Helping babies and toddlers with sudden fears

serious talk  David Castillo Dominicifreedigialphotos 199x300 Helping babies and toddlers with sudden fearsBaby Fiona is so different now: after months of being passed around among all the aunts and cousins for admiring and cuddling, suddenly she protests loudly and wants only to stay with her mother. And going to the baby sitter’s house is now a big problem, where she was perfectly happy before. In fact, she gets upset whenever her parents leave the room for even a few minutes. What has happened to our good-natured, even-tempered little one?

Two-year-old Ryan never noticed the vacuum cleaner or the garbage truck before, but now he runs and covers his ears at every loud noise. He is afraid he will go down the drain with the bath water and thinks there is a monster under the bed and cannot go calmly to bed anymore. Is he going to be a fearful sissy all his life if we don’t toughen him up right now?

Jack has been running around the house, behaving in hectic, out-of-control ways, having a hard time playing with other children without chasing and scaring them. Could it have anything to do with his demanding to watch the Finding Nemo video over and over? But that can’t be scaring him because he says, “I’m not scared” and keeps asking to watch it.

All these are examples of typical baby and toddler fears that are more or less recognizable to parents and caregivers. It isn’t just the child who cries and looks afraid who is fearful, it’s also children who act silly, who bite their nails or suck their thumbs excessively, who insist “I’m not afraid,” or who show dramatic changes in eating and sleeping behaviors. Adults need to be detectives on the lookout for fears that may underlie disturbing behaviors.

Why Do Children Have These Typical Fears?

Fiona shows us that she now knows the difference between the people around her when she wants only to be with Mom; the more she is aware of the world, the more she needs help — time and growth–to figure things out. Ryan is taking a still further step in figuring out the wider world and the relative sizes of things when he sees that things go down the drain and disappear—“maybe I could, too.” Likewise, his fears of loud noises and a monster under the bed make us wonder if there is some big feeling inside of him which he can’t express, but instead attributes to these outside forces: “anything that loud must be really angry,” he thinks. Stress and tension can also make children fearful; as wonderful as a new house may be, moving may be too much of a loss of the familiar for a preschooler and may provoke fearful behavior. All change is hard for young children and must be carefully managed, and prepared for, to help minimize overwhelming feelings.

What Not To Do

First of all, do not scoff or dismiss your child’s fears, no matter how unreasonable they seem to you—they are VERY real to him. Do not tell him that big boys don’t cry; don’t tell him to buck up and be a man. Comfort him, let him know that you are the parent and that it’s your job to keep him safe. Try to discover exactly what the fear is about and calmly try to deal with it. For goodness sake, don’t say that you will chase the monster under the bed to make it go away—it just reinforces the child’s fear that there really is a monster. Better to look with him to see that there’s nothing there and sit with him to reassure him that you want to help him calm down and feel better.

Never sneak out on a child without saying goodbye; that only reinforces her fear that you might disappear at any moment. Be sure she knows when you are leaving, even if there are tears, and reassure her that you will return. Never say, when someone has died, that they have gone to sleep; imagine how hard it would be for a child to go to bed after hearing that.

Be especially careful about scaring young children, even by joking, to make them behave. Better to remind the child to keep himself safe than to say, “If you go too high on the climber, you’ll fall and crack your head open” or “Don’t run into the street—you could get killed,” which only terrorizes a child with no real improvement in behavior.

What To Do

Continue to protect your child by providing firm limits appropriate to his or her age. It’s up to parents to manage the schedule and surroundings as much as possible so that the child will feel safe and protected. Limit your preschooler to less than 2 hours of TV a day, and avoid programs with violence or those that have nothing worthwhile to teach a child. Even the TV programs and movies that you might think are for the little ones include scary fish or animals with big teeth and threatening behavior—avoid them entirely. Similarly, Halloween and holiday activities must be carefully screened so that very young children are not overwhelmed by scary costumes and situations. Witches, clowns, Santa Claus, anything in costume can be overwhelming and scary to preschoolers.

Understanding Fears

As your child develops, changes, and learns about the world, many experiences will cause her to be confused and anxious. Fears are a normal part of this process of growing up. Even if you don’t fully understand, show that you do realize how big and scary the world must look to him. Give your child respect, support, and comfort and have confidence in her growing abilities. Help her focus on things she can do, like wiping the table or washing the pots while you fix dinner, rather than exposing her to things she can’t do anything about, things which make her feel powerless and helpless like confusing TV shows. Several signs indicate that a child may be having special difficulties with fears. For instance, her sleeping or eating patterns change noticeably. Or he starts to have problems getting along with other children and won’t take part in preschool or play activities. Try wondering, with your child, where the scared feelings come from to help you understand what he’s experiencing. How-ever, if you find that your child is especially stressed, you should seek professional help from a person who specializes in working with young children and their families.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

A formula for a perfect kids’ summer

swing chris roll freedigitalphotos A formula for a perfect kids summerWarm, 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/






The separation process: Starting programs away from home

mother daughter David Castillo Dominici freedigitalphotos 300x199 The separation process: Starting programs away from homeWhen parents give over the care of their children to a pre-school, day-care center or kindergarten teacher, no matter how attractive the facility, it is an emotionally difficult time for all. 

Parents tend to stifle these feelings with bravado, telling their child, “There will be a lot of other children for you to play with;” “Look at all the toys and things to do;” “Your teacher will help you learn all sorts of new things.” But when the reality of the parents’ leaving comes, this encouragement usually cannot make up for the abandonment the child feels.

Out of sight, out of mind?

The personnel of some schools and centers believe that the best way to handle this difficult time for the child is to encourage her to “forget” Mommy and Daddy while there. They may try to divert the child’s missing feelings with activities and materials.

Children asked to “sit on” these feelings often react in a variety of negative or debilitating ways.

In more forward-looking schools, the teachers and caregivers know that asking young children to give up thinking about Mommy and Daddy is like asking them to give up a piece of themselves.

They help a child find ways to keep those closest to her consciously in mind to serve as a source of strength and comfort even when they are not with her.

Providing reinforcements

Take a picture of you (parent or parents) with your child for her to keep in her backpack or cubby at school.  During times of stress, the child can use the picture to comfort herself and to remind her that Mommy and Daddy are missing her, too.

Along with the picture could be a short note (perhaps a new one every few days) telling the child that Mommy and Daddy are thinking of her. They will be so proud when they hear about all of the things she did while at school/the center that day. Teachers can very effectively use these notes when the child’s missing feelings cause her to be disinterested in an activity or prevent her from finishing one.

For the very young child, personal items belonging to the parents may be even better than a picture. These can stand in for the parents’ physical presence and remind her of their love. Just knowing that Mom’s or Dad’s handkerchief, old billfold, scarf, old piece of jewelry, etc., is in her backpack, coat pocket or cubby to be checked on or touched occasionally (not played with) can be a tangible comfort. Infants and toddlers often prefer Mom’s unwashed T-shirt because the scent is a more intimate, direct reminder of her.

In the early days of the child’s entering a new program, a beloved security blanket or stuffed toy can help her feel less abandoned and alone.

Some parents write out a list of tasks they perform during their day whether at a workplace or at home. If the teacher notices the child’s attention, interest or self-control is waning, the schedule can be referred to so that the child can picture her parents doing their work as she does hers.

Short visits and/or phone calls

Short planned visits by one or both parents to the school during the early “settling-in” time may be very helpful. It could be that the visit would be to have lunch with the child, or to do one or two activities with her.

Having lunch, doing a puzzle, building a Lego or block construction together puts Mom’s or Dad’s “seal-of-approval” on their child’s new world. It will also provide a feeling memory of togetherness the next time the child engages in these activities without Mom or Dad.

If the early separation time is particularly difficult for a child, or if she is experiencing more stress from things going on in her home life, a planned phone call can help with anxious feelings. This should be talked over and planned with the teacher ahead of time. Initially, the sound of a parent’s voice on the phone may cause tears. This is all part of the process of being able to separate in spite of having huge feelings of being left.

In his writings,  Dr. Robert Furman, former director of the Hanna Perkins Center, identified these feelings as caused by:

  • Anxiety: “Will I be safe?”
  • Sadness: “I’ll miss you.”
  • Anger: “How could you leave me to do something without me?” 

With supportive help and reassurances from parents and teachers, the child will come to realize that she can manage these overwhelming feelings and not let them get in the way (and not let them get so big). When she no longer needs reinforcements of visits or phone calls, her mastery of her anxious feelings can be a source of pride for her – a sign of becoming a “big girl.”

Discussing the day

When parents talk over the child’s day when they are reunited, they can make a plan for what the child can do the next day when she feels lonely, angry, sad or frustrated. They can preface the plan by saying, “If that happens again…,” or “If you feel that way again…” – and end it by saying “…then you’ll be able to do it for yourself.”

This is encouraging the “growing-up” side of the child – giving her a method, by using thoughts of Mom’s and Dad’s words for support, to feel less helpless, to take charge of herself and move on. If the caregiver or teacher is aware of this plan, he or she can use it to advantage, reminding the child: “What would Mom or Dad say or do when such-and-such happens?”

When the child feels that her parents and her teacher are partners on her behalf, and that her parents like and respect the teacher, it paves the way for the teacher to become someone who helps her learn new things. The child will be better able to enjoy learning and develop new friendships when allowed to feel that thinking about her parents is OK and restorative.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/


Promoting self-esteem

self esteem marin freedigitalphotos 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 an important commodity.

But self-esteem is not so easily created, and certainly not when imposed from without. 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, of course, 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/

Preparing preschoolers for summer break

young graduate  arztsamui freedigitalphotos 198x300 Preparing preschoolers for summer breakThe end of the school year can create a lot of difficult feelings for children who are just completing their first or second school year. As adults, it’s easy for us to assume that everyone understands and embraces the excitement of the annual academic cycle.

But little “graduates” have never gone through the yearly wind-down at school, or the last time they did feels very remote in time. It was, after all, a quarter of a lifetime ago for them. So invoking last year’s rituals might not help.

When the rituals fail to comfort the sadness, some grownups swoop in with distraction by building excitement about what comes next – talking about the newer, bigger classroom they’ll have next year, or even the new school.

This method generally backfires; children become anxious about the unknowns – especially for something that is months and months away … which, honestly, September is.

Talking about kindergarten in May is natural for parents and teachers; it’s part of our preparation process.  But it is confusing to the preschooler who took months to settle in to this year’s teacher, classmates and routines.

The idea of a school year literally “ending” can be disconcerting to the young child who thought that the year would go on forever – that “she would be my teacher forever.” Saying goodbye can be scary, sad and maddening. Your child may need assurances about how to stay in touch with a teacher or special classmate, and how to keep school in mind.

Here are some tips to help your child with his or her needs at this emotional time:

Manage what your child overhears. Help to contain adult conversations about the future, and to the degree possible, protect your child’s ability to stay in the moment. When grownups pepper your child with questions about next year, tell them, “Autumn feels far away to us right now, so we are talking about that only at home and in small bits.” 

Reassure and put feelings into words. Respect your child’s conflicting feelings and teach him or her how to say it in a sentence. (“I am ready for new things, and I want everything to stay the same even though it can’t.”) Let your child know that you have mixed feelings, too.

Foster a comforting transition. Make some simple plans that give your child something to look forward to, especially the first week of summer. Let your child have some control over the choices (which day to stay home and bake; which day to work in the garden).

Many families like to set summer play dates with classmates; choose 3 to 4 dates in advance and give each child a printout of the plan. This gives them a concrete reminder that they will see school friends in a few weeks. One way to make these plans easy on everyone is to meet at a community playground, so no child is host and no child is guest.

Opt in and out. Don’t be shy about skipping a few rituals. Our society tends to build in a lot of end-of-the-year hoopla; it may be too much for your child. Only you can judge the right amount of revelry or when it’s better to stick close to home. Be mindful that you will likely be invited to more events than your child can reasonably handle.

The overall objective at this time of year is to help your child stay in the moment and to notice the array of emotions that come with change. That is the best graduation gift you can give.

During these moments, you are building your child’s lifelong resiliency. It’s the icing on the graduation cake, so to speak.

Image courtesy of Arztsamui/

Picky Eating

Dear Grandmothers: When we were kids, we had to eat whatever was on our plates without complaint, or we didn’t eat at all. My sister brings her children over for dinner and as soon as she sees what I’m serving tells me her kids won’t eat it, and starts making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for them. Why are kids today so picky?

eating happily  stockimages freedigitalphotos Picky EatingKids today are probably not any pickier than those of previous generations. Don’t you remember slipping your mystery meat under the table to the dog, or asking to be excused and then flushing the brussel sprouts you had hidden in your napkin down the toilet?

But it does seem that children today are more outspoken about what they don’t like, and their parents somehow more willing to become short order cooks for them. Let’s assume that your sister – and other mothers like her – are not happy with this situation, and would prefer it if their children displayed an enjoyment of almost all foods, a willingness to try new flavors and combinations of ingredients, and an appropriate social pleasantness at the table as the family sits down together to discuss their days activities, rather than to have mealtime become an exchange whines and threats over the meal that has been served.

WHAT CAUSES PICKY EATING: Many children appear to be naturally suspicious of food that looks different and strange to them. One of the few areas in which they can exert their autonomy is in the area of eating – you can put it in front of them, but you can’t make them eat it! – and so they may be most insistent on their right to refuse what is being offered.

And with their smaller bodies, appetites, and stomachs, some children may just not be very hungry – especially when they’ve reached a plateau between growth spurts, and most especially when someone places before them a mountainous adult-sized portion of food and insists they eat it. All of it. Because it’s good for them.

HOW PARENTS (AND AUNTS) OF PICKY EATERS FEEL: Frustrated, even panicky, because there are few instincts more basic than the one to feed our young. We want to see our child nourished and healthy, and instead he sits there (look how skinny he is!) listlessly pushing the food around his plate or out-and-out refusing to eat it. We alternate between wanting to force feed him and offering to get him something else, anything else, on the off chance that he might actually consume a few calories.

WHAT TO UNDERSTAND: The more we beg, cajole, or insist, the more determined the child becomes not to eat.

WHAT TO DO: Make a new family rule: absolutely no arguing about food. Food is not to be mentioned at mealtime, except to ask that something be passed or to compliment the cook or to say how delicious the asparagus is this time of year.

Mealtime is to be a pleasant time of sharing ideas and observations. Pretend not to notice what someone eats or doesn’t eat, but certainly evidence enjoyment in your own eating. Absolutely do not offer any alternative menu choices. Let the child serve his own plate, if he is able, so that the portion will be one of his choosing. Then at the end of the meal if he has eaten little to nothing, so be it.

It’s OK because you have made another family rule that is a corollary to the first: there are healthy snacks available in the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator and in the bottom shelf of the cupboard that anyone is welcome to help him/herself to at any time, should s/he still be hungry.

WHAT TO SAY: “What was your favorite part of today?” “Guess what I saw on my way to work this morning?” “Please pass the broccoli.”

WHAT NOT TO SAY: “Good job, Seymour! You ate your cauliflower! You’ve made me so proud!” “Don’t bother offering Seymour any cauliflower. He hates vegetables.” (The first sort of comment could give the child the impression that he should eat to please you, not himself; and the second could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

NEXT TIME: Your sister might try to engage her children’s interest and assistance in menu-planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. And we certainly hope that your house isn’t the only place where there IS a family mealtime, a time that everyone sits down to eat at once to enjoy the conversation and togetherness. With everyone’s busy schedule this may be difficult to arrange every day, but parents can make that their goal rather than somehow getting some food down the “picky” eater’s throat.

Clip out this article to show to your sister, and plan to discuss the “no arguing about food” rule with her before the next time she and her children come to dinner. If she doesn’t agree with that idea, then put yourself out of your misery: Order a pizza.

Image courtesy of Stockimages/

The other thing about Easter: Scary church stories

easter egg Grant Cochrane freedigitalphotos 300x199 The other thing about Easter: Scary church storiesIn a previous Easter season, a worried mother sent this note:

One of the kids at my son’s preschool told him about the crucifixion, and what happened, with all the exact details and he was horrified. Telling him about Easter Sunday did not make him feel better. He has been crying about this at night and is afraid of regular pictures of Jesus in a book. I hope it’s OK to ask this question because it’s about religion and everybody has their own opinion. I just wanted to know if any of you grandmas ever ran into a situation like this and what you did.

You know what they say about avoiding the topics of politics and religion. But that rule doesn’t apply to the Grandmothers.

We have two side observations on the subject of friends who tell our children frightening things:

  1. The friends are scared themselves, and try to relieve their fear by scaring someone else.
  2. It can be very difficult to protect our children from terrifying stories. Even if our children don’t see the scary movie/television program/book themselves, one of their friends is sure to tell them about it.

But what to do about your child who is having nightmares about Jesus? Already you have done the most important thing: You took your child seriously; you didn’t try to make him feel better with platitudes; you listened, you empathized. You didn’t burden him with theological concepts that he wouldn’t understand and that would trouble him further.

Crucifixion is indeed a hideously cruel fate to contemplate. We adults who have been looking at paintings, carvings and other reproductions of the crucifixion all our lives have become somewhat accustomed to the idea, not allowing ourselves to think about the cruelty in detail. But a sensitive child learning about it for the first time might understandably be horrified. You have probably already told him that the picture of Jesus on the cross is hard for all of us to look at and think about, and that you are not surprised the story makes him scared and sad.

So, first you listen, realizing that preschool children think egocentrically, hearing things in the context of “if it happened once, then it could happen to me or my family.” Perhaps he will have trouble articulating his fear, and you will have to listen carefully to hear his very concrete interpretation of what his friend told him. You might ask him what he thinks might happen because of this story. Then, when you are sure you have heard him and that he feels understood, you might try comforting and reassuring him with whichever of the following seem most applicable, or a combination:

  • Jesus lived far, far away and a long, long time ago. What happened to him won’t happen now to you or anybody you know. We will keep you safe at home and your teachers and the people who are in charge of our city will keep our neighborhood safe.
  • The picture of Jesus on the cross can be very scary and you don’t need to look at it or be worried by it. When you are older you may be ready to understand more about Jesus and the worry won’t feel so big.
  • Jesus was someone who wanted to help people talk to one another, to use words, instead of hurting. Unfortunately, there were some bad guys who hadn’t gotten help to use words and they were mean to him. That was long ago before people had TV and cars and a lot of the safety rules we have now. Now, people work very hard to help one another to use words. They can even help bad guys learn to use words.

You didn’t mention if church attendance has become a problem, but we can certainly imagine it becoming one.

Children can be introduced to religion gradually, starting simply with messages about how to be kind and loving to our family and friends. If it is a family tradition to go to church and the figure of Jesus on the cross is unavoidable, do lots of planning with your child ahead of time. Perhaps the child can bring a coloring book and focus on that during the service, or perhaps the adults can take turns staying outside with the child. It wouldn’t be helpful to contaminate his introduction to religion by forcing situations that frighten him.

With that kind of loving attention and acceptance of his fear as very real, the fear will slowly fade.

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane/

Shopping for preschool: 19 things your child needs to learn

fingerpainting girl  David Castillo Dominici freedigitalphotos 300x199 Shopping for preschool: 19 things your child needs to learnWhen you begin to look at preschools for your children, it’s easy to be wowed by some of the exciting things many of them will offer to compete for your business, such as big muscle rooms, regular field trips, strenuous academic curricula, and name-brand extracurricular activities taught by outside instructors.

This splendid collection of  activities raises a question: How can parents figure out the best pre-school environment for their child?

It helps to think for a minute about who children are at this age and stage; then it becomes much easier to figure out an environment that matches their development level and abilities.

Two- to 5-year-olds are evolving people – not totally developed. Their personalities and sense of the world are still getting organized.

That’s what we mean when we talk about developmental stages: Children are continually organizing and reorganizing as their abilities evolve for moving around in – and understanding – the world. So we are looking for an environment that promotes this process of organization, that encourages children to feel safe in the world, in charge of themselves, and zestful about new experiences and learning.

What this means is that some of the best preschools may be the least exciting to visit. Or more accurately – they won’t be overexciting.

They tend to be quiet places that emphasize a daily routine. That allows children to know what’s going to be happening and to predict their experience. Such an environment helps them to learn about the world and themselves in a way that encourages mastery.

Activities are designed to stimulate, not over-stimulate.  At this age children don’t need so much outside stimulation; they need to process experience in little bites rather than bug gulps. Otherwise they get overwhelmed, which gets in the way of their feeling safe and organized inside.

In other words, the purpose of preschool is to help a child become a learner – someone invested in learning, with the skills to be able to learn, and who enjoys mastery and work.

Or still another way: It isn’t a matter of how much a child knows, as gratifying as that might be; It is a matter of how the child learns and how he or she feels about learning. By becoming learners in these early years, children will have the skills they need to succeed in any academic environment in the future.

Here are 19 specific tasks that are prerequisites to becoming a learner. Mastering them requires a gradual process that evolves from the ages of 2½ to 5.

Once mastered, these tasks will allow a child to learn anything when the time is right. But if a child hasn’t succeeded in mastering these tasks by early elementary school (more or less), he or she will be compromised in learning, which can interfere with their future educational investment and success.

Mastery Tasks for Becoming a Learner

Listed below are 19 specific tasks children need to master in order to become learners. A strong preschool curriculum is organized to help children attain these skills:

  1. Be able to take care of the self – their bodies and their things – in an appropriate way.
  2. Be able to separate from their parents/caregivers in such a way that they maintain energy, zest, interest and spectrum of affect in the new environment.
  3. Be able to see the teacher as a teacher, not just a substitute caregiver. Be able to trust so they can later learn from different people.
  4. Be able to use language for communication; be able to ask questions.
  5. Be able to listen and hear communications; be able to hear answers to questions.
  6. Be able to take in and express (a corollary to No. 5).
  7. Be able to sit still and be in their own space.
  8. Be able to delay gratification (i.e. wait).
  9. Be able to tolerate frustration; try, try again!
  10. Be able to relate to peers as people, rather than as conveniences or inconveniences.
  11. Be able to function in a group while maintaining autonomy and without feeling lost.
  12. Be able to make transitions.
  13. Be able to follow directions.
  14. Be able to risk.
  15. Be able to be wrong.
  16. Be able to have pleasure in learning and mastery.
  17. Be able to be curious in a neutral and productive way.
  18. Be able to assert themselves in socially acceptable ways.
  19. Be able to remain neutral in the classroom – that is, be a schoolboy or schoolgirl.

As adults and parents – because we can’t remember routine events from our own toddler years – it’s easy to forget that these skills are neither intuitive nor self-learned. They need to be taught and reinforced through patience, understanding, kindness and quiet dedication.

When evaluating preschools, this is what I recommend parents seek.

Image courtesy of  David Castillo Dominici/ 

Spring ahead, fall back … just don’t fall apart

clockforward digitalart freedigitalphotos 300x300 Spring ahead, fall back ... just dont fall apartIt’s time again to change the clocks – and suffer a week or more of family discombobulation. “There’s got to be a better way,” we all think, as the early-waking child seems to wake even earlier; or the cranky-before-dinner child seems to spend even more time in that unpleasant state.

Know two things:

  1. You’re not alone in your clock-changing dread; and
  2. There are ways to make it all go a little smoother.

Here are some tips to get you through the transition:

Change the clock on your own terms. Don’t wait until 2 a.m. Sunday. That barely works for grown-ups; it’s a lousy trick on a kid’s body clock. Change as early in the weekend as you can. This gives you time to reinforce the new timing of things before anyone has to show up to school or work on Monday.

We highly recommend changing the clock as early as Friday night, so you can wake up on Saturday with the “new” time.

This is a great life lesson. Kids need to know how to follow society’s rules (the clock must change) while being true to themselves (we change it this weekend, when it works best for our family).

Change all your clocks/watches at once. This helps you believe the time has changed, so you can be consistent for your young child. If you have somewhere to be on Saturday, try to use the “new” time to keep oriented,

Adjust all meal times to the new clock. Kids like routine; they rely on it. So pace the whole routine as normal; if dinner is usually at 6 , then continue to have it at 6 – even though it may feel like it’s coming earlier or later than usual. The children will adjust. If they react poorly to it on Saturday, you still have Sunday to get things settled before the school/work week begins.

Remember that a child’s wake-up time predicts his or her nap and bed times. If you have a child who is sensitive to change, he or she may have trouble going to sleep at their “regular” time when the clock has just moved. To the internal body clock, it feels like an hour early or late, depending on the time of year and the direction of the time change.

Reinforce weekday wake-up, nap, and bed times to help your child adjust. Be prepared for being a little off-kilter the first few days; naps may be shorter or harder to achieve altogether, but they will come back.

Acknowledge that the weekend feels a little funny, but don’t go into long explanations. Young children take our words literally. They will wonder why you got a different clock, or will argue that the clock hasn’t been “changed” at all.

The concept of time being adjustable may become confusing or distracting. Don’t bog the kids down with this. Your goal is to have a fun family weekend where the new times just blend into your life.

Make lemonade out of lemons. If you are concerned that your young child will have a bumpy adjustment, this is a great weekend to take the big outing you’ve been avoiding because it will mess up the nap schedule.

Sometimes the curveballs of life can actually help. A big outing throws your child’s body clock off, in which case he or she will gladly embrace the post-outing routine that you offer (with the new & improved clock time). Get up and out with a planned outing early Saturday or, better still, Sunday. Then your little one will be more likely to fall asleep at a decent time come Sunday night. And so will you.

Image courtesy of Digital Art/

Helping children learn about death

Dear Grandmothers:

My 3-year-old son Billy’s hamster is looking sickly and I don’t know what to do if it dies. Should I run out and get another one so Billy won’t know what happened? I don’t want him to be sad and upset, so I want to be prepared for this situation.

Worried Mother


hamster james barker freedigitalphotos 300x199 Helping children learn about deathDear Worried Mother:

This may sound odd, but you should be grateful Billy has this opportunity to experience death in a relatively simple way, rather than with the death of a loved person. It is a chance for him to see what death is, what is done with a dead body, and how we grieve the loss rather than ignore it.

This basic understanding of death can begin when a child is as young as 2 – when he notices dead things like insects or worms. If we use the word “dead” and explain that the bug will never move again because it is dead, we are helping him to have a concrete understanding of death in a situation that is not so emotionally charged as the death of a person he knows.

Knowing what is done with a dead body can be learned through the death of a pet. A child may want to hold the dead pet, even want to keep it. We must let him know that it will begin to smell, so we have to bury it. Putting Billy’s hamster in a box with a soft cloth around it and burying it in a protected spot in the back yard, with a flower planted on the grave, allows everyone to show their feelings of sadness at a death – even of a pet.

Allowing time to feel sad and miss his little furry companion without rushing out to buy a replacement gives Billy an opportunity to learn to cope with these feelings. Of course he misses his pet; of course it is sad when someone dies.

These are feelings he can bear – in fact, they are feelings he should be allowed to have, not denied by a well-meaning parent who wants him to be happy always. If a child is allowed to have these sad feelings and gradually learn to live with them, he builds emotional muscle.

We grandmothers certainly understand a parent’s wish to spare children any distress. We also know that it’s often because the parent doesn’t want to have those sad feelings – it’s just too hard – so they try to avoid them for the child and for themselves. But we are doing the child a disservice if we do not allow him to learn that he can bear even distressing feelings.

When there is a death in the family, or the family of a friend or classmate, Billy will at least have an idea of the answer to one of the inevitable questions: What is dead? The other questions that all children have are: Can it happen to me, and can it happen to you, Mommy and Daddy?

Here, you can be truthful but still reassure Billy that, “No, I won’t die for a long time; I’m healthy and I take care of myself. You’ll be a grown-up; I’ll be a grandmother for many years.”

Parents may think they should be totally truthful and acknowledge that, “Yes, I will die,” because, of course, they will. But to a child, that means it could happen tomorrow or next week, because children have such an undeveloped understanding of time.

What about spiritual answers to the question of death? Here again, children’s lack of development in the area of abstract thinking means the best thing is not to give religious explanations about death to children under the age of 7; until then, such explanations are only confusing and unhelpful.

Think of how confused a child is when he hears that Grammy’s in heaven. “Why wouldn’t she come down from there and play with me?” the child thinks. And imagine how scary it is for a child to hear that Grandpa “went to sleep.” How can he close his eyes at night when he imagines that death is what happens when you go to bed?

If the child hears others talking about heaven or God taking people away, you can answer, “Many people believe that. Many people believe other things too, and as you get older you will learn about them and will understand them better. Everybody has such a hard time understanding death. It’s hard to believe that someone is never coming back, so some people talk about heaven and god. But I like to remember the person who died and think about things we did with her when she was alive.”

So, Worried Mother, I know we’ve told you much more about young children and their understanding of death than you were asking in your question. But we couldn’t resist this opportunity to talk about such an important issue for all parents of young children.

Thank you for bringing it up. And good luck to you as you help Billy deal with the many issues of growing up and help him build the emotional muscle that he will need throughout his life – starting with the death of a pet.

 Image courtesy James Barker/