The Scientist on the Bike

This week’s post is from featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Esther.

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Several years ago researchers Alison Gropnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl wrote The Scientist in the Crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. In it, they examine and explain how children develop their understanding of the world from birth through the preschool years.

Babies, they explain, act like scientists: they observe, investigate, form hypotheses, and test them. And, like good scientists, they try to replicate the results of their tests. Simply put: babies learn from everything that happens and from everything they make happen. Baby throws food on the floor and learns about gravity (and, in some cases, that dogs like to eat some kinds of people food). Baby also learns whether Dad finds this behavior amusing or annoying or doesn’t notice it. Baby repeats the experiment—are the results the same? What if I try it tomorrow? What if I try it with Mom? The experiments and the learning go on and on and on.

The experimentation doesn’t end in preschool; it continues—potentially throughout our lives. The drive to learn and figure out how the world works is powerful. And when we figure something out for ourselves—what a rush!

The other day I reflected on a child’s innate need to learn while watching a seven-year old riding his bike. He was with his younger brother, a friend and some neighbors. He was meeting lots of needs: exercise, fun, socialization. He was experimenting with what he could do with his body while riding a bike and learning about physics. He also conducted another experiment by riding off briefly with one of the neighbors without checking with his mother (or his friend) first: an experiment in social relationships and impulsive actions.

When he returned, his mother reminded him of the ground rules for bike riding, redirected him to some other activities for a while, and explained that he would not be able to ride his bike if he didn’t follow the rules. She also pointed out that riding off with the neighbor was rude to his friend.

She didn’t overreact to the incident (he is a sensitive, conscientious child, and lives in a safe neighborhood).

She didn’t embarrass him.

But she didn’t ignore it, either—she gave him information that would help him to learn.

That’s another great thing about babies (and all of us): we can learn from other people. We don’t need to experience everything ourselves.

Many parenting advisers talk about kids testing the limits of parental rules. Unfortunately, this is often phrased in terms of “parents vs. kids” or “you have to show them who’s boss.” But, most of the time, kids are not challenging parental power or out to annoy their parents—they are experimenting with how things work. They are trying to learn.

All of us learn best when we respect and trust the people who teach us. We learn best when our teachers have confidence in our ability to learn—when they don’t overreact to our mistakes or embarrass us. We learn best when our teachers have patience and treat us with respect.

Children need parents for guidance and protection and limits and supervision–and yes, they annoy us a lot and we often do overreact. We’re experimenting, too. And learning, and learning, and learning.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to two boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

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The Parenting Garden

This week’s guest post was written by Jen Bettis. We hope that you find it useful, and look forward to future posts by Jen.

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It’s the time of year in which we can harvest the fruits of our gardens. Gardeners have spend hours watering and cultivating growth to produce this fruit.

This practice also works with parenting, and goes along with the Nurturing Parenting teaching curriculum written by Dr. Stephen J. Bavolek. It is easy to get caught up in the negatives in life. Many of the parents I work with can easily share the negative behaviors in their children, often citing how they want these behaviors to change. Much of a parent’s time and attention is poured into changing these behaviors.

One way to problem solve is to do the opposite of what we might think. Rather than focusing attention on changing the negative behaviors, Dr. Bavolek encourages parents to focus on the positive behaviors they see in their children. In the midst of the negative behaviors it is easy to lose sight of the positive ones, the areas in children that are producing fruit.

As all parents know, there is limited time and energy in each day; in gardening, the watering can has a limited amount of water to be poured out. My encouragement to parents is to look at where the water is being poured. How much is spent correcting negative behaviors (watering weeds) versus praising positive behaviors (watering seeds which lead to fruit)?

Often something as simple as spending 15 to 30 minutes of quality time each day engaging with your child will result in growth. Try it. Turn off technology, put aside any preconceived ideas of what the child should be, and get on their level. Let them take the lead and engage in an activity that brings them joy. The families that participate in our parenting class are asked to do this and report back each week. The stories from the parents who fully engage are full of hope and encouragement. They share change in their relationship with their children as well as an increase in positive behaviors.

Over my time working with children and families I have come to understand how important boundaries, structure and consistency are for children. Structure in particular has a positive impact on the family as a whole. When working with families, adding structure to the home is often the first place I start.

My recommendations are to start small, with tasks the family feels they can be consistent with. Consistency will help children know what to expect and what is expected of them, which often lowers anxiety in the child.

Often we start with tasks and activities that are already regularly happening, such as sleeping and eating. Once those patterns are regularly in place the family can continue to build, adding in other daily tasks such as chores, homework, family time and so on.

I also encourage families to include children in setting a daily schedule, particularly offering choices on when activities happen through the day. For example; would you like to complete your homework right after school or have a snack first and then do your homework? This helps the child feel that they are a part of the plan and usually increases their willingness to participate in the schedule.

Finally, I encourage parents not to aim for perfection. It will likely be a slow process with steps forward and back. Being a boundary holder can be a difficult job. I warn parents that children will likely push back at first, testing to see how strong the boundaries are. Hold tight to the areas that are most important for you and your family. With time the whole family will adjust.

Jen Bettis is the Intensive Safety and Reunification Services Supervisor at Family Tree Relief Nursery. She teaches Nurturing Parenting classes at Family Tree.

“How Would You Know?”

This week’s guest post was written by Jeni Jorgens. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Jeni.

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“How would you know?”

or:

The experience of a childless parent-educator

In short, I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know what it feels like to have my child step on my face when I’m still slumbering in the morning, I wouldn’t know the constant anxiety about my child’s well-being, and I wouldn’t know the crushing anguish of hearing my child say “I hate you!”

I will tell you what I do know. I know that parenting is hard. Really, really, really hard. I know that parenting tests limits you didn’t even know existed. Mostly, I know that all parents do the best they can with what they know and have.

I do not have children; however, my job is supporting parents in becoming the best parents they can be. Often, this includes sharing tips and ideas to make child-rearing a little bit easier. When I am in someone’s life, problem-solving various family-related things, I am sometimes asked the question I dread most: “So, do you have kids?”

When a parent asks me this, a small wave of panic consumes me while I search for the best way to answer. Do I explain that although I don’t have kids, I have a lot of education? No, that sounds too smug. Do I talk about all of the experience I have? Perhaps too defensive. Can I simply say “no,” with no rationalization for why they should listen to me? So here the parent and I sit, most likely both fearing judgment from each other.

In these moments, I settle on “I do not have kids, but I love them, have taken care of a lot of them, and want to support your family.” I share that I do not, in fact, have all of the answers (or claim to), and that I appoint the parent as the true expert.

Being in this position has its benefits for both the family and me. Having an objective perspective, I may be able to think of solutions that are not clouded by emotion and exhaustion. As for me, I have the wonderful opportunity to learn about situations and challenges I may have never considered.

All in all, I really don’t know what it is like to be a parent, but my hope is that the family and I can work as a team. We can brainstorm and try new things together. We can teach each other. We can nurture the family so that they not just surviving, but thriving.

Jeni Jorgens is the Infant Specialist at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Mommy, Why?

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This week’s guest post was written by Julie Whitus. We hope you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Julie.

Toddlers are like little scientists, toddling, as they do, around their environment gathering information and trying to figure it all out. At one point children will start asking, “Why?” As an adult who still loves to question why, this is one of my favorite stages of human development.

Recently my four year-old daughter has been asking her whys. “Mommy, why is there a sun?” “Mommy, why do we have necks?” “Mommy, why do I have a belly?” My reaction is always to turn this question back to her: “Well, why do you think?” I enjoy her answers greatly, especially the most recent response to why she thinks she has a nose. “So I can give you nose kisses,” she replied.

As these whys continued, I thought to myself that I needed to buy my daughter a book with information about the five senses. But upon further investigation I realized that no book could possible encompass the answers to all my daughter’s questions. Suddenly, the creative mommy part of my brain clicked on and I thought, “Why not make her a personal Why Book?”

Now, creating a book for a child can be as extravagant or as simple as you want it. As a working mother of six children, I prefer the simpler version. For this Why Book I printed out some coloring pages depicting the five senses, gathered some blank colored paper, printed a picture of my daughter, bought some stickers, crayons, and a 50 cent pocket folder with three prongs. I hole-punched all the pages and put them into the folder, then printed off a page with my daughter’s name and the title: Why Book.

When I presented this to my four year-old she helped me to decorate the front of the book with stickers. Then we discussed eyes, and I asked her what types of things she saw with her eyes. She responded, “a snowman.” Together my daughter and I drew a snowman and I labeled it.

This project created quiet time for my daughter to explore the world, color, and look at new words. She really enjoys the book, and there are plenty of blank pages to utilize for more why questions. I love the idea of being able to capture her questions and answers and save them for the future.

Julie Whitus is an In-Home Safety & Reunification Services Advocate at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

The Dress Rehearsal

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So, school is starting soon. If you’re not one of those parents who have kept those routines going throughout the Summer (have you met one? I’m sure they exist), then you and your kids may have some adjusting to do in order to transition smoothly into the school year.

One difference that makes itself apparent is that suddenly, a lot more will be happening in the morning. Kids will need to be fed, bathed, dressed and ready to go—to the bus stop, to the car, on foot, preferably with shoes on—and all of these things need to happen on time.

Don’t freak out! Some of this will have to work itself out through experimentation, and there may be mornings in which someone’s shirt is inside out and the homework is in the lunchbox. And that’s okay. But there are ways to prepare the ground, as it were, to make the coming circus easier to mount.

One week is generally enough time to get back into school routines. This gives time to work out the kinks, to try the steps in a different order or at a longer or shorter duration, and most importantly it gives kids the opportunity to adjust to this new reality. They are going to be full of excitement and trepidation in more or less equal measure, and knowing how their sendoff will work goes a long way toward easing their minds and being able to focus on the good stuff.

What needs to happen? Here are the essentials.

  1. The night before: have a good idea of what breakfast will be, and what lunches will look like, if applicable. Lay the kids’ clothes out, or have outfits stored together for easy access.
  2. In the morning: You should be up first, because you’re the ringmaster. It is good for parents to establish their own morning rituals in order to be awake and ready to meet the kids’ needs. Making coffee is the key to my success (if not my very existence). My girls like to read books or draw first thing, so I might leave books, paper and pencils out for them to find.
  3. Kids can get used to getting up on time. Like I said, a week should be enough time for this to sink in. It might be good to allow a few days with little pressure before making it a “dress rehearsal.”
  4. Help kids practice dressing, toothbrushing, and gathering of backpacks, jackets and whatever else they might need. Give gentle reminders with little pressure, and make it fun, with incentives and rewards for mastering the task (my kids are fond of brushing to a timer; something like a sticker chart might work to encourage the practice).

These days of preparation are the place to learn what works and what needs tweaking. Remember to be gentle and patient now that the stakes are low and by the time “opening day” arrives, you will all feel more confident and comfortable with the new routine. And by removing barriers to the kids’ success, you are helping them to a place in which they are ready to learn.

Did I mention the coffee part?

 

 

Respect My Authority

This week’s guest post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Esther.

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A friend commented on my post about being friends with your children (“Why Can’t We Be Friends?”). She was concerned that friendship might undermine the “ability to be authoritative and a disciplinarian within the parent-child relationship.“

Her comment got me thinking about authority. Like most words, authority can mean several things: having power, being in charge, being an expert, and/or being a reliable source of information. Our own experiences with authority have a big effect on how we use–or don’t use–authority in parenting our children. We may have experienced authority that was used in an appropriate, fair, beneficial way. Or we may have experienced authority that was used in an unjust, arbitrary, or abusive way.

What does beneficial authority look like? Beneficial authority is reasonable, respectful, and responsible.

Reasonable: Reasonable authority is based on rules and there are clear reasons for the rules.

Most of us have an internal set of rules based on safety, social customs, and family values. Often we aren’t consciously aware of what those rules are or why they exist. So it’s useful to examine our internal rules and decide if we want to keep them, add new ones, or discard some. Examining the rules on a regular basis, with your partner, and as a family, will help to keep the rules reasonable and make them easier to enforce.

It’s easier to enforce rules when you yourself believe them to be important and fair. When children have agreed to and even helped come up with the rules, it is even easier. Easier—but still not easy. Remember that no matter how fair and reasonable rules are, sometimes it is extremely difficult to follow them.

Respectful: Respectful authority enforces the rules in a way that preserves the child’s dignity and physical and emotional safety. Parent educator Jody McVittie describes this as being kind and firm at the same time. Kind and firm means that parents can empathize with the child’s distress while still enforcing the rule: “It’s hard to stop playing when you are having so much fun. Now it’s time to say goodbye to the slide and go home for lunch.”

It’s upsetting when a child cries or says, “I hate you!” Like many parents, I often gave in, tried to placate, or got angry with my children. It was (and sometimes still is) difficult to accept their emotional reactions without trying to suppress or dismiss them. But acknowledging an emotion is actually more respectful, both to the child and to the adult, and often makes it easier to enforce the rule.

Being respectful to our children, even when we are angry or disappointed with them, also shows them how to be respectful to us and to others.

Responsible: Parental authority is valuable because it helps parents to protect and guide their children. Children need protection and guidance, and parents are responsible for providing it. But children also need opportunities to do things for themselves and to learn from the consequences of their actions—both positive and negative. Sometimes the responsible parent stands back.

Determining exactly how much protection and guidance is needed in a given situation can be tricky. Different cultures and families (and individuals within those families) have different standards. Children have unique temperaments requiring more or less use of authority. Responsible use of authority requires frequent assessments of a child’s needs and abilities and of the environment surrounding the child and the family.

Staying reasonable and respectful helps parents to determine whether standing back or stepping in is more responsible when challenges occur.

Authority that is reasonable, respectful, and responsible is effective. It helps children grow and parents stay sane. It’s authority we can both respect.

A House Full of Music

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We listen to a lot of music in our family. Thanks to our Spotify playlists, we have suitable music for mealtime (The Meatball Monday mix, which is heavy on Sinatra; the Sushi Night collection with its Japanese flute), for chores (mostly folk songs about doing things), and for transitioning into rest time (various ambient and nature sounds). And they each have their favorites, from the eight year-old knowing the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” to the ten year-old’s devotion to Enya.

As much as I love a huge swath of genres, periods and styles, I try to be careful what I play around my small children. So as much as I would like them to appreciate Iron Maiden as much as I do—songs about history and literature!—I just don’t think they’re ready for it yet. I have many friends with a different approach: they are reassured, they tell me, by their kids finding the same things cool that they do. I disagree, preferring them to figure these things out for themselves (for the same reason, they have not yet seen a Star Wars film). As far as I remember, though, all four children were born to Kind of Blue by Miles Davis in the background. Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi visit just about every morning. And barely a week has gone by in our house without Bob Marley.

So as eager as I am for my kids to partake of the full breadth and depth of recorded music, and introduce them to free jazz, minimal techno and Viking war metal, I don’t think there’s any way to force it. Kids respond to what they will, and this is often based on age and development. At what age did you discover the Beatles and wonder where they’ve been all your life? And what seven year-old boy’s day would not be absolutely made by the one-two punch of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions?” We recently played Toto’s “Africa,” my favorite childhood song by a fair distance, and my ten year-old latched right onto it.

That’s not to say that current pop music does not infiltrate our fortress of parenting. I am an active champion of Taylor Swift, but for whatever reason she has not caught on with the children. They were baffled by Daft Punk: “Why would you stay up all night to get lucky? That doesn’t sound like fun.” But the recent heat wave has cemented “Uptown Funk” as a referent. Daughter: “I’m so hot!” Parent: “Make a dragon want to retire?”

Once we hit the teen years, music tends to hit us hard (and as Bob Marley sang, “when it hits you, you feel no pain”). At that time I intend to start the mixtapes flowing. And then the indoctrination will begin.

Why You Should Get Off My Lawn

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You know who needs boundaries? Kids. Of all ages. Don’t tell them I said this, but teenagers need boundaries too. They need them as much, at least, as they did when they were younger. In fact, they probably recognize this. They might even say so. Not to their parents, probably, but there you go. They’re too busy differentiating themselves from their families and exploring their identities and all those teenaged things that keep them up late at night.

What’s more, even parenting sites that some would consider to occupy opposite ends of the ideological spectrum come together on this point.

According to Planned Parenthood, “Knowing where our teens are, who they are with, and setting boundaries for their behavior are important parts of helping our teens stay healthy — especially when it comes to sex. Sometimes people refer to this part of parenting as monitoring and supervision. Monitoring means knowing where our children are, who they’re with, and whether or not there is an adult present. Supervision means setting clear boundaries and expectations and getting our teens to agree to them. It also means following through consistently with agreed upon and ‘fair’ consequences when rules and expectations are not met.”

Focus on the Family agrees: “Boundaries include saying yes and no, just as doors are made to be opened and closed. Teens need the life lessons of success and failure to mature. When we open the door to appropriate levels of freedom, we give our teens a chance to make their own decisions, and to learn from them. When your daughter messes up by getting a speeding ticket, support her. Why? Because you can comfort and guide her through her mistake. If you feel like trust was broken, a lock down may be necessary. If the door has been wide open, it’s okay to shut it, a little, a lot, or completely. You can reopen it later.”

There are a lot of sources out there, and I found that a few clear points are emphasized again and again.

  • Teenagers are pushing for independence. If they don’t know exactly what our expectations are, and where we draw the line for behavior, they will keep going until something happens; either provoking the parents to react (and often in panic, pulling back on a teen’s freedom in a way that may provoke or upset them) or falling into a consequence of their own behavior that could be unhealthy, dangerous, or include legal ramifications.
  • Teenagers are at a stage in their development in which they are driven to engage in risky behaviors. They might believe that they can’t be hurt, or that consequences will not be serious or permanent, or that their decisions do not affect other people.

The combination of these factors, as well as the simple fact that their brains are still developing—and will continue doing so for years to come—make clear expectations and boundaries more important than ever.

There are some differences in how parents can effectively present these boundaries with teenaged kids as opposed to younger ones. For one thing, there need to be reasons behind it. “Because I said so,” “Because we know what’s best for you” or even “Because we need to keep you safe” are no longer going to cut it.

Teens need to know the context behind the rules. This can be complicated, but on the other hand it can also be easier, because we can involve them in formulating the rules and the consequences that will arise from them. They are able to understand and to help make decisions around boundaries. Given the responsibility to do this, they will be much more likely to abide by them. They will also feel more respected, and will be more likely to communicate with adults about what is happening in their lives.

All this can be tricky for parents because it’s new territory. It requires us to delegate some of the responsibility and decision-making to our kids. That can be scary, and it can also be painful to our pesky adult egos.

It’s the same job, and it’s just as important as it ever was. They may not thank us for it, but then…who knows about kids these days?

Out of the Ordinary

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I’ve written a lot on this blog about the importance of routines. We try to make the events of the day—meals and snack times, transitions, chores, bedtimes—as regular and predictable as possible. The more things kids can rely on, the more secure they will feel when things happen that are out of the ordinary. After all, the best way to tell if routines are working is when something happens to disrupt them.

A lot of things are different this week. My wife is away at a weeklong homeschooling conference. The four girls are with my mother-in-law in Newport for a few days; I will be home with them for the rest of the week. This is kind of a big deal for all of us. I am especially a stickler about bedtimes, if only because it’s such a cornerstone of our home life and because we have put so much time and effort into finding a way to do it that works most of the time (though I’m sure there are some control issues at play in there as well).

We sent along a rough schedule of a typical day’s events and hoped that the spirit of it, if not the letter, would be followed. Here are some excerpts:

  • Morning activity: We usually stay close to home during this time, go for walks or do arts and crafts. They will need a morning snack.
  • Afternoon activity: This is usually our going out time. They will need a snack!

As you can see, there is emphasis on regular feeding. At home we have breakfast, then a morning “tea” (sometimes known, hobbit-style, as “second breakfast”), lunch, afternoon “tea” and dinner. That’s food being offered just about every 2-3 hours, with quick snacks in between if needed. I am pretty sure that if my mother-in-law varies the rhythm of the day—with periods of activity followed by periods of rest—then any other problems can be solved by throwing food at them.

They are going to have fun. They will take trips to the beach, the lighthouse and the aquarium. They will go to the park and the toy store (they enjoy hanging out in toy stores, and don’t expect to walk out with anything. If I knew how this was accomplished, believe me, I would tell you). They will sleep as well as they will sleep, and I understand that I have no control over this. I never do. Working on letting it go.

What I do know is that when I bring them back home, they will have had several days of new and unfamiliar rhythms, and they will be…off. And though there are some things we will need to get done, including swim lessons and grocery shopping, we will be spending the next few days just trying to get back into those familiar routines. I expect anything, up to and including tantrums, large-scale meltdowns, and general low-level crankiness. What they need is a slow and gentle shifting of gears. Luckily we will have some time to do that.

Also, snacks. Lots of snacks.

Whose Job is it Anyway?

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I sometimes find myself reminding my daughters—particularly the oldest, aged eight and 10—that it is not their job to parent their sisters. They will attempt to enforce family rules with their younger siblings, or repeat directions the parents have already given. Aside from the fact that the younger girls tend not to take this very well, it is clearly not their job to take on the responsibilities of parenting.

Granted, there are various reasons why the older sisters would want to step into the role of parenting lieutenant. For one thing, they’ve been around longer, and are familiar with the rules; they also have a better understanding of how these rules (assuming that they agree with them) help the household to run more smoothly. For another, as they get older they are taking on more responsibilities with chores, helping to prepare meals and set the table, getting ready to go out, etc. We will be comfortable with letting the eldest girl begin to babysit in earnest in only a couple of short years. And these are good things.

However, they occasionally need to be reminded that they are not parents (the four and six year-olds are happy to help, which brings about its own issues: “You’re not the parent!”). Nor should they be. Their job is to be kids, and this is a full time position. They should be playing, and reading, and making things, and when parents deem it appropriate they can take on specific duties for which power has been granted. But rules, directions and discipline should come from the adults in the household. As parents, it is our job to establish and maintain routines, to plan and execute meals and household projects, to supervise the children and ensure that they are doing what needs to be done (and not doing, you know, what doesn’t).

Why is this a big deal? In the case of my own family we are fortunate to be dealing with some pretty mild and superficial instances of children taking on more than is appropriate. In extreme cases, children are compelled not only to take on the duties and responsibilities of adult caretakers but to fulfill this role with the adults themselves. The term for this is parentification. Good ol’ Wikipedia defines it succinctly as “the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to their own parent. In extreme cases, the child is used to fill the void of the alienating parent’s emotional life.”

This much more severe and complicated condition arises when parents are unable—due to issues with addiction, mental illness or trauma—to maintain adult functions in the family and lean on the kids to take up the slack. An example would be that a child is planning meals and cooking for the whole family, or dressing and preparing younger siblings for school. Another form this may take is known as “emotional parentification.” This is when parents share with children their very adult situations and emotions. The child becomes a confidant; in extreme cases, according to this website, the child takes on the role of “a surrogate spouse or therapist.” Even if a child is willing or even eager to take this on—who does not want to please their parents?—it can be very damaging because they do not have the emotional or intellectual development necessary to process adult problems.

It is important to keep in mind not only what the child’s job should be, but the parent’s as well. Adults should not expect to gain validation, entertainment, or emotional support from their kids. This is not to say that we cannot, or should not, enjoy and celebrate the things that kids can do, or that when they are being entertaining we should not laugh, out loud, and often. But as I remind them (and sometimes need to remind myself) taking care of them is my job, and that’s a one-way proposition.