Parents have been debating the appropriateness of the book, You Have To F***ing Eat, written by Adam Mansbach as a follow up to the popular Go the F**k to Sleep. Some people were upset that the use of profanity expressed toward children was harsh and derogatory. Others felt the obvious satire helped over-stretched parents feel heard.
I understand both the dilemma of feeling the intensity of parenting challenges, as well as the feeling that children are being defamed in this series of books in order to bring laughter as relief for stressed parents. I get it. I’ve written articles with titles like “How to not kill your three-year-old,” for similar reasons – namely, bringing brevity to a challenging time - until a psychotherapist colleague sent me a curt message questioning my sanity, and urged me to seek counsel (and then I never heard from her again). Her motives were pure, although the dig at my sanity hurt, but to a great degree she was right; I was blinded by my anger and couldn’t see the inappropriateness of that title.
I also wrote a post called The F-ing Fours, now titled Handling The "Fournado." I understand the intense feelings that come with raising little ones, having a pair of them myself. I also get that sometimes using profanity - which matches the intensity of the experience - can feel cathartic.
When Mansbach’s first book, Go The F*** To Sleep, was first released, I laughed and laughed. Sleep expert Alanna McGinn told me, “As I interact with sleep deprived parents daily, books like this add humour to a frustrating situation at a time when it's needed. And it helps other parents feel like they aren't in this battle alone.” Books with this gallows-type humour can certainly help parents feel validated and give them an opportunity to release tension – all good things.
But are we now moving the humour past the point of children’s behaviour being the “joke” and making kids the joke themselves?
I can see why children’s advocates would feel upset by Manbach’s books. I had the opportunity to speak with one of the people involved in a particular Twitter exchange who shared his concerns that the book could have a negative effect on parents and children: the cover of You Have to F***ing Eat is made to look like a children’s book, which makes fun of the soothing effect book reading has on children; parents who lack understanding and patience might view these books as permission to treat a child harshly; and parents who have experienced humiliation as children might become emotionally triggered by this book.
He also made the point that we wouldn’t write books like this about any other group. In his opinion, singling children out in this shocking form is a distasteful way to make parents laugh. I’m inclined to agree.
Fellow psychotherapist and parenting educator Katie Hurley echoed these concerns while still seeing the humour: “When you're always fighting for those without voices, it's frustrating when boundaries are crossed and everything is a joke. We need to be responsible and think of our kids. The flip side for this particular issue is that it's humour for parents. We are allowed to have TV shows they don't watch and books they don't read.”
The parents on my Facebook page commented mostly in support of the books, citing how valuable the laughter and validation was. Perhaps the issue is that parents are feeling so unseen, unheard and unsupported that this type of humour shakes that free.
My concern, although I did laugh loudly through the first book, is that we will continue to see ones perhaps entitled, Brush Your F’in Teeth, Shut The F*** Up, or Get The F*** Over Here. I know many of us hear such phrases in our heads, our negative self-talk often shouting at us as tempers flare. Releasing this negativity can be done in a less harsh way.
It’s far better to improve our parenting experience and inner voice by coaching ourselves into a much more positive realm. When parents are armed with concrete parenting tools and also a process to help calm the big anger that can come while raising small children, their relationships and parenting experience can feel so much more enjoyable.
Sleeping and eating are particularly frustration-inducing activities for parents. We do these every single day--the repetition sometimes mind-numbing, but more importantly, bedtime and eating time is often where power struggles happen. Parents and young ones can lock horns, neither wanting to back down. If either a parent or child are feeling a loss of control, that (s)he is being forced to do something, all the times that person has ever felt nagged, coerced or that life is unfair get relived. Add in sleep deprivation, and it's not surprising that frustrated parents and children who feel out of control of the situation they are in, explode.
If you would like concrete suggestions for help with picky eating, this fabulous article called 8 things picky eaters wish their parents knew by Maryann Jacobsen, RD was recently posted on Huffpost Parents. I also recommend you follow Sarah Remmer, RD over on her Facebook page.
If you are looking for a book, three that I recommend to help navigate the rough times are:
No-Drama Discipline, the whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind by Dan Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD
Beyond Intelligence, secrets for raising happily productive kids by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster
Positive Discipline, the first three years by Jane Nelsen, PhD
What do you think about Mansbach’s books? I’d love to hear your comments either here or over on my Facebook page.
Many of you have probably heard of a relatively new product called The Elf on the Shelf. According to the official website, it is being marketed as a Christmas tradition, where parents are to claim this toy is one of “Santa’s scout elves, who are sent to be Santa’s eyes and ears at children’s homes around the world!”
Parents are encouraged to hide the Elf around the house for their children to find each morning. I have heard of parents using the elf to make messes in the house, blaming it on the elf, even vandalizing a child’s homework or art.
The most common use of this toy that I hear of, is that parents use it to coerce their children into “good behaviour” by threatening that the Elf will go back and tell Santa that child has done something to get him or her onto the naughty list.
It is not surprising to me that reports of nightmares and parent-child relationship breakdown are happening when the Elf comes into the house. This toy can certainly be used for fun, but unfortunately it is also causing some trouble in families.
Here are the reasons nightmares and fights are happening:
When a child feels (s)he is being watched all the time, even while sleeping, some children can go into a stressed state at bedtime. Children will often mention they don’t like their stuffies to watch them while they sleep, (my recommendation is that stuffed toys and characters in posters do not have eyes aimed at the bed).
The thought of an Elf who holds the power to nix Christmas presents having eyes on them at night is causing children to have nightmares. It’s like the child’s flight-or-flight system is getting stuck in the “on” position throughout the night.
Also, we all need space to make mistakes. If children are really sold the story that the Elf is real, and honestly do believe they are constantly being watched, that belief can put a child is distress.
We need space to decompress; to secretly eat something we’re not allowed to and to mistakenly knock something over, then quickly fix it before anyone notices. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who has snuck some chocolate into the bathroom to eat without the kid’s eyes watching.) We need to let our guard down without feeling something is going to tattle on every wrong move. Not being able to do so can wind us up too tightly.
Power struggles and fights among parents and children are happening with the Elf, as they usually do when a parent uses coercion to keep a child “in line.” Although the technique of threatening a punishment might temporarily stop a child from doing something a parent doesn’t want, it doesn’t grow a child’s ability to problem solve and choose behaviours that are helpful rather than harmful.
Threats grow a child’s defenses and anger, not their rational mind. When the holidays ended in the last few years, many children looked at the parents saying things like, “The Elf is gone; too bad. I’m not making my bed.”
The other tricky aspect of the Elf is if the child so completely believes the toy is a real thing, and discovers it is actually a toy and his or her parent has been lying all along, their trust can be shaken. As I mentioned in this post about Santa Trauma (which is a real thing), parents need to consider how they position this story to their children—how far are they willing to go all in the name of holiday fun.
Here are my suggestions for reducing the negative parts of The Elf on the Shelf:
Make the bedrooms and bathrooms a no-Elf zone
In addition to those safe spaces, ask your child if there are any other places the Elf cannot go.
Instead of threats for bad behaviour, use the Elf to reinforce good behaviour
One way to help a child’s prefrontal cortex grow (the rational, friendly, cooperative part), is to use “I see you” statements. These are statements like, “Hey, I see you doing a really tough puzzle by yourself,” or “I saw your brother hit you and you didn’t hit him back. That must have taken a lot of strength. Thank you.”
These are encouragement phrases, where the parent simply comments without judgment when (s)he sees a child handling something tough very well. This grows the part of the brain that governs calm, rational thinking.
The Elf would be a great thing to use for “I see yous.” The Elf could leave a note in the morning with an “I see you” statement like, “I saw you set the table yesterday, I bet your mom liked that,” or “I see you taking good care of your dog.” If you are hiding the Elf, you can attach the note to its hand.
If something happens where the child goes into hysterics that (s)he has done something wrong and the Elf might tell Santa, ask your child what could be done to correct that mistake. For example, if a child hits a sibling, talk about using a calm-down plan in the future, and perhaps writing a note to the Elf to let him/ her know that the child realizes a mistake has been made, will correct it in the future, and is asking for forgiveness. This is a great opportunity to talk about the concept of forgiveness!
Establish your magic versus lying line
Holiday spirit is an important part of the season. It is possible to use fables and characters like Santa and the Elf to increase fun during this time of year. Please consider how you will position these story characters to keep the trust you and your child have grown intact.
As I mentioned above, some parents are using the toy to create messes and vandalize the children’s property. Gauge your children’s reaction to this—if they are upset, perhaps have them write a note to the Elf with wishes for that to stop. I would recommend not using the Elf to wreck possessions.
I have probably been swayed by the clients in my office who felt devastated when they found out Santa wasn’t real after being convinced by parents to believe so—for some a real rift in the relationship with parents happened. As a result, I have chosen to call Santa a story character and not use Elf on the Shelf. We have a more minimalist approach to the holidays, so the few gifts our children receive come from family members, not Santa.
I don’t believe that my children experience any less fun than those who believe the Santa and Elf on the Shelf stories as they are told. Our family has created traditions that we all enjoy very much, and my children are certainly not unhappy.
If you are looking for resources on positive parenting, I invite you over to my Facebook page where I post free parenting support. The community there is very supportive! I would also like to hear about your Santa and Elf on the Shelf stories, so please do post a comment below or on my Facebook page.
Happy Holidays from my family to yours!
Over the past week and a half, many of us have experienced intense emotions regarding the series of events surrounding Jian Ghomeshi’s dismissal from the CBC. Feelings of betrayal are surfacing, as we are facing a difference between his public persona and what we are hearing happened behind the scenes.
Jian wasn’t only a “celebrity” we invited into our homes through the radio. Many of us have been interviewed by him, hung onto every word he said at keynote addresses, hugged him at his book signings, and engaged with him during exciting times like the Canada Reads programs and Giller Awards.
Recently, we mourned with Ghomeshi at the loss of his father. Because we feel emotionally invested in him, we are now experiencing a wide variety of intense feelings while this person we held in esteem is being accused of shocking and appalling activity.
My own interactions with Ghomeshi leave me feeling stunned, upset and angry as I read the recent articles posted about him. I checked in with friends who have spent time with him during their professional lives, and as I expected, I heard words like, “devastated” and “disgusted.” A dear, very calm friend even said, “I just want to walk up to him and punch him in the face.”
In chatting with people about their feelings around Jian Ghomeshi, one shared that the current story is triggering her experience of domestic abuse: troubling scenes from the past are making their way back into her mind.
Another woman I spoke with said she has been thinking about the times in her early twenties when she found herself in sexual encounters, which she had originally consented to, that went beyond her comfort zone. Shaking her head, she said, “The forty-year-old me wishes I could tell that younger me, ‘You don’t have to do that. He’s not worth it’.” This event has rattled many of us for a wide variety of reasons.
In order to reconcile our feelings about Jian Ghomeshi, there are a few points to consider. The first is that our feelings aren’t wrong—we don’t need to judge how we feel about this situation. Our feelings are like balls of energy that are created through a combination of our life experiences and current events. They are unique so how we interpret and feel about something may be very different than how the next person feels about the same event.
Next, finding a way to process our feelings will help them flow through instead of getting stuck. If you watch a young child who is scared or angry, you see the immediate, physical reaction they have (before they have grown old enough to develop negative coping strategies to repress the feelings).
Shaking, jumping, stomping, and shouting are ways our natural fight-or-flight system reacts to stressors. Allowing that reaction to happen will facilitate our body’s natural emotional-processing system to engage. Please make sure you do so in a way that doesn’t hurt yourself, other things, or property.
Some strategies to releasing big emotions are: writing, dancing, drawing, playing an instrument, singing, exercising, and spending time in nature. Talking with trusted friends, colleagues or mental health professionals is an excellent way to process big feelings. I recommend that if you are having a tough time absorbing the information regarding Jian Ghomeshi, reach out to someone for help. If you know me, I’m happy to hear from you!
Part of the process of allowing emotions to move through is considering the person whom you feel betrayed by as a wounded soul, too. Pausing to see the person we have lost trust in or who has hurt us, as someone who is broken and in need of healing can help us feel better. We can empathize with that person’s behaviour to some degree without condoning it.
In my experience as a therapist, I have not encountered a person who has engaged in any kind of extreme violent behaviour, particularly if it is sexually oriented, who has not been at the hands of extreme violence him or herself. It is not appropriate to assume Jian Ghomeshi has gone through traumatic childhood experiences, but if the accounts we are hearing are true, it is possible that his behaviour is rooted in strong negative core beliefs developed during a traumatic experience early in life.
When I counsel adults who have experienced abuse at the hand of a trusted adult in their childhood, I invite them to see the aggressor as a scared, wounded young child. Part of our minds stop developing when a person’s focus goes on survival rather than self-actualization. It is hard to learn, be confident, or thrive when scary situations are happening that we need to recover from or try to make sense of.
It’s interesting though, that many who have experienced strong childhood challenges, develop keen skills to get them through those times, which carry on into adulthood. It is common for adults who have gone through tough stuff as kids to be very charming and possess an extreme push for greatness.
Some of the qualities that help kids endure painful events, although driven by negative core beliefs, can help that adult person achieve great success. It isn’t unusual for adults in this situation to appear almost Jekyll and Hyde in their behaviour: extremely charismatic and extremely violent.
As I mentioned earlier, we can retain the excitement of our positive interactions with Jian Ghomeshi, and at the same time, feel anger as current events unfold. Giving ourselves space to acknowledge these feelings can help them move through.
My last suggestion is to take good care of yourself. Use self care and self-regulation as you look for the latest report in this saga: is staying on your computer screen, searching the latest story helping you? Perhaps limiting your reading time or choosing one or two periods during the day to look for new stories (not just before bedtime) is best. Ask yourself this question: what do I need to feel better?
Something important to consider is that someone who has experienced the level of loss like Jian has, even though his alleged behaviour is unacceptable, is at a high risk of harming himself. My hope is that Jian Ghomeshi has someone to help him heal right now.
I also hope that all the people who are experiencing intense emotions, whether directly or indirectly involved, are also getting the healing they need. Perhaps we can use this unfortunate circumstance as an opportunity to make positive change.
-Photo: from the official Canada Reads website