The climbing game

Lately I've been reading Vogotsky's theories of developmentally based learning. I like the conception of the child's competency that spans "things I can do" to "things I need help or prompts to do" to "things you'll have to teach me and help me do." He follows Piaget a lot more than I expected; I think the biggest difference between the two might be that Piaget sees children as progressing in a certain order in relation to certain sets of skills/knowledge. While Vogotsky seems to think that it's a little more complicated than that.

Vogotstky is at once a little more hands-on and hands-off regarding learning: adults help kids learn new tricks, but then their roll is to stand back and let kids explore the new behavior within their abilities.

The Vogotskian concept of scaffolding then, means the physical and intangible supports kids get in the process: whether it's crayons and clay, or rules to a game or story time, everything works toward the same goal, bringing children a step forward, or up. As parents we need scaffolding too, whether it's from other, more experienced parents, a good book, a program or a therapist, it's easier to learn when we have supports around us in the process. And we learn best when we use the optimal supports for the optimal period.

In the same way that you can teach a child to climb up and down the monkey bars, you teach people new skills. Maybe you have to guide their feet the first few times, till they learn the movements, then you spot them while they practice it without your guiding touch. Eventually, they master the skills, and you'll have to hunt to find them on the playground, much less keep up with them. The teacher's job is to make himself irrelevant. When you're working with adults, though, you can't always let them know you're behind them, protecting them from a fall.

As with children, so adults: we aren't superior to those we teach, we are just providing the means to their becoming better themselves.


Imitation and Modeling.

In this video, a small child is demonstrating the facial expressions and language she has learned that coincide with various feelings, along with a good dose of humor, encouragement, and success. She may not "feel" angry when she does the angry face, any more than she knows who George Bush is. Learning emotional skills, like learning words and behaviors, takes a lot of repetition, changes of context, and personal relevance.

What do I mean by personal relevance? You may remember the scene in Helen Keller's life story, when she first learns to sign? The teacher takes her to the pump and runs cool water over her hand, while signing the letters for water in her palm. Suddenly Helen makes the connection, in a way you just couldn't replicate by mere repetition.

Imitation of adult behaviors is a powerful learning tool for children (and other adults). Your modeling of the respect, kindness, honesty and eagerness to learn that you want to see in your child is what brings those qualities to the forefront. Whether it's the words you say or how you say them, your child is learning them. The way you use the objects in your child's life, from toys to books, to knicknacks and food, all are lessons for you child in how they will treat their things, and those of others. The way you treat your child, and the way you treat others in front of your child, including yourself-- is how your child learns to treat others. Sound like a huge responsibility? It is. You'll have lots of do-overs, but the overall message you want to give your child is one of healthy self discipline, problem-solving, moderation, social grace, and intellectual curiosity. We all make mistakes, and we all have our weaknesses. As adults, it's our job to be self aware, and recognize what messages we're sending our children by what we choose to do.


Distract and redirect

Two of the simplest tools in your parenting toolbox, distraction and redirection work pretty well from the moment a child is old enough to get into mischief. Whether the baby's fussing or the toddler is heading for the china cabinet, a funny noise, an appropriate toy, or simply a hey sweetie! can get her attention long enough for you to redirect her behavior. As your child becomes old enough to fuss about bedtime and toothbrushing, you can use distraction to keep him happy while he's getting ready. Tell a story about his favorite animal brushing his teeth or about a teddy bear who puts on her pajamas and asks for a story. Or simply talk about whatever is her favorite subject de jour while moving her along the process.

As kids get older, there will still be opportunities to distract them from misbehavior and redirect their attention to positive pursuits. It even works on grownups. I often find that my own attention can be distracted from a bad mood and redirected to positive behaviors, as long as I catch myself in time. For me, doing an energetic chore is great when I want to get over anger, anxiety, or excitement; while picking something small and achievable helps me get past the doldrums (even if all I do is sew a hem or pay one bill, or read one page). What are some ways you can use your distraction and redirection powers for good?


Examine your parenting tools

As parents, teachers and/or caregivers, we have 3 kinds of tools in our childcare skill box. The first are the tools we learned from our parents. This are skills we had applied to us, some of which worked, and we admire, and some of which aren't so great, which we hope we never use, but never quite discard. The last kind can end up deep in the bottom of our box, only to shake out when we're at our worst, most desperate.

The next set of tools are the ones we learned as we grew up, from observing what works for others, and what has worked on ourselves. These can be perfectly good tools sometimes, but they're not really thought through, so we may not always have the one we need right at hand, or we may pick the wrong tool.

Our best tools though, are the ones that we acquire with maturity, wisdom, education and above all, empathy. These are tools that stay near the top of the collection, because we know in our hearts they represent the best gifts of parenting a child can receive. These are tools that help the child think for himself, choose good behavior for good reasons, tools that model good behavior your child can use through adulthood; tools that teach problem solving skills, that respect the child's developmental stage and abilities, that help your child grow and learn.

What are the tools in your box? How have you used them? Think about who you want your child to grow up to be, as you examine how you treat your child. Is this how you would want to be treated? How would it make you feel to be treated this way? What would you learn from this treatment? My job is to help adults sort through their tools, decide what new ones are needed and find ways to get used to using the best tool for the job, instead of whichever one they're used to grabbing.

Being an aware parent is a valuable gift to yourself, and to your children.


communication and attachment create emotional skills

Babies begin to communicate with us the moment they're born. When they cry or move, we respond. With this primitive communication come the first emotional skills. They learn at a few months old that smiling gets them a lot of positive attention-- and smiles in return. They learn that different noises elicit different responses from adults.

At first babies don't realize they and the world are separate. It takes time for them to understand that they are unique individuals, that by moving around and making noises they can cause things to happen, and that there are other people out there who care for them and help them.

This first stage of emotional growth is called "self and other awareness." As the child becomes aware of his mother, and all she does for him, he bonds to her, and to the caregivers who provide and care for him. This is the beginning of trust, self esteem, and self confidence.

The safer a child feels with you emotionally, the stronger that bond will be, and the better they will be able to grow as people. By being there for your baby, you are letting her know that she has a safe place to grow and learn, that she is wanted, that she matters to you, and that she belongs. This sense of safety and belonging is vital to growth and development.

If you teach a child that you are always there for him, he will feel safe exploring the world and new ideas.

If you teach the child that you believe in him, he will always know in his heart that he can succeed.

If you teach your child that you love him no matter what, he will always be able to come to you with his problems, and trust you to help him find better solutions.


Helping babies and toddlers grow

It’s understandable that parents want to offer whatever they can to help their children through the stages of growth and development. Parents have tried all kinds of ways of giving their child an edge on others their age, from flash cards to teach infants to read, to baseball gloves for one year olds, to playing Mozart in the womb. Rather than overwhelming your child with information he or she isn’t ready to process, it’s better to learn what the child is ready for, at what stage, and offer him or her the most efficient amount of information, access, freedom and guidance for that stage of development.

Baby humans are born with larger brains than most mammals, in fact brain size helps determine how soon in development a fetus leaves the womb. But that big brain isn’t fully developed yet, the way the heart and other organs are. It still has a lot of growing and changing to do. Infancy through early childhood is a time unlike any other. Your child’s experiences will help determine how big the brain will grow, and what parts of it flourish or die off.

Babies gain control from head to feet, they start by using eyes and mouth, then hands, and only then begin to control the torso, legs and feet. General movements to specific: large motor skills before fine motor skills, waving arms before finding hands before reaching for and then touching objects, before manipulating them; kicking before crawling before walking.

Developmentally Determined Behavior
Jean Piaget, the father of child development theory, saw through observation that children go through discrete stages of learning and skill development. He noticed that children can’t leap too far ahead in one bound. A newborn is not ready to play football; a toddler isn’t ready to read War and Peace. What children can do, Piaget found, is to move to the next stage of development as the opportunity to grow is presented, when they’re ready to take advantage of it. So if you take a two month old who is finding his hands, and put soft, colorful toys in his reach, he will sooner or later reach for them, a milestone he can achieve. If you take a toddler who is learning words, and speak to her in complete sentences, and help her label actions and objects, you will soon have a child who can speak in sentences. You can’t teach a toddler to run like a four year old, they’re not physically able to do it. Same with concepts like sharing and waiting turns, if the child isn’t ready to understand it, no amount of instruction, example or punishment will teach the child to do so.

There are a lot of behaviors that children do, that are tied to development. Some of these behaviors may seem like misbehavior, when in fact they are just “something kids do at that age” or what our parents used to call “just a phase.” Examples of this are: bedwetting, thumb sucking, ear pulling, tantrums, running away when you call them to you, and becoming upset when it’s time to leave one place for another. Each of these behaviors and others like them will disappear on their own over time. You can help the child through them, but punishing these behaviors only works at great cost to your relationship with the child, and often doesn’t work at all.

Therefore it’s important to learn what stage your child is in, what he or she is ready to learn or do, and what they may be capable of. There are good books at the library and bookstores that will help you figure out where your child is, developmentally, and what he or she is able to do, and how your child compares to others of the same age. You can also talk to your pediatrician, as well as observing other children as they interact in the playground, at your child’s daycare or preschool, or within your family or neighborhood. Getting a good picture of your child’s stage of growth and abilities will help you to have a smoother, more positive relationship and help your child to grow when he’s ready. If your toddler is making sounds that seem like words, for example, it’s ok to echo back the words it sounds like. It may very well mean what you think it does to the child, and answering back helps the child understand a little bit more about language. Don’t insist the child imitate you, but allow him or her the time to answer back. It’s a game, a learning game. Approach development with a sense of fun, and you’ll teach your child that learning and growing is not only acceptable, but valuable in gaining skills, autonomy, and closeness with you.



Last week a parent asked me how to handle teaching her 3 year old daughter to say "please" and "thank you." We all want our children to be kind and respectful, even when we aren't always so ourselves. "Angie" is a typical 3 going on 4, full of energy, alternating between garrulous and shy, ready to embrace the world when she's not hiding from it safe in mom's arms. Her parents are good natured and down to earth world travelers, who speak three languages that I know of. Angie is able to understand 3 and speaks mostly in her mother's native language, but communicates well in English.

Her parents and I had discussed various parenting styles and at one point I used their own specific example to help them understand my problem with the use of rewards and punishments to train children. An aunt had come to visit and brought toys the first time. The parents were concerned that Angie would be disappointed if auntie didn't bring a gift each time. I pointed out that rewards tend to cause this kind of problem in discipline. The child's behavior is externally focused, not internally-- she treats auntie well because of the gift, rather than because she is just happy to see her. In the same light, when a child isn't ready to say thank you, pushing them only increases the social tension. But you don't want a rude child! "What do you do then?" they asked, and I said, "you let the child off the hook in the moment, and prompt them to see it from the other person's point of view." It wasn't long before we had a chance to try this skill.

Angie was very excited to meet me, but when it came time to show gratitude to me for sharing something, she clammed up. I could see she felt a great deal of stress, and couldn't bring herself to speak despite daddy's prompts. So I told her, "That's ok, you can thank me when you're ready." She smiled and, looking a bit past me, said thank you in a quiet voice. It took her a while to warm up again after this bit of social anxiety.

Had she balked further, the best thing to do would be a simple conversation from mama or daddy: Do you like it when people thank you for sharing? Yes? How does it feel when they don't thank you? Is that how you want your friend to feel? No? Then what do you do? Most children Angie's age are able to follow this emotionally and come up with a nice "thank you."

For younger children, please and thank you and other social niceties are mostly imitative. That is, if you and the adults and other children around them are saying it they will happily say it all too, as soon as they are able to. Even contrarian 18 month olds can be encouraged to be helpful and use these basic elements of manners, although consistency doesn't exist at that age. Repetition here is your friend, but remember to be low key and low stress with this kind of prompt.

As for rewards and punishments: you don't have to, for example, give your child a toy if he's not behaving well, in fact I don't recommend it. This is not the same as punishing him; it's a natural consequence of his behavior. Don't couch it as withholding the toy because he's bad. It's better to say, "I'm not sure you're calm enough to have the toy yet. Can you show me how you calm down?"

On the other hand, taking away a toy to punish him can backfire. "Ha, I don't need that toy anyway!" is a response they come up with pretty quickly. Next thing you know, an inexperienced parent will find himself in a power struggle. And that, dear readers, is something you'll want to avoid. Once you let yourself get drawn into a battle of wills, you've already lost.


What is alternative parenting?

Over the years many parents have asked: why should I teach my children social norms, when I don't believe in them? The answer is: you don't. Never try to teach your child to be what you don't believe in.

It's easy to be a parent just like your own were-- they were teaching you from day 1 how to be that person. It's much harder create in yourself the kind of parent you want to be, and that you'd want your children to become. This can be particularly trying in the LGBT community; among atheists and agnostics, for feminists, greens, or even for people who just don't live the 9-5 life. Although there are countless numbers of parents who are terrific role models and best friends, too often there are rifts and rejections we don't want to pass along to our kids. And too often bad choices our parents made, and bad parenting cycles we want to break. That's where a good parenting class comes in.

Learning to be aware of the kind of person you want to raise, and the kind of parent you want to be, is the first step in becoming an aware and engaged parent. What are your values, how did you arrive at them? What benefit do you get, and what will your child derive from them? And most important how do you pass them on? You already do so much for your children, it may seem overwhelming to try to be conscious of every interaction, and it would be, just like bicycling would be overwhelming if you had to think of every motion you made to keep your balance and move forward.

With alternative parenting, you can learn how to pick your own standard of normal, healthy social and emotional skills. You can teach your child your values, and help them appreciate the unique and wonderful journey toward an aware adulthood. You don't have to be afraid to raise your children without the prejudices and fears of the past. If you're interested in the program, call 917-406-8960 for more information. Classes are forming now for August and September.


Watch this space

I'm working on my web site tonight, trying to do it all "just right" and finally understanding why people pay someone else to do it! The tech support at is great, but it's complicated, even for the moderately savvy. This process reminds me how much children struggle to learn things that we consider easy, everyday affairs. From learning to pet the kitty gently to learning how to tie shoes, to learning how to say the words that help you get what you need from others, life is the constant wonder and strain of the new. And just like me tonight, they drop from sheer exhaustion, overwhelmed by the new information their brains will process as they sleep.

I can imagine how much worse it feels to be loaded down with information, experiences emotions, desires and needs, only to bump into a frustration they cannot possibly solve. Many adults melt down on these occasions, and we have much better emotional regulation skills than children. Solving those meltdowns should start right there: understanding what's going on in your child's mind when she loses it. Chances are, she just needs a calm voice to guide her back to balance. Try just holding out your arms and saying, "I need a hug," and see if that doesn't help your child come around.


People who feel better do better.

Recently I tried a little exercise on an acquaintance. She's one of those people who just seems to take everything personally. It used to get under my skin quite a bit, especially when she would lose her temper at people for imagined slights. She'd been nitpicking at me for a couple of weeks, and I hadn't been responding. Instead, I took the intiative one day and told her I thought she was a wonderful person, and that I was sorry if people had been too hard on her lately. I was being sincere. As irritated as I'd been about her backbiting, I do feel she's done her duties well at work, and has been a supportive mom to her son. She seemed a little surprised, but above all, relieved. She thanked me, and said she was a little shocked, but that she appreciated hearing that. She said, I know I'm not Attilah the hun, that I've painted me as -- not that "you" or "they" -- she actually used the word "I." I don't know if it was a Freudian slip, but she didn't correct herself.

I didn't really expect her to suddenly change personality, and she didn't. But she's been a lot less strident since. And the people who dislike her still dislike her, but they're not getting into arguments with her. At least not this week. A few asked me what I was up to, but I just explained that I had realized that people who feel better do better, and that being mad at this lady wasn't helping, so maybe helping her to feel better might make a difference.

I bring this experience with adults to my advice column because this bit of advice is actually taken from Adlerian based child therapy. Positive discipline asks: where did we get the idea that we have to make children feel worse to get them to do better? In my parenting classes we spend a bit of time examining this idea. Many parents don't realize that discipline isn't just about punishment. Discipline is teaching, and every time we speak to another person, including our children, we're teaching them: who we are, how they are expected to act, and how we feel about them. What have you been teaching your family? Take some time to look at your interactions over the day. Have you been kind, firm, fair and consistent? Are you taking care of yourself so you can take care of others? Have you been respectful, and insistent on respect in return?


Kids and Commercials

Anna McAlister and Bettina Cornwell's study, "Children's Understanding of Brand Symbolism" has created quite a stir in parenting circles, but it doesn't really tell us anything new. The first thing that sprang to mind as I read it was "Operator! There's a man in my bathroom!"

I know I'm dating myself with that reference, but the eponymous line from that genre-making Mr. Bubbles commercial still pleases me to this day. The first time I saw the kid in the tub scaring his grandma, I burst into laughter. Finally, a product that understood kids. I wanted to support the brand, quite passionately, but my mother insisted on the cheapo bubble bath, which in 1963 consisted entirely of dish detergent. Nowadays, that would not be recommended, according to product labeling.

The study, heralding the discovery that pre K kids are brand conscious seems to be about 50 years behind the times. Any parent since the dawn of television can tell you how hard it is to lure your kids toward healthy, inexpensive products once they've been bitten by the brand name bug. McAlister and Cornwell seem to think they're breaking new ground, but this is age-old wisdom in ad agencies, where the motto is get em while they're young. Brand loyalty can be lifelong, so many agencies compete to capture that loyalty as early as possible. Soap commercials during children's programming may seem logical because Mom may be watching, but the fact is, so are the kids. The first brand request I made of my mother besides a toy, was some dishwashing liquid, which prompted our first discussion on the relative merits of disbelieving most of what you're told by voiceovers.

I may not remember that brand (although I'd guess it was Ivory), but I still remember the image of the soap bottle on our tv, and where my mother and I were when I asked, and I couldn't have been older than four. As for Mr. Bubble, who came in around the same time (62-63), I remember that better because it spoke to me, the little girl with the hefty imagination and sense of humor. I felt such kinship with the little kid in the bubble beard saying, "how do you doooo Madame!" to a scandalized Grandma that to this day, the interchange pops into mind when, as at this very minute 45 years later there is in fact a man in my bathroom, painting the ceiling, but still. I had to chuckle.

My mother's ultimate solution to the Mr Bubble quandary became her MO for all such requests. We got to try it once, and compare it to the bargain brand. Of course we couldn't tell the difference, and that gave Dad an opportunity to chide us for being fooled by the colorful box and smooth talk. Common sense can be applied to almost any parenting struggle, to create a learning situation, and a lifelong lesson.


Food fights

Last night I caught an episode of one of the many "Nanny" shows. Apparently this nanny's idea of discipline involves putting children in time out whenever they don't do what they're told, when they're told to. Now, this may seem reasonable when you read it, after all, it's time out, and kids should listen to their parents! But let's look a little closer. In the show, the family is eating a meal. There's a large production crew, plus the nanny who is prompting the parents and kids from behind as they sit at the table. Imagine being a little 8 year old girl whose parents called in this huge crowd because she's been bad, to make a movie about how bad she is. The stress must be enormous. And stress causes kids to lose their appetites. She eats about a half cup of dinner, and then says she's not hungry. Her plate is loaded with as much food as an adult might eat, a lot more than I eat at a sitting, in fact.

The father demands that she cleans the plate. She says, crossly, I'm not hungry. I already ate one plateful (we don't know whether this is true, since we don't see the whole meal). The father tries to cajole her, but the nanny jumps in and lectures the girl about obeying her parents, and then the nanny has the mother bring the child to their time out spot. The girl becomes hysterical --who in their right mind wouldn't become angry and upset about being humiliated in front of a room full of disapproving strangers? The time out becomes a fifteen minute long torture session as the girl is told how bad she is, manhandled by her mother to keep her in place, and commanded to sit up, to finish the plate full of food, to stop crying and to do what her parents tell her.

She finally capitulates, or so it seems-- we never see whether she can actually finish what looks like almost a pound of food. My guess is that they decided to edit it out. I couldn't help thinking that the parents are setting the stage for a possible eating disorder if they continue to make dinner into a war zone.

So how can you rewrite this situation so that the child isn't driven to hysteria, the parents get a calm meal, and food doesn't become a weapon?

First, detoxify meal time. It shouldn't be full of activity, noise and interference. Mealtimes that are calm and pleasant family times will encourage the child's involvement. Second, do not force children to eat more than they are ready to eat. Doing this teaches the child to override his own body's signals that he has had enough. Do that often enough and the child will no longer eat only until he's not hungry, he'll eat whatever is put in front of him. I think you can guess what that leads to.

Serve your children the meal, let them eat until they judge themselves to have eaten enough, and then take the plate away and excuse them from the table. You can remind them that the plate will go in the fridge if they get hungry later, so they can have leftovers. It's wise to avoid serving high-calorie desserts during a period when you are teaching your child how to gauge his own appetite. That way you won't have to deny the junk when the meal is over. It just won't be there. Eating dessert in front of him to "punish" him doesn't really work: it makes you look mean, and it teaches the child that food is a weapon after all.

Your child won't starve to death if you don't make him clean his plate. As long as there's nothing in the house but healthy foods, you can pretty much let him select his own snack menu (as long as he cleans up after himself). And kids who graze on healthy food are less likely to become overweight or develop eating disorders down the road. Of course there are other disturbances to be had at dinner, but choose a battle worth having.

Family dinner is important, but only good when it fosters togetherness, communication, and pleasant memories. So serve the meal at a set time every night, have everyone gather together, ask your kids how their day has been, or what they liked about school today. Tell them something about your day in a way they can relate. Show them by example how to be a good listener, and a good storyteller. Teach table manners by exhibiting them, but now is not the time to nag. Remind them once, and teach only a rule or two at a time. Make sure they have portions small enough for them to complete, but if they don't, don't make a big fuss. The important thing is that they associate dinnertime with the positives of being part of the family.


Parenting refreshers

At each stage of your children's lives you'll find new challenges. Just as each child is different, with different needs and abilities, so too at each age children's needs change. When you need to step up your parenting game, who do you turn to? Many of us rely on what we learned from our parents. We discuss our situation with friends and family.  But if you feel you're not getting the answers you need, why not stroll over to your public library or bookstore and take a look at the parenting books available? Looking for new answers doesn't mean you're not a good or wise parent, quite the opposite. It's helpful to skim through a few books on the shelves and see what seems to fit your parenting philosophy. New ideas may not work as well as you'd like, but often they can help you out of a parenting rut. Another solution is to take a parenting class or seminar, or join a parent support group. Often you local university, public library, county health department, church, synagogue or other community institution will have classes, lectures, or groups you can attend. If nothing is available, why not put one together yourself? When my kids were young, there were several of us moms that met weekly at a local library to talk about issues like school, healthy snacks, play date etiquette, activity ideas, and solutions to everyday kid dilemmas. We all had active preschoolers and the group was more than just a parent exchange, it was an opportunity to talk to other adults, which is a bit of a luxury sometimes!


Parenting styles

Throughout childhood we parents/caregivers/teachers struggle to find a good balance between giving the child freedom to explore and play, and structure to learn and grow. Everyone has their own style, which usually falls into one of three frameworks. The first, which many of us older parents are familiar with, is the authoritarian parenting style. If you find yourself saying 'because I said so'; punishing, giving strict limits and lots of inflexible rules, you probably fall into this category. It has the advantage of immediate obedience and dependability in most kids. However it can also breed resentment, limit self-control, and damage the child's ability to think and decide for himself as he grows.

The second general type of parenting, permissive parenting, grows from the theory that kids know best what they need, and will grow out of any problems on their own. Permissive parents don't punish, but they don't offer much guidance either. If your kids are allowed to run around grocery stores and restaurants, if you find yourself telling them to "work it out on your own" when they're squabbling, and if you often give in to whining, pleading and tantrums, then you're probably acting the permissive role. It has the advantage of giving kids lots of room to learn, play, and practice independence and curiosity. Unfortunately it's a bit like setting a kid loose on a tightrope and telling him to figure it out. Rules do have a comforting place in kids' lives, and kids without rules can be angry, controlling, demanding or depressed, depending on how they percieve parental laxness.

The third parenting style is called "authoritative" parenting. These parents set a few easy to comprehend rules, do not request anything of the child that they don't intend to follow up on, and use a large toolbox of parenting skills, adapted to their children's developmental and emotional stage. They see discipline as a learning tool, not as punishment. Parents in the authoritave mold will give their kids freedom to make choices, teach them to think through the outcomes of those choices, and help them to problem solve so that they can learn to self-regulate as they grow.

I don't think it's any secret which parenting style I think works best, but I don't think anyone is always "authoritative"-- we all have our exhausted "let em be" times and our grouchy "do as I say" days -- parenting is not about perfection, it's about doing your best at the time, learning better when you can, and being your child's best guide to her future adult self. Remember, we're all raising people, not just minding the children.

Engaged parents, happy babies

Engaged parents, happy babies