Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Henry vs. Everything

I haven’t been writing lately, and that’s not about to change. Demands of work, parenting and life have gotten the better of my writing schedule.

Starting in October, I have a new gig writing a monthly column on the intersection of healthcare and finances for a new site called Betterment.com, an online investment management service. My first post will explain out-of-network health insurance benefits (and why you never see the full 70% your insurance company claims to cover). The second post, in November, will explain hospital bills, specifically why the hospital “charges” you 80 grand to give birth in its bed.

In the meantime, I would be remiss were I not to leave you with a little recap of the past couple of months. The title of the post is an homage to one of my favorite bloggers, Brooklynite Liz Catalano, who writes Zoe vs. The Universe. Liz is smart, funny and a talented writer, so get thee to her corner of the Interwebs.

Henry vs. Jeff Koons

I took Henry to the Whitney Museum to see the Jeff Koons Retrospective. I thought I was so cultured. What a wonderful mother, exposing her child to art at such a young age.

Wrong.

You see, the Play-Doh sculpture is not actually Play-Doh. But a two-year-old can’t tell the difference. All he knew was that I had cruelly teased him by placing him before a gigantic mass of Play-Doh with which he was not allowed to play. Let’s just say it did not go well for me.



Henry vs. The Cartwheel

We went to the beach a few times this summer, which Henry loved. Here he is trying to do a cartwheel with his cousin. They were imitating their older cousin/sister (respectively).


Not quite, but cute all the same.

Henry vs. The Wedding

Rayne’s sister got married in a lovely ceremony at the end of August. Henry was to be one of the ring bearers.

He disagreed.





As a result, Moo Cow carried him down the aisle whimpering and sniffling. He then watched videos on my phone in the front row.

Henry vs. Mold

The house we bought was built in 1899, but since it was “gut renovated,” we thought we might escape any major repairs for a year or two. But apparently “gut renovated,” for contractors based in Staten Island, means “covering up the visible black mold with new sheet rock; no one will ever know the difference.” Don’t ask how we figured it out, but Henry’s room now looks like this.



He’s been sleeping on a mattress in our room for the past two weeks. So far, his favorite ways to wake us up at 6 am are to 1) open my eyelid with his finger and scream in my face or 2) throw a giant ball in Rayne’s face while yelling, “you wanna catch da ball, Daddy?”

Henry vs. Moo Cow

I love my little monkey, but I currently sport an ever-so-slightly deviated septum and black-and-blues galore. I’m also perpetually covered in poop given his penchant for flipping, kicking and screaming whenever I try to change him. But, you know, I love him to death.




I hope to return to writing here regularly in the winter. In the meantime, keep an eye out for my pieces on Betterment.com. Thanks for reading.

Moo Cow signing off (for now) 
xoxo


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Parenting in the Time of Poltergeist, or How Mothers Thrive

The Brilliant Book Club wrote on Monday about Dr. Tovah Klein's book, How Toddlers Thrive. After I published my post, in which I wrote how generally easy Henry is, I discovered he had scribbled in black ink all over the kitchen wall.


Cue the schadenfreude.

Lauren from omnimom thought the book was a bit too child-centered. Sarah from Left Brain Buddha also alluded to this point. I can't say I entirely disagree.

I liked Klein's general philosophy -- accept your toddler for who he is, and try to take his point of view when confronted with tantrums and so-called unreasonable requests -- but throughout the book I questioned how realistic the approach was.

Her advice, though, is solid, and it works if you follow it to the letter. Case in point: This morning, in yet another example of why you should never say you have a good toddler out loud, Henry threw his most Poltergeist-worthy tantrum yet. Screaming, shaking, choking, hitting, throwing.

It seemed out of nowhere and uncharacteristic to say the least. But, I realized, today was his last day of camp, and he loves camp.

After about 20 minutes of complete mayhem (during which time I never left the kitchen, as Klein recommends, though I really, really wanted to), I sat down with him and said quietly, "I know this is your last day of camp. You must be sad. But you'll go back to the same school again in only one month."

It wasn't magic; he didn't stop right away. But he definitely calmed down not too long after. We were 15 minutes late for camp, and I sat with him for a few minutes until he was fully absorbed in one of his many crafts.

Preschool Swag

I thought Dr. Klein would be proud.

Here's the Rub

But here's the thing. The reason I was able to be calm about this morning's tantrum and not worry about being late or staying extra is that I had nowhere else to be. Sure, I had a few hours of work on an editing project. But that is flexible.

In contrast, the day before, I needed to be at work on time, because four of us were getting in the car to drive an hour to another hospital for a meeting. I needed Henry to eat breakfast and get ready for daycare so that I could shower, get dressed, pack his bag, drop him off and drive an hour to my place of employment. (No breakfast for you, Moo Cow.)

In short, there was no time for Poltergeist.

I guarantee that this morning's scene would NOT have been met with the same physically present, calm parent. Out of sheer necessity, I would have left him to tantrum on his own in the kitchen while I got ready, and then returned to force him into his clothing and the carseat one way or another.

The level of child-centered toddler parenting Klein describes only works when the parent has few other obligations. I'm not saying it doesn't work. It definitely does. I'm just wondering how realistic it is in today's frenetic world.

This summer, my nanny had to return to Europe, so we bring Henry to daycare when I work. I can't believe how spoiled I was. Getting a child (never mind more than one!) out the door to daycare in the morning is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Every. Single. Day.

Yet, that is precisely what most parents have to do in these times of perpetual economic insecurity. I wonder what needs to change: societal expectations, parenting techniques or both?

What About Mom?

The book was about how toddlers thrive, so it's hardly fair to critique Klein's lack of commentary on how mothers thrive.

Still, I will a little. Some of the parent examples in the book -- like those who insisted their child not eat snow -- were clearly neurotic and over-controlling. Pick your battles, people.

But sometimes it's 5:30 pm, and we have to leave the playground to go home and have dinner. Henry doesn't want to. He's having fun, why should we leave? Sometimes I have an event I need to be on time for in the real world, as opposed to the live-in-the-moment toddler world. Or sometimes I am simply exhausted out of my mind after a long week.

At that point, after all the reasoning and cajoling and "making it fun" to do what I need him to do (as she advises more than once), I'm going to scoop Henry up and force him into the stroller. He's going to scream and flail, and do the stiff-as-a-board and the limp-as-a-noodle maneuvers, but still, I am going to pick him up and wrestle him into the stroller in front of everyone.

Sometimes in life, things don't go your way. As much as I indulge his benign requests ("two" pieces of toast, always one in each hand; "three blankies!"), sometimes, I can't. I understand Klein's point that life is difficult and confusing for them, and it is our job as parents to create a safe environment where they can develop. But, well, life can be difficult for me, too, and occasionally I need him to go to bed so I can meet a deadline.

That's not his fault; but it's reality.

Monday, July 28, 2014

With Toddlers, the Name of the Game is Empathy

Welcome back to The Brilliant Book Club, a collaboration of five parent bloggers. To learn more about BBC, read this post or follow us on FacebookG+ or Twitter with the hashtag #BrilliantBookClub. And don’t forget to read what my co-founders Lauren, Jessica, Sarah and Stephanie have to say about this month’s book, How Toddlers Thrive by Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D. Links to their posts are below.



I had just begun reading Dr. Tovah Klein's book, How Toddlers Thrive, when I joined my toddler on the floor of our kitchen one afternoon. He was playing with an enduring favorite, a black diesel engine from the Grand Central Terminal store, trying to make it go by pushing it forward instead of pulling it back and releasing.

"Here, let Mommy help you," I said, taking the toy from his hand.

"No! I do!" Henry yelled.

"Let me just show you." I pulled the train back to rev it and released it across the kitchen floor. "See?"

I thought he would be thrilled to see the train shoot across the floor so quickly. But my normally even-tempered boy ran over to the toy, picked it up and threw it across the room with a shout.

Had I not read the book, I might have reacted by scolding: No throwing or No yelling. But I realized what had happened, and in that moment I became a Tovah Klein convert.


The Secret Life of Toddlers

Toddlers (defined as children aged two to five) live in a tumultuous world of their own rapidly developing brains and bodies. Any perceived disruption to their sense of command over this unpredictable world can result in a tantrum or seemingly unreasonable requests. According to Klein, Henry's need for control over his environment perfectly explains this maddening incident, among others:


He simply wanted to feel secure that water was there for him if he so chose to drink it. Fair enough.

Let It Go, Mostly

To quote Elsa, one of Klein's main messages to parents of toddlers is: "Let it go." Stop trying to control your little one's every move. The last thing he needs is a parent indicating the "right way" all the time. She writes:
Correcting a child is the same as controlling him, and both correcting and controlling rob your child of the chance to prove that he is growing.... Toddlers are all about learning through their mistakes, through trial and error, regardless of the outcome. And when you support his explorations and share in his delights, he feels valued and safe. 
In other words, I should have let Henry figure out on his own how the train worked, as he has done with countless brands of child locks, much to my dismay. Stepping in to "'fix' the situation...inadvertently sent [him] the message that [he] couldn't do it." By interfering, I "took away the opportunity for [him] to wrestle through the situation, make a mistake, and want to try again." And that made him upset.

Even at that moment, he looked at me questioningly, knowing he had done something out of character and out of bounds. I simply said, "That's okay, buddy, I know you wanted to play with it. Come sit with Mommy." The tension was diffused; he came over and sat on my lap, and we did a puzzle. Tantrum averted.


"Young children," Klein says, "learn by making mistakes and trying again. If they see an attempt as a mistake..." that is, if their parents are always showing them the "right" way, even sweetly, even with the best of intentions, "they give up."

As toddlers navigate the tumultuous transition from baby to little kid, our role is not to make them happy or smarter nor to provide them with Mandarin lessons that will get them into the top private school. It is, instead, to provide them the tools they need for self-regulation, i.e., to coping with life's undulations, to bounce back from disappointment, to handle intense thoughts and emotions, to solve problems on their own.

In order to develop these skills, they need "support, comfort and freedom" to explore without being controlled at every turn. But they also need routine, guidelines and limits. Overly permissive parents who throw up their hands are not doing their children any more favors than over-controlling, over-disciplining ones.

"Toddlers," Klein explains, "need limits and they look to us to be the authority and let them know when to stop." It seems like a paradox, but it isn't. When a child is doing something dangerous -- reaching for a hot oven over and over, for example (not that I would know anything about that) -- it is up to the parent to be firm and unequivocal in her "no." No hesitation, no reasoning. Just, no. "No" makes toddlers upset, but it also, Klein says, "builds children's trust. They know they can count on us."

Our job is to provide a safe environment where a child can explore. No touching the hot oven, but rev the toy engine backwards to your heart's content, little boy. No harm, no foul.

What About the Easy Child?

I really liked the practical (and sometimes liberating!) tips Klein offers for navigating the day:
  • On food: "Sit at a table for all meals" but don't force them to eat. Toddlers shouldn't be expected to sit at the table and wait for others to finish.
  • On sleep: "Keep routines short and simple"; "Monitor baths: for some children bathtime winds them up...."
  • On getting dressed: "Help them, but let them do what they can."
  • On toilet training: "Don't overdo the prizes... prizes or bribes make it about you, not them."
  • On play: "Sharing comes later." Two-year-olds don't understand the concepts of sharing or altruism, so don't force it.

But the truth is, I have (against all odds, one might say) a good-natured, even-tempered kid. He's always played for long stretches on his own, eaten well and slept easily. He's displayed no real separation anxiety with nannies or "camp." There is, of course, the occasional Home Depot Tantrum, so I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the "terrible two" to rear its ugly head. Maybe it still will, but at the moment, he is generally easy.

The exception to Henry's general easy-going personality.

That's why I bristled a little at the section entitled "Shaming the Compliant Child."
Is an easy, compliant child such a good thing? ... Our so-called nice kids tend to bury or squash these negative emotions because we as adults expect them to.... They become so attuned to their parents' perception of them as "easy," "good," or "nice," they shy away from expressing real, true feelings.... When we as adults signal to these easygoing children either our surprise or impatience when they do express frustration or upset, we only reinforce that they should not have such feelings.
I see what she is saying -- make sure Henry isn't just trying to please us all. Perhaps probe to see if something has upset him; make sure he knows it's okay to be sad or angry sometimes. Fine. But this section smacked a little of 'you're going to mess him up somehow, it's only a matter of time' and diminished the book for me. Though, as my wise and witty friend Jane from Nothing by the Book once quipped to me, "The best we can gun for is that they will need therapy for DIFFERENT issues than the one we need therapy for."

I was similarly confused at the part where she insists that parents stop praising their child. "Praise defeats. Let them have and enjoy their own success." Perhaps she is talking to the trophy-just-for-breathing crowd when she says, "Cheering them on knocks them down. It is another way of controlling your child, who is well tuned in to what you expect of them." Gratuitous praise, I agree, is toxic. But when he completes a puzzle and shows me, am I not supposed to say, "That's great, buddy!"?

Unlike the rest of the book, which offered advice that was practical and straightforward (if sometimes counter-intuitive and difficult), these two sections left me feeling helpless. I don't know how to make sure my "easy" child isn't repressing anger without somehow planting a seed that there is something to be angry about. Likewise, I don't know how to be impassive, hiding my pride when he makes me proud or my disappointment when he disappoints me, both of which are inevitable.

The Name of the Game Is Empathy

Despite this criticism, I loved the book and have already discussed it with my husband. Her overriding message to "Accept your children for who they are. Even the parts you don't like" (emphasis hers), resonated deeply with me.

Some of her advice is counter-intuitive: you should let your toddler finish her tantrum -- even one that would make the Poltergeist run for the hills -- without leaving the room, lest she feel abandoned and get even angrier. Other advice is common sense -- yelling back always makes the situation worse -- but often easier said than done, especially when you are in the situation, up to your eyeballs in obligations and down to your last drop of patience.

But throughout the book, she implores parents to look at the world -- even for a few moments -- through their toddler's eyes. It is a simple piece of advice that can have a profound effect on your child's -- and your -- well-being.

[Update: I wrote another post on this book because I couldn't get it out of my head: Parenting in the Time of Poltergeist.]


Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.