Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fear-Based Parenting

Another excellent progressive parenting piece was featured on MamaWorldForum this morning, and once again, the fear-based freakout began. The article could have been better titled-- for this relatively conservative forum group, the tag line "When to Give In To Your Child" probably elicted a countrywide CLUNK!!! ,or as my friend Donna says, "The sound of a mind slamming shut".

While I am not going to go into all the particulars, I have noticed a trend in responses to these more progressive parenting posts. While there are some who support the content of the piece or thank the author, there's a lot of defensive, hyperbolic language and bad/non-critical thinking applied whilst making one's point. Some of this falls into the category of derision, which looks like "What kind of idiot would assert this opinion? It was so stupid, I couldn't even read the whole thing, but now I'm going to ass-out by showing my ire at something I don't know the half about."

Then there's that other bastion of defensive handwringers, who think that letting a child say "no" or assert any autonomy "is the reason this country is going to hell in a handbasket". Really? Gee, I didn't think it was my son expressing himself...I thought it was the poor, under-considered decisions our lawmakers and elected officials make. Keep underfunding those schools and cutting options...Let's pin the tail on that donkey, shall we, and not blame parents who allow their children to act age-appropriately, heaven forbid. (Notice that I did not say "act out age-appropriately" here.)

Now we come to the oft-bandied about "Well, if you rob a bank, the judge isn't going to talk about your feelings, he's going to send you to jail." Um, here's my question to those who feel this is an actual point: are you worried that your child is going to become a bank robber?! If you are, then yes, but then you have other things you should be spending your time on besides forums. Children who have options and feel capable of problem-solving --perhaps because their parents are approachable and flexible and help them to make good choices through inclusion in the decision process and education-- are not likely to grow up to become desperate bank robbers. Just my gut instinct here...

And what about that most circumscribe and flawed of points many parents make: "I was (spanked, fed sugar, allowed to watch endless television, etc.) and I'm fine. So it's fine for everyone else." This seems laughable until one considers that we aren't living in a country known for its practice of self-reflection. Instead, we explain away a questioned aspect of our parenting without deeper thought as to why we feel that this works for us.

And we are so quick to thoughtlessly defend ourselves. Last week, a woman asked a forum question about finding information regarding the negative effects of TV on young children--she mentioned that her daughter was 16 months old and that she needed information to present to family members. Seemingly few members of the forum conversation noticed that she was asking about television in regard to a child Not Yet Two--instead came the onslaught of "I grew up with TV and I'm fine". Well, apparently not, if you are Not Reading the Question (the poster didn't ask how others felt or for convincing that TV was right) and just standing on the mountaintop, beating your chest all in an effort to say "My Parenting is Fine! Don't Challenge My Thinking!"

And it's all fear-based. I think much of this put-down, push-around commenting is rooted in fear that perhaps we aren't as confident in ourselves as we'd like to think we are. I don't view this as a realm exclusive to more authoritarian, conservative parenting--I see this in fear in permissive parenting as well. One is steeped in tradition: if we don't rule over them, they'll rule over us. (Great philosophy for more feudal times if we are to quell the serf uprising, but sucks as a parenting philosophy.) The other fear is "If I say no, if I impose guidelines and boundaries, my kid will hate me." Yep, healthy parenting involves copious amounts of your kid being completely pissed off at you. It's part of being human and having one person qualified to make the majority of the decisions.

I'm the last person to say that children should be left in charge of themselves at all times, but there's that authoratative middle ground between Authoritarian and Permissive that we might seek.

We modern folks are often people of extremes. I'm striving to find the middle ground every day; I'm not immune. A lot of old parenting beliefs(some ancient, really) are being dragged into the light of present day and openly challenged by more child-centered philosophies, and the old guard is not happy with the proposed changes to the status quo. Instead of either 'side' standing back and trying to suss out why each other thinks the way that they think, both mutually decide that the other is wrong, all wrong, entirely wrong--without any real thoughtfulness about it.

I, for myself, know why I think what I think. I used to believe that spanking, time outs and punishment were good tools because that's what I grew up with. The fact of the matter was, I wasn't fine. Working with children forced me to learn how to discipline without spanking or grounding (although some forms of Time Out are close), but there were still some skills, some pieces missing. 20 years ago, I was cringing at the helpless feeling of "what do I do if I can't punish them enough for them to comply?" and hating my work. And it didn't change by my becoming permissive--what changed things was critically examining both my own childhood and the areas I experienced the most fear and discomfort within the context of my relationships with other people, including children. Add to this the desire to understand how children think and their development-- all of this led me to the conclusions I have in regard to working with and parenting children.

It was fear that kept me unhappy, miserable and uneffective at the start of my career; it was addressing those fears that has helped me become capable of having healthy, balanced relationships with the children in my life.

We have to get past those fears when we feel challenged in regard to our parenting. We also have to acknowledge the progress that's coming out of the Early Childhood Ed community, because it holds valuable possibilities for our future as a nation. While we happily embrace progress in our computers, medicine, cars, and consumer goods, we seem less interested in learning about new ideas in child-rearing. Fear of the unfamiliar and a perceived challenge to one's beliefs (and the subsequent desire to defend them, sword swinging) will keep us from living up to our potential.

I think conventional parenting has a lot of good to offer, too. I'm not throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. I'm just saying that when it comes to parenting, let's not be paralyzed by fear. Immobility is not progress. It's just being stuck.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ask a Thoughtful Question...

I want to take a moment to point you over to the latest addition on See the Sites: Positive Discipline. I've loved their website and like their approach--empowering our children to become thoughtful persons by including them in resolving challenging situations whenever possible. The focus, much like mine, is to teach through modeling and by inviting our children to come to their own conclusions through intellectual engagement and positive opportunities for personal growth. All we have to do is set the stage.

Here's a great example: last night, both Joe and I were tired and decided that dinner at a restaurant was a good idea. This is always a gamble as Kiddo is sometimes not entirely happy to sit at the table. We brought a few favorite small toys, a book of blank pages to draw in, markers and stickers- our usual 'going out' entertainment. Both Joe and I prefer quieter sit-down places to the 'family-friendly' restaurants, which are noisy and a bit nervewracking, what with children (literally) running around and arguing over broken toys. It might be a little strict for some people's taste, but we feel good manners are important for everyone to have. As is the knowledge that there are other people in the world to consider.

So when Kiddo began to look around the room and declared "Want to run around in here", I knew I was on deck for a positive moment. I could have said "no" and immediately given him my reasons, but it would only serve the purpose of being a hard-nose and shutting him down. Instead, I turned to him and smiled.

"Oh, you want to run around," I repeated in pleasant way. "What do you think would happen if you ran around in here?"

He thought for a minute. "I can bump into someone."

"Yes, you could." I confirmed gently. "Would that be helpful for the people who are eating here or taking the food to people?" Another question, which needed no thinking on--he shook his head no. "You're right. It would be very hard for the people here if kids were running around. Can we find something else for you to do?"

At this point, I noticed what I usually do when we employ questions instead of telling him what we thought: he seemed very content to sit at the table with us because he'd come to the conclusion of what was right for the moment all on his own. I didn't need to tell him "no", because he'd already decided the "no" for himself.

I've also found that asking questions can help plant the seeds of critical thinking. A few days ago, we passed by store display that featured some crazy-looking water guns. "I want that," was Kiddo's remark. Instead of telling him my feelings about guns, I asked him a question.

"Oh, well, what do you think it is?"

"I don't know," he replied.

"What do you think it does?"

"I don't know," again.

"Hmmm...it's probably good to know what things are and what they do before you decide to want it." It might have gone over his head a bit, but a few things happened here: I didn't have to say "no", thus avoiding any potential argument; I invited him to actually think about what it was that he was wanting; and I presented the idea that wanting something can be a choice, which is not necessarily the message my son will be presented with as he goes through life. Advertising capitalizes on the approach that material desires are indeed needs, not wants.

I'm no fool; I know Kiddo will get sucked in with the "GimmeGimmes" at some point or another, but it's never to soon to introduce the idea that one can choose what one desires instead of being blindly led by advertising, trends and packaging. But just by asking these questions, he seemed to get past "I want it" to "Huh, what is it anyway?"

These are my shining parenting moments, which some days are few and far between. I share these stories not to preen, because I am so far from perfect I'd need a map and a few extra lifetimes to get there. Nonetheless, I've noticed that these moments, when I could flex my Parental Authority" muscles, work better to teach empathy, concern for others, and general thoughtfulness because I'm asking him to think. He's flexing his growing intelligence about his world, drawing conclusions based on past experience and learning how to make predictions about what might happen. These are all skills necessary for successfully navigating life, most especially as an adult. When we ask thoughtful questions and give them practice in thinking this way about their actions beforehand, we are (hopefully) building good habits, to consider the consequences or our actions and words before speaking or acting.

And questions work positively in reverse. I am hearing a lot of "I want" statements from Kiddo about everything from food to being held to needing my help with something (right now!). The bossy "I want" tone puts me in such a bad mood some days, because if it goes unchecked, it never ends. So lately, I've been redirecting it with a simple question.

"Oh, do you want to ask a question about that?"

This is usually met with a nice, polite "May I please have..." or "Mama, would you please...", which makes my jaw relax and my shoulders loosen a bit. Instead of feeling like Grumpy, Harried Mama, I feel valued and want to treat him with kindness and respect too. Learning to ask for things pleasantly is another skill which can give him a lifetime of advantage in even the toughest environments, be they school or later on in the workplace.

I could go on and on, but don't just take my word for it. Wander on over to the Positive Discipline site when you've got some time. It's worth it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pink Slippers and Camouflage

The breakfast dishes are piled in the sink, and a basket full of laundry waits to be folded, but those will wait. We've had such a day...

On the bus home, Kiddo recounted his trip downtown. "We saw pipes in turned-off water fountains!" he extolls. Kiddo talks about fountains the way others marvel Machu Pichu or some other wonder of the world. Today we visited at least 16 fountains by my count--nearly a third were turned off for cleaning or water conservation. The fountains were the top of Kiddo's list, but for me there was another more memorable moment.

After our traditional visit to Nuvrei bakery for treats: pretzel for Kiddo and a chocolate-almond croissant to deliver to Joe, we headed over to Hanna Andersson for some training underpants. Not to sound snobby, but their trainers are very absorbent and I like that they don't have superheroes on them. Instead, we picked out a three-pack with bears, stripes and raccoons. Right next to us were the sweet little moccasin sock-slippers that they sell, and Kiddo noticed them right away. We'd needed slippers for his preschool and the price was right, so I asked him to pick out the color he wanted.

"I want these ones, like Sarah", he said, pointing to a stack of bright, hot pink ones.

Hmmm...

This was a quandry for me. I have the feeling that, before he grows out of these slippers, some little preschool know-it-all is going to inform my sweetheart boy that pink is a Girl Color. And I will probably think unfriendly things about that child for five minutes, knowing that our world nurtures our boys to be so, well... so unPink.

It's everywhere. Even Hanna Andersson, whose kids clothes I have liked for years, has more marked differences between boys and girls clothes than they used to. There were more stripes back in the day, I guess. I love how the clothes fit the children; sensible waistlines and comfortable fabrics. But this season it's come to my attention that they have introduced some camouflage, much to my chagrin. Sure, camo is popular, but as both Joe and I are ex-military, we sort of cringe to see children in camo. It's what saw my growing-up dad wear when he returned from Vietnam with a broken leg and a whole horrible part of his life he won't ever discuss. For us, camo is war apparel; it is what one wears so as not to be shot at. Although it's become trivialized in cute kid colors, seemingly innocuous, Joe and I agree that it is an insidious way of indoctrinating children into war culture--children who don't have enough sense to understand how terrible war is. And I understand that a lot of parents apparently like it; the lovely woman behind the counter made a call for me to ask why they were including this pattern in their products: customer demand.

Let me ask this--are we thinking critically about what it means to dress our children in clothes that are symbolic of violence? I'm sure that if this retailer began selling hoochie-mama dresses for girls, there would be an enormous customer backlash. Why do our daughters deserve more protection from the adult world than boys? And the oft-asked question: why do we work so hard to shield our children from symbols of sex, but violence seems to get a free pass?

Of course, there are likely many parents who want camo because they believe it supports our troops. Perhaps mom or dad is in the service and wears that newer, digitized camo. I understand this. But supporting what our troops do can be done in better ways besides wearing what one wears when they are in a "Kill or be Killed" situation. Many of us are careful about not letting our children wear clothes that feature skulls, or other symbols of violence. We want our kids to wear "kid" clothes; the fact that 'edgy' kid clothes are being marketed to young people under the age of even 3 years old tells me that there's something terribly wrong in how we perceive childhood, and urges me to protect my son all the more from the crass, consumer world aimed at little people.

Well, as you might expect from a hippie peacenik parent like myself, I got the slippers, shocking pink as pink can be. I'm his mama--if he wants to wear all pink and purple, so be it. We had skirted the "what Sarah wears" issue before, when he wanted the same cherry boots his buddy had, all to discover they didn't have them in his size. But I was happy to let him have something that was just like his friend's. I'm going to let someone else rain on his parade, because I have no truly intelligent explanation as to why boys shouldn't have pink slippers. It would be manipulative, wrapped up in my ego and my fears for his hurt feelings. I'm his Mama, and I want to be there for him, pink slippers and all.

He's outside now, picking calendula blossoms, placing the petals in his lips and puff-ing them into the air like an explosion of orange and yellow floral confetti. He does this, and then goes back to scooping wet sand into his dump truck and loader. I love his innocence. Let's hope it lasts a long while.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Few of My Favorite Things For Kids

Here are some of the things we're loving right now, Kiddo and I.

Frank Lloyd Wright Froebel Blocks: On a weekend trip to a beach cabin, Kiddo was asked to put what he wanted to bring into a big leather backpack. He began pouring our big basket of colored wooden blocks in. For some stupid, grown-up reason, I stopped him and suggested other toys. Well, lucky for us the place we stayed in had a set of these blocks, so tiny and just the right size for challenging the fine motor skills of young children. Kiddo played with the block set for 15-20 minutes at a time, sliding pieces down and playing with the construction of ramps. There are four sets; this links to one of them. This is definitely on the Christmas list for this year.

Books:

"I Am a Backhoe" by Anna Grosshinkle Hines. I am often a bit wary of more contemporary children's books; many seem to lack substance. This book has stand-out quality in both Hines poetry as she depicts a child interpreting the operation of heavy machinery, and in the lifelike illustrations. I think Dads especially will like this story. It's also a great suggestion for how to help children clear spaces and clean up their toys.

"The Little House"by Virginia Lee Burton. The author of "Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel" introduces us to The Little House, who watches the seasons pass and wonders what the big city must be like. All to soon, she finds out. Will she ever be happy and loved again? This is a must-read for children three and a half and older.

"Blueberries for Sal" by Robert McCloseky. It's just the season, and we've been tending our berry bushes in the backyard, which brings this book to mind. I love McCloseky's gently realistic illustrations, and the calm with which he resolves the story of Little Sal and Little Bear mixed up with each other's mothers on Blueberry Hill.

"Boats on the River" by Marjorie Flack. A tub submarine brought this book back to us after some time off. Once again, a book of great poetry, action and description. (I do substitute the word "Navy Ship" for "Great American Warship". The book was first published in 1946, so this language makes sense for the times.) Flack provides the text while her son provides the illustrations, which are so unique and unlike the slicker-but-less-sophisticated graphics we see so often now.

"The Elves and the Shoemaker" by Paul Galdone. A simple story by the Brothers Grimm becomes a children's classic, thanks to lively illustration and ingtriguing language. Galdone's books are the kind to read largely because they are fairy tales done in a more linguistically advanced way, the stories themselves help to teach more complex styles of speaking and new vocabulary words. That the story is a happy one is a plus.

"The Ant and the Grasshopper" by Amy Lowry Poole. Aesop's fable is brought to life in a contemporary story of a grasshopper who lounges in the court of the Imperial Chinese Emperor's Summer Palace. A family of ants work alongside him, never stopping to play, readying themselves for the winter. The artwork is both simple and beautiful, and the images of the ants carrying their loads, grain by grain, gives great juxtoposition to the quaint indulgence of the grasshopper.

"Noah's Ark" by Peter Spier. Aside from the poem "The Flood" by Jacobus Revius at the fore of the story--Which is worth a pre-read as the poem itself is a bit intense for younger children--Spier's book is one of pictures. He has a knack for telling stories without words, and I adore his depictions of Noah as a very real man, worried if he'll ever see land again, in charge of the keeping of a menagerie of fecund, smelly, and sometimes dangerous animals. Many pictures have humor, and this is a book to spend time on, pore over, and tell the story you find in the pictures.

And lastly...

Joe picked up a "Personal Mister" for Kiddo today at Portland Nursery. It's a stand-up plastic tube that emits a lovely cool spray. After dinner tonight, we hooked it up to the hose in the backyard and chilled out in the spray. Kiddo was absolutely dewy and we have now dubbed the curvy piece of plastic "The $14.95 Spa Treatment". Goes great with a cold beverage of your choice, ha ha.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Up To My Eyeballs...

This post comes courtesy of bathtime--and an ability to sit knock-kneed on the lid of the toilet, keeping the lovely laptop out of the tub. It's the first time in days I've felt justified in spending time to blog, largely because I am now up to my eyeballs dealing with More Pressing Affairs.

Summer Break is somewhat of a misnomer. I am finding, in August hindsight, that summer hasn't really felt like a break at all. At current, I have a few tasks tugging at me. Bundles of parent information are waiting to be printed out, tucked into large manilla envelopes, addressed and sent on their merry way. My curriculum is shaping up, and if I could just get Fred Rogers to answer my seance-like questions muttered into the ether--"What Would Mr. Rogers Do?" in so many aspects of teaching--I'd feel like it was completely nailed down. It's shaping up fine in a weird, subject/month/season mandala on a huge piece of white paper that will have to be translated to less-artisitic planning grids.

But what's really kicking my butt these days is The Folly of Home-Owners Past. We have really, really wanted to paint our kitchen nook, and chose the colors four years ago, when Kiddo wasn't even a gleam in his mother's eye. Life plays tricks, makes you drop the paintbrushes by throwing a baby into your arms. And no regrets, but the prep work--well, there's no nice way to say it: It Sucks. It Sucks in All the Worst Ways. I have spent 2 weeks scraping layers upon layers of Each Decade's Most Hideous Wallpaper off one small wall., uncovering spidery cracks on the plaster that cause me to secretly pray that the wall is not, in fact, merely being held together with said Hideous Wallpaper.

My shoulders and arms burn from hours of reaching up higher than myself, which is over half the time as I am of Hobbit-size. My knuckles are scraped up. I've had several slivers of plaster pierce the tender skin right under my fingernails and lodge themselves defiantly, only to be pulled out, bled out, and the hole plugged up with Neosporin. I have never appreciated this ointment so much in my life. And the mantra chanting in my head, over and over as I remove layer after layer with nothing but sweat, a razor blade and determination goes like this:

"Who on earth wanted an entire room of this ugly sh*t?"

We all like decorative details, but we all need to remember that, much like tattoos, wallpaper isn't forever, but it's a bitch to remove. I console myself that I am doing my son a favor, and that when I am dead and he wants to paint the whole house white (because I will have to be dead before any room in this house is ever painted white again), he will not be dealing with endless scraping sessions and insane mantras and the fingernail-seeking plaster slivers.

I am up to my eyeballs in work, and not especially miserable about it. It's good progress, and when each of these jobs are finished, I'll be hustling to transform the house back into school, applying new name tags to the hooks and giving the Marmoleum the three-hour 'strip and two coats of sealant' treatment.

For now, I'll be peeking out from over the paperwork and wallpaper, and of course, Kiddo. I try to imagine my summer looking any differently, but I can't. I'm accepting of it all, even the days I work until 8pm. And that, to steal a phrase from Ms Martha Stewart, is a good thing. Only I'm doin' it without staff. So there, Martha. So there.