All posts tagged giving in to kids

The Importance of Touch

New Research Focuses on the Power of Physical Contact, via NY Times: “In recent years some researchers have begun to focus on a different, often more subtle kind of wordless communication: physical contact. Momentary touches, they say — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words.

The evidence that such messages can lead to clear, almost immediate changes in how people think and behave is accumulating fast. Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not, studies have found. A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched. Research by Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami has found that a massage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depression and strengthen a relationship.”


A common parenting tendency to attempt to modify children’s behavior primarily with our voices, followed up by physical intervention when this fails. Touch is rarely proactive, and is often negative.
Earlier today, my 14 month-old Cezar had climbed onto the table and was putting my necklace into a cup of cold tea. Preoccupied myself, I called out to him to please stop, worried he would spill on the plethora of electronics in the vicinity. He paused and looked at me, undoubtedly made curious by my stern and animated reaction. I called out to him again. Not breaking eye contact, he slowly lowered the necklace back into the tea.  Sheepish about my own lazy and incredibly futile method, I went and retrieved the cup. He of course protested and became even more upset when I took him off the table.

I know I am not alone in practicing this sort of ineffective pattern of communication; in fact, I received a question last week from a woman who was at her wits end with her toddler, whom she said “doesn’t listen to anything I say! In fact, she seems to deliberately do the opposite just to get a reaction!”

I find it interesting that we treat verbal cues as though they are imbued with magical properties that should change the behavior of children as though the utterances were literally spells or incantations. Why do we assume that spoken language is or should be the most effective way of prompting kids?  One thing I’ve noticed is that many of us seem wary of using physical guidance or instruction until all attempts at verbal persuasion have been exhausted and frustration has set in. This sets up the subsequent physical interaction to be negative since it comes in the form of intervention, rather than proactivity.

Back to my Cezar. In that typical situation, it would have been more effective for me to have gone over to him the instant I took notice, and provided assistance on what he was trying to do. If he was curious about the liquid in the cup,  I might have brough over a spoon and guiding his hand with it to show him how to stir slowly without spilling. If it was too hot, I could have showed him how to put his hand near the surface to test for heat. I could have also done a separate demonstration on how to put the necklace on himself carefully, and away from the tea. The rule of thumb here is that they are curious, and there is almost always a way to address that curiosity safely; it just requires some hands-on assistance, rather than shouting crude commands.  Physical interaction should be supportive and proactive, and the verbal cues should be supplementary and explanatory. This method is also most likely to be safe long-term since the lessons learned from exploration are more effective than ones learned from directives or intimidation.

Here are some tips I’m using to help me become better at non-verbal communication:

  • Move closer. Don’t let your voice be the first thing on the scene.
  • Instead of “shhh-ing” a crying child or asking “are you okay?” Simply use touch and your physical presence to send a message of security and comfort. Often there is no need to say anything anyways.
  • In any situation where you might say “Stop that!” or “Put that down!” consider how you can use a positive non-verbal approach to solve the problem. It might be initiating an activity together, or giving a hand with something, or simply exploring the breakable object with them until their curiosity is satisfied.

Language is wonderful, and I strive to provide full commentary and explanations along side hands-on learning. However, the need for touch and positive physical interaction is primary to human wellbeing, and is an oft-neglected component of childhood socialization. Rather than outsource comfort and stimulation to external objects, we need to rediscover the real source of those physical needs.

Do you have any tips on how to use more non-verbal communication? Share them in a comment!


Now that it’s late November, and we are in the thick of our fall routines, I find myself looking to make room for slower living and gratitude amidst our obligations. With my partner often away internationally on business, my 4 year old shuffling back and forth with a full load of Montessori and extra-curriculars, (of which her father and step-mother share the load,) my own commitments as a board member of a community school, participation in events, breastfeeding an 11 month old and sort-of maintaining a household, it’s easy to fall into perpetual pack-and-prepare mode and miss out on the zen and beauty to be uncovered within each passing moment.

This evening, I experienced one such moment. While on the couch with the kids, my 11 month old started cruising in the direction of a bowl of partially-eaten food left on the end table. I reflexively moved to get up and take it to the kitchen before he could grab it, squish it between his fingers, onto the carpet, and inevitably my hair. But, I paused, and decided to put concerns aside for a moment and just see what he wanted to do. Sure enough, his fingers dipped straight into the stuffed potato, which he smeared slowly across the end table. He then reached for the spoon, which he carefully dipped into the potato’s flesh, and proceeded to cruise over to the (white fabric) couch where my daughter was sitting; the spoonful of potato gripped precariously like a loaded trebuchet in his fist. I was living dangerously tonight I decided, really wild, and didn’t move to redirect him. Standing directly beside his sister’s face, my baby slowly and deliberately moved the spoon into her mouth. She giggled in surprise. Pleased, he went back to the table to reload his spoon. He continued feeding her tenderly for a couple of minutes, carefully reloading and then back over to her mouth. By the last load they are both laughing together, that sweet, resonating, heart-warming laughter of sibling camaraderie.

After cleaning up the remnants, tucking them into bed with me and nursing the baby to sleep, I reflect on how blessed I am to share my life with these people. I love them so dearly, and hope that they get to share the same warmth and kindness with the world that I get to see in them every day. In the meantime, I am thankful for the opportunity to slow down our time a little bit by opening up more moments for connection and joy with each other.

Stop telling kids what to do

I have been preoccupied with the same profound realization that someone else voiced to me today in this private message: “After reading the ‘Making Threats‘ article, my mind can not stop illuminating the parallels between the parent to child relationship and all of society/politics etc. Wow. Wow. Wow. If I had to pick a way to ‘save the world’, I think your ideas are the place to start.”

Indeed, we are all children first. Our initial interactions with this world, those that shaped us and molded us most profoundly, were with our caretakers, most likely our parents. The relationship dynamic we experienced with them becomes a metaphor for our relationship with the world, for better or for worse, often both.

So many of our problems as society of clashing groups and individuals can be expressed as a function of the systemic struggle to control, with alienation as a corollary. When we punish our children, when we reward, when we threaten with time-out, when we shame them for unappealing behavior, we aim to control, and succeed to alienate. What is done to children is played out in society.

Consider a benign example of a stressed parent, rushing to get out the door on time. He yells to his son, “go put your shoes on. Now!” This is a challenge, not a strategy.  One could make excuses for him, but the situation will play out predictably:

  1.  Boy takes order, Hastily puts his shoes on without question. Ability to follow orders is established with inferiority to the father.
  2.  Boy refuses. A simple “No,” is to be interpreted as a counter challenge to his father. How will he take this blatant defiance of his issue of authority? Roll over, or Bark louder? He will likely follow up with some sort of bribe, threat, or imposition of consequence to establish his might.

In either scenario, there is a clear hierarchy underlying the communication, which will be established either through the boy’s final concession to his father’s might, (curiously, this is often confused for ‘respect,’) or his father to his, if he backs off, afraid of his son’s emotions or too lazy to attempt to redirect the communication.

Old-fashioned schools of thought take this hierarchy of dominance for granted, and focus on ways in which the parent can establish it over the child most effectively.  It isn’t, however, the only way.

Consider our most intimate, functional relationships, as they are usually ones in which ‘Truce’ is protected. There is mutual respect, and a firm Line between persuasion and coercion. When we love someone, we want to protect him or her. This is especially true of children, of whom we have assumed role of caretaker. While there are emergent times when we might have to take liberties over their bodies or possessions in order to keep them, or others, safe from harm; On a daily basis, there are few that require more then gentle coaching or direct assistance. In order to protect and nourish a lifelong connection to our child, we must guard the Truce in our communications, and introduce them to the Line with others by respecting it ourselves with them.

How can the father in the example avoid issuing challenges as though he is a military leader, training recruits?

  1.  Set the agenda, and invite collaboration. The start time of the appointment isn’t negotiable, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to engage their minds. “We are going to the doctor’s in an hour. We need our shoes on before we go outside. Is it raining out? Maybe we should wear our boots instead.” Opening the dialog up, in an interesting way, invites problem solving and collaboration, and appeals to curiosity and logic instead of relying on coercion and authoritarianism. (See: How to develop reasoning skills)
  2.  It’s okay to multitask. “Let’s get our shoes on AND bring a few of these toys in the car with us so you can finish playing on the way there.”

Refusing to engage in controlling children through authoritarian coercion not only eliminates anxiety from the relationship, but also is essential to raising compassionate and freethinking beings who are able to collaborate productively in a society of peers.

Or, as my daughter succinctly puts it, “I just don’t want you to tell me what to do.”

Making Threats

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!

Can I have some cream?

Last night I was in bed trying to put my daughter to sleep, (chatting and fooling around, of course,) when my partner popped his head in the room, and I asked him if he would go get me a glass of water. Wisely obliging, he went downstairs. When he returned and handed me glass, I said, “Thank-you!” and reached my hand out and took it.  “Thank you!” echoed my daughter cheekily as she reached out her hand as if to take an invisible glass herself. We chuckled, and he started back down stairs. “Wait! Can I have some cream?” she asked. (Yes, she prefers cream to milk.) “No sweetie, you may not.  It’s bed time, you already had a drink,” I replied, reflexively. Yes, he chimed in agreement. Yes, she had already had a drink, and surely she was stalling. Why not have a sip of mine? No, she wanted her own. She tried pouting. We stayed strong. Then whining. Followed by begging, ‘please! But I said PLEASE!.’ We held fast. This was a situation that could easily, on another night, have escalated into a power-struggle of Yes-No-Yes-No until it inevitably burst; either ending with us giving in under pretense of negotiation, ‘oh okay fine, I’ll get you the cream… IF you promise to go to sleep right after.” Or, with her in tears, fresh out of approaches, and inconsolable at the complete injustice of it all.  (After all, how would you feel?)

Instead, I had a realization. Of course she may have a drink of cream! It didn’t matter if she’d just had one, or if she’d just had ten! It’s not like we were in a cream famine. (Like our tape famine, no doubt.) After all, there was no innate danger to a small glass of cream before bed, and if there was, well why not give her the opportunity to find out. Even if it means I could possibly wake up in a child’s puddle.

If this were the same social scenario where, if instead of a 4 year old girl, she was an adult, it would have been considered positively rude for us to not ask her if she too wanted something to begin with at the time when I made my own request. (Let alone flat-out refuse after she requested!) No, even if I thought the beverage would push someone to wet their pants, I should, within reason, respect their character enough to let them weigh the risks and rewards.

Since this was not an adult, but a nearly 4 year old, I felt I should be able to inform her of possible consequences but ultimately allow her the choice.

How we set limits, and when we allow freedom, is what we call differences in parenting styles.

What I experienced in that moment was a personal precedence; my choice to remove some of the limits on hers. I relayed to my partner my realization that there was no legitimacy to our refusal to grant her request, no matter how much he silently begrudged the hike back down and up 2 flights of stairs. He agreed, and she went down with him merrily to fetch the drink together.

When she returned to bed I explained to her why I had attempted to stop her from having another drink before bed, (that she would have to brush her teeth again, and may have to pee,) but that I felt she should be able to find out for herself.

Granting our kids more personal autonomy does not have to mean that we release them into the world, forced to make choices they cannot bear the consequences of. It can mean we equip them with learning opportunities early and consistently that prepare them for the far larger challenges; the kind that even we cannot anticipate.

Parenting happens in the small moments, yet emerges through big ones. We teach our children how to design and build relationships with the world, through their experience of the relationships around them.  If our role is to nourish their respect for themselves and others, we must start every time by granting them ours first. Parenting happens most boldly when we allow them to ultimately make a choice that we wouldn’t make. It occurred to me last night that this is also how I will know when my children have ‘grown up’; it’s not that they will have reached a certain age or distance, but that will finally have run out of these such moments to limit for them.


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