April 26, 2012

March 6, 2012

Lessons from a Bunny

One of my parenting role models is a fictional animal.  She’s the lead character in the children's book The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, which was written by Du Bose Heyward in 1939.  I can see why the book was written in 1939.  No one today would write a book like this one.

The Country Bunny is a typical female bunny – a single mom with A LOT of children (21 to be exact).  She’s an ordinary bunny who dreams of being selected as one of the five special bunnies who gets to deliver Easter eggs.  All the other bunnies doubt her ability to do the job, because they think, “How on earth can this ordinary, single mom bunny with all these kids possibly take on this big responsibility?” (my own quote, not from book!)

Well, my country bunny mom hero sets out to prove the doubters wrong.   She tells her kids one day, “Now we are going to have some fun.”  And she teaches them to do ALL of her mom jobs:  the cleaning, making beds, cooking, washing dishes, laundry, sewing, and even entertaining (this was pre-technology, so she couldn’t rely on a TV – they had to sing, dance, and do art!).   Well, I’m sure you can guess how the story goes.  Even though she’s the underdog because of her size and mother status, Grandfather Bunny decides she is “not only wise, and kind, and swift, but also very clever,” because of the way she has trained her children.   She gets the job!

The story goes on to tell about her challenges and triumphs delivering eggs, and ends with a simple statement about her returning home to find “everything in order.”

I've always thought that she was a really smart bunny to train her kids to competently function without her.   Many of today’s moms seem to be doing the opposite – trying to keep kids really dependent on them for everything.  When I returned from a two-day trip recently, a friend asked how my family did without me.   My response of, “Oh, they were great!” was perhaps not the expected answer.  

Maybe something like, “Oh, everything fell apart.  The kids were late to school.  They ate fast food.  They got sick.  It was a disaster!”  would have been the answer some moms would give.   These moms believe their homes and families will fall apart and not function properly if they are gone, even for a short time.   And maybe they’re right. 

I feel good that my family (husband and kids) competently keep our house and family running smoothly without me.  In fact, I’m proud of making myself less needed.  I think that’s my job as a parent:  to teach my kids to be less dependent on me and more competent on their own as they get older. 

I’ve started thinking more about the Country Bunny and my role as a mom, and I want to share some things that might help other parents.  Sure, there was a time when my kids needed me for everything.  But I don’t think it’s healthy for them to be that dependent on me forever.  I view my job as one of constantly increasing both their responsibilities and their independence – at approximately the same rate.  I will know I’ve done a good job if my kids are competent, independent adults who don’t need me to survive.  Looking at the end goal changes how I function on the way there.  To make myself eventually superfluous, I need to be more like the Country Bunny!

Here’s a list of some my kids’ (ages 8-18) current responsibilities:
• Laundry – They wash, fold, and put away their own clothes.
• Driving – They get lots of independence, plus the added responsibility of driving siblings, doing errands, etc.
• Table setting, dishes, counter cleaning.
• Making lunches for school.
• Dog walking and feeding.

Three months ago, I added another responsibility (a la Country Bunny), and it’s been a life-changer.  In analyzing why I didn’t have enough time in the day to get everything done, I tracked how I spent my time.   I realized that I spent a few hours each day shopping for and/or preparing dinner.   I also realized that I have two kids who will soon be adults.  Voila!  A brainstorm!   My two oldest kids (ages 16 & 18) each now have one dinner a week that they are in charge of preparing for the family.   They have their assigned night (the same night each week), and it’s their job to get a well-balanced dinner on the table for the family.   

I’m sure many parents will balk at this idea, because their kids are “too busy” to cook dinner.  My kids are busy, too.  I’m busy, too.  Isn’t that how life is?  You’re busy, and you still need to get a job done.  Isn’t that something competent adults figure out how to do?  Many meals are quick and easy to prepare, so even a teenager with limited time can make a dinner for the family. 
Picking a recipe.

Here are just a few of the many benefits of our new dinner program:

•  I have a few extra hours, two days a week, to get other things done.
•  They feel pride at being helpful, contributing members of our family.
•  They are learning how to navigate the market without me and find what they need.
•  I’ve had fun teaching them how to cook their favorite family recipes, and they are building their repertoire of recipes they are comfortable preparing.
•  They can handle raw meat without saying “EEEWWW.”
•  We talk as a family about what we’re going to be having for dinner so that we don’t, for example, end up with chicken two nights in a row.  It’s been a good bonding experience doing menu planning!
•  The younger kids are now wanting to participate and learn to cook more things.
•  My oldest daughter commented that she’s “learned more this year outside of school than in school.”  She likes having a tangible, useful skill after being so focused on book learning for so long.

Since it took me until this year to start the dinner-cooking responsibility, I want to share with you that I wish I had started sooner.   From now on, I will evaluate my mom job duties annually and figure out who is ready to take on a new responsibility or two.   I will keep giving my kids more and more responsibilities as they get older, so that, just like the Country Bunny, “everything is in order," even when I'm not around.

Resources:  The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.  :)

Still slowly making my move to http://sunshineparenting.wordpress.com/.

January 18, 2012

Nurturing Babies & Big Kids, Too

“With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted---that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated person who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.”
                                 Psychology Today, “Letting Baby ‘Cry it Out’”

When a friend recently shared a link to this article about the negative, long-term impact of not answering a baby’s cries, several people commented.  One mom wrote a heart-breaking comment, “Wish I had read this 12 years ago. My first-born was a crier and the pediatrician even told me to let her cry it out. Now at 13 we are dealing with what is above normal distrust and inability to relate to others and a whole realm of emotional issues.”  The article, and the comments, got me thinking about answering our children’s cries, and providing them with nurturing, loving attention…at all ages.

Giving some love to baby number one.

When I had my first-born eighteen years ago, there was a well-known baby nurse who catered to new parents.  She would come live with the family for two weeks, as soon as they got home from the hospital, and “get the baby on a schedule” immediately.  She was booked well in advance, and new moms swore by her method of letting their newborn baby cry between the exactly-every-four-hour feedings.   Her baby protégés got on schedule quickly.

At the time, I was horrified at the thought of (1) Having someone else take care of my baby and (2) Letting my baby cry when she was hungry or needed comfort.   So, I did what most new moms do and muddled tiredly through the early weeks, getting to know my baby and what she needed and taking turns with her dad holding, rocking, and feeding.  Since she was born four weeks early and was only five pounds at birth, we were told to feed her frequently.   We even had to WAKE HER UP to feed her if she didn’t wake up on her own.  Thankfully, our other children were full-term, and we could follow our “never wake a sleeping baby” rule.  But I digress.  It felt right to me to respond when she cried, and after a few months, without even realizing how it happened, we were on a fairly predictable feeding schedule, and she was sleeping decently well.  Did she cry?  Yes.  There were a few times when she was about three months old (I think) when she cried A LOT.   We tried to comfort her but weren’t very successful.  We always blamed it on teething or colic, but it was probably our own ineptitude.  At least we held her, fed her, and tried to soothe her when she was crying.  We definitely answered our baby’s cries as best we could.

When I was a new mom, my mother shared with me that my grandmother (her mom), who was not a touchy, feely person, criticized my mom for giving us too many kisses and hugs when we were little.  She thought we’d turn out badly from all that love and attention.  Having been born in the early 1900s, I’m sure my grandmother had believed when mothers were told to “not let babies inconvenience them” and to instead let them cry.     
My mom, who taught me how to give lots of kisses and hugs.
I firmly believe that a baby’s cries need to be answered, and that those early months are a vital time for babies to form secure attachment to their parents.   
A friend, commenting on the article about not answering a baby’s cries, said, “This has been taken to extreme in Europe and other countries. They have subscribed to not allowing their children to cry at all, which teaches them that crying will always get them what they want. I speak from experience after going on a cruise ship with distant family... the mom is a psychology major. Their toddler & baby were unmanageable terrors (Trust me, I don't usually speak that way about children).”  
I need to clarify that I am talking about answering babies’ cries.  I am not talking about answering the fake, demanding, irritating crying of a toddler or young child who is not hurt.  Once a child can communicate with words, I believe in giving kids attention for positive behaviors and not perpetuating negative behaviors like tantrums or fake crying.  

I believe in a lot of love, affection, and attention, but the practice of co-sleeping was not a good fit for us, so although I like the name “Attachment Parenting,” and I feel very attached to my children, I didn’t follow those practices.   I did breastfeed and answer my young babies’ cries.  When our daughter was still waking up during the night at one year old, we briefly used the “Ferber Method” and, instead of picking her up out of her crib when she cried, we rubbed her back, reassured her, and came back at designated intervals until she fell back asleep.   So, we let her cry.  We called it “Ferberizing,” and it was hard.  

As we had more children, we perfected our own method of putting babies to sleep without tears, which included a predictable routine – bath, reading, saying “good night” to everything in the house as we walked to their room, prayers, and lots of kisses.  Most importantly, we learned to put our kids in their crib when they were sleepy, but still awake, so that they learned to fall asleep on their own and thus learned good sleep habits that didn’t depend on us helping them fall asleep.  That was a lot more peaceful than Ferber’s method.  And we didn’t have to drive them around in the car for their naps, like some of our friends did.

In an article by Melanie Beingesser called “Making an Impact on Baby’s Intelligence,” which also makes the case against letting babies cry it out, she says, “In the western world, we have been led to believe that babies will manipulate their parents for attention and that letting children cry themselves to sleep builds good character. However studies have shown that babies who are attended to when they cry will cry fewer hours per day than babies who are left to cry themselves to sleep. Crying is a baby’s way to communicate a need, whether it is for safety, food or comfort. Through a parent’s actions, babies learn to trust the parent’s authority. When parents respond to their babies’ cries, babies are reassured that their parents can be depended upon. Babies learn that their needs are valid and they begin to develop a positive image of themselves.”

The research is strongly in favor of answering babies’ cries.  In the extreme circumstances at Romanian orphanages in the 1980s, where babies were fed but rarely given any nurturing or touch, “the children were in the third to tenth percentile for physical growth, and grossly delayed in motor and mental development.”  The children’s development was severely damaged in these tragic circumstances, and people now understand that nurturing is as vital to a baby’s survival as nutrition.  Those were extreme circumstances, but it makes sense that a baby whose cries are not answered consistently will have a changed stress response (as per the article) and long term relational damage.

Big Kids Need Love, Too                      

“The most important assignment a mom has is to nurture her children.”
                                                                              Tim Sanford, M.A. (Losing Control & Liking It)

I contend that nurturing and attending to their emotional needs is just as vital for older kids as it is for babies.  My kids are no longer infants, but I still maintain daily, nurturing touch.   My children rarely cry these days, but I can tell when they are sad or upset about something.  They’re quiet.  They spend a lot of time alone in their room.  They don’t smile or talk as much.   Big kids aren’t as loud and demanding as babies, so they aren’t as obvious in their need.  Just like depressed adults, sad kids withdraw from other people.  But they need attention and nurturing, even if they act like they don’t. 

I remember my eleven-year-old daughter coming home from a sleep-over and saying that her friend told her, “My mom doesn’t tuck me in anymore.”   My daughter felt sad for her friend, who still would have liked to be tucked in, but didn’t expect it anymore.   No matter how old my children are, they still get a hug goodnight (if they’re staying up later than I am) or a proper tuck-in.  In the case of the younger two (ages 8 & 10), a nightly story, back rub, and kisses are also part of the package.  We also snuggle up next to each other on the couch while watching T.V. or reading.  If I’m sitting in my morning coffee chair, my kids come over for a morning sit-down hug and snuggle.

My kids know that a morning hug from mom is just part of their day, and they can’t get past me without it.   I will keep up this routine even when my boys are surly, smelly teenagers.  Even when they act like they don’t like it.  Because, I know, deep down, they need it.   In my un-researched, unproven hypothesis, teenagers who get plenty of loving touch at home are less likely to seek out fulfillment of this basic need elsewhere.  I’ve just always thought that.

Ideas for Catching up on Nurture

Is it possible to “catch up” on nurture if your child didn’t get it as an infant because you let them “cry it out”?  I’m banking on the hope that you can catch up, because my ten-year-old son (adopted last year) did not benefit from the same nurturing and attachment that my other children received.  I’ve been working hard to “catch up” with extra nurturing now.   I hope it’s enough to help him gain relational skills he may be lacking due to his early deprivation.

If you’re out of the habit of connecting via nurturing touch, your kids may balk at having to start hugging or kissing you and think it’s “babyish.”  So, I suggest you start with a back rub – everyone loves those!   Even if you don’t call it “tucking in,” stop by for a nighttime chat and offer to give a backrub to your teenager.  I’m betting they’ll like it and start asking for more!  

And, I really think hugs are important.   A lot of research has been done about how hugs have a positive impact on people of all ages:  “Hugs have also been shown to improve overall mood, increase nerve activity, and a host of other beneficial effects. Positive physical touch has an immediate anti-stress effect, slowing breathing and heart rate.” (from Hugs & Heart Health)

So, a side benefit of hugging your kids more will be that it makes you happier, too!

These are some of the resources I used writing this article. Please let me know if you read about this topic in other places -- I'd love more info!:

Psychology Today, Dangers of “Crying it Out”

Losing Control & Liking It:  How to set your teen (and yourself) free, Tim Sanford, M.A.

The Connected Child, Karyn B. Purvis, Ph.D. (Note:  Although this book is geared towards adoptive parents, I found many applications to all kids.)

Hugs & Cuddles Have Long-Term Effects

Hugs & Heart Health

Making an Impact on Baby's Intelligence

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