News and Activism

Big happenings in my world lately, dear friends. I got a new job as a TVI (Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments) for little ones from 0-3 and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be working at Perkins School for the Blind, the legendary school of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. This means I had to close my day care, which after 12 years was gut-wrenching and difficult. I will miss and think about my kids a lot in the coming months, wondering how they’re doing and if they’re happy in their new “homes.” I trust my local providers knowing how awesome they all are, and that the kids will adjust. Kids are resilient – moreso than their parents sometimes (and that includes me!).

Just because the day care is closed doesn’t mean this blog is shutting down – I’ll still be here writing about parenting, education issues, and even cooking up a few new projects like a podcast with one of my mentors, Pam Clark, who you may have read about on this blog before. I’ll be posting information about that in the coming months (hopefully – as the dust settles!).

My latest bit of activism is a letter to the editor of the NY Times in response to this article about our state’s supposed “rejection” of PARCC. What it really means to those of us fighting common core in MA is that they are going to re-brand PARCC by “combining” it with the MCAS test. Many of us are trying change the testing paradigm by drastically reducing how many times it is taken (students in MA take MCAS EVERY YEAR from 3rd – 11th grade) and removing the connection of test results to teacher performance. (Some of us would like testing eliminated altogether but, baby steps.)

My letter won’t get published because things move fast nowadays – I took a digital break for Thanksgiving and missed the whole comment period. But that’s why I have this blog.

Before I print the letter I want to thank you all for your continued support. Thanks for reading, and please continue to look for more parenting fun and loudly shouted opinions coming from my little corner over here. 🙂

To the Editor:

The article “Massachusetts’s Rejection of Common Core Test Signals Shift in U.S.” (Nov. 21) downplays the narrative of what has really happened to teachers and students in Massachusetts and the stubbornly blind eyes and deaf ears that policymakers have turned to their constituents. It overlooks the fact that there has been a statewide grassroots organization of thousands of parents, grandparents, teachers, aides, and students to create a 2016 ballot issue to remove common core. Our voices have been ignored and downplayed while Mitchell Chester et al inform us that we are too stupid to understand what’s going on in our schools, and what’s really good for our children.

Last April the state rolled out its pilot of the PARCC test. The culture surrounding this issue has been a draconian, keep your mouth shut or lose your job environment. Teachers have been fired for speaking out against the methods prescribed by common core. Though most teachers oppose common core and PARCC tests, they are afraid to speak the truth to the parents in their classrooms because this threat looms heavy.

Some teachers reached out to trusted allies who would be able to speak publicly on the subject. We met in dark restaurants out of our district to avoid being seen. Parents were told we couldn’t opt out, but had to “refuse” the tests. Parents received threatening letters and phone calls from principals, attempting to coerce them to make their children take the test. In some cases, principals did not accept refusals from parents and tried to get the child, while sitting in the classroom preparing to take the test, to tell their teacher that they were refusing. Students were forced to take tests against their parents’ will because seven-year-olds aren’t developmentally capable of looking their teacher in the eye and telling them no. Stories like this in varying degrees happened all across the state, and that doesn’t even cover what happened to children with special needs or IEPs, who are the biggest victims of PARCC testing.

Most of the people making federal policy and commenting in articles on education are not teachers. They haven’t worked in classrooms nor do they understand children and their development. Education is a female-dominated profession under siege by international businesses looking to make money off education budgets. Last April and May our schools had over 30 days of testing. My children sat out because I don’t send them to school to function as guinea pigs for the Pearson corporation.


Summer, Boys, Bikes, Freedom

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said,
– Speak to us of children!
And he said:
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Khalil Gibran – The Prophet

One of my dearest friends gave me those words and they hang on my fridge, an everyday reminder of what’s important to me. If our refrigerators are a peek into our minds, I am a more than slightly crazy person. But my kids are doing great.

Anyway these words ring truer for me this year more than any. When she first gave me the poem my kids were so young, probably still in preschool and kindergarten. At that time letting them fly into the world meant spending a few hours a day away from me in the full-time care of another competent adult. And that felt huge for both of us.

This summer, even the past few weeks, have meant whole new worlds opening for them. Last year it started with the baby steps of letting them walk home from school with a gang of friends and hang out downtown, terrorizing local businesses with noise, food messes, and probably the occasional profanity. Today, they are free to go wherever and whenever they want. They tell me whose house they’re going to, or what store, and hop on their bikes and off they go. They haven’t started taking the money directly out of my wallet yet – they still ask for it and wait around to count it.

They even had their first real babysitting job yesterday, the two of them together (I figure that’s better than one, in an emergency they might be able to use each other’s help, or just make each other more panicked, but eventually somebody would figure out what to do?). Letting them be in charge in someone else’s home (and that dear lady for trusting them) felt like baby steps into adulthood, just as those preschool steps felt so many years ago. It doesn’t seem like it in my memories, but I have to admit it – ten years is a long time.

The choices they are making show me how far these arrows will go. The other day when they wanted to go for a ride downtown I gave them all the cash I had, which came down to a whopping $4 each to spend at the candy store. I figured it would be gone in seconds, on milk shakes or the biggest bag of candy ever. But they came home and handed me a Kit Kat. It was the best part of my whole week.

Best candy bar ever

Best candy bar ever

Their thoughts are their own and they make that clear when I try to impose mine, which is great. They’ll listen to advice but make up their own minds (and that’s when I have to back off). As another friend said the other day, her girls who are the same ages as mine won’t speak all day but then something will come out and she has to be READY and focused at that moment to hear what they have to say. But when they do share what’s on their mind I’m so pleased.

The ways in which I strive to be like them are many. They’re small adults but still uncomplicated. They ask questions and really are curious about how the world works. They fight bullies and speak truth. There’s no drama or if there is, they get over it in the boy way of punching each other, being mad for a little while, and then getting over it.

I know I can learn more from them, or from the journey I am taking because of them, than they can learn from me. They’ll get educated on the subjects they need to learn eventually. That’s not my job. Making sure they know what’s important – and knowing when it’s their turn to teach me – that’s my job.

My Baby’s in Double Digits

I wrote a paean to Older Son when he turned ten, so it’s only fair that I do one for Younger. So far, you’ll be happy to know, we’re all hanging in there just fine with hitting this milestone.

It astounds me how different my boys are turning out to be. Younger is quietly determined, soft-spoken and kind, but with an iron will. It might take him a while but he will get what he wants. He is responsible and organized. He folds the towel before he hangs it on the rack. (That’s even better than me.)

He is a boy who was less excited about his new baseball glove and video game than the donation that was made in his name to the World Wildlife Fund. But still young enough to be disappointed that he can’t actually go and snuggle the lemur he adopted.

He is a deep thinker and likes to hear everyone’s opinion. He actually wants my advice and asks for it, and if I forget to offer it he reminds me, “Mommy, you’re not saying anything to make me feel better.” This is because he is so mature and independent that sometimes I forget he still needs me.

He is a fierce but fair competitor and an asset to every team he plays on. He’s so clever that he can deliver a joke or sass completely straight-faced, to the point where I don’t even know he’s kidding. He loves to stump me and to make me laugh.

He is truly saddened, pained even, by injustice, poverty, and strife. He wants to change the world for the better and I believe that someday he will.

How do I feel having no more single-digit aged children? Wonderful. That’s certainly not what I expected. I thought I’d break down, shed tears, be curled on the basement floor next to the storage box in a pile of baby clothes. I remember when almost-three-year-old Younger was still not talking very much, and I told my friend Pam I didn’t mind, because I liked keeping him young. She said, “But Amy, don’t you want to hear what he has to tell you?”

I didn’t think I could ever let go of my babies. I didn’t want his blonde curls to lengthen and his hair to thicken, or his chubby, edible baby feet to become big and smelly. I think I feared that I could never love them as passionately as I did at that moment, or that that kind of emotion was unsustainable. Or that they would grow up and be embarrassed by me and we would fight over homework and messes and privileges and chores.

What I have learned is that all those things will happen. And every fight will bring a deeper understanding. A stronger bond. Every challenge faced together makes us closer. As they grow older and understand adult things like sitting still in a restaurant, appreciating a good story, and getting the point of really bad jokes, our experience of the life around us deepens. I am sharing my life with two amazingly spectacular, fully-formed humans, and I feel blessed every day.

I truly don’t mourn their babyhood anymore, and it’s such a relief. I am so fulfilled and happy watching them grow into the young men they’re going to be. I’m proud of who they are, the choices they make, and how they carry themselves in the world. My greatest success is hearing someone tell me that I have great kids.

When my friend Rosie’s son turned fourteen I whined at the thought of my babies being that old. She took me by the shoulders and said, “Amy, it just keeps getting better.” I knew her words were heartfelt but still I doubted I’d be as convinced as she was.

And here I am, with two boys who’ve made it through their first decade on earth. It gets better every day. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Melting Down on a Hot Day

Why is it that my kids’ biggest (and most gut-wrenching) emotions hit at the most unexpected times? Birthday parties, last days of school – when they should be filled with sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, lemon drops – suddenly there are tears.

But I do remember how huge and important everything felt back then: the sting of an insult when you don’t know how to respond. Or not getting any candy from the pinata because you weren’t brave enough to dive into the insane-looking pile of writhing kids. Fighting with your parents in front of your friends. And how it felt when so-and-so at school told everyone what happened at the party this weekend.

To us grownups with our logical grownup brains it seems like no big deal. Just a fleeting moment that’s gone when we move onto the next thing. We can see that nobody else even noticed, or if they did, they will forget quickly. Or we have the adult capacity – and self-protection skills – to let go of the slights, make light of them, and move on without leaving a scar.

Pam would say “I cry every year on my birthday. It’s about letting go.” She has a way of making everything seem cleansing and natural instead of stressful and vomitous.

I remembered her words during all the emotional meltdowns this week. There was a birthday involved, but also the end of the school year. School’s out for summer! This. Is. AWESOME! So wait – What? Why are there tears?

It is about letting go – releasing what’s built up over a long time, and facing the new, unknown, and scary. And often those moments catch us unawares. We saw The Avengers last night as a last day of school celebration and I kept being struck at how easily they just jumped into the next battle. Hold up, don’t you have to process what just happened? And you’re not going to stop and think about it for a really long time before facing that next big scary thing?

Which is probably why superhero stories are so popular. You don’t always know what’s coming next, but you can be sure it’s scary. You like to think that you’ll be able to figure out the answer, perform perfectly, save the damsel, and win the battle with a witty quip. Never looking or feeling like a dork, and proving to the world that you’ve got what it takes (and you look super hot in your sexy costume to boot).

During these unexpected meltdowns I find myself struggling to deal with it as much as my kids. Which boy is it, how do I motivate him, what words do I say and not say, do I hug him or stand back, have we covered this topic before or is it new territory? Does he need to laugh it off or is this a real, serious one? Will I make him even more upset if I take it lightly? Will he just be annoyed and shut down if I take it too seriously? Do I talk, or shut up and let him talk?

There is a very brief window of opportunity in these moments, and if I make the wrong choice they are gone. Channeling my inner Black Widow…

And to top it all off, in the midst of all that processing, sometimes I have to turn my back and compose myself. I can’t let them see the tears I’m wiping from my eyes because to hear them sob crushes me. I have to put on the, “I’m here, you’re gonna be fine, let’s figure this out, and it’s OK to cry but don’t cry if you don’t want to, no pressure, we can work it out,” confident voice without letting it crack from my own emotions.

Damn, this mothering thing is hard.

When a Crying Baby Makes You So Angry You Might Hurt Them

A reader sent in one of the most heartfelt and brutally honest comments I’ve had, and I needed to respond right away.

One of the most popular posts on this blog has always been Don’t Feel Bad When Your Crying Baby Makes You Crazy. This is clearly a universal problem: people really do struggle when a baby is crying.

The reader, a man, said how much he loves his one-year-old daughter and that she rarely cries, but when she does, he gets so angry that he has to leave the room and punch furniture. He is afraid that he will scare and possibly hurt her with his anger.

First I want to reassure him that he’s doing the right thing. Go away, get rid of your anger, and come back when you can deal with the child. It’s far more upsetting for them to see you lose it in front of them or, clearly, to take your anger out on them. Your anger makes the moment more intense. The goal is to remain calm, and therefore calm the baby.

This is the hardest challenge of parenting – this is where you really have to dig deep, and I’m not just being facetious. You have to grow and change, which is really hard. You have to push yourself to find a place where you can be calm even when all hell is breaking loose around you.

If you lose control of your anger you can very easily hurt a little one, and it is terrifying for parents to think they have this capacity. Because no one talks about anger when it comes to little ones. We see the rosy pictures and the quiet moments and the joy joy joy we’re supposed to be feeling, when really we’re exhausted, emotional, scared, and sometimes just can’t handle the drastic (and irreversible) life changes we’ve just been through. Babies open up a whole new world we can’t possibly understand until we’re there, at 3AM with a screaming child, and we’ve got a major presentation at 9:00.

First let’s try to explain why all of this is happening. We get so noticeably upset by our baby’s cry because it is designed by nature to get your blood pumping – to get you to respond to its distress. It’s a survival instinct that we’re both physically wired for and there’s nothing we can do to change it.

But I also think that today we have immense pressure to never let our babies cry. All the gurus tell us to do everything we can to soothe our baby and stop the crying right away. But sometimes you simply can’t. And as the reader described, he then feels guilty because he can’t stop her crying and because his own emotional reaction feels out of control. Then the whole situation escalates quickly.

Sometimes being forced to stop crying is not the best thing for a child. Babies feel stress too, and they need a way to let it out. When we run in and force them to calm down we’re saying don’t cry – it’s not good for you. That emotion you have is bad and we need to stop it. A baby feels what they feel, they can’t analyze it.

Put her in a safe place and walk away. You both need a timeout, and that’s OK (and sometimes the safest thing to do). In fact I will often tell my day care kids, “Amy needs a timeout!” and run and hide in the kitchen. We can only take care of our kids if we take care of ourselves first. (This rule applies forever, at any age, in all situations.)

A little bit of crying has never hurt or permanently scarred a baby. It lets them deal with their own big emotions and learn how to self-soothe. There are times in life when Mom and Dad simply don’t know how to stop the pain. We can’t always fix everything, and it’s OK for a child to feel sad. Crying is a release.

Let’s face it, we are not a culture that deals well with ugly emotions. We don’t know what to do with our anger so we bottle it up until it explodes at the wrong time. It scares us, and that’s a healthy thing, but that also leads us to hide it away. When we’re sad we try everything to stop the crying, to hold that feeling in, rather than letting it out. Sometimes your body just can’t do that, even though we try to put our societal norms on it and say we’re too civilized for this ugliness. It’s not true. We need to be able to face it and then let it go, and teach our kids how to do that as well.

Therefore, I would like to introduce you to my friend Nubs. The boys named him that because he doesn’t have arms (or maybe something dirty but I chose not to delve any further). When we got him I thought it would be a hoot – but basically a joke – that I would be able to take my anger out on him. One day I half-heartedly punched his face. In a few minutes my hands hurt so badly that I had to go back to the store and get sparring gloves. When I’m not punching Nubs, I pat him on the head and thank him for taking my abuse, because honestly, there are some days when he saves our lives.

One of the most important things I do with my day care kids is teaching them how to deal with anger. There are many books out there on the topic, and one of their favorites is If You’re Angry and You Know It. I developed a song chart they can pick from and we sing, “If you’re angry and you know it growl it out!” Grrrrrrr, with lots of roars and gritted teeth from the crowd.

The reader asks if he should seek professional help and I would say I don’t think you’re at that point right now. The baby’s cries will get less intense as she gets older (and in case they don’t, remember that the best thing you can do with a tantrum is WALK AWAY – ignore it and don’t feed it, whatever you do).

But I’m glad that you realize that if it doesn’t get better, and you find yourself raging at your child, that you will need to ask for help. You are on the right track, and you’ve tapped into something very strong – the way our kids can push our buttons until we rage. As they grow it might not be crying, but other very sneaky ways they know to get us going.

It’s OK to show our kids that we’re angry. It’s an honest emotion and sometimes they push us to it. They have a part in the dance and need to learn why misbehaving is wrong. It’s part of growing up, and parents teaching their kids right from wrong.

Still I had the hardest time with this because of those messages – life is beautiful, never ugly, our children are precious, never let anything scar or hurt them, and NEVER tell them “No.” My son was a wild three-year-old and I battled him. One day I screamed so loud that it scared even me. I called my friend Pam and cried. I told her I don’t know what I’m doing but I know it’s wrong. I’m afraid I hurt my child.

She said, “Amy, what is he doing right now?” I looked out the window and said, “He’s running up and down the driveway with his Power Rangers cape on.” Pam asked, “Did you crush his spirit?” I had to admit that I didn’t. And what a relief that was. And accept the knowledge that our kids are far more resilient than we give them credit for. I waited until I collected myself and went and gave him a big hug. But I remembered that the next time he was getting me upset, I would let him know before I became a screaming monster.

I’m not much of a yeller now. I’m direct and honest, and address issues before they get out of control. I’m firm but loving. It’s been the hardest process of my life to learn how to handle my emotions, and the kids, and their emotions, in a healthy and productive way.

There is a quote that comes to mind every time I feel my anger rising at my kids. When I remember that they are the most precious and important thing in my life, and that I am the God of their world. That my response is literally going to shape their lives and teach them the emotional strength for how to get through the toughest times:

“Your defining act of love for your child will not be the 2:00 AM feedings, the sleepless, fretful night spent beside him in the hospital, or the second job you took to pay for college. Your zenith will occur in the face of a withering blast of frightening rage from your child, in allowing no rage from yourself in response. Your finest moment may well be your darkest. And you will be a parent.” (Michael J. Bradley)

Embracing the Chaos

Here we are: the week before Christmas and I really, honestly, truly feel like my head is going to explode. There is literally not enough time for me to do everything I need to (and those are just the things I can remember I have to do), so it’s just time to start accepting what I can’t. Bye bye, dusting. Clean the boys’ room – out of the question. Tidy up the yard – please. My family will have to accept that it’s a sloppy Christmas.

But this is nothing new, really. As a child care provider, mother of two boys who both play three sports, writer, small business owner, and wife, my life is pretty much constant chaos. Go go go go go it never stops. Needless to say, a lot slips through the cracks. And I spend a lot of time being hard on myself because of all the things I’m failing at.

When my mother calls to see how I’m doing I often start listing everything that’s hanging over my head: “Well Older needs new basketball shoes but we can’t get to the store before his next game because I have a meeting Wednesday night, and I had to go to school and pick up Younger because he was sick, so I didn’t get to write my article at naptime because I was entertaining him so I have to write after they go to bed tonight, and I won’t have time to cook dinner because we have to be at tae kwon do at 6:00 so they’ll have to eat grilled cheese again and the insurance agent called me for the fifth time to schedule the inspection but my phone died when I left it in the car overnight and speaking of which, I still haven’t gotten that rusty spot painted over and winter’s coming.”

And my mother will say, “I’m concerned that this surprises you.”

And I’ll say, “It doesn’t surprise me, it’s just my life, I’m used to it. But I still feel like I have to explain to you why everything’s in a shambles all the time.”

And she says, “You have to learn to embrace the chaos.”

Now that is a powerful sentence.

I had a mental picture of giant arms wrapping around a maelstrom of laundry, children, messy beds, lost shoes, spilled food, and undone paperwork whipping around like snowflakes in a blizzard.

I guess I embrace it in a way, because I have no other choice. I always say the most important task rises to the top, and it gets done, though maybe half-assed. I’ve had to learn how to get what I need done while cooking dinner, spelling words and shouting out multiplication answers for homework help, and trying not to trip over the cat who hasn’t been fed all day.

And that’s annoying. I want a block of quiet time to unclutter my brain. It’s frustrating not being able to sit down with a cup of coffee and plan the day in front of me: here’s what I need to get done, let me pay these bills, oh what a nice article in the paper, look at email/facebook/texts, make sure the appointments are on the calendar, check off done done done on the to-do list.

Ha. I wouldn’t even have a spot to sit down.

And even if I did, I’d hear “Mommy!” within 46 seconds.

But then I remember what Pam said one time when I was running off to a baseball game and had forgotten a plan we’d made. Instead of being mad she just told me, “I miss all that.”

And I knew exactly what she meant. Someday I will be organized and my house will be spotless – because it will be uninhabited by children. So I’m really, honestly going to embrace this chaos and just keep smiling.

Can Good Behavior Be Taught?

Words to live by

Do these rules really work? Sorta...

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

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

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

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

Poor, deluded adults.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...count to 10.

...growl it out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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