Love, Balance, and Problem Solving

A little while back I asked you to think about your own parenting philosophy and to start keeping an eye out for parenting behavior you observe, both good and bad, to help develop a concept of what kind of parent you want to be.  Here’s my global view of parenting: There is no one perfect parenting style but rather doing what works best for you and your child.  This means a different approach for every family and within each family, a different approach for every child.  The approach that works for me and for my 4 munchkins merges several somewhat dichotomous parenting styles: I’m pro-baby carrying, pro-breastfeeding and start my kids later in preschool than most Americans yet I favor a structured household and use a cry-it-out approach to sleep training at 6 months.  Before getting into specifics, though, I think I can summarize my parenting style into 3 overarching principles.

First, I place great emphasis on how I interact with my children on a daily basis.  In their first few years of life, parents (especially stay-at-home parents) have a tremendous ability to shape their child’s development.  There are lots of hugs and kisses at our house and there is a great deal of attention to the words that I say.  Everything that you do and say to your children every day adds up over time and develops into their view of you and the world.  I want my children to know that they are unconditionally loved and to become warm and happy people.  As part of this, I always try to speak to them in a loving, kind, and supportive way and react to them in a calm and appropriate manner.  This may sound simple but it is certainly not easy and often requires an incredible amount of patience (especially since the household chaos level jumped up a notch after having our third child) but I think it’s critical to being a good parent.  Remember, this is a goal, not a constant reality.  We all get upset sometimes and overreact sometimes but having this image of amazing parenting in my mind always helps me to get back to that behavior as quickly as possible when I encounter obstacles.

Loving your children does not mean that you should cater to their every request and indulge their every desire.  Children need a tremendous amount of guidance in their early years and I provide clear and consistent expectations for my children’s behavior.  My influence is greatest in the first 5 years.  Once they start full-time school, there are so many other influences in their life and your daily interaction time is so greatly diminished, you have to hope that you have instilled a solid foundation of good behavior in your children.  While loving them unconditionally, each day, I work on molding them into the kind and respectful adults they one day will become.  Children are a work in progress; you have to pick and choose your battles, tackling just a few behaviors at a time.  So this second part of my parenting approach is about balance – balancing your child’s behavior today with the behavior you hope they’ll have when their 5 years old and later 18 years old.

The third part of my approach is using problem-solving skills to tackle all my parenting dilemmas because training children is not easy and we often find ourselves stumped by our children’s behavior.  Rather than getting frustrated and overwhelmed, I like to think of parenting as an exciting challenge and attempt to solve the problems we encounter together.  This is where a problem-solving approach to parenting comes in really handy; if your technique isn’t working, search for another and keep searching until you find one that works for both you and your child.  I’ll lay-out the problem-solving approach in my next post.  For now, the emphasis is on realizing that parents have a myriad of tools in their arsenal and with some perseverance and patience, you can help your children through any challenging phases.


Is Your Child’s Room Conducive With Sleep?

What does your child’s room look like?  How much furniture is in it, are there toys in it, are those toys hidden or easily accessible, how many stuffed animals are there on his/her bed?  This is part 2 of our Sleep Hygiene discussion focussed on Bedroom Environment, following up on the last Bedtime Routines post.  You’ve completed your bedtime routine and gone to tuck your munchkin in, but is their room a place where a young child could easily fall asleep?  Getting children to sleep well is very high on my list of parenting priorities so I design their whole room around sleep.  When my little ones move from a crib to a bed they’re basically just enlarging the nearly empty rectangular sleeping space.  When we just had 1 child, his bedroom consisted of a mattress on the floor (why have a bed frame that makes for a falling hazard in his room?), a blanket, a stuffed animal, and a dresser with just clothes in it.  That is literally all that was in his room.  So how did the transition from crib to bed go?  Seamlessly.

Young children don’t need mobiles, they don’t need elaborately decorated bedroom walls or countless glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling; they just need a nice place to rest.  I once saw a well-known psychologist who specializes in couples and sexual relationships speak at a conference and he said, “Bedrooms are for sex and sleeping” so set them up to be conducive with those 2 actives.  For your kids, this translates to “Bedrooms are for sleeping”.  Now that we have 3 boys sharing a room, it looks a bit like a gypsy den with mattresses spread all over the floor but the only other furniture in their room is 1 nightstand to hold a lamp and an alarm clock.  They can jump around in their room during the day with less risk of hurting themselves on excess furniture.  And when bedtime comes, that room cries out for sleep.  If you have a smaller living space and need to store some of your child’s toys or other gear in their bedroom, you can adapt this principle by doing your best to keep toys tucked away in the closet, under the bed, in storage bins with lids – anything that makes it clear that once clean-up is done, the toys stay away until the morning.

As your child gets older, they’ll start to request having more of their own belongings in their room and be able to have more decorations on their walls.  At what age?  There is a huge discrepancy in when your child will be ready for a more ornate room; I’d say somewhere between 3 and 5.  You know your child better than anyone so you’ll get a feel for when they’ve got the bedtime routine down so well that they won’t even be tempted to touch that T-Rex at tuck-in time.  You allow things to enter the bedroom bit by bit over time to test the waters, gently guiding your munchkins along the path to independence.

Bedtime Routines

Yesterday a dear friend asked my advice on managing her tired 10 year-old who gets “tanky” – tired and cranky.  I gave her some quick on-the-spot advice and will elaborate more below, but I just have to take a second to enjoy this landmark event.  I’ve been saying for years and years whenever people ask me what I plan to do when my kids are all in school or ask what aspect of psychology I plan to return to (clinical, research, teaching, consulting), that one day I want to write a book on parenting and psychology and later parlay that into a little consulting career for parents of young children.  People often ask me parenting questions and I’ve enjoyed answering them individually and now that I’ve got this blog up and running, it’s the first step to sharing my tips with a larger audience.  Exciting stuff!

Back to the topic at hand: What to do with a tired child.  This topic is so large I’m going to initially divide it into 4 posts focussed on Sleep Hygiene (Bedtime Routine, Bedroom Environment, Bed Time, and Bedtime Sneakiness) with much more to come on sleep training after that.  As a quick preface to bedtime routines, I must highlight the fact that well-rested kids and well-rested parents are primed for success.  When either party gets tired, parent-child interactions suffer.  Sleep is incredibly important.

Now on to routines: I cannot stress enough the importance of routine in your child’s life.  Children thrive on consistency and predictability; it helps them to navigate through all the changes they are experiencing physically and the new learning experiences they encounter daily.  I will talk more about daily routines in future posts.  Today we’ll focus on bedtime which is arguably the most important part of those routines.  Bedtime routines are not just for kids; they’re an important for adults too and are the first focus of our four-part psychology lesson on sleep hygiene.  Sleep hygiene refers not just to how cleanly you are for bed but how your entire sleep routine and environment are set-up and whether they’re conducive with getting a good night’s sleep.  Bedtime routines are just the first aspect of sleep hygiene we’ll discuss.

I think of the bedtime routine as everything that happens after dinner.  After clearing plates and wiping up any crumbs that spilled off of their plates, my kids head straight to picking out their clothes for the next day then off to bath or shower.  Then it’s time for pajamas, hair brushing, dental floss and toothbrushing, then off to story time.  Usually Dad reads because he has not spent as much time with them during the day and I start tackling the dishes and making lunches for the next day so all that gets done before that last child goes to bed and we still have some time to ourselves in the evening.  Each child gets to pick at least one story before bed, more if I got dinner on the table early enough and if bath time goes smoothly.  The number of books is made clear at the start of story time to avoid any later negotiations and the child with the earliest bedtime gets to pick first.  After their story, that child says goodnight to their siblings and Dad and I walk them back for “final potty” and tuck-in (which is a quick event) while Dad gets the next child’s story started.  Then we repeat the process 3 more times before Mom & Dad go off-duty for the night.

It’s the same thing almost every night.  The kids are almost always asleep within minutes of being tucked-in.  I love hearing babysitters say, “The kids went to bed so easily, it was a breeze.”  And grandparents say they’re happy to watch the kids for date night because they’re so well-trained at bedtime.  Having a reliable bedtime routine benefits you and your children.  Yours can be totally different than mine as long as it’s consistent and involves getting them into “calm and quiet” mode to be primed for sleep.  Our routine has changed slightly over the years; for example, we used to read in their beds but after the 3rd child that got a little cramped so now we read in the living room.

Now of course there are going to be some times when the routine is modified.  For example, if we go swimming and shower earlier in the day we skip bath and go straight to pajamas.  Or if we go out to dinner and service is slow and we return home too late to fit in a bath without sacrificing bedtime, as long as they’re not horribly filthy we’ll skip bath.  I let them know the plan on the drive home from the restaurant and remind them as we walk in the door, then off they go to quickly get pajamas on to still have time for a story – unless we’re super late and that needs to be skipped too.  The beauty of a reliable bedtime routine is that the kids can go with the flow for an odd night here and there because they are comforted by the knowledge that the routine will be back the next day.

What Does Amazing Parenting Look Like?

Presumably every parent reading this wants to be the best parent they can possibly be to their children.  But what does that mean?  The answer will be different for each of you but it’s important that you take a minute, if you haven’t already done so, to visualize what you think an amazing parent looks like.  Having this prototype of good parenting helps you to evaluate your work (yes, parenting is a lot of work) and to help steer you back on course when you find that you’re straying.  Nobody can be the perfect parent all the time so we can only strive for our best as much of the time as we can manage.

How do you know what good parenting looks like?  This gets us to our first real psychology lesson: Social Learning Theory pioneered by Albert Bandura in the 1960’s.  Simply observing social interactions can lead to a tremendous amount of learning.  Applied to parenting, we look for the outcome parents experience based on how they choose to interact with their children.  For example, you observe a parent-child interaction in which a 1 1/2 year-old appears to be on the brink of a melt-down, desperately wanting the toy another child is holding and the mother repeatedly saying, “No, that’s not your toy.  Here’s your toy.”  The child continues to cry, the mother gets more and more stressed…you can see where this is going.  In contrast, you observe the same interaction but the mother in this case responds by saying, “Jimmy’s using that toy now but you’ll get a turn soon.  Oh, look over here!” as she adeptly repositions his body facing the other direction and with energy and excitement redirects him to see a bird/butterfly/flower/whatever she can think of to shift the child’s focus away from the offending toy.  The second mother tries to avoid just saying “no” to her child, realizes that young children are easily distracted, and uses high energy and positivity in her parenting.  Observant parents in the room may choose to later imitate, or “model” these behaviors with their own children.

Find your role model parents, whether it’s your own parents, another mom in a play group, or a character on television.  Think about what aspects of their behavior and dialogue with their children you value, and use them in your own parenting.  Pick and choose from different models and develop an image for what amazing parenting looks like to you.

Also pay attention to parents whose behavior you do not want to model, whether it’s body language, speech patterns, or parenting techniques gone awry.  I’ll talk more about discipline techniques and consequences in a future post, but just a quick example from years ago in my pre-baby days when my husband and I actually had time to play tennis together in the evenings after work…on a neighboring court I overheard a boy probably around age 11 repeatedly using profanity when he became discouraged about his tennis game.  There are many ways this situation could have been handled better but what I’ll never forget is hearing her say, “If you keep using that language, we’re going to have to go home” not once, not twice, but at least 8 times.  In the end, we actually ended up going home before they did.  Even though I had never yet had to set-up an if/then consequence for my own children, I clearly observed that this technique was not working and got my first chance to build my arsenal of parenting techniques to (and not to) model.

Valentine’s Day

The days go pretty quickly with 4 small children.  And what seems like a small project can take a very long time with our age range.  This is where planning ahead comes in.  About 2 weeks before Valentine’s Day we start working on cards.  That way the crafts part can be spread over a day or two, the writing names on the cards part can be done another day, and the envelope addressing (which I mainly do still) can get squeezed in before mailing cards to out-of-town folks.  Hooray for repeating events in Reminders on my phone because motherhood has really destroyed my memory.

I think holidays like this are a great chance to connect with people.  We send cards to nieces, cousins, uncles, grandparents, friends, etc.  When you’re focussed on your own nuclear family for so many years, it can be easy to lose touch with other important people in your life.  And when traveling becomes more difficult and more expensive with kids, it’s easy to miss out on visits with family and friends.  But these relationships are important and must be nurtured.  Little gestures like a simple Valentine’s card can help keep you connected.  Who doesn’t appreciate an adorable homemade card with little kindergartener misspelled words?  We are not super craftsy but a quick trip to Michael’s to get heart-shaped paper, glitter glue paint, and some cute paper cut-outs does the trick.

And, of course, don’t forget to make a card for Dad!

Boys vs. Girls

My 6 year-old daughter had 2 friends over after school today.  The play date lasted over 2 hours and was a total breeze.  We had lunch, the girls played dress-up, they cleaned up their toys, then we easily loaded up the car to pick up my oldest from school.  My 3 year-old was having a play date with his grandfather so just the 1 year-old was around with the girls.  After hugs and cuteness toward him, the girls decided they wanted some alone time so he and I went outside and did some gardening.  We peeked in on the girls from time to time but basically they spent an hour playing alone nicely.  That’s three 6 year-old girls.

Now we’ve have plenty of play dates with three 6 year-old boys and more recently three 8 year-old boys.  Do they go so smoothly?  Almost never.  They usually involve beds being completely dismantled, play becoming too rough, rocks thrown around the yard, etc.  Boys will be boys.

There are certainly boys who gravitate more toward the calm side (and if you’ve got one of these guys, lucky you!) and girls who can be more rowdy, but gender stereotypes are often accurate.  So, when you’re hosting a play date and the boys are going insane, rest assured that’s the norm.  It’s unlikely your child is overly aggressive.  It’s unlikely they have ADHD.  It is likely they’re going to grow up to be very normal men.  For now, just try to enjoy the energy and provide redirection when needed to help them grow into those respectable young men.

Breakfast is Scheduled

My name is Lindsay Emmerson and I am a mother of 4 young children: Colin (8), Robin (6), Logan (nearly 4), and Soren (approaching 2). This is the first bit of information I include when I tell you about myself because my identity is pretty entwined with my parental role being a stay-at-home mom. I actually have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology which probably makes me one of the most over-educated stay-at-home moms around but I’m certainly using aspects of my training in my daily life. I also took a brief foray into being a fitness coach in my early years of motherhood but that is a story for another day.

The quick back-story on why I’m starting a blog today…when people ask me what I’m going to do when all the kids are in school, I usually reply that first I will get caught-up on a 10-year-long To Do list. Then I’m planning to write a book on psychology and parenting. I’ve kept notes through the years and have a treasure chest of case points for the book from raising my own children. One day I just need time to sit down with my psychology textbooks and merge the two into a handbook for new parents. Last weekend a friend in a similar situation (who is writing an exciting book on intimacy and family relationships) told me her agent said she needs to have a social media platform with at least 5,000 followers before the publisher will seriously consider her work. To put this in perspective, I log onto Facebook about 7 times a year and I joined Instagram just last week. So, self-publishing started sounding like a good idea. But today I woke up and had an idea about something to blog about and thought I might as well try it out and see where it takes me.

Today I have one tid-bit of advice to share with mothers, fathers, caregivers, etc. that came about from using basic problem solving skills, a core component of cognitive behavioral psychology. Has your morning with your munchkin(s) ever seemed rushed? My husband leaves for work around 6am which coincides with 4 munchkins waking up hungry, needing to get dressed, needing to brush teeth and hair, needing to put on sunscreen (since we are so fortunate to live in Santa Barbara, CA), needing to do homework, needing to pack up their lunches for school, and all the while just wanting to play with (or harass) their siblings – not to mention that I should at least get myself dressed and brush my teeth before leaving the house. We need to leave the house by 8:15 to make it to the first school drop-off which is enough time to do all this, except when it’s not – when there’s a huge diaper blow-out, a sick child, when the kids or I wake up in a particularly grumpy mood, when we can’t find a library book that’s due that day, etc. So, we are often scurrying out the door.

In trying to simplify my morning routine, I came up with an organizational strategy that has greatly helped easy mornings. Imagine that four kids are asking you to make four different breakfasts. Sounds a bit chaotic, right? It hit me one day that I should have a set meal plan so I thought up five breakfast for Monday through Friday, each of which include a fruit and a protein, and told the kids this was the new plan:

Monday: muffins (a real treat to get everyone excited about Mondays), chopped fruit, and a glass of milk

Tuesday: cereal (because Tuesday I do all of my laundry and need every second in the morning to get the second load in before we head out for the morning), chopped fruit, and milk either in the cereal or in a glass

Wednesday: bagel with cream cheese and either fruit on the side or orange juice since the bagel and cream cheese have the protein covered

Thursday: oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts – option of juice if they have nuts for protein, otherwise milk

Friday: primeval bars (which are these yummy bar-shaped baked good that resembles a cinnamon-raisin bagel made by Trader Joe’s) with jam, honey, or peanut butter on top, shopped fruit, and milk on the side

This may be way healthier or way less healthy than you’re used to and your own munchkins might love or despise these items; the menu can obviously be varied tremendously to meet your family needs but the routine in the real triumph. Such a simple strategy made mornings so much easier. After a short period, the kids were totally into the routine and started asking, “What day is it? So what do we eat today?” A wonderful mother friend of mine with 3 children saw my menu printed out and posted on our refrigerator one day and loved the idea so much she adapted it to her family to simplify their mornings. You may have already thought of this technique on your own but if not, give it a try and hopefully it will make your parenting morning just a little bit easier. By the way, as the kids get older, I let them choose a different meal than the daily special if they can make the entire meal themselves. My 8 year-old and 6-year-old love oatmeal so last year they learned how to microwave it themselves and some weeks they have that on several mornings with the fruit I have prepared.  Similarly, my 3 year-old just learned how to prepare his own primeval bars.

I don’t know when I’ll get around to writing my next entry in this blog. So far while writing this one I have retrieved my 8 year-old’s homework from my 1 year-old, wiped watermelon juice off my 3 year-old, been asked about 10 questions, and been pleasantly interrupted by about 30 comments just beseeching praise and affirmation. But I’ll try to fit them in here and there!