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I was recently sharing with a young mother how I used to handle toddler meltdowns and it occurred to me that while I have written previous blogs on parenting tools I like to employ, I haven’t consolidated them. So, here are my top five. My eldest is now a young teenager, so I am now navigating how to apply these to older children. I would love to hear back from you about your favorite parenting strategies.
One of the most useful pieces of parenting advice I got when my eldest was a toddler was from my good friend Art who suggested I try and make the answer “Yes, “ whenever possible. If he asked for ice cream 15 minutes before dinner, rather than, “No, you’ll spoil your dinner, “ the answer instead was, “Yes! That sounds like the perfect dessert for after dinner. What flavor would you like?”
More than simply avoiding the meltdowns, this strategy helped my child feel heard and gave him a sense of ownership over how his day went. Simultaneously, it forced me to listen to my child’s request and evaluate what he was really asking. “Mommy, can we go to the park? “ My answer would be, “Yes, I want to spend time with you too, why don’t you help me with the chores so we can have fun together sooner than later?”
Of course, there were hard “no’s” such as “No, you can’t hit your sister with a wooden spoon over the head,” and “I understand you are upset, but No, you may not be disrespectful towards others.”
The Power of “Yet”
My children were extremely blessed to have the opportunity to attend Bing Nursery School which is part of the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. Esteemed Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset is pervasive in Bing’s philosophy and my children have benefited enormously. According to Professor Dweck, a growth mindset means children believe that “intelligence can be developed through practice, learning, good mentorship from others. “
Professor Dweck discusses how children with a fixed mindset believe that “their basic talents and abilities are just these fixed traits. They have a certain amount of intelligence or talent and that’s that.” She then explains that the danger in this is “The wrong mindset, can make them afraid of challenges, afraid of effort, afraid of setbacks.“
At Bing, I observed my children’s skilled teachers masterfully engage with my frustrated then three year old using the power of “yet” to ensure that the task at hand was not simply something he couldn’t do, but rather something he wasn’t able to do. . . . yet. I have taken this skill with me and use it to this day well into my eldest’s middle school years.
Last year he was introduced to solving for a variable in an equation. He was frustrated and yelled, “I just can’t do it. “ I carefully replied back to him, “Of course you are having trouble doing it now. You don’t have the skills to know how to do it YET. . . that’s why you go to school. . . to learn how! “ It was important for me to further explain to him that once he became frustrated, his brain would actually block itself off from learning new concepts. Once he understood that he wasn’t expected to already know how to do these math problems and that he was capable of learning how to solve them; this changed his entire mindset because he was given permission not to understand something, and given the confidence that he can learn it. Of course, he needs constant reminders, but as a result, he is now open to new challenges and can embrace the frustration of a steep learning curve as a discovery opportunity.
Children very often have their entire days dictated to them from what time they have to wake up (in time to get to daycare, school, mom to work, etc.) what they eat, when they eat, etc. down to what time they have to go to bed. I try and give my kids as much choice as possible throughout their days. Of course, it is all within a controlled environment. I purchase all of their clothing, but they pick out what clothes they want to wear each day. (Yes, even that pair of shorts that didn’t make it into the give-away bin that’s two sizes too small in the middle of January). I stock the pantry and refrigerator with healthful snacks, they are free to pick out anything they want. Here’s a list of outdoor activities we can do (hike, bike ride, rollerblade, pickleball, jump rope, etc.) what’s your choice for today?
By giving choices to our children, we are giving them some power over what happens in their lives. Most parents know, that power struggles can get ugly so it’s helpful to give them power in age-appropriate ways. When my children were younger, we would play games where they got to be the grown-up and tell me what to do. Another favorite game of theirs was we would drag out a large bin of stuffed animals and I would say teasingly say, “Whatever you do, do NOT make a mess!” Which would be their cue to promptly grab and throw the stuffies all over the room creating a *huge* (but very easy and quick to clean-up) mess.
I’m still navigating how to give my teen more power and choice throughout his day. I did find though that a good place to start was to empathize with the simple fact that, yes sometimes it really stinks to have to do everything you are told to do (by parents, teachers, coaches) all day long. Which brings me to my next and perhaps most important tool:
Many times our kids just want to be heard. They want to express something to us and they want to be sure we understand how they are feeling. Whether it’s a two-year old’s tantrum, a 13 year old’s melt-down or a 40 year old’s tirade, for the most part they are the result of our expectations not being met. Simply letting your child know that you understand how frustrating/annoying/maddening/embarrassing/difficult whatever they are facing is for them, helps them feel heard and understood.
The important thing with with empathizing is that we are not changing the situation for them. We are not solving the problem for them. We are simply sitting quietly with them, acknowledging their feelings, allowing them to feel those feelings and understanding why those feelings are there. When my six year old was sorely disappointed that his playdate had to cancel, I didn’t rush to make a new one, I didn’t plan something else in its place. I just held him and let him know I understood how sad he was feeling that he would not get to see his friend that day. And he felt a little bit better knowing that I understood how disappointed he felt.
While this strategy isn’t always feasible, I had to include it because it has given me some of my favorite and most precious times with my children. None of my kids were great sleepers when they were young. And even now, they still fight me about going to sleep. But one thing I did notice is that they would get awfully chatty at night, talking about their day, telling me what was on their minds, what they were excited about. And I loved hearing about it, but part of me would be trying to hush them because it was now an hour past their bedtimes and they had school in the morning. So I started allotting time for what I call, “chit-chat and cuddles”. Some nights, I have whichever child’s turn it is that night, change into their pajamas and get ready for bed about 5 minutes early. I also change into my pjs and we cuddle in bed and read a few bedtime stories. Then it’s lights out and I actually let my kiddo just ramble on and on about whatever is on their mind. This has helped us have some real bonding conversations, meaningful connections and given us insights into each other as people. Sometimes, it winds itself down and my child will fall asleep peacefully, other times they require a gentle reminder that it really is time to stop talking and get some sleep. But every time, my child feels loved, heard and connected.
I hope some of my tips can help you amazing mamas out there. Let’s keep sharing and talking so we can start implementing strategies that work for us and help us be our best parenting selves.