Friday, August 28, 2009


My kid's sad..... I feel guilty I couldn't somehow prevent this unhappiness.
My kid's happy.... I feel guilty I'm not able to stop what I'm doing to enjoy it more, to be "in the moment."
My kid spends a lot of time reading books........ I feel guilty I'm not encouraging more outdoor play.
My kid is running around outside from morning to night....... I feel guilty I'm not making sure we are reading more.
I have a close relationship with my child......... I feel guilty that maybe I'm "babying her."
My child is very independent........ I feel guilty that somehow I may have caused "attachment problems."

I think I'm seeing a pattern here: no matter what happens, I will feel guilty. What's the deal? Did this come with the parenting package? Or is being guilt-ridden just a part of my flawed psyche, something else I should feel guilty about?

When I was a younger mom I believed, deep down to my bones, that if I wasn't feeling deeply responsible for all aspects of my child's life, I just wasn't doing my job. And of course, that had to lead to guilt. Who can be everywhere, know everything, and always cover all the bases? I truly thought I could, and should be able to do all that, but I always seemed to come up short.

Because, guess what: I'm human. My unfortunate children did not have a supernatural being for a mom, poor little things.

I did not always know what they wanted for breakfast and I could not always avoid being one minute late picking them up from Kindergarten. Additionally, I could not always hide my feelings of fatigue and irritation, nor could I always creatively solve all of their problems or improve their moods for them. The birthday parties I planned for my children were not, unfortunately, the cutest and and most fun parties on the block.

By my own standards, I was often a failure.

The thing is, my standards and my feelings of accomplishment or failure had very little to do with meeting my children's actual needs. You guessed it: it was all about me.

Guilt is a selfish emotion. It focuses us inward, and forces us to ignore those around us. While we are involved in the egocentric frenzy of gnashing our teeth over allowing our child to forget their homework, we are ignoring the more important event: the "teachable moment" that our child could be experiencing, if we were available to help just a little. When we are wallowing in guilt because we were unable to prevent our toddler from a little boo-boo, we are elevating our own needs above the needs that the child has for a little comfort, a bandaid, and a hug. And often, our guilt makes the child feel even worse because they read the distress on our face, and through the psycho-social phenomenon call "social referencing" they think they should be very upset, just because we are.

It's easier to be a mom if you have less of these "guilt genes." But since my culture, upbringing, and temperament have predisposed me to guilt, I have learned that the best thing I can do for myself and my kids is to be aware of it. I am finally learning to notice when I am laying a guilt trip on myself, and I am usually able to force myself to look at things a little more rationally. Then I can relax and be more authentic and more available to my children, which is ultimately what I want for all of us.

Now if I could just stop feeling guilty about feeling guilty.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


I remember feeling little. I was only two or three, but I didn't like that feeling of needing to grow into my skin. This feeling always seemed to have a lot to do with the way other people were making me feel about myself.

For example I recall feeling small when I said something that was serious to me, but the big people laughed because it was "cute."

I remember feeling small when I tried to do something challenging- carry a heavy bucket of sand- but failed, and the people around me laughed.

I felt small and insignificant when I was thrilled about a brand-new accomplishment- I climbed to the top of the fence!- but the grownups scolded me for climbing.

I felt little when my emotions suddenly overcame my bravery, and I cried for my mother, and the teacher told me not to be "a baby."

I felt way too small when I wanted to be a Big Girl and do something new for myself- walk next door to my friend's- and the grownups laughed and said I was too little.

Now that I am an adult, with personal power, autonomy, and a voice of my own, I realize that children are very often belittled by well-meaning adults.

It's one thing to enjoy them while they are little, but it's another thing entirely to make them feel small.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


The little boy is always very happy sitting and playing with his trucks and toys. Even though he is only two, sometimes he will concentrate on his play for forty-five minutes at a time. Sometimes he likes to lie on the floor with a toy in his hand, talking quietly to himself. His mother finds herself frustrated and impatient with his inactivity, and worried about his health. She is very active, and values exercise. She wants her son to be healthy and fit. She had looked forward to having a child to play soccer and other sports with, but when she tries to engage him in physical activity, he usually shies away and heads back to his toys.

The toddler enjoys familiar places the most. When she is taken to new places, she is uncomfortable, and it takes her quite awhile for her to settle in to her new surroundings. Her parents find this difficult, because they like to take their family to lots of new places and they want to expose her to many new adventures. But she is so unhappy during these outings that her fussing makes it unpleasant for everyone.

The father is worried because his young son seems to have few friends. The toddler likes to play with only one other child, and hasn't yet formed friendships with anyone else, even though the parents have taken the him to playgroups since he was an infant. This dad finds that his many friendships are one of the most important parts of his life. He wants his children to find the joy in friendship that has been so important to him. He is worried that his son will not have very many friends and will be lonely.

Sometimes the little girl is downright "difficult." This is ok at home, but when the child expresses her strong opinions when other people are around, her mother gets very uncomfortable. She was raised to believe that it's important to fit in with others, and to put others' needs ahead of your own. She wants her daughter to have good social skills so that she will have friends, and be accepted. She worries that other children, as well as adults, will find this strong-willed child unlikeable. But she doesn't know what to do about it: her daughter simply has very intense feelings and expresses them very loudly!

In each of these families, the parents want the best for their children, but are worried because the child does not seem to be what the parents expected. They all wonder if there is something more they could or should be doing about it: can they somehow "make" their child more active, more adaptable, more social, or more calm?

Do these parents' struggles mirror anything that you have been through as a parent? Before their first child is born, most parents have ideas of what parenthood will be like, what their child "should" be like, and what their values are as a family. This is all normal and natural. The only problem is, eventually the child comes along and shows us that all these ideas just don't seem to apply anymore!

Every child is unique, and we have limited power to mold them into something that they are not. An low-activity person, such as the first toddler described above, cannot be shaped into a highly active child at the parent's insistence. And all the wishes and willpower in the world will not make a slow-to-adapt child "hurry up" and get used to a new environment more quickly.

Children are who they are. As you slowly get to know them over the first three years of your lives together, you may or may not recognize them as being similar to you. But whether they share many temperament traits with either parent or not, they are going to be themselves, no matter what.

We parents waste quite a lot of relationship-energy on trying to "change" our kids. We would be better off using all that energy to observe and learn about our kids as they are. And then we could offer the best of ourselves to them, offer them experiences and opportunities that both challenge them and match their strengths, and most of all, accept them for the unique and irreplaceable person that they are.

We can't change our children, but face it: our children change us.

Sunday, August 2, 2009



"I LOVE it!"

"This is the best picture I've ever seen!"

"You're the best artist in the class!"

"You're amazing!"


"You worked hard on this for a very long time!"

"I noticed that you used red paint in one hand and yellow paint in another hand, and painted with both at the same time. And in the middle, I saw that the red and the yellow mixed together to make a new color!"

"When you were drawing, you looked like you were thinking very hard, and then when you were finished, you looked very happy!"

"What can you tell me about your picture? I'd like to hear all about it."

"You used two pairs of scissors at the same time when you were cutting that paper! That seems like an interesting idea. How did that feel?"

"I can see a lot of colors and a lot of shapes in this picture."

"You had a smile on your face the whole time you were drawing this picture. Can you tell me what you were thinking and feeling?"

Which type of comment gives a toddler more information about themselves and their skills?

When parents and teachers are busy and distracted, we offer the first type: "Awesome!" Even though they gush enthusiasm, these comments require no thought at all. We can make these statements without any observation or personal engagement with the child. It's easy. It's also useless. What can a toddler learn about their emerging identity and blossoming skills from "Amazing!"? Especially when every child in the class gets the same comment from Teacher, or when Mom always says every picture I paint is "Awesome!"?

When adults take time to be truly engaged, and to observe children's creative process in detail, we can provide them with information that will assist them in their development. When we tell them that we noticed they worked hard on the project, they learn that they are a person who can stick to a task. When we point out unique ways that they use tools, they learn that they are a person with creative ideas. When we ask them open-ended questions about their work, it teaches them that their ideas are of value to others. Gradually, these respectful interactions can accumulate in a child's experience, and result in positive self-esteem, as well as creative and critical thinking skills. And think about the higher-level language skills that are being modeled, as well!

Like most other positive parenting/teaching skills, offering genuine feedback to children takes practice. Maybe thinking of it this way will help: if an adult friend asked you for feedback on a project that was important to them, you wouldn't say "It's terrific!" without even thinking, would you? You would take the time to really look at the work and give genuinely helpful feedback. It's simply the respectful thing to do. Children deserve at least this much effort from us.

Let's take the time to be engaged with our children's creative work, and give them the genuine and respectful feedback they need.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


We're walking in the redwood forest... ancient trees are swaying lightly as the breeze stirs the lowest branches. The sunlight filters down through the high canopy and creates an ever-changing mosaic of light on the pathway. The only sounds are the songs of birds, the chattering of chipmunks, the scolding of jays, and the whisper of the wind. These trees are fifteen feet in diameter and a thousand years old! This is a sacred and beautiful place and it feels wonderful to be here. "There are so many things to see, hear, feel, and experience here," I'm thinking as I walk along.

And then.

Along comes a young mother with her baby in a stroller. The baby's eyes are glued to a portable video player in the stroller, and the baby is watching the movie "Shrek." On the tiny video screen I could glimpse images of cartoon trees and animals in a pretend forest. The baby was seeing, hearing, and experiencing nothing in the real world around her. I wanted to scream, I wanted to shake that misguided young mom, I wanted to throw that video player in the creek! But of course I didn't do anything. I just cried later as I told my husband about it, and I ranted about this incident to my college students and parenting classes for the rest of the year.

This seems like a very obvious Crime Against Natural Childhood. But think. What kinds of things did I do when my kids were little that may have been similar "crimes," although not as egregious? What kinds of crimes do you commit? Video player in the minivan? So many of us are willing to sacrifice our children's learning for a little peace and quiet while in the car. TV or videos late in the afternoon because "we're all tired?" Why wouldn't simple water play in the back yard provide a more relaxing and productive remedy for exhaustion and still allow you to get your chores done? The trip to Disneyland might be better spent at the beach. The kids would really rather just play in the sand anyway, wouldn't they? Planting seeds in cups and watching them grow with your toddler and his friend might be a better learning experience than signing up for another "enrichment" class.

Nature is the best playmate, the best teacher and the best playground. We just need to put away our gadgets and be ready to play.