Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad.
— Anne Geddes
Here’s to all of the Dads who embrace their roles and are there for the fun times and the hard times too when we need them most. Thanks, Dads!
Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability.
- Sam Keen
As school ends and summer begins, we are sitting outside and dreaming of the many delights the season brings. We have big plans to read, swim, blow bubbles, build sandcastles, catch fireflies and sit and watch the clouds. Last year, I put together a summer reading list of favorite parenting books. This year, I am highlighting the top five all time favorite, most-read posts for your summer reading. See if they may bring you new or renewed insights. Confident Parents, Confident Kids is taking a vacation to play, to be and to live in the spirit of the warm sun. Rest assured, the posts will return in August with the start of the school year. Meanwhile, my wish for you is for lazy summer days.
Confident Parents, Confident Kids Top Five Posts:
Teachers gain plenty of experience over time having difficult conversations about students with parents. However if you are parent, you may only experience difficult conversations with teachers a few times in your children’s educational careers. It’s conceivable that your child may come home with issues or concerns that merit your initiation of a conversation with a teacher. With only your child’s words to inform you, you need more information and the help of her teacher to really understand the problem. “Will I sound like I am accusing the teacher or another student or parent?” “Will the teacher penalize my daughter or like her less because of our conversation?” and “Will my discussion with the teacher lead to tensions between our family and that teacher and possibly other teachers in the future?” These are all valid questions that are raised in the minds of parents before they proceed with a conversation. Read more…
At all ages and stages, kids admire and desire competence. Particularly as they enter the middle school years, 10-14, figuring out what they can do and what their interests are establishes the basis for their social and academic life. It can define a friend group and sometimes seals the perception of who a student is with his teachers. Is he a straight “A” student? Does she excel at electronics? Is he a soccer player? My husband claims that competence in music in high school band was primarily responsible for pulling him out of the shyness of his middle school years. Read more…
In the hero’s journey, an ordinary person is called through extraordinary circumstances to sacrifice a part of him or herself in order to serve the greater good. In doing so, the reward or victory is self-knowledge and a demonstration of character that the hero must then use in the world from which he or she came.[i] To be a Jedi Knight in the classic story Star Wars, the means through which Luke Skywalker defeated the darkness was by learning self-discipline. Yoda teaches, “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are.”[ii] The modern day hero in all of us must defeat the dark forces of fear, ignorance, greed and ego. Listening to and following our truth when faced with difficult decisions requires practice and repeated trials. Temptation to stray from the hero’s path is part of the initiation. The hero typically fails in his attempts numerous times but persists in striving toward greater self-control and self-knowledge. Read more…
All children have to deal with and understand the paradox of separateness and connection, of individuality and belonging. In utero, babies have no sense of separation. They are physically connected to Mom through the very liquid they breathe and the cord through which they receive their food. For most children, the birth process will be the biggest stress of their young lives. They discover that they are separate beings but need their attachment to their parents in order to survive. Do you remember in the first few months of your child’s life when he was fascinated with his hands? He was grappling with his individuality and separation. Then, when children enter their first playgroups or preschool, we encourage them to share, to cooperate and to take turns with other children. They have spent most of their time as infants and toddlers figuring out their individuality only to find that they are supposed to connect to others and that there are rules (sometimes confusing since they change in various environments) that govern that involvement. Read more…
It may be that the most important mastery we achieve early on is not the mastery of a particular skill or particular piece of knowledge, but rather the mastery of the patience and persistence that learning requires, along with the ability to expect and accept mistakes and the feelings of disappointment they may bring.
- Fred Rogers in Life’s Journeys According to Fred Rogers
“Mama, I didn’t have such a good day yesterday,” E says as he puts on his clothes to prepare for another day of school. “I cut out the tree when I should have colored it first.” Now with tears welling up in his eyes, he continues, “And I laughed while I was waiting in line and the teacher said the next time I did it, he would send a note home to you. Will you be really mad if he sends a note home?” Read more…
When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.
- Stephen Covey
Most parents, particularly with young children, may feel like they are listening all day long. Because children are exploring the world around them, they may have many observations and questions. “Why are you going upstairs?” “What is Dad doing now?” “How many days until school is out?” and “Why is that bird chirping outside our window?” Though we perceive that we are listening regularly, often times, the reality is, we are not. Research reinforces that notion. The average person listens with only 25% efficiency.1 And no wonder. There are multiple distractions from people and media that compete for our attention. Listening is a critical skill for your children as they attempt to make friends, participate in family life and achieve in school. When your child does not listen to you, it can be extremely frustrating and sometimes dangerous if for example, you are warning them about a safety issue. Effective listening in which the person hears and understands what is said, can build trust in a relationship, reduce conflict and inspire a higher level of commitment to working together.
As you prepare for school letting out and having your children home more of the time, why not practice some listening skills to proactively promote stronger communications? Try out the following practices.
Have a dinner conversation about listening.
You might pose the question, “What does it take to listen well?” “What do our bodies do when we listen?” Start a conversation with the whole family and allow each member to contribute. Model listening by allowing each person to complete their thoughts without interaction or judgment.
Practice listening strategies.
Try interactive modeling with listening skills. Model the listening technique and then, ask your child to try it out.
Parent: “I ran into my Kindergarten teacher at the grocery store today while I was getting you carrots and she said she remembered me.”
Parent Modeling Paraphrasing: “So you ran into your Kindergarten teacher and she remembered you.
Mom to Dad: “What did you mean when you said you weren’t happy this morning. What happened?”
Child: “Today Mrs. Smith started a project with us. We are going to be building fairy tree houses. I can’t wait. I need to get sticks and lots of other stuff to help build it. Okay?”
Parent: You might be tempted to say, “I built a bird house when I was in school.” Instead you might say, “Okay. Sounds like you are excited about this project your teacher began. What else besides sticks do we need to collect?”
This pattern of speaking and listening may come naturally to some but to children, it is a major challenge and requires experience. Your modeling will make a difference in their own comfort with this style of communication.
Try out some listening games.
For Younger Children:
This classic children’s game is not only fun but also instructive. Play this as a family or when a group of children are at the house for a playdate. Get the children in a circle. Whisper in the first child’s ear one sentence that they must whisper in the next child’s ear. The sentence get passed from child to child in a whisper. The final child gets to reveal aloud what he heard. Make the first sentence simple and increase the difficulty with each turn. Giggles are likely to result! A simple one may be, “The cat is orange.” A more difficult one may be, “The curious cat calls out his command to come.” On the first go-round, just pass the sentence. On the second go-round, ask, “what could you do if you didn’t really hear what was said?” This will give children additional practice in seeking clarification. You could model what they might say. “Could you repeat that, please?”
For Older Children:
If you have children 9 and up, this will be a true challenge for them. Created by Classroom Conflict Resolution Training for Elementary Schools in San Francisco, California and reprinted in the A Year of Student’s Creative Response to Conflict curriculum, it has been used effectively in classrooms. Children love it! The parent relays a robbery report and children must remember the details of the report by listening to it. Say it once and see what they can remember. Then, read it a second and perhaps, third time and see if they’re listening improves.
Parent: “Please listen carefully as I have to go to the hospital right away. I just called the police from the gas station on the corner. Wait here and report the robbery to them. I was walking into Johnson’s Convenience Store and this guy came running out and almost knocked me over. He was carrying a white bag and it looked like he had a gun in his left hand. He was wearing a Levi jacket with the sleeves cut out and a green and blue plaid shirt and blue jeans with a hole in the right knee. He had skinny legs and a big stomach. He wore wire rim glasses and high top red Converse tennis shoes. He was bald and had a brown mustache and was six and a half feet tall, probably in his mid-thirties.” 2
Adult Listening Challenge
In addition to modeling and teaching your child skills in listening, here’s a challenge for you to exercise your own listening skills. This is not easy! It takes concentration. Try it out multiple times and see if you can make improvements as you practice.
Listening for Thought, Listening for Feeling
Pick any listening opportunity in a day whether it’s listening to your child relay a story from school or your partner telling you about his day at work. In addition to listening to the content of what the person says, also see if you can identify the unspoken thought and feeling behind the content, in other words, the context. Here’s an example.
Your Partner: “Oh, the day was okay. I had four meetings back to back this morning and they seemed to drag. I am glad I checked them off the list.”
Thought: The morning was long and difficult.
Feeling: I was tired and bored and am now feeling relieved that my meetings are over.
Now that you have identified the thought and the feeling, you can better respond to your partner. Listening is a skill that can bring a family closer together if practiced regularly. Try out one of the techniques or games and see if adds a sense of connection and understanding to your family communications.
1 Williams, S. Listen Effectively. LeaderLetter. Dayton, OH: Wright State University Raj Soin College of Business. Retrieved on 5-20-14.
2 Nia-Azariah, K., Kern-Crotty, F., & Gomer Bangel, L. (1992). A Year of Students Response to Conflict: 35 Experiential Workshops for the Classroom. Cincinnati, OH: Center for Peace Education.
I grew up with six brothers. That’s how I learned to dance – waiting for the bathroom.
- Bob Hope
“Are we there yet?” This is the common refrain from the backseat on the long road trip to Grammy’s house. We “moo” at the cows. We examine the red barns. We talk about the funny words on signs like “Woussickitt.” My smart phone, e-reader and laptop are all safely packed away. We don’t need them. We are practicing waiting.
First, you may ask, who cares and why is waiting so important? Even the word “waiting” may strike an annoying chord within you because it involves patience and self-control. But it’s worth the effort because it can allow for reflection and deeper, more creative thinking and support the delaying of gratification in order to pursue higher goals. It can promote family connectedness and even impact academic achievement.
Educators have been using wait time since the 1970s to prompt better listening, thinking and involvement with questions in the classroom. A teacher’s typical response time to a student’s comment is one second. But if teachers ask a question and allow more wait time, student’s responses begin to evolve with the use of logic and higher level thinking processes. Also students in classrooms with shorter wait times were found to be more restless than ones with longer ones.1 Though it may seem counterintuitive, slowing the pace and allowing empty space creates opportunities for children’s minds to focus.
As with any learned skill, children need practice. They will have limited ability at first. Set a timer and create a “wait challenge.” The reward only need be the accomplishment of waiting for the time you allot. At a time when your children normally watch a video, you may say, “Let’s set the timer for one minute and see if we can wait that long before we watch television.” The true test is if you can wait alongside your children without engaging with your phone or other device. That modeling will be necessary if you ask them to do it. The following are additional examples of how waiting may fit into your busy family life.
After School Catch Up
“How was your day at school?” you ask genuinely hoping for something, anything to give you a clue about his experience. When a sliver of silence creeps in, you continue “What did you do? Did you have gym last period? How’d that go?” Your tired boy responds, “Fine.” And then, you move on to the next activity. But what if you had let the first question hang in the air and patiently waited? Maybe he will have time to remember that he played an exhilarating game of huggie monster tag at recess.
“I just know he’s going to have a melt-down right in the middle of the Kohl’s return line. It’s just easier to give him my iPhone and let him play a game.” You may have similar thoughts as you try to accomplish tasks with children in tow. And yes, he may have a melt down the first time you don’t provide entertainment. You may even have to leave the store. But be consistent, and he will accept that waiting is to be expected.
The next time you hear, “Mooooooom, I need a snack!” from a room away while you are up to your elbows in dish soap, you may want to let your child know that you’ll help him when you are finished. Each person in a family has needs which should be respected. Dropping everything is not necessary in order to be a responsive parent and in fact, may add to your own feelings of resentment over time.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for you, or any of us who require caffeine to get through the day with children, will be the self-discipline to model waiting and become a regular practitioner. If you succeed, the payoff will be great. It will come when you least expect it. That moment when your car tags are about to expire and you view the epically long line at the BMV, you and your children will be ready. They will know waiting is a part of “the way things are.”
Like a pencil in a backpack, your children will bring the skill of waiting to school with them. It will extend their ability to focus. And they will bring their best selves to academic problems since they won’t need constant entertainment to remain stimulated. If we offer children the chance to wait, the space to focus and think for themselves, we offer them the chance to develop a critical tool for success. They will be prepared to be thoughtful and contributing individuals.
Rowe, M.B. (1986). Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education. Sage Publications: 37; 43.
To be really great in little things, to be truly noble and heroic in the insipid details of everyday life, is a virtue so rare as to be worthy of canonization.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe
This Mother’s Day, I wanted to write about the little gifts that my Mother has given me throughout my lifetime. They added up to a major contribution. My Mother has always been a very spiritual person. She briefly went into the convent after high school and found it was not the life she wanted to live. So following college, she volunteered as a Catholic missionary in British Honduras teaching English to children. And after she married my Dad (He was fresh out of the Jesuit seminary.), she continued to explore her spirituality and question her beliefs. She taught art and then English for forty years in Catholic schools in Cincinnati, Ohio. And she raised me, her only child.
She has a particular devotion to a saint named St. Teresa of Lisieux who was known as “the Little Flower.” St. Teresa, in her short life of 24 years, devoted and wrote about her commitment to the little things in life. She desired grand acts of contribution and dreamed of becoming a missionary but had a small life lived in a cloistered convent. And so she resolved to do acts of kindness and care every single day in ways that oftentimes went unnoticed. She was a role model for my Mom. And I know my Mom emulated her “little way.”
Like a scene from Snow White, ailing birds, squirrels, chipmunks, cats and bunnies would show up on our doorstep and wait for my Mom. Word must have spread around the backyard animal community. She would care for those animals like they were her own children. And our small, urban backyard might have been a garden in the Cotswolds (and still is) with every kind of rose and flower. People rarely get to see it. And when asked, she will share it but does not show it off.
When I was a kid, my Mom regularly took soup or a magazine to our house bound elderly neighbor. Or she would just knock on the door, sit with her and ask her to tell stories of her youth. My Mom always brought me along and I watched and I wondered and I learned.
Mainly because my parents had very little money when I was a young child, my Mom made all of my clothes by hand. She took great care with every article. I always felt I had plenty and looked pretty for occasions because she stayed up late at night sewing dresses and other clothing for me.
Each daily meal and every holiday celebration was planned and carried out with the same level of care and attention to detail. Now, in her retirement, she finds many “little” ways to contribute. She takes food to her friend who is battling cancer and listens to her stories. She does all of the household chores, shopping and cooking so that my Dad, a writer, can work on his projects without interruption. And she uses her considerable writing and editing talent to edit my blog every week.
She has personally come to my rescue in little and major ways my whole life. Whenever a breakdown occurs, she’s there either physically or on the phone to provide emotional support. She has a near psychic level of empathy and can predict when I am going to need her, which is often. And it is my great joy to watch her share the little way with her grandchild, my son. She whispers secrets in his ear, reads him stories quietly, gifts him with donations in his name to those who need it most and he takes it all in.
As a high school English teacher at an all boy’s school, she was simply known as the best. She had a reputation for being incredibly tough but also deeply caring. I know from hanging out after school with her that she took extra time with any and every student who needed support. She sat down with each one – one on one – and offered direct feedback and counsel. She asked good questions and listened well to personal and academic challenges. She got involved in any issue when a student asked for help. She demonstrated her utter conviction that every student could learn and achieve. And with her support and confidence, they did. Students demonstrated dramatic improvement over the course of a year with her because she put so much time and focus into making sure that each person was successful. One student wrote this about her on the occasion of her retirement,
Mrs. Smith was my English teacher during my junior year, and certainly, she taught me much about style and tone, as well as the correct usage of parenthetical expressions and the accurate citation of scholarly articles. Yet, she taught me something of far greater value. Mrs. Smith revealed to me the importance of expressing my own personality, an entity that I had previously stifled. She liberated me from the figurative chains that were holding me down, not only in my writing, but also in my viewpoints and my behaviors. While it is true that Mrs. Smith was my English teacher, she was to a greater degree my mentor, my counselor, and my friend.
In planning my parent’s retirement party, there were many similar letters written and comments made.
Two significant researchers on school reform, Hall and Hord, have written, “When change is successful, it is the quality of the little things that makes the final difference.”1 This statement has always held great power for me and now that I reflect on the lessons my Mom taught me, I know why. How empowering to know that no matter my situation, the small, intentional acts of my life make a difference. I think of Rosa Parks and her small decision one day to refuse to sit at the back of the bus, to civilly disobey the social order and simultaneously change the world.
I learned so much from my Mom but perhaps the most important thing I learned was this – to express love through every small action no matter how mundane. She taught me we all have a multiple opportunities in a day to show care, contribution and respect for life.
Thank you, Mom. I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.
1 Hall, G.E., Hord, S.M. (2001). Implementing change; Patterns, principles, and potholes. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Happy Teacher Appreciation Day! Parents and teachers included, we thank you sincerely for helping us become better than we even knew we could be. Since both of my parents are teachers, I thought I would share some quotes from their students in celebration of all teachers today. We are better because of you!
“You helped me strive to the best of my abilities.”
“This was probably the hardest year of English that I have ever taken but it was also the most beneficial for me.”
“I learned so much from you and it carried through my career.”
“I have just realized how much of a difference, for the better, you made to me.”
“I realized this is a person whose advice I should heed.”
“You made me want to write well, and because of you, I think I do. I now hope to be a writer for a living.”
“You taught me about life.”
There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what may be. Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.
- Robert Henri1
All individuals are inherently creative. But we typically reserve the title of “Artist” as a sacred one for which only specially anointed individuals are worthy. However, our humanness makes us all creative. My son, E, has no interest in initiating drawing on his own. Although when there is drawing time at school and all of the other children are involved, he will create fascinating pictures that give me insights into his thoughts and feelings.
This week his teacher asked each student to do a sketch. His depiction of “what I did over spring break” was a picture of the Earth as viewed from the moon with our family faces in orbit. We had gone to the Neil Armstrong Space Museum and out of the many other activities of the past week, that is what he chose to draw. He often brings home drawings and we discuss what they mean to him. He proudly displays them on our refrigerator and becomes an “Artist” each time.
Art for the purpose of the expression of feelings has been a central theme for centuries. The famous painter, Rothko (1903-1970) created simple rectangles of color with the expressed purpose of evoking raw emotion in the viewer. Art is also used to tell stories and define cultural experiences. Picasso painted Guernica, perhaps his most well-known, as an anti-war reaction to the Nazi bombing during the Spanish Civil War. And art has been used effectively to heal. Art therapy has been promoted healing since the 1940s. There is research to suggest that art therapy has had a healing influence on cancer patients and children with asthma.2 “Art making may reduce anxiety and stress reactions…”3
Not only can the arts heal but they can also connect us to one another as we get to know the deeper parts of who we are. In our busy family lives, connecting on an intimate level can become difficult as we attend to the obligations of day to day life. But art can be used as a tool for bringing families together, building self-awareness and self-confidence, dealing with intense emotions, exploring perceptions of the world or even envisioning the future.
Remember when you engage in creative activities together, there are no faults, only expression. And in fact, what we might judge as imperfections add only to the uniqueness of the work. Famous artists such as Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt struggled with cataracts and may have viewed the world quite literally through an Impressionist and later, Expressionist haze.4 Ideally, work only on your own piece unless you are creating a collaboration. Though tempting, try not to comment. Even positive comments can change artistic focus, intentions and outcomes. Do focus on the joy of the process itself. And use the outcomes, the end products, as representations of your time working together. Try out one of the following art experiences with your family and see if it might help you connect on a deeper level.
1. Create a hopes and dreams vision board. Put to use that stack of magazines that may collect in your house as they do in mine. Lay out scissors, glue sticks and a poster board. Label the poster “Our Family Dreams” and start cutting and pasting. Do you want to travel to Tahiti? Climb a mountain? Sail on a yacht? Write a poem? Skateboard? You can create your poster in an evening together or leave it out on a table to contribute to over the course of a week. See how it builds and develops over time. Then hang it on a pantry door or bulletin board so that your family can refer to it and talk about how to make your hopes and dreams come true.
2. Create family portraits. For young children, create a full body self-portrait. Have them lay down on a long sheet of paper and trace them with a crayon or marker. Then have the family write qualities or aspects of the person they love. We tried this as a family last night and even the teddy bear and best bunny friend had a full body portrait made. For older
children, I like to use colorful construction paper and cut and paste shapes to make a portrait. But you can also simply use crayons or markers. Put out supplies after a pizza night dinner. After self-portraits are made, pass them around to each other. Write your favorite qualities you see in that person on the border. “Kind,” “funny,” and “generous” are some examples. If you like them, frame them in place of photographs and create an interesting conversation piece for visitors!
3. Identify feelings. Draw together with your child to express emotions. Sometimes children will be able to express more about what and how they are feeling through drawings rather than words. Allow them their own expressions. Keep your drawings on your own paper and about your own topics of exploration. You might say, “Let’s draw pictures about what we are feeling today” and see what your child creates.
4. Express upset or hurt. If your child is hurt, sad or even angry, giving her paper and crayons can be a way for her to express her emotions. We keep crayons and paper at the ready in E’s calm down safe space just for that purpose. If your child is not taking initiative, model it by expressing your own upset feelings through drawing. Maybe your child would do better with something more tactile like sculpting with clay? Try out various mediums and see what works best for your child. You may want to ask if she wants to keep the drawing as a reminder of how she felt. Or you may offer that she ceremonially rip it up and stick it in the recycle bin as a symbol of letting go of the emotions she has expressed.
5. Codify your family Identity. Create a crest or symbol that represents your family. Incorporate things you love to do together or pictures of yourself, your pets and your friends. What symbols represent who you are and what you love as a family?
Let your inner artist out and involve your family to reap the benefits.
* Special thanks to Linda Smith, my editor and a talented artist who has struggled with cataracts, for her research and knowledge of art history.
1 Henri, R. (1923). The Art Spirit. NY: J.B. Lippincott Company.
2 Beebe A, Gelfand, EW, & Bender B. (2010). A randomized trial to test the effectiveness of art therapy for children with asthma. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 126(2):263-6, 266.e1.
3 Walsh et. al. (2007). A Pilot Study to Test the Effects of Art-making Classes for Family Caregivers of Patients with Cancer. Oncology Nursing Forum. 34, 1.
4 Gugliotta, G. (2007). Simulations of Ailing Artists’ Eyes Yield New Insights on Style. The New York Times. Dec. 4.
Art with Heart - a Seattle, WA based nonprofit organization promoting healing and child well-being through art therapy.
Barber, V. (2002). Explore Yourself through Art. NY: The Penguin Group.
Cameron, J. (2013). The Artist’s Way for Parents. Raising Creative Children. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher Books.
Malchiodi, C. (2013). Yes, Virginia, There is Some Art Therapy Research. Psychology Today; The Healing Arts, February 27.
Soule, A. B. (2008). The Creative Family. KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: Trumpeter Books.
Oh Magic Timer
I love you so
I set you,
And tick, tick, ding
It’s time to go.
The “magic timer” is a perfect tool for taking the negotiation out of daily transitions. It can provide a sense of discipline for an adult or child. And it can promote the comfort of a limited time frame for an activity. We use a kitchen timer, one minute sand timer or a smart phone alarm.
What are the many uses for this simple machine?
1. To move from play to another task. Instead of giving the five minute warning (which before first grade doesn’t hold much meaning), set your magic timer. “When the bell rings, we need to clean up and go.” The timer says so. Get into the habit and move smoothly through your transitions without arguing or negotiating.
2. To focus adult attention. Are your children indicating they need your attention? “Will you play with me, Momma?” my son asks every day he is home from school. And, I stop, full wash basket weighing down my arms while the phone rings and say, “Yes, in just a minute.” If I do make time for play, I can be distracted by my long to-do list. If I don’t get to engage in play, then my guilt reflex rears it’s ugly head. If I set the timer for fifteen minutes, I can settle down on the floor to play knowing that I can focus my attention on him fully for fifteen minutes, because I have chosen to. And when the timer goes off, I am on to my next task.
Conversely, you may be yearning for a moment to read a magazine article that looks so compelling. Set a reasonable amount of time. You know how long your child can go playing on her own. Stretch it a few minutes longer so you offer her some practice in self-control. But not too long that you frustrate her. “Mommy is setting the timer for fifteen minutes while I read this article that is important to me. When I am finished, I’ll come play.”
3. To share attention between siblings. Do you have siblings fighting for your attention? Maybe you do not notice until you get one alone and the noise seems to calm considerably. Sometimes siblings escalate their noise and energy level in order to gain the coveted attention of a parent. If you hear or feel the escalation, flip a coin to determine who goes first and set a timer for focused attention on one letting the other know that they are next. “If you let me fully focus on Ginny, then when it’s your turn Ginny will let me pay attention to you!”
4. To change the pace. Does it sometimes seem that when you need to go quickly, your children turn into snails? But when you are needing a slower pace, they speed up the tempo? The magic timer can slow your child down as she brushes her teeth for two whole minutes as recommended. We use the one minute sand timer and keep it by our toothpaste. It can also help your child beat his own time as he finishes his sometimes slow and arduous nightly math problems for homework.
6. To be right on time. Whenever our family travels, even if it’s a short overnight road trip to Grammy’s, stress is in the air as we try to pack and leave. The timer can assist all members of the family in getting ready on time. Set it several times for packing bags, loading the car, last minute bathroom breaks and snacks, and finally leaving. If all family members know their roles and responsibilities in getting ready (children can pack some of their own bags with some guidance), make it an enjoyable challenge as you each scurry to fulfill your own responsibilities in preparing.
Certainly this is not a problem solver for every situation. But as with any tool, it can become invaluable with particular challenges. Try this one out and see if it works for you.
Every spring is the only spring – a perpetual astonishment.
- Ellis Peters
The birds chirp outside of my window building nests and resting on the newly budded branches surrounding my office. As spring reveals new growth, we watch our children grow and develop, their transformations at times readily apparent and rapid. At a family gathering last weekend, we reconnected with people we haven’t seen in a few months and they noted all of the physical changes of our son. “He’s getting so big!” And there are internal changes occurring as well. How he perceives the world, his awareness and understanding of people and the environment is substantially different in his young life from year to year. Children are constantly forming their sense of identity but they also go through particular developmental periods in which they are experimenting and particularly sensitive to descriptors of themselves and how the world perceives them. They are attempting to answer the questions “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in the world?”.
We, as parents, are also evolving our own sense of identity. I didn’t understand before I took my wedding vows what could possibly be so challenging about marriage, though there seemed to be a consensus that it was difficult for everyone. I recall being told, “You change who you are over and over and the person you are with changes too.” I now deeply understand this reality. We continue to learn and develop as individuals and our own identity changes over time.
Mark Nepo, a poet and philosopher, compares this birth or re-birth of identity to a baby chick being born. It’s a harrowing experience for the chick in the egg who may perceive that she is going to die. The nourishment of the egg goes away as she outgrows it’s use. She begins to eat her shell in need of food. She emerges from darkness into a whole new reality.
Transformation always involves the falling away of things we have relied on, and we are left with a feeling that the world as we know it is coming to an end, because it is. Yet the chick offers us the wisdom that the way to be born while still alive is to eat our own shell.1
This reflection is a metaphor for understanding how our past identity is always a part of who we are as we embrace new versions of who we are becoming. As parents, we look for ways to support our children in understanding who they are and who they can become. How do we know when our children are working on a developmental milestone and how can we be supportive?
The author of Yardsticks,2 Chip Wood, synthesizes child development theories for educators according to predictable patterns. He writes that there are four key principles to understanding child development. They are
As we work to understand how we can support our children’s emerging sense of self, we can become more sensitive to our own developmental path. For example, my external changes in career moving from a focus on schools and education to a focus on parents required inner work and a reforming of my identity. Because I want to integrate my focus on becoming the best parent I can be and my work to support others, I have been undergoing my own transformational path examining old perceptions, patterns from my own childhood, beliefs about myself and my purpose and how that relates to my relationship with my family. Like the common metaphor of a caterpillar in the chrysalis who must turn to “goo” before emerging as a butterfly, my own conceptions of who I am becoming are, at times, uncertain. I use this experience to become more empathetic as I watch my son go through his own set of challenges.
The following are some ideas for supporting the birth and rebirth of identity in family life. They can apply to all family members.
Heighten your awareness when development has sped up and changes are taking place. Development is messy. It comes in fits and starts and is not perfectly linear. The duration of a developmental change is unpredictable. During the time of “goo” as a person is letting go of the old and beginning to formulate the new, individuals are likely more emotional and may act out of character trying on new aspects of who they are becoming. Don’t be quick to judge.
1. Understand regression is likely. In other words, you may see behaviors arise that are
from a previous stage. Tantrums? There is no going backward with development but
realize that who a child was is always a part of who they are becoming. They may revert
to old behaviors for comfort in the sometimes difficult but necessary act of letting go
of the past.
2. Acknowledge that this is a period of trial and error. Children and adults for that matter
may try on new identities for size and see how they fit. They can be particularly sensitive to any feedback you give during this time period. If you do give feedback, positive or
negative, focus on the behavior. Help your child understand that there is always a
chance to make a next positive decision.
3. Recognize that it is a highly emotional time. Erik Erikson, an important developmental
theorist wrote that during a developmental change, there is “a crucial period of increased
vulnerability and heightened potential.”3 Be aware that individuals who are going
through developmental changes can be highly emotional because of the inner journey that is taking place. They may feel that there is a death they are coping with without the
external supports, recognition or rituals. There can be fear of the unknown person they are becoming. Your awareness of heightened emotions can help you be more supportive and calm during the process.
4. Learn more about development. Read about the developmental milestones of a
typical seven year old for example. Check out Yardsticks for easy to read and use lists
of development milestones for ages 4-14. If you or your spouse are undergoing
significant shifts in your thinking, learn about adult development. Check out The Adult
Years by Frederick Hudson for more.4
Actions speak louder. Children, particularly under the age of 12, learn through “identification,” as Erikson terms it.5 They are constantly looking to identify with the adults around them by adopting their traits and behaviors. Yet another important developmental theorist, Lev Vygotsky, wrote that our understanding of our selves and our emotions begins in other people and is then internalized by the child.6 All of this points to children’s natural ability to learn through modeling.
In Raising a Moral Child,7 the author cites a study with 140 elementary and middle school students in which children were given tokens for winning a game that they could keep or donate to children in poverty. When the teacher told them to give but did not do it himself, children were more likely to keep the token. When the teacher spoke and donated his own money, children gave initially but over time there was no impact on future decisions. However when the teacher did not talk about giving but simply gave all of his own money, the children not only gave but the experience influenced future choices about giving as well.8 What kinds of behaviors would you be proud to witness in your child? How can you model those behaviors?
Express your disappointment and confidence. When children misbehave, express your disappointment AND your confidence in their ability to make things better. “I am disappointed that you took Michael’s toy away from him. I know you are a kind person and want to make things better. How do you think you might make things better? What about going back and offering him a toy or apologizing to him?”
Confident parents and confident kids are ever evolving. In fact, confidence comes from the knowledge that we are always learning and developing to become more of who we are. If we understand and value the learning process, it can allow us greater patience with ourselves and our children.
1 Nepo, Mark (2000). The Book of Awakening; Having the Life You Want to Have by Being Present to the Life You Have. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.
Grant, Adam (2014). Raising a Moral Child. The New York Times. Apr. 11.
2 Wood, Chip (2007). Yardsticks; Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14 (3rd. Edition). Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.
3 Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.
4 Hudson, Frederick M. (1999). The Adult Years; Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal (Revised Edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
5 Sokol, Justin T. (2009). “Identity Development Throughout the Lifetime: An Examination of Ericksonian Theory,” Graduate Journal of Counseling Psychology: Vol. 1: Iss. 2, Article 14.
6 Vygotsky, Lev S. (28 August, 1986). Thought and Language, Revised Edition.
7 Grant, Adam. (2014). Raising a Moral Child. The New York Times. Apr. 11.
8 Rushton, J. Philippe (Mar 1975). Generosity in Children: Immediate and Long-Term Effects of Modeling, Preaching, and Moral Judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 31(3), 459-466.
Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little
to find it.
- Tori Amos
When a parent gets sick, life goes on. Kids have to get up and get ready for school. Lunches must be packed. Homework has to get accomplished. It can be a real struggle for moms and dads to get through the day when they have come down with the flu. Harder still, parents go through major life transitions such as beginning a new job, losing a loved one or struggling with depression. And parenting goes on.
How can you deal with those times in a way that allows you to heal yourself and parent healthy children? And how can you avoid placing more burdens on your children than they can reasonably handle? There seems a fine line between asking your children for help and giving them adult responsibilities for which they are not ready.
While I was sick over the past couple of weeks, I reflected on this topic and how I might channel the little energy I had in the direction of healing and being a responsive parent without doing more than I could handle. “I’ll help you feel better,” said E. However, he grew moodier and at times, angry. Children often become angry, upset and worried when a primary caregiver is sick. Their own sense of safety and stability is shaken. They wonder, “Is she going to be able to take care of me and my needs?” and “Is this going to go on forever?” Children are acutely aware that their very survival depends upon their parents despite their desires for independence. Parents who are obviously stressed and struggling threaten their sense of security. So in addition to dealing with your own problems and lack of energy, you also are likely to encounter a child who is not at his or her best.
Here are some thoughts about what you might do in these circumstances.
Ask for understanding.
Communicate with all family members what you are able to give and what you are unable to give. Set clear expectations so that they know in advance what you are unable to do. For most of us, this is incredibly challenging since it feels like admitting a weakness. However, it is a strength to be self-aware and understand your limitations. Communicating with them will allow your family members to support you in the ways that are needed. Model this for your children and they will learn how to become more self-aware and ask for help when it’s necessary.
Acknowledge that the problem is time-limited.
Children often feel as if the current situation will last forever. It helps to assure them that temporary adjustments need to be made while you are recovering.
Arrange for adult supports.
Ask for help from other adults around you. This too can be a real challenge. However, asking your child for emotional or physical support for which they are too young crosses a critical boundary line and can create tremendous anxiety for a child and in turn, you. Create mutually supportive adult relationships and look for chances to help friends and family when they are sick or in a crisis. In addition to the help of my partner, I am so fortunate to have a close friend who when I say I’m sick, brings over all the supplies necessary for healing. We all can have those relationships if we are the first to give and reach out when others are in crisis. Reach out to others and they will likely be at the ready to support you when you most need it.
Stick by your child’s routine.
Being consistent with your daily routines will provide a greater sense of security for your child. They will still likely feel uneasy that you are not doing well. However they will relish in the comfort of your typical routines.
Understand and empathize with your child’s emotions.
Realize that your child is likely to become angrier, needier, sadder and generally more upset when you are sick or stressed. If you meet their anger with anger, it will only escalate the problem. Instead, engage them with the understanding that all family members need to be gentle with one another and forgiving as one member attempts to heal.
Release yourself from extraneous commitments.
During the normal course of the week, we likely have enough commitments to fill our calendars with little time to spare. Ask for understanding from those commitments and minimize what you are responsible for so that you can focus on healing. Gain time later as you invest now in your health.
Set clear, non-negotiable emotional boundaries.
If your burdens are partially emotional, be certain that you are only sharing them with appropriate adults in your life. Your children are unable to shoulder your emotional problems though they will try because they love you. Don’t put them in that position. When you are tempted to talk with them about your troubles, remember that there is a critical boundary line. You remain the adult to allow them their childhood. The book Chained to the Desk; A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners, and Children and the Clinicians Who Treat Them1 talks about the adult consequences of parents who required children to share in their emotional challenges. For those individuals, it can be a life-long struggle of never measuring up, high anxiety in trying to serve others’ needs and not being able to ask for support or help. Allow your partners, friends or a counselor to provide that adult support to ensure you are getting your needs met and are not tempted to unload your worries on your child.
If it’s a life transition you are facing, raise your awareness of what you can expect emotionally. The book, Transition; Making Sense of Life’s Changes2 by William Bridges explains that in each transition (whether it’s perceived socially as positive like the birth of a child or negative like being fired from a job), there is a death which requires letting go (and the sadness that goes with it). There is a state of limbo, an in-between period in which, like the caterpillar in the chrysalis that turns to “goo,” one must release the past and embrace the unknown of the present and future. And finally, the birth of the next phase of who you are becoming. Each phase of a transition produces a bundle of emotions. Raising your awareness about what you can expect will help you deal with them and allow you greater self-compassion.
This can be our most difficult task as we strive to be the parents we most want to be. Investing in your own self-care including forgiving yourself for not being the best version of you while you are undergoing health or transition issues can serve you and all those around you. Often times ironically, the stress and pressure of sickness can add to your anxiety and impede your ability to heal. Kristin Neff, leading researcher on self-compassion, defines it in three ways. She writes that self-compassion involves
…being kind and understanding to oneself in instances of suffering or perceived inadequacy. It also involves a sense of common humanity, recognizing that pain and failure are unavoidable aspects of the shared human experience. Finally, self-compassion entails balanced awareness of one’s emotions—the ability to face (rather than avoid) painful thoughts and feelings, but without exaggeration, drama or self-pity.3
Her research supports the theory that mental health and a healthy self-concept are dependent on self-compassion.
All of these recommendations are easier said than done. However, as I strive to become the best version of myself through continued learning, I strive for my own optimal mental health in order to raise a confident kid. I wish for you gentleness and healing as you do the same.
1 Robinson, B.E. (1998). Chained to the Desk; A Guidebook for Workaholics, their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians who Treat Them. (3rd Ed.) NY: New York University Press.
2 Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions; Making Sense of Life’s Changes. (2nd Ed.) Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
3 Neff, K.D., Rude, S.S., & Kirkpatrick, K.L. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality. 41 (2007) 908–916.