Knowing When to Push Your Kids

The other day Mr. O realized that his bff was getting on the rocket swing without him and he scrambled to get there before takeoff. I said, “You want a big push?” and he, with his foot stuck underneath himself, said, “I’m not ready yet.” I replied, “I won’t push you ’til you’re ready.”

I was so proud of my little life truism. I felt like Splinter to his Leonardo. Master Shifu to his Po. Avatar Roku to his Aang. For those of you who don’t watch children’s cartoons all day, I was Obi-wan to his Luke (my geek police are not pleased, I realize that).

Silliness aside, I find this is one of the daily challenges of parenting and working with children. When is the right time to push a child, and when do you hold back? It’s one of those questions that never has one simple answer, because every child is different. When you live and work with them you learn what is the right amount of expectation and support for each individual, but it’s a constant balancing act.

On a daily basis I find myself presented with a situation that begs this question. Do I push him now, or do I realize he needs help and give him that instead. Chores and consequences are one thing – you can’t go to your friend’s house until your homework is done. That’s simple enough but it’s just a basic rule, not a judgment call. When he’s had a bad day because he failed a test, do I say YOU NEED TO WORK HARDER NEXT TIME! Or do I tell him these things happen, and pledge to help him study for the next test?

Even the child who could always be pressured a little to do better has periods of regression. The kid who was a superstar last year may have had something bad happen and now he’s plummeting. It doesn’t mean he turned bad – he needs support and love more than ever, and we in our competitive culture tend to be harder on them when they most need kindness. You were great before – why can’t you be great now? Suck it up kid!

We all go through periods like this and I still find myself on that roller coaster as an adult. Usually I’m on top of my game all the time – I got the mom thing mastered and I love it. But when I have those downswings I just want someone to tell me it’s going to be ok. Doesn’t it make sense that when our children are in a dark place, we should do the same for them instead of just demanding for them to “be better”?

I can’t…how can I put this delicately? provide constructive feedback to? or sometimes even make a simple comment to my teenager without fear that he’ll sink into depression. All parents of teens know this. But when we think they’re just being emotional and crazy and want to react and write them off, we should remember how everything felt like a personal attack at that age (hormones). My husband told our son he did a good job on something and his response was a litany of things he did wrong and storming out of the room. That shirt looks good on you. How could you SAY something like that?!

So the story becomes, as we decide when to push our child, we should also be pushing ourselves as parents. We must assess what we’re doing and take an honest look at our own behavior. We have to recognize when we’re out of line or when we need to change instead of trying to force a change on our children. They are their own people and will make their own choices. We can only provide guidance, and constant reminders of what’s right and wrong of course. Back to the hero’s journey. We send them on their way and hope they find the right path.

When parents are having trouble communicating with their children I always ask them, How would you feel if your boss spoke to you that way? Or your partner? We need to be aware of our tone of voice and body language when talking to our kids – which is often lecturing, yelling, or tossing some remark at them while we rush to the next thing or stare at our phone, if we’re really honest.

It is our job to recognize when it is time to push, when it is time step back and let our kids fail a little, and definitely, most importantly, when we need to have real open communication and hear what they need. Then figure out the best way to get them that support – which might not even involve our help, but instead teaching them how to find it elsewhere.

I say it constantly, but parenting is the hardest – and most important – thing most of us will ever do. No one fully understands that until they’re in it – at 2AM after a string of sleepless nights with a baby who still won’t go to sleep and we are ready to lose our freaking mind. Or just standing there at the end of the school day with a kid in tears, trying to find the right way to help him. Steel yourselves, Masters of young heroes. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Advertisements

Addiction is a Disease. Period.

In the last year we’ve lost three of the greatest actors of our time: James Gandolfini. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Robin Williams. Only after they died did we learn the true depth of their suffering.

After Gandolfini’s passing you didn’t hear as much anger or blame in the response. People were just sad. Because his compulsion was overindulgence – we can all relate to that. He was a man of big passions, he loved food, he loved cigars. While worrisome (and ultimately fatal), this type of behavior can even be admired in a man of his stature – he deserved to put his feet up and enjoy himself after all his hard work. People weren’t angry at him.

In the cases of Hoffman and Williams, I don’t have to discuss how visceral and inappropriate the response has been. And I probably don’t have to spell out that the difference is because their problems were addiction and depression. It is widely known that if a person had cancer we’d all be rallying to support them and their family, bringing food, making hospital visits, starting funds, holding charity baseball games, leaving coffee cans around town for donations. But when they have the disease of depression, or alcoholism, and a host of others I’m forgetting, we shun them. We blame the sick person.

Ironically, while looking for answers to Williams’ death, I found comfort (or at least a laugh) in Chris Rock’s retweet of an Onion story about how assigning blame is now the fastest human reflex. I think when we’re feeling grief over a suicide or an overdose, we blame the person because we are hurting and it’s their fault. Then it becomes very easy not to see the victim’s hurt.

When I first studied alcoholism, I learned that anyone can suffer from addiction. And many people in your daily life are actively struggling with it. It is very easy to put on a mask of normality and continue about your business. You can rise to the highest position in your career and go on for years in an active drugs and alcohol situation without anyone really suspecting what’s going on. A “drunk” is not just the guy living in the gutter.

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

In elementary school we learn (well we used to learn, I don’t know if it lives up to common core standards nowadays) that you have several aspects to your “self” – mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. We were told that in order to have a happy life, we should work to keep all these areas healthy. My husband and I are teaching our kids that when your body is sick, you go to the doctor. When your mind is sick, you go to the therapist. There is no shame in this. It’s common sense. Our society needs to embrace this ideology and stop shunning normal human responses to stress. Because we’ve got more stress than ever nowadays.

Throughout my life I’ve loved people who suffered from mental illness. I’ve loved people who suffered from depression. I’ve loved people who suffered from addiction. Those people deserve no less respect than the ones stricken with other more socially acceptable diseases. They crave compassion just as any other sick, hurting person does, and it is not their fault that they are sick.

Until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes you have no idea what they suffer. There but for the grace of God go I. In these times of loss no one has the right to cast judgment, or call someone a coward, or say how could they not get help. These men were fighting battles their whole lives, as any addict does. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they don’t.

I don't have his egg anymore :(

I don’t have his egg anymore 😦

Mr. Williams’ death hit me hard. The odd thing is several of my friends said they thought of me when they heard the news – I don’t know why, except that I’ve obviously loved him as so many other people have throughout the years (or maybe it was my Mork from Ork action figure). People say he had everything, and how could this happen. I think we need to flip that around and see the other side: the fact that he was able to get up, get out of bed, get to work, get on stage, get in front of people – everything that he gave in spite of what he was dealing with is nothing short of a miracle. We should simply be grateful.

Don’t Make Me Go All Amnesty on Your Ass

Some moments in child care take everything you’ve learned up until that moment. It sometimes feels like the culmination of my whole life as a daughter, sister, mother, master’s degree student, teacher, and therapist. The last of which I’m not, but often find myself having to be with the demands of the job.

This week’s moment was with my brother and sister pair. They are typical siblings with the usual squabbles who band together rabidly if anyone else bothers them (she’s MY sister – only I can beat the crap out of her!). This time it was brother who took the blow. I missed the beginning of the fight but saw and heard the outcome. He hit the deck, hard. Full-on WWE body slam.

I walked into the room and all eyes were on me. I had a lot of choices as to how to handle this situation. I could yell and make a big scene, I could punish her, I could try to set an example for all the kids by showing everybody how wrong this was, and how angry it made me.

Sister was too afraid to even say she was sorry. She was staring at me waiting for the hammer to come down.

I looked at brother. He was laying on the floor, pained not only because he’d whacked his head pretty good, but I could see it in his eyes: How could she do this to me? My heart melted.

I didn’t say a word to anybody. I went to him, knelt down, pulled him into my lap, and just sat and hugged him in silence.

No one knew what to do. They spoke a few words here and there but were at a loss as to what I was thinking. I looked around at the kids and realized they were all playing their roles. Sister knew she was in trouble and was trying to blend into the background while knowing she still had to atone for it.

The other instigator of the fight knew this was big, but was thinking I didn’t know she had anything to do with it and she might get off scot free. My class clown started being funny to try to distract everybody from the tension. But I wasn’t going to move on without addressing the moment.

As I sat and held brother I took a moment to collect my thoughts and decide how I was going to handle this. It was good to let the kids stew for a moment, worrying about how much trouble this was going to be. And it’s good for me not to have to make snap decisions all the time. Sibling fighting is a ploy for attention, and sometimes when you give the right attention the fight is resolved (doesn’t mean there won’t be another one).

I remembered raising my own boys and being so angry at one when he’d hurt the other. It didn’t matter who was the perpetrator or what they did – when one of my babies was hurt, mama bear roared. It was unacceptable to me – you do NOT hurt your brother! This is your FAMILY. That may be the one thing I fought them the hardest on, and I know I got it from my mother.

My sister and I rarely had fights but when they did, they were a doozy. I didn’t necessarily want her to be punished – I just wanted someone to understand how I felt. My mother would spend a while talking with her in her room, then come to me. Usually we’d have to say sorry, but it didn’t feel so hard after we aired our feelings and got the attention we needed.

In the end I just ignored everyone but brother and kept asking him how he felt. We talked about how hurt and scared he was. I asked why she pushed him down. He said he took her toy. I said, “Do you think taking her toy made her angry?” He nodded yes. Then I asked, “Do you think it’s fair to be tackled for taking a toy?” After that, sister approached and genuinely apologized to him.

I don’t know how much it sank in – it certainly didn’t stop them from battling out the rest of the week. But for the moment, she really saw that what she’d done was wrong. Brother felt comforted, not because it came from me but most importantly, because it came from his sister.

And at lunch time, when sister told me, “You always give me the food last,” I resisted the urge to tell her that those who try to destroy their brother will eventually pay the price.

Children and Fear

I have a two-year-old, Mr. O, who suddenly developed an insane fear of the Wiggles. (Well most adults are afraid of the Wiggles so maybe it’s not that outrageous.) I usually put on the Wiggles to distract the kids while I make lunch and they’re all pretty obsessed.

One day after seeing the same video about fifteen times, I heard Mr. O crying in absolute terror. Thinking someone had attacked him, I ran to the room to see what was wrong. Nothing. No one near him, no visible injuries, he’s standing alone in the middle of the room screaming. 

I asked him what was wrong and he kept repeating, “I don’t want it. I don’t want it.” These are the hilarious but frustrating moments of caring for kids. No one is forcing anything on you. You don’t have anything. What in God’s name are you talking about, child!?

I used an old day care provider trick to deal with pre-verbal kids who know a whole lot in their heads but can’t express it yet. I asked him, “Can you show me?” He pointed directly at the tv.

But it’s the Wiggles!! You love the Wiggles!! It’s Five Little Ducks – we sing this every day at circle time. What is going on? Then Captain Feathersword started to cry. (Never imagined I’d be writing that line one day.)

He was sobbing, crying, wailing, and pouring his tears into a bucket. Of course the Captain and Murray the Wiggle were giggling their way through the bit, but Mr. O couldn’t stand how sad he was! It’s a testament to what a sweet boy he is that he cares so much about sad father duck and sad Capt. Feathersword.

Most kids at this age are generally this sympathetic. It’s a nice thing that people don’t often get to see when it happens among small children. It’s also a developmental stage where self-conscious feelings begin to grow and a toddler’s perception of their own relationship to the outside world begins to change. They start to realize hey, that guy’s reacting to something scary, so maybe that scary thing is nearby. And even worse, if that guy is that upset, I should probably be that upset too.

There are scary things in the world and fear is a healthy defense mechanism. But it’s often scary for both the parent and the child to be in this moment. We want to run in and comfort our baby and shield them from everything bad in the world. But if we never expose them to fear or allow them to feel it, we’re stunting their necessary growth. It’s the never-ending parenting question: what’s a healthy amount of exposure and what’s too much?

So we have to find ways to teach our little ones how to handle fearful things in a gentle way. Often this is about stepping back and trying to see what our kids can handle, and waiting just a little instead of rushing in at the first moment. I knew that even though he was struggling, this was a teachable moment for Mr. O.

At first I just skipped the song because he was so plain terrified. This is showing him that we have some level of control over the thing that is scaring us. But after a few times of doing that, I let it play. I stayed with him, hugged and held him, and we talked about how the song had a happy ending. He still didn’t like it very much and cried a bit. But after a few more viewings he got more used to it. Now all I have to do is talk him through it and though he still doesn’t love it, he can watch without getting so terribly upset.

Fear is actually a very necessary life skill. It keeps us out of a lot of trouble. For little ones it tends to be about not falling off ledges or running into traffic. But we need fear throughout our lives to keep us safe. We need to be able to recognize and respond to that prickling feeling at the back of your neck that tells you this isn’t right – I need to get myself in a safer position, and to know the best responses to do so.

For my little guys it goes back to showing them that help is here, the scary thing is scary but we can handle it, and maybe someday it won’t be so scary. But I never totally eliminate that scary thing, because my kids need to know how to protect themselves, and I won’t leave them defenseless.

Tween Halloween

Every year my kids get older I learn something new. Halloween was upon us (literally – I didn’t even have candy until 6:00 when my husband got home from work) and they were still undecided about trick-or-treating.

I always try to stand back and take their cues, letting them make their own decisions about whether or not things are cool anymore. Of course Younger, the sugar addict, loves candy so much that he would trick-or-treat by candlelight even after a freak snowstorm took out all the power (this really happened).

Camera360_2013_10_31_090201 Older decided that maybe this was the year to stop going out, but it was a perfect excuse for a party. He coerced a bunch of other on-the-fence boys to come over for “a hangout.” It was rainy and dismal most of the day and I told him it would be OK to stay here if no one felt like going out in it.

And minutes after they all got here, they decided they really needed to go out and get bags full of candy. A couple didn’t even have costumes (including my own) so we dragged out the bag from the past few years and they let it rip, everyone taking bits and pieces. We even used one complete costume, worn tightly, as it was a few sizes too small (adds to the spookiness).

Halloween has always been one of my favorite nights to be in my neighborhood. There’s usually a party feel, people are out on their porches or even having bonfires in the yard. It truly is the last goodbye to warm weather and outdoor life before the real cold sets in.

I’ve met friends and even clients on Halloween. There are old folks just thrilled to have people to talk to. One lady who has to be pushing 90 is out every year under a knitted blanket. Last year she told me, “I wasn’t here last year because I had a broken hip. But I’m back now! And I even got my decorations up.” I don’t even know her, but when I see her on Halloween we chat like old friends.

There are some who love to play along and talk to or mess with the kids. Others are maybe only giving out the candy from a sense of duty and not loving it so much. But it always makes me feel good to know that the people who occupy so many of the houses around me, alot of whom I don’t really know, are in general pretty cool.

The crew of nine boys that we had was wild. Luckily a few parents volunteered to come along and we trailed them, making sure no one got sucked into another group or actually ran in front of a car. They tend to forget they’re on a street in the dark, in a pack, with costumed kids taking over the neighborhood.

They were excited. They were together. They had planned their own party, made it happen, and were out for candy. A few inappropriate words were spoken. Bodies ran and crashed and yelled. A few Halloween decorations were violated (not destroyed). We kept them in check until eventually they settled down to a dull roar.

But as always, in the back of my mind, I could see how this kind of behavior can drive people nuts, and why they would resent the big kids on Halloween. I wanted to defend our boys. To tell people that when a bunch of tweeners come to your door, half-dressed in weird costumes, and they may or may not be a little mouthy, don’t write them off.

They’re just young kids in a really difficult part of their lives, doing the best they can to try and fit in. They want to keep one foot in childhood as they face the stress of growing up and looking cool in front of a crowd of potential bullies. They’re fighting their way through the hardest years, so just give them some chocolate to help ease the pain.

When we got back to the house the boys were tired and polite. They wanted drinks and asked if it would be OK if they had some ice. When soda was spilled Older cleaned it up all by himself. They inspected their loot and left candy wrappers all around.

I looked at my thrown-together party with one sad string of skeleton lights, an untouched bowl of apples, the ripped open bag of costumes, wet socks and dirty pillowcases everywhere, and laughed at the insanity of my life right now.

The next day some of the parents told me how much fun their kid had had. More than one said they were grateful that Older had convinced them to go out because otherwise they wouldn’t have. This made me prouder than anything. I suddenly forgot how tired I was and how much cleaning I had to do. This is my life now: completely unplanned, surrounded by a dirty, overcrowded mess of happy, under-costumed kids. And I couldn’t be happier.

Children and Violence

The news about children and violence has been grim lately. I’m tired of the daily grind of shootings and homicidal bullying. It feels like a sickness. The word tragic has even become rote in this game. We hear tragic every day and it becomes less tragic.

After a teacher was killed protecting his students in Sparks, Nevada last week, the NRA yet again called for more guns in schools, going so far as to say that honor students should carry them. Their standard, cold-hearted, almost inhuman response to gun violence is to add more guns to the picture.

Let’s put it this way: We don’t allow people to vote until they’re 18. Because until then, people don’t have the reasoning and decision-making skills to make a choice that affects others. If they can’t color in a bubble next to someone’s name, they can’t have a gun. Period.

Then the story in Florida of the 12- and 14-year-old who bullied another 12-year-old to death got even more intense. After the 14-year-old was arrested on a felony charge because of her “lack of remorse,” her stepmother was arrested days later for viciously beating her children. After more investigation, the county sheriff declared that even the victim “grew up in a disturbing environment, not unlike the one her accused bully was raised in.”

I don’t feel shock anymore. I feel angry. It’s time for parents to step up. Stop blaming video games and movies and all the things you ALLOW your child to be exposed to for hours and hours for their bad behavior. The things, in fact, that you’ve sought out to babysit your kids while you spend your time doing whatever it is that’s more important than being with them.

The way your children treat others is taught first and foremost by you. Don’t look to the schools or teachers or their friends or coaches to teach them how to be a good person. Do it yourself.

Last week my son showed me an article in his Scholastic News (elementary school flashbacks) about a town in Wisconsin that is fining the parents of bullies. I was tickled that he wanted to show it to me, rather than being sick to death of hearing me talk about the subject. It was a great conversation and I was happy to hear his viewpoints. But most interesting was our conclusion: it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.

Get help. Just because you had a kid doesn’t make you a parenting expert. It only makes you one of a million other people who had kids and don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Who are now faced with hundreds of decisions every day that seem to have lasting consequences reaching into the future and the good of your child. It’s overwhelming and stressful.

When we’re physically sick, we go to the doctor. It’s time for us to realize that we are mentally sick too, and get some help. I don’t care if it’s a guidance counselor, therapist, teacher, child care provider, anyone you trust. Just get help.

I spend all day every day teaching kids how to communicate with each other and how to understand what the others want. Compassion, empathy, remorse. The basic things we need to function with other people. The other day my little guy – 21 months old – bit someone after a fight over a toy. I used my usual tactics to handle the situation and while I was still tending to the girl he bit, he walked over of his own accord, put his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Sorry Janie.” She turned around and hugged him.

Astounding. And utterly possible. That’s less than two years old, folks. If a toddler gets it, the rest of us should be able to.

How to Keep Six Kids Happy

One of the hardest things I had to get used to when I opened my day care was slowing down to kid speed. I mean, really slowing down. While taking care of little ones you can get in a rush pretty easily. But trying to get three toddlers down the front steps without falling and scraping their noses on the pavement can be an excellent exercise in taking one’s time.

Adults are always in a rush. Our heads are always in two (or more) places at once. We have pressures and stress and things to do and events to plan and people to care for and the news and our jobs, and all that noise in our heads makes it very difficult for us to actually be where we are.

Kids are always where they are. They might have some worries or be upset about something, but they’re still firmly planted in this moment. They see everything so clearly. I’m not talking about a life lesson, pay attention to the details, smell-the-roses kind of thing, but finding a way to connect with them, because our heads are in the clouds but theirs are in the now. (Ironic. We like to think it’s the other way around.)

For instance, the other day Mr. E saw the fan icon on the microwave, which spins, and said, “Wheel.” (The boy loves wheels.) From his perspective, that’s totally a wheel. And yesterday one of my girls gave me a colorful fall leaf. We looked at how pretty it was, then I absentmindedly started spinning it between my thumb and finger. This was like a whole new world of awesome. She stared at it for minutes while we both got a little entranced at the sight.

So I’ve found that one of the key aspects of successfully working with kids is seeing what they see. It takes practice, training, and an awareness of everything that’s going on around you. I have to know where everyone is, what they’re up to, and who’s playing with what toy, in case someone comes up and grabs it out of their hands.

When you are connected on this level, and can step in to any argument, and know what’s going on, and how to fix it, and talk for them, and walk them all through the solution, and make sure everyone is treated fairly: you will rock at taking care of kids. (And extra bonus: they will trust and adore you.)

I started a new, young group last month and my head was spinning. I was going in ten directions at once, barely keeping up, something always needing to be done and someone always needing my attention. I felt pulled in all directions and wasn’t sure I could keep up the pace.

Then I got sick. I thought I was doomed for sure. If I can’t keep up top speed, this ship is sinking. But here’s the weird thing: when you’re sick, you slow down. My head hurt so much I couldn’t run around, so I just sat, and the kids came to me. They each got a little fix of my attention in turn, and then they were happy to go off and play.

Instead of being on my feet and missing something, I could watch all that was happening and help them move through the day so much easier. There wasn’t as much attention-seeking behavior (which is our nice professional way of saying “bad”) because I was connected with them much more consistently.

Another trick I used is listening to everyone’s side and not having to “punish.” I have an infant now and while I’m busy feeding or changing her, plenty of other stuff is going on with my wild bunch. An adult may look at a situation and think, this child needs a punishment. When actually the other kid – as long as they get their toy back – could care less.

Children mostly just want to be heard. If I can listen sympathetically to both kids and name their feelings for them, they’re satisfied. By the time they’re done talking to me about what happened, they’ve moved on to the next thing and forgotten about what caused the hurt in the first place. This doesn’t excuse all behavior but it saves a lot of hurt feelings on both sides of a fight. Sometimes being heard is more important than seeing a friend get in trouble.

Another great technique I’ve fallen back on recently is broadcasting. While I’m under that baby (or suffering from a sinus headache) and watching what the kids are doing, I repeat it back to them. “Mr. O’s mowing my lawn – awesome! I needed that done. Wow Ms. G, that was a big jump.” When you verbally connect with the kids – even if they don’t respond or even seem to notice – they know you’re present and you care about them. They eat it up.

I feel better now, but I’m consciously keeping a much slower pace. I’m spending as much time as I can not rushing, not moving around. Sitting right down on the floor in the middle of the kids and observing. Being calmer and less agitated by all the things I have to get done, and finding that some of them I don’t really have to do. Maybe just keeping the peace is the most important one.