Feathering The Nest

One of the more exciting parts of being pregnant is getting your home ready for your babies. Sometimes when a couple learns that they are expecting twins the excitement turns to tension. There is concern about space and expense, there is confusion about what to buy (especially if none of you family or friends have twins), and sometimes there is a general sense that you just know nothing and don’t know where to start! I wanted to address those things in today’s post.

What to do first?

breastfeeding-timeGetting a sense of where your new babies are going to live would be the first thing to tackle. Most people move into a home with the thought that they will have space for one baby. We were living in a small apartment when we found out we were expecting twins. It was hard to no longer live by the beach, but we knew we needed more space. If you are considering moving I recommend arming yourself with some information about schools before you do. I know, it sounds crazy to think about schools when your kids aren’t even born but if you move to a beautiful home where the local public schools are less than wonderful, consider the fact that private school currently costs between $18,000 and $25,000 per year. PER CHILD. Move to a good school district if you can.

Once you know where you’re living, you need to consider how to fit all of the baby furniture into the nursery. Obviously, you can make these yourself (which is what I did when I was pregnant) using craft paper from Pearl or another such art supply store, but for those of you who don’t have the time or inclination, it’s pretty handy. Although the nursery seemed large, we quickly realized we didn’t have space for a changing table once two cribs were in the nursery! Luckily, we were doing some renovations in our house already and were able to turn the closet of the babies’ room into a built in dresser/bookcase/changing table. if you don’t have this luxury, don’t get caught up in having every item listed in magazines or books. You don’t need a changing table for example. You just need something padded (like a towel on top of a rug or an inflatable pad like this) and you can change the babies on the floor or a bed.

Are there books I should read to prepare for having twins?

There are tons of books out there about giving birth to and raising twins. I never found any that I loved. In my opinion, some of them are, frankly, full of really scary information or are simply too clinical in nature to relate to. I read the standard “What To Expect When You Are Expecting” style of books and found them helpful, but the ones that really stood out and which we liked most are listed here. Hopefully you will like them too:

  • The Birth Partner by Penny Simkin. This was the only “dad” book my husband gives his stamp of approval on. It is especially great for the non-pregnant partner, as it gives them very practical information on what the birth mother is going through while pregnant. It also allows them to see what role they can play throughout pregnancy and during labor. It’s actually subtitled: “A Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Doulas, and All Other Labor Companions”.
  • The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp for excellent tips on understanding and soothing your newborn. We loved his “5 S’s” solutions to getting through the first month (or what Dr. Karp refers to as the “Fourth Trimester”).
  • I was fortunate enough to not have a lot of difficulty breastfeeding. In addition, the doulas we had for the first month were a phenomenal help in that department. There are two books that have been recommended to me so I will post them with the caveat that I haven’t yet read them and the comments made (in italics) are by friends/clients who I respect: Mothering Multiples: Breastfeeding and Caring for Twins or More! by Karen Kerkhoff Gromada. I will say, right off the bat, that I hesitated suggesting this book. I am not a La Leche League person. I breastfed my children for as long as my body would allow and supplemented with formula when necessary. In general, I find LLL’s way of thinking too dogmatic. If you are conflicted about introducing the bottle or formula, do not read this as it may make you feel that your child is doomed should you ever try it. However, this is one of the few books I found with useful information about breastfeeding multiples. Try to ignore the fact that she spends a great deal of time discussing the benefits of breast milk over formula and you will get a lot of information about how to take care of yourself and your twins. 
  • As an alternative, I suggest The Nursing Mother’s Companionby Kathleen Huggins. Although this is not a book specifically about multiples, it has been recommended to me numerous times by other mothers of twins as the best book on breastfeeding out there. Again, I will tell you to not be terrified by the author’s insinuation that breast feeding is the only way to go if you wish to be a good mother. Put that aside and use her tips and information because they truly can be life savers.
  • Not exactly a book, but KellyMom.com has excerpts of books, articles and links to just about everything regarding breastfeeding multiples.
  • Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Not specifically about twins, but it will give you a real working knowledge of the ins and outs of the sibling relationship. 
  • The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Child to Sleep from Birth to Age 5 by Jennifer Waldberger and Jill Spivack. This has been our “sleep bible” from the minute we picked it up. We used it to teach our children to sleep through the night, we constantly refer to it as they have grown and have new sleep disturbances and we have consulted often with Jill Spivack, one of the authors and a “twin sleep expert”.

What do I actually need right away?

The bare minimum of baby gear you should have when you bring your babies home is:

A good car seat

I love the Britax ones as they are very well made and have the highest safety ratings. Be sure to have them installed in your car BEFORE your babies are born as you will not be allowed to take them home otherwise. Also, it would be a good idea to learn how to use it before you are faced with putting your tiny baby in one! I learned that the hard way! If you need someone to do this for you, many people I know, including us, have used Steve The Car Seat Guy. He will come to your home and show you how to install it yourself should you ever need to. Steve can be reached at (805)-223-3425. Also, some people love having a double Snap N Go which allows you to transfer your babies directly from car to stroller without removing them from the car seat (great if they’re sleeping). Our kids were very laid back about being transferred to the stroller so I never used one, but others swear by it! Be sure that the brand of car seat you buy will work with the type of Snap N Go you purchase.

A place for the baby to sleep

Most twins are so small that even a single, sturdy bassinet should do the trick if you haven’t yet bought cribs. Twins can sleep side by side happily until they begin to roll over (3 – 4 months old). If you plan on having a family bed, it is a bit more difficult than with a singleton and most people opt to use a co-sleeper. Be sure to check out the weight restrictions if you want to keep both babies in one co-sleeper. Co-sleepers also double as a play pen, but they are quite small when you have two babies. Also, as I mentioned in my last post on the cost of having twins, you can use the Graco Twin Pack N Play with double bassinets.

Clothes/Blankets

twin-with-clothesOur twins were a pretty decent size when we brought them home, having been delivered at just past 37 weeks. Although they weighed 6 lbs, 5 ounces and 6 lbs 2 ounces, the newborn clothes I had was all gigantic on them! A few preemie outfits are not a bad idea to have on hand. Our kids were still swimming in the Gap 0-3 clothes at 2 or 3 weeks! Some brands tend to run a bit small (generally, it’s a similar rule to “grown up clothes”: the more expensive it is, the smaller it is!) and many offer preemie styles. Check consignment shops and your local Mothers of Multiples clubs as I mentioned in my post about the cost of having twins. Onsies, footed pajamas (even if it’s Summer as babies don’t keep themselves warm the way we do) and blankets if you plan to swaddle. I am a proponent of swaddling (one of the first thing you will be taught in the hospital is how to do it) and suggest reading Dr. Harvey Karp’s book as I mentioned earlier. Your swaddling blanket choices will depend on the time of year, how long you plan to swaddle and how large your babies are. Many people love the Aiden + Anais muslin baby wraps. They’re lightweight, very large and have attractive, subtle patterns on them. They double nicely as a sun shade if your stroller doesn’t have one that covers your baby enough. Ours are Winter babies so we used these flannel blankets which we loved.

Bottles/Breast Pump/Accessories

gramps-feedingEven if you plan to breastfeed, and are successful with it, my belief is that you should introduce a bottle early on (even one feedings a day will do) so that your babies are familiar with it. Ask your pediatrician about when you should do this. Acceptance of the bottle allows your partner, or other family members (that’s my dad in the picture to the right), to join in the wonderful bonding time that feeding a baby brings. It also will simplify things should you choose to not breastfeed in public or if you leave your child with a caregiver and are not able to get back in time for a feeding. Thus, bottles are important. The scare over BPA was in full force a few months after our children were born so I threw out all of my Avent, Medela and Doctor Brown’s bottles and switched to Born Free. However, now all the brands have followed suit and make BPA-free bottles. We used Medela bottles in the very beginning along with Born Free bottles which we loved and continued to use until we transitioned from bottles to sippy cups at 11 months. I had no complaints at all (other than the expense). I have found that you need to try different bottles and different nipple types to see which your babies are comfortable with; thus, don’t get a huge amount of anything until you are certain they are working for you. As for a breast pump, unless you plan to breastfeed for an extended period, I recommend renting one. We got ours through The Pump Station but your birth hospital should have them for rent as well. I breastfed and pumped for almost 7 months and it was still cheaper than buying one (and then I didn’t have a pump taking up space in my house)! 

Double Nursing Pillow

This isn’t an absolute necessity either, but it is so unbelievably helpful that I would be remiss in not suggesting it. It will make nursing your babies at the same time so much easier. I used one from Twin Z that worked great for me. 

Diapers!

You didn’t think I’d forget that, did you? Diapers are a bit like bottles; everyone will have their preferences and you have to try them out to see what works best for you. I would have loved to try cloth diapers or even G-diapers, but once we learned we were having twins that seemed too daunting. Now that the kids are older, I have learned more about them and will post in the future some ideas for getting past the hurdle of trying them out. Anyway, what I found was that Pampers Swaddlers worked best when my kids were newborns as they were just over 6 lbs. If your babies are preemies, look into diapers made specifically for their size. As the babies grew, I switched to Huggies as I liked the fit better. Look into Diapers.com which will deliver just about anything baby related overnight! particularly if you have had preemies or a c-section, the last thing you want to worry about is running out of diapers.

Now that the babies are home and we’ve settled in a little, what toys, gear, equipment do we need to have?

Whether you wait until you get home or prepare the nursery ahead of time, it is easy to get caught up in wanting two of everything, being seduced by the cuteness of every item available and getting pulled in every direction by what everyone else says you will need. It’s a little bit of trial and error. I will share a few of the things that worked great for us over the long haul and hopefully it will make things simpler for you:

Cribs

We had our kids in a crib from day one, but didn’t buy the second crib for a few months as it wasn’t needed until they started rolling over. The latest news out is that there may be a recall on drop side cribs. Drop sides are used to allow the parents easier access to their babies. If you are on the shorter side, I recommend being prepared with a stool as you will drop your crib mattress once your babies learn to pull themselves up and changing a crib sheet when you can’t reach the mattress is no fun! Another thing to consider is the fact that some cribs convert to toddler beds. This is something to consider especially if your home is small. A toddler bed is much smaller than a twin bed (it is just the size of crib without the side rails) and will allow you to put off the expense of transitioning to two “big kid” beds for a little longer.

Mobiles

daddy-with-the-mobileThese are not in the least necessary, but we loved having it. I have videos of our kids happily watching them circle overhead. The one thing I would tell you to look out for is a mobile whose music turns off; there is nothing more annoying than two out-of-sync mobiles playing in the same room!

Play Mat/Gymini

Every Mommy and Me leader will tell you the most important thing you can do for your baby is tummy time. With twins it’s tough to find play mats that accommodate two babies so check out the dimensions and either buy two different ones or find one that’s big enough!

Pacifiers

Don’t be scared of pacifiers. We’ve all heard the horror stories of kids who won’t give them up or seen 5 year olds walking around still using them. The truth is, newborns need to suck. It’s soothing for them and it’s developmentally appropriate. Our son was a pacifier addict actually. And I worried. And when we sleep trained at 5 months he forgot all about them. I think pacifiers can be your best friend if you set boundaries about where and when to use them. With twins I suggest buying a different color for each child as it can be unhealthy to pass them back and forth between the kids without sterilizing the pacifiers.

Teethers

You’ll want a little later, but it’s great to have around when the need arises! Twisting up a wet washcloth and putting it in the freezer is great if you want to save some money or don’t have a teether on hand. I prefer non-plastic when I can find it. 

Stroller

strolling-aroundThere’s always a debate over which type of double stroller is best. Some will love the tandem, some will love the side by side. There are even double decker one! We’ve had three types, two side by side and one tandem (a used one that I got at a very low cost). Personally, I hated the tandem. I didn’t like the idea that one baby would be looking at the back of the other’s head all day and it was so hard to maneuver! The side by side fits everywhere I want to go (stores have to allow for wheelchair access and a double stroller is no wider), and both kids got the same view of the world. We had a Combi Twin Savvy first and liked it a lot. UNTIL I tried my Citi Mini Double Stroller! Love it. The shade canopy extends so far you can cover the whole baby, it’s so easy to maneuver and practically glides along the street, reclines completely so your infants can sleep in it, SUPER easy to open and close…I could go on and on. The only draw backs are that there you have to purchase snack trays separately (we liked having that a lot when the kids were little. Once they were over 2 or so it mattered less). Also, it folds flat so it takes up a bit of space if you plan to bring it in the house. Other than that, love it! Whatever stroller you get, I strongly recommend one with a single handle bar. We have a pair of McLaren single strollers which I really like, but they are impossible to steer with one hand – something that you will find you need often!  And speaking of those McLaren strollers. I urge you to spend the money on at least one, but preferably two, single strollers. I have written often about the importance of getting one on one time with your babies; it is good for your bonding, it is good for their individuation and it is good for your partner to have time alone with them. It doesn’t have to be a fancy one, but do try to get a pair.

Pilates Ball

I know that sounds bit weird. But I swear, it was the greatest thing we ever got. Many babies are soothed by being bounced. It is exhausting to walk around with a baby all day trying to bounce your body up and down. Sitting on a ball & bouncing is so much easier. Our doulas taught us this great head bobble trick where you basically are gently rolling the baby’s head in your palm while you bounce….worked like a charm! Definitely get a ball!

Slings

I wore our babies in slings from the very beginning and up until they were over 2 years old (and got too heavy to carry around). Not only did the babies seem to love it, but it allowed me to have at least one hand free to grocery shop, make lunch, push a stroller etc. Slings have been in the news as of late because if used improperly they can cause your baby to suffocate. It is EXTREMELY important to know how to use them the right way.

Books and Toys

with-her-booksThis is a category that is way too big for this blog post. Suffice it to say that you should have as many best baby books as you can fit in your nursery and read to your children from day one. Hearing the sound of your voice and, over time, hearing the inflections you make when reading are an enormous part to their love of books as they get older. There are many websites to learn about great new books. One of the ones I really like is Chronicle Books. When the kids were really little I did my best to keep the plastic out. Its arrival is inevitable – just like the invasion of Disney into your house – but in the beginning I was optimistic and the kids were happy to play with the beautifully made (and beautiful to look at) toys from websites like Moolka and Oompa.

Swings/Exersaucers/Bouncers

Most parents I know find at least one, if not all, of these three items to be Godsends. Swings can be a wonderful way to get an otherwise cranky child to nap. Exersaucers and Bouncers, used in moderation, give mom a chance to take a break while her children are happily engaged and safe. Our son loved it so much, and looked so hilarious when he bounced in it, that we jokingly referred to him as “Lord of the Dance”.

White Noise Machine

Many sleep experts and experienced parents will tell you that these machines work great. The noise supposedly replicates what the babies hear in utero, thus soothing them to sleep. For twins, it acts a bit as a noise barrier between cribs when one baby is crying and the other is sleeping. We had two different ones, but the basic one from Brookstone worked great. As the children got older they requested the “noise” be replaced with the “lullaby” music the machine plays. At over 3 years this item is still going strong.

There is so much that goes into raising your twins. So much thought, so much expense, so much love, so much research, so much gear, so much, so much. It is so easy to get overwhelmed or spend out of control so I think the most important thing is to approach readying your home with calm enthusiasm – if that is possible. Borrow where possible, accept hand-me-downs, find consignment shops and remember that loving, connected parents are what matters most; not the latest must-have toy.

All Your Discipline Questions Answered. No, Seriously.

How to discipline kidsFor many of us, our job as parent is fairly easy until our children begin to be able to voice their wants, needs and opinions with some vigor. At this point we adults are faced with issues we didn’t anticipate, and many of us are sorely unprepared for how we react when our previously lovely children no longer do what we want them to do when we want them to do it!

And this is probably just about when the questions about “how can I discipline my children?” begin.

I remember asking those questions. I remember feeling so frustrated, and so exhausted, and so useless as a parent when my son and daughter would do the exact opposite of what I told them to do, or when they would fight endlessly about nonsense, or when I would end up screaming because I just couldn’t take it anymore. I read every book and asked every expert and tried every technique (some of which worked, many of which didn’t). Ultimately, all of this is why I started this blog – to help those of you who became parents after me short cut to the good stuff.

Today I have some super AMAZING good stuff for you (so good that I am actually writing a post on my blog which lately has been sorely neglected because of other writing projects – I am so sorry and thank you to all of you who are sticking with me and I promise I will be back here soon). And yes, this amazing good stuff has to do with discipline, and your kids, and making parenting easier! And don’t forget to read to the end because I have a little surprise for one lucky reader.

Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while – or follow me on social media – know that I am a huge fan of Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. Together they wrote one of the most ground-breaking and widely read parenting books of the last couple of years, The Whole-Brain Child (which has been since translated into 18 languages and if you haven’t read it yet, you must). This book introduced parents to the latest information on how their child’s brain develops and responds to the world – therefore showing parents why children behave the way they do.

The fact that this book is being shared around the world with parents, grandparents and teachers is an amazing testament to how many of you out there are hungry for information on how to understand, respond to, and connect with the children in your lives.

No Drama DisciplineI was thrilled when I learned that Dan and Tina had written a new book called No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. This book not only gives us a deep understanding about what is happening in our child’s developing brain when she is acting out, but it also gives adults a window into understanding the best way to respond in the moment.

Best of all, No-Drama Discipline educates adults in understanding the true meaning of the word “discipline”: To Teach. The book is filled with science-backed explanations for why a connection-based response to children’s behavior gives you the results you’ve been looking for. So, instead of being a book full of gimmicks to get our kids to “behave” (a short term survival goal), this book teaches us how to use those difficult parenting moments to create connections in the brain – and between people – in order to build skills, self-discipline, and health (a long-term goal to strive for)!

Ultimately, I know that what we all want for our children is for them to grow into being resilient, happy, kind and respectful people who make their way successfully in the world. And, as Tina says.“I really believe that if we can reduce violent, harsh, and scary parental responses and increase more conscious, kind, and intentional ones, we can promote insight, empathy, and kindness in the world.” This book gives you the ability to do all of this, while strengthening your relationship with your children.

This video below gives you a much better idea of what this book is all about. You can read more here on the website for No-Drama Discipline which also has reviews and links for purchasing the book.

hope I’ve intrigued you enough to pick up a copy of this book for yourself – and maybe even one for friends (or teachers) who struggle with the idea of how to instill positive behavior in their children without resorting to punishment.

No-Drama Discipline is officially released tomorrow – Tuesday, September 22nd – and I’m thrilled to say that I have been given a signed copy of the book to give away to one reader! All you need to do to enter the giveaway is:

  1. Share this post on social media, tagging both myself and Dr. Tina Bryson (I’ll include those links below).
  2. And leave a comment below telling us why you think this book could be helpful to you and your family! I’ll reply to your comment below, so make sure you check back or better yet, Please be sure to include a way for me to contact you in case you win!

That’s it. I’ll choose a winner at random (thank you, random.com) this Friday, October 3rd at 1pm PST. The lucky winner will be announced on my Facebook page!

So, go forth and share! This book is going to be a game changer!

Birth Trauma May Be Subtle, But Addressing It Can Be Powerful

Without having given it all that much thought, when I heard the term “birth trauma” I had always assumed it always meant something such as when birth had to be induced prematurely because of an umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck, or where the baby struggled to get through the birth canal but then had to be pulled back up for a c-section. To me, I pictured birth trauma as…well…really traumatic. What I hadn’t fully considered, until recently, is how traumatic birth can be for some babies, even without additional complications.

babyJGiven that I was carrying twins, I would say that their birth was essentially uneventful except that our daughter was born an hour and 10 minutes after our son. Most people react to this with the realization that 1) I didn’t have a c-section with twins and 2) that I had to wait an hour and 10 minutes to push out the second baby. There was nothing wrong, the doctor had said to us, the second baby just wasn’t ready to move down yet. So we waited. I think I passed out because I don’t really remember that hour. I have always told this story with the punchline being that once our son came out, our daughter realized how much room there was and didn’t want to leave. “She was doing things in her own way, on her own schedule…just like always” I would say, laughing.

But, maybe I had that wrong.

As Peter Levine and Maggie Klein show in their groundbreaking book Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes,

“…trauma resides not in the external event but in how the child’s nervous system processes that event. Based on Dr. Levine’s decades of pioneering work, they make clear that it’s in the storage and freezing of unresolved emotions triggered by adverse events that create the long-term negative impact.”

The event doesn’t need to fit into our idea of what is traumatic. It can be as simple as falling off a bike, or having someone laugh at something you said. What matters is the way your child processes it and then copes with it.

Our daughter has had issues separating from me for a number of years. Not just your average separation anxiety, but behavior that had me seriously stressed out for her. She would clutch at me and wail when I left her at preschool (even with teachers and children she had known for years). She would do the same when I stayed home and her father was taking the kids out for the afternoon. Bedtime could be an enormously long, drawn out affair. Basically, it was becoming a nightmare – as much for her as it was for us.

sibling happinessOn top of this, although she loved her twin brother dearly and and always thought of him first when it came time to give a gift or share a treat, she would fight tooth and nail for alone time with me. When I showed him attention and asked her to be with someone else, she would dissolve into tears or erupt into a rage. Again, basically age-appropriate behavior, but as I learned from my interview with the author of The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children, the differences,

“…involve frequency, severity, intensity and duration. These are typically the hallmarks that make something diagnosable as opposed to something more typical. However, this is not the most important question for people who are concerned about their children’s behavior. The truth is, what is concerning to one parent may not be as concerning to another. Some people have a higher tolerance to certain behaviors and may respond less reactively, thus adding less fuel to the fire. What needs to be asked is, ‘is my child’s behavior negatively impacting him or her and our family?'”

This upset didn’t happen all the time, but my overall sense of our daughter – starting from around the age of 3 – was that, more often than not, she clung to me like a barnacle, seemed excessively fearful about being separated from me and wasn’t rational when it came to my spending time with her brother. Sometimes it was only one of the three, other times all of them combined with a dash of rage thrown in for good measure. There were other issues, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Last weekend I had spent a long time alone with her while dad had her brother at soccer and then out for dinner. She and I had a wonderful afternoon spent drawing, making rubber band bracelets, having a “spa day” together and just being together. At the end of the day we curled into my bed and lay, under the covers, reading her new favorite book The Snow Queen. She was peaceful, relaxed and at ease. We turned out the lights and talked quietly.

Then her brother came home – late. Dad went out to walk the dog and, telling her I would be right back, I jumped up to get his teeth brushed and get him ready for bed. She remained in the dark, in my room. Alone. She called to me over and over to come back. I kept answering that I would be there in a minute, that I had to get her brother’s pajamas out, brush his teeth and so on. She was getting more and more hysterical. When he tried to join us in my room for a snuggle, she wouldn’t let him into the bed and became completely overwrought. Our son began to wail that he needed mommy time, too, and my triggers started flashing. I felt pulled in too many directions, I felt I couldn’t make everyone happy. I lost my temper with her.

Screaming and crying, she ran into her bedroom and pulled the covers over her head. Wailing and sobbing, she screamed “get away from me!” over and over again as dad tried to comfort her. Eventually it switched to a more plaintive cry for mommy. With a deep breath to calm myself I went in to her room to try and help.

As I curled up behind her and put my hand on her back, I began to put light pressure on her body, which usually helps calm her down. She struggled to catch her breath and cried more softly. I began to narrate…

“You didn’t want me to be with him. You wanted me all to yourself, didn’t you?”

Somewhat angry voice: “Yes! You are always with him!”

“I wasn’t paying attention to you. I was focused on him. Did you feel like I had forgotten all about you? Did it feel as though I wasn’t thinking about you?”

Her crying opened up again and it got harder (generally a good clue that I’ve hit on something she feels deeply). I increased the pressure on her back as she pushed into me.

Suddenly, something popped into my head and almost without thinking I said to her, “baby…you know how I always tell the story of when you were born and we laugh and say how when your brother came out you weren’t ready and you wanted to do it your own way?”

Quiet crying.

“Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe to you it didn’t feel that way? Maybe to you it felt more like suddenly the person who had been right next to you your whole life had left and you were all alone and didn’t know how to get out. Maybe you were scared.”

The crying opened up again and she shook with sobs.

“Did you think we were only paying attention to your brother and that we had forgotten you?”

Through her tears she said, “I was calling and calling you and you didn’t come!”

Crying, crying, crying.

Hugging her from behind, “I never forgot you, baby. We were waiting for you. Everyone was waiting for you! You were never in danger, but I understand it must have been scary. I’m sorry you felt that way…you don’t have to feel that way any more. I am always thinking of you and you never have to be afraid that I will forget you even when you are not with me. Even when I am with your brother. You are in my heart always.”

Her crying got heavier and she turned to face me and curled up with her face buried in my hair and sobbed for a while. Eventually, her cries became softer. As her emotions regulated she took in a big, broken, deep breath and quieted down. I kissed her tear-stained face and whispered, “I love you”.

Breathing softly, she said, “I love you, too, mommy.” And she pulled the cover over her shoulders and fell asleep.

In the days since this episode she has been very different. Where she used to insist that I keep my eyes on her at all times in the yard before school, or would forcibly drag me to drop her at her classroom and throw a tantrum when I stopped to talk to a friend – now she’s running off to play with her friends and heading to class on her own. It’s not as though she won’t have setbacks here and there, but the change is remarkable. And this story seems to resonate for both of us – to her it feels as if it fits and to me I feel as though I’ve opened a small window into understanding some of her behaviors.

beautiful smileWe’ve been down a long road with her. This fear and anxiety is only part of what is going on for her. I am still working through the puzzle that makes up my sweet girl, but I am sharing this part of her story in the hope that those of you reading this will consider the idea that the answer isn’t always so black and white. A child acting out can’t always be explained by the standard child behavior expert answers. Sometimes you have to try on a different pair of glasses, or look at things from another angle, to really crack open what may be going on.

It can be so tempting to punish a child for “bad” behavior and insist that they are manipulating us to get what they want. But the reality is, children are using every skill they have in their attempt to be loved and accepted. They need our help – not to fix them, but to scaffold them in understanding how to help themselves.

“Because the capacity to heal is innate, your role as an adult is simple: it is to help the little ones access this capacity. Your task is similar in many ways to the function of a band-aid or a splint. The band-aid or splint doesn’t heal the wound, but protects and supports the body as it restores itself.” – Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes

Your child will stumble and make mistakes and act in ways that may feel like an incredible nuisance to us adults. But this is when they need us the most. For a moment, imagine yourself at your very worst: needy, angry, lashing out, not able to get people to understand what you need. Would you want the person you love and depend on the most to turn their back on you, or would you want them to open their arms and let you know they love you, no matter what?

I am far from a perfect mother, but one thing I know is that my daughter chose me for a reason. There is so much about her that I relate to and can connect with on a very deep level. At times, that can make our relationship painful and overwhelming, but at other times I can see that my ability to resonate with her is beginning to heal her and in doing that, I know I am healing myself, too.

Self-Image: Teaching Our Children To Question The Stereotypes

I believe I may remember every unkind word ever directed at me. Funny, isn’t it, how easy it is to believe the mean or thoughtless things people say about you?

I remember a well-intentioned great aunt telling me I could “stop traffic” if I would just lose some weight. I remember that moment so well that I can still picture the corner we were standing on, the feeling in my stomach, even the brown, Frye boots I was wearing.

As a child, women all around me struggled with their own body image issues and no one ever talked about it except to talk about dieting. I grew up internalizing that how I looked was not okay. Now I look at my 6-year old daughter, whose body is like mine in many ways, and wonder how self-image will unfold for her.

Society is different in many ways than it was when I was her age, but does that mean things for girls are easier these days? Or has raising a daughter who feels comfortable in her own skin gotten even harder than it was just a generation ago? And how can we teach our boys to treat girls with respect if all they are shown is that a girl’s main value is her looks? And what about our boys? Can they show emotions, be sweet and sincere or do they risk being dropped from the inner circle of cool?

Our culture generally accepts a particular standard of beauty and a narrow definition of masculinity without question, and it is passed on from generation to generation. Media perpetuates it, and these stereotypes are subtly (or not so subtly) shown to our children in every way from the movies they watch to the magazines that lie on our coffee tables.

How can we raise our boys and girls to feel connected to their inner worth when all around them they are told that it is what is on the outside that matters? How can we teach them to be sincere and be themselves when they are bombarded with messages that being who they are isn’t necessarily enough?

As my children get older they have more access to media. And because they can now read, they are more aware of the advertising all around them. These, and other things, mean my job has gotten just a bit harder. I know I can’t shield them forever. My role really is to be a guide and help them learn how to think critically about everything they see around them.

smurf girlI’ve realized that this also means I need to be able to really articulate and discuss my thoughts on everything from the fact that there is only one female Smurf (who seems to have no skills other than being pretty) to why there are no male fairies in the Rainbow Fairies book series. Every new thing our children experience has an impact on their growing sense of who they are in this world.

Whether you have body image issues or not, whether you consider yourself a feminist or not, whether you have a boy or a girl (or both), it’s your responsibility to help your children learn to question what the world tells them they need to be, do or look like in order to be “good enough”.

“It’s all about popular!
It’s not about aptitude
It’s the way you’re viewed
So it’s very shrewd to be
Very very popular
Like me!”
~ Kristen Chenoweth, Wicked

Start With Yourself

  • Do project a healthy body image in front of your children.
  • Don’t talk about things like dieting, counting calories or feeling fat.
  • Don’t talk about other people in terms of how their bodies look. Pay attention to your own feelings about what’s important in a person. Be mindful of what you choose to focus on.
  • Definitely don’t talk about your children’s bodies except to tell them they are perfect.
  • Do talk about how much you love things about yourself. Not in a vain way, but in such a way that your children know that whatever you look like, you like yourself.
  • Do remind your children (and yourself) that beauty isn’t the be all and end all. The idea that everyone is beautiful is a wonderful thing, but is being beautiful the ultimate goal we should be striving for?
  • Do read this gorgeous post from Kiyah of Our Regularly Scheduled Program:

“A few months ago I wrote about the degree to which girls are praised for their looks, and how infrequently we ask them questions that relate to their interests or hobbies (or directly engage their intellectual curiosity), so when I heard Tim (who is the kind of father that would rather encourage Eleanor’s love of books, or bugs, than eye shadow or handbags) tell Eleanor that she had a beautiful body I wondered where he was going with it.”

Pay Attention To Your Reading Materials

I indulge in magazines like People or US when I’m getting my nails done, and I admit I enjoy those frivolous moments. I never have those magazines in my home, though. Not because they’re not intellectually stimulating, but because of the sort of pictures and headlines they feature.

I don’t want my kids worrying about whether their “beach body” is good or bad. I don’t want my kids internalizing that a pregnant woman needs to “get thin fast” once she has her baby.

It’s not just the covers, either. The thing is, if you start to look at magazines (all of them, not just tabloids) from our children’s view point, you begin to see how women’s bodies are portrayed in advertising. Men fare a bit better, but it’s still very obvious what is considered attractive – and by comparison, what is not attractive. As adults we have become numb to these messages because we have had year after year of bombardment. But do we want our children to be likewise inured?

  • Be mindful of what types of magazines you have in your home. Notice what written messages are on the covers, notice what images are given prominence. Even if your children aren’t directly asking about them, they notice them.
  • Take the time to point out things you notice in the magazines you do have. Ask your children what they think about the photographs. Do the people look happy? What are their bodies like? Do their bodies look like people they know? Do the clothes they are wearing look like something you could run and climb and have fun in?
  • Talk about what you see. By discussing your thoughts about the things your children see, you are expressing your family’s views and how you see the world. Ask your children what they think about various pictures and talk about whatever misconceptions they may have. I would rather have children hear my point of view on a sexy magazine photo, than make up their own meanings about it.

Talk About Movies, Television, and Books

I’ve written a number of times about my dislike for many of the movies that are targeted at children and the need for parents to be mindful of the messages they send to the still-developing minds of our kids. In addition to the violence and aggression many movies show, there is a much subtler danger lurking in many of these films.

How many of you have noticed how few female characters are in children’s films (unless it happens to be a movie about a princess)? If there are females, the ratio of male to female is, with very few exceptions, skewed in favor of males. How many of the films for children have a female character for the lead? Most of them, like the aforementioned Smurfs, have only one token female who is usually there as a love interest or, as Margot Magowan of Reel Girl refers to it, to be “the minority feisty”

“If you see an animated film today, it’s likely to include a token strong female character or two who reviewers will call “feisty.” In “How to Train Your Dragon,” Astrid; in “Toy Story,” Jessie; in “Ratatouille,” Colette. She’s supposed to make us feel like the movie is contemporary and feminist, unlike those sexist films of yesteryear.

The problem is that because Pixar or Disney has so magnanimously thrown in this “feisty” female (who may even have some commentary about sexism or male domination) we’re no longer supposed to care that almost all of the other characters in the film are male, including the star who the movie is often titled for and usually his best buddy as well. The crowd scenes in the film are also made up of mostly males.”

superherosWhat’s the big deal, you may ask? You can’t be what you can’t see. That’s the big deal. How is my daughter supposed to know that she can be a scientist or a chef or an writer if she never sees or reads about anyone like herself doing those jobs? How is my son supposed to know that girls can be in leadership roles if he never sees that portrayed in movies or reads about it in books?

“To be able to become the real life version of a superhero, to be able to become president, to be able to become the big scientist, you need to see it in something. You need to be able to imagine it. And so therefore girls need imaginary super heros because they need to know they are strong, they need to know they can go out and tackle villains and take on the world and that their gender is not an obstacle.” ~ Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines

What roles do children take on when what they see around them is that females play bit parts and are so often shown as the minority – even though they make up 50% of the world population? How do girls measure their worth when they are constantly praised for their looks as opposed to their talents or their interests?

“Try this the next time you meet a little girl. She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it. Ask her what she’s reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? There are no wrong answers. You’re just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain.

For older girls, ask her about current events issues: pollution, wars, school budgets slashed. What bothers her out there in the world? How would she fix it if she had a magic wand? You may get some intriguing answers. Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.” ~ Lisa Bloom, How To Talk To Little Girls

  • Talk about movie advertising with your children and ask them their thoughts. Ask questions like “Why doesn’t Juliet even appear on many of the billboards for the movie Gnomeo and Juliet?” Or, “Why do you think this movie about Rapunzel was named Tangled instead?” Once children begin to see the way advertising is manipulated, they are less likely to just accept whatever is put in front of them as truth.
  • If your children like super heroes, you might think about asking them something like “Why are all the male super heroes always shown doing something, while the female ones are just posing and showing off their bodies?” Or ask them “If you were Wonder Woman (or any number of other super heroines) do you think you would wear high heels and have your hair out like that? Does that look like an easy way to fight crime?”
  • Point out the positives just as much as the negatives. We just saw the new movie “The Croods” and, much to my surprise, it was fantastic! In addition to beautiful animation and a funny story that wasn’t too scary or laced with inappropriate humor, The Croods also has awesome female characters! They’re smart, they do stuff, there are a lot of them, their bodies are muscular and strong and the story, although about the whole family, focuses on a father/daughter relationship. All great things!

And What About Toys?

There has been so much written about the effects of gendered toys that I doubt I have anything new to add to the debate, but I would urge you to consider that unless the toys are operated by your child’s genitals, there is no such thing as a “boy’s toy” or “girl’s toy”.

Apparently Hasbro doesn’t agree and has decided to launch a line of gender specific Play-Doh sets,

“…because apparently young girls all across the land are screaming their heads off at their parents’ inability to provide them with only pink and glittery objects. Lego are already at it and now it seems that no toy will ever escape this ‘girlification’ (to coin a phrase).” ~ D’oh! Play Doh

By not discussing the sexism in the toy aisles, it is not surprising that many children grow up believing boys are blue, active, like math and science, build things and drive things. Oh yeah, and boys like war and violence apparently as well. Girls, on the other hand, are pink and pretty, they might cook or take care of babies and put on make up. Of course there are exceptions, but walk into any American Toys ‘R Us or Walmart and you will see what I mean.

Last year The New York Times wrote an excellent article about gender-based toy marketing titled Guys And Dolls, No More?:

“IMAGINE walking into the toy department and noticing several distinct aisles. In one, you find toys packaged in dark brown and black, which include the “Inner-City Street Corner” building set and a “Little Rapper” dress-up kit. In the next aisle, the toys are all in shades of brown and include farm-worker-themed play sets and a “Hotel Housekeeper” dress.

If toys were marketed solely according to racial and ethnic stereotypes, customers would be outraged, and rightfully so. Yet every day, people encounter toy departments that are rigidly segregated — not by race, but by gender. There are pink aisles, where toys revolve around beauty and domesticity, and blue aisles filled with toys related to building, action and aggression.”

It boggles my mind that parents simply accept the way things are marketed toward our children in a gender-specific way as truth and think there is no harm in it. It makes me cringe when I hear women gossiping about other women in front of their young daughters. I want to cry when I hear parents tell their young boys to “man up!”

mom & daughterWhen I look at my own children I see more than just a pretty girl and a rough and tumble boy. I’m sure you do as well. Of course there’s nothing wrong with our daughters wanting to be princesses and mommies, or our sons playing pirates and ninjas. But to me there is something wrong with not teaching our children that there is so much more than the narrow stereotypes that advertisers and marketing teams have tried to squeeze our children into. And there is something definitely wrong with a world in which children grow up not feeling as though the way they are isn’t absolutely, perfectly wonderful.

If You Want More Information To Consider…

I highly recommend watching this PBS Documentary, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. One reviewer remarked that, this PBS production by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Kelcey Edwards, “makes an important point seriously and well: that in comic books, as in most of the rest of American life, women have too often been underestimated and undervalued.” The film aired on PBS already, but is available for free at the above link until mid-June.

This terrific documentary, Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity, is very much worth watching. This film “systematically examines the relationship between pop-cultural imagery and the social construction of masculine identities in the U.S. at the dawn of the 21st century.”

This trailer for the film, Miss Representation, is also very moving. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 and is now available on DVD. “The film exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. The film challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself.” (also, check out the trailer for their campaign called #NotBuyingIt)

And finally, this excellent 1-minute video of Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wanabees, from Kids in The House. In it, Ms. Wiseman discusses “Girl World” and ways to help your daughter survive it. If you like this one, check out the rest of her more than 30 videos – they’re all really good.

 

Twins And Birthday Parties. To Share Or Not To Share?

Twin birthday party2“To be loved equally is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely – for one’s own special self – is to be loved as much as we need to be loved” ~ Siblings Without Rivalry

I think one of the lessons that has made the greatest impact on my parenting is one I learned from Dr. Joan Friedman who taught me the importance of seeing my children as individuals. Perhaps that seems like a no brainer to those of you with children of different ages, but for many with twins there is often a societal expectation that twins love being together all the time and prefer to do things together. Then, because it’s simpler for parents, twins end up sharing just about everything from rooms to after school activities.

Over the years I have done a lot to help my children feel that they are known for their own individual selves, not just as part of a set. Although we place a good deal of importance on time spent together as a family, we also make it a priority to make it possible for them to have time without each other.

I know this isn’t a simple task for everyone and we have chosen to make sacrifices in certain areas so that we are able to make this a priority in our family. But nurturing your children’s individuality doesn’t have to be complicated or involve a slew of extra help. Of all of the things we do to focus on their uniqueness and encourage their sense of self, what has seemed to make the greatest impact on them was having separate birthday parties.

We always had two birthday cakes and sung “Happy Birthday” to them separately, but last year, for their 5th birthday, I offered them the opportunity to each have a party of their own and they jumped at it.

Over the next couple of months the excitement built, they told everyone about their respective parties, what the theme was going to be and who was coming. Most of all, they told everyone that they were having their own party, just for them. I began to realize that it was a different sense of excitement than in previous years, this time it was a chance for each of them to bask in the glow of their special day when everyone is there for them, without having to share that experience with another person.

pool partyMost of you who have a sibling know the feeling of having to share toys or clothes or maybe a room. But few siblings of different ages have to share a birthday. It is just obvious to most parents that each child would get his or her own birthday party. Yet the reaction from many people was one of surprise when I said I was doing this for my children.

Although throwing two birthday parties in one weekend is more work (and a greater expense) for us, seeing the joy our children had in being able to experience their special day just for themselves was well worth it. On top of this, the experience also allowed us to teach them lessons about being gracious when it was not their day, about being aware of their own feelings as well as the feelings of their sibling, about exercising patience and most importantly, about having the awareness that they were each being honored for who they are, as individuals.

This year, for their 6th birthday, we again had separate parties. Because the kids no longer share a class I got less surprised reactions from parents, but some people were still shocked that I would go through the effort of throwing two parties. I know individual parties aren’t possible for everyone and although I actually hate to entertain and today, the morning after, I feel as though I have been hit by a 5-ton truck, it was honestly still worth it.

Our children have such different personalities, many different friends and different sensibilities when it comes to socializing. To me, the value of having that acknowledged and recognized far outweighs what I would have gotten out of making things easier on myself by having a shared party.

Parenting Children With Explosive Temperaments: An Interview With Dr. Ross Greene

As you all know I have reached a new level of understanding about our daughter’s challenging behavior, in part due to discovering Dr. Ross Greene’s book, The Explosive Child. I was thrilled to have the chance to interview him for my latest contribution to The Mother Company.

An Interview with Ross W. Greene, Ph. D.

Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of raising twins so far has been learning how to parent children of the same age with two drastically different temperaments. Our daughter is one of those kids who has been described as willful, bossy, rigid, oppositional, and more. For parents with children like this, the sense of overwhelm can be incapacitating and the comments from outsiders that you must not be disciplining your child enough can be disheartening. I was honored to recently have a chance to interview Ross Greene, Ph. D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Explosive Child. I asked him to shed some light on how to understand and parent a child with such challenging behavior.

What are the differences between explosive anger and a more common kind of anger in young children?

On a technical level, the differences involve frequency, severity, intensity and duration. These are typically the hallmarks that make something diagnosable as opposed to something more typical. However, this is not the most important question for people who are concerned about their children’s behavior. The truth is, what is concerning to one parent may not be as concerning to another. Some people have a higher tolerance to certain behaviors and may respond less reactively, thus adding less fuel to the fire. What needs to be asked is, “is my child’s behavior negatively impacting him or her and our family?”

Why are some children so easily frustrated and “chronically inflexible”? Is this sort of temperament genetic? Do children tend to outgrow the behavior? Are there typical triggers?

We all want what we want. Kids who are not behaviorally challenging can get what they want in an adaptive fashion. But not all children have those skills, thus they try to get what they want in maladaptive ways. As a parent, assuming your child is not using their skills on purpose is a losing place to operate from. But if you assume a child doesn’t have the skills to get what they need in an appropriate way, you are never going to go wrong. You will not be a pushover. You are not a wishful thinker. You are not having the wool pulled over your eyes. Instead, you are being compassionate and are able to treat each situation as a moment to connect and teach. Children do not choose to explode any more than a child would choose to have a reading disability.

I wouldn’t count on children outgrowing their temperament. As time goes by, skills may be acquired and sometimes, just because of maturation, they are better able to handle what previously set them off. As for the genetic question, a child’s temperament is 100% nature and 100% nurture. That is, some kids are wired so that they are more vulnerable, but these genetics are also influenced by the child’s environment. Such things as maternal stress or the foods a mother ate while pregnant might have an effect. It’s impossible to answer this question accurately, but more importantly, it doesn’t change what you, as a parent, need to do to help your child.

Triggers are different for every child, but typical ones often include homework, chores, bedtime, waking up in the morning, hygiene, screen time and food. It’s important for parents to get a clear picture of all the instances in a child’s day that cause him or her to be triggered. Additionally, every doctor needs to be open to the full range of factors that influence a child’s behavior. Although these are not the most common factors, I have seen them often enough that I would be doing a disservice not to mention that looking at possible sleep disturbances, blood sugar levels, thyroid issues and food intolerances (particularly to gluten) can sometimes make a difference in improving a child’s behavior.

What are a few specific tips for parents, to help a child who has an explosive temperament (both during the explosions and during the calm between the storms)?

During the storm what you need to focus on is diffusing and de-escalating the storm. You can’t reliably and predictably solve challenging episodes when you’re in the midst of them. The calm between the storms is the time to work on what will maintain the calm so the storm doesn’t occur. Parents must figure out what lagging skills a child has that lead to unsolved problems. These lagging skills can include things such as:

  • Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words.
  • Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration in order to think rationally.
  • Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem.
  • Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mind-set or task to another.
  • Difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, or novelty.

Lagging skills are why kids explode more easily, more often and in more extreme ways than your average child. Unsolved problems are the specific things a child explodes about. Once you have identified the lagging skills and unsolved problems, you can work toward solving them proactively and collaboratively with your child. And yes, even very young children can do this!

Let’s say your child has 10 unsolved problems that cause him to lose control. Choose 2 or 3 that are causing the most episodes. You may find that just solving these 2 or 3 problems reduces 70 – 80% of the challenging episodes. Once this happens, parents notice that their child isn’t always challenging and they then have an easier time seeing that their child is actually lacking skills. They are able to see their child in a more empathetic light, which has the effect of changing the dynamic of their relationship.

Can the standard way of thinking about behavior and discipline work with a child with an explosive temperament?

Studies show that typical interventions such as time outs or reward charts are ineffective. Once the intervention is removed, the challenging behavior returns. In addition, many of the children with challenging behavior are simply lacking the skills to do the tasks demanded of them. Punishing a child for not having a skill is counterproductive and using stickers to try to coerce a child into a desired behavior if they don’t have the developmental skill to do it, makes no sense. You wouldn’t expect a toddler to be able to tie his shoes simply because you promised a reward. However, if you collaboratively solve a problem it improves both the relationship and the communication and that problem no longer triggers the challenging behavior.

Solving problems collaboratively involves the following:

  • Figure out unsolved problems.
  • Prioritize problems.
  • Figure out your child’s concern.
  • Find out why he/she is not doing well on activity or demand.
  • Put adult’s concern on the table.
  • Put heads together to collaboratively solve the problem and address all parties’ concerns.

Do these children do well in typical educational and social environments? Are there special precautions parents can take to make these environments more conducive?

Some challenging kids do well in environments when they have the specific skills to meet the demands being put upon them. But when they lack the skills needed, the challenging behavior surfaces. Knowing your child, knowing both their skills and their lagging skills allows you to try to put them in situations where they can succeed. If your child is in a situation where she doesn’t have the skills to be successful, then you have to make sure she has the support to navigate those situations so she can eventually do it independently. For example, you wouldn’t simply ask a kindergartener to do long division and tell him “you’ll have to do it some day, so you might as well get used to it now!” No, you would provide the scaffolding of learning all the steps that come first so that he would eventually be able to do the complex math problems on his own. It’s the same with social skills. You need to remember that not every child develops his social skills at the same time, just as every child develops their skill at math at different times.

What do parents need to know about parenting a child with these sorts of challenges?

The most important thing to remember is to be responsive to the hand you’ve been dealt. Focus on the hand you’re holding, not the preconceived notion of what you think your child “should” be. That is, parents should be asking, who is my child? What skills does my child lack? How can I be more responsive to my child? If you had a child who couldn’t walk you wouldn’t spend all your time trying to find ways to get him to walk, you would, instead, focus on making life as simple and easy for that child as you could. It’s the same with a child who has lagging skills and challenging behavior. Find ways to improve the child’s chance of living a happy and successful life without trying to change who that child is.

Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the originator of an innovative, proven approach to solving problems collaboratively, as described in his highly acclaimed books The Explosive Child and Lost at School.

Discussing Spirituality and Religion with Young Children

I was recently asked to join a select group of bloggers who are working as contributors to The Mother Company’s wonderful blog. I am very happy to be a part of their team, as their mission is very much in line with my own: “Helping Parents Raise Good People”.

This month I had the good fortune to interview Dharmachari Nagaraja, the author of one of our favorite children’s books (“Buddha at Bedtime: Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read with Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten and Inspire”). Nagaraja is also a psychotherapist, long-time Buddhist practitioner and popular presenter on England’s BBC Radio 2. I was honored to have the chance to speak with him about his thoughts on ways parents can discuss spirituality and religion with their young children.

An Interview with Dharmachari Nagaraja

Although neither of us would be considered “religious,” my husband and I both have spiritual beliefs and figured that our son and daughter would have them too, eventually. We thought we’d simply handle any spiritual questions from our children with basic honesty. I hadn’t factored in how difficult honesty can be when talking about something that you either haven’t given much thought to or have conflicting feelings about. With these questions reaching a peak during the Holiday Season, I asked Dharmachari Nagaraja, author, psychotherapist and long-time Buddhist practitioner, to weigh in on children, spirituality and religion. ~ Gina Osher, The Twin Coach, TMC Contributer

What is the best way to introduce the concept of spirituality to children?

Most people get caught up in the idea of whether God exists or doesn’t exist, or where you go when you die. But spirituality is a way of thinking about things, learning to live with differences, investigating differences. When we allow children to see that their actions have consequences and to think through their experiences, they are allowed to reflect more deeply. Asking children “what do you think” instead of answering questions directly or pointing them to an external God figure for answers invites children to participate and develop an interest in investigating their thoughts and feelings about things. Once they become used to doing this, they begin to see spirituality as more than a discussion about God but about understanding one’s place in the universe.

If one parent is religious but the other isn’t, how do you approach the subject?

How parents negotiate their differences is what is important when it comes to children. Kids are watching to see if their parents respect each other’s differences. When it comes to how we live our lives, children are looking to us to see how we become more self-aware, how we manage suffering, how we handle anger and disappointment. How our religion or spiritual self manifests in our lives is what children are looking at. What we say matters less than what we do. Thus, if one parent believes strongly in the value of attending religious services, but respects the other parent’s belief that God is all around us and that he or she doesn’t feel a calling to organized religion, the children will grow up with a respect for both ways of looking at spirituality and religion. Parents in this situation also need to be tolerant of the child wanting to try on both ways of looking at the subject.

When it comes to religious holidays and rituals (such as going to church etc.), what is the best way to discuss why we do or do not participate?

As with everything, being honest with your child is the place to begin. If you’re not participating out of a sense of cynicism or distaste for the particular religion you grew up with, you can discuss this in age-appropriate ways. If, despite this, you feel it is important for your child to have a connection to those rituals or that religion, it’s important to take a look at why you feel this way. Having done that, if you find it is still important to you, go together with your child to services or make the decision to celebrate a holiday and connect with the parts of the religion that speak to you. Finding what you lost touch with and seeing it not only through the eyes of your children, but also as an adult who now has the freedom and experience to question things, allows you to share those parts that have deeper meaning for you.

What if extended family is very religious (or not religious at all), how do you handle that?

In general, humans don’t like change. It can be very threatening to find that someone in our circle (or even outside of it) is choosing something that is different from our own beliefs. People tend to want everything fixed and constant. It is safer than how things really are, which is in a constant state of flux. If your family doesn’t feel comfortable with you thinking for yourself, it can feel like a spiritual and psychological crisis and you may start to become aware of who is actually listening to you and who is not. When you really think about it, both Buddha and Christ went against the accepted social norms of their time in order to be true individuals and to follow their own paths. So we can ask ourselves as parents if we are going to sacrifice our child’s individuality in order to satisfy someone else.

If you differ from your family in religious or spiritual beliefs, there are a few basic things you can try:

Don’t rub their faces in it. Be as respectful of their beliefs as you hope they would be of yours.
Do try to include them in what you are doing. Sharing books, articles and events is a nice way to try and expand their thinking, but don’t push it on them. And be willing to accept their disinterest.
Have straightforward conversations about your beliefs and why they are important to you.
Remember that you can’t make everybody happy.

What can we do with our children on a daily basis to bring a sense of spirituality or religion into their lives?

The Zen master and spiritual teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, encourages the practice of bringing mindfulness into every moment. Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment, and appreciating the freshness and beauty of what meets our senses. It’s easy with young children, as they very naturally do this on their own without knowing it. In experiencing mindfulness with them, you begin to see that even the most mundane details of life are precious. When you do this together, your children truly become your teachers. Their sense of wonder is intact and reveals the world to you in a way that you may have forgotten.

Parents who believe in God will naturally regard the revelations of mindfulness as evidence of the greatness of God and can talk about that to their children. But this is not the only way to have a spiritual connection to the world we live in. Buddhism, for instance, is non-theistic but encourages sensitivity and devotion to the well-being of all creatures. Learning to appreciate the specialness of seemingly insignificant moments, we recognize that everyone is involved in something special. Thus, even the ordinary is significant. And what is significant is worthy of being noticed and celebrated. Simple acts such as fogging up a cold window with your warm breath or even a household chore like washing dishes can become a spiritual moment for you and your children.

Take your time, notice the details, focus on the feelings each act elicits and share your experience. Ask your children what they enjoy most about what they’re being mindful of. You will notice in doing this that we all have the ability to live each day in appreciation. This practice of mindfulness does not clash with or contradict any religious belief. It actually gives you the root of direct experience that gives nourishment to your faith.

Dharmachari Nagaraja is the author of “Buddha at Bedtime: Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read with Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten and Inspire”. He was a regular guest presenter on BBC Radio 2, where he used traditional Buddhist tales to communicate the Buddha’s teachings to a UK audience of 7.7 million people. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1988, taught at and managed the Covent Garden Meditation Centre, London and has now returned to his native Scotland where he works as a psychotherapist, teacher and occasional broadcaster.

Change Is Inevitable: How Stories Can Help Children Handle It

I have a confession: when things don’t go the way I expect them to go, I kind of freak out. I get stressed, I can get angry, I think my brain even malfunctions a bit. It’s not a pretty sight. When something really huge unexpectedly happens – like when my first marriage ended – I cope much better than I do with the little, every day kind of changes. I go into battle mode with the big stuff and I get it handled. But the little things, like when plans have to change unexpectedly, really throw me for a loop.

For children, change can be overwhelming and even incredibly frightening if they don’t understand what’s going on. Adults often assume that children are too young to notice or comprehend the changes happening around them, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Children pick up on very subtle cues and while they may not be able to articulate what they sense, don’t doubt that they are aware and they are affected.

helping children with changeChange can be difficult for many people and there are myriad reasons why. For me, a lot of the difficulty has to do with my need for control which I think stems, in part, from my early childhood in which there was constant change and very little in the way of routine.

Nothing bad happened to me, this was just the way my parents lived in those days. Because of my personality, I eventually developed a coping mechanism of trying to prepare for everything that might possibly happen. Thus, my tendency now to lose it when something doesn’t happen the way I thought it would. It would be nice if I could teach my children a better way.

“Children, like the rest of us, handle change best if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine. A predictable routine allows children to feel safe, and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives. As this sense of mastery is strengthened, they can tackle larger changes: walking to school by themselves, paying for a purchase at the store, going to sleepaway camp.” ~ Dr. Laura Markham

Routine is, or course, not possible 100% of the time. And there are times when change has to happen. Some of the most common questions I get from clients are ones about how to help their children navigate a change in routine like parents going on a vacation, a move to a new house and even changing behavior like how to fix a bedtime routine that’s gotten out of control.

One of the methods that I suggest often is using story books that parents make themselves. Stories help children make sense of their environment, their emotions and their behavior. With children of any age, but particularly children who are quite young, picture books help make any kind of lesson one is trying to teach much more concrete for them. Too many words can simply get confusing for them, but a few sentences combined with a picture really allows them to take in and understand the message.

You don’t need to be a great artist or writer to make these books and they don’t need to take a lot of time or cost much. The great thing about them is that you can really do them however you wish, in a very short amount of time and they will help your family immensely.

How To Make A Story Book

What is the book made of?

I have made books out of folded sheets of printer paper that I staple along the fold to mimic the idea of a bound book. I have made books on Shutterfly using photos and printed the book out. I have used a 3-ring binder and plastic inserts into which I slipped 8.5″ x 11″ paper. You can even buy blank books and fill the pages in like a sketch pad or a scrap book! It doesn’t matter what it looks like, just do what feels right for you. Do remember that your kids will love this book and want to see it and have you read it often, so don’t make it too precious.

But I can’t draw!

And it doesn’t matter. You can make stick figures, you can use photos, you can cut pictures from magazines. Your kids don’t care as long as they are in the book and you are reading it to them.

When do I read it to the kids?

Depending on the nature of the event you’re working with, I would slip the book into your regular reading ritual. For most people this means before bedtime or nap time. But feel free to read it whenever the kids ask about it or whenever you feel like they may need reminding.

Do I have to keep making new ones?

When it comes to something like sleep routines, you may want to try a binder with inserts only so that you can pull out one page that may not fit the bill anymore (say, for example, your children no longer sleep in cribs etc.) and insert an updated page without having to make an entirely new book.

Preparing Children For Upcoming Change

The arrival of a new baby, a move to a new home, moving from the crib into a big kid bed, parents going on a trip without the kids, starting a new school. All of these sorts of things are example of changes in your children’s lives which may come up and which may cause them some anxiety if they aren’t prepared for it. Additionally, creating a book about these events opens up a dialogue between parents and kids so that you can really begin to understand how they feel and they, in turn, get to experience their parents as people to whom they can turn when they have fears.

Obviously, every child is different and yours may be the type who goes with the flow easily, but even so, taking the time to carefully explain to them what new things are coming up will only help your kids. Use simple sentences they understand and try to get into their heads a little to figure out what might come up for them during whatever event you’re working on. Books about upcoming changes should include the following components:

favorite toysBe clear.

State, in a positive way, what the change is going to be. “Sometimes mommy and daddy go on a trip. When that happens, Aunt Lisa and Uncle Rich come to stay! Colin and Ben know that mommy and daddy always come back. This is a book about how much fun Colin and Ben will have when mommy and daddy go on their trip!”

Point out how special it will be for the child in question.

For example, in the case of moving to a new home you could highlight that the child will have a new room she can help decorate or that there is a big tree to climb in the yard. If parents are traveling, perhaps the kids are doing some special events while you are away which you can detail. “When mommy and daddy are away, Lilah and Sam will get to go swimming at Grandpa Jack’s house and eat ice cream in their pajamas!”

Remind the child of all the things that will be the same.

Children don’t have the experience to know that their whole lives won’t be turned upside down just because one thing is changing. In the case of a new baby brother or sister, you could remind your child that his bed will still be his own and that he will still have special mommy time every Thursday. In the example of moving from the nursery to a “big kid” room, you can remind your child that their nightlight will still be the same as will their favorite teddy bear. List as many things as you wish. “Even though you will be in a new room, you will still have Mr. Bear and your squishy pillow. Your sleeping music will be the same as it always was, too!”

Talk about everything that will be new.

Don’t shy away from bringing up that things will be different. Just frame it in a positive way. “At your new school there will be kids who love Ninjago as much as you do and they may be your new friends!” Children also want to know that what they feel is normal and they are OK for feeling that way: “You may sometimes feel jealous or mad when mommy is cuddling with your new sister. It’s OK to feel that way. If you do ever feel yucky about the new baby, come tell mommy or daddy and we can help you” or “You may miss mommy and daddy when we are away, but your favorite aunt, Lisa, will be here to cuddle with you so you can talk about mommy and daddy as much as you want.”

Go over their routine.

Even if this one thing is changing, much of their day will be the same. They will still have pancakes for breakfast, they will still ride in mommy’s car to school, they will still go to their favorite music class on Tuesdays, they will still have bath time before bed and daddy will still tuck them in. If you’re making about about being away from them, be sure to let them know who will be with them doing all of their routine (“Aunt Erika will give you your bath on Sunday night and put you to bed. Then, in the morning, she will drive you to school! You can show her where you go to school and maybe even introduce her to your friends!”) Again, knowing the routine brings comfort to children and allows them to feel safe. Finding a way to present things so it feels exciting, but reassuring, is what you want.

They have each other.

If you have more than one child who is experiencing the event in question, you can remind them of how much they love each other, how each of them will be there to help the others, how they can ask their siblings for help if they need it and so forth.

Bottom line.

In whatever way you want to get the point across: you are loved, we are taking care of you, you are safe, you can talk to us if you are worried and we respect you enough to know what is happening in our family.

Can Story Books Be Used For Changing Behaviors?

big hugsIn addition to helping kids navigate changes in their lives, these books are also extremely helpful when parents wish to make changes in routines or behaviors.

As I mentioned, we’ve used them successfully to work on our children’s sleep issues including early waking, repeated night waking, prolonging saying goodnight and more. I’ve also seen them used successfully for clients who had a lot of difficulty with their children around meal times, when a family had made a decision to cut back on how much screen time was being allowed in the home, for families who had lots of trouble getting their children dressed and out of the door in time for school and many other similar struggles.

I’m a big fan of making our own story books because they can be done quickly, inexpensively and you can tailor them to the exact event you are experiencing. Honestly, your kids will love them, no matter what they look like and if you are consistent about what you say you’re going to do (in terms of the ones you might make for behavior modification), they really do work.

I’d love to hear if you’ve ever used anything like this or what you think about the method. And if you’re inspired to make one, let me know how it works out for you!

Labels Limit A Child

Recently I was asked to check out a new, award-winning parenting book called What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children. This book is short and very easy to read, with many excellent examples and I love that it includes children’s book suggestions as a way to work through some of the thorniest issues.

After reading it, I was glad to see that the author, Sarah McLaughlin, and I were very much on the same page about many things including helping children express their emotions, alternatives to shaming children as a way to change their behavior and avoiding label children.

Sarah has very kindly offered a guest post on labeling which is excerpted and adapted from What Not To Say, as well as an opportunity to win a great giveaway!


Labels Limit A Child
Guest post by Sarah McLaughlin

Labels are so tempting. Using adjectives to define a child is a natural desire. And I have to admit I was much more tempted to label my own child than I ever was someone else’s—maybe it’s how well you get to know a child you actually live with—I just wanted to know and name everything about him! But be it stubborn or helpful, labeling ties a child to their behavior, perhaps inextricably.

When a child hears a word or phrase applied to him often enough, it “sticks” just like a name tag. This can change his self-image. Children tend to accept without question the labels adults use to describe their physical characteristics, personality, abilities, and limitations. Diane, often called Angel, tries to live up to her nickname and that might seem like a good thing. However, nicknames and labels pressure children to act a certain way instead of being themselves—sometimes well-behaved and kind and other times unruly and vindictive. Consider each parent’s language in the following scenarios…

James at twenty months is fearless on the toddler-oriented playground. His father barely takes his hands off him and James struggles for independence to scoot quickly around the nearest structure. As James climbs, Dad says, “Be careful son, this pirate ship is very high. You are such a wild boy. Watch your head! Good boy. Hold Daddy’s hand, please. Good boy. What a bold boy you are!”

Sophie is the same age. Her mother watches closely as the little girl negotiates the playground. Mom is careful to stay nearby, but doesn’t hover unnecessarily. She moves in if she sees Sophie traversing a drop-off point, or signaling for help. She also talks to her daughter: “Sophie, you are doing it all by yourself! Last week you asked for help in that spot. Reach . . . you did it. Your muscles are getting strong.”

The father’s verbal cues are warnings, labels, and praise. Sophie’s mother gives a different sort of feedback by narrating her daughter’s movements and comparing them to a previous playground trip. Both parents want to keep their children safe, but their words send different messages about each child’s capabilities. In turn, these words influence the child’s behavior. James picks up on Dad’s nervous hovering and may defy him in an unsafe way, or act more fearful. Sophie will likely increase her skill and self-confidence, in part because of Mom’s descriptions.

If a child is told he acts a certain way, he will tend to continue, even if the description is negative. Is it helpful to you, or a child, to joke about him being a slowpoke? We often use unflattering labels to differentiate children, saying things like, “He’s our little show-off,” or “She’s the troublemaker in this classroom.” Obviously adults don’t want to reinforce these behaviors, but what about the more subtle labels? For example, consider “tomboy,” an outdated stereotype for a girl who is athletic, or doesn’t fit old ideas about girlish behavior and clothes. When a word like this pigeonholes a young child, she may feel there is something wrong with her. You can comment in a nonjudgmental way on a girl’s or boy’s preferences: “Jenny loves to climb trees and play soccer. She’s very active.” Or, “Eddie likes quiet activities—playing with dolls and trucks and looking at picture books.”

The labeling phenomenon is much like downloaded information. When we are young, we hear certain things being said to and about us, and they are stored on our hard drives. As we get older, those old files may continue to show up on our screen—and they are terribly hard to delete. Remember that the descriptive labels we apply to children can affect them for a long time, maybe even a lifetime.

It is easy to be unaware of the impact of our descriptive words. Adults tend to use positive labels to encourage children in a variety of activities. This is an ideal opportunity to try narrating instead. Simply say what you see, and use your tone wisely. Words that help without limiting are best. As for negative labels, they are best avoided too—we all behave in undesirable ways from time to time. Being able to separate what they do, from who they are is imperative for a small child.

Creating A Tidal Wave Of Change. Are You With Me?

“There is no single effort more radical in its potential for saving the world than a transformation of the way we raise our children.” ~ Marianne Williamson

“One generation full of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation, and with that, the world.” ~ Dr. Charles Raison

There are times when I ask myself why I put so much time and effort into this blog and all that goes along with writing it. This happens occasionally on days when I feel particularly overwhelmed with juggling everything in my life. It definitely happens on days when people who come across what I write send me comments that are so full of vitriol and judgment that I question, just for a moment, my purpose and beliefs.

I am generally a rather private person and am not inclined to enjoy being the center of attention. Nor do I tend to be confrontational about things. And I don’t have the thick skin required for being judged harshly. And yet I continue, day after day, to expose myself and push myself to share what is generally a very intimate thing: my struggle to change bad habits, my missteps, my fears, insecurities and self doubts and ultimately, my attempts to overcome it all.

And for what purpose?

I was considering that question the other day. It came up again, but this time in context of being asked what my goal was in writing this blog. When I first started, my thought was to eventually write a book. I still have that goal, I’ve just had to put it on the back burner for a bit. But, in the almost 2 years that I’ve been writing, I’ve noticed that my goals have morphed a bit.

I’ve come to realize that those two quotes at the top of the page are why I do this. I persist in sharing and examining and digging deep because I know in every part of my being that we are all connected. What we teach our children (directly or indirectly) goes out into the world like a ripple in a pond. Expanding further and further to ultimately touch everyone they come in contact with. And everyone they come in contact with creates their own ripple.

Yes, it is often overwhelming to consider how certain beliefs about children that I don’t agree with are so ingrained in many people. Yes, it can be disheartening to come up against people unwilling to see things a different way. And yes, it sometimes would be easier to just live inside my bubble and let others fight for this parenting paradigm shift.

I watch parents in the playground barking orders at their children or disrespecting them in myriad ways and I physically hurt. Can I really live in a bubble and ignore the possibility that maybe I can help in some way?

“And there is no easy way to change human behaviour. There is no quick way to change human behaviour. To achieve change we must be patient, be committed, and above all be brave.” ~ Aunt Annie’s Childcare

Bravery. That’s one trait I didn’t expect to have to work on when I became a parent. Bravery is for people who fight against racial injustice. Or against brutal dictatorships. How can I look at what I am doing as being brave? But I believe bravery is in the experience of the doer. Not in the eye of the beholder. It is brave for me to share my shortcomings and be willing to be judged. It is brave for me to push myself to find the deep connection, the underlying meaning, the empathetic response instead of just the easy way out. It is brave for me to put myself out there as a parent who speaks up for a different way of doing things…even when I’m challenged by my own insecurities about being visible.

childismA recent article in Time Magazine provocatively titled “Childist Nation”: Does America Hate Kids? discusses a disturbing trend:

“There’s a general sense now that children’s rights, children’s needs, children’s wants and desires have taken on too prominent a place in our family lives. That we’ve over indulged them and now have to tighten the reins. The backlash is, at base, against ourselves — against a form of boomer and postboomer parenting that many agree has gone off the rails. But the targets of that backlash — its victims — are children.”

When I read things like this I know that I have to write. I cannot bury my head in the sand and pretend I don’t know the effects of that sort of thinking. I am just one person, but the ripple effect of the compassion, empathy and respect for children I am working to create can grow and expand infinitely. Will you join me?