The Talk

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Not to alarm you or anything, but it has become increasingly common for girls to enter puberty at an earlier age. There is a great deal of speculation about why this might be, but few definitive answers. It may be related to diet, or to the chemical makeup of contemporary foods. It may be influenced by environmental factors, and triggered by stress, trauma, major life events, birth order, or any combination thereof. The fact is that girls’ bodies are often no longer waiting for the teenage years to start those hormonal engines.

My oldest daughter, aged nine, unceremoniously entered puberty a couple of months ago. This should not have been a big surprise, as both her mother and mine were also notably early bloomers. Both of us had talked to her about what was likely to happen, and from her reaction it seemed that she was better prepared than I was.

Case in point: when it happened I was volunteered to go shopping for her first tampons. Armed with specific instructions regarding the number, size and thickness of feminine hygiene products I was to seek out, I found that the industry had beaten me to it: there was in fact a “tween” brand prominently displayed on the shelf. It was as if they had confused consumer dads in mind.

I asked my wife when she had first had “the talk” with our daughter, and she told me that it had been coming up in conversation since she was a toddler. Rather than a single instructive talk, the preparation for puberty has been an ongoing dialogue. After all, when four girls and a mom are sharing a bathroom, certain things are noticeable. Nor was this dialogue connected necessarily to the larger—and often dreaded—”birds and bees” talk (does anyone call it that anymore?). There was no need to get into the mechanics of baby-making.

So, talking to our girls about puberty was part of a larger conversation about getting older, bigger and taller. This is an occasion for pride and excitement. I had been approaching it from my own experience with puberty, particularly around the acne that plagued me with some regularity into my early twenties, and which prompted, by advice from my dermatologist, my inaugural attempt at a beard (it was…inconsistent). I figured it was important for my daughters to know about the hair that would be growing in new places; the sweat; the kaleidoscopic surfeit of thoughts and feelings; the sudden variety of odors and bodily substances that are part of the package of growing up. Our eldest was already a veteran applier of deodorant, a fact which has been a source of curiosity, even admiration, for her sisters.

It was a natural progression. In order to mark this event as a cause for celebration rather than fear or trepidation, we have since allowed our eldest to get her ears pierced. Thus we have instituted a tradition particular to our own family culture. No doubt your family will have its own.

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Spanking: The Debate, Sadly, Continues

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According to a recent article in the Washington Post (thanks to Cyrel Gable at Parenting Success Network for bringing it to my attention), “Millennials – the most recent generation to have been children – aren’t leading any attitudes change [sic] on the issue of spanking… If anything, they are slightly more supportive than their elders.” The article goes on to explain that the age of parents does not seem to have a strong influence on this attitude, but the fact remains that spanking continues to be seen as an effective form of discipline in spite of well-known and widespread research that indicates otherwise.

Because of the continued prevalence of spanking as a practice—and especially the fact that the younger generation of parents is even more likely to find it acceptable than their parents did—I would like to briefly address it here.

There are several generalized reasons given for the effectiveness of spanking children.

  • Some of them are based on personal rationalization, along the lines of “I was spanked as a child, and I turned out okay.” It is difficult to respond to this justification other than to point out that a major effect of being spanked as a child is that it leads to a likelihood of spanking one’s own children. One could argue that this counts as having “turned out okay.” It is okay, if spanking is a good practice, and, well, not so much if it is not.
  • According to the study cited above, religious beliefs play a part in the acceptance of spanking as well, in particular the Biblical passage regarding “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” As a practicing Christian I do not find this to hold water; neither do I wish to get into it here. Suffice it to say that spanking is a prevalent cultural practice among certain religious communities.
  • What is left, then, is the attitude that spanking is, in itself, an effective tool of discipline. And this has been discounted by decades of parenting research. We could apply any of a variety of models to question this attitude. I go to the “4 Questions” formulated by the organization Parenting Now!, because they’re easy to remember and apply to a variety of situations:
  1. What do I want my child to learn?
  2. Is what I’m doing teaching that?
  3. Are there any negative results from it?
  4. If so, what can I do differently?

I think you will agree that the answers are pretty clear. If we are wanting our child to learn any number of things—whether it be a skill, respect for authority, self-control, decision-making, what have you—then spanking does not lead to acquisition of the skill. As adults, do we learn better when faced with the threat of physical pain? Do we respect those we fear, or who hurt us and violate our personal boundaries? Does causing pain teach a skill? Other than that force is an acceptable way to exercise our power?

As for the negative results: are they not obvious?

That leaves the question of what our other options may be. And that is why organizations like Parenting Success Network are here. There are numerous blog entries, articles and resources dedicated to providing positive, nurturing and non-violent tools for disciplining our children. A quick online search for “positive parenting” or “positive discipline” will bring up a wealth of information, most of which is more likely to be useful than not.

I want to add that all parents, and I must include myself, have done things they regret because they feel they have run out of options. This is not the same as working from the assumption that physical discipline is a desirable or effective practice. But knowing the options can help in either case.

When All Else Fails

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Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of Daylight Savings Time.

Bedtime routines are a cornerstone of parenting in our house. We have worked out, over the years and with a lot of experimentation, how to give our children what they need to have a calm, predictable and nurturing routine in the evenings. And when things change—for example, the clocks Fall Back—it can throw everything into disarray. Suddenly bedtime no longer looks like bedtime. It’s not even dark yet! And it feels like starting all over again. Tonight my four-and six-year old had an exceedingly difficult time going to sleep.

This post is not about bedtime. It’s about what happens when this job that we do, surely one of the most difficult jobs around, suddenly seems too much to bear.

I am employed as a “Parenting Expert.” When I tell this to people, particularly the families with whom I’m working, I can’t help but put it in air quotes. After all, I am equipped with every tool available: the latest research, the best strategies, the right language; all the tricks of the trade. I spent much of last week attending a Nurturing Parenting Facilitator’s Training, where I was surrounded by experts and picked up more information than I know what to do with. And tonight, it just got to be too much. Those kids were not going to sleep. They were going to cry and scream. They needed help, and at some point I simply forgot everything I had learned.

I failed, people. Parenting fail, big time. So I reached for the last tool I could find. I gave myself a time out.

When all else fails, and a parent feels that it is no longer effective or even safe to remain in what looks to be an impossible situation with a child, it is the parent that needs a time out. Walk away, find a quiet place, take some breaths. When I did this I felt like I was giving up; as a “Parenting Expert,” I was ready to turn in my proverbial badge.

Ten minutes later, when I returned to the bedroom, The Situation was more or less the way I had left it. The screaming was in full effect. Nothing had changed except that I had done the only thing left for me to do. And I had just enough charge left in my parenting battery to try it again. To be the calm presence, to assure them that they were safe. To apologize for the words I had used and to offer better, kinder ones. To hold a toddler’s hand.

They’re sleeping, for what it’s worth. And tomorrow is a new day.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

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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In many parenting books and articles, I’ve come across the statement “you are not your child’s friend.” It always makes me wonder what the author’s definition of “friend” is. Because I do consider—and have considered almost from the moment they were born—my children as my friends. Why? Here is how I define friendship:

A friend is someone who I know and who knows me

A friend is someone I’ve experienced events or activities with

A friend is someone I can have fun with

A friend is someone I have common interests with

A friend is someone who I help and who helps me

A friend is someone I can share joys and sorrows with

A friend is someone I can trust

Here are some of the definitions of “friend” in the dictionary:

  1. a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.
  2. a person who gives assistance; supporter
  3. a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile:
  4. a member of the same nation, party, etc.

So why would some parenting experts advise against friendship? I assume it is because some friendships are unhealthy; and because friends often play a role (such as a confidant) that would be inappropriate in a parent-child relationship.

Examples of unhealthy “friendships” include:

  • “Friendships” in which the fear of losing affection overrides concern for the safety or well-being of the other person or for yourself.
  • Inappropriately exclusive and/or controlling “friendships.”
  • “Friendships” where the needs of one person dominate, to the detriment of the other person.

These “friendships” are familiar; most of us have been involved in one or more of them, particularly as we were growing up and experimenting with how to be in a relationship with another person. These mistakes helped us learn what not to do as a friend. Sometimes relationships survived these mistakes and became healthy friendships; other times we were able to form healthy friendships with new people.

What helped us to learn what to do as a friend? It’s not enough to learn what not to do. Parents who have healthy friendships with other adults provide a model for their children. I believe that having a healthy friendship with your child also helps him or her to learn about friendship.

So what is a healthy parent-child friendship?

  1. There are appropriate boundaries—the parent is still the parent and provides protection and guidance.
  2. The child is allowed to be a child, not forced into an adult role.
  3. The parent has adult friends and healthy relationships with them.
  4. The parent encourages and facilitates the child’s contact with and friendship with other children (and with other adults when appropriate).

My friendship with my children evolved as they grew into adults. There are still boundaries I’ve set, and additional boundaries they have set. I still have the urge to provide protection and guidance to them– they usually tolerate this, sometimes gently reprimand me about it, and occasionally request it. Our friendship will evolve still further as I age. I have good memories of times of fun and friendship with my own parents before their deaths. I hope one day my children will have similar memories of our friendship.

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.

Teaching Kindness

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

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I have always been intrigued by other people’s stories. In the treatment centers I work in, Milestones Women’s Program (for women and children) and YES House (for adolescents), one of the first questions I ask is “what happened to you?” Sometimes the question alone evokes a tearful and very sad response.

I listen to stories of pain and loss and of people just trying to survive in what is often an unkind world.

As a mom I always felt honor-bound to teach my boys kindness for others, no matter their presentation or circumstance. As we were driving we would see people holding signs at freeway entrances or grocery parking lots. Most of these signs said “Homeless…need help” or “I am hungry, please help me.” Because of my life experience I could often identify the Viet Nam veteran, the mother or father simply trying to do the best they could.

I carry dollar bills in my car and I give what can when I encounter people needing help. It’s not much; I don’t have that much extra, but I always can spare a dollar, or two, or five. I have taught my sons to do the same thing. Holding a sign asking for help in the rain or in the hot sun is hard work. I have heard others say “Why don’t they get a job,” as though that could be the answer. These people are faced with barriers that we don’t truly know or may not be able to understand. It is not mine to judge. And, thank God, my children don’t judge either.

One of the proudest days I remember is when my youngest was about twelve years old. He and a friend of mine were in the Albertson’s parking lot in Albany when they encountered a woman in a wheel chair. She was holding a sign that read “Please help”. My son read the sign and after passing her turned around and approached the women. “Here, I want to help,” he said, and handed her a ten-dollar bill. She smiled and thanked him for his generosity. They apparently spoke for about five minutes, and he asked her about her wheelchair.

I didn’t witness this act of kindness: my friend told me about it. I talked to my son later that evening and told him I knew that he had given his money away. I asked why he didn’t tell me. He laughed and then said, “I didn’t think I had to.” We spoke more and he shared that he saw she didn’t have legs and wanted to help in any way he could. He repeated the lesson I had taught him, that “she was working as hard as she could.”

Everybody has a story. We generally land where we do in life because of the help we receive or the help we don’t. There are many ways to give. Teaching children to give, to share, and to serve brings rewards we can’t count.

Tanya has been the Director of Milestones for the past 21 years.  She has been working in the field of addictions for over 30 years. 

Little House, Big Family

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We live in a small house. We’re okay with that, but two adults and four children—who continue, inexplicably, to get older and grow in size—in two bedrooms and a converted garage can be a challenge. We spent the three-day weekend doing what we traditionally do, which is to rearrange the entire house. Thanks to this year’s tax refund, we rented a dumpster and got rid of as much of our dilapidated furniture and any items not fit to donate as we could. One Ikea trip and three full days of work later, this house is a little more habitable.

Our previous house was a bit larger, and the one before that was bigger still. What I found was that the more space we had, the more stuff appeared to fill it up. We didn’t even have to buy it; furniture arrived from friends and family to take up residence there, often for “safekeeping.” Toys seemed to breed overnight. Each successive move lead to more stuff filling less space. Thus the dumpster. I prefer small, thank you.

What makes a small house work for a family? A place for everything, and everything in its place. We make extensive use of baskets (I don’t even know where they come from): baskets for shoes, baskets for wooden blocks, baskets for sweaters and coats. These hanging closet organizers are surprisingly effective. Shelves and bins for the various things girls collect. And because we’re a family of readers, the bookshelves are finally cleared for books! Plus lamps, because of the reading, and tables to hold them. Our kids need floor space to build and play—blocks, Legos, puzzles, board games, sketchpads—so we try to make as much room as possible.

Most of the time, a two-bedroom house is cozy. But things come up. There are already lines for the bathroom, and none of the girls are teenagers yet. The nine-year old must have read somewhere about privacy, and is lobbying to move into the garage. Further rearrangement is in order. And a single couch can lead to territorial disputes if someone (for example, a toddler) is not in the mood to share her personal space. I try to stay on my feet as much as I can, and save my couch time for when they’re sleeping. I’m sitting right now! It’s nice.

I think that mostly a small house works because of the yard. It was sunny and warm today, and lunch was served on blankets on the lawn, surrounded by stuffed animals. While the parents shifted furniture and bagged clothes, the kids ran, played, gardened (planted sticks in the lawn) and found endless uses for sand, stones and mud.

Whatever space you share with your family, I hope that it works for you. Stay cozy.

Good Mornings

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If there’s a key to parenting, and I’m not saying that there is, it’s routines. If a child knows what’s going to happen next, and what to do about it, parents have already done most of the work.

I get up early for work, and all four of my daughters get up with me. They know that I’m going to turn the lights on, and they know that I’m going to make coffee. And when I’m reasonably sure that coffee is going to happen, I’m going to make breakfast. That’s it, really. Once breakfast is over they start on chores; the nine year-old puts away the laundry I have done in the night, and the seven year-old puts away the dishes. Everyone makes their bed, with varying degrees of assistance, and gets dressed, ditto.

If that sounds simple, let me tell you that it has taken years of practice. I learned somewhere that it’s healthier and more efficient to get up at the same time every morning, even on the weekends. Being a parent has made me a morning person. This was not a natural development. And there have been bumps. Hard experience has lead to the phrase, “I don’t discuss breakfast, I make it.” For a number of reasons, not having to negotiate or sell breakfast is the only way it can happen without issues. I am not a fount of calm and reason prior to coffee.

My wife sleeps in until I leave for work. She is in charge of homeschooling, and she will wake up—on a good morning—to children who are fed, dressed, and ready for a school day. I imagine it would be the same if one or both of us were taking them to school. More importantly, my wife wakes up to the makings of a perfect pour-over cup of coffee.

So here are the components of my morning routine:

  • The laundry and dishes have been done in the night.
  • I am up when the kids are awake.
  • I feed them.
  • I am ready to pass them along when I leave for work.

It’s a routine because it works the same way every day. I know what needs to be done—I am very attached to my routines as well—and so do the kids. The start of the day sets the tone for the rest of it. If a child needs an extra hug or a reassuring smile, I provide it. This is not always easy for me first thing, because frankly I would rather sit down with my coffee and read the music reviews on Pitchfork. But that can happen after breakfast is done. If I’m lucky, I get 10-20 minutes before it’s time to get ready for work.

There are a lot of ways to make these things work more efficiently, as detailed in this article from The American Occupational Therapy Association. One thing I found funny was the idea of establishing a wake up time for your kids. The wake up time for my kids is when the sun is first thinking about coming up. I know that I will eventually have to convince my children to get out of bed, but we’re not there yet.

Your routine will work differently than mine. You are probably more ambitious and energetic than I am, so you’re probably out jogging or doing yoga or something. That’s cool. The important thing is that it’s predictable, and that it works.

On Tantrums

 

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Tantrums happen.

There are two things that most parents, myself included, would love know more about when it comes to tantrums. One is how to avoid them. The other is how, when they happen, to deal with them.

Is it possible to keep a child from having a tantrum? Well, there are certainly conditions we can create that make them less likely, or at least less frequent. Children, especially toddlers, need an environment that is predictable and orderly. They want to know what is coming next, and in what order. What it comes down to is that they need to feel safe. When a child loses that sense of orderliness, of predictability, they will feel insecure. Too many choices, unclear expectations, transitions, anything which makes them feel a loss of control can trigger a tantrum.

In that sense, routines are important. Telling our child what is going to happen next, and giving them a sense that one thing will follow another, can certainly help. But as you may have noticed, life tends to upend these things. We might need to go to the store, for example. It might be time to clean up because we are going to have dinner. The castle built from blocks might fall down. The child might feel hot, cold, tired, hungry, frustrated, nervous or confused. Really, anything could happen. And will.

So, tantrums. There hasn’t been a lot of study devoted to how they work and what they’re made of, possibly because scientists might have children too, and a screaming, flopping toddler will beat science every time.

But there have been some recent attempts to focus on the tantrum. A study detailed in this NPR story offers insight into what goes into a tantrum, and some ideas about what to do when they happen. It’s worth listening to the story (audio can be found in the link) and to watch the brief video that accompanies the article. For one thing, it’s fantastic that researchers convinced a bunch of toddlers to wear special onesies wired with microphones to have tantrums in. I love that.

The story explains that, while it was previously held that a child’s outburst may come in waves of anger and sadness, the data collected in this study indicates that they are more often mixed or layered: there is a complicated and often volatile cloud of feelings coming out of a tantrum. It’s no wonder that children will feel overwhelmed and express themselves in ways that can be scary to them and to us.

So what can we do, as parents, when it happens? According to the researchers, the less the better. We want to help the child ride the peaks of anger and transition into a space in which she can accept comfort. Having expended all that energy, she will feel drained and disoriented and will need adult caregivers to help her reorient herself to her surroundings and her emotions.

Simply put, we should avoid adding fuel to the fire. Don’t ask questions. Don’t try to use reason or logic (even if the tantrum arose over something that simply doesn’t make sense; one example discussed in the story is a toddler who did not want her feet to be attached anymore). The more confusion, choices, or even simple information that we throw into the mix, the longer the tantrum will take to resolve itself. Simple instructions—sit here, put down the toy—are all that is needed to keep the child and others safe.

Perhaps most important, and not discussed in the article, is that the child needs to know we are there for them; that we are available when they need us (even when they are screaming at us to “go away”). Tantrums happen, and they pass, and we can imagine how frightening and exhausting they can be for the child. They will need our help when it is over.

 

Thanks to Rhonda Greene, Family Visitation Coach at Family Tree Relief Nursery, for calling attention to this study.

On Vacation, Going Home

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Our family went on vacation recently. It was nothing too fancy: a friend of the family owns a condo on the coast in which we have been staying, occasionally, for the last few years. It is entirely different from taking a trip to, say, Disneyland, or driving to the Grand Canyon. It is familiar. As many times as we have moved since our children were born, this place has been a constant. It is very much a kind of home.

I think that often family vacations can be as stressful, if not more so, than so-called “regular” life. The packing and preparation, the expectation for everyone to have a “good time,” can be more trouble than it is worth. I can understand the temptation for new and unique experiences; after all, as parents we want our children to keep these memories with them and to cherish them as bright spots in their lives. That’s why family trips come with the further expectation of a lot of photos. “See? This really happened. We did this once.”

Our trips to the coast are more like “staycations.” The kids know what is around them, and what there is to do, and we look forward to settling into them again. That view of the Bay bridge, the sight of the clammers wading around in low tide. The lights of the fishing boats; the seals popping up offshore. For me, this extends to the most banal features of our stay: the quirks of the condo’s oven, with its variations in temperature. The water pressure in the shower and the smell of the resident laundry soap. The soft creak of the stairs (we don’t have stairs at home).

The same applies to the more “vacationy” activities around us. We can’t always afford admission for six at the Oregon Coast Aquarium (in which case, as you may know, the nearby–and free–Hatfield Marine Science Center has its own charms). But as a large family, we have discovered that it’s easy to pay for an annual membership, as it’s not much more than a one-day pass. If we have a membership, we can treat the Aquarium as an extension of our home environment. We don’t need to feel that we are getting our money’s worth by seeing as much as we can, by gorging on everything that’s available. If we want to spend an hour in the theater, with its aquatic animal costumes, puzzles and books, we can do so without regret. If someone just needs a shark fix, we can head straight for the tunnel.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an adventurous person. If you or your children crave the thrill of new places and experiences, I salute you. Occasionally, this is what we want as well. But for the most part, what we are trying to do is go home.

New Year’s Resolutions for Parents and Families

This week’s guest post is from Cindy M. Knapp, MS, LMFT, RPT-S. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Cindy.

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A new year often suggests that we take note of where our lives are at. I wondered what parents had to say about resolutions they were making for themselves and their families for the coming year. I looked at a number of popular websites and read some other blogs. I found that there were common thoughts everywhere.

Most parents seem to feel pressured to DO more, or somehow to BE more. There’s a lot of unnecessary guilt because of expectations parents place on themselves. However, the theme that showed up most in my research is that most parents are longing to feel more connected to their partners and their children; to be closer.

Here are some simple ideas that might help you accomplish this goal, too:

1. HAVE MORE FUN TOGETHER.

  • Take a few minutes after dinner one night a week and write down one idea from each family member of some enjoyable, small activity that she/he would like to do with the family in the coming week. Put the idea on the family calendar, no matter how silly it might seem. Then, make sure that you consider it as important as other things on the calendar (like doctor’s appointments) and have fun!
  • Start “Single Kid Night” (or call it whatever you’d like.) If you have more than one child, you might rarely spend one-on-one time with them. Pick one night a week and set a time limit. An important part of this routine is that the child gets to pick what activity she or he wants the parent to do. You can set limits on options that are available. The family establishes that this time is not to be interrupted. This is easy to pull off if the other children understand that their time with the parent won’t be interrupted, either. If there’s more than one parent in the home, schedule “Single Kid Night” in a way that works best for you, but includes both parents spending time with each child.

2. ENCOURAGE FAMILY TOGETHERNESS THROUGH CONTRIBUTION.

  • Cut down on chaos by establishing routines in which everyone works together to take care of the home. Okay, I know, “yawn.” Probably, no one is going to be excited to work with you on this one. However, children feel good when they make a contribution to the family. Keep it simple. For example, when parents are cleaning up after dinner, have the children help with a specific assigned activity. Use encouraging language to show that you value the child’s contribution. Here’s another idea: when you get out of the car, have all the children look around and pick up some things that need to be taken out. Yes, training the children to participate takes time, but it will help you feel less stressed and more connected if everyone is allowed to help.
  • Look for opportunities to prompt siblings to do things for each other. Think of small things and encourage this often. Remember to include the younger child(ren) in doing things for the older ones. Teach the concept of how we need each other. Some examples: “I see your brother is struggling to do _____; I bet he could use your help.” “You are really good at ____ and your sister is trying to learn. Teach her, please.” Note that these are not in the form of questions. Your child can refuse, but the words suggest that we need each other.

3. TAKE SOME TIME OUT TO PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR PARTNER.

  • Make it a priority to sit down and face each other, and check in about your day. If you don’t PLAN to do this and make it a daily ritual, it’s unlikely to happen. When you as parents work on your connection to each other, your children will see this and benefit from it. How you treat each other and the ways in which you make one another feel important and valued sets the tone for how your children act.
  • Be your partner’s best friend. According to marital researcher John Gottman, committed couples who treat their partners like good friends have a stronger bond.  In addition, you show your children behaviors you want them to learn.