Category Archives: Parenting

When It’s Time to Go

The parent of a toddler arrives at the childcare center where I work, ready to pick up their child and take them home. The toddler sees the parent through the window and shrieks with delight, then playfully runs to “hide” in the spot where they “hide” each day, gleefully awaiting the moment when their parent will scoop them up and hug them. Unfortunately, today the parent is not in the mood to participate in this routine game. They’re running behind schedule and must rush out the door to pick up another child. Perhaps they have had a long, difficult day and their mind is preoccupied with stress.

“Time to go!” they call to the child from the door. The child giggles and burrows deeper into her “hiding” spot, anticipating the playful sense of connection that she believes is coming.

“Let’s go,” the parent repeats in irritation. “We don’t have time to play.” The child peers out of her hiding spot, then dives back down, hiding her face.

“Okay, I’m going,” the parent says. “Buh-bye! I’m leaving!” She opens the door and pauses, waiting for the child’s reaction.

This is the pivotal moment. Every day, a similar scene plays out at schools, parks, and play dates. Time stands still for a brief moment during this face-off between parent and child — who will win control of how events unfold?

In reality, we all know, no one wins because no one feels good in this situation.

As adults, we have our adult agenda in mind at almost all times. We are often heard to lament the fact that there are a limited number of hours in the day. There are jobs to be done, errands to be completed, appointments to make and meet, meals to be made, laundry to do, and through it all the clock ticks on and on. There are times when we observe a young child issuing an invitation to join them in their world and we consciously choose to keep pace with our adult agenda instead. There are times when we feel we simply must.

Our children internalize so many unspoken lessons in these moments. If we are not conscious and careful, they sometimes internalize the message that their own agenda does not matter. They can interpret this message to read, “YOU don’t matter.”

In the past few years, psychology researchers have found a good deal of literal truth embedded in the metaphorical phrases comparing love to pain. Neuroimaging studies have shown that brain regions involved in processing physical pain overlap considerably with those tied to social anguish. The connection is so strong that traditional bodily painkillers seem capable of relieving our emotional wounds. Love may actually hurt, like hurt hurt, after all. [Source: “Why Love Literally Hurts”]

It can be difficult (sometimes, seemingly impossible) to reconcile what we know about children’s behavior and how to respond to said behavior in textbook fashion with what we’re feeling about children’s behavior within the context of our complex and layered lives. Because, come on, when we feel like it’s time to go, it’s time to go, full stop. On the inside we’re screaming that we don’t have time for this!

Parents and caregivers frequently list as a goal for children that they “listen.” By “listen”, they often mean, “comply.” We want children to follow our directions (and to keep pace with our agenda) for a multitude of reasons. Janet Lansbury shares five of the most common reasons that young children won’t do as we ask. She writes, “Children are ready to listen, primed from birth to begin decoding our words and intuiting our unspoken messages. They are also unique individuals who quickly develop ideas, opinions and wills of their own. Babies and toddlers often understand exactly what we want but choose to do the opposite.”

Establishing a relationship of mutual respect is, in my opinion, the best way to foster the sense of connection (and love) that will lead to smoother transitions for yourself and your child. Understand that your child is an individual with plans, needs, and a schedule of their own. Your child is a whole person. Whatever they may be engaged in at any given time matters to them. (Think about how you feel when interrupted or cut off or dismissed.)

In the scenario that I describe above, the toddler is seeking connection with their parent. They’re anticipating a joyful mutual physical expression of love in a reunion routine they have previously engaged in. On another day when the parent was hurried, they visibly shook off their own preoccupations to respond to the glint in the child’s eye and, rather than opening the door and calling out the empty threat of departure, they crouched down by the door and opened their arms to the child. The child immediately ran from their hiding spot, the parent scooped them up, and off they went to the car, both smiling.

If you find yourself teetering on the edge of engaging in a battle of wills with your young child over departures, some advice:

  • Communicate in advance. With young children, this conversation will need to be frequent and consistent. “When it’s almost time to go, I will give you a warning. You can finish what you’re doing and then we’ll go to the car together.” Give your child the advance warning, “In three minutes, we will go to the car.” When you consistently employ this strategy, your child knows you’re not bluffing. They may still show resistance, but they know what is going to happen. It may seem that your child is too young to comprehend this kind of communication, but in my experience children respond very quickly when it is used with consistency as they’re experts at internalizing these cues and routines.
  • Provide choices within the limits of the necessary departure. “We are going to go to the car now. Should we hop or skip to the car? Do you want to walk or be carried? Do you want to carry your bear or your bag?”
  • Stay connected. Remember that you’re in this together — it’s not, “I’m leaving now!” it’s, “We’re going to leave now.” Look your child in the eye. Connect physically with your child. Extend your heart to your child — when you consciously release your struggle and strain, you’ll find that you’re joyfully met.
  • Use empathy: “I see how much you love to slide! It’s so hard to stop having fun here. We can come back again tomorrow and slide some more.” Do not dismiss or ignore what your child is doing or feeling.
  • Communicate about what is going to happen. Explain where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and what will happen next. You will find that when they know what’s ahead, many children will quickly shift from resistance to engagement.
  • Be consistent and predictable.

You may be interested in further reading on related topics:
Reunion Meltdowns
Easing a Toddler’s Daily Transitions
Little Kids and the Power of the Five Minute Warning

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It Makes Me Sad

I encountered a flustered mom on the sidewalk outside my work building the other day. She was a mom that I knew by sight, not by name. For several months she and her son had been attending the parent-and-me class that takes place in the classroom next-door to mine a few times a week. Recently, she had made the decision to enroll her son in a preschool class that he would attend on his own for a few hours per day.

When I encountered her on the sidewalk, it was after one of her son’s first days in the preschool class. It was nearing lunchtime. Her little boy was refusing to get into the car to go home. Instead, he stood in the middle of the sidewalk, wailing, while the mom cajoled, threatened, and bribed in rapid succession to attempt to hurry him along. She was visibly flustered and frustrated, as nearly anyone would have been in her shoes. It is a unique test of one’s patience to stand in public alongside a wailing child. Even when you seem to be completely alone, you feel the sting and burn of a thousand eyes on you.

The mom glanced my way as I approached and, her patience at its limit, grabbed the little boy by one arm and hissed, “It makes me so sad when you don’t listen to my words!” The boy screamed as she finally lifted him up and put him inside the car.

I passed by and walked into the building to begin my work day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the scene. I still can’t. And here’s why: this mom is a shining example of someone who is trying to do all the “right” things. She is really trying to use the “right” words with her child in a difficult situation. She once worked in a preschool setting herself, I had learned. I would have guessed at it, had I not been told. Because somewhere in the history of preschool training, parents and teachers began to use the phrase, “It makes me sad when you…” in an attempt to dissuade children from behaving in ways that make the parent or teacher feel a number of emotions that may or may not include genuine sadness. (Does it matter how the child is feeling?)

When the mom on the sidewalk glanced my way, I wanted to communicate somehow with my body language or facial expression or even with words that I was not judging her. I wasn’t. If anything, I felt empathy for her situation. Have you been there? I have. I’ve wrestled a reluctant toddler into a carseat more than once. It’s not fun for anyone involved. (Think how the toddler feels!)

I looked at the mom’s face as she hissed angrily at her little boy. His eyes widened as he looked into hers. Her mouth told him, “so sad,” but her face told an entirely different story, as plain as day. I wish she had told him what she was feeling. Why not? He was doing his very best to express his honest, raw emotions to her. (What was he feeling?)

In that long, uncomfortable moment on the sidewalk, the goal of this mom was most likely (we can presume) to get her child into the car so they could head home for lunch and a much-deserved nap. Thinking long-term, I like to imagine that the goal of this mom, who uses phrases like, “It makes me so sad when you don’t listen to my words,” is to raise an emotionally mature and connected individual. This is a mom, I imagine, who doesn’t want to snap and yell and berate her child. This is a conscious, caring woman who has read something about child development. She is someone like you, perhaps, and someone like me.

We know by now how incredibly valuable empathy is. It’s important to empathize with your child. Empathy is a package of abilities in the brain, shaped by experiences. The way I think about it, each time you meet a child with empathy, you’re helping to wire their brain for future success. Plant this seed in your own mind and you could quadruple your patience in trying times like the one described above.

I don’t believe you can be empathetic or teach empathy to a child without honesty. What does that mean in a real-life situation like this? It means that you don’t tell your child that their actions make you sad when what you’re really feeling is frustrated. You’re feeling angry and embarrassed. You’re feeling tired. (Of course you are!) Even if your child doesn’t have the words for these emotions, they know them. They know them in themselves and they see them in you. When you grab their arm and hiss about feeling sad, they probably don’t even hear your words but you know they see through you.

Being honest doesn’t mean joining them in their tantrum and screaming out your frustration too. It might mean crouching down in front of them, meeting their eyes with your own, and saying, “It sounds like you don’t want to stop playing and get in the car. It sounds like you’re really mad right now. I’m frustrated too. Your choices right now are to climb into your seat or to have me help you. Will you climb in or do I need to pick you up?” If you need to pick them up, you can tell them, “I hear you. I know you don’t want to fasten your buckles right now. You’re feeling really upset that we have to go. I’m upset too, but this is something that we have to do right now.”

Later, when your child has calmed down, you could talk more about leaving preschool and getting into the car. You might have to talk about it often over the next few weeks. Your child might tell you that it makes them upset when they have to stop playing. You might tell your child that it makes you upset when they scream on the sidewalk. It’s okay to tell your child that their actions make you feel whatever it is that they make you feel: angry, scared, frustrated, overwhelmed, even sad. What’s even more important, however, is to show and tell your child that you notice and care about what their actions express about their own feelings in that moment.

You may also be interested in the post Reunion Meltdowns.

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If Your Baby Cries, You’re Doing It Wrong

Disclaimer: This is not intended to be an indictment of the practice of Attachment Parenting or any other theory or method of caregiving. I believe there is a kernel of truth and value in most practices and I believe that every parent is doing the very best they can in each moment, whether they consciously assign a label to their “style” or not.

My travels around the Internet brought me into contact with the following graphic this past week and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.


The graphic was shared via an Attachment Parenting group and cites research that is often cited by the companies that sell so-called “babywearing” wraps and products. My dismay with this graphic has nothing to do with a parenting style, “babywearing” in general, the research study in question (which is quite interesting), or anything but the hot-button issue of happiness. I take exception to the notion that a crying baby is an “unhappy” baby. The study in question didn’t actually measure the “happiness” of the babies, as “happiness” is not something that can necessarily be scientifically measured, but instead looked specifically at crying and carrying.

Why do babies cry? Myriad reasons. Crying is how babies express a wide variety of thoughts and concerns, from, “I’m exhausted!” to, “I’m scared!” to, “I’d love something to eat!” to, “I can’t see you or hear you and I think I’m alone and I don’t like it,” to, “I wish to be left alone!” When you get to know an individual baby, it doesn’t take long to begin to recognize their different cries and cues. All babies cry. Babies who are carried cry. Babies who are worn on their parents’ person cry. Babies who are laid on the floor cry. Happy babies cry. Humans cry.

The graphic above offends me because it suggests that babies who cry less are necessarily “happier” than other babies. This is a huge stumbling block for many weary parents who are jumping through hoops to ensure their children’s “happiness”, as if it is within their control. Frankly, it’s a bit presumptuous to believe that the true, meaningful happiness of another person is within your control. It’s not. Not even when that person is your baby, your young child, your teenager, or your grown offspring.

Crying and happiness are two separate topics that are frequently worlds apart. From a scientific perspective, crying can be viewed as a biological function unique to humans and imperative to infants. Happiness, on the other hand, is a rather abstract, individualized, highly subjective hippy dippy notion.

I want to be clear:

  1. I’m a huge fan of happiness.
  2. I stand in defense of comfort.
  3. I don’t believe in distracting children from their distress.
  4. Sometimes crying makes me uncomfortable!

I have spent a lot of years with a lot of babies, toddlers, young children, and human beings both happy and unhappy by nature. Having studied development, I have come to understand that temperament is something every person on earth is born with. Some temperaments may result in individuals crying with greater frequency or intensity than some other temperaments. I have spent time with babies who would absolutely love to be held and carried all day and all night. I have spent time with other babies who would prefer not to be held much of the time. There is not one strategy, style, or technique that works with every baby every time. (And any individual, philosophy, or business that suggests otherwise has not, in fact, I am 100% certain, spent time with every single baby on earth. They probably don’t know your baby.)

Here’s what I really want to say: Your baby will cry. You will feel like you need to make this stop. Sometimes it will be appropriate and within your control to do so. Sometimes it won’t be. In either case, it doesn’t mean that your baby is unhappy. As deeply philosophical as your baby may be, it is safe to say that it will be a few more years before they spend a great deal of time reflecting on their own “happiness” or lack thereof. When the time comes that they do, it’s unlikely that their reflection will linger long on the percentage of time you spent carrying them. You could carry your baby all day every day and never learn to listen to them or to know them as the person they are quite apart from you. Don’t make that mistake.

Love them and tell them so. Hold them and let them go.

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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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All In Good Time

Well, what did you think was going to happen?

How many times have I told you not to do that?

You should have listened to me the first time!

Human brains seek patterns. Young children are especially tuned in to this process, making them so positively responsive to predictable, consistent routines. Healthy, nurtured babies learn very early on that crying yields results. They get hungry, they express hunger, someone feeds them. They get tired, they express fatigue, and someone helps them to ease into sleep. This is normal, healthy brain development at its finest!

As babies mature, they make more discoveries and connections along the way. For example, if they smile, someone smiles back! This is a fun pattern for all involved. Sometimes they learn that if they drop something, someone will pick it up. This pattern becomes less fun for Mom and Dad as it establishes, but it’s still a sign of normal, healthy brain development.

Young children are so attuned to patterns that sometimes we make the mistake of giving them more credit than we should. We think they are capable of things like sophisticated planning, recall, and even reading the minds of adults.

The young toddlers in my program learn that they can use their growing legs to rock their chairs backwards, just a little bit. Then a little bit more. Then way too much more, as they fall back and bump their heads on the floor. As an adult, I have the cognitive ability to anticipate what might happen when they begin to rock their chairs, so I stop them. (“I’m going to stop you from rocking your chair back. I don’t want you to go back too far and bump your head.”) When I stop them, they understand being stopped. They understand my reference to head bumps too, because they are at a stage in life where they’re acutely sensitive to those injuries, and they usually respond by raising one hand to their skulls, rubbing or touching with a worried face. Then, they try to return to rocking their chair. So I repeat that I’m going to stop them, and again I do. Sometimes this continues off and on for weeks. Sometimes months. Do I get tired of reminding them not to rock their chairs backwards? Of course I do, are you kidding me?! But I maintain my composure because I know that they are testing the pattern they are starting to believe exists: “When I rock my chair, Jenn stops me. When I don’t stop, she makes me leave the chair.

Infants and toddlers are learning so much all the time, every minute, but they can’t do more than their brains are capable of and cognitive development takes time. A lifetime, actually. The steps that I can think through in my mind to determine that it’s not a good idea for them to rock their chairs back (they could fall, they could hit their heads, they could get seriously hurt) are not steps that the toddler mind can go through. That’s why they have adults to look after them. Even when they internalize certain patterns and messages, it could still be years before they are fully capable of understanding why certain things should be done and other things should not be done. Anticipating a likely outcome of an action or event is not something that young children can be expected to do.

This is pretty basic information, right? I mean, we all know that they’re toddlers and they’re just learning and that it’s our job to guide them and keep them safe. But our expectations and frustrations and general hurry-up-edness know no bounds. Sometimes in our rush to teach them to expect and anticipate and understand consequences, we assign them undeserved shame and blame. This can have a devastating impact on a young child.

Well, what did you think was going to happen? Likely, they didn’t think about what might happen. They just followed the impulse to try this thing. Their experiments are more likely to have a hypothesis that looks like, “Let’s do it!” than, “Let’s do it because _____________.” It’s not until age three that synaptic density in the prefrontal cortext reaches its peak (200% of adult level), improving and consolidating cognitive function and allowing for increasingly sophisticated understandings of cause and effect.

How many times have I told you not to do that? More times than they can likely count. And you’ll have to tell them again and again and again. In general, it’s not until after the age of three that children begin to be able to use the past to interpret the present. One study shows clearly that young children’s thoughts are so dominated by their current state that they cannot conceive of an alternate state. We know that children “live in the moment,” but we have forgotten, by the time our brain has been pruned into its adult form, what that really feels like and how it overrides everything else.

You should have listened to me the first time! They’re always listening and they’re always watching. More accurately, they’re not developmentally ready to store and recall what you said, applying it to every situation that seems reasonable or obvious to you.

Young children can make such stunning, remarkable connections. They surprise us all the time with their insights and intelligence. We can’t run the risk of shutting down their natural experimentation, risk-taking, limit-testing, and exuberance by assigning them shame and blame that they can’t understand. The cost is too high.

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No! Mine!

“No! Mine!”

“Stop. Mine!”

“Agggghhhhh! Miiiiiiiiine!”

This is sometimes the refrain in our toddler program. If you spend any time with toddlers who happen to live in a world with other people, it may sound familiar to you. In your head right now, the exact pitch of that final, “Mine!” may be echoing.

Toddler Property Laws:

1. If I like it, it’s mine.
2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
5. If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.
8. If I saw it first, it’s mine.
9. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it automatically becomes mine.
10. If it’s broken, it’s yours.

To some adults, this is like nails on a chalkboard. It really pushes buttons. I have even witnessed adults taking the toy or item that is being discussed so feverishly and interjecting with, “No. It’s mine. And you’re all done.” Or, “I see you aren’t able to share this. You’re all done,” and then the item is tucked away on a high shelf and the only lesson learned is that the adult is taller, more controlling, and in a pretty bad mood.

There are many ideas that adults have for “encouraging” young children to “share”, but there is only one way that works in a truly meaningful way and that’s modeling. Modeling the behavior you wish to encourage. Modeling consistently. Calmly. Modeling a generous spirit. Modeling it from the heart, with respect for the children and for ownership and opinions. Oh, and being prepared to wait for it and to support them all along the way.

Think of how blissfully empowering it must feel to be a toddler who has discovered and now OWNS the concept of, “Mine!” Think of what they have learned to get to this phase in life:

  • I am my own person.
  • I really like this thing.
  • I have a voice.
  • I can influence the world around me with this voice.
  • I’m not done with this and I can say so.

Instead of letting this phase get under our skin, why not re-frame the equation in a more positive light? Try these responses, the next time you hear that shrill refrain. (Again, think modeling. Take a deep breath and say the words you want to hear parroted back one magical, peaceful day.)

“You’re using that, aren’t you? You’re holding on to it.”

“You’re not done with it, are you? You’re letting them know that you’re still using it.”

“You really like that toy, don’t you? I see you’re using it.”

When you use these words, you’re defusing the tension. You’re validating the child who is attempting to claim ownership of something. You’re not taking any sides, you’re just commenting on what you see and hear. To the child who is wanting to use something in someone else’s hands, you might say:

“I see that she’s still using that. Do you want to go over here or over there while we wait for her to be all done?”

“I think she will put it down again when she’s all done using it. Do you want to walk with me and see if we can find another one for you to use?”

“You saw that toy and you wanted to use it too. Everyone seems to like that one. When it’s your turn to use it, you can use it until you’re done, too.”

“It’s hard to wait for your turn. Could I help you to wait by sitting with you?”

When you use these words, you’re validating the feelings of the child who really wants to use what the other child is using. It really is hard to wait, isn’t it? This is not our strongest suit, as a society.

Some food for thought: Do we really want to raise children to give things away as soon as someone else asks for them? Is this actually sharing at all? When we see toddlers standing strong in their sense of self and ownership, we should take a few minutes to revel in this awesome strength of spirit and to consider how we might nurture that as they grow.

By the same token: Do we really want children to be appeased the moment that they ask for or demand something? What do we envision, exactly, when we make one child give something to another because that seems somehow easier or because we’re worried about what people will think of us if we don’t (en)force “sharing”? The opportunity to wait could be valued in and of itself. Not to mention the lesson of respecting the time and space of other children.

Consider that just like the toddler’s use of “No!” can mean a hundred different things, including, “Yes!” (another post for another day), “Mine!” has myriad meanings from, “I’m using this,” to, “I used that earlier,” to, “I like the look of that,” to, “I think you’re too close to me.” The toddler who declares, “MINE!” is doing something you have perhaps been coaxing them to do for ages — they’re “using their words” to express their needs, interests, and desires. They’re trying to let someone else know their limits. This is nothing but a positive thing.

It sometimes seems like it takes a long time for children to learn to “share” (another example of how we adults struggle with waiting for things, right?), but what actually takes a long time is becoming perfectly attuned to our adult expectations for their behavior. In fact, young children are very capable of initiating incredibly generous exchanges all by themselves. We just tend to pay a lot more attention to the really loud conflicts, rather than the quiet kindnesses.

Many people have written about this kind of topic better than I! If you’re starting to think about “sharing” and toddlers in a new way, you may be interested in these lovely pieces:

From Janet Lansbury:
These Toddlers Are NOT Sharing
The S Word — Toddlers Learning to Share

From Emily Plank, an interview with Heather Shumaker, author of It’s Okay Not to Share.

Stop Telling Your Toddler to Share

Review: A World of Babies

I stumbled across A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies one day while browsing and was instantly curious. This book, edited by Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb, presents fictional parenting manuals for seven different cultures across the globe, written by anthropologists, psychologists, and historians, based on their studies of, research on, and interviews with the societies. Books along this vein appeal to me (I recommend How Do Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm? and Our Babies, Ourselves) both because I’m hungry to know more about the world outside my own and because I work with parents from many different cultural backgrounds and I strive to be open to the idea that different ways of doing things are not wrong ways of doing things. It has been my experience that when a baby arrives on the scene, so too do grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles from all corners of the globe, ready to assist and advise the new parents on childrearing. More than a few times I have had the honor of giving a tour of my program to not just the parents, but their parents as well, who speak no English. I quickly learn who is really asking the questions and judging my responses on so much more than what I’m saying. I made fast friends with one Chinese grandma. Although we did not speak the same language, we spoke volumes when she held her nine-month-old grandson out to me, inviting me to hold him.

The cultures presented in this book include the Puritans (yes, those Puritans!), the Beng of West Africa, the Balinese, Turkish village life, the Aboriginal Warlpiri tribe of Australia, the Fulani of West Africa, and the Ifaluk of Micronesia. Each one is fascinating! Each chapter, or “manual” offers insight not only to how the culture cares for its babies, but as to their lives in general. For example, the type of work the parents engage in, their marriage traditions, and how they deal with illness and death. The book is classified as a textbook but reads like a novel. The chapters are well-defined, making it easy to engage with each culture individually, and the overall tone is one of warmth and humor, making it approachable and memorably human. In the reading of it, I learned a lot of details about the cultures, but the overriding message was to open my mind to how much babies are universally loved.

There is a temptation, when you read a work like this, to compare and contrast with your own culture or experience. I actively tried to avoid doing so. That is not to say that there is not value in this kind of analysis, but my goal was to simply see each culture for itself. Too often, I think, our own biases and judgments creep into the way of seeing things just as they are. I didn’t want to compare the Beng tradition of keeping the child, “strapped to someone’s back as much as possible,” to my own Pikler-influenced philosophy towards freedom of movement because that’s not fair or relevant to their lifestyle and the practices that have helped them to succeed in their way.

What I most enjoyed was reading about how each child becomes a valued member of the wider community. It was in these descriptions that I felt there were true lessons to be learned. These quotes reflect a fraction of what I found:

“You will probably talk to your baby from the first day of life in this world. […] And you know how important it is to say hello to almost everyone in the village every morning and evening to show that we are all part of the community.” – From, Luring Your Child Into This Life, A Beng Path for Infant Care

“If you have to put your child down to do some work, another person — your husband, a sibling, child caretaker, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or neighbor — should hold the child. Everyone loves to hold a baby.” – From, Gift From the Gods: A Balinese Guide to Early Child Rearing

Ifaluk Child “You should not bring your baby along to work with you, but be sure that you do not leave the baby alone. No one, especially not a baby, should be left alone, for they would feel lonely and sad. Your baby will most likely be taken care of by one or more adults or an older child, perhaps a sibling of the baby, or even someone who is not a relative.” – From, Never Leave Your Little One Alone: Raising an Ifaluk Child

I recommend this book to readers with varied interests: anthropology, parenting, child development, education, ecology, history, geography, and to those generally curious about the world. I think you’ll find it an eye-opening treat.

If you’ve read a book along a similar vein and would like to share a recommendation or review, please leave a comment below or contact me (Jenn) via email at likewetcement at

Be Brave

Be Brave With Your Life

Eleanor Roosevelt once advised, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” To which I can’t help but respond, “Every day?!” I don’t know about that, Eleanor. I appreciate the sentiment, but as a high-anxiety kind of person, I am not sure my blood pressure could handle actively conquering a fear every single day. The world is a scary place sometimes. More so all the time. This is why I believe that parents are the bravest people I know, full stop. It doesn’t matter what you may do for a living, what part of the planet you call home, or what parenting “style” you may subscribe to without knowing you have one, I believe you are a brave individual indeed. You’re raising a child. You are responsible for the life of a fellow human being. And, one day, you’re probably going to have to let that child make their way in the outside world. You’re going to have to take your eyes off of them and walk away. You’re going to have to trust them and trust the world around them a little bit. You’re going to have to trust yourself to have raised a person who can stand on their own and also lean on others appropriately. You are brave.

I know it’s not easy. You most likely don’t even know how brave you are because you don’t feel brave. In fact, I imagine that some of the time you’re feeling the opposite of brave. That’s normal. You have so many different things to think about, worry about, wonder about, and remember. Here is just one more: remember how brave you are. Remember that we have established that as a point of fact. It’s indisputable.

Knowing that, let’s agree that you are brave enough and strong enough to not be pushed around by a toddler. I’ve mentioned before that some things aren’t choices and you need to hold close your power. You know as well as I do that you need to set limits with your children, but what I see that you may not be able to, from your perspective so near to the situation at hand, is that you’re letting fear keep you from being the adult that I know you can be. I’m here to tell you that the toddler you so fear upsetting today is tomorrow the teenager who is driving your car. I’m pretty sure that you’re going to want them to know about and respect limits. The time is now.

Let’s face some unpleasant truths right now: Life is hard. It’s sometimes ugly, noisy, loud, uncomfortable, and messy. We often want to avoid the hard things, the messy things, and the loud things. So sometimes we tiptoe around our toddlers like they’re little kings and queens or ticking time bombs. We jump through hoops to keep them “happy” but what we’re really doing has nothing to do with true happiness. We’re appeasing them. And, look, I get it. You’re on a plane, in the doctor’s office, or waiting in line at the grocery store at the end of the day… It’s hard. You’re exhausted. But just as you would take the time to consider whether the limits you impose on them are fair, take a moment to consider whether the demands they’re placing on you are justified. Are they driven by need? Look deeper: what is the need? It’s probably not a need for another cookie or a certain tee-shirt or ten more minutes in front of the TV. More likely, it’s a need for you to tune in.

  • When you have offered your toddler two or three different things to eat (things that they normally enjoy) and they have said, “No!” to each one, it is probably time for them to leave the table. (“You are letting me know that you’re not ready to eat.”)
  • When you have offered your toddler the chance to walk through the door or gate and they have backed up into you and refused to go and now they’re turning boneless and melting to the floor, it’s probably time for you to help them move forward. (“You are showing me that you need some help going through. I’m going to pick you up now.”)
  • When you have let your child know two or three times that a certain item is not for biting or throwing or fill-in-the-relevant-action and they have continued to use it in that matter, it’s probably time for you to remove that item and redirect them to something more appropriate. (“I see that you’re having a hard time remembering that we don’t throw these things. I’m going to pass you a ball for throwing.”)
  • When you have tried to determine exactly why your child is melting down and nothing you have come up with has helped them to stop, it’s probably because they’re needing a moment. And maybe you are too. (“I see how upset you are right now. I’m going to sit right here and if you want to come and sit with me, you can. I’ll be waiting right here for you.”)

When you’re a parent, there are a million and one things that you’re responsible for every second of every day. One thing that you’re not responsible for every second of every day is making your children happy. You can’t make them happy. I know how much you want to and I know there is a part of you that’s annoyed I would even say such things. As they continue to grow and develop and forge their independent identity, it will become increasingly evident: it’s difficult for you to make them anything. You are absolutely instrumental in their happiness, but not by working so hard to make them happy. It’s not the perfect sandwich, the right shoes, or being allowed to do what they want when they want. It’s being there. It’s being engaged. It’s loving them. It’s guiding them. It’s the limits and the support and the consistency. And sometimes it’s doing the thing that scares you and doing what’s hard because it’s what’s right for them, even when they aren’t able to recognize that yet.

Speaking in Abstracts

“That’s not nice!”

“Are you going to be good today?”

Good. Bad. Nice. Mean. Kind. Unkind. Friendly. Unfriendly. What do these words really mean to very small children? Most children are masters of reading context and signals to try to decode our meaning. They’re observant and intuitive, to a truly remarkable extent. From your frown and your tone, they will deduce that, “Not nice!” makes you unhappy, and they may feel upset, unsettled, or saddened by this, but will they understand why? And (here is the real heart of the issue) does nice or not nice always mean the same thing? They can’t possibly.

Think of the limitless possibilities in these subjective descriptive terms. A day can be nice, in general. A person can be nice, in general. A specific act or word or gesture from a person could also be nice (sharing is nice, hugs are nice, smiles are nice). Ice cream can taste nice. A sunset can look nice. Some music can sound nice. A new sweater can feel nice… or not nice, depending on how scratchy the wool may be. Wearing a sweater that doesn’t feel nice could make a person act, “not nice,” by inciting grumbles and moans and disgruntled expressions. Hopefully it wouldn’t lead to hitting or pushing or biting, but if you’re sensitive enough to scratchy fabrics and you’re having a day that is reaching that level of “not nice,” it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and that really wouldn’t be nice at all, would it? It certainly wouldn’t be good. Oh, but don’t get me started on good and bad. I’m not sure I could be nice about it.

Here’s my point: say what you mean. If you want a child to sit down in their chair, on their bottom, with their feet under the table, tell them that, rather than, “Sit down nicely!” If you want a child to stop hitting or pushing, tell them that, rather than, “I want you to be good today,” or, “Be nice!”

The issue with these subjective adjectives is that very young children will have a hard time deciphering what we’re asking of them, leading to frustration on our part and A LOT of frustration and confusion on their parts. I believe they are more often than not trying their very best to understand a pretty consistently confusing world. I don’t believe it’s fair to them. (Especially when they don’t live up to a seemingly arbitrary standard of nice or good that they didn’t understand in the first place and then we accuse them of not listening!)

Young children tend to be pretty black-and-white and literal in their understandings. I’ll never forget when my little brother was about four years old and was having a hard time expressing something to me. “Spit it out!” I told him, impatiently, and, panicked look on his face, he began frantically spitting onto the carpet in my bedroom, thinking that there was something awful in his mouth. Talk about a good reminder for me to say what I mean! When it comes to children’s black-and-white rules, we need to tread lightly with terms like “good” and “bad”. When we request that children, “Be good!” we are not only providing no clear direction for what we specifically want them to do or not do, but we’re also applying an unreasonable amount of pressure. If they’re not “good” in every sense we’ve ever taught them, are they then “bad”?

Communication is always a two-way street. Children are doing their part to read between the lines, jump through hoops, and understand what in the world we’re trying to say. The least we can do for them is do our best to be understood.

Reading in Our Changing World

Mari Passananti posed the most interesting question in her blog post, “If You Read But Your Child Doesn’t Realize It, Does It Count?” She writes,

Many of you will remember a widely reported twenty-year study that concluded that the mere presence of books in the home is as important as parental education level in determining children’s educational level. Everyone knows reading to your kids is good for their brains. And since children learn by example, it follows that seeing adults reading is beneficial.

But the study about the mere presence of books was a ground breaking testament to the power of suggestion. If a child sees things, in this case books, treasured and valued, the reasoning goes that s/he will grow up to share those priorities. Which in turn will hopefully set off a desirable chain reaction: I.e. value books, love reading, love learning.

So here’s the gazillion dollar question:

Do ebooks count?

What do you think?

I love this question and the dialogue that it can prompt. The Pew Research Center reports that parents prefer physical books for their children, even while they value e-readers for themselves.

Parents of minor children do not necessarily read more than adults who do not currently have minor children (“other adults”), but they are heavier consumers of audio books and e-books. Sixteen percent of parents have read more than 20 books in the past year and an additional 13% have read 11-20 books while two in ten parents (22%) report no reading in the past 12 months. [more]

In-person focus groups by Pew revealed what I would have speculated:

  1. Parents want to recreate for children the shared reading experiences that they themselves had as children.
  2. Parents want children to know that they’re reading, so choosing a physical book seems a better choice than a device that could be used for other activities like games, Facebook, etc.
  3. Parents value the sensory experience offered by physical books as opposed to e-books.

As a teacher and reader, these are the same things that I argue in defense of physical books. Although a study conducted in Germany found there is no difference for your brain between reading a print page and reading a screen, readers often insist that the experience is different. (Please note that the study in question involved adults, not children.) That’s because the act of reading a book is more than your “reading behaviors” and eye-tracking. The act of reading a book may be the experience of turning pages, smelling paper and glue (and maybe some mildew or smoke or other traces of the book’s journey through the world), marking it up, and sharing it with others — it is undeniable that there is a difference between passing a book to a friend over coffee, with your dogeared pages and broken spine, than sending a link via email. I fully, deeply acknowledge the sensory pleasures of books and reading, even while I do the majority of my reading via e-reader these days. My house is still packed with books, stacked on tables and floors and overflowing their shelves. If I love a book, I want to see a physical embodiment of it in front of me. I just do.

But we’re not talking about me or us as adult readers. We’re talking about the experiences of children and what children need to be successful readers. An opinion piece by Amira Hood entitled Physical Books Provide Tangible Benefits mentioned a study reported on by The Guardian.

This is an age where, according to a study reported by the Guardian UK, children are being deprived of the joys of reading a physical book. The study determined that when children used e-books, it “prompted more non-content related actions (eg behaviour or device-focused talk, pushing hands away)… Children reading enhanced e-books also recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.”

Even though the campaign to get kids to read is nothing new, new attention is being drawn to the subject due to the many lifelong dangers presented by e-books for both children and parents. “Some of the extra features of enhanced ebooks may distract adults and children alike from the story, affecting the nature of conversation and the amount of detail children recall.” In the article, researchers say that the priority of “literacy-building experiences over ones intended ‘just for fun’” will give children a better foundation.

The study in question looked at so-called enhanced e-books, which offer bells and whistles not found in physical books, which frequently distract from the reading experience. The thing I found most interesting from the study was the report on non-content-related actions. “The enhanced ebook was less effective than the print and basic ebook in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions. When adults prompt children with questions pertaining to the text, label objects, and encourage them to discuss the book contents in terms of their own experiences and curiosities, this elicits increased verbalisation by the child and can lead to improved vocabulary and overall language development.” I think this is really the most important aspect of the study because it gets to the heart of this discussion as it highlights the parental behavior. Are you teaching your child to use an e-reader or tablet or are you sharing a story? There have been studies in the past that reveal the same sort of behavior-correcting actions with physical booksharing. We know, in child development, that the best booksharing with young children allows for them to skip pages, to “read” back-to-front, to stop “reading” the story altogether to talk about the picture of the dog or to ask questions like, “What do you think is going to happen next?” When we bookshare, we don’t just open to the first page and read each word on each page from front to back until The End. It’s a shared experience, a conversation, a dance. When parental corrections intrude on the experience, they intrude on literacy and relationships with books.

When we read with babies, they learn how to turn pages (fine motor!), to track with their eyes, to make meaning of symbols, to understand conversation. They also hear our hearts beating, feel our arms around them, feel the rhythm of the language from our throats and chests, hear emotion, and — often, I hope — taste, smell, and feel the book itself as a physical object. Many of these aspects of booksharing can be effectively created with “basic e-books,” that present the words and pictures without the bells and whistles. A large portion of the sensory experience, in terms of holding a physical book, will be lost, but will a child miss them? A child will choose the sensory experience of a parent’s arms over the sensory experience of a book just about any day.

The question becomes: Do we want our children to live in a world without physical books? Will this happen? It could, but I think it will be a long time coming, due to our own nostalgia. Parents who were raised on physical books can’t resist passing that tradition down to their children. Last night, my husband leafed through one of his childhood books before bed, having unearthed it from a closet in his parents’ house while they packed to move. He was transfixed, a wistful smile on his face. Books, like so many sensory experiences, can be portals to another time. We live in a nostalgic society. For example, Polaroid cameras are very in (again). I have a weakness for old typewriters. My generation obsessed over 60s and 70s fashion and now I see young kids in 80s-style clothing. In this kind of world, books will never fade away.


So what are parents to do? READ WITH YOUR CHILDREN. Read books, real books! Go to libraries. Read e-books. Explore enhanced e-books and resist the urge to correct what your child may be doing “wrong” in the process. Listen to audio books. Read store and street signs, magazines, newspapers, online articles, letters, junk mail, cereal boxes. Read, read, read. Model reading: read cookbooks, read warning labels, read driving directions, read books and read e-books. Write, and model writing. Make lists, leave notes, draw maps, send letters, and write down stories. Type. Let your children type. Most surveys seem to indicate that in the era of e-books, people are reading more. Let’s go for it, full-force. Don’t let the bells and whistles of brain-draining technology distract you. Your child’s brain will develop at a rapid pace, so make sure that yours continues to work at it as well.

Literacy and a love of learning don’t develop in a bubble, with an iPad. They’re developed through curiosity and enthusiasm and relationships. Follow your child’s passions and consciously bring books and reading into the equation. That’s your job, in fostering a future reader. And if you’re really dedicated to the task, demonstrate how books — physical books — can be used for research purposes, not just Google. But that’s another post for another day. Stay tuned!

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