Parenting: Kids to age 4
When our oldest child was a toddler he starting asking questions that were hard to answer– and this was just the beginning! I’m not talking about the factual questions (although it’s depressing to be stumped by a three year old with “Why’s the sky blue?”) but the more value-laden inquiries. Now, after nearly 20 years parenting and countless questions I know some answers & want to share some tips fortricky questions:
- Where do babies come from?
- Why does so-and-so’s family not… eat healthy food, brush their teeth, go to our church, etc.?
- Why isn’t the world fair and some people are rich and some poor?
- What’s the f-word? Why is that a swear word?
- What is sex, rape, murder, marijuana, etc.?
- Why doesn’t Santa bring toys to poor kids?
- Why does so-and-so have two daddies?
- Why is so-and-so’s skin so dark/light/etc?
- Why do I have to….?
Step 1: The basic rule of thumb is to listen and ask a follow-up question like “Why do you think?” This will allow you a few extra moments to think and provide you with more information about what your child is really asking.
Step 2: Give a simple answer– kids will ask for more if they want to know! For example, the answer to the second question is “Babies grow in a special place inside their mommies”– no need to explain how they got there until you are asked.
Step 3: If you can’t come up with an answer, tell them you don’t know and then be sure to get back with an answer soon (once you’ve looked it up or figured it out!)
Step 4: One of my favorite responses to many of these questions is “Different families make different choices. In our family we …” This covers quite a lot without encouraging your child to be judgmental ( such as a quote from one of mine at 5 years old to another parent “my mom says Lunchables are not real food”)
Step 5: Other favorite answers are;
- ”parents like to give their children a gift too”(skirting the Santa issue)
- “There are some things that are grown-up words that I’ll explain when you are older”
- “Because I’m the mom/dad and grown-ups make the decisions”
- “I love you because you are my only (daughter, 4 year old, redhead, etc.)
Step 6: Sometimes the best you can say is simply “That’s a great question but I don’t know…” such as the fairness one.
The most important thing is to be an “askable” parent because these early years set the stage for whether your kids will go to you with questions later in the teen years! For tips see : http://www.family-resources.net/Documents/Becoming-an-Askable-Parent.pdf
I recently came across some books one of my daughters made in first grade that made me laugh—and think! The books were about her disappointment that our long anticipated trip to Disneyland had to be delayed because Dad’s appendix burst. But the funny part was how they all blamed ME! See these pages:
I understand that I was the one my children were angry at because I was the main caregiver, the one who broke the bad news, and Dad was too ill to be mad at. But I had to laugh at how unfair it was (and is!) I am still the one my teens blame for life going wrong as well as the one who keeps their lives supplied and organized. This got me thinking about the differences in what society (and ourselves) expect from mothers and fathers.
I went to a parent education workshop and participated in an activity where we wrote down what a good mother, and a good father are—what a shocking difference emerged! The list for mothers was endless and included attributes like wise, warm, loving, protective, responsible, attentive, affectionate, and much more. The list of what makes a good father was just one trait—to be there physically and emotionally! Even with modern involved dads and working moms, our expectations are still ridiculously unbalanced. The bar is way too high for mothers—really unobtainable (even for professional parent educators) and way too low for fathers who are capable of so much more!
Think about it—why is it that we think it’s cute if we see little ones that are inappropriately dressed or messy out with their Dads? If I had taken the kids out that way folks would give me dirty looks and assume I was a bad mother! I think this attitude demeans fathers’ abilities and judges mothers way too harshly.
In summary, let’s try to expect more from fathers (and not reward incompetence) and ease on our (own) standards for motherhood!
The school season is about to begin and my youngest are starting high school so I have been nostalgic– thinking back on their earliest school years and how parents can help. Here are my best tips to help your child succeed in their first school experiences (from preschool on up):
*Really see your child’s teacher as your partner and a resource. This means be nice, positive and supportive (especially in front of your child!) The teacher is an expert in children of a certain age/grade but you are the expert on your particular child. Get involved with your child’s school so you know what’s really going on. Remember, most teachers are underpaid, overworked, and in need of help and appreciation! As I remind my kids, “you can get more flies with honey than vinegar” (although as my son once said “who wants more flies?”)
*Advocate for your child’s individual needs, In order to do this, you must understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses (which become clearer as s/he grows.) For example, one of my children’s fine motor difficulties made completing math sheets impossible! So I spoke to the teacher and ended up scribing for him so he could demonstrate his math knowledge without ripping the sheet up in frustration. While children with special needs need strong advocates most, even typically developing kids may need help. For example, we once had to ask for our easy-going child not to be seated by the wildest kid in class when it kept happening year after year.
*Separate your childhood issues from your child’s. This is easier said than done– but essential for all parents to keep in mind since it;s natural to want to protect our children from what hurt us. No matter how much we want to, we can’t redo our own childhoods through our kids, so try to sort out your needs from your child’s. Just because you were a frustrated athlete,doesn’t mean your child will want to play sports! For example, when my son was starting kindergarten I was worried about him still sucking his thumb. When I shared this with him, he shrugged and said “If my friends tease me then I’ll find new friends.” I realized I was remembering being teased for my New York accent ,and saw it was definitely my– not my child’s– issue!
*Do what your child (not you) needs. This is only possible when you recognize the difference! For example, I wanted to pack wholesome lunches for school but they wanted to take hot lunch, or I wanted to drive them to kindergarten the first day but they wanted to ride the school bus (so I followed in my car). As a teacher myself, it was really hard for me when my kids didn’t do their homework but they needed to live with the consequences and I had to let go of my ego.
*Resources on advocating for your child:
This blog was inspired by Roxann’s ”I’m Marching for Peace (among parents)” blog of last month. She pointed out the many ways parents criticize and compete rather than seeing “parenthood is an opportunity for cooperation, not an excuse for competition” (as Roxann put it.) I wanted to offer ideas for ways for parents to support and cooperate with others:
*Don’t give the parent of that screaming child a dirty look– try a smile or comment of compassion instead and/or try to distract the child.
*Offer to help a parent with her hands full by offering to help with groceries, etc. (“Can I help you?” is a good way)– I often do this and am saddened by the shocked thanks I get from harried parents! Plus what a good model you’re setting for your own children!
A friend of ours is expecting twins very soon and asked for advice. I thought that the best answers would come from the twins themselves! The following is based on advice I gathered from my 14 year old twin daughters, as well as 16 year old, and 18 year old twin girls for their advice to new parents:
#1- Treat the twins as individuals (don’t always call them “the twins” or expect them to be the same) Realize that fair and equal are not the same thing and parent each according to individual needs.
#2- Give them the same things (toys, clothes, etc.) but in different colors. It’s easiest if the twins like different colors- for example, one likes pink & red and another purple & blue.
#3-Let them decide if they want to dress alike or not (or just sometimes) have the same hair styles, etc. when old enough to have opinions. Let them make individual choices as much as possible.
#4- Have separate time with each twin regularly. Ideas include each parent taking just one twin on errands, one could visit with grandparents or be at preschool, or a play-date while the other is with a parent, etc.
#5- Teach social skills ASAP! Sharing is tough so encourage twins to trade items, take turns (a timer helps) and use words to express their feelings (starting with “mine” and “no” progressing to “you can have it when I’m done”)
#6- Don’t make them share everything. Everyone needs things of their own- a special toy, blanket, book, and even time on mommy’s or daddy’s lap. Try to preserve individual memories too (for example, take individual photos not just twin photos.) Sharing friends is tough too so inviting two children over is usually easier than one.
#7- Don’t compare or label but celebrate differences and accomplishments. Encourage the other child to be proud of her twin (rather than jealous), and be sure to let the non-celebrated twin how special s/he is too. When looking for differences it can be easy to label twins “the athletic one” or “the musical one” but try not to put them in boxes (they can both be athletic and musical even if they have their own strengths.)
#8- Give them the same opportunities that you would a singleton- one twin may have unique talents or interests so be sure to provide what you would if s/he were not a twin. For example, if the teacher of one twin recommends an advanced academic program.
#9- Encourage loyalty but not exclusiveness- recognize that the relationship between twins is unique—best of friends and worst enemies (often within 10 minutes!) Help them see being a twin as a special gift rather than a burden, and to include others.
#10- Kindergarten together and later separate or together?? Most twins do best supporting each other starting in school as kindergarteners. Listen to teachers, the twins, and your gut as whether they continue together or separately. My twins were just too silly when together (even now) as well as competitive and do much better apart. Others do great together and are too sad apart.
#11- Let them work things out whenever possible – as the twins get older let them figure out the rules between them. For example, my twins came up with a separate sleepover” rule for a few years when they were having trouble sharing friends. They also have drafted their own complicated “twin rules” covering clothes, electronics, etc. The “peace stick” or a variant can be useful when they are young and conflicting (only the person with the stick can talk)
The last tips are from me as a parent:
#12- Have regular routines & schedules- when the twins are young infants, feed them and put them to sleep together (even if you have to wake one to eat) or you’ll never do anything else! A pillow can be a great help with nursing newborns together using the football hold.
#13- Ask for help & respite- Remember people want to help – so let them! Be sure you don’t get isolated and stay connected with the community. Enjoy and use your semi-celebrity status as the parent of twins! Mothers of Multiples groups can be great resources (materially and psychologically) and regular breaks for you and your partner are essential. Schedule a weekly babysitter for date night if possible.
#14- Be gentle with yourself- The first few years you’ll be in survival mode—so don’t expect much more of yourself than keeping your twins healthy and alive! Don’t feel too guilty if you prefer the “easier” twin initially—it’s natural. As long as no one else (including the twins) can tell! My easy preschool twin later became the most difficult teenage twin—so favorites have shifted over time.
#15- Remember your other children (if you have them)- older children are often eclipsed by the attention twins or other multiples generate. Help big brothers and sister feel special by pointing them out to well-meaning strangers who stop to admire the twins. For example, I made my infant twins’ four-year-old brother “mall spokesman” and had him answer the questions about their names and ages, etc.
#16- There are many advantages to twins- It’s true you’ll be often exhausted caring for two at once but there are many good points! It really doesn’t coast double (at least in the beginning) since you really don’t need two of everything! Your children also have built-in playmates and companions. This can make sleeping easier, as well as potty training and more. Twins are sometimes “double-trouble” but also twice the fun!
This column, a follow-up to the last one, details some of the behaviors 3-5 year olds do that annoy adults to no end but actually evidence typical child development. The ages are rough guidelines since every child follows their own developmental timeline.
THREE YEAR OLDS
*Are messy! They are much more interested in playing than cleanliness or obedience. Be ready for daily spills, messes, and lots of laundry!
*Can be more “terrible” than they were at two
*Often seems like nothing pleases him/her (but inconsistent)
*Is very bossy and says things like “Don’t look at me!”
*Indulges in nail biting, thumb sucking, picking his nose, exploring his/her genitals. etc.
*Probably struggling with using the toilet and still wets the bed.
Good news: The journey towards independence began as a toddler is progressing well as shown through your child’s emerging abilities and opinions.
*Expresses fears, but often indirectly through clinging or acting out
*May be cooperative with other adults but a monster for you.
Good news: When your child falls apart when you appear, try to remember that it’s really a compliment to your parenting! What your little one is really saying is “I know your love is so unconditionally that I can let all my ugly feelings out safely with you”
FOUR YEAR OLDS
*Spend lots of time “in character”- as something powerful like a superhero, princess, fire fighter, etc.
*Talk all the time, tell awful jokes, asks “why” constantly, and can be annoyingly persistent with demands.
*May exclude certain children from play and use social aggression (as well as verbal and physical) for example, “You can’t come to my birthday party if you don’t….”)
Good news: Young children really have so little power over their lives & the world is starting to look big and scary. Being s superhero is a good way to feel control. A less healthy approach is to try to control your peers so encourage kids to “use their words” to express feelings rather than use threats.
*Are interested in the human body so you may find him/her “playing doctor” with a friend.
*Are fascinated with bodily functions so use lots of “potty talk” and may even swear or curse.
Good news: Interest in elimination or sexual body parts doesn’t you’re your child is a deviant but simply a normal curious preschooler! In my house the rule was that potty talk belongs in the bathroom (with the door closed) and the parts under your swim suit are private!
FIVE YEAR OLDS
*Are competitive and always want to be the best, fastest, and winning is everything!
*Can swing from sweetly cooperative to angrily telling adults that “You’re not the boss of me!”
*Are often brash, argumentative, explosive, and has a hard time stopping outbursts.
*Will say “I can’t” when s/he doesn’t want to do something.
Good news: Your kindergartener (or soon to be) has to comply with increasing adult demands—both at home and at school. This feeling of powerlessness causes much of this kind of behavior.
*Talks too much(often with mouth full) makes terrible puns, and constantly interrupts parents.
*Are likely to lie to avoid admitting being caught doing something wrong, or to get what they want through fantasy (a 4 year old once adamantly insisted she had played drums on a CD!).
*May stutter, make funny noises, and nail bite, thumb suck, nose pick, and other annoying habits
*May take things s/he wants that aren’t theirs (and then lie about it).
Good news: Almost every child lies and steals at times and doesn’t mean s/he will grow up to be a criminal. Lying is actually a sign of intelligence
There are many things children do that irritate adults, but many of them are actually important indicators of development. In other words, the very things that drive parents crazy mean their child is growing up as s/he should! This is the first of a two-part column.; this first one lists common behaviors and their meanings for infants-two year olds, while the next will cover 3-4 year olds.
*Suddenly your sweet and sociable baby cling screams at the sight of strangers (which means anyone baby hasn’t seen recently) – stranger anxiety
*Your previously mellow child will probably also freak out when you attempt to leave her/his sight (which is why you can’t pee alone)- separation anxiety.
Good news: Both of these anxieties are good signs that your little one is truly emotionally attached to you.
*Now your sweetie likes to dump every and anything! Dropping food, emptying baskets, clearing cupboards, etc. can be are even more fun than dumping toys!
Good news: Your toddler’s really a wee physicist– learning about gravity, weight, space, properties of objects, etc. Remember it’s science not just a mess!
*Your sunny infant morphs into a negative being who says “no” at every opportunity, often does the very opposite of what you asked, and runs away (when not clinging)
*Everything is now “mine” (including things that really aren’t) and not to be shared!
*You easily frustrated toddler probably throws violent temper tantrums and hits, kicks, and bites.
Good news: Your toddler is becoming a separate and independent person! Erik Erikson believed the psychosocial task of toddlerhood is to establish an identity distinct from their parents. In order to do this, children need lots of practice asserting themselves.
TWO YEAR OLDS
*Is slow as molasses! Dawdles endlessly and always makes sure you’re late!
*Tests limits frequently, is demanding, and is no longer as interested in pleasing you (and may prefer one parent to another)
*Is emotionally inconsistent, swinging from shy and clinging one moment to bold explorer the next minute.
Good news: Becoming your own person is hard and scary work so don’t be surprised at the emotional roller coaster—your child wants to be big but also wants to still be a baby sometimes—which is normal!
*Enthusiastically explores genitalia (which may include masterbation) once out of diapers
*May start having new fears—like the toilet, tub, animals, the dark, clowns, etc.
Good news: Both of these indicate more maturity. Todlders being curious about their bodies is normal and natural! Fears are often a side effect of children realizing their sepearteness and becoming more aware of dangers.
Next column: Normal but irritating behaviors of 3-4 year olds
Over the years I have had the opportunity to observe children in many other countries, and just returned from Italy last week (where I watched adult-child interactions as well as eating lots of pasta!) The differences in how we parent and teach children has always fascinated me and is the topic of a new book by Christine Gross-Loh, called Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us (Avery, 2013) http://www.amazon.com/Parenting-Without-Borders-Surprising-Lessons/dp/1583334556
Gross-Loh’s findings echo many of my own and identify parenting practices that American parents can benefit from. Among the most interesting (and unconventional) findings are that children do best when they…
- …co-sleep with their parents- Out of 100 countries studied, Americans—focused on our cultural goal of autonomy– are the only ones who expect their infants to sleep separately from their parents. Studies have shown that co-sleeping results in more self-reliant and independent children.
- … take some dangerous risks – many European preschoolers are allowed to use knives, climb high trees, and take many more risks than most of us feel is safe. Yet freedom allows these children to learn how to be safe, resulting in much lower child injury rates.
- …feel obligated to their families—unlike American families, the Chinese increase their children’s responsibilities as the move into adolescence rather than cutting them back, resulting in higher academic motivatipn and success.
- …spend less time in school- starting school at a later age (7 years in many countries) as well as frequent recesses actually results in higher academic achievement.
- …experience frustration and/or hunger- other countries such as France or Korea believe children develop self- control and learn to delay gratification when they have to wait for meals or put the needs of the group over the individual.
- …have less parental hovering – similar to allowing kids to take physical risks, parents in other countries allow their children to solve their own problems which increases children’s competence and self-esteem.
American children are not the happiest or most successful in the world, so we can learn a lot from other parenting practices. It’s important to remember that many of our deeply held convictions about what’s right and wrong in parenting are cultural and not necessarily based in fact. I know that every time I travel, I return with a new awareness—this time it was how much Italians touch, cuddle and play with their children compared to what I see in the US. Italy’s culture is so much more family friendly so parents seemed to be able to enjoy their children more. As Jeanne Marshall put it in her 2012 Globe and Mail article;
“Italian children have a place in the culture, and the culture has a role in a child’s socialization. They don’t have to be kept away from adults who might find them noisy or bothersome. At the same time, parents don’t present their children as rarefied creatures worthy of adoration. Other than a booster seat for the little ones, they rarely ask for special consideration. People smile at children on the bus, they talk to them at the fruit market, but when they don’t eat their vegetables in a restaurant, it’s not just their parents who have something to say about it.” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/what-the-italians-can-teach-us-about-child-rearing/article534265/
Last week NPR ran an interview with Jonathan Cohn, the author of “The Hell of American Daycare” just published in the current issue of The New Republic. As someone who has been working in the field 30 years, I sadly agree with many of his points about dismal state of child care in our country. In fact, according to the National Institute of Child Health Development ‘s 2007 survey, most of US childcare is “fair” or “poor” while only 10 percent rated high-quality!
Unfortunately, in my experience these percentages ring true. I agree with the licensor quoted in the article, and would not put my own children in the majority of child care programs in Whatcom County! This is not to say that there aren’t hundreds of wonderful dedicated caregivers here- but there are also places where I literally cry in my car after visiting because I am so heartsick. These children are usually from high-risk and/or low-income home who need and benefit most from high quality child care!
The reasons for the “hell of American day care” are myriad—ranging from a lack of governmental family supports (we one of the only industrialized countries without maternity/paternity leave) or a comprehensive system for licensing and safety, to the high cost of child care for families while most child care providers are paid less than parking lot attendants! This means high turnover and drives many talented providers out of the field. This is so frustrating for those of us trying to improve quality—it means that caregivers I just trained are long gone and the situation unimproved…
These findings should scare us deeply! Brain development research has found that the very architecture of the brain is formed in the first years. Children without supportive and appropriate care are at higher risk for problems with impulse control, school, work, and physical and mental health.
From Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child http://developingchild.harvard.edu/topics/science_of_early_childhood/
There is a bit of hope for the future since the importance of early learning s finally being recognized—even by President Obama and economists like, James Heckman, to calculate that quality child care is “…not only a worthwhile investment, but also an essential one….(since) every dollar that society invests yields between $7 and $12 in benefits. When children grow up to become productive members of the workforce, they feed more money into the economy…(and) also cost the state less…(for) expenses that have been linked to inadequate nurturing in the earliest years of life. “
Read the entire article: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112892/hell-american-day-care or the NPR interview: http://www.npr.org/2013/04/23/178601471/is-american-daycare-a-disaster
Research over the last decade or so has yielded lots of new information about the human brain and how it develops. The most important finding of all (in my opinion) is that brain architecture is formed during infancy.
In order words, when a baby receives responsive care and appropriate experiences his/her brain will make lots of rich neural connections. But if an infant doesn’t have a warm relationship with a caring adult and experiences “toxic stress” (unrelenting such as extreme poverty, neglect or abuse) their brain’s architecture will weaken leading to long-term problems with learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.
This short and informative video sums it up: Brain Builders
If you’re looking for more academic information on toxic stress, executive functions, and brain development please see Harvard University brain research videos and information on early learning