Discover the Child

Discover the Child
"There is a tiny light in the unconscious of mankind which guides it toward better things." "We must follow the child, but we must follow the child as his leader." -Maria Montessori

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Helpful Tips for a New Year: Parenting Resolutions for a More Peaceful Year

There is so much parenting advice floating between the blogosphere, in-laws, and media that it can feel entirely overwhelming. I work with children as a career and I cannot possibly keep abreast of every article or filter through all of the advice.

You can begin your year knowing that you are already providing what your child needs most- love and security. Your child knows he will be cared for and he feels loved. Above all, that is most important.

If you are like every other parent I’ve met, you also want to know what more you can do. If your child is between birth and six years of age, it is the most important time of her life. In the first years we see the personality, skills, movement, abilities, intelligence and senses all emerge. In the next few years these skills continue to evolve, become more refined and develop all before the child begins first grade. She won’t remember much of this process of becoming, but the person she becomes, the skills she develops and the intelligence she creates will stay with her for a lifetime. How does this happen? This intelligence grows through each experience the young child has in the environment during the most active period of synaptic growth and pruning during the child’s lifetime.

It is amazing to observe this process as a parent and teacher. Our goal is to help provide an environment that can support this growing child at school and at home and to allow experiences for learning, growing and becoming. The beginning of the year is a wonderful time for introspection and good intentions. As we know, it can be difficult to keep a New Year’s resolution, despite our best intentions. Here is a list of weekly goals that can give your best parenting intentions some focus and achievability with monthly themes that can help you observe and learn more about your child’s needs. 

January Focus- Connection and Separateness

One of the most difficult tasks for parents to achieve is to honor their child’s growing independence and separateness, which is no surprise considering a child and mother were once physically joined, then joined through holding, carrying and nursing or feeding in the first months. As the infant begins to crawl away from the parents and eat solid food, the physical connection weakens. It’s the love and security of the parent that allows the infant to feel secure exploring, but the crawling infant still doesn’t have an idea that he is a separate person. It isn’t until 18 months when the left side of the brain comes more fully online, the more logical and linear side, that the child develops a sense of self, and idea that he is an “I.” This is the root of the toddler's incessant “No!” He just figured out he’s his own person and he needs to make choices- as many as possible. 

When a parent can honor this separateness, the child can feel secure in his growing independence. Over the next years, the goal is to allow the child to have the freedom to make choices while setting the very clear boundary, “You choose for you; I choose for me.” It’s a big enough job to begin feeling responsible for oneself, and feeling responsible for another person, especially a parent, is stressful and overwhelming. Rest assured, a child will try to choose for others! He’s just discovering he’s his own person and he must explore where he begins and you end. Make that boundary clear!

Connection and Separateness- Weekly Goals

Week One
Practice observing- Make mental notes or write down your observations daily, if possible this week.

It’s important to understand that actions and emotions are separate from who we are. We quickly turn, “I feel sad,” into the statement, “I am sad.” We see a child snatch a toy and say, “He’s a bully,” or we see a our child tell someone what to do and worry that she’s going to become “bossy.”

Notice your child’s actions, statements and emotions, and accept them and realize these are separate from who your child is. Notice if certain actions are repeated and others are isolated. Analyze your observations and try to determine if your child has a need that is not being met. Do you have strong feelings about certain actions or emotions? However you feel is ok, but noticing your own feelings without acting may be most helpful.

Week Two
Receive your child wholeheartedly

Close your eyes and picture the moment you pick up your child after a long day at school. Notice how you feel just thinking about this moment. Every time you greet your child this week let go of your curiosity about her day at school, the stress of your day, or your worry of what you'll cook for dinner and just say, “I’m so happy to see you!” Focus on this happiness of seeing your child, even if she hops into the car in the carpool line and blurts out right away, “I’m hungry, I want snack!” Just turn and tell her first, “I’m so happy to see you!” 

When your child walks into the room this week and says, “Moooooommeeeee” and you know he is going to ask for a snack even though dinner is in 15 minutes or he wants help getting a toy that’s on an impossibly high shelf for a very good reason, try not to brace yourself when he walks in. Before you say anything, look in his eyes and smile. If he comes in with tears streaming or he’s as frustrated as a t-rex with an ice cream cone, take a breath, look in his eyes, and empathize with what he’s feeling. Before you utter his name or say, “I see you’re so mad!,” show him with your eyes and your body that you can feel what he’s feeling. When you empathize with your child, he feels felt.

Week Three
Practice Choosing

This week, see how often you can give your child a choice. As a general rule, it’s good to give your child the same number of options as his age. In the grocery store, let her pick if she’d like bananas, apples or clementines. Ask him if he’d like to go to Pullen Park with the trains or Shelly Lake to feed the ducks. Ask her if she wants to take her bike or scooter and lead the family on a walk. Ask him if he’d like to bring in the mail or feed the cat today. Ask your toddler if he wants to eat with a blue plate or a red plate. In these choices, make sure your child is not choosing for you. He cannot choose where you sit at the dinner table or if mom or dad drives to the store. Just as diligently as you pay attention to offering choices this week, make sure you are just as clear with your limit, “I choose for me; you choose for you.”

Week Four
Practice Separateness

Is your child uncomfortable with separation? Do you feel nervous just thinking about separating from your child at school? Does your child have a hard time playing on his own at home? The amount of freedom depends, of course on his age and maturity. You are the best judge of what is a safe amount of freedom, but whatever limits you set, it is important that you both feel comfortable.

You are the anchor for your child’s exploration. What does that mean? It means you are background music for your child’s own action sequence. Are you sending out calming and happy background music, or is your energy more like the soundtrack to “Jaws”? Notice your own feelings about separation and practice feeling calm, relaxed and positive when your child is exploring independently.

Whether you are in your yard, a park or the grocery store, set limits that are clear so that your child knows what you expect, whether it’s an understanding that he stay on the same aisle in the grocery store or that she never go past the end of the driveway or into the street in your yard on her own. These limits mean that play is over without warning or a lot of fanfare if your child doesn't follow these expectations. You can merely mention, “I see you are done, you can play outside when you can remember to stay in our yard” This may mean you have to leave the store before you’re done shopping or a huge meltdown when you leave the park, but the consequences are the teacher.

If your child is uneasy with separation, let him practice separating from you. Go to a safe place like an empty baseball diamond in a park. Set down a home base with a blanket and something to occupy yourself. Let your child separate from you as far as he is comfortable. Notice how far he goes, how often he looks back for you, and when he returns and leaves again. Stay calm and relaxed, but separate from what he’s doing.

When it is time for you to separate from your child, come up with a routine and follow it religiously so your child feels more secure about the separation. Acknowledge that saying goodbye is hard, but some things can help. The older your child, the more he can help to brainstorm a routine.

If your child is going somewhere new like a birthday party, make sure to let him know what to expect ahead of time. If he is older and expresses concern about getting in a pool at a swim party, for example, listen, acknowledge that new situations can feel scary, and guide him through coming up with a plan for feeling comfortable in the new situation.  

We naturally feel nervous about our children separating from us, but it’s very important to convey confidence. Remember, the child who feels confident about her own decision making who is safest out in the world.   

Week Five
Ask Before Helping

One of the hardest parts of being a parent is adjusting to your child who is constantly changing and growing. As soon as you seem to have figured it out, she’s changed!  This week, practice how to ask before helping.

It’s hard to watch our children struggle and we are often too quick to jump in and help. Young children who are still developing movement skills are developing a sense of how their bodies are moving through space. Helping a child walk down a step or negotiate an obstacle on the playground gives incorrect information about moving in challenging situations. When he comes to a challenge on his own, he may not take the precautions he needs. Even young children can be very careful, but they need to figure out how to negotiate their environment independently. You may get some strange looks on the playground, but it’s important that your child be allowed to explore independently, even when she is struggling. If you absolutely must help, ask first. Remember, perseverance is a skill that develops through practice. If your child is struggling, your goal is to help her keep struggling! If she’s about to give up, try offering suggestions like, "What happens if you put your foot here?" before offering help.

If your toddler is mid-tantrum in the middle of the grocery store, announce first before you move him by saying, “I’m going to help your body,” or “I’m going to pick you up.” Even with our own children, it’s important to model that we respect their body and they are responsible for their own bodies.

Congratulations! You’ve invested this month in fostering a stronger connection with your child. Sometimes it’s all we can do to get through the day and sometimes it’s the little things that can make the day easier.