photoI just spent the last four days caring for my three grandchildren—a three year old and fifteen month old walking, running and climbing twins—while their parents were away. I am filled with joy at spending that intimate time with them, exhaustion over the non-stop work it entails, and total awe at the job that my son and daughter-in-law along with so many parents do today. They both work and come home to the constant onslaught of little people’s needs and demands with hardly a moment for their own.

There are ways to make the demands of parenting young children both easier for you and more effective for your children. Spending time with my grandkids, I see first hand how important it is to listen and pay attention to what is going on in these little minds.

The luxury of a relaxed time schedule and our undivided attention meant that they didn’t have to scramble for it—altho it was split three ways. When you have the opportunity to give your children 100% of your attention, do it even if it’s for a half an hour. If you ever have a whole day, you will learn tons about your kids that will pay off well into the future.

No matter what ages, your kids have agendas that are just as important to them as yours are to you. You have to get out the door and get your kids to wherever they have to go so you can get to work on time—and your kids have to pick out all the shoes from the shoe bin to see what’s there and then put them on and take them off again, drive a truck to an undisclosed yet extremely important spot across the living room, line up the cars and barricade them so as not to be swiped by a sibling, eat breakfast at a pace appropriate to one’s hunger level, get the doll that fell behind the crib and lay with it for awhile, and express uncontrollable outrage at the parent, sibling or dog who interferes with any of this.

It is not your job to give up your agenda in order for your child to accomplish his. As a matter of fact, when you do this to avoid a meltdown or feelings of disappointment, you are not only sacrificing your needs in the process but are traveling down the road to entitlement by teaching your children that their needs are more important than yours.

Balance is the key. So when five different agendas are clashing during the morning rush, acknowledging them will save time. Too often the mindset that our agenda is paramount means that all others should climb on board, and if they don’t, it means they are being defiant and disrespectful. This kind of thinking will get you spinning in endless power struggles and then feeling guilty and inadequate all day long. Not to mention how your reactions fuel your children’s behavior the next morning when they have to fight not only for what they want but also for their dignity.

Acknowledgment means patience and understanding. Simply allowing that your children do and should have their own ideas and ways of doing things without blaming them for lack of consideration will go a long way. If you have a minute, breathe and pay attention to what it is they are trying to accomplish. “You really wish you could stay here and play with your train set. Why don’t you set up the next 3 train cars and then make it longer as soon as you get home” doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing but it does let your child know that you have seen him and care about what he is up to.

Choices go a long way in helping rushed, frustrated children feel important to you. Many might say that my grandson gets too many choices and needs to learn to do what he is told. He is a strong willed child who has strong opinions about what he wears, eats, and does. Giving him a consistent structure to his day with specific times for the routines of the day and then many personal choices within that structure gives him a sense of personal power that enables him to be amazingly cooperative when necessary.

Understanding that times of stress are not times for rationale thinking helps save your sanity. When the three-year-old has had it with his younger brother destroying the fort he has built with the couch cushions or the cars and trucks he has positioned in a perfect circle, he loses it. Telling him he should know better, use his words, and realize that his brother doesn’t understand will only fuel his anger. Sitting silently close by waiting for the storm to pass allows for the feelings to empty so that problem solving can be accomplished when rational thought returns.

Giving in or giving up to expedite what must be done in the moment will only lead to learned habits that make future cooperation harder and harder. Invest the time up front and you will gain so much for the long haul.


Questions and Answers

Q. My bright and sensitive nearly three-year-old is suddenly struggling with her vulnerability. She is worried about less familiar people (particularly men), separations, abandonment and perceived aggression from her peers. This plays out as extreme shyness, tremendous difficulty with partings from Mom and Dad, terror at getting left behind anywhere and her yelling, ‘No grabbing!’ ‘Stop that!’ and ‘Go away!’ at little kids who approach her on playdates. I believe this is reasonably normal for her age though I’m a worried that is might be extreme. I definitely get that she is having a problem rather than being a problem. I had a mother with poor boundaries, and I’m having trouble validating my daughter’s feelings without going too far and trying to solve the problem for her. Do you have thoughts on dealing with fear in very young children and how to balance the desire to be loving/accepting and supportive with the need to let them learn how to deal with these normal human emotions.

A. Your understanding and compassion sets you up well. See if you can “bundle” her various fears in different situations and have her give them a name, like her gremlin or her grumbles or a nonsense word that she makes up. You want her to see that her fears are a problem she is having and can deal with rather than seeing that her fears are her—she is a competent kid who has some fears rather being a fearful child. Use the name she comes up. “So was that your gremlin that got you feeling upset when….?” Present the idea of a man she doesn’t know walking down the street and ask her what she thinks he will do. Perhaps add that you wonder if he might stand on his head or twirl around—something silly. See if she will draw her fears. Give her paper and her favorite markers and simply say, “Show me what your grumbles look like.” Or what it feels like when such and such happens. This might be hard at her age but her scribbles can be a way of “putting her fears down on paper”—simply doing that can help. For the separation anxiety (for all of this), the important thing is for you to feel confident of where you are leaving her and confident that she can handle her upset. When you get upset that she is upset, then she gets the message there must be something to be upset about. Also she then has your upset to deal with on top of her own. “You’re feeling scared about…. Marie will help you, and you will be able to handle your fear and get to feeling good again, I know.” “You’re afraid that we will leave you alone. That’s a normal fear. We will never leave you alone. There will always be someone we trust with you if we are not.” With other children on playdates: ask her what she wants when she yells at someone—what does she want them to stop doing, etc. Then work with her on a way of saying what she wants in a different way. Don’t expect that any of this will help in the midst of a frightening situation but it will have a cumulative effect. Anticipate as many situations as you can and work with her on ways she might handle what’s coming up. Also assure her that her fears will change and go away as she gets older.


Q. My husband and I have two boys, ages 5 and 7. We are a very close and loving family. However, for the past year or so, we have had more and more trouble being acknowledged by our boys. It usually happens as we are getting ready to leave. Leaving the house, leaving school, leaving a restaurant or a doctor’s office… They ignore our voices, and we have to repeat ourselves more and more loudly to even get an “OK, Mom,” to a “We’re leaving in 10 minutes.” We usually give a couple of heads-ups, as we know they struggle with transitions. When the time to leave arrives, sometimes they ignore us quietly, absorbed in a book or some other activity, but more often they run wild, continuing to ignore us and making choices they know are not acceptable (running, gleeful shouting, throwing things, etc.). The same pattern occurs when they’ve been asked to do simple jobs like putting all their toys into a tub. I try to empathize: “Wow, you really like it here. You want to stay and play, huh!” But it’s pointless if they can’t even hear me. We have had many talks about why it’s important to do our jobs promptly: so we can trust them to take care of their things, so we’re not late and we have time for what’s coming next, so Mom and Dad have the energy to do fun things, so we can get along and everybody wins. They seem to understand, and we all agree to try harder (Mom and Dad will try not to yell), but there is little to no improvement.

A. It’s possible the boys have learned that they can wait until you are ready to blow before they have to do anything about leaving. They know that you will repeat yourselves many times and that the volume will get to a certain level before they have to respond. Are you calling from a distance? Remember that your agendas are not of interest to them (also your reasons why it’s important to do jobs promptly). It sounds like they play off each other and use their alliance against you. Typically when I hear this, the parent is pleading with the children to do as they ask and not being absolutely clear about limits. Also the parent may have a problem with personal power and authority, either having grown up with none or with autocratic power. Our authority with our children has so much to do with our own childhood experience. You have done a lot of the prep work, which all sounds good. Now try talking to your boys at a good time (not when you are about to leave). Explain the problem you are having (remember it’s not their problem). Say you don’t expect them to want to leave or to make it easier for you but that you do expect them to acknowledge you and respond. Work out a plan with them. For instance, you will make sure you go to them to make sure they hear and see you, and they will look at you and acknowledge. Ask them what their problem is with leaving. Then together come up with a way/s to make it easier for them to come when it’s time. Make sure you talk about this as YOUR problem and do not blaming them. This must be said with a strong sense of self and personal authority. If you are wishy-washy and inconsistent, they will go for the gold.


Q. My son is 12 and does well in school. He plays soccer but other than that is not involved in after-school activities. Last fall (his first yr of middle school), he was excited about joining the school newspaper. He went to one mtg, then the holidays hit and mtgs were inconsistent. I noticed him losing interest. He said he never heard announcements for the mtgs. I didn’t “force” him to participate, and he didn’t. Currently, he’s excited about his school’s debate team, which takes place next season. I’m afraid the same thing will happen. He’s kind of a home body, does his homework right away after school and gets a fair amount of TV/computer time, but he likes his downtime and will read/play games. He wanted to be on the football team, but we didn’t want him to be, so we talked him out of it. I know I can’t “make him” join the debate team, but I sense a pattern of him being interested but not following through. How do I handle this with the hoped for outcome of him joining and following through?

A. I’m afraid my advice is to let go of your “hoped for” outcome. I think that parents get too hung up on this follow-thru idea. We don’t seem to get it that kids may join something, and if it doesn’t turn out the way they wanted, they will quit. Wouldn’t you? We jump to the conclusion way too quickly that our child is a “quitter” and will never follow thru on anything. Youth is the time to take advantage of opportunities and try out all kinds of different things to find what is interesting. If a child hits on one that is of great interest, he will stick to it. But if it doesn’t peak interest that is his signal to stop that direction and try another. Many kids find nothing of interest until much later – high school or college or even beyond. Our job is to present opportunities to our children with the expectation that if it clicks, great, if not, oh well, let’s try something else. We fear that if we sign a child up for an activity or he does himself, especially if we have to pay for it, and he isn’t interested (for any number of reasons: people involved, not the right time, change of mind), he will never commit to anything. That’s called catastrophizing! When he finds a match for his interest, he will stick—hold that trust in him.


Starbucks was out of cakepops! My daughter had been looking forward to one all day – it’s our Tuesday afternoon treat, just the two of us. She burst into tears and I was frustrated. Come on – I’ve ordered you a chocolate chip cookie! I thought but didn’t say – the thought was enough to make me think – hey, how would I feel if they were out of coffee?. She kept asking me to ask them WHY they were out? My adult mind thought, well, they just ARE. People bought them. They’re gone. I empathized – “It is hard when you’ve been looking forward to something and it isn’t there. Of course you feel disappointed.” Finally, I asked the guy, “So, how come you sold out of cake pops so early?” He explained that the big snowstorm the weekend before had stopped shipments. They were out of lots of things and were waiting for the delivery truck. Suddenly, my daughter’s wailing stopped. She got it. There was a reason. The snowstorm. She knew about snow – you couldn’t drive in it. Before connective parenting, I wouldn’t have taken seriously her request that I ask WHY? My embarrassment over asking would have won over her desire to know. But, in knowing, she could accept and move on. And, seeing me ask strengthened our connection as well.


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