The Balanced Mom – Raising Your Kids Without Losing Yourself

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Last month, the opportunity arose for me to return to teaching full-time. I thought that my days as a stay-at-home mom might have run their course, as it felt like my countdown to Happy Hour was starting earlier and earlier every day. What I realized, however, after many sleepless nights, was that my children weren’t the source of my anxiety – I was. So I opted to pass on the job and instead figure out how to improve the quality of my current existence.

This month, I’m reading The Balanced Mom by Bria Simpson. Like the author, “I believe modern moms can ‘have it all’ – just not all at once.” I already limit my work schedule and volunteer commitments in an effort to keep myself from “spiraling” as my mother often does. Still, on a regular basis, I find myself overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood while simultaneously feeling guilty for not taking on more. I know I’m not alone because as Simpson states, “70 percent of mothers report motherhood is ‘incredibly stressful’.” The Balanced Mom argues, “The problem is that we start to feel like we are on autopilot. We become detached from knowing what it most important to us – much less doing what truly matters.”

While The Balanced Mom was an easy read, it’s a challenge to put it into practice. Start by writing down everything you do for at least four days (two weekdays and the weekend). For as Annie Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Then, ask yourself these questions:

·What percentage of time is spent on attending to your needs?

·What is draining you?

·What can you take out in order to make space for what truly matters?

“We are so bombarded with choices, it can be a real challenge to choose what to bring into our lives and what to leave out.” As a result, weekends are “no longer a refuge but are a continuation of the stress.” According to Simpson, the problem can be fixed when you stop making decisions based on what other parents are doing or saying and align your life with your true self. I know. Easier said than done.

Well, this past weekend, while in Richmond for my daughter’s art class, I reflected on the following questions in the hopes of getting to the heart of who I am or rather who I want to be. For as Ben Stein writes, “The first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: Decide what you want.”

·What are some of your fondest memories as a child and what values do they reflect? How can these values be reflected in your adult life?

·What do you really want your children to remember about their childhoods?

·How do you want your children to remember you?

The last question was the one that got me. As I sat on a bench near Monroe Park, I knew I didn’t want my kids to remember a clean house and a cranky mom or frantic days and a frazzled mother. I want them to see motherhood as the wonderful experience it is. I want them to look back on our years together and think of me smiling, think of my loud, obnoxious laugh, think of me having fun. And know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that being a mom makes me happy. Because it does.

So I’m going to take the next step and follow Simpson’s suggestions: limit my kids’ activities, limit situations that tend to remain superficial, learn not to sweat the small stuff, and under-schedule myself. Because while I agree with Simpson, who says “this is the best gift you can give yourself,” I also believe it’s the best gift I can give my girls. Someday, they may also be mothers and I want them to understand that motherhood doesn’t have to equate to martyrdom.

Last Child in the Woods – The Nature-Child Reunion

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My four-year-old’s favorite part of the Ladybug Girl by Jacky Davis and David Soman is when the main character is standing in the middle of her messy room and she says she’s bored. Lily always laughs and says, “That’s crazy! She’s got all those toys. How can she be bored?” Still, as parents, we are all too familiar with this scenario.

“Especially during the summer, parents hear the moaning complaint: ‘I’m bored.’ Boredom is fear’s dull cousin,” writes Richard Louv. “Passive, full of excuses, it can keep children from nature – or drive them to it.” After reminiscing about how bored wasn’t in his grandmother’s vocabulary, he explains what we already know. “Today, kids pack the malls, pour into the video archived, and line up for the scariest, goriest summer movies they can find. Yet, they still complain, ‘I’m bored.’ Like a sugared drink on a hot day, such entertainment leaves kids thirsting for more – for faster, bigger, more violent stimuli.”

Louv argues that parents and caregivers need to address the difference between a “constructively bored mind and a negatively numbed mind.” He says eventually “constructively bored kids turn to a book, or build a fort, or pull out the paints and create, or come home sweaty from a game of neighborhood basketball.” So what turns a numbed mind into a constructive one? Parents need to “detach their kids from electronics long enough for their imaginations to kick in.” If your child participated in National TV Turn Off Week, you may have even seen this in action. Thanks to turning off our TV, my girls started on the construction of their third fort in our woods this week.

Once you’ve got their attention, then you need to find a balance between independence and supervision, making sure that you don’t stifle the fun out of their unstructured time. “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder,” wrote Rachel Carson, he or she “needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” This can be hard to do because, as Last Child in the Woods points out, “parents must walk a fine line between presenting and pushing their kids to the outdoors.”

Louv suggests you start by encouraging your child to get to know a ten-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond, or pesticide-free garden. He repeats the old Indian saying: It’s better to know one mountain than to climb many.” Sit. Observe. Wander. Maybe, you can even keep a journal of the changes over time with drawings, pressed flowers, or details about the weather.

Why not try a “moth walk”? “In a blender, mix up a goopy brew of squishy fruit, stale beer or wine (or fruit juice that’s been hanging around too long) and sweetener (honey, sugar). Then, take a paintbrush and…go outside at sunset. Slap some of this goo on at least a half-dozen surfaces…Come back when it’s dark and look at what you lured.”

And when all else fails, read about nature. While reading is an indirect experience, like television, it “does not swallow the senses…Reading stimulates the ecology of the imagination.” Louv recalls the wonder her felt from books like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, even The Lord of the Rings. Any author whose passion for the natural world comes across on the page is one worth reading.

I think the key is doing something you enjoy for enthusiasm is contagious. We don’t garden, but we do compost. Over a year ago, the white oak out back had cast dozens of acorns into our yard. When tiny trees popped up last spring, my girls convinced their father not to mow over them. Instead, they’ve used the soil from our compost to pot the tree saplings so they could be distributed this Earth Day. Naturally, reuniting your kids with nature isn’t as simple as passing out trees once a year, but it is part of a greater effort to bring nature home. With the help of schools, nature organizations, city planners, and of course, other parents, you can close the divide between your children and nature. It’s just a matter of making every day Earth Day. 

Last Child in the Woods – Natural School Reform

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Harvard University professor, Howard Gardner, developed his influential theory of multiple intelligences in 1983. It’s based on the argument that traditional I.Q. scores are not true indicators of intelligence. Gardner recently added “naturalist intelligence” to those previously designated in order to account for the varied potential in children and adults. Examples of this “nature smart” would be individuals like Charles Darwin, John Muir, and Rachel Carson.

According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, Gardner’s theory “has immediate application for teachers and parents who might otherwise overlook the importance of natural experience to learning and child development.” Louv argues, “Gardner has drawn needed attention to the fact that intelligence should not be narrowly defined as linguistic or logical-mathematical.” If this is the case, then why are so many of our children’s experiences at school happening within the confines of concrete walls?

While some school curriculums find time to teach kids about the environment, these lessons rarely present opportunities for students to experience it. “While environmental education focuses on how to live correctly in the world, experiential education teaches through the senses in the natural world,” Louv explains. In other words, long before teachers popped in DVDs to show students what a meadow looked like, they took them there. Louv reminds us, “Passion does not arrive on videotape or on a CD; passion is personal. Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

Put saving the planet aside, the reality is that if we want our kids to be able to compete in this global economy, then we must leave behind teaching to the test. Louv explains a place like Finland is “heading in exactly the opposite direction.” Who cares what they’re doing in Finland? According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2003, Finland “scored first in literacy and placed in the top five in math and science.” There are two big differences between our educational systems. Finland believes in play – students get 15 minutes of outdoor recess after every 45 minutes in the classroom – and Finland has “moved a substantial amount of classroom experience into natural settings or the surrounding community.”

Meanwhile, in America, many schools are banking on what some call “Fool’s Gold” – computers, even though “thirty years of research on educational technology had produced just one clear link between computers and children’s learning. (On some standardized tests, “drill-and-practice programs appear to improve scores modestly – though not as much or as cheaply as one-on-one tutoring.”)” I’m willing to bet your child’s school has a well-equipped computer lab, but doesn’t have an outdoor learning center. And if it does, is anybody using it? When I taught sixth grade, my school had a gorgeous outdoor classroom, complete with a hiking trail and natural amphitheater. The only problem was I was the only teacher who regularly brought her students there.

Still, Richard Louv offers us hope by citing examples of individual American schools attempting to reintroduce children to nature. Then, Louv reminds us that “the sign over Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton University read, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” So tell your child’s school to curb spending on technology that will quickly be out-of-date and encourage them to invest in “real world learning.” Recruit parents and teachers to plant a school garden. Convince administrators to create an outdoor classroom. (Lowes has been known to offer generous grants for just this purpose.) And have the PTO start partnerships with local organizations interested in making all children “nature smart.” Students need more than a field trip to Richmond’s Maymont once a year. They need a chance to play and learn where the wild things are and know that their knowledge of the natural world is worth something.

 

Last Child in the Woods – The Best of Intentions

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“Why do so many Americans say they want their children to watch less TV, yet continue to expand the opportunities for them to watch it?” Richard Louv asks in his chapter “Why the Young Need Nature.” I believe the same could be asked of our growing interesting in going green. Why do so many Americans say they want their children to learn to take care of the planet, yet continue to prevent them from experiencing the physical world?

After explaining how this new relationship between children and nature occurred – growing litigation making it criminal to play outdoors, education trends that marginalize direct experience in nature, as well as the way cities are shaped – Louv moves on to “Why Johnnie and Jeannie Don’t Play Outside Anymore.” He argues that our best intentions are often our biggest hurdles when it comes to kids spending more time outdoors.

“Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children to freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young. Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature. Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger and of nature itself.”

While Richard Louv does an excellent job of proving that the generalized social anxiety over our fears is unwarranted, I’m not worried about the Bogeyman taking my kids, a copperhead coming to get them, or the West Nile virus for that matter. It’s the ticks I hate.

I was doing so well. My kids were clocking numerous green hours over spring break, thanks to the gorgeous weather. That all changed when I woke the other morning to find a tick on my como chiamo, as my family says in Italian slang. I never felt so violated in my whole life. This coming from a woman who returned from a trip down the Amazon River infested with parasites is saying something.

So I packed the girls in the car and headed for the concrete jungle. We spent the day tooling around Richmond. I knew when we left the VA Aviation Museum and headed for our favorite thrift store that I was pushing my luck, but the thought of going home and playing inside on a sunny day made me feel so guilty. Still, I was not psychologically ready to subject my private parts to those little suckers again so on we went. When my four-year-old had to remind me through her tears, “Any one of these would have been fun,” I knew I’d gone too far.

During the half-hour drive home, I thought about the compelling statisticks in Last Child in the Woods. “We’re in our cars 101 minutes a day, five times the amount of time we spend exercising. As sprawl pushes the urban envelope, we spend more time on the road; the proportion of workers who commuted for 30 minutes or more a day jumped from 20 percent in 1990 to 34 percent in 2000. We devote, on average, only 19 minutes a day, or 5 percent of our time, to physical leisure-time activities.”

I moved to a rural community in Virginia because I agree with Richard Louv. Playing outside isn’t simply leisure time. “It’s an essential investment in our kids’ health.” What was the point of having acreage in the woods, if I was going to cart them around the metro area to avoid a nuance? With over 7 million people living in Virginia and only some 900 cases of Lymes Disease reported in 2008, ticks are just that, a nuance.

So the next morning, I poured myself some coffee, dusted off the pollen on the porch, and took a seat. I watched my daughters pick dandelions, blowing the seeds into the wind, and thought about how Richard Louv writes “Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees.” I knew he was right. Nature is presenting them “with something so much greater than they are” and that reality far outweighs any fear previously holding me back.

Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

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If anyone’s kids should play outside, it should be mine. My husband and I met in the Ecuadorian rainforest. He was a Peace Corps volunteer, managing the biological reserve where my Earthwatch Expedition took place. I had signed up for this volunteer vacation because ever since a memorable trip to the Bronx Zoo in fifth grade – where the chimpanzees threw their poop at us – I had dreamed of seeing monkeys in the wild.

While I had the time of my life in the jungle, I’m not exactly the rugged type. My kindergarten teacher had to inquire about play clothes, as I never wanted to dirty my dresses or patent leather shoes at recess. Despite my best efforts, as my daughters get older, they are beginning to follow in my footsteps, opting for indoor art projects and quiet reading time on the couch. So, in honor of Earth Day, this month I’m reading Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv.

Here’s what I love about this book. Richard Louv convincingly connects everything from obesity to Attention-Deficit Disorder with our removal from nature. Not only does Louv address how parents sabotage nature-child relationships with their “best intentions” but he also uses persuasive research to prove parents need to worry more about what their children miss out on by avoiding nature than the Bogeyman. In addition, compelling statistics demonstrate the need for more environment-based teaching in our schools.

With the nice weather we had this week, it was easy to shoo the kids outdoors. Still, the reality is, with the sunshine here to stay, I know my daughters’ enthusiasm will begin to wane and they’ll start to wander back indoors. Then, what do I do?

Richard Louv agrees that it’s not my job to entertain them while in the backyard, but he argues it is to their benefit to urge them outdoors. According to Last Child in the Woods, “In the United States, children ages six to eleven spend about thirty hours a week looking at a TV or computer monitor. This study (by the Centers for Disease Control) also found that the amount of TV that children watched directly correlated with measures of their body fat. The television to junk food obesity correlations are not as direct as they might seem. For example, the obesity epidemic has coincided with the greatest increase in organized sports for children in history. What are kids missing that soccer and Little League cannot provide? Generalized, hour-to-hour physical activity is the likely absent ingredient. The physical and emotional exercises that children enjoy when they play in nature is more varied and less time-bound than organized sports.”

A true “green hour” is unstructured play in the natural world that does not involve man-made objects. It’s building a fort out of branches, not popping up a Dora tent. It’s balancing on a tree trunk, not hanging from the monkey bars. And it’s turning over rocks, not kicking around a soccer ball. These days, how many kids really know how to keep busy outdoors without store-bought distractions?

While my experience in the jungle changed me in many ways, the reality is my attachment to nature is extremely romantic. I do my part to take care of the planet, but I fail to actually enjoy it. So I’m thankful that Louv does more than raise alarm but “offers practical solutions to heal the broken bond between child and nature.” Perhaps, it’ll work for parents as well.

Disease-Proof Your Child – Feeding Kids Right

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I was so intrigued by Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s comment on how “the amount of fruit you eat during the first ten years of your life has a dramatic effect on all adult cancers” that I decided to put aside, Take the Fight Out of Food, which left me hungry for more, and check out Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Your Kids Right. These two books are from completely opposite ends of the spectrum, with Donna Fish arguing “all food is good” and Dr. Joel Fuhrman essentially arguing for a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Fuhrman starts off by explaining “superior nutrition” and then devotes a chapter on treating childhood illnesses, such as asthma and ADHD nutritionally. However, I found the section on feeding your family for superior health most helpful for “reforming” my picky eater. Dr. Fuhrman writes, “It is not uncommon or abnormal for a child to prefer a narrow range of foods at this age (2 to 7). It is also not unusual for parents to be in an ongoing battle to coax their child to eat in a manner they feel is appropriate.”

Of course, I was relieved to have my struggle validated, but my anxiety returned once I read who the author felt was to blame. “Children are not responsible for their poor food choices – their parents are.” The most important rule when it comes to solving the problem of how to get your child to eat a healthful diet, as far as Dr. Fuhrman is concerned, is “only permit healthy food in your home.” He claims “Children will eat whatever is available. They will not starve themselves to death; they adapt easily and learn relatively quickly to like the food that is offered.” Makes perfect sense, but how realistic is this?

Disease-Proof Your Child also reiterates something that is really quite obvious, “What has been shown not to work is for parents to eat one way and force their children to eat a different way.” The old do as I say not as I do we’ve all been guilty of from time to time. Dr. Fuhrman writes under no circumstances should there be “rules only for children. If the parents are not willing to follow the rules set for the house, they should not be imposed on the children.” And I know he’s got a point. While I eat my veggies at dinner every night, if I kept a food journal on me, I have no doubt it’d reveal a lack of any substantial nutrients throughout the remainder of the day, as I’m always skipping meals because I’m too busy or I’m eating a quick bowl of cereal for “brunch.”

The last important point I took away from Disease-Proof Your Child is that “hunger is a cue to eat, but in our society, the clock has become our cue. We expect our children to be hungry at the exact moment we have the meal ready and not before or later. ‘Don’t eat before dinner; it will spoil your appetite,’ is a common admonition…A snack an hour before dinner does not have to be forbidden as long as they are making healthy choices.” So I’ve started offering my daughters fruit or raw veggies, like red pepper slices, and then, I’ve simply adjusted their portion sizes for the family meal accordingly. It has helped.

I also bought myself a carton of soy milk, which I must admit I drank only one cup of this week and I suspect it’ll spoil in the frig before I ever get around to finishing it. Still I believe in the goal that Dr. Fuhrman is promoting – “for children to eat healthfully because they want to, and do so whether their parents are around or not.” Therefore, I’m willing to give his tips for a “kitchen makeover” a try.

Dr. Fuhrman’s Tips for a Kitchen Makeover:

  1. Remove temptation.
  2. Make a sign for the refrigerator listing what foods are inside so it’s easy for family members to find healthy foods.
  3. Keep a bowl of ready-to-eat raw fruits and vegetables on your kitchen counter.
  4. Stock your cupboard with dried fruits and nuts.
  5. Keep plenty of frozen vegetables and fruits in your freezer.
  6. Make trail mix packets for when you’re on the go.
  7. Buy healthy breads – whole grain, low in salt.

But with a basket full of Easter candy right only a week away, I’m not sure how long it’ll last. I would love to hear about healthy treats the Easter Bunny leaves in your kids’ baskets so we can welcome spring with good eating habits.

 

Take the Fight Out of Food – Is All Food Good?

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Keeping a journal for my Picky Eater hasn’t proved particularly revealing. My efforts to just leave her alone did lead to me recording bites of assorted food items, which she previously would have refused all together, but the journal simply confirmed what I feared, even her weekly diet lacks balance.

Reviewing the book’s Food Guide Pyramid for Young Children (ages 2-6), however, did help lower my expectations. My serving sizes had been bigger than recommended so when my child was filling up before she’d cleared her plate there was no need for me to nag her to eat more. And in light of the research I’m doing in preparation for a Richmond Family Magazine article on childhood obesity, portion sizes is a big issue. While admittedly she didn’t eat many vegetables this week, keeping the servings small meant she was more likely to at least sample everything on her plate.

As Lily is eager to leave her baby car seat behind and switch to a booster, I took this opportunity to talk to her about nutrition, as author Donna Fish suggested. I used words like protein, vitamins, and calcium, explaining that these things will help her body grow to be the required 40 pounds for the booster seat. Ultimately, she didn’t care. “You know, I decided I like my car seat.”

In an effort to have her take responsibility for her body, I tried saying things like Fish suggests, “Hmm, I know you don’t want the broccoli, and you really want dessert, but what do you think you need to eat to do good things for your body? Dessert is fun and tastes terrific, but what can you eat that will help you run around during playtime at school tomorrow?”

Blueberries. Mangoes. Dried apricots. Lily will eat any fruit I put in front of her. But a girl can’t live on fruit alone, right? Well, Take the Fight Out of Food argues “all food is good.” Fish even goes so far as to suggest “quick kid-friendly options” like frozen pizza, hot dogs, cheese sandwiches, and quesadillas. I don’t know about you, but these are not the kinds of foods I think of when I think good nutrition, especially when you consider the fact that 30% of the children in America are overweight or obese.

Still, I think Fish’s second step toward eating for life – rebooting the connection between belly and head – is a good one. I ended up going “old school” half-way through the week, eliminating all but one snack, after reading on msnbc.com that 27% of calories consumed by children are outside of meals. According to Carmen Piernas and Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina, “Children snack so often that they are ‘moving toward constant eating.’” Or in my youngest daughter’s case, snacking enough to never be hungry at mealtime.

But, I’ve discovered, Lily’s fruit obsession may ultimately serve her well. According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Your Kids Right, “The amount of fruit you eat during the first ten years of your life has a dramatic effect on all adult cancers because when you are young your cells are multiplying and dividing, making them more susceptible to a low nutrient diet or the effects of saturated fat and other cancer influences.”

Ultimately, Take the Fight Out of Food hasn’t resolve our eating problems. While I might be a little more patient at the dinner table, I’m just as conflicted as ever. If I let my kids eat what they want in an effort to curtail the likelihood of emotional eating in later years, am I paving the way for a plethora of health issues? My gut’s telling me while learning moderation is important it’s wrong to teach my kids that “all food is good,” as the author suggests. In this age of partially hydragenated oil, high frutose corn syrup, and rbST growth hormones, all foods are not created equal. While I’m no expert in physical and mental health, I’ve got to go with my gut on this one and continue believeing we are what we eat. What do you think?

Take the Fight Out of Food – Identifying Your Child’s Eating Style

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“Every family has a kid that won’t eat,” writes Jean Shepherd, author of A Christmas Story. For the Parker family, it was Ralphie’s younger brother, Randy. While best known for her “You’ll shoot your eye out” line, it’s Mrs. Parker’s drastic attempt to get her son to eat by imitating the “little piggie” that often comes to my mind when it’s dinner time at our house. Why is getting my kids to eat such a project?

In an effort to make meals more enjoyable, I picked up a copy of Take the Fight Out of Food by Donna Fish. Like so many of the parenting books I’ve read, the book begins by asking parents to take a look at their “food legacy.” Fish argues that the first thing parents need to do is separate their food attitudes from their children’s eating behaviors, listing questions to consider the rules, tone, and values that pertained to eating in your family. Then, the author asks you to evaluate what type of parent you are – Overinvolved, Underinvolved, or Unrealistic Standards – and finally Fish challenges you to take the next step: give up some control and give children some freedom to make their own decisions. (I know. That’s the hard part.)

Take the Fight Out of Food identifies six basic eating styles.

1. “The Food Demander makes incessant demands for certain foods (usually sweet) or keeps demanding more food. He tends to be strong-willed and can end up using food for emotional purposes.”

2. “The Trouble Transitioner has trouble either moving from a previous activity to the dinner table or has trouble stopping once he begins. This type of child is highly reactive to change and needs a bit more help adapting to new situations.”

3. “The Picky Eater finds very little he likes and keeps changing his mind about the foods he will consent to eat. The kids in this category may love peanut butter one week and loathe it the next or eat only favorite foods.” (I have one of these. Lily eats peanut butter on crackers every day for lunch.)

4. “The Binge Food Eater insists on eating foods that are white or beige colored because these foods also tend to be bland in taste. Again, this child can be temperamentally sensitive to his environment and will therefore try to manage this sensitivity by controlling his food choices.”

5. “The Spurt Eater barely eats for days and then chows down. He will show less interest in food than the more adventurous eater, and it may appear he subsists on air, only to eat voraciously several days later.”

6. “The Grazer loves to nibble throughout the day and avoids sitting down to a complete meal. This type of eater might be more than usually distracted by outside stimuli and easily engaged in activities other than eating.”

What Fish then establishes quite persuasively is that children’s eating “problems” are usually not so much problems “as they are side effects of their interaction with the world around them: their developmental stage, their temperament, and their eating style.” So if you are interested in “rebooting the connection between the belly and the head” then I highly recommend this book.

Take the Fight Out of Food encourages parents to start by keeping a food journal. Fish writes, “When parents become more aware of exactly what their children have eaten, they often worry less about their eating enough.” The author suggests recording the amount and the frequency of what your child eats – from meals to number of drinks to snacks. And my pediatrician suggested I look at what my “picky eater” consumes over the course of a week in an effort to focus on the big picture and lower pressures surrounding food.

Feel free to keep a food journal for your kids; I’d love to hear how it goes. Then, meet back here next Friday and we’ll see if we can’t set the “Four Steps of Eating for Life” into motion. After all, when you consider that “81 percent of ten-year-American children are afraid of being fat – half are already dieting – and twelve million American children are obese,” it seems only wise to put a stop to unhealthy eating habits before they begin.

Siblings Without Rivalry – When Kids Fight

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Siblings fight. Whether it’s Jan and Marcia bickering over who gets to use the bathroom first or Arnold asking Willis what he’s talking about, that’s just what they do. But who knew, long before Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish wrote Siblings Without Rivalry, Clair Huxtable was modeling how to help your children live together on the Cosby Show? Remember the episode when she “sentences” Rudy and Vanessa to the basement after their quarreling results in actual property damage. The girls pack their bags and move into the cellar until they can resolve their situation.

Siblings Without Rivalry argues that you need to let your kids work it out by themselves; otherwise, they will always involve you in solving disputes. In other words, imagine you are Switzerland. According to Faber and Mazlish, you need to ignore the normal squabbling, think about your happy place, and tell yourself the children are having an important experience in conflict resolution. That’s not to say there isn’t a helpful way to intervene if a situation is heating up; you just want to be sure you’re not undermining their ability to solve problems on their own.

The authors suggest you keep the following steps in mind if you plan to wade into a war zone:

1. Start by acknowledging the children’s anger towards each other. That alone should help calm them. Something like, “Wow! You two sound angry at each other.”

2. Listen to each child’s side with respect. “So it was your idea to build a zoo, and you wanted to do it by yourself. But when you saw him playing you wanted to play, too.”

3. Show appreciation for the difficulty of the problem. “I see…Hmm…This is a tough one. Two children who both want to use the same toys at the same time.”

4. Express faith in their ability to work out a mutually agreeable solution. “I have confidence that if you two put your heads together, you’ll come up with a solution that feels fair to each of you.”

5. Leave the room. “While you’re working on it, I’ll be making dinner.” (And in my case, often implementing the ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere’ strategy.)

Of course, if the fighting is heading toward hurting, then you need to separate them, giving them time to cool off. When the children can’t work out a problem by themselves, then you’ll need to help them express their feelings and brainstorm solutions until you find one everyone can live with. The key is to make sure that you don’t pick sides. If you do, then one child will feel like she won and the other will feel like she lost.

Faber and Mazlish say, “We are searching for ways to increase good feelings between our children. For ways to make fighting less likely. When parents take the stance: ‘In this house I’m the one who’s going to decide who has to share, who gets to keep; what’s reasonable, what’s unreasonable; who is right, who is wrong,’ the children end up becoming more dependent upon the parent and more hostile towards their siblings.”

Naturally, this was the rare week in my house when my girls got along so I have no revealing anecdote to share on how well this advice actually worked. I thought for sure once the kids had a two-hour delay on Wednesday morning that a storm would brew but no such luck. I know it’s wrong, but I found myself wishing for any kind of altercation by Thursday. “Come on, girls. Mommy’s got a blog to write.”

Instead, we dropped Annabelle off at school and after she closed the door, Lily said, “I love her so much.” I wished there was some way to capture that moment so I can remind her of it the next time they fight, because they will fight, again. And this time, when reinforcement is called in, I will be on a peacekeeping mission, not a hostile takeover. 

 

Siblings Without Rivalry – The Perils of Praise

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I am all about the praise. While teaching public school, I favored compliments on behavior as opposed to critiques to motivate students. “I like the way Suzie is sitting quietly” or “I like how Bobby is raising his hand.” Low and behold, the rest of the kids in the class would follow their lead. Over the years, I learned to make my praise as specific as possible, increasing the students’ chances of repeating their successes. So, naturally, this strategy carried over into my parenting.

I love to point out a job well done. When my girls are working hard constructing with their blocks, I’ll let them know I appreciate their perseverance; when they’ve finished an art project, I’ll commend their originality; and on the off chance I catch them saying kind words to one another, I’ll tell them how happy it makes me to hear them be sweet. Therefore, I had a hard time with the section in Siblings Without Rivalry when the authors suggest “the passion and excitement you feel about a child’s achievement should be saved for a moment when just the two of you are together. It’s too much for the other sibling to have to listen to.”

Seriously? I read this and thought, “These parenting books have gone too far.” First of all, the times during the day when I’m alone with either of my children are infrequent. Sad, yes, but true. I’m not even guaranteed bedtime because I teach two nights each week, and on the nights I am home, I must admit my brain is fried. I’m lucky I remind them to brush their teeth much less recall something good they did hours earlier so I can compliment them in private.

I get that parents shouldn’t compare their children – the old why can’t you get good grades like your brother – and while I may be guilty of that from time to time, I wouldn’t say that’s one of my parenting flaws. According to the chapter “The Perils of Comparison,” my desire to praise is. Faber and Mazlish argue against praising one child in front of the other, which is something I’m guilty of numerous times a day. My mantra is “Build them up before the weight of the world knocks them down.”

Still Faber and Mazlish maintain “We don’t want to shortchange the child who is excited about her accomplishment. Yet we do want to be sensitive to the feelings of the others.” They say, “You’ll never go wrong if you describe what you think the child might be feeling (‘You must be so proud of yourself!’) or what the child has accomplished (‘A lot of practice and perseverance went into winning that medal.’) The trick is not to add, ‘I’m so thrilled.’”

I was ready to abandon Siblings Without Rivalry all together because I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of praising being bad when my life became an anecdote in the book (and not a positive one).

We were in the car, driving home from school, when Annabelle, my oldest, started sharing her ideas for her latest book. She went on and on, to the point that I was really not paying attention any more, so when she finished I said, “Sounds like a great idea,” trying to ease my guilt over tuning her out.

Instantly, Lily started crying. “What’s wrong?” No answer. “Lily, what is it?” Nothing. When we finally pulled into the garage, she was hysterical. I thought she was hurt so I dashed to her car door to let her out.

Once she was in my arms, Lily sobbed, “I never have any good ideas.” I realized in that instant there was merit to the authors’ point. That’s not to say I’ve stopped praising, but I am more mindful of how I share my pride or pleasure in accomplishments if a sibling is within earshot.

Still, I’m watching the Olympics, crying during the P&G advertisements that have all the athletes as children since they are always kids in their parents’ eyes, and I can’t help applying the authors’ theory to the games. So Lindsey Vonn’s parents can’t say “I’m so proud of you” after she wins the gold medal if her siblings are standing there? Come on. My husband says these principles don’t apply to adults, but my mom begs to differ. She says siblings rival no matter what the age.

What do you think? Does my praise mean my daughters are destined to spend the rest of their life in therapy, recalling the ways I loved the other more? Or is the peril of praise simply not doing it enough?