Saturday, August 14, 2010

Random Parenting Things That May or May Not Have Helped (Babble)

When I was pregnant for the first time I got a lot of advice, most of it welcome, some of it weird.  One friend who gave birth to her first child six months before I did gave me a book she read that she credited with helping get her daughter to sleep through the night at three or four months old.  I appreciated the thought greatly, and my friend is one of the more graceful and inspiring mothers I’ve ever met, but I read the book and disagreed with it.  I did the opposite of what it said, and my daughter was sleeping through the night at three or four months.

The main thing I learned from that experience is that it can be very hard to tell what works.  Parenting habits, particularly when dealing with the mysteries of a baby, develop a lot like superstitions.  There are a lot of healthy well-adjusted babies who would probably sleep through the night at three months as long as you weren’t doing something ridiculous.  (And for those of you with kids who never sleep through the night, I have great sympathy and I’m not for a moment suggesting you are doing something wrong, I’m just describing my own situation.) 

If the night your kid finally sleeps happens to coincide with the same day he or she had rice cereal for the first time, you might be inclined to think that had something to do with it.  Or if you tried a white noise machine, or swaddled the baby differently, or stood on your head next to the crib all night.  Who knows?  Babies change so fast it’s very hard to pin down causation for many behaviors.  But we want to feel like we understand as much of it as possible, and human beings instinctively look for patterns, so often when I hear parents swear by things that worked with their babies I always remain a little skeptical.  All of my babies slept through the night at three or four months.  Lucky me I think they were all wired that way.  I don’t take credit for it, only for managing to not get in the way of it.

My children are not perfect by any stretch.   Aden is always negotiating everything and it’s exhausting.  Mona has no volume control.  When Quinn is tired he will look for any excuse to be upset so he can run from the room screaming and put himself to bed and have it somehow be my fault.  (Once my offense was to ask him if he wanted a spoon so he could eat his soup, and he looked at me, lower lip trembling, and finally burst out with, “How could you ask me about the spoon!?!? before he ran up the stairs and passed out on my pillow.)  They don’t know how to separate when they get on each other’s nerves.  They leave the back door wide open and then whine to me about the bugs that got into the house.  They leave their shoes everywhere.  But honestly, they are WAY better than I was as a kid, so I know better than to complain.  I get many compliments on my children out in public because they are generally cheerful and polite and kind to other people.

So I’d like to believe I’ve done something right.  But what?  I have no idea.  For the most part my parenting philosophy is to keep my kids relatively safe and healthy, provide them with lots of opportunities to learn about the world, love them, and otherwise stay out of their way.  They will teach me who they are.  I can let them know I expect certain things, like respectful behavior, but I don’t feel it’s my place to mold them in any significant way.  As a result when people ask what techniques I may have employed to achieve certain outcomes, I usually come up blank. 

And the truth is, I only know how to parent my own kids.  I can’t even parent Aden the same way I do Mona because they are very different people.   I have doubts that whatever may have worked with them might translate to another kid, but maybe it could.  So here are some things we’ve tried.  Some of them may have worked, and some may have been coincidence.  Here are some random child rearing stories in areas where we seem to have done okay, offered up for your consideration or amusement, and if they help, I’m glad.

Sharing:  When Aden was a baby we used to hand her things, take them away, and give them right back.  We wanted her to develop a sense of not being in a panic when something was taken away, because its absence was temporary.  We have always explained sharing to our kids to mean that “You get it back.”  Each of our children is entitled to one or two things that they do not have to share, just like there are things their dad and I have that they can’t touch.  Aden will still, on occasion, share her precious pink bunny with her brother if he needs cheering up, or with a visiting child if she believes it will improve a situation, but I think it helps her to know she doesn’t have to.  We have very few issues with sharing in our house (or anywhere).  On the rare occasions where the kids are bickering over some object, I declare it’s mine and I get to keep it until they can work something out amongst themselves.  (I’m amazed how often they look relieved and let me just keep it.)

Sleeping:  When all our kids were babies we made noise during the day.  I did not want to have to tiptoe around during nap time, so all my kids learned to sleep with the bandsaw running or the radio on or us walking around doing what we needed to do.  The only problems we’ve ever had with naps were related to the unfortunate timing of school pickups, etc., and we never found a good solution to that.  For sleeping at night, I used to feel pretty strongly that kids should sleep in their own beds.  We had a co-sleeper for all of our kids as babies, and somewhere between three and six months we’d move them to a crib in the next room most nights.  I never let my kids cry in their crib because I didn’t want them to associate it with any negative feelings.  (My kids only really cried if something was wrong, anyway, so to have ignored it would have been a very bad idea.)

All of them moved to real beds at around eighteen months.  (We’d start with just the mattress on the floor, then in a couple of months put it up on a frame with a rail.)  All of my kids share a room and have learned to block each other out in order to sleep.  Recently Aden was unhappy that Mona kept turning on the light after I put them to bed, but when I talked to Mona about it, it turned out she just wanted to draw on her magnadoodle before going to sleep.  I lent her a small headlamp for awhile and that helped, and then a few weeks ago I actually discovered a magnadoodle that comes with a little flip up light!  Now she uses that and Aden can roll over in the dark and go to sleep.  But for the most part, they prefer to sleep in the same room, and sometimes they even have sleepovers in each other’s beds.  If something happens in the night and they come to my bed to cuddle, they nearly always go back to their own beds on their own before the night is over.  They like their beds. 

The glaring exception to all of this is Quinn, but he’s spent so much of his life with his dad deployed it makes it hard to know what to do with him.  There was a stretch between eighteen months and about two and a half years old where he slept in his own big kid bed, but then Ian left and we moved and blah blah blah, so now the kid’s a nomad.  I ask him each night where he wants to go, and his sisters are nice about making room for him in one of their beds if he wants to crawl in with them.  I suppose we could put our foot down about making him use the bunk bed he picked out at Ikea, but frankly I don’t care.  I think it will sort itself out soon enough.

Bedtime:  When Aden was two we used to have issues with her wanting to get up after we put her to bed.  We had a couple of strategies for this.  The first was, if possible, we all went to bed at the same time.  Then when Ian and I were sure she was out (usually about half an hour later), we’d get back up and have grown up time for a little while.  The only problem with that was often we were so tired ourselves that we’d pass out and not finish any of the things we’d planned to get done. 

My favorite solution was to convince Aden there was nothing worth getting up for.  She once insisted she wanted to do what I do, so I sat with her in the dark facing the wall in the family room.  She was very patient and I almost cracked it was so boring.  She kept suggesting we could turn on the TV or play with some toys, and I kept telling her we couldn’t do any of those things at night.  I told her when she went to bed, I sat like that in the dark until it was my bedtime.  It took over 25 minutes, but eventually she decided grown up time was not worth participating in and she never left her room without a good reason after bedtime again.  We’d hear her, sometimes, awake in her room, but she never bothered to come out.  Why would she? 

Now that they’re older and they know we’re not staring at walls, the rule is if they come out after bedtime they have to help clean.  It’s nice, because every once in awhile Aden or Mona really can’t sleep, and they come find me and ask what they can help with, and we end up having a nice time picking up toys or folding laundry together.  If I pick a chore they don’t want to do they occasionally just put themselves back to bed, but most of the time they help and it turns into rare and pleasant one on one time.  During summer I don’t believe in bedtimes.  (Ian’s been known to keep them up so late they beg him to let them go to sleep.)

Manners:  This one I think is just pure modeling.  I say please and thank you and you’re welcome, I remind them to say please and thank you and you’re welcome….  They are very good about it.  I’ve often overheard them together in the breakfast nook asking each other politely to pass things and saying, “Oh, that’s so kind of you!  Thank you!” and “You are very welcome!”  Lately Quinn has taken to just saying things like, “Water,” and then I usually pick my own noun and say something like, “Ceiling.”  If he’s tired he gives me an irritated look, but most of the time he rephrases it to include a please and make it at least sound like a request.  (I admit complete failure, however when it comes to how Mona eats.  She can’t stay in her seat very long and she uses her hands instead of utensils way too much, but most people understand, and we’re working on it.) 

I’ve had to work with Aden a bit about being nice when accepting gifts she didn’t like and she’s got that one down, finally.  Mona loves almost everything so it hasn’t come up the same way.  (She once opened a birthday gift from Ian’s mom and it was wrapped in bubble paper.  She exclaimed so happily about getting bubble paper that when I told her there was something inside it she looked at me as if I’d just told her she could eat chocolate for dinner the rest of her life.  That was a very satisfying birthday.)

Why:  I think most kids hit a phase where it’s hilarious to see how much time you can waste by asking, “Why?” over and over.  I answer the questions for as long as they interest me, and then I usually end it by saying, “Zee.”  They just drop it at that point.

Practicing:  I think for most kids who do something like play an instrument it’s probably a good idea to do that on their own, but when they are small they need direction.  I like helping my kids practice.  It seems to help to keep it predictable, and until recently I used to do it in conjunction with bath time.  While one girl was in the bath I’d do violin nearby with the other one.  When they were starting out, to entice them to play we used to have practice time be dessert time.  They got a marshmallow after each little thing they did, so they loved to practice and developed a habit for it that now doesn’t involve any sweets.  Also, lately I’ve tried to learn the piano accompaniment to whatever Aden’s working on.  I don’t play piano so it keeps me humble. 

One of the best things I ever read was an interview with Isaac Pearlman, who said sometimes when he’s teaching violin and he finds himself getting frustrated with a student who can’t do what he’s asking, he switches his own bow and instrument to the opposite hands and remembers what it’s like to not be able to do it either.  I find that idea very useful in parenting, not just teaching, because we forget how much of what we do did not always come easily and had to be learned.

Shopping:  Because of Ian’s deployments I’ve had to do most of my shopping with at least one kid in tow.  In terms of them asking for things I have them pretty well trained to know that they are more likely to get something if they don’t ask.  They are good about not touching things if I talk to them about it before we go into the store and remind them about it in a nice way once we’re inside.  To get them to stick close inside a store I usually pretend I’m trying to lose them and they are on me like glue.  (If I feel like at least one of them is wandering too far away I say things like, “They’ll never find me over here!” and then they are all at my side again.) 

Parking lots are hard when you have more children than you have hands, so I usually tell the third kid to hang onto my butt.  I’m sure it looks absurd to other people passing by (assuming they even notice or care) but if it involves a butt kids laugh, and I know exactly where all my kids are.  I taught Aden very early how to ask a store employee how to page me if we get separated.  Usually if I don’t see Aden anywhere I start walking toward the service desk and halfway there I hear my name being announced over a loudspeaker.  She uses my name in those situations now, but when she was too little to remember I had an actual name I told her she should have people ask for “Aden’s mom.” 

In grocery stores I’ve always let them help find food or bag things or push a cart and it keeps them busy and happy.  When Aden and Mona were too young to really help, I’d let them think they were helping by asking them to find certain letters or numbers or colors around the store.

Restaurants:  The best tip I have if you end up in a nice restaurant with small kids (this happens to us when someone else without small children insists) is to let them order dessert first.  It comes quickly, they are happy, they sit still and eat while adults talk, and usually they have enough room left to eat their meal when it comes. Most of the time we aim for kid-friendly places if we have to eat out, but even if it isn’t we get a lot of mileage out of playing I Spy.  There are a couple of regular places we go to eat where I Spy is such a part of the event they launch in as soon as we are seated.  I Spy is good because it makes them stop and really study their surroundings.  (And it doesn’t have to be a real game.  When it’s Quinn’s turn he usually says something like, “I spy with my little eye, that lightbulb right there!” and then Aden says, “You mean that one?” and he excitedly tells her, “You’re right!”) 

If possible I bring something for them to draw on/with, and I usually have backup food like cereal bars or crackers in case whatever we order doesn’t work out for them.  My kids are very nice in restaurants, they always thank the waiter or waitress, and when they were small Ian and I took turns doing a walking tour of the whole place until the food arrived which helped a lot.  Always ask for extra napkins up front.  Assume something will spill, and when it doesn’t it feels like victory.

General Good Behavior:  I wrote awhile back about how the whole positive reinforcement thing wasn’t working for us, but I do tell my kids when I like what they do, I just usually do it at the end of the day or at some more random moment.  They love being told when they’ve done something right, just not usually when they’re doing it.

Me:  I’m never afraid to apologize to my kids if I think I’ve been out of line.  When I yell I tend to explain what drove me to it and how they can help avoid driving me to it again.  (But they must like hearing me yell, because the simple fixes they could be doing to make that go away never happen.)  I never say, “Because I said so,” but I do sometimes ask them to trust me and I’ll explain why later.  I never pretend I’m perfect or always correct.  I don’t pretend to give them choices when they don’t really have any.  I tell them I love them often enough that it should be boring but they still smile.  They know their dad and I are happy and in love and that nothing is more important to us than our family.  I want them to think of me as a safe place to be, and most of the time I think they do.

So if there is anything in there that you think you can use, go for it!  We all need ideas and new perspectives sometimes.  I could use advice about getting Aden to put her face in the water at the pool so she can take real swimming lessons.  Anyone been through that yet?  (And no, seeing her friends or sister do it doesn’t help.)

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