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Giveaway winner: how to survive mornings with your kids!

Step right up! Get it while it’s hot! Get it while it’s buttered! Parenting advice you actually want is being served up by my favorite experts.

Congrats, Susie, you won!! See Angela’s letter below for help with your kid morning dilemma. And congrats to Allison, vjentzsch and Jacquie (and the hoardes of the rest of us) who share Susie’s exasperation on this issue!

And BONUS, Angela and Niels will be answering all of your other questions on their podcast! Woot!! Read on…

Here’s Susie’s question:

L is 5. And INCAPABLE of following directions. In the morning, particularly. It’s “please brush your teeth” and “please do first pee” and “please get your clothes on” and despite many calm talks, and a chart we made called “L’s Morning,” with fetching pictures of what he needs to accomplish, AND with the sometimes-threat (delivered kindly, in my defense) that he will lose the privilege of watching Wild Kratts later if he can’t help out more, he dilly-dallies like no other. I sometimes have to ask 5 or 6 times for each of the three things he needs to get done. We help more and more (pick the clothes, cue up the toothbrush), and that’s fine–we just want some ownership over the activities and a little frigging help around here, please. Often, he completely ignores us, not in a willful way exactly, but in a “I’m-spaced-out-and-am-going-to-pretend-I-don’t-hear-you-so-I-can-play-animals” way. It is SUCH A BEAR to get out of the house, and it often results in yelling or tears or drama that none of us wants. My patience has worn thin. I’m over it. THANKS!

***

Dear Susie,

Oh, yes, the morning Getting-Out-The-Door challenge. Who hasn’t been there? Whew.

First, let me say this: please, please, don’t take any of my advice as a way to be hard on yourself. Parents are stuck between a Rock (children’s hardwired need for connection) and a Hard Place (societal structures and rhythms that make connection extremely difficult, nearly impossibly sometimes).

Be mad about this. It sucks to parent in this culture of isolation, speed, stress, and the pursuit of perfection. Be very mad. But don’t be mad at yourself.

Every moment of warmth, listening and laughter with your child is nothing less than a counter-cultural act of resistance (Do I sound dramatic here? I feel rather passionate about this). Give yourself lots of love and praise for every drop of patience, compassion and ingenuity that you manage to come up with as a mother or father parenting in the here and now. And trust that your kids are resilient enough to take the bits of connection you manage to cast their way and use it to heal, grow, and create their own ways of moving through the world. So without guilt, and while dousing yourself in self-appreciation for the awesome parent you already are (and I can tell this is true!) … read on!

Ok, you might want to first watch this little video to get oriented to why connection is the key to helping things run smoothly in our families, and what this might look like in the very real, very challenging everyday moments with our kids:

So … mornings. A big time of challenge and upset in most families. These are my thoughts on it…

Mornings are really hard for young kids because they are facing many hours away from us. Children who have been pretty well treated—and yours clearly are!—still have high standards for what life should be like. And at age five, it is much, much, much more reasonable to want to spend the day with people who love and adore you than with people who might be nice enough, but don’t necessarily love you. I’m assuming that’s what school is like for kids, even at great schools. So…a five year old, whose brain still relies on lots and lots of warm, attuned limbic-to-limbic resonance (love) to be able to function well, has understandable apprehension when anticipating many hours away from you—the capitol S source of love in his life!

But there’s still lots we can do to gain kids’ cooperation and help mornings go better, especially once we understand that we are asking young brains to swim upstream from their natural impulses. And smoother, warmer mornings are better for everyone because they set us up to enter the day well. So, I think there are three main things that can make a huge difference in the morning—these aren’t easy things to achieve, but well worth our attention. (And I challenge you to do these things imperfectly, at best.)

First, calm, cooperative mornings require a calm, regulated parent. As the Master Regulators of our households, our emotional tenor sets the tone for the whole family. But before you beat yourself up about how stressed and frustrated you often feel in the morning, know that it is TOTALLY unfair that you should have to get yourself and your kids ready and out the door so early in the morning, and that to do it while being CALM is a high order, indeed. You shouldn’t have to do this, but here we are, parenting at a time in history that sets us up to have to work extra hard. So give yourself kudos for all the mornings when you don’t lose it, and be extremely gentle and compassionate with yourself when you do lose it.

And then try this strategy to help your system feel calm in the morning: wake up thirty minutes before anyone else in your family.

Spend this time being with yourself, in some easy enjoyable way, before you become Mommy. For instance, make your favorite hot beverage, sit in the comfiest chair in the living room, and let yourself enter the day gently. Sometimes I light a candle just to help me set the right tone (otherwise, I am liable to start worrying and fretting over the day as I sit there with my coffee). Do whatever you need to make this time pleasant. Recently I have added to my morning time a little self-given foot rub with coconut oil and a few drops of my favorite essential oils. This is a time to treat yourself really well because you are a champ and doing an amazing job in an impossible situation. (A mom in one of my classes recently asked if it “counts” to spend her thirty minutes taking a shower and getting dressed all by herself. I could tell that the thought almost made her giddy, so my answer: Hell yes!) But however you spend your thirty minutes, keep it simple, keep it enjoyable, and make it all about you.

Second, get your kids connected before you ask them to cooperate. This can look different for each kid, and it may change over time. I used to start the day with a morning cuddle with my daughter in bed. The only problem was that then she really never wanted to get out of bed. So we started a ritual of having a “morning couch cuddle.” When she was five I could still lift her, so I’d scoop her up and carry her to the living room where we’d snuggle quietly until she’d wake up to discover she was hungry. These days, enjoying my own morning foot rub with essential oils has inspired me to start her day in a similar way, so I sneak in and give her an invigorating foot and leg rub while she wakes up.

You can also start the day with a little dose of “Special Time”—which is two to five to ten minutes of undivided and enthusiastic attention while you do whatever your child wants to do—with a timer set. Here’s a video in which Niels describes this powerful practice.

But whatever your “connection strategy,” just think of this as a quick fill up before the day begins. Because if we can get our kids juiced up with connection right away, they often have it in them to cooperate better through the morning. You can also give them “micro-fill-ups” as you go… nuzzles, twinkling at them, extra body contact wherever you can, lots of appreciation for what they are doing right (I love how you picked out your own socks this morning!!). The more full their connection cups, the better equipped they are to do what needs to be done and face the day.

Third, make it fun. I know, I’m rolling my eyes just rereading those words because I know how impossible it sounds. But fun greases the cooperation wheels in a grand way. Kids are suckers for a good time. You are on the right track with your “task chart,” by the way. But the difference may be in the delivery. Can you make it into a game? When my daughter was in kindergarten, we went to Staples and she picked out a a write-on wipe-off board that we hung on her bedroom door. On the board, I drew pictures with little check boxes beside them of each step she needed to take to move through the morning. As she did each task she got to check it off. Something about that made it fun—and empowering. Plus, I would give her high-fives as I noticed items that were complete, and with a twinkle in my eye I’d say, “I wonder what the next step is on your list?” when I noticed she was lagging.

Fun is in the attitude. And it creates connection. You can give them piggy backs to the kitchen for breakfast, or announce that you are SURE you will be the first one to get your shoes on (and then be sure to lose). It can mean announcing that you have three things that need to go into the backpack, can anyone help by counting as they go in? Lunchbox, 1! Homework folder, 2! Sunscreen, 3! It can mean adding a dose of silly to the task. This morning, when the foot rub wasn’t enough to get my kid out of bed, I blasted Taylor Swift in her bedroom and we had a ten second dance party (and all her eye rolls let me know I was reaching new heights of “cool” by the goofy way I danced).

Making it fun is like flirting and courting your child into the day. Does it sound exhausting? Yes, I guess it is. But so is wrangling them, nagging, and yelling. And in my experience, a little connection and fun goes a long way. Opera tooth brushing and a skipping race to the car is far, far easier than having to ask my child to put her socks on fifteen thousand times. And it makes us both feel a hell of a lot better.

Smooth Mornings Getting Out The Door really begin the Day Before…, or the Weekend Before.

This is the real kicker…We really only have time in the morning to give our kids “micro-fill-ups” of connection, which isn’t really enough to get them through the morning (and the rest of the day) in good shape. Little fill ups of connection work best in the morning when a kid has had a BIG fill up of our attention sometime recently.

What does a big dose of connection with you look like? It might be a romping pillow fight or your tender attention while they feel their difficult feelings deeply and fully (or even both, because play often gives rise to the big, vulnerable feelings that are often right underneath the surface).

These are examples of the Big Doses of Connection that kids are really looking for in the morning, but who has time then? It’s much easier on everyone if we can provide the Big Doses after school, in the evenings, or on weekends. So whenever you can manage it, let yourself drop your other responsibilities and playfully connect with your kids, and if their feelings start to erupt, stay close and let ‘em flow. Be the safe container for their storm, and welcome the feelings forth. Because if they wake up on school days with their cups already pretty full, then they are more likely to be sated by the “micro-fill-up” that you are able to give in the morning.

But know that it’s not always going to happen when it’s convenient. Some mornings we just have to toss the schedule out the window, and sit down on the floor with our wailing, thrashing child, and beam our love on their emotional storm. When kids have regular chances to release the pressure in this way, you will find you get that time back in spades.

And tomorrow morning will likely go just a bit more smoothly.

I hope this helps,
Angela

PS. We, Angela and Niels, have read all the questions and thought about answering them all. And we will. This week is the start of our new podcast. One of the first episodes features an interview with An Honest Mom herself. You can listen to that interview here.

In the coming weeks of the podcast, we’ll answer all the questions you asked in the comments section of the the giveaway post. You can sign up for the podcast on the Every Parent Podcast website or directly on iTunes, so you won’t miss an episode.

You can also visit us on our regular website, Parent Connect East Bay, where you can find information about our classes and coaching.

How my bad 4-year-old and I found our way home

There’s simplicity parenting, attachment parenting, parenting by temperament. Authoritative parenting, French parenting, parenting the spirited child.
And one I think we’re all familiar with: parenting by the seat of our pants.

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Image by Shena Tschofen

That, whether I like it or not, is where I parent from most of the time. And let me tell you, the seat of my pants is battered and worn. As I have mentioned before, parenting Jo since I got pregnant with Cal has been no cake walk. We’re talking hitting, kicking and throwing things at me when I was pregnant, having big physical outbursts with other kids and trying to contain his massive physical energy in a small house with a newborn.

I sought advice everywhere I could—books, friends, my mom. I dissolved into tears while asking Jo’s teacher what I should do after his first morning of preschool, all while bouncing Cal in his carrier.

So this last fall, I went to an introductory talk for a Hand-in-Hand parenting class that was recommended by a mom I’ve been admiring for months. Her daughter goes to Jo’s preschool and she’s a kick ass and very real mom of 3 exuberant children, including a very physical, eldest boy which is why I sought out her sage advice.

At the end of the talk, I was the woman raising my hand, “Sure Angela, that all sounds great, but then what do I do when my 4 year old starts head-butting me?” I walked out of there with the massive chip on my shoulder that only a mother of a super-physical and sometimes-aggressive boy can have: Your slick limit setting ideas won’t work in my house. My child will chew up your parenting tools and spit them directly into my face.

But I was at the end of what felt like every one of my ropes, so I tried what she talked about.

I actually stopped the 7 things I was trying to do at once while making dinner and got down on the floor with Jo the next time he tried to hit me. AJ happened to be home, so I had the pleasure of being able to try this without having Cal in tow. I tried to set the limit with a “firm and warm tone while making lots of eye contact.” I just kept saying things like, “I can’t let you hit me.” And “I know you’re angry because we’re not going to watch a video.” And “Nope. I can’t let you kick me either.” I stayed with him while he flipped out.

It was the parenting equivalent of walking straight into enemy fire.

And it effing worked.

He cried and screamed and thrashed. And then the hitting stopped. And he melted into a hug.

I was stunned.

I signed up for the class.

Like any parenting advice worth its salt, the things I learned there and practice now are just good habits for living as a human being. And they happen to apply really well to the under-developed brains of children and the calcified brains of parents.

There’s so much to say here because the whole Hand-in-Hand approach is a sweeping understanding of human relationships in general.

It’s rooted in brain science, in particular the functioning of the social or limbic part of our brains that is fully formed when we’re born. When we feel connected to others, our limbic system is happy. When we don’t, the red flag is raised, the alarm sounds. Babies cry. Toddlers tantrum. Moms want to fly far far away from here.

So, in short, the answer when things are going pear-shaped is to find a way to connect if you can. If you can’t, it’s okay. Try again next time. Angela, the same Angela I grilled with chip-on-my-shoulder questions at the intro talk, would repeat this kindness over and over: sometimes you just can’t stop everything and connect. Surprise! You’re human. Each time she’d say this, I could feel every parent in the room deflate into relief. She understood. Sometimes, you just need to sit your child down in front of 6 episodes of Animal Babies on Netflix until you get your sanity back.

The other thing the class reminded me about was how crucial listening is. Often, our kids desperately want to be listened to when they’re upset. (Shockingly, I also want this.) And if we’re not getting listened to as parents, about the relentlessness of it, the trials and triumphs and mind-numbing Tuesdays, then it’s really hard for us to listen to our kids.

Eureka.

Getting listened to over the course of the 6 week class felt like cleaning out some backed-up old pipes. Week after week I was allowed and even encouraged to let ‘er rip: “When he bit me, I wanted to hit him. I wanted to scream, ‘What the hell is your problem?!’” And slowly, I de-gunked. And the water ran clear again.

I credit what I learned in my Hand-in-Hand class with helping me recover the relationship with Jo that I loved. The way I see his outbursts and respond to them has changed subtly, and we recover faster.

As a result of all this listening and limbic system learning, I was able to make a radical mental shift:

I was able to see Jo as a good kid.

After so many months of having him try to hurt me (and sometimes succeeding) and watching him lash out at the baby, I started to believe that Jo was bad. Damaged. Wrong.

This may come as a huge surprise, but when you’re parenting your child from the perspective that they are The Bad Seed, your relationship with that child does not tend to flourish.

I’ve witnessed now, time after time, that if I have the presence and time to connect with Jo when he’s going off the rails, (which sometimes I don’t—see Netflix option above) if I can stay warm and firm, it reminds him (AND ME!) that I’m the grown up. I’m the big padded wall he can fling himself against. I’m not going anywhere. And I see that he’s okay and that we’re okay deep down. He can unfurl in that safety, flip out, and then come back. I show him that I know he’s great even when he’s at his worst. And then he knows how to find his way back.

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‘The Long Way Home’ by Christine und David Schmitt

Case in point:

Cal was crawling around with some toys in the living room and Jo was running and jumping everywhere at ludicrous speed. I stopped Jo and looked in his eyes and asked him to please slow down, because he might accidentally knock Cal over, and I know he doesn’t want to hurt him. Not 2 minutes later, Cal got knocked over, fell on his face and came up with a bloody, screaming mouth. My face crumpled and started to get that angry look towards Jo. I scooped up Cal, and Jo looked back with this horrifying grin on his face as if to say, “See how bad I am?”

I had the presence in that moment to remember his goodness. So instead of talking to the sadistic nutcase in front of me, I talked to the kid I know he is.

Don’t worry, Jo. Cal is going to be okay. I know you didn’t want to hurt him and that it’s really scary to see him bleeding. But he’s going to be just fine. He needs to cry because he’s hurting. But I know you didn’t do that on purpose and I know how much you love him.

I brought him in close and just kept talking about how I knew he was scared and sad and that he loved Cal to pieces. He kept playing the cruel jerk. But I just kept right on.

When Cal’s crying died down, it was time for us to go meet a friend. Jo fell quiet while we were getting in the car, and as I was buckling him in, he asked, “Can I hug him?”

Why yes, dear boy. You can.

“Can I kiss him too?”

By all means.

And then, after the gentlest hugging and kissing that I’ve ever witnessed from my little dynamo, he settled into his seat, looked straight into my eyes and said, “Mama, I’m never going to do that again.”

Yowza. We made it.