Skip to content

parenting by connection

Giveaway: Parenting Advice You Actually Want

I think my son is possessed and I’m not sure I’ll survive the toddler years.

This was a text I got last week from my friend D whose son is 3.5.

Quick on the heels of that, I got this email from L, whose son just turned 2:

It seems we have fully entered the so-called Terrible Twos (also terrific twos, at times, but…) We both brought up your name during our “we should get edu-ma-cated about how to HANDLE THIS SHIT” (not that it can necessarily be handled, but maybe more-to-the-point: how we can endure it while maintaining everyone’s sanity?)

After reading both of these, I breathed a massive sigh of relief that Jo has emerged out of his Most Difficult Stage. And then I felt extreme compassion for these gals, because I know how effing hard it is (Cal has taken to Hulking Out when I tell him he can’t open the refrigerator for the 103rd time). And then I sent them both to Angela and Niels and their website, Parent Connect East Bay, because they are the people who taught me the magic that has helped my relationship with my boys the most.

It’s no surprise that the most popular blog post I’ve ever written was inspired by what I learned from Angela and Niels. I think it struck a chord because parenting is often a lonely and desperate enterprise. We all have different kids and lives and treats that we hide for ourselves in the top corner cupboard, but we all find ourselves in the weeds. And we need resources we can come back to again and again to help us find our way out.

The thing I love most about Angela and Niels is that they teach for Real Human Parents. Parents who lose it sometimes, who don’t have the energy to do the best thing all the time, parents who are routinely judged and stressed and do their work in isolation. Parents who fail and love and try again. Down at the foundation of every tool or strategy they teach is the glorious option to not do it. I hear Angela’s voice in my head on a daily basis, “Check in with yourself first. Do you have the bandwidth to listen to Jo as he screams and throws matchbox cars, or do you just need to plunk him in front of a video and go drink some tea and breathe?” The joy of her question is that EITHER OPTION IS FINE. Her point is, do the hard work of listening and connecting with your kid when you have the time and space and energy. And if you don’t, which sometimes you wont! that’s no problem.

Angela and Niels teach classes in Berkeley, and I’m delighted to say that you can now learn their stuff from ANYWHERE because they’ve created a video series that you’ll want to watch because the videos are like this:

Don’t you already feel about 6 million times better after watching that?

The videos teach the same content they cover in their local classes including (but not limited to!) the stuff that still helps me everyday:

  • Understanding kids’ brains and how they’re totally like ours and also nothing like them
  • How to get the support you need as a parent (!!!eureka!!!)
  • Setting limits for your kid without turning into a dictator or a robot or both

So now for the giveaway part! Anyone care for some free online coaching from these two brilliant, kind, experienced teachers? Angela and Neils have generously offered to answer a parenting question from one of you. They’ll put their minds to a question that one of you raises in comments section of this post, and in a week or two, they’ll coach you here in the form of a guest post reply.

And the secret bonus of leaving a comment with your parenting dilemma? There’s nothing quite like hearing other parents talk about their unique, real, gritty parenting problems. Sigh. We are not alone.

To get you in the mood, I’ll leave comment numero uno, where I fess up to a nasty little habit I have when Jo, say, throws the lemon squeezer across the yard after I ask him to please bring it inside.

So get to it. Lay your parenting question on us in the comments to this post. Tell us where you’re stuck. You can comment anonymously if you want.

Don’t just do it for the killer coaching you’ll get from Angela and Niels. Do it for the greater good of all parents everywhere. Don’t we all need to know we’re not the only ones?

I can’t wait to see what you have to say.

Our raging kids and where they come from

Well hot damn. Hells bells. Sheesh-ka-bob.

Things have been really hopping over here since I wrote my last post.

I’m a chronic over-sharer in my day-to-day, so writing about my life, all splayed open for the world to see, comes naturally and feels good. Necessary, even. And so I write and I keep writing and I hope it strikes a chord somewhere. Hope someone else feels a little less nuts, a little more jovial about their particular mess, a little bit encouraged by the good company of us other bumbling humans, just trying to see what sticks.

spag splat

And then BAM. For whatever reason, I struck a chord last week. A relatively big one.

The things you’ve shared with me have left me stunned.

There are so many of us.

This is my son ALL over the place.

Wow. Just Wow. Your story resonated with our boy word for word.

The attitude of mum, the elder child’s personality and spunk, and the shock when it actually worked all ring so true.

My beautiful bad seed is all girl..lovely, opinionated, strong-willed, thoughtful, loving, commanding, and gorgeously all girl. With a temper that can send giants to the corner, silently weeping and hugging their knees.

What you wrote has an impact for me right now. I can be that padded wall.

This is our house, so thanks-

Like a few of you have said above, he hits, kicks, head butts, body slams me, bites, throws things, ect, and laughs all the while doing it. And I know he is not laughing to be malicious, but because he cannot get his emotions under control, and he doesn’t understand them. It’s damn hard though. And he’s a strong little bugger.

Ladies, this was so my son when he was younger. I think I still have PTSD from his first month or so of kindergarten when he was 5.

I’m trying to find a way with my 3 years old boy that plays –often– the agressive kid, usually against me.

I have four boys – two are like your son. Your piece had me in tears as not an hour ago I had numerous sets of eyes glaring at me at a park as a meltdown occurred. I stayed calm, told myself to ignore the judgement and to love my boy. But gosh was it hard. Even after two years of practice staying calm with him during his outbursts (since I finally learned not staying calm made it infinitely worse!) I still struggle.

Thank you for putting in words what I’ve been trying to do with my nearly-3yr old bundle of energy boy.

My very spirited 2 1/2 year old can be aggressive and violent like this to his very gentle 6 year old brother!

I needed this today.

my son is Jo…

This is exactly my 4yo.

When my son goes berserk he tries to hit and scratch and bite and he’s like a wild beast. If it’s not that it’s chucking things at me and knocking things down.

I am in exactly the same boat with my almost 3 year old and little ‘accidents’ with his younger brother.

My son is only 6-months and I feel like this already fits him to a T. Love the insight and I’ll be sharing this with my wife as we prepare for the next stage!

We have a Jo of our own in the form of Eli. Thank you very much for sharing this.

Your description of the sadistic smile that he gets is so like my William’s! He is so much more than that mask. Your post brought me to tears, because you showed me I am not alone.

Maria, I thought of you when I read this, especially the head-butting part.

And this isn’t even all of them.

I had no idea how many of us were in this boat. Parents with young ones who are scratching, hitting, throwing, biting and yes, as Maria well knows, head-butting; they’re hurting things and people in their path and then tossing off a sadistic laugh to boot. Even though I know these behaviors intimately because we’ve lived them all for the past couple years, it still baffles me to write it all out. Why is this happening? And to so many of us?

Maybe this has been going on for centuries with human kids. But if that were the case, wouldn’t there be a How-To-Handle-Your-Young-Child-Who-Often-Behaves-Very-Much-Like-a-Sociopath manual out there? Written and tried and tested by the droves of mothers who have come before us, and sat where we sit, staring, glazed-over, at a loss?

I’m working out a theory for why we’re seeing this particular kind of child so much.

First, there are a bunch of us parents who are suspicious of going straight to punishment when our kids’ behavior goes south. We don’t go straight to spanking or time out when the block goes whizzing by our head. That is not to say we don’t ever go the punishment route. After a long LONG day when I’m over it, I bust out some yelling and forceful placement in the room, to “not come out until you can touch your brother the right way.” But sometimes I have the energy and time to try other stuff. I listen. I give eye contact. For those of us who are willing to try this stuff, we don’t (or can’t!) stop the cyclone of destruction dead in its tracks (as much as we might like to!), so we see our kids’ raging as it gains steam and plays out.

Second is this article. It has me floored.

Atlantic Overprotected Kid

My friend Meg brought it up as we were talking about the response to my post about “bad” Jo and all the droves of moms of kids like him that were moved to share their thoughts here. It’s a long read, but worth the time, about the dramatic trend away from unsupervised and risky play since the 1970s and how, these days, children expect to be constantly supervised. While the hyper-supervision trend seems to be rooted in parents’ fear of injury or abduction, instances of those things haven’t gone up since the 70s, though our awareness of them has. And I have a hunch that all this reigning in of our kiddos has something to do with these little psychopath boy moments we’re trying to contain out in the world and in our houses.

For example, beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand submitted itself to a university experiment and agreed to suspend all playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, slide down a muddy hill, jump off swings, and play in a “loose-parts pit” that was like a mini adventure playground. The teachers feared chaos, but in fact what they got was less naughtiness and bullying—because the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble, the principal said.

Are our kids so bored out of their skulls with their wooden train sets and soccer practice and happy cartoons that they’re seeking out the juicy-dangerous-aliveness that comes from risk-taking with us? If they could wander, unfettered with their neighborhood friends and build forts and cut down tree limbs and explore on their own more often, would they rage less at home?

Something tells me yes.

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.

8690355973_b873f0b742_k
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.

5811921748_24134e7092_o
‘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.

Bear Traps, Chinese Finger Cuffs and Motherhood

There are a million and one metaphors I could use to portal into this topic. But the one that is most vivid is a bear stuck in some sort of a paw trap in the woods. I have no idea if paw traps exist, or if they are used on bears, but bear (oy vey…) with me.

You know how this goes. The trap locks down on aforementioned bear’s paw and bear startles and struggles, tries to get away. In so doing, she keeps injuring and re-injuring her paw in the sharp metal confines of the trap. Finally, she surrenders, relaxes, submits to reality. And the paw, still throbbing and sore, feels better. The bear, still trapped, feels a little less terrified and takes stock.

        Here I am. Now what?

Now I’m going to compare motherhood to being stuck in a bear trap.

There are many moments a day when I struggle against some known or unknown force and then finally submit and feel both defeat and relief.

I have a bushel of things to do this morning—meal planning, grocery shopping, nanny-share hunting, thyroid lab procuring, prescription filling and blog writing. This long list, in and of itself, is a problem. Some days, I do manage to keep things more simple and take on less. But let’s face it, I’m a creature of the here and now, and we’re pretty big on dodging traffic between appointments while checking our voicemail and sucking down a latte.

Since I’ve got this big list and one child who is off to school for the next 3 and a half hours, I assess my other wild card—baby Cal—to get a sense for how to organize the morning. It’s nap time, and I will triumph. I’ll put Cal down for his nap and get the meal planning and shopping list ready during that sweet 40 minute reprieve.

I do the song and dance (literally) and place Cal down for the nap. He won’t have it. I try again with a modified song and dance (literally) and still no. I could leave him to cry for a few minutes—sometimes he can put himself to sleep quickly this way, but I decide that it’s too much for me this morning, and I relent. Though I know he’s not hungry, I settle into bed and give him another long nurse. I hold his pudgy, white hand. And tip my head back against the wall and close my eyes. The bear takes stock. Her paw hurts less.

The other metaphor that was in contention this morning was that of a Chinese finger cuff. You know the little, cheapy tubes you can win at seedy carnivals—they’re woven out of contrasting strips of wood? bamboo? When you shove both your fingers in and try to pull them out, the cuff stretches and narrows and traps your fingers inside.

Photo by Casey Fleser

The way to get out of this particular pickle is, once again, to stop trying to struggle out of it. If you move your fingers towards each other, the cuff relaxes and voila! you’re free.

Now I’m going to compare motherhood to struggling out of a Chinese finger cuff.

Thirty five million times a day, I have something that I need or want 4 year old Jo to do. About thirty five million minus five times a day, Jo doesn’t want to do that thing. It is exhausting and frustrating for both of us.

I’ve been finding, thanks to a Hand in Hand Parenting class, that Jo is often a lot more cooperative when he feels connected to me. In other words, if I can put all the groceries and the baby down and turn off whatever is boiling over on the stove and get closer to Jo and look in his eyes and play with him for a few minutes or ask him what’s going on, things after that point go better. Not always, but often.

This morning we had 15 minutes to get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth and pack lunch before his carpool got here to take him to pre-school. We only had 15 minutes because I strategically took 7 minutes to send various cars and animals rocketing down a track he had built on our stairs in the hopes that this connection would see us through the morning gauntlet. It sort of did.

I still wound up restraining him from throwing cashews in the kitchen that he didn’t want to eat and the toothbrushing was a lengthier negotiation than I wanted. Finally, the car arrived to whisk him off to school. I wanted nothing more than to toss him inside and run for my life. Instead, he hid behind my legs and willed his body to weigh 80 extra pounds, his little shoes sinking into our patio like a rusty anchor. At this moment, I wanted to say, through gritted teeth, with all the authority and domineering I could muster, “Jo, you have to let go, its time to get in the car.”

She struggles to pull her fingers apart, and the Chinese finger cuff wraps its grip even tighter.

Instead, I surrendered. Got down, looked in his eyes and said, “Are you feeling shy?” “Yes,” he said. Connection? Check.

He shuffled those 80 lb feet all the way to the car and got inside like a champ.

While the motherhood-as-trap metaphor sounds defeatist and sad, it also feels deeply true. There are so many moments that I just want to use my free will and strength and smarts to muscle through. Often when I do this, there is so much collateral damage in the form of tantrums and resistance that it’s really not worth it. But there are some days when I just really, really want to run free. Fast and unencumbered.

And then I take stock.

       Here I am.

I have 2 children. That means that there is a built in, hour by hour surrender to my days. Sometimes, that surrender feels like giving up. Other times, it feels old and true and wise. I want less struggle. I want more connection. But I also want freedom.

       Now what?