Sunday, October 29, 2017

Tots and Teens

Two age groups are notoriously difficult for both parents and kids: 
toddlers, also known as "the terrible two's"; and teenagers.  I believe there are many similarities between these ages and stages of child development.  I've never seen any research on these similarities, but as Freud once said, "As any nursemaid knows...".  Interestingly, I began my career in early childhood education as a toddler teacher. My last job before retirement was teaching high school Spanish.  When asked how I managed the transition from early childhood to high school, I quipped that the two age groups were a lot alike.

Toddlers and teens are both struggling to find their identities as independent beings.  Toddlers are looking for physical independence from their parents, while teens are seeking emotional independence.  Both groups are very sensitive to the demands of authority.  They feel a strong need to to make their own decisions and to do things on their own.  Neither is completely ready for the independence they crave however, and if left unchecked, their experimental trials in going their own way can be dangerous.  Life with a toddler or a teen can be pretty challenging.

Parents often complain that a toddler's favorite word is "no".  "I do myself".  He's outgrown  the stage of dependence on mom or dad for all of his physical needs.  He can now walk, use language, and feed himself.  He's incredibly proud of his growth.  The worst insult for a toddler is to be called a baby.  "I not a baby, I a big boy". Toddlers crave affirmation of their big-boy status, and are eager to prove themselves and take on more grown-up activities.  This is fine in some areas, such as choosing a breakfast cereal or putting on socks.  But there are many things a toddler is not yet equipped to manage, such as handling a knife or picking up his baby brother.  He struggles with conflicting emotions, knowing on one level that he still needs mom, but feeling a strong drive to pull away from her.  It's not uncommon for these emotions to erupt into tantrums when he doesn't get his way.

A teenager's drive for independence will look a bit different.  Suddenly, the parent that was idealized in early childhood is old fashioned and a cause of embarrassment.  She will roll her eyes every time mom speaks.  Her favorite word is "whatever".  She is way more interested in her friends' opinions and eager to fit in with the group.  Her changing body and growing capacity for abstract and critical thinking give her cause to believe that she is ready for grown-up life and decisions.  This may be true in choosing an after-school activity or shopping for clothing.  However, she may not be prepared to separate from her peers if they engage in risky or dangerous behaviors.  I suppose that's one difference between teens and toddlers:  bigger kids, bigger problems.

A good strategy for both toddlers and teens is to look for opportunities that allow them to practice their independence.  For a toddler, that may mean keeping juice in a small pitcher that he can pour himself or teaching him the "slip and flip" trick for putting on his jacket.  For a teen, you might permit her to take public transportation or attend a concert with her friends. For both, we can offer choices.  An either/or choice is best suited for a two year old. (Do you want to eat the fruit now or bring it in the car?) A teen should be able to choose her own style of clothing, as long as each piece fits your bottom-line view of what's appropriate.  In general, parents should be prepared to choose their battles.  That means say "yes" as often as possible, and save "no" for when you have really good reasons. With teens, don't fall for the common complaint about what everyone else is allowed to do.  We are responsible for our own children, not someone else's.

Another important strategy for both tots and teens is to keep close tabs on their whereabouts.  A toddler can never be left unsupervised,  should always have something to do.  Wait times can bring trouble. Be prepared with a toy or snack to keep your little one busy.  With both toddlers and teens, if we don't make sure they are busy with healthy activities, they will get busy with unhealthy ones.  For a teen, it's very important to always know where and with whom she's spending her time and when she's expected home.  Knowing our child's friends prepares us to understand what's happening in her life and to provide guidance as needed.  

A parent's priority is always our children's safety.  We need to be mindful of what they  are exposed to. Toddlers can be hurt and confused by scary news broadcasts or, cursing fighting adults.  They are keenly aware of everything that is said around them, and can suffer emotionally, even if they are not yet able to articulate it.  Even more difficult to control is our children's exposure to harmful elements in technology. Protecting our children from inappropriate language, violence, sexual content and predators is excruciatingly difficult.  Parents need to set ground rules with their teens and put safeguards on their devices. Toddlers should be allowed minimal, if any, screen time.  Toddlers are in a stage of rapid development.  They need real life experiences, and are held back by any type of screen.

The most important role of a parent in raising her children through these challenging years is to be emotionally available.  The emotional ups and downs of our toddlers and teens can be stressful for them.   We need to be watchful of any signs of distress and try to help our children share their feelings.  My natural reaction, when one of my children seemed to be struggling, was to pull her closer.  Spend more time with her.  Speak and behave more positively.  Make it clear that I would always be there, always love her, always take care of her.  Life is not easy at any age, but trials become more bearable when we know that we are not alone.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Equal rights for women has been an important cause for my generation. I remember my frustration after graduating college, when the first question at every job interview was about my typing skills. We've made progress in opening doors for girls, although there is still work to do.  As a young mother, I was convinced that sexism, restrictive attitudes toward genders, was a direct result of one's upbringing and environment. I was determined to raise my children fairly.  I wasn't aware of the innate, biological differences between boys and girls until I had my son.  After four daughters.  Then I began to wonder if, in a different way, we weren't also short-changing our boys.

A child's environment plays a huge role in how he or she is raised, but his/her own biological nature plays an equally powerful part.  The toy cars that had never been touched by my girls were played with incessantly by my son.  Before he could walk he would try to zoom them across the floor.  In fact, he was fascinated by anything that moved.  We couldn't take a car ride without him looking out the window with glee, "Car!  Truck! Plane!!".  My girls were very active, but my son took action to another level.  I was unprepared for his constant movement and physicality. It took me a while to understand that the value of movement and action is part of being male.   

As an early childhood educator I became increasingly concerned with our boys' school experiences.  Most early childhood and elementary schools are based on a feminine culture.  The teachers are predominantly women, and the curricular emphasis is on reading, writing, and verbal skills, all of which typically develop later in boys.  The structure of most classrooms requires children to spend chunks of time each day sitting still and being quiet.  This is incredibly difficult for boys, whose high activity levels and poor impulse control are problematic in a classroom. Boys are more frequently determined to have behavioral issues and are reprimanded for their actions.  Frequent reprimands and/or punishment take an awful emotional toll on a child.

Young boys are less emotionally mature than girls.  They feel deeply but have a harder time identifying emotions in themselves and others. They are often at a loss to express their feelings. Without a healthy outlet, bottled-up emotions can turn to anger, frustration, even  violence.  Boys need loving, supportive adults in their lives who can model the language of emotions. 

Boys are typically stronger in spatial abilities and are more task-oriented.  Given time and space, they can turn the block center into an impressive construction site. They are driven to action and have a greater need to feel in control. They strut and boast in an attempt to feel competent and empowered.  They love superheroes, such as Batman, Spiderman, Superman, etc. because they too want to be seen as big and powerful.  Boys are most successful on the playground, where they can work their large muscles and take risks. They are drawn to sports where physical skills are esteemed.

In the last school where I worked as Early Childhood Director, the teachers and I spent a year learning more about boys and incorporating more boy-friendly practices into our classrooms.  We felt validated to learn that everything that we already knew about boys was being discovered through important brain research . (Adults who work with young children every day for years and years get to know kids really well.)   We became more accepting of high levels of energy, and looked to provide safe spaces for them.  One brave teacher had a wrestling mat, and let the kids tumble around like little puppies.  Another teacher provided materials for the boys to make capes, and facilitated their superhero play.  We purposely planned more opportunities to learn through movement.  If any activity veered toward fighting or danger, the boys were engaged in reasonable dialogue, not punished or belittled. Including them in problem-solving appealed to their pride and masculinity, and strengthened their feelings of competence.

All children learn by observing the loving adults in their lives.  Emotionally healthy male role models are so important for our boys.  A young child can learn that there are many ways to be a man, many ways to be strong and brave.   We can inspire our boys with real-life stories about heroes such as Dr. Martin Luther King; we can praise male artists, authors, athletes, soldiers, clergymen.  We can encourage the men in our lives to be emotionally expressive around our boys.  Telling a boy you love him helps him develop an emotional vocabulary, enabling him to connect more deeply to others and avoid the pain and loneliness of unexpressed feelings.    

Naturally, there are examples of cross-overs between boy and girl behaviors.  There are quiet boys who prefer to sit and read, just as there are tough, active girls.  The differences between the sexes are general, but very real.  Let's be aware of those differences and honor our boys' natures, not expecting them to perform beyond their developmental level. Let's make our homes and schools boy friendly, celebrating their strengths and helping them grow to be happy, confident, emotionally healthy men. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Outdoor Play

Want smart, healthy kids?  Send them out to play everyday.  Or take them.  Just make sure they get out of the house for part of the day. Outdoor play is absolutely essential for healthy physical and mental development. 

Right now, here in New York, it is October.  The weather is gorgeous, with clear, sunny days and stunning fall foliage.  Most of us try to get outside as much as possible.  But winter is coming, and spending time outdoors becomes more difficult.  The days become shorter and colder, with less time, and for many of us less incentive, to leave the warmth of our homes.  But even in winter, children need to spend time outside. There is simply no substitute for it. Hopefully, your children's teachers embrace this reality and make outdoor play a priority.  Unless it is snowing or raining, even a brief walk in very cold weather will benefit our children.

My first child was born in a freezing February.  She was three weeks early and severely jaundiced.  She spent the second week of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit, where she received two complete blood transfusions.  When she was released, the nurses admonished me to get her outside every day.  They said that many babies returned to the hospital because they were kept in stuffy, heated rooms and not given enough fresh air to breathe.  They told me to bundle her up and take her out for at least 15 minutes a day.  I took their words to heart.

The cold air does open our respiratory systems and counter the effects of dry, heated rooms.  We get doses of vitamin D from sunshine that are difficult to get elsewhere.  Outside, we exercise our eye muscles with increased peripheral vision, distance sighting, and depth perception.  We are also able to exercise our large muscles outside on a variety of terrains and levels.  Outdoors we can run, jump, climb, roll, dig, throw, balance.  Children challenge their bodies to run faster, climb higher, building strength, agility, and confidence. Outdoor play get our hearts pumping to benefit circulation and build a healthy appetite.  And outdoors, children can yell and holler, releasing tension and expressing pure joy in a way that is not always appropriate indoors.  

The natural world is a science laboratory.  Children learn about cause and effect while they watch the wind blow through the trees, or see how puddles develop after rain.  In winter, those puddles turn to ice; in summer, they evaporate.  We see shadows, caused by the sun, which change as the day goes on.  We notice so many varieties within each natural element:  clouds can be fluffy, thick, grey, or dark; trees can drop pine cones, acorns, chestnuts, or maple pods; bugs can fly, crawl, slither, or dig; rocks can be huge, tiny, rough, smooth, etc., etc.  Every experience with the natural world builds concepts and knowledge.

Being outside often has a calming effect on children.  The natural world abounds in treats for all of our senses.  Outdoors we are surrounded by fresh textures, colors, sounds, and smells to enjoy and spark our curiosity.  What child can resist jumping in a rain puddle or a pile of leaves?  Who hasn't stuck out her tongue to catch a raindrop or snowflake?  Who's been lucky enough to eat a berry right off a bush?  Yum.  Sensory experiences are very soothing. 

I believe that children who spend lots of time outdoors grow to be better people.    They develop a connection to the physical world that enables them to appreciate and respect our planet.  To love the world is to love life and all its creations.  In this way, outdoor play can also serve a child's spiritual development.

Open your child's potential for good health, intelligence, and a kind spirit.  Get him out of the house!!  

Monday, October 16, 2017

They Never Listen!


Many children, as they outgrow their toddler years, become "mom deaf".  Mom will make a simple request over and over and get no response until finally she screams in frustration.  The scream will get the child to respond, leaving mom feeling bad for screaming and the child thinking mom is loony.  "Why are you screaming?".  "BECAUSE IT'S THE ONLY WAY YOU'LL LISTEN TO ME!".
 🙉   🙉   🙉   🙉   🙉 

When my son was in elementary school, it was impossible to wake him up in the morning.  I'd go to his room and tell him to get up several times before finally losing control and screaming at him.  He recently admitted to me that he heard me every time I told him to wake up, but he judged how much time he had by the volume of my voice.  When I finally screamed, he knew he really had to get out of bed. AARRGGHH!!!

Two interesting things about mom deafness.  First of all, it is selective.  If mom says, "Who wants cookies?" the kids will come running immediately from two floors away.  Secondly, at the risk of sounding sexist, it is pretty much exclusive to moms.  Children who are blessed with a mother and a father are less likely to heed their mom the first time she makes a request.  I have my own theory about this. Moms have innate antennae when it comes to their children and are tuned in to their every move.  Even when she's not with him, she knows when he's crying or fighting with another child, or getting into mischief. She's aware of his runny nose, of him running outside without shoes, of how he speaks.  As Spanky of the Little Rascals once said, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool Mom."  

Because mom is so aware of her child's every move, she's more likely to give him direction:  "Put on your shoes."  "Get a tissue."  "Stop jumping on the bed."  There's an almost constant stream of simple, well-meaning requests that the child begins to tune out, sort of like background noise.  And making these requests becomes a rote activity on the part of mom.  But this is part of being a good mother!  What's a woman to do?

I have a couple of suggestions.  The most powerful is to make eye contact with your child before you ask her to do something.  Calling from another room, or while your back is turned, is a guarantee that she won't listen.  A reasonable direction, given face to face, will likely be followed without a fuss.  "Put your dish in the sink".  A direction that might get some flack, such as "Put a sweater on before you go outside", might benefit from a simple explanation "It's cold out and I don't want you to get sick".

Another important approach to giving directions to our children is to tell them what to do, not to ask them if they want to do it.  I've heard moms say things like, "Do you want to get a tissue to wipe your nose?" and I think, "No, she doesn't."  Clearly the mom is trying to sound kind and friendly, but It's not a genuine question.  "No" is not an acceptable answer.  It's so much better to be direct, "Please get a tissue".

On the other hand, "or" questions, offering a choice of options, work really well to help children follow our directions.  For example, "It's time to clean up the toys.  Do you want to put away the cars or the puzzles?".  Choices give children a feeling of control, with an authentic say in the matter, which makes them more likely to cooperate.  A five minute warning before a transition serves the same purpose.  "We're leaving the playground in 5 minutes".  Just like adults, children feel more secure when they know what to expect and so are better prepared to follow direction.  
Finally, as exasperated as one may be, it's a bad idea to say in our children's presence, "They never listen to me".  We don't want that to be the truth, so we shouldn't say it.  If we do, they may take it as fact with no incentive to change.  We should instead think of ourselves and our children as works in progress, which of course we all are.  Mom learning to make requests in a way that clicks with her children, and children learning enough about mom's expectations to eventually fulfill them without being asked. (Yes, it happens.)    
 🙉   🙉   🙉    🙉   🙉   🙉    🙉   🙉   🙉    🙉   🙉   🙉    🙉   🙉   🙉    🙉   🙉   🙉

Monday, October 2, 2017

C'mon People Now

Say what you will about the Boomer generation, we had the best music.  The title of this post is from a song by Buffalo Springfield that was playing through my head as I wrote.  Check it out, it's worth it.

Teaching social skills is a core component of early childhood education.  Polite behavior is not innate, it is a learned skill.  When children misbehave, we assume that they have not yet learned socially acceptable means of solving their problems or meeting their needs.  A two year old who wants a toy that his playmate has is likely to grab it directly or hit his playmate til he gets it.  He's not a bully; certainly not a bad boy.  He simply doesn't know a better way of getting what he wants.  It's the job of the adults in his life to teach him.  We use words to identify his problem, then feed him words that can help him get what he wants peacefully.  "You want to play with the helicopter.  You can't hit, but you can use your words.  You can say, 'Can I please play with the helicopter?'.  Many children will hand over the toy after this exchange, and we simultaneously praise them and model a "thank you".   If a child isn't ready to hand over the toy, we can model negotiating:  "Okay, when you are done, your friend will have the next turn".

Words are powerful.  The words that we choose can affect the world for good or for bad.  Think about our reaction to a whiny, "I want apple juice", compared to a calm, "Can I please have some apple juice?".  Kind, respectful words effect kind, respectful responses.  Part of our job as parents and teachers is to guide our children to use their words in positive ways.  We keep in mind that they are learning.  If they mess up, it's because they don't  know better yet.

 Adults won't typically hit someone with whom they have an issue, but they might use violent language.  I sometimes wonder if these adults simply got stuck at an early developmental stage. Maybe no one took the time to teach them the power of words.  Words can bring us closer to our goals or put up barriers.  They can make our environment pleasant or uncomfortable.  As children we used to chant, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."  We were so wrong!  Words can hurt deeply. Victims of emotional or verbal abuse sometimes think, "Just hit me and get it over with".  The pain of a slap goes away faster than the emotional scars of hateful words. 

I believe that training ourselves to speak only positively, particularly about other people, will make us happy.  We look for the good in everyone we meet. If someone speaks badly about our friend, we can speak up and point out her good qualities.  Making a practice of defending people will discourage others from gossipping to us.  We'll develop a more optimistic outlook.  On the other hand, remaining silent hurts everyone; just like standing by when someone is bullied.

There is so much hateful, divisive language on the news and social media today.  Fighting hate with hate is unproductive at best and dangerous at worst.  Negatively name-calling those with different opinions spurs hate and division.  It's emotional bullying and reflects an incapacity to express oneself properly.  People who resort to name-calling are probably developmentally stuck.  It's hard to tolerate that ignorance in adults because we assume they should know better.   But they might not.  They may have skipped some important lessons in early childhood. 

 People have good intentions. They mean well.  Very few really want to cause harm.  They may struggle to express themselves in a better way.  That should motivate us all the more to speak from a place of kindness and respect.   Again, these thoughts are expressed so well in music.  Listen to this beautiful song by Dave Mason, "We Just Disagree" and think about it the next time someone says something stupid or mean.