends, he was diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum.
Ms. Gibson noticed that when Jackson was excited about an assignment he readily understood her communication, remembered the directions, and moved through the class work at a good pace without assistance.
One morning, when Jackson had been sauntering through his class work at a particularly leisurely pace, Ms. Gibson decided to see how much he was actually capable of. During the lesson right before lunch the students had been given about 25 minutes in which to write three sentences. Jackson had only finished writing one.
When the bell rang for lunch and Ms. Gibson excused the class she called Jackson over to her desk, “I need you to finish your last two sentences before you go to lunch.” A moment later Jackson went to his cubby got his lunch and brought it to his desk. Ms. Gibson saw this and said, “Jackson, maybe you didn’t understand, but you can’t have your lunch until you finish those two sentences.” A minute later she heard his bag rustling and saw that Jackson was taking out his sandwich. She walked over to him, placed her hands on his sandwich, and said, “I can see you really want to eat your lunch. However, you won’t be able to have your lunch until you’ve finished writing your two sentences so I’m going to put your lunch on my desk till you’re finished.” She took his sandwich, put it back in the bag and sat it on her desk.
Jackson sat without saying anything for a few moments. Then he picked up his pencil and began writing. Forty-five seconds later he had finished writing his two sentences (a task that on a good day might have taken him 5 minutes). He showed his paper to Ms. Gibson and said, “Can I go to lunch now?” And she gave him his lunch and he left the room.
From that day forward Ms. Gibson shifted her expectation of what Jackson was capable of. She set natural consequences for not completing work she thought he might be capable of and created frustration around those behaviors she felt Jackson could change when motivated. She began to assume understanding and ability where before she had assumed inability and insisted that he complete more work independently. And in the month that followed, the amount of class work that Jackson would complete in a day almost doubled.
I see children like Jackson in every classroom I visit. Children who have learned to camouflage their actual abilities in order to avoid frustration and difficulty and assert power and control over adults. This is the passive tantrum.
In a culture where parents have been taught to empower their children in every way possible, we need to be aware that children will find more creative ways to assert this power, even if it means feigning inability. Add to this the fact that parents and teachers are taught to be constantly on the lookout for signs of a disorder so as to intervene as early as possible. Consequently, parents and teachers are more likely to assume inability and react by accommodating, rather than frustrating, these behaviors and many children quickly learn that a passive tantrum is an effective way to avoid difficulty and assert control.
When the new statistics came out in March about the sharp rise in children who are being diagnosed as on the Autism Spectrum I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of these children were children like Jackson who had learned (and could therefore unlearn) the patterns of the passive tantrum.