When the Companion’s Invisible

Q: My 4-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend called Buster. She talks to Buster, plays with Buster, insists that Buster sit at the table with her, etc. Sometimes, she expects me to talk to Buster too. I’m not sure having an invisible friend is such a good idea. What should I do about Buster?

A: When my oldest was around 4, she had an imaginary friend who accompanied her everywhere—to the park, outside, the dinner table, etc. She talked about this friend for so long, her younger sister (around 2) started talking to her sister’s imaginary friend too. Those were some interesting times in our household, that’s for sure!

I viewed the imaginary friend as a tangible outcome of a vivid imagination, something that we should treasure in our children. Sure, it’s silly and funny and annoying at times, but imaginary friends serve a couple of important purposes for our kids. First, it gives them an outlet for their creative imaginations. Second, it provides them with a safe place to explore their own feelings. For example, sometimes, my daughter’s imaginary friend would do something bad. She would talk about how that made her imaginary friend feel and work through those feelings in a safe place.

As to how parents should react to such a “friend,” here are some tips.

  • Don’t overreact. Sure, it can be trying to have your child always talking about someone who isn’t real, but it’s also usually only a sign of a child’s active imagination, not something seriously wrong with the child.
  • Give the responsibility to the child. This means if the child wants the imaginary friend to sit at the dinner table, that’s fine. However, the child should be responsible for his “guest’s” behavior. In other words, no spilling milk deliberately and blaming it on the imaginary friend. The child is completely accountable for the actions of the imaginary friend.
  • Don’t overindulge, either. I made it a practice to only say “hello” or “goodbye” to my daughter’s imaginary friend. I would say that it was her friend, not mine, so the bulk of the discussion should be between the child and the imaginary friend, not the parent and the imaginary friend. This keeps the play with the child, where it belongs.

Above all, enjoy the silliness that imaginary friends can be for our children. There’s something rather sweet and innocent about a little kid talking to someone who isn’t there. As adults, we’re sometimes overly grounded in reality that we forget the magic that children see and feel and view all around them. For all too short a time, they can touch and experience the wonder of imaginary friends. Reality will intrude as they grow up, so don’t rush them through the magic of this part of childhood too soon.

Parenting According to Vicki Hoefle, Part Two

I recently spoke with Vicki Hoefle, professional parent educator, author of Duct Tape Parenting, and national speaker, about parenting. Her new book, The Straight Talk on Parenting; A No-Nonsense Approach on How to Grow a Grown-Up is available now. Catch up on the first part of our conversation here.VHoefle-1

What are some of the most common parenting missteps moms and dads make?

Vicki: Doing too much for their kids and removing obstacles from the children’s lives.

Doing too much for our kids sends the message that we don’t believe they are capable of navigating their own lives. A child who doesn’t believe in himself and who does not think he is capable will behave in ways that support this belief. As the child grows and matures, this belief becomes anchored and they see themselves as limited in their capacity to successfully navigate their adult lives. Both children and adults become dependent on others to do for them what they could do for themselves. If you have spent your entire childhood being convinced that you aren’t capable of taking care of yourself or your responsibilities, it is going to influence how you see yourself as an adult.

Removing obstacles from our children’s lives sends the message that we have little faith in their ability to recover from life’s ups and down, including an embarrassing moment, a rejection or a lousy grade on a test. This lack of faith is carried into adulthood and can severely limit the persons desire to try new things, take healthy risks or their ability to rebound after experiencing a disappointment. In the worse-case scenario, the adult experiences isolation, depression, and other emotional and mental challenges.

Why is instilling character so important for a child’s growth?

Vicki: When I consider the character traits that helped me establish a satisfying and fulfilling life as an adult, I can think of several, but self-control or self-regulation is right there at the top. Self-control is a character trait that takes years to develop.

If we helped our kids develop these character traits while they were young, two things would happen. The first is that you would see children begin to demonstrate them on a regular basis. For example, your four-year-old hits his younger brother when he knocks over the fort. Three years later, if the parent is helping the child develop self-discipline (instead of punishing the child for hitting), it is likely that this child will have developed the self-control necessary to walk away or use some other acceptable and effective strategy. It’s a win-win for everyone.

The second thing that would happen is that the character trait that was introduced into the life of the child would grow strong with each year and eventually, you would have an adult who had mastered the art of self-control, self-regulation, and their life would reflect this. If, however, a child is not given the chance to develop these character traits, it is unlikely that he will display them in his adult life.

What do you hope parents take away from The Straight Talk on Parenting?

Vicki: My motto for more than 20 years has been this: I know I have been a success when parents no longer look to me for answers. I truly believe that parents are the true experts in their children’s lives and when introduced to a simple method for uncovering causes of misbehavior with solutions that are designed to bring out lasting change and support emotional health in kids for a lifetime, they can do the job without all the experts piping in with their wisdom. There is no magical mystery to raising children—a few straightforward ideas are enough to raise respectful, responsible, and resilient human beings. I want parents to know that if they practice a simple method for just a few weeks, they can solve any problem that comes up in daily life with their kids. That would be a glorious day indeed. Empower the parents, empower the child.Straight Talk on Parenting FINAL

A Rude Awakening

Q: Our four-year-old son has started to be disrespectful to other adults in front of me. For example, he snatched something from my friend’s hand that he wanted. When I made him apologize, he first snarled, “I’m not sorry.”

I am appalled, but I’m not sure exactly how to handle the discipline—where, when and what should I do?

Image courtesy of ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: From one parent to another, thanks for noticing your child’s rudeness to other adults. So many times, we as parents offer excuses for our children’s bad behavior toward other grownups (“She didn’t have a nap today,” “He’s mad that he missed soccer practice to come here,” etc.). So it’s great that you not only notice his rudeness but want to correct it.

Now the best way to accomplish that is to make his rudeness his responsibility. In other words, he needs to want to change his behavior more than continue it.

The next time he’s rude to an adult, correct him in a firm yet gentle tone. You don’t have to yell at him to make an impression. Keep it short and sweet, such as: “No snatching items from adults. Tell Mrs. X you’re sorry for grabbing.” Then maintain eye contact until he does so. Prod him once to apologize, but if he still refuses, don’t cajole or wheedle with him to comply. You simply smile at the adult and apologize on his behalf.

Then take him immediately home if possible. Confine him to his room for the rest of the day with all his favorite toys or books or games removed. Move up his bedtime to immediately after an early supper. At this age, curtailing his freedom is a great way to compel him to own his rudeness.

If you can’t leave right away, curtail his movements right then if possible, such as requiring him to stay by your side and not play with the other children. If that isn’t possible because of the situation, then leave as soon as you can and do the confined outlined above when you get home, reminding him of his rudeness (“You were rude to Mrs. X when you snatched the toy from her hand.”).

Above all, avoid the temptation to lecture. Kids this age don’t need to know why it’s rude to snatch things from adults or to interrupt conversations. They just need to know it IS unacceptable behavior. The why won’t make them any more likely to obey, so save your breath.

Also work on role playing with him on how to relate to adults. Work through questions such as

If an adult has something he wants, how does he ask for it?

How should he address an adult who speaks to him?

What should he do if an adult does something he doesn’t like?

Incorporate that practice into your everyday interactions with him. Let him pretend to be the adult and you’re the child. Then reverse roles so he can practice. Reinforcing the proper behavior helps him to visualize how he should react the next time he’s confronted with a similar situation.

Parenting According to Vicki Hoefle, Part One

I recently spoke with Vicki Hoefle, professional parent educator, author of Duct Tape Parenting, and national speaker, about parenting. Her new book, The Straight Talk on Parenting; A No-Nonsense Approach on How to Grow a Grown-Up is available now.

VHoefle-1What surprised you the most in raising your own six kids?

Vicki: How much I didn’t know and how often I let personal prestige (what others thought of me as a mother) guide my parenting decisions.

For the most part, American parents 50 or 60 years ago knew they weren’t raising kids—they were raising adults. What happened to change that mindset in today’s parents?

Vicki: In the not-so-distant past, parents understood that their future depended on children who were ready to leave home and start working their own plot of land. The sooner their kids were prepared, the sooner they could strike out on their own.

Think about it. Parents spent time teaching their kids how to make bread, wash clothes by hand, repair socks, cut and stack wood for winter, repair roofs, till soil and care for livestock. No parent back then was thinking that their 5-year-old or 9-year-old was going to make it big in the NBA or be the next senator. They were preparing them for a life that would mimic their own. Simple.

Fast forward a few dozen years. The choice is still simple: attend college in order to secure a good job to support yourself and your family, or enter the workforce right out of high school to support yourself and your family. Again, no one was thinking that their child would be the next superstar or millionaire.

And then Baby Einstein came along, and parents were fed the idea that if they played Mozart while the child was in utero, hung the right mobiles, read to the child, and taught the child his numbers, letters and colors all before the age of 3, he would have a better chance of getting into a great college, hence securing his future. So, we all went along with the story and began spending hours and hours with our kids “preparing” them for the future. At some point, this idea morphed into the idea that if a parent could stack the deck for their child educationally, why not in other areas? What if I invested my time and resourced into preparing my kid to be the best possible soccer player so they could get a million dollar contract, etc. Suddenly, we stopped helping our kids learn real life skills and started focusing on the elite career they might have.

Today almost every parent I speak with thinks that their child is exceptional, the special one—and so they spend their time preparing the child for a career that will, in all likelihood, never arrive. That is why they send a 5-year-old to a summer-long soccer camp or a 9-year-old to a science camp at MIT.

Add to this the technological revolution and things intensified. Parents are sharing their children’s accomplishments with the world so there is a lot of comparing going on. Once your personal prestige is activated, it’s easy to see why parents are focusing their attention on the here and now and not on the future.

What prompted you to write this book?

Vicki: I know as a mother who has raised kids, that paying too much attention to toddlerhood can derail our attempts at raising emotionally healthy, high functioning adults. Finding that sweet spot of living with a toddler while raising an adult became a passion of mine and I wanted to share what I learned with parents everywhere.Straight Talk on Parenting FINAL

Stop by next Tuesday, April 28, to read what Vicki thinks are some of the most common parenting missteps we make today and why character is so important to a child’s growth.

Embrace the ‘Meanie’ Label

Q: My six-year-old son has started back-talking, mostly calling me a “meanie” when I tell him to do something he doesn’t like, such as chores, homework, no snack right now, etc. What’s frustrating is that his three-year-old sister now copies him when she’s upset with something I, my wife or her brothers do.

What can we do to get rid of this disrespect? I’ve repeatedly told him that it’s rude and he’s lost privileges for saying that. As for his sister, I tell her firmly no and that it’s not respectful. I do sometimes point out to her brother that he has taught her to be not respectful, which he, naturally, denies!

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: This is probably going to shock you, but I think you’re over-reacting about the “meanie” comments, thus making a mountain out of a molehill. Since you didn’t mention that your son disobeyed the instruction given, I’m going to assume that he’s obedient but grumbly about it.

Your beef is one that plagues many parents today but that didn’t phase your grandparents’ generation. Parents of the 1950s and earlier knew to expect a certain amount of grumbling from their children in the form of eye rolls, “you meanie” comments, and other such nonsense. As long as the child in question did as he was told, those parents rightly ignored such comments as part of the “junk” that comes from raising an immature person to adulthood.

What’s happened is that today’s parents are hyper-focused on managing all aspects of a child’s life, from his actions to his reactions. Sometimes that’s appropriate, in that a child needs correcting if he’s having a temper tantrum, for example. But most of the time, we can safely ignore the shrugs, sighs and expressions of disappointment that accompany obedience to the task at hand.

Why this frustrates us today can be boiled down to the simple fact that we want our children to understand the whys behind our edicts. In short, we want our kids to say something like this: “Gee, Dad, of course it’s time to do my homework. Thanks for reminding me” or “Now that you’ve explained why the bathroom needs cleaning, I’ll get right on that job, Mom.”

That’s not going to happen until the child is grown up and probably has kids of his own. Then, and only then, will he understand why you did and said the things you did and said when he was a child.

Many parents make this mistake in thinking that obedience has to be both inward and outward all of the time. Yes, we’re concerned about our children’s hearts, but we have to remember that we’re the same way about chores we don’t particularly like to do, only we’re adults, so we’ve learned to hide those grumbles inside. Kids haven’t–they let their grumbles show on their face (eye rolls, sighs, etc.) and words (calling a parent a “meanie” really isn’t disrespectful; calling a parent a four-letter word is).

As for your situation in particular, here’s what you can do. Tell your son that you are no longer going to punish him when he calls you a meanie (or other similar words). If he wishes to do so, he may shout it or sing it or whisper it as much as he likes in the downstairs powder room (or guest room). That’s his special “meanie” room. That gives the child the freedom to say those words, but also parameters in which to do so. You can send your daughter to that room as well if she wishes to have her own “meanie” session.

Then stop worrying about his expressions when told to do or not to do something–instead, correct him when he doesn’t do the thing requested or does the forbidden thing. You should certainly have conversations at other times (not in the midst of a “meanie” episode) about what’s going on in his heart when he gets upset about directives.

Above all, remember that we shouldn’t expect a perfect response from our kids all of the time. Wear that “meanie” label proudly—it generally means you’re doing a good job being a parent.

Let’s be Honest: We Have Favorites March 2015 Practical Parenting

Who’s your favorite among your children? Is it the one most like you? Or the oldest? The youngest with her sunny smile or the serious middle child? Most parents will not point to one child or another as their favorite, but if you ask their children, you can bet that one of them will wear the favorite label.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all play the favorites game. We have our favorite restaurants, and our favorite sports teams. We have our favorite TV show and our favorite app. We live our lives with what we favor the most, so why do we think when we’re parents we magically will not have favorites?

There’s nothing wrong with having favorites most of the time—after all, it’s okay that your favorite baseball team is the Nationals but your father’s a Cardinal fan. Where it gets tricky is when we bring that favoritism into our families and kids become labeled with being the favored one—or the undesired one(s). And as we all know, parental favoritism wrecks families and creates bad blood between siblings that can take a lifetime to heal.

While our natural tendency might be to have a favorite child (whether it’s conscious or unconscious), here are 5 ways parents can overcome that and minimize favoritism in their home.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Admit the favoritism. Sometimes, simply acknowledging that we are treating one child with favor over another can help us not continue that favoritism long term. We all compare our kids—it’s in our human nature and it’s extremely hard to be completely unbiased toward our offspring. Recognizing our own frailty when it comes to picking favorites can help us be on guard against that inclination.

Admit the prejudice. We like what we like, and sometimes that “liking” is based on culture or societal values that are so ingrained in our very fabric, we miss seeing it. For example, numerous cultures place high value on the firstborn male child. Some families show preference for the youngest. Some fathers prefer sons, while some mothers prefer daughters. Narcissism plays a key role in preferences by parents, as we often smile upon the kid who is most like us, either in appearance, manner or actions. By admitting that we have certain prejudices, we can work to overcome those in our dealings with our kids.

Admit the comparison. As parents, we often slip into comparing one child with a sibling almost without thinking about it. We compare our kids to one another by commenting on behavior, schoolwork, chores, abilities, sports, talents, etc. One way to break that habit is to think in terms of the child in front of you. For example, if one kid brings home an A on a test, we focus exclusively on that child and not on the fact that his older sister brought home three A’s this week. Modifying our language to weed out comparisons can be difficult but well worth the effort.

Admit the differences. Avoid lumping all the kids together as one. Instead, consider carefully what makes each unique and yet connected. Sports teams are united by the game, but often very diverse as to temperaments, abilities and appearances. Families are much the same way. Thinking more about the differences between our kids will help us not choose favorites so easily.

One way to do this is to think about what we love about each child as an individual. When you’re interacting with each child, pay attention to what makes that child tick, what makes that child smile, and what makes that child laugh. That will help us relate to our children as individuals within the family and also help us temper our frustrations at misbehavior with love and compassion.

Admit our reactions. Our facial expressions and body language, as well as our words, can convey whether or not we are pleased or disappointed. We should be very careful not to fall into the habit of always grimacing or sighing when a particular child does something but not reacting in that way when his sibling does a similar thing. Being aware of our own nonverbal cues can be extremely helpful in rooting out favoritism.

These simple ways can help us alleviate most of the favoritism in our homes and hearts.

Keeping It Real

One of my daughters really loves to write. She reminds me of myself at that age—always penning bits and pieces of stories on scraps of paper or in notebooks. She’s told me many times that she wants to be a writer when she grows up—“Just like you, Mom.”

While I must admit to having a certain amount of pride that at least one of my children has a similar dream that I have, I also want to be realistic in my guidance and encouragement of those dreams. So I’ve told this daughter that writing can be a lifelong passion, but that she should realize it’s difficult to make a living out of writing.

I don’t want to crush her dream, but allow her to think about writing in the context of what’s probable versus what’s fantasy. It’s probable that she can find outlets for her writing, but fantasy that she’ll be able to pay all of her bills as a writer. (And yes, it pains me to write that. Unfortunately, journalistic and writing jobs are becoming more scarce as full time opportunities these days.)

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I think that’s a large part of our goal as parents—not to dish our children’s dreams, but to help our kids to temper them in light of the world in which we live. That means not telling our kids they can become superstars just because they want to win American Idol. That means not encouraging our kids to hyper-focus on a particular sport in the hopes that they will make it in a national league when they’re older.

What it does mean is that we allow them freedom to try things—not necessarily by giving them lessons or signing them up for classes—but by providing enough free time for them to dream those dreams, and to figure out for themselves what they really like about something.

All to often, at the first hint of an interest in something, we’re all in as parents. We immediately buy whatever tools needed for that interest, such as sports equipment or art supplies. We search out extracurricular classes or activities to learn more about that interest. We hunt out coaches to hone their skills in private lessons. We research the interest and possible college scholarship opportunities.

In other words, we go overboard, way beyond simple encouragement in their interest. When we think we’re helping them to enhance their skills in that area, what we more often than not do is smother that interest or pigeonhole a child into a sport or activity that the child might not love as much as we think he does.

We’ve forgotten that children like to try on personalities and activities like playing dress up. One day it’s dragons, while the next it’s dinosaurs. One day it’s soccer, while the next it’s biking. One day it’s art, while the next it’s sewing.

We need to give our children the freedom to figure out these things on their own without rushing into it headlong. So instead of signing up for an art class, give a child some supplies and let her tinker a bit on her own. Rather than joining a baseball team, get out in the backyard and toss a few balls with your son for a time.

Above all, give them the free time to dream, to think, to imagine a host of things. And when they come to you with their ideas, listen, offer a bit of realistic advice, then step aside. Most of the time, the child will figure out what he wants to do on his own with just a little help from others.

Until next time,

Sarah

Boys Being Boys—and Why That’s Okay

Q:I have three boys: 3, 7 and 10 years old. The oldest loves to wrestle and play with his siblings, but he’s also much more aggressive than they are—but not to the point of hurting them. For example, he has smothered them with pillows, put a headlock on them, etc. Those actions sometimes leads to crying. I’ve been disciplining the oldest one when that happens. However, I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. And will it escalate into serious harming?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: A long time ago in America, most parents recognized that boys were, well, boisterous and loud and aggressive, as well as kind and generous and courageous. We’ve forgotten that wrestling, mock-fighting and other rough-and-tumble “games” are part and parcel with the very boyness of most young males (and some older ones, for that matter!).

With our two oldest children as girls, I was a bit unprepared for the fighting—not mean or vindictive, but for fun—that our two younger boys engaged in on a daily basis. But then I remembered their gender and heaved a sigh of relief. They were, after all, just being boys, giving into the rougher nature that God has given the male species.

So today, we have our fair share of incidents where the rough play of pretend choking, smothering, and other wrestling triggers a crying response from the younger sibling. And we gently guide our boys to learn how to play fight in a way that’s fun for both of them (much like we guided our two girls to learn how to get along when things got out of hand).

What’s important to remember is that while your oldest has some responsibility to set the tone of the fighting—not too hard or aggressive, because of his bigger body—the tears from the younger two are not your son’s fault. You describe him as holding back and not allowing himself to be too rough with them to the point that he actually hurts his younger brothers. That shows you right there that he cares for his younger siblings enough to temper his own actions in order to keep them from harm. Because he’s already shown this tendency, there’s no evidence things will escalate into serious harm territory (of course, there’s always the unforeseen accident, but that can happen anytime!).

However, your younger two have gotten off scot-free in these interactions. They were full participants in the game until suddenly it wasn’t fun for them anymore—let’s face it, it’s really not his fault if his younger sibs participate in a game of wrestling only to cry foul when it doesn’t go their way). Tears do not always mean someone’s to blame, so please keep that in mind when comforting the crying kid.

For your oldest son, ask him to walk away when his brothers start crying, that the game needs to end at that moment. Not as a punishment but as a way for him to not get frustrated with his younger brothers.

Overall, Remember, the younger two cry because that’s the weapon most younger sibs employ when they are not getting their way or losing the game or being shown they are the youngest and the oldest is stronger–really typical boy stuff here.