Three things happened in the last few days that have drawn my attention to one painful realization: I wish I could have a do-over with how I treated my children when they were toddlers.
I sometimes struggle with resolving the wish that I could have done more to be present with my children when they were younger. This feeling does harbour guilt but it has also been helpful because it pushed me to understand more about how to make parenting toddlers better, which I have now devoted my career to.
Thankfully three things recently came to my attention, which reminded me that parenting young ones can be very hard—I’ve probably done better than I think I have—and that the do-over can happen right now with one powerful word: noticing.
The first thing I became aware of wasn’t really a thing but rather a whom: Rachel Macy Stafford. One day as I felt badly about being too hard on my energetic young boys, a package arrived in the mail. In it was a review copy of Stafford’s new book Hands Free Life: 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better & Loving More along with a beautifully framed piece of artwork and a leather bracelet with the inscription “live hands free.”
I stared at the book introduction, focused on the words, “I’m keeping track of life,” which her daughter had said in the early hours of the morning one night. Stafford remarked that these words reminded her to make, “a conscious decision to focus on what really matters when a sea of insignificance tries to pull you away.” As I read through the book, I kept thinking about the word “noticing” and how much doing so significantly changes how we see the world—and our children.
This is a photo of Rachel and I at a bookstore presentation we did last fall.
The second thing was seeing this page from the book Little Boy by Alison McGhee and Peter H. Reynolds in our bedtime story. This page was an excellent reminder to put my attention on my children and not what I wanted to after they went to bed:
The third thing was to sit down after a day filled with tears to write in my journal, which I hadn’t done for a long time. Writing is an amazing tool to discovering what is at the heart of our big emotions. That journaling session ended with a renewed commitment to remind myself of what is going well and what I can be grateful for rather than focusing on what is hard.
My studies and experience have taught me that our parenting mindset has the power to influence our feelings and actions. When our children do the regular, often frustrating things that all children do, we can so easily be swept away by negative self-talk like “I can’t take this anymore” or “I’m too tired for this!” When we learn how to quiet that talk and notice what is happening from our children’s perspective, empathy and positive core beliefs grow.
This is how to use the art of “noticing” to increase the connection with our children:
Imagine that you are a commentator of what you see, hear, and feel. Say out loud or in your mind all the things you notice in a particular moment. I just came from getting my boys snuggled into bed, so I did my noticing as a list of what caught my attention. As I lay with them, instead of getting frustrated that they wanted more snuggle time, which I am prone to doing, I said things like this to myself, “I can feel his heart beating—it is slowing down”, “He is breathing on my face,” and “I’m clenching the right side of my jaw… I’ll stop that.” Actually, I noticed that my face and right shoulder were tensed when they didn’t need to be: I let those muscles relax.
“I see you…” statements are ones that help your child feel important, seen and heard. As often as we can, notice what our child is experiencing by saying a neutral statement something like this, “I see you trying to build that tower. That looks hard!” This is not praise: it is a statement that shows your child you are paying attention.
Here are other examples of those statements:
“I saw your brother take your truck. You stopped yourself from hitting him—I bet that was hard to do.”
“I see you just washed your hands without being reminded. Thank you for that!”
“Do I see that you are sad? I’d love to know why.”
When children are having big emotional reactions, remind yourself that they need you to be calm and supportive. It is so very easy to react harshly to our child’s upset. Even though what has occurred might seem ridiculous to us, it is not to our children. I find this is the best question to reeling in negative self-talk that can stop us from being empathetic and seeing how life looks through their eyes:
“What does my child need right now?”
Does our little one need time to adjust to a change? More sleep? Some food? To feel heard? To feel considered and respected? For us to use a clever phrase that will help inspire cooperation?
One of the most powerful negative core belief phrases that can inadvertently settle into a child’s mind is this: I am a bother—I am annoying. The way to stopping the development of this belief is to remind ourselves that we can adjust our mindset to not let things bother us (I know that isn’t always easy!) and to use neutral words.
When we are distracted or have an agenda like getting out of the house on time, we can sometimes inadvertently be hard on our little ones. Rather than saying something like, “Ugh! You spilled the milk again! Why do you keep doing that?” use neutral words like this, “Uh oh. The milk is spilled. The best way to avoid that is to put it on the other side of your plate. We have some cleaning to do.”
If you would like to read more about what positive and negative core beliefs are, I invite you to read my book Taming Tantrums. I have also included information on how to calm-down even when that is really hard to do. I also recommend Stafford’s Hands Free Life, which provides specific exercises and tools to noticing more and being distracted less.
As all the back-to-school advertisements grab my attention, I smile and look away. This is the first year our family isn’t involved in back-to-school because we are giving homeschooling a shot!
This feels quite foreign to me because I was a teacher for ten years before having children. There have been many years of my own public schooling, undergraduate and graduate degrees and teaching so heading into September with a getting back at the books mindset has been a lifelong way of doing things!
We made the very big decision to homeschool for three major reasons. The big one is that we were able to adjust our (my husband and I) work schedules to accommodate for homeschooling. The second was that I wanted to be able to give my children individualized attention so they can learn at the pace that suits them best. The last is that I want to be able to put educational practices that have been shown to be helpful into effect. It is much easier to decide to use an all-year-round calendar, have a later start time or more down time in our family of four than a large system, involving thousands of families.
We actually started back at it in July. I had previously taught in a school with a “modified calendar” and after people stopped being upset about the change, the majority of families loved it. In this school calendar, classes are in session for six to eight weeks then off for one or two weeks with four to six weeks off in summer. We are using a six to one or two ratio so we’ll do no more than six weeks of school before taking a one or two week break. It’s great being able to travel with off-season prices, less traffic, and fewer people!
We start “academics” (math, reading, writing – including cursive, spelling, science), at 9 o’clock in the morning. We weave in more science, social studies, history and health into our daily life and travels. Languages and trips to places like the library happen one morning a week.
According to what we know about how children learn, we have blocks of twenty to forty-five minutes of learning depending on what we’re working on. My guys can get up and stroll around, grab water or a snack whenever they want.
My iPhone6 alarm “barks” at 11:30am to indicate school is out for the day. We then make lunch together and chill out for the afternoon. This free time might include wandering down to our local school to play with buddies during their lunch break, bike rides, exploring: whatever we feel up to that day. I value this rest time because once 4:30 hits, it’s time for swimming, skating, choir, piano and the competitive sports they are involved in.
Each of the provinces, many states and countries all over the world publish their curriculums. Anyone can find a particular grade and subject curriculum list on the internet! A curriculum is the list of objectives that teachers need to cover in that particular grade and subject. The amazing thing is that we can pick the curriculum we like from anywhere in the world. I live in Ontario, Canada but I’m actually using the Alberta curriculum: I prefer it’s content points and easy-to-use format.
It is important to us that our children are able to get into a high school or university as they get older so I’m going to make sure they have mastery in the content they need to do that. I have actually taught all the way up to high school physics, chemistry, math and english so I feel comfortable teaching my guys at these higher grades if we feel that’s in everyone’s best interest.
I get this question pretty much every time I mention homeschooling—people seem to be concerned my kids are going to end up being socially awkward. I certainly don’t anticipate this happening because we live in a neighbourhood where our children are surrounded by friends. They wander around to other people’s houses regularly.
Also, because we have time to rest in the afternoon and have quiet, lazy mornings, my guys are heavily involved in outside-school activities. They are getting their socialization through competitive sport and the drama/ music/ choral programs they are involved in.
I have just spent the bulk of the last eight weeks with my children: each day, every day. I’m telling you it doesn’t always go smoothly. There have been a few days in particular when I started off sobbing; wondering if committing to homeschooling has been a massive mistake. I have discovered that I have two very different kids: one is an introvert who would happily learn on his own and the other is an extrovert who is the life of the party. This guy wakes up saying, “Can I go to Sam’s house?!!” And me, I’m an introvert, which is incredibly challenging when you put all three of us in the same space for hours each morning.
I’ve learned that I have to fill my “buckets” or I will crash and burn, which isn’t pretty! My husband and I have sat down to make a weekly schedule that includes a yoga class for me, time to do my parenting educator thing and personal time. Just seeing that block of time on the schedule lifts my spirits when we’re having a tough day. We also agreed to get a night completely off bedtime routine so I’ll head out to a movie or a friend’s house on that evening. It’s amazing how those moments away really do help my mind, body and spirit.
I had to decide that pushing through the challenges was on the top of my priority list. My children are just like yours: they have good days and not-so-good days. When I can remember to calm down and support my kids, we all do better (this is certainly a work in process!).
While reading a copy of The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World by Amy McCready, I found myself nodding in agreement quite often. It was quite a coincidence that I read this book around the same time my husband and I had a conversation about how to raise our children in the life we have today without completely handicapping them for the life they might have in the future.
This conversation started when he thanked me for doing some tricky things for our business. He was certainly filling my “Capability Tank” with those words! I felt good about his lovely compliment, then suddenly felt a little concerned for my children. I believe the reason I have a strong drive and can be quite resourceful was because I had to—my life experiences taught me how to problem solve.
Growing up just south of the Arctic Circle, (in December, the sun went down before we got out of school!) we had to be pretty savvy at doing things ourselves and managing situations that were quite challenging. I remember feeling the -40 degree temperature in my bones, wanting to collapse into a ball, but having to push myself to keep walking to get where I was going. I look at my children and wonder how they are going to muster up their “get-up-and-go” to face challenges head on.
This is a photo of Pisew Falls near my hometown.
A situation our family is experiencing now also makes me wonder what I might be doing that would inadvertently plant beliefs in my children that their actions are for their own satisfaction, regardless of the effect on others. A few twenty-something-year-old neighbours have been waking us up consistently over the last year. We tried connecting with them, have spoken to them during the day when everyone is calm, and unfortunately confronted them a couple of times at 3am when it didn’t seem they were going to wind things down. None of this has helped them to consider how their drinking and shouting outside in the middle of the night might be affecting all the families living around them. I would be absolutely mortified if I knew my boys were so inconsiderate to others.
McCready defines entitlement as, “The idea that life owes us something… to receive the best of what life has to offer without working for it, to have their whims catered to by the parents and a path paved for success.” I believe that entitlement happens when negative core belief thinking like this develop: If I want something, I need to be loud and demanding until I get it, I deserve to do what I want when I want, It’s okay to be mean to others to get ahead, It’s not my fault, and quit when things get hard. She is right to say, “It ends up that no one’s happy—parents are run ragged, while kids constantly find they need more, more, more!”
In order to curb an entitlement mindset from growing in our children, we can demonstrate that struggles are okay—we can still thrive when things are hard. We can also show them that wants and needs are different: waiting, not having things, being told “no” and persevering are also okay.
Here are four things to consider in order to grow the positive core beliefs that reduce entitlement:
Caving into our children’s demands might be easier on us in the short term, but it will become difficult in the long term. When we give into demands, we teach our children that whining, repeating, and even bullying are useful strategies to getting wants met. A helpful parenting goal is to grow this positive core belief (PCB): It doesn’t hurt to ask: it’s okay if the answer is “no.” One of the parenting tools I love to address demanding is the “asked an answered” tool, which McCready explains in her book. We need to resist caving!
When we do things for our children or are quick to jump in to help, we can actually inadvertently plant a negative core belief (NCB), which challenges the child’s ability to feel capable. This belief might be something like this, I’m not good at this—I’ll just wait for my mom to do it. If this belief is allowed to grow, the child might start believing that it’s best to not try because someone will jump in if things get hard.
The positive belief to grow in this case is: This is hard and I can do it. Also, I can ask for help when I am overwhelmed.
Great problem solving can happen when we have a challenge that we need to resolve. Giving our children opportunities to learn from their mistakes will provide the hands-on type of learning that makes a big positive impact. I know it is hard to watch our children struggle, but allowing them to do that when it is safe is so helpful—we can be a coach in these situations rather than the “fixer.”
The positive beliefs to focus on when problem-solving are: There’s always a way to solve a problem, there are options to consider: which is the best one?
The main reason parents cave, do things for their children or pave the way for fun or happiness is because we are trying to stop big meltdowns. It’s okay if we give our children a limit or say “no,” and this upsets them. Getting used to being disappointed or mad provides our children with “affect management” skills. This is the ability to feel big emotions and know how to stop those feelings from hurting anyone or anything. McCready does address how to coach children through their emotions in her book.
In terms of positive core belief growth, messages to focus on are: It’s okay to feel angry, sad or scared: emotions might feel big, but they are still manageable, I can control myself when I am mad, and I can get help if my emotions feel too big.
I am a big fan of having scripts or phrases ready to use in different parenting scenarios, so we can rely on those to get us through moments when it is hard to feel empathy for our children. Thankfully, McCready provides many phrases for us to use to reduce the chance our child will grow up to have air of entitlement. Have you discovered some phrases that are working well in your family? I'd love to hear them! Please feel free to post those on my Facebook page or in the comments below.