Tag Archives: communication

One little conversation

When my twitter and facebook feeds erupted rainbows last Friday morning, I sobbed. Then for a solid hour I was glued to the screen, scrolling, “liking” and commenting endlessly to celebrate. I’m a relative newbie to the fight for civil rights, fleeing chains of conservative Christianity in the past two decades, but damn, it still felt amazing to win. How deeply it must have resonated for people who have been denied the right to sit by their loved one’s side in the hospital, listened to decades of hateful slurs, told they were less than, and had their worth questioned. Snot and tear city.

My boys built forts and played with Legos that morning, unaware that lives just changed. I’m trying to capitalize on natural opportunities for conversations about hot-button topics, such as sexuality, race, discrimination and violence, so we chatted over snack. I told the boys about the SCOTUS decision, homophobia, and discrimination. I didn’t use those words. I simplified it. They’re five and eight.

“Some people don’t believe that people who are the same sex should be able to marry. Some people also treat these people really horribly and tell them that they’re not ok as who they are. This has meant all sorts of awful things have happened, including people being bullied, people not being able to support each other in the hospital nor make important decisions together. Now, the government has said that this can’t happen anymore. Anyone who loves each other can get married.”

They’re not surprised by a same sex family. Their community includes a few gay family members and many friends who have parents in same sex marriages. (It’s been legal in Washington State since 2012.) We also have a history of discussions about various family structures. As far as I can tell, my boys think nothing of it. But I wanted them to know that this law was hard won, a HUGE deal, and critically important for many people in our nation.

Because we used to attend church and occasionally still encounter conservative Christian beliefs, I also made sure to specify with them that some Christians will say God doesn’t believe gay people should marry, nor be gay at all. But, Harry and I don’t believe this. We think God cares about loving people and fighting for those who aren’t being loved.

We finished by specifying many of their friends who have same sex parents, our family members who are gay, and I reiterated the fact that now anyone can marry whoever they want in every single state of our nation. That was it. A ten minute discussion over lunch. How much did they process? Who knows. They seemed more interested in their peaches than our talk. It doesn’t matter, though. This isn’t a one time deal. Short, simple discussions will be peppered throughout our life, evolving in complexity as the boys grow.

Later that afternoon, while Charlie and a friend played in the Seattle Center’s International Fountain, I scanned the crowd struck by how many different races were represented around the circle. It hit me that just like I grew up with it legal to play at a park with kids of different colors and found the alternative terrible, my children will look back at the USA prior to this law and rightfully acknowledge how horrible and ridiculous it was that it took us so long.

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I love the rainbow. It is stunning after so much black and white.

Will this decision be among the first dominos that topple the devastating effects of hatred against the LBGTQ community? Will teenagers stop needing to flee home because they know their parents would hate their truth, possibly even beat them for it? Will stories like Matthew Shepherd’s horrid murder become less and less frequent? I believe yes. There will be pockets of hate. The road is long and bumpy, but I believe yes.

My hope and prayer is that if my boys ever hear anything hateful spoken, they will speak up for love. This is an important piece of why we are not silent. We fight discrimination, bias and stigma one little conversation at a time.

If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend watching this beautifully produced short on Jim and John. Thank you, John, for your deep commitment to this fight. You are astoundingly courageous. And SCOTUS, it’s friggin’ overdue, but you deserve a thank you, too. America is truly a little closer to being the Land of the Free this Independence Day.

 

Onward

Lately I’ve had several friends inquire about the current state of challenges with our youngest’s behavior. While I wrote in brevity about our fall preschool drop-off challenges and how we dealt with them, I didn’t communicate the extent to which difficulties continued.

While I am often open here, I rarely divulge the deep struggles while I’m in the midst of them with anyone beyond my husband and a few trusted friends. I generally like there to be at least hints of forward momentum before sharing that we’re tripping on a daily basis, sliding back down to the bottom of a mountain that we’re not sure we’re going to summit.

For at least six months, Little Monkey’s most common immediate response to upsetting stimuli was physical aggression. The range of triggers was wide. If he tripped and fell, SMACK! If I gave him too much verbal praise, WHACK! If big brother moved towards him and he felt threatened, POW! If I moved a toy from the place it was apparently intended to remain for eternity, BOOM! I was getting hit or kicked daily, often more than once. Frequently I steadied myself in pain, anticipating a black eye or bloody nose. Our oldest was also the recipient of many crushing blows.

We were scared.

This kid didn’t cry when he received his first shot as a newborn. His pain tolerance is unbelievably high. For his first few years of life he rarely shed a tear unless the injury involved blood. If he cried after a fall, I prepared for a trip to Urgent Care. After he dished it out, his hands and feet seemed to just experience a slight irritation. Like he’d been rubbed wrong. When he was hurt enough to cry, he often immediately lashed out at others. He would refuse comfort and hugs. He was Mini-Hulk, Super Sensitive Version.

For months his behavior seemed to only deteriorate and we questioned all our parenting methods. Worn out and desperate for change, we started to revert to ways we’d previously written off as disrespectful or humiliating, like isolating him in his room (in essence, a lonely time-out) or taking away toys unrelated to the incidents. We rarely acknowledged the emotions behind his behavior or talked through his motivation. We were caught in a downward spiral of stress, fear, anger and fatigue. We kept trying to get back on our feet and dust ourselves off to continue upward, not considering that we might need a completely new route.

I really couldn’t see straight. I told a group of friends over Christmas dinner that we were considering professional help (family counseling or child therapy). One friend asked, “What’s his currency?” and it hit me. As we talked through motivating factors for children, I realized we’d turned everything we believe to be true onto it’s back. I didn’t want toys, money or screen time to be my child’s primary “currency.” I wanted him to know himself well enough to manage his emotions without an external motivator or threats and punishment. I longed for him to inherently know that his opinions would be valued. His voice would be heard. I didn’t want him to feel alone with his sadness or anger. He needed to know that no matter how enormous his emotions felt, we would stay by his side.

Shortly thereafter, my husband and I recommitted to using emotion coaching as our primary way of handling Little Monkey’s outbursts. We tried to intercept him prior to his hits and kicks. Initially, we restrained him in our arms to prevent injuries to ourselves or our oldest. We would say, “I’m holding you until we’re safe.” He quickly learned that these restraints were actually comforting, and his anger would melt into our arms as his tears took over. We don’t have to do that anymore because he now willingly runs to our arms. If we’re at our best, we speak slowly and calmly, with pauses for all the inevitable crying. “You’re so angry. You really wanted this to happen and it didn’t. You are so frustrated. It’s not ok to hit and kick, but it’s ok to feel mad. I understand. I feel mad, too, sometimes. Just don’t hurt people.” (We don’t always do our best. I’ve yelled more in the past six months than I probably have my entire time as a mom. So, plenty of apologies and restarts, too.)

If he’s still on edge and posturing aggressively after the initial talks and tears, our next step is usually, “You are welcome to stay here as long as you can play respectfully and nicely. If you need to take a break, I can come with you.” If a toy was involved in the altercation we might say, “You may play with that as long as you can use it safely. Otherwise I will take it until you’re ready to be safe.”

Thankfully, once we changed course it got noticeably better. Not overnight, but within a few weeks there was significant weight lifted off all our shoulders. Add normal developmental maturation to improved emotional regulation and his current behavior feels almost miraculous. (I had my doubts this would improve much because of how big his temper seemed.) One of the changes I didn’t anticipate was that he cries more easily now after injuries. He’s seeking us out for comfort instead of acting out physically. He’s also exhibiting much more self-control during disagreements. Like all four year olds, he has plenty of communication skills to learn, but he’s quicker to take turns or share his toys. He’s not feeling as easily threatened. In general, he just seems more stable and secure.

There is residual trauma and it’s remains a careful trek. Some of his worst behaviors reappeared at a friend’s birthday party last month, when he was exhausted after a week of spring break activities and his own birthday festivities. Leave it to the gymnastics party people to put a stamp on his feet without asking so we can all watch the house come tumbling down! Wailing, hitting, screaming. Even a piece of cake couldn’t pull him out of his misery, because it was served with a SPORK, for the love! The kid wasn’t going to deal with alternative utensils on top of all the other atrocities from the past fifteen minutes. (He tried to throw the plate with cake on it.) Nothing could get him back. We had to leave the party early, at which point my oldest (understandably) freaked out, too. Two sobbing boys for the car ride home.

(Little tangent here- Why do people put stamps or stickers on children without asking? Does this ever turn out well? Several months ago a grocery store checker asked if he wanted a sticker. After he answered affirmatively, she took it off the paper and put it ON HIS FOREHEAD. Again, without asking. He loudly yelled, “YOU STUPID!”, hit me a lot and wailed. Goodness, people. Have some respect.)

We have not hit the summit yet, but I can finally see it. All of us still brace ourselves when the road is bumpy. We trip and fall, reminded yet again that the new path requires much more careful footing and plenty of breaks for deep breathing. Once we’re standing on the peak we’ll take in the view and pat ourselves on the back for all the boulders we climbed (sometimes twice!). Then, we’ll head down the other side, inevitably beginning the next mountain.

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)

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.

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…)

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.

Asking for Themselves: Encouraging Public Discourse

One of my favorite parenting decisions came while on the playground with my oldest son when he was shy of two years old. He saw another child’s tricycle, something which he had yet to experience, and naturally wanted to try it out. The common reaction at playgrounds is for kids to be told, “That’s not yours. Sorry, you can’t play with it.” So, my first thought was, “It would upset the other child and we shouldn’t put them in that situation.” But I thought a bit longer, feeling very committed to parenting with positive responses when possible (and -ugh- I really need to work on this again!). I realized we would almost always be happy to share, so why not give it a try with this family? I encouraged Charlie to go ask that child if it was alright to take a turn. I modeled the words for him at his developmental level first, “Turn with tricycle, please?” and we walked hand-in-hand together to the little boy and his mom. Charlie asked but wasn’t understood (darn toddler articulation), so I repeated his request. And you know what? They said, “Sure!” Then they asked to borrow a shovel Charlie brought. Both kids were happy as they learned the benefits of requesting and sharing in the best, most tangible way for that moment.

That decision seemed so small at the time but it has impacted our everyday life with kids in a pretty dramatic way. In hindsight I realize that we were making a choice to embrace and trust our immediate community, wherever we were, whether we knew them or not. We were allowing other people to be responsible for their own boundaries instead of assuming the worst and deciding not to “bother” them. We were also taking the risk that the boys would be turned down, and that we could all survive the sad cries that would ensue. They’d be alright, I’d be alright. The risk was worth it.

This attitude has allowed our boys to experience an incredible array of fun situations, activities and toys that they would’ve otherwise been steered away from. I’d guess that 99% of people respond positively. I realize this seems so simple and obvious, but in my countless experiences at playgrounds and other venues since making this choice, I find that it is very unusual for caregivers to allow children to ask others to explore something, borrow things or take turns if it requires interacting with strangers.

With our oldest, this increased confidence with approaching and asking others has generalized to him being very comfortable talking with most adults, handling transactions in a marketplace with ease, and being willing to share how he’d prefer for situations to be handled. It has led to Charlie feeling comfortable asking random construction workers if he could sit in their vehicle’s cabs, countless dogs being pet by Miles, snacks being shared, cockpits being viewed. We could wait and hope people will see the little boys’ longing eyes and be willing to offer, but now I much prefer they take the lead when possible..

I think it is really empowering. It allows them to make specific requests regarding their genuine interests as they’re out and about, not just what caregivers think they’ll find cool. Most adults love fulfilling a little child’s request. They love hearing the little voice ask them, seeing their wide-eyes and smiles during the experience, and receiving a lovely little two year old “fank you!” afterwards. I encourage my boys to request their own special treats when we hit our local doughnut shop or favorite bakery. Initially (in the late ones and early twos), both boys needed me to walk them through protocol. “First we wait in line. It’s not our turn yet. When it’s our turn, you can ask.” [Wait, wait, wait. Ack! This is taking forever. Hold on, child.] “Now you can ask for it.” Miles still needs some models and sometimes the vocabulary for what he wants, Charlie often needs a reminder to say “please”. I usually try to whisper it in his ear with hopes that my reminder doesn’t embarrass him, as he’s getting to that age. But let me tell you, they get the best responses from the employees. Everyone wins- the boys are confident and pleased with themselves, the employees get a serious dose of cuteness. I get to take in the sweetness of it all.

PS: If you’re too worried about stranger-danger to try this, I think this website might have some good advice for you. FYI- I’m there all the time and don’t allow any dangerous requests to be fulfilled.