Christmas is Hard and Kids Know It

There are plenty of mournful versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” many of which are on my iPod and I’ve been hearing in Christmas rotation this month. There’s the Jerry Vale department store version, a heartbreaking Rosemary Clooney, the great and tragic Judy Garland’s, even James Taylor got in on the act a few years ago. And Lou Rawls’ sexy and fun version always makes me smile.

But far and away this one is my favorite:


Simple, straightforward, true. I’ve written before about how this Christmas album gets to me more than any other.

But I think the magic of Jim Henson, and why I loved the Muppets so much and why that has stayed with me all this time, was that he never talked down to kids. He just said it like it is, and Rolf always felt to me like that little bit of reality. Somewhere there’s a guy who’s been run down by life. He’s OK, and he plays the blues in bars for a living, and he’s not happy, and he’s not destroyed either. He’s just out there. And he tells it like it is too.

Ironically I’ve been teaching and writing lately about just that. Many people tend to discount kid’s opinions, fears, even their ability to understand what’s going on around them. Jim Henson never did that. He knew that kids know what’s up. They understand so much more than we give them credit for.

When you watched the Muppets there were monsters, divas, cranky old men, stoners, nerds, weirdos, and a neurotic but capable frog trying to hold them all together. It was a true vision of life, not polished to hide away anything that might be unpleasant.

So much of what we offer kids today is just that. Turn on any kid’s show and everyone is happy and excited and speaking in a very high and fast voice! Life is good! You are a genius indigo child! You will someday rule the world if you just follow along with our hyperactive movements because someone told us that you learn more if you move at the same time and we’re also trying to make sure you don’t get fat watching our tv show and sue us to pay the medical bills for your early onset diabetes!

Oh my Lord, it’s constant screeching. When I dig out old videos to show the kids it’s all the cartoons that offended people somewhere along the line (i.e. Bugs Bunny and the Simpsons), with crankiness and conflict and real life.

My sister mentioned there was a group of parents in NYC trying to ban the Peanuts Christmas special because it depicted too much bullying. My first response (besides mocking them) was that bullying is a part of life, and that’s just the dumbest thing I’ve heard anyway. But today’s parents are trying to deny bullying or anything less than pleasant so their kids will have the most enchanted life possible.

When in fact, their child would probably identify with Charlie Brown, as we all did at some point. We feel depressed when we’re supposed to be happy and left out and rejected when others are having fun, and sometimes feel like the holidays aren’t really living up to what they’re supposed to be. And our friends pull us through, just like Charlie Brown’s.

Plus no one should ever be denied the coolest Christmas soundtrack ever and Linus’s awe-inspiring speech.

Someone asked me, why do these Christmas shows endure? That’s easy – we identify with the protagonist – it’s the basis for every story ever told. “Rudolph” is appalling in how horrifically every adult in the story treats him (and Kermie). But when you’re Rudolph, or a kid who has felt like Rudolph, what else can you do but go on? And isn’t it nice to know you’re not the only one who feels this way?

Kids who are watching learn that life is sometimes hard (Egad! No! Don’t tell them that!). People can be jerks and you will feel beat down. But you do your own thing, there’s always tomorrow, you’ll find your way. Even if it’s with a pack of misfits (which is exactly how I would describe most of my life).

And Rolf is there too, with his piano, howlin the blues, letting us know we’re not alone.

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Parenting is Not for the Squeamish

A friend of mine said that to me recently and he was so right. Lovely summer is coming to an end and all of us have been feeling the stress of going back to school. It’s been a rough week. Just when you think things are getting really good, everything changes and it’s all hard again.

It makes me reflect on how hard, how truly hard and challenging and never-ending it is to be a parent.

Another friend and I were talking about how tough 3rd grade was for both of our sons. She told me it was gut-wrenching for her to do what he needed to get through the year. I asked her how she did it and she said, “I had to be someone I’m not to push him through, on a daily basis. It was brutal.”

Being a parent forces you to change who you are. I’m not talking about simply giving up the freedom to go out to dinner with your spouse any time you want. I’m talking about a deep soul work kind of thing.

I remember when I first opened my child care I wasn’t very teacher-y. I was the kind of parent who felt that we speak to our children in a grownup way and do not talk down to them. I did the same thing with my day care kids. You can imagine the results I got.

I now have a teacher voice, and a teacher persona, and a preternatural teacher calm that sometimes amazes even me. But I can’t tell you how hard it was for me to get here. I literally had to force myself to behave differently with the kids.

Until then I was just being lazy, and a bit arrogant to be honest. Why should I change myself – why should I be someone I’m not, someone I don’t really want to be, just for these kids? THEY should change to match my expectations. They need to learn and I’m not going to teach them anything with baby-talk.

Well I learned pretty quickly that I had to be different if I wanted to be a child care provider. I can’t tell you, when I finally reached that point and gave in and started acting like a foolish singing clown, how much of a difference it made for my kids. How much of a better teacher I became and eventually out of that, a better parent.

Because I realized that parenting is not about forcing your kids to be what you want – it’s about altering your expectations, and what you believe to be right and true, and sometimes admitting that you are wrong. Changing yourself for the good of someone else. They don’t talk about that in the parenting magazines.

I’ve also had to be hard when I’m not, and that’s where my husband comes in. I told him there were times when he was right and I knew it. Which means I had to really listen to him (huge step right there), admit I was wrong (painful), and do it his way (are you kidding me?). This is not how humans naturally behave. We dig in our heels and fight to the death to prove we’re right. But having kids, and really wanting to make it work, REALLY wanting to do right by them, forces you to do these things.

Parenting – not for the squeamish.

On an episode of “Louie” the main character was bullied by a teenager, followed the kid home, and confronted the parents. The parents immediately started beating him and Louie defended the kid, saying “How do you think he turned out like this? You teach him to just hit people – what was he gonna be but a stupid bully? You never gave him a chance.” I envisioned a beating and bloodshed but instead the father admitted to Louie that he just didn’t know what else to do.

So here’s what you do. Re-set yourself. Look at your child as another person, a human being separate from you. You cannot control them. You must teach everything it means to be a good person: manners, empathy, responsibility, tolerance, honesty, patience.

You must accept that they are their own person, and while you do teach them all of the above, they are still going to make their own choices. They are human, and they will make mistakes. They are not perfect and they will need help along the way. But they are also beautiful people who deserve respect.

And the process of changing yourself goes on and on. It doesn’t end when the kids get to kindergarten, or past elementary school, or become what you think will be teenagers capable of putting dirty laundry in the laundry pile.

You are responsible for getting them through life until age 18. At that point they need to be ready to face the world, and that’s kind of on what you did for the the last 18 years of hard work so remember that too. But along the way, step back and take a good hard look at things every once in a while. When they’re not going right, you might have to be the one to make an adjustment.

Bike Path: Kill or Be Killed

After a week of riding the (gorgeous, incomparable) bike trails on Cape Cod, I’ve learned alot about human nature. First there are the types of people you will find using the trails:

1. The Tour de France’rs

They have their bodysuits, their space-age helmets, their front-arm-leaning handlebars, fanny packs and camelbaks, and feet cemented to the pedals, so they AIN’T stoppin. Just stay out of the way because the peloton is coming through, and you will die if you get in front of it.

2. The Neurotic Parents

They want to teach their kids to ride, but maybe they should’ve thought about doing that at home, before they got on the biking superhighway. Sometimes they have to stop and lecture their children about “how angry it makes me when you do that.” Often accompanied by grandparents pushing empty strollers. Occasionally you see a variation of this with three or more adults pulled over to the side of the trail, all fussing over one crying child in a bike trailer.

3. Walkers, Joggers, and Dog-walkers

They have every right to be on the bike trail. It’s supposed to be a safe haven for people trying to enjoy a walk or run without having to risk their lives on summer-traffic-filled roads. But I’m not sure they’re any safer with the bikes than they are with the cars.

4. Teenagers, Old Folks, and European Tourists

Lesser seen, but still present. Teens will be surly and/or dangerous-looking. So will the old folks. Europeans will be half-naked and stopped on the side of the trail eating berries.

5. Rollerbladers

Really?

6. Normal People Out for a Nice Bike Ride

Like me and my family, who were just trying to get through it all unscathed. And at least one of your party will be asking, “What’s the point again? Why are we riding bikes in a straight line for hours?”

Repeatedly.

My scariest moment was when we passed a dad and son who were pulled over, and mom was just getting back into the flow of traffic. Older Son was in the middle of the lane passing her and I was starting to make my move when I noticed there was a daughter, maybe four years old, trying to turn around and find her family. Older slowed down when he saw her swerve across the lane of traffic.

But the 65-year-old guy coming toward all of this mess didn’t. He just made a grimace like, “Oh my God! There’s a little pink Dora bike in front of me! How dare she? I’m about to crash into her! But I ain’t slowin down, dag-nabbit!”

I told Older he did the right thing. When in doubt, STOP BEFORE YOU CRASH INTO PEOPLE. It’s pretty basic.

Now. To this spicy gumbo, add cars. Every time you come to a street crossing it’s complete anarchy. By the letter of the law (we think), cars aren’t supposed to yield to bikes in crosswalks (I know, stupidest thing ever). But it makes sense if you realize that bikes are supposed to observe the same traffic rules as cars, so a rail trail crosswalk throws everything into confusion.

Cars are supposed to yield to pedestrians, so on the trail, the rule is that bikers should stop and walk their bike across the streets, hence becoming pedestrians and clearly having the right of way.

But no one ever gets off their bike. And the cars can’t always see the crossings coming. They are hidden around corners and in trees, and anyway most drivers on the Cape are in vacation mode. They’re not paying attention or they’re in a SERIOUS rush to get to some soft-serve. If they’re not familiar with the trail, they can be flying along with no clue that a person could jump out in front of their car.

As my dear old sailor dad used to say, the laws of gross tonnage apply. Motor vehicle vs. pedestrian laws don’t matter when a many-ton vehicle is flying toward your 65-pound skin-and-bones baby.

So we taught the boys to come to a COMPLETE stop at every crossing. BUT, those of us who are trying to keep our children from being flattened by cars get in the way of the peloton, who fly through, knocking you out of the way in their hurry to beat you to the entrance on the other side of the road.

Then you’ve got the people who draft off your stopped cars. You and the kids are getting across as safely as you can, when the others come up your butt because they shot out in front of the drivers who stopped for you. Now you’re on the other side trying to climb back on your bike and get….CRAP! Angry Granny!

“ON! YOUR! LEFT!!!!” They yell, annoyed at you for being in their way.

So what does all this mean? It’s simple. People need rules. I have my own problems respecting authority and I’m the first person to say, “Bah! That’s not a real law.” But if there were just some basic right-of-way guidelines (i.e. when a small child loses control of their bike and darts in front of you BY ACCIDENT – stop your damn bike instead of yelling at them and their parents), the trail would be a far less terrifying place.

Dave had a theory that it’s like the townies vs. the college kids. After a few weeks of having bikes dart out in front of their car, or being on a bike and having a car speed toward you, there’s competition between locals and tourists, drivers and bikers. The age-old story. Oh – and it’s hot. And everyone’s stuck with their cranky family.

Of course Dave also managed to get in a little parenting wisdom. Our last human behavior observation, which I’ve been saying like a broken record for years anyway, is this: kids will watch what the adults are doing and do exactly the same thing.

So when he’d had enough of all the shenanigans, Older got in on the act. As he tried to turn left to exit the crosswalk and head for a deli we’d picked for lunch, another crazy grandpa went flying by him (to pass everyone and get back on the trail first) and almost knocked him down. Older yelled, “Thanks for almost crashing into me while I was trying to make a legal and safe left-hand turn.” (We’ll have to work on brevity when it comes to his snippy remarks.)

After this event Dave told him, “If somebody’s out here yelling at people then they’re probably not a very happy person. Don’t let them ruin your day.” So we mocked him, ate sandwiches, and went back into the fray for another hour of enjoyable riding in straight lines amongst crazy people.

But please don’t let this story deter you from riding the trails. Go early or late, go on a Tuesday, go when it’s NOT summer, but get out there and see them, because as far as rail trails go, this one is world class.

No Teasing, No Taunting

I teach early childhood classes where we talk about the difference between girls’ and boys’ bullying behavior. Boys typically attack physically and get lots of timeouts for that. But girls attack verbally, and we have to treat their attacks just as if someone has been hit.

I’ve been dealing with a little mean girl stuff around here lately, but it’s giving me the “wonderful teachable moments” that my friend Lynne is always talking about. I’m almost grateful for the run-ins that happen because then I get to teach a child how to make a healthy choice to protect herself.

For example I have a girl who I call my little boss. She’s only imitating my behavior, which a lot of girls do, but she likes to be in charge of everyone. She was telling Miss C what to do when Miss C yelled at her and started to cry (I so get that feeling).

The boss said, “I don’t want to play with you. Right, Miss C?”

I said, “Ms. Boss, she’s really mad right now because of how you’re treating her. She doesn’t want to talk about it. You need to leave her alone.”

Miss C looked at me and stopped crying. It was like she suddenly realized she didn’t have to play out the Boss’s puppet show. She could choose not to engage, and when she knew that the cloud lifted. This is one of the most powerful moments I get to enjoy on the job.

It reminded me of one of my clients whose daughter had gone on to preschool. She was having trouble with a child who was mean and she didn’t want to play with that child. But the teacher told her she had to because of the “we’re all friends here” rule.

I told the mom, “You tell your daughter she never has to play with anyone she doesn’t want to!”

I understand the intention of a rule like that because it’s trying to dictate good behavior, but it isn’t something you can control. It’s like saying “Be nice.” How do you regulate that?

And why would you ever want to force kids to play with someone who is hurting them? I suggested that mom tell her daughter to WALK AWAY, and that it’s OK to tell people exactly how they’re making you feel. You never make a child play with anyone, that’s just crazy talk.

I often try another response with the kids, which is no response at all. We recently had an interesting conversation with a friend who is a psychiatric social worker. She said that sometimes people will physically attack her. I asked all the kids present (there were four – I am never not surrounded by kids) to listen up and hear what her response is.

She said first you try not to respond too much. Then you put up a hand and say, “You’re getting a little too close to me now,” but you have to learn how to stay calm and project strength.

She even said that she’s been hit, and it doesn’t scare her anymore because once it happens, you know what it feels like and you survive. Now that’s tough.

The kids were interested and I was glad we had a chance to talk about survival tactics. Older Son said “I have a good way to deal with bullies. I just look at them and go, ‘Really?'”

We talked about how much easier it is for adults to handle the onslaught than kids. And how even adults have to deal with bullies. It’s pretty cool when you find life lessons in unexpected places.

So, in summation: no response, calm response, be strong, walk away, you don’t have to play with a bully, and you will get through this if you use your head. Just another day at the office.

In Which I Teach Kids Self-Defense

I’ve had a lot of noise in my head lately about how to protect children, especially after writing two articles for the Gazette on Penn State, and viewing this awesome clip of my friend Lynne Marie speaking at an anti-violence rally.

One of the things that bothered me the most was my son worrying about being left at basketball practice because of “that coach who molested that kid and no one called the police.”

So I’m trying to take my own advice and give my kids some real power over their bodies. This morning we opened the super fun box of Christmas delights so we could start working on some Christmas crafts.

Miss M and Miss G were fighting over a little baggie full of foam Christmas beads. I was busy cleaning up the remnants of the exploded box, so I told them to walk away, use their words, etc. (You know, all the things you yell at them from across the room when you can’t get there fast enough to break it up.)

But it wasn’t working, and Mr. R decided he was going to get in on the action. He went over and started slapping at the two girls who were already slapping at each other. Miss G just took it as a challenge and started slapping both Miss M and Mr. R. But Miss M started to cry.

I pulled them all apart and looked right in Miss M’s eyes. I said, “I want you to practice this with me. ‘NO!!!'” and I put my hand out like stop-in-the-name-of-love. At first she just looked at me with the tears still coming, like, are you yelling at me? What’s going on here?

I said, “I want you to practice your strong voice. When you cry and scream it only makes him want to hit you more. You have to make him want to stop. So, do this. ‘NO!!!'” The other girls started practicing.

“That’s great! Miss C, let me hear your strong voice!” She did it again, and the other girls took a turn.

I said, “Now try to make your voice really low,” because they still sounded like 3-year-old-girl squeaky toys. I showed them again but just sounded like a bear with indigestion. They knew it. “Ha ha Amy you sound like a bear!”

I said, “You’re right, I do. Now growl and say ‘NO!!!'”

We kept it up for a while and laughed at our silly voices. I told them that it was always OK to do this, and that I wanted to see growling bears instead of crying.

Then it was time to make lunch so I put out their drinks and snuck into the kitchen. Right after I disappeared, I finally heard a very loud “NO!!!” from Miss M. I winked at her but didn’t say anything (she likes to work stuff out on her own – you’re not really supposed to know about it).

The kids will sometimes sit at the table and wait while I make lunch. During this time, Mr. R likes to touch Miss G’s cup and make her cry (for a 2-year-old boy, this is a very interesting cause and effect toy). So after about thirty seconds in the kitchen I heard four girls yell “NO!” I glanced through the doorway and saw four stop-sign hands aimed at Mr. R.

It was lovely to see this, but it’s something I have to keep practicing. I’ve taught kids this from the start and like everything else, I have to teach it over and over. Like yesterday when we had to pull out the old “If you’re angry and you know it” song sheet and review what we should do when we’re angry.

But I do hope this will stick with them. I might start using it myself, in fact, when I’m surrounded by children who are hanging on my body or whining for me to do something for them. And most importantly, I have to work it into the conversation while my own boys are home. They’re getting some damn good fighting skills just from wrestling with each other, but I want them to feel that powerful in case they’re ever in a situation where the person is someone who isn’t just playing around.

Can Good Behavior Be Taught?

Words to live by

Do these rules really work? Sorta...

People often come here looking for “rules for kids to be nice in child care.” I put the quotes around that because yeah, you can have rules and give kids timeouts if they’re not nice, but it’s really hard (read: nearly impossible) to control kids’ behavior just through rules and consequences. What’s the first thing most kids do when someone gives them a rule?

Try to break it. (Same goes for you – admit it.) So when it comes to teaching kind behavior, I’ve always seen it as encouraging, modeling, guiding, and repeating yourself again, and again, and again, and again…

Someone observed that a child in my program was having trouble sharing. I said, “Well she’s only been with me six months.” My friend thought she should have sharing down by now. But six months isn’t long enough to learn how to share all the time. Really.

Don’t have a heart attack, just realize that this is what working with kids means. Adults sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that we can say something once – like “Put your dirty socks in the laundry pile” – and our kids will always do it.

Poor, deluded adults.

So it helps to realize that teaching children “how to be nice” is constant. It’s really the most important thing I’m doing, all the time. And here’s how:

Be kind to the person who’s hurt. This is one of my favorites. Little one whacks another and waits for you to swoop in, grab them, scold them good, and carry them off to timeout. Well why does that kid get to be carried around and talked to when someone else is nursing a bruise? So I usually put my body in between them (back to the aggressor – you get nothing!!) and love and hug that little hurt one as if they’re the most precious thing in the world. Take that, bully.

Then after the hurtee is calmed down, obviously, go back and give an appropriate consequence to the hurter. Make sure they see that you’re upset, and the person they hurt is upset, but they’re not getting an hour lecture because then they get all the attention.

Be aware of your tone. Try to channel your inner preschool teacher and have that sing-song, everything’s happy, let’s just move on shall we? voice turned on as much as possible. At the same time, be firm, clear, consistent, and don’t raise your voice unless it’s absolutely necessary. Have you ever spent hours on a beach with a child who is throwing rocks in the water? Cause and effect. The bigger the splash, the more they want to throw. Soon they’re chucking in boulders instead of pebbles because WOW! Look what I did! When they see they’re setting you off, and you’re escalating, they just go for the biggest splash they can get. And once you start down that path, you can only get bigger. What happens when screeching doesn’t work, and it’s really kinda entertaining them? (Pam gets all the credit for the rock in the pond – I use it all the time and it’s one of the best descriptions of young kids’ behavior I’ve ever heard. Go Pam!)

You also don’t have to go right to yelling. Asking politely but clearly, “Please get off the bookshelf. Come on down,” or inviting the child to the next activity, “Guess what? Snack time!” can be just as effective. Of course, help them along if they’re not accepting your invitation.

Separation instead of timeout. This is one of the best tricks I’ve learned. You (hurter) go over there, and when you can be nice you can come back and play with us. It’s not sit-in-this-chair-and-serve-your-timeout (because if they get out of timeout 100 times they’ve still got your full attention for ten minutes), but it’s still a separation. No one will want to play with you if you’re mean, jelly bean.

Help them make good choices. Kids know there’s a right and wrong way to do things. Ask them, “Is that the best way to get what you want?” They usually know the answer. When they get it right, let them know. “You made a good choice and I’m so proud of you.”

Ignore bad behavior. Any bad behavior is a ploy for attention. If my kids lose sight of me, how long do you think it takes before someone is screaming to get me to come running back? If the behavior is not hurting anyone, stay back and see how the kids handle it. Sometimes they’ll surprise you. They need to learn naturally from each other, and a little peer pressure at this age is a good thing. Especially if, one day, someone’s doing EVERY BAD THING you’ve ever told them not to do, you will spend your day chasing them around doing just that. If she’s climbing on a chair – so be it. Let her fall and learn that climbing on a chair is a bad idea by herself.

My dad came up with this great phrase that I’ll never forget. He said, “Kids need to get used to a little benign neglect.” I loved that. It is ok to challenge them and let them figure out some things for themselves. I would never put anyone in harms way, but at the same time, let them stretch a little and see what they can learn all by themselves.

Turn it around. Redirect what’s happening into what you want to happen (ooo that sounds so new-agey). We were making banana bread the other day and the toddler was having a BLAST with the kitchen cabinets. After all my pleas, “No Miss A, stay out of the cabinets. Miss A, close that door. Miss A, stop dumping cereal all over the place!” I finally realized what I was doing. Then I said, “Miss A, come here – it’s your turn to stir.” Bingo. You can also use this when kids have had a run-in. Use the moment to teach them how to comfort someone, instead of punishing them for doing the hurting. When my boys fight my standard line is, “Go make it right.” They know it’s more important for them to work out the problem than to apologize to me and get punished.

...count to 10.

...growl it out!

Teach self-defense. If the adult is regulating every situation where someone is being victimized, the kids will never learn for themselves how to handle it. One of the first things I teach is to use your voice to say “Stop!” firmly and clearly (which is more effective than “NOOOOO!!! She’s touching MEEEEEEE,” which is sort of going right back to the pond). I also tell the kids that if someone is grabbing you or your toy it’s OK to push their hands away or hold on tight. We also sing the “If you’re angry and you know it stomp your feet” song to try to teach them how to handle their anger, instead of just saying no no no you’re bad and repressing it until they have three-year-old angst and depression.

Actions speak louder than words. We like to talk talk talk talk and explain to kids why things are bad and how they should behave and why what they’re doing is wrong and how they can’t live a decent life if they spend it pulling people’s hair – how much of that does a 2-year-old get!? Really! Use your body language: remove them from the situation, don’t make eye contact, give them the cold shoulder. Don’t give them what they want until they’re behaving the way you want them to. When that happens, shower them with love and praise!

Drop your own anger and resentment. If you put a child in the category of “bad,” you’ll never get past it. Everything they do will annoy you, and nothing they do right will please you. Stop that right now. You are the adult – recognize that this child needs your help to learn how to grow up right. (I tried to find a link to Teddy Roosevelt in “Night at the Museum” telling Larry Daley to stop slapping the monkey because he’s the evolved one, but all the giggling teen clips on YouTube left that part out.) Realize that instincts drive us. The easiest thing for a little human being (who can’t talk) is to grab something when they want it, and hit the person who grabbed from them, and scream if they’ve been hurt.

Know your kids. Will this child respond to a timeout? Or are they motivated by praise? For some kids, all it takes is the stink eye to straighten them out. Or asking, “Is there a better way to do what you’re trying to do?” Sometimes they just need to be walked through the steps. I do a lot of talking for my kids. “Miss C, Miss M wants to use that toy. Can she?” (No, dummy.) “OK when you’re done with it will you let her have it?” Sometimes they’ll hand it over. But I always keep an eye on the toy and make sure the one who wants it eventually gets it. If the first child is clutching the toy for hours in spite of the other’s wanting it, out comes the timer.

And that leads to being trustworthy – do what you say you’re going to do. NO EMPTY THREATS! And:

Be fair. If your sweet darling who is always lovely and joyous suddenly bashes someone in the head, don’t let it slide because she’s not usually like that. Address it. Recently I had a tough day with one of my kids and I told his mother I’m not letting up on him because he knows what’s naughty. He’s not even three yet. Kids are smart – they know if you’re playing favorites.

See everything. I sometimes hear myself muttering, “You really think I’m dumb, don’t you?” So I’ll repeat something that’s happened without saying who did it, and the child looks at me with shock in their wide saucer eyes. Yes you, little person, I know what you did behind my back. And it was wrong and you know it. It helps if they think you’re omniscient.

Praise good behavior. You have to do this for all children, the aggressors as well as the victims. In my classes I often talk about training our kids almost like you would train a dog. You need them to understand what behavior you want to see, so when they get something right (even if it’s bringing a cup to their friend even though they’re not supposed to touch other people’s cups), tell them they did a good job.

I know at 40 years old I still crave praise. When someone tells me I did something right my little heart grows three sizes. This is how our kids feel too. I don’t know why we forget this. We’d rather nag and yell at them constantly when a little “You did a good job” will fill that child up for the rest of the day. And make them more willing to help the next time (really!).

By the way I thought people might be offended if I related teaching children to training dogs, and I asked my neighbor about it. She said when she was a childbirth educator she would watch how couples handled their dogs, and she could tell by that how they would be as parents. So don’t be upset, I’m not saying your kid’s a dog, I’m saying you need to use the same method of consistency, firmness, praise and rewards for good behavior, and yes, letting them know when they’re being bad. We get all caught up in complications when really, when it comes to kids – the simpler the better.

Use natural consequences. Ahh, the hardest concept to understand, especially in finding one that matches the offense. When my oldest son was almost three I remember screaming so loud I thought I might cough up a lung. I just have to get louder, then he can’t ignore me any more! I’ll teach him! And if nothing else I’ll scare the crap out of him! Somewhere we decided that we have to get our kids to submit to our will, rather than treating them like independent beings who need to learn how to make good choices. So we think the bigger the punishment, the more they’ll learn from it.

Think back to your childhood. Did that ever work for you? Or did you just resent your parents for acting like jerks?

So go for the obvious – AND SIMPLE – response. You don’t have to have a nuclear meltdown if a kid misbehaves. If a child takes a toy away from someone, return the toy. That’s it. The toy-taker doesn’t need to be yelled at and thrown in timeout. They just can’t have that toy and they need to go do something else. OR, walk them through asking for the toy and waiting their turn (if you want to get really crazy you can ask them to say they’re sorry for grabbing, but it’s not imperative. That’s a whole other can of worms).

Do have very clear rules about what is forbidden: hitting, biting, kicking, pushing, hair-pulling, screaming at people, teasing and taunting, manipulating, and blaming your behavior on others is never acceptable. (Which means you can’t do it either. Ha ha, that’s just a little day care provider humor there.)

HAVE FUN. For God’s sake, please, just relax, keep the flow moving, let go of the bad stuff, play, laugh, sing, be goofy. That’s all kids want. There is so little time in the rest of our hectic lives to simply enjoy ourselves – try to make their day with you at least a little fun. They WANT to laugh, you just need to give them an excuse. (Don’t ask me to demonstrate their favorite songs where I have to stick my tongue out and sing like a freak.)

Before I end this novella of a post, there is a very tricky situation that I feel the need to address. Adults don’t always understand this, and for me it was one of the hardest things to learn when I began working with young children: they are crying out for boundaries. When you open a day care you imagine that you are going to be filled with the sweet angel-love of babies – and then in an instant you’re living out the Lord of the Flies.

You have to be in command of that island. Firm, but fair. These are the rules, I will not accept meanness, you will not be allowed to act out, the word No is my friend, and do you know what will happen? The kids will love you. They’ll feel safe and protected. Your consistency will allow them to grow. You love them the most by being the grownup, even if it’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do, and it really hurts sometimes. (Parenting: it’s not for the weak of heart.)

And realize that for some kids, all your teaching and modeling and efforts might not be enough. You just do your best and hope they get something good from you.

You may have noticed that this post was less about the kids’ behavior than about ours. Always remember that the grownup sets the tone, not the kids (unless it’s just one of those days). So go out there and be nice to them today. If you set the example, they’re going to follow it. I swear.

When Saying You’re Sorry Isn’t Enough

Dave and I had an interesting talk this morning. His job takes him to schools all over the state, and he said he’s having a hard time watching how they deal with bullying. He said the idea that you make the kids say they’re sorry to each other doesn’t work, because you’re not addressing the bad behavior. Instead, you’re just teaching the child to say a word that lets them off the hook.

I had to agree. Older Son just had a dust-up last week where he had to say he was sorry to an aggressor. In typical fashion – and this is the way it happens everywhere, school hallways, workplaces, professional sports – the aggressor picks the fight, the target responds, the person in charge sees the response rather than the attack, and punishes the target.

I have previously written about making kids say they’re sorry, and I should probably clarify my stance in that post. While I think we should be modeling and teaching kids how to say they’re sorry, it may not always be the best solution.

The ideal situation would be if you know the kids (and if they truly care and are motivated by making each other feel better), and what happened, and who needs to say sorry to who, and if saying sorry will fix it or if the aggressor needs a consequence. If you can fairly judge all that, then go for it. “I’m sorry” may be just the thing.

And in the un-ideal situation, which happens 95% of the time, “I’m sorry” won’t cut it, especially if the wrong party is forced to say it. Talk about subjugation.

We should keep in mind that there will always be Eddie Haskells:

And Chets:

And Heathers:


I have to go back to what I always say when it comes to teaching kids how to deal with all these people and personalities. Stay out of the way when you can. If you can’t, then just worry about yourself. Don’t worry about what they did, or what they got away with, or how unfair it is. They know how to play the system and probably always will. There may be nothing you can do about it. Just protect yourself and remember not to do the same thing to the next person.

That’s the best I’ve come up with for my boys (besides enrolling one of them in tae kwon do). What do you think? How do we teach our children to deal with bullies? Any suggestions (besides going to school and passing out the beat-downs) would be greatly appreciated.