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Lessons for Everyday Parenting

The Connective Parenting Newsletter

March 2011

Lesson: When "the best" isn't good enough

kids with big lollipops What do we mean when we say we want "the best" for our children? Do we really have their best interests at heart? Or do we want them to be the best to justify our time and efforts in raising them? Is it about the pride we will feel in their accomplishments when they win, make the grade, get into the school, or be the best? Or do we truly mean that we want them to feel balanced, satisfied, confident and happy-no matter what they do?

I recently saw a screening of "Race to Nowhere", a documentary about the effects of our current "teach to the test" educational system. Depression, anxiety, physical illness, eating disorders and suicide can be attributed to a system where being the best has become essential to getting ahead, getting approval, or getting into a good school. It highlights what our value system has become.

Competition has always been an integral human trait in varying degrees. For better or worse, it drives us to accomplish and progress. But when competition weeds out all but "the best", what happens to everyone else? Many become exhausted and ill in the race. Many consider themselves failures and learn that they can never be good enough. But some are lucky and experience different values at home that provide them with a confident foundation so that effort, even when it doesn't get the grade, is good enough.

Remember D.W. Winnicott's theory of the good enough mother?Good enough is no longer good enough in today's culture. Do you consider yourself a good enough parent? If not, why not? Much of our self-confidence and the self-confidence of our children comes from making mistakes, falling flat, getting back up, and learning from those mistakes. If expecting "good enough" sounds like letting your child down, going for mediocrity and not caring, I challenge you to rethink your definition. If good enough is not acceptable, what does your child learn about herself when she isn't the best? What standard do you set yourself up to and how likely is it for you to succeed?

I am convinced that confidence lies at the root of all success—not the over-achiever's grandiosity, but a sense of I can, I am worthy, I am capable. To me, just saying the words good enough brings a sigh of relief and a sense of relaxation. I am as much a culprit of setting myself up to being the best as the next person but it's cost is dear. Ironically as I get older and let go of being the best, I find I do much better.

Giving our children opportunities, finding resources when they need help, and giving them a gentle push when naturally they would rather not make the effort are all part of our job. But expecting that they must achieve the best in order to be happy is just plain unrealistic and does not serve them. It is in the confidence of being a good enough person that relaxation, balance, and fun can lead to success. More information is learned and retained when a child is enthusiastically engaged. Research has proven for years that daily unstructured, self-directed play throughout childhood is essential for optimal brain development, but we continue to ignore these findings, withdraw recess as punishment or because it is taking valuable time needed for cramming more information that will be forgotten after the test is over. Five year olds are being sent home with homework. What is wrong with this picture? Remember, if you win the rat race you're still a rat.
  • Listen to your children, allow them to complain
  • Provide opportunities and watch which ones your children are drawn to
  • Watch for signs of stress: changes in sleep or appetite, a more hostile attitude, frequent headaches and stomach aches
  • When you see signs of stress provide a "mental health day", have a heart-to-heart and re-evaluate schedules
  • Pull back on saying, "I'm so proud of you." Instead try, "You must be very proud of yourself."
  • Make sure your child has plenty of down time. Boredom is necessary for relaxation and creativity.
  • Relax. Be more, teach less.

Questions and Answers

I want your questions. Here's how it works: You email me a question to, and I answer pretty quickly. I put it in a newsletter at a later date. Please try to keep them brief without leaving out critical details.

Forbidding backfires

Q. My 4 yr. old daughter cut a hole through her quilt cover and quilt with scissors she had sneaked upstairs (she's been told more than once that scissors stay downstairs). I was angry but didn't go bonkers and shout at her. I did ask her whether it was an appropriate use for scissors. I told her again that scissors are only for paper and craft only. My husband and I decided the consequence of using scissors inappropriately this time would be a 3 day scissor ban. It is having an effect as she was very cross tonight as she couldn't do any craft and moaned like mad. I am concerned as she cut some of her hair the other week and am worried what she might cut next. She has started being really cheeky again with lots of backchat and talks to us as if we are rubbish. I don't like it as I think everyone should talk politely to one another regardless of who they are. She also is going through a phase of hitting us again. I just keep reiterating that hitting is not acceptable and she should use her cushion. I bought her a 'cross cushion' but it never is there in the heat of the moment so she lashes out.

A. Banning the scissors for 3 days does not address the problem. Actually forbidding anything only adds to the temptation and promotes the unwanted behavior. She will continue to be sneaky with what she knows she is not allowed to have. If you take the scissors away, she does not think, "I better not use the scissors upstairs again." She thinks, "I can't have the scissors when I want them." So she continues to sneak them. Likewise, simply giving her a pillow to hit does not address her anger. She still feels unheard. Using scissors inappropriately, hitting you or getting cheeky are her outlets for anger. Everyone talking politely to one another is not a realistic expectation for a four year old. You and your husband talking and behaving respectfully to her will teach her how that's done but don't expect her to be a grownup. Since she is fascinated with scissors, instead of trying to keep them away from her, work with her with the scissors. Let her know she can use them when she wants as long as you are present. Give her more permission with them and she will be better about asking you for them. When she hits you, stop the hitting and acknowledge her anger. Name it if you can. "You're really angry that I took the scissors away." Ask her what her hands would say if they could talk. Allow her anger and then grab a pillow and encourage her to take it out on the pillow. After all is calm, go back over the hitting situation when she is better able to talk about it—never demand an apology. Do a "do-over". "I wish I had said… Is there anything you wish you had said or done differently?" This all works ONLY if punishment is never involved.

Understanding ADHD

Q. I have a son who is turning 9 this summer. He was recently diagnosed with ADHD. I need some directions/help as to how to deal with an ADHD child. He has mood swings and sometimes he acts like a 3 yr. old who needs so much of my attention. Should I tell him that he has ADHD? What books and parenting programs do you recommend?

A. Name for him what it is you know he has a hard time with—being able to focus on a task for a period of time, controlling his arms and hands when he wants, thinking something through and knowing what will be the outcome. Tell him that some people call this ADHD. Share with him the things you have a hard time with. Everyone has difficulties—just in different areas. He certainly knows he's different, and I can assure you he compares himself to his classmates. Knowing what is going on with him will be helpful to him. If he has siblings who have an easier time of it, this could be a source of anger and resentment for him if not addressed and acknowledged. "It's got to be so frustrating to see your sister whiz through her homework when it's hard for you to concentrate on it." "It must look like your brother has a much easier life than you. That's hard." When we're not afraid to name it, children feel so much more understood. It is important that you accept every aspect of his difficulties so he always feels accepted and understood by you. When you accept him, then you can work with his behavior. But if you blame him for behavior he cannot help, his behavior will get worse and worse. Make sure your expectations are realistic. For instance, keep in mind that of course he will want all your attention and do anything he can think of to get it. That's natural for him. He is a high needs child and that makes you a high needs parent. Be sure you are taking good care of yourself in order to be the grounding he needs. There are many good books on ADHD. To start, check out a picture book called All Dogs Have ADD - can't remember the author. It is a wonderful book for kids and parents alike. Read "Driven to Distraction" by Dr. Edward Hallowell and a new book, "Buzz" by Katherine Ellison. Check out your local hospital or mental health agency for parenting programs. If you can't find anything helpful, we can always do phone counseling.

Role-Playing to release anger

Q. When I picked up my nearly 5 year old daughter at daycare this evening, the teacher told me that she had bitten another child. This was the second time she's bitten that child in as many weeks. I'm so upset and embarrassed! The director of the day care center got involved and her teacher said, "we handled it". They "didn't want [me] to speak to [my] daughter about the situation." They seemed to feel they had the situation under control. Not talking with her about it just didn't feel right to me… so we did. She told me that the child angered her, was pushing against her, and putting an "Army soldier" on her project…The tears streamed down her face as she told me about the situation. The child who she bit has bitten her at least twice in the past six months. He was removed from his previous daycare and routinely has difficulties at this center. My daughter often comes home from school with bumps, bruises, and stories about this child—even has had nightmares about him and addresses him in imaginative play at home. It seems like a bullying situation. That said, this daycare class has been overwhelming for her. There are 28 children in the class and constant activity. There's a drive for academics that does not seem to be age-appropriate. It does not allow for rest periods for 4 and up (and my daughter still needs a nap). I don't intend to make excuses for her, but the circumstances surrounding the situation tell me a much bigger story about what she is possibly going through. I'd like to help her with the anger she is feeling and help her to work through this. Any advice you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

A. I would try some role-playing with your daughter taking turns playing the other child and her. Tell her she has permission to say anything she wants about this other child so she can get all her anger and frustration out — then you have to really let her go! If she's into it, you might do something like this a few times. Then, only after her feelings are all out, ask her what she might really like to say to this child when she sees him again. If she says things that are inappropriate, ask her what he would do or say if she said that. If she thinks it through herself she will feel so empowered that she might not need to do a thing—just knowing she has done it with you may be enough. Your job is to lead her without telling her what to do or say. Make suggestions only. Then you might want to look for a new school. Doesn't sound like you think much of this one—don't blame you.
(follow-up story below)


(from last Q&A above)

Thank you very much for this advice. It worked beautifully! The role-playing allowed my daughter to express her deep frustrations with this other child, that she's watched her friends be bullied by this other child since he joined the classroom, that teachers in her classroom often ignore the things this boy does, and that the things he's done to her have not been "heard" by her teachers when she's talked to them in the past. She did "really let loose" as you described…nothing inappropriate, but she really yelled at that boy and told "him" that how he was treating her and their friends was not nice. She told him that she wasn't going to bite him again, but that she was very angry with him and she was going to make sure the teachers knew it if he gave anyone any more trouble.

I talked to one of my daughter's teachers about the things that came out. She recognized some things she needed to change after hearing about what my daughter said. The role-playing was really good stuff!!! Let's hope it was a catalyst for her own empowerment and the improvements needed in her relationship with the boy and with her teachers.

(what's the follow-up on this story?)

More stories, please!!! I really am running out.
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Bonnie Harris, Connective Parenting
phone: 603-924-6639

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