Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Everybody, Give Yourself a Pat on the Back

We had a shocking perspective shift over the weekend.  While at a municipal lakefront park, a woman tried to use her toddler to steal my wife's purse.  Lorin was sunbathing nearby but hidden from the woman's view.  She clearly heard the woman directing the child to pick up not her tote bag, but the smaller purse next to it, and bring it to her. 
"Dis one?"

"No, the little one." 

"Dis one?"

"Yeah.  Bring it here, sweetie."

At that point, Lorin revealed herself and claimed her purse.  The woman covered by pretending she hadn't noticed.  "Oh, that's not yours, sweetie.  Go get your frisbee."

With no way to prove that any of this had happened, Lorin had to content herself with shooting the woman a dirty look and moving her belongings to a safer spot. 

We talked about the episode the whole way home.  There's a pretty decent chance that the woman could have lost custody of her child if we'd had more than one witness.  It was shocking to think somebody would risk such a consequence for just a purse - life must be bitterly hard for her to even consider it.  But it was even more shocking to imagine the life trajectory of a toddler who is being taught to steal before he's out of diapers.  Where is that kid going to end up in ten, in twenty years?  If he stays out of jail long enough to reproduce, what will he teach his own children?

The world is full of good parents who try hard.  A lot of us beat ourselves up over the unavoidable little mistakes we make as parents.  Well, let's all take a moment to reflect on the lessons of this episode:

Let's all thank Mom & Dad for raising us right.

You may not be perfect, but if you care enough to read parenting blogs, you're a pretty darned good parent and should take the time to remind yourself of this when you're feeling low.

Poverty and addiction are powerful forces.  We should all be thankful we're shielded from their influence, and give to the organizations that work to address these problems in our communities.

And finally, keep an eye on your stuff.  You wouldn't believe what some people will do for a few bucks.
Am I missing anything?  What other lessons do you see in this experience?

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hurry Up & Wait!

Our age-related expectations can
pull kids in different directions.
As a father of three boys, I'm fascinated by the role of birth order in our personalities.  I can't offer much insight into gender differences (no daughters to observe!) but I see a lot of birth order drama play out in our daily lives.  Lately, I've been thinking about how our expectations as parents combines with birth order to create a pretty powerful influence on our kids.  I call this effect "hurry up and wait" because those are the messages the kids end up getting - "hurry up" for the older kids, and "wait" for the younger.

Looking back, I've come to realize that my unspoken expectations have been stretching my oldest son into greater maturity for his whole life.  When he was little, I couldn't wait for him to walk and talk.  Then I couldn't wait for him to learn to ride a bike or cross-country ski, so I could share those sports with him.  Then I couldn't wait for him to be old enough to share certain beloved books or movies with.  And recently (the experience that made me realize I've been doing this) I was disappointed that I couldn't take him to a concert for a musician we both enjoy. 

It's not just about the fun things, either.  When there are chores to be done, we expect adult results from him now that he's almost 12.  When the siblings are arguing, we're probably hardest on him because we have higher standards of fairness and maturity for him than the younger boys.  And in our homeschooling, we expect greater effort and higher quality work from him than from his younger brothers.

All his life, I've been wishing he were just a little older, eager to share experiences that were just out of his reach. That's not to say that we don't also do fun stuff that he's old enough for now - we do, but there's always an eagerness to do the next thing when he's ready.  Looking back, that's had a tangible effect on him - subconsciously, he's always being told to "hurry up" and get older.

At the other end of the spectrum his younger brother is more often forgiven for  childish behavior.  He's more likely to have things done for him, like reading or cooking, though he's capable of both.  He's more often held back by our expectations that he can't do things well enough.  And at the same time, since he's our last child, we seem to cherish his little-ness and act reluctant to let it slip away.  He's more likely to get cuddles, hugs, and other "young" physical affection.  You might say that he's always being told to "wait" - stay small a little longer, please!

I don't mean to imply that there's something wrong with doing this.  I think it's a natural and understandable tendency in parents, and it's clearly appropriate to vary our expectations according to our children's age and developmental stage.  But I think it's important to be aware of this tendency, and of the power it can hold in shaping our kids.  Now that I've recognized the pattern, I can choose appropriate times to let up and allow my oldest to be a kid when he needs to.  And I can look for opportunities to let my youngest stretch and grow and earn greater responsibility.  Hopefully, seeing this pattern of parenting behavior clearly will make me a better dad, and will make my kids happier, more self-secure kids. 

I doubt this tendency is universal across families.  It's easy to imagine a different person telling their oldest to "wait" and their youngest to "hurry up."  So I'm not sharing this with you because I think you deal with your kids' different ages the same way I do.  But I suspect that their ages impact your expectations in some way, and I'd bet you it's not something you're fully mindful of.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Dark Side of Self-Esteem

I've noticed an interesting behavior pattern in my kids.  It checks out in what I've seen of other people's kids, too.  I'll describe it for you -- see if it sounds familiar.  Your child achieves [some milestone].  You're thrilled for him!  [Milestone] is something he's worked at for a while, something that once seemed out of reach - but finally, it is his.  And suddenly, in the days following this victory, your sweet child becomes obstinate and disrespectful.  Behavior you thought you'd seen for the last time returns, and tactics that have always worked suddenly don't.  What the heck is going on?

Here's a list of the different milestones in my children's lives that have produced the effect described above:
  • Learning to walk
  • Birthdays
  • Learning to read
  • Learning to ride a bike without training wheels
  • Going to school for the first time
  • Advancing a belt in martial arts
  • Learning to drive (our kids haven't gotten here yet, but I've seen it in other families)
I'm sure there are others, but these are the examples that come immediately to mind.  So here's the question: why on earth would these achievements, these positive milestones, cause bad behavior?

I've thought about that and I have a few answers I'd like to offer.  First of all, I don't think it's  always true that the milestones cause the behavior.  There are probably times when we are so excited about her achievement that we subconsciously cut the kid some slack, then reel them back in after it's over.  But I'm pretty sure that's not the whole story; something bigger is going on here.

What I think is happening is this:  children have a powerful drive to mature, to achieve grown-up status.  It's certainly not the only drive they have, and at times it competes with, say, the drive to sneak cookies or the drive to avoid unpleasant work.  But that drive to grow up is one of the most powerful motivators acting on your child.

And in your child's mind, that milestone - let's say it's riding a bike without training wheels - that ability is the next obstacle on his path to growing up.  It's a big obstacle, and he's fixated on it for a while. 
Each peak obscures your view of the next...

So he begins to see it as the obstacle, rather than an obstacle, between him and adulthood.  It's analogous to wanting to climb a mountain.  From a distance, you have a clear view of the peak you're striving towards, but as you get closer, the foothills obscure the peak and you begin to mistake the slope you're on for the path to the summit, still far ahead.

When she  achieves her goal, it feels like she's basically a grown-up now, except for a few details.  But you're still treating her the same way you did before her big success.  And that, right there, is your recipe for the discord I described at the beginning.

I want to stress that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Sure, it's unpleasant when your child regresses, but I think every kid deserves to act up now and then.  Mistakes and learning go hand in hand.  What would life be like if somebody always interfered with that process? Achieving major milestones spikes his self-esteem a little more than it should, but the world will correct that soon enough without my help.  I know I don't want to be the one knocking my kid's self-image down a peg. 

So I'm not recommending any particular action; it just helps a little to understand why it's happening.  I try - with mixed success - to meet the unpleasant behavior with patience and correct it the same way I would have when they were younger.  Soon enough, we're back on track and their eyes are on the next goal.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Incredible Power of Exhaustion

Anyone who's been a parent for more than a few days is surely aware of the connection between fatigue and behavior. Humans aged anywhere from 8 days to 8 decades are a lot less fun to be around when they need a snack or a nap.

But we don't blame food and energy when their behavior is at the other end of the scale. What about the bad behavior we see in kids who are well-fed, well-rested, full of energy - but with no appropriate place to put all that youthful vigor? I don't know about you, but I see this a lot in my family, and in its own way, it's harder to deal with than a kid who just needs to be tucked into bed. I'm quite sure I could get an "amen" from any public school teacher who's recently had recess cancelled due to rain.

I was at a meeting for our local youth swim team recently when I had an "aha!" moment. One mom complained that the practices just weren't hard enough - her daughter just wasn't coming home exhausted like she used to, and that was one of her main goals in signing the girl up for swim team. I flashed back to my childhood soccer coaches, who made my ill-behaved teammates run laps until they were ready to pay attention. I thought of my cats, who oscillate between acrobatic frenzies and complete relaxation. And then I thought of the peaceful feeling that comes over me after a bit of good exercise, and I understood the wisdom of that swimmer's mom.

Others have written more authoritatively than I could on the ill effects of screen time, sugary diets, heavy homework loads and the general trend in our society towards a more sedentary childhood. Many folks believe there's a connection between these things and the ADD/ADHD epidemic. I won't rehash those arguments. But I will say this: if you haven't found a way to wear your kids out on a regular basis, you're parenting uphill.

Children's bodies need the physical outlet of exercise. It doesn't have to be formal. Childhood should be full of play - tag, hide-&-seek, jungle gyms, swings, tree-climbing, monkey bars, and riding bikes around the cul de sac. General outdoor activities like hiking fit the bill, and they can give your whole family more time together. Or team and individual sports will work fine, too, if that's what interests your kid. But it needs to be something, it ought to happen every day, and it might as well be something fun.

Kids whose bodies are jittery with bottled-up energy are compromised just as surely as they are when they miss a nap or their blood sugar gets too low. They're at a disadvantage at school, where concentration is the key to learning. They're far more likely to act up, and they're more argumentative and cantankerous than they would be otherwise.

The best thing is that burning that excess energy satisfies a basic human need, so it leaves kids feeling satisfied. . . content. . . healthy. . . happy, even. Parenting a content, peaceful child is a breeze compared to wrangling with a hyper one.

So think about your child's typical day. Are they worn out when it's over? If not, find a way to change their schedules so there's time for exercise. I think you'll see a difference in their behavior, which is bound to leave you a little more tranquil as well.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Can Egypt Teach Us About Parenting?

Like most of the world, I've been nervously watching events unfold in Egypt, hoping against hope for a peaceful transfer of power despite the blindness of their government. Incredibly, that's what seems to have happened! Looking back over the veil of tears that is human history, you get a sense of how lucky the Egyptians are that it worked out all right. Egypt's story is so surprising because Mubarek resisted the popular will, and that doesn't usually end peacefully. Now, if they can just navigate the installation of a democratic government successfully....

It got me to thinking, there are some strong parallels to parenting here. I'll never forget the girl at college who ended up in the hospital getting her stomach pumped on her very first night away from home. Complete parenting fail - if your kid is so eager for freedom that she fatally gorges on it at the first opportunity, you've done something very, very wrong.

Parents are not democratically elected, and they wield absolute power over their children like a dictator or monarch. But sooner or later, freedom comes (teenage years and adulthood), and it's either a violent revolution or not, depending mainly on how repressive the despots have been during their reign.

Smart parents begin preparing their little colonial citizens for Independence Day when they are very young, gradually increasing the level of responsibility they're trusted with well in advance of the tumultuous teen years. If you're able to pull this off, you enter the teen years with a trustworthy young man or woman who is ready for the transition of power. There will be mistakes, sure, but they will not tend to snowball like those made by unprepared teens. The responsible young person will bounce back from their errors and go on to smoothly establish self-government when the time comes.

If you have kids who haven't hit their teens yet, take a moment today to evaluate their status. Are you sliding towards protests, crime and revolution, or establishing the foundation of a peaceful transition? The happiest young adults I know were shepherded through this tumultuous period by wise parents who raised an enlightened populace, and stepped down gracefully and gradually when the time came. Let's all try to be those parents, so that our kids can be those kids.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Simple, Cheap Pocket Organizer

Just a quick post today to plug my favorite low-tech organizational tool: the PocketMod.

A pocket mod is a single sheet of office paper that you customize with features like blank checklists, calendars in various formats, references, and so on. You can then print it out, do a nifty little cut-and-fold transformation, and voila! It's a 4"x2.5" (ish) disposable organizer.

The original PocketMod, developed by Adams Chad, can be found at PocketMod.com; Douglas Johnston reworked the idea and added more features (including some intended for users of David Allen's Getting Things Done methods), which you can get at rePocketMod.com. Either way, it's free to use, cheap to make, and easy to carry around with you.

A pocket mod plus a small pen or a stubby pencil makes it possible to jot down quick reminders to yourself whenever they occur to you, and to check on your to-do list any time. It's a great way to keep a portable daily checklist and to-do list, too. Try it out!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Grown-Up Checklist, Explained

Here's that checklist I promised, with a little explanation of each item:

WORKOUT OF THE DAY Some days, I'll do a small morning workout before breakfast; other days, I'll work out in the evening or take a day off.
SHOWER By popular demand....
GET DRESSED I tried getting dressed and then showering, but my clothes got all wet....
BREAKFAST I cook something for myself and the boys most days.
COMPUTER TIME This is the time to check on Facebook, email, etc. I have to limit myself or I spend too much time here.
CHECK CALENDAR FOR TODAY I find that if I look at the calendar in the morning, I'll remember what's scheduled for the rest of the day. If I don't make myself check it, though, I am likely to forget stuff.
START HOMESCHOOL BY 9:00 My homeschool mornings tend to go one of two ways: either I'm behind all morning and get a really late start, or I start on time and finish everything we need to do by 11:00. The second way is a lot more fun for everyone.

CLEAN KITCHEN The kids are expected to clear and rinse their own breakfast dishes, but this is where I make sure all the breakfast stuff is cleaned up and I'm not leaving a mess for Lorin to deal with when she comes home at lunch time.
CHECK TASK LIST I keep a small notebook in my pocket that I use to write down to-do items as they occur to me. I'm trying to be better about the next step – that is, actually doing them.
READY FOR WORK Do I have all the things I need for work? Clothes still clean? Was I supposed to bring anything to the office, or drop something off on the way there?
LUNCH I don't always make lunch for the boys, but if I don't, I need to make sure they make themselves something healthy. Ideally, when Lorin gets home, the kitchen is clean and the boys are fed, so she can get right to work on her afternoon of homeschooling.

KITCHEN My oldest son & I tag-team the kitchen after dinner. We load the dishwasher, hand-wash the big stuff, and wipe down the counters. Younger brothers sweep and wipe the table.
WORKOUT OF THE DAY Some days, I watch a movie while I ride my bike on the trainer in the evening, or do a quick workout after dinner.
CHECK CALENDAR FOR TOMORROW Is there anything important going on tomorrow that I need to prepare for? Any errands to run, etc.? Looking into this at night helps me remember them the next morning.

I haven't begun to use this yet, though some of the items on it are long-standing habits (and others are old short-comings).

If you were to make yourself a checklist for the hectic parts of your day, what would be the most important items on it?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A New (Grownup) Checklist for the New Year

An Apollo 12 astronaut refers to his task list on the surface of the moonBack when we wrote our first page on using checklists for household chores, I threw in a line that said something like "From Jiffy Lube to NASA, checklists are used to clarify expectations and break big jobs into smaller tasks." At right, you'll see proof -- a photo from the Apollo 12 mission of an astronaut's wrist-mounted checklist.

I know a couple professional pilots; my dad used to fly for the US Navy, and I remember seeing his training manuals around the house. Civilian or military, pilot training is checklists, checklists, checklists. It makes sense - with lives on the line, you don't want to miss a step.

And then there are the Boy Scouts. A disproportionate number of US presidents have been Eagle Scouts; a quick survey of the men I know who were Eagle Scouts shows that they all have a propensity for follow-through and dependability. I think it's because the process of becoming an Eagle Scout involves steadily checking off hundreds of badge requirements.

I could go on - packing for a camping trip, baking a cake, assembling IKEA furniture....

All of these things point out some important things about checklists:
  • they augment our human memories with an external list of tasks
  • they help us track where we were in the list so that distractions don't cause missed steps
  • and, if used reliably, they teach us that even when we don't have a checklist to work from, big things can be accomplished by breaking them down into small steps.
Indeed, this simple secret is big business. David Allen has made a mint and helped millions of readers with his "Getting Things Done" books, which boil down to a three step process: 1) break the goal down into discrete tasks; 2) identify the next task that needs to happen (he calls it the "next action"); and 3) do the next task - duh! If you doggedly repeat this process for any given thing, whether it's marathon training, building a house, or earning a Ph.D., you'll eventually achieve the goal.

We've used the system with our kids for a few months now, and we've seen big improvements. Our oldest has memorized his checklist; our middle son gets his and starts working through it without being prompted each morning. And our youngest... well, he still needs to be reminded, but the checklist gives us one reminder that functions for the whole list of tasks.

As I've watched the checklist transform our home life, I've come to realize that people who have internalized this process go on to more productive, enjoyable lives. That's something I want for my kids, so I'm really glad we've discovered it and begun to help them learn it.
But what about me? When I look around the house, there are plenty of unfinished projects. I cringe at the number. I know that I unconsciously break tasks down into mental checklists at work, but I am definitely not in the habit of doing it in all aspects of my life. Maybe I should be, So I'm going to be working on a daily checklist for myself that incorporates some of my New Year's resolutions and other things I'm not always great about doing.

I'll post the checklist here in a couple days when it's ready. In the meantime, let's brainstorm. If you were making a daily checklist for yourself, what would you put on it?