The Little Diva

All right, some of you Moms of little 2-5 year old girls know exactly what I’m talking about.  Some of you have Divas, and you know who you are!

I have a little girl who just turned four, and she is a recovering Diva.  We’ve stopped catering to her hand and foot– you know, like removing the brown M&Ms out of her pile, making sure her ruffles are straight, and helping her to coordinate clothing.  Generally speaking, we had stop fussing over her.  Which is REALLY hard when you have a sweet little girl!  You just want to buy them little hair things, shower them with gifts, and sweet talk her all the time!  They are born so precious and covered in pink, and there never seems to be a right moment to toughen up.

But all this fussing only causes the Little Diva to emerge. You know, the twirling around in the living room for all your visitors to admire, the patting your hair sweetly when they want something, the fussing over having the right color nail polish or “make-up,” the refusal to go out with you just because they’re pouty.  Think teenage drama queen in miniature.

Diva-personality can be created for a variety of reasons.  In my case it was because I had three boys in a row before I had a girl, so I was tempted to indulge.  In the case of some relatives of mine, the parents simply favored girls over boys.  Girls were “easier” and pretty while boys were difficult and rough.  In the case of a friend of mine, she simply had a lot of girls in the household!  And she herself was kind of a drama queen, so the climate was conducive.

Which brings me to the main point: it is naturally easy for a girl to slip into this caricature, and easier if you do lots of fussing.  Somewhere around the age of 1.5-2.5, little girls catch onto the uniquenesses of being a girl.  They understand concepts like “matching” clothes MUCH earlier than boys, the importance of icons like Disney princesses on their lunchbox, and the importance of “girl” toys, etc.  Because girls mature faster than boys, their social and emotional awareness kicks in early. They notice the special treatment they get, even if they can’t articulate it, and they can start milking it.

Now I do think treating girls differently than boys and giving them gentler treatment is appropriate.  I don’t think androgynizing our girls is the answer.  But it’s easy to go too far.  A typical girl can handle only about a year of special treatment before it starts to take over her personality.  Ask a mom with a Diva of 6 or 7 years old… by this point, it’s much harder to get the spirit out.

So around our house, I have made more of an effort to make my girl run with the boys.  I still treat her with more emotional sensitivity, I think, because she puts that out there.  But I don’t give in to her specificities, or hold back discipline if her brothers were in the same position.  For example, I no longer do the clothes thing with her unless we’re going somewhere where she needs to dress up and look pretty.  I used to dress her every day and make a fuss over this and that, or her hair, now I let her dress herself, praise herself, and I just do her hair matter of factly.  When we went to a friend’s wedding, of course, I made the big deal about it and brought out the curling iron, lace slip, perfume, etc.  She loved it.  But I don’t indulge her on a daily basis so she grows up thinking clothes and beauty are the point.  I think I bought into my relative’s advice before that all the girly stuff was really important in the beginning… but now I see it as a main route to Diva-land.  When I hear about Suri Cruise criticizing her mom’s clothes, I am even more sure! Cute at 4 maybe, but not for long.

So I’ve started to make progress on the external appearances thing.  And I plan to be beating back that demon for a long time.  For discipline, I have had to make more of an effort there too. I think I went lighter on my girl because she always understood what she did wrong and made efforts to change her behavior… TOTALLY opposite my three boys!  My three boys I can scream at and they aren’t damaged at all. I can correct the same thing day after day and they nonchalantly seem not to notice.  And two of them have a really hard time understanding anything interpersonal (i.e. like “you know if you keep cheating like that, your brother isn’t going to want to play Candyland with you anymore right?”).   But my girl was naturally conversational about these topics by 3 years old, so I figured just talking was really enough.

Wrong!  Girls definitely need to be on the same discipline standard as boys, or they will start becoming difficult. Maybe even slightly tighter before their emotions take control.  They may not keep doing the bad behavior as outright as boys do, but they will float around the gray area, whining, pouting, sulking, resisting, and trying to get their way by making you emotionally cave.  If you don’t punish these things (or discipline before it starts), you will definitely get a Diva.  Some divas will be strong-willed, and some will be sweetly passive aggressive, but all divas know exactly where the line is drawn and will dance around just before it.  Whereas most mothers of boys are tired from their boys crossing the line all the time, mothers of girls get tired from trying to prevent their girls from crossing it.  If this is confusing, just think of teenage behavior again.  Teenage boys tend to defy and do what they want because they think their parents are ridiculous.   Teenage girls tend to make life emotionally draining for Mom and Dad until they’re ready to shake her!

So I apologize if this post is too stereotypical.  It is simply the easiest way to describe a very real phenomenon.  Your little girls, if treated like little girls, have the propensity to rival Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in drama.  Even though they are only tiny people, they have great big emotions, and can learn the basics of manipulating them even before they can understand what they’re doing.  It is your responsibility as the parent to stave this off and keep doing so at every stage, for the betterment of the whole family.  Especially if you have more than one girl.  You want your girls to feel precious and fussed over, but only to the point that it helps others bond with them.  If the dad or brothers feel resentful, that’s a warning sign.  Also, attention can help them develop positive feelings about themselves and femininity.  But if it starts taking over their personality or the family dynamic, you have to rebalance the priorities.  Girl for the family, not the family for girl.

So You Don’t Like One of Your Children…

Ok, serious topic.  But don’t self-torture yet.

The other day I was in conversation with one of my good friends and she confessed to me that she didn’t really like one of her kids.  She didn’t dislike them, but just couldn’t muster up the same snuggy feelings she had with her other child.  She was heartbroken and crying, and of course felt like a terrible mother.  So what did I do?  Tell her she was a terrible mother?  Of course not– I told her just the opposite.

Now, don’t get me wrong… not liking one of your children is a problem.  It is something you want to fix as quickly as possible.  But usually the moms who recognize the problem and lament over it are the ones who do not have to worry.  The moms who don’t recognize it, think their kid deserves it, or are proud of their aloofness are the ones who need serious help.  If this is you–you actually hate or have thoughts of harming one of your children, please stop reading the post here and call a counselor.  This is still a fixable problem–and not altogether uncommon–but still requires professional help.

For the rest of you who are just upset or guilty for preferring one of your children over another, and don’t know what to do about it, keep reading.

Usually the fact that you can’t muster up the natural love for one of your children (like you can for another) means the mother-child bond is not as strong as it should be.  This can be for several reasons including:

1.  You didn’t want to be pregnant in the first place, which translated into rejecting feelings towards the child from birth (usually subconscious).  Or you had a very difficult first year with lots of conflicting feelings.

2.  You and your child have opposite personalities– i.e. they are melancholy and you are sanguine, or vice-versa.  You push each other’s buttons.

3.  Your child has a particularly strong will in comparison with other children.  They may struggle with common, nonpleasant qualities like bossiness, bitterness, and disciplinary issues.

For these reasons, firstborn children are slightly more likely to be unbonded.  Some other things unique to the firstborn include:

1.  You had/have no idea what you are doing as a parent the first time through each stage, which makes everything difficult and anxiety-producing.  (Subsequent children are often a more peaceful, familiar experience).

2.  The firstborn may be the apple of Daddy’s eye (or the extended family’s), which makes you feel like you need to counterbalance the extra attention, praise, or spoiling given to that child by making up for it with subsequent ones.

There of course a million reasons why you may not get along well with or just be comfortable around your child, but assuming that there is no real anger with that child (i.e. just because they exist!), you probably just need a combination of techniques, healing experiences, and releasing the pressure to fix this problem.

Let’s go in reverse order:

First, let go of the pressure.  This means stop hating yourself for being partial.  People are people–even as mothers, we are flawed, which means we naturally like some people more than others.  We’re not friends with everyone, we like different relatives more than others.  Challenging characteristics are challenging for us, no matter where they crop up.  Children are no different, even though we wish they were.  We wish we could treat all our children EXACTLY the same so that none of them would grow up and say that their mother didn’t like them as much as Sister Sally or Brother John.  Most of us have known someone who grew up with lifelong resentment about this (or did, ourselves), and we shudder at storylines which repeat this theme.

But the fact is that even if we were to treat all our children exactly the same–even if we were to feel exactly the same love for each child–they would still grow up thinking we didn’t!  When was the last time you heard someone with sibling rivalry say, “but I know Mom loved me just as much as Susie…”?  Sibling rivalry simply leads to accusations of injustice.  And children are utilitarians with brief memories–there is no way they will accurately compare your treatment of them with their siblings, from birth, and evaluate them as fair and equal.  Whoever got to use the car first, or went to a more expensive college, or got to skip leftovers because they were allergic to dairy, will always be seen as “loved the most.”  So stop trying so hard!  You can’t prevent this!

Moreover, different children need to be treated differently.  Your child is half of your relationship with them, and you have to adopt different strategies to deal with whatever they present.  You will have different feelings about those strategies.  Sometimes being the “easy” child even has down sides. Easy children need less rebuking, but probably get less attention overall.  Difficult children will need more correction and more attention but may become better thinkers in the end, because of all the trial and error.  This divergence of paths from “difficult” child to “easy” child starts even from the first days of infancy, depending on what the newborn’s unique set of issues are.

Bottom line is, challenging children (even if they are challenging just in your eyes) are going to evoke more animosity from you, and this is liable to cause hostility.  The best parents will eventually figure out how to calm themselves and love the child unconditionally even when provoked.   But this desirable trait is still LEARNED and UNNATURAL.  It doesn’t develop overnight just because you’ve given birth.  So seek it by all means, but don’t condemn yourself.

We all have a lot to learn about being good parents, and for some of us, loving is not the most basic. Desire the unconditional, unnatural love, and by all means deal with your baggage that is making it difficult–but don’t compare yourself to your mother, your best friend, June Cleaver, or the model in whatever psychological book you’re reading.  You may have to start forgiving your child for the offenses they commit daily, even if that sounds silly or unkind.  You don’t have to tell anyone about it–just deal with it in private, if you feel you have been wronged or let down in some way.  Or talk it through with a trusted friend.  Forgiving will foster more mercy.

This brings us to the second strategy: healing experiences.  You probably need to have more positive experiences with the child you don’t naturally prefer, in order to bond deeply with them.  This doesn’t mean you will achieve the same exact bond that you have more easily with another child.  Perfect equality is not the goal.  But to erase any hard feelings between yourself and them, the burden is on you.  You are responsible for taking action since you are stewards of your children and in control of the relationship.  In no way can you wait for your child to become more lovable–that’s backwards.  It starts with you because you’re the adult.

Practically, this might mean to plan a vacation for just you and that child, or to start a weekly or monthly date with them.  If they are at a difficult age, the challenge will be to find something that encourages the least amount of discord–you want to have a positive experience!  So don’t take a noisy baby to Panera or a covetous kindergartner to the mall.  Try to find something that both of you will find pleasing and easy.  And do not fall into the trap of assuming you can repeat a good experience you had with another child, with your difficult one.  Just because Billy enjoyed Little League practices so much with you doesn’t mean Johnny will.  Don’t chat with an argumentative child, play games with a competitive one, or cook with somebody who hates to share.  Don’t take a long trip with one just because you did with another.  Keep the healing experiences appropriate for the age, maturity, and relationship you actually have with your unbonded one.  But plan more in.

Positive touch is also very important. Anytime you can hug your child or touch them affectionately, do it.  You might not realize how little they have been touched in comparison to your other kids, so if you’re not a big hugger, make check-in points three times a day: when they wake up, when they come home from preschool or school, and when they go to bed.  Try allowing them to be around you quietly when you’re reading or something and they can just lean on you.  You’ll be surprised how much this behavior can conjure up the right feelings.

Which brings us to the last strategy of re-bonding, and that is: proactive  techniques.  Try to be practical about why you don’t like or get along with your child.  Are there any things which need working on, that are fixable?  Is the child completely wild and undisiciplined?  If so, the best way to start fixing the relationship is to deal with that.  Always take age into account, but don’t use it as an excuse to ignore the elephant in the room.  Is the child very rude or standoffish?  If so, start with manners and some hang out time.  Maybe the child needs a special nickname, a game they always play with you, their own space/room, or some combination of things you can give.  The goal of parenting, after all, is to keep your child open to your influence, so if there are practical issues which will decrease hostility, address them.  You will be helping them as much as you.

(BTW, as you brainstorm, don’t get into huge arguments with your spouse, who probably doesn’t share your feelings or understand why you have them. Own your relationship with your child and do what you have to do.)

If in the end, you still can’t have grace over your child or you can’t get over your hard feelings, consider going for counseling (with or without your child, depending on the age and maturity).  If you don’t like your child even after they have made efforts to please you, that is a sign that deeper intervention is necessary.

But if, like my friend, you are normal mom just feeling guilty about how easy it is to love one child versus another, or to hold and hug one over the other, then just start at home.  If you don’t naturally praise or move towards one child, especially the difficult child or the  “golden one” whom everyone naturally loves, there are ways to start.  There are likely techniques and experiences, which along with releasing the pressure valve, will go a long way.

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.

Jean Liedloff & Continuum Concept

Recently I was asked by a friend to check out Jean Liedloff’s work on the “Continuum Concept.” Jean Liedloff is an esteemed cultural anthropologist who is largely known for her work among primitive tribes, studying parenting and baby-raising. She is perhaps most famous for her work in Bali, and also the Yequana tribe. Much of her work has become the foundation of attachment parenting, which in America has taken the form of numerous books on slinging, co-bedding, breastfeeding on demand, etc.

I have to say I was fascinated by her articles. She is clearly good at what she does and committed to her work. And she has not, at least from what I can tell, overstepped her bounds as an academic by going into political arenas. In this sense, I give her work the benefit of the doubt that she is truly trying to help Western society deal with their dysfunctional childraising techniques… as a counselor she sees tons of problems that she doesn’t see in her anthropological missions. Why is that?

She says, as all attachment theorists do, that it is because primitive societies use child-raising techniques which do not provoke anxiety. Specifically, they carry their babies all day, feed them on demand, and co-bed. And with their little children, they do not take an authoritarian stance or discipline them. Rather, they encourage the child to do adult tasks (like carry babies and help with the chores) and direct them only when necessary without an attitude of moral high-ground. Techniques such as these honor children as naturally social beings, says Liedloff, and therefore stave off rebellion, disobedience, and other less desired behavior that we see in almost every Western family.

It sounds heavenly… get rid of disobedience and rebellion? Who wouldn’t want that? Unfortunately, for those who think they can just co-bed and sling, and raise an anxiety-free child, there will be glaring disappointments. Here are some of the deceptions which underlie Liedloff thinking…

“The World is My Oyster.” You cannot pick and choose elements of one culture, put them in another, and get the same results. While it is important to be open and learn from other cultures, you cannot pick what you want and leave the rest. Well, you can, but don’t expect the same results! Anthropologists have admired traits from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds: joy in Africans, social benevolence in Pacific Islanders, diligence in Asians, earth-tenderness from Native Americans… just to name a few. But if we think we can be the Super-Race by picking and choosing while we still live in our normal American context and geography, we are mistaken. Trust me that the average wars over Cocoa Puffs and X-box limits will compensate for any anxiety missed in the earlier years =) Our babies are going to grow up American, like it or not, because we live in America and have an entire system with unique pressures and rewards that aren’t going to change whether or not we co-bed.

“I read half of it…” Most people who read Liedloff pick and choose only the elements they like from her observations. While she does advocate the standard attachment parenting practices, she also advocates unpopular principles: having a parent-centered regime, giving the baby a passive experience of life in the early months, having a non-entertainment worldview, etc. Rather than endorsing the permissive parenting style so common in America, she actually endorses a kind of authoritative one (with a spin on the traditional understanding). She also observes primitive parenting which is kind of startling at times, such as the responsibility given to preschoolers around fire or with younger siblings. And she refuses to endorse aspects of her observations which are not politically correct, such as very distinct gender roles, limited (if any) education, corporal punishment, religious beliefs and practices, and teasing or other tribal social dynamics to enforce conformity. But if you really want the premodern, “uncivilized” results, you need to have premodern, “uncivilized” package… they all go together.

“The Grass is Always Greener.” There is nothing wrong with appreciating other people groups! But there are admirable traits in the West too, and to think that another group has it all right while we have it all wrong is an illusion. All groups have strengths and weaknesses, crimes and altruists, and good times and bad. Travel internationally just a little bit, and you will understand this at a gut level.

“Down with the West.” While it is good to try and reduce anxiety and dysfunction, we can’t forget that we value traits which are essentially non-Eastern and modern. Look at our heroes and icons, what we want our children to be when they grow up: statesmen, musicians, doctors, thinkers… these are Western and modern ideals which have given joy and blessing to multitudes of people. And no matter how we raise our babies, most of us switch over to raising modern Westerners at some point. (Orthodox communities such as Hassidim and FLDS are exceptions, of course). Most of us value, for example: creativity, imagination, individuality, expression, inventiveness, popularity, self-actualization, education, classical training (i.e. including art, music, sports), materialism/possessions, romanticism, achievement, citizenship, humanitarianism, contribution, travel, or science. These types of things cannot co-exist with primitive or pre-modern cultures, which is why democracy, urbanization, and industry always transform a culture. And why hospitals, welfare, charity, architecture, medicine, and other advances have only grown from Western soil. If we aren’t going to be hypocritical, we have to acknowledge Western contributions to the world scene and not toss out the baby with the bathwater.

“Freud was right.” Freudianism has been largely discredited. Liedloff, and her colleagues, are basically Freudian anthropologists (neo-Freudian, actually), but Freudianism has been largely disproved by science and discredited in psychology. Of course it has a prestigious history and esoteric counselors still charge a million dollars to the rich and famous for psychoanalysis. But the best points of Freudianism have been sublimated into other psychology paradigms which make much more sense. And most points have been dropped entirely.  The idea, for example, that anxiety can cause neurosis is essentially true. But to say that morally training a child causes anxiety that will lead to a neurotic adult is a false conclusion. First of all, moral training is right whether or not we like the idea of it. Second of all, moral training can be done in a non-condemning way. Thirdly, anxiety can be caused by all kinds of things not related to moral training, including personality and environment. Fourthly, much of childhood experience is forgotten or reworked by adulthood when an individual has a chance to reflect on his or her life. Fifthly, any moral training that has caused anxiety can be addressed when one is an adult. And lastly—most importantly—moral training actually prevents neurosis by providing a good path for an individual to walk (i.e. a life of sexual freedom and promiscuity will cause more dysfunction in a twenty-something girl than a life of purity and chastity). False reasoning runs throughout Freudianism, which is basically a paradigm that blames Protestantism (with its strict moral codes, assumptions of sin and evil, and promise for judgment) for Western Culture’s weaknesses.  This perspective, while shared by many in academia, is a faith statement not a scientific one… an opinion. And the “science” purported to explain Freudian notions of sexuality, wish fulfillment, complexes, neurosis, etc., is very soft at best.

I would submit to the attachment parent that they have bought into some of these deceptions, which are worth carefully considering. While there certainly are child-raising practices which are bad, and a lot of personal dysfunction in Western society, we should be careful what we point to as the culprit. Is it morality? Authority? Nationalism? Industry? Education? Individualism? I would submit to the attachment parent that while these things can be abused, the biggest benefits to mankind have results from a proper implementation of these things (which Liedloffism is, by association, against). I would also argue that the disproportionate number of anxious and depressed Westerners in the last fifty years has been due to existentialism, or an abandonment of those culprits which Liedloffism targets. What we need is a more scientific and specific approach to fixing our civilization and its discontents. And we need one that recognizes the importance of the individual, the adult, and agency… not culture, the baby, and victimization.

Common Sense Parenting

Perhaps due to my British roots, I am big on good ol’ traditional common sense. For whatever reason, in America people tend to lose their common sense. Politics, academia, diets, and especially in parenting… theories run wild about the best way to do things only to create an extreme worldview that no-one can keep up. The answer, I contend, is not a better philosophy as it is common sense.

Philosophy is important but people do things differently. That is the beauty of this nation. Rarely do you get locked up for your differences, so you can feel free to choose what goals and methods you’d like to use. In the field of parenting, we have become so confused about both goals and methods that the average parent doesn’t know where to start. We end up “winging it” and getting better the second time around because of experience. We might try strange things with our first child—and God tends to give firstborns extra thick blood because of it—but by the second, we settle down a bit. Where we once tried making our own wipes, we now buy Huggies. Where we once ground our own baby food, we now have a jar or two of Gerbers on the shelf with big sister’s graham crackers for back-up. And where we once demonized formula, there’s often a bottle and packet or two of Similac somewhere in the house (just in case).

All of this is good. We need to let the religious view of parenting relax a little. Not because we care less but because we care more. We realize how important it is to keep the main thing, the main thing. Stressing over Cheerios versus organic Oatey-Os is no longer worth it. We have to figure out how to tend to a newborn AND help our toddler who is having nightmares. Or our elementary child who is struggling to read. These are the priorities of parenting, and worth our attention.

I write this because I think parenting in America has largely lost its compass. It has lost the fact that we are not raising our children to be children; we don’t need brats, nuisances, trophies, guinea pigs, or the eternal baby. But what we do need eludes us. We don’t know how to get the results we want… is what we want even possible? It seems we don’t know where we’re going so we don’t know how to get there. Expert advice has made it hard for us to answer even the basic questions. Having babies becomes this existential experience that we barely survive, let alone thrive in.

Let me suggest that we are raising our children to be people. They are precious beyond belief, but they will leave us. When they do, our job is to have made them largely functioning people with strong physical, emotional, rational, and moral capacities. If any of these areas are missing, they will be in trouble. We don’t deify their bodies, feelings, minds, or personalities, but we do look to help them be independent and successful. From day one, we look to make healthy, energetic, bright citizens who stand for something good, know how to work at it, and can withstand the various pressures and temptations of liberty. They will have to chart and navigate themselves through all kinds of choices and storms, as they tread the dear soil of their lives. As part of a free but suffering world, they will have to give to others but also take care of themselves. And they must love. They must give and receive love, or life will not be worth living. This is what we’re looking for. This is where our parenting must take them.

It’s a big job! From the moment they arrive in our eager, shaking arms, we have to prepare to let go. For we don’t really know when our children will leave us. Maybe it will be eighteen years, but maybe it will be tomorrow. Or never. We have to start as we mean to go on, and put all our efforts into believing and obtaining the loving, capable, moral adult we want. If we do that, our children will be a success story.  And sometimes achieving that story means abandoning “cool” parenting systems or principles that we have adopted for purely ideological reasons.  Or because of pressure.  Because if there is one thing that raising a child shouldn’t be, it’s political.

However soon they leave us, and whatever individual potential they have, they will be closer to the goal as long as we parent them. What a blessing! And what a challenge.