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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)

Dealing with Discouragement

“Discouragement can feel like such a powerful emotion. It robs us of our peace, makes us question the plan God has for us, and tempts us to despair. But in reality, it has no power. When we call it what it is, the work of the one who wants to see us fail, it is so much easier to see it as what it is:  an illusion, a trick.”

discouragement fancy

I’ve been thinking a lot about discouragement lately. How powerful it can be and how powerless it should be. We are all vulnerable to discouragement in different ways, and it’s a tricky thing- it can sneak up on us when we least expect it.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling mightily with discouragement lately. I feel it sneaking up on me each time my just-cleaned kitchen becomes sticky with spilled juice and scattered with crumbs. It rears its ugly head when an idea I’m excited about for my moms’ group isn’t met with the enthusiasm I expected. I find it lurking in the background when I struggle with overcoming challenges in my marriage. And often, discouragement can be the dominant feeling when my kids are just not behaving the way I want them to. Discouragement says, “Why bother? What you’re doing isn’t working. Your efforts are not worth it. You might as well just give up.”  This quickly leads from simple discouragement to despair, which is a scary, lonely place to be.

As parents, we have to be on guard when this voice whispers in our ear. Why? Because I can tell you, with certainty, that voice is not coming from God. In fact, it almost certainly is coming from the evil one. And there is nothing he wants more than to convince us that what we are trying to do as parents doesn’t matter, that it’s not worth it.

Let’s face it. Parents can be easy targets for this kind of temptation. Parenting can be an exhausting, thankless job. There are no promotions, no bonus checks. We are often criticized for what we do or don’t do, even by those close to us. When despite our efforts to parent with gentleness, grace, and love, our children act less than angelically (as children do), how tempting it is to say, “Why bother?”

The world would have us believe that we shouldn’t. That the effort that we put into raising our children might be better channeled into a “paying job” or something that we find more personally fulfilling. The world would have us believe that having a well-behaved child is more important than how we are working toward that behavior. When faced with this kind of thinking, of course we are susceptible to discouragement and hopelessness. I’ve often come face to face with despair when I think too much about how to navigate this world that is so often at odds with my faith. So what can we do about it?

Well, to start with, we must acknowledge this feeling and name where it comes from. When I hear the words in my head, “Why do I even bother?,” it is a signal for me to stop what I’m doing and identify the source. Once I’ve acknowledged that it’s not coming from God, I can begin to actively work against it.

Scripture is full of encouragement when we are feeling burdened by worry or failure, and I keep these passages handy for when the feeling pops up.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

Where we are weak, God is strong. What greater encouragement is there!? We do not have to be strong, or even successful.  In fact, it is better if we are not at times, so that God can take over and work through us. This simple idea turns discouragement on its head because it take our failures and turns them into God’s sucesses. We need not strive for perfection, only for trust in God and his perfect plan for us.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

When the feeling of discouragement and despair feels overwhelming, there is nothing more powerful than prayer. When I was a child, my mom told me that if I ever felt really frightened, all I needed to do was say a Hail Mary, because anything evil was no match for the Blessed Mother. This stuck with me, and while I’m no longer afraid of what might lurk in the closet, I now have anxiety and fears that feel bigger than those monsters under the bed. Now, when I hear the evil one whispering discouragements in my ear, I stop what I’m doing and pray to the Blessed mother. The evil one and his disparagements flee. They are no match for a loving mother.

Which brings me to my next point: We have to talk to our kids about how to deal with discouragement. In a world that rewards success and punishes failure, we have to instill in our children that God’s ways are not the ways of the world. We have to tell them that hopelessness is not from our loving Father, but from our nemesis. Childhood has the potential to be rife with discouragement. There is so much to be learned, and thus so many opportunities to fail! But if we share with our kids that God takes their failures and makes them His successes, they will be empowered to withstand the real disappointments and yes, even despair, that they are almost certain to face in their lives.

As parents, we are called to stand in for our Heavenly Father on earth, encouraging our children when they are feeling lonely, despairing, hurt. Even if the despair of a small child seems inconsequential to us. (Raise your hand if you’ve comforted your child through the despair of not being able to put their shoes on by themselves, or the angst of not being able to spend an extra half hour at the park!) That is what God does for us when we feel hopeless. So when we say, “I can see you are upset that you can’t do this, but it’s ok. I’ll help you and you can try again next time,” we are showing our children how God treats each one of us. It might even be helpful to explain this feeling to our kids, and put a name to it. After all, naming this feeling as an adult takes away so much of it’s power over us.

This all brings me back to where I started.

Discouragement can feel like such a powerful emotion. It robs us of our peace, makes us question the plan God has for us, and tempts us to despair. But in reality, it has no power. When we call it what it is, the work of the one who wants to see us fail, it is so much easier to see it as what it is:  an illusion, a trick. Our God is infinitely more powerful than any of these tricks; we need only turn to him when we feel its presence, and teach our families to do the same.

Image credit: stockimages, freedigitalphotos.net

Developmental Attachment v. Spiritual Detachment: raising children who are capable of letting go of the wrong things and embracing the right things

pope francis prayingAn acquaintance and I were recently chatting when the subject of parenting came up. I explained that I am an “attachment-minded parent”. He chuckled and said, “But we’re Christians. Aren’t we supposed to be detached from created things?” He was only joking (I think . . .), but he does raise an interesting question about the difference between the term “attachment” in developmental psychology and the term “detachment” in spiritual development.  I talked about this topic with Greg and Lisa Popcak recently on their Catholic radio program More2Life.

So, if Christians value spiritual detachment, can our children become too attached to us? Can their attachment to us prevent them from maturing spiritually? I think the contrary is true: a secure attachment in childhood makes it easier for our children to experience spiritual detachment in adulthood.

1. Attachment in Developmental Psychology = GOOD

The term “attachment” in developmental psychology refers to a process by children form (or fail to form) strong bonds and a sense of security with their parents. A child’s attachment style develops in response to repeated interactions with his parents. It’s like a dance between a child’s needs and the parent’s response that creates an internal working model for all of the child’s relationships; it shapes his expectations about other people and how they will treat him when he is vulnerable emotionally or physically.

Secure attachment unfolds when parents respond consistently and warmly to a child’s need for comfort and guidance. This attachment gives children a secure base from which to explore the larger world, and helps them learn to regulate their emotions in response to stress and disappointment.

Insecure attachment might occur because the parents are cold and distant or too harsh (this leads to avoidant attachment). Or the parents may meet the child’s need warmly one day, then disappear the next (this leads to anxious attachment). Children adjust their behaviors to deal with the pain or unpredictability of their relationship with the parent. The outcome is unfortunate. These kids don’t trust others, they struggle in friendships with other kids, they have poor self-esteem, they may be aggressive, or lack empathy.

As they move into adulthood, insecurely attached individuals are frequently crippled in their ability to sustain healthy relationships. Their unresolved emotional pain prevents them from experiencing or forming authentic, loving relationships in which both people are comfortable giving and receiving love. Some adults cope by shutting out people and convincing themselves they don’t need anybody (this behavior is termed “dismissive”). Others become preoccupied by their relationships because they are anxious about the other person’s love for them – they are clingy and needy (this behavior is termed “pre-occupied”). These attachment stances affect their relationships with their co-workers, spouses, children, and even God.

2. Detachment in Spiritual Development = GOOD

Christians strive for spiritual detachment from any inclinations, choices, or relationships that hinder their spiritual growth. We detach ourselves from any obstacle to human flourishing, so that we can in turn re-attach to healthy human relationships and the love of God.

Think of addictions, obsessions, or a tendency to particular sins – these are unhealthy attachments. Sometimes our attitudes toward material goods or status become the problem. More is never enough and before we know it we are imprisoned by our stuff or our “success.” We find it increasingly difficult to connect with the people we most love; our prayer becomes distant and dry. Sometimes detaching may mean getting a new job or purging our house of the objects that are weighing us down, but frequently we just need an adjustment in our attitude and priorities.

Dr. Greg made an interesting point about the difference between Buddhist and Christian views of detachment. For the Buddhist, detachment is about escaping the ego, letting go of the prison of our personalities, so that we can fall into the void of the universe.  This escape is the goal; it is an end in itself.  For the Christian, detachment is about weaning ourselves from unhealthy approaches to relationship so that God can teach us his plan for relationships.  The end goal for us is loving communion with God and each other.  Detachment for the Christian is a means to that end.

Maturing Christians even detach themselves from preferring one thing to another. Should my son go to this school or that one? Should I attend a baseball game or my brother’s piano recital? Should I take this new job or stay at my current one? Detachment leads us to a place where we don’t prefer one choice to another; we just want to do what God wants because we love him so much. Most of us struggle with this kind of detachment, but it’s a possible for us all!

3. Moral of the Story

Cooperating with God to form in our child a secure attachment and capacity for self-giving love will actually make it easier for her to experience spiritual detachment later. Because spiritual detachment requires a kind of inner balance in our hearts toward things and relationships. People with adult attachment disorders often claw at things or people out of a desperate unmet need. This desperation keeps them imprisoned in pain. If our children are emotionally whole, they will be more free to get about the business God has for them to do.

If you’d like to listen to my interview with the Popcaks, it starts about 20 minutes into the show.  Better yet, enjoy the whole show!  The Popcaks addressed problems with connection in our relationships:

Which Is More Important: Quantity or Quality Time with Kids? BOTH are equally important

boy and motherLast week the media happily seized on a study released in the Journal of Marriage and Family in which three sociologists presented their findings of a long-term study that examined the affect of mother’s time spent with children on the emotional and educational outcomes of the children.  They found no relation between how much time mothers (study mostly focused on mothers) spend with their kids (aged 3 to 11) and the child’s well-being, until high school.  In high school, teenagers benefit from increased time spent with both mother and father.

Here are some problems with this study:

1. The study only looked at time spent with children on two days, then looked at how well the kids were doing years later.

I would be very concerned if somebody tried to draw conclusions (years from now) about my family based on how much time we spent together over the next few days, but that is exactly what this study does:  it infers something meaningful from something meaningless.  There are so many variables not considered by this methodology that a finding of no connection between time spent and child outcomes is, well, not terribly interesting.  Dr. Justin Wolfe, professor of economics and social policy, put it like this:  “The study measured only the amount of time that parents spent with their children on two specific days, and a brief snapshot like this is an unreliable measure of how much time a parent might typically spend with children. This measure contains a little signal and a lot of noise, which probably explains why the study failed to find a reliable correlation with children’s outcomes.”  You can read his criticism of the study here.

2. The study did not examine the quality of the emotional relationship between the children and the parents, either before or during the study.

The authors admit that they did not evaluate the “tone” of the relationship between the mother and her children when they were spending time together. “[N]either did we assess the quality of tone of mothers’ interactions with children, such as warmth, sensitivity, or focus.” But this tone is critical to child outcomes.

In particular, the authors failed to assess the quality of a child’s attachment to the mother at age 3 (the age the authors begin their measurements) and younger (which is odd because of some of the children in their original sample were younger than 3, so this marker could have been observed).  Attachment scientists have identified in copious studies the critical importance of a child’s secure attachment to her parents. A child’s strong attachment to Mommy initially and other significant caregivers later is among the most important predictors of that child’s positive psychological outcome later in life.

Compared to insecurely attached children, children with a secure attachment tend to mature with the following patterns:

  • They are more resilient in the face of adversity.
  • They possess a more positive attitude about the future.
  • They possess greater self-esteem.
  • They take greater initiative in mastering difficult tasks.
  • In middle childhood, they are warm and open, and they are capable of forming close friendships.
  • As they mature, they tend to form friendships with people who also possess qualities of secure attachment.

Securely-attached children do better in childhood and adulthood than insecurely attached children, and secure attachment requires BOTH quality time and quantity time.  Here’s why: Secure attachment occurs when a child’s parents and caregivers respond to her needs and fears with warmth and respect, when the child receives generous amounts of affection – and when all of this happens consistently and reliably. This requires high-quality quantity time.   How much actual time a child needs to thrive varies depending on 1) her age, 2) her temperament, and 3) the day or hour!  Kids needs change and transform over time, but responsive, empathic parenting is worth it in the long run.

I am not suggesting that our children need us 24 hours a day or that other trusted caregivers are not an important part of the unfolding of childhood.  I am saying that mothers and fathers bring unique gifts to parenting, and when either mom or dad are not around enough, it matters.  I am saying that nobody loves our children like we do, and that without enough time together we can’t develop that quiet sense of security and connection that comes from building memories together.

3. The study did not evaluate quality time at all.

The authors state clearly in the study state they did not look at (measure or evaluate) quality time at all,   “[W]e did not focus on quality time — the amount of time in particular quality activities with children, such as reading or eating meals together versus watching TV or cleaning with them.”  Yet the media attempts to assuage parental guilt by asserting that quality time is more important than quantity.  My fear is that parents will somehow think it’s okay to stay at work for 12 hours, then tell themselves because of this study that how much time they spend with their children doesn’t matter as long as they get in a little quality time just before bedtime or on the weekends.  Kids can’t be scheduled like an oil change.

I have many more criticisms that I won’t hammer out here.  In brief, I am not a statistician or a scientist, but I know something about history and about cultural anthropology.  The authors of this study lack any nuanced understanding of the history of childrearing and they mistake scientific studies for culture.  The predominant belief in American culture about childrearing is NOT that children require ample time for full flourishing — science proves that, but our culture is a very weak bonding culture.  We can observe a serious division within the American landscape between what science tells us that children need to thrive and what our culture tells us that we as parents need to do to attain “success” — the two are often at odds.

When in doubt, follow Mother Teresa’s advice: “What can you do to promote world peace?  Go home and love your families.”

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.

Raising Children Who Care

How quickly do you pick up on the emotional cues of those around you?  Are you capable of understanding the perspective of another person — their feelings, thoughts, and experiences — even if they are different from you in their appearance, beliefs, and social status?  If you answered yes to these questions, then you possess empathy, the God-given gift we humans use to empathyreally know another person.

For psychologists, empathy has become one of the most important measuring sticks of human mental health, because empathy is a precondition to all successful interpersonal relationships, without which human beings (and indeed society) will never fully thrive.

We are born with a capacity for empathy, but it’s only a capacity.  How deeply it takes root and how much it matures depends on many factors, including our childhood experiences.  Scientists are fascinated by empathy because of the stark difference in children who either experience or are deprived of specific formative experiences in childhood which they believe are necessary if empathy is to unfold.  As I discussed recently on Greg & Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life, these experiences can be boiled down to three categories:

 1.  Responsive Parenting

Responsive parenting is the most powerful factor in determining whether a child will become empathic or narcissistic.  We are responsive parents when we nurture and nourish the parent-child bond from birth through the teen years.  When parents respond lovingly to their infants and young children when they are distressed, when they spend lots of time cuddling, hugging, and laughing with their children, when they treat them with dignity, and respect their feelings and fears, their children learn over time that the world is a safe place, that people can be trusted, and that even when things don’t go as they wanted or expected, they will be okay.

These children are securely attached, and it turns out emotionally secure children are more empathic than less secure children. Why? One explanation is that children who are parented in this way have better-functioning corpus callosums — the band of nerve tissue running down the middle of the brain which helps the two sides of the brain “communicate” back and forth. Because the left and right hemispheres of the brain are linked up better in emotionally secure children, they can pick up on emotional cues in others (right-brain strength) and find the words for understanding those feelings (left-brain strength) far more easily than insecurely-attached children. Their “caring brain” just gets more exercise; these kids literally build more gray matter in the caring parts of the brain.

2.  Mirroring

When you mirror your child’s emotions, you name and recognize your child’s emotions without judging them.  When your child is angry, distressed, frightened, or joyful you can give a name to what your child is experiencing on an emotional level:  “I can see you feel sad about your doll breaking” or “You are angry that your sister gets to stay up later than you”.  Sad, angry, happy, worried, excited.  All names for the emotions our children experience, but which they seldom understand rationally.

At first it might seem corny or wooden to mirror you child’s feelings in this way, but by doing so you take the first step in helping her understand and manage them better.  You also help her feel recognized and understood, which is absolutely critical in developing a capacity to care for and understand others.  When you respect her feelings, even if she seems a little crazy and irrational to you, you are affirming her dignity, and in the long run she internalizes your respect for her and she actually lives in her own skin instead of always wondering what others are thinking about her.  Because she possesses greater self-awareness and emotional health, she will be able to tune into the emotional world of somebody else quite effortlessly.

3.  Mentoring

Children can learn to understand the perspective of others through guidance & practice!  No big planning necessary:  these lessons can come in the course of every day family life.

Stories or movies: When you read a book together (yes, you can read to big kids – they love it!) or watch a movie, use the experiences of the characters to teach your child perspective taking. What did the character want? How did she feel when X happened or didn’t happen? What was she probably thinking?

Games: Some games are especially effective in building perspective-taking in kids (“Charades,”for example), but really any game can provide an opportunity to talk about what others are thinking and feeling. While playing board games or sports, teach her to be a good sport – to understand how it feels to lose and win, and how they can respect the feelings of other players.

Conflicts with other children: When our kids have a conflict with another child, this is a great opportunity to point out the perspectives and experiences of the child, even if in the long-run she doesn’t agree with the child’s choices or even her viewpoint.  Empathy doesn’t require that we agree with everyone, only that we get out of own heads and get behind the eyes of another person to get a better idea of where they’re coming from.

So, by raising empathic children, we are building more emotionally secure children, families, and indeed communities.  And let’s not forget:  empathy is the gift we use not only to know each other, but also to know God on a deep, personal level.   When they possess empathy, hopefully their faith eventually becomes embodied; it becomes more about an encounter with the Person of Christ than a set of rules.

If you’d like to listen to the entire More2Life program, here’s the audio!  My bit comes in after 20 minutes or so.

 

The Great Disconnect

god-is-in-control

Our society really does not spend time preparing hapless adults to parent.

Children — especially babies — are  little and vulnerable, vulnerable to the large, often clueless adults who care for them. Put yourself in a baby’s situation. Preverbal for years, it must be frustrating to be tired or in pain, only to have a bottle thrust into your mouth or have a tense, upset mother try to nurse you when your stomach is bloated with burps.

This disconnect does not end once children can communicate. Nope, our adult reasoning simply does not always compute in little brains. Why, I have been told that human beings do not get their adult brain till they are 25 years old! Apparently, the frontal lobe that makes sane, rational decisions is not fully developed till the mid-twenties.

That means for almost a quarter of a century, humans need a special kind of love and nurturing that will not only meet them and connect with them right where they are, but guide them gently without controlling them and stunting their own growth intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

The best mothers are willing to learn from their offspring, from books, from experience and from others. Good mothers need a wonderful sense of humour to laugh at their own blunders, to laugh at their kid’s blunders. Openness to trying new tactics helps, as does creativity, but most of all they need to be intuitive, listening to their little ones’ body language and tone of voice and their own gut feelings and instincts.

The best parents also know how to ask God to parent each, individual little person in their care because, after all, He knew them before they were knit in the womb. The best parents know how to let God be in control of their parenting.

Ten Years

Picture1Ten years. I’ve been a mom for ten years. I keep repeating that fact to myself, as if I’ve reached some magical milestone filled with wisdom and maturity.

But instead of wisdom bursting forth in triumphant glory like so many flowers in spring, I feel a bit of all of the seasons vying for space in my heart.

The revelation that loving my children is easy–that I simply have to follow their lead, take an interest in what they enjoy, and have fun just playing with them has brought the carefree days of summer home to my soul.

The fire of faith and the urgency to teach them all that I know before I run out of time hovers about like brilliant fall leaves giving all their glory to God before being blanketed by the snows of winter.

Vulnerability, dark cloudy days, fear, and weakness are all characteristics of the season of winter that allow for the most drastic and hopeful transformation to occur.

And, yes, there is a little of the season of spring in my heart as well. A sense of hope, a peaceful joy, a growing up, a gaining of wisdom.

As a parent, you quickly realize that the seasons of life change rapidly for young children. No wonder so many emotions can crowd a mother’s heart at once! How many times has a distraught, tantrum throwing child filled me with both a longing to run away and a longing to do whatever it takes to soothe her torrid soul. How many times have I hoped my toddler would finally go to sleep so I could lay him down while at the same time soaking in the wonderful feeling of a soft, cuddly body in my arms.

My heart is constantly laughing, crying, rejoicing, hurting, and feeling with them.

But that’s the way God made us. To be in tune with one another. To be sympathetic. To be empathetic. To be in relationship. And so even when it’s hard, even when it’s exhausting, even when it hurts, it hurts so good.

My parenting journey has seen a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of pots of coffee, and a lot of sacrifice. Most of my time has been spent with my children instead of eating out in nice restaurants, taking fancy vacations, or even having many nights out with my husband or friends.

But after ten years of this, I see a ten-year-old who is secure and confident. I see a ten-year-old who isn’t afraid to admit that thunderstorms still scare him while at the same time exhibiting a sense of independence that often surprises me. I see a ten-year-old who I am proud and happy to call my son–who fills my heart with an indescribable sense of having fulfilled my vocation well.

Just the other day, I was on a nature hike with my son and a group of his friends. As they ran up the trail past me, he stopped long enough to give me a quick hug and an affectionate smile. Then he was off with his friends, and I watched as they disappeared among the trees, laughing and being boys. Yes, it hurts so good to encourage attachment and then learn to let go.

Happy Birthday, dear son. I treasure your hugs and I honor your independence. May I always be a stop on the path that God has laid before you.

 Photos of the birthday boy!

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What makes a “good” parent?

“That means that for almost a quarter of a century, humans need a special kind of love and nurturing that will not only meet them and connect with them right where they are but guide them gently without controlling them and stunting their own growth intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.”

 

What makes a good parent?

empathy father and sonIn one word? Humility.

In two words? A sense of humor and humility.

Lately, I have spent more time with my five grandchildren, all of them aged two and under. I am struck by the fact that most adults are not natural baby whisperers and that our society really does not spend time preparing hapless adults to become parents.

Children, especially babies are, well…little. Little and vulnerable. Vulnerable to the large, often clueless adults, who care for them. Put yourself in a baby’s situation. Preverbal for years, it must be frustrating to be tired or in pain, only to have a bottle thrust into your mouth or have a tense, upset mother try to nurse you when your stomach is bloated with burps.

This disconnect does not end once children can communicate. Nope, our adult reasoning simply does not always compute in little brains. Why, I have been told that human beings do not get their adult brain until they are 25 years old! Apparently, the frontal lobe that makes sane, rational decisions is not fully developed until the mid-twenties.

That means that for almost a quarter of a century, humans need a special kind of love and nurturing that will not only meet them and connect with them right where they are but guide them gently without controlling them and stunting their own growth intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

That means that the best parents are willing to learn — from their offspring, from books, from experience, and from others. Good parents need a wonderful sense of humor to laugh at their own blunders, to laugh at their kids’ blunders. Openness to try new tactics helps, as does creativity. But most of all, they need to be intuitive, listening to their little ones’ body language and tone of voice and their own gut feelings and instincts.

As Catholics we are called to listen to the voice of God within because those kids are His and He knew them before they were born. He knows how they tick better than you or I.  And this is often where the greatest lessons in humility enter in.  Listening to this voice of God is what truly makes us a “good” parent.

Image credit:  Ron Chapple Studios (thinkstock.com)

 

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.

A More Gentle World

Help-Someone-this-Christmas-480x330So excited to share this new Catholic gentle/attachment parenting website created by a CAPC reader and  her friends . . IN POLAND!  Agnieszka Piskozub-Piwosz leads this effort with this gorgeous website, Bliska Wiara.  Agnieszka even translated one of my posts into Polish.  Wow, I seem way more fascinating in Polish. 🙂

Our prayers for these parents as they create a virtual space for a meeting of minds — and gentle hearts.

We often talk about and hope for “world peace” at this time of year.  World peace depends on leaders who possess “peace of heart” (as the Catechism puts it), a gift that emerges when a person experiences a peaceful, warm relationship with her parents in childhood, who grows up recognizing that the suffering and concerns of others are always her concern, too.

Praying for a more gentle, more peaceful world, one family at a time.

What’s Your Excuse?

87490642My kids and I rediscovered the joy of reading together this summer.  We learned new words, gained knowledge about unfamiliar topics, and felt a sense of accomplishment as each page was turned.  But there is one hidden benefit of reading that surpasses all of the others; one benefit that occurs naturally but is still surprising; one benefit that makes reading “Elmo’s Favorite Things” for the hundredth time completely worth it.

The transformation is almost magical.  I open a book and four crazy, distracted, bouncy kids refocus their energy on the story that is unfolding.  They start to gravitate closer to me, and even my older children can’t help but be interested in what they thought was a “baby” book.  Suddenly, their desire to see the pictures on the pages become a good excuse.  An excuse to sit a little closer to me; an excuse to lean their heads on my shoulder; an excuse to snuggle into the crook of my arm.

Before I know it, we are one big pile of Mommy, books, and kids, all enjoying the excuse to be physically close to one another as we fill up our stores of love just by reading a good book together.

Whether eight or eighteen, our children need our physical affection to survive in this world.  They need to feel pure, authentic, physical love often so they will know immediately when they are tempted by false affection and perverted notions of intimacy.

Observe the genius of our heavenly Father.  Did He not create “excuses” for us to physically lean into His love when He established the Seven Sacraments?  It is by taking advantage of these wonderful gifts of the Church that we can see God’s welcoming arms as His love flows over us in Baptism, cry on His shoulder in Reconciliation, and literally experience a taste of union with God through the Holy Eucharist.  We feel His comforting embrace lift us to a new level of grace and inspiration through Confirmation, our hearts are united to His in Matrimony and Holy Orders, and we feel Him take our hand to lead us home through the Anointing of the Sick.  We can’t help but fill up our hearts with God’s love by embracing the fullness of these sacraments.  And when we participate in these physical signs of God’s affection for us regularly, that love overflows into our souls, minds, and bodies.  We truly become temples of God and feel as close to the fulfillment of heaven as we possibly can while still on earth.

In his book, Beyond the Birds and the Bees, Dr. Greg Popcak says, “For both boys and girls, a disordered sexuality has its roots in emotionally stingy homes.  Boys and girls of every age have deep needs for touch and affirmation, needs given to them by God.”

So what’s your excuse to get close to your kids?  A good book, a piano duet, or a playful wrestling match?  Playing a video game while seated next to each other on the couch?  A pat on the back as you pass each other in the kitchen?  Get creative, especially with your older children.  Give them opportunities to fill up their hearts with your love and affection and encourage them to take advantage of them.  Fill their hearts until they overflow, so that instead of seeking superfluous physical fulfillment in the dark corners of the world, their hearts, minds, and bodies will be capable of enlightening the shadows with the purity of God’s love.

Recommended Resource for Parents: 

Beyond the Birds and the Bees by Dr. Greg Popcak

Books I’m enjoying reading with my preschool through elementary school-aged kids:

Hooray!  I’m Catholic!  by Hana Cole

The Princess and the Kiss:  A Story of God’s Gift of Purity  by Jennie Bishop

The Squire and the Scroll:  A Tale of the Rewards of a Pure Heart by Jennie Bishop

Image credit:  Hemera Technologies (photos.com)