Archive for February, 2010

oh yeah, and…

In the last post I talked about praise and abandoning it, in all its forms, for the sake of your child. Then today, as the girls got into one scrap or another, I realized that perhaps now might be a good time to talk about punishment too, or more specifically leaving it behind as well. I know the idea of ditching both praise and punishment, is, for many of us, almost too radical. Or maybe we can support the idea of using less praise, or less punishment, but not forsaking them entirely. Most of us still imagine scenarios in which punishment is not only necessary, but wise.

Violence, for example.

For a really long time, when I entered the room and saw one child physically assault the other, (hauling back with a solid punch, or a wicked scratch to the face), my automatic instinct was to swoop in quickly, silently, and suddenly, grab the offenders arm, and forcefully boom something like, NO! NOT OKAY! in the scariest voice I could muster. The urge to stop them in their tracks, scare them out of their wits, and swiftly deal out justice was incredibly strong.

Today my feelings about one child hurting another are the same: strong, hot, and sudden. But my response is no longer automatic, scary, or aggressive. We figure if we want to teach them that violence hurts, and that it is not helpful to their argument, then for goodness sakes, swooping in aggressively with our own violent force certainly sends the wrong message. We have reprogrammed ourselves to respond with empathy instead, not just for the apparently wounded either, but for the aggressor as well. The aggressor? Yes. Its counterintuitive, I know.

Hitting is always an expression of a feeling, usually anger, maybe frustration or despair. We believe it is beneficial to allow our children all of their feelings, no matter what they are, and to help them through them. Though we do not want them to hit each other, we are still going to assist them with the strong feelings behind the hitting. The idea is to give empathy for all feelings, even if we don’t like how they are expressing them. One tendency might be to give empathy to the wounded child in order to send a message to the child that hit. But this, though more subtle, is still manipulative and still punishment. Love withdrawal, no matter how it is clothed, is still punishment. (Again, read Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, if you are still wondering about punishment.)

This is how it works:

Parent enters the room to see Alex punch Evan in the head.

Parent: “Woah! Hey! Do you guys need help?! Evan are you alright?” (Immediately holding both boys, if they allow it, or at least touching them in a caring way.)

Evan: “He hit me!” (crying)

Parent: ” Yes he did. You didn’t like that. Is your head hurting?”

Evan: “Yeah”

Alex: (interrupting) “Well he grabbed that truck from me! And I was playing with it!”

Parent: “You didn’t like it that he took that truck. You feel pretty mad about that?”

Alex: “Yeah”

Parent: “You felt so mad that you wanted to hurt him.”

Alex: “Yeah! I just wanted to bam him!”

Parent: “Yeah. You were so mad. Evan got hurt when you hit him. Were you scared too Evan?”

Evan: “Yeah. I didn’t like that.”

Parent: “No you didn’t.”

Often, after plenty of this kind of empathy, when the kids feel both heard and understood, they are willing to work things out.

Parent: “So you both really want that truck.”

Alex and Evan: “Yeah.”

parent: “Do you guys have any ideas how both kids can get what they want?…….”

This might look like a lot of work when typed out, but we found that enforcing punishments was far more taxing. In fact, I have found this method of “empathy instead” extremely liberating. This morning the girls were arguing over a necklace. Echo had a necklace that Xi had set down in order to get a snack. Xi had the intention of picking the necklace back up and continuing to play with it after she was done eating, but Echo had every intention of continuing to play with the necklace and flat out refused to return it. I found myself getting anxious. I didn’t know who to side with, I couldn’t remember any snacktime-break-from-playing precedent in the recent past, and I was plain tired of their squabbling. Then I realized I didn’t have to have the answers! I could simply have empathy for them both. In the end they came up with a solution on their own, one that never would have been embraced if a parent had imposed it.

If, after giving empathy and negotiating a solution, you find that you still want to address something like hitting or sharing, find a moment removed from the current scenario. Snuggling up in bed, waiting for a red light, or walking to the library are perfect opportunities to talk about taking turns and expressing feelings in ways that keep other kids safe. Your children will actually be able to hear you if they aren’t in the middle of defending themselves, or processing heated emotions.

Hitting and our responses to these unsavory behaviors are big topics. Its important to give yourself lots of empathy while figuring out the best way to parent your children through these moments. There is ego to deal with, painful memories of our own childhoods to sidestep, huge aspirations to live up to, and peer pressure to maneuver through. The parenting adventure is fraught with pitfalls so go easy on yourself no matter where you are in your process.


February 26, 2010 at 10:21 pm 12 comments

it’s counterintuitive, i know

If I were to break down our parenting into categories, I would say that %70 is spent offering empathy in some form or another, %20 is spent providing information (detailed explanations for how things work and why we are asking the kids to do what we are asking), and %10 on miscellaneous things like negotiating peace, brainstorming solutions, and a few executive decisions. When I look at the numbers it seems empathy takes up an enormous amount of our parenting time, and when I look a little deeper I realize it is, in part,  because we are using empathy to supplant praise.

Praise, along with it’s counterpart, punishment, is probably the most common parenting strategy in our culture. Chore charts, time-outs, stickers, allowance, consequences, etc. I know this is how I was raised, how most of us were raised. When I met Nathan and began to help parent Bella and Xi, we kept scratching our heads over this strategy. One of our rules was: when Bella hit, she got a time-out. So when she did hit, (time-outs did not deter the hitting), she immediately felt very upset, not by the fact that she had hurt someone but by how she was going to be affected. She was, quite literally, traumatized by the separation. This bothered us. Not only were time-outs not preventing the behavior, but we felt they were also causing our relationship with her to suffer, as well as raising our stress levels to uncomfortable heights. We decided the strategy wasn’t working.

The book we looked to for help with this was Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. Kohn makes the case that not only is praise and punishment not good for our kids, but it also backfires by taking away all of their own built-in motivation in any activity, wether it is swimming, clearing the table, spelling, or basketball. There’s a lot more, but this information was all we needed to start down a different path, one that felt so much better.

Abandoning praise and punishment is how we got to %70 empathy. But praise, in particular, is not easy to shake. To start I find it helpful to identify what you are trying to achieve by using praise.

If you use praise because you want your child to know that you love her and to know that you are noticing her achievements, switching to simple observations will do just that. Observation is empathy at it’s finest, simply seeing who your child is.

Some examples:

“I see you!”

“You climbed all the way up there!”

“I see you walking all by yourself. You seem pretty happy about that!”

“I saw you stack those toys up. Yeah. Then they fell down.”

It feels silly at first, but all most children want is for you to see them and be with them. They aren’t wondering if you deem their actions “good” (Good walking! Good sharing! Good jumping!).

What is important when observing, is to match your observations to their reactions. Let your face mirror theirs. If they are excited about walking all by themselves, then go ahead and get excited. If they are disappointed, then let them know you see that too. (“Oh. You didn’t want those blocks to fall”, instead of, “It’s okay! You built that tower really high. Good job! Good building!”)

Asking her questions is a great way to let her know you see what she is doing without forcing an opinion on her.

“You are wiping your hands. How do you like that? Do you like it when your hands are clean?”

“How is that for you?”

“Do you like that?”

“Is that fun?”

“Is that okay with you?”

If you are using praise in order to get your child to do something, a point to consider is that although praise may work well in the short term, it is also the best way to get them to forget what it is they want/enjoy/need in life, to eventually stop doing those things they were praised into doing, and to lose their close connection with you. (Please, don’t take my word for it – read the book.)

Instead of looking for substitute words to say, it might be more effective to stop thinking in this way entirely. Kids are not here to be controlled, to perform on command, or to follow orders without thinking. Or, at least, this isn’t the kind of human I want to raise. Children have a natural care for others, they automatically want to help the people they love. By creating a solid foundation, with empathy as the main tool, your child will listen and care for you and your ideas automatically. You build the foundation by supporting them through all of their struggles and triumphs with respect and empathy.

An example:

“You’re really sad. You don’t want to get in the car. You want more time at the park. You’re not ready to go.”

Maybe there is a little more back and forth as well:

“How much more time do you need here? Are you willing to go after you go down the slide three more times?”

This works if it is not a rote response, but truly feeling what the scenario might be like for them. Often this is enough to get the kid to the car. It certainly requires a lot of patience from the parent as the response is almost never instantaneous. Indeed, a simplified schedule is helpful. You might not want to squeeze a trip to the park into an already packed day, as this will not afford you the time necessary for a fully empathic response if the child doesn’t want to leave. Time is not always saved by empathy but the relationship is, not only saved but enriched.

Then, when children feel heard and understood, they are much more willing to hear and understand what you are feeling. (Or anyone else for that matter.)

The same example continued:

“I know you aren’t ready to leave the park yet. You were hoping to stay here a lot longer. But I am ready to leave. I’m having a hard time here at the park. I’m super hungry and also nervous about being late to meet our friends.”

Empathy, followed by information. No praise, no punishment. It might look or sound crazy, but an exchange like this works for us every time.

February 25, 2010 at 10:12 pm 8 comments

wish you were here but really wish i was there

I woke up today feeling anxious. Sure, I could point to any number of “issues”, but those issues were there yesterday too without the accompanying anxiety. It felt like a buzzy knot in my chest and if I looked at it, and tried to pull it apart into identifiable pieces, I quickly became overwhelmed. So it sat there. I tried to just give it a casual nod every now and then and not make it a focal point of my day.

Often on a day like this I will call my friend Kris, give her the fuzzy knot to look at, and together we will boil it down to something manageable. Or if we don’t make it any smaller we at least laugh a lot. I miss her.

Then tonight we both wound up on Facebook at the same time. Both of us cruise through there each night hoping to catch a glimpse of the other and tonight it worked. We ichatted. This certainly wasn’t as satisfying as hearing her voice but it was a teeny dose of her and I was going to grab whatever I could get.

Mexico sure sounds nice. (understatement)

February 24, 2010 at 10:04 pm 1 comment

blue and green

Today I wore sunglasses.

That may not sound like a big deal to those of you in Mexico (Kris), or California (Mom), or Florida (Angela), but it is a big deal here. Our beautiful valley houses three rivers and is protected by snow capped mountains, but what that means in February is GREY. The mist, and clouds butt up against those peaks and can’t get out, can’t get swept away by breezes. So much of the winter is spent under a low ceiling of grey. It is this ceiling that makes winter here feel so long, at least for me. I was raised in Santa Cruz, California, which sees it’s fair share of grey in the form of fog, but even on the worst of days that fog burns off by afternoon. And the rest of the days are sunny sunny sunny. So, more than the cold, it’s the color of winter that gets me down.

But not today! If I were someone that knew the lyrics to songs I would have sung that Blue skies shining on me…! song. But I don’t remember lyrics to songs and instead wore sunglasses. Aaaah.

Echo and I meandered around town. She in just a t-shirt. (These born-and-bred Montana kids are truly impervious.) I still wore a coat, but it was unzipped! And my scarf, hat, and gloves were shoved somewhere inside the stroller. With that sun on my face I had an almost endless supply of patience while Echo walked at her own pace, practiced running, and collected giant rocks to load into the stroller. We paused, oh, maybe, every 8 feet? But what did I care? I had sunshine.

We visited Papa at work for some kisses then slowly made our way to a dingy pet shop across town, for our third visit of the week. It seems I have inadvertently fallen in love with a Quaker Parrot. Me; who has never felt any attraction to any feathered friend. Me; who does not have $600(!) extra dollars laying around to spend on yet another animal. And me; who yearns for more space, in our active household. Yeah, that me.

But all I can think about is that bird. It’s strange.

We brought him a cracker, which is almost too cliche I know, but it seems that parrots indeed do love crackers. He said ‘thank you”.

I’m not sure what to do with this bird crush. I wonder if I should add him to my life map or, just trust. Trust that his path, whatever it may be, is the right one for him. Trust that if I am meant to be his human, then all the pieces will come together without my obsessing over it. I guess having a crush on a seemingly unattainable bird is like wanting anything in life that isn’t yours yet, or even yours to want. Wanting is hard.

Wether it’s a bird, more money, a bigger house, a different partner, more time, it’s hard. Tonight Echo wanted the first two eggs from the frying pan. She didn’t want fried eggs, and she didn’t want them with crushed black pepper, which is what these eggs, destined for Papa’s plate, were like. She just simply wanted the first two eggs. Who’s to say her want of the first eggs is any different than me wanting a ten year old parrot from a dingy pet store? Equally irrational. Equally strong.

I wanted to dismiss her feelings about the eggs, just like I want to dismiss my feelings about the bird, but I knew it wouldn’t help. Instead I held her while she wept and, soon, scrambling her own eggs eclipsed the pain of not getting the first eggs.

I don’t know what will eclipse my feelings about that parrot, and not sure an eclipse is necessary. I’ve got room on my person to carry the feelings around for awhile. They can ride in my pocket, whisper to me at  night while I sleep, and simply live with me. I’ve learned enough about feelings by now not to expect anything of them, not to shove them out, cover them up, or replace them. And no, it doesn’t make any sense to love that green bird. But I do.

Meanwhile I will enjoy every last ray of light the sun has to offer me. I’ll bask in the beauty of that blue sky, enjoying the company of a bright little girl, and thinking of a particular green bird.

February 23, 2010 at 8:49 pm 2 comments


We have a physically-challenged GI Joe that has been unearthed during our almost two month-long packing process. I think the process has taken so long, in part, because the best packing is done in the dark of the night. If you put something into a box while these little ones are fluttering about… they notice. And I don’t know what it is about something being moved from its visible, and usual location, to an empty box that makes it absolutely irresistible to children, but that’s the phenomena we are working against.

The latest object to be packed by a parent and then unpacked by a child is Joe.

The other night I was cooking dinner and listening in while Echo held a conversation between Joe and a white plastic unicorn. It went like this:

Unicorn: What kind of person are you JOE!!?? What kind of person ARE you? (angry)

Joe: Well, I’m a cocker. I’m a cocker didn’t you know. (deep voice, perfectly calm)

Unicorn: No I don’t know. And I don’t want to know! (livid)

Joe: Then don’t know. (slightly peeved)

(Unicorn stomps off)

(Unicorn returns)

Unicorn: Actually I DO want to know.

Joe: Ok…I’m a cocker.

I love that child.

Now back to packing. We are getting down to the nitty-gritty: pictures, posters, paintings, basement crevices. As I type I can hear a sock drawer calling my name.

(When I made a move away from the computer I noticed that the fleece blanket sarong had made its way to my waist again! Sneaky devil. And yes, I know Kenya is right (see comments for previous post), blanket sarongs do not prey on parents alone. If I am honest with my self, and search back through my memory, I can conjure up images of myself, pre-kid, and wearing a  blanket. Ooops. I thought motherhood was to blame. I thought I had a noble excuse for bad fashion!)

February 22, 2010 at 10:06 pm Leave a comment

so much more than a bad outfit

All the late nights without the thrill of smoky dance floors and flirting glances. All the sleepless nights without the glamour of intriguing conversations. All the up-all-night anyone could ever dream of, without the lazy sleep-til-noon luxuriousness. Instead it’s put the child to bed, stay up too late doing things like showering, working, watching movies, only to crawl into bed and struggle through several hours of nonstop toddler nursing, toddler sleeplessness, and toddler chatting.

It’s times like these when I find myself immensely grateful for my relationship with Nathan. Though still exciting, his love for me is not dependent on sexy glances thrown across the smoky dance floor, or being in the right after-hours spot, on the right night, saying the right thing, wearing the right outfit. Thank god. Especially about the outfit. Because sometimes? Sometimes I catch myself in an outfit like this:

That’s right. Dirty hair. No bra. And a heinous hot pink fleece blanket tied about my waist like a sarong.

I know my sister, while reading this, is quickly reaffirming any no-kids-for-me-EVER resolutions that sometimes float around her mind. It’s true Em, sometimes having kids means really, really, really, bad outfits. It starts at infancy. Echo cried whenever I put her down and I could really only stand one minute of crying. That meant one minute to pick an outfit and put it on. Which usually meant some pretty ugly ensembles, and even worse this one minute in the morning was my only shot, the day never allowed for any wardrobe changes. To make matters worse, engorged breasts meant huge wet stains on every shirt, every day.

I’m no longer in a wet t-shirt contest every day, but I still am not showering as often as might be fashionable. And though Echo affords me the opportunity to get dressed each morning, I still wear the same pair of jeans every day because, shopping with a toddler? Trying on several items while she crawls into the neighboring dressing rooms isn’t an event I seek out all the time. And, sometimes I end up swathed in an ugly hot pink blanket because I am sleep deprived, shuffling my way across cold winter floors, and not expecting company.

Often after surfing blogs I end up feeling startlingly inadequate. The photos show wonderfully designed living spaces, really cute outfits (on both kids and mom), and everything is clean, clean, clean. I wonder how they do it because I often assume (I’m sure incorrectly) that this is what their world looks like all the time. I’m not capable of that. Or maybe I’m not interested. Or maybe I am busy doing things that I’d rather be doing, including laying in bed at night talking with Echo instead of sleeping. (Because, I must remind myself, that’s a choice too. Crying it out while alone in a bedroom down the hall is theoretically a possibility.)

In any case, these choices lead to outfits like this.

Which brings me back to my relationship, because somehow, no matter what I have wrapped around me, Nathan is still attracted. And the circles I have under my eyes, because I nursed our daughter through a rough night, only make me more beautiful to him. He loves our girls like I do so any evidence of love giving is just the right look for his tastes. Phew.

And even if I am fully adorned in all the marks of full-on motherhood, I know he still sees something else as well. Though we have been in the past, and will be again, we aren’t dancing in the middle of a smoky dance floor, right now we stand on our worn kitchen floor, but he still sees the woman in me too and not just the mom. The feisty spirit and the irreverent intellectual. This allows me to wrap myself in heinous practical trappings, to dive headlong into the love of our daughters, because I don’t have to prove I am something else at the same time. He knows that already.

February 21, 2010 at 8:10 pm 8 comments


1. Math with beans.

2. Adding to the solid foundation… we begin to see a floor!

3. Play-doh birthday cake, made with Papa while Mama takes a bath.

4. More fun with moving boxes.

5. The storage container arrived! My goodness the fun these two can have with a gigantic empty box.

6. We see walls! The house is growing before our very eyes.

7. Aunt Shanti sent us a big box of Christmas presents in February! She wisely held off until the Yuletide hubbub had died down. Here the girls try on their new springtime accessories, certain it is just around the corner. Oh how I wish. Huge snow flurries sailed past the window when I took these photos.

8. The hamster takes full advantage of a cereal bowl.

Happy weekend!

February 19, 2010 at 10:00 pm Leave a comment

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