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.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Weeds Are Asshole Plants, and Other Things I've Learned Since Moving to the Country

You may recall that in March, the Moo Cow Family moved from Brooklyn to Riverdale, a swanky-by-Bronx-standards section of the Bronx. So, you know, not exactly "the country." It barely qualifies as a suburb.

But it is such a world away from my Brooklyn existence. Like, there are trees and birds and such. Also, no highway out the window!

Anyway, for this woman, who doesn't know a cattail from a cat's tail, the country is the country no matter how small.

#1 Weeds Are Asshole Plants

Our little house came equipped with a slightly neglected (by its dead owner, so I am not judging or anything) landscaped garden out back. Rayne and I looked at each other and immediately put our fingers to our noses. NOT IT.

"The outside of the house is your department," I argued.

"No. I don't like gardening. I never said I would garden," he responded. "We will hire a gardener."

The previous owner's gardener came and surveyed the property. He couldn't resist pulling random weeds out of the ground, muttering Eso no es planta. Y eso no es planta. Eso es malo. This is not a plant, this is bad.

I emitted a high-pitched non-laugh. Ha-ha! "Gracias. Lo que pasa es que no sabemos nada, pero nada." Thank you. We don't know anything at all.

"Yo sé." I know.


Alright, then. Far from being in my husband's department of responsibilities, gardening has fallen squarely into my realm, mostly because our gardener speaks 5% English and my husband speaks -10% Spanish. He throws in all these random Italian words he's picked up from listening to me and Henry and some Japanese he learned when he did a semester abroad in Tokyo, just for good measure.

The gardener returned on Saturday morning, bright and early, to rid the garden of our ignorance and apparent neglect. He tried to show me which was a plant and which was a weed. Esa es plantita. Esa no es plantita. But they all looked exactly the same to me. I could not tell a weed from a plant, it turns out, if my life depended on it.

Later that night I asked Rayne to explain the difference. What I gather is that weeds are native plants that take over the area and choke the other, mostly non-native plants out. So I wasn't crazy not to know the difference. They can look the same. Weeds are plants that are assholes, and sometimes it takes a while to realize someone is an asshole. They seem fine at first, but then you realize they don't know how to share with the other plants.

I also found out that English Ivy is a weed, an "invasive villain," no less, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where Rayne is from, but also on the eastern seaboard. English Ivy is a selfish little asshole that wraps its viney tentacles around unsuspecting trees and feeds off them. This discovery brings new meaning to the term Ivy League, don't you think?

What I still don't understand is why we don't simply tidy up the existing weeds and let them flourish in their native habitat.

#2 Bugs Are Everywhere

Killing bugs in our abode is also in Rayne's department. But since he is often at work or even away on business, it falls to me. I'm 49% a Buddhist who thinks all life is sacred, even that of bugs, and 51% scared shitless of bugs, so I usually just pretend I didn't see them and run in the other room.

I am not sure what else to say except to include these two posts from my Facebook feed earlier in the month:

Which leads us to...

#3 Natural Bug Spray Only Works in the City

I research everything and buy the least toxic version that works in the category, especially where Henry is concerned. I abide by the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen; I use castile hand soap. So of course, I bought "all natural" California Baby Bug Repellent Spray.

But it didn't work. At. All. That's because natural bug spray only works in the city, where there are seven total bugs, who are lazy because they don't have to fight hard for food.

I got slaughtered every time I went into my backyard any time of the day. (Note: Burt's Bees Outdoor Bug Bite Relief does soothe the itch. Score one for au naturel!)

I read the EWG's guide to insect repellent, and even they are skeptical about so-called natural repellents. Apparently one should not expose children under three to Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, the most natural-sounding option, so I settled for a few products with Picaridin (less likely to cause irritation) for the skin and low concentrations of DEET (7-10%) for the clothing.

#4 Haikus Happen Spontaneously

I posted this gem earlier in the month:

And someone commented: #haiku.

Because it's an effing haiku, and I didn't even realize it! GUYS: IN THE COUNTRY, HAIKUS HAPPEN SPONTANEOUSLY. I had only ever written one haiku on this blog ("Requiem for a Shower") and before that not since seventh grade.

I can't just leave my special haiku in that boring, one-line format. I have to write it here again, proper-like:

Dead supine sparrow
Directly outside the door
To my patio.

#5 Feral Cat Colonies (and Cat Ladies) Are Real

Which brings me to my last realization. How do you think a dead sparrow surfaced face up on my patio? If you said Hudson, my neurotic corgi, you probably haven't been paying attention up until this point, because my dog is afraid of water and nozzles. He sure as hell hasn't been running around killing birds, Dexter-style.

So who was the mystery murderer?

When we first moved in, we noticed a black and white cat hanging around our garden. Hudson would bark himself apoplectic, and the cat would move along.

I wonder whose cat that is, we naively said to each another.

Then we noticed the cat had a big gash across its eye.

Hmmm, I wonder if that cat got in a fight with a squirrel or something. Still totally naive.

Then we noticed a crazy cat lady feeding a pack of 20 cats in the woods near our house.

Oh, no.

Being me, I confronted the cat lady one evening while out with my dog. It turns out feral cat colonies exist across the city as part of the NYC Feral Cat Initiative, a program of the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals. Yes! They neuter/spay them so they don't reproduce, vaccinate them and give them annual physicals. They have a little shack for bad weather.

Yes! This is a thing!

I am less concerned now, since I know the cats are vaccinated. They are too wild to be pets, so the only other option would be to euthanize them, which I am squarely against. Plus, these cats are so well fed, they border on chubby. A cat will see a squirrel or other potential meal walk past and do the cat equivalent of a shrug and "whatevs". Meow.

As for the sparrow, it was just a little "Welcome to the Nabe" gift. So thoughtful.


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