Viewing entries tagged
letting kids struggle

Parenting Time Machine: Imagine your children in the future, and how you got them there

Here's a little exercise that can help you think about what you want to prioritize as a parent. 

First, engage in some time travel.  Imagine yourself in the future, when your kids are grown.  (If you want, you can have it turn out that you don't look any older than you do now and that you’re driving a convertible sports car instead of a stinky minivan.)  From that vantage point, look back at the way you raised your children.  How will you feel about the parenting decisions you've made?  The experiences you've given your kids. 

For me personally, I'm constantly learning new things that make me say, "I wish I'd known that earlier."  I expect I'll probably write a book in the future about what the parenting expert wishes she’d done differently, given the perspective of time (and emerging research.) 

But if you were to ask me now to predict what I will one day say are the most important things my husband I did as parents that made the biggest difference in how well our three boys turned out—in my imagined future, it so happens that my kids are fantastic humans who have a very young-looking mother—here’s what I’d say. 

  1. We disciplined by using reflective dialogues and collaborative problem-solving, rather than punitive consequences.
    Actually, I wish we did more of this, but I truly believe that traditional punishment as a discipline technique is not only less kind and caring, but much less effective as well when it comes to changing behaviors and building character.  (Watch for my upcoming book, No-Drama Discipline, written with Dan Siegel and published by Random House, for a book-length discussion of this idea.) Nearly any discipline situation can be better handled by talking to our kids and at times even asking for their opinions on how to address a situation.  Firm boundaries and high expectations can be maintained while also using discipline moments to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving.
  2. We built secure relationships with them.
    Instead of simply "managing" our boys and getting them to their activities, we got to know them, and let them know us.  We all talked and laughed and argued together, deepening the connections between us all.  We consistently (not perfectly) responded quickly and predictably to their needs, and they had repeated experiences that wired their brains to know that they can trust in relationships.  And, we were tuned in to their emotional world—we focused on understanding and talking about the internal experience:  thoughts, feelings, wishes, regrets, motivations, etc.  Sensitive, emotionally attuned, predictable care leads to secure attachment.  Secure attachment is the single best predictor for children to thrive.  We weren't perfect parents, but we did build strong relationships with our kids.
  3. We sent them to sleepaway summer camp.
    Our boys happen to have gone to a magical place called Camp Chippewa in Northern Minnesota.  But summer camp in general is great for kids, in that it allows them to overcome difficult situations like homesickness.  Being away from parents and living in a cabin with other kids and mentors of all ages is transformative for many children.  The activities at camp are great; they have a blast learning to canoe and shoot a bow and pitch a tent, but it’s the skills, the mastery, and the frustration management that make it so good for their development.  The friendships they make, the traditions and rituals they learn, being in nature, and the independence they gain are fun, and they build resilience.  They learn a lot about themselves through this experience.
  4. We made our home a place their friends wanted to be.
    One of the best ways we got to know our kids was by watching them interact with their friends.  We also liked getting to influence the environment our boys and their peers grew up in. 
  5. We gave them other adults who cared about them.
    Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other close friends all became important people in the lives of our children.  They never wondered whether they were worth loving or being paid attention to, because there was always a crowd of people in their lives who were loving them and paying attention to them.
  6. We were present with them without rescuing all the time.
    Sure, there were plenty of times when we gave the distracted "uh-huh" while we heard about the latest Lego creation.  But we did our best to really be there with our boys.  To listen to them, to talk to them, to pay attention to what bothered them and what mattered to them.  We wanted them to know that we delighted in them as people, and that we were there for them.  Always.  Even when they were badly behaved, or they were having meltdowns.  We saw our job as walking with them through struggles and letting them know we were there with them—without rescuing them from every negative emotion or situation. 
  7. We gave them a chance to find and do what they loved.
    Whether it was sports or piano or art or joke-telling, we did all we could to let our kids chase and enjoy their passions.
  8. We protected playtime.
    I'm not saying that there weren't periodic seasons when our boys ended up being over-scheduled, but for the most part we worked hard to make sure they had time to just hang out and play.  We were big fans of enriching activities, but not at the expense of having time for unstructured play that let them imagine and dream and even deal with boredom.

So that's an example of my list.  What would be on yours?

Notice that this exercise asks you to think about what you're doing well.  You could make a similar list about what you wish you'd done differently.  (Watch for a future article in which I outline some of the regrets I imagine I'll be living with in the future.  There will be plenty of those, I'm sure—although I always remind parents, as I do in this article, that even our parenting mistakes can be beneficial for our kids.)

The point in all of this is simply to remain aware and intentional about what we're doing as parents.  We might see changes we want to make, but we'll also realize that there's plenty we're doing that we'll look back on some day and smile, and even be proud of. 

 

 

A Parent’s Anti-Bubble-Wrap Manifesto

Bubble-wrap is to protect things that are fragile, to cushion them so they don’t become damaged if they get jostled or banged around.  

Our kids are precious, but they’re not fragile.  They’re not delicate.

When we bubble-wrap them and protect them from any injury, any distress, or any potential challenge, we actually make them more fragile.  We communicate to them, “I don’t think you can handle this, and you need me to shelter you.”   In so doing, we deny them the privilege of the practice of feeling and sitting in discomfort and finding their way out, and of seeing that they are strong and resourceful. 

The more we bubble-wrap our kids, the more fragile they become. 

Want your children to believe that you believe in them?  Want them to be resourceful and resilient?  Want them to be able to develop a sturdy, robust bandwidth for tolerating challenges, and then rise to meet them?  Want them to know that they are not victim to their emotions and their circumstances? 

Then let them feel.  Let them wrestle with indecision, with discomfort, with discouragement and disappointment. 

Our job is not to rescue them from hard things and uncomfortable feelings.  Our job is to walk with them through their difficult moments with connection and empathy, allowing them to feel, allowing them to be active participants in problem-solving, and allowing them to discover the depth of their own capacity. 

It’s out of our deep love for our children that we want to protect them, but their capacity will be greater, their spirit larger, if we allow that love to lead us to our own courage, so that we can feel strong enough to let them discover their own strength.  

Second Thoughts About Sleepaway Camp? How to Warm Your Child’s Cold Feet

Last month your child was completely gung-ho about attending sleepaway camp.  But now that the weather’s turning warmer, that enthusiasm might be turning to apprehension.  Doubts, fears, anxieties, and even dread are normal for kids who are going to be away from their parents for a period of time, especially if it’s their first time, and especially if they are introverts.

We’ve got checklists for all the gear our children need at camp, but it’s also helpful to compile a checklist for preparing them emotionally if they are experiencing some cold feet or worries.  It might look something like this.

An Emotion-Prep Checklist for Sleepaway Camp:

  1. Talk directly about feelings.  It’s really unhelpful for parents to dismiss a child’s feelings and say, “You’ll be fine.  You’ll love it!  Don’t worry.”  (Has someone telling you “Don’t worry” made you say “Oh, OK. I hadn’t thought of that.”  Not helpful, right?)  Instead, if you sense your child is having some worries and he’s not bringing them up, you can begin the conversation by saying something like, “Some kids feel nervous about camp as it gets closer.  How are you feeling about it?”  And whether or not your child is initiating the discussion himself, it’s important to really listen and validate those feelings instead of trying to talk him out of them or dismiss them.
  2. Problem-Solve.  Find out what your child’s specific worries are, and then collaboratively problem-solve with her.  Most kids worry about being homesick, but it might surprise you what they are concerned about.  Kids worry whether they’ll like the food, that they won’t be good at the activities, that they’ll wet the bed, and even that their shoes will get wet.  Whatever the worries, it can be helpful to brainstorm together and talk about the “what ifs,” and what she can do in the circumstances she’s thinking about.
  3. Normalize the feelings.  Just knowing that other kids feel that way, too, and that it’s normal to feel worried about doing something that’s different, can be quite helpful.  Talk about a time you stepped outside your comfort zone and how you felt apprehension at first, how you handled your feelings, and how the experience ended up being great. (Make sure to pick a resilient story—no stories about how it ended up being even worse than you could’ve imagined.)
  4. Give kids a strategyor two to help them calm their worries.  One thing you can begin now that will give them tools they can use while they’re at camp is something I use with anxious kids in my private practice.  I give them an assignment that each night, once they are peaceful and relaxed and ready to fall asleep, they should place their hand on their chest (pledge-of-allegiance style).  Only when they’re feeling calm and peaceful.  After doing this every night for a few weeks, the brain makes a connection between the sensation of the hand on the chest and a feeling of calm relaxation.  Then, when the child is feeling worried or upset, he can easily place his hand on his chest wherever he is, and his body will begin to relax and his mind will begin to feel calm. 

    Another strategy is to teach him that while his feelings might feel really wild and stirred up, if he pauses to take a few deep breaths, the worries will settle, allowing him to see clearly again.  The best thing I’ve found to teach this is the “glitter ball” analogy that Susan Kaiser-Greenland created.  You can teach this to your kids by having them watch this super-short video with you.  Then send a glitter ball, or a small snow globe, to camp with your child, explaining that he can shake it up and watch the glitter settle when he’s feeling upset. 

    If you do these two things in the weeks before your child leaves for camp, you can build some skills and empower him with some tools he can pull out when he needs them.  This allows him to avoid becoming a victim to his feelings, but to be able to use his mind to change how he feels.  (You might try some of these tools too, if you are feeling worried about sending your child off!)

This moment is a great opportunity to teach kids that while we should pay attention to our feelings, our feelings shouldn’t rule our worlds.  If you talk, listen, normalize, and strategize, you will be preparing your children to go to camp with the best chance of overcoming their fears and learning something really important about themselves—that they are braver and stronger than they think.  You’ll be doing much more than just prepping them for camp, you’ll be prepping them for life.

 

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.

 

 

Speak Up: Why Self-Advocacy is a Crucial Skill

I know. I've done it, too. We all have. Your child faces some difficulty, and you jump in right away to rescue them. To stand up for them. To make things right. You talk to a teacher. You handle things with their friend. You call their coach.

We need to resist this temptation to handle things for our kids.

Of course there are times we need to stand up for and defend our children. At times, we need to be absolutely fierce in doing so. But more often than not, we advocate for our kids when they should advocate for themselves.

It reminds me of that old saying: “Give a man fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” That makes so much sense, but when it comes to our kids, it’s hard not to spring into immediate action when we see them being treated unfairly or struggling in some way.

RELATED: Teaching Your Child to Share

But here are four main reasons to allow our kids to advocate for themselves:

1. Self-Advocacy Is a Crucial Skill

When we step in and handle a child’s problem, we short-circuit her opportunity to learn how to address a difficult issue. Having to visit with a teacher or address a problem with a friend can be a powerful learning opportunity. Give your child the benefit of getting practice using her voice and her logic. Teach her to assert herself, and to understand that she can be both respectful and strong. (And of course, you can always go with your child for support if she needs it.)

2. Discomfort Can Be a Good Thing

Even as you teach your children to assert themselves, remind them that it’s actually a good thing to have to do things that are difficult and that make them feel uncomfortable. To have to deal with a challenging situation, and to come out successful on the other side, is a great way to build resilience and confidence. Plus, it makes them more capable of dealing with other problems that come up in the future. You might even tell them a story about a time you had to handle something uncomfortable but how you triumphed.

RELATED: When Moms Lose Their Cool

3. We Show Our Faith in Them

Stepping in and addressing your child’s problem communicates that you don’t believe he can handle that particular situation, and that he needs you to handle things for him. Instead, let him discover how much he can do on his own. Again, every time he takes on a tough problem and handles it on his own, he’ll build competence, confidence and resilience. And you can demonstrate that you’ll be there to cheer him on!

4. It Lets You Save Your Voice for the Really Big Problems

You really don’t want to become “that mom.” It’s not that you need to worry about what people think about you; it’s just that if you’re the parent who’s consistently heading to school to discuss every little problem, and when a bigger problem arises you may not be taken as seriously. You will have lost your voice, so to speak.

Again, there are definitely times we need to step in and defend our children. You should be ready to do so, and your kids should know that you’re on their side and ready to do what you have to do on their behalf.

But, more often than not, we need to take a step back and allow them to handle things on their own. They can do it. They really can. And when we let them, we arm them with all kinds of skills that will make them that much better able to handle difficult situations down the road.

You can view the original of this piece at mom.me.

A Different Take on Spoiling

The other day a reporter asked me to respond to a few questions about spoiling, and what it means for our kids. With the holidays coming up, this seems like a pretty timely subject. Here’s how I answered the reporter’s questions about what spoiling is, and just as importantly, what it’s not. WHAT IS SPOILING? DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH MONEY SPENT? TIME? NEVER SAYING NO? ALL OF THE ABOVE?

Let’s start with what spoiling is not: Spoiling is NOT about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can’t spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself. In the same way, you can’t spoil a baby by holding her too much or responding to her needs each time she expresses them.

SO HOW DO WE SPOIL OUR KIDS?

Give Your Toddler or Preschooler a Little Power (revised)

Toddlers and preschoolers see their grown-ups and older siblings doing everything so easily.  It can be frustrating and discouraging for these little ones to try and try, and not be able to do what they see everyone else doing. Knowing that self-esteem can come from being competent at something, there are several ways we can empower our toddlers and preschoolers and give them opportunities to feel capable and competent:

 

Let them do things for themselves.

Sometimes it’s hard for a parent not to step in and quickly do something a child is trying to do.  Especially if the child is taking a long time to, say, figure out how all of the chalk pieces will go back into the box.  (Sometimes I want to pull my hair out when I’m watching my own four-year-old meticulously try to fix the Velcro fastener on the back of his hat so that it’s “not too tight and not too loosed.”)  But our kids need these experiences, and by letting them complete tasks by themselves, we not only give them chances to learn the lessons associated with that task, but to find out how much they can do on their own.  And that’s power.

 

Let them struggle.

As parents, we love seeing our kids succeed, and it’s often difficult to watch them struggle.  But resist the temptation to rescue your child when she’s having a hard time with a task.  Give her opportunities to face problems and solve them themselves.  Think about the kind of lesson a child learns when she keeps working on a challenge and figures it out!  She learns that she doesn’t have to give up, and that tolerating a bit of frustration allows her to reach a goal.  Of course we don’t want our children to have so much frustration that it’s overwhelming to them, but a little bit of it builds resilience.  Then, when you see that it’s necessary to step in and help out, try to do so without taking over.  Just give a little nudge – “Looks like that piece might go in this area of the puzzle” – rather than solving the problem for them.  When kids are NOT given opportunities to struggle and then succeed, they’ll feel powerless when difficult situations arise.

 

Ask for their help.

Almost nothing feels better to a two- to four-year-old than being asked for their assistance.  “Can you help mommy put this lid on?  I can’t seem to get it on.”  Or “Would you help me decide about where we should eat?  Outside?  Or at the dinner table?”  Or give them a job that lets them really help:  “Will you put the napkins on the table?”  Simply by making kids feel like they’re contributing to whatever’s going on around them, you can help them see that they are capable of pitching in, helping, and making decisions.

 

Play the boob.

This phrase belongs to renowned pediatrician Harvey Karp.  He talks about playing the boob with young children, where we are purposefully incompetent so that they can jump in and help.  We might say something like, “I don’t know where this puzzle piece goes.  Hmmm.”  Or, we can let them observe us struggling with something that they can easily accomplish, like stacking blocks.  Stepping in to help rescue a seemingly inept adult can help children feel strong, and show them that they have the power to master tasks set before them.

 

Not only can young kids handle some responsibility, but it’s great for them.  Try to elicit their help or opinion at least once a day so they feel like they’re a contributing member of the family, and that their abilities are important.  This will reduce their frustration while also building both competence and confidence.