Siblings Without Rivalry: Empathizing with the Victim

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Earlier this week, my daughters squabbled upstairs while getting ready for school. When I heard the volume of their voices increasing, I climbed the steps and arrived at the landing just in time to see my youngest daughter, Lily, stomp off into her room, lift her hands in the air, raise her eyes to the ceiling, and whisper, “God, why did you have to make her born first?”

This is the second time since the new year that I’ve heard Lily utter these words – who knows how many times she’s said them to herself – so I thought it fitting that I’d moved on to Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Originally published in 1997, this book has fans, with numerous printings and countless weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Still my initial impression was one of disappointment. While I found the cartoons portraying how to rewrite family fights effective, I was longing for some substance beyond the parent-support group anecdotes.

I was half-way through the book and feeling like I wasn’t getting too much out of it when yet another morning before school – you see why it’s so difficult for me to get out of the house without my negative scripts – Lily screamed for me to come upstairs.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, coming to her aid.

“Annabelle said I’m not smart,” Lily mumbled through her tears.

“No, I didn’t,” Annabelle contested.

“Yes, she did,” Lily insisted.

“No, I didn’t,” Annabelle shouted from her room. “I told her that the way she was cleaning up the Legos wasn’t the fastest way to do it.”

“See,” Lily persisted.

I began to respond with my usual tactics, “Well, she didn’t say you weren’t smart.”

Lily interrupted, “But…but…” Too upset to continue.

So I rethought my strategy, remembering how Faber and Mazlish said I should validate the victim. “Are your feelings hurt because you were trying to help and Annabelle only focused on what you were doing wrong?”

Lily didn’t answer at first. She just stood there, in awe. Her mouth hung open, literally at a loss for words, which in our chatter-filled house is saying something. Finally, she muttered, “Yeah, it did. How did you know?”

And just like that the crying stopped. Lily’s anyway. Annabelle tried to justify her words, but I squelched her attempts. I decided since the first bit of advice from Siblings Without Rivalry worked so good I’d try another – refrain from attacking the attacker. Instead of reprimanding Annabelle for not being more considerate of her sister’s feelings, I focused on Lily, the “victim”, in the hopes of showing Annabelle that I wasn’t going to reward her behavior with my attention and give her an incentive to do it, again.

Don’t get me wrong. I realize what Annabelle said wasn’t actually that bad. She was merely offering some advice. But how much “help” can one three year old take? Some days, it feels like all Annabelle does is correct her actions and point out how she knows so much more than Lily. I wouldn’t feel smart either.

As I watched Lily make the choice to play in her room alone, I couldn’t help but think about all my efforts to punish – sending a child to time out and discussing how her words were hurtful – as opposed to empathize. It seemed like such as easy thing to do, but clearly from the shocked look on Lily’s face, something I don’t do often enough.

I was left wondering, in an effort to make my children get along, was I sabotaging their relationship? What if Faber and Mazlish were right? They believed, “Insisting upon good feelings between the children led to bad feelings. Allowing for bad feelings between the children led to good feelings. A circuitous route to sibling harmony. And yet, the most direct.”

When the girls bounded downstairs a mere fifteen minutes later, acting like the best of friends, I realized I stood to gain a few good parenting tips from Siblings Without Rivalry after all.

 

Raising Resilient Children: The Alliance Between Parents and Schools

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While my oldest daughter is only in second grade, I have a lot of experience with parent-teacher conferences. Before becoming an instructor on the college level, I taught in public schools for ten years.

My most memorable parent-teacher conference was an example of how not to establish a working relationship with your child’s teacher. It was proof that transitioning to middle school is just as difficult on parents as it is on the students. My student, who had received straight A’s all through elementary school, was struggling with the increased expectations of sixth grade. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to develop her child’s strengths, the mother panicked at the end of the first marking period, lashing out at me during the conference and demanding something be done to fix the problem. Truth be told, this wasn’t the memorable part. Parents on the brink were quite common in the competitive district where I taught. It was the bouquet of flowers and the apology the next day that I’ll never forget.

 

Raising Resilient Children argues the ability to foster the kind of “collaborative atmosphere in which the parties involved demonstrate genuine respect for each other” is crucial to your child’s success at school. Think about how hard it can be to juggle your own kids’ personalities and interests when you’re home for a couple of days on the weekends – or worse yet, snowed in for a week. Now imagine the teacher’s challenge of educating students, on all different levels and from a variety of backgrounds, confined to a crowded classroom for 180 days.

So take the authors’ principle of practicing empathy to heart and don’t attack your kid’s teacher. That’s not to say you shouldn’t confront them. Just try to keep Brooks and Goldstein’s guiding questions in mind.

  • What do we hope to accomplish with the teacher?
  • How can we say things so that our child’s teacher will be most responsive to listening to our message and working closely with us?

Then, consider making your child an active participant in her education. Instead of whispering behind closed doors, try inviting your child in. Given the fact that during my last conference my daughter kept finding reasons to enter the room so she could eavesdrop, I know she’ll love this suggestion. Besides, if I’m focusing on the positive, brainstorming ways to utilize her strengths in a school setting, then why not to allow her to participate in the conversation? Raising Resilient Children provides examples of some ingenious ways to promote what the authors call your child’s “island of competence”, whether it’s putting a green thumb to work in the school garden or a nurturing personality to use in a kindergarten room. So long as we’re not letting “our own anxieties and anger to become roadblocks to empathy and the successful resolution of problems” the goal of developing a resilient mindset in your child can be reached.

Finally, never turn down an opportunity to meet with your child’s teacher. The elementary teacher, in particular, spends more waking hours each day with your child then you do so go hear what she has to say. If there’s not a problem, spend ten minutes sharing anecdotes that make your child feel special or let your child talk about what they enjoy about school. (A little flattery for the teacher never hurts.) Everyone will benefit.

According to Brooks and Goldstein, “The energy, productivity, and excitement of this partnership will yield lifelong benefits”. Are you really going to pass up a chance like that?

Raising Resilient Children: Build Me Up

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I committed the Cardinal sin of Raising Resilient Children, chipping away at instead of building up my child.

I’d looked forward to playing with my daughter all week, as there’d been some kind of a commitment every afternoon that kept her from coming directly home from school. So I passed on a playdate and resisted the temptation to plan our time, in an effort to be fun and spontaneous. Something my husband is a whole lot better at than me.

Lily asked to take a turn with Annabelle’s art projector and Annabelle immediately went to the craft closet, hoping to embark on something new. But since our shelves are overflowing with incomplete art projects I asked her to pick one to finish. With only a small eye roll, Annabelle agreed, deciding to tackle a needlepoint she started a year and a half ago.

While Lily worked at the table, Annabelle and I sat at the couch, talking about her week, uninterrupted for a good fifteen to twenty minutes. As luck would have it, Annabelle tired of her needlepoint at the exact same time as Lily was ready to abandon her drawing.

Instead of quitting while I was ahead, I pushed my luck. gt; I told Lily she could pick a quick game for us all to play before I had to start making dinner. But Annabelle didn’t want to play Richard Scarry’s Busytown game and asked if she could work on something on her own. I encouraged her to join us. She persisted, “How about the American Girl t-shirts? Can I make one?”

While the old fashioned parent sat on one of my shoulders telling me just to say no, I listened to that modern mom sitting on the other side, who always feels like she has to justify her decisions. I explained that she’d need help and that it was not fair to Lily if I interrupted her special time. Annabelle insisted she wouldn’t need help, but instead of letting her come to that realization on her own, like Brooks and Goldstein suggest, I blurted out, “Yes, you will.” She stomped off, and as I watched Annabelle stare longingly at the craft cabinet out of the corner of my eye, I felt tremendous guilt for undermining her confidence. I’d read the parenting book; I knew better. Why is it always so much easier said than done?

Luckily, the Odyssey of the Mind coach called and presented me with a chance to redeem myself. She told Annabelle she’d made the team and gave her three topics to brainstorm for their first meeting. When Annabelle hung up and started spouting off ideas, I held my tongue and praised her good suggestions, resisting the temptation to correct. I gave her a huge hug and told her how proud I was.

When she skipped away, I told myself putting the Raising Resilient Children guideposts into practice meant I’d take one step back for every three steps forward. And that’s ok. Because I’m beginning to realize creating resilient parents also involves building up, not chipping away, and so long as I’m moving in the right direction maybe both our self-esteems will survive.

Raising Resilient Children: Creating Traditions

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At first, loving our children in ways that help them feel special and appreciated, the fourth guidepost in Raising Resilient Children, seemed like an easy one I could skip. With my oldest daughter in school, I have many opportunities to spend quality time with my younger daughter, especially now that I’m letting calls go directly to the answering machine. And with Lily still napping it means I get special time with just Annabelle on the weekend. But when I started reading chapter five, I realized I still had some work to do.

I got hung up on step two: create traditions. While the girls and I have nightly bedtime stories, I couldn’t think of a weekly or monthly tradition we engaged in. According to Brooks and Goldstein, “when we designate these moments as special, we convey the message to our children that they are important to us and that we enjoy having uninterrupted time to spend with them.”

One of the things the authors suggest is to let your childhood be your guide. Growing up, our family tradition was Pizza Night. What started during Lent as a way to avoid meat on Fridays turned into family staple. And my parents, without knowing it, followed the authors’ instructions to the letter. They made every effort to adhere to this schedule. One time my younger brother had the misfortune of returning from a semester abroad in Australia on a Friday so while he longed for my mom’s homemade chicken parmesan it would have to wait until Saturday.

Pizza night never really took off at our house. I haven’t falled in love with a local pizza place; my husband, not being Italian, gets tired of pizza; and my youngest only eats the crust. So I’ve been wracking my brain for a tradition these past few weeks and feeling like the worst mother ever.

And then this past weekend, I pulled out the art supplies for me and the girls. Sometimes we scrapbook together, but usually they make their own masterpieces for the fridge. We work together because I once read that it’s important to create along side kids, not only because you serve as a model but also because if parents aren’t consumed with their own artwork they interfere with their child’s, putting in their two cents when it comes to color combinations or the amount of glitter glue. I also think it makes it easier to avoid a mistake Brooks and Goldstein say parents often make. “We correct rather than teach,” which means we chip away at our children’s self-esteem. (The fact that I get to catch up on my scrapbooks, which are now over a year behind, is purely coincidental.)

While I was digging for the Tinkerbell stamps at Lily’s request, I realized this was our weekly tradition. Granted, it’s not always at exactly the same time or place, but it happens almost every weekend. I told myself it counted and felt relieved that I had a time when I built “solid relationships”. The girls and I sang along to the Dixie Chicks while we worked. For about an hour, I thought maybe I wasn’t the worst mother after all.

Then, I caught the girls spitting into their hands to get the ink off instead of walking to the bathroom to clean up and the moment was lost. Everything I’d read in Raising Resilient Children about talking to your kids the way you wished people would talk to you escaped me. I guess that’s the good thing about a tradition. If you’re learning from your mistakes, like Brooks and Goldstein urge you to do, then you always have a chance to prove yourself again next week.

Rewriting Negative Scripts

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I am not a morning person. Never have been. I can remember hitting the snooze button as far back as middle school; my mom always had to nag me out of bed for school. In recent years, my youngest daughter has taken over this role. As result, I’ve spent the past couple of years frantically shooing my kids out of the house in the morning, urging them to “Hurry up!” so we’re not late.

According to Brooks and Goldstein, this would be a perfect example of a negative script, as I keep following the same course of action in the hopes that they’ll change when the person who needs changing is me. In Raising Resilient Children, the authors do a great job of conveying the damaging effects of “sounding like a broken record”. They claim “while we want our children to be flexible, thoughtful, and receptive to new ideas and approaches, we often fail to model these behaviors, and we fall prey to the seductive trap of negative scripts,” which are words and actions that increase as opposed to decrease family conflict.

Sure, I’ve tried different morning routines, but they always seem to deteriorate quickly. In the spirit of the book, however, I hooked up the new coffee maker I got for Christmas, complete with a timer, and made up my mind to change this negative script.

When the alarm went off that first morning, I was disappointed to discover that the smell of coffee wasn’t as powerful as I’d anticipated. No crooked smoke pulled me out of bed like in the cartoons. Then, my youngest daughter, Lily, was disappointed not to find me in bed, as she usually climbs in with me. I wondered if this “new script” would be worth giving up her morning cuddles. We left the house without incident, but anything is easy the first time.

Like the New Year’s resolution you’ve forgotten by February, continuing to rewrite this negative script got harder as the week went on. While my older daughter loved having more responsibility – she did her own hair and got her own breakfast – my three-year-old missed coming downstairs, in her own time, and snuggling with me in bed. One day, after I’d woken her, she walked past me in her delirium and headed to the staircase. I asked her where she was going and she replied, “Downstairs, like always.” (I suspect she’s a future coffee drinker, too.)

Of course, three steps from the bottom, when she saw my room was dark and the bed was made, she began to cry. Things quickly moved from bad to worse when she insisted she was incapable of walking back without help. I thought of the book and tried to imagine what the authors would say. In Chapter 8: Learning from Mistakes, Brooks and Goldstein talked about what psychologist Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness” so I encouraged her to meet me at the top.

The problem is while the authors have filled their book with a lot of good anecdotes, many of them pertain to teenagers, not toddlers, and most revolve around negative scripts. While it was helpful to occasionally hear myself in what they deemed unproductive conversations, I needed more examples of positive scripts. What does one say to her child who sits on the steps screaming, “Nobody loves me! I wish I was born first!”?

I remembered the authors mentioning choices a lot so I gave my daughter the choice of staying on the steps and crying or coming back upstairs to get dressed for preschool. She chose to sit on the steps and cry for a good 10 minutes. Ultimately, she got what she wanted. I picked her up and carried her to her room because I couldn’t stand it. (How much can really be expected of me before I finish my first cup of coffee?) I closed the door and told her to come out once she’d calmed down.

I couldn’t help thinking about how I’d been telling my kids to “hurry up” for over two years now and they were turning out just fine.Was it really worth changing this negative script?  True, I wasn’t yelling “Hurry up!” any more, but I was in the process of replacing it with another negative script and I knew that wasn’t the point.

Suddenly, Lily apologized and got dressed with a smile. She went downstairs, asking to pour her own cereal and running to the door to put her shoes, something she normally resists. Sure enough, the more I encourage the girls, the more responsibilities they happily take on. I hate to admit it, but I suspect there might be something to this “accept your responsibility to change” after all.

Still with Lily’s best interest at heart, I’ve decided to push up my alarm by ten minutes. We make it to school without the negative script, and most mornings it means Lily can practice her morning ritual. The fact that I get to stay in bed a little longer has nothing to do with it, I assure you. It is good parenting all the way.

 

Raising Resilient Children

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Shortly after college, I taught at an elementary school in Washington, DC.  I used to work as an English tutor on the side to make extra money.  A fellow teacher hooked me up with a wealthy Italian family, whose fifth grade son needed help with his second language.  He was a twin, whose sister was an excellent student, but he struggled in school due to a learning disability.  Anyone who’s familiar with learning difficulties knows that they are in no way an indication of one’s intelligence.  This boy was a gifted artist; with each passing week, his creations grew more and more impressive.  He’d mastered this roller coaster computer program while I’d barely gotten the hang of sending emails.  His spatial intelligence was incredible.

But he hated language arts.  He kept an alarm clock on his desk so he wouldn’t have to work with me a minute longer than required.  While I’m by no means an ogre, I couldn’t blame him.  He’d come home from school feeling dejected and then he’d toil away with me three afternoons a week.  I tried to convince his parents to cut back on my visits.  I thought he’d benefit more from an art class.  It’d be an opportunity not only to boost his confidence but also hone his skills.  But they resisted.  No matter what argument I gave, they insisted he needed to fix his weakness instead of developing his strength.

While my early twenties feel like another lifetime ago, I couldn’t help but think of this little boy when I read in the preface to Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope and Optimism in Your Child by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein.  They “now believe that our highest goal is to improve the future of all children by identifying and harnessing their strengths”.  The authors claim the deficit model, in other words parents and therapists focusing on fixing a child’s problem, may be easy to understand but it isn’t actually getting the job done.  “Symptom relief has simply not been found to be synonymous with changing long-term outcome.”

What Brooks and Goldstein are offering parents, instead, are ten guideposts for helping parents to give their children the ability to cope with and handle adversity.

1. Teach and convey empathy.

2. Listen, learn, and influence in order to communicate effectively.

3. To change your words of parenting, rewrite your negative scripts.

4. Find ways to love your children that help them feel special and appreciated.

5. Accept your children for who they are, and help them set realistic expectations and goals.

6. Nurture islands of competence; every child must experience success.

7. Mistakes are teachable moments.

8. Help your child develop responsibility, compassion, and a social conscience.

9. Teach and emphasize the importance of solving problems and making choices and decisions.

10. Discipline in ways that promote self-discipline and self-worth.

I remember going to my oldest daughter’s preschool conference and her teacher telling me how much Annabelle enjoyed her life.  Three years have passed and she still embodies the saying on her favorite T-shirt: Lovin’ Life.  She hates missing school and loves playing with friends.  She excels in art and math and she’s doesn’t easily back down from a challenge.  I’m hoping Raising Resilient Children will help me keep it that way.

My younger daughter, on the other hand, often complains about life being hard.  She’s forever trying to keep up with her big sister and coming up short.  Her frustration breaks my heart because Lily’s gifted with words and music, and yet her happy melodies do not fill our house as much as I would like.  So I’m looking to Raising Resilient Children to help me build up her confidence so she’ll recognize all that she can do.

I’m hoping this book can be both things to both children, but that remains to be seen.  I guess I’ll read and find out.

Parenting by the Book

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I’ve been turning to books for answers my whole life. In elementary school, Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret? by Judy Blume taught me about menstruation. As a teenager, the anonymous diary Go Ask Alice scared the living day lights out of me when it came to drugs. And in my twenties, I read just about every self-help book on the market from The Cinderella Complex by Colette Dowling to Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood. So it really isn’t a surprise that when I had kids, parenting books became a permanent fixture on my nightstand.

What I’ve realized over the last seven years, however, is just as there are no “rules” for snagging a man, information on parenting walks the fine line between empowering and overwhelming. I am an English teacher so, in my mind, parenting books are the equivalent of the God-forsaken five-paragraph essay. A necessary evil. Just as an essay needs paragraphs, parents need direction. Without the foundation, many students will ramble on for two pages without any paragraph breaks the way a child melts down at the grocery store at 10 o’clock at night.

That’s not to say that rules aren’t made to be broken. A conjunction, like and or but, shouldn’t start a sentence. But that doesn’t mean doing it on purpose, infrequently, isn’t acceptable. It’s like letting your kid watch too much TV when they are home sick with the flu. For me, the key to parenting books is the same as writing. It’s knowing how to strike a balance between your style and the conventions by which we’re bound.

Last year, I tried to start a book club. While all of my friends enjoyed reading Tara Road by Maeve Binchy for our first meeting, participation quickly dropped off. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Everyone came out for margaritas; it’s just that only me and another woman ever managed to get through the selected book. We became, what a friend dubbed, the “un-book club.”

Still, I’m the kind of person who keeps scraps of papers with titles of parenting books in my desk so I’ve decided to start a different kind of book club, a virtual one. While I’ve learned a lot over the years, the reality is my children are constantly changing. Annabelle, my seven-year-old and rule follower, has been testing out some eye rolling and “you never listen to what I have to say” lines lately. While Lily, my strong-willed three-year-old, will eat any fruit you put in front of her but turns her nose up at carbohydrates, of all things. I’m Italian so refusing pasta and pizza is unheard of in my world. Needless to say, I need help.

So here’s the deal. I’ll tackle the latest and greatest parenting books, sharing whatever insights are worth passing on. Granted, I’m no expert. My knowledge on parenting, like most areas in my life, is one part preparation, one part improvisation. Basically, I’ll read the parenting books so you don’t have to. Or so you can stop before you finish and still get the gist. I’ll even test drive a couple of the theories for a few good laughs at my expense.

Come on. Who hasn’t got time for that?

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