Saturday, April 26, 2008

Unsubscribe Me: The Perils of Online Parenting Forums

A lot has happened since my last post. Those of you in the know are probably wondering when I'm going to put up some birthday pictures of the Mr. One Year Old Joaquin. Patience, Grasshopper. Soon, I'm sure...at least, before he turns two.

That said, on to the topic at hand. Online Parenting Forums, which I will shorten up to OPF for the remainder of this post, have been a dilemma for me recently. Let me explain, if I may.

I am one of those folks that could talk child development all day. No joke. It's my passion, it's in my nature. My sis, Amanda, and I can spend an hour talking just about the kids, sometimes asking each other advice, at other times just listening to each other's challenges and triumphs in the parenting world. I like this. It's encouraging to me to both be able to have that support and to sometimes be able to suggest an idea that helps her family out. Having worked for so long with children, I am loaded with ideas. Our conversations are rich and nourishing to me, and I so appreciate those moments when all of our kids are engaged and we can chat for a chunk of time.

Loving that sort of connection, I've tried twice to participate in OPF's. The first, focused on attachment parenting, was hosted on large website that touts itself as a community for mothers. The second was a list-serve based on another more specific, less-popular parenting style which suits me quite well, but is relatively new. I went into both of these with hope that some rich discussions could come from posts, and that I would not only be able to pick up some new ideas from other parents, but to share the knowledge that I have instead of just letting it sit in my brain, unpicked.

Well, here is where that whole part of Being Human comes into play. Apparently, people are still people no matter if they all "agree" on a general philosophy. About a month into my first OPF, the group's name changed. Not just for mothers practicing AP, it was now followed by a string of qualifiers "no this, no that, and no other such and such", thus excluding some former members. I was surprised that the moderator had made an executive decision that these few things meant that someone wasn't really an attachment parent. I know, in my life, several women that practice AP and still had, at one time or another, done one or more of these things, which don't bear repeating, and were fine parents. The exclusion factor made me uneasy. You don't conduct the persuasive argument by first belittling or offending your target audience, and I don't wonder if a lot of mothers felt angry and upset as a result of being so broadly slighted.

After posting with a couple ideas that were, to be sure, a bit unheard of but relatively sound, (with the caveat that I was probably going to be unpopular, but they worked for me) I was attacked by a furious mother who took what I had to say a little too personally. I calmly responded, defending myself point by point, and she admitted that she'd been recently criticised for her parenting. I kept at it, trying to find some common ground and validating her hard work as a single parent. It grew to be quite a meaningful online conversation and I was glad that we found some resolve. However, it was extremely draining and I decided that my days of posting on that site were done.

The second OPF was a smaller, more localized list-serve. Conversation is centered on the "how" of a relatively new parenting philosophy. Once again, I was looking forward to participating in some of these conversations, in helping to problem-solve, and to learning about how other parents are employing this into their parenting in a sort of "here's what works for me" round-robin. Sounds good, right?

I discovered that there are some loud, righteous parents out there. They get mad about everything. Their friends, in-laws or their own parents don't parent exactly the way they do. Instead of using common sense and good boundaries, they blow up. Someone in the street says an admittedly idiotic thing about their kids behavior, or a teacher isn't on board with the family's way of parenting and wham!, it's like they get out the baseball bat to beat them in effigy online. Or, more distastefully, parents share how they "set someone straight!" and how right they were in doing so.

OPFs are full of parents. Different people, all with different sensibilities. They have the potential for community, but seem to be stymied by a most detrimental pitfall: people are easily offended and easily offensive. Online, people say things no one would ever say to another person's face. I saw this a lot in my first OPF. People's dogma about different parenting issues is frightening. The things mothers would say to each other was downright hurtful. Not agreeing with one another on a hot-button issues does not give us the right to demean each other or to make a judgement of malicious intent. I was saddened, too, that the posts that received the most attention were one's where the poster was angry that someone wasn't parenting the way she was. Posts that were more focused on problem-solving never seemed to garner as much attention or response as those which were sensational in their own way.


I'm human. I don't want to play in that park.

I unsubscribed.

Lately, I've spent a lot of time practicing not being offended. It does not come easily to me, being a hothead, but I'm very aware of working on it. It helps me to ask myself why I'm offended, and if that was really the intention of the person or the situation. Most likely, it isn't, and I cool down and move on. Consequently, I don't want to be exposed to people's personal bonfires, nor do I want to pour fuel on those fires.I think it's all right, make that wonderful, that we have so many differing backgrounds, back stories, different lives and different opinions. And I hope that someday there will be a place online that is friendlier to each other, where people will want to post what will help, instead of what distracts us from being the best parents we can be.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Favorite Parenting Books

It's been suggested to me in the past that I share some of the titles I love with others, and today is just the day to do it. Joaquin's snoozing after a morning walk, so I've got a few minutes to tell you about some of the books I've found most helpful in my parenting/childcare path.

For those with Wee Ones, The Baby Book and Attachment Parenting by Dr. William Sears with Martha Sears is a must read. Even if you don't plan on practicing AP wholesale, this book inspires parents to do what parents have been doing before we had "baby experts", namely, trust your instincts and do what feels right. Sears and his wife Martha know from whence they speak; parents to a very full house of kids, they evolved as parents, and documented the process for everyone else's benefit. The Baby Book also has lots of practical advice for feeding, childhood illnesses, and gentle discipline techniques that are age-appropriate for your littlest family members and palatable to a variety of parenting styles. The Baby Book was written for a broader audience, while Attachment Parenting focuses more on finding balance with AP, and parts read like a troubleshooting manual with advice and suggestions for all sorts of situations, AP-style.

Margot Sunderland's The Science of Parenting opened my eyes to what's behind all those healthy instincts mothers have: the instincts to comfort and soothe our babies, to pick them up when they cry, and the desire we have to help our little ones grow up happy. Brain study now suggests that, far from spoiling a child by soothing them and showing our compassion for their sadness and fear, we are helping our children to have the best possible odds of growing into adults who are well-rounded, emotionally healthy and truly satisfied with their lives. Easy to read, Sunderland's text and presentation of this information makes for compelling reading that even the most "unscientific" (like myself) will find utterly fascinating. The study of how to best develop a child's brain never read so good.

A revelation in and of itself, teacher and behaviorist Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting: Raising Children Without Punishments or Rewards asks questions not often considered: Although we discipline our children because we love them, do our children actually feel loved and accepted in those times of discipline? Does positive reinforcement make for happier children who are more confident, more cooperative, or better learners, and does praise help our children develop a love of learning? Kohn's answer, substantiated by extensive data and research, is a definitive "no", however, without dismissing discipline in and of itself wholesale, Kohn instead shows us how to make our interactions with our children effective while leaving their their sense of self intact. It's a book that can't be skimmed but must be read cover to cover. At the beginning of this book, I was in relative disbelief of his concepts that children can be well and heathily raised without use of more popular "gentle" methods such as time-out, logical consequences, or incentive plans; by the end, however, my brain was rich in ideas which I've implemented since. This book is a revolutionary work that will leave it's stamp on generations to come, and has had a positive impact on my work as well as my parenting.

For some, Kohn's book will leave more questions than answers. Enter Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish's classic How to Talk So Kids Will Listen...And How To Listen So Kids Will Talk . No matter what sort of parenting style you like, this book can only improve your relationships with the children in your life. Written as a workbook, HTT contains simple no-nonsense exercises that can be done with your co-parent as a couple, or with likeminded parents as a workshop. The authors emphasize that kids want their feelings respected, just as we adults do; kids want a say in the things that affect them and want cooperation from us, just as parents require cooperation from their children, and the whole time the parent, guiding and listening, problem-solving with their child, is still in charge. There is a way to find that balance in our exchanges with our kids, how to ask them for what we need without lecturing or threatening; how to listen to their feelings without needing to fix whatever is bothering them; and most importantly, how to let everyone be their authentic selves while respecting the people around them. This book focuses on techniques for listening without judging, letting children come to their own conclusions (and feel empowered in doing so!) as well as positive actions to take when rules are broken, feelings are hurt, or cooperation is needed. I could rave on and on about HTT, instead, I'll let you read it and see if it doesn't make your life with your own kids any better.

One last one, less about the tools of parenting and more about the nuance of choosing how we parent each of our children: Love in Two Languages:Lessons on Mothering in a Culture of Individualityby Bonnie Ohye PhD. I really loved this book. Intelligent non-fiction written truly from the heart. Ohye describes how her close-knit Japanese family encouraged an interdependency that often, as a parent to two girls, puts her in conflict with the popular notion of encouraging independence that is so prevalent today. How she finds balance, and what she shares with us in her work as a therapist for mothers, truly speaks to how complicated and unmapped the journey of mothering is. Caring, and with a true voice, Ohye's book is a large measure of empathy for those of us who do some of the world's most emotional and unsupported work there is to do: raising kids.

Speaking of kids, I'd best sign off. Mine's due to wake soon. Happy reading.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Who Goes to Preschool?

Today, while I was shoveling yet another jar of peas and rice into Joaquin's open mouth, NPR had a segment on Talk of the Nation on how parents are overwhelmed by the consumer culture that we live in today. Was the overwhelming variety and availability of goods and services aimed at parents (and their children, of course) really improving how our children experienced their childhood, or for that matter, how we adults experience our being parents? If you want more information, here's a link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89434940

What had me wanting to call in today was the idea of classes for children. Namely, the popularity of the idea of classes for very young children; some parents think they are essential. What cracks me up most is the regular question, well-meant, on whether I will place Joaquin in preschool when he's old enough. The reason this makes me laugh is that everyone knows I am, by profession, a childcare provider.

When I was pregnant, Joe waxed nostalgic on his days in preschool. Sleeping on a little cot! Playing with his friends! He suggested that Joaquin should go to preschool. When I told him how much a two-morning a week program cost, I think he decided that the little cot was quite spendy and that my working while providing stimulating care in our home for our son was just fine.

The people who ask me if I will eventually place Joaquin aren't silly people. Last week, a girlfriend of mine asked more out of curiosity than anything else. Some folks ask in order to get some ideas of what they might do when they are ready to find care for their child. Many mothers would like to go back, if only part time or to work from home, to the professional careers they had before having children. Because of the innovations in so many professions today, time away from working in your field can be considered a deficit that hinders working mothers from holding positions they once had. So, I understand that time is of the essence for some parents. And while there are some mothers who stay at home to raise their kids and don't understand another woman's desire to reengage with her work, I understand it completely. Before I was back to working with four year old Clara, I wanted that stimulation of working with another, older child so much I could taste it. It's one thing to drink in those magic moments with Joaquin, but it was quite another to plan art activities again, to engage in dramatic play, lose a few games of mancala, pretend to "eat" endless amounts of playdough waffles... all those ways in which I simply could not engage with a then-six-month-old. My brain needed to stay involved in my work in this way, and it has worked out well.

So back to my comment earlier...would I put Joaquin in preschool? Not unless the economy changed and Joe got a very large raise. Preschool is expensive, or at least the programs that I would like my son to be in are. If we had the time and money, I would most likely go back to school to learn more about child development. But, overall, I can give him a lot of what the other schools can. When he gets older, we'll have a little school here at our house, with a couple other kids. Observe a preschool busy at play and you will see children playing in clusters of 3-5 kids, not usually any more than that. So what's the benefit to a child of having 11 classmates? Usually, preschools enroll up to the ratio (1:6 at that age) to best cover costs, pay teachers and make some profit. And there are a lot of great programs out there. But for me, having a little morning school is hard to beat.

Some people will say that a child needs to attend preschool to learn how to be in a peer group setting, learn to listen to other adults besides their parents, and to be independent from their parents and family in general. Well, can't kids get the first two from playgroups? Your child will learn to listen to other adults if you give the other adults authority to correct and redirect your child when need be, and when you let your child understand that you expect them to listen to their elders, period. It's really not difficult.

Sometimes, finding an appropriate peer group can be a little tricky, but even libraries have "literacy and music" programs based on age. You won't find that all the kids there behave exactly as you would like, nor will all the parents parent the way you will, but preschools are the same to that degree. There will be families that will make you mad, sad, laugh, and scratch your head. There will be a child in your kid's group that you will hear about day in and day out that will be the bane of your existence for that year or so. "Craig's mom lets him have Lunchables every day! How come I hafta have a lousy sandwich?" or "Craig calls me a baby because I can't go fast on the tricycles" or "Craig said that his brother is the biggest guy in the world and he's gonna pound me"... trust me, you will have your Craig, or Tyler or Sylvie or whoever, no matter how expensive or exclusive your preschool is.

What I want to challenge, most of all, is the notion of schooling in general. There seems to be a popular belief that children should go out of home to school. That this is what is best, and right, for all children, and that keeping children home "shelters" them in a harmful way. No longer are people even content with their local schools; often, there is pressure to send one's child to a magnet school because they are "better". I think they are for some children, but I'd also say that there are a lot of great public schools too. Or, what about homeschooling? My sister has done this with her three and it has worked out well. This decision was not made to shelter her children, but to best teach them in an environment that promotes their exploration, thoughtful discussions and allows their little boy energy to express itself in ways that classrooms don't always allow. She wants her boys to fall in love with learning. That is the opposite of "sheltering". My sister admits that it's not a forever situation, but that it works for now.

So, what about school? Here are my last thoughts: It's a very consciously made choice for any mother to find childcare, be it daycare or preschool, so let's not judge her. It's a consciously made choice to stay home with your child to care for them and put a career on hold, or to decide to turn your house over to the development of little people, even for a few years. Let's do these things because we choose to, not because we feel we should, or because someone else says so. Let's make sure that we can look back and say that we have spent our money, and most importantly, our time, well.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Trike-On-A-Stick

I wrote this years ago, but some things are worth re-visiting:

So, the onset of spring. What does that mean to you? For myself, spring brings with it many welcome sights: the fresh flowers turning my dumpy front yard into something I can revel in; the clear-looking sky, even on cold days, which beckons me out; garage sale signs and the hope of a great deal on that something I didn't know I needed but now couldn't possibly say "no" to; and let's hear it for iced coffee or sitting outdoors at Belmont Station, sipping a beer. Ah, spring! A delight in every way! Right?

Um, hold on a minute...what did I see just go by my house? Oh, dear, it couldn't possibly be-- but wait, there it is again-- A Trike-On-A-Stick.

This is what I'm not so thrilled about. Apparently, the weather gets nice, and parents lose their minds. Actually, that's not a fair statement. Here it is, more nicely: The blue sky dazzles well-meaning parents into not thinking clearly.

What could I possibly have against parents pushing their children around town on pseudo-tricycles? More than you could ever guess, my friend. And, as I will so carefully explain, it's not a matter of personal asthetics, which I am well known for amongst my friends and family. (Hey, I'm not picky, I'm "particular". There's a big difference.) No, my aversion to the Push Bar Trike has more to do with a child's actual development, and my steadfast common sense. As in other posts, this may not be a popular opinion, but it's an educated one.

Let's start with the target tike. The Kettrike ads suggest their trike for ages 1-5. A question...what child is the same size at age one as they are at age five? The differentiation from being 12 months and 60 months is huge. How can this bike fit correctly? The ad also states that the bike can support 200lbs. Um...200 pounds?! You have got to be kidding. If I have a 200 pound child, I am not pushing them anywhere. They will need to seriously start moving their body. Especially a 200lb five year old. Sheesh!

Height and weight issues aside, what concerns me more is that tricycles are not really appropriate for very young children such as infants and early toddlers. In fact, a rule of thumb with tricycles is that children are able to use a tricycle at about the same time that they are able to develop the muscles for potty training. It has to do with physiological development. Before that point, tots are better served having a scooter to push themselves around on. They can practice steering themselves, developing their leg muscles and their coordination as they navigate the terrain around them. Learning to steer a smaller scooter is much easier for a child than a larger trike that, when oversteered, tends to fall over. This saves on the tears, band-aids, and overall, the frustration of both the parent and child.

The Kettrike also comes with a footrest for children whose feet don't reach the petals. Maybe, just maybe, if your kid's feet don't reach, they are on something entirely too large for them to be on.

But there's something else that bugs me about it, and it's this that offends the good ol' Common Sense: 20 years ago, if you were caught with a trike like this, you would have your ass laughed off the block. I can't put it any more simply. What kind of trike comes with a seatbelt, for heaven's sake? And what would motivate parents to push their kid around on something that's far more taxing on their own bodies than a more conventional kid-transport, say, a stroller? I mean, is anyone really doing their kid a favor by putting them on a trike if the child has to be strapped on for fear of falling off? It makes one wonder why a parent would be that desperate to see their kid on a trike that they can't wait a few years, until the kid can do it themselves?

I remember my tricycle as a kid. It was green and white and I rode the wheels off the thing. And no one pushed me. I did it myself. I flew on that thing, and loved it to the point that I wouldn't give it up and my younger sister got the nicer, shinier new trike. Even after every last streamer was picked out of the handlebars, it was fantastic.

I think there's something to be said for kids learning how to do things themselves, when they are ready. That's one of the really sad things about the Trike-On-A-Stick, the sight of all those kids who are trying really hard to pedal, and can't. They are so frustrated. Their parents push them around, but the kids know they aren't really doing it themselves. In the words of Aretha Franklin, "Who's Zoomin' Who?". A parent's review loves the feature that, when the child is being pushed, they can't pedal. How exactly is this helping the child develop trike skills they can be proud of?

Here's an idea: let your kid scoot around until they're two and a half or three. Then, get them a trike the right size for their little body. And a box of Band-Aids and a tube of Neosporin-- and you're set. Now, take your kiddo outside and let them practice where it's relatively flat. Just a small area at first, then up and down your block. Then around the block. Keep the trips short, so you can carry the trike home if need be without breaking your back. Use your stroller for longer trips, but feel free to take the trike by car to a park or better yet, a school playground on the weekend, where there's lots of room to ride.

May your spring be a time of warmth, outside time, and a sense of dignity.