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December 21, 2017
It’s apparently toddler week in my pediatric office, and with it comes a diverse group of parents and their children, all with different frustrations and questions. What’s striking, though, is the underlying concern that they are not doing enough in one area or are doing too much in another. A feeling of guilt that they are too lazy. They are almost apologetic.
“I know we should have her in a baby swimming class, right? We aren’t getting her to eat enough protein. Sometimes she still comes into our bed to snuggle at night.”
Woah, slow down. We ALL feel like we could be doing more but, for some parenting tasks, the laid-back approach is best. For others, however, it’s right to be a little uptight. Here are are few tips for parents on when it’s ok to chill and when it’s not.
From walking, to talking to toilet training – all parents want their child to be head of the class. With so many outside influences and sketchy information sources out there, it can be alarming when your child appears to not be developing 100% on-track. The reality is, most kids develop within a range of acceptable times. One child may walk at 12 months but not talk until a little later. Others may take a bit longer than average to fully potty train.
Ask yourself, “Why am I so worried about this and what evidence do I have that something is truly wrong?” If the answer is outside concerns/comparisons from non-professionals (family members, friends) or pressure from social forces (preschools, daycares), it’s better to not panic. Instead, check in with your child’s health care provider at regular visits. We use standardized evaluations to figure out if your child is falling too far behind.
Try to figure out, for toddlers and elementary school children, if things like using the potty or riding a bike are taking longer than normal because your child is feeling anxious about them. If you push too hard, you’re likely to end up with a lot of resistance. If you don’t rush it, if you let your child guide you a little bit, you will be happier in the end.
There are a lot of opportunities out there, and a lot of pressure, for little ones to reach their full potential. But Little Johnny does not need to be in 10 activities. Gymnastics, dance, music, art AND soccer? Believe me, he will be happier with one or two scheduled classes per week and a lot more time to make-believe, be social and be FREE. In fact, when kids don’t have the space they need to play creatively and without structure, they tend to have a harder time focusing when they are in activities.
One trick I’ve learned for figuring out if your child is over-committed: take a monthly calendar and write in red all of the activities your family does that require work, are mandated or are stressful. Then, write in blue all of the activities that are relaxing and for pure enjoyment. When you visually take in what life looks like for your family, it can inspire a shift to simplicity.
I worked in a private practice clinic during my pediatric training with a lot of highly driven parents. One day, I got a call from my mentor. A family had contacted the clinic and wanted to get in touch with me directly about their child. I reached out to them that day.
“Yes?” I asked, worried there was something seriously wrong.
“We just wanted to make sure that you marked in her chart how smart she is.”
I paused. “Excuse me?”
They repeated themselves. “Our daughter will be applying for a placement in kindergarten this fall – it’s a prestigious school – and we really want to make sure that her intelligence is well-documented.”
I feel, so deeply, scared and sad for that little girl. Will she get into an Ivy League school eventually? Probably. Will she become a famous surgeon one day? Maybe. Does it matter? Not if she’s anxious and pressured and bound-up by expectation in the process. I am constantly asking parents in clinic to reflect on their character goals for their kids over their accomplishment goals.
Most kids, especially young eaters, have inconsistent eating patterns. I often hear parents talk about their kids, “eating nothing but air.” They’ll eat five plates of eggs one day and then a single piece of chicken the next. Especially in the evenings, when kids are tired and less focused, it can be hard to eat much of any thing. The good news is nutrition tends to even out.
Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen, authors of Fearless Feeding, gets it right. They explain that parents and kids have different responsibilities when it comes to food. Parents are responsible for providing wholesome, nutritious food at regular intervals throughout the day. Kids are responsible for deciding how much of it they want to eat. Provide the healthy food, let them know there are no alternatives, then don’t worry if they don’t eat it all at that meal. Definitely don’t force them to take one more bite or tie eating healthy foods to treats after meals. It just teaches them what we are asking them to eat at that moment is some nasty means to a yummy end. See fearlessfeeding.com for more.
Words matter. When you talk about how skinny you’ve gotten to your friend, and your daughter is standing right there, she hears that. She internalizes it. When you belittle other people, your son watches you and thinks that he should do the same. When you tell your kid they’re perfect and super smart when they do well, they wonder how they will measure up when they try their best but fall short of your expectations. When you, on the other hand, talk about a difficult situation you were in and how you overcame it, your kids notice. They start to do their own problem solving. They feel empowered.
In the book Mindset, author Carol Dweck explains just how influential our words are:
“So what should we say when children complete a task—say, math problems—quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!”
We’ve heard a lot about how too much screen exposure can ruin your kid. Equally important is the content of your child’s screen time. Video games with violence and objectification will lead to.. guess what? Violence and objectification of women. Shows that depict teens disrespecting their parents and being cruel to their friends? You guessed it. It is not rocket science that what goes in must come out.
What’s scary is how young the influence can start. We have to watch the shows our kids watch and limit the advertising they are exposed to. We have to think about what an outside entity is teaching our children and ask ourselves if we would ever feel comfortable with a friend or family member giving those same lessons.
I realize I just got through saying to chill out about how much food our kids eat. I’m not backtracking here. The fact is, the type of foods we give our kids matters most. I am not talking about organic, local, farm-raised, etc. Those things have their merits. I am talking about a focus on fruits and vegetables, on whole grains, on water over sugary drinks. A determination that treats stay treats, so we can enjoy them fully when we do have them.
As dietitian Connie Evers, at nutritionforkids.com, says, “Not every day can be your birthday. If you act like it is, you will not end up with a very healthy diet.” Wise words, but hard to do in a society where really unhealthy options, including natural ones, abound.
Obviously, the parenting tactics we use change as our children grow up, but a lot of parenting principles hold true through the years.
When my almost 4-year-old daughter hit her baby on the face the other day, my response was firm but loving. Even more importantly, it was the same response I gave the day before (this is a new, nasty habit for her. Give it a week or two, she’ll get over it if I play this right). She goes in for the strike, I approach her and say, “We have a family rule that we don’t hit. What happens when you hit your sister?” She looks a little sad and sheepish. “My baby dolls have to go away for the night.”
I calmly take the dolls and put them on a shelf, let her know that she will have access to them tomorrow, and then give a lot of attention to the kid who just got slammed (but is doing fine): her sister. The exact technique we use (time-outs are in the playbook as well) doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we try to respond in the same way each time so she learns that there are limits and that, when she reaches them, there are (age-appropriate) consequences.
Freaking out that you’re too relaxed or too uptight with your parenting? Relax. It’s all about well-placed intensity, focusing on character and consistency.
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