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.

Everything Changes

I’ll never forget the ice cream cone sand toy my mother bought me when I was a child. The cone was the bucket, it had a middle chocolate layer of ice cream for the sifter, and the cherry top was a scooper. A vision of it popped into my head when we saw a similar yellow cone toy forgotten at the beach on our last day of vacation. I was surprised at how vividly I could picture my old toy.

Or the Native American doll we got at the trading post, with the beaded leather clothes and baby on her back. Or the way that store smelled, or the even more unbelievable smell of the candy shop that a little old lady ran out of her front porch nearby. I remember the bright white door and windows of the shop, and my first taste of white chocolate (an event that, I cannot stress this enough, changed my life).

When I walked into a candy shop on our vacation last week, that same fudgy/sugary smell hit me and I was transported to that little old lady’s porch. I have memories of childhood, but it is these vacation times that come back to me most clearly. I guess that’s because the family was together doing really fun stuff that we never got to do at other times, so they were very happy moments.

On this latest trip my mother and I took the boys to Storyland, a tradition we started a few years ago. At one point my mother told me something I never really knew before: that she had no memories of her grandmother beyond the strict, prim and proper woman sitting stiffly in a dress a the dinner table, a distant woman from another era. She said she wasn’t even sure if her grandmother spoke more than ten words to her in her whole life.

I thought of my own grandmother, and have too many memories to count. The hours spent playing solitaire on her dining room table. The game cabinet that in the days before electricity had been her cooler, but was now filled with toys for her grandchildren. The chicken bones she saved for us to play tug-of-war with, her work room filled with pins and beads, her mysterious old claw-foot tub, and where the gumdrops were hidden.

I even have some memories of the grandmother I lost when I was only four. She gave me Special K with sugar sprinkled over it and and let me eat it in front of the tv. She had black hair, kind eyes, and made the most incredible (and irreplaceable) blueberry tarts from berries we picked in her backyard.

And now this grandma, breaking the bank on a four-day extravaganza to all things fun: ice cream and candy, pools, amusement parks, rope courses, milkshakes, battling the other grandparents to win junky carnival game prizes.

Mom has always been concerned that the boys will see her as someone fun in their lives. She’s obviously doing the opposite of what her grandmother did, and we laughed at that fact as she dragged herself out of the lake we were swimming in, on our way back to town for dinner at the restaurant she had allowed them to pick.

I don’t know what memories my sons will have of their vacations, but Mom is right about one thing: we are making them every year. Every year they remember our traditions and want them to continue exactly as they’ve always been. Of course it’s sad for all of us when one of those traditions end, like when a business has closed or changed owners, and they stopped making the world’s best candy apple. Another Mom-ism from this trip was that change always happens no matter what. There’s nothing you can do about it.

I’m usually saddened by change, especially as my sons’ childhood years race by. But we are grateful for the change that is good. We started taking the boys to Storyland because mom and dad brought my sister and I there as children. When we found an exhibit of pictures of the park through the years, I immediately looked for the ’70s to show them what it was like when I used to go.

There in the middle of the park was the Little Black Sambo merry-go-round. Wow. We checked, and by the next iteration of the park it had been changed to the Jungle Adventure. It felt inappropriate to even be explaining our reaction to the boys (with all the mommies and daddies covering their kids’ ears and looking at me like I was insane), but they had to know.

And so we will go on. Things will change, sometimes for the worse but hopefully more often for the better. The boys will remember some of it and forget some of it. But some day when they’re at the beach with their kids, they’ll remember the cold lake in New Hampshire and throwing the ball in the water with Grammy.

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.

The Tyranny of Expectation

I recently wrote an article on school choice that I thought would earn me a good deal of backlash. Instead, what people responded to most strongly was the idea that we expect too much of our public school system. It got me thinking about expectations.

Parents are probably the kings and queens of expectation. We want the world to be safe and kind, all teachers to be perfect, all coaches to be nurturing, all drivers to slow down, all bullies to get theirs, and for our children to have the best of everything all the time and total happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Is that too much to ask?

What about the expectations I’ve been given, as a woman and a mother? The debate that women can have it all rages on but I can tell you, we can’t. Did I expect that this job, which is harder, more demanding, and more complicated than any other job I’ve ever had, would eliminate me as a viable candidate for any other job I applied for after I was done? Nope. But it has. I am now “just” a day care provider, my label for life.

However. I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be if I had any job other than this. So I gave up a career to be a mom. Also not what I expected, or what I was led to believe I could have. I could be mad about this, or I could be grateful that I am here for my kids as much as I possibly can be. No “career” job could make me that happy. Though it would certainly pay better.

The very idea of “motherhood” is laden with expectation – no pun intended – right from the start of pregnancy. I was reminded of that by this hilarious (and profane) blog post, “A Letter to My Pregnant, Child-less Self.” Birth plan? How can you possibly control birth? And who decided it would be a good idea to let us expect that we could? Here’s what to expect from labor: a lot of pain, a lot of pushing, elation, fear, exhaustion, and hopefully a healthy mom and baby at the end of it.

Besides letting us down, expectations take us away from a place of gratitude. If there’s anything I’ve tried to teach my boys (in a world full of Joneses), it is to be happy for what they have. When they start envying what their friends have, I remind them of the friends we know who have less. When you can look at what you have and be satisfied, life is so much easier.

The other day I was explaining a “bad” event to Younger Son using the Zen story about the farmer whose son breaks his leg. The neighbors say how awful, but when the army comes and can’t take the boy to fight, they say how wonderful. At every turn, the farmer simply says, “Maybe.” (For the full text, click here and scroll down to “Maybe.”) We can’t see the benefit when we’re in a struggle, and we can’t presume to know the outcome. We need to learn how to accept that what we have may be just fine.

Fifteen years ago my husband took me on a hike to the top of Somes Sound, touted as “the only fjord on the Atlantic coast.” I sat on the smooth rock looking over the harbor below and thought, this is not what I expected. I wanted a dramatic chasm of rock rising on either side with boats like ants in the water below. Instead it was a gentle slope down to a rather wide, average-looking waterway. But it was beautiful, and blue, and breathtaking in its own way.

In a few weeks we’ll go back to that fjord with our sons, and climb the same hill and look out over the harbor. I’ll force them to stand still, pose, and smile for the camera though they can barely tolerate my picture-taking after a few days on vacation. It won’t be what I expected, but it will be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.