Please don’t scare the little ones at Halloween time

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

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

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

–Webmaster


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what can you do for Phoebe this year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Phaitoon/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When the little one is acting sneaky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Leaving children for the weekend

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

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

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

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

Preparing for departure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to leave

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

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

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

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

Coming home

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Rawitch/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Birthday parties – a little bit of sanity please

“Happy Birthday, dear Billy…” oh no…the candles are burning and everyone is singing, but Billy is definitely not a happy birthday boy.  In fact, tears are rolling down his cheeks and the wish he’s making as he blows out the candles is for everyone to just go away and let him play with that cool truck in the pile of presents.

How could it be that this perfectly planned event was not a wonderful experience for the honoree?  It was held at a special location, which specializes in kids’ parties.  All fifteen children from Billy’s preschool class plus his 10 cousins were invited and there were lots of exciting things for kids to run around and do.   There was a magician to entertain them, pizza, a special cake, and a piñata to whack away at.  What more could a child possibly want?  Well, yes, maybe a pony for everyone to ride—but that’s for next year.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? In our modern, competitive world, many birthday parties for young children have become occasions for keeping up with—or even outdoing—other parents. “Ashley’s party was so lovely; the girls and their mothers went to a fancy hotel for a fashion show—whatever can we do to compare with that?”

Children’s parties can also become social events for the adults, either as a way to entertain friends or to gather the extended family for a reunion.  In both of these instances, the focus is on the adults and the children may get lost in the shuffle, either to run amok unsupervised or to have too much attention showered upon them when they are unsure of what they are expected to do.

Perhaps parents want to feel that they have done everything to make their children’s lives as perfect as possible.  In our fast-paced world, parents may feel guilty that they are not giving their children the time and attention they should and so try to make it up to them by throwing a grand and glorious birthday party.

Similarly, in the hurried world of two working parents, Mom may think, “why should I have all these kids running through my house making a big mess to clean up?  If we have the party at Chuck E. Cheese, I can have the rest of the weekend to get other chores done.”

All these are possible explanations for the overdone, inappropriate, chaotic birthday parties we see.  If only parents would examine their motives as they plan for this important milestone in their child’s life, perhaps the scenario would be a different one.

WHAT TO DO? First of all, think of everything from your child’s perspective.  How old is she?  One easy rule of thumb is to invite the same number of children as the age of the child, so three guests are perfect for your three year old’s party.  Send cupcakes to the pre-school to celebrate with all the classmates; let the actual party be a private one which will be a pleasure for your child only if it is kept at a size which she can manage.  Similarly, plan on a manageable length of time, two hours is plenty.   Be sure to state the hours on the invitation so everyone knows just what to expect.

Second, remember that the simplest things are new and wonderful to young children.  Think of what your child loves to do.  If he is a nature lover, go to the nearby park and have a simple scavenger hunt for acorns, bird feathers, and yes, even a piece of litter (can’t start too early with cleaning up the environment—and, of course, you brought hand-wipes to clean them up afterwards).  If it’s a nice day, spread a cloth on a picnic table and ice some cupcakes, have some lemonade, play a few games, and go home.  Oh yes, the goody bag: a little ladybug toy and a few pieces of your child’s favorite candy are a nice souvenir of the day.

If she would love to have a tea party, invite the guests to bring their dolls and provide all the makings of a pretend tea party at home.  The children could make the sandwiches and, of course, pour the pretend tea (lemonade with a touch of tea for color) for themselves and their dolls.  A fun craft activity, such as a picture frame, for the photo you take of each girl with her doll, would be a nice favor for guests to take home.

What to do with those boys when it’s bad weather?  How about the scavenger hunt indoors?  Hide items, which go along with your party theme, around the house.  Play a beanbag toss game or rig up a balance beam for the junior Olympians to walk across.  Get some scraps of wood for them to glue together and paint or show the DVD of some old (short) cartoons that you loved as a child.  Let the boys make their own pizzas or string cubes of fruit on bamboo sticks for kabobs.

When there are fewer children and the activities are based on reality rather than overly stimulating fantasy, there is less random running around and everyone is calmly involved. When you think of themes for the party for children who might become over-excited, choose the real vs. fantasy, for example:  astronauts, the circus  (without the wild lion), the Olympics, or explorers digging for hidden treasure but nothing about ferocious, scary things. When parents don’t take on too much and the party is planned with the child’s best interests in mind, it will be just as pleasant for them as it is for the child.  Not to mention the easier cleanup when there are not hordes of kids running rampant through the house.

The planning and preparation are as much fun for the birthday child as the party itself, so involve her as much as possible.  Picking out the invitations and decorations at the dollar store or making them yourselves, making the cake, setting the table and filling the goody bags are all major ingredients of a memorable occasion for a child.

Some kids can take being a party host in stride, but others may need you to go over the entire scenario before the event so they know exactly what will happen when and pretty much what they will be expected to do and say.  When you plan the Birthday Party taking into account your child his age and interests you will find its economically sane and results in less clean up and a happy child.  Save the elaborate party for the wedding reception.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A parenting technique that really works

At a gathering of parents sponsored by The Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development (HPC), Licensed Independent Social Worker and HPC Child Psychoanalyst and Therapist Deborah Paris addressed a range of questions and concerns, including this one:

 Q: I keep hearing about “attachment parenting” and other parenting techniques. Is there a particular technique that you like?

A:  My preferred technique is whatever works best in promoting healthy development. It begins with understanding there are certain goals in raising young children:

  • Self care
  • Self regulation
  • Self determination

What makes people healthy is developing this sense of self – not us as parents doing for them.

You know, we do a funny thing these days. On one hand we see the helicopter parent, who is over-involved in everything the child tries to do. On the other hand we sometimes act like children are little adults, and we expect all sorts of things from them that they aren’t ready to handle – like sitting quietly through a long meal at an upscale restaurant.

In both extremes, what’s happening is the parents are trying to control the outcome. It’s as if by just doing or demanding all the right things, everything will come out fine. This is actually leaving the child – as an individual person – out of the equation.

If you insist on controlling the outcome, then your child is going to struggle to learn and practice self care, self determination, self regulation. It will be about you instead of about them.

But if you start from the perspective of what the child needs and what is going on inside of him or her– as opposed to adopting a specific parenting “technique” – you’ll end up in the right place.

Children have an inner world that is understood (or misunderstood) from the perspective of a 2- or 3- or 4-year-old brain. Be sensitive to this. Work with them to identify and resolve misunderstandings and misconceptions. Help them learn those things the developing self requires.

If you want to call this a parenting technique, I’d say it has a pretty good record of success.

Image of little boy courtesy of Julie Moore/Stock.xchng

 

A simple test to know if a child is ready for Halloween frights

Halloween is right around the corner and houses are decked out with witches, spiders, graves and bats.

Some adults seem to be involved in a strange competition to see who can create the most ghoulish, terrifying images and haunted basements, etc. All of this scariness is appropriate for older, school-age children and teenagers. But it can be very confusing and downright frightening for preschoolers and young children who don’t have good reality testing.

How do we know they don’t have good reality testing?  Because they believe in the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. Older children with better reality testing will tell you there’s no way Santa can go all over the world in one night and he’s too fat to come down a chimney. But younger children believe he can.

I vividly recall a terrified, 6-year-old coming to her therapy session with tears in her eyes. She just saw a coffin open up in someone’s front yard and a “dead person” popped out. She then proceeded to make scary noises and jump out of the dark at me, so I would know firsthand how frightened she was. Then she asked me if dead people “get out of their graves” at Halloween.

I hope you will keep these thoughts in mind as you decorate and celebrate Halloween. If your school-age children are going to be around little ones, don’t permit them to wear frightening costumes. If you have younger children, serve as a protective barrier from scary Halloween sights, sounds and activities. Keep Halloween fun, as it was meant to be.

Photo courtesy of Victor Habbick/Freedigitalphotos.net

Bedtime Struggles

Children who resist bedtime are noted for their determinedly open eyes and, usually, loud protests at being put to bed, often at the hour when the caregiver is most desperate to have the child fall asleep. Unfortunately, such wakefulness is not something that occurs once and then is outgrown forever but is a stage that can appear at several different ages and for different reasons: in infancy, in toddlerhood, and quite possibly at regular intervals after that. Some children, for no reason that anyone has been able to determine, always sleep well; others appear to be born requiring little sleep. All parents seem to need sleep, however, so stubborn wakefulness on the child’s part can be troubling indeed.

Where the Child is Headed

What parents hope is that after the appropriate bedtime rituals, the child will be able to go to bed and fall asleep, without undue objection, in her own bed, and to remain there sleeping without summoning a parent except in the case of an emergency, until a reasonable wake up time. The parents role is not to put the child to sleep but to encourage the child to learn to do this for herself.

Cause

The wakeful infant has learned to associate sleep and rocking, or sleep and feeding, or sleep and sucking. When the child wakes up to discover that he’s alone in his crib, not being rocked or fed any more, or that the pacifier has fallen out of his mouth, he can’t go back to sleep unless someone feeds him or rocks him or replaces the pacifier.

The wakeful toddler has separation anxiety. He wants you by his side by night as much as he does by day – even more so, because he feels a loss of control and vulnerability at bedtime, much as you do when responsibilities and concerns that you can easily handle at 3PM have you staring at the ceiling in the dark at 3AM. So he tries to lure you back with requests for a drink, a kiss, one more story.

Wakeful children of all ages may be afraid: of the dark; of monsters under the bed; of very real monster-like behaviors that he’s witnessed during the day at home, school, or on television; of his own angry feelings that haunt him with terrifying thoughts when awake and nightmares when asleep. Additionally, children often show their feelings about daytime separations when it’s time for the night time separation.

How You Feel

Depending on when your bedtime is, you are either irritated that the child is interrupting your adult time with your spouse, a book, or a hobby you enjoy, or you are somewhere between tired and exhausted. Your patience is short, and you have difficulty being sympathetic with your infant’s wails or your older child’s insistence that he’s thirsty or that there’s a dragon in his closet. At the same time, you are feeling guilty at your very own irritation, not to mention at having left him all day in the day care center or with a sitter. So you are tempted to invite him to stay up another hour or to sleep in your bed where at least you’ll be together and he’ll be quiet and you can both get some sleep.

What to Understand

You are absolutely right: you both need your sleep, and you also need your child-free hours. Most children who are having trouble sleeping just need reassurance that you are there, that you will keep them safe, and that bedtime is a good and necessary thing. They do not need to get into bed with you because then you will have another problem: getting them out.

What to do

Make bedtime as pleasant as possible. Do not rush it, no matter how much of a hurry you are in. Whatever the child’s age, take time for relaxing and comforting routines such as tucking in a favorite doll, singing a special bedtime song, reading a story or two. A beloved stuffed animal or special blanket is often helpful in keeping a child content through the night. Recorded music, perhaps the same familiar tunes each night, can become intuitive signals for sleep. Nightlights can be comforting to children who express a fear of the dark; older children can be permitted to read to themselves and turn out their own lights when they are ready. But whatever the bedtime props, when it becomes time to say goodnight, say it with conviction. If the child fusses for a while, let him fuss. If he continues to fuss, go to him with reassuring words and pats, but not with an invitation to join the grown-ups either in front of the TV or in bed. If necessary, sit beside the child’s own bed for a while until she is calmed.

Next Time

Start perfecting your bedtime routine. Prepare your child with a half hour warning, and if possible devote that half hour to an activity the child particularly enjoys – a quiet and calming one, of course – giving him your full attention. Then make actual bedtime a pleasurable time of conversation, cuddles, songs and stories. Assure him that you will keep him safe through the night, and express confidence that soon, possibly tonight, he will be able to fall asleep right away, and sleep until morning.

Thinking Further

Trust your own sense of whether your child is protesting bedtime only in the hopes of squeezing a little more activity into his day, or he is truly distressed, sincerely frightened. Remember your own childhood fears at bedtime, and how vivid they were. If, after your best bedtime routine performances and your repeated reassurances that all is well, your child is still unable to sleep, consider consultation with a child development specialist. You and your child both may need help in understanding the causes of his persistent wakefulness.

Image courtesy of Ambro/Freedigitalphotos.net

The forgetful child and feeling forgotten

As a child psychoanalyst, I provide consultation services to tutors who work with children who have learning troubles.  My job is to help them understand that behavior is a meaningful communication. Children can’t always tell you how they’re feeling; they let their behavior do the talking.

Recently a tutor reported that a boy showed up for class without his school supplies. So, the tutor gave him a pencil and paper only to learn that he “forgot them somewhere” by second period. This “forgetting” happened over and over again.

So, what was the boy really saying to his tutor? Was he feeling forgotten?

Sometimes children believe their parents get so busy during the day with work or, worse yet, taking care of younger siblings, that they forget all about them. Of course, as is true of all behavior problems, this is just one possibility. However, it’s worth exploring.

You can do it by saying something like this:

“You seem to be forgetting a lot lately. I wonder if you ever feel forgotten. Maybe you think I get so busy while you’re at school that I don’t think about you.”

Then see what he/she says. If this is the issue, encourage your child to elaborate as much as he/she can and then acknowledge, “What a sad thought that you’re feeling forgotten.  So, how can I help you know that I keep you in mind?”

This could be something simple like putting a note in your child’s lunch: “I just wanted you to know I will be thinking about you. Love, Mom.” Or maybe you could put a picture of you and your child in his backpack with a note that says, “When you get home tonight, I’ll be so glad to hear about your school day.” Often these little reminders can be quite helpful to children who worry about being forgotten.

Image courtesy of ImageryMajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Quietly observing the Winter Honeymoon

For the under-5 set and their families, getting used to the academic calendar comes with growing pains. Just the concept of an academic year “ending” has undone many a young child who thought school would go on forever with this teacher in this room.

From the perspective of young children, summer becomes a time of missing what we used to have, and worrying about what comes next. August is anxious as we ready for new things in September.

September is a time of newness, separation and adjustment. There is a tiny window in October when the routine has been mastered and teachers feel familiar. Then comes Halloween – which absorbs a good five weeks between anticipation, doing or avoiding, and debriefing.

Then, we’re in the midst of the winter holidays, which pretty much disrupt all mastered things. Throw in the long winter break (let’s admit that it does feel too long in many young families), an optional polar vortex and Martin Luther King day, and January is a long, drawn-out return to routine. For the under-5 child, that actually feels like a new routine because four months is such a statistically significant percentage of his or her lifespan.

So somewhere in late January or early February, the sweet spot begins – the Winter Honeymoon. It’s one of those hidden gems that most adults don’t notice.

Routines feel familiar. The only major holiday that causes disruption – Valentine’s Day – celebrates friendship, kindness and shapes. Spring break is far enough away that we’re actually living in the moment.

This is the tiny window of time each year that has fewer excitements and dramatic changes. Young children make developmental leaps because the world around them has become a little quieter.

Teachers know this; you can tell because this is when they roll out favorite stations and projects – confident they can rely on the continuity of the season. This is that moment. No major changes on the immediate horizon. Excitements lulled. It’s a special time.

As a parent, how do you use this time?

Soak it up. Share with your child how nice it feels to have the calm of routine; how good it must feel to know where everything is in her classroom; how comfortable she now seems with her teacher.

Savor the mastery. Notice out loud all the things your child can do that were new, intimidating or unfamiliar in September. Stand by and admire how your child needs you a little bit less than when school started. The act of standing by and admiring mastery is a critical part of parenting – a job and also a pleasure.

Look at your little one hanging his coat on his hook, knowing where to find supplies when he wants to draw you a picture, getting started at a favorite place in the classroom where he previously stayed close to you.

Enjoy the trust. Take pleasure in the relationship with your child’s teacher. Once new to your family, this person is now a safe and trusted grown-up, the template for your child’s future learning and personal relationships. Enjoying a trusting relationship is something that you get to teach your child too. It is enriching for you and your child together.

Notice the special (not always perfect, but special) connections you have, and show your child that you value and are grateful for the three-way partnership of parent-child-teacher. This step is important; in just a few more months, the cycle of changing teachers will begin again. Having a memory of this good feeling will help everyone in the transition.

Take a deep breath. This is just for you. Notice how time has been moving fast or slow for you and your family. Breathe in the feeling of being in the moment. Keep life simple; don’t overfill your time just because the holiday craziness is over and you got used to massive to-do lists. Do the comforting things that make you feel grateful and refreshed – even if it’s just for 10 minutes. Find satisfaction in simple things; as with our kids, this the sweet spot where creativity and growth take seed.

Notice how good this can feel. Time moves fast. Raising children is taxing, and the stress-to-reward ratio often feels like it’s not in the caregiving parent’s favor. Noticing the good feelings helps to buoy us through the tough patches.

Is your child excited to return to school to see a friend? Does your child enjoy giving you art from school and look forward to you putting it on display at home? Is your child trying new things every once in awhile? Is something, anything, going easier than it was in September?

See these gems and hold them in your mind as best you can. They are your anchor for the many strenuous parenting moments, April through January. You get to keep this calm and confident time in your back pocket as an amulet for all the other taxing, crazy and extraordinarily special months of the year.

Image courtesy of freeimages.com/Iain Nisbet

Why your kids don’t listen – and how to deal with it

A mother of young children asked why she finds herself saying the same things over and over again, but the children don’t seem to be paying attention. “It would almost be better if they would openly defy me,” she said “Instead, everything goes in one ear and out the other. Why don’t they listen to me?”

As with so many of the issues we discuss with parents about those very complex little people – their children – the answers are many and varied. But from the top:

  • Maybe your children are so bombarded, all day every day, by sounds from the TV, radio, CD player, microwave, dishwasher, hair dryer, passing traffic, neighbor’s leaf blower, etc. etc. that they have become very accomplished at shutting a lot of it out – and that includes your voice. One thing you could do about that is to get rid of the unnecessary background noise by not permitting TV and radio to run constantly. That might help.
  • Or maybe you don’t always listen to them, either. What gets priority: them or the ringing cellphone?

But probably it’s not so simple. Do they seem to be listening at the time, but later when they have failed to finish their cereal or go get their shoes or whatever it is you have asked them to do, does it appear that in fact they have not heard a word?

That might indicate – and this is especially true of younger children – that they were confused, and didn’t really understand what was being asked of them. That might well be the case if you have given them a whole string of directives, such as “finish your cereal, and then go upstairs and brush your teeth, and while you’re up there get your shoes and bring them down, and then put on your raincoat, or we’re going to be late…” Sound familiar?

Maybe you asked them a “why” question. Children may well not know the answer to the question you ask and so don’t respond, appearing not to be listening. “Why did you leave that book at day care?” is an unanswerable question. So is, “Why didn’t you carry that bowl of cereal with both hands, the way I told you?”

Another possibility is that they are only faking the “in one ear and out the other” pose. Maybe they are actually defying you, trying to gain control, trying to get you upset. And they’re being pretty successful, aren’t they?

So take a look at the situations that most often end up in your getting upset because they “didn’t listen.” If they were only pretending not to be listening, then some feeling is behind it. Trying to figure out what the feeling is would help everyone.

Were they worried about what was going to happen at the place where you were in such a hurry to get them to on time? Have the days at day care not been going so swimmingly perhaps?

Were they angry at being rushed to do all those things you were asking and wanted to keep spooning in cereal at a leisurely pace?

What’s the feeling? You may not have time to discuss it right then, but later you can revisit it. Even if they can’t remember, it will be helpful for them to hear you say, “You must have been upset/worried/angry and next time you can tell me about it, so you won’t have to pretend you don’t hear me.” Then be prepared to ask and hear about that feeling next time.

Or maybe they’ve learned that if they wait long enough, after you’ve told them to go get their shoes five or more times and they continue to sit there as if oblivious, you’ll go do it yourself. Children can be incredibly patient sometimes.

It’s too bad we can’t have tape recordings of our voices to play back so we can hear what we sound like to our children. Sometimes we adults talk on and on, yammering away, with lectures and advice – none of which is very helpful.

One of the Grandmothers remembers giving what she thought was a very informative little talk to her young son about whether or not he should engage in some possibly (albeit remotely so) harmful activity. He waited until she was through, and then asked “Does that mean yes or no?”

Would you listen to you?

So try saying it only once or twice, in simple terms and few words, with the TV off and the cellphone on mute. Give them ample preparation time for each step of the early morning routine, or whatever the rushed time of day might be. And if they still don’t seem to be listening, offer to listen to their reasons why not. But remember not to actually ask them why they weren’t listening.

We told you it was complicated.