Category Archives: Life Lessons

Adult Eyes

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” ― Virginia Woolf

Each year, I seem to learn of several new things to dislike about growing older and being An Adult (one of my co-workers, who is 62, likes to warn me about things that I have to “look forward to” in years to come). As a child, I never really imagined it would be this way. I imagined a kind of weightless freedom — the freedom to eat Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast every morning if I wanted! The freedom to stay up all night long reading if I wanted! The freedom to drive a car! To pick my own clothes! To make my own rules. Being An Adult was something as seemingly distant as the Moon. Imagining myself as an adult, I never fathomed that I would still actually be Myself — the same awkward, anxious, dorky person — just older. And, no matter how much my parents and grandparents may have tried to warn me, I never put much stock in the negatives that I now see: the bills, the responsibilities, the lack of naps, the wrinkles.

I don’t generally eat Lucky Charms for breakfast, although I certainly could, because somehow the adult version of the same old anxious, dorky me prefers to “eat healthy”. I don’t generally stay up all night reading because the adult version of me gets tired. The adult version of me doesn’t necessarily miss being a child, in the way that missing implies. I would not choose to go backward in time. In fact, the adult version of me appreciates every step and misstep that has led to me this very point in time. I wouldn’t change much. But there are things for which I have a greater appreciation, looking back now, and things for which I feel nostalgic. Things like seeing the world through the eyes of a child.

Our adult eyes will never see things the way that a child does. Our adult eyes are covered with layers and layers of filters, made up of all the years of context that we’ve added to our worlds. Our adult eyes can be cynical or frightened or judgmental in ways that a child’s eyes don’t yet know to be. Our adult eyes miss so much, for all that we think we’re seeing.

A few months ago, my husband and I took our niece to Hollywood to see the Broadway show The Lion King. We parked some distance from the theater, which meant we had to walk for many blocks on Hollywood Boulevard. There is a lot to see there and our niece’s head swiveled this way and that as she took it all in, wide-eyed. At one point, we passed by a young woman posing suggestively as a friend or colleague took photos of her. She was dressed in a long teal-colored gown that was designed in such a way as to reveal plenty of skin and silver stiletto heels that made her poses feats of agility. I saw her and then instantly turned to my niece to gauge her reaction, to see if she had noticed her too, smiling to myself. Of course she had noticed, as she noticed everything around us, and her reaction was obvious: she was thrilled. When she looked at this young woman, through her child eyes, she saw someone glamorous and beautiful! To her eyes, this woman was potentially “a princess”.

My adult eyes, connected to my adult brain, questioned whether this was an “appropriate” thing to expose my niece to — this garish, scantily-clad lady and her cohorts on Hollywood Boulevard. What would she think? How will this impact her sense of self, her sense of femininity and feminism and… I mean, should I say something about it? My mind whirled.

To my adult eyes and ears and brain, “princess” is a loaded word. Is it to you? From the moment my oldest niece was born, I’ve consciously avoided ever gifting the girls with a single pink, plastic, bejeweled, princess-ish item. I’ve read extensively on the effects of media on children and the dark side of Disney and the problems with our whole princess subculture in preschool. I have strong opinions about it all.

It’s possible that my adult brain may think too much.

Because while this is all quite valid and quite concerning in general, through the wide and highly contextualized adult lens, the fact is that many small moments can safely be taken entirely at face value, through child eyes. Through child eyes, the color of that gown was gorgeous in the sun. The silver shoes sparkled. The smile on that young woman’s face as she posed was lovely. And it didn’t need to mean anything more than that.

Quetzal
“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” ― Franz Kafka

If we really think back, transporting ourselves and our senses through time, we can catch glimpses of things that influenced our individual development of aesthetic. When I was small, it was the ’80’s and my mom was taking an aerobics class one or two nights a week. When she would go to her aerobics class, she would wear bright-colored tights and legwarmers. I loved those tights. She had one pair that was teal and they were thickly woven and shiny, with a satiny feel. I loved those tights. I loved the color and the texture. Not unlike the way that my niece appreciated the flash of that dress and those shoes on Hollywood Boulevard, my senses were awakened by that uniquely ’80’s aerobic outfit.

When I was seven or eight, I was given a book about birds. It was my favorite book for years and years, due to the illustrations of exotic birds and the fact that it introduced me to words I had never known existed, like Quetzal. In an art class that I was taking shortly after receiving the book, we had an assignment to make a mask. I decided to make a mask of a Quetzal. I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful than that bird, rendered so strikingly in the book. I spent hours with paint and cardboard and glue and feathers, creating a Quetzal mask. I was so proud of that mask, and in love with the way I transformed my idea of it into reality. A few years later, my grandparents happened to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and my grandma brought back for me a purple feathered Mardi Gras mask and dozens of beaded necklaces. The mask was gorgeous, the necklaces a sensory delight with their small, smooth beads that clinked and clacked together, and I spent many days disguised in them, feeling fabulous.

Buttercups, a member of the Ranunculus genus, grew wild near my house in the spring and summer when I was young. My friends and I would pick them, gently plucking their thin, green stems, and hold them under one another’s chins to see if the brilliant yellow would reflect against our skin, indicating, it was rumored, a love of butter. Decades later, I can imagine the feeling of the tiny, flexible stems between my fingers and the shine of the bright yellow blossoms in the sun. Despite the intense embodiment of yellowness, they always smelled green to me.

Stephanie Feeney and Eva Moravcik wrote an article entitled A Thing of Beauty: Aesthetic Development in Young Children that explores how children develop an appreciation for and understanding of beauty through nature, art, experiences, and what adults share with them.

Buttercups
“One of the first things teachers can do is to reflect on the role of beauty in their own lives, become aware of it, and share it with children. In their daily experiences with children they can respond to the aesthetic qualities of the world around them. While on a walk in the park or a trip to the tide pools they can help children to reflect on colors, patterns, and textures; focus on tiny flowers, or watch a spider spin a web. These experiences will help children learn to cherish the beauty around them […]”

They write share it with children, which I think is important to note. We’re not overtly teaching children what’s beautiful because their senses have already taught them and this will continue to develop. We trust them to form their own opinions and express their own aesthetic. We’re exposing children to the diverse possibilities of beauty, everywhere. So when my niece finds the flash of a revealing teal gown to be breathtakingly beautiful, I can celebrate that color and that shine along with her without judgment and without over-contextualized concern.

As a child, I knew a world full of simple beauty and wonder in the look, the feel, and the smell of the world around me — in books and birds and buttercups. Experiences like this can provide balance to that noxious plastic princess culture. Children can be trusted to recognize beauty, in its many and varied incarnations. With our adult eyes, we see not only what is but what has been and could be and each worst-case scenario, heavily laden with subtext. Child eyes see things more clearly, without necessarily assigning weight and meaning. It’s possible that my niece could appreciate that gown on Hollywood Boulevard without wearing it herself, without being that person in that pose. It’s possible that what she’s drawn to has very little to do with the full package that my adult eyes have consumed, but with a snapshot — maybe the color, maybe the confidence, maybe the smile, maybe something else entirely, quite beyond the scope now of my adult eyes.

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The Quick Fix

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a classroom of toddlers who ranged in age from nineteen or twenty months old to nearly three. When I walked through the door, the first thing I noticed was one child in distress, who appeared to have been crying for some time. She was pacing. I sat down nearby and began to observe what was happening through a wider lens. Most of the children in the room were engaged in various play activities — some in the play kitchen, some rolling cars and trucks across a carpeted area, and some reading books with a caregiver. The crying child was without an adult nearby, but was seeming to seek another caregiver who was engaged in changing a diaper. She was not entirely without support, however. Hovering nearby was another child, older than her by about six months. Every so often, the older child would put a hand on the crying child’s arm. The crying child shook it off, turning away, but the older child persisted, peering into the crying child’s face. As I watched, the older child tried again to touch the crying child and the crying child again shook her away. I decided to verbalize my observations.

“You saw how upset H was,” I said to the older child. “It looks like you wanted to help her, but I think she was letting you know she didn’t want to be touched right now.”

The crying child paused in her hectic movements and looked at me. I looked back and observed, “You’re really upset, H.” She moved closer to me.

“She’s crying,” the older child stated. “She’s sad.”

“Are you sad?” I asked H. She climbed into my lap. The older child again moved to lay her hand on H’s arm and H turned to her with a sharp, warning look on her face, again vocalizing her distress.

The caregiver who was changing a diaper called out to the older child, “L! Stop it! Keep your hands on you!” She then added, to me, “My friend L is having a hard time keeping her hands to herself.”

I blinked and looked at L as she blinked and looked at me. She wrung her hands silently.

I spoke quietly to L again, “I see that you were trying to help H. You saw that she was sad. Does it help you when someone strokes your arm when you feel sad?” I paused a moment, then stroked her arm gently. From the safety of my lap, H quietly watched, her crying calmed. L nodded and said, “H was crying.”

“She was crying,” I agreed. “Do you think you could ask H if you could help her?” Both children looked at me silently, seeming to contemplate the meaning. I expounded, “We can ask before we touch someone. Can I touch your arm, L?” L looked down at her arm, then held it out to me. I stroked it again and smiled. She smiled back.

The caregiver who had been engaged in a diaper change emerged from behind the changing counter. “L,” she said, “Walk away and find a job.”

L wandered to another part of the room by herself and stood watching some other children play. I sat with H in my lap and simply observed for a period of time. After a little while, H got up from my lap and went to join some other children playing with baby dolls, her upset now behind her. I saw L keeping an eye on her from a distance and I thought I saw something in her face, in the way she watched H, that indicated Future Caregiver.

I did not record this observation in an attempt to indict the caregiver who suggested L set aside her empathetic instincts. My observations were a snapshot, a snippet of the day this caregiver devotes to both L and H. My intention is simply to share an example of how we might interact slightly differently with young children. I believe this caregiver truthfully interpreted L’s hand on H as an issue that needed to be stopped, nipped in the bud, so to speak. The quick fix was to have L “walk away” from H and perhaps then (imagine I had not been there, as would normally be the case) help H to communicate or calm her upset.

I asked the caregiver about H’s upset. I wondered if it seemed to be related to L. It turned out that she had begun crying when her parent had left and had not been able to “calm down” since. I asked about L’s response to H’s distress. I learned that L had been hovering nearby, as I had observed, for some time and that H seemed more distressed each time L moved in close.

“It seems like L has a lot of empathy for H,” I said.

“She likes to be in the middle of things,” the caregiver expressed ruefully.

Hmm.

Caregivers (I include myself) come to their role with preconceptions and emotional baggage that they sometimes don’t recognize the weight of (it’s like those suitcases on wheels — you can just roll along all day without working too hard, but then a wheel begins to wobble and you realize it’s too much to carry). It can cloud their relationships with the children in their care.

I was reminded of a section from Deborah Carlisle Solomon’s book, regarding observation, featuring a quote from RIE Associate Elizabeth Memel.

“Observation is an art form. It’s not something that most people can do easily, but when they’re encouraged to do it, they learn to let go and enjoy it. Parents can begin to relax and see what their child is becoming instead of thinking they need to be the cause of, or catalyst for, their child’s development.”

Observation is one of the most crucial things for early care professionals to develop a knack for. Without it, they are forced to fall back on assumptions, misconceptions, and quick fixes. Observation of children, when undertaken with care, helps to remove the lens of bias and frees the adult to see who children are through what children do.

In the article Wondering With Children: The Importance of Observation in Early Education, George Forman and Ellen Hall write, “As we observe children, we need to consider their goals. What effects are they trying to create? We observe their actions and listen to their comments to determine the strategies they choose to attain those goals. The relation between the strategy and the goal will reveal a possible theory, a theory about how to make the desired effect occur. The theory, correct or incorrect in an objective sense, makes the child’s choice of strategy sensible. The theory comes from us. It is our speculation. It is our attempt to find an entry into the child’s world. All high-level conversations begin with someone speculating about the meaning of the other person’s words or actions.”

Let’s step back again and consider L’s “goals” as she hovered near H. Each time she reached out and touched H and H reacted negatively, L quickly removed her hand. She frequently attempted to study H’s face. She articulated her observation of H’s feelings by saying, “She’s sad.” I theorize this is not a child (L) who needs to be instructed to tamp down her instinct towards empathy, but a child who may need support in learning how to appropriately channel her empathy.

When we reach for the “quick fix” and have children “walk away”, we miss a true learning opportunity for everyone involved.

I want to say again that I’m not writing this down as an indictment of this caregiver. We’ve all used a quick fix before, in many different situations. For example, a few weeks ago I went through a period of intense insomnia. I was crawling through my work days on very few hours of sleep (increasing exponentially my compassion for sleep-deprived new parents!). In the mornings, my jumpstart was coffee. That’s a quick fix. It doesn’t address the underlying issue. It was the best I could do at the time. And if you think this example is something that impacted only myself, understand that I’m responsible for the care of many other human beings throughout the day and I ultimately need to be at my best or we all come out the worse for the wear. I imagine this was only the first of several quick fixes I fell back on during those days.

In one of my university classes, a professor spoke to my class at length regarding Goodness of Fit. Her voice rings on in my head, years later. I understand now, more than ever, why she lingered so on the topic. It’s so important. She emphasized that sometimes there is not that goodness of fit and it is the responsibility of the adult to recognize and adapt for the sake of the child.

Have you ever reflected on this as a caregiver? I think we all should.

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Review: My Age of Anxiety

I have spent the last week immersed in Scott Stossel’s new book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. I would like to take a moment to stand and applaud his courage in so candidly and kindly sharing his own story and those of so many other anxious individuals, including his great-grandfather. This is more than a deeply affecting (and highly compelling) personal account of Stossel’s experiences with anxiety and depression. It’s also a meticulously researched account of anxiety through the ages, including examinations of brain science, psychopharmacology, genetics, human development, and myriad treatment options.

I have long considered myself an anxious person. As a young teen, I suffered an extended period of debilitating illness that did not entirely precipitate my anxiety but definitely served to underline and accelerate the symptoms. I was diagnosed with OCD as a result of feeling my life spiraling out of my control and underwent many months of therapy where I learned methods of relaxation and stress management that I continue to use today in both my personal life and in my work with children and families.

One lesson that I will take from this book is that it’s possible to consider aspects of my anxiety (and your anxiety) a kind of gift. Anxiety is a real biological imperative. It has evolved in humans for a reason. In individuals who display certain heightened levels, it has been shown to enhance their so-called social antennae. Stossel writes, “Social phobics are, in at least this one aspect, gifted — faster and better at picking up behavioral cues from other people, with social antennae so sensitive that they receive transmissions that ‘normal’ people can’t.” Your anxiety or neuroses, in other words, could be an asset in certain situations. In my own case, where my job entails a lot of observation of children and families and navigating sometimes sensitive social waters (difficult conversations with parents about their own children), I do believe this is something that has helped me to do my best work. Stossel further examines Freud’s belief that anxiety attempts to highlight something that our psyche is trying to tell us. Sometimes, we know, we need to listen to ourselves — our gut instincts or our heart.

“Just because I can explain your depression using terms such as ‘serotonin reuptake inhibition’ doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem with your mother.” – Carl Elliott

When I was studying child development in college, I completed a case study on a young child suffering anxiety. I was teaching preschool at the time and I had a child in my classroom who suffered from crippling anxiety. I had never before seen such a severe manifestation in a child so young (she started in my class at age three). Conducting research into the topic was hugely eye-opening and has had an effect on my work ever since. After reading Stossel’s book, I have gained still more insight into the topic which will prove helpful in supporting both children and their parents. I heartily recommend this book to parents of anxious children as well as to teachers and caregivers. It could really change the way that you think of and address children’s (all-too real) worries and fears.

Stossel spends time with one of my favorite subjects, Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. He shares, “In 2006, new results from the forty-year longitudinal Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood found that infants with insecure attachments were significantly more likely than infants with secure or avoidant attachments to develop anxiety disorders as adolescents. […] Bowlby’s attachment theory has an elegant simplicity and a plausible, easily understood evolutionary basis. If your parents provided a secure base when you were an infant and you were able to internalize it, then you will be more likely to go through life with a sense of safety and psychological security.”

What was particularly fascinating to me, however, was that rather than one understandable explanation for anxiety, there are in fact layers upon layers of explanations. There is a chemical component, a genetic component (John Livingstone, a doctor of psychiatry who treats victims of trauma, told Stossel, “It’s as though traumatic experiences get plastered into the tissues of the body and passed along to the next generation”) and also the Nurture (vs. Nature) component. One of my co-workers was delighted when I shared with her that studies have found that the coddled child (that is to say the child who is well and affectionately cared for in a highly responsive relationship) rather than the over-protected child (that is, the child who is denied a sense of self-efficacy), is the more confident and less anxious child. (“I can’t wait to call my son and tell him!” she triumphantly crowed.) Stossel writes, “By now scores of studies support the idea that the quantity and quality of a mother’s affection toward her children has a potent effect on the level of anxiety those children will experience later in life.” I think it’s important to note that we can substitute the title of “mother” in this instance with every single important adult person in a child’s life. Their interactions with family, with caregivers, and with teachers can all serve to build a child’s confidence and insulate them against what seems to be an increasingly anxiety-inducing world. In examining the quality of care in childcare centers, one of the key ingredients in children’s later school success is that they have received warmth and responsiveness. In a 2008 paper, Attachment and Psychopathology in Adulthood, it is reported, “Adults with agoraphobia are more likely to rate their parents as low on affection and high on overprotection.” This serves to further validate all that is said in the early education community about how we must allow children to take risks, make mistakes, and actively and autonomously explore the world around them.

There is so much about this book that is enlightening. It’s written in a very approachable style, with much of the science broken down in a way that is easy (and really interesting!) to digest. It’s unlikely that you don’t know someone who battles anxiety, even if you yourself find the topic to be unfamiliar territory, as some 40 million people in the United States alone are said to today. While I think it would be of special interest to those who suffer anxiety themselves or are caring for anxious children, I can heartily recommend it as universally appealing and educational. It was the kind of book that prompted me to sit up in bed and read passages aloud to my husband (a very non-anxious person). Perhaps surprisingly for a book on this topic written by a man who has, by his own account, been treated with various medications for anxiety for over thirty years, it left me feeling both hopeful and empowered.

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Thoughts From an Introvert on the Internet

In a very real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself. – Alfred Kazin

It’s a funny thing, publishing a blog post.

Writing is (most of the time) a fairly solitary, introspective act. For many people, it’s a way of processing and developing a deeper understanding of events, ideas, and imaginings. It can be a way of traveling through your own psyche — for me, I often start off writing about one thing and find in the end that what I truly wanted to articulate was something else entirely. When writing, I rarely feel like I’m in complete control, but I almost always feel a sense of freedom.

Some days, I’ll wind up with a jumble of words that I think might be worth sharing with other people and I’ll muster up the courage to press the little blue “Publish” button on the screen. A blog is a fairly selfish endeavor, really. What I share here are my personal opinions and musings based on my own experiences and accumulated knowledge. When I decide to share something, I do so with a sense of hope that it may connect with someone else when I send it out (otherwise I’d never press “Publish”). I don’t write for you, to be honest, but for a general idea of you. I write down the things that I most wish to say, from a place of passion and enthusiasm, but don’t necessarily have an everyday forum for.

The thing about putting your ideas out on the Internet is that they’re Out On the Internet. Anyone with any sense knows that this is the most dangerously vulnerable place to leave your ideas. There they sit, trembling, sacrificial lambs before the slaughter. They’re there to be mocked, contradicted, and misinterpreted. Anyway, that’s how it sometimes feels.

In my Real Life, apart from this oft-neglected blog, I’m an introverted person. I am a person of Opinions, as I may seem here, but it’s not often that I’ll be the loudest voice in the room. I’m good at listening and I have developed professional observation skills. Sometimes when I’m done listening and observing, I’ll think, “I have to write about this.”

What I want you to know is that what I write here is the honest expression of a genuine person.

The funny thing about publishing a blog post is that it takes this personal collection of words and makes them available for instant feedback. I think that’s kind of fantastic (if terrifying). It’s one of the things I love most about the Internet: the easy access to all kinds of ideas and information from other people and the ability to make an authentic connection with them based on shared interest. It’s this desire for genuine connection that compels me to write in this space and that makes me clamor for your feedback. It gives me a thrill each time I receive notice of a comment! I appreciate the comments that give me pause and make me think.

There are some topics that you would think (or, I guess, I would think) are not subject to controversy. The Internet has proven, time and again, that this is a patently false belief.

The Internet, you may know, is home to people who wish to anonymously express opinions that may or may not be truly, deeply genuine but are, either way, designed to raise someone’s blood pressure. Some comments read like a slap to the face. I’m not new to the Internet, so while I may not empathize with the intent, I at least recognize it. Each comment posted to this blog is set for “moderation,” which means that I’m asked to approve or reject each one. I read each one. (And the introvert in me internalizes each one.) I click “approve” on 99.9% of comments. The other fraction are lost to the ether and echo only in my mind.

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In Defense of Comfort

We have built an entire industry around the topic of stress. We study stress, write about stress, read about stress, talk about stress, even consistently stress ourselves out over stress. We take classes, meditate, run, walk, eat and drink to reduce it. It seems that the topic of stress makes headlines at least once a week and it is safe to say that we’ve never been more aware of it and we’ve never been more awash in it. What about our children?

Stress, both good and bad in nature, has an impact on our brains and bodies. Our stress response is hardwired in our DNA as a survival instinct. When we experience what we perceive as stress or danger, our hypothalamus activates. Adrenaline is released into our blood stream, our heart rate increases, and blood pumps rapidly into our muscles and limbs. We’re preparing for “fight or flight,” as our senses intensify and our impulses quicken. Our bodies experience this when we have an argument with someone, when we face an emergency, and when we watch an action movie. Stress is part of life, from beginning to end.

Infants and young children experience stress as well. This can be hard to imagine, when one looks from the outside in at the life of a baby. “What do they have to be stressed about?!” we wonder. No deadlines. No bills. No boss. No responsibilities. “That’s the life,” we comment, as we watch babies on their backs, peacefully observing their world. But anyone who spends any time with babies or young children understands that their lives are full of stress. They’re completely dependent upon others for their very survival — it’s hard to fathom a situation in life that could be any more stressful than that. Babies don’t emerge from the womb trusting that they’ll be cared for. That trust must be established over time. Just as, over time, they learn that certain sights, sounds, feelings, and smells are nothing to be worried about (the garbage truck will come and then it will go) (you’ll feel hungry and then you’ll be fed) (Mom will leave, but then she’ll come back).

Infants and young children are also dependent upon the adults in their lives for regulating their responses to stress. Through us, they find and understand comfort. This comes through consistent loving, supportive responses to their distress. This comes through authentic, predictable relationships. The brains of infants and young children are working all the time to make sense of the world, so the least we can do as adults is to meet them halfway to scaffold that development.

Meeting them there and scaffolding them in this way is generally our instinct. When we hear a baby in distress, it’s our instinct to help. (It’s important to be aware that our deepest instinct is to make the crying stop and this is when the thinking part of our brain needs to override our instincts.) Our instinct to help must be balanced with our instinct to raise children who are resilient and competent and don’t fall to pieces at the smallest obstacle. We’re more than halfway through the year 2013, living firmly in the future, and we still worry about “spoiling” children by comforting them. Last week I heard a mom describe her ten-month-old as “a wuss.”

If an adult asks me for a hug, odds are I will give them a hug. If a child or an infant asks to be held, I’ll hold them. I think these are good rules to live by. It’s not up to me to decide whether your distress or sorrow warrants a sympathetic response. Where on earth does this notion come from: “Are they genuinely sad enough for me to want to help?” Feelings are feelings! There is no scientific method by which to judge, weigh, and measure them.

I have worked with many caregivers who have very strong feelings about comfort items and children. “Comfort items” are things like blankets, teddy bears, pacifiers, and thumbs. These items often provoke a surprisingly visceral response of disgust from adults. We judge the children using them and we judge (hard) the parents who give them to their child.

I would like to take this opportunity to come out in favor of comfort items. That’s right. My name is Jenn and I’ll give you a binky! Here’s why: they’re healthy, necessary, and appropriate. In addition, I don’t know a single adult who gets through the day without one. Comfort items look a little different (most of the time) in adulthood. Sometimes they’re a run, a smoothie, a cup of coffee, a cigarette, a certain song on repeat on the stereo, or a pair of lucky socks. (Have you recognized yourself yet?)

Look, let’s all agree on one thing: there is a time and a place for a comfort item. We don’t need them all the time and neither do children. There are downsides to prolonged, irresponsible use of pacifiers. In fact, that name alone is like nails on a chalkboard to me, along with the British term for the same (dummy) because that is where the trouble can start. They’re not to “pacify” a child. They’re not to quiet them for our convenience. They’re a tool that an infant or child may choose to use to lower their stress level, to relax. I believe there is a lot of value in empowering infants and young children to begin to manage their own stress. Little by little, with less and less intervention from loving adults, infants learn to calm themselves down when they’re upset. If a blanket or a toy or a binky is a part of the equation, the lasting impact is still positive. With continued love and support as they develop, that child will not need or want that particular tool forever.

The parents of a preschooler that I know were recently encouraging the little boy to break the habit of sucking his thumb. “He’s learning about bad habits,” they said. I cringed a little bit because while sucking his thumb is a habit, is it necessary to label it either good or bad? It’s just a habit that could be replaced with something else as he has developed new methods of coping with stress.

We are a society barely treading water in an ocean of stress. One step towards healthier living may be understanding that comfort items and coping skills and management of strong emotions starts before birth. A better world starts with how we are with our children.

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Other People’s Children

One of the kindest things that has ever been said to me by one of the moms whose children I cared for was, “Happy Mother’s Day! I know you’re not technically a mom, but you are a mother to all of these babies and these mamas and dadas and everyone who needs you.”

I’ll be honest: I cried. Outwardly. I felt so recognized. Like she had shined a light on the best part of me.

One of the least kind things that has ever been said to me by one of the moms whose children I cared for was, “Yeah. Well. I know you don’t know, but things are different when you have kids. You realize what actually matters.” She spat those words at me when I expressed sympathy for her dog dying and said that I had just lost a pet as well.

I’ll be honest: I cried. Inwardly. I felt so marginalized. (And, later, when I told the story to my husband, I will admit that I cried hardest for her dog.)

One of the first things mothers ask of me when they come to enroll their babies in my program is whether or not I have children myself. Some just ask as a way of making conversation. Some out of genuine curiosity. Some because motherhood is a badge and a certification. It’s a club. You can trust a mom to care for your baby because once upon a time they cared for their baby too and they are in tune with those mystical motherly instincts.

Do you know what I would do for the children in my care? I would do anything. I would lift a bus. I would take a bullet. I would give a kidney.

Do you know what I’ve done for them? I’ve lost sleep worrying about them. I’ve celebrated milestones. I’ve seen first steps and heard first words and watched them read or write their names successfully for the first time. I’ve caught wiggly teeth flying from their mouths. I’ve given up nights and weekends making plans for them. I’ve spent too much money on them. I’ve watched them conquer fears and I’ve held their hands and hugged them close when fears conquer them.

I’ve gone hoarse reading favorite stories just one more time. I’ve gotten favorite songs permanently stuck in my head. I’ve memorized those stories, those songs, and also all of the data generated by those children, from their birthdates to their allergies to their medications to their phone numbers to their favorite colors and animals and foods and rituals.

I’ve bandaged wounds, staunched bleeding, wiped fevered brows, bathed bodies, survived every bodily fluid leak imaginable. I’ve held babies having seizures, I’ve braced broken bones. I’ve given bad news and shared sorrow. I’ve ridden in an ambulance with a scared toddler and held him in the emergency room while he wailed and nurses stuck him with needles.

I don’t take them home at the end of the day. But when their families don’t come on time to pick them up, I stay. I stay until it’s dark. I cancel my plans. I skip dinner. I read books and play games and give snacks and answer questions about where Mom and Dad are (“They are on their way. They’re in the car thinking about you!”). I stay until they go. Always.

Do you know the advantage (for you) that I have in caring for your child? They’re not mine. I don’t care for them like they’re mine. I care for them like they’re yours. Like you want them to be cared for. Like a precious, valuable treasure to be returned completely intact if not a little better polished at the end of the day. I love them for you and for them and for me, all at the same time. When it comes down to making a decision, I make the decision based on what you think is best, not based on my opinion. Because they are your child, not mine.

One day I will fill a book with the weird and wacky things that have been said to me about my profession. One thing that people like to say is that I must do this job to “practice” for having my own children one day. I’m not actually “practicing”. I’m working. Like I’m trained to do. (Try applying this type of statement to another profession.)

The fact is that my job and the way that I do my job is about more than my training and education and knowledge. It’s all about my heart. When you’re truly a caregiver, it’s not just what you do, it’s who you are. (You may be able to relate, if you’re a parent. Or a friend. Or an uncle. Or a human being who cares about other souls in the world.) Being a caregiver makes my job easier to do and I find it to be a more meaningful way to live. Whether I have my own children one day or not, I’ll have left a legacy.

I’m not a mom, but I understand being a mother.

Remembering Nana

Over a year ago, I met baby M for the first time. He came with his mom and his Nana to visit our program just a few days before he was due to start with us full-time. He had been on our waiting list for awhile, but his enrollment had been delayed because a toddler that we were transitioning out of the program needed a little extra time with us. “No problem,” his family said, “Nana will change her plane ticket and stay with us for a few extra weeks to look after him.”

Baby M was not an “easy” baby and Nana was eager to give me some tips and tricks for caring for him. For example, when he started to cry “for no reason,” she had found that the noise of clapping or crumpling plastic grocery bags would distract him, stopping the crying, and allow her to re-engage with him happily.

If I was skeptical of Nana, she was downright hostile towards me. She saw the writing on the wall: I was going to get this baby into my arms and I was going to care for him my way and where was Nana going to be? On a plane bound for New Jersey, that’s where! Nana wasn’t about to let this go down without a fight. She had lists of questions for me, regarding my qualifications, my experience, my home life, etc. I’d been in my job for three years at that point, and I felt more uncertain than I had the day I interviewed.

When we first met, I didn’t realize that she lived so far away. “You’re welcome to come by any time during his day here and check on him,” I mentioned. That’s when Nana’s eyes filled, and I realized that while she was Jersey-tough on the outside, she was a marshmallow on the inside. She explained that she lived 3,000 miles away and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get on that plane.” I laid my hand on her arm and said, “I understand. My whole family lives on the east coast. It’s so hard to be so far away from them. I promise you that I will take good care of your baby for you. I’ll show him your picture. I’ll talk about you. We’ll take photos for his mom to send you.”

I kept my promise. I talked to baby M about Nana every day. We would look through his family photos together, talking about his dog, his mom and dad, his two cousins, and his Nana. Many months later, when baby M had grown into toddler M, Nana came back to visit. And he was terrified of her. He was at the height of his stranger anxiety phase then and Nana was essentially a stranger — a photo, a voice on the phone, but not this real person wanting to hold him.

Nana worked for over a week, the duration of her stay with the family, to win him back over. She told me about her small victories (one night he stayed alone in a room with her without crying). On the last day that she would see us before flying home, she said to me, “He really loves you. That’s so good for him. Thank you.”

I just learned today that Nana passed away last week. It was pretty sudden. I’m so sad for M’s dad and for his mom (who called her mother-in-law “an angel”), but most of all I’m so very sad that little M will never truly know that woman who loved him so very much. She loved him like only a nana can love a little boy. And, had he gotten to know her when he’s a bit older, he would have soaked that in like a sponge.

Nana was there for the first five months of his life and I know that she will always be imprinted on his heart for what she did for him and his parents during that time. In some way, he’ll always know her. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to see her love in action.

What If?

What if I had your heart? What if you wore my scars?

He’s Perfect

I work with a toddler who may be “on the spectrum“. It’s too soon to say for certain what a diagnosis would look and sound like, and it’s much too soon to say for sure exactly who this sweet boy will be in later life. He’s receiving some wonderful intervention and support therapies, in addition to the exceptional care and support offered to him every single day by his mom and dad. He’s going to be just fine. In fact, he’s going to be fairly exceptional, it’s plain to see. I can see it in his bright blue eyes that beam into mine with wisdom and understanding. I can feel it in his gentle embrace of my neck before his nap each day. I can hear it in the voices of his parents when they greet him at the end of the day, exhaling with, “I missed you, buddy.” He’s going to be just fine.

That is not to say he will not face challenges unique to his situation. That is not to say that his parents won’t (continue to) lose sleep sometimes, worrying, wondering. The fact is, he’s not exactly who people expect him to be, and that will be difficult at times.

This boy was originally “scheduled” to transition out of my program and into the room next-door several months ago, due to his age. Instead, we kept him with us, where he was just starting to feel comfortable and confident, so that we could support him in emerging a bit more from his shell. At the time, we didn’t know that he may be “on the spectrum”. What some would now call warning signs or symptoms at the time looked like possible and predictable separation anxiety and uncertainty about his new environment. It’s never easy for children to adjust to a group care setting (even when it looks to be “easy,” there is generally more churning under the surface) and part of my job is to slowly melt through the shields of anxiety, stress, confusion, and fear to find out who that child really is and attune myself to their rhythms and needs.

It’s been an unexpected journey to the heart of this little boy. I have treasured it. I could write pages and pages on what he has taught me about himself and about myself along the way, but instead I write pages and pages of notes to help his new caregivers understand him (to help them to love him, like I love him) because the time has come for him to transition out of my care. It’s difficult to accept that someone else is going to be taking care of him and that they’re going to care for him differently than I do. They’re going to care for him with their own philosophy, their own agenda, and their own ideas about what is best for him. He and I will both have to set forth with some trust in the process and in humanity.

It’s my belief that young children should not have to learn to conform to the way that I, as a teacher and caregiver, want them to be. Their only task, in my care, is to be their perfect selves. It’s my job to be who they need me to be and to create the environment that best suits them. That’s one of the things that makes my job a joy to do. Every day is different. Each child is a new challenge, a new experience. This beautiful boy in my care does not have problems that require fixing. He’s not an issue to be resolved. He’s perfect. While I, as a teacher, and his parents, as parents, want him to be the best possible version of himself, we realize that this is subjective. He can be only himself. He’ll change and grow and develop in ways we can’t even fathom today, as we see him before us now, less than two years old. There’s no stopping the process. There’s really no controlling it, although we’ll try, sometimes without even realizing it. All we can really do is influence the path he follows.

The best advice I can give to his new caregivers is to follow him, come alongside him, and reach out a hand. This is the best advice I can give to all caregivers. Just slow down and learn who this child is, at their core, before you make decisions about what you think they need. As Magda Gerber said, “Observe more. Do less.” There are times, in my work, that I feel like we’re all in a hurry to diagnose and intervene and arrange for services for every possible “issue” that could arise. This is not to say that early intervention does not have a very important place — I truly believe that it does and I’ve had the opportunity to see this good work in action, getting very real results. But I also think that too many caregivers look more for the “problem” than they do for the person. I believe that we sometimes waste time and energy on trying to fix things and change individuals who we could learn something from, exactly as they are.

On the days that this little boy is so deep inside himself that he seems unreachable, it’s on me to set aside my agenda and honor who he is. Sometimes he has a need to retreat (don’t we all?). I wish I knew where he goes and what he sees there, deep inside his own thoughts. Sometimes I sit close by and just watch quietly, but sometimes I can’t resist tossing him a line. Once in awhile, he’ll grab on and allow me to pull him back to the surface, where I wait. He does that for me, I think, because he’s perfectly content in his own thoughts, deep inside, but he recognizes my need. (It’s his recognition and acknowledgement of that need that makes me realize, upon reflection, that he will be okay, out there in the world without me.)

When I look at him, I think of all of the adults I know today who are “on the spectrum”. They’re at both ends: at one end, a highly successful attorney with a young family; at the other, a woman living in a group home with a very small, very insulated world around her. Here is what they all have in common — they all have love, support, and passionate, diverse interests. They all have things that make them laugh and things that make them cry. They all have things they’re really very good at it. Some of them have had years of intensive therapies and some of them didn’t even have a diagnosis until they were well-established in life. They’re all okay. They’re all perfect and unique, like you and I and my young friend, about to fly.

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Try Honesty

I have written before about judgment. About moms judging moms, teachers judging teachers, teachers judging moms, moms judging teachers, and on and on to infinity and beyond. I seem to encounter more judgment every day, but it’s possible that it has always been there and I just hadn’t been as sensitive to it, before my radar was primed and pointed. I’m sensitive to it now because I am understanding more about how toxic it can be, for everyone involved. Something that I have been observing lately is how there is an insidious dishonesty that creeps through interpersonal relationships as people try to avoid being judged. Have you observed this as well?

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Fact: We cannot micromanage how others see us. But we try so hard to! We just can’t help ourselves. We exhaust ourselves jumping through hoops to present our very best face to the world. This seems to impact moms more than any other group of humans, apart from perhaps teenagers. Let’s take a moment to talk about teenagers. When I was studying development, I learned about the “imaginary audience” that is often exhibited in young adolescents. This is when teenagers live in a developmentally appropriate egocentric state wherein they truly feel that everyone is looking at them (judging them) all the time. This prompts the kind of self-conscious behavior and response that we consider to be uniquely “teenage” in our culture. Along with what’s known as “personal fable” (that is, believing that one is special and unique and no one else has ever felt or experienced what you have felt or experienced — think of how teenagers experience first love, as an example), the “imaginary audience” is known to be a natural part of the maturation process as individuals come to identify their place in the world. Generally, our worldview shifts as we mature and our “imaginary audience” shrinks to the background. As we grow up, we continuously expand our social understandings as our encounters with others diversify. The goal or standard expectation is that we come to think less of ourselves and more of others, in the natural continuum of being part of a wider culture. Over time, it is thought, we are able to be more ourselves, and attain a kind of acceptance and understanding.

I believe, without any support from developmental research, that our use of so-called “social media” is impacting our human development and perhaps causing us to linger in an “imaginary audience” state, or to return to one, because we have built a global audience for ourselves. We have a hard time turning our backs on it. We have to update our status and upload our photos and, in many cases, upgrade our true experience for one that may look better online. In many cases, we have plugged in with the worthwhile goal of forging meaningful connections with other people — to share our experiences with a network of moms, or caregivers, or like-minded individuals — but because of our heightened sense of “imaginary audience”, we rob ourselves of the opportunity for authentic connections and instead put forth a carefully edited version of reality. This carefully crafted version of ourselves is consumed by our network and contributes to influencing what they then share back.

Here is an example, from my real life: I have a friend who has two young children, a husband, a house, and pets. She does not work outside the home, but does some online work from time to time. She is a responsive, dedicated mom. She has a nanny who helps out a few times a week. Sometimes the nanny helps with both children while the mom does her online work. Sometimes the nanny does household tasks while the children nap. Sometimes the nanny cares for one child while the mom does something with the other (taking the older child to a class or spending special time with the infant while the older child is at the park). I think this is a great help for this mom. It’s wonderful that she is able to have this kind of help and support because all families need it. (Additionally, it’s wonderful for the nanny to be able to earn money in this flexible setting because she is helping to meet the needs of her own family.) My friend doesn’t tell people that she has a nanny. Clearly it’s not a universal secret because I know — and here I am blogging about it! — but when people who do not know her well ask the question, “How do you do it?!” she smiles and says things like, “I never sleep!” or, “I stopped showering!” or, “Moms are superheroes.”

Moms and dads are superheroes. They don’t even have to get out of their pajamas and leave the house to accomplish matters of huge importance. They’re stronger, smarter, more resilient, and more powerful than they will ever know. That said, they don’t have to be everything. They don’t have to be alone. They could do the world a great service simply by being real.

The incredible Rebecca Woolf has written about this subject far more eloquently than I am able to.

“So why has ‘nanny’ become such a loaded word? Why are we, as women, so reluctant to talk about the people we hire to help us so that we can do what we do? What are we afraid of? People thinking we CAN’T do it all?

“Well, duh.

“We fucking can’t.

“So what’s this big secret we’re trying to keep and who do we think we’re fooling?

“And what is it doing to people who read our blogs and books and pin our how-tos and think that all of these projects are being finished while children sit quietly on the sidelines with their hands in their laps.

“What is it doing to you?” – Girl’s Gone Child

We love it when people are real. Forget the “imaginary audience”, our real social media audience of friends and family members and half-strangers appreciate honesty and reality. It makes people feel good. Posting a photo of your bedhead? Your wrinkles? The huge mess in your family room? I’m “liking” it just on principle! Deep down, where it matters, I’m loving it. I’m feeling more connected to you than ever because you’re real, you’re human, you’re imperfect… like me.

I like pretty pictures as much as anyone, just like I enjoy a beautiful event or a flawless performance. But you know what I love? I love when mistakes happen that give you a brief glimpse of humanity, humility, and true grace. I love the behind-the-scenes look at things. I like to know that we’re all trying and failing and laughing and crying and carrying on. I really like honesty and I’m trying to live honestly so that I can do my very best for the other people in my life.

So you don’t tell people you have a nanny because you don’t want them to judge you. You think you know what they’re going to think or say and you want to head it off. You want to present a certain image of yourself because maybe that is who you think you ought to be or it’s who you want to be (I, for example, want to be the person with the house that is always company-ready, but I am actually the person who hates to dust and procrastinates on vacuuming). Meanwhile, your children are soaking in that message. Their “imaginary audience” is already watching their every move and they’re carefully measuring out doses of dishonesty to package the version of themselves they think others want.

What if we consciously decide to send out a message that what we really want is you. We’re not going to agree with everything you do and say, but we’re still going to accept that you’re someone worth knowing.

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