The Nutcracker: music for the imagination

Ah, December, the month when the days are getting shorter and shortest as we try to pack in shopping, parties, preparations for hospitality or travel, and tranquil spiritual contemplation along with all our usual activities!  It makes a kid who persistently wants attention all the more annoying.

The December my son Nicholas turned two, I found a great way to get him to use his imagination, work out some of his physical energy, and leave me alone just enough that I could wash the dishes!  It also boosts my holiday spirit and gives me a nice feeling of being a classy, educational sort of mom.

Most of us are familiar with The Nutcracker as a ballet, a theatrical event that we might attend annually or only when somebody we know is in it.  But it’s also a musical composition by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky that is beautiful and tells a story even when you have only the music.

We happen to live just blocks away from the incomparable Jerry’s Records, so I picked up The Nutcracker as a two-record set for $4.
Nutcracker album cover
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Simple Tip to Ease Confusion with a Ring Sling

I love carrying my baby in a ring sling. (Mine is a Maya Wrap.) It is very comfortable, balances baby’s weight well, and can be adjusted very precisely to fit anything from a tiny baby to a big toddler, awake or asleep, in several positions.

One problem, though, is that it can be difficult to recognize which edge of the sling fabric is which. It’s important to put the correct edge underneath the baby so that the fabric is not twisted behind your back–that’s uncomfortable and can injure you if you keep carrying the baby that way. When you reach for the fabric below the rings to adjust the sling, sometimes it’s hard to find any edge, let alone the one you’re looking for, because the fabric is layered in a way that may not be immediately obvious, especially to a busy parent trying to make a quick adjustment while walking.

Luckily, in just a few minutes you can mark the edges of your sling in a permanent way that is easy to understand!

Read more…

My kid doesn’t have to wear a coat.

I’m an easily chilled sort of person. I like to feel warm and cozy, and being cold upsets me. In any given weather conditions, I’m usually wearing at least as many garments as the average person, often more.

My son Nicholas seems to feel warm most of the time. He’s often quite calm and comfortable in very cold temperatures. He has a decent sense of modesty and won’t run around undressed in public–he doesn’t even like to go shirtless–but he’ll happily wear a light jacket or no jacket, bare feet or flip-flops, one layer of short-sleeved shirt, in conditions where I think that isn’t nearly enough.

I decided a long time ago not to fight about this. I do advise him when the weather has gotten colder since the last time he was outside, or when the forecast calls for a 20-degree drop during the day. I occasionally insist that he bring along appropriate garments in case he wants them later. But I don’t force him to wear a coat, or zip it up, or keep the hood on.

Nicholas started teaching me about this a few days after he was born. Everything I had read about baby care said that your baby should wear as many layers as you are wearing yourself, plus a hat. He was born in December, so on our first day home from the hospital, I was wearing a flannel shirt over a long-sleeved thermal top over a nursing bra, jeans over cotton leggings, and three pairs of socks. It was a bit confusing to extrapolate the equivalent from his wardrobe, but I swaddled him in a flannel blanket over a long-sleeved knit jumpsuit over a T-shirt and diaper, knitted booties over socks, plus a knitted hat.

His face seemed very pink. He was grouchy.

“I think he’s hot,” said his grandmother.

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Why my kid never believed in Santa Claus

He never believed in the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, either.  There are three important reasons why Daniel and I decided, before Nicholas was born, that we were not going to pretend that any of these characters were real.

The first is that we didn’t like the idea of lying to our child.  We felt that claiming these characters were real, when we know they aren’t, would kind of make us feel bad.  Our child should be able to trust us.  Now that we’ve met the individual child we got, we know he’s a very analytical type who easily figures out what’s going on and demands full explanations of processes.  He was hard to confuse with things like Piaget’s famous conservation experiments even when he was a toddler.  The first time he ever saw a stage magician, he immediately started trying to figure out how to do those tricks.  If we’d presented the fables as truth, we’d have been interrogated with years of questions about exactly how those reindeer fly to every house in one night, where the bunny gets the eggs, etc., etc.

The second reason is that we wanted him to appreciate, from the very beginning, that holiday magic is something we all make for one another.  Christmas gifts aren’t brought by a guy in a sleigh to whom money is no object; we spend hours choosing or making gifts for our loved ones, thinking about what each person would like, as a way of expressing our love and respect for each other.  Easter isn’t about a magic bunny who brings us candy for no apparent reason; Easter is about Jesus and the springtime renewal of the world, and Grandma likes to send us some candy.  Losing a tooth is an exciting step toward maturity that is honored with a little treat, and there is a traditional routine for collecting this treat from your parents overnight using a special marsupial (Tooth Beary) crocheted by Grandma.

The third reason is that I wanted to teach my child my religion.  (Daniel does not belong to an organized religion, so the deal was that I could take Nicholas to church and teach him my faith until such time as he might tell me he didn’t believe it and didn’t want to go.  By age 3 he had decided he definitely wanted to be an Episcopalian, and he was baptized.)  If I told him Santa Claus was real, and he then found out otherwise, he would then logically doubt what I’d been telling him about God being real.  After all, the invisibility and super-powers of God are not all that different from what people attribute to Santa.  As I mentioned last week, Nicholas has shown no signs of doubting the existence of God but has remarked on the oddity of people believing in these other entities while not believing in God.

So, without Santa or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, poor Nicholas has had a really dreary, cynical childhood, huh?  Read more…

Should Your Family Be Child-centered?

This is a controversial and confusing question.  Some people go on and on about how parenthood melted their selfish hearts and made them realize the importance of devoting themselves fully to making their children’s lives perfectly wonderful and completely safe.  Other people go on and on about how children are hedonistic little leeches whose spirits must be broken to show them who’s boss, and responsible parents must schedule their babies’ lives in 15-minute increments.  Then there are a lot of points of view in between.  It’s very easy, as a parent in this fast-paced society, to put a lot of energy into getting everything together for your kid and suddenly realize you’ve been neglecting yourself–or to rush around Getting Things Done and suddenly realize that you’ve been treating your child like a task on a checklist and haven’t focused on his sweet little face for days.  Where’s the balance?

Well, I can’t claim that Daniel and I have it all perfectly worked out, but in our 8 years 8 months as parents of Nicholas, we’ve done pretty well with this basic attitude: “We are all people together.  We are the same in some ways and different in other ways.  Experienced people help newer people learn how to do things.”  Nobody is the center.  This is the approach my parents seemed to be using when I was a child (I don’t know if they’d explain it in the same words) and I noticed from an early age that some other families had a different attitude.  Of course, every family is different, but I think all families could work from the basic principle that we’re all in this together and no one person is the most important.  It seems to me that whenever I wander away from this idea–either by getting dramatically self-sacrificing or by demanding that everybody take care of me–it works out badly.
Here are some of the issues parents often struggle with, and the ways they’ve worked out for our family.

Is it child-centered to allow your child to eat when hungry and sleep when sleepy?  Is it better to have a strict schedule?

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Saying “No!” to Toddlers

Today I received email responding to my recent article on child discipline and asking me to take a look at this article: 10 Alternatives to Saying No to Your Child.  That’s some good advice!  I’m glad to see it on a site that helps people find jobs as au pairs (childcare providers who live with the family, usually in another country) because I know that many people in that line of work have limited experience working with young children, so they need good, detailed strategies.  I agree with all the basic ideas in the article, but I also have a few tips on the subject to share.

The idea of “alternatives to saying No” is not that it’s bad to tell a child what she shouldn’t do.  There are many times when it’s necessary to stop a certain behavior.  The idea is to do it in a positive way when you can, instead of just hollering, “No!!” all the time.

Imagine living in a place where you don’t know the language or customs.  Dozens of times a day, people say a certain short word to you.  You hear this word in lots of different situations.  How long would it take you to understand what the word means?

That’s how it is for babies and toddlers.  It takes them a long time to understand that “No” sometimes means, “Stop pulling my hair!” and sometimes means, “Stay out of the kitchen!” and sometimes means, “Don’t sit on the cat!” and so on and so forth.  Using more specific words helps them to understand which word means what.  You can see this in a toddler’s response to a negative command that uses words he recognizes: You say, “No, you can’t have a cookie,” and he grabs a cookie–not because he is willfully defiant but because “cookie” is the only word in that sentence that has a clear meaning to him, so he’s thinking you just acknowledged his desire for a cookie.  Tell the kid what you want, not what you don’t want. Read more…

Things Not To Do: Toddler Toothbrushing Edition

Our son Nicholas is seven years old now and sometimes puts up a fuss about brushing his teeth, but he’s nowhere near as resistant as he was when he was a toddler, and the lesson I learned then still seems to apply.

Soon after his teeth emerged and we started brushing them, the novelty wore off and he began to resist this drippy, tickling intrusion into his mouth.  I understand the objection, but I was determined both to take good care of his new little teeth and to teach him that toothbrushing is part of the daily routine.  He’d turn his head away, refuse to open his mouth, run away, and sometimes cry.  Some nights we’d let it slide, but one day when he was 22 months old he had sardines for lunch and garlic for dinner and horrible-smelling breath, so I was determined to brush his teeth…and it took forty-five minutes to get it done!  I wrote this account of the ordeal: Read more…

Babies and Television

Children younger than 2 years old should not watch any television at all.  The experts have been saying this for more than a decade, yet a lot of the parents I know think this is such an absurd idea that nobody could possibly comply with it.

We did.  Almost.  We occasionally took Nicholas to restaurants where a television was playing in the background.  We occasionally turned on the Weather Channel long enough to see the forecast.  When he was 13 months old and the Steelers were in the Super Bowl, Daniel and I watched about 15 minutes of the game even though Nicholas was in the room.

But we never, ever turned on television for him to watch before he turned 2.  When we were at someone else’s house and they had the TV on, we took Nicholas out of that room if at all possible.  I estimate that in his first 2 years, he spent a grand total of about 10 hours in the presence of a turned-on television.  We have limited his screen time since then (he’s 7 now) so that he averages less than 2 hours per day of TV and computer put together.

Why?  Because I’m a developmental psychologist, and I think those experts are on to something.  Early television viewing increases obesity and decreases school engagement. Early television viewing changes the arteries in the eyes, increasing the risk of high blood pressure.  Early television viewing swamps babies with stimuli they don’t understand yet find so visually compelling that it’s hard for them to look away.  The earlier television viewing becomes part of a person’s routine, the harder it will be for them to live without it–and watching television, though it can be fun, is in most ways a waste of time.  Even educational TV programs don’t teach very young children anything.  Before becoming a mother, I read The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn (see my review here) and was determined to protect my child from television.  Daniel agreed with me.

But then, when I was 7 months pregnant, an odd sound made by the elevator at work reminded me of the “Rubber Ducky” song from “Sesame Street”, and I suddenly felt devastated–how could I deprive my child of the joy of knowing Ernie and Big Bird and…and LOVABLE FURRY GROVER?!  Read more…

Change diapers in bathrooms.

When our child was wearing diapers, Daniel and I found it very easy to stick to this simple rule that teaches the child good habits for the future, simplifies clean-up of your hands and anything else that’s soiled, is more courteous to the people around you, minimizes the spread of germs, and is respectful of your child’s privacy: When you are in a place without a designated diaper-changing area, change diapers in the bathroom. 

Of course, there are some public places where the bathrooms have no changing tables and the floor is far too disgusting to kneel on.  Many parks, for example, have restrooms that are damp, dark, and dirty.  Others have portable toilets, where there simply isn’t space to change a baby.  In places where the bathroom is unusable, change diapers in a private location, on grass or an easily-cleaned surface.  The only situation I can think of where it is truly necessary to change a baby right where you are is on an airplane or long-distance bus, because the bathrooms there are so tiny and there’s really no other space available–you’d have to use your lap or the floor in front of your seat.  Read more…

Don’t Save Room for Dessert!

One habit I am very grateful my parents taught me is this: When you finish your dinner, stop eating.  If you get hungry again before bedtime, you may have dessert.  In my childhood home, “dessert” was often canned fruit in syrup, homemade yogurt with jam, tapioca pudding, fruit crisp, a bagel, or something else that tasted sweet but also had some nutrients.  I have continued this habit into my adult life and taught it to my son Nicholas, who’s now seven years old.  Most of the time we don’t plan for “dessert” specifically but eat what we feel like eating for an evening snack–chips and salsa, a bowl of cereal, Raisin Bran Bread, or leftovers from a different night’s dinner are as likely to be “dessert” as are sweets.  At times we don’t have any real sweets (like candy) in the house at all, and when we do all three of us may forget to eat them for days at a stretch because we just don’t have a niche for super-sweet foods in our daily lives.

I cannot advise anyone on how to adopt this habit midway through life, since I’ve always had it.  My point is that this is a great habit to get into as a very young child, so if you are raising a very young child or planning to do so, try to establish this habit for your child.  Just by setting an example while your child is awake (planning to break out the sweets after his bedtime!) you might be able to wean yourself from dessert, too!

There are three main reasons delaying dessert is a good habit: Read more…

3 Good Children’s Books

Today’s 3 Books on Thursday theme is children’s books, and I am going to limit this list to just 3! Of course, there are many other picture books Nicholas and I enjoyed together when he was 18 months-5 years old, before he started insisting on chapter books for bedtime stories as well as on-the-bus entertainment, but these are 3 that have a special place in my heart because they continued to entertain me even when I was reading them to him 42 nights in a row!

Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber is the story of Ira’s first night away from home, at his friend Reggie’s house next door. Ira is really looking forward to it until his big sister asks if he is going to take his teddy bear. This throws Ira into a dilemma: Will he be able to sleep without his beloved Tah Tah? But what if Reggie laughs at him for still sleeping with a teddy bear? Oh, the agony! I love the dialogue, the dignified way in which Ira finally solves his problem, and the blotchy yet evocative bright-colored illustrations.

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew is one of the lesser-known books of Dr. Seuss, but it is my favorite! The protagonist has led a carefree life until one day he stubs his toe, and then he begins to have other minor troubles, and a passerby (traveling in a one-wheeler wubble pulled by a camel) offers to take him to “the wonderful city of Solla Sollew . . . where they never have troubles, at least very few.” The journey, however, is fraught with troubles, beginning when the camel gets sick and starts to bubble so our hero has to pull the wubble. Eventually he is “crashing downhill in a flubbulous flood, with suds in my eyes and my mouth full of mud,” and it actually gets worse from there! It never fails to cheer me up by reminding me that my own troubles, whatever they may be at the moment, are not that bad.

A Picture for Harold’s Room by Crockett Johnson is my favorite of the several books about Harold (who appears to be a baby but acts at least six years old) and the big purple crayon with which he draws scenes and walks into them, creating his own reality. My favorite part of this one is when Harold’s use of perspective leads to his horrified realization that he is now only half the size of a daisy. How will he get back to his usual size?! It’s a great story about both the power of imagination and our power over it.

Check out 3 Books on Thursday and Book Sharing Monday for more writers’ favorite children’s books! See my recently expanded article Books That Blew My Mind for 29 of my overall favorite books!

Traffic Safety for Little Kids

We live on a quiet street, but just around the block is the main street of our neighborhood, which has lots of traffic, parallel parking along both sides, and lots of intersections where right turns on red are allowed.  Only some of the intersections have traffic lights and walk signals.  There are lots of useful places within walking distance, and the sidewalks are wide, but crossing the street can be risky.  A lot of drivers seem to think the traffic laws don’t apply to them!

When Nicholas began walking, I saw that he already knew (from being carried by a walking parent) to pause on the curb and look around before stepping into the street.  That was very helpful, but it didn’t mean he actually knew how to cross the street safely alone.  By thinking out loud, I taught him what we look for when we pause on the curb and how we decide when it’s safe to walk.  But informed decision-making ability isn’t the only thing you need to be safe. Read more…

Sleep Strategies for Babies, Children, and Parents

Our son is six-and-a-half years old now, and while we’ve sometimes had trouble with his sleeping habits, in general we feel that the plans we made before he was born, influenced in part by the amazing books The Continuum Concept and The Family Bed, have worked out pretty well.

Disclaimer: We have only one child.  These are strategies that have worked for us.  They may work differently with different children or different parents.  If your goals are different from those described in the next paragraph, these strategies may not be useful to you.

The first step is to figure out the most important goals, and the most important things you want to avoid, regarding your child’s sleeping habits.  Read more…

Why my child is not allowed to watch Teletubbies

Attention, readers: The tone of this article is exaggerated for humor value.  Although it does describe a potentially serious side-effect of watching a program that I personally find unbearably irritating, not every detail is intended literally.  If you feel angry after reading it, please take a deep breath and step away from the screen. Comments are closed now that I have given the Teletubbies fans a more than fair chance to demonstrate their social skills and intelligence.

Nicholas is six-and-a-half now, far older than the target audience for Teletubbies, but this morning he was teasing me again about this rule, and I realized that the story behind it should be explained on the Internet so that other parents can benefit from my traumatic experience instead of experiencing it themselves.

The Teletubbies are an evil force that corrupts children!!!  No, this is not about Tinky-Winky being gay.  It’s about the unique mind-altering, discipline-perverting, common-sense-shattering power of those plastic-faced demons. Read more…

Important Word to Teach a Toddler

When our son Nicholas was just beginning to talk and simultaneously expanding his interests in climbing on things and stacking things in tall piles, his father Daniel taught him an important word.  This word summed up a major reason to be cautious about climbing that thing or stacking that way, in one word instead of a whole sentence, so it was very useful when we needed to tell Nicholas to stop and rethink what he was doing before he got hurt or broke something.  Nicholas soon learned to say this word himself, so he could cry for help with his adventures and we’d quickly understand what was going wrong, and also he could warn us if something we were doing was hazardous in this way.

The word is Read more…

7 Continuum Concept Experiences

For years now, I’ve been meaning to write something about how The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff relates to our parenting style and a lot of my life experiences.  It’s a big idea, and I have a lot of scattered notes stashed in a draft post, but so far I haven’t even gotten around to adding this book to my list of Books That Blew My Mind.  This is what 7 Quick Takes Friday is good for!  After giving a brief summary of this concept I’m talking about, I’ll tell you just 7 specific experiences we’ve had with applying it to our urban, non-tribal, high-tech lives. Read more…

Mama, you happy?

One reason I’m glad I did so much writing about my early motherhood experiences is that, just a few years later, I’ve forgotten some of the stages my child passed through, the stages that seemed to be lasting forever yet vanished very quickly. Here’s something I posted on a discussion board when he had just turned two years old, and until I read this again I’d forgotten all about it!

“Mama, you happy?” Nicholas asks this question about a million times a day. Sometimes he asks Daddy instead. It’s kind of bugging us! Read more…

How to Make Christmas Morning Last Longer

My family has a tradition for opening our Christmas gifts that makes the fun last longer, reduces chaos, increases our appreciation of each gift, helps us remember to thank gift-givers who are present, improves our ability to make an accurate list of who got what from whom (as a reference for thanking givers who aren’t present), calms down that “Gimme gimme! What’s next?” feeling, and helps us share each other’s joy. It works wonders, and it’s really simple! Read more…

How to Do Everything!

This article is linked to the greatest tips edition of Works-for-Me Wednesday, where the hostess explains how to get a human on the phone when you call customer service, and more than 178 people have linked to their own helpful tips on how to do all sorts of things.  Here are my own greatest tips:

7 ways to eat less meat.

40 ways kids can help around the house.

13 ways to use less electricity for your lighting.

Toddler discipline in 3 easy steps!

7 product recommendations (NOT paid endorsements!). Read more…

Thinking Out Loud

I talk to my kid a lot.  He’s five-and-a-half years old now and has some interesting things to say, but long before he was capable of conversation I talked to him quite a bit.  It wasn’t really a conscious strategy, just that I like having a companion sharing my experiences.  In my own childhood, I was treated as a valued companion by my parents and other relatives, who talked to me as if I were an intelligent person–not an itsy bitsy wuggums who needs baby talk and must be sheltered from reality, not a burden who should be seen and not heard–so it comes naturally to me to talk to kids in a normal way about real things. Read more…