Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Smile for the Stranger

I always feel uncomfortable when parents ask their children to smile, sing or dance for me.  The child RARELY complies and quickly retreats.  If I see that they are uncomfortable and the pressure doesn't stop, I say, "You don't have to sing that song, I don't mind." 

Pressuring or requesting children to perform for the approval of others is one way that babies and young children are objectified. 

When my daughter, El, was only three-months-old, we went to visit a friend. Before I knew what was happening I said, "Can you smile for Julie?"  I needed her to witness how incredible my smiling baby was!  When El did not smile, she replied, "It's okay, I saw her smile already."  

Guilty as charged. 

When she began doing this adorable head-swaying-dancey-bob- thing, I found myself singing crazily, trying to get her to dance for our guests and family.  I commanded her to shake shake shake and clap clap clap to encourage her to show-off all the fun things she does in the comfort of her own home.  It was as if I was trying to sell her.

The desire for other people to see my daughter as likable and charming is stronger than I could ever imagine. 

When El encounters casual acquaintances or new people, her instinct isn't to smile and engage, but to stare with a neutral expression or even sport a frown for extended periods of time. 

She contemplates and assesses the situation through intense observation.  She hardly moves.  If she anticipates that her personal space is about to be invaded, she spontaneously breaks down in tears. Her first impression won't win any adoring fans.

However, by releasing the pressure to seek approval and please an audience,  the risk of future anxieties, personal insecurities and feelings of inadequacy may be lessened.   

Through continual reflection, I am working on letting go of the expectations I put on my daughter during social encounters.  Her suspicious, observant tendencies are a part of her, and worth getting to know, just as much as her smiley, playful side.  

Instead of pressuring, prompting and acting like a nut to get her to perform, I now strive to support authentic and responsive interactions with family, friends and acquaintances, so that El is empowered to open-up on her own terms and choose who she invites into her world.  

Related Resources:

The Approval Trap

Raising Less Stressed Kids; Janet Lansbury 

5 Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job;" Alfie Kohn


Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Father's Day Letter to Eleanor

Dear Eleanor,

At the time this letter was written you are 10 months old.  You're father's first Father's Day is finally here.  I witnessed demonstrations of his love for you the second you were born.  He rushed out of the room to be by your side while the doctors made sure you were okay and requested lotion for your newborn feet because he thought they looked dry.  

From that day forward, I've witnessed moments so tender and sincere, I don't want them to get lost as years go by, 

I want them to belong to you.

During your first week at home, you woke often in the night. Together, your father and I, changed your diaper.  As I prepared to nurse he held you close and rocked back and forth.  He whispered, 

"Oh my god, she's just so precious."  

Every night during those early weeks he said those exact words, at Midnight, 2am and again at 4am.

When he went back to working 12 to 16 hour days, he came home exhausted, but without hesitation, happily swept you up, tucked you snuggly in the moby wrap and walked around the block to lull you to sleep.

If you were already in bed after he returned home,  he would tell me, "if she wakes up crying, I get to go in."  One night you woke up in the middle of his dinner.  He jumped up so quickly, soup spilled all over the floor.  In a pseudo-panic, he looked at me, then at the soup and back at me.  I said, "Well, go in!"  He ran into your bedroom just to get a chance to hold and comfort you for a few moments.

And there's more...

Your father can't even open the book, "On the Night You Were Born" without crying, let alone read it to you.

One afternoon, he carried up your clean clothes from the downstairs laundry room.  While hugging your laundry, he paused and said, "I even love holding her clothes."

The best part is, the feelings are mutual.  You look around for him in the morning,  flash him an open-mouthed grin whenever you get a chance, squeal and kick your legs when he plays the banjo, and share a special head bobbing dance.    

Because of your father's ability to confidently and warmly care for you, as the years go by, your relationship with your father will be filled with moments as heartfelt as these. I feel so blessed to  witness the special bond I see nurtured everyday and  I hope this note will forever serve as a reminder of how much you are loved.

With Love, Your Mama

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Testing Mom

I flipped over a newsletter I received from a popular Chicago parents organization.  On the back, was a full page advertisement with the headline;  

"Are you smarter than a 4-year-old?"  

Below were two multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble questions with the tag line; 

"These are the types of questions your child will face on a Chicago Public School test."

Luckily the advertisement offers relief!, contains 100 FREE questions so that anxiety ridden, well-meaning parents can, 

"Prepare your child for all of life's tests."

However, the Testing Mom mentality comes with a long list of sacrifices to children's overall health; socially, emotionally and cognitively, in addition to damaging relationships with their caregivers.  Therefore, like cigarettes and other products that are required to display warning labels, this website should not be exempt.  By pressuring children to prepare for future and mind numbing worksheets, children suffer the following consequences. 

1. Interrupted or deficit of play 
There is SCIENTIFIC evidence that play is the BEST way for children to learn and is CRITICAL for healthy development.  As children attempt to extract information through the free exploration of materials, meaningful play comes to an abrupt halt when a series of adult driven interrogations and demands are dispensed.   

Count the blocks! Name the shape! 
What does a pig say? What letter is this?

Luckily, infant specialist Magda Gerber, has offered this pearl of wisdom, 

"Be careful what you teach, it might interfere with what they are learning."

2. Conditioned self-worth:
If the child gets the answer right, an enthusiastic, "Good job! You're right!"  typically follows. If the child gets the answer wrong, they are quickly corrected and tested again.  Furthermore, through my experience, the pressure to perform increases when there is an audience.  

The result of the testing/correcting/testing again does not predict or promote academic advancement, but instead it ensures that the child is conditioned to define his success and self-worth by seeking out the 'right' answer for positive external validation. 

3. Wasted time:
Sometimes it is to my delight that a child answers the test question completely out of the ball park.  At a preschool I once observed at (children were ages 2-3), the teacher believed that the children were ready to memorize the months of the year.  During circle time, she overheard one child say the correct month when quizzed. She singled her out and asked her to repeat the answer louder for the class. 

Teacher: "Jessie, what month is it!?"  

Jessie: "PURPLE!"  

Why did Jessie respond with the answer purple?  It's because Jessie, at the age of two, has more important things to do with her time than to memorize the months of the year.  See #1

4. Closed questions = Closed minds:
Closed ended questions stunt conversation and cramp critical thinking skills.  Open-ended statements and questions such as, 

  • What do you think? 
  • What happens if...?
  • Tell me about...

encourages young children to think deeply about their experiences and gives them an opportunity to express their unique perspective. When adults objectively listen with curiosity, children's thoughts and ideas are respected, validated and unveiled. 

5. Induced childhood amnesia:
While frantically taking advantage of all those TEACHABLE MOMENTS and opportunities to quiz and test, play memories of our own childhood are forgotten. These memories serve as a powerful reminder of the magic we experienced as young children.  

Now, remember favorite moments of your own childhood.  Take some time to relive favorite activities. Stick your fingers in paint, squish some play dough or feel the grass beneath your feet.  Rediscover and delight in the health benefits of idle time.  Oh, and burn those test questions.  

To avoid the harmful side-effects of the Testing Mom mentality, prepare children for life and unleash their potential, by fiercely protecting their right to a childhood. Have real conversations, real experiences and ask questions that matter to rediscover an innate sense of wonder and love of learning that is anything but standard.  


The Value of Unstructured Play Time for Kids

Time Goes By So Fast: Play Makes Meaningful Memorie

A Scholarly Response to ‘Tiger Mom’: Happiness Matters, Too

Alliance for Childhood

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Softer Side of Toddlers

Observing a toddler interact with a baby can be nerve racking. 
As a former playgroup facilitator for babies and toddlers, it was not unusual to hear well-intentioned parents issue warnings before their toddler had the opportunity to engage.

"Be gentle! Be nice!  Don't Touch!"

However, by avoiding premeditated and often imagined catastrophes, children are prevented from exploring relationships and building friendships.  

As young as three months, El adored her toddler friends.  At nine months she still watches them closely as they scurry around the room, always returning to squat down and study her. They present toys to her as if they were gifts without any incentive or directive to share.  And when toys are taken (if they can pry them from her tough little fingers), they are often replaced with another one. 

They stroke her head as she nurses, pat her tummy as she plays and occasionally she receives a gentle hug. What her older friends know about caregiving is illuminated when they engage with my daughter.  

Therefore, to help ease my parental anxieties when facilitating play amongst babies and toddlers, I keep these tips in mind. 

Consider proximity: Sit close enough to intervene but far back enough to provide a sense of comfort and autonomy. 

Narrate (aka sportscasting):  Help both children tune into their environment, their actions and each other, by objectively narrating their play as it unfolds. 

Listen: Provide moments of silence to allow the children to take the lead in communications. 

TRUST:  Refrain from the knee-jerk response to prematurely intervene. Unless it's an immediate safety concern, wait, wait and then wait some more.                                                                                             

I'm not claiming that baby and toddler social interactions are void of conflict and clumsiness.  However, despite the need to occasionally block a poke in the eye or a swat at the nose, the majority of interactions I have witnessed negate the stereotypical egocentric toddler and the fragile baby.  

By learning to control the impulse of always being on high alert, and providing the freedom to play despite developmental differences, I have witnessed children's amazing capacity for empathy, curiosity and the sophisticated ability to communicate through gestures, vocalizations and touch.

Related Topics:


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Babies Gone Wild

My baby is screaming and thrashing about during a diaper change. The snot sucker is her worst enemy.  The bath to changing table transition can be far from pleasant.  Wiping her face and hands provokes a burst of complaints. 

I resist the instinctive urge to....

distract her and go super duper fast!

When our children's feelings are intense or they are exercising their right to protest, it's natural to look for strategies that abolish the behavior once and for all.  Parents often ask, "How do I FIX this!" However, when I stopped looking for a...
  • quick fix  
  • method to follow
  • or 100% success rate 
I freed myself from the burden of finding the ultimate solution and eradicating uncomfortable feelings.   

When this topic arises amongst peers, I think of Lisa Sunbury's post, Holding her Through her Tears.  She discusses the idea of keeping the calm space when your child cannot.  

My daughter was in the midst of protesting her pre-nap diaper change. her face scrunched up, legs kicking and tears streaming as she yelled. I remembered Lisa's words and kept the calm space by slowing down.  

My husband who was watching with concern said, "Can you hurry it up a bit!?"  

Every time she screamed, I took a deep breath and continued, slow and steady.  I acknowledged her feelings, talked her through next steps and within minutes, that felt like hours, she calmed.  I continued to get her dressed as she babbled and cooed as if nothing ever happened. When the diaper change was complete, I gave her a gentle squeeze and let out one last sigh.  

However, I will not always have a soothed and babbling baby by slowing down when her feelings are intense. The only guarantee is that by keeping the calm, my daughter knows that I can handle her big feelings and keep her safe when she's disorganized.  

I don't need to fix her feelings, I just need to be her rock. 

For additional tips on how to help your child through difficult care routines check out...
Janet Lansbury; Diaper Change Disaster 

A lovely post about slowing down with toddlers...
Peaceful Parenting

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Life Lessons Learned Through Art; The perks of being raised by an artist.

My mother loves to tell the story about the time she discovered me painting.  I was two years old and found my way to a canvas she had been working on.  I grabbed the red paint and added a few special touches.  When she discovered what I had done to her artwork, I looked at her proudly and said, "I PAINTED!"  
She responded with a smile, "Yes you did."

When my sister and I were older, she began to teach art classes in the basement of our house.  It was during these basement art classes (whether she was aware of it or not), that she taught me three invaluable life lessons that have shaped and enhanced my life. 

1.  Make your mistakes work for you. 

I remember the day she handed all of her students sharpie markers.  She instructed, "We are using sharpies today because you cannot erase.  If you make a mistake, you'll need to figure out how to make it work." I realize now, this was an exercise in perseverance.  The marks made in the past are permanent, so make new marks, change paths and turn mistakes into something meaningful and useful in the best way possible. 

2.  See below the surface.

My mother set up a still-life that included a candle with a lit flame. She told us, "Do not look at the candle and see a candle. Do not draw a candle.  Instead, look at the lines and shapes that create the candle.  Notice the circle of light that the candle is casting, and the triangular shape of the negative space?"  This lesson taught me to see through the eyes of curiosity.  To take note of the dramatic swoop of a tree trunk, the way the sun gives everything a golden glow at dusk, and the perfect curl of my daughter's eyelashes.  Because of her, I don't miss out on the beauty, quirk, and uniqueness of the lines, shapes and shadows that make up our world. 

3.   Do it for the joy that it brings.

I entered a scarecrow making contest for a 4-H fair.  My mother helped me create a lopsided, wild eyed scarecrow in roller skates and a hot pink boa.  Every time we looked at our scarecrow, we began to laugh.  This scarecrow was sure to win first place!  I received a red ribbon (not blue) due to it not meeting the quality scarecrow-making criteria.  But it didn't phase us a bit.  We loved standing back and observing county fair visitors as they pointed and chuckled at our creation. Next year, I entered the contest again, and like last year our weird imperfect scarecrow brought us joy and delight, and like last year, I did not receive a best-in-show.

Because my mother nurtured the artist in me, her art classes in the basement taught me to persevere,  wonder in the ordinary, and make joy a priority.  

And for that, I am forever grateful.  

To the most whimsical, kind and generous artist I know...

Happy Mother's Day. 

You can find my mother's artwork at Susan Miller Art

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Unqantifiable Benefits of Play

With the push for early academic success and the epidemic of developmentally inappropriate practices in today's schools, play is cut out of children's lives. Instruction time is added in place of recess for drilling, cramming, and memorizing so that a test can be passed, an award can be won, and a teacher can keep her job.  

"We have to get the children ready for (insert future grade level here_____)" is a phrase I hear too often in the field of education. In result, childhood's gift of living in the present is seized by the stress of living in the future. 

In an attempt to validate play and justify it's presence in the lives of children, we, as play advocates, are called to dissect and quantify to prove to parents, educators and politicians that it will ensure academic success. The message is clear, if it doesn't expedite emerging math, science and literacy skills, it's too risky to pursue. So, in the meantime the essence of play becomes lost in a sea of preschool, kindergarten, and college readiness.

YES, children learn math, science, and literacy skills best through play, but more importantly, the real magic of play is about educating the heart

Play educates the heart by...
  • providing an outlet for emotional release and understanding. 
  • allowing children to imagine the perspective of others (just a little thing called EMPATHY).
  • building community.
  • creating feelings of joy (we want our children to be happy right?)

It is my dream, that one day, nurturing the human spirit and educating the heart becomes a core priority in our schools. 

When I watch my daughter play,  I'm not worried if the time spent playing will ensure that she counts by preschool or reads in Kindergarten. But instead, I trust that play is doing more important work by helping her become a resilient, loving, and joyful person, thus opening her mind, body and soul for a deeper kind of learning. Learning so deep, it exists on a cellular level and refuses to be quantified.  

We are never more 
fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing."

-Charles Schafer

More on this topic...

The New Deficiency Formally Known as Childhood

Want to get your kids into college?  Let them play.

Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School