I Hope This Isn’t ADD!

If your child has authentically diagnosed ADD or ADHD, please do not read any further! This is only for moms with ADD-wannabes =)

So my second son, at 6yrs old now, has many of the classic symptoms.  He is distracted by everything.  He has sensory issues, so he hears, smells, and feels everything whether it is the heat coming on, a truck backing up on the interstate, or even the smell of the oven.  This doesn’t help.

But even when I get him “focused” and working, he is very distractable.  He’s an artistic type, so he gets derailed into doodling on his workbook pages, or writing little notes to me on them when he comes to a difficult problem.  He can write a whole misspelled paragraph to me about a one-word blank.  He also likes fonts, so he starts decorating his “Ts” and “Fs” with little serifs or italic/bold-faced type.  Then his pencil needs sharpening, so he spends about 10 minutes doing that only to have it snap off when he gets back to his spot.  He starts that process over.  I homeschool him, and he can easily take from 9am to 12noon just doing two or three tasks.

But he’s extremely intelligent.  So I try not to harp.

It’s hard though.  His ADD spills over into other areas too, like getting dressed, tying shoes, brushing teeth.  It is very frustrating.  And yet, I realize it is partly developmental.  As you know, boys are over-diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.  Sometimes husbands and grandfathers hear about it and believe they’ve suffered with it their entire lives.  If it is maladaptive, maybe they do.  But it could just be part of the male brain.  Male brains are like “waffles,” as one celebrated author says, and topics are compartmentalized–in the brain, each subject has its own box separate from the others, and men jump from box to box, subject to subject.  Little boys do this too, which is how they get so far off track.  Things are just INTERESTING to them, so they think about it, cutting off what they were originally doing.  My girl doesn’t seem to have this problem, but I am sure there are many girls who do, especially creative and  free-thinking ones!

There are many blog posts and books on this subject, so I won’t belabor it here.  The real reason I am writing this post is because it dawned on me just today that there is something  redeeming about ADD wannabes.

Other than the gender component, I had thought that perhaps ADD was personality-related in the sense of learning style.  My second son is very analytical–obviously if he’s into fonts!  But something about this hypothesis wasn’t accurate because my first son is also analytical and has no attention problems at all. He has laser-like focus.  Then this morning I was teaching my third son Language Arts (he’s five) and I saw some of the same ADD symptoms beginning to crop up on him as he worked.  “Oh no!!!” I thought to myself.  “I have to stop this from happening so it doesn’t consume him like my second boy!”

Then it hit me.

He THINKS about his work as he does it.  My third son is not analytical at all.  Not even a little–it took him forever to learn his letters because A and B all looked the same to him.  (My other two sons picked them up before they were 2yrs old).  My third guy isn’t picky about anything, is very independent, talks in general statements, and picks up concepts easily.  But as he was working on his vocabulary and spelling, he was actually trying to think about what the words meant.  He wasn’t interested in just reading them (“cast”… “task”… “track”), he was asking me questions about them.  Then as I would explain them, we would get off track as that led to more questions.  Sometimes we got off for 5 minutes talking about something six degrees away from “cast.”  And I’d have to steer us back to the page at hand.

That’s when I realized that my second son does the same thing.  He tries to really understand things on a heart level.  He is very artistic, very scientific, and has a high IQ.  His vocabulary–especially for a young boy–is excellent.  So he ponders his work and goes slowly, thinking about things as he goes through.  This causes the distraction and “six degrees” problem.

My first son, however, who is 8 and has no attention problems, is analytical but doesn’t think AT ALL when he does his work.  He breezes through it as quickly as possible.  We have trained him to try to get the right answers, so he does know how to slow down and rethink a question with prompting.  But I can tell when I talk to him that he doesn’t like to think!  He is a type A personality and does things by the book, as perfectly as he can and gets good grades for it.  But he’s the type of  boy who can read an entire book and know very little of what he read.  Or misread the directions on a page and complete the entire page according to a rule without it dawning on him that his answers don’t make sense.  Or look up a word in the dictionary and read the definition four times and still have no mental picture.  He’s got a great memory and devours books, but has a terrible vocabulary and makes few connections on his own.  (i.e. he’s a history buff but asked me the other day whether July 4 was an American holiday.)  He just has a superficial understanding of most things and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.  Terrible commentary on how getting straight A’s doesn’t correlate to comprehension!

So maybe this is just the way it works: quick and brief, or slow and comprehensive.  If you have a child with attention problems too, you can be grateful that s/he’s probably a thinker.  They might grow up to be one of those kids who are terrible test takers but, if they took it correctly, would score extra high.  After all, it’s only if you think about what you’re doing, can you can think enough to get distracted!

I’m not trying to make light of attention problems.  I definitely think the kindergarten age is the optimal moment to teach this study skill– if you can teach your child to sit still and focus when they’re five-six, they will have a huge advantage.  But I have more grace on my boys now.   My kindergartner is clearly building his vocabulary and knowledge base, even though it seems like we labor over getting one page completed.  It’s developmental and important not to skip.

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The Autistic Child (NOT)

Does this describe your child?

  • 2.5-3.5yrs old
  • probably male, probably firstborn
  • delayed language; doesn’t put words together yet
  • doesn’t use Yes/No correctly– can cry/temper tantrum easily
  • doesn’t call for help
  • doesn’t use Mommy/Daddy/own name well
  • very detail-oriented
  • walks on tiptoes
  • walks in circles, sometimes jabbering to self or no-one
  • spins car wheels, pokes blocks off, or otherwise repetitive play behavior
  • repeats your questions/statements
  • repeats sounds or scripts ad nauseum
  • easily distracted
  • bad eye contact
  • can’t answer comprehension questions
  • no gestures or pointing
  • few independent skills
  • doesn’t understand taking turns or people skills well
  • won’t drink milk, eat fruit, etc.
  • constipated all the time
  • difficult sleeper

Congratulations!  You have a fine, well-adjusted NON-AUTISTIC child!  No, I mean it.  Your child is likely a finicky, driven, bored and distracted little boy.  He doesn’t care about language, isn’t able to pick it up easily, and is therefore a tough cookie who is behind in some areas that he wouldn’t be if he had better language skills.  But for now, you have to suffer in the world of preschool, playgrounds, and other life adventures that really do require more English and social skills than your child has.  And guess what?  This is totally normal!  Stop worrying that he is on THE SPECTRUM because life doesn’t seem to fit his developmental timetable, and just hang in there until he’s 5.  Get a lot of structure and routine that works for you, adopt a rigid discipline ethic if necessary, and have faith that once the language kicks in, he will make up for lost time pretty much right away.  His behavior will also become less erratic.

How about this child?

  • 1-4 yrs old
  • picky eater
  • messy, clumsy, can’t dress self well
  • cries easily
  • strange phobias– water, vacuum, dirt
  • anxious behavior
  • taps or scratches self, has repetitive stimulatory behaviors (i.e. may still suck thumb, fidget with socks, etc)
  • seems lost in a group, or plays alone
  • deep, focused play skills; strange attention at times
  • doesn’t like to engage others
  • avoids conflict, checks out
  • can talk but doesn’t initiate or sustain conversation; people might not even know how well they speak
  • may speak to privileged individuals, in-depth about their favorite subject/question
  • unusual talents, or way ahead in an adult area
  • retreats to specific activities; self-soothing repetitive play
  • takes things apart to study
  • handles toys or household objects in peculiar (non-functional) ways
  • sensitive to smells, sounds, touch
  • “freak out” or “shut down” behavior
  • low muscle tone
  • allergies or inadequate nutrition

Congratulations!  You too have a sensitive, fearful, NON-AUTISTIC child!   Most people would like to diagnose your little guy with Asberger’s or Autism Spectrum, but more likely you have a misunderstood, sensory-sensitive little person.  This profile is less commonly complained about than the very first profile I outlined, but it definitely represents a portion of toddlers who are very quickly seen as at-risk for autism and usually packed right off to a specialist for a neuropsychological exam.  Whereas the first  profile I listed above is likely to see the child put in special preschool, perhaps with an ADD-type medication, this second profile is more likely to be medicated for childhood depression, anxiety, OCD, or reactive detachment disorder.  But kids come in all colors!  There is no need to panic because your little person isn’t the extraverted, sensible preschooler.  He/She may be an “old soul” or grumpy type who doesn’t fit in with the flashy world around them.  He/She probably needs a little extra nurture and coddling, as well as some occupational therapy or one-on-one play/floortime with a loved one.  Resist THE SPECTRUM curse!

** Note: Of course I am not against true autism diagnosis.  And I am not against checking out whatever symptoms worry you about your child.  I am just making light of the fact that “normal” is a wide range, and MUCH wider than we are told it is.  Usually we are told to worry, from experts, parents, or friends, because of the developmental scare climate out there.  Yet there is no reason to push the Panic Button just because your toddler or preschooler has some delayed or anti-social behavior.  Attention and special education might be necessary…as it always has been, in the case of small children who have individual tendencies and weaknesses.  But usually these are things you can do on your own or with limited intervention.  There is no need to put small children under a microscope and ship them off for multiple diagnoses so they can receive services from the state until they’re 21 because we’re afraid they’re all high-functioning autistic.**

How about this?

Does Your Boy Develop Unevenly?

After hundreds of comments from moms dealing with their speech-delayed boys who walk on tiptoes or have other such idiosyncrasies, it occurred to me to write another post on the boy/autism thing.  This time, with a focus on the developmental timetable.

I have another post on how boys develop differently than girls, but to recap an important point: boys often do not follow the timetables.  In fact, they are spotty.  They grow unevenly.  At times, they will hit the developmental mark right on the money.  Other times, they will be way off.  And often, they will have some abilities way ahead for their age—while at the same time, they will have glaring weaknesses way behind for their age.

For example, when my firstborn son was 2 going on 3, he could do 100 piece puzzles from memory.  No box, no pausing.  Just snap, snap, piece after piece together.  Like a robot actually.  He even found out, by doing the puzzles on top of each other, that some of them used the same template!  For a toddler who didn’t talk yet or even say “Mommy” or “Daddy,” this was strange to us. Then when combined with some of his habits like walking on tiptoe, spinning and crashing cars (but not really playing with them), memorizing long scripts from video, repeating himself, and not pointing or gesturing, we started realizing he had some of the autism signs.

In fact, when we read down the lists of symptoms, he had lots of them.  He had language delays, some social and emotional issues, and some of the sensory signs.  He seemed to have no imagination or interest in crayons or action figures.  But he seemed way ahead in spatial skills, knew all his letters and numbers etc., had great focus, loved to be cuddled, and generally seemed bright and charming.  His motor skills were great, and any non-verbal tests he got, he passed with flying colors.  Or things that needed one-word answers he could do.  He was way ahead in some cognitive areas and way behind in others.

Then my second son came along and was the mirror image of my firstborn.  Extremely verbal, very early, artistic and creative, but way behind in motor skills.  Emotionally unstable and very anxious, he had almost all the sensory problems common to autistic children, including choking issues, hatred of socks and tags, inability to cross the midline, and freaking out sometimes.  He didn’t bond well to others (except Mom) and couldn’t do puzzles or visual tracking activities.  So even though he was talking, imaginative, and sociable enough in his own way, HE was all over the charts.  And thus possibly autistic.

Then my third boy came along.  You know the story by now.  He hit some milestones right on time (i.e. walking), hit some way early (i.e. sentences by 19months old), and some way behind (i.e. toileting issues until his fourth birthday).  And he had some strange issues (i.e. severe fear of water).  By this time, however, we had trashed the charts.  We figured he was fine!  He didn’t have to love everything 3 year olds loved, he didn’t have to talk like 3 year olds talked, and he didn’t have to fit in some “autistic Spectrum” bucket because he had some emotional immaturity. And now that he’s nearly five, we’re SURE he’s not autistic!  (or any of our other boys either).

So this is my encouragement to you if your boys are geniuses at some things but embarrassingly behind at other things.  Do you know that book, “Men are Like Waffles and Women are Like Spaghetti”?    That book effectively describes how my little boys think.  Their brains are like waffles, with separate compartments for each kind of skill or knowledge.  They can dive in real deep within any one box, but the knowledge doesn’t seem to transfer over into other boxes or compartments.  The connections aren’t there, and there isn’t much infrastructure to help them build up their weaknesses. So they grow very unevenly.  It can be worrisome for a time because their strengths get stronger but their weaknesses seem to get weaker, especially when you start comparing them to other kids.  3 year olds tend to be the most diverse.  Sometimes therapy doesn’t even seem to make a difference, at least not right away.  Little boys just plunge ahead with their strengths (what they naturally get) and prefer to stay there, enjoying it and totally oblivious to your concerns that they aren’t “normal” all around.

Consequently it is now no longer surprising to me that my six year old son currently can take apart radios and electric circuits, but doesn’t understand that if he stands close to the stairs, he might fall down them.  My almost 5 year old son can talk to me about heaven and dying, and what he wants to be when he grows up, but still hates even the tiniest drop of water on him or will change his underwear or socks if they get a speck of dirt on them.  My seven year old son currently can pass second and third grade English and Math tests, on paper, but has a five year old’s vocabulary, says “What?” a lot, and uses awkward phrases all the time.  They are just not even developers.  Some things way ahead and some things behind.  Some normal habits and some strange idiosyncrasies.

In comparison to my girl, who is precocious socially and emotionally, and has met every deadline on time, there is just no similarity.  My conclusion: It’s ok for boys to be uneven and worrisome.  That’s just often how it goes.

The Shy Child

I am entitling this the “shy” child, although one of my sons who prompted me to write this is perhaps not the typical “shy” child as much as the cautious or worried one.  I have been studying this behavior a lot recently and, now that he is turning six, looking for appropriate ways to help him conquer fear and anxiety, especially socially.  He has basically had this problem since he was little.

Looking back, I can see that he was even a “shy” baby.  He was small and weak, clingy but happy.  He was easy—didn’t cry a lot, napped all the time, yet sometimes wouldn’t hang onto a feeding enough to get the full amount.  He gave up easily, grew up behind his physical milestones, fearful of trying to walk, and screaming his head off when I walked away from him, starting at about 8months old and ending I’m not sure when.  Probably at 16 months when he finally tried walking, and found out he could do it perfectly by then.  Toilet training was a nightmare, separation anxiety was terrible, and he sucked his thumb for a long time.  (He still does, only at night though).  We found out he had a barrage of sensory and motor issues, got him occupational therapy for that, and would stutter when he didn’t get enough sensory input that day.  He generally liked people though, he was exceptionally bright and talkative at an early age, and taught himself to read.  I never had any real concerns.

This may or may not describe your child, but the point is that the shyness and fearfulness began at an early age and it has been tricky to help him grow out of it.  We have only just gotten to the place where he was ok enough to do kiddie gymnastics at the YMCA.  He breaks down and cries so easily that most classes are a nightmare.  And most teachers don’t have enough patience!  Let’s face it… I don’t always.  I have a unique empathy for what he’s going through, as his mother, but sometimes I can’t handle an avid crier.  I  just can’t understand why games are not fun, competitions are so threatening, and most stuff he won’t even try.  And I don’t mean like trying out for the soccer team.  I mean, like he won’t try to throw a nerf ball through the Little Steps basketball hoop.  Or use a friend’s kiddie tramp in the yard.  Little things, you know?

Well, now that he’s older (6yrs) and so precocious, I have been able to have some good conversations about it with him.  And I’ve been reading up on the subject.  And here are some things I have learned, which might help you deal with your clingy and fearful one.  (I can tell this is going to be a long post, sorry!)

1.  Shyness is not a crisis. Don’t panic!  (Maybe I should have said, “shyness isn’t autism” =)  Even though it seems that everything for little kids in America is geared towards sanguine, extroverted children, eventually the more reserved ones will fit in.  For kids who are wary of excitement, the world can be a tough place.  As parents who want to see our kids happy so much, we just have to accept this.  There are melancholy types, and we may have one.  My second son is a stereotypical Eeyore, Gloomy Gus, or whatever and it has been a little difficult for me to accept this.  Yet I see the wonderful things God has placed within him which are going to make him successful when he’s older.  I see his empathy, thoughtfulness, gentleness, carefulness, and discernment.  He is analytical, scientific, extremely emotionally aware, and will probably end up in a counselor, teacher, therapist, doctor, or otherwise helpful role when he’s an adult.  I don’t want to squelch this even though I get frustrated that he won’t join in the Uno game or kiddie pool =)

2.  Share the positive things with the child. Whereas my other three kids are blissfully unaware of their strengths and weaknesses, and charmingly prideful about everything, my shy child is painfully self-conscious.  This makes it all the more important to start teaching shy children about themselves.  They are ready to hear it, actually, since they are already thinking about it.  And if I don’t interrupt the “bad tape” that my son is playing inside his own head (“I can’t do this.  I’m too short.  I’m not good enough…”) then it will take over.  I have to replace that bad tape with a “good tape.”  So I do this by sharing those good things I see… how neat it will be to see what he’s going to do when he grows up.  Even at 5yrs old, he was thinking about it and whether we have an accurate vision is not the point as much as it is that there is a purpose for his personality.  (Always approve of any idea they have, about what they want to be when they grow up, even if it is ridiculous or a bad fit.)  Subconsciously, I want to shift my child’s perception of himself from “my problems are my identity” to “I’m destined for great things, so I can overcome the challenges.”  Sort of like talking to the average 13 yr old who feels inadequate!

One way to help a little child who’s insecure is to draw a picture of a big bucket and put their name on it.  Then talk about what good things go in that bucket, like “kind” or “thinker” etc.  You can list these things and draw arrows into the bucket, and then put the picture somewhere they will see it a lot, like on the frig, or over a desk.  For non-readers, draw a small picture next to each word, like a heart next to “kind” or a thinking face next to “thinker.”  They will soon come to know these words as they see it daily, and you can bring it out when you have your talks.

3.  Teach positive thinking. This is kind of the same as #2 except more practical.  I actually teach my son to narrate what he’s doing, sometimes, instead of playing his “bad tape.”  The ol’ standby of “I think I can, I think I can” is ok, but my son is such a realist that “I’m putting this lace around this one, and then I’m pulling through” is better for him.  It replaces “I can’t do this, It’s too hard” while he’s practicing tying his shoes.

Also related to this is watching your language.  Shy is not a bad word, nor is sensitive, and the reserved child needs a vocabulary to talk about the issue as they grow.  Yet the shy child already feels like everything they do is under a microscope.  They feel that the problems they have are huge, but their strengths are insignificant.  If you’re careful how you speak, it can reverse this kind of thinking.  Obviously try not to scold or criticize, but more practically, try to give instruction instead of correction whenever possible.  And when appropriate, sandwich the instruction within two loving statements like, “I know you’re trying really hard to do that right, which is great.  I think you have to hold the bow in one hand while you loop with the other.  Then it will be easier.”  Pretending like everything is NO BIG DEAL is key.

4.  One-on-One time is huge. The shy child tends to appreciate the one-on-one time the most.  All kids need it, but the more tender or reserved child often doesn’t get it because they aren’t around as much, or are gentler, or whatever.  So make time and go get them if they won’t acknowledge the need to come to you.  And beware of leaving the child who plays alone in the corner, alone.  They probably don’t want to bother people, or have conflict, but direct eye contact and engagement goes a long way in warding off problems.  In particular, it keeps them from developing passive aggressive behavior later on, when they realize they need things but don’t know how to communicate or get what they need the right way.  Connect, connect.

One of the best ways to do this is create a personal ritual.  It can become very valuable to them, even if it’s just a bedtime story, or a weekly Saturday breakfast out, or whatever.  Even a non-demanding two year old is able to pick up on a ritual like this, and enjoy munching a bagel with you at Panera.  It tells them “I love you, and I like being with you.”  This will counter that negative tape they play and make them happier inside.

5.  Reward and Celebrate courage. The shy child is reluctant to engage social activities often because they have performance anxiety.  They may not know what to say, or to do, and so they are afraid of getting in the game.  And they may feel pressure to get things right the first time, do a good job, etc.  Knowing what “should” happen or what going to kindergarten “should” feel like causes them great cognitive dissonance as things “actually” happen or they experience what they “actually” feel.  Then they feel guilty or ashamed.  It is a very adult-like trap, really.  It takes some undoing.

Part of the undoing is to obviously teach as many skills as possible.  Shy children in particular need to learn eye contact, hand shaking, phone skills, manners, and what to say when they don’t understand or don’t know.   Many cannot turn off the fear or waterworks once they start, and they shouldn’t feel ashamed for it or convinced out of it until they’re ready.  Time-outs are often helpful.  They also need to practice with non-threatening people or contexts (even stuffed animals!) if actual performance is involved.  But once teaching and practice are done, then the key to reward and celebrate when they step out.  For another child, starting a conversation is not worthy of praise, but for the shy child, it is.  Speaking up, telling someone what they need, asking for help, trying something new, going to a party, singing in circle time at nursery school, offering help, etc…. all these things should be taught and then heavily rewarded no matter what the results are.  I’m not against giving shy kids candy for rewards.  It is a very tangible and non-consuming way to tell a 4yr old, “Great job.  I’m happy with your effort.”  Now with my shy child, giving him the incentive of an M&M to do something is different… it doesn’t work because then he feels all this pressure to perform to get that M&M.  This actually shuts him down and makes him cry.  So do negative consequences being threatened, obviously.  But an incentive is different from a reward.  His face does light up when I catch something good and reward him for it, probably because there was no pressure or expectation involved.  Find a balance, but reward based on the effort not the outcome.

6.  Get sensory and motor issues checked out. For my son, some occupational therapy (and now kiddie gym) has gone a long way in helping him deal with his anxiety.  Not every shy child has sensory issues, but probably more do than we know.  When a child actually feels everything too loud, too fast, too bright, etc., the world is an overstimulating and scary place.  Getting some occupational or physical therapy can raise their tolerance levels, as well as give them non-threatening one on one attention in the areas they need strength.  When I first sought testing for my son (then just 3yrs), everyone was so worried because of his fears and crying during the exams.  They thought he was depressed, had generalized anxiety disorder, and needed a neuropsychological exam.  I feared that only medication was down that path, so I persisted in my quest to take the more physical route.  I truly believed strength and self-confidence was at the root of the anxiety, so I insisted we try that first.  What do you know, it worked!  So if your child is afraid of parties, gyms, playgrounds, malls, etc, it is definitely worth checking this out.  My son not only hears the lowest sounds on the hearing machine, and sense all touches and smells more than anyone else, but he has bad visual discrimination skills so he can’t spot things well.  He can’t see me in a crowd, see Daddy coming back to the car, sense where he is when he turns a corner in the library, or get to the trash can and back in a restaurant without getting confused.  This of course contributes to startling and anxiety but is, thankfully, one of the easiest things to work on at home through worksheets, I Spy/Where’s Waldo, puzzles, and other visual tracking activities (try “Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready” by J. Oberlander for preschooler ideas.)   In my opinion, if there are sensory/motor issues behind social anxiety, you’ll never get the shyness to abate just by tackling them psychologically.  They need skills and desensitization too.

Chores/Milestones Your Kids Can Actually Do

So the other night I was skimming through a very popular mothering book from the 70s, and I came across the chore section where—i am NOT kidding—“holding the wood” while Mom saws it was an example chore for a TWO year old.

Ok, so I am not sure WHOSE two year olds are ready for holding wood or helping saw, but it definitely isn’t mine.  And I am pretty sure the book wouldn’t have been published today with the AAP and that kind of suggestion!  Fearful as we all are 😉

Now I am like many other moms who think the Culture of Fear has gotten out of hand (we have to say NUTS are included in Almond Joy bars, and all playground equipment is plastic and spongy now).  But I still don’t stoop to quite the amount of security that these co-authors had.  And yet, I wonder why our kids today are so dependent on us, as compared to the earlier days.  There must be a connection.  I always get a great laugh when I watch “The Patriot” and one of the stony-eyed militia men tells his curly red-headed five year old, “Look after your mother!”  That’s a sweet joke of course, but there WAS a day when twelve and thirteen year old boys actually were supposed to look after their mothers and work the farm when Dad was away at war.  Do you know any 12 or 13 year olds who could do that today?  Not many.

So while I am pondering this loss of maturity, I realize I’m not doing that much better in my own home.  When it comes to jobs, I have a tendency to do them myself because my kids seem so… so… dumb.  Sorry.  But they are!  They ask ridiculous questions, can’t see the obvious, and have less coordination than their PE teachers are aware of.  My own fault, no blame here.  Also two of them can’t read and two of them are very short for their age.  But I am looking to transfer ownership and responsibility to my young brood—to challenge them to pitch in and take care of their stuff—without assigning them jobs which involve saws or fire.

But what is age-appropriate these days?  What is expected?  (I should get some info from a person with a farm.)  But here is a list of chores/jobs that I have so far found to be age appropriate.  Each age differs SO much.  And gender and birth order makes a difference (My oldest are three boys).  And personality.  But here’s where we have so far been successful.  (I will add more jobs in later as I think of them).

3-4 year olds

  • pick up own toys, including outside and bathtub
  • clean up own crayons, play doh, puzzles, school materials
  • put own dishes in dishwasher
  • help water plants
  • put laundry into piles (by color, category, or owner)
  • choose own clothes, get dressed mostly by themselves
  • gives everyone a placemat, napkin, spoon, etc
  • helps put reachable groceries away
  • puts stuffed animals, pillows back on own bed
  • can “help” wipe, clean a mirror, use a dustpan, etc.
  • runs things to the trash
  • lays out food on plates, with prompting
  • stacks things (cups, tupperware, etc)
  • hangs own things on the frig
  • turns TV on and off correctly, or other easy buttons

4-5 year olds

  • organize their own backpack, bookshelf, closet
  • puts things in the right folders, stickers in the right spots
  • change a CD/DVD correctly (with training)
  • work the basic remote buttons (with training)
  • run things up and downstairs, to the right places
  • put their own laundry away correctly
  • dusts
  • sets/clears table with help
  • helps bring in light groceries
  • can use automatic water/ice dispenser correctly (with training)
  • helps plant flowers, garden
  • helps clean out car
  • holds a flashlight for you
  • can plug and unplug more reliably

5-6 year olds

  • wipe kitchen table off, use sponge without too much water or mess
  • wipes most spills up ok
  • sweep crumbs with a dustpan (well)
  • brush own teeth (correctly, without supervision)
  • buttons own shirts, snaps
  • can help with laundry, using a stool
  • puts mail in and retrieves mail, remembers flag (not on a crazy busy street)
  • can put most groceries away, including the refrig/freezer correctly
  • toilets without help anymore (except occasional emergencies)
  • can change own clothing (dirty, wet, hot/cold) without prompt
  • makes own bed
  • straightens own blankets, folds blankets/towels
  • can bring you over a hammer, screwdriver, etc. reliably
  • helps a younger child with clothes or shoes
  • can help a younger child at nighttime with an easy problem
  • learns to put on own seatbelt
  • can do a “loop” around our neighborhood sidewalk, on a scooter independently (not a busy street)

6-8 year olds

  • comb own hair (correctly, without supervision)
  • learns to tie shoes, harder clothes independently (i.e. belts, zippers)
  • take ownership of dishes/dishwasher, plan ahead to run or not run
  • folds laundry correctly, pairs and rolls socks, puts things on hangers
  • sets own watch/clocks/timers
  • can do assignments independently, coming back when it’s over or there’s a problem
  • makes lists
  • can change/replace soap, toilet paper, paper towels, etc. with a little prompting
  • can (finally) assist in some minor home renovating projects =)
  • can take own bath with slight, occasional oversight
  • wipes a mirror, counter, or toilet correctly
  • use a dustbuster, or canister vac with some help
  • uses toaster and microwave correctly, with some supervision
  • can ride a bike independently on our street
  • can open and shut most car doors without incident

Oldest Child Syndrome

I am not huge on birth order theory, but now that my two best friends and I all have a bunch of boys, it seems clear that there really is something to the Firstborn Syndrome!

Perhaps you’ve seen it. You try so hard to do everything right with your firstborn, from the moment you find out you’re pregnant to all the crafts and classes they should experience when they’re three. You’ve prided yourself on having the right philosophy, suffering for doing good, making the transition from Non-Mom to Mom, and all of a sudden baby #2 comes along or your first starts meeting with playmates and it dawns on you…

My little one can’t share!

They also can’t wait their turn, let anyone else have the new toy, let anyone else have fun with the old toys, make the louder siren sounds, eat a cracker they don’t have, or generally avoid competition over everything. “Me First, Me Best, Me Most” is the name of the game. Jealousy and suspicion run high. But you’re not that way! That’s not what you modeled! What went wrong?

The problem is that your child is not able to Do Unto Others yet. He is not able to look at your behavior and think to himself, “That’s what Mom does with me. That’s what I should do with others.” That is too hard for even most teenagers to realize, let alone your three year old. Your firstborn is used to getting things first, best, and most because there’s never been anyone else to compete with. And assuming that YOU don’t act like a three year old =) how is he to know what other three year olds are going to expect from him?

I’ve had a tough time with this myself because our children are spaced closely together. And even though I have four small ones, my oldest is still the handful, still the one I am always correcting, and still the one I worry about most… Is he ever going to get it? I could never figure out why he had Firstborn Syndrome so badly when he had another sibling come along so early in life (by 15 months old). But now I realize that acquiring a sibling early in life as a toddler still cannot compete with growing up with others from Day One. When a person is born into life with others around that Mommy has to take care of, pay attention to, help, discipline, etc., it is truly a whole other experience. That is why subsequent children are critically different in the area of recognizing the role of others in their lives. They may be Type A personalities, fun, extraverted, bossy, or all kinds of other go-getting traits, but they will not be as socially/emotionally misunderstood as your Firstborn feels when he/she initially encounters significant others in their lives.

So how can you help this?

It can be hard, especially if you’re one of those moms who really tried to do everything right. You’ve respected your little baby, toddler, preschooler, and now they aren’t able to respect anyone else. You have to start turning their worldview around, slowly, from The World Exists for Me, to I am a Special Part of the World. In particular, you need to gently start inserting age-appropriate boundaries between them, you, and what they want. When they learn that not all words, toys, opportunities, and Mommy space is for them, but they have their own turns for attention, they will start balancing out. Make it a project for the year to raise consciousness about how they are making other people feel around them. Here are some things I’ve tried at home:

1. Make your firstborn talk to other children. Firstborns are notoriously grown-up oriented. They seem to ignore other children at times because grown-ups give out more praise and attention. So they interfere with other parent’s playtimes at the playground, take over your adult friends when they visit the house, and ask about what you said or did with everyone else. Some grown-up attention is warranted, of course, but the better strategy is to redirect your Leading Actor from talking to adults to talking to any children who are around, even babies. In our home, my firstborn wants to tell me everything from the dream he dreamed last night to the new word he just read to how his shirt is tickling his arm. Rather than try to teach him which things are important to talk about, I have switched to smiling and saying, “That’s interesting. Tell your brother (sister) about it.” His siblings are usually interested anyway! And it gets him out of the seek-Mommy-for-attention mode and into realism… his siblings usually don’t praise every achievement or coo over every wound.

Try this approach at the playground if your child is a drama queen or in your house when showing off behavior comes. Encourage your child even to talk to babies, whom they usually ignore because babies give no acknowledgment whatsoever. But it is healthy for your firstborn to adjust to a peer-centered world because it helps them get perspective (without guilt).

2. Adopt boundaries when you are talking or doing something with others. If your child, like mine, is all ears for every conversation in the house, adopt some nice maxim to let them know where their ears or input are not wanted. Sometimes I ask my firstborn, “Who is Mommy talking to?” when he wants to answer or comment on what I’m saying to a sibling. Or I say, “It’s between Mommy and Daddy” when my firstborn wants to ask or comment on what I told Daddy. If he persists, I say “Honey, Mommy is not going to talk about this with you.” or something slightly firmer. But always in a nice way… don’t foster bitterness.

3. Utilize time-out for real showing off behavior. When your firstborn has just a learned a new skill, any visitor becomes a prime audience. A little bit is ok, but if your four year old daughter is still plie-ing over your guests after about five minutes, or your kindergartner starts reading Green Eggs and Ham aloud for a second time, tell them they are wonderful but grown-ups are here to talk to grown-ups.  If they are truly interested in ballet and reading, they will happily move to a different room to do it.  If it is showing off, they will be upset.  Then the choice is: stay here and be quiet, or go to a different room and play.  No leeway.

4.  Have them look at the face of the offended party. When a young child hurts or rejects another child, they usually look at the ground. Or they go on their way as if nothing happened.  Don’t ever let them hurt someone else, even a baby, without stopping to pay proper attention.  Have them look at the face of the person with whom they ignored, stepped on, or stole from (or refused to share with), and go through a small dialogue about how they feel… “David, look at Matty. You hurt his feelings. See how he’s sad? He wanted to play trucks with you.”

5. Don’t ASK them questions like, “Don’t you want to share with Matty?” The answer is obviously no. Just gently command that they do so. “You should share with Matty. That’s the right thing to do. Come on, give him one of your trucks.” In my own house, assuming that my firstborn has more than one of his beloved item, if he can’t surrender one of them, he has to give all of them to me. But if this makes him happy, because it is out of spite, then I make him give them all to the other child for a short while. Only then can the child experience the pull that his toys (unreasonably) have on him. He has to learn that people’s feelings come first, that they trump that pull. If I do this with respect (not asking him to share something if it is brand new, or he just started playing with it, or only has one, etc.), then his conscience gets trained. He can try again later with the warning that he has to share his stuff.

Some people wonder about “forced” sharing.  It doesn’t make rational sense that making a kid share would cause them to want to.  But like all things with little kids, you can’t wait until they FEEL like sharing to share.  Some kids are sharers by nature, and this is wonderful.  But for those covetous ones who aren’t, the best way to get it in there is practice, practice.  If you start at 2 or 3, you’ll be surprised by the end of the year that they’ll probably get it.  A 4 or 5 year old starting can take longer.

6. Don’t foster possessiveness. Firstborns are notorious for feeling like others are invaders on their turf… they are using their cup, their slide, going to their school.  One way to help this is to try to avoid addictions or attachments altogether. I try not to let my oldest become addicted to anything that would make sharing harder than it is. No favorite cups, colors, toys, or foods. He has them, I mean, but I don’t cater to them… buying him MORE Lightning McQueen accessories, getting him his own personal dinnerware, or letting him carry around his Matchbox cars all day. This is almost anti-American =)  For my other kids, these basic things would probably be harmless. But for my firstborn, it just encourages possessiveness.

Also, watch your pronouns.  Try not to say “your” or “yours” unless it really is theirs, like their shoes, their hands, etc.  Don’t be weird, I mean, but use “the” or “our” for things which are collective property, especially movies, computers, furniture, toys, etc.  This will help enormously when you need to use something or another sibling/guest comes along.  It is important for little kids to know what things they need to protect anyway, and what things aren’t appropriate to share versus those that are.

7. Don’t allow upstaging or interruption. My oldest likes to talk louder so everyone can hear him, point out his own accomplishments…especially when a younger sibling is working hard on something he can already do, and race to sit by me if he sees someone else coming to get a spot. Gently, I expose his motives that he’s trying to keep someone else from getting attention, praise, or a space, and that other people need those things too. “Taking turns” seems to be the most helpful metaphor because that implies that he gets attention too, but just not at the same moment. (i.e. “Let Sally have her turn telling Mommy about the train, and then you can.”)  Personally, I believe it is ok to help older children learn the rule of letting younger children get what they want first, although there are some situations or children where it is not wise.

8. Give opportunities to help others and get praise for it. My firstborn is a natural director, so sometimes I give him service jobs that channel his controlling nature into something good. I look for things that he likes to do, that need to be done, and that the recipient benefits from, i.e. helping his little sister get her sandals on, going to see if the car is clean, teaching his brother the letter sounds.   This helps him see constructive uses for his personality but also practice seeing others’ needs. I try not to overpraise him for his work as much as play up how happy he made the recipient… “See her face? She is so happy that you got her shoes on! Now she can go play!”

9. Model sharing with him, in games if necessary.  Play turn-taking games, card games, or other exercises where you switch things.  Lots of little kids are really hesitant to let things go—their hands are always poised ready to grab—and this is something that needs practice.  You should do it one-on-one with him until he is sharing with you well… until he gets that with someone he loves, and can trust the sharing process, he won’t do it with others (who are not as trustworthy!)

10.  Put the shoe on the other foot in training exercises… Show him how it feels to be ignored, upstaged, taken from, beaten in a race, etc. Never ever be cruel, but consider some low-key narrated example for your little firstborn to actually feel bested so they can gain empathy for those they are besting. The best way to do this is to artificially replay the scenario that just happened, either with you playing the part your firstborn played and him playing the victim.  Or you can reenact with the two original parties in slow motion, narrating what happened.  You can have the parties switch positions as actors if necessary.  The point is not to enact revenge but to slow down and rehearse a situation that comes up a lot.

11.  Make him do the giving in normal situations. Make him give things to a cashier, take items upstairs to Daddy, give the baby his bottle, etc.  This makes letting go seem more natural.

12. Adopt some maxim you can use often like, “Let’s look at everybody” or “Think of others” whenever these situations come up. A 4 or 5 year old is definitely able to get the picture if you are saying this often, and while they probably can’t change their behavior on the spot, it will be planted in the back of their minds for later.

13. Community service or talking about giving things to others can go a long way too. Talking through how we give clothes away that we don’t need, making a casserole for a friend who had a baby, letting our neighbor borrow our CD, or wrapping up Christmas presents for kids who don’t have any, shows that giving is an easy, natural, and pleasant thing. All kids need to see this, and your firstborns most. Talking about all kinds of generous behavior as much as possible will give them the extra tools they need to internalize that type of message.

14.  Most Important: Make sure you are truly meeting your firstborn’s needs for love, possessions, and attention. Especially with siblings and playdates, they may legitimately feel lacking.  Or they may be scared of letting go of your attention, or of the position where they have the most attention by default.  Also, it is easy to fall into giving your child passive attention but not active.  Preschoolers and Kindergartners really need active talking with you where they knows you are paying specific attention and not needing to leave for some reason.  When you are confident that their love tanks are full, then you can be confident (and calm) during corrective activities.

The Dawdling Monster

Ahh, it has been too long since I wrote a post.  Probably because as all of you moms with little children know, a day can feel like a week, or a week can go by like a day.

But as I wait for my four, almost five-, year old to get down the stairs for breakfast, it dawns on me that this is the third child I have had to go through this stage: the Dawdling Stage.  My once efficient, independent, do-it-myself preschooler slowly turns into this lazy, haphazard, stare-at-each buttonhole kindergartner.  Somewhere between the ages of four and five, at least with all my boys, this has happened.

The Dawdling Monster eats your child up slowly, though.  One day before school, they are done WAAAY before they need to be and you have to finish packing the lunch and get to your child to read them a story or something before the bus comes.  But then, sometime later, you realize you have to keep getting up five minutes earlier, five minutes earlier, and five more minutes earlier, just to get them ready in time.  You’re flying out the door, forgetting the lunch, because your four or five year old has taken fifteen minutes just getting his clothes on.  Then ten minutes to eat a bowl of Cheerios.  And he’s wandering around without a care in the world.

So if this is you, take heart.  There’s not much you can do, and it’s not your fault.  All of my boys, with three distinct personalities and styles, have now gone through this stage, and I am realizing it occurs all on its own until about six years old.  Then, as the child becomes a first grader, if you’re diligent about family habits in general, it eventually subsides all on its own.  The six year old will pleasantly dress, brush their teeth and hair, and come down for his breakfast cereal before your four year old even gets his pajamas off.

But what’s the answer?  Well, I confess I am writing this post more for me, than for you.  I don’t have too many solutions yet.  I have tried different things and none of them totally worked.  I have tried taking back over the morning or evening routines: taking their clothes off for them, putting their shoes on, etc., and that only made them upset.  Because they could obviously do those things themselves.  I tried setting timers before I made my move on them, but that didn’t work either.  Or telling them they had ten minutes to clean up before dinner would be ready, etc.  They would get so upset, though, trying to beat the timer, and usually not do things right or thoroughly.  I tried manipulating the schedule just to give them more time, but they always take up as much time as I give them.  This is particularly pronounced at bedtime when the routine consists of multiple different parts: cleaning up, washing, pajamas, etc. When I had four kids under four, it used to take about 30 min.  Now, it takes about 90, or longer if I hide behind a book until they’re done all on their own.

We now start getting “ready” for bed just after dinner is over, at 6:00!

I have also tried rewarding them all for finishing early or on time.  I have tried competitions, with rewards for the team that is first to clean up, get in the bed, etc.  (That only creates heartbreak for the losers, or resentment at the slow team member assigned to the faster one.)  I have tried checkpoints, i.e. “Tell mom when you’re done dressing…” and harping at them, i.e. “Come ON, we’re late!”  I have even tried (just one time) the threat of, “If you can’t get those shoes on by the time your other brothers are ready, we’ll leave without you.”  (Which we did.)  That seems to have only produced perpetual fear in my now six-year old that we’ll potentially leave without him any time we’re going somewhere.  The only thing I haven’t tried yet is giving my child a watch to time themselves.  But knowing my boys, they would just have another thing to get distracted over (they LOOOVE machines and buttons).

So I have pretty much decided to stop fighting it.  It’s really not an issue of confusion or changing things, it’s just nature.  When my third little boy entered this stage, I realized it for what it was.  Pretty much like the No-No stage.  That doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating!  He once used to blow right through an alphabet worksheet, and now that he’s starting kindergarten and learning to read, I feel like he suddenly acquired a massive case of ADD.  He stares at each letter, then into space, then back at page, then at the binding of the workbook, then his pencil with some shavings still stuck on the tip, and fingers them while saying, “uhh… “Spot?”  But while I roll my eyes a lot, I’ve stopped fighting it.  Hopefully he’ll follow in his other two brother’s footsteps of picking up the pace a little when he turns six.  Now I remember why I don’t teach kindergarten!