Transitions can be tough

Does your child have trouble with transitions or hate to try new things?  When my son was young, we coped with both of these circumstances frequently. I am fortunate enough to have one of each–a son and a daughter, an introvert and extrovert. My daughter approached each new experience as an opportunity to have fun, perhaps make new friends, and generally have a good time. My son, on the other hand, tended to see unexplored territory as loaded with potential landmines. Why should he try something unknown when he had guaranteed Lego fun at home? We learned several strategies to help him adapt to new situations.

For a short-term outing, such as a visit to a friend’s home, I learned to prepare him in advance by describing what would be happening, how long we would be staying, etc. The greater challenge came when we signed him up for a new activity, such as T-ball or a new summer camp. Even with something he had eagerly anticipated, he tended to express unhappiness and want to quit after the first week or two. I soon realized that it was the newness he disliked rather than the activity itself. So we made a deal. He had to try something new for one month. If he still hated it after a month, he could quit. The month turned out to be the magic amount of time, long enough for him to get to know all of the people involved and for the newness to turn into familiarity. He rarely quit anything after that.

When I think of all of the wonderful activities he would have missed if we had allowed him to quit so quickly, I am so glad that this spur of the moment strategy I attempted worked out so well. Many of the things he tried, including baseball, soccer, and art classes, became passions that he still enjoys.  By the age of eight or so, he had matured and gained enough self-awareness that we could let the one month rule fall away… he knew this about himself and was able to take it into account as he tried new things.

Do you have any good strategies for helping children cope with transitions or new challenges?


With a little help from my friends: 4 books that made me a better parent


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Solving your child’s sleep problems, by Richard Ferber.  Okay, I know this is the most controversial one, and that there are thousands of parents who are convinced that Richard Ferber is a cruel, cruel man who likes to see babies suffer. Au Contraire, I say! There are few experts to whom I am more grateful than Dr. Ferber. If your baby is not sleeping through the night and you wish that he or she would (note: this applies to babies more than six months old) or your toddler or young child is having sleep issues, I urge you to try the Ferber method. Don’t believe what other people tell you and make sure to read the book–Chapter 5 is the most important.  We used the Ferber method successfully with both of our children, and with each of them it took two nights for them to sleep through the night for 10 hours straight and wake up with smiles on their faces. Not only that, I am convinced that learning to fall asleep on their own has helped them to be adaptable and easy-going sleepers and has enabled them to enjoy sleepovers at friends’ homes from a young age.

Touchpoints, by T. Berry Brazelton. This book, with its thorough review of various milestones in a child’s development, was both enlightening and reassuring at critical moments.

Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka.  Our son was identified as a “spirited child” at the age of about six, and this book helped me immeasurably to understand how to parent him and how to parent in general. I think this is one of the best overall books on parenting and would be helpful for anyone, spirited child or not. One of the best sections discusses understanding your own disposition on the introvert/extrovert scale, and understanding how you relate to your introverted or extroverted child.  I am quite extroverted, and this book helped me to see the ways in which my introverted son  approaches the world is not problematic or worse than the way that I approach it, it’s just different.  There is much more to this book, however, and I encourage you to take a look.

Your One (Two, Three, Four . . . ) Year Old by Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg.  This series of short books – one for each age – offers great insights for understanding your child’s various stages, and a helping of reassurance just when you are feeling like you’re about to run screaming from the house. I found that these books, at the very least, helped me to see that I was not alone, and that this phase, too, would pass in time.

What books have helped you to be a better parent?

Transportation Independence: the joy of the journey

ImageIt seems like every parent I know has referred to himself as a shuttle service or joked about getting a chauffeur’s cap.  We want our kids to play soccer/learn the piano/have an active social life/pursue their passion for Bikram yoga (okay, maybe not that last one) so we resign our afternoons and weekends to the seemingly endless rounds of driving them to and fro all of these activities. Of course, if we all lived in wonderfully walkable communities with accessible activities we wouldn’t need to drive anywhere, but oh yes most of us would because we won’t allow our children to walk places by themselves.

When did the national obsession for safety overtake the value we place on independence and self-reliance in our children?

Now I will hereby officially acknowledge that I live in a city where there are places that I would not allow my child to walk alone.  But I also acknowledge that there are many parts of our Bay Area that I feel are perfectly safe for my kids to travel through unaccompanied by adults, and that in fact this kind of travel is an essential part of their growth and development.

For both my kids, entry into middle school marked the advent of their transportation independence. We live 1.5 half miles from our local middle school, and my son walked home every day. My daughter lived too far to walk all the way to her middle school, but not too far to walk to the bus stop to hop on the bus that took her to and from there.

My son started taking the bus on a regular basis in ninth grade, riding from our home in the Laurel district 7 miles to Oakland Tech high school. One day, perhaps a few months after he started riding the bus, he came home and told me that he had taken the bus to the Circuit City in nearby Emeryville. He didn’t want to wait until the weekend (when I might be able to drive him there), and his newfound familiarity with AC Transit gave him both the confidence and the curiosity to try to make his way on public transit. The trip involved a few bus transfers, and at one point he traveled several miles in the wrong direction. But he made it to Circuit City, bought the item he needed, and then took a few buses to get home. When I asked him “Why didn’t you call me when you got lost, I could’ve helped you?”  He matter-of-factly said “but I wanted to figure it out by myself. After a while, I could tell that something was wrong so I asked the bus driver and he told me to get off the bus and showed me where I should stand to catch the right bus.”

And I realized that, of course, the joy of the journey was that he figured it out by himself. Ever since that time he has gotten himself all over the Bay Area using bus, BART, and his bicycle, gaining self-confidence and independent life skills along the way.

Confession: I bond with my children over reality TV

Yes, it’s true. While I’ve been all high and mighty preaching about how to get your kids to do chores and be good citizens, if this is going to be an honest blog I need to share my failings too.

I wish I could tell you that our family spends evenings reading aloud to one another, playing board games, and identifying astronomical constellations in the sky. Once in a while we do play board games, but that’s about it. The truth is that over the years I have bonded with each of my children over reality TV, as well as what we now so quaintly call scripted television.

It started with Survivor, which captivated my son from an early age. We soon discovered a group of friends who also watched Survivor with their children, and for a couple of years we even hosted group viewings with organized betting for the kickoff episode, reuniting to award the spoils for the final show (one of the youngest kids won, go figure).  Now, when most people with any sense and certainly with any critical discernment have long ago abandoned that tired original reality show, my son and I continue to watch and to text one another during episodes.   I must admit, it hasn’t been without its life lessons and insights. For example, I have learned that a group of attractive young people living in bikinis and swim trunks find nothing more onerous than a bossy middle-aged woman or man–and the women seem to especially rankle. I guess no one wants to be with his mom when they’re on a big adventure.  I realized that I could never compete myself. I wouldn’t get past the first 10 minutes without having to override my Survivor instincts and start organizing the camp. My son, however, could be quite a contender with his quiet yet competent demeanor.

For my daughter, it began with Project Runway and, when that show was still new, exciting, and actually decent, we even put together a fabulous Project Runway-themed 11th birthday party.  My son, 14 at the time, was a pretty wicked Michael Kors and my husband was a lovely Tim Gunn. I, of course, played Heidi Klum.  We didn’t want any of the girls to end up crying so we had many awards:  most creative, most fashion forward, most glamorous, etc.  I think it’s still one of my favorite parties.

We also, like many families, have enjoyed watching the Office, Parks and Recreation, and other popular comedies together. Today it’s mostly my daughter and I who are completely obsessed, like almost everyone else in our demographic, with Downton Abbey.  As far as reality TV goes, she introduced me to my new favorite Breaking Amish (I’m drawing the line at Amish Mafia, really, I promise!) but has failed to win me over to Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo which holds a bizarre and, to me, unfathomable fascination for her. She will defend Honey Boo-Boo till the cows come home. On the other hand, she has completely abandoned Glee – one of her former favorites – and seems both mystified and contemptuous when she sees me watching current episodes. Once these teenagers turn against a show, it’s all over.

Here Come the Holidays. Afraid your children are turning into little greed monsters?


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First of all, let me be clear. I love Christmas. I love shopping for gifts, the planning, the decorating, and the holiday parties… the whole schmear.  I am one atheist who loves herself a good Christmas. I was raised atheist, by atheist parents who were formerly Christian, so we celebrated all of the major Christian holidays without any of that annoying church business. That’s how I’ve raised my two kids as well.  But I also have a conscience, and while I’ll spare you from another tired rant against our massive commercialism at this time of year, I will admit that I really detest greed and excessive acquisitiveness in my own family.

By nature, young children are self-centered, and greed can easily appear at this time of year.  So I have tried to do what I can to mitigate this natural tendency and instill some sense of the true meaning of the Christmas holiday in my kids which, for me, means showing love and compassion to your fellow human beings, starting with those closest to you and spreading out from there.

So, here are my boiled down holiday tips for those of you who would also like to avoid raising greedy and selfish children.

  1. As soon as your kids understand what gift giving is, help them participate in the process of giving gifts to other members of their own family. Sibling children can give gifts to one another and of course the kids can give gifts to their parents,  grandparents, guardians, etc. Whenever possible, these gifts should either be homemade or paid for from their own money.  My kids spend a lot of time planning and preparing really good gifts for me and their dad, for each other and for their friends. They have come to see that the time you spend thinking about the people you love and taking care of their needs or wants really is the best part of Christmas.
  1. When children are old enough – perhaps from the age of five on up – they can participate in more community-oriented acts of giving. The most basic level of this would be to have them go to the store and choose a toy, help to wrap it, and bring it to a toy drive for children in need. A more advanced experience might be to spend time as a family volunteering at a soup kitchen or your community food bank, or a similar institution.  Book well in advance,  as these activities fill up quickly during the holidays.

What practices do you have in your family to make the holidays meaningful?  How do you instill a sense of giving, love and compassion in your children?


Do you like to eat food?


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At a recent dinner party, I remarked upon what a delicious meal my son had made for the family the previous evening. Little did I know what a remarkable achievement this would turn out to be. It sparked a major discussion on the subject of teenage children participating in meal preparation and other chores around the house, and the seeming impossibility of expecting such a feat. I explained our family rule, which we adopted wholesale from a friend’s family. Each of the kids is expected to prepare dinner once a week. They must plan the menu and make the ingredient list by noon on Sunday so that I have time to include it in the weekly grocery shop that I do. My husband also cooks once per week, I cook three times per week, and on the remaining night we either go out, eat leftovers, or cobble something together. Each child also washes the dishes one night per week, my husband washes the dishes on every other night except on the night when he cooks–that’s my night to wash the dishes. It works for us because I truly love to cook, hate to wash dishes, and he gets home later than I do such that if he were cooking we wouldn’t be eating dinner until 9:00 PM.

Back to our little dinner party. After explaining our family meal system, one of my friends asked “but what would you do if your son just said no and refused to cook dinner?”  I will confess that this had not even occurred to me, but my immediate response to her was “I would turn to him and say, “Do you like to eat food? If you expect to eat the food in this house you will help prepare it.””

And I realized once again that many parents are giving their children too many choices. Give choices as often as possible when either choice is reasonable and acceptable to you.  But participating in the life of the family, which–fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective–includes quite a lot of cleaning, washing, and meal preparation, is not a choice in my book.

Now I imagine that some of you are thinking well, of course, and perhaps even “don’t most children help around the house these days?”  And maybe most do–I have not conducted any surveys. And granted that my experience exists mostly in the white middle class people realm of things, but I have found that, at least in that realm, many children are not doing anything around the house and parents either never asked or have abandoned any expectation that they will do so. Big mistake. And thus, here are my lessons for whipping those kids into line and getting them to help around the house.

As always, try to start when they are young but don’t give up if you haven’t done so–it is never too late.

Very young children can help to set and clear the table.   My kids started setting the table at around the age of five. I gave them the choice of taking turns or doing it together, and they chose to do it together and have done so ever since. One of them puts on the plates and glasses; the other takes care of the napkins and the silverware.

They didn’t start regularly washing dishes and preparing meals, I am embarrassed to admit, until they were well into their teens.  When I first proposed our system, my daughter readily agreed and said she was looking forward to cooking. My son was not happy, but confessed that he could not argue with my logic and would accept his sentence. He recently told me (he is now a sophomore in college and living away from home) that he is so grateful that he had to cook dinners and that he learned to cook well. He is a very healthy eater and truly appreciates good food made from scratch. Both of my children surprised and impressed me by, after initially starting with simple recipes, creating elaborate feasts based on my Madhur Jaffrey or Rick Bayliss cookbooks.   Oh yeah, I did set some basic ground rules about the content of the meals after their initial forays consisted of repeated offerings of “ potato-cheese bake.”  Nothing else, just potato cheese bake. Meals had to consist of a protein (veg or meat, we are omnivores), and green vegetables, and some sort of grain or starch.

When my kids were a bit older–probably about 8 and 11 years old–I realized that they could help to clean the whole house. I am not an obsessive housekeeper by any means.  While I like things to be neat, I work full time and house cleaning is reserved for weekends or when friends are coming over.

It’s so important that your children are not raised in some magical land where, through no effort of their own, messes are cleaned up, dirty floors become spotless, and everything sparkles while they go about their carefree ways.  I don’t know too many people in this world who live like that.

Perhaps even more important, for me at least, is that my kids not see me as this robotic drone who exists to clean up after them and cook for them, and that they not see a family model where the primary housecleaner and cook is the only adult woman in the home.

So this is how I got them to help clean the house. I divided the house chores into four areas, making them as equal as possible. I quickly realized that I could not just command them to clean their area–those unfamiliar to cleaning or those who might have quite different standards from your own need very explicit guidance. So our house cleaning organization looks like this:

 Living room  VacuumClean all surfaces with wet rag

Sweep entryway

 Dining room  Vacuum or sweep floorClean upstairs

Wash table

 Kitchen  Mop the floorClean countertops and stovetop

Clean sink

 Bathroom  Mop the floorScrub sink, tub

Scrub toilet

Each room is rotated among the four of us on a regular cycle.  You can do your chore whenever you like as long as it is finished by 5:00 PM on Sunday. See? You can still have choices.  Are they happy about doing these chores? No. I’m not happy about doing chores either. Welcome to reality, kids.

PS Just to be clear, my children are not some home-schooled Amish type kids who have tons of time on their hands to be spending at home. They are your typical busy, overscheduled teenagers with soccer to play, excessive homework to finish, musical instruments to practice, etc. Yet somehow–like every other teenager I know–they also seem to find time to hang out with friends, watch silly videos on YouTube, post photos on Facebook, etc. If they can do these things, they can scrub my damn toilet.