Sassiness and the Toddler

Q: My 16-month-old shook her finger and said, “No, no” in a sassy way after my husband told her “no” when touching something she shouldn’t. How do I correct the sass back at this age appropriately?

A: My first response to your questions was, “Good luck with that,” but then I realized the written words couldn’t convey the twinkle in my eye and my sympathetic expression. I wouldn’t want you to think I was making light of your question, because I know how disturbing it can be to have a child so blatantly—and without remorse!—challenge our authority.

Because make no mistake about it—that’s exactly what your charming sasspot is doing. But in a toddler way that limits your response. If she were a teenager, my answer would be different. For a toddler, you have limitations due to her tender years and her immaturity.

She’s just over a year old, still growing, still exploring her universe. Her brain is developing at a rapid rate—her body can hardly keep up with all the new things her brain wants to do! This is one major reason why toddlers throw such massive temper tantrums. Their bodies aren’t coordinated enough to accomplish what their racing minds want to do. Everything’s new and exciting because everything is literally new and that’s exciting to them. There are worlds out there that need exploring, but a toddler brain doesn’t have the maturity to realize the hidden—and not-so-hidden—dangers lurking about in this wide new world.

All of which means she will look you in the eye and respond to your “nos,” with a wicked, little smile…then do exactly what you just told her not to do. Is she being willful? Yes. Is she being deliberately sassy? Not in exactly the same way as a child of four, ten or fourteen is being sassy. A toddler doesn’t consciously know her tone is sassy—she’s blissfully unaware of such nuances.

Therefore, a wise parent doesn’t correct a toddler’s tone of voice, just like that parent doesn’t correct a toddler’s eyerolls, shoulder shrugs or other nonverbal communication of disrespect or sass.

But a wise parent also doesn’t allow a toddler to do the thing the toddler was told not to do. In other words, the wise parent corrects a toddler’s actions, not a toddler’s outward display of inner rebellion.

What can you do when a toddler says no and does the forbidden thing? You take away the item (if there is an item) or you remove the child from the situation. At this age, it’s restrain and removal—those are the toddler’s parents’ go-to for effective discipline.

Is Your Teen Stressed or Normal?

Q: My 17-year-old daughter claims to be anxious and depressed due to lack of best friends. She was homeschooled until junior year when she enrolled in the local community college full time. She’s getting straight A’s, held down a job, and participates in high school and community theatre. She is still somewhat of an “outsider” with high school kids but tries to initiate social events. Her anxiety and depressed moods usually occur when she’s overly busy or has been ditched by her peers. She’s not an attention-mongering teen by any means, and is an extremely kind and compassionate child.

Isn’t this normal teen angst? How can I tell if it’s serious enough to have her seen by a counselor?

A: Teens are suffering from depression in record numbers, and it’s wise not to ignore cries for help—even when you’re not sure the teen really needs it. A couple of things come to mind that might help you navigate the older teen years with your daughter.

First, don’t belittle her feelings. I can’t tell from your question whether you’ve told her that you don’t think her anxiousness or depression is “real,” so I hope that you’ve kept that to yourself. It’s important for us to listen to our teen’s struggles, and to provide a safe place for them to vent. It’s a fine line between encouraging and listening, so be careful not to provoke prolonged emotional outpourings, but being available and willing to listen without criticizing or offering advice is crucial, especially during the teen years.

Second, teens face real stress in their lives. Pressure from peers, teachers, themselves, and social media can make them feel anxious, stressed and depressed. It’s important for the adults in her life to be supportive, not dismissive, of her and help to mitigate the stress in her life. I recently wrote an article on teen stress you might find helpful.

Also, point out to your daughter during non-stressful periods how she acts and what she says when she’s stressed. Helping her to see the bigger picture will help her navigate the stressful ones better.

So yes, some of what your daughter’s facing is probably typical teen angst. Your best course of action is to listen more than speak, suggest but don’t force, and provide a safe haven for her to vent and make changes. If she does want to talk with a counselor or therapist, then help her find one who specializes in teens. If your daughter is depressed, you want to get her professional help sooner rather than later. Remember, therapists and other medical professionals can assist teens (and adults) in learning how to navigate the stresses life throws at us.

Who Should Set a Teen’s Bedtime?

Q: Is it unreasonable to tell a 16-year-old boy he should have lights out by 10 p.m.? He works hard on school, despite not liking it, but often stays up until 1 or 2 a.m. doing homework or reading. He has plenty of time in late afternoon, evenings and weekends to do it, but has created this odd schedule for himself.

Now he is also doing part-time work, about 7-10 hours per week, and his (very kind) boss has commented about him being crabby. He wants to go on a weekend retreat with our church that always wears out the kids by Sunday evening, so we told him to adhere to this bedtime before we decide if he may go. He is NOT happy with this, ripped up his retreat registration form and is generally hostile about the whole idea.

A: The short answer to your question? It’s not unreasonable, but it might not be enforceable.

Of course he’s hostile—he doesn’t want to be told when to go to bed as if he’s a toddler and not a teenager. The fact of the matter is, even if he complied with lights out at 10 p.m. each evening, that doesn’t mean he would actually get more sleep. You can lead a kid to bed, but you can’t make him sleep, no matter the age.

That doesn’t mean you can’t set guidelines for him to follow that could help him go to bed earlier. For example, he must turn in his electronics by 9 p.m. each evening (central place for charging personal devices, laptops/PCs/tablets shut down, etc.). The TV goes off at a set time as well. The kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m. each evening (no midnight snacks, etc.). Those general restrictions should assist with homework not being done late, since so much of it is done online in high school.

As for his boss saying he’s “crabby,” well, that’s up to his boss to address if son’s attitude is getting in the way of his serving customers. So I’d leave the crabby comment in the workplace arena and allow his boss to take action if necessary. That’s a natural consequence that your son can solve if he wants to—and better coming from an adult with authority over your son than your trying to solve the problem for him with an earlier bedtime.

For the church retreat, even if your son goes to bed at 10 p.m., there’s no guarantee he’ll return from the retreat well rested. He will be tired and out of sorts after the retreat no matter what. Sometimes, teens need to find their own sleep limits before they’ll value sleep. I know my two teenage daughters know when they need to go bed because they’ve had to deal with the consequences of not getting enough sleep. Often, they will put themselves to bed earlier than usual because they’ve realized they need a little more rest ahead of a big test or after a sleepover, for example.

Overall, having in place home policies, like for electronic devices, is better than micromanaging a bedtime for a teenager. Model good sleeping habits yourself, discuss why sleep is important and let natural consequences happen when he doesn’t get enough sleep. I wrote a piece for the Washington Post on “Why you need to pay attention to your older kids’ sleeping habits” that has more info on this topic.

Incorporating Joy Into Your Parenting

Note: On the fourth Tuesdays, I’m starting a new blog series on the Fruit of the Spirit, taking us through the nine character traits and applying that to raising kids.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)

A few years ago, Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, attempted “to look at the experience of parenthood systematically, piece by piece, stage by stage, in order to articulate—and in some cases quantify—what today’s parents find so challenging about their lives.” Her premise is built on the fact that many parents today have little joy or happiness in parenting because we’re so worried and concerned about our kids.

One of my goals as a parent coach is to help parents recover their joy in raising kids. I’m not talking about some Pollyanna-esque mental state of constant, relentless joy, but the quiet, inner joy that radiates from your heart at the sight of your children. That delight we have in our children’s happiness—not in our making them happy, but in their expressing their happiness. This isn’t about how we can make others happy, as that’s a losing proposition from the get-go. This is about rediscovering your own joy in the midst of the sometimes frustration, sometimes hard, sometimes trying, sometimes difficult path along the parenting journey.

How can we have joy in the messiness of raising kids? Here’s how I experience joy, even when I feel like crying or screaming, in my parenting.

Enjoy the moment. When I’m really paying attention to my kids, and not giving them the once-over as I dash by to complete the next item on my to-do list, I can experience joy in their own joy. Seeing a son’s face light up as he talks to his brother about something that happened in a book he’s reading makes my heart light. Hearing my two teenage daughters laughing over a K-pop video brings a smile to my lips. Watching my husband tell an awful pun at dinner that makes everyone groan, then laugh, warms my inner core.

Remember each day is brand-new. One of my favorite quotes from Anne of Green Gables is “Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it.” Let’s make a pact to not over our anger or hurt into the next day. Let’s start each day with the idea that we can do better, our children can do better, and that we can find joy in the day’s tasks, activities and challenges.

Let go more than hang on. When we parent with open hands, not holding onto our—or our child’s—regrets, mistakes or missteps, our hearts will be lighter, our responses more positive, and our outlook rosier. That’s not to say we forget about the past, but it does mean we try not to bring up things that have been resolved, and we don’t measure the future by the past or present.

Ditch perfection and settle for okay. Don’t chase after having the perfect house, raising the perfect kid or being the perfect mother. Be okay with average. Embrace being “good enough.” When we do our best but don’t sweat perfection, we breathe easier and relax more—excellent ways to allow joy to bubble to the surface of our lives.

Smile or laugh every day. Kids are funny, and raising them can be even funnier. When you have those moments where you want to laugh or cry, choose laughter. Not at your kids, but with your kids. A smile will soften any hurt. A shared laugh will knit you closer together. So smile more, laugh more and your heart will feel more joyful.

These are just some of the ways that I find to bring joy into my parenting and my life. Whenever stress, challenges, discouragement or frustration beats down my joy, it’s usually because I’ve let these five simple things slide. If you haven’t been doing any of these things and want to have more joy in your life, then pick just one to start with—you’ll be amazed at what difference a small change can make.

Until next time,

Sarah

3 Ways to Hook Your Kids on Devotions

By JP Robinson

Last week, I told my kids that I’d have to cancel our devotions that evening because a family activity had run later than expected. Their response was typical: a resounding chorus of “oh no’s! and something on the lines of “Pleasssse, can we have devotions tonight?”

I call this response typical, and it is…for us. Perhaps it’s not typical in most homes but I’m blessed to have kids who literally beg me for devotions. This post identifies three ways to help you get my kind of problem—kids who are disappointed when devotions are cancelled!

  1. Show your kids that God is the Best. Thing. Ever.
    Devotions don’t begin when you gather your family together. They are an ongoing expression of commitment to God. Getting your kids “hooked” on Jesus, is something that every parent needs to do 24/7. If we limit our dedication to Jesus to 15 minutes a night, then we send a message to our kids/tweens/teens that God is not the center of our lives.

Remember: your kids won’t buy into devotions if you’re not showing them that you’re “devoted” to God. I love the word devotion. It entails commitment, love and sacrifice. When we show our children that God doesn’t revolve around our lives, but our lives revolve around God, we’re setting the stage to hook their interest in time spent in the Bible.

Think: How can we expect our kids to be excited about God if we parents are too busy to go to midweek service or too tired to read our Bibles every day?

  1. Get creative. No, you don’t need to spend money or do acrobatics in the living room. What I mean is, don’t limit the format of your devotions to simply talking about Scripture.

Remember: Kids of all ages learn best when they’re doing or seeing things. Classic example: I was trying to teach my kids how just a little sin can contaminate their spiritual health. A few drops of purple food coloring in a cup of water produced a lesson that even my youngest remembered weeks later.

Think: You’re competing with school, friends and social media for your child’s time and attention. To be effective, devotions need to be engaging and—to a certain extent—fun.

Try dramatizing a Biblical lesson (no costume needed) or enhancing a biblical discussion with a short movie clip. If all else fails, a quick Google search on “Devotion ideas for busy families” produces almost 4 million results.

  1. Let the kids run the show. This is perhaps the most effective strategy of the three. Too often, parents feel that devotions mean that they talk while the kids sit and absorb the information. As a high school teacher, I can tell you that engaged kids are the ones who really learn.

Remember: If you feel guidelines are necessary, that’s fine! Just keep it loose so they’re free to express their creativity. Not only does this take some pressure off of you, but it also engages your children from the onset.

Think: No matter how old your children, assign them each a devotion night. Let them take ownership and run the show their way.

I hope that these tips place your family on the road to power-packed devotions. Keep up the good work and God bless your efforts to nurture another Christ-loving generation.

About JP Robinson
JP Robinson began writing as a teen for the Times Beacon Records newspaper in New York. He holds a degree in English and is a teacher of French history. JP is known for creating vivid, high-adrenaline plots laced with unexpected twists. Born to praying parents who were told by medical doctors that having children was impossible, JP Robinson’s writes to ignite faith in a living God.

Parenting Advice That Makes You Go Hmmmm: Giving Homework to Parents?

In the fall, Fairfax County Public Schools included this little gem in its weekly email under the headline: “Tips for Parents: Let Your Elementary-Age Child Give You Homework.”

The short piece read like this: “For many parents, it’s been a long time since they had to do homework. So when their children complain about it, they aren’t always sympathetic. Parents can better understand what their children are going through if they go through it too. Once every week or so, let your child give you an assignment. Even if it’s easy for you, don’t show it. Instead, ask your child to help you. One of the best ways for children to learn something is by teaching it to someone else. It will make your child feel important and a little smarter. It’s a great ego booster.”

To which I scratched my head at the convoluted thought process: I can’t understand my child not wanting to do homework because I don’t have any homework of my own? However, I did go to school, and at that time, I did have homework. But those distant memories aren’t enough for me to emphasize or sympathize with my fourth or fifth grader today.

Furthermore, life is full of things we don’t want to do, like dishes, laundry, grocery shopping, housecleaning, bill paying, taxes, etc. All of us, no matter if we “work” outside the home or not, have busy work (aka, homework) that needs to be done that we don’t particularly like doing. Learning how to summon the internal will to do such work is part of growing up—and the more our youngsters have to deal with unpleasant but necessary tasks, the more used to them they’ll become and the more able to overcome their natural resistance to get ‘er done.

I originally posted a brief comment on Facebook after receiving the email, and I quickly found out I wasn’t the only parent wondering why this was put forth as a good idea. One local reader—who has kids in Fairfax County Public School too—said, “What cracks me up about that argument is that we have experienced it…because we went to school. And we had homework! And my parents just asked if I did it. They didn’t sit over my shoulder to make sure I did it and they certainly didn’t offer to do any assignments with me!”

Another pointed out, “The great thing about being human is that I can imagine what it’s like to have a mouthful of thumbtacks without experiencing it!!!” One poster had a good thought: “If kids can give parent’s homework, then can parents give teachers homework?”

The bottom line is that parents can empathize with our kids without resorting to dumb ideas like allowing them to assign us homework that we pretend to have trouble doing. When I read this out loud to my kids at dinner one night, my high schooler, middle schooler, fifth grader and fourth grader thought it was a pretty funny—and very strange—idea. As my fifth grader said, “Why would I want to give you homework?”

It’s ideas like this that make kids sometimes view adults as, well, not the brightest bulb in the socket.

The Friend Question

For a video version of this question, go to https://youtu.be/C0EsCSnbCwg.

Q: My daughter is in third grade and is very different from her peers. She loves to play by herself at school and plays imaginatively in her room at home after school. I embrace her unique qualities, as does she. I assure her that God made her exactly the way she is supposed to be and she doesn’t need to change to fit in.

However, she is sad because she does not have any friends. There are none nearby for her to play with, and I have considered moving. I know she needs some down time after school, so I don’t schedule many playdates, maybe one a month. She’s so awkward around other kids that it is harder on me to have the playdate but I keep trying. She is in Brownies, which helps a little. She and I have been through a friendship devotional series and have read the American Girl book, Friends: Making Them and Keeping Them. When she has playdates, they are never reciprocated. She has never been invited to anyone’s home, even after multiple playdates at our house.

So I’m not sure what my question is exactly, other than do you mind telling me what you would do in this situation? I am struggling between just leaving her to make her own friends and working hard myself to try and find her a friend. Maybe I should invite friends from church over instead of school…I just don’t know what to do!

A: It’s always hard on the parent when we see our child ostracized or seemingly alone in the world, isn’t it? My second daughter (Second) was much like yours at that age—more comfortable being by herself than with others, making up stories in her head and spending time by herself. Now my daughter did have an older sister to pal around with, but Second did a lot by herself most of the time. I well remember several teary conversations with Second around third grade/fourth grade about her not having any friends.

A couple of things come to mind to help your situation, which I did with Second. It’s great that you’re talking with her and encouraging her on how to be a good friend. That’s important, even when there’s no one with which to practice.

I would sit down with Daughter and ask her what she wants to do about this friend thing. So far, it sounds like you’ve made all the efforts—arranging playdates, reading books together, etc. And that’s good because we have to take the initial lead in these things. But since it’s your daughter’s life, she ought to have a say in how to go about it. Ask her if she wants to continue with the once-a-month play dates or try something else.

One thing our family enjoys doing to help with the friend thing is to have “just because” parties. For example, one year, Second daughter invited six or seven girls from her class to come over after school to make chocolate-dipped pretzels for the holidays. That took the pressure off to invite just one girl, provided something fun to do, and allowed Second to shine in a different situation than a normal playdate.

I also gave Second permission to not do anything for a while. Trying too hard can be exhausting and discouraging, so sometimes just letting life flow by naturally without making playdates, etc., could be a welcome break.

It could just be that she hasn’t clicked with anyone in her class, and in third grade, she pretty much spends time with the same group of kids all the time, rather than switching classrooms like upper elementary classes start to do. I encouraged Second to seek out other kids who looked lonely or that they needed a friend—compassion is never wasted, and sometimes, thinking of how to help someone else can be the best antidote to overcoming one’s own problem or circumstance.

There’s not a magic bullet to get our kids to have friends (or even one friend), but helping them to see that there are options, that their current status isn’t permanent, and that they can decide what to do about it can help them navigate these friendship waters. And Second? She’s an eighth grader now who has started to spread her wings…and she has friends. Not a lot, but just enough.

January Parenting Thought of the Month: Kids Do Weird Things

As we start a fresh year with no mistakes (yet!), it’s good for parents to remember that their children are perfectly capable on any given day to do something totally off the wall, mean or downright illegal. Parents can do everything right and their kids can still choose to do the wrong thing.

For example, one of our kids used to walk down the hallway with tongue out, licking the wall. Another child spit at a classmate in anger during lunch (the classmate then stabbed my child in the hand with a plastic fork—yikes, good thing they were both first graders at the time, so no harm done). This is just a sampling of how strange our kids can be…and how unpredictable their behavior, even when said kids “know” the right thing to do or not to do.

Many times, a child acting in an unpredictable way can trigger a corresponding paralysis in the parent, especially the mother. The parent tries to decipher why the child did what he or she did, often wondering if the behavior was the result of some parenting misstep. More time and energy is spent on trying to figure out the why behind the behavior than addressing the behavior, and confusion often reigns in the wake of such incidents.

Since every parent will encounter something strange, weird, despicable or downright bad behavior in their child at some point along their parenting journey, what should a parent do in these situations? Here’s what I keep in mind when my kids go off the rails—or simply act according to their kid-nature.

  • Ignore the kid stuff. From licking a wall to drawing with spit on a window, we should learn to let go of the weird things kids do without overreacting. Sure, tell them to stop if it’s really annoying you, but if it’s simply that you find it strange that they want to do that (like jumping in mud puddles after a rain or only wanting to wear a princess crown instead of hair bows), you should probably let them enjoy being a kid. After all, there’s enough time for them to adhere to adult conventions.
  • Remind the child that you still love her despite her actions, but that there are consequences for what she did. Be prepared to level appropriate punishments so that there’s hopefully not a repeat of the behavior. In other words, love the child but still punish her if appropriate (or follow through if a school suggests consequences at home in addition to school).
  • Help the child take responsibility. This means the parent doesn’t step in and shield the child from his actions, but step alongside the child and, depending on the age of the kid, show him what he needs to do to make it right. This should include sincere apologies, preferably both written and verbal, and an offer of restitution.
  • Make the child assume full restitution for any damage. For a teenager, this could mean you front the money to pay for the broken window or defaced property, then he works odd jobs or a part-time job until the debt is paid. For a younger child who has little earning potential, this could mean that he pays on a sliding scale and perhaps does extra work for the person or place (such as weeding a garden at school or helping to clean up after an event) until the debt has been paid. In both cases, be clear what it will take to wipe the slate clean, such as a specific dollar amount for older kids or a certain number of extra chores that specifically benefit the person or place that was harmed (such as a school that the child defaced with graffiti, for example).

Five Parenting Hacks

I’m often asked what are some easy ways to make raising kids more enjoyable and less stressful. Here are my top five in no particular order. If you adopt even one of these in the coming year, I think you’ll find yourself more calm and confident as a parent.

  1. Develop a parental vision. How would you describe your child at age 30? How you answer that question tells about your parenting vision for your children. Think about the vision you have for your children, then think about how you are parenting. Do your decisions as a parent reflect the vision you have for your kids? Do the things you encourage your children to accomplish build toward the vision you have for them as adults?
  2. Parent with open hands by encouraging independence. Let the child solve his own problems first before stepping in immediately. Refrain from doing things the child is capable of doing for himself. Recently, I saw a parent take off his second or third grader’s shoes for no other reason than because she demanded it. That parent needed to stop doing for his daughter what she was perfectly able to do for herself. Stop being your child’s social director—let him initiate playdates, especially as the child inches into upper elementary school age. Finally, develop interests of your own apart from your kids, as it gives you perspective and, well, a life of your own.
  3. Disconnect to reconnect. The ability to be “in touch” with others 24/7 has created an environment totally different from that of a mere 20 years ago. An unintentional side effect of being so connected is that parents—and children—have become worn out. We’re warned about what we—and our children—are looking at on our screens, but rarely are we cautioned about what the mere fact that what we’re so linked is doing to our relationships. Have technology free zones (like at dinner, overnight, etc.). Get out and do things as a family without technology.
  4. Stop playing Parent Detective. Don’t spend so much effort worrying about trying to understand why your child does the things she does. It doesn’t make you a better parent if you understand everything about your child—it makes you an ineffective parent because you’re constantly assessing the why and forgetting about the what. The what is what’s most important. We should be more concerned with the what of our children’s behavior than the why. Sure, we need to point out the heart issues, but that doesn’t mean we give them a pass on the misbehaviors because we know the reasons. So many times, parents are so laser-focused on finding out the why that they forget to address the what.
  5. Use Alpha Speech. Moms especially use way too many words when communicating with our children, and this opens up the door for arguments and pushback. Instead of saying, “Mrs. Smith is coming over today and the living room is a mess. I need you to pick up your toys so Mrs. Smith doesn’t step on them, okay?” Alpha Moms say, “Pick up the toys in the living room.” This cuts down on arguments tremendously and it also allows the child to more clearly hear the directive.

What are some of your favorite child-rearing hacks?