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.

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Time Out: Alternative to What?

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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about time outs, and my observation that, not only do they often fail to achieve what we want for our kids, but there are several unintended side effects as well. I suggested that time outs were nevertheless ingrained in our culture and would continue to be a go-to form of discipline unless we had alternatives close to hand.

In this week’s post, I wanted to touch on some of those alternatives. First, let’s acknowledge some of the ways in which time outs do work. Then we can discuss a way to accomplish those things in a way that is both more nurturing and more effective (the two tend to go together).

  • Time outs can be effective because of fear.

By withholding our affection and attention, we are taking away what is most important to a child’s sense of safety, security and well-being. Our kids don’t want to experience that, so they will attempt to change their behavior, at least for the moment.

Why not flip the equation, and give a child our time and affection, rather than holding it at arm’s length? Parents are good and determining when a child is escalating, or heading to an out of control place. It is still possible to step in, not with a warning, but a hug, or a few minutes on the floor playing with toys or reading books. By fulfilling the child’s unspoken need before it becomes “behavior,” we could prevent the “behavior” from happening. Even better would be to recharge those love batteries in a calm, happy moment.

  • Time outs can be effective because of safety.

It is absolutely true that sometimes a child is being unsafe to themselves and to others and needs to be moved to a safe place. And that is exactly how it should be approached: “I see that you are having trouble controlling your body. I’m going to help you move away.” When a child is feeling out of control, this is exactly what they need, and want, but are singularly unable to express.

What if the child, having been moved to a safe place, continues to escalate? The short answer is, “so what.” Tantrums happen. But if they know that a caring adult is with them and available when they’re ready, the tantrum is likely to be far less severe. It probably won’t last long, either.

  • Finally, time outs can be effective because they provide a time out.

Sometimes a break, even for a couple of crucial minutes, is a necessity. The trick is, it’s for us, not for the child. If we as parents find that we are overwhelmed and unable to deal with the behavior in question, it could just be that we need a minute. Giving ourselves a time out, whether it means a moment on the porch or just that rare and precious chance to use the bathroom alone, can make all the difference.

My Best Friend

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This week’s guest post is by Cammie Freitag. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Cammie.

Do you remember when you were younger? The feelings of love you had for your family and friends? Do you remember beaming with pride as you stated, “this is my best friend?” Now think: do you remember feeling that way about yourself? I had all I needed except for one crucial thing; love for myself.

My mom and dad tried the hardest they could to provide me with all that I needed. I always had food and clothing (even if they were hand-me-downs). So then, how did that critical piece of emotional health, self-love, ended up missing from my upbringing? I can’t say exactly. Sure, I could speculate all day but it wouldn’t make a smidge of a difference. What I had to learn—through excruciatingly poor choices, self-hate and hard life lessons—was how the heck to love myself and talk to myself like I would to my best friend. I’m not always as kind to myself as I should be, but I’m leaps and bounds ahead of the girl I used to be.

Once I had my own child, I made it my mission to teach him how to love himself. I thought that if I could teach him only that, he would have an incredible resource within himself to help him through any and all life struggles; especially mistakes! I once read somewhere that “the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice”. If this is true, that puts a lot of pressure on parents! But it does make you think, doesn’t it? Hopefully most of us wouldn’t use cruel and hurtful language with our kids, such as, “you’re dumb” or, “you’re just a bad kid.” But even the more subtle messages can set a negative tone for our child’s developing inner voice. If you’re sending messages such as, “What’s the matter with you?” or “Why do you always…” what is that really saying to our children? I think it is telling them that they aren’t “okay” the way that they are. This damaging message can affect the way children view themselves. If a child starts to believe they aren’t “okay” the way they are, how can they possibly love themselves?

I’m not saying that we can’t address our child’s behaviors when they arise. But we can do so with a positive approach. Instead of using broad negative statements, let’s figure out what’s going on with them. Ask them how they are feeling. If your child is acting out in an “ugly” way, say something like, “I notice you’re not acting like yourself, can you tell me how you are feeling?” Letting our children know that these behaviors aren’t a part of who they are can show them that we all act in ways that are hurtful or “ugly” but that it is not who we are. That it’s normal and okay to have those feelings; it’s just what we do with those feelings that really matter. And if we do slip and act in a way that isn’t so nice, we can make sure to apologize! Apologizing to our kids teaches them that even big people make mistakes and that when we do, we can recognize it, say we’re sorry, and attempt to repair it. So let’s try to monitor the way we talk to our kids and always be sending the message, “You’re perfect just the way you are”.

Cammie Freitag is an In-home Safety & Reunification Services Advocate at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Time Out on Time Outs

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Time outs have endured as a go-to method for parents who are faced with behavior issues in their kids. I have encountered many parents who have a plan for how to make time outs work, and though I’m not sure where the rules come from (magazine articles? TV nannies? Other parents? Those are my best guesses), they all seem to agree on the basics.

Here are “the rules” of the time out as I have seen them in action:

  • Remove the child from the situation and coax, compel or simply place the child in a particular spot.
  • Instruct the child to remain there for a fixed amount of time—generally one minute per year of age (again, not sure from where this formula comes, specific as it is).
  • Following the time out, usually immediately after it’s over, talk to the child about why it was they were placed in time out.

The goal here, presumably, is that the child will make a connection between the discipline and the behavior it prompted. Unfortunately, it often does not work out that way. Here are some things I have observed about time outs as performed in this manner:

  1. If there are other children present, they are not getting the supervision or attention they would otherwise be getting, and are recruited by circumstance as spectators to the behavior and the power struggle that ensues. The other children are thus more likely to emulate the targeted behavior, if only because they see that it’s an excellent way to gain attention from a parent and to “stop the show.”
  2. And it does become a power struggle, as inevitably the child in question does not wish to be placed in time out and will resist (screaming, becoming aggressive, dropping to the floor, or simply leaving the designated area). I once heard this advice directed at teachers, and I think it applies just as well to parents: “If you enter a power struggle with a child, regardless of the outcome, you have already lost.”
  3. With small children, there is a real disconnect between the behavior incident that prompted the time out and the intervention itself; especially if it becomes a prolonged affair that leads to more acting out and further reaction from the parent. The time out may serve the function of removing the child from the situation, but there is little chance that they will understand why one thing lead to another, and be able to correct the behavior.
  4. The reason for this is that a time out, as described above, is neither a natural consequence (if you go outside without your jacket, you will be cold) nor a logical one (if you hit your sister with that stick, it will be taken away). It’s just too abstract, and the child is no longer in the moment. They will likely not come away with the lesson you intended. This is played out in the simple fact that parents tend to give time outs repeatedly for the same behaviors, and often in the same situations (where a likely explanation for the behavior is that the child is hungry, or tired, or having difficulty with a particular activity or transition).
  5. One thing I frequently observe is that after a child has been given a time out they are given special time with the parent to reconnect and enjoy some positive attention. I think that this is probably the best possible outcome. It is also probably what the child needed in the first place. Since time outs require time and effort from the parent, why not be proactive and take time to allow that connection to happen beforehand? You may find that the behavior—which is nearly always an unmet need that the child can’t otherwise express—does not happen nearly as often.

The Mask

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Being a person is stressful. Being a parent multiplies that stress by quite a bit. Being a child, in a family full of people experiencing stress? Now that’s hard.

I work with families who are under stress from all sides. In addition to the stuff that’s native to being a parent—keeping the kids safe, putting them to bed, figuring out what to do when they pound each other with wooden blocks—there may be intergenerational poverty, even homelessness; addiction issues, mental health issues, lack of transportation, unemployment, chronic illness, food insecurity…the list really goes on. Each of these stressors compounds the other, and it’s all connected.

Stress management is understandably an important skill for parents to practice, and to pass on to children. How does this work? There’s the adage about how, when a plane is going down, we have to strap on our own mask before helping anyone else. Going further, we have to keep in mind that children pick up on all of our signals, especially the ones we don’t realize we’re giving out. So the best way to help kids deal with stress is to deal with our own. Once we’re able to do so, we can pass these skills along. All of these methods are surprisingly simple. And backed by science!

  • Breathing. It’s pretty important. Oxygen to the brain and all that. Three slow, deep breaths are usually enough to give us what we need to handle what’s happening in the moment. Why is it so hard, when we’re feeling overwhelmed, to take the time to do it? I can’t answer that. But it gets easier with practice. Have the kids do it with you.
  • The Counting Method. Counting slowly from one to ten can kick the left brain into gear.
  • Water. Literally taking a drink of water will help flush out the stress hormones.
  • You can always try going outside.
  • Anticipating Events. This is a hard one for me. Even though I know that thinking about the possible outcomes and planning for them is better in every way, I would rather not go there. Maybe if I ignore the problem it will stop existing. Strangely, it usually doesn’t work that way. And of all these methods, knowing what will happen next is probably most important for kids. Having consistent, predictable routines alleviates anxiety and, incidentally, eliminates unnecessary choices that make kids feel overwhelmed. Good for us, too.

On Pirates, and Learning (and Learning about Pirates)

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Homeschooling is a thing. Unschooling is a thing. The first term has a considerably easier time in Oregon than it does in certain other parts of the country (or the world). That second word, “unschooling,” is both less familiar and more troublesome. For one thing, my spell check keeps giving it a squiggly underline. For another, it seems to suggest an opposition to school, or even to learning; it “undoes” schooling, right? It’s against school?

That conclusion makes sense because it’s an arbitrary, and I think rather silly, word. What it means, though, is that children (people) tend to learn, always, all the time, naturally and without any external influence. In fact, we sort of have to work to put barriers in front of learning (I would argue that in many areas of our society we work very hard at this, but that’s a subject for a different post).

I can’t claim that what my wife does with her homeschooling is under this umbrella. She seems to spend much of her time putting chunks of theory and methods together to see what works. But the ideas behind “unschooling” come up a lot, and I think it describes what parents do when we let our children learn about what interests them.

John Holt, one of the principle thinkers in the movement, describes unschooling simply as the act of supporting a child’s tendency to learn. Author Pat Farenga expands on this view:

“When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear. The advantage of this method is that it doesn’t require you, the parent, to become someone else, i.e. a professional teacher pouring knowledge into child-vessels on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an ‘on demand’ basis, if at all. This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work. So, for instance, a young child’s interest in hot rods can lead him to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner.”

How do we support learning? By following the child’s lead and taking opportunities for them to turn their interests into skills and knowledge. Here’s an example:

My six year-old daughter is into pirates. Like, really into them. Her favorite book (via audio) is Treasure Island, and she prefers it to the Muppets’ version although the Muppets are pretty funny. We indulge this interest in the usual ways: her birthday was pirate-themed; she received a toy pirate ship and a piratical hat. Her birthday ice cream had tiny cutlasses sticking out of it.

But I enjoyed talking with her about pirates so much that I set out to learn more for myself. I read pirate histories (Colin Woodard’s excellent The Republic of Pirates) and quizzed myself on sails, masts and rigging with the help of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series. My daughter, on her end, brought home every book on pirates and sailing ships that the library offered. Sharing this interest with one another was edifying for us both. Soon she could tell her bow from her stern and her port from her starboard, and her dubloons from her pieces of eight. She can name all the known female pirates (Anne Bonnie is her favorite). And aside from her “actual” lessons, she has been learning denominations of coins (counting treasure) and asking questions like, “Are all the seas connected?” and “How do ships stay floating?” and “Where does gold come from?”

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Newport, and to our great pleasure were able to board and tour two authentic rigged sailing ships that were anchored in the bay. I can’t tell you which of us were more excited, but I was glad to be there with her.

Go Play Outside

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I moved to Oregon 12 years ago. I’ve been married for 11 of those years, and a parent for 10, so it’s worked out well for me. I love a lot of things about Oregon, but I think my favorite part of it is the outside part. And now that Summer is approaching, the outside promises to be less…well, wet. That means lots of family outings.

It may seem all too obvious that it’s good for kids to be outside. There are many compelling reasons for this, and author Richard Louv is eloquent about why that is so. In his book Last Child in the Woods, he details the recent shift away from allowing children to spend their most important developmental years outside. This shift, he writes, has resulted in a disconnection from the natural world that has brought with it a host of health problems, many of them new to the last couple of generations. His solution is simple, but widely ignored: kids, go play outside.

He writes, “…at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies. As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.”

Does this mean that we should be sending our kids to summer camp? Hiking, camping, fishing, hunting? Building lean-tos and snow caves? Sure, why not? But it doesn’t have to be so complicated. Nature is everywhere, after all. We noticed that when our family visits Portland, we tend to spend more time outside, walking downtown or along the river, catching the Max instead of driving. Even in the heart of the city we can get our fix of nature.

But we are also very fortunate to live in this beautiful valley, which is full of places to go, to walk and hike or just to wile away an afternoon. And many of them are absolutely free. For one thing, Oregon’s beaches are open to the public, a fact that natives may not realize is a rare and precious thing. But often even getting to the coast takes more time and gas money than we can manage. We live in Lebanon (which incidentally is home to more rainbows than I’ve ever seen in my life) and there are dozens of beautiful spots—heck, maybe hundreds—within a manageable distance.

Here are some of our favorites.

  • Cheadle Lake is just minutes away from us, and its looping paths are just right for a walk that requires as much commitment as we—short toddler legs included—are willing to invest. And there are ducks, and geese. And turtles!
  • Silver Falls State Park is a bit of a drive, but its spectacular waterfalls and sprawling trails have been only fractionally explored by our family on countless trips. Of the places on this list, Silver Falls is the only one that requires a day use fee.
  • We spend a lot of time in Corvallis, and there are a host of lovely spots nearby. Bald Hill and the OSU Forestry Department’s Peavy Arboretum are always a great place for a stroll. And on hot Summer days we like to sit on the creek at the Hesthavn Nature Center, maintained by the Audubon Society of Corvallis, and just hang out. Dipping is optional but very tempting.

I encourage you to explore the Willamette Valley and find your own favorite spots. When in doubt, just go outside.

Knock Knock

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I don’t laugh enough. I’ve been told that I’m funny, and also that I’m a sad person. I think that both of these are probably true to an extent. It’s accepted as generally true that people who are funny are also sad. I can’t speak for anyone else in this, but many comedians will tell you that humor is a cover for something else. In fact, actor and comedian Kevin Pollak has made a documentary about it.

You know who makes me laugh, though? Genuinely, unguardedly, seemingly without trying? My kids. They get to me every time. And the only thing that is better than my children making me laugh (with them, not at them, as Robin Williams would say) is the first time that they laughed.

As a parent, do you remember when you were sure that your baby was really laughing, and that it wasn’t “just gas?” I don’t think I’ve ever felt so successful as a father. When our oldest was about six months old I would spend seemingly hours playing peek-a-boo, making faces, doing anything that would produce just one more baby guffaw.

Until recently, there has not been much research into this. But a recent study of baby laughter has some interesting things to say about how they develop a sense of humor, and how they learn, from parents and siblings and other people around them, what is funny and how to respond to it.

From the article:

“At around 6 months old, children often look to their parents for cues before interpreting an event as humorous. At around 9 -11 months, infants are able to recognize what makes their parents smile & laugh and then attempt to elicit these responses from caregivers.”

What is remarkable is how complex this behavior is, and how early it develops in children. They learn how people will respond differently depending on the situation. And this sense of humor will carry over into their adult lives: “The ability to interpret humorous situations and respond appropriately is one that may be related to relationship satisfaction among adults.”

My daughters can crack each other up like nobody’s business, especially when I have asked them to, say, put on their pajamas and brush their teeth. And I know that they will continue to find each other hilarious. I frequently hear my wife giggling helplessly as she is texting her sister. When she tells me what’s so funny, I might not get it. It’s like a secret language. And it seems to do them good.

The benefits of laughter are well documented. “Laughter is the best medicine,” after all. But a sense of humor is also linked to the way we see the world, the way we understand and think about things.

Families are the laboratory in which these skills take shape. The stories we share about ourselves and about them when they were “little,” and the jokes we tell around the dinner table, are actually helping their brains to develop.

My four year-old:

“Knock knock.”

(Who’s there?)

“Chocolate cupcake.”

(Chocolate cupcake who?)

“Oh, I didn’t know you were a chocolate cupcake! Knock knock.”

(Who’s there?)

“Meatball.”

And so on.

I’m grateful that my kids can make me laugh. I needed that.

 

Thanks to Cyrel Gable at Parenting Success Network for suggesting this topic.

Freedom From Choice

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In our culture, we associate freedom with choice. In many cases, freedom of choice has turned into freedom as choice. But this freedom can become overwhelming; in fact, it can come to feel like the opposite of freedom.

As a music fan, I actually miss having read about some elusive album and feeling the excitement of coming across it years later in the used bin at a record store. Now, of course, I can find pretty much anything I have ever heard of online, and download it instantly. It’s just not as much fun. The sense of anticipation and mystery has been replaced by a sense of…shopping. In a similar way, I often feel paralyzed scrolling through my list of movies to stream on Netflix and coming away with nothing to watch.

This is a thing, and it’s called decision fatigue. As adults, we can cope with the increasing array of choices by working to limit the number of things we have to choose. In order to live a more efficient and healthy life, we have to hold on to priorities and consciously set aside a large number of choices.

Now imagine that you’re a toddler, and you’re expected to choose what to wear today.

Something I still struggle with as a parent is presenting expectations as questions: “Do you want to wear a skirt or a dress?” “Are you ready to brush your teeth?” “Do you want to play outside?” Children of any age, up to and including teenagers, are not equipped to make the number of choices with which they are presented on a daily basis. They are not ready to engage in the sifting and prioritizing that we as adults take for granted (and which can sometimes still be a struggle).

Children need our help. And we can help by knowing when to give them a choice and when to make one for them.

This goes along with the routines and rhythms that are so important to the daily life of a child, and can free up the energy for them to learn and grow in a way that is more appropriate for young brains.

It starts with the basics: limit the number of choices by limiting the number of things from which to choose.

  • Have only a few items of clothing available, according to the needs of the season, and store the rest. Kids who are old enough to get dressed on their own will appreciate having a reliable outfit for the occasion.
  • Keep toys in bins and rotate them out. Play is important for child development, and a child that is surrounded by toys will just be confused and frustrated. The effect on attention spans and behavior is pretty easy to see.
  • Come up with a limited menu and rotate meals. We all look forward to Meatball Monday and Taco Tuesday, and they are events in themselves. Of course it’s important to introduce new foods on a regular basis, and these can be slipped in to the routine. And you can set a day of the week aside for trying something different.

The great thing about this deliberate limiting of choices is that it is compatible with not having a lot of money. Definitely a bonus.

Sick Days

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So, I’ve been sick for the last week. I’m fortunate to have a job with generous paid sick leave, so I’ve been home with my family. As we homeschool, my wife and all four kids were there as well. At first it was easy; I’d like to think that I’m a “good” sick person, meaning that I don’t whine and don’t put a lot of demands on other people. The problem with our particular situation is that, having been exposed to my illness, everyone else was soon sick as well. That’s when things got complicated.

It’s a truism that parents don’t get sick days. Having children at home does not suspend any of the duties involved in taking care of them. It just means that we do it while we’re sick. So when the kids are all up several times in the night coughing or presenting with fevers (and rarely at the same time), a lack of sleep certainly raises the stakes for adults who are trying to get better.

Last week I went in to the doctor and took the four girls with me. The good news is that none of us have the symptoms of whooping cough, which has been going around. The not so good news is that it is viral bronchitis, for which there is basically no treatment other than to wait it out and to try and not spread the contagion back and forth like a game of volleyball. How many times a day can you remind a four year-old to cover her cough? The answer is many, many times.

As I mentioned, I am fortunate in my job; I know that many working parents have it much harder, as many employers don’t look kindly on parents taking time off to care for sick children. Still. It’s an uphill battle trying to recover when everyone else now needs extra time and attention.

What’s good about sick days? The lowered expectations. The slowed pace of daily life and the imperative to take it easy. Reading books, when my voice will hold up, and watching movies when it doesn’t. A marked increase in board games and drawing. Laying around listening to audiobooks. Sitting in the sun like a lizard, when there is sun. Early bedtimes. And lots of homemade chicken soup. Come to think of it, my time home sick has worked better than some of our vacations.

If it wasn’t for the sickness part, it would be perfect.