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.

So What IS Discipline?

After my last piece about finding a balance in parenting styles I had several people ask, well how do you do it? How do you reach that magic place where your kids are behaving without having to beg, negotiate, or yell at them? How do you get kids to do what you want them to do?

In my mind, we’ve got it all wrong. Let’s look at the word discipline. Merriam Webster has this definition:

1: punishment
2 obsolete: instruction

And there you have it. Somewhere along the line, we twisted the idea of discipline from teaching to punishment. I’m not surprised. We’re pretty good at warping stuff here.

Dictionary.com has this definition:

discipline: activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer.

Ha! Love that. It really said that. What’s a typewriter?

And finally, the Latin root for discipline is:

disciplina: teaching, learning. “Instruction given to a disciple,” from discipulus.

Have I made myself clear?

When parents begin to see themselves as teachers rather than disciplinarians, things are going to get a lot better for us.

Kids worship their parents (up to a certain age, of course). Your parents are the ones who tell you what’s right and wrong. They give you their outlook on life. They interpret what happens in the world and filter it for you. They make the rules and show you – with their actions – how to behave.

Now, if you had to be governed by your very own demi-god in your very own home, wouldn’t you want that god to be a benevolent one? One who understands how you feel and tolerates your mistakes? Who gets your whims and truly forgives your transgressions?

The behavior you want to see from your children is the behavior you should be teaching them. If you yell at your kids, are you shocked when you see them yelling? Really, that shocked? So it’s not only teaching, but demonstrating. Living. And you have to teach it over, and over, and over, and over, for years and years, until they get it. Practice and discipline.

Seriously. I’ve never said parenting was easy.

I can list off my cardinal rules for parenting, but unless you have the discipline to use them, it’s not going to work. (Bazinga!! See how I did that?)

So. Cardinal rules for parenting:

1. Remain calm. I cannot stress this enough. Kids throwing rocks in a pond want a big splash. They’ll find whatever makes you go splash and use it to their heart’s content. No splash – no rock thrown.

2. Don’t hold grudges. For God’s sake, have a fight and then be done with it. If you keep bringing up the lie he told when he was seven, how do you really think that’s gonna go over? Somehow that’s going to improve his future behavior? Let. It. Go.

3. Do not be moved by nagging, begging, whining, and all-around annoying behavior. Ignore it. Be moved by politeness and direct communication. Teach your kids how to be respectful by being respectful to them. Talk to them like they’re human. (Newsflash: they are.)

4. Reward the behavior you want to see. Constantly. Always. Whenever you see it. Don’t see them do something right and have that smug little I-told-you-so attitude about it. Celebrate it. Tell them how well they’re doing. How proud you are. This makes so much more of an impact than any other thing you will do as a parent. I swear. Even if they don’t respond, and just turn away like they didn’t hear it – they heard it. And they’ll do the same thing again within 24 hours, I guarantee.

5. Practice gratitude. We are lucky enough to live in a place where we have everything we need. Security. Freedom. Food. Shelter. Hot showers. Medical care. Protection by a virtual army of civil servants who are willing to rush to our aid at the drop of a hat. And yet, kids are outraged because they have to go to the store to buy the latest game release on DVD instead of downloading it instantly. Wow.

6. Have boundaries. Enforce them consistently, but not cruelly. This is where that whole “discipline” thing gets tricky. You don’t have to yell, intimidate, or punish your kids to get them to behave. Just mean what you say. If you say, “Don’t climb on the table,” and your child climbs on the table, remove them. Repeat steps one and two until they stop climbing on the table. After about seven or eight times they’ll get that you’re not gonna let them climb on the table.

7. Use logical consequences. We make this so complicated, but if you start practicing it, it will begin to be more obvious after a while. In fact, that’s the trick: go for the obvious consequence. When our kid breaks a window, he pays for it, and either helps fix it, or owes us time for how long it takes us (my husband swears that fixing a window is a one-man job). Taking away Xbox for a week doesn’t make sense. Did he break the Xbox?

And really, in so many situations, the true, natural consequence is simply having to make it right. Saying you’re sorry, that you regret what you did, or going back to someone you wronged and finding out how you can fix it.

We ground our kids and expect them to learn a lesson when so often the real lesson is humbling yourself enough to apologize to someone. Trust me – way scarier, more effective, and they will actually learn something that will benefit them throughout their life, instead of being pissed off and sulking around the house for a week with nothing to do.

They may even learn that being direct about what you did wrong, showing some remorse, and feeling someone else’s forgiveness is way better than carrying guilt around on your shoulders.

Coincidentally, this week I found out that the state of New Jersey does not allow its child care providers to use timeout. I mentioned this to one of my dads and he said, “Well of course, that’s because you just spank ’em.”

I humbly disagree with the state of New Jersey. One of the hardest things about being a parent today is telling your child when they’re wrong. Because we’re never supposed to do that, we’re just supposed to “re-direct” them. But if you don’t address the problem, how is wandering away from it going to help?

Humans – especially small children – are quite full of natural arrogance. At the risk of sounding a bit militant, it is our job as parents to tamp that attitude down every once in a while. Yes, you are the light of my life and the most precious creature I’ve ever seen, but you’re also acting like a total ass right now. Let’s work on that.

But most importantly, to balance all this tamping and rule-setting and deep breathing and understanding, Cardinal Rule of Parenting #8: just laugh. Please, I beg you, make it fun. Don’t take it all so seriously. My husband and I allow our kids to be outrageous at home so they don’t have to try that particular skill out in public. And when we get going, our dinner table time is hilarious. We laugh so hard. These are the best moments of my life.

And PS – put down the screens. Right now. Go hang out with your kid.

Why UPK is a Bad Idea

Everyone’s all abuzz about President Obama’s mention of universal preschool (UPK) in his state of the union address. I’m totally against it, and it’s shocking all the people who know me as a dedicated early childhood professional.

But Amy, don’t you love the little children? Don’t you think they deserve the best start they can get? As an early childhood educator (ECE), don’t you agree this is a long time coming and should be a natural next step?

As an early childhood educator, I know what happens when government gets involved in education. It’s not pretty.

But before I begin on early education, let’s look at our track record with our existing school system. Which, globally, ranks somewhere in the middle. Just average, in the richest and most powerful nation on earth.

There are a million reasons for this, but I’ll just go on my family’s experience. Like the rest of the nation, my kids are getting a mediocre education. They’re being standardized-tested to death. They don’t have recess so they can have more test prep time. We’ve only been able to keep a music program because the music teacher is also the gym teacher. And THAT’S because my town is down fourteen teachers this year. I’m not talking luxuries here. We haven’t asked for an iPad for every student. We. Need. Teachers.

That’s not an outrageous expectation, is it?

So let’s apply this winning formula to preschool. In the decade I’ve been in this field, the more that “education” creeps into the picture, the less real care for children remains. That’s why I don’t like education reform in the manner it’s done today. Because as an ECE, I know what kids really need to learn, and it’s usually the opposite of what education reformers think it is.

When the regulations come down, they require child care providers to have degrees. I have seen my field be quietly but systematically stripped of some of the wisest, kindest, most sympathetic and caring teachers because they didn’t have college degrees.

These are the women who taught and helped me when I entered the field. I am living proof: you can NOT learn what you need to know to work with children in a college classroom full of adults. As my kindergarten teacher aunt said, “Amy, they’ll eat you alive.” She was right, and I had to learn the hard way, almost not making it past my third year. I had a master’s in education but was totally unprepared to work with children.

Some people are convinced that accreditation is the best route for ensuring quality programs. My kids went to the best preschool I’ve seen in my experience. But the director was forced to close after becoming nationally licensed, only to find out that the amount of work required to maintain that status cost too much to run her business.

Our closest relative to UPK, Head Start, is failing, with 100,000 children being cut out of the program this year. When the budgets come down and my child care friends are shocked at the programs we’re losing, I always remind them: Women and children first!

Add to all this the simple problem of staffing. A child care center is expected to provide nine to ten hours of care for an eight-hour working day. The pilot UPK program now being run in Massachusetts requires the same full-day, full-year services.

Think for a minute about how long schools are staffed. Half of a year, for six hours a day. And we are barely keeping them alive as it is.

So we would be asking our preschools to be something between a child care and a school, but so much more. Where will the staff come from? Child care worker is still one of the lowest-paid professions in the country, making less than minimum wage in some areas.

On top of her normal child care duties (which is enough work to kill an ox), a Head Start provider must do hours of paperwork, plan individual curriculum for each child, perform assessments and plan goals, meet with parents on a monthly basis, and have a state employee review her curriculum and facility every other month. For all this extra effort she earns an extra $8.40 per day. This is shameful.

I don’t even have the space to get into curriculum changes and the impact on programs – and the children they serve – here. I still have some semblance of control over my little world, and I’m holding onto it for dear life.

The fact that I can even let my kids swing is in jeopardy, as I’m barely allowed to keep my grandfathered-pre-new-regulations swingset. I won’t be surprised if they make me remove it after the next round of changes. And then I’ll tell the kids, whose best interests have been served, that the swings are just too dangerous and scary.

We, as a country, have never had the money to back up government mandates. Period. So our schools, preschools, and Head Starts struggle under the burden of unfunded regulations that can’t possibly be maintained. How is any of this, in any way, good for the little children? In fact, I do love them. That’s why I try to protect them from a system that puts their real, true educational needs last.

Many people have pointed out that we can only move forward with a first step, and Obama simply took the first step. That’s great. Of course kids deserve a real education and more than just pipe dreams being used as filler in political speeches. I hope that this will be done the right way someday. But let’s fix the educational system we have now before we drag our four-year-olds into the debacle.

Being the Eye of the Storm

A couple of weeks ago I went on my son’s elementary school field trip. They took the entire school – that’s about 200 first- thru fourth-graders – to Boston. They are a very brave group of people.

I was excited to be able to go because I only have so many of these opportunities left. Soon the boys will threaten to disown me if I try to intrude on their territory. As of now, it’s still kind of OK for me to be hanging around.

Loading the buses, getting there, and having lunch on the docks all went smoothly. It was when we assembled for the talk before entering the aquarium that I started to get nervous, because it was the first time I’d seen the entire group gathered together.

So many kids…so much noise…so much potential for serious damage…

It was crowded and wild in the aquarium but I didn’t see or hear of any major problems. After a few hours inside we re-assembled out front to get ready for a boat ride around the harbor. My agitation level increased again as the kids ran here and there while we killed half an hour.

I checked the teachers and aides to see how they were responding but everyone looked OK. And every time I saw the principal he had the exact same look on his face: a calm, very small smile. I guess that’s the zen principal face (better than the one my elementary school principal had, which was the “scary scowl”).

He projected confidence. I knew by his behavior that he was in charge and everything was fine. He leads the ship with very little emotional response – and that’s the best way to do it.

I realized that he was used to the chaos it because it’s normal kid chaos, and I was the one having a problem with it. It’s similar to the chaos I’m used to in day care that would make other people freak out.

For instance, yesterday we were enjoying a beautiful morning outside. The baby started to fuss and I saw that he was covered in poo from thighs to back. I dug in to change him when Mr. R, who is potty training, sat down on the chair to poop. Then stood up to tell me about it, then sat back down again, smearing poo from thighs to back.

While I – elbow deep in baby poo – tried to tell him to stop moving, I saw that Miss C had climbed into the baby swing (which is off-limits to big kids), unharnessed, using a drumstick as a pretend lollipop, while Miss M pushed her higher and higher.

If a civilian walked into this scene they might have apoplexy. Maybe even the principal would be alarmed. But for me, this is normal kid chaos. Just as he knows his environment, I know mine. We know the difference between normal buzz and a real problem. And even when I’ve seen him confronted with a real problem, the zen principal face is still in effect.

I need to channel that. I wish that I could project the same cool-as-a-cucumber confidence as he does. So anyone who stumbled upon that scene in my yard might be able to see that despite all appearances, I really am in charge.

Hell Yea, I’m Mom Enough

OK I’m doing it. I didn’t write about the damn Time magazine cover because I didn’t feel like giving something so blatantly sensationalist any attention. But in the past month I can’t seem to get away from attachment parenting and its fallout, and I just can’t keep quiet any more.

In all fairness, some of the principles of attachment parenting are lovely and well-intentioned. I used them during the early months of my sons’ lives (and was a frequent visitor to Dr. Sears’ website). But ultimately I think they are misleading a lot of parents, and taking the power and control out of their hands.

In short, attachment teaches parents to be very kind and nurturing to children. Nothing wrong with that. But it also teaches people to understand their child’s angry feelings and negotiate for better behavior instead of giving a consequence. Two-year-olds don’t understand conversation. Instead of clearly teaching children that bad behavior is not acceptable, this tactic only creates very good negotiators.

We humans are tricky creatures. We’re stubborn and naturally a little bit arrogant. We don’t like to be told how to do anything. We only truly learn by doing, on our own, with real consequences, and sometimes failure. Actually, we learn the most by failing. (There are like, a ton of quotes about that online but I didn’t feel like copying one here.)

Attachment parenting doesn’t allow failure. As soon as a child fusses, mommy is there. How is a child going to grow if its parent is meeting every need? They have to find out how to meet their own needs. No one can ever be self-sufficient if they’re relying on someone else to fix every problem.

One teacher friend of mine was recently reprimanded for telling his students it was irresponsible to miss an event they’d planned. The parents complained that he made their children feel bad. I wonder if these parents plan on following their children around through life preventing anything upsetting from happening to them.

Mostly I can’t forget something another teacher friend of mine said. We were talking about the challenging behavior she faces in class and she pointed out that “since attachment parenting is only about twenty years old, I don’t think that we have seen the true effect of it on society and kids as they become adults.”

Proponents of the philosophy would say it’s wonderful, the effect will be a more peaceful world. But those of us who work with kids worry about just the opposite. What we see is children who expect adults to jump for them and have no concern for anyone but themselves.

This is not how to raise healthy people. I show love to my kids – all of them, my own and day care alike – by expecting them to do better. By challenging them to problem solve and learn that you can’t always get what you want (a refrain I often sing in a lovely lilting voice). And believe it or not, they respond to me with gratitude. I respect them enough to challenge them, which means I also trust them to succeed. That is the best thing a child could ask of an adult.