Thursday, July 30, 2009

Empowering Problems

Crash! The tower of blocks falls over, and the toddler screams in frustration. At this point Mom, Dad, or Teacher has several options for how to respond:

1. Do or say nothing.

2. Be sympathetic, try to console the child. "Don't cry. It's ok."

3. Distract the child. "Come on! Let's go play with the bubbles!"

4. Fix the problem. "Here- let me build it back up for you."

5. Look for ways to empower the child to solve the problem herself. "I wonder why it fell down. Can you figure out how to build it better? I'll watch you work on it."

Which of these methods will result in the most positive long-term outcomes?

I think most of us would agree that number 5 would be more likely to result in the child developing life-long problem-solving skills, and feelings of self-confidence. This is especially true if this type of scenario is repeated many times every day. (And with young children, aren't there always zillions of problems to solve?)

But ask yourself: Which method do you most often use? Why?

It does not necessarily come naturally to all adults to use empowering language with children. For many of us, it is a bit of a "foreign language" which must be learned and rehearsed. Many of us fall very easily and naturally into responding with numbers 1 through 4, especially if we were raised that way ourselves.

Try practicing a little. Experiment by very deliberately using empowering language with a child in one or two situations, and see how it feels. You may find that the pay-off in increased self-esteem for both you and the child is well worth the effort.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Perfect Imperfection

Why is it so hard? Why is parenting so exhausting and frustrating sometimes? Especially when it's one of those days? Or one of those weeks.... No naps, no cooperation, lots of whining and problems, nothing goes well, everything is just.... hard.

Sometimes there is no way to explain the difficulty. It just is. Too bad we can't just accept that, and live with it. If we could, it would eventually get easier again for awhile, and life would move forward. Instead, we tend to focus on the negative, and stay in the bad place longer than we have to, and wallow in blame. We blame ourselves for being bad parents. We blame our kids for spoiled and demanding, our partners for not being helpful enough. But blame doesn't help anyone.

But looking back over the years at my own parenting struggles, I think the main thing that made it hard at times was my own unrealistic expectations for my kids and for myself. I wanted them to be a certain way, a certain thing. I wanted myself to be a certain type of parent. I wanted us to be a particular type of family, and I wanted us to achieve an unrealistic level of perfection. Well, needless to say, we never made it. And most of the time that I spent focusing on those crazy goals was not only wasted, but was responsible for creating an unhappy atmosphere in our family and anxiety within myself. I see now that my desires for some sort of unattainable perfection were all based on trying to please or impress other people, and had nothing to do with meeting the needs of my children or myself. Of course I had no idea of this at the time.

I'm thinking that if I were to raise my kids all over again I would want to try to just let them be. Just let them be who they are, and do what they need to do. I would also try to offer myself the same courtesies: allow myself to be un-impressive. Make "who cares" my motto. Try to make enjoying my kids my daily goal. What a difference that would have made in the level of my stress as a young mom 20 years ago!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Learning from Living

Flowers and Petunia. They were tiny baby skunks, barely old enough to have their eyes opened. Dad found them by the pond, abandoned by their mother. They became "ours" for awhile. We fed them and loved them, and I think we even dressed them in doll clothes once or twice. I was only three, but I still remember vividly the sweet skunky smell of them, and the way they cuddled against my chest. I never did understand what people have against skunks. I think most people have just never known one personally.

There was a long parade of animals in my childhood, both wild and tame. Each one of them taught me many fascinating and important things.

I learned that you can have Dog School with a group of dogs, if the grownups leave you alone, and if you are patient.

I learned that chickens grow faster than anything else: one day they are sweet and soft, and the next day they are big and scary and attacking my feet.

I learned that some rabbits prefer to stay in the hutch, but that some rabbits will let you walk them on a leash.

Baby possums look exactly like grown up possums, except they are smaller. They smell differently from baby skunks, but are almost as cuddly.

Baby mice and baby birds prefer to be left alone as much as possible: there is such a thing as too much love.

Sometimes a goose just has to be free.

Raccoons will play with anything. The young raccoon that stole all our hearts one year always washed dog food in the water dish until it dissolved, and helped Dad work on the car engine by sticking his paws into every nook and cranny, examining every bolt and screw. Dad cried a little when it was time to take him back out to the country to let him live his life in the wild.

The summer that I raised my baby goat, Cottonwood, he followed me all over our small town, loping to keep up with me, bleating my name, "Aaaannnnie...." The neighbors embarrassed me when they would sing, "Annie has a little goat, little goat, little goat..."

The day we brought the new puppy home from the kennel, I won the fight with my brother about who got to hold her in the car for the thirty minute drive home. By the time we got home, my dog and I had permanently bonded, and she was my best friend for nearly two decades.

When our grumpy cat had kittens in the front seat of the car, we all discovered her and her new family when we were on our way to swimming lessons. We still talk about the big happy smile she gave us as she showed off her beautiful litter. This cat never was a bundle of joy, but we loved her. For the remaining 16 years of her life, we fondly remembered the joyful kittens-in-the-car day, and we often wondered if she would ever smile at us again. She didn't, but she seemed content enough.

When children are not exposed to non-human living things, how to they learn the important lessons of life? Computer games and videos can't hard-wire a brain to appreciate the nuances of empathy the way that caring for another living being can. Enrichment classes and organized sports may not prepare a person to discern the minute differences between individuals, the way raising a batch of identical baby chicks or bunnies will do. Reading the best descriptive and well-illustrated books in the world cannot give a child the vivid sensory input that my baby skunks gave me.

Most children do not have access to skunks, possums, raccoons, and goats on a daily basis. But what about bugs, snails and worms? They make wonderful temporary pets and provide amazing lessons in science and in life. Another one of my favorite pets from childhood was a little bug I named Joe. I had him in a shoe box for a day or two. I cared for him, observed him, learned from him, and offered him his freedom. Would I remember Joe for all these years if his presence in my life hadn't been important and instructive? He, and all the other animals in my life taught me that everyone is different, that each individual is remarkable.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Would you like to walk by yourself, or do you want me to help you?"

If I am a toddler, this in an intriguing choice. It gives me the power to choose, and the comfort of knowing that the big person will help me if I prefer. Sometimes I just don't want to walk by myself, and sometimes i really, really really do. But I know what I want, so it's an easy decision, even if I am very young. If Mom, Dad, or Teacher has truly offered only choices that are perfectly ok with them, everyone is getting what they want and need.

Within seconds, the child, the whole situation, is un-stuck. We're now on our way to bed, to the car, to wash our hands, wherever it was we were going when we decided to veer of course.


Simple. Easy. Effective. Respectful.