Bedtime List: How to organize a child’s routine

Our two-year-old Lydia has always been the type who takes a while to wind down, but in the late spring after she stopped nursing, she went pretty easily into a relatively smooth routine of listening to several stories and then saying good night and lying alone in her bed in the dark listening to a story CD as she fell asleep.  She was napping inconsistently, but at least we could get her to bed for the night in a predictable way.

Then, at the end of June, I finished my job and the next day we traveled to visit my parents in another time zone for a week, and then when we got back our daytime routine relaxed because I didn’t have to get to work and get Lydia to childcare–and her happy routine disappeared.  She started freaking out when we turned out the light, screaming and crying and refusing to stay in bed.  Some nights she’d lie quietly if a parent stayed with her, but other nights she’d flip around, literally trying to climb the wall next to the bed and falling on the parent–ow!!–and if we didn’t stay, she was almost certain to get up and come looking for us.

Also, Daniel and I were sometimes forgetting one or another of the steps of getting her ready for bed, because we weren’t doing them in a consistent order and it’s easy to get distracted when anything unexpected happens–which is basically every evening in a household with not only a two-year-old but also an eleven-year-old sort of nutty inventor person….

snack; toilet; pajamas; brush teeth; brush hair; stories; tuck in; sleepI decided it was time for a Bedtime List. This is an idea I didn’t try on Nicholas until he was five, the age when I remember having my first Lists.  My dad made me a Morning List and an Evening List showing what to do before kindergarten and after.  I loved following my Lists!

Nicholas has never been so keen on the Lists; he likes deciding what color each item should be and how it should be illustrated, but then he doesn’t want to look at the list and tends to argue about what should happen when.  Probably this is mostly about his personality compared to mine, but what if it would have worked if I’d started earlier?

Lydia is too young to be involved in making the List.  Her father Daniel and I went over what needs to happen in what order to make sure we agreed, and then I made this List using drawings that I thought she would recognize.

It’s working very well!  Lydia likes looking at her List, pointing out the steps and talking about them.  She’s more cooperative with the routine than she was before, especially if we get back on track after a distraction by saying, “Okay, what have we done on the List?”

A fringe benefit is that Lydia is practicing her pre-reading skills: “This red sign says eat snack!  This other red sign says brush teeth!”  Understanding that written words convey meaning is a very important step toward recognizing those words when you see them without pictures.

We’re still working on getting her to stay in bed by herself.  But at least she’s understanding more clearly that certain things are going to happen every night and that the sequence is supposed to end with sleeping.

Organizing a child’s routine with a list works for me, at least sometimes!

The Evolution of Happy

Last October, my daughter Lydia was 17 months old and learning new words rapidly.  One day, we were out for a stroll and saw a large, inflatable Halloween decoration in the form of several grinning jack-o’-lanterns stacked up like a totem pole.  Lydia was very excited and shouted, “Balls!”  I said, “They are pumpkins.  Happy pumpkins.”  She said, “Happy!” for the first time.

As the season progressed, Lydia remained excited about jack-o’-lanterns and shouted, “Happy!” whenever she saw one.  We had to acknowledge that we also saw the Happy–using that word–before she would stop yelling about that one and look around for more.  She stubbornly resisted learning “pumpkin” or any other word; to her, they were Happies.  Even pumpkins without faces were Happies.

Jericho illustration by Brenda SextonIn early November, Lydia rediscovered The Little Golden Bible Storybook, illustrated by Brenda Sexton, and when we reached the story of Jericho, she began shouting, “Happy!!!” and pointing at the illustration.  Do you see why?

I didn’t get it at first.  I thought she was recognizing that Joshua and his tribe were happy when the walls came tumbling down.  That person in red does have arms raised in the gesture Lydia had learned (from Dr. Seuss’s ABC) is called, “Hooray!”  But when I said, “Yes, they were happy!  Hooray!” that was not what she was looking for; “Happy!” she insisted, jabbing her finger frantically at the page.

Eventually her dad realized that what Lydia was pointing out was the building.  See how it has a face like a jack-o’-lantern?  That face doesn’t look happy at all–it looks appalled, as well a building might be when its protective city wall has been abruptly destroyed–but the dark eye and mouth openings must have reminded Lydia of a jack-o’-lantern, and jack-o’-lanterns are Happy.

By the new year, Lydia adjusted her definition of Happy to apply to what most of us would call “a happy face,” and she began pointing out happy faces in various picture books, on shopping bags, on toys, on the Eat’n Park sign, etc.  She also discovered that most people can draw a happy face quite easily, so she went around demanding that people “Draw Happies!”–by the end of one church service, at least five different people had drawn Happies for Lydia on their service leaflets!

P1030279She’s two years old now and has started saying “happy face” or “smiley face”, but she still asks us to draw them frequently.  Our home is littered with sheets of scrap paper that look like this.  Sometimes we put some variety into the faces just for our own entertainment; sometimes she requests “different noses” or something like that.

Meanwhile, she’s also shown that she now understands “happy” as the word for a feeling, not just a facial expression. Sometimes after she’s vented some hurt or frustrated feelings, she’ll wail, “I need to be happy!!” and then calm down. Sometimes when someone else is upset, she’ll plead, “Be happy!” She isn’t quite doing the “Mama, you happy?” thing her older brother used to do, but almost.

A few weeks ago, I had a bad migraine on a day when I had to be home alone with Lydia for a couple of hours.  After I had drawn some happy faces for her, she started drawing on that paper and another sheet, so I was able to lie down on the bed in the same room.

P1030280Some time went by.  I may have passed out or slept or something.  I got up after Lydia climbed up on the bed and started pulling on me.  Later, I was cleaning up the room and got a closer look at her drawing papers.

That blue scribbling at the bottom of the page at right doesn’t look like just an aimless scribble.  Might there be some eyes on a face there?  Is it just my imagination that makes that look sort of like some sort of elephant (with one sock foot)?

P1030281Even more intriguing is the page where Lydia drew after getting hold of a pen.  I really think I see a happy face there!  By this Halloween, she may be drawing her own jack-o’-lanterns.

Watching the fascinating processes of my child’s learning the different things a word can mean and learning to draw works for me!

4 Great Poetry Books for Young Children

Our two-year-old Lydia loves poetry!  Most young children enjoy hearing rhyming, rhythmic words, but Lydia is particularly fascinated.  We have many picture books with rhyming text–like the wonderful works of Dr. Seuss–but we’ve also found several longer poetry books that she enjoys and so do we.

Poetry is very helpful in getting children interested in books and understanding how language works.  Our first child, Nicholas, went through a long phase of pointing out “matching” words on the page–words like rough and tough that look the same except for the first letter–and he was intrigued to learn that such words usually rhyme but sometimes don’t, and that words that rhyme sometimes don’t match visually.  Poems that don’t rhyme are educational in a different way, demonstrating the power of language to express feelings and perceptions.  Both rhyming and non-rhyming poems are more memorable than prose, enabling children to quote favorite portions and to “read” their books to themselves as the pictures cue them to recall the words. Read more of this post

Secrets to a Happy Road Trip with a Two-year-old

When our son Nicholas was 2 years old, we drove from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma, stayed a while, and drove back.  In each direction, we spent 3 days in a row on the road for about 8 hours a day of actual driving time, plus rest stops.  My cousin who has older children gave me two very helpful tips, and I thought of another idea that proved even more useful than those!

Tip #1: Bring a Magna-Doodle or similar self-contained drawing toy, instead of crayons/markers and paper. It’s much less messy!

Tip #2: Plan for an extended rest stop every 100 miles.  Look at the map for a park, museum, or other pleasant spot.  You will not stop at all of these places.  Just have a list handy in your travel folder (or wherever you organize the information like directions and coupons).  When your child becomes restless, then you can say something like, “Just hang in there for another 20 miles, and we can hike in Englewood MetroPark!”  (That’s one of the stops we made, a very nice park off I-70 near Dayton, Ohio.) Read more of this post

Cooperation, Communication, and Consequences

One of the hardest, most humbling things about being a parent is those moments when your child communicates with you using strategies that you’ve used with him or that he’s seen you use with someone else–and you shouldn’t have.  We all have times when we do something to try to get another person to do what we want her to do, without giving enough thought to whether or not it’s a healthy strategy that we’d like our children to learn or that we’d like anybody to use on us.  My first child (now eleven years old) is an especially egalitarian-minded type: He doesn’t accept that adults have a natural authority over him by being adults, so he assumes that anything we can do to him is something he can do to us.  You can see this, rather humorously, in my story of why Counting to Three stopped working.  Since then, we’ve had many interactions in which Nick’s attempts to treat us the way he perceives us as treating him have been painfully enlightening!

Although these issues have been magnified by parenting, the same problems can come up between adults, especially adults who live together and/or have known each other for a long time.

What communication strategies am I talking about?  Here are some examples:

  • I want you to do something right now, so I just keep ordering you to do it in an increasingly angry voice.  No matter what you say about why you can’t do it this minute or why it might not be the right thing to do, I won’t listen or acknowledge hearing you.
  • You ask me for something, and I attack your desire to have the thing, bringing up a bunch of barely-related things that you asked for when you should’ve known better or that I gave you but you didn’t appreciate enough.
  • I want you to do something, and when you resist, I start complaining about all the other things I wish you would do that you haven’t done.
  • You ask me for something, and I list a lot of other things that I have done for you, making it sound like you ask too much of me.
  • Instead of asking for what I need, I work myself to exhaustion doing things that benefit both of us or just you.  When you don’t seem to notice, I feel resentful.  I keep working, refusing to pause to take care of myself, until I suddenly blow up at you and act like you are stupid for not knowing what’s wrong.
  • I complain about how I’m tired and having a bad day and overwhelmed by the things I need to do.  Then, without asking about how you’re doing, I tell you that you have to do something nice for me.

We saw a counselor a couple years ago who didn’t work out so well overall but had one really good point that has stuck with me: “The key to family harmony is emotional self-regulation.”  It is easy to say to yourself, “His nasty behavior put me in a bad mood!  I shouldn’t have to be nice when everyone’s being so awful to me!” but then you are putting other people in charge of your feelings and actions.  This is particularly problematic when the other people are children and you’re supposed to be their role model.  You have to snap out of the “person who has been treated badly gets to treat others badly” cycle and set a more positive tone.  It is hard, but in my experience it pays off.  Feeling like my family members are constantly ruining my day and I’m powerless to stop them is hard, too, and really wears me down in the long run. Read more of this post

Some Plants Are For Eating

Happy Earth Day!  Before I get to my main topic, I’ve got some special offers to tell you about…

  • First, instead of buying anything, check out the beautiful photographs in the Capture Conservation photo contest sponsored by the Student Conservation Association!
  • UPDATE: The sale on PlanetBox stainless steel lunchboxes has ended, but check out our review of PlanetBox–Nicholas is now finishing fifth grade and still using the same PlanetBox he got at the beginning of kindergarten!
  • Grove Collaborative is having a one-day sale on 42 different Earth-friendly cleaning and hygiene products.  UPDATE: The sale is over, but if you’re new to Grove (formerly ePantry), you still can start your order here to get an additional $10 discount, and I’ll also get a bonus!  Here’s my article explaining what Grove Collaborative is all about, with reviews of many of the fine products they carry.
  • GreenLine Paper Company will donate ALL profits from today’s orders for paper products toward the planting of trees.  UPDATE: That special is over, but still, check out their wide selection of office paper, household paper products, and janitorial paper products.  Buy by the case and save!  (If you live in Pennsylvania, like I do, or nearby, note that GreenLine is in York, PA, so the shipping distance is short–better for the environment than shipping a long distance.)

As spring settles in and you begin to spend more time outdoors, you may have access to some edible plants.  It’s fun to graze on fresh food that happens to be growing right there in your yard!  But if there’s a young child with you, doesn’t that set a bad example?  You don’t want the kid to think that we can just grab parts off of random plants and eat them–he might eat some nightshade berries or poison ivy and get sick or poisoned or itchy!

P1020014Here’s my daughter Lydia on her first birthday, last spring.  Our yard was at just about the stage it is now, with spearmint poking up through the mulch of autumn leaves as the tulips, lilacs, and dandelions are blooming.  Lydia was very interested in all the new, colorful things, and once she had seen me break off some mint leaves and eat them, she wanted to do that, too!

I was surprised how easy it was to teach her that some plants are For Eating while other plants are Not For Eating.  In our yard, spearmint, chives, sourgrass (yellow oxalis/wood sorrel), dill, and purslane come up every year.  Lydia was very pleased with the mint and chives, which are abundant, and within a month was showing us that she recognized “mihtt” and “hifes” as she named them while picking them.  She was rarely incorrect in her identifications, even at first.  Apparently recognizing a particular leaf shape is not so difficult a skill as we might think.

Being able to recognize some plants that are For Eating didn’t stop her from wanting to experiment with others, though!  We did have to watch her carefully and redirect her many times.  It’s a lot like learning to stay out of the street–which has required surprisingly fewer reminders than I expected, actually.
Read more of this post

Diaper Changing Duties: What’s Fair?

Our daughter Lydia is 21 months old.  Since she was born, almost all of her diaper changes at home (rather than childcare) have been my job.  I also launder the cloth diapers myself.  Unfair, right?  Daniel is just as responsible as I am for the existence of this messy little human, so he should take charge of 50% of her sanitation needs, right?

Well, that’s the way I saw it 11 years ago when our first child was born.  I spelled out to Daniel what sounded like a perfectly reasonable plan: Whenever we were both home, we would split diaper-changing 50/50; when one of us was alone with the baby, of course that parent would change diapers; when we were together in public, Daniel would take him to the men’s room for changes (because a male should use the males’ restroom, when feasible) unless it was a place with a nice changing table in the ladies’ room and no suitable area in the men’s.  Daniel agreed that this was fair.

We had our first shouting argument about diaper changing before Nicholas was a month old, and it was often a touchy topic thereafter.  Why?  Read more of this post

Books for Adults, Preteens, and Toddlers

I’m starting a new “preteen” tag with this post because my son Nicholas, as he approaches his eleventh birthday, has started to ask for “more young-adult-type books” and has been appreciating most of what we’ve been finding for him, including a book I picked up used and read aloud to him without having read it myself–a potentially risky move, but it worked out fine.  (Don’t miss the book reviews Nicholas wrote last month!)  My recent reading includes books I’ve read to myself, a book I read to him before his dad and I switched who’s doing the bedtime reading, and books I’ve been reading over and over again to 19-month-old Lydia.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

This novella, translated from Japanese, is a sweet and perceptive story of two Generation X college students who have more in common than the narrator, Mikage, initially realizes.  She doesn’t understand why Yoichi is being so kind to her after the death of the grandmother who raised her–they are only acquaintances, and he already has a girlfriend–but by giving Yoichi a chance, Mikage finds something she didn’t know she needed and eventually is able to help him in return.  The prose is so vivid and absorbing that I felt like the story was happening right this minute, until Yoichi walked in with a new word processor–the book was published in 1988!  Taking that into consideration makes Mikage’s acceptance of Yoichi’s transgendered mother all the more interesting.  Mikage and Yoichi’s relationship and working-out of their futures, combined with the very Japanese details of their daily lives, made Kitchen just the kind of parallel-world experience I was looking for when I picked up a book from Japan.

The book also includes “Moonlight Shadow”, a short story with some similar themes but a more magical style.  It was a little too heavy on the wistfulness, and some ideas were repeated too many times, but I liked the way it reminded me of Japanese folktales about mysterious young ladies who turn out to be something else in disguise.

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass

Read more of this post

Why My Toddler Doesn’t Watch Sesame Street

I remember, when I was 3 or 4 years old, sitting in front of the television watching the test pattern waiting for my local public television station to begin its broadcast day.  I liked the pretty colored stripes.  Finally they would disappear, the station information would be displayed along with a drawing of a scissor-tailed flycatcher (the state bird), and an authoritative voice would announce, “This is OETA.  Public television for all of Oklahoma.”  Then I would hear that cheerful song about sweeping the clouds away and going where the air is sweet, and for the next hour my television would show me a wonderful world in which fuzzy monsters and real people of all colors live side-by-side in a place where you can find a friend just by stepping out of the house.

My daughter Lydia is 18 months old and has never seen an episode of “Sesame Street”.  Why do I deprive her of this experience I loved so much??  There are two reasons.

One is that children under 2 years old should not watch any television at all.  The American Academy of Pediatrics still says this and has updated its statement to include the use of computers and tablets–no screen-time for toddlers.  I know, a lot of my parenting peers think this is simply impossible.  I agree that it’s impossible to avoid any screen exposure at all, in a world where electronic screens are incorporated into many public places and most adults are constantly poking some kind of PocketFox.  (Just yesterday, I was in a hospital elevator with a wall-mounted screen relentlessly playing hospital publicity videos!)  Still, it’s worth the effort to save our babies’ eyes and hearts and brains by keeping them away from the screens as much as we can and certainly not encouraging them to watch TV.  I’ve explained how we kept our first child off the screens until he was 2 and phased it in carefully after that.

Everybody told me it would be harder with the second child.  Yes, it is, because her big brother loves to play computer games, and our computer is in the living room.  It’s true that Lydia sometimes toddles over to watch what he is doing, so she’s probably had more total screen-time than he had by this age.  But when we rearranged before she was born, we placed our L-shaped computer desk such that the screen is turned 45 degrees toward the wall, instead of facing the center of the room; that makes it less eye-catching.  Our television set faces the couch, but we hardly ever watch it when Lydia’s awake.  Neither parent has a smartphone, so she’s not seeing a screen while we’re holding her.  I try to keep my iPad out of her sight; if she climbs into my lap while I’m using it, I finish up as quickly as I can.  Most importantly, we never turn on a video for her or let her play with the iPad herself.

But “Sesame Street” is so sweet and charming and a rich source of cultural references in our family and the wider society!  As I said in my previous article:

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?!

Well, here’s what we learned when raising Nicholas: Read more of this post

Baby’s First Traffic Safety Lesson

Lydia is eleven months old.  Yesterday, we spent some time enjoying the beautiful spring weather in our small front yard.  Lydia studied the flowers.  She picked up dead leaves (functioning as mulch) and examined their lacy skeletons.  She gleefully wiggled her arms amid the arching green leaves of the daylilies coming up between our sidewalk and the neighbors’, and she pulled on some leaves to assess their strength and find the tearing point.

She also spent lots of time sitting or crawling on the sidewalk in front of our yard, soaking up sunshine, saying, “Hi!” to all passersby.  She toddled along next to our neighbors’ retaining wall, which is just the right height to lean her hands on.  Then she ventured across the sidewalk, looked over the curb, and began to reach for an interesting pebble in the gutter.

I said, “No!” and pulled her back.  She looked surprised.  But just then–perfect timing!–a car came rumbling along our brick-paved street.  “Stay out of the street.  The street is for cars,” I told her.  I pointed to the passing vehicle.  “Cars are big and fast.  We stay out of their way.”  She leaned over the curb again.  “No, the street is not for you.  The street is for cars.  The sidewalk is for people.  Stay on the sidewalk.”

I’m going to have to repeat this lesson a zillion times before she really understands–so let’s get started!  It’s complicated: The street is for cars, but when people get into cars we have to step into the street to get there.  The street is for cars, but people can walk across streets, following safety rules.  Lydia will have to learn that she can’t go into the street alone but can go with a taller person.  I know how to explain that.  But for now, I started with the lesson relevant to the present situation: Play on the sidewalk, not in the street.  A few repetitions did the trick for yesterday.  We’ll tell her again next time she approaches the curb. Read more of this post

How to Get Kids to Behave in Church

Welcome to the February 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Do It Yourself

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of
Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code
Name: Mama
. This month our participants are teaching us how to make
something useful or try something new.

***

By the time my first child was born, I’d been attending a small, liberal Episcopal church in my neighborhood for eight years.  Church is very meaningful to me, so I wanted to continue going, but how would I manage with a needy little baby who would become a wiggly toddler and then a child with his own ideas? Nicholas is ten years old now and has a baby sister, Lydia, and I’m able to manage both of them pretty well while still soaking up church myself.  I’ve learned a lot along the way!

I’m saying “church” but many of these tips would apply to other religions’ worship, and many of these strategies for church behavior also apply to any situation where we need to sit still and listen, like performances and meetings.  I’ve put them approximately in the order that you can start using them, beginning with things that work from birth–so if you have an older child and you’re just now trying to get back to church, skim along until you see something that seems feasible for your child now.  Read more…

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
Read more…

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.

Read more…

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?

Read more…

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…