Review – 1, 2, 3… The Toddler Years

1,2,3…The Toddler Years: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers 3rd Edition (buy from Amazon.com)

by Irene Van der Zande, published 2011

A friend had recommended “The Toddler Years” as a resource for continued learning and practice with regards to piloting RIE from infancy into childhood. And indeed, the book is similar in format, structure, tone and event content to works we’ve read previously and enjoyed such as Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect. Much of the material and insight in the book comes via childcare practitioners at a day facility in Santa Cruz, CA and the book has a preface by Magda Gerber. This is definitely “RIE-approved”.

As I was reading this book and noticing the similarities, I asked myself, “Why do we do what we do [as parents]?” When we first learned about RIE and NVC, it was easy to get overwhelmed with all the new DOs and DONTs in terms of behavior and lose sight of the goal. The goal is not to follow some set of rules, arbitrary or otherwise, or even to be Good Parents as some kind of exercise in living an ideal, but to live our lives in relation to our children a certain way– to treat them with the kind of respect we’d hopefully treat any other adult.

As I was reading the scenario-specific counsel in this book, I realized that “what to do” in any of these situations shouldn’t be mysterious. We can get to the answer quite easily by inverting the situation and asking ourselves what we’d do if an adult acted like a child? How would we treat that adult? With condescension, disgust, frustration, anger or worse, violence? Or would we practice patience, understanding, offer our assistance and respect their needs and choices as much as we could?

That being said, these lessons about commonly occurring parenting dynamics are indeed helpful pre-practice and may result in the thought processes and related behaviors becoming more intuitive and flow-y rather than flustering or rehearsed.

Choice

Just like all of us, toddlers are happier when they have some control over their lives. This also makes it easier for them to accept what they don’t have a choice about.

The first act of a child’s life, being born, is a set of circumstances the child itself had no choice in creating. Nor is the child aware of its lack of choice, in this situation or any others, for some time after birth. Nor even is the child capable of exerting any influence over the course of its life, via choice, even if it was aware of the choices that existed.

But over time the child’s life becomes increasingly defined by choice both in terms of awareness and in terms of action. It is no wonder then that “choice” is an important theme in the development of the life of the toddler and that we as parents and caregivers can render a great service to our children by giving them choices whenever we can and being understanding with them when they react against the situations where they lack choice but might like to have one for whatever reason.

One way to offer choice is via closed questions, that is, “Would you like to have an apple for your snack, or a banana?” versus “Would you like a snack?” The reason to offer closed questions is because it encourages the child to make choices we can live with. It can be easy to get bogged down in the subtle reality of how little toddlers have to choose about their life at times– we know they NEED a diaper change but they don’t WANT one, etc. Using closed questions frames the choice around taking a positive action the caregiver believes is necessary and hopefully avoiding fighting and antagonism over choices that don’t exist.

Similarly,

When there is no choice, we need to be careful not to offer one by mistake.

Saying, “We’re going to Grandma’s, it’s cold outside, do you want to wear your jacket?” might elicit a “No!” and a frozen child, when what we really meant was to offer a closed question such as, “Would you like to put your jacket on yourself or would you like me to help you put it on?”

Feelings

Spend a lot of time giving children names for their feelings.

As adults, we have a certain awareness of our feelings such that we can distinguish one feeling from another, the intensity of the feeling, its source and perhaps most importantly, we can label our feelings in order to communicate about them more clearly. (This is the ideal with adults, anyway… any student of NVC is aware of just how limited even many adults’ capabilities are in this regard!)

With young children it is different. Feelings might seem to come from nowhere and shock or surprise. They might seem uncontrollable. One kind of feeling of a high intensity might seem similar to that same feeling at lower intensity (ie, just “good” or “bad”, pleasant or unpleasant) and there is most of the time no sense of the character of a feeling and the name it carries. Talking about feelings with young children and repeating the names of the feelings we observe them experiencing can help a toddler start to gain mastery and awareness of their feelings.

Children need to understand their feelings. They need to know their uncomfortable feelings are just as important as their pleasant feelings. By accepting these feelings, we teach our toddlers to accept themselves and each other.

The goal of many parents and caregivers seems to be to raise a child who only experiences good feelings. Feelings of pain are warded off, “Oh you’re alright, nothing happened!” as are feelings of shame or fear, “Be a big boy, don’t cry!” Perhaps the motivation is to provide children with that ideal experience, “childhood innocence”, as long as possible and to protect them from reality which is sometimes disappointing, frightening, infuriating or just plain unfair.

But accepting some feelings and rejecting others leads to self-repression and a certain kind of schizophrenia. There is the “me” that has feelings which are acceptable to the adults and caregivers in my life, and there is the “not me” that has feelings which make them uncomfortable, which seems to pop up in my life at the most embarrassing times. Helping children to experience all their emotions as equally valid allows them to build confidence in the unity of their self.

Limits

Limits can be stated in firm but respectful words. We can do this by using what is called an “I” message. That is, instead of saying “You must do this” we can make it clear that we are speaking for ourselves:

“I want you to be gentle.”

“I need you to help me get your clothes on.”

“I don’t like it when you run away.”

We can talk about what the child is doing rather than using blaming or labeling words.

Some people find parenting with respect challenging because they equate it with a kind of “anarchy” and the giving up of their authority even in matters of safety or in enforcing their personal preferences in their own home or life. It can be hard enough to adjust to living with a messy spouse, for instance, now a diabolical two-year-old is supposed to reign over me?

This is a false dichotomy. Respect is a two-way street. And imperative to having respect and giving respect is to be clear about who is respecting what. Using the “I” technique makes it clear that limits have to do with individual needs and don’t involve arbitrariness or authority.

Building Confidence

Children who are confident in their ability to learn through practice are more likely to grow into independent people… making things happen rather than waiting for things to happen to them.

We learn to be action-oriented in our lives or we learn to wait for a rescue that isn’t coming.

There are two models of failure and its significance that humans can internalize according to recent psychological research. One model is failure-as-feedback, in which failure indicates that an action was not performed properly to achieve the desired result with the possibility that it could be performed properly with further practice.

The other model is failure-as-wrongness, in which failure indicates that a person is not appropriate to a task at hand in some existential way and their inability to achieve success in this instance is evidence of their wrongness or lack of completeness as a functioning person.

It is imperative that children have opportunities to practice actions, to experience occasional failure, and to be encouraged to try again in order that they build confidence in themselves and in the model of failure-as-feedback. Without internalizing this principle, they are apt to experience a life of growing self-doubt and confusion on a fundamental personal level.

Presentism

Toddlers live in the here and now. Yesterday is ancient history and tomorrow might as well be next year.

How wonderful that toddlers can remind us that the present is all we ever have! As adults it is so easy to live with regret, or to drift through the present ever-anticipating the future.

Of course, they may serve us these reminders in unpleasant ways with their seeming impatience, or their repetitious requests or insatiable demands for things they’ve already been given before. But it’s important either way, for our own sanity and enjoyment of life, that we remember that they only behave this way because the present urge is the only one they know at this moment in their life.

Sleep

Give warnings before bedtime so the child has a chance to finish playing.

Not only do small children seem to sleep fitfully at times, but they also go to sleep fitfully. And sleep seems to creep up on them and snatch them when they aren’t expecting it. One moment they are playing with their toys and screeching with gaiety, the next they are rubbing their eyes and ears and about to topple over with sudden onset of wooziness.

Adults can help children anticipate the future, and their own need for sleep, by following bed time rituals which include buffer time and light warnings that sleep is coming and it is time to begin winding down.

The “S word” – Sharing

Toddlers do not learn to share by having grown-ups make them do it. Having to give up a toy makes a toddler feel angry, not loving.

Why do adults think sharing is so important? Is it simply mindless repetition of their own childhood experience? Is it a social or cultural imperative tied to recent historical developments? Is it a way to feel equal while ignoring that we are not?

Sharing is not in the vocabulary of small children although, curiously, property rights are! The individual child’s property right, at least. While there are many ways to respect small children by thinking of them and treating them as capable of something they have not yet mastered, sharing seems to be one of those things that does not lend them respect or enjoyment when it is expected of them.

In our home we don’t care for sharing as a principle. So avoiding the “S word” will be relatively easy for us!

Tantrums

If a toddler finds out that having a tantrum is a way around our limits, the child may start throwing tantrums all the time.

Another idea that is interesting about tantrums is that they belong to the child, not to the parent. It is easy for the adult to assume a tantrum is a demonstration of a critical failure in their parenting, rather than a critical failure in the emotional regulation of the child. Of course they often come at the most inopportune times as well, right before trying to leave for an errand, or out in public amongst a bunch of gawkers.

Even during a tantrum, the child is experiencing an emotion they are truly experiencing and it’s worth it for parents and other caregivers to practice patience and understanding in these moments, validating the emotion even if it is disagreeable and talking through it with the child, along with giving them space to express their emotion, to exhaustion if necessary.

Toilet time

The time to start toilet learning is when our toddlers show signs of being ready, like:

  • having dry diapers for longer periods of time
  • letting us know that they’ve pooped or peed in their diapers
  • showing interest in sitting on a toilet or potty chair
  • wanting to wear underpants
  • disliking wearing wet or soiled diapers

The book does not call it toilet “training” for a reason. This is not a rote memory behavior or even a reflex. It requires conscious effort and it has a psychological root. Being ready to use a toilet for elimination is an egotistic decision and like many other similar experiences in life we can help the child by waiting until they’re ready rather than expecting to do something they’re not yet capable of or don’t see any benefit in themselves.

Eating and weaning

Toddlers will eat when they’re hungry, but might not eat much.

Toddlers need to eat more often than we do. Their stomachs are smaller.

Toddlers like to have choices.

Meals are served outside whenever the weather permits.

One thing I thought could’ve been added in this section is the observation that sometimes toddlers will eat quite a bit! In fact, too much and too fast if you keep putting food in front of them. We are learning to offer one piece of food at a time and waiting until our Little Lion requests more (with reaching, grunting and looking for the food). Even then, we try to pace things as his belly is bound to fill up quicker than his brain gets the signal that it’s time to stop.

Successful parenting

It helps to remember that, just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect parents or children. There are no perfect families either, even if they look that way from the outside. It’s not our job to be perfect, but to do the best we can.

I’ll let that one settle in on its own.

It’s healthy for our children to see us having interests besides our families.

It’s also healthy for our children to see us acknowledging their needs without actually fulfilling them, instantaneously or at all. New parents often forget that it’s okay to use the bathroom, even if it means a crying child. And these kinds of over-permissive decisions can extend beyond those first few months to picking the child up whenever it beckons, interrupting a rhythm or flow in some household chore to immediately respond to the child’s request, etc. The child isn’t always going to get what they want in life and it’s okay to model that now, in toddlerhood. Just realize you may hear a bit more crying and whining as a result of your decision.

Being polite by acknowledging people socially is an adult need, not a child’s.

Teaching children to wave hello and goodbye, to high-five, to smile or “be nice” to strangers who greet them and to say please and thank you may seem cute but it is not necessary and it may even be unsafe (why undermine a child’s instinctive apprehension of strangers?)

Some people who do not understand that children are individuals and not objects can find it frustrating and demeaning to deal with an “aloof” child. Why is it so important to this person to be acknowledged by a tiny toddler who is more interested in drooling over their toys? What does their need for acknowledgement and validation-in-existence truly imply?

Guilt keeps us looking backward and feeling bad about what we should have done instead of looking forward and feeling good about what we’re going to do next.

This idea is tied to the failure-as-feedback model. If we are always learning and growing, as the toddler is, and we want to model this as normal, we would do well to focus on what we’ll do next and not to obsess about the past.

Enjoying your child

Childhood passes quickly. And it never comes back. “They won’t need me as much as they do now.”

A truly bittersweet thought. To acknowledge that the pain, discomfort and disruption of being always needed is ephemeral; but so too is the joy, confidence and excitement of being the center of a young person’s world.

4/5

 

How We Plan To Develop The Confidence To Let Our Children Be Free (#parenting, #childhood, #risk)

A friend of mine once told me that I would not know true terror until I had had a kid. And he didn’t mean that children were terrible or terrifying– he was talking about the sense of dread one carries around being responsible for another human’s life and security. You invest so much time and energy and concern into your child and it seems so very easy for something to go wrong and snuff it out in one awful instant.

That is why I read with interest a blog on “Free Range Kids” that another friend linked me to a few months ago. The premise of the blog is that helicopter parenting and other approaches to child development and risk management are grossly flawed. The author argues that the risks of accidental death, molestation by sexual predators, etc., are overblown and parents tend to do more harm than good in trying to shield their children from such threats rather than raising them to be conscious of the risks and competent to deal with them on their own. It’s another classic example of the intervention versus interdependence mindset.

Reading the blog got me thinking about my own experiences with navigating childhood risk, and how the Wolf and I might approach this subject with our Little Lion and any other issuance in our line. But first, a quick anecdote.

The Wolf and I live near the ocean, and two weeks ago we went down to an area on the water for a morning dog walk. As we passed by the various docks and inlets, we stopped to admire three young boys (probably about age 10 or 11) sitting in small motor dinghy by the shore, clearly about to begin a fishing expedition. The boys were all wearing life jackets and seemed appropriately attired for a somewhat chilly expedition on the water. One boy was working vigorously to start the uncooperative outboard motor while the other two boys chatted and gave him backseat driver advice. It was a beautiful sight!

There were no adults in sight. In fact, on our little walking path there weren’t even any other passersby at this particular moment. While I don’t KNOW that the boys arranged, dressed and transported themselves to their shared outing, it certainly didn’t look like anyone was responsible for the get together but them. And while ten year olds are not toddlers, they’re still quite immature in many ways, but they seemed to be plenty capable to handle the logistics of a fishing trip, the mechanics of motorized water conveyance and the social grace of maintaining a civil and friendly atmosphere in the confined space of a small boat. And they paid attention to safety, wearing their life jackets even on the tranquil waters of the inlet with no scolding adult nearby to remind them.

Such a sight is common where we live. Many young people enjoy surfing, sailing and other water sports and can often be seen biking themselves down to the water and conducting these kinds of outings with limited or no adult supervision. For many water-born children, especially boys, it is something like a rite of passage to either get permission to use the family watercraft, or to be given a small watercraft of one’s own at a certain stage in one’s youth. In fact, it is one of the very special things about living where we live, that this kind of activity is available to young children and that the local culture seems to support it. The harbor patrol stayed in their berths that morning, like many others, as thankfully the neighbors didn’t feel the need to call the cops on a few kids out to have a good time by themselves.

 

The Wolf and I were quite pleased with this entire thing and thought about it as an ideal for our Little Lion to achieve one day as well. We really admired the (unseen) parents for having the good sense and the trust in their children to simply sleep in and let them do their thing! How would children who can go on a fishing trip on their own at age 10 ever become a burden to themselves, their parents or society?

Still, so much could go wrong! The boys could scald themselves with the hot engine and its liquids. They could shred their hand on an exposed propeller. They could get a fish hook in the eye, or topple over into the water and float out to sea. They could get hit by a larger boat. They could get too cold! I’m being facetious, but it is still scary for me on some level to think about the simple things that could go wrong. Then, I started thinking about my own childhood experiences, and those of my parents.

Growing up in the same community, I didn’t spend much time on the waterfront, but I did manage to have an active and independent play life. I spent a lot of time riding my bike around the neighborhood, sometimes with friends nearby and other times by myself. I liked doing “jumps” off the curb, where a driveway sloped up to meet the angled curb in the street. I also liked riding up on steep driveways and then using the momentum to get speed on the way down, often ending in a “jump”. I played “soldier” with neighborhood kids, army crawling over people’s lawns and through their hedges, which they probably didn’t appreciate but we sure thought was a blast.

One of my best friends growing up lived about three miles away from me, in a part of town that was most easily accessed by riding one’s bike through an unpaved semi-wilderness area. Today, that area has an asphalt-paved trail with hundreds of people on it daily, but back then it was dirt (heavily irregular and eroded by rainfall and drought conditions) mixed with tall grass and flowering weeds, strewn with cactus, patrolled by skunks and other odd wildlife and not well traveled by others. Meaning, if you fell or ran into a “bad guy”, it was unlikely anyone would know about it right away. Yet, I made that 3 mile bike ride once a week, sometimes riding home before dark and other times getting picked up by my parents if it got too late. I never had any problems and they always trusted me to be careful.

In another part of town where this semi-wilderness existed, you could ride your bike around dirt jumps and giant puddles created by the high school kids, avoid homeless bums squatting out in the bush and if you wanted to, ride your bike right off a steep cliff into the ocean below. There were no fences or guardrails at the time, although today it is covered with a housing development and a proper, paved and fenced walking trail. My parents never worried I’d become a casualty, and I never heard of anyone else becoming one. The most regretful thing that happened to any young people growing up was a drunk-driving incident on prom night on the paved curve road in town in which these poor kids flipped their vehicle and many fell out and died or had severe brain trauma.

Thinking about my parents, I know Grandpa Lion was a boy scout. Although boy scouts typically go on their camping expeditions in groups, the act of camping in the wilderness itself is basically an invitation to unnecessary risks that don’t exist back in “civilization”. My dad raced dirt bikes, go carts and other motorized contraptions as a child. I don’t know what Grandma Lion did that was risky for a young girl, but I know her brother tells tales of throwing lit firecrackers at other children and shooting pellet guns across his balcony at his friend next door and vice versa. I certainly wouldn’t condone firing pellet guns, even with eye protection, but the point is that young people seemed to do all kinds of dangerous stuff back then and they managed to survive.

 

When the Wolf and I talk about how we hope to handle our anxiety with our Little Lion, a few themes present themselves again and again. First, the goal we have in mind, as mentioned above, is to give him the opportunity to be trusted and provided resources to explore life on his own or with friends and not to create a paradigm of control and “protection”. Second, our plan is to actively look for opportunities to build his knowledge of risk and measure his awareness and responsiveness to it. In other words, building trust in him, and competence to manage risks he will face, will be an ongoing process learned on a case-by-case basis. Finally, we do not feel comfortable just sending him off into the world and seeing what happens but rather, we will observe his level of maturity and personal capability over time and provide him exposure to settings and circumstances, with our supervision, he seems to be ready for and see how he does. If he demonstrates he’s got it, he earns more leniency, and if he demonstrates he is still figuring it out, we will keep working with him on it until both parties can feel secure that the level of responsibility involved is met by and appropriate level of mastery.

That being said, that mastery is always going to be something he will have to create for himself through a bit of his own risk-taking. He can never know HIS limits if he has ever only had the opportunity to deal with OURS. That’s a fact of life we need to be aware of and learn to accept!

A Reflection on Reading (#books, #reading, #lifestyle)

I used to love reading, but reading hasn’t been fun for me lately.

I’ve been a big reader since I was an adolescent. A non-embellished family lore story that gets mentioned with some frequency involves my father insisting that I stop wasting my time on mindless recreational activities (I was about eight in this story, so we’re not talking about drugs) and do something productive with my time. Trying to figure out what I could do differently I asked, “Like what?” Exasperated, he replied, “I don’t know, read a book!” “But I’ve read everything already.” “You’ve read every book in this house?” he asked, bemused. He began grabbing books off the shelf in my room at random and quizzing me, “What’s this one about? What about this one?” After doing this five or six times, he gave up, admitted maybe I was using my time as wisely as I could and maybe we didn’t have enough books, either, and agreed right then and there to buy me any book I wanted, any time I wanted, going forward. We started making a lot of trips to Barnes & Noble and Borders after that!

The story is not embellished but it might as well be. My father was too busy building our family business to prioritize reading much of anything that was not industry related. My mother had her hands full raising several small children and tending to the other household needs so she didn’t prioritize reading as much, either. Both my parents saw reading as important — one of those things you recognize the value in because you DON’T do it yourself, I suppose — and wanted their children, including me, to be readers. So I had a bookshelf in my room, and there were a few other titles strewn about here and there, but it wasn’t like we had some sophisticated reference library (we didn’t buy a set of encyclopedias until I was around thirteen, and by then the digital world of the internet had entered my life in a most distracting manner and I found searching for information there more fascinating than paging through a hardbound ‘pedia… who knows what would’ve happened if I had had access to that material when I was eight) and the most complicated story on my shelf at the time was probably a Boxcar Children novel or a collection of Shel Silverstein poetry.

The point is, I loved to read and if I found a book, I generally read it. As I got older, my interests in reading shifted. I spent a lot of time immersed in the fictional worlds of fantasy writing and sci-fi. I ended up owning and reading stacks of paperback novels that would be eight or nine feet high laid on top of one another. I also became interested in news magazines (though not newspapers, which I found cumbersome physically, dirty, and we never seemed to be subscribed to one). By my teenage years I was subscribed to TIME, Newsweek, National Review, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. As I entered high school I added The Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker to the list, as well as a few others. I continued reading mostly novels, essentially unaware of the world of biography, philosophy, social science and history more generally speaking. I read nothing of business or investing. I just didn’t know the stuff existed, though I wish I had because I can imagine myself enjoying reading it back then.

After going to college, I became more serious about reading. Part of this was because I found myself extremely frustrated in my classes with the material I was being taught and the lack of critical thinking I thought the classes entailed about the subject matter, concerns I’ve laid out in some detail in earlier posts. As a result, I took to a program of parallel self-study in various fields, such as economics. Again, at the time I was unaware that there was a phenomenon called “autodidactism”, which I had been doing a lot of my entire life but never with any discipline, but now I was discovering it and realizing just how powerful a dedicated program of reading and thinking could be for me in connecting the knowledge dots. I found a variety of printable media on sites like www.mises.org, entire economic treatises a thousand pages long or more, and started visiting Kinko’s (now FedEx Office) to print and spiral bind these works into more manageable mini-volumes. I’d stuff these things in my book bag and read them on my 30 minute subway commute to class and back, or more generally, in the back of the lecture I was supposed to be listening to instead. My grades suffered a bit (though I think that’s mostly because I found the official subject matter so disingenuous and so worthless that I’d often fall asleep in my apartment trying to study it) but my knowledge exploded. I was hooked on reading.

I’ve been a serious reader ever since. But being a serious reader is a lot different from being someone who loves reading. I’ve struggled with the two lately. Being a serious reader is hard work. It is exhausting. It is demanding of your time and energy and it leaves little room for other priorities. Done the right way, it entails a lot of ancillary obligations as well, in my experience, such as writing and reflecting on one’s reading, compiling annotated notes, meeting with others reading the same material to discuss, etc. It’s much more than a hobby, though it isn’t quite a paid career! And while it has rewarding moments, it isn’t exactly “fun.” It lacks spontaneity and the thrill of the unplanned discovery.

Three years ago I traveled to South America with the Wolf and a friend. Though we were on a nearly 3 week journey, far from home, I took only two books with me– a non-fiction work about a traveler who tries to rediscover Hiram Bingham’s journey to Machu Picchu, which was part of our itinerary, and a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. I read the Machu Picchu book as a “serious” reader, as some background for the trip we were undertaking. I read the Tuchman book as someone who loves reading.

Since I read Tuchman’s book, I’ve come to understand that there are some academic criticisms of her telling of history in the story. I don’t think it’s so bad that the book is viewed as a complete fabrication of history, but there are people who argue she emphasized the wrong things, or interpreted events in a novel way that isn’t as rigorous as it could be. And I’ve got to say– I don’t give a damn. It was a marvelous book to read. I don’t know why I decided to finally read it, or why I picked that book of all books to accompany me on my long trip, and I don’t know what I expected to get out of it, but it was amazing. We had a hell of a time on our trip and I can honestly say that laying in bed at some of our hostels and inns, reading another chapter from Guns, were part of those happy memories. It reminded me of just how enjoyable reading can be.

As I mentioned, that was three years ago. Sadly, I haven’t had a similar reading experience since then. It has been almost all “serious” reading and if anything it’s gotten worse over the last few years because I made a resolution a couple years ago to double down on my reading discipline and treat it even more mechanically than I had been. Where did that take me?

It took me to a pretty scary place, reading-wise, where my edifying and sometimes enjoyable hobby became a master with a strange power over me. I realized a few days ago when I had hit the wall when I noticed that I was tracking my “currently reading” list on GoodReads.com, which numbered over twenty titles (!?), and I was spending a lot more time worrying about “getting through it all” than I was actually spending reading the damn books! It was beginning to dominate my thoughts– at work, at home, in play, walking the dog… this nagging anxiety that I had so much to read and it was so exhausting and so unrewarding to feel I was forcing myself to do it just followed me everywhere I went.

After chatting with a friend about some fun-sounding titles, I decided to take action. I logged into GoodReads and wiped my reading list. Completely. Just gone, no glaring record of what I might achieve but have not yet achieved in the world of reading. I grabbed the titles I was physically in the middle of that were laying about the house to remind me to keep working on them, and shelved them. I decided if they’re really interesting and worth my time, I will know where to find them– the idea that I’d lose track of a book I really wanted to read without the “help” of a cloud-based book list seemed truly silly. I shook out the contents of my head a little bit and gave myself permission to not be interested in the stuff I was trying to read right now (which I truly wasn’t, at least not RIGHT NOW) and simultaneously gave myself permission to buy and read the first “fun” book I could think of reading. I chose The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck and for the first time in a long time, I used the 2day shipping feature on Amazon to ensure it’d arrive today so I could start reading it. A blaring alarm I was not listening to in this story is the fact that I was in the habit of ordering multiple books at a time and selecting the “Super Saver” shipping option, reasoning that I’d prefer a $1 e-credit because I “didn’t care when my books arrived.” I mean, if that doesn’t tell you something (“bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”… the ancient demonstration of time preference) I don’t know what would.

Now my mind is a bit more free. And I am looking forward to reading this goofy book this evening after it arrives. And I know that if I don’t want to keep turning the page, I can shelve it and pick up something else, order something else or even do something else entirely. There’s a time and a place for being a serious reader, but that time and place shouldn’t be found in my recreational reading regimen. I’m looking forward to loving reading again!

The Oath Of The Brand (#loyalty, #politics, #education, #children, #America)

Imagine for a moment that you work for a big company (maybe you do), and that at the start of every work day, you and the other people in your department gather around a large copy of the company logo, place your hand over your heart and recite the “Oath of the Brand” like so:

I give my oath

to this brand

the greatest company in all the land,

and to the management

much like it, grand;

one organization, one vision, never to be divested of its capital,

with jobs and security for all.

What might you think of this company, and its desire to instill its values via a hypnotic morning oath like this? Would you think this company would be populated by workers who can think for themselves and question the decisions of management when they’re called for? Would you think management expects to be challenged and “kept honest” by its workers? Does it seem odd that there is no mention of customers and the need to serve them faithfully? Would this company seem to operate a bit like a cult?

Of course by now you’ve realized that I have simply parodied the American “Pledge of Allegiance”, recited mindlessly by millions of school children in public institutions every single morning, and by millions of government functionaries and politicians at certain solemn occasions. Why do our public schools do this? Why can’t our political system earn its loyalty through efficiency, effectiveness and good works, rather than by neurolinguistically programming developing minds too immature to notice they’re being manipulated? And why do parents tolerate such madness?

In case you’ve been out of school for awhile, here is the actual Pledge of Allegiance:

I pledge allegiance,

to the flag

of the United States of America,

and to the Republic

for which it stands;

one nation, under god, indivisible,

with liberty and justice for all.

As defined by the pledge, liberty and justice are clearly codewords for the good feelings one gets from honoring one’s fealty to the flag. And the “Republic” is not the country, but a particular system of political management of the country– there are other possible ways to politically manage the country, but the Pledge doesn’t really permit such thinking, it demands obedience. I read something a few months ago wherein a Progressive author was lamenting the way “right wingers” were now referring to public schools as “government schools,” the concern being that a public school implies something verging on objectivity, while a government school is what one finds in other, more authoritarian regimes, where the curriculum is strongly centered around building loyalty to the party in power. But asking small children to recite a pledge to their political management seems like a good place to start a case for arguing that what we have in this country are, in fact, government schools.

This doesn’t work for me. I don’t want my children’s education to include inculcated obedience to the state– I want my children to be able to think for themselves on this one. So this is another reason I am not interested in putting my children in public schools.

The history of the Pledge of Allegiance is pretty interesting.

And for a snarky treatment of the subject, try this skit by the “Whitest Kids U Know”:

“This is not a form of brainwashing.”

Review – Your Self-Confident Baby (#parenting, #RIE, #infancy, #children, #respect)

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities

by Magda Gerber, Allison Johnson, published 1998

I read YSCB and Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Child Care in rapid succession; while this review will focus on the original work by Magda Gerber (founder of RIE in Los Angeles, CA), I may touch upon a few thoughts and ideas from Lansbury’s book as well.

The advice and ideas espoused in this book rest on two central premises:

  • Major premise; your baby comes built in with the tools it needs to learn and navigate its environment, and will create its own learning problems and discover its own solutions when given freedom to explore the world at its own pace
  • Minor premise; good parenting is less about what you put in early on and more about what you don’t, especially with regards to worry, anxiety and active interventionism

This doesn’t seem that controversial, but if you ask me it flies directly in the face of what I have routinely observed in both American parenting and Asian parenting, for example:

  • American parenting; your baby may be capable of great and wonderful things (which you implicitly choose for it), but like a Calvinist, you will only know for sure if you actively work to develop these talents and capabilities in your child. Failing to do so means risking that your child will turn out to be not one of the Elect, but a poor loser, or worse, quite average and content
  • Asian parenting; babies are stupid and a constant and confusing source of pride and worry for their parents, and if they are not condescended constantly almost from the moment they are born, they risk becoming ingrates, drug users, or worse, free thinkers, rather than guided automatons with eternal respect for their revered elders

American parents spend a lot of time getting wrapped up in the competition of their lives, which they impart to their children. Infant development is like a race– how quickly can the child progress from one stage to the next? And what burdens of guilt, anxiety, anger and frustration can the parents-as-pit-crew take on along the way to ensure the process is stressful and obsessive without wasting time reflecting about the race and why it must be won?

So this Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) approach, developed by the Hungarian Magda Gerber after a chance encounter with a pediatrician named Dr. Emmi Pikler in 1950s Hungary, is not just an antidote, but a holistic approach for individuals and families looking to foster authentic self-discovery in their children and connection built on mutual respect amongst kin.

But it is NOT a silver bullet! Raising children is still a real challenge, it still involves difficulty and even moments of self-doubt.

Gerber offers these basic principles:

  • basic trust in the child to be an initiator, an explorer and a self-learner
  • an environment for the child that is physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing
  • time for uninterrupted play
  • freedom to explore and interact with other infants
  • involvement of the child in all care-giving activities to allow them to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient
  • sensitive observation of the child to understand their needs
  • consistency and clearly defined limits and expectations to develop discipline

Gerber cautions parents to slow down, to develop the habit of observing before intervening. Many child troubles — frustration during playtime, an unintentional fall, conflict over a piece of property with another infant — can be resolved by the child on its own if they’re given the opportunity and support to meet the challenge with their own solution. Similarly, it is not the parent’s duty to entertain or preoccupy the child, children become present-oriented and externally directed primarily through the influence of their anxious parents. If left to their own devices to play and explore at their own pace in a safe environment, they will learn to focus and entertain themselves through their own creativity and exploration at length.

Another suggestion is to “sportscast” the infant’s life during caregiving activities such as feeding, diaper changes, bath time or preparation for bed. By narrating what is happening to the child and why, and what will happen next, the child learns about the meaningful sequence of events in its life and can begin to build expectations about the future and acquire a measure of predictability about its life and routines which creates security, comfort and trust in the parents and caregivers. Young children’s minds are “scientific”, they’re always trying to understand the cause-effect relationships behind observed phenomena and one of the primary cause-effect relationships they are exploring as they develop is the sequence of activities across time. Much like raising a dog, following a predictable routine reduces stress in the infant’s life and allows them to focus their attention and learning on other things than the fear of what might happen next to them.

According to Gerber, quality time means total attention and focus on your child. Holding your baby while you watch TV, or read, or run an errand, is not quality time and the child can sense that it’s not the priority. Quality time is watching your child play, uninterrupted, or reading to him, or giving sole focus to feeding him, or diapering or bathing him. Because of this, Gerber encourages parents to reflect on even the routine caregiving moments, because over thousands of repetitions over an infant’s life they will leave an indelible mark on the relationship and come to represent a sizable proportion of the total “quality” time spent together– do you want your child, even in their limited perceptual state during infancy, to see their diapering as a disgusting task you as a parent have to get over with as quickly and cleanly as possible several times a day, or do you want your child to see that you love them and are interested in them even when doing mundane things like changing their diapers?

Further, this approach has a transformative effect on the parent, as well. By treating the relationship respectfully and seeking to include the child in caregiving activities by narrating what is occurring and being present in the moment, the parent is slowly but surely training themselves to see their child not as an obligation to which things must be done, but as another person like themselves with needs and values and a personhood just like other adults they interact with. They will be modeling for their child the very behaviors they wish for them to adopt in how the child is expected to behave toward others.

This book is chock full of so much wonderful, important information for parents, caregivers and anyone interested in the world of small children. It’s too hard to try to summarize all the advice and concepts and it wouldn’t be worthy to try. Instead, I will simply observe that this is another philosophical work that goes much beyond how to put on a diaper or how to create a safe playspace, and instead says much more about how we can build a peaceful and encouraging society for all people to live in, adults and children (future adults) alike. And to the extent this approach is not recognized and its advice goes unheard and unheeded, it explains clearly why we witness the social problems and family and individual dysfunctions we do!

Here is a brief list of some of the more pithy wisdom I enjoyed from Lansbury’s “Elevating”:

  • As parents, our role in our baby’s development is primarily trust
  • Our relationship will be forever embedded in our child’s psyche as her model of love and the ideal she’ll seek for future intimate bonds
  • The secret to connecting is to meet children where they are
  • Grieving people want and need to be heard, not fixed
  • A nice bedtime habit to start with your child is to recapture the day… You can also mention what will happen tomorrow. This connects the past, present and future and gives her life a connected flow
  • Since our lifespan is getting longer, why not slow down?
  • We don’t think twice about interrupting infants and toddlers, mostly because we don’t think to value what they are doing
  • Babies are dependent, not helpless
  • “Readiness is when they [the baby] do it.” “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it himself.”
  • Instead of teaching words, use them
  • “Don’t ask children a question you know the answer to”
  • Purposefully inflicting pain on a child can not be done with love

4/5

Review – Totto-chan (#nonfiction, #books, #Japan, #education)

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window

by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, published 1981

What a wonderful book! I’ve never read anything quite like it, although it reminded me quite a bit of various Hayao Miyazaki animated films I’ve seen in the past. “Totto-chan” is a memoir in the guise of a novel. The author’s childhood self is the main character and the events described actually took place while she attended a creative school called Tomoe Gakuen in pre-war Tokyo. This proves to be an interesting narrative device because the story is told from the emotional and experiential point of view of a child, but with the knowingness and articulateness of an adult. The obvious fondness or at least understanding of the author toward her younger self serves to enhance the overall sensation of empathy the story engenders, for that is the primary theme of the school and what the children were learning there.

Led by the visionary headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi, the Tomoe school’s philosophy is built on trusting children to be themselves, “let nature lead” as Kobayashi put it. The story is filled with anecdotes of Totto-chan and her classmates being entrusted to figure things out for themselves, with adults and authority figures like the headmaster and parents simply listening and providing confidence that the children will succeed in coming up with workable solutions as they learn to navigate the world around them. Mistakes and slipups (such as Totto-chan falling into the school’s cesspool) are treated with dignity and patience. Instruction and structure come in the form of simple guidelines (for lunch, students were asked to bring “something from the hills and something from the sea”) with the belief that the children will be motivated to find their own solution with a limited amount of information.

The effect on the children is a unique sensation of freedom and capability, of openness and consideration of themselves and the needs of others. Seemingly without encouragement, the school spontaneously forms a meaningful, interested sense of community and ownership by the students toward their school grounds, neighborhood and classmates. Left to pursue their studies and interests at their own pace, some students excel through deep study and careful focus of a particular subject while others enjoy sampling disparate bits of knowledge and experience without a plan. All students appear happy and enthusiastic about their lives, even those students who come to the school with severe developmental handicaps. As the author says, this liberty allowed a lot of children who were misfits in the standard schooling regime to find a sense of ease and belonging and to go on to live productive, independent and connected lives as adults.

The story gives the reader a glimpse of an educational philosophy and pedagogical approach that is at once intuitive and mysterious: why shouldn’t every school demonstrate such empathy and concern for its students; and how DOES Mr. Kobayashi manage to have such patience and a sunny disposition toward the antics of small children that are considered so “obnoxious” by nearly everybody else? The epilogue of the story summarizes some of the research travel Kobayashi performed in Europe for several years leading up to the founding of the Tomoe school and it becomes clear that there is a dedicated, principled purposefulness to every single event in the story, which the author as an adult reflects upon in the present with a “Oh, so THAT must have been what Mr. Koboyashi was trying to teach us there…” To a cynical mind it may seem almost exploitative to be so cunning in one’s schemes, but if the ultimate goal of the approach is to develop in the students the maxim “Trust yourself”, how nefarious could this stratagem actually be?

The school seems like a very “social” place and less like an academy– numerous field trips, “sports” days, music and exercise classes and camping overnights pepper the plot and while there is a library and scenes of students doing self-directed physics studies with alcohol burners and beakers, they always take place in Tomoe’s disused railroad cars-cum-classrooms. It’s a challenge only to those readers with a constricted view of what education and learning necessarily mean. For Kobayashi and his students, every experience brings teachable moments and the question begged and answered is why reading about flora and fauna in a textbook is a superior approach when one can go outside for a walk and study the variety of life up close.

From the view of paranoid American parenting, the children disrobing with their teachers and swimming naked together in the school’s small pool will seem like a perfect opportunity for secret child abusers amongst the faculty to get their jollies. But the lesson here seems to be that every choice in life brings with it risks and if bathing suit-less swim time is a useful means for helping the children (especially the physically handicapped) to appreciate and accept their differences and similarities such that they can have confidence about who they are and act with kindness towards everyone else, the risk of something monstrous or mean-spirited in such an environment might be a better risk to take than watching certain individuals grow up feeling alienated from themselves and others for lack of such experiences.

Indeed, those same paranoid parents would be wondering how a child could ever develop a moral sense without correction and punishment from adults. It is enjoyable, then, to witness the many moments when Totto-chan attempts to do something underhanded or less than honest (with herself, her parents or her friends) but recognizes the moral inconsistency of her actions on her own and eventually makes amends and moves on. It makes you think that children are capable of so much more than they are given credit for, typically, and that maybe the moral failings of children reflect not their immaturity, but the perverse incentives of the adults who guide them.

This is a humorous book, as well. There were many moments when I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and recount a passage to someone nearby, they’re just too good not to share. And thankfully, there are moments of profound tragedy and despair. I say thankfully, because it is in these recollections that we are truly reminded of how precious life is and what a wonderful gift a school like Tomoe is.

One of those tragedies is that the Tomoe school burned to the ground near the finale of the Pacific War as Tokyo came under increased firebombing by the US Air Force. It’s a stark reminder of the injudiciousness and unfairness of war, even though it is recounted without particular frustration or anger on the part of the author (a testament to the empathetic spirit of the school itself!) But there is also a lesson in the resilience of the creative spirit, as Kobayashi’s only response is to ask, “What kind of school shall we build next?

The good news is that we don’t have to suffer war or burn our schools down to ask that question ourselves.

I think this book can be enjoyed by children, parents, families, teachers and social theorists and anyone concerned with building a more empathetic society built upon respect for the individual and the instinct of trusting oneself.

5/5