Teaching Kids Tolerance

Difference by Alice Kaltman

Originally appeared in A Child Grows in Brooklyn on January 27, 2011

We can teach kids what we believe is right, but we can’t always protect them from what’s wrong. That’s a sobering and scary fact especially these days.
While our entire nation is reconsidering the power of intolerance in the wake of recent horrific events in Tuscon, I think how this is an issue parents of young children grapple with daily.

It can be hard for the pacifist parent to watch a son point a plastic gun or tree branch threateningly (albeit playfully) at a playmate. Equally cringe-inducing for the feminist parent to watch a daughter dress and re-dress her dolls and play ‘house’.

And what of the true gender-benders, the tutu-loving boy, or the sporty warrior girl? Parents of these role-defying youngsters must grapple with tolerance and acceptance on a whole other level. It can be even harder for parents of these trailblazers to go with the flow. It’s great to encourage a shy kid to be more social, or an aggressive kid to be gentler, but I get nervous when I see parents pushing their children to be what they just aren’t meant to be, especially in the areas of gender-specific play.

Wherever they land on the gender-specific spectrum, children don’t usually gravitate towards loved pursuits to fit in. More often, they’re drawn by their innate natures. So when kids seek approval of parents or peers their sense of identity gets blurry. When they hide their true natures to avoid conflict or fit in, that’s downright sad.

Playtime is when children work out who they are and what they care about. Mattias may prefer ballet to basketball. Olivia may prefer the bike to Barbie. Zeke wants to play the harp, not the bass guitar, Sara aspires to be the next Hilary Duff, not Hilary Clinton. Parents have to accept that sometimes their kids may not be the kids they expected them to be.

But while temperaments are genetically pre-determined, social skills can be learned. The greatest lesson to teach kids is that different isn’t bad, it’s just different. Forcing a boy who loves ballet to play basketball instead is wrong, but teaching that boy to appreciate his friend’s love of ball sports is brilliant. Insisting a tree-climbing girl wear a dress is just plain stupid, but allowing her to diss her younger sister’s love of frills is even worse.

Kids might be aggressive, they may have destructive urges, but there should be no place for cruelty or intolerance. Sometimes it’s hard for a parent to distinguish the difference during playtime. We have to pay close attention and listen to the language kids are using. We have to notice when a tussle is turning into a true fight, recognize when a kid playing alone has been ostracized and hasn’t elected to be solo. Often we miss the cues, or aren’t even present when the damage is being done.  What we can hope for is that we’ve taught our kids to advocate for themselves and to be cheerleaders for diversity and fair play.

It’s every parent’s perogative to impart their own values to their children. I hope they can have calm and informative discussions with their kids about why they believe what they believe, especially in those times when parents’ choices rub their kids the wrong way. Or visa versa.

We can’t change what our children want to play with, but we can influence the way they choose to play. Whatever lifestyle choices parents make for their families I hope those choices are guided by compassion, tolerance, and a huge capacity for difference of opinion: at home first, and ultimately everywhere else our children go.

Parenting: Which Style is “You”

Parenting Team Planning 101

Achieving balance in parenting is one of the toughest aspects of family life. It’s so tough, many parents often back off from addressing their differences directly and operate in parallel universes of “if I want something done right, I’ve just got to do it myself”.  There are times when one parent struggles with a child and the other swoops in to miraculously solve the problem. But the satisfaction of a smug “I told you so” only lasts so long, and feeling undermined in parenting is never fun. When parents argue over who’s approach is right, when parenting becomes a competition rather than a partnership, it’s even tougher. One scenario or another, we’ve all been there.

But all is not lost if a couple’s core values are in sync, and their connection is still fueled by mutual respect and admiration. If you’re the kind of couple who want to approach parenting with shared responsibility, desire and skill all you might need is a bit more perspective and preparation. I invite those of you who can agree to disagree to do some Parenting Team Planning. Grab a pad of paper and some pens. Take some notes as you continue reading below. Warning: Be prepared to eat some humble pie.

To start it helps to think of parenting in three categories: Expert/Assistant, Trade Offs, and Collaborators.

Expert/Assistant:

Face it. Sometimes you’re not too swift at certain parenting tasks. And when your partner is a natural at those tasks it can be more than a bit ego-deflating.  This is the diciest category of parenting, the one where you need to let go of preconceptions and allow your partner do what they naturally do well. Here’s the kicker: try to learn from them.
Expert/Assisting is a two-way street where both partners get credit for what they excel at. So dig deep and compliment everything from cooking to cartoon-watching. Toot each other’s horn. Think of and write down what your partner is better or less afraid of, naturally good at, doesn’t mind doing. For example, maybe your partner is naturally goofier than you are, and is really good at distracting your close-to-tantruming child with a particularly silly face. Think how you can assist your partner without undermining them. Try laughing at the silly face, instead of ignoring or dismissing it.

Trade Offs:

This is the most common type of parenting. More often than not, while one parent is on-duty, the other is working, or sleeping, or (if they’re lucky) taking a break.  Too much trading off and you feel like a worn-out tag team, relaying constantly. When the on-duty parent’s lap is up they’re usually exhausted, and the trade-off is loaded with an attitude of “Here. Take them. I’m done.” But trading off is often the only kind of parenting a busy family’s schedule allows. So prepare for the trade offs, make them less fraught and more effective. Talk them through ahead of time, and keep up your end of the bargain. For example, every evening Daddy does bath time while Mommy checks/returns e-mails. Then Mommy takes baby and prepares baby for bedtime while Dad returns phone calls. Don’t back out or change the routine without giving your partner fair warning. With a bit more planning some of these tasks can even be turned into collaborations, or trade offs with some quality crossover time.

Collaborators:

When done with an open heart and mind, this kind of parenting can bring the greatest joy.  Think about and write down those aspects of parenting you both do well, as well as tasks you split but master in a relatively seamless order. For example maybe you sing lullabies together at bed time, or both read stories acting out multiple characters. Maybe while Mommy nurses, Daddy strokes baby’s head. Some collaborations may be fun, some not so fun. Maybe Daddy holds Kid down while Mommy takes out that nasty splinter. Whatever the case, acknowledge your shared competence. As often as schedules allow, carve out time to parent collaboratively in a focused, relaxed way.

All the above?

Easier said than done. Conscientious parenting doesn’t just happen, you have to think about it, talk about it, organize it. To help you along, I’ve devised the following Parenting Team Task Exercise. Print it out and do it now if you can, or save it for later. Pick a time when neither of you is exhausted, frazzled or distracted. This kind of exercise requires patience, love, and a sense of humor. Give your parenting team the same attention you give your kids. Remember: You’re worth it. Both of you.

Parenting Team Task Exercise:

Categories:
Meals, Food Preparation
Playtime
Family Meetings
Nursing
Bath time Rituals
Bedtime Rituals
Playdates
Grown up social plans
Housekeeping Chores
Doctor/School visits
Sporting Events
Cultural Events
Family Visits

Pick tasks related to the above categories, or other categories you can think of. Try to think of at least one for each Parenting Team approach. Write them down. Make them part of your parenting plan. (Later: Add or change as your skills grow and develop, and as you learn more from each other and your child.)

We will Collaborate on:

We will Trade Off on:

We will be the Expert/ Assistant on:

Parent Camp

Ah, the lazy days of summer. No more teachers, no more books. No more lunches to pack, no more mad dash to get to pre-school or grade school on time to avoid those teachers’ dirty looks.

At first it feels great to have a more relaxed schedule, to revel in the break from school-year frenzy. Families look forward to spending more time with each other. Kids with parents, parents with kids. With more daylight hours, maybe you push bedtime later and everyone sleeps in a bit. Maybe you and your kids stay in PJ’s until noon, or maybe even all day. Maybe you make it to the playground, maybe you don’t. No biggie. After all, no one’s taking attendance.

But eventually many families find less structure means less satisfaction.

Kids who have adjusted to the rhythms of social exchange and planned activity inherent in a school schedule become out of sorts with too much free time. They get cranky and hard to motivate. And the heat and humidity only increase everyone’s inertia. It’s not too long before “go with the flow” makes you want to tear your hair out. Or theirs.

So how do you survive summer? How do you make it lazy, but not too crazy? Here are some suggestions:

Use advance preparation and problem-solving techniques. As I’ve said in previous posts, kids like to, and need to know what’s going to happen to them (see my previous post about this here.) Make sure your kids know what’s on the agenda for the next day, before they go to sleep.

Model flexibility. Since summer plans are generally less set in stone and often weather-dependent, make sure you communicate this reality to your kids so they don’t freak out when you tell them the next morning it’s too rainy to go to the beach. Have a back up plan and encourage suggestions from your children.

Stay social. Major developmental shifts don’t take vacations over the summer months and little kids need to practice emerging social skills. So don’t keep to yourselves too much. Continuity of social connection is essential especially for little ones. Unless you’re training them for monkshood, make sure to visit with other families, take classes, go to the playgrounds, parks, and zoos. Maybe schedule a regular weekly playdate with a reliable playmate.

Don’t flake out. Don’t be the kind of parent who uses the relaxed rhythms of summer as an excuse to renege on plans, especially those that include other families. Parents who take a “go with the flow” attitude too far, canceling plans at the last minute set a bad example for children, and leave other parents in the lurch. If you suspect you might be on the receiving end of this kind of selfish parenting, if there’s a chance another family may bail on you, prep your child accordingly ahead of time. And find more reliable friends.

Don’t slack off on chores and teamwork. School focuses on respect and responsibility for property and the community. Keep this up at home. Give your young ones specific summertime chores they can help with, and list the chores on the family calendar. List your chores as well, even the mundane, like dishwashing, TV watching, and grocery shopping.

Model a sense of adventure. Down time at home is necessary, but remember, it feels (and sounds) even more luxurious when it is punctuated with purposeful activity. If you’re at a loss for what to do, check out the resource pages and recommendations on this very website (Karen has done her research!). Mix up the tried and true with some new experiences; day trips to beaches, state parks, new neighborhood pools.

Don’t expect yourself to have the energy level of a camp counselor, and don’t think every day has to be a big deal. Pay attention to the energy level of yourself and your child. If daily outings seem too labor-intensive, try an on-day, off-day approach.

Take time off. Occasionally for everyone’s sake you should take a break from running Parent Camp. If you start to suffer from summer-brain fry, consider paying for afternoon babysitting every now and then. Spend the afternoon in a movie theater or sports bar. If babysitting is not an option, trade off with other burned-out parents, exchange drop-off playdates, or at least drop off hours. Go home, crank up the A/C, turn on the TV.

Add one bowl of ice cream.

Now that’s what I call summer.

Originally published in A Child Grows in Brooklyn on June 6, 2010

Staying Present in the Era of Distraction

When I get sullen, rejecting glares from my teenage daughter while my younger parent friends get unreserved affection and boundless enthusiasm from their toddlers I turn a little green with envy.

But I don’t always envy today’s younger generation of parents. I especially don’t envy the challenge they face trying to remain present and connected to their little ones in today’s iphone, blackberry culture. There’s no denying how useful and important cell phones and cyber-culture are in today’s world. You wouldn’t be reading these words right now if it weren’t for the wonders of the internet. But sometimes it becomes a bit too much, and even good parents chose their electronics over their kids.

On a recent trip to a playground I was appalled by how many electronic devices sprouted from parents hands like budding flowers. I cringed as parent after parent disconnected from their kids to check their phones. The Parenting Coach in me wanted to shout out, “Don’t you guys realize your relationship with your kids splinter every time you answer the phone or check your messages?”

Back in the dark ages of mid-nineties parenting there were no cell phones. The only parents who carried electronic devices were doctors with pagers, and those life-savers were understandably given wide berth. When parents were at playgrounds they played with their kids, talked to other parents or caregivers, or stared off in space. They couldn’t check e-mail or text while their kids slid down slides repeatedly, hundreds and hundreds of times. Parents had to find their way to comfort, or deal with discomfort. They had to experience playground boredom. They had to be present in some way, even if that way was physically or emotionally difficult.

When they pushed their kids in strollers, they chatted. They couldn’t push the stroller with one hand while talking to someone else on a cell. The only person to talk to was that little cutie sitting in front of them. A stroller ride was a shared activity, punctuated, rhythmic and ritualized. Parents pointed out landmarks, stopped to look in store windows. They sang silly songs, practiced words. They turned sidewalk bumps and curbs into amusement park rides. Unless their kid was floating off to a welcomed nap, they engaged. Or at least tried to.

Parenting can be relentless, boring, and stressful. It always was, and always will be. I’m sure many mid-nineties parents would have loved the opportunity to check the web instead of building sand castles. Every parent craves escape from the demands of parenting at some point, or many points, on a weekly, daily, or hourly basis. It’s important to find escape from the tedious tension of parenting, but not at the expense of emotional connection.

So, do yourselves and your kids a favor. If possible, save all phone calls or e-mail checking for during school hours or after bedtime. Consider leaving the phone at home when you go out to do errands or go to the playground. At the very least, put your phone on silent mode so you’re not thinking, “I wonder who that is?” and your kid isn’t thinking, “I wonder if that person is more important (to mommy/daddy) than me?”

Wonder instead about your kid. Who they are, and who they are becoming. Wonder about them by observing them in action, climbing, running, talking, playing. Stay attuned and focused. Better yet, join in the fun.

Parenting Re’s for Springtime

The 70 degree, sunshiny weather of a week past was just a teaser. Clearly the downpours and sub-freezing temps of more recent days are brutal reminders that March is a temperamental month. Still that early promise of spring got me thinking about motivating concepts, all coincidentally beginning with the prefix “re”, that you and your family might consider as days get longer and everyone gears up for positive change.

Review: What parenting strategies have been working well lately? Which not so well? What new activities seem to be favorites in your household? What activities seem to be outgrown? Which behaviors, yours and/or your kid’s, are stressing you out? What different approaches might you take? What new levels of emotional and physical development have your kids arrived at? How might you foster and support those strides?

Renew: There are probably aspects of family life that work well, but might need a seasonal renew. Bikes to be oiled and tuned up, porch furniture to be cleaned, a fresh coat of paint on a wall or door. Do the same with familial/personal intentions, polish up your commitments to each other verbally, have a family discussion about what you love and admire about each family member. Sorry if this sounds corny, but heartfelt emotions are that way. Besides, a little corn never hurt anyone.

Replenish: What areas of your family and/or personal life feel depleted? Always been meaning to take your kids to the Metropolitan Museum but haven’t made it yet? Always meant to take a parent/child yoga class but never signed up? Felt the need for spirituality but never made it to morning services or meetings? The weather can no longer be your excuse. Take the leap and give something new a try. Even if you choose not to repeat it, you’ll feel fuller just making the attempt.

Refresh: Think of a family and/or personal ritual that is feeling a bit stale and add a new twist. If Saturday morning breakfasts at the corner diner are becoming boring whine-fests, consider Saturday morning picnics instead. If your gym-workout is starting to feel like a chore and not a charge, change it up. If you’re a diehard reader of the Sunday Times and your kid is starting to read (or pretend-read) on their own, have a pile of their books next to your newspaper and make it family reading time.

Rewind: When you’re feeling stressed, ready to snap off the heads of your nearest and dearest, or already having lost your cool, consider a rewind. Kids love rewinding and love seeing you do it as well.  Stand up and announce your intention to start over, spin around three times. If your kids think you need a few more spins just to play it safe, go for it. Rewinding works on both physical and metaphoric levels, appealing to doers and thinkers alike.

Reconnect: If there are friends you’ve lost touch with, ‘parent’ friends or ‘pre-kid’ friends, don’t be shy. Give them a call. The same goes for connections your kids made before winter drove everyone indoors and limited social contact. You may always have to be the initiator because some people are good at keeping up, others aren’t. Don’t take it personally, just pick up the phone and dial (or touch your screen).

Respect: Respect your kids. What matters to them is as important to them as what is important to you. Don’t pooh-pooh their wishes, dreams, desires. Respect their boundaries, and in turn teach them to respect yours. Model respectful behavior in public and private. Don’t expect your kids to be polite if they see you behaving like a pushy entitled customer, employer, neighbor or friend. Model respect for your environment and the earth. Don’t litter. Walk or ride bikes instead of driving whenever possible.

Keep this list handy, as a reminder. Have some fun adding your own ‘re’s’ (replace, repeat, relax, reboot, recycle…). And just because I can’t resist:

Remember, springtime isn’t the only time to work on improving family relations.

Originally published in A Child Grows in Brooklyn on June 6, 2010

To Work or Not to Work?

There’s never been a simple solution to the Working/Not Working conundrum, and given the current economic climate many mothers no longer have any choice. Some must bring home part (if not all) of the bacon. Others are victims of downsizing, suddenly home with their kids full-time and it’s not what they signed up for. Then there are mothers who choose full-time parenting and eventually find themselves ready to jump in the Gowanus Canal if forced to watch one more Yo Gabba Gabba DVD or shake one more shaky egg.  The grass is always greener, or browner on the other side of the fence.

Each mother has her own set of personal issues, problematic spouses, bosses or children to contend with. Distraction, guilt, longing, and frustration can plague mothers whatever their situation, but a bit of soul searching might provide some direction. Here are some suggestions to ponder.

1) Transform your GUILT into DESIRE:

As odd as it might sound, guilt can be a useful emotion. If you don’t wallow in it or get caught in the common trap of feeling guilty about feeling guilty, it can tell you a lot about what you desire. It might even motivate you to make some changes. At the very least, identifying guilt and its related desire can refocus you and make you more present and less distracted.

For example, you may be a working mother who feels guilty for leaving your child even though their needs are being met by a trusted caregiver, teacher or spouse. When you think about what desire might be beneath the guilt, you realize you long to be with your little cutie-pie. You simply miss your child. You may not be able to jump up and run to home, school or playground, but you can at least remind yourself there is nothing wrong with a mother’s desire to be with her child.

Or you may be a full-time mother, home with your kid(s) where chaos reigns. You’re ready to tear your hair out, or theirs. You imagine you’re back at work, away from peanut butter and drool. You fantasize about a dream career. And then you feel guilty, evil, ungrateful. But underneath the guilt might be desire for the personal empowerment, creativity, autonomy that non-parenting work provides. You may not be able to jump up and run to the office or studio, but what formerly happily employed woman wouldn’t have those feelings?

Wherever you are, whatever your situation, whether you’ve chosen it or not: ask yourself if there is anything you can do immediately to change things, to act on your desire. At the very least, re-framing your guilt makes it more understandable, and less emotionally toxic. You’ve cleared your brain and are more likely to make positive and practical changes in the future.

2) Stay Present:

Quality trumps quantity in the mothering department. Whether you’re with your kid(s) often or in briefer connected moments, if you are content with your life you’ll be more emotionally present. As a result, your kid will feel content and connected to you. But it’s an imperfect world. Perhaps your workplace is a war zone, your partner is acting like a jerk, the roof has a leak, and the cat has fleas. Sometimes you have no control over your daily life, or your psyche.  In other words, contentedness is fleeting. So here are some general tips for moving towards a more Present state of mind. I encourage you to use these as starter lists, and urge you to add more personal tips of your own:

More, more, more:
-Exercise, wherever and however you can.
-Self Reflection. Do yoga, mediation, journaling.
-Designating. Enough with the Supermom/Control Freak routine. Prove your competency by doing a really great job at just a few key things and let other people step up to the plate.
-Time Management. Improve your skills if you’re not a naturally organized person. Ask for help.
-Sleep.
Combat sleep deprivation: nap when your child naps.

Less, less, less:
- Let go of inessentials: i.e.: constant household cleanliness, social activities that really aren’t that much fun.
-Set a single daily intention for yourself: When overwhelmed, hide the twenty page “To Do List”. Focus on one thing, i.e.: I will be more patient. I will be nicer. I will clean the bathroom. I will pay that one bill.
-No phone when possible. Turn the phone on silent mode. Better yet, turn it off entirely. At the very least, use your caller id.
-No computer after a certain hour every evening. Chose an activity from your More, more, more list instead.
-No texting. It is rarely a time saver. I mean, like, how old are we, fifteen? Instead, try having real conversations with people when possible.

3) Own Your Inner-Softy

Motherhood opens women up to a whole new level of vulnerability. Most mothers never feel so intensely about anyone or anything as they do about their kids. It is the most profound relationship in their lives. A mother’s love is powerful and deeply moving.  Rather than thinking of maternal vulnerability as weakness, think of it as power. Use it to be an advocate for the mother/worker inside you who desires change. Remember the messages about Guilt and Staying Present. Give yourself what you need. Ask for everything and anything. Be prepared to hear ‘no’, but don’t give up. If what you’re asking for is good for you, it probably means it will be good for everyone else as well. Especially your kids.

Originally published in A Child Grows in Brooklyn on January 27, 2010

Thirty-six, Going on Sixteen

Parents of small children often ask my advice on how best to prepare for holidays with extended family.  “Expect regression,” I suggest. “And I’m not talking about your kids. I’m talking about you.”

Sure, holidays are a time of comfort and joy, but they’re also times when our unmet needs resurface, readily triggered by sleep deprivation, travel stress, testy children, competitive siblings, clueless partners, and intrusive grandparents. And maybe you have some other folks to add to the list.

You may have awesome visits with your extended families throughout the year when you feel like a grown-up and are treated like one. But at holiday time, watch out. Family traditions can be great, but they can cause everyone to behave as if they’ve traveled backwards in time. Old roles get replayed, old expectations resurface, and that’s not always a good thing. It was stressful enough dealing with this stuff when you were really sixteen. Now it’s really tough. For some of us, ‘tis the season to go emotionally haywire, a self-sufficient adult one moment and a needy kid the next.

Early planning helps reverse the negative effects of holiday time warp. Have a strategy meeting with your partner to discuss possible events that could trigger one or both of you emotionally. Do this in your own home with time to spare, not while waiting for your seriously delayed flight, or in the car stuck in traffic. Agree on subtle non-verbal gestures to signal each other when you feel you’re slipping in to regressive mode. No mock stabs to the heart, or faux neck choking, please. Once you’re with extended family, take as many breaks as you can with your partner and on your own. Spell each other frequently with childcare. Go gangbusters praising each other in public and private.

For those without partners, make sure to have access to a good friend via e-mail, phone, or text messaging. Find a local cafe, mountain top, parking lot, where you can call that person and vent. Make it a ritual, at least once a day. If no one is available, vent your feelings in writing, but get rid of the evidence. Avoid the family garbage pail. The last thing you need is your mother finding out what you really think of her cooking.

Don’t choose this as the time to confront extended family members on long-standing issues. Honesty is NOT always the best policy, especially around the holidays when everyone is hare-triggered to behave like a spoiled brat. Pick non-loaded topics ahead of time, conversational tidbits that will keep your extended family engaged, but at a safe distance. Keep things as light and easy breezy as possible, even if you’re the kind of person who hates superficiality. Practice it. It’s a valuable skill.

Originally published in A Child Grows in Brooklyn on December 23, 2009

Sibling Survival

Why is it some siblings behave like playmate-angels, sharing and cooperating without a hint of rivalry while others act like annihilator-devils, hell-bent on destroying each other at every opportunity? When everyone seems okay, why does one kid decide to pitch a fit, punch a sister, pinch a baby? In spite of my professional knowledge, sometimes a parent’s guess is as good as mine. Personality traits, constitutional temperaments, and genetics are just a few things impacting sibling relations that parents (and parenting experts) have no power to change. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

But it’s not a lost cause. Good parenting can have an impact on sibling relations. There are parenting approaches that can help foster good sibling connections without guaranteeing eternal sibling bliss and bonding. Conflicts and tensions might never go away. But if raised in families that promote connection but allow for difference, that provide each kid a sense of self w/out pigeon-holing, siblings are more likely to remain connected and on good terms. Below are a few suggestions in the key areas of connection, projection, competition and conflict.

Connection:

Most kids believe there is a finite resource of love. They don’t get that love can grow exponentially as relationships with all children develop. Kids can be desperate to keep it all to themselves. Therefore, DO carve out special time for each child. Make it clear that there’s enough love around for everybody. Have special rituals of connection with each kid that are unique. Differ games, special pet names, tickle spots, secret handshakes.

Check in during private moments on how your kids feel about each other. Encourage them to say whatever they want; the good, the bad, the ugly. Remember as they talk, kids think abstractly but talk in absolutes. They aren’t subtle. Being slightly annoyed by younger sister becomes “I HATE HER! I WISH SHE WAS DEAD!”

DONT diminish or dismiss such statements with “Oh now, now. You don’t really want her dead. You love your sister.” Breathe deeply and try a more empathic stance like “Wow. She really made you angry, huh?” Let the steam blow off and don’t rush to make ‘nice’ immediately. Peacekeeping should wait until later, when everyone is well fed, rested, and in good moods.

Projection:

DONT project your own sibling experiences from childhood on your kids. This is the key trap all parents fall into. Generally speaking, you can’t be a live parent without projecting at least a wee bit. So, in the arena of sibling survival, keep your projection antenna raised. At your first sign of distress over sibling struggles, ask yourself, am I feeling emotions my kids aren’t even remotely feeling? Is my daughter really ‘just’ like my evil sister, or am I projecting? Am I trying too hard to right some perceived wrong that no one else seems to notice? Am I trying too hard to rewrite my own childhood history?

DONT create family myths around each child’s behavior or skills. Too many of us grew up continuing to believe stories like, “My older brother is the smart one, my middle brother is the funny one, and I am the sensitive one” or “Danny was always great at tennis, I was only great at watching.” Why limit our perception of our children the way we may have limited ourselves? Let your kids morph like chameleons through their youth. Make your home a place where experiential diversity is strongly encouraged. Everyone should have opportunities to test their limits and personality styles.

Competition:

DONT set siblings up to compete with each other directly. There are very few Serena and Venus’s in the world. If your kids are drawn to the same activities allow them to pursue these interests as they desire. Still, as often as possible, set them up with a common adversary. Be that common adversary.

DONT use comparisons as compliments to pump up one of your kid’s egos, or to bond privately (i.e. “Wow, you’re so good at math. Joey’s nowhere as good at math as you”).

DO praise and admire unique gifts for the pure and simple joy that they exist.

Conflict:

DONT allow hurtful behavior. Follow the “it takes two to tango” model especially in verbal quarrels. Try not to intervene in conflicts, unless there’s danger of physical injury. No one should be excused for hitting or punching even if provoked, so be within hearing distance and stay alert as tempers rise. Model the behavior you want; compromise skills, respect, and fairness for example. Try to stay impartial and focused on feelings being expressed.

And be prepared to do all the above over and over and over and over again and again and again and again. That’s what we all signed up for when we decided to be parents, right?

Advanced Preparation and Problem-Solving

It’s easy to love kids. However it’s not always so easy to get them to do what we want. At some point even the most laid-back parents must command their children to eat, sleep, leave the home/playground/preschool, stop crying, get in their strollers, get out of their strollers, not swallow small objects, not eat garbage, not shove their friends or siblings…the list goes on and on.

Often kids don’t listen or obey because what matters to parents is of no interest or consequence to kids. Kids’ concerns are present-focused and immediate. What’s most important is usually right in front of them. The last Lego must be put in place. The missing doll shoe must be pulled from under the bed. Future pay-offs are hard for children to imagine, even if those pay-offs are for them.

In order to get kids to comply we need firstly, to acknowledge and empathize with their agendas, even if we can’t always give into them. We must never forget that their activities and desires are as important to them as ours are to us. That may mean tolerating a fair amount of whining and complaining which I urge you NOT to take it personally. It might help to think of it this way: when was the last time you did something you had no interest or investment in doing without some complaining? Maybe you vented a little to your spouse or best friend first. Maybe you sucked it up and suffered silently. But remember: you’re the grown-up. Kids don’t have the same communication or self-editing habits we do.

A daily family meeting to discuss the next day’s schedule is a great way to avoid future conflicts, plus it’s a wonderful way for kids to begin understanding time management and how family life works. Even pre-verbal toddlers have receptive language skills and can participate by listening to your conversations about ‘tomorrow’. Mommy has a meeting at her office at ten and will be gone all day, Daddy is doing pick-up from pre-school, Kid has a playdate with Kidfriend, tomorrow is trash day and pizza night. Have a large family calendar posted and added to during these talks. It’s a great way for kids to begin to understand the complexities of family life, and to feel some ownership over what occurs to them, and around them.

If kids are involved in planning they are less likely to pitch fits when previously discussed, scheduled events occur. Let your children in on hourly, daily, and weekly events well ahead of time and discuss with them how best to prepare for these events. Use an advanced preparation approach even when transitioning from the most mundane of activities, like bath to bedtime. Give kids a series of fair warnings; a half hour, fifteen, ten, five, one minute, time’s up, before changing activities. Don’t spring a sudden shift on them and expect them to go quietly into the night.

I suggest discussing potentially stressful events days in advance. Talk about how best to prepare, what to bring in case your kid will get bored, how you’ll all get there, who will be with you, what you’ll eat, who you might see, what might happen. Ask for your children’s input on “how to make things go better”. It’s great for kids to help you problem-solve: Studies have shown that collaboration on problem-solving helps foster sturdier self-esteem in children. So ask them: What’s the best choice of a restaurant for dinner with Aunt Sheila, what are the pros and cons of driving to karate class? What entertainment should we bring on the airplane ride?

Respond to every suggestion as if it is valued. Instead of, “No, that’s silly. We can’t bring the TV to a restaurant,” or “We can’t ride bikes to karate class,” or “We can’t bring your drum set on the airplane,” join in and say something like, “Wow. That’s a cool idea. I wish we could bring the TV to the restaurant, but I think it might be too heavy,” or “It would be fun to ride bikes to karate, but I think I might get too tired.” or “Wow. I wish you could bring your drums on the plane. I love when you play them. But I think they’re too heavy. Plus, there might be babies on the plane who need to sleep.” Whenever possible, add a “Not this time, but maybe another time.” so your kids don’t feel powerless, or that all their ideas just go in the trash can. And ask for a few more suggestions before you pipe in with your grown-up solutions. Who knows? Your three year-old might actually have some good solutions. Maybe even better ones than you.

Originally published in A Child Grows in Brooklyn on May 27, 2009

In Defense of Dads: Part One

It’s not officially Father’s Day. But let’s say for a moment that every day is father’s day. Not a day when fathers eat whatever they want without scrutiny, watch hours of sports on TV, receive handmade Father’s day cards, slippers, and/or electronic gadgets, but a day when dads are encouraged and respected for their parenting skills. I know what you’re thinking: not an easy task given the lack of support in the private and public sectors for paternity leave and stay-at-home fathering. It is common in the first months of parenthood for even the most evolved couples to slip in to more conventional roles. Mom becomes primary nurturer and parenting expert, while Dad is relegated to glorified equipment schlepper and parenting sidekick.

It’s understandable how this happens, and why in some ways, it’s necessary. Particularly in pregnancy and the early months of parenthood, moms are in much closer physical contact with the baby. There is an early immediacy and attunement to the baby’s needs. While all other aspects of their lives have been upended, particularly if they are not returning to previous work or vocations immediately, moms can focus in on the baby and spend lots of time trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It’s a new area for a woman to feel competent and powerful when the other areas are temporarily, or permanently gone. But what moms know or think they know, only applies to their own relationship with their child, not necessarily to anyone else’s, and especially not their partners.

While moms are clocking the hours at home, Dads are usually thrust back in to the work world and are not given the same time to really learn their own ways with baby. If you add in a newly minted expert mom with a tendency to over-control and criticize, a dad will withdraw or defer more and more in response.

So what’s the remedy? For starters, here’s a bit of advice:

Moms:
- Put your man in charge as often as possible. He can do everything you can, in his own way, except whip out a boob and nurse. Don’t hover. Walk away, leave the room. Hey, if you can, leave the house.
-Resist being a Know It All. Resist perfectionism. Let him figure it out his own way. If that means your kid is wearing striped leggings and polka-dot onesies, or no hat on what you perceive is a cold day, so be it. The trade-off may be an over-stimulated and nap-deprived baby who’s had a fantastic day at the zoo with daddy, but it will be worth it. Let some other, nice (or not so nice) woman on the street be the one who says, “That poor baby needs a hat/nap/bottle/diaper change” or “Excuse me young man, that onesie is on inside out/backwards/belongs on the body, not the head.”
-If you’re having a particularly hard time letting go, and it is causing you undue anxiety, ask yourself what else might be going on that has nothing to do with your partner’s parenting prowess? Are there other areas of your life that seem out of control? Are there other reasons for not trusting your partner? Are you overly influenced by the examples of friends and family?

Dads:
-Try not to ask, just DO. Clock as many hours with your baby or toddler as possible. Take risks and be bold in developing your own nurturing and play styles. It is highly unlikely you will traumatize, drop, freeze or poison your kid. But do be realistic, if you really need direction from Mom or that nanny in the playground who’s just dying to give you some advice, ask for it nicely, and accept her influence.

And Everyone:
-Make sure to read In Defense of Dads, Part Two, to be posted here tomorrow, where I’ll share some researched facts on why paternal involvement is so important to the physical, emotional, and intellectual development of children.
-But in the meantime, shake it up, relax and take some role-reversing parenting risks. Not only will your baby reap the rewards, but your relationship will benefit as well.

Originally published in A Child Grows in Brooklyn on April 6, 2009