Tag Archives: children

Enter in

In my last post, I mentioned the (fading) tendency for many parents to avoid discussions about any topic that is potentially controversial or dangerous, apart from the obvious “Stranger Danger” talk, which is commonly accepted as suitable for young children’s ears. I have written about talking with kids about race and sex before, but I wanted to follow up. Partly because I keep hearing well-intentioned comments like, “Kids just need to know we’re all special and unique”, and partly because reading about the White Man March made my blood boil–writing here let off some steam. Hordes of parents thoughtfully, respectfully, proactively educating their children about differences among people is the march in which I want to participate.

A study mentioned in NurtureShock’s chapter on “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” shared that even in a liberal-leaning city like Austin in 2006, most white parents weren’t talking about race. Not because they didn’t believe it was important, but because they were afraid of saying the “wrong thing.” So, instead of commenting specifically on racial differences, these parents fell back on safe phrases like “everybody’s equal” and “we’re all the same under our skin.”

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One type of ornamental cherry tree blossom–feel free to help me develop my specificity here!

Not all families have the luxury of ignoring specificity. If you’re a family with two moms, it won’t be long before your child takes note that your family structure is less common and inquires about it. Or perhaps an older child will bring it up at the playground first, catching you off guard. Either way, those moms will talk thoughtfully with their child about all the possible combinations of people that may comprise a family. This conversation will continue throughout their lifetime, too, because it’s importance will grow. The same goes for families whose members are of a minority ethnicity, whose child has a disability, who practice an uncommon religion, who are vegan, etc… In fact, I would surmise that conversations about differences are common practice for families who find themselves in just about any type of minority group.

Parents in exceptional situations learn to speak directly to their children regarding the societal attitudes that impact them. This necessity for specifically educating children is even greater if their particular minority group is feared or hated. Those parents know there is an inherent element of risk in just being who they are. To be silent on the topic is to risk allowing their children to internalize the stigmas, face isolation and experience deep pain, let alone experience worst case scenarios like the Trayvon Martin and Matthew Shepherd tragedies. Black parents will have very frank discussions with their sons about how they must carry themselves to avoid danger. White parents do not have to do this. I would not worry if my husband or boys got pulled over by a cop. I would if I were black. Those in the majority groups have the luxury of deciding whether or not to enter the conversation. This is one of countless examples of how majority privilege plays out.

The problem with discussing race and other differences vaguely (“We’re all unique, like snowflakes!”) is that, like adults, kids are not difference-blind. Young children are quite observant of all human characteristics, particularly those that are different than themselves. Even babies as young as six months show they are sensitive to new facial features by staring at pictures of people from unfamiliar ethnicities longer than pictures of people familiar to them. Later, as children age, they become “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.”¹ This is why by age five and six, most kids begin to prefer playing with the same gender, or at a minimum begin rejecting anything stereotypically associated with the other gender. “I don’t want the pink cup. I’m a boy!” The same goes for race. Even in racially diverse environments, children will begin to naturally segregate into their “known” group whenever possible. Again and again, this happens unless a specific conversation takes place.

Consider how babies and toddlers learn concrete vocabulary. Prior to speaking their first word, babies will understand many words and phrases. They are soaking in all the labels tossed at them during walks, story time, playtime and mealtime. The first time parents realize their child truly knows a word is magical. Baby might have casually heard the word milk and began kicking their legs excitedly and babbling. Parents naturally tune into their child’s ever-growing vocabulary base and begin to stretch it. “Milk? You’re hungry? Ok, time to eat!” Similarly, once parents realize their child understands the word for flower, they will begin labeling specific flowers. Meanwhile, the child’s brain is busy mapping all these new words, figuring out the semantic relationships–what is a category and what is a subcategory, what is a noun and what is an adjective? Eventually they understand that flowers have some things in common (petals, stems, leaves) but that their shapes and color may differ. The same thing needs to happen for kids to understand the differences among people. A tulip does not lose it’s beauty nor value by being labeled more specifically. Nor does a person lose their beauty or value by being labeled appropriately. Rather, understanding differences, and the reasons for them, provides opportunity for greater appreciation.

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Another type of ornamental cherry tree blossom (at the University of Washington quad)

So, I choose to enter the conversation.

Choosing to enter the conversation means I didn’t dodge the awkwardness when my then two-year-old commented that our visiting black friend has “dirty” skin. Instead, I stepped right into the heart of it. (Remember, this is not a mean comment coming from a little kid. My white son knew his fingers got darker after playing in dirt. He knew that his skin is dirty when it’s dark brown, so he was simply applying his truth to someone else.) I said something like, “Oh, Natalie’s skin isn’t dirty. She has brown skin all the time. People have all sorts of different skin colors, and ways their faces and bodies look.” Since Natalie was in touch with what kids need, she asked him if he wanted to touch her skin. She rubbed it to show she didn’t have dirt coming off. By doing this, she invited him further into the conversation.

As my boys age, we talk with increasing detail about differences found in people. I provide my children with the proper labels for ethnic groups, for referring to people with disabilities, for talking about people who are overweight, etc… We began with the most common people groups of the United States and move towards deepening and broadening their understanding over time. They know that many of their friends are multi-racial and how that happens. They know that others were adopted from other countries. They know that some friends have gay parents. Having these conversations makes it acceptable to discuss that someone looks different, acts different, or has differences in their family. Because we all do.

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Sometimes knowing what term is correct can be tricky (black vs African American, Asian American vs Amerasian, etc…). Asking friends if they have a preference will quickly clear up confusion. Questioning politely, with your child present, models to your children that this is a safe topic when handled respectfully. It helps to keep stigma at bay and maintain open lines of communication. In general, stick with teaching your kids the most correct terms you know and be open to the understanding that they may change. Soon enough your kids will inform you if you don’t stay on top of it. (“They’re not Oriental! They’re Asian!” has been groaned by thousands of forty year old white children to their parents.)

Older kids can be invited even deeper, learning about how places of origin often determine skin color, facial features, height, etc… Every time we have this discussion, I find a world map and the internet quite useful. We have talked about how America was initially inhabited by Native Americans and then looked at pictures, read books, etc… We have talked about many people came to America from different places and that’s part of why we see so many different types of people, whereas some countries remain relatively homogenous. The lesson incorporates race, geography and history.

Choosing to enter the conversation means that I share developmentally appropriate details about racism and how various people groups, including kids, have been treated poorly because of how they look. With my first grader, it means educating him on a handful of details about slavery and Jim Crow laws, as well as introducing him to a few key brave people who fought to change these laws. It also means letting him know that plenty of injustice remains and talking about how we can help.

Choosing to enter the conversation means that I don’t rush my boys along when they pass someone in a wheelchair and stare or inquire about it. If the person in the chair appears open to converse, I will sometimes engage them in our conversation by introducing myself and letting them know my boys have questions (which is already obvious to them, but it helps break the ice). Once this led to one exceptionally friendly woman demonstrating everything her electric wheelchair could do, including moving it into a full stand. My boys thought she was bad-ass! She enthusiastically answered their questions. In fact, I think she was touched. She was seen. She was heard. Her differences were acknowledged as worthy of discussion. My kids weren’t shushed as she passed. We welcomed her presence.

Choosing to enter the conversation means that I talk to my boys about different family structures. Some parents are divorced. Some parents are both dads, some are both moms. Some kids are adopted. It means we talk about how some people don’t think all of these families are ok, but that we do and why.

Choosing to enter the conversation even means I don’t lie to my three year old when he sees a Diva Cup in it’s invitingly brand new bright pink and purple box on the kitchen counter and asks if he can have some candy. He says, “What is it? Can I suck on it? Does it taste good?” He thinks it’s some sort of cool lollipop! I don’t give him all the details, but I tell him it’s something women use to catch blood from their vagina. (Yup. I’m saying these things. To a kid under four feet tall. It was embarrassingly awkward the first time, but now it feels pretty easy and even quite comical.) “Women bleed every once in awhile because this is how their body works. It’s what allows them to have babies.” There is no reason for this to be an off-limits topic, so I enter in. (Random side note: Why does Diva Cup include a little lapel pin saying “Diva” in their box? Are we supposed to wear it while we’re menstruating so people treat us a little kinder? Should we also have one if we’re gassy?)

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Another type of cherry blossom, plus the incredible Diva lapel pin that you, too, can wear while menstruating! (Some restrictions may apply.)

Engaging in these conversations takes some thought and practice. It felt very uncomfortable at first because it hadn’t been modeled to me. Even now, every time I encounter a brand new topic I feel awkward and fumble quite a bit, especially if a stranger is involved (“Look, mom! That person is ROUND!”). My ability to formulate bites of information appropriate for their level of language comprehension has improved with practice, but I’m also growing more comfortable with the novelty of these discussions and feeling embarrassed in public. (“Mom, what’s that on her face?” “Mom, look at that person’s bottom!”) There is room for fumbling, asking questions, figuring it out together. My primary goal is to respect all the people involved.

As strange as it feels in the beginning, these conversations are best started with kids as young as two and three, because by five and six kids already have clearly divided categories upon which they’ve placed their own labels. Simply by observing the world, those older children have already divided people into groups. Having the basic knowledge of proper vocabulary can also help them understand what holds all these groups together, as well as what separates them. This allows them to have a conversation about them in a respectful manner. They can begin to connect the categories that were once divided because they now know how they fit onto their vocabulary map. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true.

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1 NutureShock, pg 53 (forgive my lack of APA documentation--this is my lazy footnote attempt)
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First graders and “The F-Word”

Mom stirred a steaming pot while I anticipated our spaghetti dinner. My older brother joked around on the phone, his speaking range limited to within-kitchen-hearing-distance because it was the mid-1980s. (You know, cord phones!) During my brother’s friendly argument he loudly exclaimed, “BS!”, which was followed by my mom quickly shooting him a look that signaled to me with her eyes. She clearly wanted him to pay attention that I was around. Intrigued, I began pestering. “What does BS mean?” Mom tried to dodge it, “Oh, Kathleen. You’ll find out soon enough.” Dave cut in with, “Bologna stuffings” and my mom laughed. Initially doubtful, I questioned them further, but they banded together and held strong. Probably because I was six, I believed them.

Naive and gullible, I vehemently defended myself ALL THE WAY TO JUNIOR HIGH. One day while confidently standing by Bologna Stuffings, the laughter from my group of friends pushed through my wall of certainty. I realized they were right. My stomach sank with embarrassment and anger. I had been duped.

I’d guess that it was a common American belief in the 1980s among suburban white families that young kids shouldn’t be exposed to the details of potentially threatening aspects of life, including sex, alcohol, racism, and cussing.  As a preschooler and elementary school child, the only social topic I remember being explicitly taught was “Stranger Danger.” (Did you also hide behind bushes when all vans without windows passed?) All of the other topics remained off-limits, though we were inevitably exposed to them on television screens, bathroom stall walls, bus rides, and playground conversations. Among parents and children, though, silence reigned.

With each passing year of parenting, my conviction grows stronger that silence leads to stigma and taboo. The absence of a conversation about any potentially awkward, embarrassing or painful topic makes my children think that it is not to be discussed at home. If I’m not willing to share my embarrassing moments, my child won’t either. If I am not willing to engage in conversations about race, my child will not either. If I won’t talk to them about sex, they won’t either. I believe that a very important part of my job is to not only field these questions and enter a developmentally appropriate conversation, but to also bring topics up should the kids not do so. (Not all kids are inquisitive out loud. Some are so naive they don’t know what they should know. Like those who believe in Bologna Stuffings. Or Santa at age twelve.)

So, when Charlie asked me what “the F-word” was while walking home after just days of being in first grade, I knew I didn’t want to dodge the question. Miles was with us at the time, though, so I told him we could talk about it when we were alone. (Miles was three and showing far too much pleasure in testing boundaries for me to risk him knowing the word fuck. We recently took a walk around our neighborhood lake and he called a passing old man a “blockhead.” Miles was tired and hungry- apparently one wrong look was enough to send him over the edge. “Welcome to Seattle, sir! He’s the three-year-old welcoming committee!”)

I forgot to continue the conversation after Miles went to bed, and a few months passed before Charlie brought it up again while we were alone. I knew it was time to seize the opportunity, so I proceeded slowly with some thought and care. Knowing his tendency to follow rules was comforting to me. He wasn’t the kid who would use the word willy-nilly, nor use it against us in a power play. Because he is more cautious, I wanted to make sure that the primary message was that he could come to me with these things. I was trusting him, and he could trust me.

While trying my best to maintain a calm tone because I was uncomfortable with the novelty of saying fuck in front of my six-year-old son, I told him that it’s another word for sex (which he knows about) but that it’s most often used to be mean or express anger. My words went something like, “People say “Fuck you” when they’re really angry but it hurts people’s feelings. People also say it when they’re upset about something.” He asked a few questions and then tried to use it. That was funny. Even funnier when he tried it a few weeks later while giggling about jokes with Harry and I (after Miles went to bed). He uttered the most innocent, cute “fuck” I’ve ever heard. He hasn’t used it since.

Of course, our discussion came with warnings. I told him that because it’s a word that upsets many people, we have to be very careful with it. I told him that until he’s old enough to use it appropriately, he shouldn’t say it anywhere except when he’s alone with Harry and I. I also admonished him to never, ever, EVER say it in front of his brother, the King-of-Stupid-and-Blockhead-Name Calling (thank you, Charlie Brown). The last thing I needed was Miles regularly saying “Fuck you!” to the cute old men strolling the lake.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not currently feeling the need to introduce all cuss words to Charlie. We certainly don’t have a checklist that we’re working through. (He is also not ready for conversations about the many horrific, violent acts that occur in the world!) I imagine he’ll bring swearing up again shortly, and certainly be exposed to to plenty of the world’s horror soon enough. We are tackling these topics one developmentally-appropriate bite at a time. But I am thankful that along with sex and race, he knows he can talk to us about swear words.

I realize that we might offend a few people by having this discussion so young. He might even teach a few classmates about these topics. He certainly wouldn’t be the first kid to break such news to another kid. At least he’d be sparing them from it happening in middle school. (No child wants to be defending “Fiddlesticks” in the halls.) Either way, it’s a risk I’m willing to take to maintain open lines of communication in our home.

Red

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Like some leaves, he wears all red

Flutters about, falls down

He rarely travels slowly, carried by the breeze

Mostly he jolts- speedy, unpredictable, sometimes perilous

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He doesn’t mark the end of a season

If a signal at all, it is for me to prepare

Let him be. Let him choose.

He wears all red, unique as a leaf at it’s height of glory.

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Nurturing your three-year-old

Lately I have strayed from writing parenting advice to reflect on my own experiences instead. Sharing about communicating with young children was my original intended focus for this blog because my parenting experience was enhanced as a result of my knowledge base from Speech-Language Pathology. But, I lost motivation to write from that standpoint because I felt sensitive to people dishing out parenting advice. I don’t want to add to the “you should be doing this, you should be doing that” craze. Most of it is just plain ridiculous. One of my friends was chastised for her TWO-YEAR-OLD not yet being potty-trained. This stuff needs to end.

Not so long ago I came across this picture of Charlie and had an ah-ha! moment. At the time, Charlie was almost three-and-a-half and Miles was a few months old, nearing the height of his refusal to sleep. We were sleeping horribly, trading off bouncing and doing squats with him from 12-4am so that he wouldn’t scream and would for-the-love-of-all-things-good go back to sleep. I was so tired that I experienced auditory hallucinations. I frequently chose not to drive because I knew I wasn’t safe. I also was experiencing absence of smell and diminished taste. In general, I was a disaster. Plus, I had a three-year-old. For the first time. I was completely blindsided by what having a three-year-old means.

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I now know that the three-year-old’s highly predictably irrational behavior is a hallmark of the age. You all know that two is nothing compared to three? Right? Nothing. The sobbing, screaming, hysterical “This banana is BROKEN! I WANT A GOOD BANANA!” seemed to come overnight, and all because a banana had somehow been peeled “incorrectly”, or was completely out of the peel, or had brown on it, or was in two pieces. You either give in and get them a new banana to complain about, you eat it yourself, or you make them deal. No matter what you do, they will not be pleased. They’ll want the original banana if you eat it. They’ll want a third if you give them a second. If you give a three-year-old a banana, YOU CAN NOT WIN.

If we didn’t have friends with whom we could commiserate, we would’ve been wondering if our child was headed for lock-down. I was equally shocked by my own response to his behavior. I was raising my voice, which I had truly almost never done prior, and at least once or twice I physically carried him to his room to isolate him during a tantrum. This is necessary for some kids for safety, but for him it wasn’t. Charlie was such a sensitive little guy that me crossing this boundary of not respecting his body as his to move was a clear sign of me crossing the line. He knew it, I knew it. I needed the right skills and language to navigate both Charlie and my emotions during his challenging moments. I was feeling like an awful mom. In general, actually. I was feeling awful in general.

I read several parenting books and discovered some helpful ideas, but thought most lacked a compassionate voice. I already knew time-out, spanking and other “traditional” discipline methods weren’t for us. An “old classic” comforted me a little by normalizing behaviors for this age. “Refusing to obey is perhaps the key aspect of this turbulent, troubled period in the life of the young child. It sometimes seems to his mother that his main concern is to strengthen his will, and he strengthens this will by going against whatever is demanded of him by that still most important person in his life, his mother.”

Unfortunately, most books provided few practical tips, which made me feel powerless. “No mother of a child this age should hesitate to place the burden of daily routines on the shoulders of a sitter, who, for the time being, may be the best person for the task. Nor should the mother who needs to put her child in day care feel burdened with guilt.” Not very helpful to a stay at home mom on a budget. Thankfully, just in the nick of time, a friend lent me her copy of Gottman’s Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.

Three years later, I’m scouring those pages again. I really should’ve done this months ago. I had been resorting to more “no’s” and more exasperated comments than I care to admit. Our little stroller incident gave me the kick in the butt I needed to refresh my skills. Three-year-olds are super fun and energetic, crazy horrible and wild. In equal measure. One moment you have the sweetest conversation about the colors of a leaf, the next moment they are whacking you in the face with a stick because you held the leaf wrong.

I share these ideas with you with hopes that they bring relief during such a trying developmental period. Not guilt-inducing, just thought-provoking. Not shaming, but edifying. Not polarizing, but unifying. These techniques, strategies and specific language choices have assisted my parenting and brought more peace into our household during this butt-kicking stage.

Establish positive routines and bribe the heck out them

Three year olds are all about routine, control, routine and control. They also respond well to positive reinforcement, rewards and bribes. The difference between those last three basically boils down to semantics unless you’re a behavioral therapist. Most parents will choose to call the dangling of carrots one of the three. Take your pick.

When a routine changes, three-year-olds freak out. Their expectations may be simple: graham crackers aren’t meant to be broken, plates are meant to be blue, and mamas aren’t supposed to wear gray hats (“I want the purple hat! Take that off!”). They may also be as complicated as a memory of a particular event, like “Last time we shopped here I ate those red and black things. I want those red and black things NOW! And we don’t walk THAT way, we walk THIS way to the bread!”

Some of these routines you have control of, others obviously not. When possible, try to maintain a consistent schedule so they can rely on some aspects of their life to be predictable. For situations within your reign, there is plenty to be gained by establishing new routines or making sour ones positive again. You might find them beneficial for entering the preschool door, hopping in the carseat, staying in bed, waiting in line at a store, or taking turns with toys.

Our current most successful tool has been a “Surprise Box”, aka our reward and motivator system. I fill an old shoe box with incredibly random stuff, like old race medals and therabands (Angry birds catapults, people!), and dinky toys, like stickers, sponge capsules, marbles, magnets, balloons and party favors that were long forgotten about but exciting again after a few months sight-unseen. If you wanted yours to be stuff-free, you could put in pictures of places you’d visit (parks, playgrounds, beaches) or other experiences (scavenger hunt!, dance party!). My only warning about experiences is that they should be delighted in as close to the time of success as possible for it to be salient, especially when establishing new routines.

You’ll be pleased to know that my little guy is walking into his preschool happily these days. Halloween week he even flew in, dressed as Batman. Epic. Thanks to the advice of a very wise friend, I had a picture of our family in hand that he could show teachers once he was inside, I told him he could hold my hand extra tight if that helped him feel better, and… da da da daaaaah!…. I bribed him. In the end, that was what worked. He didn’t want to take the picture inside, he didn’t want to hold my hand for long, but he desperately wanted the little dinosaur sponge capsules I promised him after preschool if he entered without screaming, hitting or kicking. I told him, “You don’t have to feel happy. You can still feel nervous and sad. But you need to walk in nicely to have the dinosaur sponges after school.” The first day, he walked in dragging his feet, with his shoulders slumped and a huge frown on his face. But he did it and was quite proud of himself when I picked him up. The next day, he scampered in happily. I “rewarded” him three times, all upon request, and he hasn’t asked for more since. Can I get an amen?

I first made a Surprise Box for Charlie when he was three because he wasn’t staying in bed at night. Harry and I would tag team to walk him back upstairs, sometimes twenty times per evening. After a week or two of nonsense, we wised up. I made a picture for him showing him the bedtime routine. (“First we snuggle in bed, then you snuggle with your animal, close your eyes and sleep. When you stay in bed until morning you get a surprise!”) A few nights of reminders followed by one success and we were pretty much done with the back and forth bedroom dance. He only needed a reminder here and there in the months to follow. (If he’d come downstairs we’d let him know, “If you stay in bed for the rest of the night, you get a surprise” and the following night we’d remind him he had to stay in bed from the get-go so as to avoid him learning that coming out once also got rewarded.) If you’ve played bedtime tag with kids, you know just how nice it is to have a peaceful routine. End of the day bliss. HEAVEN. It’s a clear case where a little extra work up front pays off with a better sleep routine (a better rested child!) and much less long-term frustration.

Since I seemed to have birthed out half of my brain with Miles, it took me forever to remember about the Surprise Box. I first thought of it when he refused to get in his car seat several days in a row. I remembered after having to force him in it, which made us both feel awful. Lo and behold, the box worked like a charm. I probably pull it out once a week now. I simply say, “If you cooperate for X, you can have a surprise!” He likes to pick his surprise first and then he almost always happily runs to do whatever is being asked. Can I get another amen? (And why didn’t I use it for preschool entry right off the bat? Who the heck knows! The other half of my brain suffered oxygen loss with chronic sleep deprivation, folks!)

I think many parents worry that these types of rewards need to last forever. With both of my boys they have been easily faded out after a routine was established. Now, with our six year old, establishing positive routines is much more of a conversation with natural, intrinsic rewards. “If you get dressed first thing in the morning, then you can play until we need to leave for school. You won’t need to rush and I won’t need to bug you.” He appreciates this and changes his pattern. And yes, he’s six going on forty.

Emotion coaching

So, even with routines established and bribes abounding, it’s not going to be easy. It will be easier, filled with plenty of wonderful moments, but there will be exorcism-worthy tantrums. Gottman’s emotion coaching has been the other critical component for all of us to manage our feelings in the midst of such intensity.

I am working hard to identify and respect emotions, empathizing with his very real feelings. I may know that a broken graham cracker is one of life’s smallest problems, but at that moment, he feels devastated. So, I choose to respect his sadness. “I’m sorry that’s so hard for you and you’re sad. You really like it when they’re whole, huh?” If he allows, I will hold him while he cries and let him sit with his emotions as long as he needs. Once he’s calm, I reassure him that I know what matters to him. “Next time I’ll try to give you one that’s not broken.” I don’t make him eat it, but I don’t get him a new one. I see this as having compassionate boundaries. (It is easy to assume that every time a three-year-old complains it’s unnecessarily ridiculous. I sometimes forget that this may not be the case, so coming from a place of compassion while simultaneously looking into the problem has revealed some “real” problems. The milk just might be sour, the nuts rancid, the fruit mealy!)

Next, I try to say yes as much as possible, saving no for when it’s absolutely necessary. I do not give him an open wallet and free reign. I soften my language so that he knows his desires have been heard and he can prepare for any delays or disappointments. Here’s an example that I hear quite regularly:

3yo: “I want to go to the science center!”

Me: “Oh, fun! That sounds great. Maybe we can go next Thursday.”

3yo: “But I want to go to the science center NOW!”

Me: “You want to go there now? Well, I wish we could go now, too, but we have to get groceries today.”

3yo: “But I wa-ant to go NOW-OOOOOOOOOW!”

Me: “I understand. You sound really mad. I’m sorry it’s disappointing for you to have to wait.”

3yo: “I’m going to hit you if you don’t take me now!”

Me: “I understand that you’re mad, but hitting me isn’t going to help. I don’t want to take you if you hit me.”

3yo: “I won’t hit you.” (Sometimes. Sometimes he hits…which often leads to the end of our playtime and having a calm time together, or alone- his choice, on his bed. His self-chosen “safe, calm” spot.)

Me: “Great. Now, let’s keep playing blocks until we go to the store and we’ll go to the science center next week!”

This same type of method can be used for just about any request. It boils down to this: First, acknowledge their desire. Then, let them know the reality of if/when it can happen. Last, acknowledge the resulting emotions. Show them that you care about what they care about.

Sleep

Lastly, I’m throwing sleep into the pile because I think it’s a decent percentage of the Three-Year-Old Problems pie chart. Most kids are transitioning out of naps at some point during this year. If they take one, they go to bed too late, aren’t rested enough for the next day and need a nap again. The cycle continues. If they don’t take a nap, they’re very challenging at the dinner hour or will fall asleep in car rides at 4:30, ruining their bedtime. We’re trying to handle this transition with a few naps every week, mostly in the stroller or car. I try to not let him nap longer than an hour or 90-minutes, so that his bedtime is preserved. If he naps and then stays up too late, I try to not have him nap the next day (or keep it really short) and get him to bed early. We’ve found that a longer nights’ sleep, with an earlier bedtime, is more important than a daytime nap for our boys to be really refreshed when they’re in this in-between period.

The difference between a refreshed three-year-old and a tired one is like the difference between Jekyll and Hyde.

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So, there it is, friends! As always, may I remind you that I fall short of these things EVERY DAY. If you’re friends with me, you get to see this in action! These are patterns I am building, striving towards, integrating into my parenting because I find them useful. When I’m not at my best, these are not the first things to happen. I am also getting good at saying sorry.

If you have any tips for this age, feel free to comment below. I’m sure we all feel like we need a storage shed filled with tools at our disposal to get through this period gracefully.

(PS- First to comment is my 100th commenter on the blog! Yay! The reward for you is intrinsic…)

Respecting his journey

He was just two. Toddling about in tiny shoes, saying “titty-tat!” with his sweet, high-pitched voice. Tired of diapers, and cloth ones at that, I responded eagerly to my friend who was determined to potty train her same aged son in one weekend. “Yes!” I’d do it, too. We’d be in it together. It’d be grrrrreat.

As a therapist I had enough experience modifying behaviors in young children to believe that given good teaching, shaping behaviors was almost always possible. I was pretty confident.

I tried. For weeks, I tried. He wore nothing but underwear, I cleaned up accident after accident. My friend’s son did great. He was nearly accident free within a few days. This spurned me on. I was so ridiculously determined that I carried his portable training potty with us in our car. You see, he was scared of the big toilets. Automatic flushing ones were terrifying. So, why not carry a toilet with us?

This really should have been a signal to me. When you’re carrying a toilet around in your trunk, that just might be a sign. I should’ve raised a white flag of surrender. Waved the toilet paper in the air and trusted he would come around on his own time. But there was more at play.

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I didn’t realize I had gone too far until I found myself getting angry at him. I wasn’t voicing it (I only had one kid still- so much more emotional capacity back then!), but I was feeling it. Deeply frustrated, increasingly mad. Eventually it hit me. This was all because of pride. I was committed to the process because of how I perceived it would reflect on me as a parent, not because it felt like the right thing to do for my child.

I was worried this would make me look like I wasn’t a good teacher. Like I somehow wasn’t an on-top-of-it mother or my son wasn’t smart enough. We were flawed because he wasn’t potty trained at two. Oh my.

That potty training attempt was my first taste of the desire to push my child faster than he was ready emotionally because subconsciously I put my pride on the line. I’ve since encountered it with childcare drop-offs, riding a balance bike, tree climbing, running down hills, swimming, riding a pedal bike, teaching him to read, wanting him to participate in a choir, wanting him to want to play sports and attend soccer camp. At least monthly, I am reminded that this is not my journey.

There is a narrow divide between encouraging, trusting in their resilience, drawing upon their bravery and pushing them too quickly, forcing them into activities, putting our own hopes, fears and expectations on them. Tuning into why I’m upset something isn’t happening keeps me on the right side of the divide.

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A few times I have handled letting go of expectations well, though usually after hitting my head against the wall for weeks. The first was when he learned to ride a pedal bike. Christmas morning, weeks prior to his fourth birthday, he woke up to a bike with a big red bow and no training wheels. He had developed great balance with his pedal-free bike, so even though he was young, this was what people encouraged us to do. We took him out that afternoon and he got the hang of it quickly! In our eyes, it was beautiful and couldn’t have gone better. But, he wouldn’t ride again for months.

We would ask and ask and ask. He’d say no. We didn’t want to put training wheels on because it felt like backsliding and we thought he’d come through again. Finally, we gave him room to voice his fears. While we were focused on how well he’d done, all he could recall was a fall that happened at the end of the day. He was scared to bike because he didn’t want to crash. I asked him, “Would you like to try training wheels on your bike to get used to pedaling and braking?” “Yes.” “How many times do you want to practice this way before we take them off again?” “Ten.” Alrighty, then!

After we listened to him, it was that easy. He practiced those new skills ten times and off went the training wheels. He was still very nervous, but found a lot of comfort in the stories Harry and I shared of our own bike falls. I told him about my latest tip over while at a stop sign on a steep Seattle hill in clip-in shoes. Harry told him about his mountain biking accidents. We shared how the falls often hurt, but we always felt like the fun of biking was worth the momentary pain. We normalized his experience- everyone falls, it hurts, most people think it’s worth it.

The same progression happened with swimming. He participated in group swimming lessons when he was four. The only skills I saw improve were techniques to make his classmates giggle while they waited at the wall. Last spring he told us he didn’t want to take swim lessons again, adding, “I will teach myself how to swim.” I believed him. I was also happy to not spend our money on honing his pooltime comedy routine.

Every time we went swimming, he made decent progress, taking little steps that would get him closer to swimming. Finally, after our vacation in June, during which he got more water exposure than usual, he would put his head under while plugging his nose and played lots of water games comfortably. He was probably a little too confident since he still couldn’t float. My concern about his false sense of confidence let me know it was time for more lessons.

A friend told me about private swimming lessons working well for her daughter with a similar disposition, and I thought that would be the best option. No surprise, he didn’t want to go. I told him, “I know you’re nervous, but we believe you are ready to learn more. You’re doing so well now and they’ll help you feel comfortable with the next steps so you can really swim. Pools will be so much more fun!” He wasn’t sold. “I know you still feel scared, but the teacher will listen and help you. They won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.” Still not buying it. “We believe learning to swim is really important. It lets you have more fun but it also helps you be safer around water. We think it’s important that you’re safe around water. We will keep doing lessons until you are and you can take as long as you need.” Sold! This time he needed the understanding that this wasn’t negotiable but he had permission to go at his pace. He was not excited, but willing. By the end of the first lesson, he was swimming the crawl stroke with his face in the water.

It is difficult for me to determine when I’m taking too much control of his journey or when I need to exert more influence. Our history is teaching me that examining my own hopes and fears is a critical first step, along with listening to him and reflecting his emotions. Normalizing experiences and providing opportunity to practice has helped tremendously, too. But ultimately, it’s about trusting. Believing in his resilience, in his need for security, in his desire to learn. Month by month, I am learning to respect that his journey will often be different than my hopes for him, but if I stay on the right side of the divide, it’ll be just as interesting and rewarding.

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The Never-Ending Sex Talk

During lunch this week Miles threw out, “Mama, how did you made me?” This question came after a morning of typical activities three year olds and six year olds do while inside. They played in boxes, battled with light sabers, hurt each other with them, cried and screamed, listened to books, and made a million silly noises. Nothing super serious. Even the books were Dr. Seuss. The question felt very out of the blue. For goodness sake, he just turned three.

As you might already know, we are very open about bodies in our household. I was able to tell Miles, without hesitation, “Mama and Papa made you.” I greatly prefer this response to “God made you” for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I’m not trying to dodge the knitty-gritty of it all. This isn’t an existential conversation. Those will come later. Then, get this. In the sweetest voice ever he said, “Thank you for making me.” (He does this. He thanks people all the time for things they did for him, often for events that occurred weeks prior. It is an amazingly charming quality.) Someday he’ll probably know that we debated long and hard about a second child. His comment felt more touching to me because of that bit of our history.

Next Miles asked how we were able to keep his head on. Then how we put his skin on. I adore him so much I could eat him up. His curiosity is going to serve him very well. Anyways, I gave him a brief, “Oh, we didn’t do that, it all happened inside my belly.” I didn’t even dawn on me in the moment that he was probably thinking we put him together like Legos.

Charlie quickly piped in, “Miles, you were as small as a tadpole! And you had a tail. But the tail popped off! And you had these funny eyes. But maybe that was just the book. And then you got bigger and bigger and bigger! And then mama was pregnant and she had to go to the hospital to have you. Then you were born!” We might have a little reviewing to do to fill in some gaps for Charlie. But he definitely knows about sperm! Clearly, this education is a long-term commitment. Hopefully the continued discussions will help minimize shame and stigma.

Not too long ago Miles went through a phase of asking me repeatedly if I had a penis. I’d go through the routine: “Nope. I don’t have a penis. Boys and men have penises. Girls and women have vaginas.” He’s asked his grandparents. He’s asked some of my friends. And I’m pretty sure every time he sees me naked he’s looking to see if I have grown one overnight. Once after asking me, he beat me to the response and said, “You have a fonus!” Then he totally giggled.

Most of this open labeling of bodies and bodily functions has led to really hilarious, wonderful interactions, winning me over despite my initial hesitations. I wasn’t thrilled the first time I had to explain menstruation because they walked in on me in the bathroom and saw blood. That’s an awkward situation, especially when your pants are down. The openness can be embarrassing in public, too. Like when I was in a busy, downtown bathroom and Miles was loudly asking “What’s that? What’s in your underwear? But why? Why is there blood? Do you have an owie?” But, I swallowed my pride a bit and we got over that hurdle. I’m so glad we’re opening the lines of communication with them this young. I can’t imagine how heightened the embarrassment must get when kids are older. FOR US! Probably them, too.

Pink Mansions for Boys

The only thing my boys wanted this Christmas was a dollhouse. They were nearing six and three but that was it. Not video games, not action figures, not Legos, not remote control vehicles, not even candy canes. Every time someone asked them what they wanted from Santa, they loudly proclaimed, “A dollhouse!” They had played extensively with a big pink one at the home of friends who hosted us for Thanksgiving. A few appliances made noises. I think a doorbell rang. It left an impression.

What to get them for Christmas was clearly a no brainer. Despite how much effort I’ve put forth to try to not have gender stereotypes influence parenting, as well as how we actively try to lessen stigma, I couldn’t get over the pink dollhouse hurdle. I looked on craigslist for weeks, totally drawn to the wooden ones with modern designs that felt like they’d stand the test of time better. I assumed pink wouldn’t survive peer pressure. I knew Charlie really wanted the same kind he had played with, though.

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Christmas came and there was no dollhouse. I couldn’t find one on craigslist and we didn’t want to buy one new. We opted instead for your typical dollhouse stand-ins: Legos. They can be made into as many types of houses as you can imagine, right? Embarrassingly, because we’re horrible procrastinators when it comes to presents, the Legos we ordered didn’t arrive in time despite saying they’d show Christmas Eve. I realize that’s cutting it close, but that’s our style. (I hate most forms of shopping. I would rather pick someone else’s nose than visit a mall these days.) On December 24th I kept checking our front porch. By 10pm, we accepted their fate. We had very few gifts but we decided to just see how the morning went. Historically, our boys didn’t have high expectations around holidays (I think no exposure to advertisements really helps this), so I wasn’t too worried about them being sad in the midst of it all.

One of the gifts they did receive from a friend was a Paddington Christmas book. We first read it a few days after Christmas. In it, Paddington comments how special it was that Santa knew exactly what he wanted and gave him his favorite orange marmalade. Charlie teared up, “Why didn’t Santa do that for me?”

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My stomach sank. His first Christmas heartache. He hadn’t shown any disappointment that day, but clearly had felt it. I don’t think the Legos actually arriving in time would’ve prevented this sadness, either. He wanted a pink mansion.

My first inclination was to order one and put a note on it from Santa that said, “Sorry it was late! It fell out over Antarctica and I just found it!” But, Harry and I decided we didn’t want to lie. We’ve actually never told them we believe in Santa. We haven’t told them he isn’t real, either, but we haven’t perpetuated Santa much. We let it be a story and acknowledge their comments about him like a story. We don’t leave his name on gifts, we don’t get annual pictures with him, etc… Besides, shouldn’t we get the credit? I like it when parents have Santa give kids socks and they give the fun stuff. Maybe Santa should stick to socks or underwear. I think my childhood Santa always gave me hose. Yes, that kind. Leg stockings. I guess my mom and I think alike on these matters.

Anyways, a few days later we told Charlie that we could buy one with a vague explanation about what had happened on our end. (We had returned the Legos without them knowing because all was fine Christmas morning.) We looked online at the options in our price range. We looked on craigslist. And what did he pick? The biggest pink mansion in town. With a mom, dad and twin babies.

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Unlike the dollhouse of my youth, this one has superheros jump through windows, converts into a train station, experiences serious earthquakes, gets hit by meteors or other projectiles and usually has people battling each other in it. The zombies are a particularly interesting addition. RIght now, there are ribbons hanging out the windows for repelling. I don’t even try to make sure that the babies stay out of harm’s way. They’ve been run over by a dumptruck too many times to count.