Please don’t scare the little ones at Halloween time

Every year, the month of October brings a crescendo of frights leading up to Halloween. They appear everywhere – on television, in stores, at parties and even early learning centers and schools.

It’s all meant in fun, but for very young children scary fun isn’t fun at all; it’s just scary.

Here’s a column written several years ago. As long as we can count on zombies and goblins to appear this time of year, we’ll resurrect it as a reminder to parents, educators and concerned adults.

–Webmaster


Dear Grandmothers:  A few years ago, my 3-year-old Phoebe helped me hand out treats on Halloween and we were having a lot of fun until a child dressed as a witch came to the door. Phoebe was terrified—she ran and hid under a table and wouldn’t even go near the door the rest of the evening. What should I do to make Halloween less traumatic for her this year?            –Phoebe’s Mom

We answered:  First, let us congratulate you on taking your child’s fears seriously – and before October 30. So often, we are taken by surprise when all the hype — which begins just after the Back to School sales — begins to cause our children to become over-excited or nervous. We may not realize that such behavior is all about the upcoming season of scare.

Despite all our talk to our preschoolers about the difference between what’s pretend and what’s real, they are still too young to really know this. Even though they say “I know it’s not real,” they can still be confused and frightened when confronted by witches, skeletons, ghosts and monsters – all the scary props of the season.

You can help your preschooler if you can just remember that everything she sees is absolutely real to her.

Another way to help young children is to recognize that your memories of your childhood Halloween fun are not from your preschool years.  You certainly were in elementary school when you had so much fun trick or treating until all hours with your friends, watching a scary video, or visiting a haunted house.

Many parents remember only those school-age Halloweens and think that such activities are what it’s all about, even for the littlest children. But they’re not—those kinds of activities are way too much for preschoolers.

Don’t worry;  you have many years ahead of reliving your childhood Halloween fun.  Just don’t rush it with the little ones.

So, what can you do for Phoebe this year?

Protect her from scary TV (even many commercials are overwhelming and frightening—or, at the very least, confusing).

Be on the lookout for signs that she is overwhelmed, overexcited, scared.  Is she running around excitedly, or does she cling to you, have her fingers in her mouth? Any unusual behavior at this time of year should make you wonder if she’s confused or frightened and should prompt you to ask her if she is worried about something.

Just your recognition of her nervousness will reassure her and help her to calm down.

If you can get her to tell you what she is worried about, don’t try to talk her out of her fears; acknowledge them and try to figure out a way to help her manage.

Let her decide how much she wants to participate in Halloween activities, respect her wishes. And give her a calmed down, low-key Halloween:  a costume, no mask;  trick or treating at a few friends’ or neighbors’ houses;  pumpkins and cute black cat decorations;  protections from anything that is overwhelming and not understood—or at least acknowledgement of those things and reassurance from you that you will keep her safe.

So, have fun this year, but be on the lookout for things that are “too much.”  All too soon she’ll be 10 and begging you to help her put up a haunted house in the garage.

Photo courtesy of Phaitoon/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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    When little ones learn of the bad things in the world

    Try to remember what it was like when you were small and you lay in bed in the dark at night, afraid. If you have a better than average memory, you can recall the monster under the bed, the witch in the closet, the skeleton that tapped at your window with a bony finger.

    Maybe you smile now when you remember those fears, because of course there was no monster, no witch, no skeleton – only shadows and a tree branch being blown by the wind.

    You were probably 3 or 4 years old. You called for mom or dad to come protect you and maybe they came and sat beside you for a while; maybe they came and yelled at you to go to sleep; but whichever, mom or dad was there, and pretty soon it was morning.

    Fast forward through a year or two of mornings, to the day you realized that while they could protect you from monsters under the bed, there were real monsters in the world against whom they just might be helpless.

    • How were they going to protect you from a kidnapper climbing in the window if they were sound asleep in their bed down the hall?
    • How were they going to save you from a fire suddenly engulfing the house; hadn’t you seen a father crying on the evening news because he’d been unable to get through the flames to rescue his little boy?
    • What if a robber broke down the door, and that robber had a gun?
    • What if there were a flood, or a tornado, or an earthquake, bigger and stronger than any grown-up could possibly be?

    At those memories, we bet you stop smiling. That’s a terrifying moment – the one in which you discover that your parents aren’t gods.

    Now you’re the parent of course, wondering what to say to your fearful child when he realizes that you’re not godlike. You are confident in your ability to comfort your child when he is younger and afraid of the products of his own imagination, but you are unsure of what to say when he asks about something he’s seen on television or heard about from his friends – something all too real. Is it true? he might ask. Did that really happen?

    You don’t want to lie. But listen to the question. What is he really asking? Probably what he wants to know is, “Could that happen to me and to my family?” And what he needs to hear from you isn’t that bad things don’t happen, but reassurances that you are not helpless; that you know what to do.

    Yes, houses catch on fire, but you have a smoke detector, you know how to call the fire department, and you know how to get everyone out of the house.

    Yes, there are tornados, but you know the part of the house where the beams are strong and the family can go until the storm blows over.

    You know how to keep him safe. Those things are not for him, but for you to worry about.

    Your attitude and tone of confidence will be as reassuring as the words you use. By the same token, if every time there’s a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder you visibly cower and rush to switch on the weather channel, it will be noticed. Try to take control of your own fears even in a potential crisis and certainly in an actual one. Your reaction is vital to your children’s sense of security, so for their sake, continue if at all possible to exude confidence and constancy. Collapse later, in private.

    And then there’s the Big Question that they are going to ask sooner or later: are YOU going to die?

    A Victorian parent might have answered, yes, I am going to die and you are going to die; everyone is going to die, so you’d better be very, very good every day because you never know if it’s going to be your last; you could very well die in your sleep tonight.

    Those Victorian parents must not have realized what the children were really asking, which was, surely, “Are you going to die when I am still little and so desperately in need of you?” Knowing that, your answer would be more like, “I’m not going to die for a very long time, and I’ll be here to take care of you until you are grown up and have children of your own.”

    Pardon us for a diverting story about one of the Grandmothers’ adorable grandchildren. One very precocious just-barely-3- year-old girl asked her grandma when she was going to die. Grandma took the girl on her knee and gave her several paragraphs about the seasons of life, and how she planned to be around until the child had children of her own – until her mommy was a grandmother, in fact, and that all this was very beautiful and not at all sad. The little girl listened quietly, and then asked, “When you die, can I have your shoes?”

    So we are advised to listen carefully to our children’s questions, and also to what they say when they don’t know what questions to ask, or if they don’t seem to feel reassured by our reassurances.

    Ask, “Why do you think it could happen?” or “You look worried; I’m wondering what worries you.” Try to find out what he or she has observed or been told – and certainly don’t dismiss those fears, not even the monster-under-the-bed ones.

    Do both: take his worries seriously but also offer reassurances that you know how to keep him safe.

    Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

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      When the little one is acting sneaky

      A while ago I visited a friend and her family. One afternoon I found myself in the kitchen with Janine, her lively little 4-year- old. She was playing with a puzzle and I was helping prepare dinner and her mother had gone into the garden. She suddenly looked around and pushed a small stool against the cupboards. She glanced behind, climbed up and reached to the back of the shelf from which she pulled a chocolate.

      Holding it tightly, she jumped back on to the floor, pushed the stool back to its proper position and hurried over to her play area. The chocolate was hastily unwrapped and devoured and the wrapper was immediately buried in the garbage can. She returned to her puzzle.

      I was a visitor and knew full well by the look on her face and her hurried and furtive movements that the hidden candy was out of bounds and this little girl knew it. I neither said nor did anything.

      In retrospect I should have immediately wondered with her if she was into something she should not have been, and that maybe Mommy had warned her not to eat the candy. I should have suggested that she’d feel bad if she did something she knew Mommy wouldn’t like.

      Instead I watched with fascination as she found an inventive, rather athletic way to reach the forbidden candy. The truth of the matter was that now we both felt guilty – Janine for breaking a rule even if she didn’t get caught, and I for allowing it to happen without some gentle, adult intervention.

      Who among us can honestly claim to have never been sneaky about anything – particularly if we define it as doing something forbidden, on the sly?

      Sneakiness and lying in young children often infuriates parents and teachers. It’s interesting that in adulthood our own sneaky histories are not only remembered in great detail but often humorously shared with friends. We remember exactly what we did and whether we were caught or got away with it. It was the guilt that imprinted these memories.

      It’s unwise to accuse a 4-year old of being a sneak or if, when caught and she denies it, a liar. These are strong words to use and aren’t any more help than looking away – as did I.

      Adults rightly feel an obligation to discourage children from being sneaky or telling lies, and there are lessons to be taught about rules and the truth. But nothing is to be gained by severely punishing them when they transgress.

      Severe admonitions simply result in a small child’s trying to survive the fear of a parent’s anger or the possibility of being spanked – rather than feeling bad about what they had done and regretting it. Terrifying children with angry words and punishment might well drive them further into more inventive sneakiness and lying and more creative ways to avoid being caught.

      Young children’s sneakiness can be attributed to wanting something that is missing or forbidden, an urge they have that can’t be satisfied. Their wishes are very strong at this young age; having those wishes denied results in angry feelings. They feel they haven’t been able to get enough when being aboveboard with Mom and Dad, so the impulse to get what they want trumps the newly learned rules and all other feelings.

      When caught, young children often lie. It’s an indication that they wish they had done the right thing and, rather than feeling uncomfortable about what they have done, they invent a new reality that would seem to make things better: they lie. They really don’t want to deliberately deceive others in order to “get away” with their forbidden acts.

      Believe it or not, this lie can often be a confession, because the discomfort of a sneaky act or the lie that follows is almost more than they can bear.

      By 4 years of age Janine already knew many of the family “rules” and knew the candy was not to be taken without permission. She knew her mother would be angry and would certainly scold her had she been caught mid-theft. She also predicted that if she had asked, she would have been denied the candy.

      So how to approach your young child when you’re sure this sneaky behavior will land her in prison one day? Contrary to the way I reacted to Janine’s behavior, it would have been far more helpful for me to talk to her about taking something forbidden and about how bad she would feel inside if she did.

      Recognizing with her how much she wanted the forbidden candy, for example, and how hard it was not to grab that piece when no one was looking might have helped her hear me. Suggesting we talk to Mom about a time when she might have one would be important or if she can’t, making that clear and finding a substitute food or activity.

      Approval by parents is very powerful in young children. So much depends on this strong relationship and a child’s wish to keep it close. It often leads to children denying themselves something they badly want just to maintain it. At first it works when the parents are nearby, but not when they are absent. It’s for this reason baby sitters can have difficulty with a child’s behavior. Eventually it becomes the child’s job to keep the rules in mind even in the absence of  parents. But that is a skill that takes time to learn.

      So take heart and don’t fret if your preschooler takes a wrapped chocolate from the shelf when she thinks you’re not watching, or if she denies it when caught. Try not to accuse her or jump to conclusions. Also be aware that nighttime fears often show up as a sign of your child’s inner worries about naughtiness or temptations. Alone in bed, these forbidden acts surface and she fears punishment. As hard as it is, allow her to let you know when she has been sneaky or has lied, and do your best to keep the communication open.

      With your help, as your child gets older, the rules will be remembered and her behavior will be modified. If all goes well, by around 5 years or 6 years of age her conscience will be all-powerful and she will be consumed with rules and whether things are fair.

      It’s a big developmental step for your child and you can take pride in how she then begins to manage these temptations and any need to be sneaky or to lie when caught will eventually diminish or disappear.

      Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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        Toilet Mastery

        When are Children Ready for Toilet Mastery?

        When a child’s needs have been adequately met during his first year (fed when he is hungry, provided a regular sleep schedule, cleaned up when his diaper is dirty), he is then ready to take on more of this self-care himself.

        Therefore, in their child’s second year, parents should be alert to signs that he is moving in this direction and help him as he takes the steps towards mastery of eating, sleeping, and toileting.

        Evidence that he is ready to feed himself is hard to miss: He grabs for the spoon, he puts things in his mouth, and Mom is ready with Cheerios and easily-managed finger foods to help him move ahead in this progression toward self care.

        And so it goes for toileting: Near the end of the second year, parents should start watching for signs that the child knows when he is urinating or having a bowel movement and help him accomplish toilet mastery.

        Why Do Parents Miss the Signals that the Child is Ready for the Potty?

        Two things cause parents problems these days. First is the recent trend toward putting infants on the potty whenever the caregiver sees signs that the baby is about to urinate or have a bowel movement. Of course, this is ecologically correct (less waste in landfills) and saves money in diapers, but exactly who is mastering what?

        Parents are the ones who are trained and must be constantly vigilant. No mastery has actually come from the child.

        A second problem is the phenomenon of larger and larger (and more and more absorbent) disposable diapers and pull-ups on store shelves.

        Seeing these lulls parents into assuming that toilet mastery comes much later than the latter part of the second year. So they are not on the lookout for signs that their child is ready to take this step toward using the potty instead of pull-ups.

        What’s Wrong With Waiting Until the Child is 3?

        When a child is not helped to move along in this phase of meeting his own needs at the developmentally correct time, the accomplishment of this step when the child is older will be much more difficult.

        By the time a child is 3, he is aware that there are other children even younger than he who are using the bathroom, and may wonder if there is something wrong with him when he has not achieved this mastery. Then he may not even want to try, for fear of having this suspicion verified — that there really is something wrong with him.

        Another issue here is a child’s pride of mastery. We all recognize the toddler’s movement towards independence – that wonderful demand of “me do it” that signals his growing feeling of being a separate person.

        Taking away the opportunity for this big developmental step of toilet mastery is stealing a vital feeling of accomplishment. A child who has experienced this sense of competence as a toddler will have the confidence to try new things and expect success in the many tasks he will face throughout his school career and after.

        What are the Signs that the Child is Ready for Toilet Mastery?

        Just as parents recognize the child’s behavior that alerts them to stop spoon-feeding and let the child eat independently and enthusiastically, now is the time to look for signs that he is ready for the potty.

        Does he know when he is urinating and having a BM? Is he asking to be changed? Is he beginning to identify with the parents’ pleasure of seeing him clean and dry? Does he dislike getting his hands messy? Does he want to be a big boy and do everything the big people do? And does he resist passively lying down for diaper changes?

        These are all signs that it’s time for the training pants (not pull-ups; they absorb the urine and deprive the child of that uncomfortable feeling that we want him to reject).

        What gets in the way of parents helping with this?

        Helping a child achieve these all-important self-masteries can take time and effort as well as provoke feelings of frustration and even anger at the inevitable messes that occur. Parents can sometimes ignore signals, delay helping their child take this step in self-care, reassuring themselves that “no child ever graduated from high school wearing diapers.”

        But perhaps they are avoiding what they fear could be occasions for conflict. Maybe they need to keep their child dependent on them, dreading this ultimate step towards independence and the loss of the closeness they had with their baby.

        Another more practical problem is parents’ busy schedules. It is so much quicker to get to work in the morning or to get in and out of the grocery store if you don’t have to stop whatever you are doing to find the restroom for your toddler.

        What Difference Does it Make When He is Trained?

        First, it is so much easier when he is ready and eager to become a big boy who doesn’t need diapers anymore. Then he will be proud to be doing something on his own and it will be his accomplishment.

        As he gets older, there can be battles of will with parents and it can become more about the battle than the toileting. Parents need to find the part of the child that wants to grow and be partners with his efforts – not take it on as their job.

        When the time is right for him, not just when it’s convenient for the parents, accomplishing these steps towards self-care promote a child’s self-esteem immeasurably; they contribute to his growing sense of competence which will stand him in good stead in all his school years and throughout life.

        Image courtesy of John Kasawa/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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          Preparing your child for kindergarten

          At one time, being ready for kindergarten meant knowing your name, address and phone number, being able to print your name, counting up to a certain number, reciting the alphabet in order and even tying your shoes.

          These are helpful accomplishments, but in reality they have little to do with “readiness” for learning in a school setting.

          Parents are a child’s first teachers, and they have all the tools needed to have him ready and eager to learn in an environment away from home, and from a teacher who isn’t also a caregiver. No special kits, flashcards or materials as-seen-on-TV are necessary.

          In the everyday life of a family, parents guide children through many milestones that are part of being school-ready. These include:

          Self-care: You won’t be with him, so his bodily needs (eating, using the toilet, dressing, wanting to be clean) will be up to him. So take advantage as he shows signs of wanting to “do it myself.” As he tries to be more independent, you can encourage each small step and admire his efforts. A child who can do for himself in a new environment can be less dependent on others – and is freer to focus on taking in and using new concepts.

          Communication: Your child will be ready for school when he can tell others what he needs, when he needs help and what he doesn’t understand. Encourage him to use words at home to let you know what he wants and how he feels. Help him put into words how he feels when he looks sad or acts angry.

          When he is curious about his world and asks questions, try to take the time to answer him simply. His “Why?” and “What’s a …?” curiosity will make him an eager learner at school. The ability to communicate at school will keep the learning tasks focused. It will help him avoid getting sidetracked with interfering behaviors of acting out or shutting down from the frustration of not understanding or not being understood.

          Being part of a group: Being able to play comfortably with others his age will help greatly when he is at school. As you observe your child playing with others, watch for his ability to wait for a turn and share materials. If he has difficulty with this, help him see how the fun he’d been having was spoiled because he made his playmate feel bad by grabbing, pushing in front or not sharing.

          Help him want to be liked and to see his role in whether things go well and if he and his friends are having fun. When he can use more inner controls to behave in a friendly way – rather than always needing outer discipline – he will feel good about himself and have more positive energy for learning and making good relationships.

          “Missing” feelings: It’s normal to miss Dad, Mom and home, but these feelings do not need to overwhelm your child. Point out to him all of the things he can do already because he worked hard and practiced. Tell him how proud you are of all the ways he shows you that he is growing up. Let him know that you will be missing him, too; that his school is a place you know about and like. Hopefully, you and he will be able to visit the school, his room and teacher before the first day. If he has seen his room and met his teacher with you, it serves to put your “stamp of approval” on it and he can feel that he is “safe.”

          If you do visit his room, you can point out some of the activities he is already familiar with, such as the blocks, puzzles and some of the art materials. Remembering doing some of them at home with you will help him be able to do things at school when you’re not with him.

          There may be set-backs. He may have been in other programs where there were extended separations, but this is different and it may bring up those “missing” feelings again. At home, be prepared to listen and give your child the opportunity to express the worries and frustrations he may have.

          Admire the way he could tell you and let you help with his feelings. Let him know you have missed him, too, but feel so proud of all the good growing up he’s shown he can do. The more confidence you have in him, the more confident he can be.

          Image courtesy of Photostock/FreeDitigalPhotos.net

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            A formula for a perfect kids’ summer

            Warm, sunny days! Aren’t they great after having been cooped up all winter? Everyone is so ready for fresh air and freedom.

            And freedom is what we grandmothers wish for your young children during spring and summer.

            Yes, we know we must be concerned for their safety and we understand that the work week continues for most parents. But please, we implore you, try to provide some sense of freedom and independence for them this summer.

            Take advantage of this time – when some routines change and nature beckons – to make this all-too-short season a time of growth and happiness.

            The rules

            At the start of the outdoor play season, think about the ground rules that are appropriate for your children now; they can do so much more than they did last year. Decide how to set the limits that will allow a young child to realize how much he has grown, how competent he is becoming.

            Figure out the boundaries that will allow you to be comfortable without having to be constantly on guard. “You can ride your trike as far as Mrs. Smith’s house, then turn around and come back.” How exciting is that for the 3-year-old who couldn’t even ride the trike last year?

            And for the 5-year-old: “You can walk around the block to your friend’s house; just call me when you get there.” She will feel as adventurous as if she had gone to the moon.

            Even the toddler will feel like a big boy when you get him out of the stroller and give him a paper bag to fill with his discoveries as you walk slowly to the vacant lot down the street.

            Using the things he picks up to make a collage, or sorting them into an egg carton when you return home, extends the sense of discovery even further.

            The freedom

            When you go to the playground, don’t stop your children from challenging themselves in new ways. Children need to try new and harder things – climbing higher, jumping further, pumping their legs to make the swing go without Mommy or Daddy always pushing them.

            If at all possible, provide a safe, enclosed place in your yard where your children can play without your constant supervision. Sure, you’ll check on them from time to time, but the main idea is to let them make up their own activities and allow lots of time for their play.

            Ideally, this is a place where they can make a mess with water, dirt, sand and weeds to mix into a mud pie.

            Ideally, there is some place where they can pretend they are in a hideaway or fort or ship. Use your own imagination to provide the basics, but allow plenty of leeway for them to use their imaginations—you won’t believe what they come up with.

            Anything with water: Help Daddy wash the car, run through the sprinkler, “paint” the side of the house or a wall with a bucket of water and a real paint brush. And how about bubbles? They can provide hours of experimentation using kitchen utensils. Visit Bubblesphere to find a recipe for the best bubble mixture and for ideas of items to use to make different kinds.

            The props

            Anything you can do to help your children experience nature will help them grow in appreciation of our wonderful world.

            Planting a garden, putting up a bird feeder, walking in the woods at a nature center, feeding the ducks at a duck pond, or going to a spot where they can see and experience our Great Lake: these are all experiences that will enrich them now and throughout their lives.

            One last thing: try to remember what made summers wonderful for you when you were little. Maybe you can’t remember back to toddler and preschool age, but go back as far as you can.

            When you recall the whole family riding bikes together to get ice cream on long summer evenings; when you experience again the thrill of climbing what you thought was a huge tree; when you remember how you and your best friend spent hours under the back porch making pretend meals in battered old pots and pans, you’ll realize what opportunities you should provide for your children so their summer will be one of pleasure, discovery and satisfying growth.

            Image courtesy of Chris Roll/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

             

             

             

             

             

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              Noticing – everything, that is

              noticing_ stockimages_freedigitalphotos“He didn’t even notice!”

              We often dismiss our young children’s observational skills this way. Did our young daughter notice that she was the only white (or black) child on the playground? Of course not! Did our son happen to observe that all the women in the shower room were naked? Didn’t seem to. How about the man without legs in the wheelchair? Well, she started to stare, but we distracted her and she forgot all about it.

              “Well, he didn’t say anything.”

              Perhaps we think that children don’t notice these things simply because they fail to comment. Or perhaps we are eager to believe that they don’t notice physical differences such as race or handicap or gender paraphernalia because these subjects make us squirm and we aren’t sure we have the words to adequately talk about them. And of course we would like to think of our children as wholly innocent and accepting, as little Adams and Eves in the blissful Eden of their lives. So we happily hope that they don’t notice.

              “Of course, he notices everything else.”

              But all of us who have tried to walk with a young child from here to there know full well that she notices and wants to touch every bug and blade of grass and passing dog, that the only thing she doesn’t notice, in fact, is how late it is getting as she explores and investigates. So why would we possibly think she wouldn’t observe something so eye-catching and noticeable as breasts or skin color or legs that end at the thigh?

              “So maybe she does notice.

              She certainly does. Her job is noticing and she’s a lot better at it than we are. But either because she doesn’t have the language at her disposal yet, or because through our reaction (which she is the world’s foremost expert at noticing) we have indicated that she is not to comment, she does not. So we smile and say, “She didn’t even notice!”

              Meanwhile, we may be failing to notice the child’s eyes growing round as silver dollars, and/or her somewhat unusual behaviors afterward as she tries to make sense of what she’s seen. For example, does the only white child on the playground start coloring her hands and face with magic markers? Does the boy exposed to the shower room begin popping in on us when we are dressing and bathing, though he never did before? And does the child who saw the man in the wheelchair start becoming hysterical at the slightest bump or skinned knee?

              “So what is he thinking?”

              When we don’t notice and help them out, children must draw on their limited previous experience and their primitive logic in order to make sense of their observations. The conclusions they come to might not only be erroneous, but frightening in their implications. (If I change my skin color, will I be as tough and strong as Joshua? Is there something wrong with my body because it is missing all that hair between my legs? Did it get that way because I did something wrong? If that man in the wheelchair is sick, is his sickness catching? Will I lose my legs too if I touch him or even go near him?)

              “How do I encourage their questions?”

              Physical differences exist in our children’s homes, of course, and we make a choice early on about whether or not, and to what degree, to shield him from them. Children who start seeing family members’ naked bodies at an early age will notice, and may be full of questions – spoken and unspoken. How much better to answer these questions ourselves, sometimes over and over again, rather than leave our children to draw their own faulty conclusions.

              Sometimes we have no clues except our children’s behavior to guide us, and interpretation can be difficult. But maybe our son has started gawking at us as we undress in a way that makes us feel self-conscious. Or maybe our daughter looks alarmed when she sees the man in the wheelchair, and grabs tightly at our hand. We have to do our own vigilant noticing, and when we sense that one of these “noticing” situations may have become overwhelming or confusing for our child, start asking our own questions. Are you wondering about breasts, and why some people have them and some people don’t? Are you worried about that man we saw in the wheelchair? Gradually their questions will emerge, as you talk together about what they’ve seen.

              Sometimes we would actually prefer that our children not notice, because we’re fearful that their questions could occur in public. Heaven forbid that in some quiet waiting room she might ask in her high, piercing voice, “Mommy, is that man going to have a baby? Look how fat his tummy is!” When that happens we can only smile wanly, whisper to her that we’ll answer her question later, and hope that the man with the paunch has a sense of humor. Later we can explain about women being the only ones who get pregnant, and maybe also introduce the idea of sensitivity about other people’s feelings. We will in no way scold her for her questions, however, but encourage her to ask more.

              It’s worth the risk. Notice what your children are noticing, because they most certainly are.

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                Promoting self-esteem

                “GOOD JOB!!!”
                The heading on the sheet of stickers says “100 Ways to Say ‘Good Job!’”, and then all 100 – from “Awesome” to “Zero Mistakes” – appear with accompanying smiley faces and abundant exclamation points. These are sold to teachers as self-esteem promoters. Everyone, especially the children, knows them to be artificial at best. But at least they are evidence of the general awareness that self-esteem is important.

                But self-esteem is not so easily created, and certainly not when imposed from an external source. Self-esteem by definition has to grow from within. Students who receive praise for work they know to be less than their best feel worse about themselves, in fact, not better, to hear a perfunctory “Good job!” Older students feel dismissed, unworthy of a more time-consuming and honest critique of their efforts. Younger ones just feel vaguely guilty.

                The source of self-esteem
                Self-esteem is created not by stickers but by daily loving care, and from birth. Infants learn to love their own bodies as their small selves are fed, cleansed, soothed, valued, whatever hour of the day or night it might be.

                Toddlers achieve self-esteem by beginning to care for their own bodies during the stressful “Me do it!” years, when parents find themselves being continually pulled between hovering over their child to prevent him from drinking out of the cat’s dish and waiting the extra half-hour it takes to permit him to brush his own teeth, button his own buttons.

                By age 3 or 4 he may not require constant vigilance any more, but now his self-esteem hinges on his pleasing others by learning to obey all those rules of good behavior: sharing, taking turns, and resisting the urge to crayon on the walls or smack his sister with a toilet brush. Constantly the parent or other caregiver is there – as Erna Furman, a child analyst with a deep Hanna Perkins association, and author of several books on child development, wrote – first “doing for,” then “doing with,” and finally “standing by to admire” until the child is ready to do by and for himself.

                The trap of phony praise
                It is in this last “standing by to admire” stage that it’s easy to fall into the phony “Good job!” trap. If the admiration is sincere, the child senses that. If he distrusts the praise, however, he will feel not encouraged but manipulated. And if he grows to depend on the adult for confirmation that he’s done a “good job,” then he has not gained in self-esteem.

                Sometimes, in fact, words are unnecessary. If a child is absorbed in a project he might well feel interrupted, even patronized, if an adult bursts into his castle building, dinosaur drawing or playclay modeling with effusive burbles and coos. “Standing by to admire” can sometimes mean just smiling and nodding, and then going about one’s business as the child continues with his, permitting his satisfaction to come from within.

                If words are called for, however, a better choice than “Good job!” might such praise as: “You must feel good about being able to climb up to the top of that climber. You have been working hard at that. Last week you had to stop half-way up and now you’re at the very top.”

                The child will benefit from hearing what exactly is being admired, and also from reflecting on how he feels about his accomplishment – not how the adult feels. You certainly don’t want him to start doing a “good job” only to win your praise; he then might be just as likely to start intentionally disappointing you if he is angry.

                Obstacles to self-esteem
                But what if he sincerely tries, and sincerely fails? What if the climber is just too high, the puzzle is simply too difficult, his drawing of a dog persists in looking like a drawing of a duck, and he comes to the caregiver wailing his discouragement?

                Then the admiring adult is called upon to notice the effort and intent, the tiny steps that might in time lead to an accomplishment of the difficult task, and admire those. In fact, the parent has every reason to admire persistence and patience more than the completion of a tricky puzzle – and the child will recognize that conviction, and be reassured by, “Try again tomorrow. Tomorrow it will be a little easier. Or maybe the day after that. Soon you will be able to do that puzzle.”

                And then there’s the matter of what you say when the first words that pop into your head aren’t “Good job!” but “Terrible job!”

                The toys he promised to pick up are still scattered all over the floor, he woke up the baby with a sneaky pinch, he gave himself a disastrous haircut with the scissors he wasn’t supposed to touch. If you tell him of your displeasure, will he have a permanently damaged self-esteem? Of course not.

                In fact, the spirit of “terrible job” – although perhaps not those exact words – is the message you want to convey, as opposed to “terrible kid.”

                If you can keep your wits about you, you might follow the format recommended for admiring his successes: Tell him exactly what he did that distressed you, and then suggest that probably he feels bad about what he did and will feel better if he can make amends somehow. And then help him find a way to do that.  He could get to work picking up those toys, or give the baby a cup of juice or a cracker to make up for having disturbed her, or sweep up the hair that’s scattered all over the floor.

                Parents’ self-esteem
                Our own self-esteem is involved in whether or not our child can climb to the top of the climber, finish that puzzle, or go all day without pooping in his pants.

                We would do well to remind ourselves that while our approval or disapproval is enormously important to our children, we should seek to gain our own self-esteem not through their accomplishments but through helping them own their own successes and failures, without looking to us for the ultimate judgment.

                As Mrs. Furman so aptly put it, “Our self-esteem can rise with the thought, ‘I helped him toward becoming his own person and liking himself.’”

                Image courtesy of Marin/Freedigitalphotos.net

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                  Coaching and Modeling Good Behavior

                  Promoting civil behavior in children

                  grandpa_imagerymajestic_freedigitalphotos“We’d love to have you visit us but whatever you do don’t bring any preschoolers with you,” a grandfather remarked at a dinner party one evening.

                  It seems he had been visited by his children and grandchildren and was still reeling from the event. “They never listened, didn’t want to do anything, were picky about the food and got into arguments about toys,” he continued. “Kids today are like that.”

                  How agonizing it must be for loving parents, so invested in their children’s well being to feel as though friends or relatives are not enthusiastic about an upcoming visit.

                  How very puzzling and sad it must be for a preschool child to get the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) message that he is a nuisance or, heaven forbid, not liked very much.

                  So what is causing the grandparent mentioned above to express such negative reactions? What is missing in the wealth of rich opportunities we are now able to provide our children. How can we include thoughtfulness about and respect for others? Where can we find the balance between encouraging our children to become confident and assertive and, at the same time, sensitive and respectful of others?

                  Parents today are very aware of children’s needs and often bend over backwards to understand and pay attention to them. This generation of parents sacrifices itself to be sure children have opportunities for many and varied experiences.

                  Participation in their children’s activities is taken for granted and children are always included in family events. The idea that children should be seen and not heard has been dispatched to the trash bin of yesteryear’s unenlightened parenting.

                  However, while working hard to make the world a child-friendly place we have often allowed it to become child dominated.

                  Good behavior is learned behavior

                  We all know that one learns to love by being loved. It could also be said that a child learns respect and appreciation for others by having those responsible for him appreciate and respect him. Not only does he absorb these characteristics from the behavior of those around him but also through the coaching he experiences from toddlerhood on through preschool.

                  But how then, do we model appreciation and respect and what are some of the ways we can coach our toddlers and preschoolers to be civil? How can we prepare them to behave in age appropriate ways outside the home and when do we begin?

                  An example of modeling might be this story of a young mother visiting friends. As lunch was put on the table, two and a half year old Sarah loudly exclaimed, “I don’t like chunky peanut butter. I only like creamy peanut butter!”

                  To some, such assertiveness seems rude. To others, the assertiveness is admirable. How wonderful if the mother can quietly coach Sarah by gently saying, “Mrs. Smith made these sandwiches especially for this lunch. Could you try one?”

                  Should Sarah object, a glass of milk will be just fine. A missed lunch won’t harm her and she can be reassured they will have a little lunch when they are back home. Here, Sarah can observe her mother’s behavior, hear her words and the tone she uses, feel her respect for their hostess and at the same time experience Mom’s acknowledgement that she prefers smooth peanut butter to chunky.

                  Preparation for difficult situations

                  Since young children change significantly as they grow from toddlers to preschoolers we can think about the challenge of sharing and the importance of preparation. We can also consider what words and actions might avoid unnecessary confrontations. Preparation doesn’t necessarily hold up with toddlers because when the “chips are down” and a friend grabs his favorite toy he will react.

                  But this shouldn’t discourage us from saying a few preparatory words. They might go something like this, “Jason is coming. He likes trucks. Let’s make sure there are trucks to play with.”

                  Now, when the upset occurs, and it will, we can move in calmly, acknowledge that they both like trucks and then distract them with things to put in the trucks or with boxes into which they can park them. This is respectful of the fact they are only 2 years old.

                  Since our toddler is egocentric and able to think of things only from his own point of view, the abstract idea that Jason has feelings is not yet within his understanding. Our approach to the situation gives a clear message of respect and benevolence. He is absorbing our demeanor, and this is the beginning of helping him think of others.

                  As our toddler gets older and he can now keep in his head other times when he has played with his friend Jason, we can begin to help him share.

                  For starters we can prepare our 3- or 4-year-old for an upcoming visit and help him think ahead. Recognizing his attachment to certain toys and respecting that, we might say, “Jason and his Mom are coming over this afternoon. I know it’s sometimes hard for you to let him play with some of your toys. Last time he really wanted to play with your dump truck. Can you let him play this time or should we put it away?”

                  This is not only knowing about your child and his developmental level but respects how attached he is to his special toys. It is also giving him some control over what will happen.

                  Showing respect

                  Important also is how we listen to our children if we expect them to listen to and respect us.

                  One of the examples of how we might model expected behaviors might be the way in which we use the phone. We might forego answering our phones if our child is in the middle of a serious conversation with us. Calls can be returned later but concentrating on our child now gives him the message that we think what he’s saying is important. Also, answering our phones when we are on the phone with someone else should be avoided. Children watch.

                  Another opportunity is when we are in a group of guests and our young children burst into the room in the full bloom of an argument demanding that it be settled. It helps everyone to quietly excuse ourselves and find a private place to talk, rather than embarrassing everyone by flooding the room with anger and demeaning words.

                  It is respectful of the guests and of the children. It models for the children how and when to talk about conflicts and where to do it in the most appropriate ways. We can gently coach children not to interrupt or at least to say, “Excuse me,” when something can’t wait. Gradually, it is our hope that the kids will learn to wait when we are in conversations with other adults just as we, in turn, will wait until after their friends have left to discuss potentially embarrassing issues with them.

                  All this is not easy given the current themes on TV, the computer games and in the movies where being assertive, interrupting one another and rudeness appear acceptable.

                  Often the popular movies include kids with quick, smart-sounding back-talk, which is not limited to their peers but includes adults. As with other themes in movies and on TV, we can watch with our young children and point out that what is done in the movies isn’t always the kind of thing that shows respect and thoughtfulness of others. We can talk about how we might all feel if someone talked to us in those words.

                  If we begin the process of coaching our children in toddlerhood perhaps, in adulthood they might be able to listen when people are talking before talking themselves. Perhaps they will begin to be more aware of the needs of the people around them.

                  Perhaps then grandfather will say, “Do come visit, and be sure you bring your wonderful preschoolers with you.” And perhaps these children will contribute to a more civil society as they grow.

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                    Leaving children for the weekend

                    No matter how laid-back the parents of young children are, they sometimes need a weekend get-away to take a break, tend to out-of-town family matters, attend a function where spouses are invited, etc.

                    When this need arises for the first time, they might have some concerns – especially if their child already fusses when a sitter comes for just the evening.

                    If the sitter can be someone your child already knows, such as an extended family member or good friend, so much the better.  There is already a relationship forming and the sitter knows some of the family routines and where to find things.

                    However, if none of these options is available you may have to choose a sitter your child has never met, but has good references and is recommended by someone whose judgment you trust. As parents, you will want to meet her and interview her before she comes to your house to meet your child.

                    Preparing for departure

                    Not too far ahead of the time you leave, you will want to tell your child of your upcoming plans and who will be staying with him/her while you’re away.

                    Your child will probably protest and won’t understand why she cannot go with you.  She will feel angry and left out.  The best way to get over left-out feelings is to have your child be a part of the planning. For example:

                    • She can help you pick out the clothing she will wear while you’re gone and put it in a special place.
                    • She can be a part of planning the menus for the meals she and the sitter will have together.
                    •  She can pick out the games she might like to play with the sitter.
                    •  You could take her to the library to pick out some new books they can read together.
                    •  She could help make a plan for an outing while Mom and Dad are gone – the park/playground, the zoo, a movie suitable for young children.

                    As for you, Parents:  Even though there may be protesting that makes you feel guilty about leaving your unhappy child, don’t be tempted to try to sugarcoat the feeling by telling her about all the fun things she’ll be doing with the sitter while you’re gone. Instead sympathize with her and tell her the things you’ll do to help take the sting out of her missing feelings. For instance:

                    • It would be very helpful if you would leave short notes for your child to read – one for each morning you’re gone and one for each evening.
                    • Making a plan for a telephone call each day you’re gone will reassure her that you’re thinking of her.
                    • Suggest that she draw some new pictures for the refrigerator to show Mom and Dad when you come home.
                    • Leave a picture of the family together for her to look at so that she will have a tangible connection when she feels the “missing” the most.

                    When she can still feel “connected” she is less likely to be sad and angry because of a left-out feeling.

                    Time to leave

                    When the leaving day arrives, you as parents hope you’ve thought of everything – notes for the sitter, the name, number and address of where you’ll be beside the telephone. The bags are packed and in the car. The sitter has come and already has your child engaged in the game or book you suggested. You look at each other and are tempted to sneak out without saying “goodbye” and risking an upset.

                    Don’t you dare! When your child finds that you have gone without a hug or goodbye, she will really feel abandoned. It’s better to go to her, tell her you are leaving and give her your hugs. Tell her you will call her at the time that was arranged and now she and the sitter can finish the story or game. There will probably be tears, but you know that you and she will live through them.

                    Let me tell you a true story that one of our Grannies told about when she stayed with her 4 1/2-year-old granddaughter while her parents were on a trip.

                    It was bedtime. They had called and after they hung up, she was crying on her bed. I said, “Oh, Jadey, I know how hard it is to have Mommy and Daddy away. Would you like me to read to you before you go to sleep?” She raised herself up on her elbows and cried out, “NO – I just want to lie here and miss my Mommy and Daddy!” and she again flopped down on her tummy.  Jadey’s Granny reminds us that “We all want to do that at different times in our lives – well beyond 4 or 5 years of age.

                    Coming home

                    So, you did it.  You spent a weekend away and feel refreshed for it even though the planning felt endless. Don’t be surprised if, after the first hugs and kisses when you return home, they are followed by signs of your child ignoring you. She might even find a reason to become angry with you about something. Maybe the gift you brought her was “dumb.”  Maybe what you’re preparing for dinner smells “yucky.” She might fuss about going to bed because “it’s not fair” that you get to stay up later.

                    This reaction is pretty normal for a young child who has had to “suck it up” and stay with a sitter overnight for the first time. She felt left out then, now it’s your turn.

                    All of the careful planning and good preparation in the world can’t make up for the fact that you left her behind and had fun without her.

                    Image courtesy of Rawitch/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

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