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.

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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.

A Mother’s Fear and Faith

I find myself to be struck dumb when catastrophes happen. It’s hard for me to write about the little details of parenthood and life with kids, and deal with my little complaints, and make all the nonsense seem silly and cute, when I know there are 12,000 people in Oklahoma whose homes just got wiped off the map.

And there are too many catastrophes happening lately, so I find that I can’t write very much. Last week I was focused on how to protect our kids from all the dangers that lurk out there. I decided to give up years of beating myself up for being too worried, and accept that I’m a mother. I’m supposed to be worried. And I’m pretty sure it’s a biological imperative, so I should just stop fighting it.

But the new challenge I have set for myself is to find a way to manage the worry and allow my children their freedom. I have to accept that all of life is a risk. And as Baz Luhrmann tells us in the logo for his production company, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.” (We saw Gatsby this weekend, it was decent. Thanks for the advice, Baz.)

I don’t want to be fearful. I want to be that adventuresome person climbing the rock cliffs like we did in Utah over spring break. I want to give my kids all the challenges and freedom they need to grow into healthy adults and have faith that they will be alright. Why is it that we can be so unafraid in the face of real falling-off-a-cliff danger, but the walk to school feels scarier than falling off a cliff?

Usually when I’m in this mode of worry and doubt, comfort comes when I least expect it. I was reading the newspaper (a prime source of disaster stress) and there was an article about our police department hiring a new chaplain to provide counseling for both police and the families involved with incidents.

When asked about the stresses of his job, and dealing with so many people in trauma and crisis, he responded, “It’s been a blessing for me to get this experience over the years and to be able to respond to these horrific events to help people get through it and move on. Because we can’t protect ourselves from all these things, we just have to help each other get through it.”

I was hit by the honesty, strength – and yes, acceptance – in this quote, and it stayed with me. Things are going to happen in my kids’ lives. I can’t predict them or prevent them. I can’t be there for everything and there are things they won’t want me there for. But I can always help them through. Whenever my sons get worried we tell them, “There are always people who will help you.” Today my challenge is to focus on this aspect of the good in people and let go of the fear.

Protecting Our Children

For years I’ve wrestled with how protective I should be of my children. This has been a particularly bad news week for a mom who worries. When it feels like there’s terrible news everywhere I look, it’s usually time to take another news blackout. Or just continue to rely on Jon Stewart to sort it out for me.

But the question remains, how do you protect your children from random violence, and how do you explain it to them when they get old enough to understand?

The wonderful news of three women being released from their captivity in Ohio was nothing but a triumph. At the same time, I can’t stop wrestling with the chilling questions this event leaves in its wake. How many more are there? What happens to missing children? How well do we know our neighbors?

A new hero emerged from the publicity around this news. It was Elizabeth Smart, whose story I was transfixed by years ago, but I had thought faded into a much-deserved quiet life. No, in fact she’s out there advocating and has unbelievably brilliant things to say. I am still transfixed by her.

In this clip she describes a safety program for kids called radKIDS (Resisting Aggression Defensively). The program is not just for preventing abduction but also addresses bullying, molesting, and child abuse. Even if parents don’t want to think about this topic, I cannot imagine a better way to give our kids tools they need to defend themselves.

I knew one child care provider who did a safety training with her kids. She had them sit in a circle and – after warning her neighbors what she was up to – would grab each child and have them scream for their lives. I was torn about this practice. My first reaction was, how gruesome, and aren’t they scared? Her response was, “They should be.”

I hate it. I hate that we have to raise children in a world like this but it’s just reality. And here’s the interesting part. She said the kids loved it, and they felt empowered and happy when the training was over. Well, what kid doesn’t love the chance to scream as loud and long as they possibly can?

But the training made them feel like they had strength. And one of the things Elizabeth Smart said was that she’d never said no to an adult. We need to teach our kids that they damn well can say no to anyone, anytime.

One of my sons took a year of tae kwon do and gained immensely from it in a variety of ways. While I think it would help him if God forbid he was ever attacked, his learning was beyond the self-defense capabilities. It was about having strength and confidence in yourself, and that’s what our kids need in any situation, on a daily basis. (Especially in middle school.)

This is about turning fear into empowerment. For parents, it means we must stop being in denial and simply have direct conversations with our kids. It is said that we should take this talk as seriously, and have it as often, as we talk to our kids about sex and drugs. But at an even younger age. And we should not just give dire warnings of “Look out for bad people,” but instead ask, “What would you do in this situation?” And then, here’s what you do: flip out as if your life depended on it.

Ironically, at at time in their lives when people tend to be incredibly overprotective of children, I give the toddlers and preschoolers in my care immense freedom. Our climbers are really climbers – with kids not just using the steps but sitting on top of them yelling, “Mommy! Look at me!”

It makes everybody nervous but I say, let them explore while they still can. I think about the freedom my boys don’t get and the skills they may not be learning from being simply alone in the world and figuring it out.

I’ve bemoaned this with many parents over the years. We all spent hours alone, riding bikes or wandering in the woods, or running through the neighborhood with our crew, away from the prying eyes of our parents. This way of life doesn’t exist anymore and I worry about what my kids are missing out on.

At the same time, we do awesome things with them. We challenge them in different ways, be it soccer games or hikes where they can climb five stories up on rock walls. I have to come to a point where I realize that it’s OK to be as protective as I want to be. I’m done living with the stress of somehow failing to give them enough freedom.

In the end, every time I send them out the door, they will go with my prayers for their safety and blind hope and faith for the best. They will only be armed with whatever skills I’ve given them to be smart and protect themselves. This is one place where I cannot fail.

You Don’t Have to be An Attachment Parent

I’m trying not to get too worked up about yet another study telling us that if we’re not attachment parents, we are destroying our children. But you know how good I am at that.

I try to remain calm. However, the first sentence of this article uses the word “retard” in reference to children who are not raised in the attachment style. That leads me to believe that the author does in fact mean to provoke her readers.

The author goes on to say that “ill-advised practices…such as the use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will ‘spoil’ it…(are causing an) epidemic of anxiety and depression…rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency…and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, among college students.”

Whoa whoa whoa. Slow down now. I think there may be a few things – just a few other factors – that occur between infancy and adulthood that could cause anxiety and depression. Just a few?

And I refuse to believe that widespread practices of only a generation ago are such all-out catastrophes. My mother formula-fed me, let me cry it out, and put me in a – gasp – playpen when I was a baby! So I would be SAFE while she cooked my dinner! And good Lord, I survived all that trauma and abuse.

Am I depressed, angry, delinquent, and unempathetic? I like to think I’m pretty normal, a successful small business owner, happily married, doing my best to raise well-adjusted (non-attachment) children. I’m pretty sure that being put in a crib as a baby didn’t destroy my life.

And then there is the age-old argument presented as revelation: “This new research links certain early, nurturing parenting practices — the kind common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies — to specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood.”

Hmm. I remember watching the movie “Babies” where the Mongolian baby was tied to the bed while the mom worked. While other people in the theater gasped in horror, I thought, that’s genius! (Maybe I’m wrong.)

I’m sure if you really looked at it, you could find just as many societies around the world where people don’t sleep with their babies. Or like us, a society that is torn in its beliefs with many different experts wringing their hands over it.

So, we’re not a foraging hunter-gatherer society. Those third-world moms (who I’m sure love being seen in that light) probably don’t have to get two kids to school and be in a 9:00 meeting looking awesome with a box of gluten-free muffins we picked up at the organic bakery on the way in because the new client has a wheat allergy (probably due to formula feeding).

Beyond the questionable parenting advice, what upsets me most about these studies is the implication that it’s all mom’s fault. If you didn’t co-sleep or nurse, your kid is done for. They’re depressed, anxious, and maladjusted, and it’s because you let them cry too much as a baby. Nicely done, mom!

What these studies fail to see is that it’s not co-sleeping and breastfeeding that teach empathy, good behavior, and general well-being. It’s what happens BEYOND infancy. Good and/or bad habits can be established during those early years, but it is parenting throughout childhood that sets a child’s path.

And guess what? We can do everything right (impossible) and still have a child who is depressed or anxious. Co-sleeping does not a perfect world make. It doesn’t affect biology or socioeconomic status or many other factors in a child’s life.

I understand that the people promoting these studies have good intentions. But from what I can gather, they are being presented by women who don’t even have children. If I started doling out advice about brain surgery, I think the patients might be taken aback.

When I was about to give birth for the first time a wise friend told me, “There are no blue ribbons. All we want is a healthy mom and baby out of this.” The same can be said for parenting. We’re all just doing the best we can.

If you’ve had success with co-sleeping and can string together more than 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep, then awesome. If it’s working and you’re happy, keep it up. But consider yourself lucky, because you are among about the 8% of people who’ve been able to make it work. (That’s not a research-driven statistic – it’s my anecdotal experience. Just to clarify.)

For the rest of you: there is hope. You can still be a good mom even if you can’t stand having a baby in your bed. Because here’s what it takes to raise children: Consistency. Boundaries. Lots of love. High expectations for good behavior. Consequences. Being able to say no. Having to be the bad guy no matter how hard it hurts. Being pushed to the limit emotionally and still give your child what they need from you in a loving way. Facing both demons and fingerprint-smudged walls on a daily basis. Being able to laugh through it all. A good night’s sleep. And not taking everything so damn seriously.

Timeouts are a Good Thing

On the last day of vacation I was walking toward the lobby for my continental breakfast (can’t stay at a hotel without continental breakfast, even if the pastries are sweaty). I could hear a child wailing but couldn’t see her – it was as if the hedges were being tortured. As I got closer I saw her on a bench outside the lobby yelling “MOOOOOOMMY!”

I wasn’t concerned for this child because it was clearly a fake cry – you could even say half-hearted – and I realized she was probably having a timeout. As I opened the door to the lobby I saw Mom standing right there inside the window watching her.

A glance around the room showed that dad and their three older kids were sitting at the table having a lovely breakfast, all chatting away and engaged with each other (even the teenage daughter). Clearly these parents knew what they were doing.

But the looks and whispers from the other people in the lobby made it seem like someone should call social services. “That’s just awful.” (Shakes her head.) “Terrible.” Why were all these people so quick to judge this mom just for giving her child a simple consequence? I’d rather judge all the people I saw this week letting their kids run rampant, or causing ugly scenes with their over-the-top screaming “discipline.”

And what about mom having to interrupt her breakfast and stand up eating her bowl of cereal? No one is annoyed at the child for acting out and making the mother sacrifice a nice meal.

Wait, I’m sure they were annoyed at the child before the timeout, and then they were just annoyed at the mom. So maybe it was a lose-lose to begin with. OK forget it, everybody just keep your kids indoors until they’re 12.

I also noticed that the family was French Canadian. Of course the list of cultural differences is long anyway, but it got me wondering if Canadian parents get better advice than we do.

A cursory review of Canadian mommy blogs reveals that they actually get much of the same. Similar debates over whether or not to allow toy guns, lots of talk about equal-partner parenting. Their sports stories are the same, except they have hockey instead of baseball.

Still, while looking at these websites, so much of current advice out there feels way too touchy-feely to me. The newest thing I found is that apparently, instead of having a timeout we have a “time-in,” where we cuddle and love the child until they calm down.

I read one mother’s story of Janie knocking down Sissy’s fort, and Sissy being so upset. But mom saw that Janie was the one who acted out and needed to calm down, so she spent a time-in with her.

Meanwhile, Sissy’s fort is destroyed AND Janie’s getting a nice little loving hug and all the attention from mom. What’s WRONG with this picture? Since when do we reward the perpetrator? (“Well Sissy, your fort should have known that it was not a legitimate attack so it shouldn’t have fallen down.” Sorry – couldn’t resist.)

I feel like a crotchety old lady when I harp on discipline (kids these days!!) but really, I am disappointed in our lack of skills when it comes to teaching good behavior. We have an aversion to being firm and clear with our kids and having expectations for common decency.

I’m completely against spanking, shaming, and punitive measures, but I’m also against talking, bargaining, and letting a child negotiate their way out of a situation. Middle ground: a simple consequence but uncomfortable nonetheless, get it over with and move on. Parents in charge of children. Very easy. Much easier than we make it out to be.

The result is kids who respect boundaries and know what we expect of them. They feel comfortable and safe when they have this guidance. They need it so much, but we are afraid to set the rules. Why have we gone so soft?

I view the lobby incident as a mother of four, older and wise, who knew how to handle herself and her child. I admired her ability to do what she needed to for her child and ignore the dirty looks of the McJudgersons. I just wish I had said something supportive to her in that first moment, when she was enduring the screams of her child while trying to catch the milk drips from the cereal bowl on the lobby floor.

Living With Fear

You know what I really miss about being young? Fearlessness. The utter confidence – in fact, the absolute certainty – that nothing bad is going to happen to you. As you were walking out the door to meet your friends at a party your mother would yell, “Be SAFE!” And you would think, why does she even worry? I’m going to be totally fine.

I have lost that certainty over the years and I wish I still had it. I don’t like that a lot of my time is spent being fearful. Not worrying, because I’ve learned to let that go. A friend of mine once said that worry is lack of faith in God. It was a powerful idea that helps me get through a lot of days. I know I don’t have any control over most of that territory anyway.

But somehow I can’t translate that to fear, and the fear feels different than the worry (it IS an instinct after all). Maybe it’s because I know more of the world than I did when I was younger. Or I’ve outgrown the ability to completely block it out. Maybe because I’ve lost friends and seen people suffer and I know anything can and does happen.

I hate to admit it but the gun violence has really gotten to me. I have one night out a week to do whatever I want, and often that means going to the movies. But since Aurora I haven’t been able to go alone. My husband said, “A tornado ripped up a bunch of houses in Springfield, are you afraid of houses now?”

It’s not just that though. I’ve taken up biking again (which usually happens every summer and ends every winter) and have been spending a lot of time riding the bike paths. Often I go alone when the kids are at practice. I start out feeling fine and excited for a ride, and halfway through I start to feel dread.

I suspect everyone. That comes from watching Dexter, of course (damn you John Lithgow). But it’s even worse when somebody gives me a reason to suspect them, like the guy who looked like maybe he hadn’t taken his meds. I felt the nervousness begin. Granted, this was after almost being run over by a car and another biker, so my nerves were already on edge.

I reassured myself that I was fine, and kept on going. I’m on a bike and I’m fast, big, and strong (also damn you Chris Bohjalian for “The Double Bind”). I tried to calm myself down and keep riding, and think about why I get so scared. Then it hit me why this worry feels more intense than ever. Because nothing CAN happen to me. I have kids. I can’t not come home from this bike ride.

So I have to summon up that faith. I don’t want to be afraid to have a life. I can’t let the fear stop me. I go out riding as often as I can and look at the sunset and smell the BBQs and enjoy the feeling that exercise gives me. But there is always a very quiet little voice in the back of my mind saying God, get me back to my kids safely.