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being in the moment

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Parenting is transformative. Few experiences are as transformative as parenting. At its core, parenting is about transformation. One of our most important jobs as parents is to witness and influence the evolution of our children from wrinkly newborns with raw nervous systems into integrated, whole humans who know who they are and how to be in the world. And parenting obviously transforms us as well. There are smaller transformations—we learn to do most things “one-handed” while carrying a baby on our hip; we begin to eat at McDonalds; we memorize the names of dinosaurs; we learn to play video games again; we even buy a mini-van (which for some is a bigger transformation than for others). And there are huge, life-changing transformations—we adjust our priorities; we make sacrifices that cost us greatly; we learn to live with worrying and “what ifs”; we forever expand our hearts.

Along the way, we become more creative than we ever knew possible. I’m not talking about the creativity of artists, song-writers, or novelists. I’m talking about the creativity that’s required for survival for anyone caring for children. I knew I’d been forever transformed by my role as a parent when, in my attempt to get through to my non-compliant little streakers, creativity sprung forth from desperation and I made up a song with a chorus that began, “No naked butts on the furniture.” (Unfortunately, it was so catchy that one day I actually found myself singing it in the car by myself. As I said, parenting changes us.)

What’s more, transformation isn’t limited to people. We can also use our creativity to transform moments, so that the situations and circumstances we face can change into something else. Moments can be transformed for the worse, like when our downstairs brain shifts into overdrive and a sweet, bedtime cuddle turns into a fierce battle, complete with crying, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for all involved.   But likewise, we can transform moments for the good of ourselves and our children, so that an ordinary, everyday parenting challenge is converted into an opportunity for growth, connection, and relationship. And to do this, it almost always requires creativity.

Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.

Challenge transformed into opportunity.

For example, while eating at one of our favorite Mexican food restaurants, I noticed that my four-year-old had left the table and was standing behind a pillar about ten feet away. As much as I love him, and as adorable as he is most of the time, when I saw his angry, defiant face coupled with his repeated tongue-thrusting aimed at our table, “adorable” wasn’t the word that came to my mind. A few diners at surrounding tables noticed and looked at my husband and me to see how we were going to handle the situation. In that moment, Scott and I felt the pressure and judgment of those watching and expecting us to lay down the law about manners at a restaurant.

There are many ways to respond in moments like these. But in this moment, two choices popped into my mind as I walked over and crouched down eye-level with my son. Option #1: I could go the traditional “Command and Demand” route and open with a clichéd threat uttered in a stern tone: “Stop making faces. Go sit down and eat your lunch or you won’t get any dessert.”

Knowing my little guy, this verbal and non-verbal confrontation would have triggered all kinds of reactive emotions in his downstairs brain—the part scientists call the reptilian brain—and he would have fought back like a reptile under attack.  The situation would just escalate with this approach.

Or, Option #2: I could tap into his upstairs brain in an effort to get more of a thinking—as opposed to a fighting/reacting—response.

Now, I make plenty of mistakes as I parent my boys (as they’ll freely tell you). But just the day before, I had given a lecture to a group of parents about the upstairs and downstairs brain, and about using everyday challenges—the survival moments—as opportunities to help our kids thrive. So, luckily for my son, all of that was fresh in my mind. I went with Option #2.

I started with an observation: “You look like you feel angry. Is that right?” (Remember, always connect before you redirect.) He scrunched up his face in ferocity, stuck out his tongue again, and loudly proclaimed, “YES!” I was actually relieved that he stopped there; it wouldn’t have been at all unlike him to add his latest favorite insult and call me “Fart-face Jones.” (I swear I don’t know where they learn this stuff.)

I asked him what he felt angry about and discovered that he was furious that Scott had told him he needed to eat at least half of his quesadilla before he could have dessert. I explained that I could see why that would be disappointing, and I said, “Well, Daddy’s really good at negotiating. Decide what you think would be a fair amount to eat, and then go talk to him about it. Let me know if you need help coming up with your plan.” I tousled his hair, returned to the table, and watched his once-again adorable face show evidence of doing some hard thinking. His upstairs brain was definitely engaged. In fact, it was at war with his downstairs brain. So far we had avoided a blow-up, but it still felt like a dangerous fuse might be burning within him.

Within fifteen seconds or so, my son returned and approached Scott with an angry tone of voice: “Dad, I don’t want to eat half of my quesadilla. AND I want dessert.” Scott’s response perfectly dovetailed with my own: “Well, what do you think would be a fair amount?”

The answer came with slow, firm resolve: “I’ve got one word for you: Ten bites.”

What makes this un-mathematical response even funnier is that ten bites meant that he would eat well over half the quesadilla. So Scott accepted the counter-offer, my son happily gobbled down ten bites and then his dessert, and the whole family (as well as the restaurant’s other patrons) got to enjoy our meals with no further incidents. My son’s downstairs brain never fully took over, which, lucky for us, meant that his upstairs brain had won the day.

Again, Option #1 would have not only escalated things, but it also would have missed an opportunity. My son would have missed a chance to see that relationships are about connection, communication, and compromise. He would have missed a chance to feel empowered that he can make choices, affect his environment, and solve problems. In short, he would have missed an opportunity to exercise and develop his upstairs brain.

And I hasten to point out that even though I chose Option #2, Scott and I still wanted to address his behavior. Once our son was more in control of himself, and could actually be receptive to what we had to say, we discussed the importance of being respectful and using good manners in a restaurant, even when he’s unhappy.

Challenge met, opportunity seized, moment transformed. (This time, at least.)

It’s all about watching for the opportunities.

As parents, we look for all kinds of ways to teach our children, to nurture their development. And it’s great to take them to the museum, to piano lessons, to the observatory, to a baseball game. But we also want to pay attention to the rich, minute-by-minute opportunities we’re given, and creatively transform these moments as well. What this requires—and there are plenty of times when I’m not very good at doing it—is that we take ourselves off of auto-pilot and look at each moment with fresh eyes. And though it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, when we can step back and achieve a certain amount of critical distance from the situation at hand, that’s when we can begin to transform moments. And really, that’s just about the most we can hope for as parents. We can work hard to remain watchful for moments—hundreds of moments, large and small, throughout the day—and transform them, and allow them to transform us and our kids as well.

 

What Kids Need Most: You Being Present With Them

Here’s my response to all the parents out there who worry that they’re not doing all the “right things” with their kids. [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQ6SPIW64w4[/youtube]

Eight Things You Say Without Talking

Most parents are mindful about their words. But our nonverbals also speak volumes to our kids.

In fact, we’re communicating all the time, often without even thinking about it.  Consider the last time you were with your kids at a piano recital, or a religious service.  You know, one where they really had to stay quiet.  When the squirming began, you might have been able to give a look or a touch that said, “This event is very important to me, and I need you to sit still, but I love having you here with me. It won’t be too much longer.” 

Or, you might have pulled out a completely different look, one that was offered with eyebrows raised as high as possible, and kind of means the opposite of “I love having you here with me.”

Your child’s whole day can turn on something you’re not even cognizant of, something that’s not even said. Something as simple as your smile—or your touch—can soothe a disappointment and strengthen your bond.   Or your nonverbals can do just the opposite.

I'm not saying there won't be times when you'll get completely exasperated with your kids.  Or that they won't misread something you're communicating and get upset.  Mistakes will be made on both sides of the relationship, of course.  But we can still be intentional about the messages that we're sending.

Here are four things you do not want—and four more that you do want—to be saying to your kids, even when you don’t utter a word.

Nonverbal Messages You DON’T Want to Send:

A deep, huffy sigh = exasperation

The message: You wear me out. I can’t stand you right now, and I blame you for making things so hard on me.

A clenched jaw or gritted teeth = fury. 

The message: I am furious with you and could explode at any moment. I’m unpredictable right now. Be afraid, very afraid. I’m not really in control of myself, and this is how people act when they are really mad.

Frantic rushing around = stress. 

The message: Don’t talk to me right now—and if you do, make it quick. I’m fragile at this moment, so if you stress me out any further, I might lose it. You better walk on eggshells and not make my life any harder.

Aggressive body posture = anger. 

The message:  You better do what I say—and now! I don’t care how you feel or what the circumstances are. I’m going to fight until I win, and I’ll continue to escalate and become more aggressive until I do. Power, control, and aggression are how I get what I want here.

 

Nonverbal Messages You Do Want to Send:

A big ol’ squinty-eyed smile = delight

The message: I think you are fantastic, and you fill me with joy. You bring fullness and wonder into my world and I love being with you.

An authentic belly laugh = appreciation. 

The message: You are funny and clever, and I enjoy you. I want to join with you in how you see things. You have my attention and I’m having fun with you.

A locked-in, responsive look = empathy/compassion.

The message: What you’re sharing with me right now is crucial—more important than anything going on around us, more important even than anything I could be saying right now. I hear that you’re really upset, and all I want to do at this moment is listen to you and be present—so I can comfort you the best I can.

A loving touch = support/camaraderie.

The message: I know you face a big day at school with challenges I’m not always aware of, but this little shoulder massage while you eat your Lucky Charms says that I’ll be thinking of you, missing you, and eager to see you again this afternoon. And this Family-Movie-Night foot rub while we watch Monsters Inc.—for the sixth time—says that although I won’t always I have just the right words to say, I will always be here for you.

 

This article originally appeared on mom.me.  

 

 

Present-Tense Parenting

You know one mistake I make as a mom?  I forget to live in the present moment with my kids.  I worry about what’s coming in the future, or I obsess about something from the past.  When I do this, I miss what they are really needing, what they are really communicating, and what is really happening.

Does that ever happen to you? 

When we practice fearful-future parenting or past-preoccupation parenting, we can’t practice present-tense parenting.  We don’t give our kids our best, and we often miss what they really need from us.  When we’re not parenting in the present tense, we end up thinking in rigid ways, like this:

 

Oh no!  My six-year-old is still in pull-ups at night!  What if he never gains control of his bladder?
This is future-tense parenting, and it can cause a lot of unnecessary suffering.  It’s normal to worry about the future—I can identify with that—but the problem is that you’re letting fear get the better of you.  Your son will be able to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, just as he learned to feed and dress himself.  I promise. (Unless something very unusual is going on, he won’t be in pull-ups when you send him off to college.)

When my nine-year-old was sick last week I let her stay home from school and watch movies.  Now she’s sick again. I’ve set up a bad pattern, so I’d better make today less fun.
This is past-tense parenting, and it’s also destructive.  There may be times that you see a genuine pattern that needs to be addressed.  If so, then by all means address it.  But don’t let one event in the past so overshadow what’s happening right now that you end up failing to nurture your daughter when she really needs it.

My mother-in-law says I should let my newborn “cry it out” when he wakes at night.  I don’t want him to develop bad sleep habits, so if I don’t nip it in the bid right now, he’ll be a bad sleeper his whole childhood.
Again, fear-based, future-tense parenting.  Babies aren’t able to manipulate.  They cry to communicate when they need something.  Your job is to meet those needs, right now.  If you worry too much about the future, you’ll deprive your baby of what he needs in this moment:  a mom who will be there for him anytime he tells her that he needs to be fed or held.

My thirteen-year-old forgot to turn in her Spanish homework last week, and now she’s turned in her math homework late.  I’ve got to cancel her dance class, since she needs to spend more time being responsible!
Again, there really is something to be said for nipping a problem in the bud.  But be careful not to overreact to a situation based on limited information.  If your normally responsible middle-schooler makes one mistake, that shouldn’t cloud your judgment about her any time she messes up again. 

My ten-year-old picks on his little sister.  She’s crying now, so her brother must be upsetting her again.
Past-tense parenting.  Even if your son is usually the instigator when sibling conflict arises, that doesn’t mean he’s the culprit every time.  If you march into the room and look at him and say, “What did you do this time?!” before you have all the information, you’re going to risk alienating him and damaging the trust in your relationship.

My seven-year-old cries wolf all the time, pretending to be hurt or sick when she’s not.  I need to teach her that that’s not the way to get my attention.
This one is a tough one for most parents.  After all, you don’t want to reinforce a pattern that makes life harder for you, your daughter, and the whole family.  Still, I always say to err on the side of nurturing too much, rather than too little.  Kids often go through this attention-seeking phase because they have a need for your attention.  And just because you are there for your daughter and connect when she needs (or just asks for) comfort, doesn’t mean that she’s going to seek attention in this way all the time.  In fact, you can’t spoil children by giving them emotional connection.  The more your daughter feels your love and constant affection, she’ll be quicker to move through this phase, and she’ll do so knowing that you’re on her side and have her back.  All because you were able to parent in the present tense.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

Bedtime Battles? A Few Notes and a New Perspective

“Bedtime is not for the faint of anything.”

This phrase comes to me as I finally escape from tonight’s almost two-hour bedtime, which resulted in my 5-year-old getting to sleep an hour-and-a-half too late. 

As I emerge from the dark bedroom and squint my way into the brightly lit hallway, I decide I’d better take some mental notes to avoid having to endure the forever-long bedtime in the future.  The dos and don’ts flood my mind in no particular order.

Note #1:  When reading the last story of the night, don’t use an even moderately suspenseful voice—much less a raspy, old, witchy one.  Bring characters to life with only funny or regular voices.  Otherwise I may have to resort to butt jokes to lighten the mood.  Or, the extra bright nightlight comes on, which then leads to totally insuppressible desires to make the best shadow puppets ever.  One more, Mom!  You GOT to see this one. 

Note #2.  Save time for inevitable shadow puppets. 

Note #3.  Don’t make the butt jokes too funny.  That can lead to uncontrollable giggling that’s eventually transformed into giddy-crazy.

Note #4:  If he makes a big deal about it, just let him wear the stupid boxers to bed.  I can put a pull-up on his sweaty little body once he’s already asleep.  Sure, it’s like trying to put a too-small wetsuit on someone who’s just come out of the ocean, and the whole process is made more difficult when I have to do it while hunched over in the lower bunk, but it still makes things easier overall. 

Note #5.  Put “extra fresh” water in his cup next to his bed.  Do it while he’s brushing his teeth, just before I get to lie down for the first time all day.  That’s much easier than waiting until we’ve already gotten in bed, read, put on our shadow-puppet show, and turned out the light. 

Note #6.  Plan for much, much more time. 

Note #7.  Start much earlier in the evening. 

As I get to my seventh note, I realize I’m making something of a battle plan, like a general preparing for war.  I’m preparing, anticipating obstacles to avoid, and proactively planning for contingencies.

The battle strategies above won’t ensure success, but they make it more likely.  The battle is always won at some point.  He always falls asleep.  Eventually.  But the casualties in the process—lost sleep, future grumpiness, a relationship potentially damaged by a mother who yells “No!  I don’t want to smell your feet!” and so on—can sometimes be ugly.  Plus, even as I come up with new approaches, the enemy continues to evolve as well, becoming smarter and developing new stalling techniques.

And then I get it.  It’s the word “enemy,” as it pops into my mind, that does it.  Gives me pause.  Wakes me up and helps me see the error of my metaphor.

I remind myself that the bedtime “battles” are a thing of the past for my 8- and 11-year-olds, who look forward to reading, and who, despite an inevitable plea for “one more chapter” when we read together, go to sleep without a fight night after night. 

I remind myself that sleep is a process I can’t force on my littlest guy.  He really does control that.  I remind myself that sleep is a separation, and I understand why he wants to make bedtimes last as long as possible.  After all, for these minutes he has my full attention, and we’re a tangle of arms and legs and hugs and hands on faces. 

That doesn’t sound like a battle at all.  That sounds like we’re on the same side.  That sounds like something to look forward to and delight in and that I’ll miss terribly someday. 

I’m not naïve enough to say that future bedtimes won’t be difficult from time to time.  But I’ve come to the awareness that if I change my expectations and plan better and give us enough time on nights when it’s possible, then that means we both win.

 

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

Is It Really Just a Phase? Five reasons not to freak out

Your three-year-old won’t sit peacefully at the dinner table.  Your five-year-old won’t join in at parties.  Your nine-year-old is still asking to sleep with the light on 

People tell you, “It’s just a phase.”  But is it?

Yes.  Most likely, it is.  Whether we’re talking about sleep, eating, toilet training, homework meltdowns, or anything else, here are five reasons not to freak out about this particular phase in your child’s life.

 

  1. Your child’s brain and body are changing rapidly.
    So rapidly, in fact, that your little one will be practically a new kid in six months or so.  You’ll be amazed at how many of the things she can’t or won’t do now, she’ll be able to do then.  You’ll also wonder why you worried so much.
  2. Life keeps changing.
    Just when you think you have something figured out and you’re on top of your game, something changes. A tooth comes in. A cold comes on. You move. A sibling is born. Transitions and surprises keep us from ever really being in control.  Even human development isn’t predictable and linear; it’s more of a “two steps up, one step back” kind of thing. That means that even if you were able to figure out the “correct answer” for responding to this particular phase, things would turn upside down as soon as you solved the riddle anyway.
  3. You get lots and lots of opportunities.

Don't let fear rule you and lead you to expect things from your child that he’s not developmentally ready for yet. Just because he’s not falling asleep by himself at four, doesn’t mean he never will.  You will have lots of opportunities to help him develop this skill as he gets older. It's rarely too late to teach lessons or introduce skills, so do it at a time when it works best for you and your child. 

 

  1. Right now is all you have to worry about.

You don’t have to be concerned about what your child will be like at 15, or 20.  You really don’t.  So don’t give in to the temptation to worry that this phase will last forever.  Your daughter won’t be biting her friends when she leaves for college.  She won’t have a hard time sitting at a dinner table.  Think in smaller chunks of time. Think about semesters or seasons. Give your child a few months to work through this phase, and know that as long as you’re there loving her, guiding her and providing a consistent presence in her life, she’ll get through it and learn the skills she needs.

 

  1. The struggles are part of the process.
    Believe it or not, you’ll probably miss this phase at some point down the road. Think about how other phases that seemed unbearable passed rather quickly in retrospect. Dr. Berry Brazelton reminds us that as kids grow up, periods of disorganization often precede organization.  That means that kids often go through difficult phases right before they accomplish something new.  So think of the struggles as little bumps in the road on the path to amazing growth and development.

 

 

7 Ways to Deal With a Toddler's Tantrum

I have a new post up at mom.me.  It begins like this: ---------------- I recently wrote about why we should be grateful when our little ones throw a tantrum. But aside from understanding that a tantrum is normal and even healthy, what else can we do when we’re actually in this kind of high-stress moment with our kids? I don't believe parents should ignore a tantrum. When children are truly out of control, that’s when they need us the most. We still need to set clear boundaries, but our response should always be full of love, respect and patience.

Here are seven suggestions for dealing with a toddler’s tantrum:

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View the whole gallery here.

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this lofty goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.

It’s Not Just the What but the How . . .

What we say to our kids is important, right?  The words we choose play a big role as children construct their beliefs about themselves, establish a foundation for their values, and decide how they see the world.  What we say matters. That’s why we’re used to filtering what we say to or in front of our kids.  Sometimes we have an internal dialogue that might include phrases like, “You’re driving me crazy, kid!” or “Are you EVER going to stop crying?” or “I can’t wait until you go to sleep!”; but we know not to say these things out loud to our kids.  We’re also aware that we should avoid talking about inappropriate subjects in front of our kids, so we wait until they’re asleep before we tell our spouse about how our neighbor’s house was robbed or about the latest community scandal.

We pause and make a decision about what we say before we share things with our children. We do this because we know that what we say matters and has an impact on them.

But just as important as what we say is how we say it.  Imagine that your three-year-old isn’t getting into her carseat.  Here are a few different how’s for saying the exact same what:

  • With clenched teeth, squinted eyes and a seething tone of voice: “Get in your carseat.”
  • With eyes wide, big gestures, and an angry tone of voice, you yell: “GET IN YOUR CARSEAT!!!”
  • With a relaxed face and a warm tone of voice: “Get in your carseat.”
  • With a wacky facial expression and a goofy voice “Get in your carseat.”

You see what I mean.  The how matters.

And even the words we choose are part of how we communicate an idea.  For example, at bedtime you might use a threat:  “Get in bed now or you won’t get any stories.”  Or you could say, “If you get in bed now, we’ll have time to read.  But if you don’t get in bed right away, we’ll run out of time and have to skip reading.”  The message is the same, but how it’s said is very different.  It has a different feel.

Both ways model for them ways of talking to others.  Both ways are setting a boundary.  Both ways deliver the same message.  But imagine for a moment someone saying each to you.  Which one would you prefer to hear?  How would you respond differently to each?

Just like we pause and make a decision about what we say to our children, we should pause and make a decision about how we say things to them.

It’s the how that determines what our children feel about us and themselves, and what they learn about treating others.  Plus, the how goes a long way towards determining their response in the moment, and how successful we’ll be at helping produce an outcome that makes everyone happier.

 

 

 

 

Do You Discipline on Auto-Pilot?

When your child needs to be disciplined, how do you decide what to do?  Do you decide, or are you just going with what you always do?  Are you disciplining on auto-pilot?  Most of the time, when we need to discipline, the first question we ask ourselves is “What consequence should I give?”  Instead, I’d like to encourage you to begin asking three different questions: 1.     Why did my child act this way?  If we look deeper at what’s going on behind the behavior, we can often understand thatour child was trying to express or attempt something that they didn’t handle appropriately.   If we understand this, we can respond more compassionately, more proactively, and more appropriately.

2.     What’s the lesson I want to teach in this moment?  The goal of discipline isn’t to give a consequence.  The goal of discipline is actually to teach, but we forget this easily.

3.     What’s the most effective way to teach this lesson?  Answering this question may allow you to be more creative and effective in teaching the lesson, instead of just doing the same thing over and over.  In fact, answering this question may reveal that your current practices aren’t actually teaching the lesson you want to teach in the best way—or, it might make you feel great about what you’re doing.

Look with new eyes

Today, I want to challenge you to watch your children with new eyes. Look at them as the marvelous creations they are. You can even try to observe them as if you’ve never seen them before (I don’t mean ignoring them when they are screaming “MOMMY!” and you act like you don’t know who’s children they are.) I mean you see them as if you’ve never marveled at such amazing creatures. Even if they’re fighting today, you can observe with a “Hmmm. Isn’t that interesting? They’re so passionate. Look how they know how to stand up for themselves. Wow—they really can express themselves.”

Slow down and notice the things they’re paying attention to. See what delights them, frustrated them, and makes them silly. Watch how they’re clumsy hands try to do something. Observe how their grubby feet cross in the air behind them when they’re lying on their stomachs picking at a loop in the carpet. Stop and listen as they sing a made up song or talk to themselves when they don’t think anyone is listening. Just take it all in and marvel at the miracle they are—that you have had a huge part in developing. I know you’ll have a better day.

I did this yesterday with my kids and even after only having a 10 minute break from my 2-y-old in a 12 hour period; I thoroughly enjoyed him all day long. Even when he was difficult. I went to bed satisfied with the job I’m doing and with the privilege of getting to raise them. And I went to bed appreciating each of their unique wonder in a new way. Now if I can only do this a little bit each day, I will enjoy my job as parent and do a better job.