All Things Baby: Preparing for Your First Child

All Things Baby: Preparing for Your First Child

When I became pregnant and had to make some decisions about what to buy for my baby, I was completely overwhelmed. I had no idea there was so much contradictory and controversial advice on how to raise an infant. Bumper pads—risk for SIDS or necessary to prevent injuries? Swings—a Godsend for busy parents or a cheap babysitter? Diaper pails—vital to keep a nursery smelling fresh or glorified trash cans? There are also bigger questions, such as to stimulate the child or let them grow more naturally? This article, “All Things Baby,” is an attempt to answer the most vital, biggest questions about raising an infant.

There are many competing philosophies over how to raise an infant. How you resolve these controversies, I believe, will affect who your child will grow up to be. If a child is responded to immediately or “trained,” will affect who they become as a 3-year-old, which will affect who they become as a 7-year-old, which will affect who they are as a teenager, and so on. If the caregiver is gentle and loving or rough with the child; if the child has a predictable routine or a chaotic one; if they are in the hands of a competent person or not—all these will affect who the child grows up to be. There are a myriad of personality types and they start in infancy.

Another thing about reading about newborns is how overwhelmed I became with the contradictory advice in the mainstream baby books. It was frustrating. However, I learned to embrace it. I learned to start asking why one book advocated one thing while another advocated another. I found by doing this, I could get to the real heart of an issue. I was able to get more precise advice over when and why to do something in particular.

Finally, I want to add that I originally wrote this first article (“All Things Baby”) while still pregnant. I added greatly to it after delivering my first son, John. I largely left the original text of this article so I could address the kind of questions I, and presumably others, had before delivering. I think this offers a unique perspective: it is like a very new mom in the throes of motherhood having a conversation with a very inquisitive pregnant woman, giving very detailed explanations to all questions.    

Overall Parenting Philosophy

I added this section after delivering my son because, after having a child, I developed a very general philosophy of parenting that caused me to re-structure this entire article. This philosophy quite simply is that a parent should find out what is wrong with the baby when fussy and address it.

Most professional books on babies state that they support this advice. One book, Happiest Baby on the Block, however, is totally opposite. Happiest Baby advocates that the best way to calm a fussy baby is to essentially distract the child. It is a wildly popular book now, supported by many medical professionals. Hospitals give classes based on the book to educate parents on how to handle a baby.

Happiest Baby on the Block advocates using the 5 “S”‘s to calm a baby: sucking, swinging, side lying, swaddling, and “SHHH”ing the baby.

First, I think it is madness that a movement was started and many dollars were made by showing parents how to get in their child’s face and say, “SHHHHHHHHHH!”

But, further, I am wholly opposed to the message it sends parents. The message is: if your child is crying, don’t try to figure out what is actually wrong. Instead, try every gimmick known to man to get the child to stop crying.

Sure, these things “work.” I have found for instance, that bathroom fans—which is white noise, which is what “SHHH”ing the baby is—get infants to fall asleep. I used this trick (emphasis) with my newborn only occasionally so I could take a shower. But otherwise when an infant cries, a parent should take with solemn seriousness the job of trying to figure out why he is crying and respond appropriately.

Based on experience, for a very young baby (0-3 months old), fussiness or crying is almost always due to either hunger or sleepiness. It is sometimes gas for a very young baby or sometimes a dirty diaper. As such, feeding and sleeping are the most important things to figure out regarding your newborn.

To understand hunger and sleep, one of the most important things to learn as a parent is to read the signals your child is giving. It was said to me that you will get to know what cries from the baby mean what. I disagree with this. Crying is the last sign that something is wrong. Don’t want until the baby cries to respond to the baby, but rather look at their behavior. Here is a brief overview of behaviors: If he is licking his lips, sticking his tongue out, putting his fist in his mouth, gnawing on anything within reach, he is hungry. If he is kicking his legs, bringing his legs up to his belly, or turning red, he is gassy. If his eyes are drooping, his activity is slowing down, and/or he has been up for longer than 2 hours (for a very young infant), he may be sleepy. 

To deal with hunger and sleep, I recommend two books. One is The Blossom Method, which teaches a parent how to “read” their child for hunger cues. The other is Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, which teaches parents what to expect in normal sleep development for a child and how to watch for drowsy signs as to establish good sleep habits.

Although these books require some skill development, they are much better books than Happiest Baby on the Block. Happiest Baby may teach a parent how to somewhat deal with a fussy baby such that they don’t shake or otherwise hurt the baby. I will also say that it encourages parents to calm their babies when fussy, instead of stimulating the child, which is often a natural reaction. But I don’t think Happiest Baby provides the very best solution. A parent’s motto when it comes to their child should not be “how do I get this child to shut up?” but rather should be: observe, observe, and then observe some more.

Let me also give my enthusiastic recommendation for the book, Wonder Weeks. It describes 10 predictable “leaps” your child will go through, starting with Week 5 (from the due date). Right before each leap is a fussy period; the child may be clingy, fussy, or cry a lot. Their sleeping and eating are often disrupted. Their brain is growing at this time. When the fussy period is over, they have new skills. The book promises the leaps can be predicted to within a week. I have found that they are very predictable, calculating from the due date. The book also gives recommendations for toys and games to do with your child at age-appropriate times. Really, it’s a great book—a gemstone for anyone studying the natural timeline of the development of children. Keep these fussy periods in mind as you learn to read and observe your child.

Another philosophy on parenting that I disagree with, which was usually preached to me by other parents, is that the parent should “train” a child, such as making him wait to eat so he is on a “better” schedule or making him stay awake so he “sleeps at night” (which, by the way, doesn’t work). I find “training” a newborn or denying him what he needs to be a cruel parenting philosophy. I try to never irritate my child, on accident and certainly not on purpose. People who do irritate their child, I think, are rationalizing something. I cannot wrap my head around why they think denying their young baby something is enlightened.

The overall philosophy is this: the child should be regarded as an independent entity with a specific identity, which is to be understood and respected, not manipulated. For a newborn, observe the child, figure out what is needed, and respond appropriately. You cannot spoil a baby, whose only desires are the extremely luxurious and pretentious needs of feeding and sleeping.

I have adopted this philosophy of observing the child and responding appropriately, and I can attest that we had the very happy baby. Not the happiest baby “on the block,” because I hope all babies on the block are happy. Many people told us that we had a very calm baby. At first I thought they were just saying that to flatter us. But after going out in public, I have noticed that other babies are quite … not just fussy but totally distraught. I want to stress, updating this after getting feedback from a mom, that it is normal for babies to cry, in fact all throughout infancy. All of my children seemed to fall apart for a least an hour every afternoon for some amount of time, where I had to walk and walk them. But when we were out, it was almost as if there was a painful cry from babies everywhere–distraught because no one was tending to them. There was a difference between our children and others. Our stock response to people who noticed our happy children is that the baby cries for a reason. They are hungry, sleepy–or maybe just need held. We give as much due diligence as we can to the actual problem, as to tend to their need. A content child means we satisfied the need. We monitor and respond to the emotional clues.

Providing a loving environment where his needs are taken care of is, in my opinion, the first and best thing you can do to create a child who sees the world as a fun and happy place, i.e., has a “benevolent universe” premise (as presented by Ayn Rand). The child naturally bonds with his environment, whether it is a good one or a bad one. Make it a good one.

As such, the most important things to figure out as a parent of a newborn are feeding and sleeping—the two essentials in a newborn’s life.

Breastfeeding

I will cut right to the chase: The most important thing about taking care of a newborn is making sure they get enough to eat. All other topics in this article—bumper pads, pacifiers, swings, etc.—pale in comparison to the importance of feeding properly. This is where I recommend your focus should be when researching about a newborn, with sleep being a very close second.

To estimate if the baby is getting enough (or, rather, the right amount), most advice revolves around how long you breastfeed and how often. I found this is not good enough to estimate proper feeding. Just because your newborn was at your breast for 40 minutes doesn’t mean he was getting milk the whole time. Trying to judge it this way is like going to a car dealer and having them tell you what your monthly payment will be instead of telling you the total price of the car.

Based on the advice of professionals and my own experience, if you are getting 5 very wet diapers a day and the child is not unreasonably fussy, he or she is probably getting enough to eat.

But if there is even the slightest problem with feeding or if you think that the fussiness is not within the realm of reason for a young infant or the diapers you are changing are routinely dry, I would recommend more accurate and objective methods.

The best advice I got for feeding a newborn was a table that showed how much the newborn weighs and then how many total ounces of food per day he or she should get. Based on the advice that an infant needs 2.5 – 3 times their body weight (in pounds) in ounces of formula or milk per day, I made a table with the number of ounces of formula or milk that an infant needs based on weight. It is at the end of this article.  There may be more sophisticated calculations for estimating total ounces in one day, but they cause confusion in my opinion. The estimate in the table combined with your baby’s cues should get you to the right amount.

If breastfeeding, to get the very best idea on if you are giving your child the right amount, make an effort to know how much you are giving your child and compare it to how much he should get. This is the best metric possible. In order to know how much milk you produce, one easy way is to use a breast pump and see how much you produce in one feeding. Take one feeding to pump instead of feed from the breast and calculate that what you pump is about what you produce with the baby. Another way is to weigh the child before and after feeding, a service often offered at breastfeeding luncheons. Then write down every time you feed. This is especially necessary if several people feed the child, so that people are communicating when the child fed last (and it is easy to forget when all you fed the infant.) My favorite sheet to do this had each day laid out horizontally with every hour and half hour listed so you just tick off when you fed the baby and write underneath it information about how long or how many ounces. I found this sheet on seewhatyouread.com, which requires a subscription. Doing all of this should tell you about how much the infant got in one day. Again, if your baby seems content, you probably don’t have to go to this effort. It is only if you suspect there is a problem.

Another way to determine that the child is getting enough, as noted, is that, starting around Day 3 – 5, when mom’s milk comes in, there should be at least 5 wet diapers a day and the diapers should be very wet. The number of soiled diapers per day varies greatly and does not matter as much.

You can also tell how much the infant is getting by weighing the infant. The advice given is a young newborn should gain ½ to 1 ounce every day and should be back to birth weight by 2 weeks old. This will be monitored at each pediatrician visit. However, I propose that it shouldn’t have to come to weighing the infant to know if he is gaining enough weight. If he is not gaining weight or losing weight, the health of the child is already compromised. But to get a ballpark estimate, a bathroom scale can be used to weigh the child. Weigh yourself then weigh yourself while holding the baby.

To feed an infant properly, it is important to recognize hunger signs. Most crying in the first few weeks of life, provided you are letting the child get ample sleep is likely due to hunger. Crying however is the last sign of hunger. I recommend The Blossom Method by Viviel Sabel. Sabel was raised by a deaf mother and learned how to read non-verbal cues as a form of communication. She used that skill to understand infants. The book is primarily directed at learning about infants 0 – 3 months old. It teaches how to read not just signs of hunger but how hungry a child is.

To judge how much your child should get in one feeding, if your baby is still crying after eating, he is probably still hungry. Breastfeeding advocates often say that a newborn should only get 0.5 – 1.5 oz. But as early as Day 3, a newborn may be up to needing 2 oz at each feeding. Our son very quickly went from 2 ounces to 3 ounces (at 3 weeks). He stayed at 4 ounces for quite some time. He finally went to 6 oz around 3.5 months and stayed there until well after 6 months. We only occasionally offered 8 oz at a feeding, not starting until around 8 months.

If your child is crying for extended lengths of time in those first few weeks, please consider the food issue and make sure, based on solid numbers, that is he getting enough to eat. It is not gas; it is not an upset stomach; he does not need swaddled; he does not need “SHHHHd”; he does not even need held; he needs fed. This is how to have the “happiest baby on the block.” Well-fed and well-rested babies are happy babies.

It was very shocking—and frustrating—to me how many relatives or friends helped me with the baby and always wanted to attribute his crying  to “gassiness” or “teething” or an “upset stomach.” Instead of offering food or putting the baby to bed, they would stuff teethers in the baby’s mouth or try to burp some “stubborn bubbles.” My normally happy baby, who I often got told does not act like a fussy baby, turned into a “typical” fussy baby that needed constant attention. When feeding him properly and letting him sleep when he wanted, he was happy, content, and (comparatively) low maintenance. Under the care of others with a different philosophy than mine, he needed constant attention. I have often been told I am “lucky” to have such a happy baby. But when under different caretakers, my baby acted differently. It was not luck: the different approaches mattered.

The second strong bit of advice I have for breastfeeding is plan for help with breastfeeding immediately after birth. I found that no amount of lactation consultations or reading could prepare me for breastfeeding. In fact, I think the consultations and reading were detrimental. The easiest way to do this is to hire a doula to help with breastfeeding.

I didn’t hire a doula for delivery because I thought a doula was an insult to my husband, suggesting I would want a doula, not him, as my labor coach. Indeed, actual delivery went well with my husband and I would not have wanted a doula for that (although it is really not a bad idea). However, breastfeeding can be very difficult. Neither Dads nor moms are usually equipped for it. You really have no idea what to expect—you are meeting your baby for the very first time. If you want to breastfeed immediately, having a trusted, competent person there may help. You are otherwise at the mercy of whatever nurse is on duty when you happen to deliver—an experience, I can tell you, that may be miserable.

A doula can also be given a list of things to do after delivery, perhaps phone calls that need made or paperwork that needs filled out. This will allow mom and dad to rest and enjoy baby. If you’ve never been through delivery, you will not be able to fully appreciate what I am saying when I say it is exhausting. But once you go through with it, you may very well thank me for suggesting getting some help to take care of these tasks, which seem like they should be easy—unless, well, you’ve just had a baby.

Doulas can also provide a handy way of dealing with pushy nurses: tell the nurses they are relieved of the duty of monitoring breastfeeding because you are in the hands of the doula. It is standard practice now to force mom to try to feed the baby every two hours. I have written an article on this, “Newborns Should Not be Forced on Their Mother’s Chest Every Two Hours After Birth.” A quote from the article: “Everyone needs to just plain STOP. Let mom and baby REST.” I think the aggressive tactics of hospital staff who try to enforce a rigid schedule of feeding every 2 hours is unnecessary, frustrating, and only serves to create panic. Babies are tired after birth, not hungry (except for the very first feeding within an hour after delivery). There is no need for such an aggressive schedule until mom’s milk comes in, around Day 3-5.Until then, let you and your baby sleep in the first few hours and days, something that used to be standard practice: you’ve been through a lot!

Finally I want to add that a newborn’s feeding schedule is relentless and exhausting. The first weeks are very, very difficult. New moms are not told this, but should be. The sleep deprivation is through the roof. No matter how hard you think pregnancy is, the 4th trimester is the hardest. I believe most postpartum problems are due to extreme sleep deprivation. A child may want to feed every 2 hours. If one feeding takes 40 minutes, do the math on how long you will be breastfeeding each day. Mother and baby may also run into technical issues with feeding, such as low milk supply or latching problems, which complicates everything all the more. There is a reason why rich women of the past sometimes handed off breastfeeding duties to a wet nurse.

Perhaps there are women with few technical issues and whose babies feed quickly; something I sincerely hope for all new moms. I am not trying to undercut breastfeeding but, really, moms-to-be need to be told how exhausting it can be. And, no, contrary to some people’s belief, nature does not automatically work perfectly, despite “years of evolution.” People should be reminded that until fairly recently, women sometimes died during birth. If you want to know why most births now go mostly well, it is due to modern medicine, not the hardening of women due to evolution. Similarly, breastfeeding is not an automatic process without complication. If you are aware of how difficult it will be though, you will be better prepared.

Really—consider what you are going to do to make things easy on yourself. Set yourself up for success in every way possible. Talk to your spouse about your feelings on how often you plan on feeding. Tell him about hunger signs and appropriate amounts of food an infant should get so he doesn’t panic when it seems like the infant is not getting enough. (I have heard this happening many times.) Again, I strongly recommend hiring a doula or lactation consultant to help you at birth and in the hours after.

I am of the belief new moms should be babied after delivery. Friends, relatives, and dad can take care of all household chores, cooking, and non-feeding baby chores (the latter preferably staying with dad) while mom does nothing except focus on breastfeeding. Of all the practices that could actually encourage women to continue breastfeeding past 1 month, I think this would work the best. To get through those exhausting weeks, I would often tell myself, “The only thing I am going to do today is focus on breastfeeding.” Realize also that the first 6-8 weeks are the hardest. If you can make it past this, everything should start to get easier. Consider it a milestone to get to: Get to it, then worry about anything after later. And don’t beat yourself up if you occasionally supplement!

Breast Pumps

Lactation consultants are very aggressive now (2012) with pumping. In my experience, there is no need to pump before your milk comes in (around Day 3 – 5). I found a baby can extract colostrum—the thick substance produced in the first few days after delivery—but a breast pump cannot. Lactation consultants argue that, even before your milk comes in, you should stimulate your nipples by using a breast pump. Let me ask you: is this “stimulation” really worth the enormous effort they are asking you to put in—10 minutes on each breast every 2 hours (4 hours a day!)—in the hours after you just went through labor?  It is extremely exhausting and frustrating to pump and have nothing come out. If a lactation consultant comes in to your hospital room and wants to leave the breast pump in your room, I recommend declining it.

Also, I found the hospital grade pumps were not any better than the Medela Pump in Style that I had at home. I have never gotten a good explanation on why hospital grade pumps are better. I don’t recommend renting one. My experience with that was awful. First, those things are rentals and like all rentals, they are not taken care of. To turn it on, I had to blast it at maximum strength then wind back down to a comfortable suction. That felt awesome on my nipples. Further, the paperwork to get the contract kept getting messed up. I continued to get call after call about the rented pump in the days after I left the hospital, waking me from sleep or getting me out of the bath—not something any sleep deprived mom will like.

Low Milk Supply

I would like to add an insight for any woman who is at risk for low milk supply, from breast surgery or other reasons, and wants to breast feed. I recommend taking very careful measurements of how much you are feeding your child and to plan on pumping. Pumping accomplishes two goals:  establishing the best possible milk supply and knowing how much you produce. In this unique situation, you really, really need to know how much you produce.

This is what I suggest to do: pump every 3 hours once your milk comes in, which is not until Day 3 – 5. If you pump aggressively like this, it will help establish a better milk supply. Also consider drinking mother’s milk tea which really does increase milk supply. I recommend being familiar with how much a baby should get in one day, and then comparing how much you produce to how much the baby needs. Feed the baby what you pump, supplementing with formula as needed. Perhaps bring the baby to your breast at least once or twice a day so he is used to it. Once you are confident with how much you produce and how much you need to supplement, you can perhaps stop pumping (regularly) if you want. The cycle may need repeated as the baby grows in his feeding needs. No, this may not be the most ideal solution, as breastfeeding provides a bonding experience that the breast pump does not. But this is a unique situation and some sacrifices will likely need to be made.

Boppies

I recommend getting a boppy. If you are bottle feeding, it gives a pillow to set the baby down at a nice angle in which your other hand can even be free. Get one for the upstairs and downstairs. If getting a “boppy” for breastfeeding, I recommend the “BrestFriend” pillow. They snap around your whole torso and you can attach it just below your chest like a shelf.

Bottles

Even if breastfeeding, I would recommend getting some bottles. They can be used as a backup in case breastfeeding doesn’t go as planned. Also, if you pump, they store the milk. And bottles allow dad to get involved.

But finding a good bottle is maddening! There is pretty much no bottle on Amazon that has 100% glowing reviews—each of them has several negative reviews.

I think I have figured out why there are no good bottles. It has to do with the BPA scare. This Amazon review explains the different plastics used in bottles really well. In short, bottles used to be made with Polycarbonate plastic, which is a hard, sturdy, clear plastic. However, due to the BPA scare, most manufacturers no longer use this for baby bottles. Most instead use polypropylene. Polypropylene has a milky appearance (like a milk jug) and is flimsier. To accommodate for this, extra parts must be added to the bottle, making it more cumbersome to use and clean. Also, the bottles must be assembled with more care. If they are not assembled correctly, they will leak.

As such, many of the reviewers on Amazon show their frustration with the bottles. Many ask, “Why can’t they make a clear bottle?” or “Why can’t they make them with less parts like they used to?” Many of the reviews complain about leaks—a problem much more likely to happen with the BPA-free plastic bottles. Update in 2018: The bottles seem to be getting better than they used to be. Many no longer come with the O ring anymore, so there is less parts. The most popular brand probably will do.

Another question I had was the mix and match ability of bottles: how well would a nipple from one brand fit on the bottle of another? I found there are essentially two sizes: standard and wide-base. Standard bottles can, in theory, be mixed and matched. The threading on certain bottles don’t work quite as well with others sometimes. The wide base are convenient for dumping formula in as there is a wider diameter to work with. A particular company’s wide base bottle probably will not work with another company’s.

As an FYI, there are some bottles that are designed for babies with colic. They have a very complicated system with an insert and there are many parts to assemble and clean. For me, I had them on reserve as something to try if my baby had colic. Some brands that are designed for this are Dr. Browns, BornFree, and MAM anti-colic bottles. The reviews of these usually complain about all of the parts but these are designed for a special purpose and it is difficult to get the best of every world.

After working with the bottles, one strong recommendation I have is to buy nipples with slow, medium, and fast flow rates. Slow is typically for a 0 – 3 months old; medium for 3 – 6 months; and fast for 6 months or over. It really does make a difference and yes, time will fly. Your baby will be 3 months, then 6 months in seemingly no time at all! Unfortunately, not all nipple products clearly mark the rates. Evenflo nipples do not mark the nipples clearly. The currently popular Avent bottles do.

I found mixing formula to be difficult. At first I had to shake the bottle vigorously to get it to mix. I found that if the bottle was tipped upside down and at an angle, it mixed like magic.

When going out away from home, we found ready-to-feed formula was a real convenience. Especially convenient were formula bottles that acted as its own bottle with threading at the neck thus only needed a nipple put on it. Similac is the only brand I know of that offers this. There are two-ounce and eight-ounce bottles. This suggestion out of the way: if you want to breast feed in public, I am 100% for your right to do this, in whatever manner you find most comfortable!

If you have the opportunity to go to a baby expo, definitely go! Perhaps there are mothers you know and you can take a look at their bottles. Shopping for bottles without being able to get them out of their package and look at them is difficult. Also, once you buy them, I strongly encourage you to practice or at least understand how to make a bottle of formula. You may never need the skill. But when you need to do it at 3 am when you first bring your baby home, it comes in handy.

Sleeping

A very close second important topic after feeding is sleeping. Want a happy, alert baby? Make sure he gets good sleep.

The two main competing philosophies about a sleep schedule are on-demand sleeping versus a schedule. Being a person who favors routine, I was totally on board with a scheduled routine. But in reading about babies, I have found that it may not be that simple and as with all things with baby, it is time sensitive.

The recommendation given in Baby 411, a book written by 2 pediatricians, was to do whatever you have to in order to get the baby to sleep (holding, rocking, etc.) in the first 2 months and especially the first 2 weeks. At 2 months, you can start to transition the baby to a schedule. The transition should be complete by 4 months.

The argument is that a less-than-2-month-old is not self-aware and is not neurologically ready to soothe himself in order to go to sleep. The Baby 411 book was very clear on their position that letting a 0 – 2 month old infant “cry it out” was cruel.

To get better answers and a full picture to sleep questions, I read the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. I found it somewhat difficult to follow the book’s recommended timelines for sleep advice. It was very difficult to pin down exact times. To try to get a full picture, I highlighted every single instance where it mentioned a time-sensitive sleep milestone then tried to put them together to form a consistent picture. Here is the highest level, simplest overall timeline that I could come up with of sleep milestones that are repeated frequently throughout the book. Also note that these times are calculated from the due date not the birth date:

If you are like I am and panicked a little when you saw that sleeping would be chaotic in the first few weeks, you can rest assured that the author promises that responding properly in the first few weeks by avoiding the over-tired state and soothing to sleep will prevent sleep problems in the future. The over-tired state is when the baby has gone past drowsy to over-tired and, just like adults, stimulating hormones kick in at this stage. It makes it very difficult to fall asleep.

Probably the most difficult question to answer in this was “when can the baby self soothe?” This means letting the baby fall asleep on his own, without soothing techniques such as holding, rocking, and sucking. The earliest that Healthy Sleep Habits recommends this is at 6 weeks old. But at 6 weeks, the book says only to let the baby go a few minutes while crying and evaluate after that. The author says in another place that he wants to be “very clear” that self-soothing does not occur until 4 months.

Advice that I thought was really good, which was in both Baby 411 and Healthy Sleep Habits, was to watch for drowsy signs in your child and put the child to bed while drowsy but awake. The child then gets used to falling asleep in his own bed. This is advice that can be practiced from Day 0. In Healthy Sleep Habits, it says to go ahead and do this “if possible” in weeks 0 – 3. It also says that in young children, older children, and teenagers, this is really the ideal time to go to sleep. Basically, this advice always applies, probably even for adults. But after a certain age, going to bed “by the clock” becomes an acceptable estimate, and watching for drowsy signs from the very start is one of the most important parts of sleep training.

In Healthy Sleep Habits, it promises that “perfect timing” in as far as watching for drowsy signs will produce “no crying” at night. (Note: This was true for my first two children but not my 3rd! My third seemed to absolutely need humans to sleep with him.) The perfect time is when the baby or child first starts to get tired, which can be observed by a slight decrease in activity or a slight fading of the eyes among some other signs. Crying is the last symptom that a child is sleepy.

Around 8 weeks, we started putting the baby in his crib after the 9:00 pm feeding. He fell asleep easily for us and slept at first for only 3 hours, then 5, then 6-7 hours at 3 months old. At 4 months, he was out like a light at 6 pm, which is the time when we started noticing sleepy signs. He indeed slept for about 9 hours (until 3 am) at this age. No crying! It is noticeable that he is in a very deep sleep at nighttime; it is different than sleep during the day.

I found an elaborate bedtime routine was unnecessary. There is nothing wrong with a bedtime routine but I found it was not necessary. We watched for drowsy signs, changed him, and put him to bed. That was all we did, and he was routinely out like a light bulb at bedtime. While the routine is fun in many ways, it can also exhaust mom and dad night after night. We started a bedtime routine at 18 months.

A bit of advice that made sense to me, from Baby 411, was that the crib should have nothing except a mattress and a tight fitted sheet in it. No blankets, toys, or anything extra. To keep the baby warm, a sleep sack can be worn (get a fun color!), or a sleeper, and also some people advocate swaddling. We also bought darkening curtains to give the baby the best environment for sleep possible. I am very strong in my belief that the nursery should be boring—void of stimulating things such as mobiles—in order to give the best chance for sleep. When the baby first awakens, to reinforce sleep patterns, open the curtains to let sunlight in and do stimulating activities. When it is time for bed, do the opposite by calming the baby and darkening the room.

As far as swaddling, I was often told that it makes the baby “feel like they are in the womb” and thus comforts them. I don’t really buy the argument. It sounds decent in theory but is it grounded in fact? Parents, including ones who swear by swaddling, tell me their baby wiggled their way out of the swaddle. I did not find swaddling to work for us. My son would break out of it before I could finish it. Granted, I didn’t have the heart to do it very well. When the baby is gassy, he kicks and moves to get gas bubbles out. I think it is important the baby have freedom to do this. If you do swaddle, bear in mind it will likely only be useful in the first 3 months.

Bumper Pads

One of the very first controversies that I came across when researching infants was bumper pads. Bumper pads are pads that go around the crib. They are meant to provide a soft environment for the child.

I read two books that were both written by medical professionals that had different advice. One was The Mayo Clinic’s Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy. The other was Baby 411, which is written by two pediatricians. The Mayo Clinic book said to have the bumper pads. Baby 411 said to get rid of them.

At first, I was very, very frustrated by this. But then I started to ask why each had different advice. The Mayo Clinic book said a child could kick and punch and the bumper pads would provide a soft environment to protect against bumps and bruises. The Baby 411 book said the extra padding in the crib can increase the risk of SIDS.

By asking the “why” for each argument, I was able to come up with a clearer picture about bumper pads. If the worry is the child will kick and punch, infants really don’t start moving around until they are older, rolling over at about 6 months. Our son first rolled over at 4 months and routinely started rolling over at 5 months. The risk for SIDS, however, is highest when the child is 0 – 6 months. When more information is found out about both positions, a clearer answer comes into view: Don’t use bumper pads for the first ~6 months when the risk of SIDS is higher, but when they are older and rolling and kicking, consider using bumper pads. Some bumper pads are made of mesh, which reduces the risk of SIDS. There may be some overlap between the time when the risk of SIDS is still present and they are kicking and punching. Parents will have to decide which risk they would rather take.

One of the things I wish these baby books would do a better job of is giving a timeline of when their advice would apply. Usually they have an age in mind, but they don’t state it. I have found that infants go through very rapid changes and the parent must anticipate and expect them. Bottom line is everything about child raising is time sensitive. Advice on babies should always be time-stamped.  

Baby swings and bouncers

One of the things I did when I started to look for baby products was to go on Amazon. First, they have their “jumpstart” items where they recommend 15 baby items that every new parent just has to have. Amazon also has customer reviews of products. It was at first very persuasive to me to take the recommendations of users.

One of the jumpstart items on Amazon is a baby swing. Also, the reviews of many of the baby swings are glowing. It was really easy to think I just had to have one.

However, most baby books advised against baby swings (even, ironically, ones that happily advocate Happiest Baby on the Block, which advocates swinging as one of the 5 “S”s). The conflicting advice, this time between regular parents and medical professionals, frustrated me. I found if I asked “why” I could get a better picture.

What I found is that baby swings may make things easier on the parent but they are not necessarily best for the baby.  The baby books often describe the swings as like putting the child in front of the TV. If the baby is fussy, a parent may put him in the swing. The swing rocks him and puts him in a zombie-like state, completely distracting the baby over what was upsetting him. Swings also provide entertainment for your child. One of the bouncers on Amazon is literally named “Babysitter Balance” (emphasis mine). 

This kind of advice is constant from other parents. There are many products that they rave about from swings to jumperoos. But look at why they like it—usually they say, “it lets me do the dishes!” or “the baby is entertained for hours!” Personally, if the baby is crying or fussy, I want to find out why and address the actual issue, not put him in a swing. Also, I want to actively engage my child, not fix him up with some device that is going to provide entertainment for him. While at first it may be more effort to tend to a child’s needs, I believe if the child learns to entertain himself, the dividends will pay off in the long run.

I have read that for extreme cases, such as an extremely colicky baby—where  there is unexplained crying for 3 hours or more per day at least 3 days a week—a  swing can be useful. I am sympathetic to the parents of a colicky baby and do not judge them for doing what they have to in order to calm their baby. Baby 411 recommends probiotics for colic, boasting a 95% reduction in crying. I cannot personally attest to if this works or not.

As such, in general, I suggest taking Amazon reviews with a grain of salt. Once you know what product you want, by all means check out reviews, but don’t let the reviews drive what product you buy.

I do, however, recommend getting several very comfortable bouncers like this one or a sleep rocker like this one. Put them in whatever room the baby might be in, such as the living room, bedroom, and bathroom. They provide cozy little beds that you can put the baby in. When the baby can roll and move, he can be on the floor, allowed to be free. Until then, you will probably use some kind of baby holder.

As far as any worry about putting the baby in an uncomfortable position that might disfigure the child, the worst offender is the car seat. Car seats are designed for safety and that is all; they are not designed for comfort or ventilation. I cannot believe parents keep their children in car seats when not in the car. Bouncy seats usually keep the baby straight from rump to head. I would not worry about disfigurement from bouncy seats.

Walkers

I read the book Welcome to Your Child’s Brain. I didn’t really like the book … but I digress. In this book, the authors argued that if the baby’s feet are stimulated more, the child will walk sooner. They gave the example of people in different cultures who do aggressive stretches and exercises with the baby’s feet and the babies walk sooner.

I accepted the advice at first. I thought about a way I could stimulate my baby’s feet and I thought of a walker. However, walkers are strongly advised against now. The American Pediatrics Association advises against them. They are, first, a safety risk as the child can get into more or fall down the stairs. Also, they are known to cause developmental problems as the child tries to learn how to actually walk.

Really, as far as trying to stimulate my baby’s legs and feet, I was just being lazy. Even if I wanted to do this, there are better ways to do it than using a walker. I personally know a child that fell down the stairs after running around in a walker. I am not planning on getting a walker. (Have you noticed my baby registry was really cheap!)

This cuts at the core of a major parenting issue, which is letting the child grow naturally or stimulating him. In this issue, using the walker, the baby is able to “walk” at an earlier stage but with the aid of a prop. I have come to the conclusion that, even if my child’s accomplishments aren’t as impressive as, say “walking” at 8 months of age, I want his accomplishments to be real. Instead of, for instance, aiding him up the stairs at a young age, let him crawl on his own. I think this will help instill self-confidence and genuine independence. 

Instead of buying a walker, why not buy a walker wagon? The walker wagon gives the child an aid to support his weight, but the child himself must push the wagon. It gives an assist to the child without having parental involvement by trying to hold the baby’s hands and walk—and parents typically walk too fast for the little one. Our son used his wagon to stand up at 5 months, which he loves, and to walk, supported, at 8 months.

Pacifiers

Pacifiers are not favored by most books on raising an infant. Baby 411 advises if you use them at all to wean the child off of it by 6 months.

Magda Gerber in Your Self-Confident Baby recommends against them altogether. She argues that if a child wants to suck on something, they can suck on their thumb. Their thumb is always available, giving them total control of when they use it. A pacifier can fall out and the child is not capable of putting it back in their mouth. It was described in Baby 411 as falling asleep with a pillow but then waking up in the middle of the night with it gone. It frustrates the child just like it would frustrate you.

I found the argument of “let the child suck his thumb” to be persuasive. However, the other piece of advice was to let the child suck on your fingers if nothing else is soothing him. I didn’t really want to do that, at least not all of the time. As such, I got a pacifier. I recommend having a pacifier right from birth—but only use it for the first 6 weeks of life.

The advice about pacifiers should be to use them but don’t abuse them. I mentioned that I would use the bathroom fan, white noise, to calm the baby so I could take a shower. I use this trick in a limited way for a specific reason. The same should be applied to pacifiers. A pacifier is a great assist in numerous situations. For instance, there may be times when you, as a mom, are home alone, and you need to do something before you can tend to your child, say prepare a bottle. The child will wail and wail. A pacifier can help greatly to calm him down while you can’t get to him. Or, while changing his diaper, he may cry. A pacifier comes in handy.

There are some parents that use a pacifier as their only tool to get a child to calm down. This is wrong in my opinion. Most of the time, a parent should be able to evaluate their child and figure out what is wrong and address the actual problem, not just put a pacifier in their mouth.

I found that a pacifier was mostly not needed past 6 weeks. After 6 weeks, I only used it in extremely unusual circumstances.

Breastfeeding advocates argue giving a pacifier in the first weeks of life will interfere with breastfeeding. I think the advice of breastfeeding advocates when it comes to things like pacifiers is a little overzealous and, unfortunately, a bit loud. I am a proponent of breastfeeding, but their advice is often too broad. If anything anywhere can be abused, they want to wholesale advise against it for all women in all situations despite what value something might have. From either books on breastfeeding, breastfeeding classes, or lactation consultants, I have read / been told all of the following: don’t give a pacifier in the first weeks of life, don’t introduce a bottle right away, don’t get the epidural, don’t use a boppy, certainly don’t use any breastfeeding position except the standard ones taught, and let the baby breastfeed as long as desired. They say it is to prevent “nipple confusion” or a host of other reasons, but really I think they are worried moms will stuff a pacifier in the child’s mouth when what he or she really needs is to be fed.   

Baby carriers

Before I got pregnant, I thought a baby carrier would be unnecessary as, if I had to do chores, I thought I could just put the baby down for some alone time. I didn’t understand why others wouldn’t do this. I found out why: the baby won’t let you! He is fussy (probably gassy or going through a “leap”) and wants to be held—or, at least, being held calms him down. Before I had the carrier, if he was fussy like this, I would have to walk him around and around … and around. I bought a baby carrier and during fussy times where he is not hungry or sleepy but just wants held, I strapped him on me and walked around and did chores. At least I was able to get something done while he was fussy. It is admittedly harder to do certain chores with a baby strapped to you. The need to calm the baby down like this probably only applies to a very young baby, for the first 6-8 weeks. At this time, the baby is unexplainably fussy sometimes.

I also use the baby carrier when shopping. Shopping carts simply don’t hold a car seat well. I also use the baby carrier on vacation, especially at amusement or theme parks. On most attractions, you are not allowed to take a stroller through the line. Without a baby carrier, you would otherwise have to hold the baby the whole time.

Nail and Skin Care

Since I’ve seen so many people complain about drawing blood when cutting their infant’s nails and also not understand why you might need a nail file for a baby, I am including a section on nail care. I have read more than once that a newborn’s nails are usually scraggly but their nail and skin may be fused. Thus, if you use nail clippers, it may draw blood. This is why a nail file is suggested for the first few weeks. I found this electronic nail filer. I found this filer worked well enough for the very first nail trim. It was under powered though, and it took forever. I only had to use it once. After the baby was about 2 months old, I used nail clippers exclusively and successfully.

For bathing, a bath is usually only recommended 2-3 times per week. More than this interferes with the baby’s natural oils, but do wash the baby’s hair at least twice a week, otherwise the baby may get cradle cap.

Here are some videos that I found useful for newborn care:

·         Sponge bath

·         Umbilical Cord Care

·         Circumcision Care

·         Diapering

Personally, I think that competently handling all of the everyday stuff with your child is one of the most important things you can do. All of the other stuff about independence versus attachment parenting or stimulating the child or not is much less important than if the child is in competent hands. I think it would very much affect the child if, in the course of your care for him, you are drawing blood or otherwise hurting the child. As such, I want to make a suggestion of how to become competent at everyday care: Buy a lifelike newborn doll and practice on it.

I have read online moms wanting to do this and other moms mocking the woman for wanting to do it. “A doll can’t mimic a fussy baby!” No, it doesn’t, and that’s why it is perfect. I work in the field of modeling and simulation, specifically using modeling and simulation to train people, and let me make my pitch for why practicing on a still doll is better than practicing on a fussy baby. When practicing on a model, it removes all clutter and distractions and allows the person practicing to focus on the essentials of what they are doing. If practicing on a fussy baby, instead of focusing on how to do it right, you are distracted by the fussing and crying and you probably just want to get it over with. By using the still doll, you take your time, think of questions, and set up good habits to do it right. If you practice several times over, it will become habit. You will do it effortlessly and without thought. Then add the extra complication of a moving baby.

I found going through the videos and practicing on a doll was useful. It highlighted exactly what materials we were missing and had to go shopping for. It made us think about where we would do some of these activities and it allowed me to get dad involved and confident early on. I think it increased our confidence at least by 30% and reduced any possible frustrations, such as not having materials, by probably 200%.

Diapering

There is something to be said about investing in good diapering products. We bought the highest recommended diapers. We have more expensive wipes, which have lanolin in them, which is a powerful moisturizer. We put petroleum jelly on our child after every soiled diaper, and we bathed him at least twice a week. He stayed diaper-rash free, even when he had the stomach flu. During periods of the stomach flu, I used Triple Paste very frequently to stave off diaper rash.

Diaper pails

I had read an online article that said diaper pails were glorified trash cans. But, as a mom- to-be that didn’t want a smelly nursery, I considered them. They all put some type of chemical on the diapers to reduce the smell and try to lock in the diapers to keep out the smell.

When shopping, I simply wasn’t able to find a diaper pail with a design I like. The “Diaper Pail” that uses baking soda didn’t have a foot pedal to open it. The reviews of the Diaper Genie said it breaks often, which is also what other moms I know personally have told me. Also, I couldn’t help but notice that they all depend on refills, which can get expensive. So I just plain didn’t get one. We used a normal trash can, emptied twice a week, and did not have much of a problem.

I have my own suggestion for this: Use a normal trash can and attach a febreeze to the lid.

Bath tubs

When a baby is first born they should get a “sponge” bath. Really it is now a “washcloth” bath. I would sometimes do this kind of bath when changing the child with a wet, warm washcloth. I also brought my young baby in the tub with me, being super careful, because I needed the break and I liked the skin to skin contact. I used the “Whale of a tub” when the baby got older. It is quicker and I don’t have to get in if busy. Once our son figured out how to splash, bath time was pure hilarity!! It is hard for me to believe that before I had my first child, I thought bath time would be a chore!

Here is a tip on taking a shower: Bring a bouncer into the bathroom and put the baby in it. Turn on the fan. It will calm the baby so you can take a shower. The sound of the shower will also calm the baby. This only works for the first few months.

Regarding baby towels, they are flimsy. I didn’t really like them. I just used a regular towel and wrapped the baby in it. It is big and warm and fluffy and cozy.

Clothing

For some reason, everyone always seems to think babies are cold. It is a source of major henpecking from other women to mothers: you better keep your baby warm! Women near me in Florida worry about what mittens to buy. What kind of blizzard do they think they are going to encounter in Florida? (Although mittens may be convenient to stop a baby’s nails from scratching himself or mom and dad.)

I have to wonder: have these women ever held a baby? Babies are piping hot! Absolutely every bit of professional advice that I’ve gotten has said that babies are typically kept too warm and this is a source of heat rash. The advice from both books and classes I have taken is that the baby’s ability to regulate heat is similar to an adult’s and thus what you wear, the baby wears.

Not only do I think you should not put layers of clothes on your baby, I have read and recommend letting him be without clothes as much as possible (diaper or naked)—if at your house and if warm of course. It helps the baby have more precise control over his body.  

Getting sick

I wanted to be prepared if my child were to get sick. I am a hyper note taker and documenter but I stopped myself from writing down all of the advice in all of the books I was reading. Instead, I got a handy reference. I recommend this book: My Child is Sick: Expert Advice for Managing Common Illnesses and Injuries.

When your child is 15 months, which is when they can probably walk and follow simple instructions, I strongly recommend teaching them how to wash their own hands, using a two-step step stool. When my son started going to a Montessori school at 18 months, they emphasized hand washing and he never got sick one. A strong commitment to hand washing can go a really long way towards preventing illness.

Delivery

One of the very first books I ever read about babies (well before becoming pregnant) was Montessori books. In particular, The Absorbent Mind is a good one to read because Montessori describes in scientific detail all of the wonders and maturation of a child, from conception. It is a really great book to make you appreciate the miracle that is life.

One of the things argued in this book is that any amount of mishandling the child at delivery can cause problems for the child into adulthood. The first hours of life are the most sensitive. Sheargues that the first minutes/hour of a child’s life should be handled with intimacy and care and to forget measuring the child right away, shuffling him or her around from one set of busy hands to another. That advice was with me for a long time; it was long something I wanted to do.

I was worried that hospitals wouldn’t respect this. For a period of time, they probably wouldn’t have. But I have good news: things are changing! They are changing just now in fact. The hospital I was with is transitioning to make “Skin to Skin” standard procedure. I am giving you the term so hopefully it can help you discuss what you want with your doctor. The baby, once born, is immediately put on mom’s chest, skin to skin. All medical tests are done while the baby is on mom’s chest. The baby stays there until the first feeding, and it is the baby that indicates he is hungry by rooting for the breast. When that happens, you can feed the baby. It is in my opinion much better than having the baby rushed off then coming back perhaps 1-2 hours later and having a nurse try to force the baby onto your breast.

Like I said, the transition is just taking place now. When I asked about it in February of 2012, my doctor said she had done it for just the past 5 deliveries! The hospital is pushing to making it standard practice. I encourage you to ask your doctor about it.

We did skin-to-skin contact when my son was born and I am so glad we did. When my son was born, of course he was crying. They put him on my chest. I kept talking and talking to him trying to calm down. Then there was a moment when, I swear, he looked me in the eyes, seemed to recognize me, and calmed down. It was obvious that while on my chest, he was looking at stuff, with each of his senses being activated.

My husband took notice of how well prepared I was for delivery. I had some things that are not typically recommended that I think helped a lot:

·         Indoor slip on shoes: Something to walk around the hospital in. If you have a pair of indoor shoes for your house or a favorite pair of comfortable sandals, those are perfect. I don’t recommend buying anything new for the hospital; bring what you are already familiar and comfortable with.

·         Organized electronic chargers: In our house, we organized all phone, iPad, and Kindle chargers in one place so we always know where they are. My husband liked that he knew to just grab them and take them.

·         Adult diapers or Very large menstrual pads: Okay, this may seem laughable and weird, but after you deliver, you may be gushing blood (and if you are excessively bleeding, please be aware it may be a problem!). The hospital will give you mesh panties with gigantic pads to wear. This is basically an adult diaper, except it’s a poor one. May as well bring good ones. The pads, designed for this, may be better.

·         Ear plugs: We did not bring these but wish we did. There is a lot of medical equipment in the delivery room. If you are trying to sleep, ear plugs may help.

·         Nipple shield: This may help breastfeeding. One mom I know called these “training wheels” for breastfeeding. If you deliver late at night, the hospital will probably not have these available right away. I recommend buying one, knowing how to put it on, and having it in your hospital bag.

·         Baby Wipes: Hospital wipes aren’t that good. We brought and used our own.

·         Squeezable Vaseline: The hospital will provide this but I just wanted to mention that in order to put Vaseline on a circumcision or a baby’s bum, the squeezable kind is better. If you buy some and have it in your bag or house, get the squeezable stuff.

·         Pillows: A nice pillow from home will beat any hospital pillow.

·         Baby outfit that buttons or zips in the front: Our son had an IV in his arm when he went home so we could not fit a onesie on him. Thankfully, one of the outfits I brought buttoned down the front so we could fit his arm in the sleeve.

·         Know how to use the baby gear: Be sure to have at least the car seat installed by week 36. Make sure to know how to use the stroller. Really, this is much more important than decorating the nursery!

·         Don’t bring: You will be in a hospital gown most of the time so don’t bring a lot of clothes. Your baby will be in a diaper and blanket most of the time so he does not need a lot of clothes. Dad will need a lot of clothes.

Also, if you don’t want phone calls, I recommend putting your phone on silent. I was able to sleep during some parts of labor and a phone ringing was not welcome. People thought it was okay to call my husband’s phone but not my phone. Do they not think he is in the exact same room as me? If a couple is in labor and they haven’t called you yet, don’t call all the time for an update. But since you cannot control your friends and family, you can, if desired, turn the phone off or on silent. Text messages are okay and even welcome, but I hated to hear that damn phone ring.

Arranging for Help After Delivery

Before delivering, I was very conflicted on if I would need help after delivery. The answer is yes. First I want to stress that delivery is a major medical event. It is similar to having major surgery. If you’ve ever had major surgery, you can compare it to that. You probably won’t be able to get around very well; every muscle in your body hurts; you will get very bad cramping; and a host of other potential problems. You will likely be unable to do even light household chores. After being in a hospital, you may even catch an infection. I caught two—first a sinus infection and then a stomach infection. They kicked my butt and while I was violently throwing up every 20 minutes, I wanted to yell uncle.

Now add on top of this a completely chaotic schedule. You may think you are going to get up and eat breakfast … until a doctor calls who needs something, and the baby starts wailing or needs a diaper changed, not to mention the number of friends and family who want to call you. Your spouse can only carry so much of the load. Someone to cook for you, do your dishes, drive you around, and deal with phone calls will probably be welcome. Plan for help for the first 3 weeks at least.

In my opinion, mothers should be babied immediately after delivery. Surrounding people should do everything for her including house chores and non-breastfeeding baby duties like diapering (the latter preferably done by dad—to keep baby chores with the parents), leaving mom to focus on nothing except breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is exhausting. It is physically demanding on mom and she has to do it every 3 hours, for weeks on end. Really, this is the source of postpartum problems, very real problems that are not fully recognized or understood. Now is not the time to play super hero. You created life; you already are a super hero. Set yourself up for success and get the help you need.

I will warn though that inviting relatives into your home can result in a fight over how to raise the baby. I have heard of this happening over and over again. Dear relatives: Just help the new parents by doing things; don’t lecture on what to do or not to do.  Let mom and dad tend to most baby chores while letting relatives do everything else. If you are a relative and you want to help the parents observe their child, don’t interpret the signals but simply state what signals you see: the child is licking her lips or her eyes are droopy or her face is red. Let the parents do the interpreting. Parents will love when you take interest in and notice things about their child!

Even though taking care of the child is hard, keep all duties pertaining to the child with mom and dad, not relatives. It is really important that parents and baby get good one-on-one time in those first weeks so mom and dad can observe their baby and correctly interpret the baby’s signals. If relatives take over, it drives a wedge between parent and baby. The best scenario is to have someone you already know, trust, and get along with come help you, who you have fully talked with about what their role should be.

Someone said to me once that they would not want to come in the first few days of life as to not disrupt the bonding time between parents and baby. But if the relative comes and simply do chores like cooking and cleaning, there should be no risk of that. In fact, it should strengthen bonding between parents and baby as the parents are liberated to focus solely on the baby. The problem is most relatives don’t see their role as simply supporting mom and dad but as interfering with the baby. If you make it clear that they should only cook and clean, then help in the first 3 weeks is most critical. Yes, it will be hard to do all baby chores yourself. But if you have help, it is easier. I really recommend not giving up baby chores, no matter how hard they are.

I recommend arranging for a massage within one week after delivery and a dentist appointment within 4 weeks. Here is the reality: after delivery, every muscle in your body will hurt. Staying in a hospital bed can be taxing. From holding and looking at the baby, you may develop a kink somewhere, perhaps in your neck. You can’t take care of a baby while in this pain. Seriously, do it. Also, while pregnant, your teeth will take a beating. Your overall hygiene in the hospital and when you get home will probably take a hit. It is a good idea to get a teeth cleaning as soon as possible.  

Finally, if I could do it over again, I would spend more time focusing on making freeze-ahead meals for myself for the weeks that followed delivery. It was on my list of things to do, but I delivered 3 weeks early. Really, I should have made this a top priority. It would have come in much handier than a clean house or a pristine nursery. Alternatively, many places are offering take out now. Our local Publix has ready made meals near the meat section. They are affordable and good.

Toys

The best advice I have found about toys is that passive toys encourage an active child; active toys encourage a passive child.

A passive toy is, for instance, blocks. The child must actively pick them up and manipulate them when playing with them. An active toy is for instance the TV. The TV is very active while the child sits passively being entertained.

I have read conflicting advice on getting toys that stimulate your child versus letting the natural world around him stimulate him. A mobile is a basic example. It is a brightly colored toy that hangs over the baby and he can look at it. At first, I very much wanted to provide my child with many sensory experiences. But the Magda Gerber book advices against it, preferring instead for the natural world to stimulate the child. What to do!

For the issue of the mobile, I think the crib should be for sleeping only. Gerber describes the mobile as something the baby cannot look away from. She describes how the baby can instead look at light coming in the window for real learning about the real world.

Post baby, I am very glad we did not use a mobile with our son. Instead of looking at the same exact thing 6 inches in front of his face while he lied down most of the day, he moved his head around, absorbing everything in the room. People have commented to me about how very curious and alert our son is. I am very proud of this and I partially credit the fact that we did not use a mobile.

Most baby books do advocate some toys, such as a cloth scarf, soft blocks, keys, and fill and dump toys. But Baby 411 points out that simple kitchen items can be a big hit, such as measuring cups. Who doesn’t have a picture of themselves getting into the pots and pans when they were young? The more real a toy can be, in my opinion, the better.

This is also something I read in Montessori books. Montessori discourages fantasy play. For instance, a fake kitchen for a child is an example of fantasy play. The child doesn’t actually cook anything. I don’t ever remember being enamored with such fake toys as a child. In a Montessori school, the children actually participate in cooking and cleaning.

In general, I think that again everything is time sensitive and should be put in context. I am persuaded by Magda Gerber’s argument to let the natural world stimulate your child. However, while I agree with a lot of what Gerber says about infants, I did not like what she said about young children very much at all. She argues that it doesn’t matter if a child learned to read at 4 or 5 or 6—that natural play is better than structured learning at this age. The ages of 3-7 are an age when children want to learn. I have known 4-year-olds that tell their moms, “Mom, I would like to learn how to read.” You would have a hard time convincing me that I shouldn’t be teaching my child stuff at this age. It goes against every instinct in my body about parenting. I think if you don’t take advantage of this time, you are really missing a golden opportunity.

If you read a lot of philosophies that advocate natural play, I encourage you to also read books that advocate stimulation to get a balanced viewpoint. One book that I would recommend is The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori which talks explicitly about how children’s mind are like a sponge at a certain age and how to take advantage of it. Another book by Dr. Montessori is Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook.

I also really recommend reading Wonder Weeks for recommendations of what kind of stimulation to provide at what age. Wonder Weeks even advocates that the first 3 months should be mostly bonding between parent and baby. Stimulation doesn’t play a big role until after this, getting more and more intense as the child gets older.

I don’t remember the time frame (around 9 weeks), but at some point it became obvious my son loved to hear adults talking. I was home with him alone during the day so I started reading to him. I read long books so he could hear me talking continuously. He totally lit up when I talk or read to him. How proud I was when I read to him for the first time and he let out a loud, sharp, “AHHH!” It was as if he was trying to talk to me! I enjoy reading the “Classic Starts” which whittle down classics like Robinson Crusoe into kid friendly sizes. Fun for mom, fun for baby. However, ironically, at some point you should transition to traditional infant books. The goal is to make speech attractive with nursery rhymes, noise books, etc. 

I can agree that “stimulation” in the form of walkers, swings, TV, video games, and on and on are artificial and not helpful to the child. I can also agree that if my child is actively interested in something “real,” I will let him be interested in it and not try to sway him with a toy. However, I believe that stimulation such as books, quality toys, and yes, structured learning, are very good for the child, provided it is age appropriate. I have seen both the following: parents trying to engage their child but the child is so obviously entranced by something real taking place, such as steam coming from the kitchen or an umbrella swaying in the wind, that they ignore the parents’ stimulation, but I’ve also seen children being ignored and obviously bored out of their mind. The children who are entranced by the natural environment tend to be younger. The children who are bored tend to be older.  So, I think the Gerber advice is good for younger children but breaks down for older children. There is certainly no need to provide stimulation to a 0 – 6 week old; everything is new to them. But the older the child, the more stimulation is needed. I have a budding theory that natural play versus stimulation is based on when the child can do things. When the child has control over his hands, give him something to hold. When he has control over his feet, give him something to climb on. When he can read, give him books of his own. And so on. Again, everything is time sensitive.

As I am indeed in the business of training people, I have some more insight. Up until the early 2000s, the thought was that the only way to train people was to make training as real as possible. However, the new thought is that, while virtual training should primarily mimic real operations, virtual training can actually do more than this to great benefit. For example, if training a firefighter, it is helpful to train a novice without a blazing hot fire in their face at first, then slowly crank up this stress in training. Or, a virtual environment can train unusual or emergency situations better. Of course, virtual training allows for training with minimal actual injury. These same principles can be applied to teaching children. Indeed, there should be a strong element in realism in all that a child encounters. But applying intelligence behind the kind of toys and games provided to the child can be a great benefit, sometimes even being an improvement over real world stimulation.

High-level good advice

Finally, this is some of the high-level advice I’ve gotten that makes a lot of sense to me and I plan on following:

From Magda Gerber’s book, it is recommended that before you do anything with your baby, tell them what you are about to do. She asks the reader to imagine they lived in a world of giants who pick them up and do things do them without having any idea what is about to happen. It is true that at first the infant won’t understand you, but one day they will. It will also teach him to have a bigger vocabulary and make a connection between words and reality.

Treat crying as a form of communication. This advice is from Gerber’s book and Parent Effectiveness Training. The goal is not to pacify the crying, but to decode it. There is so much that can go wrong in how crying is treated. If treated as something that needs pacified, it sets the ground work for the child learning that crying is a way to manipulate mom and dad. If not decoded properly, the child’s genuine wants and needs are not getting satisfied. He may learn that attempts at communication are futile. I really believe the way a parent treats a child’s crying will set the groundwork for how the child communicates in older years.

From Parent Effectiveness Training, decoding a child’s cues never stops, even when they can talk. A child may not explicitly say what he wants. Parent Effectiveness Training advocates answering most children’s questions and frustrations with more questions. A child may say “when is dinner ready?” Ask why they want dinner—it may be that they are hungry or it may be that they want to go out and play. Don’t assume anything. From an early age, I want to encourage my child to verbalize to me what is wrong, even if it is something as simple as “I’m hungry” or “I’m tired.” When they go to the doctor, I want them to talk to the doctor about what they are experiencing. As they get older, this skill of introspection and communication will be very valuable and apply to vastly more complicated situations.

My favorite bit of advice is to let children solve their own problems. I could go on and on about this, so I’ll limit this to one story. I was playing a game with children that had small pieces. One of the pieces fell behind the bed. I asked one little girl if she could go get it. An adult in the room gasped and thought I was being just so mean. The girl looked under the bed, saw it was dark and promptly went to get a flashlight! She squirmed under the bed to get the piece. Not only did she find the piece, she found another similar piece that had been missing for months. The rest of the children were jealous and wanted to be the one to rescue the pieces.

I have found by backing off and giving only slight encouragement to children to solve their own problems, they will amaze you with their creativity and ingenuity. It may be hard but recognize that this is their journey. The work that has to be done to change from a dependent small child to independent adult has to be done by them.

The overarching high level advice is to treat the child as what he is—a budding reasoning child. No, he can’t reason fully yet, but he will make small, directed efforts towards becoming capable of doing so. It will happen faster than most realize. Children are much smarter than given credit for!

For the toddler years, please see my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler years

Introduction to Misbehavior is Growth: Toddlers (Humanizing Toddlers)

This is the Introduction to Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years, offered as a free sample!

Introduction: Humanizing Toddlers

Ah, the dreaded toddler years. Toddlers’ reputation precedes them. It is ominous to hear about how children go through the “Terrible Twos.” Toddlers have been known to have some flippant, I daresay, irrational, I further daresay, annoying behavior.

Toddlers ask for something, and then they don’t want it. They don’t want to take a bath, and then they don’t want to get out of the bath. They don’t like the clothes you picked out. They don’t want to get dressed at all. They don’t want to get into their car seat. They want a red cup not a blue cup.  They want to eat the food you just put in your mouth. They want you to take your head off your body and give it to them. They still want to be carried, but they are getting bigger and heavier. They won’t let you move one inch. They don’t want you to hold anyone but them. Did I mention the meltdowns? Is it inevitable that these years will always bring frustration?

As a mom, I found that many people had misguided ideas about toddlers’ abilities. Strangers would ask if my children, at 18 to 20 months, knew colors, or could answer questions like, “What’s your favorite animal?” I read in a book that children can “verbally express their needs by 12 months” (Stephenson). This really isn’t true. In the early ones, a child may be able to say one or a few words to express a need such as for “milk,” but any parent in the midst of dealing with such young toddlers can tell you that figuring out what they want is not usually achieved via a rational process of discussion.  Children don’t even start talking fluently until 21 months (van de Rijt and Plooij,  ch.11). There is a noticeable language comprehension explosion at 18 months and while some children may talk in about four-word sentences while others struggle to say any word, none can really verbalize what they need all or even some of the time. I point this out to show that there is often an unrealistic understanding of toddlers’ reasoning capability. This can lead to unrealistic expectations.

Even seasoned parents, I find, have difficulty looking back at this age and remembering what it was like or what worked for them and they readily admit the difficulty of even trying to remember. Everything changes so suddenly that it’s hard to remember the differences between an 18-month-old and a 21-month-old—and these two creatures are drastically different!

Based on the work of many authors, I knew that children go through developmental cycles in which, at age-related times, they regress, but after this regression, they show a dramatic burst of new ability. Dr. Brazelton in his book Touchpoints—Birth to Three describes:

Just before a surge of rapid growth in any line of development, for a short time, the child’s behavior seems to fall apart. Parents can no longer rely on past accomplishments. The child often regresses in several areas and becomes difficult to understand. Parents lose their own balance and become alarmed. (Introduction)

Dr. Brazelton describes these “predictable spurts in development, and the equally predictable issues that they raise” as “touchpoints.” In his book, he describes them up to the age of 3 years. However, as a doctor, the touchpoints listed for the toddler years coincided with his observations of how children changed from their 18-month, 2-year, and 3-year standard physical checkups. Details in between these periods are lacking.

The book The Wonder Weeks (van de Rijt and Plooij) describes similar age-related, predictable spurts in development. They call them “leaps.” The child, they say, develops a new perceptual awareness during these times. In their book, the authors describe in detail the “fussy period” and the “sunny period” of each leap. Their onset comes at specific weeks over the course of infant development. Their research found ten such age-related leaps in the first 20 months of life, with the fussy period of the last documented leap starting at just over 16 months and ending at just over 17 months.

When I reached the toddler years with my first child, I really wanted more information about natural child development than was available. I thought we did pretty well with my first child, but what kept me alarmed were authors or people who would say things like, “If you don’t get a hold of your child when young and be strict about right and wrong, you are going to have a brat!” This gave me a huge complex. How could I know if what I was doing now could prevent some awful future? And I did not find the advice given to combat this awful future to be terribly helpful. It was usually authoritarian in nature with the generic advice of “set boundaries.” The advice was not nearly as nuanced or as thorough as I wanted. I really wanted to know what natural child behavior was and what was not: What part of a child’s behavior is expected; what may be a problem of neglect; what needs further coaching, and if some condition does need attention, which techniques are effective?  Further, what could I do to develop my child’s growing mind? I didn’t want just to know that “most things are a stage” and to “not worry about them.” I wanted exact details.

The Research

I did not originally set out to do research on toddler mental development. As I went through the toddler years with my first child, I knew to expect age-related stages; I was highly interested in the topic; and I wanted more information, but I did not originally anticipate doing this work. My venture into this happened organically.

I am a stay-at-home mother who homeschools my three children. My approach to education is to take note of what my children are interested in and then provide activities in alignment with their development and interests. Because of these approaches to parenting and education, I kept a detailed journal about my children. I also started a parenting blog called, “The Observant Mom.” One of the most popular features of my blog is the stories I tell about how I handle my children when difficult. Because I told these stories to others, I had an incentive to write down in detail the kind of difficult behaviors my children were showing, and how I handled them. Over the course of parenting my first child, I had generated a tremendous amount of detailed observational data about both age-related abilities and difficulties.

When my second child got to be almost 18 months old, which is the age at which I really wanted better answers, I looked through the journals, photos, and stories that I had assembled for my first child. Now, had you asked me if I had a difficult time with my first child, I would have said no. But when I looked harder I started to notice some patterns. “Remember that time when he became annoyingly bossy?” Or, “Remember that time he just absolutely couldn’t stand when balls rolled different ways every time someone threw them?” I thought those might be developmental stages, because although the stubborn behavior was noticeably seen, it also dissipated.

I am also part of an online community that discusses these age-related developmental cycles.  It is a Facebook forum called Beyond the Final Leap. In this community, people would post something to the effect, “29.5 months. I’m going nuts! Is anyone else seeing this?” And piles of other parents would say, “Yes! We see the exact same thing!” In late 2015, I had the epiphany that between my own notes and this forum, I had access to quite a bit of data. I could assemble it into a potential timeline of age-related developmental milestones. So, that is what I did. I posted this rough skeleton, asked if it could be pinned, and asked for feedback. I am very grateful to the administrator of the forum, Zoe Brooks, that she pinned this post.

People immediately stated their gratitude for the research. As I started to fill in details, more and more people confirmed its value and validity. When my daughter was around 20 months old, I realized I might be on to something. It has always been my goal to empower parents with tools to effectively deal with their children. I started my blog because I do so much reading about parenting that I thought it would be very easy to share the insight I was getting to help others. I also have a passion for seeing children be treated well. What could help parents more than knowing what their children’s developmental stages were? I realized that this is where my unique talents and other people’s needs intersect. I love to take complex systems, behaviors, and ideas, and bring clarity and order to them. I was very interested and enthusiastic about this work. With the feedback from others about its value, I decided to commit to it.

Everything about how I was doing the research became better once I committed—and continues to get better. I took even better notes with my first child, highly detailed notes with my second, I solicited input from other parents, and I added to my library books specifically about age-related development. I have worked with many parents who helped me confirm, amend, and add to this knowledge. A big thank you to everyone who has contributed: without you, this would never have been possible!

After being available and updated for several years, this work has taken on a life of its own. People started using the information I provided. Since I first shared this information in December 2015, some parents have been able to follow along from when their child turned 18 months old until the child reached the three-year mark, which is the age range covered in this book. I include, at each milestone, feedback I have gotten from others about that particular milestone. A sincere thank you to those who put together statements! Here is but some feedback:

This information […] has been a LIFESAVER at our house. My first son followed the [Milestones] like clockwork and my second is just heading into this territory now. Whenever we’d hit a stormy period it was so reassuring to know it was all an important part of his development. Lack of sleep seems so much more bearable when you know things will be back to normal in no time. — Beck Fredrickson

I love your work! I always check [your research] when my son is fussy or not sleeping well and so far, you have picked it every time! I share it with girls in my antenatal group too. – Sarah Lewis, about her son Jack

Hi, we are just starting [Toddler Milestone 8], so far, I can see challenges with falling asleep at nap time and night time, understanding, and using today and tomorrow. She remembers things that happened a while back and started making up stories about characters. I wanted to sincerely thank you for documenting all of this, your notes have been so helpful in understanding the developments. – Alexandra LaFontaine

They are just great! So informative and very true to what’s going on with my kid to a T! — Katie Blogg, about Toddler Milestones 9 and 10 (2 years, 8 months and 2 years, 9 months)

There are certain approaches to parenting that I believe are critical to doing this research. Much of what I did, I believe, made it possible to do this work.

To a significant extent, I follow The Montessori Method of teaching. I provide stimulating materials and I let my children choose what they want to use. Dr. Montessori writes in The Montessori Method that to study natural child development, it is essential to let the child choose activities freely. She compares studying a child who is forced to sit at a desk and do lessons to a child that is allowed to roam as the difference between studying “a glass-covered case containing a number of beautiful butterflies, mounted by means of pins, their outspread wings motionless” or studying live butterflies in their natural habitat. Watching what materials attracted my children and what they could do with them was one clue for me to use in determining where they were developmentally. I could also observe, for instance, if they came back to an activity day after day, showing greater persistence of thought. Being able to see that my children came back to an activity day after day is an example of an advantage that I have due to doing research as a mom, as opposed to a researcher who studies children at periodic intervals for 10 minutes at a time or a doctor who only sees children at periodic checkups.

I also strive to teach one lesson per day. I would pick what I thought was an age-appropriate activity and present it to my child. If my child liked the activity, we kept doing it. If they were not interested in the activity, I put it away. This was another clue for me and served as its own form of scientific interrogation. I was at an especial advantage with my second child, as I already had a toy room stocked with a wide variety of learning materials and activities, and she had an older brother to model her behavior after. Having a tablet loaded with educational activities was also very illuminative. I marveled as my children at young ages could, for instance, do The Memory Game.

Another not only contributing, but vital factor in my ability to identify developmental milestones was that I adopted the positive approach to parenting such that I do not correct or punish my children. Thus, I had a more direct view of what is natural human behavior. Punishment itself can create secondary behaviors. From Positive Discipline: The First Three Years, “Punishment may seem to ‘work’ in the short term. But over time, we know that it creates rebellion, resistance, and children who just don’t believe in their own worth” (Nelsen, Erwin and Duffy, ch. 1). Because I did not create “rebellion and resistance,” I was better able to identify an irritable period as a likely natural developmental stage as opposed to reactionary behavior.

Using a comforting and non-punitive approach to parenting also helped me identify my children’s new capabilities. In trying to get my children to cooperate with me, without using punishment, which is an art and science in itself, I gained much insight. For instance, as I asked my children questions such as “Which shirt would you like?” or “What was your happiest part of the day?” I saw what their answers were, and this served again as its own gentle interrogation.

What was perhaps most important of all in this research, however, was my attitude towards my children. I saw everything they did as exciting and noteworthy. I never saw anything they did as nonsense, wrong, or boring. I would write down what they did, organize the behaviors based on when they were clearly in an irritable period, and then simply ponder it. I often felt like a detective solving a mystery as I laid out pictures and stories of my children clustered by age and tried to find patterns. For instance, when I noticed that my daughter could actively look forward and backwards in a book while trying to find something, and at the same age, she was able to answer the question “Do you want to walk up the stairs or have me carry you?” I knew that she was capable of making a deliberate decision—of consciously choosing one course over another. And so, this milestone I named “Decision Making” (Toddler Milestone 6, 2 years, 2 months). Finding patterns such as this is the heart and soul of this work. As I am with my children at all times, I could look at every activity they did—every lie they told, every time they refused to go to bed, every story they made up—as clues. A stay-at-home mother who homeschools is at a great advantage to do this work.

In addition to this, in which I have documented my own children in detail and attained feedback from other parents, I have cross-referenced my research with others’ research on this, wherever it existed.

Summary of Results

This book contains the milestones that I found for children between 18 months and 3 years of age. Numbering for these Toddler Milestones starts at 1, and in future work, numbering will again start at 1, such as for Preschool Milestones.  The toddler ones are:

 My research shows that rocky developmental stages occur all throughout the toddler years. At age-related times, toddlers become irritable (and whiny and possessive and a host of other behaviors), and then after (and also during, in sputters) this irritable period, they demonstrate a burst of new ability. To differentiate my work from all others, I call these periods of growth cognitive growth spurts. Formally, I identify them as “Milestones.”

If you had the right diagnostic tools, at these irritable times, you could see in the child’s brain where the growth is happening. During these times, it might help parents to think of their children as having the words “Under Construction” written right on their child’s forehead. At its onset, it seems to feel scary and disorienting to the child, and in some ways they regress. I use the term “regression” with slight hesitation: Some of the behaviors are “regression” in that they become incapable of doing something they previously could do. Other behaviors are not regression such as how they have a higher need for connection. “Regression” does not cover all of the behaviors, nonetheless it describes some of the behaviors. Other behaviors seen are they may become clumsy or just start tripping a lot, as if they lose coordination of their body, or they may seem to be in disbelief of what is in front of their own eyes. This initial phase of development comes with irritating behaviors too, like crying a lot, becoming jealous, and so on. But on the other side of this irritability and regression is a new ability. It happens like this with irritability followed by a new ability in a repeated way.

In my opening to this introduction, I had posed the question as to if it is inevitable that the toddler years will bring irritable behavior. The answer is a resounding yes. What I want to show is that odd and irritating behavior is a natural part of human development. It is biologically inevitable that this will happen. My joke about this is that there is something in a child’s DNA from conception dictating that “At two and a half years old, I am going to annoy my parents!”

Typical behaviors found during the irritable periods in the toddler years are the behaviors that toddlers are already infamous for: meltdowns, possessiveness, bossiness, etc. What I want to show with this research is that there is order in that chaos. The fussiness comes, typically crescendos, stays intense for a while, dissipates, then starts all over again in a predictable, cyclical manner. And there is a reason for the irritable behavior: growing the human mind seems to be a scary and disorienting process for the child. A child changes dramatically from 18 months to three years. Eighteen-month-old children are just beginning to have a language explosion, i.e., they aren’t talking much yet. At this age, they have but limited vocabulary, and they do not hold on to thoughts for very long. At Toddler Milestone 5 (2 years, 1 month), they go through a major cognitive spurt, which I called “Persistence and Insistence.” At this age, children hold on to thoughts longer, including what it is they want. They also develop big, heavy emotions. At Toddler Milestone 6 (2 years, 2 months), the child reaches the milestone of Decision Making. A child at this age can make a deliberate choice about which course of action might be better. Thus, I consider it the first developmental stage at which reasoning capability is present. After this, their reasoning capability advances greatly.  By the time children are three, they have a vivid imagination, can deal with issues of right and wrong, can collect themselves emotionally, be involved in planning short-term future events, and might know which way to go when riding in a car. That is an enormous amount of growth. And it happens in seismic shifts, each one starting with a child who becomes difficult to deal with.

When I look at child development, I marvel at how extraordinarily efficient it is. It takes humans 20 years to develop to maturation, whereas it takes most other animals only a few years, if that. This seems like a long time, but considering what a feat it is to grow the human mind, 20 years is rapid speed. The motto of human maturation, if I could give it one, is “Why waste time not growing?”

Impact on Parenting

I contend that knowledge of cognitive milestones in the toddler years is critical for parents in order to aid their child’s healthy development. The child starts to grow in major ways including budding reasoning ability, first conscious emotions, and beginning ideas of right and wrong. How toddlers are handled matters profoundly. How can one deal with this? By having a more detailed blueprint of child development so many more answers become possible. Knowing what you are dealing with allows you as a parent to develop effective tools, methods, and approaches. This is exactly what I want to help you accomplish. My goal is to be like a friendly tour guide—a guide about child development—and offer approaches that allow you to survive these cognitive growth cycles, and then use them to thrive.

In Section Two you will find expanded descriptions about these milestones as well as parenting tools and ideas to use. Section One outlines the parenting tools and ideas. As related to parenting, in Section Two, I include for each milestone four things: details about the irritable period, details about the new ability period, conflict resolution ideas, and activity ideas.

The first item I can provide for parents are the details about the behaviors seen during irritable periods. It’s one thing to know that “most things are a stage”; it’s better to know exactly what to expect. For instance, at Toddler Milestone 9 (2 years, 8 months) children become seemingly paralyzed. As one possible way that this can materialize, there might be a toy that is two feet away from them, and they scream for it but won’t get it. Certainly, this can annoy parents. (“Just get it! It’s right there!”) But if you know that this happens, you will be prepared for it. You can think about how to handle it, thus be better able to respond to it and not blindly react.

For me, I was able to reframe my attitude towards the irritable periods and sometimes even my schedule when I knew one of my children was in one. At Toddler Milestone 6 (2 years, 2 months), I found the child might start to play jokes. My daughter for instance kept hiding spices from me as I tried to cook. At first, I was annoyed by this. I think I may have even yelled “I don’t have time for games!” When I figured out it was part of her development, I went from “I don’t have time for games!” to “Oh, it’s a game. It’s cute.” At Toddler Milestone 2 (20 months), I was at first in disbelief that another one was happening again only a few weeks after the last one had ended. When I figured it out though, I cancelled all plans for a week to deal with my toddler who kept demanding I hold her. And it turned into a lovely week for us! Up until that point, I had trouble bonding with her. But after that week, we were very bonded. What could have been a negative instead became a positive. Toddler Milestone 12 (2 years, 11 months) was really trying for me. I was not able to cancel all plans like I wanted to as I then had an infant son. Though I desperately wished someone would take one (or three) children off of my hands for a bit, that wasn’t an option. Once I accepted this reality, I was able to reframe moments over the course of the week it took to get through the hard part. I made the conscious decision that at some points chores would not get done, and my entire day would be simply dealing with my toddler. At all times though, knowing what was happening helped me cope with it, and it helped me go towards my child, rolling with and even finding joy in these challenging times.

I’m not saying that these rocky developmental stages are easy. I will never diminish how hard these periods can be, but understanding them and reframing the child’s behavior can help. The behavior can still annoy parents, and from my reading, very few parents are immune to irritation. Just knowing that these occur can calm a parent’s fear down, but knowing exactly what behaviors you can expect is sure to be immensely powerful. The irritation which can otherwise consume a family might be brought down to at least manageable levels.

The second thing I can provide are details about the new abilities seen. My research of the cognitive growth spurts found that many of them had a dual nature between the irritable period and the new abilities period. The thing that children regress at is often the very thing they are about to show great progress at. For instance, children do become paralyzed to solve their own problems during the irritable period of Toddler Milestone 9 (2 years, 8 months), such that they, as mentioned previously, won’t get a toy that is right next to them. However, in the new ability period they become very good at solving problems. They might go outside, see it’s raining, and verbalize the following, “Oh no. We have a problem. It’s raining. What can I do about this? I’m thinking about it. I know! I’ll get an umbrella!”  I called this milestone “Creative Problem-Solving.” In the irritable period, they won’t move to solve a simple problem (regress), but in the new ability period, they can solve a complex problem (progress).

I found this was how cognitive growth spurts often went: Children misbehaved before they behaved. They become paralyzed to solve a problem before they become confident; they become bossy before they show gratitude; they knock towers over before building them carefully. I use the term “misbehavior” loosely. They are indeed simply experimenting, and/or their brain is in temporary regression. Children are not being intentionally naughty. But you’ll know what I mean when you get to it. It’s the stuff that can really irritate and cause frustration. They seem to be out of control and destructive. But if one understands this general cycle, it can have an enormous impact on parenting. What they seem so bad at is the very thing they will soon get good at. And by bad I don’t just mean “struggling.” I mean aggressively bad at. It’s those moments that might make you want to yell “Oh my! You just did that on purpose!” But if you can just hold on during that bumpy ride for a bit, at the other side of it is a light of hope: You’ll have not just a calm child, but one with a new ability which they can use for productive and helpful ends. If you can handle with care the toddler who grabs knives by the blade, gets into the toothpaste, demands you not move one inch, keeps tripping and falling, and whines a lot, you’ll soon see a child who is helpful, competent, and coordinated. What I just described, by the way, is Toddler Milestone 11 at 2 years, 10 months.

To deal with this bumpy ride and other situations, for each cognitive milestone, the third thing I provide is a section on conflict resolution. In this section is how to deal with behaviors or situations that are irritating or difficult. It is dealing with those behaviors that others may see as “bad.” Many would use punitive measures to handle these situations. Because the problem arises not due to any character defect of the child but the bigger situation itself—their developmental stage combined with having to conform to adult expectations—I entitled this section “Conflict Resolution” instead of “Discipline.” The issues that arise are issues of conflicting needs among the people involved. In this section I will discuss how to handle situations where you need your child to respect you, respect material things, be safe, get into car seats, and so on. Any situation where the need of another person (or the toddler themselves) is in contradiction to the immediate whim of the child.

My approach to conflict resolution is to get your needs satisfied as a parent and have the needs of the child satisfied as best as possible, and to have situations go as smoothly as possible. I fight nothing. If I find myself in a battle with my child, I stop myself and think of what a better approach could be. I have read many books on discipline and conflict resolution from experts who weigh in on the issue. Most advice is picked up from these experts, who deal with children as therapists or teachers day in and day out. My approach is a little different from others as applied to toddlers as I take ideas from a host of thinkers about conflict resolution—the first step of which is empathetic listening—and I push them to the toddler years as best can be done. In this way, the child is treated as a respected individual in the family. It is modeled for them daily what respectful relationships look like. It is effective both in the short term at gaining cooperation and the long term at imparting an ideal skill set.

Because they are not developmentally ready for full conflict resolution however, with its brainstorming steps, etc., modifications must be made for toddlers. Several books discuss positive discipline “tools” to use with children. These tools apply in situations when you need your child’s cooperation. The toddler (and preschool) years are very tool heavy. At each milestone I have matched it to the approaches or tools that I think are effective based on where children are cognitively. For instance, why distraction works so well for very young toddlers but “offering limited choice” does not (they cannot be expected to make a deliberate decision until Toddler Milestone 6, Decision Making, 2 years, 2 months), or why using “I” statements is effective starting in the late twos. I designed this book with “Section One: An Observant Parenting Approach to Toddlers” first, which gives tools and ideas to parent and teach effectively such that you are educated on these ideas. Then in Section Two, for each milestone I list the tools that are likely to be effective at that age and why.  In this way, as you deal with your child at each milestone, you can go to the exact age of your child and find instant, valuable information. Toddlers change rapidly, and this body of work can serve as nearly a month-by-month guide.

As noted, Section One deals with effective parenting tools and approaches. There are some basics that apply across all ages and without knowing these basics, the exact approaches outlined at each milestone may not be effective. The chapter within, “Dealing with the Child’s Emotions,” describes a critical step of conflict resolution, which is dealing with the child’s emotions. Children must be in emotional comfort before you appeal to whatever reasoning capability they do have. The overall atmosphere must be one of emotional comfort, otherwise none of the advice will work. Understanding how to deal with children’s emotions becomes vital at Toddler Milestone 5, Persistence and Insistence, 2 years, 1 month. Big, heavy emotions set in at this major milestone and must be dealt with. I also include a chapter on “Setting Healthy Boundaries with Your Toddler.” In this, I discuss typical core conflict resolution principles such as defining who owns the problem and how to respectfully state your concerns to a toddler. Starting at Toddler Milestone 11, Budding Morality, 2 years, 10 months, also a major milestone, a toddler becomes able to understand “I” statements as well as other reasoned, well-stated concerns, of which this chapter can help you articulate to your child well. I include also a chapter on “Toddler Conflict Resolution Tools,” which summarizes every tool that may appear in Section Two.

Perhaps the most important of all tools is a parent’s patience. A wise woman told me once that if we can handle our own emotions, a reasonable enough solution usually follows. Dealing with children who are in the midst of an irritable period is difficult. It wears on a parent’s patience (or any other caregiver). The chapter “The Calm Behind the Storm: Staying Patient as a Parent” is dedicated entirely to managing your own emotions. In this chapter, I talk about the usual stuff that is recommended, such as taking a deep breath, then I discuss what really works: bringing your own feelings into conscious awareness, which I learned from Dr. Shefali Tsabary. This chapter gives the tools to help you emotionally as you deal with these rocky developmental cycles. I include thoughts and reminders about the principles regarding internal emotional regulation at several of the more difficult milestones. I describe many of the behaviors and approaches to conflict resolution in story format, in which I describe my own struggles, and in doing so I hope you realize that you are not alone. I invite you also to join the Facebook discussion forum, “Misbehavior is Growth—The Discussion,” to find other parents who can provide ideas, comfort, and understanding as you go through these milestones with your child.

What I have been describing are ways that you can survive the day to day difficulties during rocky developmental cycles. Now I want to talk about how you can thrive. The fourth thing I provide at each milestone are activity ideas. The most important message I want to bring to people is that this misbehavior has, on the other side, a new development, and, therefore, the growth spurts are not simply times of irritation to get through, but investment opportunities. Understanding cognitive growth spurts, I believe, engenders a parenting approach that gets away from trying to fix or punish perceived negative behavior and invests entirely in building positive skill sets.

People are already aware of these cycles, which begin with regression. They tend to call them “stages” or “phases.” When a child is acting up at an age-related time, a mom might tell another mom, “Don’t worry. It’s a stage. He’ll outgrow it.” This is healthy enough advice. It recognizes that these are natural stages of development and the child should not be punished for it—and that they pass. But this advice is then followed up with, “Ignore it. Don’t feed the attention.” The parenting approach that I am advancing is that this “misbehavior” is more than just a stage: it’s growth. Following this irritating behavior will be (the potential for) a new ability. And so therefore, don’t ignore the behavior, lean into it. See the misbehavior as a code—a giant Bat-Signal in the air—that a child needs someone. They don’t need punishment or insults. They need connection, guidance, and teaching. There is something growing in them that one can help nurture. This is the meaning behind the title of this book series: Misbehavior is Growth!

This is already known healthy parenting advice. From Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, “In fact, most young children’s misbehavior is a sort of ‘code’ designed to let you know that they don’t feel a sense of belonging and need your attention, connection, time, and teaching” (Nelsen, Erwin and Duffy, ch. 1). If you know specifically what the misbehavior is a “code” for with the documentation of these milestones, you can be in so much of a better position to provide it. After becoming aware of the exact details of the cognitive growth spurts, I hope people no longer say, “It’s a stage, ignore it.” I want them to say, “It’s mental growth, invest in it!”

By understanding the cycle of development, I believe any inclination to punish children for perceived bad behavior will all but vanquish. Instead, given the enormous storm inside of them, children need connection. The general approach is to love them harder. Children literally cling to their parents during these cycles, and yet somehow the dominant advice up to now has been to push them away. When you understand the cycle, pushing children away seems baffling. Bringing them closer will not reward bad behavior. It models loving behavior and helps them grow in their emotional maturity. I see cognitive growth spurts now as both investment opportunities and love opportunities.

Further, the benefits of investing with activities, teaching, and guidance for your child are many and huge. For starters, it can help calm the child down. Much of their misbehavior is a desire to learn and grow. If you know how they are growing, you can redirect it into productive ends. This has the effect of calming the child, as you are meeting their developmental need. Montessori writes about “normalization.” By this she means providing a child with an activity that they are interested in and focus on, which has a calming effect on the child as well as builds patience and an attention span. The better you are at providing activities they are interested in, the more likely that this effect will happen.

When very young infants are provided with an environment that offers them the opportunity to practice emerging skills, they become more interested in their environment, more alert, and more cheerful. In fact, a basic principle of good child-rearing, especially during the first years, seems to be that you should design your child’s world so that his day is rich with options for activities that relate to his rapidly shifting interests and abilities. (White)

The main benefit, however, of investing is to give children a chance to work on the new skills that their new brain structure allows. I want to stress an important aspect about what happens during this mental growth. Children don’t necessarily develop a new skill, they develop the capacity for a new skill. Children are wonderfully built like wind-up toys who set out to use the new skill growing in them, and they aren’t terribly good at it at first. In fact, they are destructive. They have it “in” them to practice the skill by getting their hands on seemingly anything to help their developing minds, but adults can either help or hurt this process.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University describes that “Having responsive relationships with adults, growth-promoting experiences, and healthy environments for all young children helps build sturdy brain architecture and the foundations of resilience.” Investing in each cognitive milestone with activities doesn’t just build a particular skill, it builds the child’s very brain structure. I imagine the child’s growing mind as like building a bridge, and each milestone is a step in which the steel beams are being riveted on. The purpose of constructing it properly and with care is so that part of the brain can be used well in the future. But the brain, unlike a bridge, is more like a muscle and therefore it grows optimally through use. Giving a child a chance to flex their brain “muscle” and build neural pathways helps provide the lifelong benefit of how to think. You give your child the chance to develop some part of their brain at its most optimal time.

Another important aspect of mental growth is that each milestone doesn’t necessarily open a new potential that stays open. Each milestone opens a sensitive period, which is a window of opportunity for building a skill. These periods open but also eventually close. For instance, it is commonly known that if a child doesn’t learn to speak when they are young, they will have great difficulty learning to speak as an adult, because that sensitive period has shut down. These periods are thankfully wide, but they do end eventually. If we know what skill is being built at what time, we can unleash a huge potential.

I found that the abilities developed over the course of these milestones cover the full gambit of those skills required to thrive as an adult. It is too often the case in formal education that education means only learning “practical” skills while the emotional, social, and moral development of the child is neglected. Understanding cognitive growth spurts can help with academic skills, but it can also help with these other aspects of human development. It’s an education for all that makes one a human. I thus want to highlight the growth of a moral skill as seen even in the toddler years: In the late twos, children start to develop abstract ideas of right and wrong. It is very simple at this age such as, “It is better to not spill milk,” but this is a great opportunity to invest in some simple lessons about right and wrong and to start modeling healthy conflict resolution. From personal experience, this had an extraordinary effect on our family and helped keep our house calm. For instance, I once successfully convinced my toddler to stop hitting me by using a well-constructed “I” statement. Modeling this also imparted impressive conflict resolution skills to my children, which I have observed in my older child. This shows how investing in cognitive spurts can have both immediate and long-term benefits.

It also demonstrates how it is possible to teach a child right from wrong without using punishment. Knowing when a child’s mind is ripe to receive a lesson about right and wrong is a much more effective approach to teach ideal behavior than physical, emotional, or social trauma (respectively: spanking, yelling, and punitive timeouts). A heart-to-heart discussion at the right time goes a lot further than a punitive measure. And you can reap the rewards of your efforts almost immediately as you notice markedly improved behavior. This—investing in character and mind-building activities, not punitive measures—is how a child becomes disciplined.

Teach by teaching, not by correcting. — Dr. Maria Montessori

Certainly however, understanding cognitive growth spurts can help with academics and specific skill sets. As but one example, I taught my second child to read by the time she was three years old. She could read simple Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC) words such as “cat” by sounding them out and she could use context clues to figure out words, even sentences.

Understanding the cognitive capabilities of my child helped to develop highly age-appropriate lessons. I outline at each relevant milestone the activities towards this end. Many of the activities are either Montessori or Montessori-inspired. I was able to take many of Montessori’s activities and divide them into highly specific ages at which they apply, and why. You will find many activities that develop a sensory education with simple step-by-step directions that will develop visual acumen, fine motor skills, observational skills, and creativity. I also have lessons related to mathematical, navigational, and reading comprehension skills. Truly, these lessons can unleash the enormous mental power in children.

I found that the process of learning, whatever the skill involved, when done with deep respect for natural child development, was a joy instead of a burden or fight. It was also extraordinarily efficient. Knowing what activity to provide at what age, when they are hungry to work on their new developing skill, allowed for simple, quick lessons that were easy to give and well-received by the child. Many of the activities that I present, especially at these young ages, can be done right before the child goes to bed.

Because presenting activities does require some understanding of teaching, I also include a chapter for parents on basic teaching skills entitled “Teaching: A Gift, not a Gauntlet.” Quality teaching is not hard, but there needs to be a reversal in the way many adults approach it. My experience is that many adults are overbearing, ask too many questions, “sermonize,” and try to direct their child’s learning too much. I learned how to teach young children by reading many books by Dr. Maria Montessori, some of them twice. She advocates a teaching style which relies on simple, strong demonstrations, few questions of the child, and putting away activities if the child is not interested. I focus on developing lessons that are conceptually clear for the child, also explained in this chapter.

The chapter on dealing with emotions, “Dealing with the Child’s Emotion,” is also relevant to teaching, because a child in emotional distress is not in a position to learn. The big emotions need to be dealt with first. The child needs soothing if they are upset before giving any lesson whatsoever, including lessons on ideal behavior. Many approach the child with the paradigm, “I’ll let you be comfortable after you learn or behave.” The approach outlined below is, “Make the child comfortable, and then they’ll learn and behave.”

I find educators tend to fall on one side or the other of a dichotomy where they value teaching skills or valuing the emotions of students. On the “teaching skills” side are people who value performance and do not care if the child’s underlying emotions are handled well. On the “valuing the emotions” side are people who highly value the child’s emotions but sometimes dismiss teaching skill sets, because they think that the instruction will necessarily be abrasive to the child.  My work on cognitive developmental milestones should help unite anyone who is on either side of this usual skills/emotion dichotomy. Cognitive growth spurts come at first with big emotions, end (potentially) with major skills, and knowing the cycle of them will naturally allow adults to support the child when they need support and challenge the child with advanced activities when they are capable. In fact, already established healthy parenting principles—embracing “growth mindset,” handling negative emotions well, seeing misbehavior as a code for further connection, brain neuroplasticity, providing stimulating activities, interest-led learning, not correcting or punishing a child—are taken to the next level by understanding the cycles of cognitive growth.

I fundamentally trust the process. I believe all education should be designed around which cognitive milestone a child is at. It should be bottom up, child-centered, not top-down, dictating a certain curriculum. I imagine child development like a river, and the cognitive growth spurts are represented by waterfalls. I see many education and parenting styles as fighting the river. When the river is fought, bad things happen. Anything that communicates, through punishment or words, to the child “There is something wrong about you” is harmful. The child feels like there is something wrong with them, causing that piece of them to wilt and die; education becomes a drag, and parenting becomes a never-ending battle. It doesn’t have to be like this. If we know the course of the river and just accept it, while it can still be a tumultuous ride, it is much more navigable. It can even be fun, like white water rafting, as one immerses themselves completely inside their child’s world. Looking at the world through a child’s eyes is an adventure as they look at the world with great curiosity, vivid imaginations, and startling observations. If you tap into your child’s inner teacher, you will see that they have boundless energy for pursuing activities and challenges. It is no longer a fight to get them to learn or behave.

I personally always felt behind at each milestone. I felt there were many activities that I could have provided, but there was never enough time and I never had enough knowledge to teach all I wanted. My children eagerly anticipated the activities I provided. I see each milestone as like a springboard. It’s an opportunity to catapult up to a new level of greatness. My vision is that, in the same way that the human genome was mapped, all cognitive milestones will be mapped.

I wrote earlier about people who warn you that you’ll have a brat unless you are strict with your child at an early age. I unequivocally reject that, and here is my counter: If you are but present with your child, especially at each cognitive milestone, you can be practically guaranteed that you are providing your children what they need. Dr. Tsabary writes that the problem between parents and children is a difference in “time zones.” She writes in The Awakened Family:

In fact, were you to ask me what I believe to be the root of conflict between parents and children, I would tell you that it’s a clash of time zones. Parents are oriented to the future, to getting to wherever they imagine themselves to be going. Children, on the other hand, when left to themselves inhabit the present. (ch. 2)

I am with Dr. Tsabary: We can be simply present, and connected, with our children, and trust that our children have endless creativity and resources in them to succeed later. A parent’s main job is to guide their child’s growth as they go on their journey, but being this guide is enormously powerful. A parent does not have direct control over the exact outcome of their child; they have but tremendous influence.

Ultimately, proper parenting is the presence of love. I see understanding cognitive growth spurts as the ultimate love: understanding something going on inside your child that they have no hope of ever communicating to you, which comes across in such irritating ways, and yet still meeting this deep need of theirs with patience and wisdom.

This work serves to humanize toddlers both by identifying as natural the swirling storm inside of them and by illustrating the amazing capability of their growing minds. A child who is always calm is a pipe dream. It will never happen. At the same time, their potential is enormous. Toddlers are not dolls that can be put away, but living creatures with major, rocky, awesome transformations. This work can humanize you too as you deal with these inevitably difficult changes.

I named my blog and website “The Observant Mom” and this book “The Observant Parent” because I found all good parenting begins with observation—much like a doctor who evaluates, with competence and compassion, his or her patient as he or she decides what course of action to take. The fundamental component of quality parenting is to take children’s cues, signals, and statements into consideration as one makes parenting decisions. When they are infants, a parent can look at their hunger and sleep cues. When they are toddlers, a parent can begin to take into consideration their emotions and words as well. Understanding these cognitive milestones will be one clue to the puzzle of understanding children. What I propose is that quality parenting comes down to thinking. When a parent brings their emotions into conscious consideration, they are thinking about them. When a parent identifies their children’s emotions for them, you help raise their awareness of those emotions—a cognitive process. Comparisons between healthy and unhealthy parenting models might be thinking versus blind reactivity; loving versus authoritarian; connected versus irritated; observant versus negligent; present versus absent. I hope you find value in this book as you adopt the role of observant mom, dad, or caregiver of any sort and put together the clues about the child you have the privilege of helping raise.

I hope after reading this book you feel like a mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, family friend, or caregiver of any sort, who is in control of yourself, who is confident in handling toddler meltdowns, who can effectively get a child to cooperate with you, who makes repair attempts when things go wrong, who knows how to give positive lessons to maximize your child’s learning, and who is inspired to keep advancing your own skill set. The themes of this book are presence and growth. What I hope to do is minimize the frustration that toddlers bring to a manageable level so that what is left is your child with his or her unique talents and interests.

High five, Mom and Dad. You got this!

See more at Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

About the Author

Hi! I’m Amber. I have an Industrial Engineering degree from Penn State. I worked as a software test and integration engineer for 10 years before becoming a stay-at-home mom to my now 3 children. I homeschool them. I live in Huntsville, AL–Rocket City! Most of all I hope to help parents on their journey by providing detailed observations about age-related child development and effective tools to survive and thrive. Drop me a line, helloamber@gmail.com.

Takeaways and Criticisms of “Rest, Play, Grow” by Dr. Deborah MacNamara

These are my takeaways and criticisms of Dr. Deborah MacNamara’s Rest, Play, and Grow.

Dr. MacNamara is big on attachment parenting: that the right relationship between parent and child will allow a child to flourish and that they do it on their own timetable. She describes the immaturity of children as natural and not something we should rush to fix. She eschews both heavy handed discipline of a child and, unfortunately, most academic learning. Of course, I will first do the takeaways (the positives).

Takeaways

1. Example after example of how to be attached to a child

I have read dozens of parenting books. Even so, sometimes I get stale. Sometimes I don’t know what to do. Sometimes my children overwhelm me. I am very much down with the idea that the proper care and handling of a child, the relationship, is what allows them to calm down and then flourish. So reading Dr. MacNamara’s many, many examples of how to have an attached relationship re-centered me.

2. The idea of “trumping” the need

An idea I really liked was to “trump” the child’s needs. You anticipate more fully what they might need before they need it or +1 your response after they ask for something. So if they are begging for a drink, you might say, “I’ll get you a drink right now. And I’ll make a second one for when you need it later.” You just really envelope them in caretaking.

3. A rejection of behaviorist approaches

I was appreciative of how she took behaviorism to task: the idea that a child is born completely blank and you can turn him or her into anything you want.

4. A belief that children are not necessarily best when around other peers

You hear so often that children need friends to learn to handle social conflict. Actually the author and her mentor reject this, in certain situations anyway. They argue if the child doesn’t have a properly attached relationship to a parent and seeks it out with a peer, it’s a bad situation as peers are immature. As a homeschooler, I applaud this. So many people lecture me on getting children into school but I find schools are filled with terrible relationships and terrible leadership for those relationships. However, that said, I find my 6 year old is a great mentor to my 3 year old. My 3 year old has an attached relationship to me and him. I see him comfort her and she comforts him and she comforts her youngest brother sometimes too. It’s all around healthy in my eyes. If children were taught better conflict skills, you would see that peer relationships are very valuable.

5. Insight into 5 to 7 year olds

Here is one insight,

As this shift [in the ages of 5 to 7] occurs, young children will become increasingly tempered in their expression of thoughts and feelings. They will start to exhibit impulse control in the face of strong emotions. Instead of lashing out, they might say, “I half hate you right now!” and “I want to hit you!” but they do not. They will exhibit patience, despite frustration at having to wait.

My son did this. He declared reasons why he doesn’t hit his sister even if she hits him. I have noticed everything the author noted about 5-7 year olds and perhaps more at my elementary summaries.

6. Insights into 3 – 5 year olds

Dr. MacNamara describes 3 year olds as being reliably rude (“Wipe my butt!” — while strangers are over), unable to keep a secret, consumed with raw emotion, and only able to focus on one thing. I definitely find this with my 3 almost 4 year old. See also my preschool summaries. My daughter absolutely hates loud sounds when she is trying to focus on something, like talking to someone or watching a video. Knowing they can only really focus on one thing at a time helps me in various parenting situations.

Quotable

Becoming a child’s best bet requires understanding them from the inside out. It requires insight, not skill. It is more about what we see when we look at our child than it is about what we do. It is about being able to hold on to the big developmental picture instead of getting lost in the details of daily living. Simply put, perspective is everything. If we see a young child as being in distress, we may seek to comfort them, but if we see a child as being manipulative, we may back away.

Criticisms

On one hand, I hate to openly criticize someone. On the other, I found some ideas worth challenging (as does Dr. MacNamara herself, who criticizes a lot). I also want people to see that there is live, healthy debate about certain ideas about child raising. Sure I agree with Dr. MacNamara about emotions and relationships but there are a lot of “small” ways that I challenge her (which are not so small to me) and some big ways, such as her rejection of early education

1. The idea that any early education is abusive to the child

I first must point out that the author, like so many, really takes for granted the fact that she grew up in wealth. The type of education that she exalts is that which she learned from her grandfather on his farm. Well, here’s the thing: not every child, not even most, have a farm at their disposal to learn these skills. She describes helping her grandfather out and being excited to uproot vegetables. There is a lot of meta-learning in that as well as actual skills. I have never heard of a total unschooling background work. There is always still an adult, a student, and material to learn with (in this case, her grandfather, her, and a farm.) What she describes is mentorship, the best kind of education. The fact is children still need education. For some people, those who are wealthy, it comes somewhat already built in. They are surrounded by mentors who give wisdom and let the child participate in hands-on activities. These people then marvel at how they didn’t really need school, never checking their premises and assumptions that actually they grew up in privilege.

Further, even the people who grew up in wealth would be benefited by breaking down the essentials of good education and then using them. She describes learning all about plants with some science experiments someone clearly set up for her. (I’d like to point out that MacNamara that the activity is watching beans grow in wet wadded up paper towels. You can find that exact activity in my elementary plant science program.) In and of itself, doing an activity about a plant is good as it teaches how to learn. But done correctly, you can also learn about science, engineering, art, math, language, etc, using very similar things she describes of hands-on experience and mentorship–which, can I repeat, is education.

On to her formal arguments against education, MacNamara quote Dr. T. Brazelton here:

“The human infant is amazingly capable of compliance. He can be shaped to walk at nine months, recite numbers at two, read by three, and he can even learn to cope with the pressures that lie behind these expectations. But children in our culture need someone who will cry out, ‘At what price?’”

I take serious issue with this. My daughter could count at 2 and could read at 3. It was at no price. She was not emotionally abused in the process. I presented fun, engaging, hands-on, age-appropriate, short activities, which she took to joyfully. At all times, if she wasn’t interested, I put it away for another day. Here she is around 2 years, 10 months doing a 3-part Montessori reading lesson:

3partReading

Education is not the problem, bad education is the problem. People aren’t wrong in their wariness of much of education. See this report about the harmful effects of borrowing and carrying about how teaching children to carry the 1 actually made them worse at mental math between 2nd and 4th grade. But it’s not early academics that we need to throw away but high pressure type education and types that are out of alignment with children’s naturally developing interests–and this needs rejected at all ages.

Unfortunately, the typical response to high pressure and bad education has been to simply delay and avoid education. People call for children to not learn to read until they are 7 or to have more recess. It’s as if they are trying to reduce the dosages of the poison, instead of fixing it. They offer no real solution as to what approach will work even if you wait until 7 or when you are teaching a child. We need pro active solutions not reactive, defensive, anti-solutions. What should we do not what we should not do.

I call on people who say this to offer examples of success stories of how it would work, not simply admonishing what is, indeed, currently, in traditional schools, poor approaches. And, in addition, please take a hard look at programs that are successfully teaching children with no diminishing of joy in the process. Yes it can be done. You can find my answer to teaching a child to read in my reading program: Get Children Reading!

I can agree that children will not want to sit down and do worksheets and other traditional type school activities until they are somewhere between 5 and 7. But this is not my idea of a good education at any age. An ideal education is active, hands-on, conceptually clear, playful, and rooted in mentorship. Done right it increases attachment. I want to drive home this point that lessons = love.

Let’s learn the language of acceptance while we mentor and teach our children. It actually infuriates me that a book touting the latest in “brain science” dismisses early education. This is a step backwards not forward.

I’d also like to add that anyone who is heavy on teaching children at young ages and also on “disciplining” children (directly correcting behavior) should take note of what I am saying here. I completely agree with MacNamara’s approach to let children be immature and “misbehave” (the central point of my book series, Misbehavior is Growth) but you can still teach a young child. Let’s keep both the acceptance of children while also keeping the education of children. Let’s tap into the full potential.

2. Arguments based on prejudice about what creates entitlement

I was flabbergasted to see the following in this book. Equating a child to a character in Willy Wonka gets your point across, but it’s not an argument.

One of the fastest ways to create an “entitled” or “spoiled” child is to circumvent the adaptive process and prevent feelings of upset from occurring about all the things they cannot change. The character Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the epitome of such a child. She orders her parents around continually: “I want it, and I want it now, Daddy!” The parents live in fear of her eruptions and busy themselves constantly meeting her demands.

What would be an argument is an actual example of a real child and the analysis of how X lead to Y. I find the analysis of what creates an entitled child above to be a bit shallow and rooted in prejudice. People have believed this idea that indulging a child leads to an entitled child and accepted this for centuries and don’t challenge it.

I’ve read extensively about personality disorders in adults, and an attribute of many personality disorders being a sense of entitlement, and the therapists always say the cause was a troubled childhood where a child lacked love. The child was insulted, rejected, possibly abused; in short, unaccepted. As adults, they have an inner wound that they are constantly trying to make up for and find the love they were missing in childhood. The problem is trauma. This is it. That’s the problem. The problem is abuse in childhood (physical or emotional). Not a child who was coddled too much, loved too much, spoiled too much, rescued too much, educated too much, or any other typical thought. Trauma: the internal pain caused by physical abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect. That’s the problem. There really is no such thing as a child who is indulged too much. Let me give the historical example of The Buddha. He was given every luxury in life and kept in his castle away from the brutal world. Then when he saw the brutal world, he threw himself into learning how to fix it. His highly coddled and sheltered background didn’t make him spoiled or selfish but rather this is an example of a highly caring individual. (I reject much of Buddhism; please don’t think this is a praise of the entire philosophy.)

It’s strange that Dr. MacNamara says this, given her main point is that full love and caretaking allows a child to flourish. I have tried the approach with my children to “let them experience disappointment” and I cannot say that I observed any objectively good outcome from it, particularly with small children. It is much better to come to them in comfort, talk to them, and, yes, even try to find a solution and *negotiate* with the child–a taboo word for many modern psychologists, who, like Dr. MacNamara, prefer hierarchical relationships. This is something I am going to be taking to task in the future and partially in this blog post.

3. Lack of acceptance of the child in the name of [setting boundaries, hierarchical realtionships, validating (future) emotions, and other strained theories]

There are many ways that I found Dr. NacNamara’s approach is actually unaccepting of the child, via some rather strained arguments about what is good for the child. Here is one.

She says to allow children to have grumpy and bad feelings and I agree wholeheartedly. But I strongly disagree with the following approach:

“[S]ix-year-old Zoe came home after school one day and said her teacher had called her sweet for being so helpful in class. Zoe said, “I love Ms. Lusik. I am going to be sweet for her all the time.” Fortunately, her mother understood the need to have a big invitation for all of her feelings and replied, “If you are going to be that sweet at school, then you will need to be extra grumpy at home because no one can be that nice for that long!” The mother wanted Zoe to see that their relationship could take the weight of whatever emotions she might need to express.” — Rest, Play, Grow

Dr. MacNamara praises this approach as the mother encouraged her daughter to realize she may have a negative emotion in the future and that’s OK. My problem with this is the mother was *unaccepting* of the child’s feelings. The child was filled with hope and optimism and the mother just crushed it. By telling her daughter that she could not possibly be sweet all the time, which her daughter just said is what she wanted to do, the mother effectively said, “You’re wrong.” This is a form of unacceptance. (This may be why she rejects early education as she has not totally learned the language of acceptance, so critical to ideally teaching a child.)

I hate when people do this. I hate when they tell you what your future problems or feelings will be. For instance, how many pastors or marriage counselors mock a young couple who says, “We don’t fight. Really. We really get along.” The counselor says, “Oh you young naive thing! Just wait!” Ok, maybe it’s true the odds are likely they’ll fight. There is still no need to crush that optimism. What a counselor or parent needs to do is wait until they are in trouble and just *be there*. What would be better from a counselor, as the example, is to find some little point of conflict for the couple, the tiniest little one, say they can’t agree on meals made at home or going out, and bring awareness to it and show some powerful tools to get through it. This will give practice and food for thought for the bigger problems. Give young, growing people tools, optimism, and friendship, not admonishment and a promise of certain future stumbling.

I find it again flabbergasting given Dr. MacNamara quotes others about the dueling dance of emotions such as, as she says, “the answer to fear is desire, which creates courage.” If you have a fear of something, but your desire for a value is greater, it drives courage. Well in this case, the six-year-old Zoe just showed strong desire: the desire to be sweet. (And I want to emphasize that it was her stated value; she wanted to accomplish this.) That desire is the very fuel that could get her through adversity. Keep it alive! I would have connected with her. I would have said, “Oh what a noble goal! You take pride in being sweet!” Or I might have just smiled and said, “That’s great honey.” If she stumbled later, I’d be there with big open arms. I would tell her it’s OK to make mistkes, but I probably wouldn’t have to as being friendly to mistakes is a high value in our house. Who knows, maybe she will be the first girl ever in the history of the whole world, to be sweet all year long. Leave that possibility open. Maybe she’ll stun you with a new insight about what her problems were and how she overcame them.

4. A belief that parents in the “alpha” role and a resultant dismissal of the child’s needs

Dr. MacNamara has a lot of thought in the “alpha” relationship of the parent. For the most part she means that they are in an alpha caregiver role. The adult doesn’t ask the child if they are hungry, they anticipate it and give food. Less questions, more providing.

I admit first that I have a negative reaction to the word “alpha.” To me it is like “alpha male,” which, again to me, is “a man who is insecure and makes up for it by looking strong or authoritative.”

I can agree that the parent is in a responsible position over the child and even “higher.” I call myself “Comforter-in-Chief” with my children. I am the one responsible for their needs and for calming big emotions. There is kind of an order to it. I am the fountainhead of it and others in my family follow my lead. My older children pick up on it and comfort my younger children. It’s lovely really. But I don’t see myself in the “alpha” position, and I see problems in this, in execution. Dr. MacNamara does the thing where she thinks children “need restrictions” because of this, in which parents override children’s decisions. For instance, in this story about putting on a jacket, the child’s decision is overridden:

Most incidents are better dealt with outside the moments they occur, but sometimes a parent’s hand is forced. At these times, it is necessary to maintain an alpha caring stance and ride out the storm. For example, one mother said her three-and-a-half-year-old son would battle her on everything, but especially on wearing a jacket when it was cold outside. She decided to wait her son out by letting him know they would head to the park when the jacket was on. Dominic screamed and yelled, but Mom stayed calm and told him she knew this would happen. After screaming for some time, Dominic’s brain finally understood that his defiance was futile and his mother wasn’t going to change her mind. Although his mother was successful in getting Dominic to wear his jacket, the more important message was that his mother was in charge and it was safe to depend on her. — Rest, Play, Grow

I want you to compare this to this story from Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Gordon, who directly challenges authoritarian relationships and advocates an approach rooted in negotiation.

Bringing back our familiar coat problem, here is how it was resolved by Method III, as reported by the parent involved: JANE: Bye, I’m off to school. PARENT: Honey, it’s raining outside and you don’t have your coat on. JANE: I don’t need it. PARENT: I think it’s raining quite hard and I’m concerned that you’ll get a cold. JANE: Well, I don’t want to wear my coat. PARENT: You sure sound like you definitely don’t want to wear that coat. JANE: That’s right, I hate it. PARENT: You really hate your coat. JANE: Yeah, it’s really ugly. Nobody at school wears coats like that. PARENT: You don’t want to be the only one wearing something different. JANE: I sure don’t. Everybody wears those cool jackets. PARENT: I see. Well, we really have a conflict here. You don’t want to wear your coat cause it’s ugly, but I sure wouldn’t want to risk catching your cold and then have to miss work. Can you think of a solution that we both could accept? How could we solve this so we’re both happy? JANE: [Pause] Maybe I could borrow Mom’s old coat today. PARENT: That old thing? JANE: Yeah, it’s cool. PARENT: Think she’ll let you wear it today? JANE: I’ll ask her. [Comes back in a few minutes with Mom’s coat on; sleeves are too long, but she rolls them back.] It’s okay by Mom. PARENT: You’re happy with that thing? JANE: Sure, it’s fine. PARENT: Well, I’m convinced it will keep you dry. So if you’re happy with that solution, I am too. JANE: Well, I gotta go. PARENT: So long. Have a good day at school. What happened here? Obviously, Jane and her father resolved their conflict to the mutual satisfaction of both. It was resolved rather quickly, too.

There are differences in the context of these stories. The parent who talked with the child and found a solution was likely dealing with an older child, not a preschooler. I just fundamentally need you to realize there are different approaches. “Letting the child be upset” is not the approach adopted by everyone. It seems so enlightened to some. I just need you to know there is healthy debate about that and the idea that children “need” adults to restrict their behaviors.

pablo (1)

This is my daughter at about 3 years old out in 54 degree weather. She didn’t want a jacket on and I didn’t make her. I got all sorts of comments about it that were judgmental in nature. You see I trust her. I trust she knows her comfort level. When she runs around a lot, she gets hot. I don’t need her to know my “alpha” position or “learn to be dependent on me.”

23472471_1504848289569497_8807335853104714246_n

Here is another way that this “be the alpha” leads to poor application from Rest, Play, Grow:

Leading a child means conveying that you know what they need without consulting them and assuming responsibility for circumstances or decisions about them. For example, one day while shopping, Sarah demanded that her mother buy her a watering can. Nancy told her she would think about it and would let her know once they finished getting groceries. At the end of their trip, Nancy turned to Sarah and said, “I have thought about it and I have decided I would like to buy a watering can for you because you will have fun with it in the garden.” Sarah replied that she no longer wanted the watering can, though her teary eyes and buckling lip said otherwise. The mother took the lead and told Sarah she was going to buy it as she knew Sarah would want to play with it later. The challenge for Sarah was that the vulnerability of depending on her mother was too much at this time, and her alpha instincts pushed away her mother’s attempt at caretaking. The mother’s actions conveyed to Sarah that she was in charge and that it was safe to rely on her.

The mother was unaccepting of the child. The child asked for something. The mother turned her down. Later the mother decided she knows best and provided, after creating this obvious chaos in the child which showed up as incongruence between the child’s words and actions: the “no longer wanted the watering can” but her “teary eyes and buckling lip said otherwise.” Why create this distress? And then sweep in like the benevolant dictator who knows better. No. Just no. This is wrong.

MacNamara also says to not be vulnerable with your children. You always know best. I disagree with this too. Dr. Gordon says to not try to be a superman with your children. Let them know you make mistakes too. Please read Dr. Gordon’s work to balance out thoughts like these ideas that you need to set boundaries or override children’s decisions or can’t be vulnerable.

I do take the lead with my children. You know one of the main ways? By giving them educational lessons. I anticipate they need to know certain things and I aim for one lesson–one new idea–per day.

I also see myself in the responsible position. MacNamara says we need to “(b) ASSUME an ALPHA role by seizing the lead and reading the child’s needs.” How about we do that simply by reading the child’s needs and drop this idea of being an “alpha.” I have indeed found proper parenting comes down to observing the child and anticipating needs. That’s why I called this blog “The Observant Mom.” But I use language like being conscious, aware, patient, calm, and thinking not being “alpha” or “creating dependence,” like MacNamara does. I would never dream of starting a blog called “the alpha mom.”

Conclusion

If you look at some of my criticisms, I think may see a theme that Dr. MacNamara has a high value to let children be as they are, but with less thought to how they might grow. She advocates to let children be immature and misbehave, but she eschews early education. She advocates that children are allowed to have their feelings but she encourages parents to point out potential future failure.

This is sometimes a problem in people’s philosophies. They are on one side or the other of acceptance and growth or rather “reality” and “romance” and in education it’s the difference between progressive (MacNamara) and traditional. They think one is at the expense of the other. People who are on the reality side think that growth is narcissistic and abusive (as Dr. MacNamara thinks early education is and must necessarily be.) People on the romance side think that those on the acceptance side are perhaps hopelessly entrenched in victimhood or “pathetic.” In truth, and this is core to my philosophy, there is no battle whatsoever between acceptance and growth. Full acceptance leads to full growth. This is largely the heart of my book series about this, Misbehavior is Growth. And, as I argue above, there are places where MacNamara is still unaccepting of the child and thus prevents growth.

I think this book, and almost all popular thought about parenting out there now (except from certain highly enlightened people) is very reactive in nature. That is this book. Years and years of research shows certain practices are harmful and the answers advocated are somewhat rooted in reacting to those bad practices. If traditional education is bad, then offer no education. If a parent is negligent to a child, then have them be in an “alpha” role. Thought that is reactionary is always not the best thought that could be.

My approach and my research is different. I have been studying primarily my own children, but also working in a community of parents, to document the natural stages that children go through. The stages are when they fall apart for a period of time, becoming whiny, aggressive, and hard to deal with, but then have dramatic new mental growth. Rooted deeply in child development, I have been developing approaches to deal with the behavior and educate the child. I base all of my approaches on how well what I do is received by the child; I actively monitor their responses and emotions. I see each milestone, as I call them, as an opportunity (talk about anticipating needs!). I match educational activities to what they seem to be hungry, in fact begging, to learn. The results have been astounding. My children read at young ages, play with numbers like notes on a piano, can recall science and history facts with a photographic memory and at relevant times, and–and I need you to understand this–have very mature emotional and conflict resolution skills. There is no dichotomy between education and happiness. These fuel each other in a synergistic way. Let’s not turn away from education; let’s get GOOD at it. Yes, it’s a skill. It’s a lot to learn. I work day and night to show examples and give training so people can learn it. Let’s give tender love care to a child’s mind in the same way we do to all the rest of the parts of their body.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years as my first in the series

Misbehavior is Growth

 

Emotional Responsibility: Staying Patient as a Parent (and a Person)

The #1 thing people say they struggle with as a parent is staying patient. A wise woman told me once that if we can just keep our emotions in check, an answer to most problems can be found. I was very grateful she said that to me, and that in and of itself helped me through some trying times. When I found myself struggling with patience, especially when I had a preschooler and a toddler, I started reading many books about the issue. These are my top 5 power tools to staying patient as a parent.

29791150_1641635215890803_7799037119622427396_n
How do we reach this zen?

1. Deep Breath

I am more than excited about a slow, deep breath. Here is the thing: as a parent, you need to react to a situation within seconds. You might not have the time or luxury to go to another room for a time out. You can’t call backup. You have to be on, ready, and yes, patient in the moment. We need tools that can help us stay present with our children while they are hitting us or each other or spilling drinks. I love a deep breath because it can work within seconds, which is all you have sometimes. It requires no extra money or effort. There are parts of the brain that are affected and calmed when you take a deep breath. If anything, it can buy you a few seconds to think. You may need to practice this at night so that it becomes automatic when you need it. If you are struggling right now, start practicing this right away. Breathe in for a count of 4 and back out for a count of 4 and try to do it 10 times. You want to get all the way to the end of that exhale. I also practice this with my children at night on occasion.

2. Bring Your Emotions Into Conscious Consideration

I learned this from Dr. Tsabary’s The Awakened Family. I recommend this book if you are having any problem with staying patient as a parent. Her ideas have been the most effective ones that I have found. She says in a moment of outburst, ask yourself what you are really feeling. It may not have anything to do with the child and more to do with an internal struggle. You might be feeling guilty or nervous. I find I sometimes operate on fear. I might be thinking, “If I don’t get that screen away from my child and get him to do a [a chore, come to dinner, do a lesson], he’ll grow up to be irresponsible!” This kind of thinking is unhelpful. We again need to stay present in the moment with our children and deal with the current problem not worry about the future. Try it the next time you are emotionally flooded: what are you really feeling?

I am opposed to the idea that all emotions can be vented. For the most part, I support the expression of emotions, but I make the exception for anger. If a person is angry, it is their job to self soothe before interacting with others. In the same way that I don’t permit myself to hit others physically, I don’t permit myself to hurt others emotionally. I consider this ability to self-soothe to be emotional responsibility. I like Dr. Tsabary’s work especially for learning this ability to self soothe.

3. Have Faith that a Workable Solution Exists

This is probably the power tool of all power tools. If you are in a battle with your child, trust that a solution likely exists, even if not immediately known. I find if I am being sucked into the negativity of the situation, say my child is whining and I just can’t take it much longer, this can really recenter me. It is the mindset of assuming abundance. Once when I had a toddler draped on me and I was sitting on the kitchen floor, such that I couldn’t move, I had my 3 year old screaming at me that she wanted the one and only frozen fruit popsicle that had been saved for her older brother. I started to be strict with her by saying, “You can’t have that one! Your choices are these other things and that’s it!” This strict “we only have a few choices” approach made her cry harder. When I switched my mindset to “assume abundance,” I changed how I spoke. I said, “Well it looks like you really want a pink popsicle. How many things can we think of that are pink? We have frozen strawberries which are PINK and strawberry yogurt which is PINK ” … we eventually reached an agreement.

4. Get Sleep

It’s cliche right? It makes a huge difference. Most of us are chronically sleep deprived. If you don’t already, make a commitment for 1 week to go to sleep by 11 pm. See what a difference it makes. I know you want some free time–trust me I know. I think we need to get better about finding that time in the middle of the day while our children are around. Maybe we could help each other more. I’m so over waiting until 10 pm at night to get anything done.

5. Recruit Support

It makes a world of difference to have someone around you who will also contribute to finding proactive, positive solutions to dealing with children. It inversely makes it worse if you have people around you who are judging you or who become very irritable with children. I know when I am at a breaking point, it makes a huge difference that my husband swoops in with patience and positivity. Can I recommend that you recommend Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years to your surrounding network? I have many ideas in my book about staying patient and effectively dealing with children. I can attest that it has made a difference for me when people around me have read it.

 

Come join the discussion Misbehavior is Growth — The Discussion. See me on Facebook as “The Observant Mom.” See the Child Development section for documentation on childhood developmental milestones.

Healthy Emotional Management

What is emotional health is something that is difficult to pin down. I read countless books on parenting and emotions and it was difficult for me. Especially difficult is when some of the books proved to make my situation worse (did I not understand the advice? was it wrong?)

But lately I’ve been killing it when it comes to emotional health. What I’ve learned and how I’ve *had* to apply it has helped me in what is probably the most trying time of my life. We recently moved to a city, while I was pregnant, and I deal with a number of health problems. Being able to deal with big emotions, frustrations, worry about the future, and of course, my 3 children, has given me new insight. I will still preface this with this is my growth so far.

I would define emotional health as such: An ability to identify what you are feeling, an ability to express it in a non-aggressive way, congruent to the intensity of the feeling, and to embrace it as valid and right–except when the feeling you are feeling is to lash out in some way. This is still a valid feeling, but in this situation, your job as the responsible adult is to calm the feeling down such that you hurt no one.

The skill of all skills to have is an ability to identify your feelings. This is so crucial–and yet, so many have been educated out of having feelings, often being told to always just be happy. I read once that people who were verbally abused cannot differentiate the painful feelings inside of them. Guilt, fear, pain, worry, embarrassment all just bubble up into one big terrible emotion, whose end result is crippling self doubt. Being able to surf these big emotions allows you to deal with them–most of all, to take the sting out of them.

I would recommend Dr. Tsabary’s work as the best work for understanding emotional health. I read The Awakened Family. The main point of her book is to become conscious of your emotion whenever you feel triggered or want to lash out. Just becoming conscious of what it is allows you to handle any situation better. I once went to yell at my son, who attacked my daughter, over a toy dispute. Yelling is a form of lashing out–and not how I want to be as a parent. I asked myself what I was feeling. It was “A preschool would have this under control. I am failing as a home school mom.” My thought was not true; fights still break out in schools. But just identifying my emotion of guilt allowed me to handle the situation better. I asked if that was the emotion I wanted to operate on. The answer was no. I handled that situation like a pro. I’ve handled many, many other situations since then like a pro, even with 3 children, always by simply asking, “what am I feeling? is that emotion the one I want to operate on?”

Dr. Tsabary differentiates feelings from emotions. A feeling is something you feel and you just sit with. An emotion (“motion”) is something that drives you to act.

Dr. Gordon is the author of Parent Effectiveness Training. He describes a model within families that is negotiation based rather than authoritarian based, which has jaw dropping results. He describes how when you have a problem, you should bring it up with a well constructed 3-part I statement, stating 1) the offending behavior 2) how you feel about it 3) why.

However, Dr. Gordon makes an exception for anger. He says you should not express anger, because stating, “I feel angry” comes across always as “You are making me angry.” I would propose that this fits in well with my statement above about emotional health. Except, instead of “anger,” I would say it is any emotion at all that might drive you to lash out. Any time you want to hurt anyone, you should pause. Some examples might include wanting to yell or even hit someone, such as your children; a desire to break off a relationship, especially a committed one that you are in; a desire to insult or hurt someone with words. In these times, it is time for self reflection, before speaking.

Dr. Gordon says there is usually a feeling underneath anger. The Gottman Institute says this too, and has published a popular meme of an iceberg about it. When your child comes home late, you get angry at the child, but the underlying emotion is actually worry. How much more effective it is to say, “You made me so worried when you were out late!” The goal is to get to the underlying emotion.

I have actually learned to love this underlying feeling. When I have terrible feelings of anger or frustration–which happen when you’ve had night after night of interrupted and limited sleep while dealing with small children–I make myself sit with the feeling. I find that the underlying feeling is often one of sadness, worry, or sometimes guilt. It is entirely possible that the feeling is just one of physical drain of some sort. Whatever it is; identifying it is powerful. Psychologists, such as Dr. Siegel, call it “Name it to tame it.” When I realize that it’s just sadness, I let myself be sad. Sadness calls on us to slow down, think, connect. It’s nice to admit you are sad and to say to someone, “I’m sad.” Now you can work towards solving it. It’s nice to do this while having a cup of coffee or embraced in a hug. Name it to tame it takes the sting out of it. I have also learned that these feelings will pass.

All of this has such enormous application in many other areas. This is the model I use to emotion coach my kids. I could not be more proud of how they handle conflict.

Follow me on facebook, The Observant Mom.

 

 

 

The Best Thinkers about Parenting on Punishment and Insults

This is a collection of quotes from some great thinkers on the topic of parenting on using punishment or insults to alter a child’s behavior. Spoiler: They are all opposed. It is meant to be a reference for if you ever find yourself discussing such issues with someone, or even contemplating the use of punishment on a child yourself. Feel free to copy and paste the quotes, take the ideas contained in them, or post this blog post directly. Email me if you find them helpful. 🙂

Dr. Haim Ginott, Between Parent and Child

Only when children feel right can they think clearly.”

“An interested observer who overhears a conversation between a parent and a child will note with surprise how little each listens to the other. The conversation sounds like two monologues, one consisting of criticism and instructions, the other of denials and pleading. The tragedy of such communication lies not in the lack of love, but in the lack of respect; not in the lack of intelligence, but in the lack of skill.”

“Parental criticism is unhelpful. It creates anger and resentment. Even worse, children who are regularly criticized learn to condemn themselves and others. They learn to doubt their own worth and to belittle the value of others. They learn to suspect people and to expect personal doom.”

“For children to develop a worthwhile sense of themselves, they need to hear and overhear mostly positive remarks about themselves.”

“Many parents label their children stupid, lazy, and a cheat, yet expect such labels to motivate them to change into bright, industrious, and honest people.”

“Most parents get upset when they witness their older children hitting their younger siblings, unaware that when they spank their small children they give the older children permission to do the same.”

“A child should never be threatened with abandonment. Neither in jest nor in anger should a child be warned that he or she will be deserted.”

“Children learn what they experience. They are like wet cement. Any word that falls on them makes an impact. It’s therefore important that parents learn to talk to children in a way that is not enraging, doesn’t inflict hurt, doesn’t diminish their children’s self-confidence, or cause them to lose faith in their competence and self-worth.”

“Parents need to become convinced of the futility of nagging and pushing. Coercive tactics only breed resentment and resistance. External pressure only invites defiance. Instead of trying to impose their will on children, parents are more likely to influence them when they see their children’s points of view and involve them in solving a problem.”

Dr. Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training

“As a child becomes less helpless, less dependent upon the parent for what she needs, the parent gradually loses power. This is why parents discover to their dismay that rewards and punishment that worked when their child was younger, become less effective as she grows older.”

“Without exception, every child I have seen in therapy whose parents used a heavy dose of rewards and punishment, revealed how much they lied to their parents.”

“While children lie a lot because so many parents rely heavily on rewards and punishment, I firmly believe that the tendency to lie is not natural in youngsters. It is a learned response—a coping mechanism to handle the parents’ attempts to control by manipulation of rewards and punishment. Children are not likely to lie in families where they are accepted and their freedom is respected.

Dr. Tsabary, The Awakened Family

“No behavior occurs in a vacuum. Something triggers our children, just as something triggers us. The source may be external or it may come from the parents. It may come from a place deep within a child that’s beyond their awareness. To hold our children responsible without being both compassionate and curious about the reason for a behavior is both heartless and unproductive. “

“Children thrive when they are accepted and encouraged, whereas criticism and punishment cause them to wilt inwardly and ultimately make even more mistakes instead of developing good self-management skills.”

“By the age of ten, our children are very familiar with how we talk and what we say. They don’t need our words of advice or admonishment. What they need instead is for us to listen and attune ourselves to them.”

Dr. Montessori, The Montessori Method

“We know only too well the sorry spectacle of the teacher who, in the ordinary schoolroom, must pour certain cut and dried facts into the heads of the scholars. In order to succeed in this barren task, she finds it necessary to discipline her pupils into immobility and to force their attention. Prizes and punishments are every-ready and efficient aids to the master who must force into a given attitude of mind and body those who are condemned to be his listeners.”

“It is true that to-day it is deemed expedient to abolish official whippings and habitual blows, just as the awarding of prizes has become less ceremonious. These partial reforms are another prop approved of by science, and offered to the support of the decadent school. Such prizes and punishments are, if I may be allowed the expression, the bench of the soul, the instrument of slavery for the spirit. Here, however, these are not applied to lessen deformities, but to provoke them. The prize and the punishment are incentives toward unnatural or forced effort, and, therefore we certainly cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them. The jockey offers a piece of sugar to his horse before jumping into the saddle, the coachman beats his horse that he may respond to the signs given by the reins; and, yet, neither of these runs so superbly as the free horse of the plains. ”

“As for punishments, the soul of the normal man grows perfect through expanding, and punishment as commonly understood is always a form of repression. It may bring results with those inferior natures who grow in evil, but these are very few, and social progress is not affected by them. The penal code threatens us with punishment if we are dishonest within the limits indicated by the laws. But we are not honest through fear of the laws; if we [Page 26]  do not rob, if we do not kill, it is because we love peace, because the natural trend of our lives leads us forward, leading us ever farther and more definitely away from the peril of low and evil acts.”

Dr. Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline series

“In fact, most young children’s misbehavior is a sort of “code” designed to let you know that they don’t feel a sense of belonging and need your attention, connection, time, and teaching.”

“For a child who believes she is inadequate, criticism only reinforces her belief in her inadequacy. One of the best ways to help a discouraged child is to stop all criticism.”

 

 

Takeaways from Shefali Tsabary’s “The Awakened Family”

I found Shelafi Tsabary’s The Awakened Family to be an enjoyable read, which gave me several insights into myself as a parent and as a person. I highlighted more notes in this book than any other book I have read.

Dr. Tsabary’s Main Argument: Becoming Conscious of Your Own Emotions as a Parent

Dr. Tsabary’s main argument is that parent’s need to take ownership of how they react to their children by getting more in touch with what they are feeling when they are triggered by their children’s annoying behavior. She describes angry, unconscious responses as being “reactive” and is a person’s “Ego,” which is not their authentic self. Much of this Ego comes from a childhood full of judgment in which a child didn’t live up to their parent’s hopes and expectations, as being not good enough at school, or too shy, or not athletic, or a host of things. The biggest source of this Ego however is the worry that children won’t perform in ways we think are right and proper. Dr. Tsabary argues that parents need to realize their own emotional turmoil causes their children to act out.

In an awakened family, parents are aware that every relationship in their family exists to help each person grow. Parents view their children as mirrors through which they are able to see how they themselves need to mature and develop. Instead of fixing what they see as faults in their children, these parents seek to work on themselves, raising their own levels of maturity and presence. The focus is always on the parent’s awareness rather than the child’s behavior. This is the core insight of the book.

Insights

Saying “Not Today” to Mom Guilt (and other derailing emotions)

After reading Dr. Tsabary’s main insight, I had several situations where I realized my own emotions were causing me to react poorly to my children. One example: A fight erupted between my two older children. I went to yell at my son. Then I stopped and identified my feeling. It was this, “In a formal preschool, children probably would not fight like this. The teachers would have it under control. I am failing as a mother because this fight is breaking out.” Of course, this is not true. I have visited preschools and fights still break out. But that is what was going on in my head. I said, “Not today,” to my feeling of self doubt, and I was able to handle the situation like a pro from that point on.

I find getting in touch with my emotions helps especially when dealing with other people’s children. It’s one thing to look at my own children’s annoying behavior and respond with patience and love. It’s another thing to deal with another person’s child. I just constantly say to myself, “I’m irritated. Why am I irritated? Is this situation insurmountable? Can I figure out a peaceful resolution?” And these questions always help.

Many of us feel as if we have no option other than to react when our children’s behaviors enflame us. Our instinct is to lash out. If someone irritates us, we don’t think twice but simply react. “Hey, what’s wrong with you? Can you stop what you are doing?” It doesn’t occur to us to say, “Why am I getting so agitated right now? Can I communicate my needs in a respectful manner knowing that the other is not coming from a place of evil intention? Can I remove myself from this situation if it feels unbearable?”

Trust That Success is Likely

The most beneficial insight I got out of this book is to trust that my children probably do want to cooperate with me, and that, if I give a situation the little bit of time and calm it deserves, most situations will resolve happily. The emotion of all mom emotions to say “Not Anymore” to: The fear of failure. Replace it with the assurance of likely success.

I have endless examples, but here is one. We had a dessert out at dinner. My daughter, 2, already had some on her plate and was begging for more. I could have easily gotten into a power struggle about the dessert, operating on the false assumption that she just wanted endless dessert. (“No!” “You have some already!” “Look!” “The answer is No!”) I calmly waited for the situation to reveal itself. As it turns out, there was the slightest bit of green frosting that she wanted. Once I realized that, I was happy to give her that little bit of frosting. She did not, in fact, want to eat the entire cake.

Another more small example: When it was time for bedtime, I sometimes used to hurriedly shut a book and whisk my kid to bed, worried they would keep wanting books. Actually, when I just state calmly that this is the last book, operating on the assumption that success is likely, my children very often simply cooperate. This one principle has disinfected so many power struggles, including some of the little tiny ones that no book could ever exhaustively cover.

Dr. Tsabary asks us why we are so threatened by our children’s self-interest. It’s a good question. I have found in almost no situation does a child just want to dawdle and take up our time just to take up our time. What they want is usually very small, and it really is a matter of the parent misunderstanding what the child wants, often assuming the worst.

Trusting that success is likely gives me more stamina as I deal with problems with my children. It buys me more time as I struggle through intense situations. As far as giving me patience and in-the-moment wisdom, it has been more effective than anything I’ve tried so far, including timeouts for mom, deep breathing, or stating my emotions strongly. It gives me an inner peace when something erupts. I don’t jump to the worry that they will not cooperate. I am so much more effective when I approach them from this place of assured calm.

I also have an even deeper confidence that, as adults, it is probable that my children will succeed. I had to ask myself some questions to get to this place: Would I be OK if my children did not choose a STEM degree? Would I be OK if they didn’t become a leading research scientist or engineer studying at MIT? Would I be OK if they “just” wanted to become an electrician? The answer is actually yes to all of these, but working through some different scenarios helped me identify what is most important of all. It is this: To trust that all humans have it in them to build, produce, think, and solve problems; that it is just a matter of helping them match their interests to an in-demand skill set; and whatever the path, they will likely rise as far as their talents and willingness to think takes them.

As parents, it’s vital for us to understand that as long as our children are in touch with their deepest self, with its boundless resources, they will motivate themselves beyond anything we could ever imagine.

A More Fluid and Less Mechanical Approach in Connecting to My Children

Most other parenting books focus on the skill sets you need as a parent to deal with children: Routine charts, I statements, Eating Problems, Teaching Conflict Resolution, Validating Emotions … really, this list goes on. All of this is important, and I take it upon myself to integrate the mass amount of information about these “tools in the tool kit” to know the context in which they apply. However, alone, they can engender a mechanical approach. The authors of the book Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, which is dedicated almost entirely to a child’s emotions, describes how they often became too text book as they communicated with their children–and their children called them out on it.

I have found since reading Dr. Tsabary’s that my connection with my children is more authentic, genuine, and fluid. She emphasizes the parent’s emotions. The work she says you do is on your own emotions. She helps to remove any irritation, guilt, anxiety, etc., that you may have as a parent. I find when I look at my children, it is from a much more calm place. I can genuinely enjoy these moments of connection more.

More Effective Boundary Setting, due to a More Centered, Calm Confidence

So many authors of parenting write about how it is vital to set limits, to be firm, that children “need” boundaries, to say “No!”, and on. It is a hum that it’s necessary to be mean almost for meanness’ sake. I have written pretty prolifically that I am opposed to this. I can’t and won’t do it. None of this is for the child’s sake. Boundaries are for the parent’s sake–and that’s totally valid. I resent being told I have to be anything but loving for fear that it will affect my child’s character development negatively.

What Dr. Tsabary writes about resolved this completely for me. She writes that children respond to our calm voice–and, boy, do they. I have found that when I have a better handle on my emotions, and when I operate from a place of assured calm, my children respond to me and cooperate with me in a way that has been jaw dropping. I can ask more of them in the way of respecting my or their other sibling’s boundaries so much more effectively. It does not come from a place of “getting tougher,” it comes from a place of being genuinely more in control, calm, authentically connected, and all around confident. No amount of shrieking at me that I am too lenient with my children, rants about “Kids today” or “Parents these days”–statements that I have come to think of as people’s reactive “Ego” which desires control that Dr. Tsabary describes–could have accomplished this.

It is hard to describe how something going on inside my head has an impact on how my children react, but here is my attempt at an example. I had gotten some Christmas window stickers for my children. My son decided one of the sheets was his. This was fine, because there were 2 other sheets. His sister, he decided could have 1 of them. She is 2 and had no problem with this set up. He then decided the last one was his, which caused a fight. I got in touch with what emotion I was feeling before I responded. It was this, “I am just tired of this. I shouldn’t have to cajole him to share this sheet of stickers. It is perfectly fine that he shares this set of stickers with his sister.” I said “Yes” to my emotion in this instance. I was comfortable with what I thought and my next course of action came almost effortlessly. I said to my son, in what was naturally a calm but firm tone of voice, “You laid claim to the first set of stickers. She had the other. This next one is going to be for sharing.” He relented easily.

I find if you are not in touch with your emotions, your emotions are more likely to control you and the emotional message behind your words still comes out. You will speak with irritation, sarcasm, or anger. Children do not respond to this. When you identify the in-moment emotion, you can ask yourself, “Is this the message I want to send?” “Is this the emotion I want to control me?”

Some say it is ideal to be “kind but firm.” I have attained this ideal, but I find it is more, “from kindness comes firmness.” And I found this work on emotions was necessary to attain it.

The Gift of Giving Your Child Acceptance of Their Authentic Self

I really benefitted by Dr. Tsabary’s comments about how most of us weren’t accepted as children and it causes us to need to fill the void, with overeating, drugs, socializing “mindlessly.” I like especially how she says it’s Ok to just be silent sometimes, something which deserves its own blog post.

She describes how many life skills are crushed when we aren’t accepted.

Such as confrontational skills:

Had we been allowed to speak our truth in its “as is” fashion as children, we would be able to connect to our authentic voice via a direct channel, instead of needing to resort to manipulation, control, and all sorts of emotional turmoil. Speaking one’s truth should be the easiest thing in the world, but because it was so threatening to our caregivers, we now find it the hardest thing to do. Returning to authentic expression with our children is one of the most beautiful gifts we can bestow on them, since it opens the gateway for them to be straightforward.

Or how it affects our relationships:

If the need to feel lovable wasn’t met in our early years, the void we experience can crush our ability to trust others, let alone cherish them. This is why it’s so important to help our children feel both loved and lovable each and every day by raising them consciously. We can start by fully accepting our children, just as they are, right now. As we do so, their original, authentic self blossoms, leaving no void within to cause all the problems so many of them experience.

Seeing your kid for who they are, not who you wish them to be:

“Since children develop a solid sense of self when who they are intrinsically is seen and affirmed, it’s vital that we connect with each child not as a clone of ourselves or a fantasy we harbor of who they need to be, but as an individual who is unique. Thus it’s through our appreciating gaze, our authentic presence with them, and our attention to them—but not indulgence—that they grow up with a strong sense of self.”

Interacting with Other Adults

Dr. Tsabary argues to get in touch with what you are actually feeling when you do anything. I have started to do that when I interact with other adults. For instance, I sometimes post on social media memes or articles to directly challenge some people who treated me in a certain way in the past, which hurt me. What does posting something to the generic social media accomplish? Not much. And it might make other, completely innocent people feel bad or threatened, because my post was venomous.

Or I might ask, “Am I saying something to someone to communicate or connect or some other reason?” Some other reasons might be to brag or subtly influence. By simply asking this question of myself, bringing the emotion into conscious consideration, I naturally make better decisions.

Here are some further quotes that penetrated me when I read them. I am posting them here for exposure and your consideration.

Western cultures encourage us to vent, express, and talk about everything that bothers us. Our addiction to discussing things is more a sign of our internal discomfort than genuine reaching out to create authentic partnership. Born out of a sense of lack, it often comes from a need to be validated, approved of, and understood.

 

To have expectations of life, let alone of other people such as our children, is to set ourselves up for failure and resentment. The nature of life is that it doesn’t bring us what we expect a lot of the time, and people—with all of their whimsy, fickleness, and confusion—certainly don’t. Yet unless we become solidly grounded in our own center, we will continue to expect things of people and be disappointed.

 

As we aren’t operating out of our head and therefore attached to our mental movies, we are able to respond to life’s ebb and flow from a state of groundedness and openness. Uninterested in getting anyone to follow our ways, we learn to flow with others instead of attacking them. We seek to join with their energy when appropriate, or we move away quite naturally should the moment demand. Either way, we remain agenda-free, eager to enjoy the newness of each unknown moment.

People’s Defense Mechanisms

Dr. Tsabary argues that the degree to which a parent’s value system differs from who their child actually is determines how much emotional turmoil that child will have. Now, when I see someone who is so clearly trying to be someone they are not, I think to myself: That gap between who they are and who their parents wanted them to be must have been huge. When there is this gap, in way too many cases, parents use insults and judgment to try to fix the “problem.” It’s an awful feeling of not being accepted–that there is something wrong with you. This is what causes a person to not be comfortable in their own skin, and to make up in their mind that they are something that they are not.

Many of the expectations we have of our children are unspoken. Despite what we don’t put into words, children intuitively sense when we wish them to be other than they are—sense that we want them to fulfill our fantasies of who they will grow up to be and what they will accomplish. Yes, some children rise to this challenge and are successful. But for every child who does, there are a host of others who buckle under the pressure.

Final Thoughts

If you are having any trouble at all with anger towards your children, Dr. Tsabary’s book is the one to pick up. By bringing my emotions into more conscious awareness, I have an even deeper centered and calm approach with my children, which I have found has had a jaw dropping effect on how my children respond to me.

When I first read this book, I was like, “I already know all of this stuff.” I do already accept my children as they are; I don’t try to mold them; I believe in their potential; I do reflect back to them what is best in them. However, the key insight from this book is that of bringing your emotions into conscious awareness and it has been beneficial to me, as described in the points above.

Quotable

Children thrive when they are accepted and encouraged, whereas criticism and punishment cause them to wilt inwardly and ultimately make even more mistakes instead of developing good self-management skills.

 

Takeaways from “Parent Effectiveness Training”: Effective I Statements

The book Parent Effectiveness Training really helped me work through issues with my children where *I* had the problem and needed to confront the issue. I really understand and can construct effective 3-part “I” statements now–yes, they work!

Main takeaways:

Active Listening

The book also talks about how to handle a child when *they* have the problem, by using empathy, active listening, and letting them solve the problem on their own as best as possible. You are a sounding board and you speak primarily to their emotions.

We know that people do a better job of thinking a problem through and toward a solution when they can “talk it out” as opposed to merely thinking about it.

Truth be told, the very first time I read this book, four years ago, I did not understand how to do this–this active listening where you talk primarily to emotions–even after reading the book. I did finally get it, from other books. I would enthusiastically recommend the book Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, which discusses this issue thoroughly. It helped give me insight into dealing with a child’s emotions. See also my blog post about it, Validating Children’s Emotions.

Once validating emotions is understood, P.E.T in addition explains some more things, such as how children “encode” their messages, and it is up to you as a parent to decode them. What children are actually thinking comes out in very weird ways, which, if misunderstood, typically come across as “misbehavior.”

To think of it simply, if you want a factual account of what happened to your child and their day, ask factual questions. If you really want to get to what they are thinking and feeling, learn the language of emotions (empathy). Then you can get to real problem solving.

Many people think that they can get rid of their feelings by suppressing them, forgetting them, or thinking about something else. Actually, people free themselves of troublesome feelings when they are encouraged to express them openly.

Phrases to keep handy as a parent: “Tell me about it.” “I’d like to hear about it.” “Tell me more.” “I’d be interested in your point of view.” “Would you like to talk about it?” “Let’s discuss it.” “Let’s hear what you have to say.” “Tell me the whole story.” “Go ahead, I’m listening.”

Permissiveness as Personal

What really helped me from this book is to look at dealing with your children through a lens of “whose problem is it?” It’s easy to identify once you just think about it this way. If the problem lies with the child–usually something they came to you about–you employ active listening. If the problems lies with you–you are irritated by something–you need good confrontational skills. If there is a conflict in what the child and parent want, negotiation, the heart of the book, is put to use.

I really benefited by the author’s definition of “permissiveness”: It is when you personally don’t like something, but let it continue to happen anyway. I love how it is a personal thing, and everyone is different in what annoys them and what doesn’t. If someone else has a problem with your child, and you don’t, truth be told, it’s their problem to deal with. The author actually says the worst thing you can do as a parent is to allow things you don’t like. You remain grimaced and your child can pick up on these non-verbal clues. They feel unloved and unaccepted while you feel resentment. It’s important to tackle issues directly.

The author advocates “I statements” to deal with this. He asks you to imagine if a guest in your house had their feet on furniture and you didn’t like it. Would you say, “Don’t put your feet on the couch!” “You are being disrespectful!” No, you would say something like, “I hate to ask, but I am worried about getting dirt on our new furniture.” You would be respectful and likely use an “I” statement.

There are however right and wrong ways to construct “I” statements–and please, please read the book for a more in-depth discussion. What helped me the most is to include all 3 parts of an “I” statement: The annoying behavior, how you feel, and why you feel that way. The author says the “why” part is the most important, and the one parents leave out the most. A common example for us may be that our son is riding his tricycle in the house. It’s not enough to say, “I don’t like when you ride the tricycle in the house.” It needs to be “I don’t like when you ride the tricycle in the house, because you might run into the walls or run over your sister’s foot.”  Phrasing it like this also turns the problem over to the child to solve. A negotiation might be able to be worked out such that the child figures out a way to ride the tricycle without bumping into walls or his sister.

My biggest parenting problem so far has actually not been how to handle my children, but how to handle other parents who boss my children around. Perhaps this more laid back style I have of letting children solve their own problems makes other parents think I am not taking an active role, and feel they must step in. In the future, I may ask, “Is what my child doing causing a problem for you?” Because the overwhelming majority of the time, it isn’t: They seem to think they are “teaching” my child something or keeping them safe. (If they are gentle, I don’t have a problem. Yelling is what I have a problem with.) If it is a problem, I may ask, “Can you construct an effective I statement directed towards my child?” I’ll see how this goes …

Letting Children Work Through Problems

Kids have unbelievable and mostly untapped potential for finding good solutions to their problems.

When a child has a problem, it is best to let them work through it. Most parenting authors advocate this and I adopt it as a principle for parenting, but sometimes I find I struggle with it. This book really helped me to stop interfering. The author says that when the child is working through a problem, and you step in to do it for them, you aren’t just fixing a problem: You are sending a message that you don’t think the child is capable of solving it themselves. Who wants to send that message to their child!? Since reading P.E.T., I have been really good about being “hands off” with my kids–only but employing active listening and giving some information–while they work through things.

It especially helped when they are trying to find something. Instead of pointing or trying to play hot/cold games, I just let them look for the thing. I might say where I think or know it roughly is, but I let them keep looking. I might say, “I trust if you keep looking, you’ll find it.” They almost always do. I love that they are gaining confidence in their own observational abilities. I do remember as a child when adults would point or play hot/cold games, I was a slave to what the adult said or did. I was watching their hands or directions, I wasn’t actually looking. Parents who give excessive instruction are not helping their children; they are a wild distraction.

Keeping hands off when a child is engaged in some activity is a strong nonverbal way of communicating acceptance. Many parents fail to realize how frequently they communicate nonacceptance to their children simply by interfering, intruding, moving in, checking up, joining in. Too often adults do not let children just be. They invade the privacy of their rooms, or move into their own personal and private thoughts, refusing to permit them a separateness.

I consider this positive style of parenting as something that always needs refining. I really consider myself to be an empathetic, pro-active mother, who trusts her children. But I used to be guilty of some things that send a message of “I don’t trust you,” which amount to a simple way of how you phrase something. This is one:

All the following types of messages “send a solution”: 1. ORDERING, DIRECTING, COMMANDING “You go find something to play with.”

I have really tried to convert all “You” statements into “I” statements. Although I didn’t think I had any major problems with my children, I have noticed how much more intimate my 4 year old has been with me since doing this–since I have banished even phrases like “Go find something to do.” He wants to snuggle, talk, and play games so much more.

Yes, I absolutely plan on becoming my children’s *friend*!

Anger as a Secondary Emotion

I was really appreciative of the author’s insight about anger. He says anger is a secondary emotion. The example given is if your child gets lost in a store. When you find your child, your first emotion is relief. It is secondary to have anger: “Be more careful next time!” How much better it would be to deal with the first emotion by telling your child, “I was so worried about you!”

The author says to never express your anger at your child, but to deal with the primary emotion.

Unlike other feelings, anger is almost invariably directed at another person. “I am angry” is a message that usually means “I am angry at you” or “You made me angry.” It is really a You-Message, not an I-Message. A parent cannot disguise this You-Message by stating it as “I feel angry.”

Anger is an issue I have thought a lot about as a parent. (See: Dealing with Parental Frustration.) I have read other authors say it is appropriate to say something like, “I am so angry right now I could throw all of your toys out of the window!” I have never found this to be good advice. My experience is saying it gets you too close to actually doing it.

Emotions are really tricky things. In my growth in this area, this is what I (currently) believe: It’s OK to have any emotion and to express most of them, but anger is one that you need to get “control” of and keep to yourself. It itself is the driver of aggression. Good decisions are never made in anger. You as a parent need calming techniques so you can remain the cool-headed, rational, empathetic adult who deals with issues like a pro as they come. So, I am very appreciative of the author, who says anger is secondary, to never direct it at your children (even verbally), and to try to get to that primary emotion instead.

Praise as a Positive, Appreciative, Personal I statement

I really, really love how the author said he used to write against praise, arguing it was a manipulative way to change child behavior, but came to appreciate praise if done a better way.

“I statements” are usually made when confronting a negative behavior that you don’t like. But parents in the classes brought up how they could be used to praise positive behaviors in children too. I love it! This is the kind of descriptive praise as described by Dr. Ginott, where you notice good things about your children and give liberal, genuine, appreciative statements. Dr. Ginott says this is the building blocks of their self esteem, and is what children will repeat back to themselves as their inner voice. They need to “hear and overhear” positive remarks about themselves. The key is that the praise is descriptive and genuine.

Quotable

When a person feels that he is truly accepted by another, as he is, then he is freed to move from there and to begin to think about how he wants to change, how he wants to grow, how he can become different, how he might become more of what he is capable of being.

Now here are some unsettled issues that remain in my mind after reading the book.

Family Meetings versus In-the-Moment Confrontations

The author is opposed to family meetings. He describes how most meetings are benevolent–but authoritarian–with one parent, usually dad, “sermonizing” to the kids about how to behave. Kids don’t leave with any good feelings or behaviors after holding one.

Many books describe better ways of running the meeting, where participants are equal. Anyone can put an issue on the agenda. All voices are welcome. They start with compliments about each other. So, I still see value in them, if done a better way than the author describes.

The author argues that family meetings are too abstract for children. They are too “happy.” He says in negotiations, emotions tend to, and should, run high. But I just wonder if the emotionally removed family meeting might be a benefit: Maybe it is better to talk about issues after things have calmed down.

Finally, the author says most problems involve just two people. But, not all. If making chore charts or some other, having the family involved might help. It might be a way, also, to know that you can bring up an issue routinely, without having to wait for the right, emotionally intense moment. I admit that being able to negotiate right on the spot is a valuable, lifelong skill to practice, model, and encourage.

I have found benefit in meetings. They kick up genuine emotion in my child, which I know how to patiently work through, at a time when I am ready for it. They give an opportunity to talk about ideal behavior and I notice marked improvement in behavior when we have one, with my 4 year old. The author is opposed to parents “giving the solution,” but that brings me to my next point:

When Negotiation is Age Appropriate

The author argues his tactics should be employed at young ages. I agree, and I try to use them whenever they seem appropriate with my 4 year old. The author gives some examples of using P.E.T with toddlers or even infants. I was unmoved by his examples, because I did not see that “negotiation” was at play, the real heart of P.E.T, but rather simple emotional validation.

Many authors will tell you that young children need strong demonstrations and clear expectations. This seems opposite of the I statement approach where you turn the key over to the kid to solve most problems.

Let’s say a kid keeps bursting through doors and knocking over whoever or whatever is behind the door. I have found that a clear demonstration of what is expected resolves the behavior, such as using puppets to show what happens when someone bursts through the door–when dealing with young children. Imagine if I had said, to a young child, “I feel concerned when you burst through the door, because you might knock someone over.” I am not entirely sure that a 3 or 4 year old would come up with an ideal solution. I have found that giving concrete examples of how to behave better work with children this age.

The author outright says his methods are most effective with older children, and completely remarkable with teenagers. The author boasts that teenage rebellion is absent in P.E.T. homes. I really look forward to using this model as my children turn probably 8 or 9, which is when I remember being upset that my parents didn’t listen to me. Perhaps it can be used even younger, at 6 or 7. I’m just not to those ages yet.

So, yes, I absolutely try to use I statements and letting young kids solve their own problems when possible–and I have seen it work, even with preschoolers! But this issue of strong expectations vs letting them work through problems remains in my mind. I am not sure it is comprehensive enough, to work in all situations that comes up with preschoolers. In other words, it may be one tool in the parenting tool box, not the only tool. But, when does it apply? This is where I will put much intellectual effort of how they weave together for preschoolers in the next months.

Be sure to follow The Observant Mom on facebook and check out the Observant Mom book series!

Dealing with (Your Own) Parental Frustration and Anger

Dealing with (Your Own) Parental Frustration and Anger

When my son had just turned 4, we started to have several issues with him. Some background: We had just moved to a new house; I had just gone through a very fatiguing first trimester of pregnancy; and he had an annoying toddler sister always interested in what he was doing. I wrote the issues down on a list: He was throwing things down the stairs, jumping on the couch, and hitting his sister. I got to reading about how to handle it, and one thing I came across in Positive Discipline: Preschoolers was the idea of a family meeting, recommended even for preschoolers.

I decided to have one and I tackled but two issues. One was throwing items down the stairs. I was blown away by this meeting. My son showed he understood our concern about objects getting broken or knocked over. But then he told us, “But when I’m mad it’s OK to throw things.”

Woah. I couldn’t believe in this family meeting how many times my son brought up emotions or even welled with tears as we talked about some of the things that were happening. There were huge emotions that he was dealing with.

So, that launched an entire, impromptu discussion: What to do when we are angry. I found myself completely tongue tied when trying to walk him through this. I know what the books say: Draw a picture about how you are angry, tell a friend, punch a pillow. Frankly, most of these solutions feel pretty weak. I couldn’t get behind any of them wholeheartedly, just yet, because I have yet to see any of them really, truly work in many, let alone most, situations.

Emotions rivet us to DO something. It has been noted that the word emotion has “motion” as its base. Fear makes us run; Sadness makes us seek comfort; Anger makes us want to fight. All of these play a role in survival. Anger still plays a role today. I’ll give my own example: When I had finally grown angry enough at a job where I felt unappreciated, I hit rock bottom, and decided to start to look for a new job. I knew to get one, it would be best to lose weight. I ended up losing 25 pounds.

But, emotions can drive us to do things we regret, too. I’ll speak for myself: When I am intensely angry, *I* want to throw something. I have thrown things. I shared with my son at that meeting how I threw a bottle once, against a wall, after it leaked all over my newborn daughter. However, it made everything worse. Now I had a mess to clean up.

You have a right to judge me about this, if you want. I used to judge people. Before I had children, I thought I was an eternally patient person. And I was, given my experiences thus far. I had never really been pushed past my breaking point. Well … except when mad at people sometimes. Or when in traffic. Or when I had terrible customer service. Ok, maybe I did have an anger problem, to some degree.

I have actually grown in all of those areas, largely from being a parent, knowing how to smile, be patient, ask for things politely, and so on. But most of the situations that I had grown in were ones where I was a fairly rested person with an ability to think before I acted, and I was dealing primarily with adults. I didn’t have a child screaming in my ear; I wasn’t completely exhausted; I hadn’t truly been overwhelmed by emotion. And here I had a son admitting he was overwhelmed with emotions sometimes. What is a good way to handle this situation? When you see red and you just want to yell, hit, or scream?

Most of the formal parenting books don’t give robust advice on this, if at all, and some are rather judgmental and condescending about it. They make it pretty clear that “good” parents are patient and “bad” parents are impatient. The advice they give on how to deal with stress and anger is patronizing. They may say “Budget your time more wisely” so you aren’t so stressed. In other words, they put it back on the parent to simply have more discipline, to do more with the same amount of time, without any more resources or any more knowledge or skill sets. The very book I mentioned earlier, Positive Discipline: Preschoolers is like this.

Dealing with intense anger isn’t something that comes naturally to a person. This is a skill set. I can imagine there are some people who had great role models when they were young and, through mimicking neurons, learned good behavior patterns. But not everyone did. (And, if it isn’t a skill set, then what good does it do to judge people about it?) Even if I was naturally good at it (and I am, to some degree), I would want to know why and thus be able to explain it to my son, and I couldn’t. So I decided to look for a book about it.

I picked up the book Healing the Angry Brain: How Understanding the Way Your Brain Works Can Help You Control Anger and Aggression. I picked it because it promised to use the latest research in neuroscience to explain anger, and how we could rewire our reactions using the property of “blain plasticity.” I am already familiar with this concept, where the brain is more like a muscle, which can be developed and programmed, so I picked this book, out of the many, as the one to read.

I feel the need to get defensive when I say I read this book. This book is designed primarily for violent offenders. The book says people who are chronically angry tend to be people previously addicted to drugs or mired in hatred. I am not these things. But I found the parenting books were extremely weak in dealing with parental frustration and anger. So I picked up a book designed to deal specifically with the issue of anger management.

There are some problems with trying to apply the tactics found in this book specifically to parenting.  For instance, one tactic used is to go take a timeout, something even the parenting books say. But the fact is, when you have young children, you might not be able to leave the situation. I find when I do that, sometimes the kids keep harassing each other, and I just keep getting angrier.

The other thing the book says is that anger starts out slow and builds and it is good to find those very first bodily clues that you are angry. Actually, as a parent, I find I can go from completely calm to completely frustrated in a matter of 5 seconds. And these 5 seconds are crucial. I need something that works that quickly, or something that prevents anger altogether.

An expert in anger who could apply their knowledge about anger to common parenting situations, who treated it with the respect and empathy it deserves, understanding what parents go through, would be amazing. I did my best to apply the advice, and I think I did really well.

The most awesome bit of advice I got was about Deep Breathing. The book describes how there are parts of the brain responsible for getting excited and then other parts of the brain for remaining calm, and the two cannot be on at the same time. The author describes breathing as a powerful exercise to turn on the parts of the brain responsible for calming.

I love deep breathing. The author says you need to practice it regularly, to make it a habit. It is a committed, deep breath. You breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 4. He recommends doing this 12 times in a row, once per day. I committed to 2 times per days, at night. I find anger sometimes finds its home in me somewhere between my gut and throat. When I deep breathe, those very areas feel soothed. After two committed breaths, sometimes it feels so nice, I keep going. The deep breathing acts best as a preventative measure. So, if you want to be a more patient person for whatever your day may bring you, you can practice this every single night.

This is what I commonly use now when anger flashes over me, when I have but 5 seconds to react. In any situation I am in, I can always breathe. I can do it right away. It works.

The other thing that the author says that I really like, is that anger is an unconscious process and using purely conscious measures to try to “control” it fail, which is why most anger management programs fail. When emotions overwhelm a person, there is little hope that a person can go “Hmm. I am angry right now. I am going to choose to be a different way. I’ll be calm and proceed forward with thoughtful action.” Ha!

Instead, you have to train yourself to automatically respond in a certain way that you want to respond. This is also why to practice breathing, or other techniques, regularly: so they become automatic. And, yes, the efforts you put in to change these habits are deliberate and conscious.

This is where brain plasticity comes in. Your brain develops neural pathways which automatically execute under certain stimuli. You don’t have to think about how to walk; you just do. It is similar with how you react to anger-provoking or irritating situations. The author describes it is best to focus on the positive of how you want to behave, rather than trying to break a bad habit. It’s a lot easier to start a new habit than to break a bad one.

It is interesting to me to see how people behave when angry across the entire world. I read a story once of a Middle Eastern man who killed a doctor because the doctor saw his wife nude. The thought of doing this would never cross a Western person’s mind. Why not? I propose because they have never seen it done, or even heard of it being done. The person who committed this act of violence almost certainly had to have seen or heard it before, which then etched a neural pathway in his brain to respond like that given the particular trigger.

I then think of forms of violence still considered acceptable in Western culture, such as spanking a child as a form of discipline. I think of articles and studies which point out that, of the parents who do spank, they spank more than they admit, because they are spanking in moments of anger. In that moment of anger, why do they go back to smacking their child on the butt? I propose because they have seen it done, and those neural pathways got etched. I wonder if this method of supposed discipline were unequivocally rejected, and never role modeled for people, if people would more automatically stop doing this in moments of anger.

The book has many more thoughts on calming down anger, with a strong focus on empathy. I encourage you to read the book. It’s an interesting and enjoyable read. I had many epiphanies while reading it. It also talks a lot about how angry people tend to have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which is something many positive parenting books say. If you want to raise calm, moral individuals, you need to help children develop their prefrontal cortex (the part responsible for thought)–not punish them!

From my own experience with parenting anger, I find it is important to notice your triggers. For me, the trigger of all triggers, is when I decide I don’t have to be a parent for a span of time. It happens. It might be a particularly bad day or even just a moment. I might decide I have the “right” to sit down, and, say, make some phone calls. Then my kids acts up. Typical triggers from them that set me off are crying or when one hits the other. But, again, it is usually when I decided I could take my eye off of the for a period of time. So, I know, for me, I need to decide, every day: Am I going to be Present or not? When I have my “Parenting Hat” on, I almost always do well, no matter what.

It is important to talk to other caregivers about your thoughts on this. It is important to recognize that they may hit their breaking point. Plan for it; it will happen. My husband and I talked about having a “safe word.” We have heard other couples do it, and I think it is fantastic. If you need to leave a situation, and your spouse is there to help you, say the safe word, and leave. Just knowing you *can* do this may help.

The entire paradigm of positive parenting helps you to greatly minimize any harm you may do. It unequivocally rejects spanking and all other forms of punitive discipline. I consider some of the words parents say to be forms of violence too, such as insults or shaming, which positive discipline also rejects. There was an article on Psychology Today that says in the moment of spanking, parents feel pleasure. They find it so salacious that they spin out of control and continue to spank harder and more often. That parents thought this is a good thing in the first place causes them to do it, which causes them to like it, which causes it to be a habit, and then there are those neural pathways that cause them to react this way when triggered. Stop it in its tracks by rejecting violence unequivocally.

I think I feel comfortable talking about this topic because it is truly minimal that frustration gets out of control in our house. The positive discipline tactics work. We manage emotions, respect needs, and find solutions. Our house is calm, and please see my many blog posts for how I do this. If you fundamentally reject violence, most of these problems, perhaps 95%, will go away. I am writing primarily about little flare ups that happen and how to handle them. If you haven’t embraced positive discipline yet, I am not sure that these smaller tricks will fully work for you.

My situation is a bit different than others: I am a stay-at-home mom homeschooler with virtually no support. I am annoyed by authors or others who tell me, “Make sure to go on date night!” Or “You HAVE to take time for yourself!” Ok, do you want to come over and help me make that happen? It’s not a reality for us. Some positive discipline books even make it clear that they think women should not be stay-at-home mothers, because it is too stressful. Sure, more breaks and more help would help me. But I’ve still managed to keep things under control with these tools.

I hope to have provided a multi-faceted approach for dealing with anger, more than just “Try harder!”: Prevention, In-the-Moment solutions, cooperation among caregivers, and a paradigm that rejects violence. Still, sometimes a person is wiped out and all measures start to break down. So, here is one more thought, about those overwhelming emotions:

I find it is difficult–but not impossible–in moments of completely overwhelming emotion to endure the emotion without lashing out somehow. It helps, in these moments of complete fatigue and mental breakdown, to learn that in almost no circumstance can a person make a good decision while under the influence of powerful emotions. So, the focus shifts to getting through the emotion while it lasts, without causing any harm.

I’ll give an example. I was at a restaurant once, 7 months pregnant, with my 2 small children. I had two previous nights of insomnia, and I was very irritable. My daughter, only 1 at the time, started becoming very cranky and demanding. I did not have much in me to deal with it, and she only wanted mommy, so my husband could not help. I tried to get her back in her high seat so I could eat. It didn’t work, and I ended up putting her in my lap. For a matter of maybe 2 or 3 minutes though, she was crying, within ear shot of other restaurant goers. A woman shot at me, “Thank you!” after I calmed my daughter down. This isn’t a “Thank You.” It’s “You annoying twit. Why did it take you so long?”

I hit my breaking point. I left the restaurant immediately, with my daughter. While trying to calm myself down, I kept telling myself “Do no harm; do no harm; do no harm.” I didn’t even have it in me to breathe. I eventually came back in the restaurant, calmer but not perfectly calm. We asked for boxes and to leave immediately. I admit I wanted to yell at that lady. But I never did. I managed to be the peaceful person I know I can be. And I think the benefits of this were enormous. People around me were sympathetic. My husband was sympathetic. The waiter, bless his soul, told us, “It seems like you had a situation. You guys have a beautiful family and I hope you have a great day.”

This is soul expanding stuff. In those moments of anger, it would feel so satisfying to lash out. To not do this takes a certain super power.

I have thought a little bit about why men are so physically strong and women are not. Sure, women can do many athletic things, but, on a whole, their strength is much lesser. Why aren’t human women like female lions, who bear the cubs and do all of the hunting? I think it is because not committing violence, not even having the capacity for it (physically, at least a diminished capacity), is a virtue in motherhood. A soldier who defeated an enemy is courageous, and I think it sometimes takes just as much courage and virtue to not strike when the moment does not call for it.

I mentioned earlier that I wanted to help guide my son through anger better. First, by role modeling it myself, I believe I am giving him an enormous gift. I also now practice breathing with him. When I put him to bed, I ask him to do two big deep breaths. I find I do often tell him, “You have a right to be angry. You don’t have a right to hit.” It’s a slow process, and one I am more confident in now.

I think that learning to control your emotions is the most important thing you can do to become the parent you want to be. It can be very exasperating. Most people won’t acknowledge this, except to get mad and accusatory towards irritable parents. I think punitive methods of discipline arose naturally out of this very anger I’ve been talking about. When angry, for centuries, parents just hit their child. Somehow this became to be known as “discipline.” It’s not enlightened; it’s just more animalistic behavior materializing. And people defend it. Children who were spanked sometimes defend it now, “Look at me, I turned out OK!” Those sometimes-be-damned mimicking neurons are powerful.

But the fact is, this is not effective discipline. If you can keep your emotions under “control,” you usually can come up with a far better solution than the “natural,” reactionary one you would have had. Parenting is a skill set, like any other profession, it does not come naturally. You need to read, read, read, and learn, learn, learn how to do it.

Happy Parenting. 😉

.

 

 

TEACHING Manners to Children

We were out once and my son said about a lady, “That lady is fat!” Thankfully, the lady was out of earshot. Although he did not mean anything malicious by it, I decided it was high time I learned a little bit more about Grace, Courtesy, Etiquette, and so on. I picked up this book Teaching Grace and Courtesy the Montessori Way.

This book really surprised me about what type of behaviors are part of “etiquette.” It’s things that I clearly could see benefit in, not just to be polite and proper, but because it would make some social situations go more smoothly. The author is British and certainly I could see how social situations operate just a bit differently in the UK than they do in the US. Some things I found good, and others bad.

Something that would help I think: When you are hosting a party, when a new guest arrives, it is proper to introduce the guest to 3 or 4 people and to give a fact about the guest to the other guests to get the conversation flowing. I have never been privileged to have someone do this for me as a guest at a party. It’s always just “Come on in. The drinks are in the cooler.” Then, at many parties, despite a few attempts at conversation, I often eat birthday cake on the floor in a corner, talking with the people I came with and maybe some grandmas.

th

Anyway, back to children. I got a few things out of this book. Here they are:

The most important thing I got was that the author reminded me that everything needs taught, even social skills and etiquette. I get caught up with life sometimes and I forget this. I try to do one lesson a day with my kids. In addition to lessons on math, art, and so on, I also will now give formal lessons on politeness. The author did this. She gave children in a daycare formal lessons on saying please, thank you, how to pass dishes at meal time, and such. Then she observed them afterwards to see if they started to be more polite, spontaneously, on their own. The children showed marked improvement.

One of the first lessons I did with my son was how to quietly close a door. I also modeled for him, using some figurines, what happens if he bursts threw a door without considering that someone might be behind it. This is actually the heart and soul of positive discipline: modeling, explaining, showing, teaching your children proper behavior–not yelling or punishing. These lessons go a long way towards discipline and general peace in your house.

The author said that the hardest lesson for children to learn is introducing people. I remember in second grade my mother and father telling me I was going to introduce them to my teacher. I was struck with fear. I am pretty sure I hid behind my mother’s leg when the time came. I know I didn’t do it–and that I never gained confidence in it or learned how to do it any time soon after that. This is something that takes time and practice and should not be sprung on a child. It is also not polite to correct a child in front of strangers. Do it in private. I started practicing with my child by using pictures in books and on board games. As we pass by her on Disney World Candy Land, “Hi Cinderally. I am Amber. It’s nice to meet you.” Or “Hi Belle, I see you have a book. I like to read too.” Or “Sorry Cheshire Cat, no time to talk. Hope to talk to you again soon!”

I also worked on accepting a compliment by simply saying “Thank you.” It’s a good skill, to just say thank you, not to humble yourself and discredit what the person said. In the past, my son, 4, argued with people who gave him compliments, ha.

 

Quotable

Probably the most important technique to remember is that of demonstrating the desired activity to the child. Don’t assume that a child knows how to greet someone, how to answer a phone, or even how to flush a toilet after using it if he or she has never been shown the proper procedure.