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Lessons for Everyday Parenting

The Connective Parenting Newsletter

April 2012


Lesson: Slow Parenting

girl on couch with pillows There have been many attempts to slow our fast-paced world down. The Slow Food movement raises awareness of the dangers of fast-food and how to eat locally and more organically, National Unplugged Day attempts to disconnect us from technology for a brief time to stop and smell the roses. I've been thinking about a Slow Parenting movement.

The point of any movement is to get us off automatic pilot, to pay attention, and to raise our consciousness about the choices we make. The reality is that we live in a world where most parents have to work and most kids have to spend most of their days in other people's care—day care, nannies, preschool, formal school, and after-school programs. In order to have "enough" money, "enough" stuff, one must focus on getting ahead. That keeps most parents at work as well as obsessed with how to get their children a leg up in this dog-eat-dog world. Instead of slowing the treadmill down, we keep turning up the speed.

It's amazing how much information needs to be crammed in our faces in order to convince us what is best for a child's development. We have so much information, yet know so little. The pressure with which I see parents and schools pushing development is frightening. Bookshelves teem with evidence, David Elkind's books among the best known, and tons of research proves how nothing is more important for a child's development (and thus success in life) than unstructured, unsupervised play without formal academic learning in the first five years of life. But it does nothing to stem the tide of the current push toward being the best and the smartest--in the classroom and in the world. We even have a new study showing that ambition does not necessarily lead to happiness. We are moving at such speed that most of us have forgotten what a rose smells like.

Slow parenting (Connective Parenting) is meant to insure that we never stop paying attention. When we do, we pay for it with children's resistance and anger and later with their behavior often costing society dearly. But how many listen to children's resistance and understand what they are trying to tell us. Mostly we yell at it, punish it, threaten it and thus perpetuate it. It's what we do.

What does slow parenting look like, short of quitting our jobs, going broke and giving up everything we want to focus on our children? As with everything, it starts with baby steps. First we need convincing that cutting back and slowing down is the best way to support our children and their futures. And to know that we don't have to change our lives to be more mindful of them.

To begin with, it means listening.
  • Listen to yourself. Stop and pay attention to what feels right and what feels wrong. Then decide whether a change or acceptance is in order.
  • Listen to your child. Are you hearing anger? Do you see uncharacteristic aggression? Instead of dealing with the behavior, take time to give your child some genuine one-on-one. Then listen. Even if for only a few minutes a day, be present, be connected, and let your child take the lead.
  • Take a look at where you can cut back on after-school activity for more unstructured time.
  • Allow your child to experience boredom. Out of boredom, creativity arises. Acknowledge it and ask, "What can you think of to do?" Make a list with your child of all the things he likes to do. Post it. Then, when he's bored, tell him to check his list. Some children need more parent attention than others but let that attention be fully on watching and listening.
  • Do whatever you can to fight against the movement toward academic homework at younger and younger ages. Most schools say that it comes from parent pressure. If that is so, talk about it with other parents. Pass literature around that points out the dangers. And most important: Do not expect your under-seven-year-old to buckle down to do homework. If she has it, make it a game or a relaxed activity that you do together.
  • Spend some time as a family talking about what slowing down might look like. Make a list of things you all suggest, then another list of ones you all can agree on. And then do them.

Send me stories about how you have slowed down your parenting and what results you have seen. bh@bonnieharris.com

Continue to send me more pictures. Parents and kids, angry kids, happy kids - bh@bonnieharris.com


Questions and Answers

I want your questions. Here's how it works: You email me a question to bh@bonnieharris.com, 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.

Night Fears

Q. Our 6-year-old son is terrified of the dark. He won't go into any room alone if the lights are out, and even in the daytime he wants someone to sit at the bottom of the stairs when he has to use the bathroom upstairs. We have tried every tool in our box and nothing seems to be effective—reward motivation, favorite stuffed animals, having the pets join him, lights on, letting our 3 year old sleep in his room, nightlights, trying to teach him to think of funny or happy things, etc. It breaks my heart when he calls to me in the night, and I see him lying there for hours terrified. He has started trying to wake his brother, and even slips into his toddler bed with him. His dreams have always been incredibly detailed and creativity is one if his strong suits in other areas of his life. As a toddler, he had 3 episodes of night terrors. It took him a bit to snap out of them and return to reality--an image that still haunts me today. We keep him from most "scary" shows that his friends watch and yet his imagination dreams these horrible images and fear. I feel like there must be some way to help build his courage so that he can have a nourishing sleep without squishing into our bed or impacting his younger brother's sleep. Any advice?

A. Interesting that you mentioned your son's imagination and creativity. These wonderful traits often lead to very disrupted and scary dreams and nightmares. It comes with the creative territory, it seems. This sounds like genuine fear and should be treated as such. Never minimize his fears but also support him with your confidence and assurance that he will eventually be over them. He of course worries it will always be like this. Your confidence is key because the more you worry about his fears, the more he gets the message that there really is something to be upset about. Keep giving him "weapons" he might use, i.e. a nerf bat, a superhero quilt for protection, a night check with you of his closet and beneath his bed, etc. Instead of asking him to think of happy things, try rehearsing with him all the angry, horrible things he would like to say to whatever he's afraid of—let him go all out. Yet all the while, maintaining confidence that he will be fine.

I too tried everything I could think of with my daughter to no avail. Fears will not be assuaged. We did role-playing with her fears. Take turns playing what he is afraid of and allow him to personify and talk to those fears. My daughter wanted to talk to someone else about her fears so I set up a few appointments with a therapist friend. It seemed to help. If your son would like that, I highly recommend a therapist who specializes in children's fears and phobias. As hard as it is to live through, it is perfectly natural and will diminish with time. Actually both of my children were afraid at night until they were nine. Fears change as cognition develops. We of course want desperately to take them away, but that is impossible. It is important for them to go through their fears to learn to cope. Coping and living through it with your support and understanding will build his courage. It is not likely there will be any lasting negative effects. It's just getting through it that is tough.

Religious Belief

Q. What do you say to a son who says he doesn't believe in God? We are a family who goes to church often, talks about doing good to and for others, and tries to instill proper values and ethics in the lives of our children. At dinner the other night, while conversing, our 14-year-old son dropped this bombshell that he was going to choose to be an atheist. It upset both my husband and me to the point where we sent him to his room to reflect on all he has to be thankful for. He is of a pretty calm and kind nature, so this really disappointed us and upset us. Is there something we could say and/or do to make him understand that God is important!?

A. Your son is demonstrating his growing independence. It is important that you honor that while at the same time maintaining a relationship with him that he will always want to gain love, support, and influence from. It is his attachment to you and your family that will keep him safe, self-assured, and strong in the face of growing peer dominance. If you punish him for what he believes or what he says he believes, you are putting that relationship at risk. At 14, you can no longer convince him to believe as you do or make him understand what you believe is right or important. He has his own mind, sees others believing differently and now knows that he can too. Let him know that you admire his independent thinking even though you believe differently. I would acknowledge that you know that not everyone believes in God and many have different gods than yours--as well as how important your belief has been to you. When we put others down for believing differently than we do, we foster bigotry. Your son could find that as further reason to not believe especially if he is punished (being sent to his room) for his disbelief. In other words, you could be sending him further down the path you least want him to take. One does not have to believe in God to be humble, grateful, kind, helpful and respectful of others. He will take his values and ethics from you regardless of what he believes. It is important that you uphold those values by honoring his right to think differently. If you let him know that you understand he is struggling with important philosophical thinking, and you are open to discussing his quandaries with him, he will listen. When you let him know that you do not and will not approve of his decision to believe differently, he will no longer seek your advice. This is an important milestone for all of you.

Catering to Food Preferences

Q. My kids, 5 and 3, have had catered food of their choice their whole lives, and we can't figure out how to switch without enduring weeks and months of misery at the table. When we tried exactly a year ago, we gave up after about a week and a half of screaming and crying at every dinner. After a long hiatus, I tried again tonight, thinking we'd do family style once a week and the kids would help plan the menu and cook. They agreed to try a homemade mac and cheese (they occasionally will eat plain pasta with grated cheese on top, but never with sauce). We added broccoli and sun dried tomatoes to ours to make it palatable. Not surprisingly, they took a few bites, declared it disgusting, and started crying for their usual (pbj for my son, pizza from the local pizza place for my daughter). We also had other items they like on offer—pineapple and bread—but they wouldn't eat them. After over 30 minutes of crying, my husband and I conferenced outside and agreed to give him the pbj, but then to get advice on how else we might do this more effectively, and less painfully.

An additional challenge is that we are vegetarian, and tend to prefer healthy and fairly sophisticated foods, so moving to a family menu requires a major compromise on our part as well. Since they won't eat mac and cheese, they are unlikely to eat barley pilaf with kale, shiitake and marinated tofu. I'm willing to compromise my own palette to aid their development, but I end up feeling quite resentful when I am stuck eating mac and cheese (even with veggies) when they don't even eat it.


A. It will be hard; there are no two ways about it. But isn't it worth dealing with the hard now rather than continuing to raise children with such restricted eating habits? I would encourage a family discussion to talk about the plan rather than suddenly change the meals. Let them know that they are now old enough to start developing broader food tastes, which they WILL do. Let them know that you know they won't like it right away and that you completely understand. Tell them that you will be fixing food for the whole family, and they can choose to eat it or not. Together create a list of things they would like as side dishes, not main courses, that you might add to the meal. Then it is up to them to choose whether or not they will eat. Allowing them to deal with THEIR problem is the hardest part for you. Give them outlets for their anger--drawing how they feel, jumping on a cushion, punching a pillow—be their ally in their frustration and anger. But let them know that you are going to stay the course. Since you have backtracked before, they will fight you hard believing you will give in again. Stay as neutral as you can, don't engage in their arguments except to listen, and keep the message clear that you are going to stick with the plan. If they would like to get themselves cereal, they can do that. Include something you know they like as a side dish to go along with a pilaf dish. Then play games at the table like "I spy" and take all focus off food. Eat with fingers, chopsticks, toothpicks, toy silverware, anything that would make it more like a game.

Talk with your husband first to make a plan and then present it to the kids. In your discussion with them, talk about everyone's ideas of what should happen when they do nothing but cry. You might suggest that they can cry, but they will need to do it somewhere away from the table so dinnertime still works for you and your husband—it's about finding balance. They can choose to feel the way they want, but they don't have the right to ruin it for you. Say this all very neutrally so you don't get caught up in your fears.

Absolutely they can learn to eat the food you are eating. Perhaps adjust slightly in the beginning but resist the temptation to compromise what you want for what they want. Know that it is their problem and that you compound that problem for them when you make it yours. Be compassionate and understanding of their problem, but do not fix it. They will adjust but only when you hand over their problem to them. As long as they know that you will fix it, they will blame it on you forever. Courage! You don't have to be cruel to do this. But you do have to have confidence that you are doing the right thing, and they will learn to be good eaters.


Story

  • Response to the Slow Parenting newsletter:
    I've heard that wisdom comes though quietude, and I believe that's true. Our children need quiet time to reflect and process what they've taken in, and adults do too. My richest experiences with my children have been the moments when we've been quiet together, watching snow fall while prone under pines, gazing into a fire while toasting marshmallows, listening to night sounds from cozy sleeping bags (I'm noticing a nature theme here). Sometimes our best connective moments have been the quietest ones. So hear-hear to Slow Parenting! Thank you again for another inspirational newsletter.

  • My four year old son does not like to wash his hands after using the bathroom. This is a repeated battle. So earlier today I stood on the inside of the bathroom door and said, "Ok, are you ready to try the new soap we got, it smells like lemons!" In other words, you are not getting out until you wash your hands. He refused, he pouted, he said he would not wash his hands until I said he did not have to. I asked what would happen after I said he did not have to wash. He said he would not wash and leave. Finally I crouched down and said, "I see you really don't want to wash your hands. I don't want to make you miserable. I do want to keep everyone healthy. Can you solve this for me?" He said, "Well, I could pull out the big stool and wash my hands at the kitchen sink." Done!

More stories please!

Information

Contact:
Bonnie Harris, Connective Parenting
email: bh@bonnieharris.com
phone: 603-924-6639
website: www.bonnieharris.com

To send a question: Email me your question, and I will respond with my answer within a couple of days. Then I post it in the newsletter at another time. I never use names.

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Email Bonnie with questions or comments at bh@bonnieharris.com.


© Bonnie Harris, LLC | 603.924.6639 | bh@bonnieharris.com

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