Archive for Toddlers

Let Me Do It

child hand and cookies

 

It’s a desire that is expressed in many ways.  “I want to help.”  “I do it myself.”  “Let me do it.”  When these words come from my three-year-old, I have to admit that I usually feel a sense of dread.  Because these words, if I indulge them, are usually followed by splattered brownie batter, laundry that requires refolding, or a simple task that takes ten times longer to complete than I had anticipated.

But I read something recently that changed my entire perception of these words:

“You may hear Jesus a hundred times a day, saying to you, ‘Let me do it.’  In your difficulties, in your problems, in all those things in your daily life which are sometimes so difficult, so distressing, when you ask yourself, ‘What shall I do? How shall I do it?’  listen to Him saying to you, ‘Let me do it.’  And then answer Him, ‘O Jesus, I thank you for all things.’  And it will be the most beautiful dialogue of love between a soul and the all-powerful and all-loving God.”  –Fr. Jean C.J. D’Elbee, I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux 

St. Therese’s theology is so applicable to us mothers!  It’s easy to feel that our lives don’t live up to the worldview of “success.”  Maybe they don’t.  But when we forget what type of success we’re supposed to be striving for, all we have to do is see Jesus in our children, hear Him in their voices, and surrender ourselves to Him through their hearts.

Our days can be overwhelming.  The messes, the piles, the crying, the tantrums, the exclamations of “Look at me!” and the drawn out “Mooooooommy!” that seems to come every 30 seconds.  There are many days when we want to just get everything done, get the kids to bed, and sit down!

But Jesus isn’t calling us to only get the laundry done, do the dishes, and resolve arguments and tantrums.  He’s calling us to grow in patience, kindness, and gentleness.  He’s calling us to greater love and unity with our family and with Him.  He’s calling us to heaven.

So when I start to have thoughts of “What shall I do?  How shall I do it?” as I list off my seemingly insurmountable tasks for the day, I try to hear Jesus when my three-year-old says “Let me do it.”

When I surrender my laundry, my cooking, and my cleaning, it is the first step in surrendering my heart.  When I favor relationships over chores, Jesus steps in and takes over.  He multiplies my time.  He makes little miracles happen within the humble walls of my home.  Like my three-year-old spinning an elaborate story about a dream she had.  Or my eleven-year-old sharing his hopes and dreams for the future.  Or my seven-year-old finally opening up about a worry that has been weighing on her mind.  I build my relationships, and somehow the truly necessary work still gets done.  I let Jesus in, and He does it.

It is when we hear Jesus in the simple conversations of our day that the dialogue between us and our children becomes that beautiful dialogue between us and our all-merciful, all-loving, all-powerful God.  And there is no sweeter success than that.

Photo credit: mccartyv via Pixabay, CCO Public Domain

Transitioning Your Co-Sleeping Child to Her Own Bed (It IS Possible!)

transition bed

It happened so suddenly. We’d been talking about it for awhile, but yesterday, my husband took action. He emptied our older daughter’s bedroom. We organized, we tossed, we scrubbed, and we mopped. And, then, there it was. A sparkling clean bedroom with two twin beds with coordinating pink and purple comforters. Two beds just close enough for late-night sisterly confidences, yet far enough apart to air out the inevitable future disagreements. At two-and-a-half years old, our youngest daughter, our baby, was ready to move in to her sister’s room and move out of ours.

We’ve co-slept with all of our children. It took some getting used to at first, but after 11-plus years, I’ve grown to love it. Of course, there are rough nights. There are nights when I feel like a punching bag and nights when a king-size bed just isn’t big enough. But those nights are no match for the smell of a freshly shampooed head lying next to mine on the pillow, or the feel of a snuggly little body warming mine while the dead of winter yields its worst outside, or the opportunity to gaze at my precious child’s face in the glow of the night light while time disappears into irrelevance. I’ve loved these co-sleeping years, and my heart feels sad as we transition my baby into her own bed with no promise of another little one coming anytime soon.

But, it’s time. We’ve done this before, and here are some approaches that have helped us make this time of change go as smoothly as possible.

1. Plant the idea.

We started talking to my daughter about sharing a room with her sister and having her own bed several weeks before actually doing anything. When the time came, she was excited and looking forward to it.

2.  Let them choose something special for their bed.

It might be new sheets, a comforter, or just a fun pillow or stuffed animal. Letting our children make their bed their own helped them to want to sleep there.

3.  Give them some company.

My five children have two bedrooms. And they still often all end up piled into the same room by morning. Sleeping bags, pillows on the floor, three bodies in one twin bed. As one of my friends puts it, “As long as everyone sleeps, it doesn’t matter where.” We’ve found that siblings who share rooms are much happier together, day and night.

4.  Take it slow.

 Some of our children started sleeping in their own bed for naps only at first. With all of them, I kept the same bedtime routine of nursing them to sleep, then I just put them down in their bed instead of ours. The first time they fussed, I moved them into our bed for the rest of the night. Go with the flow. Don’t force. Over time, they will gradually sleep for longer periods of time in their own bed.

5.  Remember, it’s a “conversation.”

I love this description that Dr. Greg Popcak gives to dealing with children’s sleep issues. It truly is a conversation, unique to every child. One child might show interest in their own bed at 12 months, while another might not be ready until age three. Follow your child’s cues. The process will ebb and flow. Even my elementary school-aged children experience times when they need more parental comfort at night. But I’m finding that, by middle school-age, it takes a pretty ferocious thunderstorm for them to seek us out in the dark — and my 11-year-old now says nearly every night, “I’m so tired. I’m going right to sleep.” And he crawls into his own bed and goes to sleep all by himself. No problem.

And I can’t help but sigh wistfully and remember a time when a certain downy, sweet-smelling head wouldn’t sleep anywhere but next to mine.

10 Quick Tips for Parenting a Maniacal Toddler

toddler

Ok, that title was meant as a joke. But only a little bit.

If you have a toddler who is going through a phase of testing behavior and frequent tantrums, it’s not so funny. It can feel desperate, impossible, and disastrous.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned from making it through to the “other side” of this phase of parenting a strong-willed, spirited toddler.

1. Stay Calm

Stay calm? Ha! Easier said than done, right? I know. I mean, I really know. It’s so hard. Toddlers seem hardwired to observe what sets us off and then push that button over and over, right? That’s why they call it testing. They are literally testing to see if their behavior will elicit the same response from you each time.

If you can’t respond in a calm, gentle manner, it’s better to take a time out for yourself. Yes, even if that means that you both have to cry in separate rooms. I learned this the hard way. Better I deal with my anger and frustration and let my child spend a few minutes alone than allow pent up frustration to result in a less than desirable outburst on my part.

2.  Get Down to Their Level

It’s amazing how crouching down to a child’s eye level can change the dynamic of a tough conversation or meltdown. Look them in the eye and address the misbehavior, and give them an alternative as a distraction. For example: “I won’t let you throw that toy across the room. Would you like to go outside and throw a ball to get some energy out?!”

3.  Never Ask Why

Too often, when I toddler is getting geared up for a melt-down, they have no idea why.

“Why would you hit your sister like that?!” may seem like a reasonable question for an adult, but for a toddler, it’s like asking why the sky is blue. A better response might be, “I won’t let you hit your sister. Did you want to get my attention?” or “I won’t let you hit your sister. Are you feeling angry? Can you tell me what is making you angry?” And then listen.

4.  Identify the Root Cause

At some point last year, I was completely at my wit’s end with my toddler. We were having daily battles that ended with both of us in tears. I wanted so badly to understand why he was behaving this way, but I was so much “in the thick of it” that I couldn’t stop to analyze the situation with any clarity.

Looking back on it, I can see that it was an incredibly stressful time in our household; of course our bright, intuitive 3 year old was picking up on the tension. He was looking for consistent, reassuring reactions from me and wasn’t getting them, since I was so preoccupied with the emotional energy I was pouring into other things. Once these things resolved themselves and our entire household was more peaceful, the testing behavior diminished drastically.

The lesson here is not to underestimate how much outside stresses affect small children. They are incredibly intuitive, and when they sense stress, they need to be reassured by their parents that all is right with their world.

5.  In Calm Moments, Help Them Name Their Feelings

Toddlers are often frustrated because they have such big feelings and their limited vocabularies don’t have enough words to express them! Frustrated, Disappointed, Sad, Tired, Angry, Too-Silly are a good start. Being able to put a word to a feeling can take away a lot of it’s power for a small child and help him regain control.

6.  Practice Methods for Calming Down

Again, when they are happy and calm, talk about some ways to start feeling better if they’re upset. Show them how to take nice deep belly breaths, sing a sweet little song, have a sip of water, or make a silly face. (You’ll have to see what works for them- all kids are different!) Once they get the hang of it, you might be amazed at how they can do some of these things without any prompting from you.

7.  Make Sure They’re Well-Rested

Did anything good ever come of an exhausted toddler? Enough said. Same goes for hunger.

8.  Model Saying Sorry

I’m not proud of it, but while we were going through a particularly challenging time with our toddler, I often lost it. I yelled. I was desperate and angry and acted from those emotions. But each time — without fail — once I had calmed down, I sat down and said, “I’m sorry I yelled, buddy. I’m going to try not to do it again, ok?” Almost always he would respond, “I’m sorry, too, Mama.”

In this way, I was able to model both repentance and forgiveness. Being a parent doesn’t mean never acknowledging your mistakes to your kids. It’s ok to tell them you behaved in a way you know you shouldn’t have. It lets your kids know that it’s ok when they lose their cool sometimes, too, and it’s never too late to apologize and move on.

9.  Give Yourself Some Grace

I can’t stress this enough. While it’s important to say sorry to your child when you lose your cool, it’s also important to forgive yourself. Feeling guilty about mistakes you make as a parent will only make it harder to go through a tough time with your child. If you say or do something you regret, apologize, try not to do it again, and move on. Treat yourself with the same gentleness that you want to give to your child.

10.  Pray

Do you feel like it would take a miracle to get your child to stop having melt-downs and pushing your buttons?! Then pray for one! You don’t have to stop what you’re doing to pray a full rosary, but when you sense things “heating up,” pause for a moment, and simply say, “Holy Spirit, please guide my words and actions.” Or, “Mother Mary, help me to be patient and loving, giving my child what he/she needs in this moment.” This immediately puts me in a calmer, holier mindset, and we can move forward with the graces that even a simple, short prayer affords us.

Image Credit: David Castillo Dominici (freedigitalphotos.com)

Giving Your Baby a Language Boost

reading to babyGwen Dewar over at the Urban Child Institute has a terrific article on “6 Tips for Boosting Your Baby’s Language Skills.”  Read her whole article here.

Here’s a summary of  her tips with my own thoughts:

1.  Take a cue from your baby’s curiosity.

When babies reach for or gaze at objects they are interested in, we can view these as our cues to engage them in conversation.  We can name the objects or just talk to them about what they’re looking at.  When we’re playing with or reading to our child, we can pause and allow them to lead us in conversation in this way.  When their curiosity drives our time with them, they not only develop increased language skills, but she becomes more comfortable exploring the unfamiliar.

2.  Tune into your baby. 

Think about how you interact with adults, the way you affirm their presence in often subtle ways.  We respond to their questions, acknowledge their entry into the room, etc.  Dewar says, “Babies – even babies who can’t speak yet – look for the same message from us. They want to know that we will respond contingently to their signals, and when they perceive us doing it, their brains seem to flip a switch. Studies indicate that babies learn language faster when we talk with them, not at them.”  I think this is related to her first tip.  Being attuned to our child includes noticing the things she cares about, even when she’s a little baby.  This early attunement creates a strong foundation for great communication throughout the toddler and preschool years when our kids are gaining skills in communicating their needs, feelings, and interests.

3.  Be flexible and spontaneous.

Dewar says, “It’s easy to get bogged down with routines, but when it comes to family communication, we need to be ready to improvise. For instance, if your toddler interrupts your bedtime story because he wants to talk about the chair that Goldilocks smashed, go with it. Insisting that you stick to the narrative isn’t going to help your child build better verbal skills. On the contrary, it’s likely that kids learn more when the conversation veers off-text. Besides, forced bedtime reading is neither fun nor soothing. Your child might end up having more trouble falling asleep!”

This is a great tip! We grown-ups get fixated on doing things the right way, but following our child’s lead on occasion not only provides opportunities for communication, but allows our child to feel respected and affirmed.

4.  Supplement verbal messages with expressive emotions, gestures, and movements.

There’s a reason adults tend to act a little goofier when they are interacting with a baby!  Babies actually learn better when we couple our words with exaggerated gestures and a heightened tone of voice.  When we show our baby a stuffed monkey, we can name the object “monkey”, but we can also make funny monkey sounds and animate the stuffed object for our baby.  Dewar explains,  “When babies are learning to talk, they don’t just listen to our words. They also notice our tone of voice, and pay particular attention when we speak with exaggerated emotion: It helps them figure out our meaning.”

5.  Don’t worry about being perfect.

You don’t have to be a seasoned public speaker or possess perfect grammar to pass on strong language skills to your baby.  Dewar suggests that when parents stumble to find the right word, it actually engages the child even more — they pay even more attention to what we are saying.

6.  Shake things up.

Dewar encourages us to speak to our babies and young children like we would with anybody else.  She cautions that if we dumb down our conversations with our babies too much, they will have access to a more limited vocabulary.  It’s okay to simplify things when you are actually naming objects for your baby, but otherwise feel free to speak to them with words far more sophisticated than you imagine they can comprehend.  One great tip Dewar offers is to repeat back what our child says, but expand upon it with more words.  So if your child says, “FIRE TRUCK!,” you can talk about how loud it is or what it looks like.

I can’t help but notice that all these tips are easier to implement when we are using the parenting tools associated with attachment parenting — particularly babywearing, breastfeeding, and sleeping near your baby.  These tools help us keep our baby calm and close by, and they help us tune into our babies more easily.   Attached, responsive parents also enhance their child’s language development by giving her confidence that she will actually be heard.  I think a baby’s cries are really her first words.  When she is ignored or made to cry increasingly fretfully in order to get a response, then she’s not spending that time listening to and learning about other sounds in her world.

 

Nursing a Two-Year-Old: It’s Normal for Us

I could see the idea forming in her mind by the way she looked at me. She fidgeted. She fussed. She wriggled her entire 31 pounds of two-year-old chub around in my lap until she had assumed the familiar position, head in the crook of my arm and eyes looking up at me longingly. Not ready to give in quite yet, I attempted to distract her. Cheese crackers–refused with disdain. Water bottle–given “the hand”. Fuzzy bunny book–an audible “Uh-uh!” and a decisive head shake. I had to act fast, before the situation (and her vocalizing) escalated. I had choices, and it was time to choose. So right there in the pew, somewhere between the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel, I lifted my shirt.

I’ve implemented the concept of child-led weaning with every one of my five children. This means that I follow their lead in the weaning process. I allow them to help me determine when we are both ready to stop nursing. I’ve only had one particularly independent child self-wean before the age of two (he’s still a big-time Daddy’s boy), and my longest nurser required some gentle convincing from his weary mommy at the age of four.

madonna nursingI’ve nursed through four healthy pregnancies. My children’s identities have been nurtured by the intimacy and security of an extended nursing relationship. And I’ve become quite adept at nursing discreetly in public. So I never minded when people caught me feeding my baby in a grocery store or restaurant. Nursing an infant in public never seems too surprising to the average observer. I’ve often received looks of affirmation and smiles of awe as I sat feeding my adorably dependent infant.

But those looks change when I suddenly find myself nursing a two-year-old. Fortunately, I haven’t been faced with very much blatant animosity toward my parenting choices, but I do see looks of surprise, doubt, and questioning. Nursing no longer feels like the “normal” thing to be doing.

But it’s normal for me and my child. This is where she finds comfort, stress relief, and nourishment. This is what makes her body strong and her mind sharp. This is a huge yes that I can still give her in a world filled with so many no’s.

The frequency of nursing does lessen as a child grows in size and independence. Most of the time, I am able to nurse my older baby in the privacy of our own home. But there are still times when that same child poses the question and insists on an answer, regardless of where we are.

And there’s really only one answer I can give when she takes my hand and pulls me toward a chair saying “Mama, Mama.” There’s only one answer I can give when a scraped knee or complete exhaustion leaves her in a puddle of inconsolable tears. And there’s only one answer I can give when my child needs me under the shadow of the crucifix during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That answer is myself, freely and completely, until we are both ready to move forward into a new phase of independence.

Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood

then comes babyI have a new favorite book to recommend to the parents of infants and toddlers:  Dr. Greg & Lisa Popcak’s Then Comes Baby:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood.

This is the most balanced book I have read about parenting little children:  Dr. Greg and Lisa recognize the importance of laying a strong foundation for the parent-child relationship in these early years when a child’s sense of safety and well-being is forming.  Without this strong foundation, children struggle emotionally as they face new developmental challenges.  Yet, the Popcaks also consider the needs of the parents in presenting their advice, in particular the importance of nurturing our marriage, so that theirs is truly a family-centered vision of parenting.

What I also love: The Popcaks coach both parents, not just mom.  Dad is seen as absolutely essential to the flourishing of the whole family.

The book is divided into sections:  Birth to Six Months, Six to Twelve Months, Twelve to Twenty-Four Months, and Twenty-Four to Thirty-Six Months.  We learn to understand the developmental goals alongside the potential challenges at each stage, and how to address these challenges while protecting the parent-child bond.  The blossoming spirituality of young children is addressed, in addition to discipline issues and work-family balance questions.

Check it out and buy a copy for new parents!

The Unexpected Blessings of Potty Training

A month or so ago, with the birth of my second child fast-approaching, and the idea of changing double the amount of diapers looming in my mind, I decided that it was time. My son, recently turned two, was going to learn to use the potty. No more diapers.

boy potty trainingOf course, I read up on all the methods available, got tons of advice from friends who were successful, then just went for it. The method I had chosen suggested that the first few days of training (or “learning” or whatever you’d like to call it), you really need to watch your kid like a hawk, to pick up on their cues and then follow their cues to get them to the bathroom. So, you clear your schedule for a few days, gather some fun activities to do together, and prepare to basically just give your child some undivided attention for a day or two. Sounds simple enough, right? After all, I have ONE child, I’m able to be home with him during the day, and since he has a tendency to be, well, rascally, I’m used to keeping a keen eye on him most of the time. Or so I thought.

This was the eye-opener for me. This is where I realized how distracted I typically am. As parents, we get so used to multi-tasking that we rarely actually give anything, even our child, our complete attention. I’m not saying this is wrong, or bad, or even less than ideal. It’s often how things have to be so that a household can keep running smoothly (or rather, just run). And frankly, by the end of that first day of watching my son’s every move, playing, snuggling, and loving him up without trying to do anything else, I was fried. Completely and utterly exhausted.

We had made lots of potty-training progress and had had a nice day together, but I was shocked at how difficult it had been for me to put everything else on hold. I found myself having to fight the urge to go wash up a few dishes from breakfast, check my e-mail for just a minute, or make a quick phone call to the doctor’s office. While I was sitting reading my son an endless pile of books, I was running through my to-do list in my head. When we were sitting on the floor playing with blocks, I was sorely tempted to check my Facebook account.

By the end of the day, exhausted and spent, I really started contemplating how all of my usual multi-tasking was affecting me and my family. I’ve never thought of myself as an over-achiever (I’m not), but after a day of solely caring for my child, I realized how much other stuff I usually attempted to cram into my day. Sure, the dishes need to get done eventually, and the living room should be vacuumed and everyone needs to be fed. These are realities. But what I’m talking about is being fully present in each moment during my day. So often, I find myself scattered… doing several things at once and not doing anything to the best of my ability or with as much joy as I should.

Frankly, most of the time, I don’t care if I’m vacuuming my living room to the best of my ability. But I sure do care if I’m giving my family the best and most joyful of my attention. The dishes don’t crave my undivided consideration- my son does. The laundry doesn’t need me to sit down and quietly listen- my husband does. I realized I’ve even got into the habit of praying while I do other things. Which is wonderful in the sense that we can pray at any time, but not so wonderful if that’s the only time I find to pray. My relationship with God needs moments of peace and devoted attention, too. And God has put me in this life to serve and love the people around me.

Paying attention to that responsibility is vital to my feeling of fulfillment in my vocation. Because when I’m doing too much multi-tasking, I feel distracted, lost, and unsatisfied. I can never seem to finish my to-do list, and everything seems like a burden on my limited time. My son seems more demanding and whinier to me. My husband seems less helpful. God seems less responsive to my prayers.

Of course, none of this is the case. My son seems whinier because I’m not giving him the attention that he needs. It’s hard for a two year old to communicate all of his big thoughts and feelings as it is, and when I’m trying to do something else, he can tell that I’m not really trying to understand. The same holds true for my husband. He’s not actually unhelpful, but when I’m constantly trying to do too many things at once, he can’t keep up. He shouldn’t be expected to keep up with the thoughts and plans whizzing through my head at any given moment.

And it’s the same with God. When I am quickly sending up prayers as I run into the grocery store, God is listening… I’m just too distracted to get the reply. I’ve already moved on and failed to listen. God answers prayer and speaks to us constantly, but we have to be paying attention. Our answers may come when we are playing with our children or talking with friends- but I bet you’ll rarely hear those answers if you are not fully present in those moments.

So taking the time to be fully present with my son isn’t only important because my child needs me to be present, but also because God needs me to be fully in that moment as well. When we accept the vocation of parenthood, we have to realize that God is going to speak to us through our duties within the vocation. We need to slow down. Complete our tasks in peace. Give our attention to the people and tasks that really need it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I think we should all just blow off our other responsibilities and sit around on the ground playing endless rounds of knock-down-all-the-blocks with our kids all day. First of all, I’d lose my mind. By the end of the first few days of potty-training and watching my child intently, I was pretty sure I was going to lose it. It’s a lot. Variety is the spice of life. I like doing other tasks throughout my day, and my child needs the independent time to explore on his own, as well. However, my biggest epiphany was that the time I spent with my son needed to be free of all the distractions. When I sit down to read him a book, I don’t want to get up to check something in the oven or look at my phone when I hear that I have a text. It can wait. He deserves my full attention for those few minutes.

And what’s really amazing is how much I learned about my own child, who I spend all day, every day with, just from watching him without distractions for a few days. I noticed the funny little things he does, the way he concentrates on something until he has it figured out, how determined he is to get it right. I noticed the funny face he makes when he sees a bird outside or the eye roll he does when I ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do. I was truly amazed at how much I was missing out on (me, a stay-at-home mom!), by constantly doing two or three things at once.

Potty-training, while not exactly a picnic, gave me the opportunity to slow down and remember why I’m doing this whole parenting thing in the first place. It served as a reminder to pay attention and witness the miracle that is my child learning and growing, so proud of his accomplishments, daily becoming the person God intends for him to be. What a gift! A greater gift, even, than not having to change two sets of diapers.

If I Could Offer Only One Piece of Advice to Young Mothers

I might have looked like a self-sacrificing mother but I was merely acting out of a sense of self-preservation when I put my kids’ needs first.”  Melanie Jean Juneau

What sort of behavior would you expect if a child becomes overloaded with sensory stimulation, hunger, and exhaustion?

This is rather an absurd question because the answer is obvious. Even adults get cranky, never mind little kids who can become just as unreasonable as an old curmudgeon, often experiencing complete meltdowns. In other words little kids have a what we call a temper tantrum where onlookers assume they are simply spoiled rotten. Sometimes I think we expect even better behavior from children than adults.

If I had to divulge one secret to making  childcare easier, that I was fortunate enough to discover early in my mothering career, it would be, “Never let them get tired and never let them get hungry.”

180082082There is a universal image stuck in our brains of a screaming toddler throwing a tantrum on the floor of a grocery store. Even the best parent becomes a helpless victim in these situations because nobody is as miserable and disagreeable as a hungry and irritable baby, toddler, or small child. This so-called temper tantrum is really a baby breakdown; they are over-stimulated, under nourished and physically exhausted without any tools to vent their frustration and anger.

Think about being in a position of total submission to another person’s control, unable to meet your own needs, and the person in charge is not doing his job. When I ignored the warning signs that my kids were reaching their limits of endurance, I created either a clinging, whiny wimp or a screaming monster. Then nothing I did or said seemed to help the situation.

I might have looked like a self-sacrificing mother but I was merely acting out of a sense of self-preservation when I put my kids’ needs first. No time for resentment because happy and satisfied kids were worth every “sacrifice” I made. The peace was worth any compromise. One niece once told me that many people had given her advice when she became a new mother but the only thing she always remembered and practiced was,

“Never let them get tired and never let them get hungry.”

Creating a Yes Environment

It’s almost toddler time at our house again.  Faith is nine months old and already exhibiting traits of a true Tierney toddler.  I expect that very soon, no cabinet door will be left unopened, no “childproof” bottle will truly be safe, and no countertops will be left unscaled.

Charisse's busy baby

Charisse’s busy baby

My children have always been of the inquisitive, into everything all of the time to the extreme variety, and impending toddlerhood always brings a sense of urgency–a sense of needing to childproof everything swiftly and securely.

My goal is to create a “yes environment” for my toddler–a home in which she can freely explore without fear of injury or a constantly hovering mother.  A home where she can pick up anything within her reach to look at, feel, and even taste.  A home where instead of a constant barrage of no’s, she hears, “Yes!  Please explore, learn, and grow to your fullest potential!”

Now, this type of environment isn’t always entirely possible to achieve in a home full of Lego building, Polly Pocket playing older siblings.  But we do our best.  We do our best to keep all that could harm her out of her line of vision, and to be vigilant about what might be inadvertently left within temptation’s reach.

And when I do find her sitting quietly, Lego figure in hand, poised to meet its demise in her open mouth?  Instead of a panicked “No!”, I simply divert her attention to something else.  Something suitable for her.  Something that is a resounding “Yes!”

So, too, are we called to divert our hearts to all things good and holy during these final days of Advent.  We have entered the O Antiphon days.  The days in which we should feel a sense of urgency to make sure our hearts are swept clean, ready to embrace the fullness of God’s grace at the glorious Christmas Mass.  The Mass where the Salvation story is laid before our very eyes, as we gaze upon the babe in the crèche while consuming the flesh and blood that died to save us.

Create a “yes environment” in your heart during these last few days of delightful anticipation.  Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation with your family. Recite the O Antiphons each night and reflect on our history and how desperately we need a Savior.  Remember to take time out from the busyness of Christmas preparations for daily prayer and family time.  Look forward to receiving Our Lord in His great gift of Holy Communion at Christmas Mass.  Guard your heart against Satan’s lies with the power of the Rosary, holy water, and spiritual reading.  This is real freedom–when the bad is shackled so the good can overflow with the abundance of an authentically joyful life.

Create a heart in which God can say, “Yes!  Please explore, learn, and grow to your fullest potential!”  Create a heart that is so full of good, there is no room for evil–a heart that is truly prepared to behold the miracle of the birth of Christ.

To learn more about the O Antiphons:

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?id=958

http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers/the-o-antiphons-of-advent.cfm

http://www.fisheaters.com/customsadvent10.html

Helping Our Children Encounter Christ During Advent

An Advent tea party at the Cameron-Smith home

An Advent tea party at the Cameron-Smith home

In his Monday homily last week, Pope Francis urged us to “encounter Christ” during Advent and to allow Christ to encounter us as well.  I’ve been thinking about how I can help my children to this end.  I have to accept my role as a servant in facilitating this encounter, especially if it includes allowing Christ to encounter my children in their uniqueness — in their personal reality.  They are each so very different, and each developmental stage brings new opportunities for cultivating in our children a personal experience of the authentic and living Christ.  Especially for my very young children, I may get off on the wrong foot if I assume they will encounter Christ like I do, by the same means.

How can we create the kind of emotional, spiritual, and physical environment that best allows that encounter to unfold naturally?  Here are a few tips for helping your young children encounter Christ this Advent season:

Children Encounter Christ Through LOVE

It’s not that doctrinal truths are unimportant or irrelevant for young kids, but they must experience these truths through love if we want them to come alive — if we want them to factor in our kids choices and lives long term.  This means we must love our children unconditionally, because we are the models of the kind of love they will internalize.  Children who are ignored or mistreated can never internalize the mercy and tenderness Jesus feels for them.  Even when they stumble and fail, Christ adores them.  Can our own love reflect this Christ-love better, even while we try to steer them on the right path?

This also means that we should announce to our child God’s love for her and make that love as concrete and inviting as possible.   So when we set up our nativity set this Advent, we can emphasize how much God must love her that he sent this precious little baby to come into the world just for her – so that she could know him and love him. We can emphasize the reality of Christ’s early life with his family – how he lived with Mary and Joseph in a family just like she lives in her own family; that he did chores, learned to read, said prayers, fed his animals, just like she does; that he understands what makes her sad and angry because he felt all those things when he was a child.

Children Encounter Christ Through PLAY

Advent in the Cameron-smith home

Advent in the Cameron-smith home

Children experience God in a private, emotional way and they also experience God through the descriptions they hear about God in catechetical instruction and Bible stories.  Play is where those two very real experiences come together for children.  Play helps them make sense of what they’ve experienced emotionally and intellectually.  Playing with Christ during Advent can include stories and hands-on play.  Read engaging, beautifully illustrated stories about the nativity and early life of Jesus during Advent.  Allow your child freedom to explore these stories through art, drama, or just good ol’ table talk.

Include lots of hands-on experiences – a Jesse Tree, Advent wreath, Advent Calendar, and nativity set.  Permit your child to engage with these religious objects, especially your nativity set, because this is where the story of Christmas really comes to life for kids.  Some families have heirloom nativities which are too precious for little hands to bonk around, but consider having a second “play nativity.”  My family found a very affordable felted nativity set and my children spend all of Advent moving the pieces around our house as Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem!

Children Encounter Christ Through PRAYER

We want our children to develop a personal relationship with Christ in which Christ understands her and cares for her in specific, unique circumstances.  Little children are open to developing a friendship with Jesus, and this includes chatting with him in prayer.  If your child doesn’t pray much, try starting during Advent.  You can start with communal prayer.  Create a prayer plan for your family, but recognize that children don’t pray like grown-ups.  When we impose our own prayer styles on our kids, we risk extinguishing their authentic experience of God.  I’m not suggesting that we don’t teach them the great prayers of our Faith.  We do.  But sometimes we get out of their way, we listen, and we learn from them.  When you give your child emotional space to pray, he will tend to pray in short bursts, sometimes incoherently.  This is okay.  You will also notice a collapsing of the transcendent and nearness of God in your child’s language. (“You are the most beautiful thing in the world!  Look, I think you are like Harold my goldfish!”)  This is also okay.  Just listen and affirm your child in his experience.

So, let’s bring our children to Jesus this Advent and let them sit a while on his lap.  Have a blessed Advent!

Watching God Work

“As Catholic parents, we aren’t simply called to find the parenting method that is the most gentle, the most effective, or the most in line with our beliefs.  We are called to parent in a way that will aid our children in their journey to sainthood.  We must pray and be in tune with our hearts and our children’s hearts, but most of all we must be in tune with God’s parenting advice.  We are first and foremost His children, after all.”

I’m tired.  My four-year-old daughter is suddenly struggling with bedtime . . . again.  After countless weeks of an easy, consistent bed time routine, her resistance to sleep and clingy night time behavior is frustrating.

I have my trusted resources.  I’m familiar with many bedtime methods and techniques and we’ve tried a lot of them.  But something is still off.  I want nothing more than to catch a glimpse into her heart.  To know for certain what is causing her to act this way.  Is she simply testing her limits?  Is she truly afraid of something?  Does she need more focused attention from me?  Is it all of the above?  Something has rocked her little world, and I can’t figure out what it is.  I want to get into her heart and give her a  big Mommy hug from the inside out, but instead I must look on as an outsider.  An observer forced to accept my human limitations.

I pray, and I listen.  Sometimes God brings us to our knees so we will surrender not only ourselves, but also our children, totally to Him and His Blessed Mother.

139549398Being called to raise saints means we have a front row seat to the battle between good and evil.  It means that we can only bring our children so far in this world before we have to release them to the Holy Spirit.  This is why our hearts ache so for our children sometimes.  Because we would much rather be plagued by temptation than watch our children struggle with it.  Just as a devoted mother would readily endure any physical ailment for the sake of her child, so too would she endure torment of her own soul before allowing the stain of evil to mar the purity of her child.

But God usually doesn’t form saints in a day.  It is a life long process and beyond our control more often than we’d like to admit.

“Bedtime makes you realize how completely incapable you are of being in charge of another human being.”  Jim Gaffigan

In his book, Dad Is Fat, Jim Gaffigan provides a lot of chuckles that we parents can relate to, but he gives us a lot of profound insights as well.  Our children are such a gift!  They are God’s instruments!  They are often God’s way of reminding us that He isn’t finished with us yet–that just as we are watching our children evolve into saints, so too are we evolving.  Sometimes that means we step back, toss up our hands in surrender, offer prayer, and allow God to do the work.

As Catholic parents, we aren’t simply called to find the parenting method that is the most gentle, the most effective, or the most in line with our beliefs.  We are called to parent in a way that will aid our children in their journey to sainthood.  We must pray and be in tune with our hearts and our children’s hearts, but most of all we must be in tune with God’s parenting advice.  We are first and foremost His children, after all.

God is whispering to my mothering heart and telling me to give in to my daughter’s need for night time connection right now.  It’s not easy.  I want her to go to bed in her own room so I can have time with my husband and time to myself.  But God wants me to practice giving a little more of myself right now.  He wants me to continue to pray for my daughter, teach her His ways, and form her overall character, but the rest is in His hands.  I have a feeling this is not the last phase of life when I will spend sleepless nights praying for one of my children.  All kinds of temptations and difficulties await them as they continue to venture out into the world.  I won’t always be there with them, but God will.

I will practice guiding them into the loving arms of our Father and Mother in heaven now.  I will surrender those things I cannot control, love my children in spite of their difficult phases, and enjoy watching God work.

Resources

Dad Is Fat  by Jim Gaffigan

The No Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley

Image credit:  Heidi Breeze-Harris (photos.com)

Why I Let My Son Drop Out of Preschool

michaelynPlease welcome our new staff writer, Michaelyn Hein!  Michaelyn lives in New Jersey with her husband of 8 ½ years, and is a stay-at-home mom to their 4 year-old son. After earning a B.A. in English, and M.A.T. in Secondary Education, she taught high school English for seven years. She left her career when her son was born in order to raise her family. She blogs at Thoughts from the Pew in the Back.  In her inaugural essay, Michaelyn takes on a tough issue:  whether to place small children in preschool.

I have a confession to make: I am the mother of a preschool dropout.

I’ll admit, it took me a little while to get used to the idea. For months, I’d anticipated the start of his education, evidently with more excitement than him. But, a year ago, things didn’t go as planned. In my four years of mothering, I’m finding most things never do.

That’s how I became an “accidental” attachment parent. When our son was born, my husband and I planned to have him sleep in his beautiful, brand new crib my mother gifted us. But, our son, even in infancy, had different plans. I soon found the only way any of us could get any sleep was if he was in our bed. So, we began co-sleeping, and we were all much happier (though maybe not my mother – it was an expensive crib). The same thing happened with nursing. I planned to try to squeeze six months out of it, but a year later, my son and I still had a happy nursing relationship. I figured why ruin a good thing?

See, I had these plans for how it would all go, because I listened to the suggestions coming from the world around me. But, when I actually became a mother I found that listening to my own intuitions (and my son’s own voice) made my home a much happier place for everyone.

So, why I threw that intuition out the window when our son turned three, I’m not sure.

I could say it was because I felt left out of the conversation when all my friends discussed the preschools they were sending their kids to. I could guess it was because I thought the backpacks lining the shelves of every store we entered were just so cute. But, whatever the reasons, and despite a voice deep down inside whispering not to do it, I did. I enrolled our son in preschool.

As my mother always said, man plans and God laughs, right? And I’m beginning to think that God tells us His better plans through the laughter – or cries – of our children.

Because our son wasn’t ready for school.  At all.  The first two days, he muddled through, and I lied to myself that only ten minutes of crying was an indication of success. But, I guess our son wasn’t happy that his mother suddenly seemed not to be listening to his needs. I imagine in his innocent mind, he didn’t get why his mommy, who’d spent every day at home with him since his birth nurturing, guiding and teaching him, was suddenly abandoning him, even if it was only for a few hours two days a week.

Still, I tried to convince myself that all was well with him entering preschool. However, our son, who suddenly felt silenced by my ignoring his looks of dread when I left him in the classroom, found a way to make his voice heard. On the third day, he cried.

Well, sobbed, really, and he’d done so for an hour straight, the teacher said. I shudder to think that on the fourth day, I brought him back. What was I thinking? I, the mother who’d been horrified by even the idea of making my son cry it out in his crib as an infant, took my preschooler back to the place where he’d just “cried it out” in the classroom.

57280720It took him clinging to me that morning – literally latched onto my leg so that I’d have to pry him off like a leech – for me to realize that he still needed me more than he needed any school. In their book, Hold Onto Your Kids, Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Maté, M.D., explain that “the more children are pushed, the tighter they cling” (188). By how tightly my son gripped me that morning, he was obviously being pushed too hard.

And, I finally got the message. We pulled him out of school, but friends were concerned. Weren’t we worried our son would be a social outcast? Well, though he was an only child despite our hopes to give him a sibling, not really; more time at home with us would make him more secure in relationships. Didn’t we fear he’d be academically behind his peers? It couldn’t be that hard to teach basic counting, or number and letter recognition. Weren’t we worried we taught him to be too dependent on us by giving into his tears? I couldn’t fathom that at three he was too old to have his tears acknowledged. In fact, I couldn’t imagine that any of us is ever too old to benefit from having our fears validated. It was pondering this last question that, in the end, convinced me we’d done the right thing.

Well, that, and the Bible. In the Gospels, Jesus asks, “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread?” Our Lord then goes on to acknowledge that we know how to give good gifts to our children (Mt. 7: 9, 11, NABRE). I was reminded that as parents, we do know how to give our kids what they need, and that we don’t need society to guide us. We have God to do that.

It’s been a year since we allowed our son to drop out of preschool, and in that year he’s learned valuable lessons. We played together, and he learned to expand his imagination. We made crafts together, and he learned to create. We read books together, and he learned his letters. He helped with the cooking, and he learned how to measure. And by having his needs responded to when he was most vulnerable, he learned that he is respected, that he is heard and that he can depend on the people he loves.

But, really, I think the greatest lesson has been mine: that if we want our children to honor us, then we first need to honor them.