When Your Child Says “I Don’t Like You”

I’m starting a new two-year-old girl in my child care, Ms. A. She is adorable, and curious, and very excited to explore her new surroundings. But she does not like to take a nap.

The first day we spent together, she climbed out of her pack-n-play about 57 times. I lost count but I’m pretty sure it was around that much. I felt like I was in a SuperNanny episode (and so glad I could use her sleep technique).

The second day, she climbed out three times. Then she rolled around in her bed for about an hour, alternating between whining, yelling, a little crying (not serious), and giving me dirty looks but trying not to let me know she was doing so.

I heard, “I want to go home.” “I want mommy.” “I don’t like a nap.” “I want to go in Mommy’s car.” “I’m not tired.” “I need ____.” (Insert anything a toddler can think of: a drink, to potty, a toy, a book, a walk, a song, etc.)

Then she got very quiet for a while, and in a very serious voice, she let the big one rip: “I don’t like you.”

All I could do was chuckle. Not to make light of her desperation, but it was just funny to me. I forget after doing this work for eleven years that this kind of talk can be upsetting to parents.

When I reported on nap time to Ms. A’s mom she was very concerned that her daughter had used these awful words with me. I told her NOT to worry. And then I came up with my favorite quote of the week: “It’s not my job to make them like me. And that’s why they do.”

I know hearing “I don’t like you” from your child can hurt. But it’s your response that matters, not what your child said. It’s not really that they don’t like you. Really?! Don’t fall for it.

In truth, they feel safe enough with you to say that and trust that there won’t be dire consequences. They’re simply testing the boundaries. Throwing a rock in a pond to see what kind of splash they’ll get. And they’re just venting! Don’t you say stupid things to your family and friends when you’re angry?

Ms. A knew she wasn’t getting out of the crib any other way, and she was trying her last resort to get a rise out of me. I didn’t respond. I continued to sit and read the newspaper, which I’d been doing nearby enough for her to know I wasn’t gone, but also that if she climbed out I was right there to put a stop to it.

As I told her mom, we made great strides! In one day, going from a full hour of jumping out of the crib to stopping after three attempts – that’s amazing! We might even see sleep in the next couple of tries. This is real progress.

When your child says, “I don’t like you,” they’re looking for your attention. Kids will take negative attention if it’s all they can get. But remember: you’re the grownup. You need to know how to handle this child’s play better than they do.

If you’re really hurt, tell them that’s how you feel, and that you need a minute before you want to talk to them again. But there’s no reason to be hurt. And worst of all, give them a huge response. Yell, be upset, be mad, get hurt, show them how mean they are – if you want to hear “I don’t like you!” again tomorrow. And the next day, and the next day…

Your best response (unless you’re sleep-training and purposely ignoring them!) is to calmly repeat their words. “You don’t like me? Why?”

You will be amazed at the answer to that question. Just hang in there and TALK to them. It’s all your child wants. You might even end up snuggling instead of fighting.

It’s not my job to get kids to like me. It’s my job to protect them, feed them, let them explore, and teach them how to be healthy physically and mentally. I have plenty of adult friends, I don’t need two-year-old friends. So I’m the bad guy sometimes.

Kids know all this instinctively. They don’t really want to be my friend either – I’m boring. I like to sit around talking, not climb trees and have tea parties. I give them the boundaries they need and crave in a gentle but firm way. I don’t freak out when they do things that every child does just to see how I’ll react. When they get this calm consistency from me, they know they can trust me. And then they love me.

And I love them, from the moment they start kicking and screaming, to the moment they come back and give me unconditional hugs and love.

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Steubenville

“It is tempting to point fingers while ignoring some of the root causes that are much more difficult to resolve. The extent that youngsters (and some adults) spend endless hours being entertained by violence says more about lack of supervision and control as well as disengagement. It isn’t that the entertainment media are so powerful, but that other institutions — family, school, religion and community — have grown weaker. Banning violent entertainment seems like an easy fix, but would do little to avert the next mass murder.” – James Alan Fox, Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University

It is strange that I would find the most enlightening comment about the Steubenville sexual assault case on the NY Daily News website (not exactly your top journalistic contender), and not in an article about the case but in a related link about violent video games and mass shootings.

Violence is pervasive in our culture, and there is no one root cause or easy fix, as Professor Fox says. It seems that our institutions have grown weaker, and it feels like little we do will stop the next assault and ensuing social media/entertainment news circus.

Fox is also right about disengagement. With everyone having a screen in their face all the time, whether or not that screen is showing us violent images, we are disconnected. And the screen enables us to post a horrific picture online without thinking twice. This is why all those institutions, as well as our human interactions, are weakened.

One of the tenets of human interaction is seeing the consequences of our behavior on the faces of those around us. We learn how to behave with others’ approval or disapproval. When we’re staring at a screen we don’t see the person on the other end. Or the one right in front of us, for that matter.

I’d been thinking about consequences before the Steubenville case blew up. Parents today are frantic to create a world for their children that is painless, and somewhere along the line some expert told us we can have that. We’ve bought into the notion that life can truly be a bowl of cherries, and for our kids that means no consequences.

In our effort to remove everything hard or painful from our kids’ lives, we’ve also eliminated their feelings. Their natural emotions and responses are tamped down and hidden. There is no appropriate place for letting them out. We don’t play in the neighborhood. We don’t ride our bikes unless it’s on paved trails. We barely even have recess anymore.

Kids rarely have interaction without adults telling them how to behave. They need to learn with their peers, outside of the protective bubble. They need to be wild, get in scrapes, and let their friends show them what’s acceptable. They need to kill a frog and feel how downright awful it is in the pit of their stomach. They need to learn this before the teen years, when we assume they’re ready and give them more freedom. And they should be doing it without social media at their fingertips 24/7.

I want to tell my sons to never ever do anything stupid, because it will be on every kid in your school’s cell phone the next morning. You will be damaged. But never making a mistake is impossible. We all do stupid things (thank God there were no pocket videorecorders around when I was young). I’m not sure how they’re going to make it through unscathed.

The atrocities that happened in Steubenville are not just about the sexual assault – they are about the overall treatment of another human being. Not just what was done to the victim’s body, but to her emotions and well-being. With all the disengagement that Professor Fox speaks of, young people are simply not learning how to treat each other.

I teach a brain development class in which I talk about the fact that the teenage brain is often incapable of seeing the consequences of actions, and exhibits deep denial behaviors (“We’re indestructible!”). How the moral centers in the brain have not yet developed even though the emotions and hormones are churning. That teens have an adult body with all the capabilities, but are still using a child’s brain. The U.S. Department of Justice tells the scary statistics: one-third of all crime is committed by children under the age of 18.

Still, one would hope that we’ve taught our kids well enough to know when to draw the line. We hope they’ll make good choices, and the work we’ve put into that will show when it counts. But alcohol plus a bunch of kids standing around cheering always leads to one hell of a dangerous situation.

Kids need consequences from adults and each other. They need to know that everything they do isn’t the greatest thing ever to hit the planet. It’s why I spend so much of my energy railing against the cult of sports. I’ve seen eleven-year-old boys being praised to the sky because they ran down a field with a ball. From that moment on, that boy knows he has every adult in the room wrapped around his finger. And if that’s true, what can he get away with among his peers?

Steubenville can and will happen again – precisely because there are cameras in every person’s pocket. While the images were used in a horrifying way to humiliate one young girl, they’ve also shed light on the type of activity that kids are participating in. The same images also led to the consequences that these kids so desperately deserve, and I applaud the local authorities for taking action and continuing their investigation.

As I write this, there are three boys wrestling rather violently in my play room. I’m not stopping them. They don’t want me to. Part of this play is learning limits to how far you can go with someone else’s body. When they hurt each other, they stop and check if the hurt person is OK. Someone said, “Time out,” and the others immediately let him go sit down.

I said, “I will let you continue this if timeout is sacred,” and they all accepted that rule without me even having to explain any further. They want to push the limits, but they also want to know the rules. If everyone is safe, they know that individually they’re safe too.

I hope and pray that as the boys in my playroom venture out into the teen years, where I can’t be there to supervise, that they will remember the lessons of these wrestling matches. And the lessons they see me working on from day one in my profession: We don’t put our hands on people in a harmful way. We don’t take things from them. We don’t hurt people’s bodies. No one is allowed to do these things to anyone else. It is unacceptable. And there will be consequences.

Help! I’m Surrounded by Children!

When I was 16 I swore to my boss at the ice cream shop that I would NEVER have kids. I hated them and everything to do with them. I’d had a series of failed babysitting gigs and was convinced that I would never have what it took to be with children.

All I had to do to prove my point was show him the behavior of the whining little ones and their overly-doting parents as they held up the line of fifteen people for ten minutes, choosing their sprinkle color while their cone melted down my wrist.

He used to love teasing me about this, saying, “Just you wait and see,” while his infant napped in the baby swing that was installed in the back corner of the serving area.

Today not only is my professional life riddled with kids, but I’ve found that the rest of my life is as well. The neighborhood kids know that I’m here after school, and it attracts them to my house. In the past week we’ve had snowball fights in my yard, indoor basketball tournaments, Nerf gun battles, and fights over who gets to eat the rest of the raspberries. All impromptu, because they were looking for something to do and we were here.

So my boss was right. I love being this mom to everyone, having all the kids know that if something goes wrong, Amy is ALWAYS there. Just show up and you’ll be taken care of. My parents’ house was like this growing up, and now I’m here. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the funny thing is, besides all the fun and games, I do spend most of my day arguing with all these kids. For the littles, it’s why you have to put on your shoes, why it’s time to go inside, why you have to get your diaper changed now whether you like it or not. And we go right on up the line to why you can’t have a sleepover every weekend and why you have to do your homework NOW, before video games.

They fight with me simply because I’m in charge. That’s what humans do, fight the power. But being in charge isn’t a natural state for me, I have to work at it. I want to say yes to everything but being mom means setting boundaries. I’m not always the strictest person in the world, but I am the most trustworthy. I don’t care if you say a swear, as long as I never see you bullying anybody, ever. And I’ll love you no matter what, but you will pay for bad behavior.

This parenting thing really forces you to grow up.

I had a realization last week while I was making them eat apple slices instead of Thin Mints. The reason they love it here – all kids, all ages – is not just because I’m here, but because of the arguing as well. They’re safe. They may want to eat a whole bag of Cheetos and have a Harry Potter movie marathon but I’m here to tell them why they can’t. And even though that sucks in the moment, they know someone is taking care of them. (Deep down. Really. That’s what I keep telling myself.)

This weekend I saw a sad exchange between a father and his teenage son. The father was storming out, staring at his phone, and the son was running after him, calling “Dad!” The father barely looked up and when the son reached him he said, “I knew you would just be humiliated to be seen with me.” I could see the son trying to make peace with the father, and I knew that dad was angry because his son had done something that every typical teenager does. But instead of just accepting that, he was taking it personally.

We have so much misunderstanding in how we deal with our kids. It’s so sad how we view kids, especially teenagers. They’re bad, they’re cranky, they’re crazy, they fight us. They invent languages so we don’t know what they’re saying. They keep secrets and tell lies. Us vs. them.

I wanted to tell both the dad and the son not to take it so seriously. Kids aren’t bad, they’re just kids. When they fight us or act out it’s because they have to establish their own identity separate from us. This is a healthy, natural, and necessary developmental process. And it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t need us. Inside every tough pose is a scared little person just trying to figure out their way in the world, and they always need our support and guidance.

So I’ve come from hating kids to being constantly surrounded by them. And I’m happy. I know that these are the fullest, most complete years of my life, because I’m contributing my little part to raising all of them. Maybe I reached that level of understanding after all.

Wallowing in the Winter Blues

I took my kids to see “Rise of the Guardians” last weekend and literally. Cried. Through the whole thing. It’s a good thing I got them extra napkins for their popcorn.

I think I would’ve cried alot anyway, given that the plot is about fighting to keep hope, magic, and fun alive in children, but with current events it just made the notion of innocence that much harder to stomach.

It also didn’t help that recent activity around our house has centered on my children growing up – really growing up. We spent most of the weekend (before watching the heart-wrenching movie) cleaning out the boys room. It’s time for a new paint color, as the baby hues I chose for them so many years ago just don’t fit anymore.

So we cleared out and gave away and took loads of old toys and no-longer-loved stuffed animals to donate. I found the Play-doh factory where I spent hours molding with both of the boys. I still have some old ice cream cone sculptures in my jewelry box, because to a mother, those hard, multicolored blobs of clay are more precious than her jewels.

I know that every time we clean out, I’m letting go, and it’s incredibly hard for me to do. The little toys we used to play with, the old, broken pieces of artwork, the collections stashed in old lunchboxes. It’s hard to give up the physical objects because when I look at them, I remember. I am afraid that without the reminders I’ll forget the time spent.

Besides letting go of the material remnants of childhood, Younger Son’s last illusions are being stripped away by his classroom’s study of slavery and the south. Visions of burning crosses dance in his head at night, and I have to soothe his mind before he can sleep. He talks about how painful it is for him to think of people suffering and sometimes I am at a loss for what to say to make it better.

To top it all off, Older just faced his biggest big-boy challenge yet, a really tough decision that involved the whole family and hours of one of my least favorite pastimes: Processing. But after we got the hardest part over, I am left with my amazement at his understanding of the big picture, his own needs, and his bravery in going through with what has to be done. And standing up for himself to boot. I told him what my best friend told me: The hardest choice is usually the right one.

When you look at it all this way, it’s easy to see what it is about childhood that we cling to. Innocence and hope, yes. Believing in magic and the possibility that anything can happen, definitely. But I think it’s the ability to care for people who you don’t even know, to put others first and be selfless and concerned, that means the most to me. And of course being able to live free, without the hard choices that grown-up life brings.

So this morning while getting ready for work I did what I always do when I’m depressed: I put my iPod on shuffle and trusted it to find me a song that would lift me out of my low. It chose the Pretenders’ version of “Forever Young.”

iPod, you so did not get that one right.

Once again I literally. Cried. Through the whole thing. Next came “Find the Cost of Freedom”?! Really?! “Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down.” I’m feeling better by the minute!

Luckily that dirge is short and sweet, and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” came on next. OK. I can breathe again. “All we need is a drummer – for people who only need a beat.” Dance those blues away, baby.

“May God bless you and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay
Forever young

Forever young
Forever young
May you stay
Forever young

May you grow up
To be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you

May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay
Forever young

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay
Forever young.”

– Bob Dylan

Moving On

The time has come to write again but I can’t think of any topic other than Newtown. I know I need to focus on other things, but it still hangs heavy for me. Every time I sit down for a snuggle with my kids it feels like a privilege, and more fragile than ever before.

What else should I write? Oh, woe is me, getting ready for Christmas was so hard. Day care is crazy and wacky! I can’t find the silly details and complaints to focus on and make funny when all I can feel is gratitude for what I have. And I don’t think anyone feels they have the right to complain about anything yet.

OliphantI was back home in the Newtown area for Christmas to visit family. For the most part we had a lovely time, but you could still feel sadness. Every business with a sign out front had a message for “our neighbors in Newtown,” there were notices for vigils and donations, and all flags were at half-staff. Christmas candles took on more than their usual meaning.

Usually after an event like this happens the tributes seem false. As my husband pointed out, people have this weird response where they all rush to find their connection to the place (well, I did). But this one feels different. It really does feel like everybody’s mourning. As a friend of mine said, it felt like this was happening to all of us – we were all damaged.

At the same time, it didn’t. I was able to get through Christmas pretty normally, and busy myself with packing, wrapping, cooking, hosting, traveling, visiting, being distracted by (and appreciating more) the time with family. It was the day after Christmas that the sorrow hit me again, and I wondered how the Newtown families got through it.

Our brains do this weird thing when tragedy hits, focusing on that one detail that maybe keeps us from thinking about bigger things. For me it was worrying about gifts that had been bought and wrapped, only to be returned. I think about Christmases to come, and how it might feel to be a symbol of a national tragedy. Every December holiday season will be a double-whammy for the people affected by this.

Adam ZygusI’ve been listening to the news on the sly, still trying to shield my kids from most of it. I hear the negative chatter about gun control and runs at gun shops for those who feel it’s their last chance to buy a semi-automatic. But then my heart actually swells when I hear about police buybacks where they run out of rewards because too many people brought their guns to turn in.

We’ve heard from friends who live in Newtown and are tired of the hoopla. There are well-meaning people who come to try and help, but then there is a dark side: they’ve seen people taking pictures of themselves in front of memorials, and others who were actually looking to mooch free food and presents for their kids. People are weird.

In the moving on, everyone immediately rushes to blame, fix, and point to their own reasons for why these things happen. Any logical person (especially one without a political agenda) knows that these things happen for a number of reasons, and we have much work to do to address them. But we can, and we should. In many ways, we are a very sick society, and in others, a very strong one. We have the ability to make change and help each other – we simply have to remember to do these things on a daily basis.

While embracing my firefighter uncle and cousin, I thought of the first responders who are always in harms’ way. After the shootings I read this comment: “Joel Faxon, a member of the Newtown Police Commission, said the trauma experienced by the officers should be treated no differently from physical injuries.” (Hampshire Gazette, Dec. 21)

This is profound and true. I bear witness to traumas beyond imagination that both my firefighter relatives and my ER nurse mother have dealt with throughout the years. Perhaps the discussion on mental health care will finally change, especially when we see the ravages brought on by those who fall through the very big cracks in a wildly broken system.

I wonder if Wayne LaPierre would have to see what first responders see in order to really understand the reality of what happens to people at the wrong end of a gun barrel. Would that get through to him? I wonder if the NRA is finally, a bit pathetically, taking themselves out of the discussion with their own ridiculously stupid response to this situation. We can only hope.

I know we will move on, and we should. The story is already gone from the top of the news cycle. But we should also not forget. I don’t want our collective memory to be short on this, as it is on so many topics in the 24/7 news and information world. (Does anyone remember Hurricane Sandy?)

During the crush of media coverage and the confusion of the first days after the shooting, I heard a quote that stuck with me. It was a father in Newtown who said, “We’re going to do our business (of grieving) here, and then we’ll be back. You haven’t heard the last of us.” I truly and sincerely hope that was a promise.

Kids and Violence

“There’s so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?” – The great Dick Cavett

I don’t want to write about Aurora. But sometimes you can’t write about anything else until you write about the thing you don’t want to and get it over with.

I have no expertise in this area and don’t intend to comment about that event. In fact I’ve been doing my best to put it out of my mind (though I was reminded by my dear friend who lives in Aurora that we don’t all have that luxury). These three articles explain it far better than I could ever attempt to.

What I do have expertise in is kids and violence. In the rush to explain why someone would do this, out come the statistics and quotes from all the children’s groups. It’s TV, it’s movies, it’s children being desensitized to violence.

Of course we’re trying to understand why it happened and how we can stop it from happening again. We want to be able to predict it, avoid it, or even see it coming and do something about it. And I think as time goes on it becomes less and less easy to say “that will never happen here.”

There are ways to teach our kids that violence is not acceptable. We do it every day by being non-violent people. I have to agree with Mr. Cavett. We deny a child’s capacity to know the difference between reality and imagination when we say “if they see it on TV they become it.” Kids actually don’t like violence, and they don’t like to be hurt or see their friends get hurt.

I have two boys. They’ve been playing with guns since they were five. I’m not proud of that, and I wasn’t very happy with it, but I realized it was inevitable. Now they love watching the WWE, witnessing some of the ugliest behavior and nastiest hand-to-hand (or table, ladder, chair, 2X4, sledgehammer, whatever’s handy) violence you can see on television.

But my boys are also sensitive, kind, thoughtful, and caring. They’ve learned it because it is my number one priority to raise kids who have compassion. Good grades, what they eat, how they do in sports, it’s all secondary to being a good person. I pick my battles with other subjects, but meanness is never allowed.

They’ve also learned it because they’ve watched me for ten years now using compassion every day, all day, when dealing with my day care kids. I demonstrate for them over and over again how anger does not work in interpersonal relationships. In fact it pretty much never works (or if it does, the momentary success isn’t worth the hard price you pay trying to clean up the mess).

At the same time we learn what to do when we are angry, because we sure as hell get angry. And that’s completely natural and normal, and you’re not wrong to be angry. But you can’t take it out on someone else – and there are very good ways to get the anger out of our body without hurting another person.

My boys certainly fight, to the point of pain and tears sometimes. Without this book I wouldn’t know how to handle that. It saved my life. So I recommend that EVERY PARENT OF SIBLINGS read it. Now.

When I was young and my future husband started taking me to grimy clubs in New York to see groups like the Ramones, Stiff Little Fingers, and the Butthole Surfers, I told our friend I didn’t understand the allure of punk music (I have since seen the error of my ways). He said, “Look – we’re angry young men. We’re full of testosterone. We’re sexually frustrated. Isn’t it better to be here taking it out on the music than picking fights with people?”

That one little comment spoken on a drunken night at 2AM changed the way I see the human animal. And now that I’m raising two small (male) human animals, I remember it often. I have no answer for mental illness and psychosis. But I do know that depression – some say the leading cause of shootings – is anger turned inward. If we could learn to handle our anger we’d be a happier society.

I’m Crying at Kid’s Movies Again

My husband loves that. But this scene just gets me every time – all I have to do is hear the music and I’m done for. That’s how good it is. (And how hopeless I am.)

It’s from “How to Train Your Dragon,” a movie that I thoroughly expected to hate after the way they advertised it. Does anyone remember the last winter Olympics when they had the unending barrage of commercials? And not only that, but the annoyingly-accented characters who kept popping up in on-screen graphic ads, and then actually competing in these stupid little Viking Olympic games? Grating.

All of that was enough to make me swear not to go see it, but when it came out and it was a rainy weekend and we were looking for something to do…

I loved it. But not until halfway through, when Hiccup was flying for the first time (and it was really so beautiful on the big screen).

Here’s the scene that gets me to this day. In case you haven’t seen this movie, it’s about a Viking (named Hiccup – another reason to find it annoying) who traps a dragon but doesn’t have the heart to kill it. The dragon is injured and can’t fly away, so Hiccup brings it food and builds it a new tail. But the tail only works if Hiccup can ride the dragon, so they have to be friends.

The dragon, Toothless (again – really? Were they pulling names out of a hat on this one?) isn’t totally down with that idea so he’s staying away from Hiccup, but he realizes he needs Hiccup to fly. So they literally do a dance around each other, trying to learn how to communicate.

Hiccup has been trying to get close to him but every time he does, Toothless runs away or dragon-screams at him. Finally Toothless lets him get close, but when Hiccup reaches out his hand to touch him he growls.

Hiccup takes a deep breath, holds out his hand, closes his eyes, and turns his head away and down to the ground in a moment of submission.

And the dragon nuzzles his hand.

Ugh! And I start to cry!!! Because they’ve shown how delicate and rare trust is – how hard it is to build and maintain. And that sometimes we have to be humble to deserve it.

And in a matter of seconds someone has illustrated a deep and lovely emotion that, as usual, would take me a whole blog post to convey.

I know that movie makers are paid a lot of money to do this, and my heartstrings are being plucked purposely so I’ll run out and buy some Toothless merchandise, but the movie makers don’t always get it right. And it’s not always so evident.

That’s why I love a good movie. It reminds me to go home, sit quietly with someone I love, let them give me what they have, and receive it with the honor that it is due.