May 2015 Practical Parenting: Let’s Ditch Being “Mean” Moms

I had no idea what I was getting into when I became a mother. I’m not talking about the anxious anticipation before the birth, when everything seemed possible and impossible at the same time. I don’t mean the late nights with a screaming baby who refused to nurse or sleep. Nor the tired days when I felt like a zombie. I don’t mean the longing for the baby to pick a schedule—any schedule!—and stick with it please, pretty please, before I go crazy.

What I didn’t have a clue about was the fact that I had to make so many decisions. Not about what outfit to put on my baby, but what ideological camps I would join, such as

  • Breast-is-best or bottle-is-fine?
  • Working mother or a stay-at-home mom?
  • Organic-only or conventional food?
  • Public, private or homeschool?
  • Bubble-wrap or free-range?

I truly had no clue that becoming a mother meant picking sides in battles in which I didn’t want to participate. I might have breast-fed my four kids for 13 or 14 months, but that doesn’t mean I thought everyone who used formula was harming their babies. I choose to stay home but that doesn’t mean I thought working mothers should quit their jobs. I might send my children to public school, but that doesn’t mean I think that’s the right choice for all kids. I might embrace fostering independence in children but that doesn’t mean I think those who don’t are raising milquetoast kids.

But what I’ve noticed is that we certainly act like those who don’t do exactly like we do as mothers are, in fact, certifiable idiots. That they are actually hurting their children by not raising them just like us. That they must get in lock-step so that we can feel justified about our own decisions.

And frankly, that hurts deeply. It hurts every time I read another article about the Mommy Wars. It hurts every time I see another mother look browbeaten for taking out her non-organic snack at the playground. It hurts every time I see a mother in the grocery store struggling with her screaming kids and looking embarrassed by the fuss.

When are we mothers going to stop wanting, no needing, all moms to be in agreement with our parenting choices? We should be supporting each other in child-rearing, not arguing over cloth versus disposable diapers. We should be helping each other, not picking sides and lobbing word grenades at the opposing team.

Here are six ways we can halt this merry-go-round of divisiveness and work together in this calling to raise children. And yes, I’m speaking to myself as I write these, as I’ve been more apt to do the negative, than the positive.

Be helpful, not condemning. How many times do you see a mother struggling with crying kids and walk quickly past? Instead, why don’t we offer a smile and a word of encouragement? Offer to load the groceries in the van while she puts the kids in their seats? Let her go ahead of you in line? It’s the little gestures that mean more than anything when you’re in the throes of the hard parts of raising kids.

Be grateful, not superior. How many times have we seen another mother with unruly kids, for example, and thought, “I would never allow my children to behave like that?” When in reality, every single one of us has had “bad” parenting moments where our children misbehaved in public. Remembering that we are not perfect, that we all have off days, that none of us would like our parenting mishaps to be displayed for all the world to see, can help us cultivate a grateful heart instead of a superior one.

Be kind, not strident. How many times do we simply yell louder when someone doesn’t agree with our parenting position? Instead, let’s try to be kind when others have a different point of view. We’ve lost the ability to debate in a way that doesn’t shred our emotions, that doesn’t browbeat our opponents. We should be able to agree to disagree on some of the hot mommy topics. However, we must be careful not to be condescending to those who hold an opposing view, but treat them as fellow mothers alongside is on this path that is child rearing. Isn’t there room at the mothering table for both breastfed and bottle-fed babies, for instance?

Be open, not secretive. How many times have you felt able to share your worst parenting moment with friends? We should be able to tell of the time when we left our kids at the gym or dropped the baby on the floor. We should nurture an attitude of openness among our friends and families that would allow us to disclose our frustrations and our mistakes, as well as our joys and successes. We all need to unburden ourselves of our fears and our stresses, but if we don’t have a safe place to do so, we will keep those emotions bottled up inside us. That’s not good for us as mothers and it’s certainly not good for our children, either.

Be watchful, not fearful. How many times have you seen a child not your own walking or playing and berated the absent mother to yourself? Fifty years ago, mothers watched out for other children in the neighborhood, at the local playground, walking down the street. Mothers back then didn’t call the police—instead, they kept an eye on the child to make sure nothing happened to him or her. If they left the area, they would often point out the child to another mother, passing along the passive watching that ensured all children were safe. Today, our first thought is to call the police. Let’s work together on ensuring our children are safe by being willing to watch other kids while our own are playing.

Be careful, not careless. How many times have you tossed off a comment in person, on social media, or in an email that denigrated another parent? I’m just as guilty as the next person for making remarks about moms I haven’t met—and those I have. We should have more care in how we talk about other mothers, even if we’re not being overly mean. We never know when a careless comment can find its mark and devastate a mother’s heart. The more careful we are in our speech about mothers and mothering, the more we can build a better environment where all mothers feel safe and secure.

Raising children has its own challenges—let’s not make it harder with our careless speech, our strident tone, our fearful attitude, our secretive nature, our superior outlook or our condemning spirit. If we all strive together to be helpful, kind, grateful, careful, watchful and open, we can change mothering—and mothers—for the better.

Surviving Summer Travel With Kids

With gas prices generally hovering below $3 across the country, many families will be hitting the road this summer—and some parents are already dreading the noise and fighting between their children. While nobody can design a perfect getaway, a little planning and thought can help parents prevent a vacation derailment.

Today our kids are kept busy nearly every minute of the day, so to even think of putting a child in a car for any duration of time and expect that they can just enjoy the ride puts most parents into fear mode, expecting the worst. But your vacation doesn’t have to begin with stressing about the getting there.

While it might seem easier to pop in a DVD or allow kids various screens to keep them quiet for the trip, reliance on electronic devices can rob a child of seeing the beauties around him and of interacting with the family. There are 9 ways to help your kids entertain themselves during a long car or plane ride. Here are X tips for a calmer and more relaxed trip.

  1. Plan for travel time. No, I’m not talking about which route to take. We usually have what we’ll do when we arrive at our destination mapped out, from sites to see to a place to stay. What we too often forget is to plan how the trip there will look like, whether it’s via plane or car.
  1. Remind kids of behavior expectations. Parents should clearly state what is expected in relation to behavior while traveling. Remind the children of the car rules, such as keeping all body parts to yourself and no shouting. Pick two or three behaviors that absolutely need to be controlled in a confined space and relate those to the children.
  1. Turn up the volume. Audio books or stories and music can be a fun way to pass the time. Pick books that appeal to all ages—and make sure it’s a title the adults can tolerate as well. Let each child pick one or two CDs to bring along for the trip or allow them a time slot, such as half an hour, to pick the radio station. Some of our favorites include Elvis Presley’s Number One Hits and anything by Johnny Cash.
  1. Simple is better. Give kids paper, pencils, a clipboard and fun stickers. We always get each child a new activity, puzzle or coloring book for the trip. Colored pencils work better than markers or crayons in a confined space. Be sure to pack portable pencil sharpeners and extra erasers.
  1. Interact with the family. Being confined in the car can spark interesting and fruitful conversations. Schedule time to play a car game as a family, such as right after lunch. Resurrect oldies but goodies such as the license plate game (trying to find all 50 states on car license plates), the alphabet game (looking at signs, vehicles, etc., for all the letters of the alphabet in order) or twenty questions. You can also make or purchase travel games, such as Example here.
  1. Have a snack plan. Figure out portable snacks, like granola bars and fruit leather, ahead of time. Give each child a refillable water bottle for the trip, too. Being able to toss back sustenance during a traffic jam that has delayed you can be a life-saver. Be sure to pack some baby wipes for cleaning up sticky fingers, faces and messes in the car.
  1. Give a child ownership. Have each child pack her own backpack of parent-approved car toys, books and travel-sized games. Suggested items for little ones include magnetic tiles, storyboards and small figurines and vehicles.
  1. Schedule breaks. Remember that children, especially younger ones, need frequent stops. Plan your trip accordingly by stopping every two to three hours to get gas, take a bathroom break or eat lunch. Being able to stretch your legs will often keep everyone from getting too confined.
  1. Plan for discipline. Riding in a car or on a plane for extended periods of time can trigger conflict. Expecting issues to crop up—and knowing ahead of time how you’ll handle them—can help you to avoid big blow-ups.

Tickets are a great source for this. Just give each child three to five slips of colored paper or cardboard, post a list of the top three targeted misbehavior (name calling, hitting/slapping/pinching a sibling, or whatever your children usually do to annoy each other in the car), then simply take a ticket when the misbehavior happens.

Thinking about the actual drive time or plane ride prior to departure can ensure a more positive experience for both parents and children. Start kids thinking about their car bags a few weeks before leaving, and make sure to go over the bag contents with them ahead of time.

When College Kids Come Home

Q: My 18-year-old daughter has come home for the summer after her freshman year of college. She had a good year, but now she seems distant in her relationship with us. We’ve had some good discussions in the past few months, but now that she’s home, things have been a bit rocky.

While the strictures of the private college she attended chaffed at her, they are similar to our own “house” rules. Most of the time, her rebellion takes the form of minor things, like wanting to dress differently, but I’m worried that she will branch out now that school and the impact of her attitude and decisions will have on her younger siblings.

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

How should we handle this?

A: The transition from the freedom of college to the home of your childhood can indeed be a rocky one at times. But that doesn’t mean it has to dissolve into a very stressful situation. Here are some things to keep in mind going forward with your daughter.

  1. She’s an adult now. Furthermore, she’s had a taste of grownup freedom being away from Mom and Dad at college. That doesn’t mean she can do whatever she wants in your home, but it does mean that you give her more leeway in decisions that are not crucial. So I would not say anything about her clothing (as long as she’s buying it) and other minor issues.
  2. Ditch the lecturing. She’s trying to figure things out for herself, and that’s a good thing. Resist slipping into lecture mood and instead focus on having real, honest conversation with her. Find ways to simply talk to her, ask her about how she’s changed over the past year, what she found interesting in her classes, what she thinks about current events or movies, ask her opinion on grownup things when appropriate, etc. Encourage back-and-forth with her and listen—mostly just listen to her without interjecting your opinions as much as you’ll want to. You do know more than she does, but let her figure that out for herself.
  3. Draw up a simple contract. Outline the basics of what you’d like her to do when she’s home, such as what chores she’ll be responsible for and what things you will provide for her. Make it very simple, very basic (not more than a page at the most!). Let her go over it, then discuss it with you and be open to her suggestions. You might be surprised at the compromises she comes up with.
  4. Love her. She’s probably being rather difficult right now, and in your wisdom, you see where she might be going astray. Of course, you don’t want her to be hurt in any way, but you must let her make her own mistakes and have her own hurts. Cook her favorite foods. Suggest her favorite activities as a family. Find little ways to show her how much you love her.
  5. Don’t worry about the younger siblings. They are watching how you handle the situation much more than what the situation is. The more you love her and show her that love in your interactions, the more her younger brothers and sisters will feel safe and secure in knowing that as they test their own wings, you will be there for them.

They Know Where You Came From

By Peggy McGinnis

On the day I was born, three siblings greeted me: my 15-year-old sister and 13-year-old and 11-year-old brothers. I joked that I grew up as an only child with three siblings. By the time I reached age 7, all three had graduated high school and secured jobs. But I wouldn’t change my circumstances. I’m 57 now and my sibs are in their late sixties and early seventies.

As I raised my own daughters, I instilled in them to love their siblings and remember that they are the people who will be there for you when you need them. Who else would sit through Barbie fashion shows and cook you spaghetti and tapioca pudding when mom and dad left them to babysit? Yep, my brothers suffered through that.

To this day, Mary Poppins is one of my favorite movies because my sister drove me to my first drive-in theater for my birthday. She could have been on a date, but instead she hung out with me.

They didn’t forget me in my teen years either. My brother, Ron, owned a sporty little Karmann Ghia. I’d never tried a clutch or shifted gears manually. But he put me in the driver’s seat when I got my temporary license. I tooled up the road, feeling pretty good about maneuvering the two-seater. Until I couldn’t get the clutch to work. I had no idea I could strip the gears. But my brother did. When he realized what I was doing, he dove onto the floor and pushed the clutch by hand. He didn’t let me drive again for a while. We’ve had a good laugh about it over the years.

My other brother, Darryl, shared his love of music with me. He made the piano sing when he sat down and plucked the keys. Even though he didn’t read music, he heard and played every note. Many Sundays I rode with him to church where he led the singing. He even chaperoned some of our youth outings. We also share a love of movies. To this day, we call each other and talk about the latest film we’ve watched.

After my sister married, I spent a couple of weeks every summer with her family. When they moved to a home near a lake, I roamed the woods with them and enjoyed the natural wonders God created. We fished and hiked and spent time outside. She influenced my love of nature.

We enjoyed so much of life together. But when hearts were broken, times were tough, and life just stunk, my sister and brothers were there for me then too. And I’ve been there for them. Like I’ve told my daughters: Your siblings are the only ones who understand where you came from. We keep loving each other no matter what.

6-15-15 About Peggy McGinnis
 Penny McGinnis blogs about finding beauty in the everyday. She writes devotions, book reviews and uplifting articles. Blessed with 5 children and 8          grandchildren, she and her husband live in southwest Ohio with two sweet dogs. When she’s not working at the local academic library or spending time with  family,  she enjoys reading, writing, nature, canoeing, and praising God. Visit her online at pennyfrostmcginnis.com.

A Returning Student Brings Summertime Blues

Q: My 18-year-old daughter has finished her freshman year of college. While it’s been a good year, she’s become rather distant in her relationship with us. We have good conversations sometimes, but most of the time she appears disrespectful toward her mother and myself.

I don’t want the summer to be a stressful time, but I’m afraid it will be, given that she seems to not want to adhere to our standards or house rules. For example, she wants to dress how she’d like. I know those are rather minor things in some ways, but we feel dishonored by her jettisoning our values in this way.

Should we discuss these issues with her now or wait and address situations as they arise? Should we ignore her disregard for our standards? Should we worry about what message that sends to the younger siblings?

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: The transition from the freedom of college to your childhood home can be a rocky one at times. But it doesn’t have to be! She’s still young in many ways, and so it falls on you and your wife to be the adults in this situation. Here are the main points to keep in mind when dealing with your daughter:

  1. She’s an adult now. That doesn’t mean she can do whatever she wants in your home, but it does mean that you give her more leeway in decisions that are not crucial. So I would not say anything about her clothing (as long as she’s buying) and other minor issues. On the flip side, that doesn’t mean you give her a free pass to drink or break the law.
  2. Ditch the lecturing. She’s trying to figure things out for herself, and that’s a good thing, so try to resist lecturing her and try instead to engage in honest conversation. Find ways to simply talk to her, ask her about how she’s changed over the past year, what she found interesting in her classes, in a way that encourages back-and-forth with her. And listen. Mostly just listen to her without interjecting your opinions as much as you’ll want to.
  3. Draw up a simple contract. Outline the basics of what you’d like her to do when she’s home, such as what chores she’ll be responsible for and what things you will provide for her. This should be a one-page, very simple, very basic document. Let her go over it and then discuss it with you and be open to her suggestions. Be willing to compromise yet hold to your convictions.
  4. Love her. She’s probably being rather difficult right now and in your wisdom, you see where she might be going astray. Of course, you don’t want her to be hurt in any way, but you must let her figure out things on her own–and that might mean she will get hurt sometimes. Cook her favorite foods. Suggest her favorite activities as a family. Find little ways to show her how much you love her.

Finally, don’t worry about the message her behavior might send to younger sibs. They are watching how you handle the situation much more than what the situation is. The more you love her and show her that love in your interactions, the more they will feel safe and secure in knowing that as they test their own wings, you will be there for them.

Getting Along With Adult Siblings

Our brothers and sisters are the ones who know us the best. “Siblings are often our first friends and they can be lifelong friends,” said Jennifer* in Tampa, Florida. “They know your history and have been there through shared experiences. They often have a better understanding of what you’ve been through in your life than someone outside your family. Thus, they are better equipped to support you through the good and the bad.”

But sometimes, those same brothers and sisters can be hard to get along with for various reasons—some of which are beyond our control. My article, “10 Ways to Get Along With Adult Siblings” delves how we can have a better relationship with our siblings. Here are some additional ideas for developing a good relationship with your adult siblings.

Image courtesy of artur84/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of artur84/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Figure out what kind of family you are. Some families get together all the time; some are content with once a year gatherings. Most fall somewhere in the middle. “There are engaged families and disengaged families—and everything in between,” said Dr. David Hawkins, director of The Marriage Recovery Center in Seattle. Knowing what kind of family you have will help you relate to your siblings better.

Teach your children kids how to treat siblings. We can’t expect our own children to know instinctively how to treat each other. And if we have rough relationships with our own siblings, helping our kids in this area is especially important. “I think it’s vital for parents to teach their children about their roles or callings as siblings,” said Tricia* in Fort Myers, Fla. “If parents don’t teach this when their kids are young, those children may not treat their siblings well in adulthood.”

Sarah Phillips in Richmond, Va., echoed that sentiment, adding praise for her mother’s role in valuing each child for his or her own natural temperaments and abilities. “How parents treat their children, how they frame the sibling relationship, and how each child interprets those cues play into the sibling relationship even as adults,” she said.

Consider family therapy. Sometimes, if all parties are willing, a good family therapist can help siblings overcome past hurts and move on to a better future. “I believe most adult families ought to be consciously thinking about how we relate to one another, and having an outsider come in can help clear the air,” said Hawkins.

“Many of us don’t even know how to process and work out the stuff from our childhood,” said Sarah in Denver. “But because it’s the foundational season of our life, we live out of those experiences and how we adapted to deal with them.”

Develop a desire to mend the relationship. If we don’t want to fix the rapport with a brother or sister, then the relationship will founder. “The most successful reconciliations in our family involved heart-to-heart conversations where we emphasized mutual love, concern, acceptance of our differences, and maintained that special sibling bond,” said Phillips.

Keep forgiveness at the ready. We should be quick to extend forgiveness and equally fast to jettison grudges. “Keep forgiving the sibling in your heart and pray for them,” said Lynellen Perry in Dumfries, Va.

Spend time together remembering. Time spent recalling your shared childhood can be a wonderful way to rekindle affection and bonding, even if the situations were less than fun the first time around. “Those memories run deep and are ingrained in the fabric of our histories,” said Elizabeth Spencer in Battle Creek, Mich. “Plus, it can be fun to reminisce and tease—as I do with my brother about when he tried to drown me in the pond!”

* Some of those interviewed for this story asked to be identified by only their first name.

Helping Himself

Q: My young teenage stepson has been helping himself to my mother’s sodas. He’ll stop by her house (right beside ours) on his way home from school, go into her garage and snatch a soft drink from her extra fridge there. His younger brother goes along with it and drinks a soda himself.

To me, this is stealing. My husband’s not as upset as I am because he says grandmother would have given them the soda anyway. Mo mother thinks as I do that it’s not right. How do I handle it?

Image courtesy of Artzenter/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Artzenter/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: Whether or not your mother would give the boys a can of soda is not at issue here. The fact is, they are taking what isn’t theirs to take. She hasn’t offered the soda to them, nor has she issued a standing invitation for them to stop by and grab a soda on their way home from school.

However, this is an issue that your mother should deal with in her way. After all, it’s her soft drinks they’re drinking. I would tell your mom that you support whatever she wants to do in terms of consequences and going forward.

For the record, if it were my grandsons sneaking into my garage and taking my soda without asking, I would lock the garage and inform them they should not take any more items—food or otherwise—from my house without my permission.

Then I would add up the number of sodas they’ve taken without permission and present them with a “bill” for the drinks. I’d say that if they don’t have the money to pay for the drinks already consumed, then they would be coming over to my house after school to do chores until the debt has been paid in full. I think that will remind them of whose soda it was and to stop them from pilfering the drinks in the future without asking.

What’s in a Name?

Sticks and stones might break my bones but words will never hurt me.

Whoever came up with that little ditty must not have been called names very often. Anyone who’s ever been called stupid, moron, goody two shoes, dumb, and other childhood names can attest to the fact that those words hurt like an arrow to the heart.

Unfortunately, our children will likely not escape childhood without having someone—a friend, a neighbor, a classmate or a sibling—hurl a hurtful name at them. Sometimes, our kids will be the ones shouting the despicable names at someone else.

Here are some ways to help a child from both sides—the name caller and the name callee.IMG_3035

Calling Names
Chances are, you’ve heard your child call someone a not-so-nice name. This is perfectly natural, given our own selfish hearts! But this is something you want to nip in the bud before it has time to become a nasty habit. So levy consequences for each name-calling incident. Remind the child why name calling is forbidden (it’s hurtful, it’s mean, it’s simply not how we should treat anyone, regardless of how that person treated us). Develop alternative methods to handling frustration or anger, which are two of the key triggers to name calling.

Being Called Names
There’s not a single best way to teach a child to handle name calling for the simple fact that it’s tricky at any age to know what to do when someone says something outrageous or hurtful, but especially for a child.

In the moment, the child can simply walk away. Usually, removing oneself from the situation will defuse it and not allow it to escalate for either child. Ignoring the name calling–while hard–generally shuts down the other child. But it’s not a foolproof method, to which I’m sure many of us can attest.

Practice with your son or daughter on what to say to another child who might call them a name. What should they say? How could they react? This type of role playing is especially helpful because if a child has practiced something, she’s more apt to use it in a real life situation.

You should also talk with your child briefly about the incident. Remind her that while name-calling can hurt, it doesn’t define her as a person (i.e., she’s not stupid). If it’s in response to her not knowing something or being able to accomplish something, then tell her that there’s things you don’t know or can’t do yet. That’s why she’s in school and why you’re continually learning things yourself.

Finally, discuss why the classmate, friend or neighbor might be calling her names. It could be doing so because of her own bad feelings about herself. Maybe her home isn’t as nice as your daughter’s is. Maybe the other kid is struggling in school. Maybe she just had a fight with her best friend. Thinking of the other person and considering the whys behind the words can take the sting out of the words and also help your child develop compassion and empathy towards others. It also helps her not see herself as a victim and the other child as a villain, which is essential to them both putting the situation behind them

Being called a name isn’t the most pleasant experience, but with a little assistance from Mom and Dad, we can help our children move beyond the incident and into a brighter future.

Until next time,
Sarah

A Snapping Teen Turtle

Q: What should we do about a snappish teen? What used to be a rare occurrence is now more common than not. We’ll ask a normal question and she will bark back an answer like she can’t be bothered with such interruptions to her all-important teen life. She is dismissive and short even with the most innocuous of questions. When she snaps something back, we’ve said, “Let’s try that again.” To which she replies in an overly sweet, falsetto voice. We used to chalk up her snappishness to occasional hormones, but it’s rearing its ugly head with regularity. What can we do to have a civil conversation with her these days?

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: All too often, we want our children to behave like adults with perfect control over their tone of voice, their expressions, their word choices, etc. To be honest, we adults have learned to put a coat of nice veneer on our short, dismissive attitudes, haven’t we? Teens haven’t learned how to be nice on the outside as well as on the inside. Yes, it’s annoying, but we often have unrealistic expectations that we fall short of ourselves (or have simply mastered ourselves enough to not show our inner reactions in an outward manner).

When they act like, well, kids, it can be very annoying and frustrating, but it also gives us an opportunity to guide them into a better way of acting. Sometimes that results in punishment for wrongdoing. But we want a perfect response all around—obedience to the task requested without expressions of disgust or angst.

However, that’s not going to happen. Even if your children are well-behaved most of the time, they will slip and tell you exactly what they think of something with an eye roll, a snarky comment, a sarcastic quip or an overly sweet false voice.

So to answer your question. I’d ignore your daughter’s tone of voice for the most part IF she answers and/or does what she’s been told to do. This is just part of the “junk” of parenting. Just let it go as long as she is complying with the command. I suspect she’s not addressing other adults in this way, like her teachers, grandparents, etc. So if it’s isolated at home, then you can chalk it up to a teen being safe and secure enough to let it all hang out at home. Not pleasant for Mom and Dad, to be sure, but it’s something she’ll outgrow.

I’m guessing she only responds to something in that manner you’ve told her to do something she doesn’t want to do or you’ve interrupted her navel-gazing/introspection/phone texting. I’ll bet when she wants something—a ride, money, permission—she’s not asking you in a snappish way.

But if you just can’t stand it, you can try staring at her without saying a word when she replies snappishly. If she doesn’t say it again in a nicer tone of voice, then shrug and walk away. She’ll likely soon get the picture and wise up.

A Child’s Imagination Is a Terrible Thing to Waste, April 2015 Practical Parenting

The pair of them stood there, giggling, eyes wide with excitement. I half-smiled as I asked what they wanted, thinking their request probably had something to do with a sweet snack since I was standing in the kitchen.

“Mommy, we want to play Cinderella,” my oldest daughter announced with all the enthusiasm of a nearly five-year-old.

I should have known they would bring a princess into it, given that Naomi and her younger sister, Leah, loved all things princess-y. “Okay,” I answered cautiously. “What does that mean?”

The two girls exchanged glances, then Naomi said, “We want to wash the kitchen floor.”

Image courtesy of artur84/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of artur84/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Yeah,” three-year-old Leah chimed in, nodding her head vigorously, “so we can pretend the evil stepmother made us work hard.”

Smothering a laugh, I reached for a small plastic bowl, filled it with water, added two rags, then let them play Cinderella on their hands and knees on the kitchen floor.

Ah, the power of an active imagination that can turn a “chore” into a fantasy game. Those two washed that kitchen floor more times than I can remember during their      princess phase (which also include roping their younger brothers into being princes). Over the years, their pretend play has morphed into cops and robbers, pirates,  hopping ball Olympics, great escapes, and a host of other creative and silly storylines. Even now, my four kids (ages 6, 8, 10 and 12) engage in elaborate pretenses  involving numerous elements and rules.

While some parents might view such shenanigans as non-productive, recent studies suggest that pretend play benefits a child in more ways than previously thought. For  example, one Psychology Today article said that such play enhances cognitive abilities, such as language usage, and the “theory of mind,” which helps us realize others  have different thoughts and perspectives than we do. Playing dress up and made-up games provides a safe learning environment where kids pick up social and emotional skills, as well as a better thinking ability.

Many of the studies focus on the preschool and early elementary school years as crucial to the development of pretend play, but I think the benefits of encouraging fantasy in our kids goes beyond age 6. For example, my fifth grader has to write a paper on a family event, which she has tackled with ease given her strong storytelling skills honed by her continued pretend play.

Pretending also helps children manage what-if situations, such as if I was captured by pirates, what would I do? Thinking through improbable situations can assist children in handling real world problems with less frustration and anxiety.

The good news is that you can still help your child reach his imagination potential, no matter how old he is. Here are 6 ways you can encourage his imagination development.

  1. Unplug the electronics. No matter how “educational” a program or app is, watching a screen requires very little in the way of brain power for any child. With the screen doing the work for her, she has no reason to fire up her own imagination. Instead of setting strict screen time limits, try having “screen-free” time zones, such as starting at suppertime and extending until bedtime for young children. For teens, perhaps all electronic devices go into the basket at 8 p.m. The less screen time your child has, the more his imagination will have room to soar.
  1. Get outside. With warm weather on the horizon—and the fresh, clean hint of spring in the air—kicking the kids outside more shouldn’t be too difficult. Nature provides a wonderful way for children and teens to find peace and purpose. As Richard Louv puts it in his excellent book, Last Child in the Woods, “nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses.” Fresh air, sunshine, the world waking up with the renewing cycle of spring all conspire to push a child’s inventiveness to fruition.
  1. Read good books. While we often read to our preschoolers, sometimes that drops off as the children age. Even older children and teens enjoy hearing stories, so grab some interesting books and dive in. Pick ones that challenge and invigorate their minds, ones that paint spectacular word pictures and show them a world beyond the four walls of their life. Some suggestions include Little House on the Prairie, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Count of Monte Cristo, Tom Sawyer and Jane Eyre. Ask your local librarian for titles that lend themselves well to reading aloud.
  1. Join in the fun. Sometimes, you have to help your child’s imagination along by playing with him. Jump in and wave your magic “wand” to turn everyone into animals, then plan an escape from the zoo to have a tea party with fairies. Or walk the plank and find a new adventure under the sea. One note of caution: after setting up the initial scene, take your cues from the kids and play along with their storylines. After 10 minutes or so, ease back and quietly exit the stage, leaving the play to the kids.
  1. Provide the proper tools. Empty boxes, building supplies (LEGOs, blocks, magnet tiles, etc.), blank paper and pastel chalk, and other non-electronically powered toys that can double or triple as something else are keys to imaginative play. Kids can use a box to build an airplane or a submarine, a rocket or a space ship. Building materials morph into skyscrapers and prisons, while blank paper can be transformed into crowns or scenery. The possibilities are endless with the right tools and a bit of creativity.
  1. Give them time. Organized sports and other activities are great, but not if a child is so involved with after school things he has no time left to play. One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is time of his own. Time that he can spend being a kid, thinking about nothing and everything, playing with friends or by himself. That unstructured time can be a huge blessing—and a surefire way to spur creative thought and play.

Above all, remember that when your children are pretending, they’re not wasting time—they are building strong imagination muscles, solidifying language paths, exploring new territory and forging possible identities. Our role as parents in this exploration is to make sure they have the time and space in which to soar to heights unknown.