It is my last week as a 25 year old. This seems to be a prime occasion to mourn the passing of my youth. 26 says, Welcome to adulthood, officially, inescapably, and finally.
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Lately, I’ve been noticing my four year old has been threatening me. Not with violence, but with arbitrary consequence. In the car today I heard, “Mom, if you don’t give me the iPad right now, I’m going to rip my dress.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself at the absurdity of tearing her dress so I would hand over the iPad. Indeed, I could see the logical gears turning in her head. She wanted to play with it, and I had refused (were my reasons for refusing justified and articulated properly, or just a knee-jerk imposition?), so she was employing a bargaining tactic she thought might motivate me to change my behaviour.
It’s not bargaining or negotiation that there is problem with; after all, it is valuable for us to learn how to productively further our cause or advocate for something. However, threatening to destroy or withhold something if someone doesn’t comply with your demand is coercive, and neither productive nor rational.
Yes, I have to take full responsibility for this behavior.
“If you don’t brush your teeth, we can’t read a bed time story.”
“If you don’t come with me right away, you will have a time-out.”
Really, it’s painful to think of myself saying these kinds of things on the regular.
Threats are fear-based, they don’t allude to (especially not to a young child), a raison d’être, nor do they teach self-motivation. Employing fear as a regulating tactic is a profound act of desperation on the part of parents whom are themselves lacking in the ability to self-regulate.
“Do you feel like that’s just the way it is? If your kids don’t do what you say and you’ve asked nicely more than once and they continue to “push your buttons” and “test your patience”, do you feel justified in your yelling? Or threatening? Your counting down? Your infliction of pain on their bodies (aka “spanking”)? Or do you sense there’s another way? ”
-Jennifer Lehr of Good Job and Other Things You Shouldn’t Say or Do
The first step in teaching kids to be effective, rational communicators involves first allowing them the opportunity by being rational and open ourselves. My reasons for withholding the iPad in the earlier situation had something to do with my thinking that she spends a lot of time on it and should find something more creative to do. Yet, I enjoy spending time on MY devices when and how I please, and if my partner were to nonchalantly decide I couldn’t have them, and that was that, I would probably feel quite outraged. Even if he had a valid concern, would suddenly withholding them or criticizing me be positively motivating, or the best way to approach the situation? Surely, if I could not convince him to give back my phone, I might try threatening to take something of his away to see how it feels. Aha!
So really, she was employing the only effective tactic she saw available for her in order to advocate for what she wants. And, if I continued to resist her protests in the same manner, she likely would have become emotional, which could have triggered further breakdown in our communication, all over my own discomfort, lack of patience and desire to control:
“In a culture that normalizes power-over and control of others, especially children, how a child communicates and expresses herself can become a battleground… Even when we accept the need for the expression of emotions, we may want to limit its length. At some point we think the child should feel better or that the expression is no longer authentic. I have often heard adults tell a child who has cried for a period of time, “Okay, you’ve cried enough; it’s time to stop.” This is another form of trivialization. The root of trivialization is anger: we are angry that the child is burdening us with her emotional expression “for no reason at all.” Notice that all of these reactions are based on the feelings that are triggered in the adult by the child’s emotional expression. We feel sad, uncomfortable, or angry, and our response to those feelings is a desire to control the emotions of the child so that we ourselves can be more comfortable. In fact, we make the child responsible for our own emotions.”
-Teresa Brett, author of Parenting For Social Change
As parents, we are often so focused on the behavior that results from these power struggles that we neglect to first reconsider our initial request and approach. Rarely is behaviour rooted in a desire to “defy”, but rather a result of un-met needs.
Next time you are challenged, ask yourself:
- Is my request reasonable?
- Do I model the behavior myself?
- Is (s)he tired? Hungry?
- Am I pre-occupied or distracted?
- Am I providing stimulating ways to engage in the behavior I am requesting?
- How can I augment my approach without resorting to threats?
What are some ways you have been challenged in self-regulating for your kids? Feel free to share your experience!
I have noticed that the voices grown-ups use when talking to kids are often raised and annunciated; spoken to emphasize the stature of the person they are directing.
These aren’t the voices we use when conversing with peers.
As a kid, I hated being spoken to in a sugary, over-emphasized voice that was reserved for children. It was alienating. And I certainly couldn’t comprehend speaking in such a foreign, silly voice myself.
Recently, I started paying attention to myself when talking to my four year-old. With a thud my chest only makes when being hit with reality, I conceded that the voice I kept putting on was not the one I use when speaking intimately with my partner or close friends. While it was indeed much sweeter, displaying the special sort of fondness I have for my daughter, (also called Motherese, which can be effective with babies,) but it was also mildly contrite, and patronizing. It may have even been loud. Most shockingly, I would sometimes even talk too close to her face to try and keep her attention. Not exactly behavior I want her mimic.
Why is it so hard to wear our real voices with kids? One reason is that we are conscious of the fact that we are teaching them. Yet, for me, the most effective teachers I’ve encountered are the ones able to connect their ideas with me intimately in a way that leaves me feeling inspired. They are usually ones that talk in voices that draw us in, not push us away.
So, how can we get better at talking intimately to our kids, (in real voices)?
- Use more challenging words.
Saving a complex word for some later date has no benefit. We can teach complicated words fluidly by including already known synonyms with them.
- Take a genuine interest.
Kids might not understand every component of what is going on around them, but neither do we. Immerse yourself in the marvel of their interest, an aim to give more compelling narratives each time.
- Engage in the moment.
This is what kids are naturally good at; they immerse themselves seamlessly in inner worlds though make-believe and narratives. Most of us grow out of our action-figures, and into jobs, hobbies, and events, but there is still that same joy in surrendering to an experience and feeling the thrill and sublimity of simple games.
- Imagine how you want him/her to interact with you.
Most of us hope our kids will learn to articulate themselves to us calmly, honestly, and respectfully. Yet it’s unrealistic that they will learn to do this if we don’t start with them.
Have you found it difficult to talk in a real voice sometimes? I will be practicing mine more.
Love is all you need? Maybe not quite, but a recent study published by The National Academy of Sciences shows in new terms the impact that positive parental care has on a child’s brain:
Maternal support observed in early childhood was strongly predictive of hippocampal volume measured at school age. The positive effect of maternal support on hippocampal volumes was greater in nondepressed children. These findings provide prospective evidence in humans of the positive effect of early supportive parenting on healthy hippocampal development, a brain region key to memory and stress modulation.
Positive parenting enhances neurogenesis, and it isn’t limited to mothers:
The experience of a nurturing caregiver early in life has proven to be one of the most essential prerequisites for healthy development and adaptive functioning in mammals (37). The current data provide evidence that the well-established significant impact of positive parenting on enhancing and maintaining hippocampal neuroplasticity, likely through epigenetic mechanisms enhancing neurogenesis, as suggested by the work of Naumova et al. (17), may also to be operative in humans. Further, it was notable that this effect remained robust even after controlling for other factors known to impact hippocampal volume, such as stressful life events and maternal history of depression. Importantly, although 96.7% of caregivers in this study sample were mothers, we expect that this effect pertains to the primary caregiver (the provider of nurturance) whether it be mother, father, grandparent, or other.
Also covered by CNN: Love key to brain development in children
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It’s a noble pursuit, for a parent, to want to foster in our children as many neuron connections as we can, and a staggering number of these are formed in infancy and early childhood. According to Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience and physics at MIT and author of the new book, Connectome, the essence of our personalities and behaviour originate in the billions of these neuron connections in our brains. Time has an interview with Seung on the amazing implications of being able to map these connections, including the scientific possibility of ‘mind-reading,’ and understanding various neurological conditions.)
While genetics determine our basic blue-print, (we already have nearly all our neurons at birth,) early childhood is a key time for forming connections between them:
“In the brain, the neurons are there at birth, as well as some synapses. As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 per neuron. The brain eliminates connections that are seldom or never used, which is a normal part of brain development.
“Windows of opportunity” are sensitive periods in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place. For instance, scientists have determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at 2 to 4 months of age, peaking in intensity at 8 months. It is no coincidence that babies begin to take notice of the world during this period.”
Parents help lay the groundwork for these connections daily, consciously or not, through environmental and sensory stimulation. But how about being mindful of factors which can contribute to what has been termed “neuron death?”
Cortisol, the stress hormone, plays an important role in many of our bodily systems, such as blood pressure, immune response, and glucose metabolism. Cortisol is part of our proper response to stress, pain, and maintains homeostasis in the body. However, prolonged and/or consistently elevated cortisol levels in the bloodstream, secreted by the adrenal gland in the absence of activation of the body’s essential relaxation response, is a neuron killer (Panksepp, 1998), and children who are spanked frequently (see also: Early Spanking Increases Toddler Aggression, Lowers IQ,), experience the effects maternal emotional withdrawal, as well as babies left to ‘cry it out’, demonstrate higher levels of cortisol. Without the chance for the cortisol spikes to return to normal, a state of chronic stress can result. Responding instantly to a baby’s cues are one way of inducing this essential relaxation response. Thanks to neuroscience, we now know that routinely letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term.
If you want to help make a planet full of super-empathic mind readers, one small step is refusing the practices which create a toxic environment for optimal neuron synapse development.