Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Parenting is hard. But it helps to have a support system like Explorer, my parent participation preschool. 20 years ago, Marlin and I joined Explorer as young parents of two little girls. I’ve been reflecting lately about the impact Explorer, and its emphasis on parent education, has made on the life of my family.

As a mom (and a teacher) I also have many occasions to reflect on my own childhood, and I’m always interested in hearing the stories of the childhoods of parents in our school as well.Here’s a common theme: I turned out ok.  And so did you.  And so did most people that you know, right?  And this is because of (or is it “in spite of?”) the way we were all raised.  Our parents  loved us and did the best they could, and we all turned out ok.

The thing is, we are very likely to raise our kids in pretty much the exact same way as our parents raised us.  Our childhood experiences created our “Normal” setting.  The way we were raised is normal to us, including the parts of our childhoods and upbringing that no longer make sense in today’s world.  So if we don’t make a deliberate, thoughtful effort, we may sometimes make decisions in our parenting which are less appropriate for our kids than they were for us when our parents did the same thing 25 or 30 years ago.

The reality is that, as parents, we need to put some effort into re-thinking things that are a part of our “Normal.”  We need to re-evaluate, re-think, and re-calibrate what is ok and what is not, based on our adult beliefs and values (which may be different from those of our parents, as much as we love them,) and based on today’s culture and generational challenges.

Here are some examples of this type of Deliberate Parenting:

-I watched quite a bit of tv as a kid, and “I turned out ok.” But tv in the 60’s and 70’s was very different from what’s on tv now. Just compare an episode of Glee to an episode of Happy Days.  Or Southpark to Mayberry.   And I didn’t alternate between tv, computer, and video games all day the way many unsupervised kids do today.  I played hard outside most of the time, and then when it was dark and I had to come inside, I vegged for a couple hours in front of the Brady Bunch. It wouldn’t be very responsible for parents today to allow a kid the freedom to turn on the tv pretty much any time they want, but in the context of that time period, my parents weren’t irresponsible or neglectful.  Just a little indulgent.  Kids who have free reign over the remote today will probably NOT “turn out ok.”

So think about it:  If I didn’t give this any deliberate thought, I might be of the mindset: “It’s ok for my kids to watch all the tv they want, because I watched it and I turned out ok.”  It would feel “normal” to me, based on my upbringing. When Emily and Audra were little, they were as interested in tv as most kids, and I was constantly faced with decisions about how much and what they could watch.  But even 20 years ago, we knew that unlimited, unsupervised access to tv is NOT good for kids. This is even more true in 2011, for all the reasons discussed above. In 1990, as well as in 2011, Explorer can be a helpful source of support for parents who want to create a life for their families that does not revolve around tv.

-Even if we were disciplined with punitive methods or spanking, we may want to think carefully about how to set limits with our kids.  We will probably choose to learn more positive methods for achieving our goals for teaching our kids self-discipline.  But if our default-setting is “Punishment” that’s the direction we will always go when our kids need guidance unless we put deliberate effort into thinking about other options.

-Our dads may have been less involved and more distant, even though they loved us.  But times have changed, and most of us don’t want to let our kids grow up with an un-involved dad, so we have to carefully think about and constantly tweak the roles of both parents in our families.

-Even if I grew up on a lot of Wonder Bread, Oreos, and Koolaid, I am pretty sure I don’t want my kids (or my future grandkids) to grow up with these unhealthy options. And yes, it takes thought and planning to make healthier nutritional decisions for our families.

-Although I survived an “untethered” childhood (car seats and seatbelts were not the norm in the 60’s) it seems VERY irresponsible (as well as illegal) now for parents to drive kids around without making sure they are safely buckled in. Not that there aren’t moments when ALL of us feel tempted to forget the car seat when our toddler arches her back and screams about getting buckled in.

I’m sure you can think of a million things that your parents did well, and that you want to emulate.  But I’m equally sure that there are things you want to do differently.  In fact,  I’m guessing that your parents themselves will tell you a number of things they hope you will do better with their precious grandkids than they did with you!  I’m already making a list of these items for when my girls eventually become parents!

The key is to THINK.  We can’t run on autopilot all the time, or we risk making some mistakes that could be avoided.

On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to be paralyzed by fear of making mistakes, or to neglect giving our kids a taste of the best parts of our childhoods.  This is where the support of other parents, parenting classes, a good preschool like Explorer, and resources such as good parenting books can help, too. We all help each other to continually re-calibrate our “Normal” setting, and the fact that it changes as we go along is actually a good thing.  That’s how we evolve.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  What “Deliberate Parenting” efforts are you engaged in, and why?

Ok, I gotta go.  I’m off to stir up a batch of my mom’s chili for my family.   That recipe, along with an appreciation for Explorer Preschool,  are a couple of the things I do want to DELIBERATELY pass along to my kids and future grandkids. 

Monday, December 13, 2010


 Let me be honest:  if you offer me a choice between a nice gooey Snickers Bar or a crisp, healthy carrot, most of the time I’m pretty likely to take you up on the candy, and defer the carrot to “later.” And I’m an adult who knows better.  But if sugary stuff isn’t one of the choices, I am quite happy with healthy rabbit food. Carrots are yummy, when you’re in the habit of eating them, and when you’re not comparing them to junk food.  Besides, I’ve learned by now that I feel better on a diet of good veggies and other healthy things, and I feel worse when I over-indulge in sweets.  But still…… if you give me the choice, I don’t always make the decision based on what’s best for me.

Similarly, many of the toys that are currently popular for young children just make me sad. That’s because they are the toy-equivalent of the above-mentioned Snickers Bar: they’re appealing and irresistible, but not nourishing. Many toys have features that immediately catch the eye and appeal to children, and therefore to parents. The challenging thing is to figure out which toys will “feed the brains” and stir the imagination of our kids, and which ones are intellectual junk food.

Here are a few of my “rules of thumb” when thinking about which toys are worth your children’s time. For simplicity, I’ll talk about only two categories:  “Good Toys” and “Bad Toys.” 

-If it needs batteries, it may be a Bad Toy, unless it’s a tool of some sort like a music player or a flashlight. Batteries mean that it will be producing some sort of action on its own, and therefore is likely to do most of the playing FOR the child, instead of allowing the child to play.

-Does it beep, flash, or make noises? Does it contain a computer chip?  Bad Toys often do, because toy designers and sellers obviously think kids are stupid and can’t have fun on their own, without the toy “entertaining” them.  Besides, think about how very tired YOU will get of those beeps and noises over time. Do you really need another irritation? Save yourself the anguish:  skip the beeping, blinking toy aisle entirely.

-Is it something brand new that you’ve never seen before?  Sometimes Bad Toys are exciting because they are new and  novel.  But think about it:  many Good Toys are things that have been part of childhood forever, and will never be trendy, but will also never go out of style.  Think about balls, blocks, basic dolls, simple toy cars and animals, etc. Not to mention the very basic playthings like rocks, sand, water, magnets, crayons and paper, and the Good Old Basic Stick or Deluxe Cardboard Box.

-Is it based on a tv show, movie, or video game? Is there a ride somewhere in a faraway theme park based on it?  If so, be wary that Bad Toy-ness can be lurking beneath a seemingly innocent fa├žade. When a toy originates with a media character, 90% of the imagining has already been done, by the “professionals.”  They even call themselves Imagineers! What 3 year old can compete with that?  Most of the time, kids love media-based toys, but it’s clear that their imaginations do not soar to new heights with this type of plaything.  They stick to the “script” when playing with this type of toy, and most of the benefits of pretend play are lost. We preschool teachers know that children are the “professionals” when it comes to play, and we look for toys that will be useful tools for their creative minds.

-Can it be used for just one thing, or can it be played with in many ways?  Good toys are usually what we in the kid-business call “open-ended.” This means that the child can play with the toy in many different ways, and almost any way the toy is used will benefit the child’s development.

-Would you see this toy at preschool?  (Meaning, a GOOD, developmentally appropriate preschool.)  If not, maybe we don’t have it at school for a reason.  Just like we try to discourage the serving of donuts and M&M’s at the preschool snack table. (Except occasionally to the grownups, when the kids are not looking.)

-Will your child be able to enjoy this toy for at least 3 or 4 years, or will the child become tired of it within weeks?   Open ended toys (Good Toys) have a very long kid-life.  They never go stale.

-Will it enrich your child’s life, or the toy company’s profits?  Good Toys don’t have to be expensive, and you don’t have to have lots of them to have fun. Just as junk food is expensive even though it has little nutritional value, Bad Toys are a waste of money.

-Who are you buying the toy for:  your child, or YOU?   If your grown-up heart secretly desires the latest electronic beeping, jumping, singing, dancing, hot rod space captain nuclear star wars race car bunny rabbit, go ahead and buy it for yourself.  But be sure to stock up on lots of batteries.  You’re a grownup, and your brain is already supposedly finished growing.  A Bad Toy probably won’t harm your development.   

With a little bit of extra thought and strength of character on your part, your child can have a calm, happy, satisfying, growing time this holiday season, and this year’s new toys will follow him or her into many new stages of development in the future.  But somebody probably needs to forward this message to Santa and Grandma, because they may not understand your child’s brain as well as you now do.

Ok, time to go raid the Halloween-candy-stash.  I’m a grownup, so I can eat what I want, even though I’ll pay for it later.  But while I nibble on chocolate, I think I’ll go immerse myself in a good book.  Even though it’s really easy and appealing to flip on another episode of my favorite mindless TV show, I know I’ll get more benefits and feel happier in the long run if I give my brain the nourishment that it really needs. 

Which reminds me:  Good books are the BEST gift for children! But that deserves its own blog post, so we’ll talk about books another time.