Category Archives: Parenting

Problem solving with kids

IMG_2094“I don’t want to go to gymnastics anymore! We have to do the high bar AND I’M SCARED OF IT!!!” *hysterical, terrified crying*

This popped out of nowhere right around bedtime this week. Instead of voicing my first thought, “They require 30 days’ notice before quitting, and if I’m paying, you’re going,” or even a more constructive, loving solution, I worked from the key fact – it was the end of the day, and Claire did not have the resources to discuss something she clearly found so distressing. At this time of day, and with this much emotion, there was no prayer of having any rational information go into her brain. So I empathized, telling her I understood that she was very scared and wanted to quit gymnastics. Then I said we needed to wait till tomorrow to talk about it more.

When she brought it up again the next day, we were lucky enough to have time and space for a mini family meeting. I told her about brainstorming. We would sit together and write down every idea we thought of for the problem, no matter how silly or weird. Then we would look through our list and pick one or two approaches to try first. She caught on pretty quickly, and gave me some ideas. Even one or two other than “I quit gymnastics,” so that was a great start! Here’s our list:

  • Mom helps Claire on the bars
  • Mom talks to teacher about alternatives
  • Claire quits gymnastics
  • Claire goes to drop-in daycare while Chloe’s at gymnastics
  • Claire does the high bar even though she’s scared
  • Claire doesn’t do that part of class and sits off to the side
  • Claire takes a water break during that part, and sits with Mommy

You can probably guess which ones were my contributions! I did tell her about the 30 days notice, and that I would expect her to go to classes we had committed to. So that helped motivate her to try some of the other ideas. In the end we decided to combine me talking to the teacher and Claire taking her water break during that part of class. She really is petrified by it – I think being physically separate from the gym floor and being right with Mommy during that part of class is helping her agree to this compromise measure.

I wanted to share this process because it would have been awfully easy for me to simply impose my own solution. Of course, the “traditional” parenting approach would have been “No, just suck it up.” My mushy mommy heart wanted to say, “Of course you don’t have to go – I won’t ever let you be scared!” The funny thing, though, is even if I had said, “You can’t quit, but I’ll talk to the teacher so you can take your water break during that part,” it wouldn’t have gone over well. Instead I allowed my child some space, giving her a voice in the process, and showing I respected her feelings and her problem-solving skills. I feel this really helped her accept a solution I liked better, plus it helped her build skills for the future. As she grows, this is a foundation for her to work around strong emotions, use reflection and openness, and feel more confident in her resilience when she faces something daunting.

Of course, I don’t always rise to this level of evolved parenting. Sometimes I don’t have the resources or I don’t stop to think. But I’m going to try to remember this experience and invest a couple neurons in creative openness in the future. I think it brought us both to a better outcome and prevented us from being opponents on this issue.

Parenting and external costs


Want milk, kid? Here’s the cow.

When I studied environmental law, I learned about external costs. Part of the problem with pollution is that the cost of smog, fish kills, and flammable tap water are not inflicted on the polluting companies and their customers, but generally on the population. One idea in environmental protection is to internalize these costs. For instance, tradable permits for carbon emission internalize the climate change impact by charging companies for their emissions. This in turn should force the companies to consider their environmental impact as part of the bottom line, because pollution-heavy practices become more expensive.

So what does this have to do with parenting? It occurred to me that authoritative, empathetic parenting involves slowly internalizing the costs of our kids’ behavior as they mature. When they’re newborns, all their costs rest on our shoulders. Their messes, their pain, even their mental stress falls to us automatically, because they have no resources to deal with these negative side effects of being human. As kids grow and develop resources, parents can help their children internalize these “costs of living.”

Consider potty training.* My friend’s son has advanced remarkably, learning to use the toilet on his own initiative. Except it only works when he’s pantsless. Put pants on him, and those pants are going to wind up soaked in pee. I think most of us will experience some version of this: when you know your kids are capable of using the toilet, but they have accidents because it’s too much trouble to go, or they’re having too much fun playing and don’t want to stop, or they read Stephen King’s “The Moving Finger” and are terrified of the bathroom. (Wait, that last one is me.)

My friend wants to gently motivate her son to give some extra effort, but doesn’t want to use external rewards like stickers or M&Ms. So I suggested something that has worked for us –  internalizing the cost of accidents. It’s very much in the realm of “natural consequences,” and isn’t judgmental. When my 5 year old pees in her pants, I say, “OK, it happens sometimes. Now take off your pants and I’ll get you a towel to clean up the floor.” You don’t have to yell and scream, you don’t have to inflict a punishment or dangle a reward. But making a child bear more of the cost can provide enough motivation to make pulling down their pants, pausing their video game, or excusing themselves from the party worth it. After all, wiping up a puddle of urine is much less pleasant and takes longer than just using the toilet in the first place.

Meanwhile, making sure that kids start handling the less wonderful aspects of living helps keep us parents energized. Because after a while, handling 100% of someone else’s costs will wear you out. (See my post about burning out on AP.) Some days I’m feeling so overwhelmed by the mountain of household duties before me, and I can’t tell you how rejuvenating it is to see my 9 year old put away her own laundry and take a shower with no intervention on my part! I feel much less resentful of the burdens I have to help them with when they start shouldering the jobs they can easily handle.

So maybe it’s worthwhile to stop thinking so much in terms of motivation and consequences, never mind manipulation and punishment, and look at parenting from a bit of an economics perspective. Just like they do in big business, externalities can distort the give and take between us and create a bad atmosphere. Internalize those costs, and you’re helping everyone in the equation.

*I use this term in the same sense as continuing education or vocational training, not teaching a dog to sit. If you’re more comfortable with “potty learning,” go for it.

Breaking Bad – harrowing stuff!

baby seatI’m in the middle of season 3 of Breaking Bad, and it’s definitely a compelling show. All the actors really are as great as you hear, the writing is very tight and doesn’t rely on Idiot Plot elements, and the show can be beautiful to look at. But sometimes it can be downright scary, the stuff they do!

In just a dozen or so episodes, I’ve seen such shocking images as:

  • Baby wrapped up in multiple blankets before being buckled into car seat
  • Car seat straps wide and loose with no visible chest clip
  • Crib with bumpers and tons of fluffy blankets under and around the baby
  • Propping a baby on her side instead of back sleeping
  • Smoking in the baby’s room

Oh, and there’s been some milder stuff like drug use, murder, rape, decapitation, and dissolving a human corpse with acid.

Even though it can be disturbing at times, I’m definitely hooked! I’m kind of curious whether Walt will go back to cooking. And of course, I’m on the edge of my seat about the pool fencing – when are they going to show us that already?! Or are we going to see that fancy high tech system they talked about? They are such teases!

Screen-Free Mondays

by Mike_fleming via flickrI like to think I’m a pretty good parent, but I admit I really fall down on limiting screen time.  I think the cause is twofold.  When I’m desperately trying to pay the bills or handle raw chicken or something, I use the TV or computer to occupy the kids and keep them out of my hair.  On the other hand, when I’m finished with pressing tasks and get some leisure time, I sure as hell ain’t the mom who says, “Hey, let’s go for a bike ride, that’ll be fun!!!”  Nope, I’m right there on the couch or in front of the computer myself.

Being me, I decided to do something radical, rather than attempting to moderate our daily habits.  Yesterday was our first weekly screen-free day.  The children awaited it in terror.  I wasn’t exactly sanguine myself, but I wanted us to spend a whole day doing other stuff, interacting with each other (gasp!), and prove to us all that we could live without the idiot boxes.

I prepared by planning to abandon many chores.  I was ready not to get much done, as I helped the kids find fun stuff to do outside their normal routine.  And part of the point was to spend time together after all, so I gave myself permission to leave the Christmas tree half-denuded, the floors unvacuumed, and to put off bill-paying till today.

The other preparation was a list of screen-free activities.  I wanted to have a set of options at hand for the inevitable, “We’re booooored!” moments.  Since we’re all used to plopping down and being entertained by pixels, I realized I might not be able to come up with good ideas on the spur of the moment.

Here’s what I did with the children yesterday:

  • Played Crazy 8s and War
  • Played Monopoly
  • Read The Hobbit aloud to Chloe
  • Read a bunch of different books to each other
  • Baked brownies
  • Went outside and rode bikes and climbed a tree (I watched)

Here’s what the girls did without me, while I cooked, cleaned, and ran the household:

  • Played with toys
  • Found old flip phones and played pretend with them for an hour or more
  • Practiced riding a bike without training wheels (up and down the hallway inside!)
  • Colored with markers

I confess, to get them to be nice and play with each other while I prepped dinner, I did tell them I needed to get dinner all set before we could bake brownies, and so they needed to stop whining and fighting (an activity not at all confined to unplugged days) and let me work uninterrupted for a while.  Normally I avoid using any kind of food reward for the kids, but since this was an activity as well as a treat, and I was doing something unusually challenging, I relaxed that rule a bit.

All in all, it was successful.  We spent time with each other.  We learned that as alluring as TV and Minecraft and Facebook are, we can survive without using them at all!  This in turn has inspired me to be more vigilant about limiting screen time on a daily basis.  Once we all got through a whole day without this stuff, it makes it easier for me to say, “That’s enough for today, you can find something else to do.”

I plan to keep doing this, and I learned a few things I’ll use in the future.  First, we need a couple board games Claire can play.  I plan on picking up Trouble, and maybe another preschool-friendly game, if I can find one that isn’t too annoying.  Second, planning an outing would be a very good idea.  If I had arranged the schedule differently, we could have hit the park for two hours and really gotten more physical activity and used up more time!  Third, this is a great way to encourage reading.  Chloe’s a good (heck, Gifted) reader, but she resists reading at home.  It took until the evening for her to pick up a book on her own and just read to herself for entertainment.  It’s a good indicator that I need to cut off her other entertainment options at a certain point to make room for reading in her life.

I encourage everyone to give this a try.  It’s really good for bodies, brains, and relationships.  And the cold turkey aspect helps set us all up to be less attached to our devices, which is a vital skill in the modern world!

What I do all day

IMG_1879Today my chief task is to clean up the house.

At the end of the day, the house will still need to be cleaned.  There may be some areas that are visibly cleaner than they were this morning.  Or not.

Here’s a blow-by-blow description of why.

Task: clean up.  The first part is to get random detritus off the counter tops and the top of the fish tank, putting it all away (preferably not just shoved in an 18 gallon Rubbermaid bin), and wiping off the dust, dirt, and inexplicable sticky stuff that is found under all the things.

Here is a Christmas wreath of yarn and pom-poms, lying on the kitchen counter.  It was made by number one daughter a couple years ago.  She was overjoyed that it was put into service as the official front door wreath this year.  Sadly, the white-hot temperatures that develop between our southern-facing dark green front door and the glass storm door quite handily melted the hot glue holding said wreath together and bits began falling off.  Daughter was devastated, so the wreath can’t be simply thrown away.  It needs to be refurbished and hung in a more climate-controlled location.

So, I obtain the glue gun and glue sticks (luckily located for other projects last week.  Well, the glue gun was, and the extra glue sticks were not found at that time, but were located later, when the same sewing basket was rifled once again in search of the foot pedal to the sewing machine.  The foot pedal was nowhere to be found, but the previously absent glue sticks had warped in from a dimensional rift.  So that was lucky for today.)

While waiting for the glue gun to heat up, I pick up the next item cluttering up the counter.  It’s an information form about pictures taken at preschool.  I sit at the computer, find the web site, sign in, and try to decide if any of the pics are good enough to spend money on.  Then call the photographer and leave a message.  By then the glue gun is hot, so I glue bits back onto the wreath.  I have no idea how the teachers originally succeeded in gluing he hanging loop on the back, and in my attempt, I manage to burn my fingers as well as adhere the photography information sheet to the back of the wreath.

So that represents about 30 minutes of work, and two items I’ve tried to clean up have progressed about 75% toward actually being off the counter top and put somewhere sensible.  And they’re stuck together.

Every additional stray sheet of paper, toy, UPS package, and decoration brings with it a high possibility of involving similar calendar transfers, contact list additions, e-mails, phone calls, repairs, cleaning, input from other adults, children, or bureaucracies, reorganization of the space into which I wish to put the thing, and/or disassembly and deposition into the recycling of some form of package, box, or bag.

So, at the end of the day I’ve done an executive assistant’s worth of filing, calendar management, and contact maintenance, several crafts, some mending, de-cluttering and reorganization worthy of a TLC show, and enough box handling to qualify me to work at UPS.  And the house looks about the same.

Finally, I’ve started adding things to my To Do list as I complete them, and including each step of a task as a separate entry. “Clean kitchen” gets replaced with neatly checked-off entries such as:

empty dishwasher
sanitize sink
take recycling out to garage
take overflowing garage recycling out to curb container
realize in a panic that it’s recycling day and sprint curb container down to curb as truck pulls up
wave sheepishly at truck driver

At the end of the day, my To Do list is immense, and almost every item is checked off!  My house still looks about the same.  But at least I know the answer when I (or anyone else, should they dare be so reckless) wonders what the heck I did all day!

In which attachment parenting makes me a bad parent

You wouldn’t like Mom when she’s angry.
(Image by Sarah G via Flickr.)

Well, not a bad parent overall.  But I have noticed a big problem with my parenting lately, and I can trace its origins to my attachment parenting inclinations.

In short, I let my kids get away with too much, put up with their whining way too much, and generally don’t provide enough structure.  Then their behavior drives me nuts and I get too angry with them!  And while AP doesn’t endorse this by any means, and I’m sure many AP parents don’t succumb to this pattern, I do think being a crunchy, responsive, gentle, giving mother to my infants set me up to be a bit of a pushover to my older children.

The problem of course is that a newborn has only needs, no wants.  It’s perfectly reasonable, responsible parenting to respond to your baby’s cries immediately and constantly.  It’s very black and white.  Sure, especially as they grow older, you might take a moment to pee, or to eat before you keel over, but generally the baby’s wants are the baby’s needs. When the baby cries, you as the mother have an intense visceral reaction that spurs you to do what it takes to stop the crying.  This is how it should be.

But the rub is: they grow and mature.  And even when you’re aware that they have wants that can (and should!) be denied, it’s awfully easy to fall into that old “the loud, abject misery must be quelled!” approach.  I’ve forged such an emotional connection with my kids that I feel the desolation when they cry their guts out over not being allowed to have a snack 15 minutes before dinner, or when they have to pick up their toys.  My intellectual side knows that I’m being reasonable, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is I get so engaged with their emotional reaction to my reasonable rules that it exhausts me.

You can imagine what happens as a result – inconsistent discipline, and a stressed-out mom who builds up resentment and tension until I snap and, well, I have to confess it once got so bad I yelled, “Claire stop being a butthole!” (I apologized.)

So, for me, it has been helpful to use the system 1-2-3 Magic.  The absolute key to that approach is staying calm while setting limits, and I really need that.  A little distance, and frankly, being a little more of a hardass, has started to improve my own mental health and my relationship with my kids.  It’s easier to empathize with them and to be loving and gentle when I’m not sucked into an emotional maelstrom, and when I don’t feel resentment over the ten thousand times they’ve already resisted my directions that day.

I fully expect other parents to find other styles to be more appropriate for their families, but I think everyone has one thing in common – we need to navigate this tricky gray area where our children are still children, and require all the love, understanding, and responsiveness that we developed as AP-ish parents, but also have desires and behaviors that must be opposed by those same empathetic parents in an effective and consistent way.  It’s really tough territory, and it can make you crazy if you’re not careful.  Whether you go for the 1-2-3 Magic style or prefer Alfie Kohn, I think every parent would do well to stop and think about this issue once in a while, as our children grow up.

I Hate You – The Opera!

This is an original, self-authored, extemporaneous opera by my children.  Actually, the entire performance lasted for about 30 minutes, but I only managed to record a bit.  I trimmed it down to the highlights and transcribed it for your entertainment. I couldn’t suss out a couple words, but you’ll get the gist.  The hilarious, hilarious gist.

I Hate You – The Opera!

When you’re at school
I miss you
I love you
I miss you
I love you
I miss you
I love you

Well sorry – I have to go to school
It’s not an option
Sorry, I can’t expel myself

I’m so sorry but I won’t hear it from you
I don’t really like you
I don’t
I was lying
I’m sorry
I don’t
I _______ you
And I don’t like you singing
And I hate you
I know
I’m sorry, but I’m not
I’m not sorry- eeee

What are you doing walking like that?
That’s the creepiest walk I’ve ever seen
The only people that do it are maniacs.
So why are you doing it?

I don’t like you anymore
‘Cause you’re the stupidest girl in the whole wide world

I am actually advanced in school
You take that!
And I’m smarter than you

I am not s-
You are not smarter than me
I’m smarter than you
I don’t like your stuff
I like my own stu-uuuuf!

Well that doesn’t mean that I’m not smart

You’re not smart

In fact, I’m really advanced

I don’t like your smart
I don’t like your _____
I don’t like anything that you love!

A pox on reading logs!

Not my daughter’s, but worse! This one also requires math, including clock math, everyone’s favorite pastime!

I’m sitting here looking at my daughter’s fourth grade reading log.  Starting on day 1 of school, the teacher decreed that students must read for at least 20 minutes each day, keep track of the reading in their reading log, and turn it in with student and parent signatures affixed.  The log requires Chloe to fill in the title of her reading material, along with a code designating what type of reading material it is.  Then she needs to record how many minutes she read, as well as the pages she read, and both of us need to fill in comments about the reading at least once a week.

Looking at this reading log literally makes me feel like crying.  What better way could a teacher concoct to make children hate reading?  I have loved to read since I learned how.  Right now I’ve got two books on the “front burner” and three on the “back burner,” meaning there are two books lying around which I tend to pick up and read at least a few times a week, and a few others I started but got distracted from for the moment.  I had to start using the library instead of my Kindle because I was spending way too much money on books without realizing it.  I’m a reader!  And my voracious reading has delivered concrete benefits like high test scores and a massive vocabulary, so no one can argue that the way I read or what I’ve chosen to read isn’t academically useful.

And I don’t read log-style.  I read what delights me at the moment.  Sometimes the delight comes from satisfying curiosity or tackling a challenge, and sometimes it’s just getting on board for an easy ride with some fabulous characters.  If I had to fill out that log each day to document my forays into Botswana with Mma Ramotswe or my visits to the eldritch New England of H.P. Lovecraft, I would probably start avoiding books.  I would procrastinate reading, because it would have mutated into a chore.  One with tiresome bookkeeping responsibilities.  Would the stories enchant me and make me lose track of time and place when I had to quantify how long I read? My heart feels heavy when I try to imagine this scenario.

So how much heavier are the hearts of kids who still stumble over new words and are just starting to taste that fluid reading skill which delivers one into a new world, rather than merely presenting words on a page?  My child already gets frustrated sometimes when she misreads and has to go back to figure out a sentence, or when she comes upon a new and idiosyncratic proper noun.  She doesn’t need a taskmaster standing over her shoulder reminding her what a chore reading is on top of it all!

For now, I will be filling out Chloe’s reading log.  I will write down whatever number the teacher has said is the minimum for that day.  I will not refer to the clock when I do so.  I will discuss with Chloe what we read, and jot down one of her comments on the log, along with one of my own.  I want her to interact with this poisonous document as little as possible.  Later, when the teacher has learned to know and love Chloe, I might discuss with her my concerns about the reading log.  I don’t want to be a parent who launches the first week of school by shoving an Alfie Kohn essay into the teacher’s face.  So we’ll be on the down-low for now.

The one good thing about this reading log is it did make me think about how much we read, and realize I would like to expand reading time.  But I won’t be setting a timer – well, maybe I will, for the TV.  Limiting TV, keeping good books around, and sitting down to read with my kids will be my approach, rather than treating books like overcooked Brussels sprouts that must be choked down.

(By the way, if you want to test your vocabulary size, check out this cool site.)