Where Do Babies Come From? Tips for an Easy Explanation.

This just in:  Preschoolers are curious.  There is no end to their questions and, in general, they give you very little warning before asking those ever so slightly tricky questions.

 

Preschoolers are little thought machines…and they need answers.

 

I received three almost identical emails just this week (from three different parents of three very curious preschoolers) with desperate pleas for the “right” answer to following head scratcher:

 

HOW do babies get inside the mommy’s tummy?

 

(For the record, there is no “right” answer, but there are some very incorrect answers. Remain within your comfort zone at all times, unless “the stork” is your comfort zone.)

 

Raise your hand if you’re looking forward to having a sex education lesson with your four year old.  No hands in the air?  I’m not surprised.

 

While preschoolers know nothing of the actual baby making process, they are truly just wondering if it’s akin to planting an apple tree, we know too much.  Our knowledge of the human body and what it takes to actually create a baby ignites panic the moment a small voice asks an innocent question.

 

Take a deep breath…this one is easier than you think.

 

Stay calm and take a moment:  The question is not intended to freak you out.  Preschoolers have very active imaginations and sometimes they seek facts to make sure they are getting the story straight.  That said, when faced with a question that you are not prepared to answer, it’s always ok to take a moment.  Say something like, “Hmmm.  I think I need a few minutes to think about the best way to explain that to you so that you will understand.”  Take a few deep breaths, and then move forward.  Long silences cause suspicion.  Gather your thoughts and always stick with the basics.

 

Ask a question:  Sometimes we make the mistake of jumping in with a complicated answer, when really our children are asking simple questions.  Ask a question of your child first to gauge where he is with the topic.  A simple, “what do you think?” will let you know where to begin.  It’s always best to let the child lead with difficult topics.  This ensures that you will answer according to your child’s needs and understanding of the topic.

 

Use correct terminology:  Are you still afraid to say “vagina” in front of your daughter?  Don’t be.  It’s just a body part, after all.  Sometimes, in a panic, parents start referencing seeds, storks, and magic when kids ask about babies.  This is all very confusing, and will likely lead to more complicated questions as they struggle to make sense of the answer (how on earth does the stork find babies that look just like the family?).  The baby grows inside a womb, not the belly.  Doctors and nurses help the baby out when the baby is grown.  If they want specifics, the baby either comes out through the vagina or through an incision made below the belly.  Remember; only answer what they ask.  Some are satisfied with less, while others seek more.

 

Be honest but brief:  At this age, this topic does not require a long explanation.  Preschool kids are looking for a few simple facts to make sense of a confusing topic.  Keep it causal, but honest.  If you appear uncomfortable, your child might feel like there is something shameful or bad about the topic.  A straightforward approach is always best.

 

Create a timeline:  Often a simple storyline helps kids make sense of complicated topics.  Try some variation of the following:  “First a mommy and daddy fall in love and get married. Then the mommy and daddy make a baby.  The baby grows in the womb inside of the mommy.  When the baby is big enough, she comes out.”  A story with a beginning, middle, and end is easy to follow and remember.  Also, it simplifies the process when your child incorporates it into her play…and play is always the best way to process information!

 

Follow up questions to expect:  First of all, expect to have this conversation over and over and over again.  Second, there will be follow up questions at some point.

  • What is the baby doing?  Growing, kicking, sucking her thumb, and sleeping.
  • Can I grow a baby?  Your body is not grown enough to grow your own baby yet.  But you can always pretend.
  • How does the baby get out?  See correct terminology above.
  • Can two moms or two dads have a baby?  It takes a man and a woman to make a baby, but two dads or two moms can raise a baby once the baby is born.

 

 

 

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Winter Boredom Busters!

Happy 2012 Practical Parenting readers!  New year: New feature.  I get a lot of email from parents asking about “bigger kid” issues.  While I try to respond to email as quickly as possible, I thought it might be nice to start addressing some of those questions here.  Enter “The Big Kid Corner”.  Once a week I will address big kid concerns, so feel free to send them along.  Please keep the great questions and feedback coming! 

By now you’ve all survived (and hopefully enjoyed) the holidays and are busy cramming in a few last vacation activities before the kids head back to school.  Depending on where you live, you might or might not be cooped up due to the cold.  And if you aren’t cooped up yet, you probably will be soon.  Turn off the TV and put away the video games!  Below are few indoor activities to keep big and small kids busy when the weather forces you to stay inside.

1.    Bear Hunt:  (Small kids) After reading “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, stage your own bear hunt.  Hide a teddy bear somewhere in the house, gather supplies (coats for a blizzard, umbrellas for rain, snacks, etc.), and start searching for the bear.  Once you find him, run back to the start, retracing your steps along the way!  Kids love to play up the unexpected and go on an “adventure”, even if it’s in your own home.  Make use of that magical thinking and get to it!

2.    Obstacle Course:  (Big kids, modified for little) Kids love to take apart couches and rearrange furniture, don’t they?  Why not make that work to your advantage and do something productive with the mess?  Use couch cushions, coffee tables, and chairs to create an obstacle course in your family room.  Cushions can be lined up and made into tunnels, tables can serve as an object to circle (several times) or race cars across, and old paper towel rolls can be taped together to make a giant tube for rolling marbles.  Get creative and make sure to require ten jumping jacks between each activity on the course.  This will keep them interested and wear them out.  Win/win.

3.    Scavenger Hunt:  (Big and little kids) Kids love to find things. Small pieces of plastic found on the sidewalk are treasures to them.  Create a list of items to find around the house (remember to use clip art pictures for non-readers) and give each child a list and a bag.  Younger kids should have the same items; older kids can have their own lists to add to the challenge.  Set a timer and see how many items they can find during the allotted time.  And maybe read a magazine while you wait.

4.    Hallway Bowling:  (Big kids) Another great use for old toilet paper rolls?  Bowling pins!  Line up the toilet paper rolls at the end of a hallway and use a rolled up sock or soft indoor ball to create your own bowling alley.  Whoever is waiting a turn should be doing jumping jacks, jumping rope, or hula hooping.  This is fun and sneaks in a little exercise.

5.    Write a Book:  (Big and little kids) Younger kids love to play pretend and use those active imaginations.  Sometimes older kids no longer know how to channel those creative thoughts (as they take on more physical activities and engage in less imaginary play).  Using construction paper and plain white paper stapled together, have your little ones draw pictures of a story and ask them what to write under each picture.  For big kids:  On individual slips of paper, put some writing prompts into a hat and have them choose one and just write.  *If you have more than one child of the same/similar age, you can encourage “joint” story writing, where each child writes one sentence at a time (switching back and forth) until the story is complete.  Sometimes an hour writing stories by the fire is the best activity around.

6.    Play:  (Big kids) Have an actor on your hands?  Have the kids write a play, create the scenery, and direct and act in a play.  This could go on for hours.

7.    Puppet Show:  (Little kids) You don’t need a fancy puppet theater to put on a puppet show.  Just a couch. Help your kids practice using puppets and creating stories for a few minutes.  Remove the couch cushions and have them hide behind the couch to put on the show.  The plot lines will be short but the fun will be endless.  Enjoy the show!

8.    Spoon Races:  (Big kids) Do your kids still have some energy to burn?  Give them a spoon and a Ping-Pong ball and tape off a racetrack around the kitchen floor.  The challenge is the finish the race without dropping the ball.  Go back to the beginning if it falls!  It might take a few laps around the course for them to realize that slow and steady wins the race, but the energy expended will be worth the effort.

9.    Cardboard Castles:  (Big kids) Don’t ever recycle a large cardboard box.  Do you hear me?  Never!  Supply your kids with a large box, scissors, markers, paint, and various other art supplies and ask them to make a castle or fort.  And those premade ones sold at certain large retailers?  Where is the adventure in those?  Being creative is what keeps growing and thriving.  All they need are a few supplies.

10.                Backwards Day:  (Big and little kids) Ok, so this one isn’t exactly an activity…but have you ever tried to do everything backwards?  It’s no easy task.  Start by having them put their clothes on backwards and then require that all things be done backwards.  They can play games in reverse, write a story from end to beginning, and eat a sandwich with the peanut butter on the outside.  If nothing else, backwards day is guaranteed to get a few laughs.

11.                2 Truths & 1 Tale:  (Big kids) I am originally from Connecticut, I love sushi, and I played ice hockey in college.  Can you spot the tale?  Form a circle and have your kids come up with two true statements and one false statement, and have the other players try to spot the tale.  Older kids get really into this and come up with some very funny stories.

12.                Make a Happy List:  (Big and little kids) Are you still hearing complaints of boredom despite near non-stop indoor activities?  Maybe it’s time for some perspective.  Get a large piece of paper and make a family happy list.  No item is too big or too small for this list.  Follow it up with a bucket list of family activities you look forward to doing when the weather improves.  Sometimes you just need to stop the action and sit back and reflect on the positive.

When in doubt, bundle them up and head to the nearest indoor pool or skating rink for a little indoor exercise.

What is your favorite boredom buster?

Five TV Shows That Teach

PEEP and the Big Wide World

(Picture Credit)

By now you all know the guidelines for TV viewing for toddlers and preschoolers (no more than two hours per day, including computer and Smartphone time, and no screen time for tots under two).  Whether or not you stick to the two-hour limit, it makes sense to unplug your kids as much as possible and let them engage in creative play.

By now you also know that it’s very important to preview everything before letting your children watch (or play).  It makes good sense.  You want to make sure that your kids are watching quality programming and not over-stimulated by it or scared as a result of watching it.  Even when something seems completely benign, sometimes the writers throw you for a loop.  A favorite curious monkey once caused Riley to fear shadows for months, and our favorite big red dog tends to take the bullying and social skills lessons a bit too far for the preschool crowd at times.  That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be watched, just be involved in the watching and make sure to preview episodes as much as possible, particularly if you have a child who tends to get anxious in response to subject matter such as shadows, the dark, or friendship trouble (frequent preschool themes).

While some parenting experts might disagree, I am of the opinion that a little screen time is a good break for kids and their parents, and can be very educational.  In other words, if you pick the right shows, your kids can enjoy some much-needed relaxation while learning a few things.

We all have our favorites for various reasons, but from an educational standpoint some shows stand out among the crowd.  Below are five shows that you can turn on without any guilt:

1.    PEEP and the Big Wide WorldSet in and around a large urban park, PEEP tells the story of PEEP and his best friends, Chirp and Quack, as they set off on daily adventures.  The adventures include everyday lessons in science.  Targeted for 3-5 year old children, PEEP is funny (even for adults) and provides endless lessons in curiosity, friendship, and science.  Best of all, PEEP encourages preschoolers to explore their own worlds.  Riley, Liam, and I have set out on many PEEP-like adventures since PEEP entered our lives, and we are better for it.

2.    Sesame Street:  What can I possibly say about Sesame Street that you don’t already know?  From language development to social skills to science to music (and beyond), Sesame Street has something for everyone.  It has the added benefit of short segments, so it’s easy to break up the show into smaller parts so it’s easy to watch it on small increments (or just cue up Elmo for a young toddler).

3.    Super WHY!:  Having fun while learning to read?  Win/win!  Super WHY! is a preschool series aimed to help children ages 3-6 develop the critical skills they need to learn to read.  Each episode begins with a preschool related problem (friendship issues, accepting differences, etc.).  The Super WHY! friends then go to the secret clubhouse, where they become literacy-powered superheroes.  The superheroes then work together, with your child, to solve the problem while engaging in an exciting adventure.  They work on vowel sounds, letter sounds, word identification, and other pre-reading skills along the way.  It’s genius.  And the Super WHY! iPhone app is a must as well.

4.    Team UmiZoomi:  Tiny super heroes with mighty mighty math powers…what’s the downside?  Team UmiZoomi introduces early math concepts while building self-confidence in preschoolers.  Children become actively engaged in counting, measurement, patterns, shapes, etc.  It’s fun and engaging and builds a love of problem solving.

5.    Dora, Diego, and Kai-LanOk, so that’s three in one.  Each of these shows introduces a new language while working on problem solving and social skills (Kai-Lan has a heavy focus on social interactions, which is important for preschoolers).  These shows are interactive and engaging, and get kids moving while watching.

Chances are, your kids will watch some TV today.  There’s no guilt in that.  Choose quality programming and watch along with them and your kids will learn new skills while spending a little relaxation time with mom and/or dad.

I shared my favorite TV picks for toddlers and preschoolers, what are some of yours?

 

Generation Spoiled? (Tips to avoid spoiling kids)

Sean and I had dinner with our close friends the other night.  We made an effort to talk about all things non-kid related as we enjoyed drinks and a leisurely meal but, naturally, we ended up talking about our kids.  Specifically, we discussed how different our own childhood experiences were, and what exactly it means to “spoil” a child.  Some of us grew up with fake Nike sneakers, powdered milk (just because), and hand-me-downs that never quite fit…our children wear Converse, drink delicious fresh milk, and have new clothes that fit (except Liam, who won’t part with his car shirts that are now a size too small, despite the new ones in the right size).  Are we spoiling them?

It’s a common fear among parents.  On the one hand, we want our kids to be healthy and happy.  Smiling faces and calm (or excited) demeanors are preferable to angry (or sad) ones.  On the other hand, we don’t want to stand accused of raising “spoiled brats”.  I have to say it:  I’ve never much cared for the word “brat”.  I’m not sure why, it just makes me cringe.  But there are books and articles everywhere right now referencing the “Generation S” (spoiled) and ways to avoid raising “brats”.

There are some who like to chalk up any unfavorable behavior to general “brattiness”, but the truth is that there is generally a reason for the behavior.  Yes, spoiled children exist in this world.  But 9 times out of 10 that temper tantrum, whining, or interrupting you hear at the supermarket or on the other end of the line is more likely the result of hunger, boredom, sleep deprivation, or other issues.

Everybody has a definition for spoiled behavior, but most of the time it includes behaviors such as excessive whining, interrupting frequently, a sense of entitlement, temper tantrums in response to the word “no”, and talking back to adults. The truth is that all kids whine, cry, have temper tantrums, and talk back at some point.  Spoiling comes in when these behaviors are seen more often than not on any given day. While one natural consequence of this behavior is that other people don’t like it and might not choose to make plans with spoiled individuals, the real danger comes in the future.  Spoiled children often grow up to become verbally aggressive adults who struggle to cope with difficult or frustrating situations.

The best reason not to spoil your kids is to help them learn to cope with disappointment and frustration.  *Hint: It’s not about the stuff; it’s about the behavior. Below are some tips to help you avoid spoiling your kids:

1. Teach manners: It sounds like a given.  For many parents, it is.  But with the hectic pace of life right now, teaching kids to say please and thank you and other basic manners can be easily forgotten.  Practice using “friendly words” around the house, both with parents and siblings.  Cue the kids often and reinforce use of good manners and helping one another.  And remember to model appropriate manners for your kids as much as possible. For more strategies on teaching manners, check out this post.

2. Set limits: Kids need limits.  They need to know what is or isn’t allowed.  How can they be expected to follow the rules if the limits haven’t been defined?  Set clear and simple limits in your home.  Post them on the kitchen wall.  Repeat them often.  When a rule is broken, repeat the rule back to your child before giving a consequence. It can be hard to say the same thing over and over.  Liam is so well versed in the rules at age 2 ½ that he regularly lists them off just because he can.  Repetition works.  Whatever you do, avoid giving in to begging! The minute your child knows the rules can be broken he will try to break them every time.

3. Help them earn it: Kids like to get stuff.  It’s part of the fun of being a kid.  “The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies” by Stan & Jan Berenstain is a great story about wanting everything in sight.  Riley would have every book ever written (as well as every stuffed animal ever sewn) if we let her.  In our house, we earn treats.  Sometimes it’s something very small, like a Tic Tac for being a good helper at the grocery store.  Other times, reward charts are used to help them earn a coveted item while working on something difficult. Riley has trouble falling asleep at night.  She earns stickers for falling asleep independently.  Every five stickers she earns a new book.  Earning something gives a child a sense of accomplishment and increases his self-esteem. At some point you will be thinking about allowance, but for right now help them earn some small treats.

4. Don’t fear disappointment: It’s only natural for parents to want the best for their kids, and few things are more upsetting (in the parenting preschoolers world, anyway) than watching your child sob over something disappointing.  Learning to cope with disappointment is an important life skill that begins with setting limits. Parents can use empathy to help their children regroup and move forward, and then think of ways to problem solve together.  Just the other day Riley really wanted a stuffed animal from the aquarium gift shop.  She had to have it.  I said no.  She cried.  I told her about a time that I wanted something but couldn’t have it when I was her age.  And then we agreed to put it on her Christmas list.

5. Keep a list: Sean looked at me with amusement when I suggested the Christmas list as a problem solving strategy for Riley, but it worked.  Whether it’s a holiday list, a birthday list, or an item for the “to be earned” pile, keeping a list gives the child a feeling of control.  I might not get this toy today, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. Kids need to know that they are being heard and their feelings are valued.  This is a simple way to show your child that you understand the importance of this item.  By Christmas, she will likely have moved on!

6. Teach coping skills: Life can be upsetting when you’re small.  It’s a big world out there and sometimes something as small as not earning that Tic Tac can really feel overwhelming. Help your child learn to cope with frustration and disappointment by teaching relaxation strategies and teaching him to verbalize his feelings. Just this morning Liam started to get upset over a race that didn’t go his way.  When I asked him why he looked so sad he said, “I just feel mad when Daddy goes to work because I miss him so much and I have to cry”.  He cried.  He gave Daddy a big hug.  He found his lovey and his favorite car.  He moved on.

7. Avoid comparisons: Every family is different.  At some point your child will realize that other preschoolers have seen Cars 2 (mine won’t) or know how to play video games (mine don’t).  Set your limits and stick with them.  Avoid commentary on other families.  We all make our choices for our own reasons.  The important thing is that your children know the limits in your family. Remember, kids with older siblings will be exposed to different things at an earlier age.

8. Teach charity: While I wouldn’t advocate discussing huge natural disasters or homelessness with toddlers and preschoolers (these topics can be very scary), it is important to teach them that it’s always nice to help others.  Donating or sharing old clothes and toys and contributing to environmental causes or animal shelters are all good ways to start teaching charity. Children feel good about themselves when they’ve helped others.  It’s a self-esteem booster.

Instill good manners, model appropriate behavior, help others, and help your children earn things and you might find that spoiling is a thing of the past (or never even occurs).  And stop worrying about that overflowing toy box.  Like I said, it’s not really about the stuff.

What do you think about “Generation S”?

“Pick up your toys!” (Tips for teaching kids to follow directions)

Not long ago, I wrote about teaching your child listening skills.  It’s a hurdle we all face with toddlers and preschoolers, as they are generally not known for their interest in listening.  I received a fair amount of email from parents frustrated with the fact that their preschoolers seem to be able to follow directions at school, but home is an entirely different story.  It’s an issue that I have counseled countless parents through over the years.  The fact is that school, even preschool, is hard work.  Kids instinctively know that they HAVE to follow a teacher’s directions (even though they will test the boundaries whenever possible).  They put their energy into listening, transitioning, and playing.  It’s tiring.  By the time they get home, they are exhausted, hungry, and ready for a break.  They are also at ease in the comfort of their own homes, which makes breaking the rules or ignoring instructions a little bit easier.  They feel so loved and relaxed that they save their most frustrating behaviors for you!  Riley would never dream of grabbing a toy from another kid anywhere else, but she’ll take a toy from Liam just for the sake of doing it.  Preschool programs tend to be very well structured and the rules are so well defined that there really isn’t much room for error.  If you run a similar program at home, you might find that positive behaviors will start to prevail.  In the meantime, below are some tips to help you help your child learn to follow directions:

It always helps to know the “Don’ts”:

1. Avoid reasoning: Children under the age of 6 have little understanding of abstract consequences.  Telling your daughter to put her toys away because she might trip and hurt herself has little meaning.  If it didn’t happen already, why would it?

2. Avoid yelling: Believe me, I know, sometimes this is easier said than done.  Parents can easily get caught up in a cycle of repeating the same command in a louder and louder voice until they find themselves having an adult temper tantrum.  Your child will quickly learn to wait to perform the task when the yelling starts.

3. Avoid saying, “don’t”: Negative instructions are likely to be ignored or misinterpreted, particularly if there is yelling involved.  Telling Liam not to walk inside in his muddy, wet shoes is akin to sending him a personalized invitation to do so.  It can be confusing.  Say what you mean in a positive way.

4. Avoid empty threats: Preschoolers have already figured out that you’re not likely to take away TV time unless it’s really bad.  A consequence should fit the crime.  Abstract consequences like, “being grounded” or “time out until I say so” are meaningless.  They are literal thinkers and need to know exactly what will happen.

And now for the “do’s”:

1. Have a plan: The time to talk about following directions is NOT when you’re in the heat of battle.  Have a family plan in place.  Whether you use a counting system (“I’m counting to 3 and…”) or just give your child two chances to listen and comply, make sure you go over the plan and possible consequences in a calm moment. Have a kid who doesn’t like to talk?  Channel your inner play therapist and use puppets, dolls, cars, or anything else your child likes to do the talking. Children learn through play.  Use it.

2. Be precise: As I’ve mentioned once or twice, toddlers and preschoolers tend to be very literal thinkers.  Tell them exactly what to do. Instead of “pick up your toys” (which can seem an overwhelming task at 5pm in my house), try “please put all of the balls in the ball basket”.  Specifics will get you everywhere with this crowd!

3. Get his attention: I addressed this in my listening skills article, but it’s worth repeating.  Toddlers and preschoolers are very busy and curious creatures.  They are not thinking about listening.  Barking out commands while your son is playing trains will not get your needs met.  Get down to his level, make eye contact, and get his attention first.

4. Teach the stoplight: Chances are that your kids spend a fair amount of time in the car and are well aware of how a stoplight works.  Use an analogy that preschoolers can really understand:  Red = STOP – listen to Mommy, yellow = THINK – consider what Mommy said and how to proceed, and green = GO – do what was asked.  Clearly, this needs to be taught in a calm moment in preschool language, and visual cues are ALWAYS helpful.  Once they get it you can use the verbal cue “stoplight” to get a break in the action and help your kids follow directions.

5. Pick your battles: Try to be realistic.  Does your house need to be spotless all day?  Are they really capable of picking up every single toy?  If you nag them all day, you’re less likely to have compliant children.  Give them a break, they’re only kids once.

6. Have a race: Need to get out the door in a hurry?  Kids love to race!  Say, “let’s race to the car” followed by what they need to do to get there (put on shoes and socks, grab a coat, get backpacks, etc.).  Do I need to say it?  Everybody wins!

7. Make it fun: Practice following directions throughout the day by making it fun.  Cooking is the ultimate example of following directions.  You have to put in the right ingredients to make the cake tasty.  Simon Says and obstacle course are always winners with preschoolers.  They have to listen to the directions to play the game or complete the course.  Scavenger hunt is a great game for following directions and using visual cues.  Make a list using clip art and send your kids around the house to find the items.  Twister is an old classic that teaches both following directions and left from right.

8. Use rewards: A simple reward system can go a long way to making your home a happy one.  Focus on one specific behavior at a time and provide frequent reminders.  Melissa & Doug make a fantastic Magnetic Responsibility Chart (http://www.melissaanddoug.com/magnetic-responsibility-learning-chart).  I daresay they’ve covered all of the bases in terms of specific behaviors to work on, but they’ve also left room for parental input.  My kids love earning their magnets!

Try to remain patient; learning to follow directions is not an easy task for little kids who would rather being doing just about anything else.  But if you keep your calm and try to make it fun you might find that your moments of frustration about this particular topic are a thing of the past.

How do you get your kids to follow directions?

“Don’t Leave Me!” (Tips for coping with Separation Anxiety)

I love when my babysitter comes.  It’s a recent development, as we’ve had a hard time keeping part time babysitters around for long.  At one point, mid-way through Sean’s year long touring adventure, my latest babysitter quit with no notice and no goodbye to my kids, who had come to think of her as family.  That was it for me.  I decided that I couldn’t possibly put them through yet another transition while Sean was on tour.  There were some long days for me, but the kids were happy and well adjusted, so it seemed worth it.

Now that Sean has been back for 6 months, and before he tours again, I decided that it’s time to get a new babysitter in our lives.  It’s time for some much needed mommy time!  And so our wonderful new babysitter entered our lives.  The kids took an immediate liking to her.  Riley enjoys adventures out during quiet time, and Liam loves the captive audience and non-stop car play when Riley and I have special time.  Everybody wins.

Still, despite the seemingly perfect match, separation anxiety creeps in from time to time.

Separation anxiety is a very normal part of child development.  It can start as early as 6-8 months, when babies first realize that their parents actually live separate lives from them.  They fear abandonment when a caregiver leaves the room to head to the bathroom.  Separation anxiety peaks between 12-24 months. Children have a strong sense of attachment to their parents at this age.  It most often strikes when a parent is leaving for work or going out for a few errands, but it can even happen at night.  Separation often resurfaces during the preschool years, when children are working on autonomy. The desire to be independent versus the need to feel protected is a near constant struggle for preschoolers.  Sometimes even the kids who rarely seemed to struggle with separation along the way suddenly decide they just want to stick close to mom or dad.

The good news is that the vast majority of kids will outgrow separation anxiety (only 4% of children suffer from Separation Anxiety Disorder).  The bad news is that it can happen almost overnight, and it can be exhausting for parents.  Below are some tips to help you help your child separate:

1. Familiar faces: Starting at around 6 months, it’s a good idea to leave your baby with familiar caregivers (like a family member or close friend) even just for short periods of time (15-30 minutes) to practice separating.  Increase the time intervals as your baby adjusts to separating.  Older kids?  Leave your child with a very familiar person for 15 minutes only (while you leave the room to fold laundry or shower).  Provide praise and process the event with your child upon your return (“you did a great job playing with Grandma while I was upstairs!  What did you play that was fun?”  Repeat often and gradually increase the time.

2. Get to know caregivers: When introducing a new nanny/babysitter, take a slow approach.  Have the babysitter come to play a few times while you are present so that the kids can get to know her.  Plan fun activities to make it exciting.  Have your babysitter arrive 30 minutes prior to the time that you need to leave so that your child has time to transition and feel comfortable. Help your child engage in an activity with the babysitter before leaving. When Riley has moments of anxiety, a cooking project always shifts her focus and helps her feel comfortable with my departure.

3. Goodbye routine: Develop a short, but predictable goodbye routine. Resist the urge to sneak out when your child’s back is turned.  You want your kids to trust you, not fear that you will leave when they’re not looking.  When Riley and I part ways at preschool or just for a couple of hours during the day we always do the following:  Hug, kiss, high five, and “I love you”. Sometimes a small routine makes a big difference.

4. Stay positive: Now is the time to go overboard on how much you love your new babysitter/daycare/preschool.  When you are calm, your children sense that everything will be ok. When you respond to their anxiety with your own anxiety, they really start to wonder about their safety.  Make a positive statement (“I just know you will have so much fun playing Legos with your babysitter today”).

5. No sneak backs: If you know your child struggles with separation anxiety, you have to plan ahead.  Make sure you have everything you need when you leave the house.  Do not sneak back in to get something or to check on your child. Chances are, there were a few tears.  Allow your child the chance to regroup and move on by staying out of the way.  Repeated sightings as you gather your belongings will only upset your child all over again.

6. Gradual transition: As you get your children used to a new babysitter/nanny, take a slow approach.  Leave for an hour on the first day, and then increase the time intervals as they get used to the new situation.  This is especially important with older toddlers who haven’t spent much time away from you.  They need to know that you will come back, and that they can have fun with someone new.

7. Transitional objects: Between his car collection and his giraffe lovies, Liam is the king of the transitional object.  Some kids attach to specific objects that they cart around day after day, some need a little help finding a toy that helps them feel safe.  A transitional object is something that your child can hold or look at (a stuffed animal, blanket, picture of you) when he is feeling lonely. This can be especially helpful when your child is being left at a daycare or another out of home caregiver.

8. Provide jobs: Older toddlers and preschoolers respond really well to having a specific job.  It makes them feel as if they have some control over the situation.  Even something as simple as having your child close and lock the door behind you can make a difference.  Put your child in charge of picking and putting out snacks or setting up an arts and crafts activity.

9. Normalize feelings: Let your child know that it’s ok to feel nervous.  It’s perfectly normal to feel a little worried when being left with another caregiver.  Resist the urge to say, “be a big girl”.  Instead say something like, “I know that you feel nervous.  Remember when you felt nervous last time but you felt much better after painting with your babysitter?”  Reminding your child of another time that she was successful will help reduce her anxiety.

10. Provide a timeline: Tell your child where you are going.  Having some specific information will help your child feel a sense of control.  Give a timeframe that your child can understand.  If your child knows that you will be home after snack or before dinner, he can understand how that fits into his day (statements like “a couple of hours” are meaningless, try to fit it into their schedules).

 

Separation anxiety is difficult for both parents and children, but with a gradual transition it can be decreased.  Take your time.  The more time you give your child to adjust to a new childcare situation, the easier the transition will be.

How do you help your child cope with separation anxiety?

 

 

Boys Will Be Boys (Tips for dealing with toy guns)

Few moments are more alarming than when a sweet little four year old boy looks up at his mommy and says, “bang, bang!  You’re dead!” while wielding a fake gun fashioned out of Legos.  And yet it happens to some unsuspecting mommy every single day (I dread the day that my sweet little Liam learns the word “gun”).

While many preschool girls are drawn toward fairy tales, princesses, and playing mommy (this is where Riley currently places most of her energy), most boys of the same age seem to find their way to the superhero and “bad versus good” game play.  It doesn’t seem to matter what you expose them to in your own home, at some point Batman enters the picture.  It should also be noted that there are boys who will head to the princess castle and girls who will enter the Hall of Justice simply because it seems appealing.  Preschool is all about exploring new ideas.

The good news is that it all falls under the “age appropriate” heading for preschoolers.  Although it’s unsettling for parents, and teachers, to watch, studies do not show any link between pretend gunplay and violence later in life.  In fact, most often it’s a phase that disappears just when you start to get used to it.  **The only potential cause for concern is if gunplay is the ONLY interest your child has all day every day.

This doesn’t mean that you should just stand by quietly while your preschooler fills his day with gunplay.  Below are a few tips to help you handle the fascination with guns:

 

1. Avoid Overreacting: The easiest way to send your child into a secret world of gunplay and make him feel like he can’t tell you things is to immediately shut him down and set a strict “no pretend guns” policy.  A better strategy is to get into the game. Join the story and figure out the subtext.  Ask questions: Who are the bad guys?  Why are they bad?  Most often, preschoolers use gunplay to work through feelings about power, control, and keeping the world safe. Taking away the control they feel in their play can leave them feeling helpless.  Work through it with them.

2. Set Realistic Limits: Some of the jargon that accompanies gunplay can be scary to other kids.  Phrases like, “you’re dead” or “I killed you” might frighten another child who doesn’t play the same way.  They are also serious words with big consequences in the larger world around them.  It’s perfectly reasonable to set some limits.  Changing the phrasing to, “I got you” or “you’re out” still allows the feeling of control without the focus on death and killing. Due to the level of excitement with such games, time limits are important. Preschoolers don’t know when to say when.  Make believe can become overwhelming when it involves significant chasing and trying to conquer evil.  Stop the game and move into a calming activity before over-stimulation sets in.  This is not a good play activity right before bed.  Preschoolers need time to wind down and process the feelings that come up in their play. Although they are working on having some control, the themes contained in gunplay can become scary when the lights go down.  Allow plenty of time to move on before starting the bedtime routine.  **Note:  Many preschools do not allow gunplay, more often due to the potential for over-stimulation than the fear of aggression. Be prepared to explain to your child that he might have to save that game for home.

3. Focus on Pretend: Whether it’s a fairy tale or Batman and Robin, play can feel real to preschoolers when they are engaged in it.  It’s important to label gunplay as “pretend”. Instead of having your child say, “I got you Mommy”, take on the persona of the “bad guy”.  Come up with a name for your character and make it pretend.  Avoid parents, siblings, and friends as the intended targets. Play can become confusing, and difficult to process, when the players are real.  In fact, you might find a weepy child later in the day feeling bad that he “killed” his friend.  Make sure pretend characters are involved.

4. Avoid Realistic Props: There are some seriously scary looking “play” guns at Toys R Us these days.  Toys made to look exactly like real guns can blur the line between fantasy and reality. Stick to the old cowboy guns or, better yet, something that looks like it belongs in outer space.  As I used to tell concerned teachers back in my school administration days, if a boy wants to play guns he will find a twig in the grass and make that his gun.  They don’t need realistic “play” semi-automatic weapons.

5. Consider Other Kids: Not all boys like to engage in gunplay.  Some stick to cars, sports, or like to play with the girls.  If gunplay is scaring a friend on a playdate, or if that friend just isn’t interested, it is best to stop the game and have the kids come up with a game or activity that they both enjoy.  They don’t have to have all of the same interests to be friends, but they do have to find common ground when playing together.

6. Expand Pretend Play: Your son might gravitate toward constant gunplay because that’s what he knows to be fun.  Liam would really only play with his cars if Riley wasn’t around to engage him in other games, like “Princess Riley and Prince Liam”.  Play with your child to help him learn new pretend games. Open a restaurant and make him the chef.  Have a carwash.  Break out the instruments and form a rock band.  Solve a mystery together.  Sometimes kids just need new ideas to break out of a cycle.

7. Consider Exposure: Do you regularly have the news on in the background with the hope that you might secretly get caught up when the kids aren’t paying attention?  If the TV is on, they’re paying attention. Visuals of war, local violence, and other scary stories on the news can be confusing and frightening to preschoolers.  Catch up online when the kids are asleep.  Does your son have an older sibling who plays a lot of video games?  Any images of gunfights (whether they are fantasy in the form of a video game or real situations happening on the news) will have an impact on your child.  Limit your older child’s video game time to when your preschooler is not around to see it.

8. Older Kids & Video Games: Here’s the potentially good news:  A 2008 study conducted by Dr. Christopher Ferguson, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Texas A&M University found no strong link between violent video games and future violent behavior.  The study found that innate aggressive behavior and family exposure to violence were better predictors of future violent crime (“Violent Video Games and Aggression”, Criminal Justice and Behavior, March 2008).  **It should be noted that other studies have found increased heart rates when playing and poor sleep quality (due to continued increased heart rates) after playing violent video games.  Monitor closely.  Cause for concern:  If your older child has no (or few) social contacts, isolates himself, shows symptoms of Depression, uses drugs and/or alcohol, has been the target of a bully, and ONLY plays violent video games when not in school, you should seek an evaluation.

Rest your worried minds, mommies.  With a few limits, a heavy focus on pretend, and by getting involved in your child’s play, you can help your child work through his feelings about control, power, and safety without resorting to actual aggression.  Your preschool boy is right on target!

How do you handle gunplay in your home?

 

Friend Finder! (Tips for teaching social skills)

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about helping your shy child interact with others.  It was met with many thanks, but also a few requests of a different kind:  “What if my kid is the opposite?  How do I stop him from trying to befriend EVERYONE?”  There are always two ends to the spectrum, and for every seemingly shy child on the playground there is another child who follows everyone around until he/she finds a friend.  I recently had dinner with an old friend who has a daughter a few years ahead of mine.  As we chatted about how alarmingly fast the kids have grown we recounted the story of how her daughter used to run up to every other kid on the playground and say,
“Hi! Do you want to play?”  She often faced defeat because preschoolers generally favor a more delicate approach.  My friend once looked up at me and said, “I don’t know how to tell her to do it differently”.  My response?  “At least she’s initiating friendships”.  It’s hard to watch when your child faces rejection from other kids.  It’s also hard to stand back and watch when you know that approaching a different kid, or introducing yourself in a different way might make a big difference.  Riley is really into big girls right now.  She has a hard time understanding that six year old girls don’t necessarily want to play with four year old girls.  I won’t stop her if she really wants to talk to a group of older girls at the park, but I will try to nudge her in a more age appropriate direction.  Developing social interaction skills is a long process.  Just when they start to get the hang of things they move up a grade and somehow the rules change.  It’s a lifelong process, really.  The good thing about the overt child is that he/she is not afraid to try.  The tricky thing is that not everyone is looking for a friend every time they go to the park.  Some kids stick to one close friend, and others prefer to play alone.  Kids work on social interactions skills as part of any preschool program, and even in hour-long classes, but social skills require a lot of work.  The practicing doesn’t end just because they are home for the day.  While shy kids need to work on slowly leaving their comfort zones, overt kids need to learn about timing, choosing wisely, and social boundaries.  Below are some tips to help you help your child achieve social success:

1. Make a checklist: Preschoolers love lists.  Lists fit into their need for predictability in life.  If it’s organized in some way, it makes more sense.  Come up with a social skills checklist that you can review together before you send your child out with other kids.  Keep it simple.  Here is an example:

  • Find a friendly face
  • Smile
  • Say, “Hi my name is…”
  • Offer to share a toy to play together

2. Teach Reading Facial Cues: Preschoolers often struggle to understand how other people are feeling.  In fact, many struggle to identify their own feelings.  By nature, toddlers and younger preschoolers are fairly self-centered.  They have a lot of learning to do; they are often too busy to think about others.  Around four, they start to show more empathy and think about others.  But they still need to learn how to read facial cues.  Facial Cues Collage: Cut a bunch of different faces from magazine photos and have your child glue them onto a paper.  Help your child study the faces to determine how each person might be feeling.  Write the feelings underneath.  Practice in the mirror: Sit in front of a mirror with your child and make various feelings faces together.  Make a game out of it and try to figure out what each face means.  Feelings Chart: Have you bought one yet? Post up a feelings faces chart in the most used room of your house and review it often.  The best time to teach kids about feelings is when they are calm and happy.

3. Polite Behavior: Practice what you preach.  Even kids who don’t have to use any table manners at home instinctively know to use them at school, but try to set some limits about basic manners.  Yes, I know that boys will be boys at times.  Liam is living proof of that.  But that doesn’t mean that a gentle correction is out of line.  Some behaviors are just off-putting to other kids.  Your list might be a bit different, but try to set limits on the following:  Spitting, sticking out the tongue (many kids actually interpret this as “mean”, excessive burping (at least teach them to say, “Excuse me”), grabbing toys without asking, and physical aggression.  As always, please and thank you are always appreciated by others. And remember that politeness starts with you.

4. Teach Boundaries: Some kids struggle with adhering to appropriate physical boundaries because they just don’t understand them.  They honestly don’t know what it means to be “too close” in proximity to someone else.  Preschoolers tend to stick very close in some situations, but when meeting new friends it helps to understand boundaries.  Hula Hoops: The small, preschool size hula-hoops are actually perfect for teaching appropriate physical space.  Have your kids hold hula-hoops around them and then walk toward each other until the hoops touch to show appropriate space.  If you find them getting too close in a situation, “hula-hoop” is an easy clue to remind them to step back.  Knock First: Many kids are so used to going wherever they please in their own homes that they forget to knock on closed doors when on playdates or in other places.  Teach them to knock on a closed door.  Ask First: Grabbing almost always leads to trouble.  No one likes to have a toy taken without any warning.  I wish I didn’t have to teach this skill all day every day, but it’s part of having a 2 year old and a four year old.  Teach them to ask first.  When they forget, return the toy and have your child apologize and then wait for a turn.  Or choose another activity.  Close Walking: Kids really dislike when other kids bump into them.  Some kids just crave tactile input and like to be close to others, but they can be taught to allow appropriate space with others.  Play follow-the-leader, but ask each kid to count to three before starting.

5. Practice: Get ready to play some pretend and practice how to act when meeting new people and making new friends.  Host Pretend Tea Parties: Or whatever kind of event appeals to your child.  Set up the scenario, make the introductions, practice boundaries and physical space, and remember those manners!  Stop frequently to check and see how the guests might be feeling.  Ask your child to think about whether or not any corrections need to be made.  Make Videos: Break out that Flip camera and start capturing those pretend interactions.  Watch the videos back and review your checklists.  Help your child determine whether or not he/she made an appropriate introduction, adhered to boundaries, allowed others a chance to talk, etc.  Structure Playdates: The best practice is always with other kids.  Try some 1:1 playdates with a child who shares very similar interests and structure the time.  Make a list of activities and set a timer.  Check regularly to make sure that your child is allowing appropriate space and sharing appropriately.

6. Books: “Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day” by Jamie Lee Curtis is always a winner when it comes to helping kids learn about different emotions and reading facial cues.  “Hands Are Not For Hitting” by Martine Agassi is one of a series that also includes, “Words Are Not For Hurting”, “Teeth Are Not For Biting”, and others.  These are great books for teaching basic social skills.  They provide helpful alternatives to each negative behavior.

 

Social interaction skills are generally a work in progress for most kids.  There is always something to be learned.  If you focus on a few basics on a daily basis, you can help your child achieve social success at the playground, in preschool, and just about everywhere else.

What strategies do you use to teach social skills?

“I’m scared!” (Tips for targeting specific fears)

“Fear is a friend who’s misunderstood” (John Mayer).  I’m not usually one for quotes, but sometimes I find that a well-timed mantra can get you through some of the trying situations that our children create for us.  Like the tenth monster check of the evening before sleep sets in.  For toddlers and preschoolers, fear is just one of the many emotions that occupies the day.  And, more often than not, their active imaginations play a large role in those fears.  Right on cue, at around age 3, Riley started having nightmares.  She also started verbalizing specific fears.  Once willing to greet any dog she passed, at 3 she decided that it’s better to keep walking.  Darkness became her biggest fear, but the night-lights intended to brighten her room a little then cast shadows.  Those were scary too.  A little anxiety is actually healthy. It reminds us to be careful when crossing the street or ask before touching an animal, no matter friendly it appears.  Anxiety warns us of pending danger and helps us cope with new, unfamiliar situations.  It’s usually somewhere between ages 3-4 that kids start to develop fears, but it can happen earlier.  Kids who have had more than average doctor visits might start to fear even routine check-ups, and little ones with parents overseas in the military might worry about the well being of their parents at an earlier age. Kids talk.  At the playground, at school, and even on playdates, kids talk.  They expose each other to new ideas.  The catch is that they don’t often have all of the details, so they rely on their very active imaginations to fill in the blanks.  This can lead to some significant worries.  Anxiety is considered pervasive when it affects most areas of their lives.  If your child is so afraid of the dark (and you’ve really, truly tried absolutely EVERYTHING and have been 100% consistent) that he/she can’t sleep at all, it will affect his/her ability to attend school, interact on playdates, or participate in classes.  That could be considered pervasive and you should probably check with your pediatrician.  But if your child is having a hard time separating at night, and maybe some nightmares on and off, that can be helped with a consistent reward chart, then it’s just a healthy fear.  The most common fears seen in toddlers and preschoolers are: Night/darkness/sleeping alone, shadows, death, dogs, using the potty, health/doctor visits, pain/being hurt, ghosts, monsters, and natural disasters. Most of these boil down to the age-old problems:  Lack of control and misunderstanding.  Repeat after me:  “Fear is a friend who’s misunderstood”.  Below are some tips to help you help your little ones cope with fears:

1. Acknowledge the fear: We all know that monsters don’t exist.  Our kids actually don’t know that.  Often times the first instinct is to solve the problem by saying, “monsters aren’t real so you shouldn’t be afraid of them”.  Unfortunately, kids are not easily convinced.  If Jimmy at school said that he has a monster under his bed, and he even described it in detail, then monsters must exist.  Kids need to feel validated.  Tell them that you understand. A better response (while running your mantra through your head) is, “it sounds like you are feeling pretty scared right now.  Maybe I can help you figure out what might seem scary and we can solve the problem together so that you can get some sleep”.  A quick check around the room to put away any stuffed animals strewn about while you remind your child that you will check on him often will often suffice.  At one point I let Riley determine how many checks I would do each night.  She always said 7.  I have a video monitor, so technically I didn’t even have to pretend!

2. Empathize: I have to be clear about one thing:  DON’T EVER TELL THEM YOUR FEARS!!! Empathy means conveying to your children that you understand what it feels like to feel scared or alone.  It doesn’t mean telling them that you are petrified of flying and that’s something you have to work on.  Kids want to know that they’re not alone.  Tell them that when you were three you worried about shadows too, but then you learned that shadows are just shapes made when light reflects upon objects.  Let them know their fears are normal.

3. Explain their fears: Books are great for helping kids dive into the unknown.  Books explain that ghosts and monsters are not real.  Books help children prepare for doctor visits, school, and various other anxiety-producing situations.  Rely on the library.  Provide explanations about how shadows are made.  Put on a shadow puppet show.  Talk honestly about the fact that many dogs are friendly and like to be touched, but some are not. Make a list of steps for the pending visit to the doctor.  Resist the urge to lie and say that there won’t be any shots, or that shots aren’t painful.  Instead say, “you have to get a shot today and will hurt a little when they give it to you”.  If you give them the information, they don’t have to rely on their imaginations to fill in the blanks.

4. Problem-solve together: “I know what I can do so I won’t be afraid, I’ll hold your hand!”  It’s a simple solution for sure, but Riley came up with it independently.  Because of that, she feels like she has more control.  When fears crop up, give your kids some control over the fear by coming up with a plan together.  We go through an alarming amount of Band Aids in this house because both of my kids insist on one for even the slightest bump.  It gives them a sense of control.  They fixed it.  For nighttime fears make a few suggestions:  A lovey to sleep with, a picture of mommy and daddy above the bed, an extra night-light.  Let them choose what works for them. Sometimes I feel like I’m dragging half of my house around town with me, but Liam needs certain cars and Riley always brings a stuffed animal.  These are what keep them feeling safe.  Just do it.  When confronted with dogs, Riley decided to stand behind me or switch to the other side of me.  Simple solutions are often useful, especially when they provide a sense of control.

5. Practice: Play out their fears with them.  Let them run the show, but sneak in solutions along the way.  Or, better yet, prompt your child to stop and think of a solution.  For various reasons, Riley has made several ER visits and has seen many doctors.  She worries a lot about when her next visit will be.  Consequently, we play a lot of doctor.  The best investment Santa made this year was the “Pet Vet” from www.onestepahead.com.  It has all of the necessary medical tools and a pet to cure as well.  I see her feeling more and more confident in her role as “Dr. Riley” each day.  Fear of the dark? Put a tent in a dark room with some flashlights and pillows and have a camp out.  Let your child be in charge of the activities for the camp out.  Fear of getting hurt? Break out those Band Aids and help the stuffed animals feel better after a fall.  Worried about monsters? Have a contest to see who can draw the funniest monster. Hold a silly monster party and see who can act the most like their favorite friendly monster from Sesame Street.  And don’t forget that shadow puppet show to make shadows fun instead of scary.

6. Baby steps: Fears don’t disappear overnight.  Kids need consistent cues to remember that they can have some control over their fears.  Riley and I do a relaxing story before she goes to bed every night.  The last thing I say to her every night is, “I love you Riley.  Try to think about our relaxing story and I will check on you soon”.  When monsters come up in conversation, we are sure to remind them that, “monsters are fun to pretend, like those friendly monsters on Sesame Street”.  If there is a chance to play with shadows, we take it.  When it comes to fear of dogs, small exposures are the best strategy.  Visit the pet store and look from afar. Read books about dogs.  Find a friend with a very old dog and plan a visit.  Learn about breeds.  Small dogs are actually more frightening to kids because they are more unpredictable than larger breeds.  Don’t ever touch a dog without asking owner permission first.  Teach them to get down low and hold out a hand for the dog to sniff.  Follow your child’s lead.  They’re not ready until they’re ready.

7. Avoid gimmicks: I addressed this in a previous post on sleep issues, but it’s worth repeating.  Things like monster spray, no monsters allowed signs, ghost spray, and ghost free zones might offer a quick fix at night, but they also confirm for your child that these things exist.  It’s best to be honest with your kids, and come up with realistic solutions together.  A monster check doesn’t have to be called a monster check.  When Riley starts to fear the shadows I tell her that I will check her room to make sure that it’s organized the way she likes it.  Putting the giant bear away from the night-light = one less shadow to worry about.

 

Anxiety and fears are all part of growing up.  When kids learn to cope with specific fears, they gain a sense of self-confidence and control.  Help them to conquer their fears by supporting them in their problem-solving process.  But try not to rush it; the world is a scary place.

What is your child’s biggest fear?

Spoiler Alert! (Tips for increasing pro-social behavior)

One result of the high level of consumerism in this country is that parents seem to be questioning whether or not they are “spoiling” their kids.  Will the extra toys result in behavior deemed “bratty” by others?  Will they fail to learn the value of the dollar if they always get whatever they want?  Do they always get whatever they want?  Between birthdays, holidays, and other “special” occasions it can be hard to set limits when it comes to toy collecting.  While toddlers know only to throw a tantrum when they can’t have something in front of them, preschoolers are quietly learning the art of manipulation and scheming new ways to talk you into that coveted stuffed animal.  Preschoolers are also at the age where they really want to have the same clothes, toys, etc. as their friends.  Developmentally, they are learning that shared interests can equal friendship (ex:  We both like to play dolls at school, so we are friends).  When they see an interesting toy at a playdate they are likely to want that toy too.  It can make shopping trips difficult, that’s for sure.  Liam is fascinated with trucks and cars.  I could remove all toys from this house except the vehicles, and he would be just fine.  This works to my advantage during Target trips, as I just surreptitiously avoid the car aisles and any tantrums that might erupt if I don’t buy the ten pack of cars for $34.99.  Riley sees the excitement in everything.  I wouldn’t say that she’s constantly asking for things, but when something really appeals to her she lobbies hard for it.  Does that make her spoiled?  No, it makes her crafty.  She waits until she’s certain that it’s important, and then she develops a bullet point list of why she needs the special item.  We recently spent ten days discussing the importance of a $6 “Ballet Kitty” doll.  Unfortunately for my kids, they were born to a child psychotherapist.  I have no problem setting limits and, in my house, they have to earn it.  Sure, there are occasions where they get treats.  And, like my mother, I always go overboard for Christmas and all other holidays.  To me, being “spoiled” isn’t just about the amount of items in the toy chest (I won’t lie, we have a lot of toys).  It’s what they do with what they have, and how they interact with other people that matters.  People regularly ask me how to make sure that they’re not raising a “brat”.  They see other kids who they think appear “spoiled” and worry that their kids are on the same road.  I often tell moms that a good first step is to stop trying to evaluate other kids.  Yes, there are “spoiled” and “bratty” kids out there.  But there are also kids who are having a bad day, week, month.  Give the other moms a break and try to stay focused on how you can raise a kind, generous, and grateful child instead.  You never know what someone else is up against.  Below are some tips to help you raise a polite child:

1. It’s not all about the stuff: Whether you believe in a well-stocked toy cabinet or a few essentials, the important thing to focus on is behavior.  It’s not toys that make the “bratty” child, it’s how they choose to act in response to those toys and how you allow them to act that earns them the title.  Sharing is one of the most important social skills to teach, and also one of the hardest to learn.  Children feel like they have very little control in their lives; they like to have their possessions.  Start early.  Bring “share” toys to the park.  Invite friends over to work on sharing toys.  Have your child choose a few toys that don’t have to be shared, but make sure that they share the others.  Use an egg timer for toddlers to work on trading toys after two minutes.  Involve preschoolers in planning a playdate (create and post a checklist) so that they know what comes next and when to switch activities or toys.

2. Daily Manners: Manners need to be worked on daily.  Kids get busy and forget at times.  It’s our job to remind them.  While Riley and Liam remember their “friendly words” (as we call them) about 90% of the time, there’s still that other 10% when I can be heard saying, “what’s that friendly word again?”  Around here we always say please and we thank each other for everything, no matter how small.  Polite behavior starts at home.  When they master it at home, it comes as second nature in the real world.  Being grateful for what they are given is very important.  Always cue them to say “thank you”. For more information about teaching manners to your kids, see my post, “Good Manners Are Headed Your Way” http://practicalkatie.com/2010/11/15/good-manners-are-headed-your-way-tips-for-teaching-manners/

3. Set Limits: We all know that they don’t need everything they want.  The question is how willing are you to set the limit in order to teach the lesson?  Liam wants EVERY single character from the movie “Cars”.  It matters very little to him that he’s never seen the movie; he just wants the cars.  He’s been asking for “DJ” and “Boost” since the beginning of January.  It’s not that the cars are too expensive.  It’s that we just had Christmas when the request came in, and I wanted him to wait.  So we talked about them obsessively, and he was happily surprised to find them at his seat for a Valentine’s Day gift.  If you are anything like me, you have no choice but to head to places like Target with two kids in tow.  Decide in advance on a treat (we always stick to the dollar rack) to avoid power struggles in the store.  And remember, fair is fair. If you bend the rules for one kid, you have to bend them for the other(s).

4. Make them earn it: Riley loves books and characters from her favorite books.  We love to go to the library to borrow books, and we also like to explore our local bookstores.  She knows that a trip to the bookstore does not equal a new book or toy.  She earns those.  Riley has had a reward chart since she was 2 ½.  It all started when Liam started grabbing things from her and she chose to yell instead of ask for help.  That’s no longer an issue, and now we work on sleep related goals.  There have been others in between.  See the “Strategies In Action” tab for an example of Riley’s chart.  She earns a sticker when she meets the goal, and for every five stickers she earns a book.  Last week she chose to earn “Ballet Kitty” instead.  When she knows that she can earn what she wants, it empowers her and helps her feel like she can achieve a goal versus just hearing “no”.

5. Keep a list: They can’t earn everything they see, and some coveted items are just too big.  Riley and I have a saying when it comes to wanting new toys, “put it on the list”.  We talk about how birthdays and holidays are times when they get larger gifts.  Who says the Santa list has to be written in November?  When things start adding up I remind her of the other items and we talk about what interests her the most and why.  She even helps Liam when he gets frustrated.  I recently overheard her saying, “it’s ok Liam, we can put it on your birthday list for your party” when he couldn’t get a racecar set at Target.  If they are always being shut down, they feel helpless.  If they know they can choose to keep it on a list for later, it gives them a sense of control.

6. Empathize: I know that when I’m tired of hearing, “I want, I want, I want” I’m ready to snap.  Toddlers and preschoolers want things.  The world is a huge place with a lot of stuff, and part of their developmental task is to ask for things and then learn to cope with the answers.  It’s how they learn.  I find it helps to empathize with them.  When Liam really starts to cry over a car I often say, “it sounds like you really wanted that car and you’re sad that Mommy won’t buy it.  I know how that feels.  Sometimes I really want something new but I know that I have to wait and I feel sad about it”.  A little understanding goes a long way in the mind of a child. Riley wants specifics, so we sometimes talk about the fact that I really like to buy new jeans but that they are expensive and I can’t just buy every pair that I like.  Give them concrete examples to help them understand.

7. Praise the good: It’s not that you have to praise every little thing along the way (although I probably tend to do so!), but praising them when they demonstrate pro-social behavior helps them to feel good about their choices and encourages them to repeat those behaviors.  A simple, “great job remembering your manners” when they don’t have to be cued makes them feel good.  Focus on the positive to encourage future positive behavior.  I recently challenged myself to avoid saying “no” for three days.  I only said it twice during those three days, and both times because one of the kids was in physical danger.  What I learned is that my 2 year old is the one saying no most of the time, and that the atmosphere does change when you focus on the positive instead of constantly redirecting the negative. They need to hear “no” when it counts, but otherwise positive reinforcement makes for a happier household.  While I’ve always been a proponent of positive reinforcement, we all hit a funk sometimes.  Take it from me and try the 3 day no “no” challenge. You might find that you really don’t need it much at all.

8. Books: Check out “The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies” and “The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners” by Stan and Jan Berenstain, “The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog” by Mo Willems, and “Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique” by Jane O’Connor for good reads on manners, delayed gratification, sharing, and other pro-social behavior.

If you focus on manners, delayed gratification, earning those coveted treats, and being grateful you will probably find that “bratty” behavior is not in your future.  Leave the “spoiling” to the Grandparents; it’s part of their job description…isn’t it?  Stay focused on the positive and watch the polite behavior unfold!

How do you set limits to avoid “spoiling” your kids?