Thursday, April 29, 2010

Seven Reasons to Relax on "The Rules"

Rules. We all grew up with them. Chances are we heard about rules as children at home, then read them on a blackboard at school. As youngsters we were impressed by the power of the law, and at eighteen we were deemed adult enough to be on the hook for following the laws of our land. Rules govern the adult world, and so it's easy to see why parents strive to uphold the household rules. For years was taken for granted that rules and their corresponding consequences would teach our children well.

Yet, it seems that the rules don't stick. Some kids who follow the rules at home are bullies at school. Others don't seem equipped to know what to do with themselves when mom and dad aren't present to keep them in line: this is probably one reason why college is often treated like a four-year bacchanal by some students. Some kids seem to go off the rails once they head out on their own as new young adults. We've taught them the rules, and yet it seems that those principles still haven't been internalized. All of this begs the question: what can we do differently to empower our children to make good choices when we're not around?

It may be that one of the best ways to truly teach our children how to be good citizens is to let go of the idea of rules while they are young. That is, to approach our children's moral education as a long term act of teaching instead of focusing on the more traditional rules and punishment method. For the many reasons below, it seems to me that if we relying solely on rules to raise our children, we are missing the best, most nourishing opportunities for our children.

Reason One: Rules are abstract to younger children. We can talk about rules until we're blue in the face, but the truth is this: our preliterate children have about as much use for "rules" as my cat does. While rules might be broken, they can't be seen, held or touched, therefore our children do better with language that is more direct. "Hitting is against the rules" doesn't impact a four year old the way that "Hitting hurts people's bodies" does. The former is ambiguous while the latter is very concrete. Long story short: focusing our talk on The Rules is actually distracting our children from the message we want them to take in. Which leads me to~

Reason Two: Rules are distracting. If we want our children to be kind, considerate souls as they grow older, we do better to focus on building empathy than on the legalities of their actions. Showing a child how their actions are impacting others, or why what they are doing is not safe or just plain not going to work for the group at large is far more informative than citing rules is. In my experience, frustration is most often the primary reason for conflict within child/child or adult/child relationships, so these are moments when our children need positive choices and alternatives. When we focus on the rules, we momentarily delay addressing these needs, which can escalate the emotional tone of the situation. Better to address what's happening immediately and help our children in age-appropriate ways to find some solution to the problem or frustration at hand.

Reason Three: Rules can undermine the Unconditional Love of a parent/child relationship. When we focus on the importance of following the rules and take a "no excuses" approach, we miss connection with our children and they can feel very misunderstood and rejected. If we dismiss their every reason for doing what they did because we are busy upholding the Rules ("Follow them no matter what"), we put our relationship to The Rules in front of our relationship with the kids. We discipline in some tough times, and it's easy to see why parents want to make sure their children aren't going to turn into some of the monsters we see today, but strict adherence to rules isn't going to prevent this. Instead, open listening, acknowledging their feelings and concerns and expressing our own concerns for them can open up dialogue instead of shutting it down. Kids who are old enough to know what the rules are may have their own reasons for not following them to the letter. What's more frustrating for us as parents is that our children may not even be in touch with their own motivations, so even asking an older child to explain themselves can end up becoming an abysmal situation as the child searches to find the right explanation she herself may feel to be false, just to appease us. If we perceive our children to be good people with motives that likely appeared 'good' to them at the moment, we can help them to move forward and correct repeat mistakes with discussions of alternatives or perhaps even seeking outside help for more serious upsetting behaviors. Acting out doesn't exist in a vacuum, so if we are only addressing the legality of their action and not the cause, it's as if we were treating one symptom of a disease and not the cause.

Reason Four: Rules don't allow for nuance. Not every situation is black and white; there are a lot of gray shades in our lives. If we are guided solely by rules, we can come across as unbending in the eyes of our children. Some undesired actions, like hitting, happen because children are still not always articulate when they are upset or frustrated. Sometimes children will taunt, goad, or get into each others space--any parent of multiples knows this--and when talking doesn't work, hitting and hurting become more attractive as ways to repel the unwanted attention. As our kids get older, we need to allow them to make mistakes in trying to solve their problems. Focusing on teaching our children to ask for help,encouraging them to acquire new tactics ("What can you do when your sister won't leave you alone? Let's think of some ideas.") and discussing which better alternatives are available will teach more than spanking, time out, or other punishments.

Reason Five: Rules don't encourage intuition. Intuition is one of our most valuable resources; it sends us strong signals when we might be in trouble. If a child is in a situation where they feel threatened, it might be that they must break a rule to follow their intuition and get to a safe place. One example of this might be a child who is told not to stop on the way home from school. If my son gets the creeps from a person following him, I do want him to stop and get help, even if it means going back to the school or walking into the pub to ask someone to call us. I want my child to know that if an adult in charge isn't being responsible, they have the right to keep themselves safe. I don't want my son to get into a car if someone is intoxicated, even if it is the parents of their friend. Giving children practice in using their judgment--and discussing how it went--allows them a sense of control over their selves and their bodies and empowers them not to be a victim.

Reason Six: Rules are often taught through punishment. "Consequences" is our nice word for it, but the fact remains that rules are often figureheads; we give them power by imposing punitive action to the rules. Our children learn better through the natural (unimposed) consequences that happen organically. For example, if a child knowingly steals something, a natural consequence would be to have to return the item. This is a humiliation of a whole other level than what most children experience, and is informative--we don't need to conjure up anything worse, it's really enough. Likewise, if a child is hitting or acting out, other children might choose not to play with them and leave. This is also a good learning experience. Children learn much better when they are given a chance to correct their mistakes and make amends, be it giving the toy back to their playmate, getting an ice pack to soothe a bruise or repairing broken property. When we go into a situation with the idea our children will learn their lesson through the misery of imposed penalties, we lose and our children lose. Their opportunity to notice how their actions affect others is replaced with a focus on how their actions affect themselves. This then develops into "how not to get caught". Time and again, studies have shown that punitive action doesn't result in better behavior, but in driving the negative behaviors underground so that the children are less likely to be punished.

Reason Seven: Strict adherence to rules and punishments teach children to focus on their own self-interests, first and foremost. If Charlie spits at Susie, then gets put in a corner to 'go think it over', he's likely not thinking about how Susie is affected; he's likely fuming mad at Susie for getting him into trouble. And once he's out of his corner, he may come back even more upset, because the problem still isn't solved. Susie, too, learns that she must rely on adults to solve her problems. If, instead, he's asked to help Susie get cleaned up and is present to hear Susie tell him how she's feeling, Charlie may understand how upsetting spitting is to others. Perhaps Susie was annoying Charlie, or maybe Charlie's having a terrible day, the point is this--when we stay with our children and try to facilitate conversation, the situation can be resolved and there's room to form a new game plan that will feel better for everyone involved. The focus stays on the group instead of on just the self.

When we stop and consider how much our children can learn to be better people when we take the time to work with them, it's easy to see that reliance on rules shortchanges us all. It robs us as parents of having a far more beneficial influence on our children and it robs our children of doing the work to make better choices. In many ways, punishments let our kids off the hook in making amends, as does a rote resignation to follow rules. We all remember moments when we were horrified at what human beings did to each other, atrocities committed with the sanction of "following the rules". We want our children to be self-governing, to be thoughtful people as adults. And for what it's worth, we adults rarely feel a twinge of guilt when we find opportunities to break the rules scot free. We justify all sorts of things--speeding, jaywalking, using our cell phones in the car for 'just a second' while we plug in our earpieces-- so maybe our kids need to be allowed to practice using their own judgment as well. We should know...we were kids once too.

Coming soon: Raising Respectful Children Without Relying on Rules

Monday, April 26, 2010

Whether or Not We Agree...Some thoughts on Civility and Parenting

This morning I checked my email and caught the tagline for the Mamaworld Forum (yes, the one I had sworn not to post on--I know, I know). I was excited right away: the blogpost featured asked the question "Why Don't Time Outs Work?". So I clicked on and read, happy to have found a kindred spirit in my quest for more intellectual and progressive parenting. Now, let me say first and foremost that I understand why the Time Out method is so attractive to families, and I'm not here to debate this. You may or may not agree with me as to why I find it ineffectual, but if you use it, I respect your reasons for it. It just isn't the best way for me. I don't think any less of parents that use this method either: parenting is a difficult job, and I think a lot of us are doing the best we can.

If you want to read the post, pop this into your browser:

(sorry, Ludite Girl here!)
If you did click the link, you'll notice I didn't send you to the forum, but to the author's site. Because the forum was just another demonstration in how, when the masses get all irritated and insecure, start turning people they've never met into human pinatas.

And this is why I'm writing. There were a lot of posters who were able to post about why they used Time Out and why it works for them with a tone of civilized discourse. There were some of us who defended the article (myself included) and explained respectfully why we thought the way we did. It's a forum and really, that's fine. That's what forums are supposed to do. But there were also a lot of people throwing tomatoes and taking personal potshots. Many unkindly suggested that since the author didn't claim her motherhood publicly, that she was indeed without children and therefore, stupid at parenting. Nevermind that the woman has her masters in human development from Pacific Oaks College, one of the most esteemed teaching schools in the United States. Apparently, being able to push out babies trumps thousands of hours of hands-on experience, endless study and application and all that go with a degree such as this.

This is the kind of bullshit I find galling.

First and foremost, in the last 18+ years I've spent working with children, only during the last three of them have I been a mother. To say that I wasn't capable of being a good nanny because of my lack of child would have been absurd at best. Why on earth would doing something as basic and animal as the human body can do--reproducing--be seen as anything else? How on earth does one equate the ability to do what neanderthals did as acquiring some sort of expert intelligence. Pregnancy, birth and raising children are truly informative experiences, and no expert knows our children like we do. But to imply that higher learning should be trumped by a consequence of hormones is truly ridiculous.

It seems to me that as a culture we have an aversion to scientific thinking. Pop psychologists are all the rage, and the idea that we can watch television shows and learn about medicine, relationships, how to parent...well, that's kind of like eating junk food instead of a home cooked meals. Informative television shows are entertaining at best (although I can't find one parenting show that I'd call entertaining), but parenting shows are the most abysmal. They are disrespectful to the families, the audience and especially the children being taped, which is a trespass into their childhood and a travesty in and of itself. Children's challenges are hard enough and should be kept private. We don't respect children.

Yet, somehow, many seem to value the opinions of the television experts. Do we ask ourselves what their qualifications are? Where their theories and beliefs come from? So many complacent parents see something on television and think to themselves: "Oh, if I use this technique, it'll work for me." This easy acceptance of our society to jump on any bandwagon without studying it is a concern, as is our decreasing propensity of seeking intelligent knowledge by opening a book, consulting with a counselor, or any other sensible thing that has merit. There's a frightening absence of critical thinking involved on both sides, too. I find that some people choose similar parenting styles as myself, but without understanding the background or what makes the approach attractive to them. Knowing how to parent must be intrinsic with knowing why we are comfortable with certain kinds of parenting, and what sort of adult we are trying to raise while they are children. These should be the thoughts that help to guide our parenting, the thoughts that should challenge us to be better parents because it grows us up as human beings.

We lead and teach our children by example. Whether we use a loving version of Time Out or prefer redirection and helping to build life skills in slower, less traditional ways, our children learn from what we do, not what we tell them to do. Thoughtful parents don't go online, ridicule strangers and act out in these helpless, threatened ways just because they don't know why they think what they think.

We've got a long ways to go before we become a truly civilized country.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Rough Goes It--He's Turned Three

I've just spent an hour deep-cleaning the upstairs bedroom and I am exhausted. If anyone wants to discuss sexual discrimination in the workplace, let me start with the argument that women are getting short shrift when it comes to safety. That vacuum should have come with hearing protection. Even if it came in the obnoxious form of fuzzy pink padded headphones. The next time I accidentally tune Joe out while he's talking to me, I should blame it on Vacuuming Deafness.

All that aside, the real reason I'm tired is that I have a three year old. Anyone who tells you that Three is easy needs a scarlet "L" branded to their forehead for LIAR. Three is not easy. I've never met an easy three year old, and I've been doing this for a long, long time.

At least I knew what I was getting into. Remember that last post, when I wrote about feeling "triumphant"? That's a pretty powerful word, and in that moment it was really great to acknowledge how I felt. And now that calm before the storm has ended. We are in Regression, Code Red. It seems that either he's pushing our buttons, or we're pushing his. It's par for the course at this age. Three is a little like a couple on the verge of a divorce: everyone loves each other so much, but there's not a lot of consensus and a whole bunch of hurt feelings.

Take fifteen minutes ago, for example. After writing my Cleanifesto on the bedroom, Kiddo and Daddy came up to bed. Kiddo had the expectation that he would see the enigmatic vacuum cleaner (So loud! So scary! So interesting!), but Joe had already hauled it downstairs for me. Once the truth was discovered, Kiddo was bereft. Like Covering-His-Face-When-He-Cried-It-Was-So-Sad bereft. This was the dirtiest of tricks played upon him, or so it seemed. My heart softened, I offered to let him help me vacuum after school tomorrow, and he replied that he wanted to vacuum "this day". Poor kiddo.

When mothers bring up regression, it sometimes seems like they believe it's permanent. They seem to think of this as an airplane taking a nosedive. From all outward appearances, it looks like that plane is really going to crash to the ground. My experience, however, tells me that it's more like an airplane that is looping back from it's initial route to find it's way again. Just as children work to mastery with a puzzle or toy, so do they retrace their developmental steps when they are taking steps forward into unfamiliar territory. We adults often do this "working backward" when we mislay something...we use the landmarks in our memory to help us assess how we are going to deal with our crisis in the present.

In our case, Kiddo is stretching out in independence, and still trying to find the closeness he had before. This comes to us in repeated requests of "want to hold you", and we honor them as we can, and some days it doesn't seem like enough. Then he wants to sleep with us and craves such closeness that he drives his little head into our backs or shoulders. I woke up the other night on the edge of the bed with his head on my pillow---he wants it that much.

So, not feeling triumphant today really. Glad I noticed that feeling when it happened, and I'm sure it will return another day. I might sound a little lofty at times, but there's really no rarefied air kid is terrific, and he's just as demanding as many other three year olds. But we're holding steady, and that's all you can ask for in rough seas. We're grounding ourselves and anchoring in.

There's probably a lot of transportation references in here, but we're moving through life, right?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easy Does It--We're Almost Three!

These days, I'm feeling pretty triumphant. When I found out I was pregnant, I was excited first and foremost about having a baby. I was also very keen on conducting my own parenting experiment, to see if my ideas and feelings about parenting would prove out with my own son. I know each child is different, and that my son is relatively good-natured, and that there are a lot of variables are involved in parenting, each individual to one's own family.

One thing I have practiced as well as preached is giving children time to work through things all on their own. I'm all for helping set the stage for development and for offering solutions to my son when he's challenged by a fear or frustration, and ultimately he knows when he's ready to switch gears and take those steps forward in being his own person.

Over the past few months, a lot has changed. We've gone from being a household which co-slept all night to a new arrangement. Kiddo has a cozy nest on the floor; we offered him the Little Bed (a full-sized futon) for a few weeks and one day he decided he was ready to start sleeping there. He sleeps alone unless he asks for us in the middle of the night, at which point one of us will sleep with him. This arrangement has afforded us better sleep and while we honor his very occasional request to sleep in the big bed with us, he's off on his own without us having to force the issue. I'm so happy we've let him do this in his own time, and we're keeping flexible. I know regression happens, and we'll deal with it when it comes with open hearts and minds.

Another big move is Kiddo's returned interest in baths. It's been nearly a year since he decided he absolutely didn't want to bathe in the tub, and we've accommodated this with a mix of sink baths (he didn't mind those), shower hair washings and some sponge baths. The showers were heartbreaking, but when you've got a scalp full of paint, sand or dirt, there's really nothing else to be done for it. Here's an area too, where I didn't force things. As of last week, he's back to enjoying baths--yesterday I could barely get him out of the tub!

And toilet learning has seemed to arrive. Kiddo will be three in a couple weeks and I've just been watching, waiting to see signs of interest in the toilet. We've had little spots of interest here and there, but the past two days have been work and growth. After several accidents in his trainers, my little boy decided he wanted no underpants at all, just something to cover him up. I've fashioned a sarong sort of thing with two dishtowels, each one wrapped around his body and rubber-banded closed on opposite sides. This provides a little modesty (not that I care, but he wanted something on) and is very easy to lift out of the way to sit on the potty. Well, we had our first pee on the potty today. I'm taking it slow and don't expect to see another one for a while, but what fun and excitement he's having with all this!

I know other challenges will come our way. We regularly employ this whole "Let him work it out" philosophy when he's decided he won't eat the three choices on his plate that we know he likes or when he's decided to be pretty uncooperative. "Come back when you're ready" works well, or "Gee, I see that you aren't ready to do this, so I'm just going to sit and read my magazine until you are." (This is great when he's wanting me to do something for him, but isn't ready to do his part yet.)
Granted, we have a deliberately slower life and I have more time to do this than some parents might, but I also feel that disconnecting/not getting hooked into trying to fix what's going on ends up giving him more control and a better end result. Trying to adjust the meal to suit him can spiral out a bit and end up making us both frustrated; forcing him to help me get his shoes so he can go outside because he's wanting to play in the sandbox isn't really any good for either one of us.

I have a busy kid who certainly wants what he wants, when he wants it, and has a list of desires, only some of which I can satisfy. We are still using very slow and respectful transition techniques before we leave activities (singing ABC's to prepare for the next activity or saying "goodbye, see you again the next time" to things and places we are having so much fun at) and clean-up time is a lot of modeling and playing. "You be the crane and lift the blocks over to me" or "Be an airplane and fly this to your room, please" makes this so much more fun than directed instruction: "I need you to pick up all of the blah blah blah while I stand here and watch for your compliance". Mostly, Kiddo wants to feel competent, empowered to follow his ambitions when he comes up with an idea, and to be valued and loved. He loves to be included in our adult world, whether it's folding laundry or raking or trying our sushi or sitting and looking at cookbooks with me while I search out recipes. I often open Joy of Cooking and let him check out the different illustrations of fish or various veggies and such while I look for dinner ideas.

There are moments when I am very, very challenged, but I love this kid so much, they're a little like labor: I forget about them after a while. I've learned not to tempt him with leaving enticing items around, because he is so curious and has so little impulse control in this department. Keeping this in mind, I know that his safety is my responsibility still and can't be left to him. Three year olds are just like toddlers in so many ways with bigger, more capable bodies, and this is the time when the childproofing is put to the test. So we stay proactive in this area and let him figure it out in his own time.

Seeing my happy little boy is no small feeling of joy for me. Loving him is an enormous, overwhelming happiness. Believing in his ability to work things out is part of the foundation of our relationship, and this gives me immense satisfaction as a mother. To be able to stand back, shrug my shoulders and know that he'll get it when he's ready--whatever it is--is to have so much faith. I think he knows I trust him get there eventually. And my little boy is blooming, all in his own good time.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Split Screen, Same Lane

On Thursday night, Kiddo was asleep and we were snuggled up, watching television and chatting when a commercial came on for the new Sienna minivan. I watched as an attractive blond woman came on, telling us about how her car makes her feel less like a frumpy mom and more like a "hot babysitter". As she rambles on, we see her get into the car. In the seats behind her are two children, neither of which look a day older than three, and both are staring at a split screen hanging from the ceiling, each child watching their own show. On their heads are headphones and on their faces a vacant, expressionless look. The last thing we see on the screen before the commercial pulls away is these two words: "Mommy Like".

Besides the utterly juvenile and vacuous content of the commercial itself, the notion that plugging the kids into the car is de riguer is, frankly, troubling to me. It's not that putting the kids in front of a dvd player in the car is the dirty little secret of many moms, it's that this commercial is offering this service as a proactive measure instead of as a last resort.

Many families rely on using movies in the car for long trips, and I have to say that I kind of understand the why of it. But unless you've got a kid that's screaming as soon as you buckle up, it's worth considering how we might responsibly use this option and what the other options are. For example, it's not so hard to pack a basket of books and toys that our kids like. Most of us have cds our children enjoy, and we can pack those too. Unless you really hate music, singing is a great option. Even if you don't know too many children's songs, being silly and rhyming words is simple enough that our youngsters can join in. For older kids, modeling beeswax is a great way to pass the time while keeping their hands busy, and this can decrease the fidgets somewhat. If you have the magna doodle, the etch-a-sketch and a small arsenal of things to keep the kids occupied, you've got a lot of great things to compete with sitting there passively, watching a dvd.

What concerns me is that instead of making media in the car a last resort, it is becoming an easy first choice for families. And I worry that if parents feel having dvds and games in the car is their lifesaver, they'll stop exploring other options. This is also bad for the kids, who miss out on so much as we travel.

When I was a child (ah, yes! another Old Lady Story!), we took a lot of drives to my grandparents home in Roseburg. While we lived in Portland, Vancouver, Salem and such, those drives were never under 3 hours, on average about 4 1/2 or so. Many of us kids got carsick and after a while, we just stopped bringing books for the trip. But my mom had plenty of ways to keep us busy. There were the Zip Zingo! Car Bingo cards we kept in the glove box; we had an endless variety of alphabet games, especially as we got older (food, musicians, authors, titles, animals, etc.), the license plate game (which can be done with numbers or letters), as well as Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (we stopped calling it 20 Questions as we played until the chosen item was correctly guessed) and singing. Lots and lots of singing.

We also spent that time talking. These long trips were time to catch up, to talk about what was happening at school--be it gossip or field trips--and we all had more of a window into each other's worlds outside of home. Even my youngest brother, eight years my junior, was included in the games and conversations; he would sometimes be a team with one of us older kids. I'm not saying, either, that we didn't ever get tired and grumbly, but we knew that after a couple helpful suggestions from Mom, staving off our own boredom was up to us.

So sometimes I daydreamed as we drove during those long trips. Sometimes we told each other stories, and we stretched our imaginations, adding onto each others stories the way quilters work to embellish their work. Car trips were never looked forward to, but because we had been in the habit of keeping ourselves entertained since we were young, they were more than tolerable.

So, back to the two children staring mindlessly at the split screen in the minivan. Here lies a second problem: treating our children like mini-monarchs. It's one thing to offer a dvd to quell the screaming, but two separate shows, side by side? When did we stop teaching our children that part of life is about taking turns and finding common solutions? Why on earth does each child need their very own little screen to be happy? Instead of asking the kids to pick one video to watch together, and to go through the good work of planning how this might work as a family, it is too easy to just plug each kid in and avoid any arguments about who wants to watch what. As these children grow up, will it be any easier for them to travel without constantly being entertained? Are the kids developing coping skills for being bored, namely, exercising their imaginations? Does getting to have their very own choice and not having to share or take turns make them become better people, or more selfish?

And most importantly with media, when people--children and adults alike--are looking at a screen, they aren't looking at each other. That means the silly conversations, the car songs and long talks--those are less likely to happen either. What I saw on that commercial was a mom who was happy her two children were entertained and wouldn't be a bother to her while she was driving. But what happens when she get to her destination and finds that she now has to help a child transition from their favorite movie in to a grocery store or doctor's appointment or grandma's house? What then? Pulling each child back from their own little world and back into the family collective isn't an easy task, so multiply it by however many screens you've got on.

Tilting at windmills? Possibly. I don't think I'm going to eradicate all the little travel dvd players in the world, and that's not the point of this. I just think we have to keep these things as special occasions, not the norm--that's all I'm saying. The more easily we bring these little devices out, the harder it is to put them away. If we come to rely on them too much, they dumb us down as parents; they most certainly can dumb our kids down too. There's too much to miss outside the car windows, so much to discuss in our lives, so many songs to sing and games to play. What this commercial offers to do is rob us of time together as a family and the memories that come from these trips.

Ah, Sienna...Mommy No Like. Not at all.