Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I’m usually pretty careful to guard against using dog-analogies when talking about parenting or child development.  But once in awhile, I just have to.

K.J. and I were talking about our dogs the other day.  She was talking about  her aging dog Fabby’s puppyhood, and how difficult it had been at times.  I sympathized, having just recently survived Gretchen’s youth.  I hate to say it, but I’d be hard pressed to say which is harder:  raising a human baby or a training a puppy.

Anyway…… K.J. said that at one point during the first six months, she was extremely sleep-deprived due to her efforts to crate-train the puppy. I could relate to this.  I remember well those exhausting nights a couple of years ago, hoping to help Gretchen feel secure enough eventually to sleep on her own, by sleeping with my hand in her puppy-crate next to the bed all night. Gretchen was able to settle down finally, because she could cuddle against my warm hand. But it’s a little hard to get a good night’s sleep with your hand hanging out of bed and into the dog crate.  Every time I moved an inch, she would wake up and howl, and we’d have to start all over again.  I was determined to stick to the plan, but it was an incredibly tiring and difficult process.  K.J. also talked about how hard it was when puppy-Fabby was still chewing on everything, as well as peeing and pooping  in all the wrong places about every ten minutes.  I remember all this with Gretchen, also, and have no idealism about ever again having a “cute little puppy” to raise, although there’s truly nothing to compare with the joy of puppy-kisses.  Their adorable-ness and devotion is how they suck you in!

K.J. told me how one morning she took Fabby for a walk after another nearly-sleepless night.  She sat down on a park bench, exhausted and dispirited.  She was ready to give up.  Why was she doing this to herself? This was not a human baby, it was a dog.  It was OPTIONAL.  She was ready to admit defeat, and was realizing that she was on the verge of taking the puppy back to the breeder.  Her exhaustion, frustration, and sadness showed on her face as she sat there. Even the puppy looked discouraged, I imagine. After awhile, an older gentleman sat down on the bench next to her and starting petting the dog.  He looked at her and said, “You’re ready to give up, aren’t you?”  She said that she was indeed, just about to her breaking point with this whole puppy-thing. He made sympathetic noises, and said he understood very well.

Then the man said, “But listen:  just hang in there three more days.”   He promised K.J. that she was currently, at this very moment, experiencing the worst of it.  Within three days, things would begin to turn around.  She would see the light at the end of the tunnel very soon.  If she gave up now, she would have gone through a lot of frustration for nothing, and that both she and the puppy would grieve for each other.  “Please try to hold on for three more days, and then you’ll see,” he implored.

K.J. thought about this, and about the fact that she had wanted a dog for years and years.  Finally getting a dog had been the long-deferred fulfillment of a life-long dream.  She is a tenacious person, not easily discouraged, so she resolved to stick with it for three more days, but NO MORE. Fabby looked up at her with big “I’ll be good” eyes, but K.J. wasn’t optimistic. She was too tired to be hopeful.

Lo and behold, the next day, things started to get better.  Fabby only had a couple of potty-accidents, and showed great joy several times in pleasing mom by pottying in the right place at the right time. At bedtime, instead of crying for hours, Fabby howled in her crate for  only 10 minutes and then settled down and went to sleep. 

Woo-hoo! Three magical ingredients (puppy brain-development, appropriate training methods, and patience) were all beginning to come together at last! 

 The second day, things improved still further.  By the third and fourth days, even though life with a puppy was still not a piece of cake, K.J. was convinced that she had the world’s best dog.

Boy, does all this sound familiar!  I remember when my girls were little, we went through one “crisis” after another:  excessive crying, not sleeping, whining, fighting with sister, ongoing separation anxiety, etc.  And every time, just when I got to the point where I thought I couldn’t stand the frustration for another minute, things began to slowly improve.  Sometimes, I was fortunate enough to bump into my own version of K.J.’s dog-man, someone who encouraged me to hang in there.  Eternal thanks go to those blessed preschool teachers Konne and Diane, and to my mom, and to friends like Denise. 

In spite of my exhaustion, I did gradually learn the priceless lesson that things are often at their worst right before they get better. 

That’s what human development is all about:  experiencing a developmental crisis, and then allowing the frustration of this crisis to propel you into the next new level of growth. 

Think about how frustrated your baby must feel right before she takes those first steps.  It must seem to her that she will NEVER learn to walk.  But then…. energized by the frustration and the anguish of limited mobility, she keeps pushing herself, and all of a sudden, her feet seem to have a mind of their own!

I’ve seen this principle at work dozens and dozens of times over the years with families in my programs:  parents who are at their wits’ end find that the day AFTER the worst-day-of-their-parenting-career-so-far, things get better. We just have to hang in there, keep on doing the best we can, and have faith that eventually our efforts will show results. 

Thank goodness K.J. didn’t give up on Fabby that day:  the two of them have been inseparable for all these years, and now that Fabby is entering Old Doghood, K.J. can’t imagine how life would have been without her.

Thank goodness, K.J. stumbled, bleary-eyed out of the house and made her way to the park bench that day, and that the dog-guy saw that she was on the verge of giving up. Most importantly, thank goodness she was willing to trust that what he said might be true. 

Maybe someone reading this today will hang on to their sanity and their faith in their child for a couple more days. I hope I can be someone’s “dog-guy,” and give them the little bit of strength and hope they need. If you’re that person, write me a "comment"  and tell me about it! 

Besides, with kids, what choice do we have but to hang on?  It’s frowned upon when people take their kids back to the hospital for a refund. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


“Trust me.”  Call me skeptical, but I hate it when people say that.  Trust must be earned.  And once it’s earned, the trusted person has to behave in a trustworthy manner, or the trust will be lost. 

Trust is the foundation.  It under-girds everything that happens in our lives.  We need to learn trust very early in life.  Having the capacity to trust makes us capable of successful relationships of all types, and is the foundation of our sense of self.

Erik Erikson theorized that people go through a number of psycho-social stages in life.  During each stage, we have a “dilemma” to solve. The very first stage, according to Erikson, happens from the moment we’re born until around our first birthday.  He calls this stage Trust vs. Mistrust

During our infancy, we are helpless, and depend on someone for everything we need.  This gives us many opportunities to discover whether our world is trustworthy and safe, or if it is a scary and dangerous place, full of people that are not to be trusted.  When infants are treated with love, warmth, and respect, and when their needs are met consistently and promptly, they easily resolve their first psycho-social dilemma by making the decision to TRUST. 

 Then, around the time they are one year old, they are ready to begin tackling Erikson's   2nd dilemma:  Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. If they have successfully mastered Trust vs. Mistrust during infancy, they are then able to go into this second developmental stage with confidence and optimism, and to have a much greater chance of successfully resolving it. Erikson also theorized that his stages are foundational:  each stage lays the foundation for the next one.  If the previous stages are shaky and precarious, it will be harder to build a solid psychological structure in the current stage. Each stage builds on the foundation of the stages that came before. But of course, we never completely finish our work on any of the dilemmas, but continue to re-visit them over and over as we collect life experiences that either reinforce or challenge our beliefs. 

Erikson’s ideas make a lot of sense to me.  I reflect on this every day in my work with children and parents. I've been immersed in this, and other important and universally accepted theories of human development  for the last few months, as I've been teaching several sections of basic child development.  The more I teach about the theories, the more I learn about them. And the more I know,  the more I see child development principles  in living form at preschool and in my own family. 

I think back to my own early childhood.  I know that my mom and dad prioritized my care, and the care of my older brother, above everything else. When I was a baby,  I know I was held, rocked, walked at all hours,  and fiercely loved from the moment I was born. I have had the privilege of growing up in the cozy nest of trust that my parents helped me build during that first year, by consistently meeting my needs and by always sharing their warm feelings openly.

I also know that my parents trusted others to help care for me.  In my baby book I found pages of hand-written notes, placed there by my mom, which document my first few weeks of life, with notations of every time I ate, slept, or had a diaper change, around the clock.  (Apparently I was a bit fussy.  So out of character...... ha ha....)  The thing that warmed my heart when I discovered this baby-journal several years ago is the fact that I recognized lots of different handwriting in it.  I saw Grandma’s and Grandpa’s writing, along with aunts and uncles, as well as mom and dad.  Everyone pitched in and helped me get a start in life, after a rocky beginning due to rh incompatibility. (Not long after I was born, medical science created treatments for this problem, and now It’s almost completely preventable or treatable.  But in 1959, it was life-threatening.)  I saw that Mom and Dad not only worked together to take care of me and my brother, but they also trusted other people to help.  I still remember the names of the doctors who cared for me during infancy:  they were the main characters in the family legends that I was told over and over. 

My mom and dad also wrote in the hastily-scribbled baby-feeding journal silly and cute little facts and notations about my brother, who was two.  He wasn’t old enough to help much, but he was there,  a part of the team. I remember hearing stories about how he tried to help, and about his protective two-year-old love for his baby sister.   

As I grew, the circle of trust widened: When I was three, and experienced my first separation anxieties when dropped off at Sunday School for an hour, my Mom made it clear to me by her words and her actions that she trusted the Sunday School teacher to take good care of me until she came back. I will never forget the names and the love of my first grade teacher, and every other teacher I had in my first school years.  Again, my parents conveyed to me their trust in these teachers, and I absorbed those messages.

All of these experiences served to reinforce my feelings of trust, and my belief in the goodness of the world. Having the ability to trust has allowed me to be a hopeful and optimistic person,  and  to be able to relate to others with respect and love throughout my entire life.  It is a very basic underpinning that has made me “Me.”

My parents were wonderful, but they were not super-heroes:  they just gave me good, basic loving care. They loved me the way they had been loved by their parents.  Many babies experience this level of trustworthy care.  But, unfortunately, around the world, and in our community, many, many do not.

It’s also troubling to me that many children who have very loving  and responsive parents are, unfortunately, receiving the message from their parents that most other people in the world are suspect.  “You can trust me, but no one else can meet your needs” is the message that some parents convey to their child, and the same message of mistrust may be directed equally toward total strangers or trustworthy teachers, caregivers, friends, or relatives. The message comes through loud and clear to children, whether it is communicated through words or actions. 

Children are building their lifelong foundations when they are little. Most of these foundations are built through the values and feelings that we communicate to them, through what we do as well as what we say.  Teaching our children to trust is the first, and perhaps the most important, gift we can give them.  Children build happy and productive lives upon the cornerstone of trust.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


If I could do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing.  My daughters are perfect just the way they are. I mean that.  They're almost grown up now, and they are turning out well in spite of my many parenting mistakes.  If I had done things a lot differently when they were little, they may not be the amazing young women they are today.  Who knows?

But on the other hand,  I am aware that I did a lot of stupid things back then.  I know I was doing the best I could do at the time, but looking back at those years sometimes I sort of shake my head and wonder what I was thinking.  For example,  I always tried so hard to get them to dress in matching sister-dresses for special occasions. They weren't thrilled with this and let me know it, but I was so into silly things like this that I sometimes bribed them to get them to dress up in cute outfits so I could take pictures.  Now I am pretty sure I would let go of things like that, and realize that all little kids are gorgeous no matter how they're dressed.

I have learned a whole lot of things about kids in the last 20 years or so. Here are a few other things that I think I would do differently if I could rewind the clock to 1987:

-No TV.  My kids didn't watch a lot of TV.  Even back then I realized it wasn't the best thing for them.  But still, I let them watch a lot more than they needed. Now I know that screen time is a vacation from brain development.  And I also understand a lot more about the brainwashing that happens through  advertising, even on kids' channels.  (Especially on kids' channels!)

-Let go.  Now I think I understand a little better how to let go of things that used to make me crazy and stressed:  like what other parents thought of me, what my house looked like,  and other things that really don't matter very much.

-Take care of myself.  From this vantage point, I can now see that the stress I felt when the girls were little was mostly self-induced.  I didn't know enough to realize that not taking mommy-breaks when I needed them was hurting my kids even more than myself.  I really didn't need a lot back then:  I wouldn't have wanted spa weekends or anything extravagant.  But I definitely needed short daily breaks to read a book or go for a walk.  I usually just ignored my rising blood pressure and increasingly short fuse,  and kept trudging through my days.  Of course,  the result of this was that my kids had to deal with a mom who was cranky and "on her last nerve" a lot.  Sorry, girls.

-No guilt.  Take it from the Queen Of Mom Guilt:  indulging in this feeling gets you nowhere, and it's all too easy to pass it on to the next generation.

-Lower my standards.  Or at least figure out which parts of parenting are really worth putting lots of effort into.

-Raise my standards.  I would re-prioritize laughter, down-time, and fun and make sure they're much higher on the to-do list every day.

-Read.  I read to my kids a lot, as all good moms do.  But during those years I let go of my own love for reading.  When I did read books, they were, naturally, parenting books.  I now know that in order to be sane, functional, and fully present for those around me, I need to be in the middle of at least one good book at all times.  (Preferably a book that is not particularly good for me. )  I made a rule about 10 years ago that I would NOT read anything just because I thought I SHOULD read it.  I've pretty much stuck to that rule, and I'm a happier and more relaxed person. Paradoxically, I'm more productive as well.  (Konne taught me this, and I thank her for that.)

-Get a dog.  Now that my two little mutts rule the house, I realize that this family has been needing a dog the whole time!

I'm sure there are a few more changes I would make, but that's all water under the bridge now.  But oh well, I can always test my ideas when I become a Nana in a few years!