Excitement vs. Fun

In most circles excitement is a positive word – often considered synonymous with fun.

A movie, a television program, even an activity for young children, is praised for being exciting. Using the common definition, the opposite of exciting is boring, and boring is to be avoided at all costs.

Excitement, however, can also refer to agitation, over-stimulation and loss of control – the opposite of calm.

Parents, observing their over-excited children running around in circles – coming close to knocking over the birthday cake, Christmas tree or each other – exhort them to stop and calm down. These moments are definitely not fun – especially when a child, in addition to the cake or the tree, suffers some damage.

The term fun can also refer to activities that are not necessarily exciting. Reading a book, even a quiet one like Goodnight Moon, for example, can be fun but not exciting. Reading one of those books with all the built-in computerized quacks and sirens, on the other hand, can be exciting but not much fun after the novelty has worn off.

Clarification and perspective

We find that clarification of the difference between fun and excitement can help assess which activities are and aren’t helpful to our children in the process of growing up; which activities bring pleasure and mastery and which activities lead to distress and loss of control.

This clarification seems particularly helpful to address during times of celebration, holidays and birthdays, when the media and family customs tend to promote excitement as if it were fun, when it isn’t always.

Is it really fun to be bombarded with advertisements and floor-to-ceiling rows of toys – the majority of which you are told you can’t have?

Is it really fun to have your home invaded by dozens of children you don’t know very well who want to play with your most precious belongings and eat up all that beautiful cake, including the part with your name on it, and then smash with a stick that lovely piñata your mom bought for you only yesterday?

Is it really fun to put on a costume with a mask you can’t see out of and walk up and down the streets with terrifying-looking creatures who shove you out of the way if you can’t say “trick or treat” fast enough?

Is it really fun to be at a party with 40 other adults and children where so many things are going on that you can’t make sense of anything and you end up racing some other child up and down the stairs over and over until you slip, fall down, and end up with a bleeding lip?

And what if, in the midst of one of these “fun” activities, you lose control in your over-excitement, hit somebody and get yelled at? How much fun is that?

Stimulation and agitation

Excitement is a physical/emotional state that occurs in response to stimulation.

Some call excitement an impulse. It can be pleasurable when the degree of stimulation is manageable. But it stops being fun when the stimulation becomes bigger than a person can manage – that is, when the excited impulse takes over and propels a person into doing something he or she wouldn’t otherwise want to do.

On the adult level, as an example, a person can sincerely regret a sexual escapade, remarking, “I don’t know what came over me – it was just so exciting!” Similarly, a child might say, if he could find the words, “I really didn’t mean to bite him! We were just having fun wrestling and it happened.”

You’ve already learned to spot the signs that your child is getting over-stimulated. His voice raises both in pitch and volume, his eyes narrow and his teeth clench with aggression. Or if he is the victim of some other overexcited child, his eyes widen with fear and approaching tears.

You feel the need to jump in and stop the running, the wrestling, the tickling, before the loud laughter turns to loud sobs.

You can hear your mother’s words from your own childhood coming out of your mouth: “Now, just stop before someone gets hurt!” But part of you may want to squelch that impulse because you don’t want to spoil the “fun.”

Go with your first reaction and stop the escalation of excitement before it takes over and the “fun” ends in Band-Aids or broken table lamps or worse.

Your child may even protest that he and his friends were just playing, that no one will get hurt. But he in fact is not enjoying this scary excitement and will quickly accept a substitute activity that you suggest.

Providing a sense of control

Your child will enjoy holiday and other special celebrations the most when he feels sufficiently in control of his experiences. You can help in this by providing ways to be an active participant in as many parts of the celebration as possible. He can help make the decorations and set the table for the guests. He can be told ahead of time exactly what will happen and when (no surprises) and be allowed to make choices where possible.

You can protect him from becoming over-stimulated by pacing the activities and choosing ones appropriate to his age level.

Have fun having fun together.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Santa Question

This is a controversial subject, so we’re going to work up to our main point gradually.

The Tooth Fairy

No parent that we’re aware of takes great pains to protect the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. Maybe that’s because by the time a child starts losing teeth – at about 6 – he’s already well aware that there’s no good reason for someone in a tutu with wings and a wand to go flitting from bedroom to bedroom gathering up the baby teeth from the world’s first-graders. What could she possibly do with them all?

Then to confirm his suspicions that some hoax is involved, you wake him up in the middle of the night feeling around under his pillow, or you fall asleep before he does and neglect to switch the lost tooth for a silver dollar until he reminds you. But he doesn’t complain; he’s happy for the extra cash and he enjoys the game.

The Easter Bunny

That a rabbit would hop about carrying a basket, hiding eggs and delivering jelly beans is a story so silly that a very small child could see through it. She loves the fantasy of it, however, as well as all that candy that she’s actually allowed to eat before breakfast on Easter morning.

But it wouldn’t ruin her day at all if she were to catch you hiding the eggs. She understands imaginative play full well and would know right away that you’re just pretending.

Superman and Wonder Woman

Children enjoy pretending they are these all-powerful characters, and we adults can easily understand why they would: Children are small and comparatively weak, while these superheroes are neither.

You let them wear bath towels as capes around their shoulders and fly about the house saving captive dolls and rescuing endangered teddy bears. You only intervene if the furniture seems threatened, or if the children appear to actually believe that they could safely leap out of windows.

But they don’t. They understand it’s all fantasy play and so do you.

Hannukah Charlie

For some reason he never did make it to the big time, maybe because he was just thought up as a Santa Claus substitute. Which brings us to …

Santa Claus

On the one hand there are those who, for religious, moral or psychological reasons, want him done away with:

He represents greed, they say, not the true spirit of Christmas; parents who demonstrate their love by making or buying elaborate gifts for their children should not give that overweight, bearded virtual stranger the credit. Parents should not tell lie after lie to their children about how he gets into their house even though they don’t have a fireplace – or why he appears in every store and on every street corner even though there’s only one of him. Or how he can manage to get to the millions of children in the world in only one night, etc. He doesn’t really exist and we should tell our children, so they say – and the earlier the better.

On the other hand are those parents who still half-believe in Santa themselves:

They tell their kids that Santa “sees them when they’re sleeping and knows when they’re awake” so they’d better behave or Santa won’t leave them any presents. They start decorating the house with red-suited icons shortly after Halloween, insist that their kids visit a department store Santa and sit on his lap even if they scream in protest, and maintain the Santa myth until their kids are well into their teens.

Which way to lean on the issue of Santa is up to the individual family, of course. But our recommendation would be for moderation. The fun about believing in Santa is not lost when the pretend aspect of it is acknowledged. It’s probably a good idea not to frighten your children with Santa – either with his all-knowing ability to know if they ate all their peas or fed them to the dog; or with forcing your little one to sit on the lap of someone she never met and doesn’t care to. But go ahead and play the game.

Pretend along with your child that there really is a sleigh pulled with reindeer and a North Pole where elves create shiny toys. But you needn’t lie and connive to perpetuate the myth. Pretend that Santa brings gifts to your house on Christmas Eve, but if you’ve spent many hours building a dollhouse or saved up for months in order to buy that special bicycle, let your child know that those gifts are from you.

Speculate with your children about how Santa manages to do all those miraculous things, but don’t be afraid to explain that it’s all magical make-believe, pretend. Just like the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Wonder Woman and Superman are pretend. Very real, but still pretend. Who knows better than your child about pretending?

And don’t keep all the fun for yourself. Let him pretend to be Santa too.

Image courtesy of Ron Bird/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Keeping holidays focused on the children

It’s happening again. We’ve all seen it before: A mother rushing along the sidewalk or through the mall, pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a 3-year-old who is pasted along her thigh, half-walking half-trotting in an effort to keep up.

The holidays are coming. The media is ratcheting up the excitement and the stores are inviting us in with glorious decorations, repetitive holiday music and store shelves overburdened with things to buy.

We are beginning to feel a little overwhelmed and as though we couldn’t keep up either. We wonder how the dictionary could ever have defined “holiday” as “That period of time when one does not work and does things for pleasure instead.”

In the rush of it all, what can we do to keep the children – particularly the preschoolers – in mind over the next few weeks?

“Oh for goodness sakes” you might object. “We constantly keep them in mind. We rush about buying them toys so they will have plenty of gifts. We make sure they have special clothes to wear and we hurry to get their pictures taken with Santa. We push our time limits to take them to see the big-headed characters in the downtown shopping center. What more do you want us to do?”

Perhaps we should all take a minute to try to see things from young children’s perspective, since we insist “These holidays are for children.”

Doing so might result in fewer frantic moments and less exhaustion for everyone.

Perhaps your children really aren’t so keen on having a picture taken with Santa. This you may observe if you stand watching one preschoolers after another scream while being hoisted onto the bearded man’s lap.

Perhaps being pulled along through the mall trying to avoid the oncoming legs is not something that is fun. Perhaps a mound of toys, to be opened in a few hours is, in truth, overwhelming.

“Yes,” you agree, “each year we do resolve to calm it down – next time But each year we get caught up in the excitement and the guilt we know we’ll feel if we let someone down.”

We Grandmothers got together and, after admitting that we too get caught up in holiday excitement, decided to suggest the following ideas to young parents. It might help.

1. Let your preschoolers help you

Decide whether a picture with Santa or the trip to the mall to see the big-heads is worth the trip, the wait and the anxiety it often causes for young children.

Set up a place at home where things can be made by your preschoolers and wrapped as gifts.

Kids love to help in making cookies or decorating butcher paper with handprints or potato prints to use as wrapping paper.

Any mess can be cleaned up faster than you can go to a mall, find a parking space, lift your preschooler out of his car seat and keep track of him as you run from store to store.

More important, the times you are quietly spending with your child – and the inner pleasure she gets as she makes the gift, gives it and is showered with appreciation – far outweighs the time it takes to clean up. 

2. Prepare them for what’s happening

When your holiday involves travel to visit a friend or relative, prepare your children for what will happen. We take so many things for granted and forget it is all new to them. They may erroneously think, as one o four own grandchildren once did, that they won’t be returning home.

Young children fill in missing information with their own private assumptions that often never get voiced because they are afraid of what they may hear.

“Where will I sleep? Will there be a bathroom there? What’s a kennel and what will happen to Spot? Will someone feed him? Will we ever see him again?” There are reasonable questions for a young child who has little experience with such holiday hubbub.

Often people come to visit and household members are shifted to other rooms to make room for grandparents or friends. If this is a surprise to your preschooler be prepared for embarrassing tears of objection.

A discussion ahead of time about the change – about how hard it can be to give up a room for a few days, with a concrete description of exactly where everyone will sleep – often helps alleviate any showdown.

Being a part of the alternative plan and feeling the welcoming attitude of a mother and father beforehand enriches the experience in ways that live well beyond these holidays

3. Reduce the burden on yourself

We can take a cue from the breaking news each year that the “Black Friday” shopping rush has overtaken a little bit more of Thanksgiving Day, as employees implore management to “please respect our families and allow these rare times when we can be together.”

The times children remember as most special are those when parents themselves are able to relax and enjoy special time together.

Though it may be difficult at first, mothers and fathers can reduce the times when they are feeling they have to rush along with young children plastered to their sides to get it all done. Make these holidays “those periods of time when one does not work and does things for pleasure instead.”

Image courtesy of ImageryMajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 



Handling holiday disappointments

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sings Andy Williams over the PA system in Walmart – and as we pile gifts in our shopping cart we halfway believe it.

Grumpy Ballerina

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The kid riding in the cart, eyeing the decorated artificial trees and the life-sized cardboard Santas and the aisles and aisles of toys sincerely believes it.

His favorite TV shows, his nursery school teachers, the Santa on whose lap he sat last week at the shopping mall, his older siblings and playmates have all convinced him of it. Everyone is as happy as happy can be during holiday time because they’re all going to be given exactly what they want, and a few things they never even imagined, besides.

And then the crash comes. Maybe it’s because her divorced mom and dad didn’t get back together as she had hoped they would after all.  In fact, dad didn’t even show up;  he just left a gift under the tree. Maybe it’s because she got the flu and spent most of Christmas throwing up.

Maybe it’s because she got in a fight with her brother over a toy they both wanted and got put in “time out” by an unusually crabby mother. Maybe she didn’t get that puppy she had asked Santa to bring her. Maybe it looked to her like her sister got way more presents than she did.

Whatever the cause, if she knew the words, she would tell us that she is terribly disappointed. And if she did, we her parents would be terribly disappointed.

Feelings on the fridge

Of all the developmental tasks that we hope our growing child will successfully master, none is more demanding on the growing parent than the child’s learning to express his feelings. We tell ourselves that we want him to feel free to tell us when he is angry, or sad, or frustrated, or annoyed. We are hopeful that if he acquires a complete feelings vocabulary, he will be able to cope with these emotions.

We want this so much that we even have a chart of them posted on our refrigerator, stuck with a magnet at his eye level, illustrated with cartoon faces. The cartoon labeled surprised has eyes as round as and two-thirds the size of its circular face; the cartoon expressing furious has gritted teeth and eyes reduced to slits; the one designated exhausted has its tongue hanging out one corner of its mouth, and more.

Feelings on the fly 

We faithfully practice using these words ourselves. When our child has a temper tantrum in the grocery store, we hold our own emotions in check while we intone, “Are you feeling angry that Mommy won’t buy you the cereal with the chocolate chips and marshmallows in it?  But you see, Mommy is feeling worried that if you eat that kind of cereal, you won’t grow up to be healthy and strong.”

Coming to grips with feelings

But then comes the inevitable day when our child breaks our heart with her grief over her goldfish dying, or her best friend abandoning her, or Christmas not turning into the golden day it was supposed to be.

And we want to instantly rush in and fix it, wipe away the tears, offer a new goldfish, a different friend, a candy cane, whatever it takes to make her stop telling us how sad she is.

Even worse is when something we have done – or haven’t done – is the cause of her unhappiness. Or when after all our efforts and accumulation of bills she isn’t appreciative of what we have bought and wrapped and put under the tree. Then we want to tell her how to feel, to move quickly to the other side of the feelings chart, to joyful and proud and excited, not to mention grateful.

And then there’s the matter of her missing the daddy we sent away without consulting her.

Words won’t make the feelings disappear

The developmental stage we’re talking about here is, in fact, not our child’s, but ours.

As parents, we need to learn to tolerate the emotions that our child’s feelings evoke in us. First we need to realize two things:

  1. Expressing and managing feelings is not the same thing as eradicating them.
  2. If we encourage our children to express their feelings, we’d better be prepared to listen to some feelings that we didn’t really want to hear.

Painful feelings will remain painful no matter what we say, no matter how we encourage our child to talk about them. They are his feelings for him to own and live with, and we cannot get rid of them for him – nor should we try.

The point of our child learning to use the words on the feelings chart is not to overcome them, but to express them more exactly and satisfyingly than he might otherwise.

Preparation helps

This holiday season we don’t want to sound like Scrooge, but we can at least prepare our children for the inevitable disappointments.  One way to do this would be to ask our son or daughter what they are anticipating, and then explain, if necessary, that some of their more extravagant expectations just aren’t likely to be realized.

Then we need to work on our own unrealistic expectations for the holiday season and be prepared for not only our own disappointments, but our children’s.  We’ll be able to listen and empathize, and offer our understanding along with a consoling hug – then return to the family celebration as if disappointments were a natural part of life. Because they are.

Even at holiday time.

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The spirit of giving: How children’s gifts are recieved

It was Christmas morning. As the family sat around the little tree, under which was a modest pile of wrapped gifts, Nina could not contain herself.

She ran to the tree, pulled her gifts away from the others and distributed them; one for Poppa, a couple for Mommy and Daddy, and one for Grandma.

She then stood by and watched, wriggling and grinning as they were opened. She was almost 4 and her babysitter had helped her make a card for each person by patiently spelling out “ I Love You” for her to write.

She decorated each one with colorful squiggles, which she encased in wrapping paper and lots of Scotch tape.

It brought to mind the time when I was 7 and had been given a little money for Christmas shopping. I searched and searched for the perfect gift for my grandmother. I finally found it at the Five and Ten Cent store: a large cross on a long chain.

I clearly remember the feeling of not being able to wait two more days, insisting that she open it early even though she was urging me to wait until Christmas morning. She loved that cross; I knew it, because she wore it on Christmas Day.

I mention these two incidents because of the differences in the ages of the children. Nina probably won’t remember her excitement about giving her gifts because she was so young. But she will have good feelings about giving that will build if she continues to be given the time and materials to create or purchase her gifts.

A 7-year-old almost always remembers the minute details and the feelings that accompany the giving of a gift.

Both these stories glow with the Spirit of Giving. Both speak to the making or the selection of the gift, and both illuminate feelings that are so powerful they temporarily outweigh any thought of “What am I getting?”

The ways in which children’s gifts are accepted will be emotionally felt and remembered for a lifetime. Will the recipient value the gifts in genuine ways, such as displaying Nina’s card on a dresser, or wearing the cross?

Good feelings about giving will be discouraged if children find their special drawings thrown out with the wrapping paper or ignored and out of sight.

Saying lovely things about a present and never again looking at or referring to it suggests the praise was insincere and the thanks empty of feeling.

When children have spent special time getting their presents ready, they are particularly sensitive to adult reactions and will track them. “Where is it now?” “Is Mommy going to wear it?” “Did he like the cookies I made with Mommy?”

These behaviors and good feelings about giving are the ones we love to see in our children and are eager to nurture.

 Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How little ones learn to love giving

Loads of ideas at Artfulparent.com

We Grandmothers are certainly aware that today’s families live in times of “Hurry Up” – that mothers and fathers both work and have to deal with malls filled with gifts of every shape and color.

We recognize time is a precious commodity, so it’s often quicker and easier to suggest or even buy something for Aunt Mable during lunch hour, have it wrapped and then simply hand it to the child give it to her.

Your child’s psyche won’t be damaged for life by this practice. But whatever feelings your child has about this gift aren’t likely to foster a lifelong love of giving.

An alternative to going to mall or shopping online is to set aside time for her to make something. Two things will happen: Your child will value the time with you in ways you’ll never realize; and putting herself into the gift will make it all the more fun to give.

Resolve in advance that this is going to take time – so close the laptop and ignore the ringing smartphone. Decide that this will be the child’s gift and the more he or she puts into it the more valuable it will be.

A little help is invaluable, but try to resist the overpowering temptation to do it for her. Talking a little about who will get the gift can be fun.

“Daddy can never find his keys – what can we make that would help him?” A nail in a piece of decorated wood could hang by the back door.

“Grandpa is always reading – you could tell me a story, I’ll write it down and you can draw pictures on the cover.”

“Aunt Elizabeth loves flowers.” A wide-mouthed jar covered with masking tape and rubbed with shoe polish makes a very nice vase that looks like leather.

It’s almost impossible for a toddler to think about what another person likes, but making cookies together and packing them in small boxes; sticking cloves in oranges to be hung in closets; coloring a popsicle stick frame (before you put the photo in it) could all be done by your toddler with your help.

Preschoolers can set paperwhite bulbs in small dishes for early blooming, or plant a rooted sprig from your jade plant in a hand-painted terra cotta flowerpot.

The nicest cards can be made by ironing different bits of left-over crayons between two sheets of white shelf paper, peeling them apart and cutting the cooled shelf paper into squares – which can be glued to a folded sheet of paper.

Older relatives, or those who live in faraway places, will cherish recordings of children’s voices, or pictures of kids standing by things they’ve made such as a snowman or a tall block building.

Older children can make up a play, prepare a song to sing or write a poem.

Regardless of what you decide to do, please remember that your time with your child is valued. Most of the time your child’s gifts will be cherished and you will have been spared the angst of going from store to store, agonizing over what presents your child should give.

The the only one left on the list is you!

Image courtesy of Artfulparent.com 





A holiday wish: Simple delight in your children

What quality would we Grandmothers most ardently wish for you parents of young children in this final, bustling season of the year?

Well OK, you didn’t ask, but we’re going to tell you anyway. Not patience, not insight, not mediation skills, not tolerance for mud and messes, not the ability to survive your busy day on three hours of sleep, not immunity to childhood illnesses, but delight. Delight in your children.

At this time of year you’ve doubtless had many opportunities to observe Scrooge as he emerges, thrilled to be alive after his visits from the three ghosts. Remember how he gleefully greets the boy whom he sends to get the turkey for the Cratchit family? “An intelligent boy! A remarkable boy!” he says. “What a delightful boy! It’s a pleasure to talk to him.” When, in fact, the boy hasn’t done a thing remarkable.

This is the kind of delight we would like you to be finding in your children during this holiday season and into the New Year.

Easy to dismiss that with a Bah, humbug, or some 21st-century expression that comes more quickly to mind, we’ll grant you. But hear us out.

Yes, they wear you out, both physically and mentally. Their needs are constant and usually come at inconvenient times. They whine, they fight, they demand, they spill their red drinks on your white carpet. But the fact that they exist, these miniature people, and grow and change so fast and miraculously, is truly delightful.

Look at how much they learn in a month, let alone a year. Wasn’t he struggling to stand up only a few months ago, and now he can run? Wasn’t she speaking in one-word sentences last spring, and now she talks in paragraphs? Scrooge was right: It’s altogether remarkable.

If you’re having trouble working up some delight in the kid who just gave himself a training-scissors haircut the day before his  preschool photo, picture yourself leaning over his bed when he’s asleep and the little twinge you get in the area of the heart as you contemplate how beautiful he is, how infinitely precious.

Remember – and maybe you don’t have to go so far back in history for such a memory, this being the season – how teary you got when she and her classmates stood up at the daycare holiday party and sang Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer? Most of the rest of the kids were standing there scratching their behinds or singing off-key, but your daughter was singing right on pitch, every word, louder than all the others. Or maybe your kid was one of those doing the scratching, but wasn’t she absolutely adorable?

And think of the cute things he’s said, the antics that you’ve described to your co-workers or called up your mom on the phone to share. What about when you asked him to pick up his toys and he said, “But I just can’t want to do that right now!”

Remember the time that you were so sick you couldn’t get out of bed, but somehow she climbed up on the kitchen counter without breaking her neck, got out the peanut butter and jelly, and made you a sandwich?

Remember how delightful the way he looks at the world because to him it’s fresh and new, and how unexpected but understandable the way he interprets what we say because he finds our adult vocabulary puzzling. Ten years ago, one of the Grandmothers’ grandsons, when told that Aunt Irene’s body was in the closed casket at her funeral, asked, after a long pause, “But where’s her head?” and we’re still laughing about it.

You have your own stories to tell, your own cute things your children have said to share. Please send them to us. And this holiday season and beyond, try to look at your children through Scrooge’s eyes – the transformed Scrooge, that is.

Your child is without doubt the most remarkable, delightful creature on Earth. Even when he’s just standing there, plastic scissors in hand, hair sticking up in six directions.

 Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net