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

It’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/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Enrichment is always close at-hand

Why preschoolers shouldn’t get kicked out of school for acting up

The ill result when young children sit too long in school

Why “play” is an important part of preschool and kindergarten

Cover image courtesy of Stuart Miles/Freedigitalphotos.net

How children learn to love reading

Shopping for preschool: 19 things your child needs to learn

When 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/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Saying bye-bye to the ‘binkie’

In Anne Tyler’s novel Digging to America there’s a humorous scene in which a mother plans an elaborate scheme for separating her 3-year-old daughter from her pacifier.

She invites all the mothers and young children she knows to a party, the climax of which will be the releasing of a clutch of helium balloons with binkies (pacifiers) attached to them. On her daughter’s balloon is the pacifier, of course, which will dramatically sail up into the heavens and, the mother is confident, thus be out of her daughter’s life forever.

The party goes as planned, with the little girl willingly releasing her balloon and watching her beloved binkie fly away, and the mother satisfied that her scheme has worked. But after the balloons and binkies are out of sight and the guests are beginning to leave, the mother discovers her daughter happily sucking on a pacifier that she has swiped from the mouth of one of the visiting babies.

In some circles, providing a baby with a binkie is a given. Binkies are better than thumbs, some argue, because they can  – with difficulty sometimes, granted – be taken away, while thumbs come attached. Binkies are often among the gifts at baby showers. Many parents bring their babies home from the hospital with binkies in their mouths (the baby’s mouth, not the parents’).

Children riding around in strollers are often seen sucking away on binkies attached to them by a handy clip-on gadget that prevents the binkie from falling on the sidewalk if dropped. Binkie-shaped candies are sold to older children who presumably have outgrown their addiction but still remember their binkie days fondly.

Others frown upon binkie use, because children can become dependent on them, and also because some are offended by the mindless expression on the face of a child who’s sucking on one. In England, in fact, the common slang term for pacifier is dummy.

Some child development specialists argue that children should learn to soothe themselves; in their opinion thumbs are preferable to pacifiers because the thumb is in the child’s control, while the binkie is – at least initially – in the adults’. And children who are learning to talk are rendered speechless, or all but impossible to understand, if they have binkies in their mouths.

The Grandmothers take the middle ground. Here are their rules-of-thumb (please pardon the expression) for binkie use:

  1. If your baby is brand new to the planet, don’t stick a pacifier in his/her mouth right away. Maybe you’re one of the lucky parents whose newborn goes to sleep easily and when awake stares at the marvels around him, quite content. This kid doesn’t need a pacifier, so don’t give him one.
  1.  If your baby is a screamer, and there are such, and you have fed her and changed her and cuddled her and she’s still screaming, by all means try popping a pacifier into her mouth and see if that helps. Just make it your last resort, not your first. Give her a chance to soothe herself to sleep. But better to risk turning your baby into a binkie addict than have a nervous breakdown yourself. Your baby needs a parent who is calm and relatively free of stress.
  1. If your baby has become accustomed to binkie use but is starting to walk, try leaving the pacifier in his crib as he begins his day of exploring and investigating. He will soon lose interest in the binkie as he finds much more interesting things to do and starts finding pleasure in other sensory experiences.
  1. If your little one is no longer a baby – has become 2 or 3 or even 4 but still wants her binkie with her wherever she goes, and you would like to get it away from her but you don’t want to go the helium balloon route – avoid getting into a struggle with her over it. Talk to her about becoming a big kid, about big kids getting to do big-kid things and how as a rule big kids don’t run around playing soccer (or whatever) with binkies in their mouths. Tell her that you can’t understand her when her mouth is full of binkie.
  1. Encourage her to make her binkie a bedtime-only thing that stays under her pillow all day. But don’t force the issue, even with clever stratagems like suggesting that she mail it to her new baby cousin. Don’t give it that much importance. Don’t even try to protect her from occasional derogatory comments and teasing from other children and adults. Just wait for her interest in her binkie to gradually fade.

There are a few exceptions to rule #3. If you are in a situation where you would prefer it if your child did not scream and disturb everyone around you and there’s no chance of carrying him away from the scene – if you are flying to Singapore in a 747, for example – have a binkie handy in your carry-on.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Painful feelings (theirs and yours)

sad feelings_david castillo dominici_freedigitalphotosOf 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 her inability to stay vertical on a pair of roller skates no matter how hard she tries. And we want to instantly rush in and fix it, wipe away the tears, offer a new goldfish, a different friend, an ice cream cone, whatever it takes to make her stop telling us how sad she is. Even worse is when the grief, or fear, or a combination, has been caused by something we ourselves have done that’s a little more significant than denying her a particular brand of breakfast cereal: leaving her all day in a day care center, perhaps, or moving the family to another house, or presenting her with a baby brother. 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.

We Just Want Him to be Happy

At least we want the experts to keep their promise, that if we approach potentially stressful events such as a new baby or a move with lots of talk about how the child might feel sad or angry, then the child will immediately start feeling better. Our instinct is to protect him from all harm, from all pain. We cannot bear to watch him suffer, certainly not for a protracted period of time. So we become frustrated when all our talk about emotions doesn’t seem to “work.” The baby is six weeks old already, and big brother is still uncharacteristically moody. We moved a month ago, and he’s still bursting into tears at nothing. Our child’s painful emotions can sometimes be harder for us to endure than our own.

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 of all we need to realize that expressing and managing feelings is not the same thing as eradicating them. 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. If he can tell us how much he misses his old house, he might not need to crayon all over the freshly painted walls in his new bedroom. If he can express his jealousy verbally, he might not be as likely to pinch his baby brother when we’re not looking. But he still will feel bewilderment or loneliness or discouragement or rage. It’s still going to hurt.

We Can’t Feel For, But We Can Feel With

Second of all, as difficult as it might be for us, we need to give our child time to grieve, to cry, to express his anger and disappointment, without rushing in with solutions. Careful listening and questioning may help if the source of his unhappiness is not altogether clear. If we can outgrow our desire to fix everything for him and instead be so in tune with his feelings that we can help him identify them, he will have a clearer idea of what he’s feeling than any cartoon face could possibly illustrate. He most needs from us what we as adults most need when we are despondent or anxious: a willing ear, some empathic understanding, an arm around the shoulder, a hug. Being felt with can make all the difference.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/Freedigitalphotos.net

Whining and Complaining

“Stop that right now!”

“If you don’t stop that whining, I’ll give you something real to whine about!”

“If you complain about one more thing, you’ll go to your room!”

Listening to a child’s persistent moaning and crying can make the most patient parents feel frenzied and helpless. They want it to stop — now!

Grumpy Ballerina

They want to exert their authority – make the child change and feel their power and control over him. After all, they are the adults! If they are in public, they feel embarrassed, inadequate and speak through clenched teeth: “Just wait ’til we get home!”

It helps to understand what causes this behavior. Something as simple as being tired and staying up past his normal bedtime can make a child cranky and whiny.

However, chronic whining and complaining usually comes from an accumulation of circumstances that leave the child dissatisfied and unable to comfort himself.

We sometimes chalk up his whininess to “wanting attention,” but it’s usually more. A pestering child can be in the parent’s presence with his physical needs being met, yet still feel that his parent has left him.

Whining is often an attempt to reclaim a parent’s focus and support.

When whining is a reaction to the helpless “little” feeling that overtakes the child when he feels left out, he is letting you know how miserable he is. Even though the child’s behavior at this point makes even the most laid-back parent frustrated and miserable too, we can be sure that the child’s frustration with himself is many times greater.

He can’t like himself when he behaves this way and is at a complete loss as to how to make things better.

Ironically, just when you least feel like giving it, he needs his parents’ love and support now more than ever.

How to help

Helping a child overcome this miserable state will not be accomplished easily or quickly.

No matter what the cause of the present struggle, the first step is to re-establish connection with the child. The most immediate and effective method is a hug or a protective arm around him. Tell him you do get angry with him when he whines and complains, but you still love him.

At the same time, tell your child that you know he is unhappy and that you will help him figure out how both of you can feel better in a loving, happy way.

You also need to point out firmly that talking in a whiny voice will not get him what he thinks he wants. He needs to know that you’ll stick to your word but that you will talk with him when he can use his “bigger boy” voice.

Give him a chance to take this in, but stop him if he goes back to the same old behavior. It’s a hard job for him, so try to be patient. Saying “No!” firmly and not giving in will help stop what could become a nasty habit.

Breaking the habit 

Later, if you can pinpoint some of the circumstances that seem to bring on whininess, point them out to your child. “It seems you get cranky whenever I’m on the phone,” or “…when it’s time to stop something you’re doing,” or “…when you want something we say you cannot have,” etc.

Make a simple plan of what the child can do for himself when one of these times occurs – something that would help him feel close to you without interrupting or interfering, or that he could do until he can have your full attention or help.

Try to be observant of those times when your child can wait to do or have something he wants, and when he can overcome frustration without complaining.

Express your appreciation for his figuring out things for himself. Let him know how that makes both of you feel better, and how nice it is to be able to have fun together instead of fighting.

Note the times when your responsibilities and needs may make your child feel left out or disconnected from you. Show him that even though you may have to be doing other things or be in other places, you can know what he is doing and you’re thinking of him.

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net