Friday, February 23, 2018

Toddler Hacks!

And now, on the slightly more lighthearted side of toddler parenting, I present three toddler hacks that are random, self-invented, and have nothing to do with actual character formation or anything that matters except your peace of mind. Because they've pretty much transformed my world, here they are:

#1. The Candy Box.
Since having children who can eat on their own, I've realized that the world is teeming with candy. Seriously. There is so much candy out there. Nearly every holiday comes with boatloads of it, and nearly every grocery store/bank/library/kids' consignment store offers enticing little bowls of it, for free. Add preschool on top of that, with treats for every single child's birthday and prizes for random school events, and you're pretty much overwhelmed by candy all the time. I read an article once about the ridiculous amounts of calories kids consume, on average, just with these little drive-by treats and random snacks. It's something like two-thirds of what they need in a day. One or two, every now and then, wouldn't be a big deal. But it's more like one or two every time you leave the house. Which, for us, is, and always has been, at least once a day.

I really want to teach my kids' to have a healthy relationship with food, and I do believe that that includes balance, and tolerance of sugar on occasion. I don't want my kids growing up thinking sugar is evil, or wrong, or even feeling like they have to work it off or atone for eating it in some way. I don't want it being a forbidden fruit that they crave constantly or binge out on when they are allowed to eat it. I don't want it being a struggle between them and me, where they want it all the time and I'm always saying no. I don't want them fighting, every single holiday/school birthday/Trader Joe's trip over how much candy they get to keep, and can they eat it right now, etc.

But obviously, I also don't want them eating it all the time. Or ruining their appetites for healthier food with it. Or thinking random pieces of candy throughout the day don't count towards the total nutrition their bodies are absorbing. 

So, enter, the candy box. 

Each of my kids has a box, in the pantry, where all their candy goes. Any candy they are given, ever. Samples in grocery stores, favors at parties, parts of goody bags, prizes in school--it comes home and goes in the box. I never throw it away, I never tell them they can't have it. But they never get to eat it right away. They are allowed one piece, per day, at the completion of a healthy meal (usually lunch). Lunch isn't finished? Must not be hungry enough for candy. If they have had significant sweets elsewhere, I'll usually just tell them that counts for their candy.

I don't know exactly why this has worked so well, but it has. Candy is never a fight. I never have to say no to it. The answer to candy is always yes, but it's yes-later, or yes-sometime. I never have to stress about how much they're getting for Halloween or Christmas or Seahawks Day at school, because they won't be consuming any more than their usual.  

And probably one time out of three, they don't finish their lunches, and don't get candy. And for some reason, that doesn't bother them. Another one time out of three, they finish their lunches, get a piece of candy, and then ask for more cheese, or raisins, or whatever. I didn't anticipate this working so incredibly well, but it has. And I can't tell you why. Something about the candy box setup has made candy a non-issue. I think some of it has to do with the fact that the candy never goes away (or is taken away). But that's really just a guess.

And yes, I realize my kids have the opportunity to eat candy almost every day. But right now, I'm okay with that. Because it's one single piece, and I'd rather have one single piece on a regular occasion than more sporadic binges. Or, when you think about all the candy that's offered, more regular binges.

Also, I realize that you're not supposed to make kids eat all their food and then reward them with sugar. But, as with all parenting advice, I take it with a grain of salt and do what works for us. I don't feed them excessive lunches. I don't coax them into taking more bites and remind them of the promise of candy. I don't get sad or worried when they don't get dessert. They just know it's an option if their bodies are satisfied with nutrient-rich food. Neither of them like the feeling of being stuffed and they don't usually want candy enough to be uncomfortable for it. They know it's there for the next day. It's worked for us. If it stops working, we'll rethink it.

#2. Sendable Kisses and Hugs
As everyone knows, kisses and hugs cure everything. Everything. Bonks? Scratches? Owies? Hurt feelings? Gushing blood from a ruptured artery? I've got it covered.

Until we're all buckled in the car and someone manages to hit themselves in the eye with the loose middle-seat seatbelt and then there's weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth and a simple kiss would fix it all but I'm driving and I have to keep my eyes on the road and everything is ruined.

Enter: Sendable Kisses.

A scenario similar to this happened--though probably a bit less dramatic--when Peregrine was somewhere around 2, and instead of trying to console him until we got to our destination, I thought, he's 2, he'll fall for this, and so I said, "Here, P, I'll send a kiss back there, let me know when you catch it," and I kissed my hand, and closed up my fist, and threw the invisible kiss into the backseat.

He fell for it.

And now? I do this all the time. Both the kids believe in it, wholeheartedly. They catch them and everything. I can send them from the phone, if I'm not in the same place as them. If I know one of them is having a rough day when I'm at work, I will send videos of me throwing kisses to the babysitter, and they can sit on the couch and press play over and over and catch the kisses until they're tired of it.

I did it the first time on a whim. But it has seriously made my life so much easier and simpler. Both on a level of simple convenience (I'm not kidding, I can be cooking dinner, hear wailing downstairs, and yell, "I'm sending a kiss!" and they will buy it), and on a deeper level. It's a way to connect with them, and let them know, in a tangible way--because little ones need things they can touch and handle--that my love is always with them, even when my body isn't.

#3. Using the word "hiding" instead of "lost."
Anyone who has ever seen photos of Peregrine is probably aware of the ubiquitous little brown beanie monkey that accompanies him on any number of adventures. I love that monkey, because a.) he's entirely washable, b.) he's brown, so dirt doesn't show up on him pretty much ever, and c.) he's tiny, and a beanie, so he compresses easily into a suitcase or purse, and takes up virtually zero extra space.

Which basically means, he goes missing all the time. And even if he's right there in front of you, his tininess and his brown color mean he's incredibly well camouflaged. Once he ended up under the sofa, and we couldn't find him for weeks, despite looking under the sofa. Peregrine loves him. He would be devastated to lose him. But I don't even remember where he came from. I think he was taped onto the top of a shower gift, with the bow. I've scoured the internet for him, even eBay. I've never found his duplicate, anywhere. And by this time, he's so worn and floppy that Peregrine wouldn't ever be fooled by a substitute.

Which means, the first time a bedtime rolled around and we couldn't find him anywhere, everyone panicked a little. I'd dreaded that battle for a long time. And I know how terrifying, and sad, it is for a child to lose their special little friend. I mean, we're not talking a toddler tantrum about staying in bed or not getting a 384th story read to them. The emotions run a lot deeper, and sadder, when something you love and are attached to disappears.

So, in desperation, I told him it was okay, Monkey was just hiding, monkeys do that sometimes, they like to explore and sometimes they get cozy in a spot and just stay there for awhile. Peregrine, being Peregrine, bought it hook, line, and sinker, giggled a bit, and went to bed just fine.

Now, I'll admit that my son is just a wee bit gullible and tends to swallow any number of things that a more skeptical child might not. But seriously, this tiny little re-interpretation of events has prevented so much drama, and it works for Sylvia just as well. My kids have copious amounts of stuffed animals. They play with them daily, dragging them all over the house and tucking them into corners everywhere. Their mother is not the world's most meticulous housekeeper and doesn't always flush out those corners on a regular basis. Therefore, the stuffed animals appear and disappear, and you never know who you're going to find tucked in a crack behind a pillow, or, more importantly, who you're not going to find when you're filling up your bed for the night. That stuffed animals like to hide, and that some like to hide more than others, has just become one of the truths my children accept as self-evident. Obviously, the more dark and cavelike a spot in the house, the more likely an animal will want to hide there. And the smaller and floppier an animal, the more likely it is to want to hide, because it's so easy and fun.

Also: animals that need to be washed are not undergoing trauma and separation. They are taking showers, which they find immensely fun and look forward to greatly. Therefore, my children do not undergo trauma and separation when said animals are frolicking in the washing machine. Instead, they watch the wash happen as if it's on TV, and giggle with glee whenever they see the beloved animal make an appearance. No tears + half an hour of entertainment = parenting score.

The trick though, is to be absolutely sincere and very matter-of-fact, like you are preaching truth. The same voice you use when you explain the life cycle of a caterpillar or how to tie a shoe. Children quickly see through over-enthusiasm and attempts to distract them or make them stop crying. As I believe I've said before, nothing fuels a power struggle like parental desperation combined with a child's bad mood. So don't be desperate. Be practical, and explain it like it's the most obvious thing in the world.

And that, my friends, is probably the most important toddler hack of all, and it works for older children too: if you can confidently turn potential tragedies into normal (or exciting) events, they will probably believe you, and you'll at least buy yourself enough time to think of an actual solution to the actual problem. (For serious. I once got lost in my sister-in-law's neighborhood, on foot, in the freezing rain, with my four-year-old niece. We wandered around for two hours, soaked to the skin, pelted by ice and drenched by passing cars. I called it something ridiculous and matter-of-fact like "our cold adventure walk" and made out that it was something aunties and nieces do to have fun. One of us was utterly miserable. It wasn't her.)

There's more, I'm sure, but that's it for now. Happy toddler hacking!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Toddler parenting

This is per request from a discussion with friends on Facebook, and I started writing my answer in the Facebook reply box, but realized it was going to take too long and would be much easier to read in this format. So here it is--you know who you are--but hopefully it can be helpful to others as well.

All kids are different, and that means every tactic and idea will be helpful for some kids, and completely ineffective for others. That's pretty much true across the board. Even if it works for most kids, there will always be some for whom it just doesn't. And the reverse is true as well--even if something is horrible/outdated/ridiculous/etc, there's some kid out there for whom that is the magic button. As always, so much of parenting is just figuring out who your kid is, who you are, who the rest of your family is, and how that all meshes together. Personalities are different, values are different, and situations are different.

For some reason or other, I've been frustrated with most of the advice given for parenting toddlers, either on a basic philosophical level or because it simply hasn't worked with my kids. And while I get that kids are different (and Peregrine in particular has some distinctive quirks when it comes to discipline and learning), I've watched and taught a lot of kids, and most toddler-parenting advice I read simply doesn't resonate with my experience. Maybe some of it is where you're coming from--people approach parenting with a hugely diverse set of paradigms and take and utilize advice (or not!) in hugely diverse ways. Maybe it's just me. But for whatever reason, I haven't connected with much of what I see available, whether it's the article in Parents magazine in the waiting room, the 20 articles that come up when I google "toddler parenting tips," or the advice given (and liked) by dozens of women in my local moms' Facebook group.

So, for better and worse, here's what hasn't worked for me, and what has worked instead. Take it for what it's worth--one person's experience, but with a decent handful of kids--and as another set of tools that may be slightly harder to come by than what's generally available.

1.) What hasn't worked: An assumption that toddlers have no impulse control and therefore can't learn self-control. I've read--and heard--so much that basically dismisses any effort to teach a toddler to resist temptation. I've read so much that says toddlers can't learn to (stay away from the dog bowl, leave Grandma's sewing machine alone, stand by Mom in the parking lot, etc). And it's backed up with a lot of research about undeveloped brains and anecdotal stories about discipline simply "not working" for kids that young. Usually what's recommended is simple prevention, restraint, or redirection. Put the dog bowl away. Wear the toddler. Offer an alternative activity. I always read this and think, sure, that's an easy fix and it does no harm...but, if you're willing to put in some time, toddlers are incredibly capable of learning, and, with some patience and teaching, can resist temptation, even if it's right under their noses.

What has worked: Choosing a few small "battles" and teaching toddlers some very elementary skills in self-control and self-restraint. In the experience I've had with toddlers, I can say, very confidently, yes, toddlers can learn to stay away from the dog bowl, to stay seated in the cart, to see a phone on the table and not touch it. They can't always remember these things in your absence. They can't always generalize one rule to every situation (the dog bowl at your friend's house may look completely different and it won't register that they're not supposed to touch that one either). They are easily done in by hunger, tiredness, curiosity, toddler scatterbrain, and human orneriness. You can't expect them to be perfect, or angrily punish them if they test limits or forget something you've already taught them. Toddlers need lots (and lots and lots and lots and lots) of repetition to learn, and they learn by doing, not hearing. But--they can learn, and you can teach them. It has to be reasonable, and it has to be on a small scale. Toddlers do better in a home that's livable for them, and pleasantly explorable. But you can choose to leave the dog bowl on the ground, or keep a cabinet unlocked but off limits, or set your phone down and teach a child to leave it alone. Techniques vary by child, and you should be prepared for repetition, regression, and toddler testing (i.e. this is best not done with something dangerous, or something you care a lot about). Here's the technique that worked the best with my kids: Start by telling them "no" or "don't touch" (use a firm voice, but not scary or overly stern). If/when they do go ahead and touch it anyway, take their hands and hold them still next to the object they were not supposed to touch (again, firmly, but not painfully). Don't remove them from the situation, but also don't lecture or reiterate the no. Hold for a few seconds--long enough for them to feel slightly bored/restrained--and then let go. If/when they reach for it again, repeat, without comment, the hand-holding, but hold it for slightly longer.

I can't claim this technique (nicknamed "hand timeouts" by Andrew and me) would work for all kids since I've tried it on very few--but it worked amazingly with my kids. I don't think I ever had to repeat it more than three times in one go. It didn't work to the extent that I could leave a 2-year-old alone with a highly tempting object and trust it to be completely untouched when I reentered the room. But I could keep my kids from touching our friends' completely un-child-proofed TV set. I could keep them from pulling my hat off while riding on my back. I could have my phone out while waiting for a call and not have it snagged by a child. Most of all, I could teach my kids--at a very young age--that they were entirely capable of wanting something, being able to reach something, and choosing not to touch it. That is a huge gift to give a child, and it comes with an immense amount of dignity and freedom, both for yourself and for your little one. Children know when they are capable and when they are trusted, and they can--they absolutely can--begin to learn how, even when they are very small. It may not always be worth your while, or your time. Sometimes it's easier and better for everyone to just put the phone up on the counter. By all means, choose convenience if you need to. It's not like your toddler won't be able to learn self-control in other ways. But don't feel like you can't teach a little one, or like they have absolutely no impulse control at all. Impulse control is a muscle, if only a figurative one. It can be taught and stretched and grown, even in very tiny children.

2.) What hasn't worked: Distraction/Redirection. This seems to be the be-all, end-all of most toddler discipline advice, and for some reason, it quit working for both my kids around the age of 11 months. The idea is this: when you see your child doing something they shouldn't, you remove the object or remove them from the situation, and quickly offer a safe, acceptable alternative. (Whisk away the dinner knife and replace it with a spoon, scoop up kid and ball and move them both outside, take little hitting hands and place them on a drum, etc.) Supposedly, this causes the child to feel empathized with and validated, and have their original impulse honored in an acceptable way. Also, if you're operating under the assumption that toddlers can't learn self-control, this is a solution for all those times toddlers are touching things they shouldn't.


My kids caught on. Every. Single. Time. For some reason (intelligence? excessive orneriness? clueless singlemindedness? advanced development in the "undistractible" department?) my kids knew when I was trying to pull a bait-and-switch and would just casually bat my alternative aside and go back to the original. And I couldn't really blame them, or be mad at them, because an offered alternative isn't a directive, and they're fully within their rights to refuse it. Also, generalizing my kids' impulses never worked--when they wanted to hit me, for instance, they didn't just want to hit something, they wanted to hit me. They never felt validated by my offering an acceptable alternative, they just felt frustrated and angry.

What has worked: Direct communication, with occasional focused redirection. If I didn't want my kids to do/touch something, it always worked best to just tell them that, directly, and stop them doing it. It doesn't have to be done in a mean or threatening way. It doesn't even have to be the kind of long-drawn-out teaching moment mentioned above. It can be as simple as "no, don't touch that, please" while taking the knife/phone/stick away. Sometimes this resulted in tears and frustration, but honestly, usually it didn't. Toddlers are resilient, and run up against boundaries all the time. My kids did better overall, and seemed calmer and more able to roll with the punches, when I said what I meant and meant what I said without emotion or drama or an attempt to appease them.

That said, there are times when toddlers fixate and intentional, focused redirection helps them move on. When I say "focused," I mean there isn't a bait-and-switch involved, nor are you trying to lure them into a new activity by making it exciting. After stopping them from doing something, if they continued fixating on the forbidden activity, I would direct them to do something else, because sometimes, all they need is a different script. Usually I'd give them an open-ended choice of constructive activities (i.e. "Please find something kind to do with your hands" or "Would you like to help me with a kitchen job?"), and I typically didn't try to present it as being a better alternative to the old activity ("Look at this spoon! It's so much more fun than the knife because it scoops!"), just a better alternative to lying on the floor and screaming.

I also found this to be a more sustainable approach as my kids drifted from toddlerhood into older, even less distractible ages. Instead of having to come up with more elaborate and enticing reasons to do what I ask them to, I can just keep giving them straight answers, which they know to trust, because there's not a trick or a power struggle lurking behind them.

3.) What hasn't worked: Diffusing tantrums by discussing/explaining/validating feelings. This has never worked for me, with any child, any age, any tantrum. Maybe, maybe, with a much older child whose emotional outburst is truly the result of feeling ultimately ignored, invalidated, and misunderstood. But this simply isn't true of most toddler tantrums, and I've never found that trying to sort through a child's feelings or offer comfort during a tantrum has gotten me anything but a bigger, angrier tantrum. Kids either seem outraged that you're discussing the obvious ("What do you mean AM I FEELING ANGRY? DO I NOT LOOK ANGRY ENOUGH FOR YOU?!?!?") or resisting your efforts to soothe them becomes a power struggle that they are pretty much destined to win, because you can't force someone to be comforted.

What has worked: Leaving tantrums alone, with the offer of comfort available when the tantrum is done. I could write a whole post on tantrums, because most toddler-tantrum advice I've read assumes all tantrums are created equal, and that couldn't be further from the truth. Tantrums are almost diverse as children themselves, and there truly is no one trick for diffusing, preventing, or managing them. But in general--in a huge sweeping broad general--leaving a tantrum alone communicates to children that you aren't afraid of them and you're not desperate for them to stop. Nothing invites a power struggle like the terrible combination of parental desperation and a child's already-bad mood. However, tantrums aren't exactly pleasant for children, and the only children I've known who seem to enjoy their own tantrums are (older) children who are used to using tantrums to manipulate adults and get what they want. Most kids--from tiny toddlers up to elementary-aged children--end their tantrums feeling bad. They might be embarrassed, they might feel guilty, they might be frustrated and worn out from putting so much effort into asking for something and not getting it, they might be overwhelmed by something outside their control, they might not know how to calm themselves down, they might be aware of a break in a happy relationship with you, they might simply be worn down by the physical stress of screaming and crying for a long time--but regardless, something's wrong and I've always found that an offer of comfort goes a long way. Not an offer of appeasement or a consolation prize, not a distraction or a treat, not an apology for the bad feelings or the boundary held, just simple comfort (usually I just say "do you want a hug?" or "do you want help calming down?" or something like that). Usually I would offer it as the tantrum is winding down (I have no problem with holding a sobbing child who isn't fighting me or trying to get something out of me, but I'm not going to prolong a power struggle or let a kid vent their anger on me). I suppose there's a sweet spot to be hit here, but honestly, I've never had this after-the-fact comfort be perceived as a reward, nor have I seen it encourage further tantrums. Not that it couldn't be, and I imagine this varies by child, but I think a lot of it is how you present it (there's a lot of difference between "I'm so sorry it has to be this way, you must feel so bad, let me try to make it better," and "hey, it's all right, I still love you, take a little calm from me and let's move on.")

4.) What hasn't worked: saying "yes" if at all possible and avoiding "no" like the plague.
There is a lot of material out there about avoiding the word "no" with babies and toddlers, and it comes from every angle. Some of those angles I find bizarre (apparently toddlers only hear the last word you say, so when you say "no climbing" they just hear "climbing" and keep blissfully climbing accordingly--what? I've never met a child who operates like that),  and some of them have some solid truth behind them (if you're constantly "no-no-no-ing" your child for everything, all the time, especially if you're just talking and not enforcing, those constant no's become background noise, which is a problem for when it really matters). But the prevailing train of thought behind a lot of the "be a yes mom" advice seems to be that "no" is a very hard word for children (who control so little) to hear, and that avoiding it as much as possible will smooth our days with our toddlers, help keep our relationships with our little ones positive, and make them much more likely to really listen when we do, on that very rare occasion, need to say no.

A lot of this is true, and a lot of it works, especially when it comes to kids' constant requests for things. Finding positive ways to deny or delay their requests is actually really effective, and sets a much more pleasant household/classroom/middle-of-WalMart mood. Kids are happier when they're told yes, and if that's what you mean, you might as well say it, even if it comes with ridiculous caveats (you have no idea how many utterly absurd requests from my children have been cheerfully and summarily answered with something equally utterly absurd like "why don't you ask me for that for your birthday when you're a teenager" or "sure, when you have a job.") But as for the claims that mostly saying yes will result in less tantrums, and that children who rarely hear no will respect it when they do--this doesn't ring true with my experience at all.

In fact, I've found the opposite to be true. Toddlers who never hear no don't know what to do with no when they hear it. Toddlers who are used to running up against boundaries that sway/negotiate/compromise/accommodate aren't going to suddenly respect a hard boundary that doesn't move. They're not going to instinctively know the difference between wanting to play the recorder at top volume and wanting to run and touch the police car driving down the road. A lot of the avoid-saying-no advice assures that if you say no rarely, your children will know you really mean it when you do, and it will be tolerable and understandable, because you usually say yes. But in my experience, when you never say no, or if you always negotiate/distract/redirect/compromise, a direct "no" is simply out of character, and children will deeply resent it because of its rareness. Children dislike the unfamiliar.

What works instead: saying no, on occasion, when it doesn't matter.
Here's what I've found: when children hear no, and no is enforced, they can practice responding to it appropriately. If you say no when it doesn't matter, you can practice enforcing no in a low-stress environment, without anyone's life or safety at stake. When you say no to something trivial, in your own home, that you maybe could have said yes to, your toddler can tantrum if she wants to and then get over it. You risk a toddler tantrum pretty much every time you say no to a toddler, and sometimes that battle isn't worth fighting, and that's okay. But sometimes it is, if only for this reason: practice makes perfect, and sometimes you both need practice. She needs practice hearing no and learning what it means, and you need practice hearing her get angry, or sad, or disappointed, over something you told her. The more you both have that practice, the more it will stop being a big deal. And the more you both can think of "no" as something that's not a big deal, the easier and simpler it will be to say it when you really need to. The children I know who respond to "no" best are the ones who are used to hearing it, the ones who are used to feeling a little bit disappointed and knowing that life will go on.

And while it doesn't happen overnight, the more you learn your toddler can be trusted with the word "no," the more freedom you're able to give her, and the more fun you can have together. You can say yes, a lot, because you know she can handle a no when it comes (and you know you can handle her response to a no if it's not ideal). Also, the more a toddler can learn, young, that no is not a big deal, usually, the more she'll carry that with her as she grows, when the no's aren't always coming from you.


So I hope that was helpful, if only to offer you a glimpse of my family (and classroom) and reassure you that it's okay to do things a bit differently from the books, the articles, the experts. Find what works. Experiment, and try, and grow, and learn. Study your kid and build a relationship with him, and gather the wisdom of the people around you. There's no such thing as a parenting formula, and these, for me, are the places in toddler parenting where the formula, as given, hasn't made sense. Take it for what you will and grab any tools that help!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Siblings (and the art of leaving well enough alone)

All right, finally picking up the sibling topic again. And moving from the more theoretical side--building communities, developing family mindset, leading children in valuing the whole over the individual self--to the actual practical side of how to deal with children as they're tearing each other's throats out.

Every single day.

Multiple times every single day.

Because let's make one thing very, very clear here: my kids fight. A lot. Yes, they're darling and sweet and tell each other they love each other and beg to tuck each other in bed and delight in finding each other's favorite foods in the grocery store, and overall, they have a wonderful, intensely bonded relationship. But they also bicker and squabble and cry and argue and fight all. the. time.

A la Reasons My Kid is Crying, I could probably singlehandedly keep alive a fairly entertaining feed of Things My Children Have Fought Over. We'd have your run-of-the-mill sibling stuff like who gets which toy when and who gets to go first. We'd keep it fresh and interesting with whose bike parking place is whose and who gets to sit on my left leg instead of my right. It would even be strangely endearing with who gets to kiss and tuck the other in bed. But, let's be real here, it would mostly be populated with pictures of one of them holding a door closed for dear life while screaming like they're dying, while the other attempts to pry it open while screaming like they're dying. There would be variations on that theme of course--cabinet doors, closet doors, bathroom doors, the occasional light switch thrown in for good measure--but they'd all be mundane pieces of home furnishing that no one had any interest in until suddenly someone decided to open (or close) them, thereby neatly cutting the seams that had, theretofore, held the world together.

So basically, my children do a lot of fighting. (Especially about doors.)

But you know what? Maddening as it is, despite the strength it drains from me and the minutes--hours--it takes of my day (nothing says Time Well Spent like negotiating a peace treaty between Those In Favor Of Closing the Cabinet and Those In Favor Of Opening It!), I'm okay with it. It's par for the course when people live in close proximity with each other. Siblings fight. Kids in general fight. People fight. There's a huge, huge difference between systematic dysfunction in a relationship and basic territory squabbles. Conflict is inevitable. Especially when you're young, and new to the world, and still learning conflict solving skills. Conflict isn't a sign of a problem. It's a sign of being alive, with others. The goal of raising siblings shouldn't be no conflict, but rather learning to navigate conflict with skill, compassion, and eventually, wisdom.

So I think the first thing you have to do with sibling conflict is to simply let it be. Expect it, be okay with it. Know that for the most part, it doesn't reflect on you, your parenting, or your kids' prospects in life.

And also, in addition to being okay with it, sometimes it's best to intentionally stay out of it.

I am generally pretty frustrated, in both the parenting and teaching arenas, by the level of adult interference that is expected when caring for children. We live in a world where adults seem to be expected to keep children from ever coming to harm--and harm is often defined very broadly. If we can prevent the skinned knee, bumped head, hurt feelings, angry quarrel, we are expected to do so, because we seem to think it would be lazy and irresponsible--not to mention unkind--to do otherwise. And when children do come to harm, even to very slight harm, we tend to blame the adult in charge of the situation.

But children learn by doing. Conflicts are messy and conflicts are uncomfortable, and yes, sometimes conflicts hurt, but they are also places to practice vital life skills: compromising with others, standing up for oneself, saying sorry, making amends, learning the consequences for your actions. The only way to learn these things--really learn them, not just know them as theoretically good ideas--is to do them, and to do them often. Children learn best, as anyone who works with them knows, by (endless) repetition.

And usually, they learn faster, and the lessons stick better, if they're allowed to learn them by themselves.

Over Christmas, while we were on vacation, I read the book Parenting Without Borders by Christine Gross-Loh. I have mixed feelings about it, but mostly positive ones, and one of her points in particular has stuck with me and solidified much of what I think about the importance of allowing children room to struggle. We tend to think only in terms of what we are protecting our children from, she says, and when we think of it that way it is hard to justify anything but the most careful attentive watchfulness and support. But whenever we protect our children from something, we are also depriving them of something, and that is something we ought always take into consideration, and decide which risk is greater. She noted this in the context of allowing children physical space and freedom to go places and make decisions, but I think it applies to conflict solving as well.

It's been my experience, working with children, both my own offspring and my students, that when adults rush quickly to solve children's conflicts--even in the interest of teaching empathy and fairness, children tend to take on a passive, victim mentality. Children learn quickly that adults care about fair, and so it becomes important to present themselves as being treated unfairly. I've found that quickly solving children's problems for them results in children mostly caring about making sure the adult hears their side and responds accordingly. In fact, I've found a lot less empathy and care about others, even when the adult moderator is striving for a fair, compassionate response. And more than that, I've found it leads to helplessness. Children who have never struggled to tie a shoe simply expect an adult to do it for them. Children who have never struggled to solve a conflict--to really come to a solution with the other children involved, without adult moderation--simply expect an adult to do that for them too.

I am not saying adults ought to be absent, or that we should never step in. But I do think we tend to step in way too quickly and too often, when we don't need to, and when by doing so we are preventing our kids from learning the lessons we are trying to teach.

I'm going to give a few examples of scenarios where I see adult interference usually doing more harm than good, but first, let me make a couple of things clear:

First, I am not talking about scenarios where there is previous dysfunction. I am assuming a set of siblings who basically like each other, have decent morals, and want to get along. I would take a different approach for siblings who really, honestly dislike each other, or for children with a history of poor (or absent) conflict solving skills. In any conflict situation, for any people anywhere, the strongest motivator is a desire to remain in relationship. If that is not present, it is difficult for any kind of self-motivated conflict solving to take place. Conflict resolution is still important, and ought to be taught, but in those cases, it likely won't teach itself.

Second, I am not talking about bullying. I am not talking about a situation where one child, or group of children, routinely uses power in a frightening, intimidating way to enforce their will on another child, or group of children. And while I think we often tend to see bullying, or fear it, when it isn't actually present, there are definitely instances where one child is abusing another one, and allowing that to happen unchecked is irresponsible and unkind to all parties involved.

And finally, by advocating a hands-off approach to conflict, I am not advocating not paying attention or not making any attempts to teach. I talk about kindness, and selflessness, and fairness, and generosity, and community, all the time, in school and at home. I give the kids in my care as many tools as I can so that they will be able to negotiate their conflicts when those conflicts arise. And while it may look like I'm completely ignoring my kids while they're fighting, I always have one ear opened to what's going on. Leaving fights alone isn't clueless ignorance--it's an intentional allowing of struggle with the end goal of learning, instead of simply trying to prevent hurt bodies or feelings. By stepping back, on purpose, I can try to gauge for myself whether or not learning is happening, and if it's not, I can take a more active part in the learning process.

So, with that out of the way, here are the arenas I generally believe in letting alone:

1.) Scenarios that aren't actual conflicts: I can't tell you how many times I have seen an adult rush to solve a problem, when the children in question didn't even see a problem there. Often it's because of perceived unfairness (one child took another's toy, a game seems rigged, one child is making all the decisions, etc), and there is a genuine desire to teach social skills and prevent anyone being taken advantage of. And again, I'm not saying it isn't important to teach fairness and kindness. But often, the kids involved--all of them--simply don't care. Sometimes the baby wanted to move on to another toy, sometimes the child making the decisions is the desired leader. Stepping in prematurely, I've found, tends to breed resentment on the part of the "aggressor" (who is usually not acting out of malice or even selfishness), and encourages the "victim" to be much quicker to take offense, and to look for inequalities and complain about them, knowing it will result in positive adult attention. Also, stepping in before a problem is a problem deprives children of the opportunity to respond personally to conflict. If you think about it, many adult conflicts aren't issues of hard-and-fast social rules being violated. Some are, but the vast majority simply have to do with our personal quirks and the things that annoy us as people. We learn to handle conflict well when we're able to listen to others' quirks and offenses and respond with compassion, empathy, and our own boundaries. Allowing children to decide for themselves when they are bothered helps them become more aware both of themselves and of others around them. Also, I've found that if children expect that they will have to engage in conflict with each other, instead of complaining and having an adult take over, they are more likely to pick their battles carefully and think about what really bothers them enough to make it worth stopping their play to problem-solve.

2.) Negotiations: Secretly, I love it when children lock themselves into a situation that requires negotiation, because I think there are few better arenas for learning what it means to weigh two sets of desires and make a decision based on both of them. This is second nature to adults (most of the time!), but for children, it can actually be very difficult to consider another's perspective, no matter how justified or fair. Children see the world through a very narrow lens--their own--and when they negotiate, they are forced to see through a different set of eyes and consider a different viewpoint. Even if the motive for negotiation is completely selfish (continuing the game, for instance, or getting an annoying sister to quit screeching), it forces practice in being unselfish, and practice, if it doesn't always make perfect, certainly makes easier. When adults step in and negotiate for children, I've found that children tend to focus solely on making their own viewpoint heard, and making it louder, and more convincing, than the other side. Also, when children believe solving a problem is their own responsibility, they have stronger motivation to negotiate well. Overall, most children value fairness, and, when left mostly alone, tend to seek it. Without the constant positive attention of having an adult rush to side with them, they seek the positive attention that comes from interacting well with each other. Children like to play together, and tend to quickly stop playing a game if they perceive it as unfair. If they know that, by being unfair, they will lose half their playmates, they have strong motivation to be as fair as they can.

3.) Natural consequences:
Sometimes, the outcome of a conflict isn't always pleasant to everyone. Games dissolve and playmates leave, toys are taken back and tears are shed. When children play selfishly, and don't care to solve conflicts with others in mind, they lose the moment of friendship and cooperation and play. Children don't like being bossed around. They don't like being whined at or tattled on. They don't want to play with a friend who contradicts everything or refuses to share or insists that everything be a particular way. Sometimes conflicts over these things mean the game is done. Someone--or everyone--walks out, and their contribution to the play is over, and no one is happy. Rejection happens, and it hurts. This is a fine line to walk, because children, even good ones who mean well, can be cruel and sometimes very unforgiving. I've seen kids rejected--for a long time--after one bad experience because "she's bossy" or "he always ruins it". And here is where it is important to teach kids to be kind. To talk about how people change, and how one bad choice, or two, or three, or several, doesn't make a bad person. To give tools for dealing with it next time, and assuming there will be a next time. To explain special needs and younger ages and the importance of hospitality. But when rejection occurs because a child is selfish or mean, or when a game falls apart because conflict was handled poorly, sometimes it's best to let it be, and allow the children to sit in that messy, uncomfortable moment. That's hard to do, and this is a place where I often see adults intervene--sometimes for the first time in the entire conflict--to admonish everyone, collectively, for not playing nicely, and to insist that the game continue as it was, with everyone included and equal. And I've rarely ever seen this actually result in deeper, better friendships. Usually it just breeds resentment on the part of the children who finally drew the boundary, and frustration on the part of the offender, who finds himself included but no longer trusted or liked. In order for children to be able to solve conflicts independently, they have to be able to set boundaries and draw lines, without adults erasing them. They have to be able to sit outside of boundaries other children have drawn and reflect on what they must change to be invited back in. When a relationship is good to begin with, children want peace. Especially with siblings, where there may be only one or two playmate options, loss of a playmate means loss of play altogether. Left to themselves, and allowed to the experience the consequences of conflict done badly, they tend to figure out a way to exist in peace and harmony--and therefore play--again. Sometimes they need coaching in that direction ("I wonder what would happen if you said sorry," or "Maybe she'll be willing to share that toy if you're willing to trade one of yours"), but sometimes, they simply need to experience what they're missing, and then it becomes worth some compromise or humility to get it back again.

4.) The pecking order.
 Regardless of whether we like it or not--and often, we don't--any group of children has a hierarchy of sorts. Sometimes it's a simple matter of older and younger, and sometimes it's more complex--in a group of fifteen third-graders, there are leaders and followers, boys and girls, outgoing ones and shy ones, and depending on what they are doing at the moment, differing levels of skill and knowledge. We know these hierarchies exist, and we have expectations of them. I ask Peregrine to watch out for Sylvia, to help her with things she can't do by herself. I ask the good soccer player to explain the game to the newbie. I ask the natural leader to head up the group project. And yet, so often, I see adults quickly intervene when children use the pecking order in a play context--if an older child tells a younger what to do, or a single child chooses a game for the whole group, or the leader personality casts himself as the hero in a game of make-believe. There are times, to be sure, where it is important to teach good leadership and coach a child on what his role is and isn't. But these little moments where one child is dominant and the other isn't are simply part of the social fabric of that relationship. They're not indicative of bullying, or even selfishness, and they shouldn't be treated as such. In fact, sometimes they're necessary for creating the harmony that we, and the children involved, both want. A younger child can't articulate game rules in a way that makes sense; an older child can. A shy child can't figure out a way to use everyone's strengths and keep a project moving; a strong, extroverted leader can. Generally, I've found that when you teach kindness and love and responsibility, but leave these hierarchies alone, the dominant children are usually very gentle and kind and understanding with those under their care. They know they are in a position of power and responsibility. They know the relationship is unequal. But it goes both ways, and they know that too. The younger ones will never be asked to tone down their body movements, watch out for the older ones, help others before themselves, or referee arguments. Usually, everyone's okay with that, and the benefits outweigh the discomforts. And when conflict arises, the older children (or the stronger leaders), who have more experience, will often act as mediators and model appropriate problem solving for the younger children. When adults constantly step in to curb leadership, or to make sure it is distributed evenly, the most mature voices likely won't rise to the top, or be listened to, during a conflict. Older children need to view themselves as teachers, caretakers, and leaders in order to step into those roles, and when they're not allowed to, they won't. When they are, though, they often manage to solve conflicts with far more understanding, compassion, and effectiveness than any adult possibly could.

Of course, as with any aspect of parenting, all children are different. Sibling sets are different, seasons of life are different, and parents are different when it comes to tolerance for squabbles and their own conflict solving skills. And, as with any aspect of parenting, navigating the waters of sibling-fights requires endless trial and error--a lot of error. We won't get it right all the time. Sometimes we'll let things go that should have been addressed, and sometimes we'll make a fuss over things that should have been let go. More than often, we'll likely get the balance wrong. But I think it's important to remember that conflict-solving, like any skill--speaking, reading, fine motor skills, swimming--is a learning process, and won't always be smooth, and that's okay. Our job as parents isn't to eliminate sibling conflict, nor is it to solve it as quickly as possible, with minimal tears and discomfort. Conflict is normal, it's inevitable, and it's okay to let our children struggle through it. Because they'll never be done with conflict. They may not be fighting each other over whether the kitchen cabinet ought ideally to be closed, open, or somewhere in between; but there will be coworkers who play music too loud and housemates who leave dirty dishes everywhere and spouses who don't realize they're hurting feelings. Siblings and classmates are the playground for all these more serious conflicts, and it's okay to let them learn and practice and perfect, when the stakes are low and the setting is safe and you are there to step in if they get too far in over their heads.

Next up, I'll elaborate a bit on what goes on behind the scenes of conflict--how I talk about problem solving when problems aren't happening and how I work to actively foster kindness and thinking about others--but for now, take a breath, and know that, even when the kids are screaming at each other over nothing but a freaking basement closet door for goodness sakes that no one even cares about, it's okay. They're little, they're learning, and this is how they're practicing for when the stakes are higher and the outcome of the conflict actually matters.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sylvia, Three Years Old

My dear sweet Owlet,

I can't believe it's been three years since you wiggled your way into the world, in the middle of an otherwise-entirely-normal August night. I can't believe it's only been three years that our lives have been so much richer, and full of so much more sunshine, for having you in them.

You're a person all your own, and you always have been. You are fiercely, fiercely independent. Everything you can do by yourself, you do by yourself, and woe betide anyone who tries to do it for you. You don't frustrate easily, and you'll try and try until you figure something out. But once you're "too tired" or once you've decided you want help, woe betide the world if it doesn't rush to your aid. You're loud and emotional and your tantrums can be pretty intense. You feel deeply, happy and sad. You're not really prone to mood swings--you live at a pretty gentle level of content--but when you feel, it's real and strong. You're completely okay with being told no--most of the time--but you need your moments of sadness and you need to live in them for awhile before you move on.

You don't like feeling controlled and something as little as making you stay in time-out past the point you feel remorse and are ready to say sorry will make you react like an animal in a trap--panic and misery everywhere. But on the flip side, you have immense quantities of self control and almost always choose to do the right thing. Aside from the occasional timeout-as-holding-zone when one of your tantrums has gotten out of control, I've rarely had to discipline you with anything other than the question, "Are you going to do this yourself or do I need to do it for you?"

But for all your independence and fierce little core, your capacity for wailing loudly, your occasional quickness to take offense, your deeply intense scowl that I positively dread seeing on you at age twelve, your heart is tender and you are so very kind. No matter the cause, you can't stand to see anyone sad. Your brother can be throwing a fit, or fighting with you, and yet, if you perceive him as sad, you will drop everything--even your cause, your side of the fight--to try to "feel him better" as you say. If he falls and hurts himself, you spring into action immediately, rushing to his side with kisses and hugs and all of his monkeys at once. You have no hangups about saying sorry, and if you hurt anyone, anywhere, you apologize and hug and kiss and sympathize with all the owies. You notice everyone's bandaids and blood, and this is how you make friends, because every small child wants to be friends with someone who actually cares about the progress of their paper cuts and knee scrapes. Whenever you hear a child crying in a store, no matter how obviously tantrum-ing that child is, you will look up at me with your big liquid eyes and say, "Somebody is sad!" You have such a deep little heart, Owlet.

And for all that you will grab a power struggle and hold on like a ferocious little bulldog, you don't like fighting anyone you love. You hate knowing anyone in the family is unhappy with you. You hate sinking yourself into situations where you have to perpetuate a conflict in order to win. Give you an out, a graceful way to save face and go back to everyone being okay with each other, and you will take it, any time. Ninety percent of the time, you are just happy and content, following me or your brother around, dragging an armload of your favorite toys with you, sunshining your way through life as you always have, wide-eyed and scowly and sweet.

People describe you as being friendly and outgoing, and most of the time I don't see it, because your brother blows you out of the water. But you are very comfortable socially, in a way I don't see in a lot of other children. Probably because Peregrine is always there for you, setting a shining example of friendliness and sociability. He sees nothing to fear in school, strangers, or conversation with adults, and therefore neither do you. You quickly adapt to leaving me, carving your own little space wherever you end up. You love school and thrive there, possibly because you are so independent of the rest of us, and you can have your own spot where no one else paves the way for you.

But for all that, you're very reserved in public. There are very, very few people, even among close family and friends, who see the whole of you. You're not shy, per se, you just keep a lot back. You're like an onion, with layers and layers. No one sees a false side of you, but not many people see everything. You give your compassion freely, but you hold your trust very close.

You are happiest when you're following me around, doing whatever I'm doing. You're incredibly good at housework--way better than a just-turned-three-year-old ought to be--and it constantly amazes me what you're capable of. You have a combination of swift efficiency and effectiveness that is quite possibly inherited from your beloved aunt Boodeedee, because it certainly didn't come from either your dad or me. And while you love the daily chores--laundry, unloading the dishwasher, making the bed--you really, really love it when we do something exciting and different. You can't even contain your excitement when we clean the bathrooms, or mop, or switch out all the toothbrushes for fresh ones. When you are bored, instead of destroying things like your brother, you will follow me around saying, "What can I help?" You helped me pack our old house, and unpack into our new one, choosing that over playing with your toys almost every time.

You have a very strong need for touch, despite your dislike of carriers as a baby, and despite your refusal to ever sleep touching someone, and despite the fact that you crawl in bed between your dad and me every day and then complain that it's "too tight" and that we're squishing you. You climb into my lap daily, pretty much every time I sit down and you're otherwise unoccupied. You don't want to talk or do anything, you just want to be there. Sometimes I tease you when you're cranky and tell you you haven't had enough Vitamin Lap-Lap. But that's what it is. You need it like a nutrient.

You still carry things you love around with you everywhere, and if you're not in your own home, you find things you love and carry them with you. You are like a magnet, and you have an incredible capacity for attracting anything pink or purple or green or blue or sparkly, having to do with Frozen or Minnie Mouse or Hello Kitty or house maintenance or babies or sheep or owls or winter clothes or vets or doctors. The other day we were in a thrift store, and I looked up, and suddenly you were there, sitting in a giant kid-sized pink jeep, dressed in some ridiculous Elsa-themed winter coat, and next to you, like it was no big deal, were situated a huge talking Olaf, a small piano, and a Minnie Mouse vacuum cleaner. You make me laugh every day, Owlet, whether it's your eclectic collections, your still-excellent mimicry of faces and voices, your strange little expressions of mischief or embarrassment, or your sharp and hilarious observations about the world. The other day, we were walking down on the beach, and a woman passed us walking some huge Saint-Bernard-Chow-whatever-else mutt, huge and white and fluffy with a black mask around its eyes, and you laughed, and said, "That dog is a sheepy with a raccoon face!"

You're obsessed with all things Frozen and will take any opportunity to sing Let it Go. The halls at school, any stage you see anywhere, or simply a blank space where you have nothing else to do. You'll announce it solemnly--"I'm going to sing Let it Go now"--and then you'll proceed, with due gravity, always beginning, a little hesitantly, "Snwows gwows white on da mountain tonight..." and then speeding up until you can stamp your little foot and sing, "Here I STAAAAANNDD!!!" and ending with, of course, "Cold's boddewed me anyway!" I have far too many videos of you doing this, but I know one day you'll be too cool for school, and princesses, and letting it go, so I'll treasure this while I've got it.

You love your princesses and your sparkles and your twirly dresses, but you also love climbing and playgrounds and bikes and adventures. You've been acing fireman poles since before you were two and a half. You gave your teachers heart attacks, but bless them, they let you do it since they saw how competent you were. You know your limits, and you don't like to fall and get hurt, but you love to climb and slide and use your strong little body. You are so confident in your strength, and I love it so very much. You launch yourself onto some pole or bridge or rock hold, and casually throw back at me, "I am strong. God made me strong." I know your body will change. I know you'll have to deal with hips and breasts and changing proportions and things getting in the way of the strong body you live in and know. But I hope you weather that. I hope I can help you learn to see those things as part of your strength, not hindrances to it. I hope you can always hold femininity and strength together, and never, for one moment, think that you have to choose one above the other.

My sweet owlet princess, my quirky, daring, sensitive, tender, fierce, strong little daughter--it is a joy to raise you. It is a joy to have a little woman by my side, growing more and more into a woman every day, trying on Elsa dresses and rock climbing shoes and nursing bras alike. You are more than I could ever have dreamed of and you are such a delight. I hope this year is full of joy and growth for you. I hope you settle into your new school and make good friends and carve another little place to be you. I hope there is minimal threenager, but mostly, I hope you grow in grace and truth and love as you grow into the beautiful, strong woman God created you to be.

I love you, Sylvia Gabrielle.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Brothers and sisters and communities like that

I don't think I have a greater joy these days than watching my kids develop a relationship with each other that's entirely independent of me. They're at an age when they're kind of in the same developmental stage--I mean, yes, Peregrine is much older and knows much more, but still, they're both "preschoolers"--and pretty much function as a small herd of two. It's delightfully easy, in many ways--same rules, same routines, same set of instructions for both of them for the most part. Sylvia's not a baby any more at all, and that makes her Peregrine's playmate instead of just the baby sister. And oh my goodness, friends: the loyalty that exists between those two floors me. I love to watch them figure this thing out on their own. I love that it is something that belongs to them, something I get to witness but don't really own at all. It's amazing and beautiful. They are so very close to each other. I didn't see this kind of closeness coming. I didn't predict how much Peregrine would smooth Sylvia's path growing up, how secure she would be not just in our love, but in his. I know their feelings of love for each other will ebb and flow. I know they'll go their own ways as they grow older, that they'll want closer friends of their own gender, that their secrets and inside jokes will branch out and belong to others, and that's as it should be. But I hope the core of their love stays. I hope there's a strength there that will be a foundation for the lives that will depend less and less on me as time goes on.

I've had people ask me for advice on helping siblings get along, and it's hard for me to know how to respond. Because on the one hand, I feel like I've done nothing, and I got incredibly lucky with two little ones who simply like each other and want to have a relationship with each other. On the other hand, I feel like I spend immense amounts of energy nurturing that relationship. Certainly, teaching them to work together, teaching them to want to make their relationship work, is incredibly important to me.

I've thrown this post around in my head for a long time, and I've been hesitant to put it down on paper. I think most of my hesitation comes from my dislike of how-to's when it comes to parenting. If you know me at all, you know I mostly don't believe in how-to's. Insert X, add Y, out comes Z--there's none of that in parenting. I can't claim, for one moment, that I have sibling relationships figured out. I have one sibling relationship to guide here. One. The more siblings present in a family, the more relationships there are, and the more complex they'll be. And to be honest, I think so much of sibling relationships has to do with chemistry. I think we'd like to think that there is a way to make kids get along. That we can be a certain type of parent, enforce a certain set of values, and we will have kids with a certain type of relationship. And while I do believe there are things we can do that can help--or hinder--what's already there, the truth is, I honestly believe a huge chunk of it isn't up to the parents. Different kids have different personalities. Some personalities mesh better than others. You can't make kids be best friends, or even friends at all. Peregrine is ridiculously extroverted. He will play with anything that talks to him, or even looks at him in a friendly way. He will choose Sylvia's games, if only because she is willing to play them, and he has to have someone to play with. He has an imminently generous nature that made him a natural sibling. He's never wanted to be an only child. He shares easily, and the idea of jealousy is completely foreign to him. He will give up any number of personal comforts just to have a companion. I credit most of my kids' sweet relationship to this element of Peregrine's nature. He's taught this to Sylvia just by being who he is. She is more prone to jealousy, more guarded of her things and her space. She's learned how to share and let things go, simply because that's the example she's always around. It's something I've barely taught, because I haven't had to. Peregrine just is that way. (He told me the other day that God made it his "special power" to love everyone he knows. It's true, friends. It's true. That child is not without his challenges. But his heart is so very open, and it's a gift straight from God.)

She cons him into playing "bed" on a regular basis. Where they lie there and pretend they're in bed.  And he totally buys it. 
So please understand, none of the following is me saying I've figured it out. It's not me saying I know a secret. It's just some things I've learned, through trial and error, as teacher and parent, that can help steer a relationship between two children in the right direction. It's not a how-to guide. It's a set of tools. They're not the only tools, and they're not foolproof. There will always be hiccups and bumps and unpleasant surprises and extenuating circumstances. There will always be personalities, and chemistry, creating a current that you get to swim with, or against, or across. But they're tools I've used, and for the most part, they have been good ones. (And they're not limited to siblings. I use them in my classroom as well as my home, which makes me feel like maybe, they're good tools, since they've been tried on more than one single relationship that is already a decent one.)

The first tool is to commit, from the beginning, to building a community, instead of an individual, mindset, and modeling that mindset, as much as you can, every moment of every day.

When I was pregnant with Sylvia, I wrote a post on being family centered. That idea--that of being "family-centered" instead of either parent- or child-centered, remains one of my core values both as a mother and as a teacher, and it's even more applicable when parenting (or teaching!) involves more than one child. Raising a family, managing children, is about so much more than noticing and responding to each individual's needs. Yes, individuals matter. I delight in my children's individuality. I love watching the ways they develop and grow that are entirely their own. I can't get over my awe and amazement at the ways God created them--each of them--that are like nothing the world has ever seen, or will see. My children's uniqueness is beautiful and wonderful, and I pray every day that I nurture it well.

But we live in a culture that is pretty saturated with the value of individuality, and I've found that this mindset--individuality over all else--leaks into parenting advice and affects the way we relate to kids.  And whether we intend it or not, we're often sending our kids the message that their individual experiences, feelings, ideas, dreams, etc. ought to be their top priority. We believe, as parents, that multi-tasking all those needs and experiences and feelings is our top priority. We tend to feel like we need to apologize, in words or simply in our own guilty feelings, when a child has to sacrifice even a small piece of their individuality, or has to give up anything at all, for the sake of making a community--our family--run smoothly.

In reality though, belonging to a community requires constant sacrifice. It requires constant delaying of gratification, constant handing over of the spotlight to someone else. It requires us to give up wants and needs and dreams, sometimes forever. And most of the time--if the community is healthy and functional--we don't care, and sometimes we don't even notice, because the community holds us and supports us and gives us so much we couldn't achieve for ourselves chasing those wants and needs and dreams alone. This is true of any community, and it's certainly true for a sibling relationship. In my classroom and in my home, I do everything I can to cultivate this community mindset and the expectation of constant giving and taking and living together. I do everything I can to teach my kids that community living comes first, before the pursuit of personal fulfillment and happiness.

I don't apologize for making one of my kids wait while I attend to the other. Sometimes I make executive decisions without asking everyone what their preferences are, because I know what will be best for everyone, even if it's not best for each individual. I expect my kids to compromise with each other, constantly, and I don't feel bad about it. I don't bend over backwards to try to accommodate everyone, even when that leaves someone (or several someones) significantly inconvenienced. If someone is having a hard time, the others are expected to help, not to whine about it. I don't give everyone gifts on every birthday, or try to make everyone feel special on one person's special day. Sometimes only one person wins, or is star of the day, or gets to be my special helper, and everyone else just has to wait their turn. Maybe I'm tough about it sometimes. But most of the time? It's anything but tough. It just is. It's the way we operate. I talk about it like it's normal, because it is. And like it's joyous, because it is. Let's help each other. Let's help the baby learn. Let's put that toy out of reach so that the baby doesn't choke. Let's be patient, because she's still learning that. Let's be quiet, because he's sick and needs to sleep. No, we can't go out today, because babies need more sleep than big kids and today she needs a good nap in her bed. No, he's on my lap now, and he's very sad and needs more lap time, you can have it when he's finished. It's her birthday, let's wrap presents together, I can't wait to see her open these, she'll be so surprised! I've rarely, if ever, lectured about selflessness and compromise and giving up for others. Mostly I just narrate life and set that expectation. And it's something we do, not something I'm telling them they ought to do. We're in this together. I'm giving and taking, too. And kids, always mimics, tend to accept that.

Yes, Peregrine is very community-minded by nature and responds well to this kind of reasoning. But I talk this way with all my classes, and it's amazing how kids naturally fall into a community mindset. It doesn't eliminate selfishness, by any means. But it sets a standard of a different way of thinking. And it sets a culture in which kids are used to giving up what they want. Not that they always want to, or enjoy it. But at least they've had some practice doing it, and they accept it as normal. It may be hard, but it's not unfair. And if you model joy in this, they will follow. I think joy is the key. You can't lecture or shame kids into delighting in community. But you can lead them.

Of course kids' feelings matter. Feelings of jealousy, of being left out--those are real feelings. Of course we ought to be sensitive to them. But sometimes, their feelings are just reflections of ours. Sometimes--most times, in fact, at least when they're small--they react to the expectation we've already set. And here is where I think modeling joy makes a world of difference. Sometimes you're not stuck between validating feelings and belittling them. Sometimes you can simply step in, and steer the feelings in the direction of truth. You can live a different reality and invite children to walk in your footprints. Children--at least small ones--tend to walk in footprints left for them.

When Sylvia was about a year and a half, she started to notice--and be bothered--when I held other babies. Completely normal toddler behavior, albeit something I'd never experienced with Peregrine. But I remember the day it changed. I was waiting outside Peregrine's gym class, and I'd offered to hold the newborn of one of the other waiting moms while she took her toddler to the bathroom. The baby was fussy and unhappy in her carseat, so I picked her up and put her on my shoulder and Sylvia flipped. She panicked and started grabbing at me, trying to push the baby out of the way and reclaim her place on my lap. I could have scolded her for being selfish and moved the baby out of her reach. Or I could have validated her feelings of jealousy and helped her feel like a baby too, giving her extra attention, apologizing non-verbally for letting a baby take her place. But sometimes those aren't the only options. Sometimes, we can just show the world as it is. Sometimes, jealousy isn't needed because a lap isn't the only place you can be loved, and sometimes, mom's heart is plenty big enough for two. So I knelt down, moved into Sylvia's space, put the tiny newborn into the danger zone of her flailing hands, smiled at them both, and said, "Here, let's take care of the baby together. She's sad, let's help her calm down." I bounced the baby, and shushed her, and found her pacifier, and helped Sylvia's tiny hands do the same. All of us had to give something. I had to juggle two babies. Sylvia had to put up with someone smaller taking a space she thinks she owns. Tiny Stranger Baby had to enter a space where she might end up hit and poked, by accident or on purpose (sorry, stranger baby). But it worked. Because we were all giving, we were all cared for. And Sylvia's attitude toward me holding babies made a complete turnaround in that few minutes. She's never expressed jealousy for a baby again. In fact, she will draw my attention to any crying baby in the vicinity, letting me know that baby "needs a little mama time," and trying to get me to hold it and comfort it, and expecting me to allow her to help and share the lap and bounce the baby, too.

Some of that is personality, I'm sure. She's maternal and sensitive by nature. Some of it was simply the stage of development she was in. She probably would have grown out of it. But children are moldable. We don't just manage them, we shape them. Whatever personality or age or quirks our children possess, we still can play some part in who they learn to be, and what realities they learn to embrace. And there is no quicker way to teach them those realities than to model them ourselves. Learning to get along with others begins way before conflict solving skills or how to share or manage your emotions. It starts with learning to recognize others as equals, to learn that their needs and values and desires are just as valid as your own. That doesn't come naturally to children, it has to be taught. And it has to be taught at a deep, organic, fundamental level.

I'll continue posting on this topic as time allows and as thoughts shape themselves. I have a few more practical tips that I think have helped make relationships between children healthy and sustainable and, for the most part, self-motivated and self-led. But this, I think, is where the foundation is, and so this is where I started. I hope it's been helpful. It's been a great source of joy for me in all the little communities I've shepherded, and I hope it can bring greater grace and love to your little communities as well.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Five Years Old

My sweet little boy,

There are not many years left for me to call you that. You've grown up so much, even between last year and this.

I can't believe it's been five years since your whirlwind entrance into the world. Five years since I first held you in my arms. Five years since I knew your name, and your favorite position in my womb, but virtually nothing else about you.

Here at 5, you're a boy now, and really not a baby anymore. You've grown in leaps and bounds this year. You're pretty much out of your toddler funk, and while you still argue my ears off and test all my boundaries, you're so much more mature about things. You listen to reason, most of the time, and you recognize when you're being a punk. You apologize to me and to others without prompting. You want to act grown-up and you want the responsibilities and privileges that come with being a bit more mature.

You thrive on being treated like a big boy, or better yet, like a man. You take the trash out for me whenever it's needed, lugging the huge bag down the stairs and out the garage door and up into the trash can that you can still barely reach. You strut when you do it. You jump at the chance to build things, or use tools, or take some responsibility that marks you as older and capable and trustworthy. You still draw on the walls "by accident" and you still can't remember to flush the toilet and you have a terrible habit of playing with soap in the sink, but give you a big-boy job and you will ace it, every time.

Your questions get bigger and harder every day. You've started talking this year about physical defects and deformities and wondering why God made people with aspects that don't work. You ask about miscarriages and stillbirths and babies who can't survive because of severe birth defects. I didn't think I'd be having these conversations with a preschooler. I don't know what to tell you, sometimes. I thought it would be a long time before you learned I don't have all the answers, before you asked questions that will likely stay with you the rest of your life. Yet, surprisingly, your highly rational mind is okay with the uncertainty. You're okay with hearing that I don't know. You're okay with learning that the limits are tentative and floating, not hard and fast like you need. This boggles me, but I'll take it as the grace of God, and as proof that He is guiding your heart, and is capable of walking you through these difficult places and taking care of your vulnerabilities.

Your faith is so very strong, and so real and alive. You trust in God the way you trust in your dad and me. You don't doubt our love, and you're not very put off by our disapproval. You take forgiveness for granted and weather irritation and anger, secure in the knowledge that we've always loved you and always will. You've never doubted God's personal love for you, and with that, you can accept that sometimes he says no, and sometimes he's unhappy with your choices. You've never seen contradiction there. You listen to passages in the Bible you don't understand, and you laugh, or scowl, and say, "Why did Jesus say that?" And it's never the ones I have an answer for, it's always the ones I was hoping would go over your head. And when I tell you I don't know, you shrug, and write it off as the personal quirks of someone you love and someone who loves you. You don't let it shake your faith. And this floors me. I wish I knew how to trust like that.

You told me recently that God gave you the "special power" of loving everyone you know. Truer words never spoken, P. I've never known anyone whose heart is so open, who is so willing to share and so free of jealousy. You rejoice in others' happiness as if it was your own. You delight in others' birthdays, surprises, and accomplishments. You laugh with glee when I buy a giant bag of Costco string cheese--a bag you'll never touch, but which will make Sylvia so happy. You save the biggest peach for me, always, never mind that you love them almost as much as I do. You do all this without being asked or prompted. You've always been this way, and a part of me has waited for you to grow out of it, to develop the normal territorial tendencies of toddlers, but you never have. The bigger you get, the bigger your heart gets. You have your faults, P, and I'll be the first to admit it, but there's nothing petty or stingy about you at all.

You remain truthful and honest, and with very little shame about being wrong. You still find the need to pick at the fine print of everything I say, all the time. You know all my buttons, and how to wear quietly away at them until I don't know what to do with you anymore. You still need hard and fast limits, and you still disobey for no other reason than to learn where the boundaries are. So much of the parenting advice I see doesn't work for you. It's taken me five years to figure out how different you can be from other children, and I'm sure I'll keep figuring this out for as long as I know you. Sometimes we clash, you and I. My patience irritates you. You don't like second chances, and you don't perceive grace as love. You'd rather be punished and forgiven than to have allowances made for you. You respond better, and are safer and more secure, with your dad's quicker temper and harsher corrections. I don't understand this, and it goes against my nature and against the way most children are. But it's you, P, and it's you I'm raising, not a textbook child. We'll figure this out, and when we don't, we'll love and forgive each other all the same.

You still snuggle up with me every morning, your head on my neck and your legs wrapped around mine. You never were a snuggly baby, and you're never content to sit and snuggle for long--even in your tired morning daze you're wiggling and twisting and kneading me with your giant feet and talking a mile a minute. But I'll take it, P, because it's you. You give your love so generously, even though it comes with dirt and broken things and non-stop conversation. You never hold back. You're so completely okay with allowing others to interrupt your life, and in return, shamelessly interrupt theirs.

You still love strangers as much as you ever have. You'll sit out in our front yard and yell out greetings at mountain bikers. I let you have your space, like I always have, but I'm always listening, and your conversations crack me up. You compare outfits and water bottles and are always a bit confused when the bikers don't stop and talk with you for a long time. You pick up on social cues quickly and you talk to adults in their language. And when they laugh at your tiny little voice saying things like, "You have a great day now!" you're perplexed at why they think it's funny. You make friends easily and will talk to anyone. You have very little tolerance for badly behaved toddlers or kids being mean, but other than that, you'll play with anyone, anywhere, any game. You still adore babies and will put up with anything from them. You're deeply envious of large families and wish you had been born a twin.

You've gotten so much bolder this year. You're still careful and cautious, and you'll only try things you're sure you can do. But your confidence is growing, and you're more ambitious with what you try. You fall more, and let yourself get hurt. You have an element of macho now that you haven't really had before. You don't want to cry when you're hurt, you want to get back up and try it again. You're proud of your scars and bruises and would rather brag about them, and swagger a little, than let yourself be comforted and pitied. This is so new for you, and it makes you seem so much more grown up. Your hands and feet are enormous and you're all sinews and muscles and suntanned skin.

You're starting kindergarten this fall, and you're so very ready. You thrive on the structure and routine of school, and you miss seeing your friends daily. You're already thinking about math on a level way above your years, and you're figuring out reading. You have a hard time producing anything--you won't draw unless it's perfect or unless you have a template. You can trace letters better than any kindergartner I know, but you refuse to write most of them on your own. I can't wait to see you grow this year, to watch your mind expand and to see you burrow into a little social circle of your own. You miss your friends from last year so much. I hope you're able to replace them and more.

I love you so much, my Peregrine. Five years ago, I didn't know what I was in for, or the sheer force of personality about to invade every corner of my life. I can't say I was unprepared to be a parent, or even to be your parent, because I've been parenting, in one way or another, since I was very small. But you've still managed to surprise me. You've taken some confidence, but you've given much more. You're the gift God gave me, five years ago, and I'm so very glad he chose me to have you, and chose you to give to me. I am so very honored to be your mama, and I look forward to growing alongside you, to guiding and training and discovering you, over the next season of our lives together.

Here's to five years down and many, many more to go. Here's to you, my sweet Peregrine, to your loving heart, your sharp mind, your crazy little body, and your pilgriming soul. I've always loved you, and I always will.

Friday, February 5, 2016

My Children: On Shots

My kids are pretty different when it comes to pain tolerance. P hates pain and goes to great lengths to avoid it. But, when he's actually experiencing it, he's pretty stoic. He responds incredibly well to placebos and actually believes me when I tell him that panicking and screaming is probably making it worse. If P ever does something that results in pain, he connects the dots instantly, and never does it again. Sylvia, on the other hand, has really high pain tolerance and frequently doesn't notice when she gets hurt. She often doesn't make the connection between the things she does and the pain that results. If she thinks she's been insulted, however, she wails and wails and won't calm down. If there are several adults in the room when the floor hits her or a wall jumps out and smacks her in the head, she will often go from one to the other, just to wallow in her misery with everyone who might have a sympathetic ear. But it's not actually the pain she minds, it's the audacity of the object, animate or otherwise, that dared to assault her.

This makes getting shots a radically different experience for each child.

18 month shots, Peregrine: I laid my fully trusting, very verbal toddler down on a table and held his hands. A nurse proceeded to insert 3 or 4 needles into his legs. It was a terrible shock, he cried and cried, and experienced little PTSD flashbacks every single time I laid him down to change his diaper for at least the next week. We talked about it, a lot, and explained what shots were and why we need them and how he wouldn't be getting any for a long time. Every time we had to go to the doctor, I always had to tell him we weren't there for a shot. Thankfully, his beloved pediatrician wasn't giving the shots, so no PTSD there.

18 month shots, Sylvia: I laid my wiggling toddler down on a table and held her hands. She instantly resented me for holding her hands and pinning her down. A nurse stuck three or four needles into her legs. She screamed for a few seconds and glared daggers at the nurse. I let her up. She was mad at me for pinning her, but as soon as she was released, life looked a lot better.

2 year shots, Peregrine: For several weeks, we went over the fact that a shot was coming. We talked about immunity and antibodies, and how he only needed one, and how shots actually hurt less as you get older. Peregrine believed me, and let his worry about the shot be drowned by his intense love of his pediatrician. I put P's pacifier in my purse and told him he could have it after the shot. They let me hold him on my lap and he chatted the nurse's ear off as she got everything ready. He watched the needle going in with scientific interest. Then his big blue eyes filled with tears, and his lip started quivering, and he looked at the nurse and said politely but rather brokenheartedly, "You're hurting me!" Fortunately, she was wicked fast and already had the bandaid on. Peregrine lost a bit of trust in nurses, though several months of mom-therapy later, seemed to accept that they had their jobs to do. He got his dee, and was very glad we had brought it.

2 year shots, Sylvia: Sylvia had no idea what a shot was. So I didn't tell her. She felt privileged to be going to see Dr. Elahi, whom she loves solely because Peregrine loves him. As we walked in, I thought she might need some preparation. So I told her she'd get a bandaid because shots make a little owie, and after that, she'd get a sticker. I laid her down on the table and the nurse stuck a needle in her. She was fairly sure that insult was involved there, somewhere, so she started to glare, but then I said, "All done!" She wavered a bit, feeling like she hadn't given the insult the notice it deserved. But if she was all done, she knew what that meant, and so she started in like a broken record while I talked to the nurse: "I get my sticker now? I have my sticker now? I have a sticker? My sticker? Sticker? Sticker?" Then she got a sticker. She still doesn't know what a shot is.

2 year shots, aftermath: Peregrine talks about shots a lot. What they are, why we need them, with science. He's dreaded his kindergarten shots for literally 2 years. He was horrified when he learned they're giving them at the 4 year appointment instead of the 5. He thinks about shots a lot and is already dreading his next ones, which are at least 5 years out.

2 year shots, aftermath: Sylvia asks daily, "When I getting my shot? I still need my shot."