Calming Down (for ourselves & our kids)

I’ve been the only adult at home with my two month old and my two year old for the last 4 days. Things have been going pretty well- better than I expected them to, which is why it was about time for me to lose my shit. So that’s what I did this fine Saturday morning.

Without enumerating every ridiculous problem I had (that given more patience, wouldn’t have been a problem), I’ll just tell you about my awesome reactions to the “mischief” that my 2 year old was making.

I put her on the bench on our enclosed porch (our version of time-out) while she stared through the window at me as I fumed.

I explained myself, at length (!) and why she was making me feel frustrated…this to a 2 year old, mind you.

I told her that I didn’t want to talk to her.

I told her to stay in the basement while I went upstairs…while she was crrrrrrrying!

Finally after more than 30 minutes of trying very unsuccessfully to manage/calm both kids and myself before we left the house, I realized that I needed a complete reset. Every little deviation was pissing me off at this point simply because my bucket of patience was already running pretty low.

And then I had it, a desperation epiphany! As I stood in the living room listening to both my kids cry (one in my arms & the other still relegated to the basement), I realized that I WAS THE ONE WHO NEEDED TO CALM DOWN! I know it seems a little silly to write that in bold AND CAPS, but it seemed totally ridiculous that I hadn’t already realized it.

I yelled down to my sad, sad daughter that she could join me upstairs. Then I told her that I had been acting too upset (even though she was the one with snot allllllll over her teary face) and that I had to take some time to breathe and calm down before I could talk to her properly. So I rocked my two month old as I stood with my eyes closed and took deep, audible breaths. To my surprise, the snotty sad sack that had been my older daughter became just a regular kid again while I worked on myself. She stood still in the room with me and just looked up at the ceiling, presumably breathing a little herself.

Once I felt better and thought I had given her enough time as well, I opened my eyes and apologized to her. It was not the first or the last time that I would apologize to her today. And this was not the last time that I would see tears from her, but for a few minutes after this exercise, we both felt better and could see and hear the other person more clearly.

The day wasn’t “solved” by deep breathing, but after forgetting and forgetting and forgetting my own advice and losing my temper over and over again, it felt reassuring to know that I could get things under control if I really needed to.

I wasn’t being kind to my kid(s) or to myself. And while I’m certainly not always kind, I’d like to always know where I can find some calm when I need it.

Hi-Fives (And why I won’t give them to just ANY kid)

There’s little I like more than conversations in real life that make me think about and question my thoughts on kids and parenting. And usually when I’m in a speculative mood, I find that writing about my thoughts helps me to suss them out fully.

Welcome to the suss.

This conversation started with a passing comment about my friends’ son hi-fiving other patrons in a restaurant that they were eating in. And I, being me, immediately said that I wouldn’t have given him a hi-five. Now, for the record, I would have hi-fived their kid because I know him, but in general, with a stranger kid, I would try and keep my hands to myself.

I was asked if my reticence was due to kids being so dang germy. And while that’s a good reason not to touch them, that was not why. I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly I felt this way until thinking about the question over the next couple of days. And finally, I had my aha moment. So here is my explanation for being a grinch about hi-fives (and, as you will see, many other things).

I don’t want to be the stranger who “allows” your kid to do things that you’d rather they not do.

You get what I’m saying?

I have met such nice people over the course of my parenthood who would seemingly let my daughter take food from their plates. So nice of you, really. Except that I don’t really want her to get into the habit of taking food off of other people’s plates- especially because that would most often be my plate…

When you ask your kid not to do something and a stranger says, “That’s ok” because it has something to do with them, it doesn’t actually make it ok.

Hey stranger, my kid wants to rifle through your purse. Oh great, you’re ok with that? Have at it then kid! Now you get what I’m saying, right?

As some strangers turn into acquaintances and friends, I will gladly let them dictate some rules around their own interactions with my kids. If I know the other adult’s first name, then they can more readily decide if they’re going to stop my kid from stealing their dinner roll from their plate. But if I don’t know them, then that dinner roll is off limits even if ‘kindly stranger’ doesn’t mind if that roll goes missing.

So with this “rule” in mind, I do not want to ever play the role of the undermining adult. If I hear a parent asking their child not to do something, even if it’s ok with me for them to do it, I’m not going to encourage them to. For instance, if we’re at the library and I’m reading a book that another kid would like to see, even if I don’t mind giving it to them, if their parent asks them to leave it with me, then I’m going to hold on to it. Saying, “I don’t mind” isn’t a terrible thing to do, but I’d rather support the other parent, even in small ways, than satisfy their kid’s immediate impulse.

Sometimes I take this grown-up solidarity to even more adult levels. If I hear a stranger parent telling their kid that it’s time to leave the playground and that kid is playing near me, occasionally I’ll say, “I hear your dad calling you.” Ew!! So gross!

Maybe the power hungry part of me that wants to keep control of my own kids is acting out a misaligned version of the golden rule. I’m hoping that by being a stick-in-the-mud, other parents will return the favor. I’m just sending those behaviors out into the universe, hoping that they’ll come back to me.

Since I don’t ever want to be in a situation like, “Please don’t have any more cookies love. They’re for everyone at the party.” And then hear, from some nice stranger, “There are plenty of cookies to go around! I don’t mind if she has a few more!” Great! Except that I do… And as we know, c’est moit qui decide!

So if I meet a little kid dispensing hi-fives in a restaurant, I’m going to think first about what his parents might be wishing he were doing. Maybe everybody is enjoying this sharing. Very, very, very possible! But if I don’t know those parents, I’m first going to wonder if they wish he were back in his seat eating dinner with them. So I’ll hold off on sharing those hi-fives just in case.

Glad Holiday Tidings

For lo, I bring you good tidings of great joy.

Happy Holiday Season! As 2015 draws to a close and we look forward to the coming year, I am here to share some super good news with you all! Now that I am a very practiced parent of 2 (ha! 3 weeks and counting), I have come to a very definite conclusion, if only to assuage my own feelings of concern for the immediate future. I have decided that most everyday decisions that I make at this point will not permanently scar my kids! I’m almost sure that this is true.

How have I reached this conclusion? With your help my friends! I know a lot of adults and I must say that many of them are fairly normal people (awkwardness notwithstanding). Most adults that I know give me some hope for my own kids’ adult lives.

For instance, you don’t meet many adults who only eat macaroni and cheese and chicken tenders. And you don’t meet many adults who still need a pacifier to get to sleep. Or folks who are grown but still aren’t toilet trained. Similarly, for my younger daughter, I have yet to meet a 1 or 2 year old who can’t hold up their head simply because they didn’t have enough tummy time when they were very young.

This is not to say that the cumulative parental decisions that we make don’t add up to a “finished product” in our kids, but many of the small things that give us pause simply won’t make as much of an impact as we think. There are certainly things to focus on and work toward, but they generally revolve around helping our kids to be a little bit nicer or a little more patient or a little more thoughtful or a little more resilient. I think that we can let go of some of the concerns about aiding development and providing opportunities for learning, etc.

So this is my Christmas present to myself. I’m letting myself off the hook because in the coming weeks junk food will be consumed, TV will be watched and feelings of greed will most likely spike. These things are “out of the ordinary” for our family, at least for the younger member(s). But I am not going to worry that I’m turning my daughter into a media monster or an attention hog or a sugar eating maniac. It’s going to take a concerted effort, but I’ll give it a go.

Merry Christmas to me!

B-O-R-I-N-G! (A word I don’t want my kid to know…just yet)

I have not named the feeling of “boredom” to my daughter yet. I dread the day when she ruefully yells that she’s bored of doing something or (worse) tells me that what I’m saying is boring! Gasp! It’s not that boredom is a bad word, but the expectations that come along with announcing your boredom, especially as a kid, seem to be that it’s time for someone else to entertain you. Or that you need more toys because all of yours are boring. Or that there isn’t enough on TV because what you’re watching is boring. I’m getting a little agitated just imagining all of these scenarios. Besides sounding pretty bratty, kids who pronounce their boredom are basically saying that they’re entitled to being excited or engaged by everything around them every minute of the day.

Parents play a big role in introducing this idea when we see our kids drifting or thinking or just sitting and immediately label this (perfectly normal) occurrence as boredom. We tell them they look bored. We ask why they are bored. We also put such a high value on the “fun” they could or should be having that anything besides fun is…well, boring. It’s either one or the other. No in betweens.

In reality, kids are preprogrammed not to be “bored.” They are naturally inquisitive, curious, watchful and eager to learn. How else do they learn to walk, talk or play games with other kids? If they could actually get bored from trying to figure out how to walk, we’d have a lot more teenagers in wheelchairs who decided that learning to walk was just too boring for them!

If you’ve ever watched the movie Babies, you may remember the “non-Western” babies who lived in rural, remote areas. They had relatively little to play with, little to make their environments “fun” (as you and I would think), but they seemed anything but bored. Boredom isn’t a product of not having enough to capture our attention. It is a by-product of our go-go-go society.

Our kids are inevitably going to get bored in their lives, but I want to caution us to refrain from a) calling their stillness boredom and b) working to fill “bored” voids with “fun.” Stillness is something that many of us wish we could achieve. If we witness it in our kids, let’s not drum it out of them by calling it a ‘dirty word’ when they’re young. They’re going to be alone with their thoughts for the rest of their lives (as are we all), so we should allow them some room to learn how to deal with boredom. Because for so many of us being alone with our thoughts is scary or <gulp> unproductive. And let’s also not teach them to expect manufactured fun at every turn. They are responsible for themselves. If they want to create some fun or join some ongoing fun, that’s awesome. But if we simply work to make a sparkly situation to distract them (and us!) from the possibility of boredom, we’re just teaching them to avoid quiet and reflection.

This is why, for the time being at least, I will still not call any of my daughters actions or behaviors ‘boredom.’ She’ll have plenty of time in her life to learn how distasteful we Americans find the state of boredom. I don’t need to clue in her just yet.

Genderizing Our Kids

I don’t think I’m doing a great job of teaching my daughter what American society will generally expect of her as a ‘girl.’ She’s very little, I know, but I don’t think I say the words “pretty” or “I like your outfit” often enough to really begin her education in “girliness.” Granted, now that she has more hair and people can more readily identify her as a girl, others are helping to fill in those blanks. When we’re out in public, she gets plenty of compliments on her looks and her accessories. Hmm.

When she was younger and most often identified as a boy, the narrative toward her from strangers was different. Yes, some of it still centered on appearance, but plenty of it was also about how dextrous she was or how active she was. Maybe I’m reading too much into the comments of passers by, but viewing some “gender confusion” on the part of other grown ups was an interesting by-product of her early life. Since we all want to make sense of the world around us, I understand why folks are quick to assign certain attributes to kids (and other people) based solely on their perceived gender. I just don’t want to pave the way for others to put too many gender-based expectations on my kid.

Just like other labels that we slap on our kids, our thoughts on gender can be constricting, self-fulfilling and detrimental. Labeling our sons as “all boy” indicates to them and to us that not only are they expected to act in a manner that doesn’t show weakness, we also think they’re a bit unruly or rough and tumble. Kids can be rough and tumble without having to assign those attributes to the umbrella-term of “boyishness.” Likewise, calling girls tomboys simply because they explore, get dirty and (ahem) can be rough and tumble lets them know that they are doing something out of the ordinary (and perhaps distasteful) for girls.

It is impossible to avoid all genderizing words and I’m not advocating that we work to erase any and all differences between boys and girls. But I am careful to temper my expectations for her future as a ‘girl’ and eventually as a woman. I have no visions of braiding her hair or teaching her how to apply makeup or of her being a Girl Scout or going to the prom in a dress or being a beautiful bride or a pregnant mother-to-be. I do have visions of spending time with her, playing games, taking walks, reading, having adventures, talking with her, etc. But I’m going to continue to push back against molding her into a model of American girlhood. Not only because, as we see, girls and women are being conditioned to apologize more, stay quiet in meetings, and challenge themselves less. I guess the place for me to begin, as she approaches her second birthday, is to not make her look like the little girl section of Target. No matter whether this seems to be a contrary, counter-cultural move on my part.

Nowhere can this contrariness be seen more clearly than when an adult comments on a “boyfriend” of hers or how she’ll be a heartbreaker when she’s older. I admit to having made folks uncomfortable by quickly saying that she may, after all, be gay. I’m not simply trying to shut them up or shut them down, but I do want to allow her as much room to be herself as I can. If she grows up only hearing about how she’s going to have romantic relationships with boys one day, then how will she feel if she realizes that that isn’t for her? Or if she doesn’t feel like she’s a girl at all? I want to make any of these possibilities as natural as I can. However trite it sounds, I want her to know that I will accept any version of her throughout her life, even if <gasp!> she does want to wear high heels and dye her hair (though I’m sure we’ll have some talks about societal pressures and expectations if that happens).

No subtle parenting choices on my part are going to change the overlying thought that girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice and boys are made of snips (?) and snails and puppy dog tails. I guess I’ll just try to make her a stew of sugar, spice and snails. And work against genderizing her too much in her little life.

pensive nrk
Uh oh. A pink cat. It has begun.

Questioning My Kid

Yesterday my daughter came down with a fever. And I found that I was relieved.

For the last week she has been acting (quite frankly) like a bit of an a**hole. My usually independent and outgoing kiddo had become clingy and super needy. So much so that I have an actual pain in my neck from having to hold and carry her so much. She has gone through phases of violently preferring either my husband or myself to the other and rather rudely displaying her preference to the “unchosen” parent. She has cried, loudly, over seemingly nothing. She has told us “no” soooo many times, run away from us and basically just been a butt.

My husband and I started to question ourselves. Should we begin to make some changes? Should we ignore her outbursts? Give her comfort? Continue to stress that she needs to express herself a bit more maturely (ha!)? We weren’t going crazy (after all, it had only been a week), but we were becoming a little disheartened. We had talks as to whether or not this was just how things would be from here on out. Sigh.

But then I felt her fever and all those questions went away. She had been trying to tell us that she wasn’t feeling well. And we had let that message become conflated with questions essentially about her personality and overall behavior.

Then I started wondering, what made me so quick to second guess all that I’ve learned about this kid in the nearly 2 years that I’ve known her? If one of my friends had been acting like a butt for a few days, I would not assume that they had simply turned into a butt (and would stay that way for the rest of their lives!). I would assume that they were under some undue stress or were, likewise, not feeling well.  Why is it our default assumption that our kids are really supposed to be assholes? And that up until now, my husband and I had simply lucked out that she hadn’t shown her “true” (poopy brown) colors to us? Seems a bit unfair to my kid, no?

Our collective narrative about kids, especially toddlers, is pretty clear. They are “terrible!” When we are out in public and my child is acting like a ‘regular’ person, people comment on her lack of terribleness. While I usually try not to let these ‘compliments’ go to my head, I now see that everywhere we look, we expect children to be wretched! And that we are surprised when they’re not! Sounds like a recipe for wretchedness if ever I heard one. If we are just waiting for kids to turn into uncontrollable monsters, then that might explain why some of them do. We can finally say, “I knew that this day would come!”

So while there will definitely be short tempers (on both sides) and whines and crying and some butt-like behavior from kids as they grow older, maybe it would behoove us (and especially me!) to hold off deciding that our kids are now terrible. They are still who they were and who we have loved. Maybe we could reframe our narrative just a little so that we don’t simply jump to the conclusion that we now live with an asshole. It just might help everybody act a little less like a butt.

Teaching Kids to Be Cautious = Encouraging Risk-Taking?

When I came across this piece in the Guardian (Should I let my child take more risks?), I had already begun to think about the question of risk-taking for my own kid. There are plenty of reasons why kids should take part in active, sometimes risky, outdoor play (as this position paper also outlines): physical fitness, opportunities for socialization (!), learning self-control & body coordination, etc. And while I agree with all of these statements, I’m not quite ready to let my nearly 2-year old loose, alone in the woods just yet…

Plus, I’d like to add another dimension (albeit unscientific & un-researched) to this argument for risk-taking. I think it’s one of the best ways to foster caution, self-regulation and self-knowledge. What?! That sounds crazy! How can encouraging your kid to use a knife or climb up to reach something themselves teach them that?

Well, let’s look at it this way. How many times have you heard a parent say (or have said yourself) “Be Careful!”? It happens at the playground when your child is about to step on another kid’s fingers. It happens at home when they’re coming down the stairs by themselves. It happens when they pet the cat. It happens when they spin around and get dizzy. It happens when they’re running a little too fast down the sidewalk. Those words almost seem to have a mind of their own. They slip out of our mouths without us hardly noticing that they did. But to a young child, what do they actually mean? Hmm.

Instead of just saying those words, perhaps we should teach kids how to “take care.” Some of these lessons come directly from us and some of them come from their trials out in the ‘real world.’

From us: We can give them opportunities to dabble with “danger” in a safe environment. For instance, yesterday my daughter and I cut some eggplant for dinner. We both used serrated steak knives. Granted, she mostly ate raw eggplant and needed help cutting, but she had a knife. Ack! Before we began, I sat us both down at the kitchen table and had her touch the blade of the knife so that she could feel what “sharp” was. It was only our first experiment, but I think that she gained a little respect for knives from it. She was not eager to wield it wildly. She did not take it and run through the house with it. It did its job and that was it. She’s not going to be lucky enough to get a sharp knife with every meal, but it will make it’s appearance when it’s called for and we’ll continue letting her take that little risk.

Since we are preparing our kids for the real world, it’s important that we make their worlds as real as possible. There will be knives in the real world. There will be stairs. There will be stools to fall off of. There will be rejection. And there will be cats who might like to scratch. When we think our kids are ready, it’s important that we expose them to these realistic risks so that they can become familiar with them & get more comfortable dealing with them.

From the real world: Without us having to intervene, the world is already teaching our kids many things. If you fall down on the sidewalk, you’re likely going to skin your knee (and yet, we don’t all avoid sidewalks!). If you go outside without a coat when it’s cold, you too will be cold. If you climb up a rocky wall, you’re eventually going to have to climb down again. If you ask another kid to play with you, they might say no.

Letting kids experience the world (even in small bites like playgrounds) and push their physical and emotional limits is going to inform them of how much they can do on their own. They’re going to learn their own limitations and their own capabilities much more fully than if they are simply told what they can and can’t do without experiencing them. They will learn when they’re ready and able to climb to the next limb of the tree.

Limiting kids risk-taking experiences is only going to lead to recklessness or unnecessary fear: not understanding boundaries or viewing them as being everywhere. Caution and risk-taking, therefore, go hand in hand. I would also posit that it’s only kids who aren’t allowed to take risks or who are always rescued from them who don’t exhibit caution or self-regulation.

We can’t push them before they’re ready, but we also must not discourage them when they are. Encourage trying and emphasize that you’ll be there for a hug if they get hurt or are disappointed. But then allow them to take that risk again when they’re ready. It’ll be an endless exercise in vicarious risk-taking for us, the grown ups, who have already survived learning how to climb a tree.