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Lessons for Everyday Parenting
The Connective Parenting Newsletter
Lesson: The Magic of Believing
This time of year is tough for parents of seven, eight, nine year olds who have kept alive their children's belief in Santa Claus. Whether Santa, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, monsters, gnomes, or super heroes, children seem to need to believe in something magical, something they cannot see or touch—even when it is fearsome monsters. Little children feel powerless in their world of large people who shove them around like pawns on a chessboard. Identifying with super heroic figures helps them feel powerful. New cognitive understanding brings the elementary aged child face to face with logic, putting at risk the magic of Santa et. al.
My oldest child caught onto Santa when he was nine and his reasoning could no longer overlook the little slips that Santa made come Christmas morning. But he never let on to his little sister, remembering the magic of belief. When she was five, she asked her father if there really was a Santa. Anxious to be done with the "lie", as he saw it, he said, "No." She answered with a disbelieving, "Really?" He said, "Well, what do you think, Molly?" She replied confidently, "Oh, I think there is."
When she was nine, she greeted me one morning holding up an old tooth she had found. I panicked. After putting it to the test the night before, unbenounced to us, she accusingly asked, "You're the tooth fairy aren't you?" Busted. Then she asked the dreaded question: "If I ask you a question will you tell me the truth?" I told her I would, knowing what was coming. "Is there really a Santa Claus?" "No," I said. She flung herself dramatically onto the bed and cried, "And I suppose there's no Easter Bunny either!" There it was. All three dashed in a matter of minutes.
Then came the anger. "You lied to me all these years!" With compassion for her inevitable grief, I said, "Molly, do you wish you had never believed in Santa?" Her tears flowed as she said, "No." She had crossed the line. Acceptance sunk in. She was no longer able to maintain her childish beliefs but she knew the magic of those beliefs.
We must never abuse the power of a child's belief by using it to our advantage. "You'd better do what I say or Santa won't bring you any presents." Santa's list of "naughty and nice" can be a tempting tool in the moment but can do serious damage to a child's developing capacity for faith. Santa, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, imaginary friends, whoever your child endows with life and love, should never be wielded against them.
The capacity to believe in something you can't see or touch—from trusting a friend's loyalty, to a higher power in oneself, to the invisible bonds of family, to hope for the future--belief is a necessary quality to surviving and thriving in a roller-coaster society. A child's eager belief in something as illogical as Santa, monsters, the tooth fairy or a giant rabbit shows a developmental need and desire to believe in something beyond the human spectrum. We can all learn from the purity and loyalty of a child's beliefs.
Fairy tales have survived for centuries because they validate a child's fears and imagination. Be sure to hold carefully your children's beliefs, even if they are inconvenient. Perpetuate their capacity for make-believe because their growing imaginations need to take them far. They will believe as long as they need to—often beyond a sibling, friend or even parent telling them otherwise. Gracefully allow them to grieve and then graduate, to cross that line into the knowing when they're ready, so they can become keepers of the secrets for their children.
My facebook page has provoked responses from many parents who view the Santa myth as a lie and either do not perpetuate the belief or keep Santa in the world of pretend. There is no right or wrong and each family must choose what feels right to them. As devastating as learning the truth can be, making the switch from fantasy to reality happens in so many areas of life for a child. I like the way Molly put it. "Learning "the truth" about santa represents a stage of development of moving from a simplistic understanding of a cultural myth to a complex understanding of why that myth exists and what it represents for us."
One thing is for sure. A lot of buttons get pushed around the subject of Santa. I wonder if some of the nay-sayers had parents who used Santa as a threat for good behavior. Certainly learning the truth under those circumstances would feel like a betrayal.
If you keep Santa alive in your house, keep him in the world of magic so your children will cross the line with the memory of the joy of believing.
Questions and Answers
I want your questions. Here's how it works: You email me a question to email@example.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.
But, what do we do when…?
Q. I love your book and the fresh, understanding approach to our children with the emphasis more on ourselves than on punishing or correcting the child (mainly because it was NOT working for me!!). But WHAT do we do when they absolutely will not stop a behavior that is unacceptable or disturbing to others such as screaming naughty words in a car over and over with grandparents or others present or absolutely refusing to do something such as brush their teeth? My biggest obstacle/question is that when there is something I need (not want) my five yr. old daughter to do, and she absolutely refuses, what then? I am currently trying a "combo approach", using a lot of what your book suggests and some of what others suggest (using, "if you don't do this, then you don't get this" warning approach).
A. Pull the car over and as calmly as possible take your daughter out of the car to get away from the others and give her a moment to vent. Tell her that her words are hurtful to others and she can tell you outside of the car. Try to find out what provoked her outrage. Was she angry about something someone said to her? Was she tired, hungry or hot, etc.? Then address that.
Brushing teeth is something that is your problem. She could care less so don't expect that she should want to do it. She needs motivation and choices. "Would you like me to brush them or you tonight?" "Do you want to brush before you get pajamas on or after?" Also let her know that you completely understand that she doesn't like brushing her teeth and probably won't until she is older. In the meantime it is your job as her mother to make sure she keeps her teeth clean and healthy. So you want to know what would be the easiest for her. Often when we acknowledge our problem and don't put unrealistic expectations on our kids, they are more willing to help us with our problem.
The "warning" approach is actually threatening and most children-anyone for that matter-resist it. As often as possible put the same message in the positive, "When you do this, then I will do this." "As soon as A gets done, then we can do B." Motivation always encourages cooperation more than threats. When she refuses, ask yourself why is she refusing, what is pushing her away. See if you can let go, regroup, and come back to the request with a different approach that will be easier for her to hear.
Q. My mother in law just visited from California and left in tears because of my 3-½ year old son's behavior during the visit. He hit her on several occasions and was, in her words, "mean". His hitting seemed to be in response to her telling him what to do or not do. He's been much better at controlling his hitting lately. Today's incident started when he was running around our apartment waving his drumstick in her face and shouting because he was pretending to be an emcee. She was holding my 4 month old, and it was making her nervous. When she told him to stop, he yelled at her telling her to shut up and that he didn't like her and she should go away. When I tried to take the drumstick away from him he screamed loudly and ran over and hit her. I took him to his room to talk to him, but we didn't have enough time to get to the bottom of the incident before he needed to leave with the babysitter. She repeated all this to my husband, her son, when he came in. His reacted angrily to her and stormed off deeply offended by her statements. He says she's doing the same thing she did when he was a child. He feels she was being selfish and melodramatic, and that when he was a child she always made him feel like he was terribly behaved when compared to other children. I'm confused about whether I should be figuring out what triggered my son to behave like this toward his grandmother or just let it all go since it's not my mother and therefore not directly my problem. Is it too late given his age to talk about something that happened yesterday?
A. It is definitely not too late to go over his grandmother's visit. To connect, start from his point of view: "I bet that visit from grandma was hard for you. When I thought about what it must have felt like to be you, I thought I would probably feel sad and angry." No questions. If he says something like, "I hate her," say, "I could tell that you were angry with her. I know that you have been able to control your hitting for quite awhile now, so you must have felt very upset to get to the point of hitting her and yelling at her." No blame or accusation —neutral. Just stay with validating. Make sure he feels you're with him before getting to his behavior. Try something like, "I bet you didn't like how she reacted. I wonder if you can think of something else you could do when you're mad so you don't hit or get yelled at." See where he goes with that. You may need to bring it up at different times to see when he can focus on it. If he doesn't know how to answer, ask him if he thinks he could come to you and yank on your hand when he feels so angry, which would be your signal to take him in the other room. He may be too young to actually do this, but if you keep with it you can give him a valuable resource for the future. He must know that you are fully on his side in order to trust you with this. If he is blamed or yelled at for his behavior, he will not know what you will do if he comes to you feeling angry. Your goal is to give him some awareness and skills for coping with his impulses so he doesn't react with aggression toward others. He can be as mad as he wants to be toward anyone but he needs to learn to manage his impulses. Hitting or yelling at someone else is unacceptable but our typical reaction to yell at and punish only adds to the internal emotional turmoil and does the opposite of what we intend.
School - teen misfit
Q. My 13 ½ year old daughter has always struggled at school. She makes friends easily but struggles to maintain relationships. She is physically very mature but emotionally still a baby. She has ADHD and some learning problems and has never enjoyed learning. She is now refusing to go to school and is getting anxiety symptoms at the thought of it - stomach ache, headache, feeling too tired to do anything. She hasn't been to school for three weeks now. I have gotten her into a program that helps reconnect kids with school but this hasn't started working yet. In the beginning I was forcing her to go to school using bribery, guilt and threats (wrong I know but I didn't know what to do). Then I decided to back off because this approach was not working and was making us both miserable. She is in counseling for her anxiety but is not motivated to go back to school because she sees no value in it. She sees no positives in school except that I will be happy with her if she goes back. I am a single mum and I need your advice.
A. What a tough question. My heart goes out to all kids and their parents when school does not serve the child's natural desire to learn. I wish I had the answer. And having to go through this without a partner as well… Your daughter clearly feels unsuccessful and does not want to continue feeling this way—that's a good thing, better than sloughing through school not caring about anything and getting hooked up with a bad crowd. She needs to find a purpose, something she can succeed at, something she feels competent doing. Whatever that is probably has nothing to do with school. What does she enjoy doing when there is no pressure? What are your options where you are for a small school setting? I even wonder, could she apprentice with you at work and then do a little school-type work at home in the evenings? The important thing is having only compassion for her situation and how miserable she must be (no more bribery, threats and guilt trips). My first principle is that all children want to succeed. When they don't, it's because they can't, not because they don't want to. We have to find an outlet for her to discover what she can do well in order to feel competent. That will have a ripple effect. I would have a talk with her to get her dreaming and imagining. Sometime when there is no stress—maybe at bedtime. Ask her what she would do with her life if she had a magic wand. If she had no one telling her what to do or what they wished she would do, what would she like or not like about that? Ask her what she dreams about doing/being when she is alone in her room? What does she wish for? Get her imagining. This will work ONLY if she trusts that you have no ulterior motives, if you are not going to lead the conversation in some direction. This is not easy and many kids do not want to go there with a parent, but the reason is because they are suspicious of where it's leading. See what you can come up with and don't push it if you sense resistance. Try again later. The point is to help her see what lights a spark-school-related or not.
On Christmas night at bedtime, my four and a half year old wanted me to climb over her bed to retrieve more stuffed animals from between the bed and the wall, even though she had so many on her bed already that she could barely fit. When I chuckled and said as much to her, she whined, "I never get what I want." On CHRISTMAS! Talk about pushing my buttons! I said, "Can you really say that on Christmas day, after you received at least 30 new things, most of which you asked for?" She continued to pout. I never did get her those animals; she did get them herself. When I left her room, I felt like I had the most ungrateful child in the world. The next morning, I asked her in a quiet moment what her favorite gift was she received for Christmas, and she beamed and said, "Everything!" It was a new day, with its own new challenges.
A note: Christmas can be so anti-climatic for children-for all of us. Emotions that have been so high can come crashing down with the letdown of all the anticipation being over. Children will experience all kinds of feelings, and if we let them go through their ups and downs without editing them and wishing for their gratitude and thanks, they will come around when they find that place of balance once again. We all do if given the chance.
Bonnie Harris, Connective Parenting
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