Tag Archives: parenting

Co-Parenting II

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Co-parenting frequently breaks down in parents’ efforts to organize home life or set limits. That may be in part due to the emergence of different parental styles in the planning process, such as when the parents are deciding on a bedtime for their child or establishing family rules. One parent may feel that the organizational plan (for example, setting a regular bedtime, the number of warnings a child is allowed before a consequence, whether a child is allowed an alternative meal choice, etc.) is too rigid, while the other parent feels it is not strict enough. These conflicts often arise from what seems natural or necessary because of the parent’s own experience as a child. Sometimes the parent believes that the way their parents treated them shaped them in helpful ways. Other times the parent believes that the way they were brought up was hurtful and insensitive to their needs. In addition to differences in the way they grew up, problems in “co-parenting” may also arise from basic difficulties the parents have negotiating a common agenda. One parent may tend to be more controlling or bossy than the other, provoking the second parent to dig in their heels or resentfully submit, etc.

When these problems occur, it is important to return to a focus on the child. What is the child telling you that she needs? If she is tired the next day, perhaps she needs an earlier bedtime or some other change in her bedtime routine. (Of course, telling her this when you are trying to get her to go to bed will not usually lead to a good result!) If she requests something else to eat at the dinner table, perhaps an alternative meal choice is justified. It is good to be flexible within limits. The problem comes when parent and child – or parent and parent – get into an escalating control struggle and share the perception that only one winner will emerge from the battle. The truth of the matter is that in a struggle, there are always two losers. That is because both parents and child want the child to grow up healthy and strong, but struggles build unhealthy and maladaptive patterns in the child’s mind which are reinforced with subsequent struggles. The pull to get into a struggle, often against a background of family tension, can interfere with generating or establishing healthier patterns of interaction. Good co-parenting occurs when one parent can see that the other parent is in danger of falling into a struggle pattern and can give them the emotional support they need to avoid it.

Children need routines and predictability, especially in families with co-parenting difficulties, or in families of children with school or behavior problems. Often these two things go together because difficulty co-parenting clearly interferes with effective parenting, and also because some children are harder to parent and generate more than usual stress in their parents. Children with school and behavior problems may lack the personal resources to accommodate to the typical demands of school and family life. A common set of problems that cause trouble in school and at home are problems organizing oneself in time and space. That makes transitions particularly challenging – the transition from sleep to an awake state or from an awake state to sleep, from an activity to homework, from a video game to supper, from a quiet indoor activity to outdoor play, from free play to paying attention to the teacher, etc. One way to help children in all these circumstances is to create routines and stick to them. Often children benefit from “visual cues” such as words or pictures on calendars. These cues must be kept in a visible place that is commonly visited, such as the kitchen or the bathroom. However, none of these aids will be useful if they are not practiced regularly and frequently. For example, it is helpful to refer to a calendar of the day’s events both at bedtime and at breakfast. This is an area of parenting that often breaks down. If two parents can maintain a routine, they are doing something right.

Growing Flexibility in Your Older Child

 

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A while ago the mother of a 9-year old girl told me a story about going to the bookstore with her daughter to buy her a book in a series that the girl – we will call her Josie – loved. They had planned this happy errand ahead of time, and they both were looking forward to it. 

Josie loved to read and could really get lost in a book. She sometimes used books as a refuge when life got hard, for example when she felt slighted or excluded by friends at school, especially at recess. Although her classmates could actually be critical or rejecting, it was also true that Josie lacked some of the flexibility that allows children to brush off casual meanness or to not take something personally. It was not exactly that Josie could not “pick up social cues”, because she could imitate for me with remarkable astuteness the body language of girls on the playground who turned their backs and circled the wagons as she approached.  She even “understood” that sometimes friends had private communication that derived its value from belonging to those girls alone and could not be shared – at least not at the moment. But her feelings would be hurt, and she would get stuck on the unfairness of it all. Then she would either tell the teacher, which would not gain her points in the playground society, or she would isolate herself in a book, reading in a corner of the school yard. Of course, this broke her mother’s heart, and mine too. 

In the bookstore, on the way to the display table featuring this new book, Josie spied a large glossy nonfiction volume about dog breeds. Grasping it up and clutching it to her chest, she begged her mother to buy it for her. Josie’s mother was taken off guard. She tried to reason with Josie – “Josie, don’t you want the new book in the series?” She checked the price of the dog book and determined that it was, as she had expected, quite expensive. “No,” Josie responded with emotion, “I want this, Mom. Please get it for me! This is what I want!”  Josie’s mother suggested that they first go take a look at the display table with the new book, but Josie took this as a rejection and stamped her foot, refusing to budge. “This is what I want, and if I can’t have this, I don’t want anything!” 

Josie’s mother had that sinking feeling that she sometimes gets when she and Josie are at odds with each other. Why couldn’t Josie be reasonable and see that she was changing course mid-stream? Why did she have to take their lovely plan for an afternoon together and turn it into another sad fight?  For her part, Josie (as she told me later) was thinking, “Doesn’t my mom want me to have something that I really want? Does she only want me to have something that she picks out for me? I could learn all about dog breeds from this book! Maybe I will start a dog breeding business, and this book could be the inspiration for a great enterprise! My mom just doesn’t listen to me.” 

In fact, Josie’s mom tried again to persuade Josie to be reasonable about checking out the new book, and Josie dug in even deeper. Finally, they left the store without any book at all, both miserable. Josie’s mom asked me what suggestion I could give her about how to avoid this unhappy stand off in the future. 

I thought of the blog posting I had just written about growing flexibility in younger children and wondered how some of those ideas could be applied to a child Josie’s age. It is usually harder to work on something like this with an older child. One reason is that a 9-year old having a tantrum in a public place is more humiliating for a mother than is the case with a 4-year old. Also, you can’t pick up a 9-year old and carry her to the car. 

Another important underlying reason is that a 9-year old has repeated this unfortunate pattern with you thousands of more times than the 4-year old has had time in his shorter life to do, and the pattern is more established, easier to slip into. Remember the metaphor of rain on a flat plain (Granic & Patterson, 2006). (This excellent article has “antisocial” in the title, but it includes general principles of family development that apply to all families and kids.) At first the raindrops fall randomly on the flat surface, but then some of them happen to fall near one another and a little depression forms in the dirt. After that, the depression draws more raindrops into it because it is downhill, and before long a rivulet of water is formed. Decades later the rivulet may have turned into a river. Whereas the 4-year old may be at the rivulet stage, the 9-year old may be at the stage of a small stream. It is easier to make a pile of dirt to dam the rivulet than it is to divert a stream. 

Yet another reason is that the 9-year old hasn’t had the benefit of all the time to practice flexible reactions that the 4-year old will have had if he begins to learn them at 4. She has been working with methods that don’t serve her well all this time, and that has taken a toll on her whole repertoire of skills for getting along in the world. A crude analogy is that sometimes when you injure your foot, you adjust your walk to minimize the pain of stepping on the sore foot and in the process put strain your back, causing back pain, and that can cause you to stiffen your neck, giving you a headache, etc. 

But take heart! 9-years old is not too late! Let’s think about what Josie’s mother might do to help things turn out differently next time.  First of all, in the example of the 4-year old I stressed the child’s state of regulation. Here I would also like to stress the mother’s state. Remember that she and Josie had set out to have a fun time together, so when Josie abruptly went off course, she too felt disrupted. Her next reaction was to anticipate the inevitability of a standoff. With this unhappy thought in her mind, she experienced disappointment, frustration, even a sense of loss. She must also have felt controlled by Josie, even though she was actually in the grips of a pattern that she and her daughter had created together. So the first step is to attend to her own state (remember the admonition in the airplane to put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then put it on your child). She can try to calm herself, recognize the pattern and tell herself that it doesn’t have to turn out that way this time. Sometimes I tell parents to “channel” me, because I want them to feel less alone in this situation.

Next, she can try to imagine Josie’s mind. To do that, she can approach Josie in a similar way to the boy in the 4-year old example. She might say something like, “Oh, let me see that (dog breeding) book! That looks so neat! You know, I think the idea of breeding dogs is amazing. It makes me happy just to think of it.” (Here she would be matching Josie’s emotional state in addition to her intention.). Then she might say, “Bring that book with you, and let’s go see the other book too. Then we can consider all of our options!” I use the word “our” instead of “your” here, because it softens the idea of the choice that is coming up, emphasizing that Josie will not have to make a difficult choice alone. Josie’s mother will also have to slow down. You cannot rush through this kind of process. She will have to be willing to let Josie look at both books at the same time, flip through the pages of each, imagine what it would be like to be the proud owner of a book about dog breeds and what it would be like to enter the fantasy world of the series book. It will be hard, but with her mother’s help, next time she may be prepared to let go of one cherished (even if unrealistic) idea in order to choose another more realistic alternative. She will be building agency (the sense of being able to choose effectively) as well as flexibility.

Of course, it might not work. Remember the metaphor of the stream. You can throw rocks in the way of a rushing stream, but one or two will not stop the flow. You have to do it again and again. But it can be done. Next time, I will consider building flexibility in your adolescent! 

Granic, I & Patterson, G (2006). Toward a comprehensive model of antisocial development: a dynamic systems approach, Psychological Review, 113 (1) 101-131.

 

Some Thoughts About Culture

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Our IPMH group has been having an extensive and interesting discussion about culture on email. I have been traveling and it has been hard for me to follow all of it on my blackberry, but I thought I would offer some thoughts. It refers to caregivers in that we often forget to figure in culture to our caregiving practices and aspirations. Recent writings in the popular press about Chinese and French child rearing have made many American parents doubt themselves. Of course, every path chosen in life leaves another untaken, and every advantage that a particular culture offers also has a price. 

I just returned from Normandy, where I attended the wedding of the son of my best childhood friend. It was like stepping out of my life and into a French movie and then back into my life again. I got the thrill that I often get when I am part inside and part outside a life that is not my own. One of the visual memories I have of this experience is that of looking across a room of 82 people, gathered around one big table and several smaller ones, talking. There was something in their animation that struck me, and in the fact that whereas the group included young intellectuals in academic and professional careers, middle-aged tradespeople, retired teachers, one nun, one very old grandmother in a wheel chair, and about a dozen children, I had the impression that they were all leaning forward in their chairs and talking happily. Of course, this was a lovely group of people, and it was a happy occasion, but they were also French, and the French love to talk. They love their language. I would say that is probably the anchor of their culture. 

There were several other observations that I made about culture during those two days of the wedding celebrations. The first was about children. The children were quite noisy during the ceremony at the church. They talked and squawked, and no one seemed to care. But what was remarkable was how the children behaved during the dinner after the wedding. The dinner began at 8:00 pm., and there were many children at the dinner, including an infant and several preschoolers. A not quite 3-year old was sitting next to me. He maybe was the one exception to my previous description of people talking happily. At the beginning of the dinner I wondered how long he would last. I tried to make friends with him, but he shrank away from me. Later (just to underscore what I said about language) someone explained to me that his initial rejection of me was probably because of my accent. He was doing little provocative things like poking the straw from his drink into each piece of bread in the breadbasket on the table near him. His parents were all over him about it, correcting him, telling him to be good, but they didn’t seem very upset. They just kept telling him to behave over and over again, in a way that punctuated but didn’t seem to interrupt their conversation with their friends. Finally he just stopped doing little naughty things and started to amuse himself in various innocuous ways. By the end of the dinner at 1:30 am, he was sagging a little, but he was still awake.  When people were saying good night, at the coaching of his parents, he even offered me his little fat cheeks to kiss goodbye. We were not necessarily friends, but not enemies. 

The second observation I made was the next afternoon when we all came together again for lunch. I noticed that the first thing everyone said in greeting after hello was, “Did you sleep well?” (“T’as bien dormi?”) Now, that isn’t surprising, since we all had been up very late the night before. I noticed that it wasn’t just that people were speaking simply to me because they didn’t know the extent of my French, because they were asking one another the same question. It seemed that there was something facilitating, even comforting about the convention of asking this question, as if it were part of a song that we all knew. Again, language was key. 

The last observation was about the goodbyes. Probably many Americans have remarked on “the French goodbye”. It seems to us as if it goes on forever. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that the French, who value their language so highly, should use it to soothe the pain of parting. As an American, you have to be prepared, you have to realize that when a French person first says goodbye, he doesn’t really mean goodbye. He means that he is beginning to say goodbye. 

How do all these observations come together into a more general consideration about culture? I realize that my comments are coming from a naïve point of view and that many have surely studied this phenomenon and written about it more knowledgeably, but I would guess it has something to do with the place of language in French culture. And as we know, language development begins very early in a child’s life – not necessarily words and symbols, but the aspects of language I am talking about. That is, the tones, the rhythms, the “sense” of communicating and probably even the “sense of what is being communicated”, through the matching of affect and actions with the words. So that when the parents of the 2-year old persistently corrected him verbally without ever giving him the impression that his leaving was an option, they were teaching him how to stay at the table. I am not suggesting that his parents were teaching him patience; I do not necessarily consider patience to be a French virtue, but staying at the table is. I am also not suggesting that all French 2-year olds could stay at the table that long and that late, but since they have been immersed in that culture from birth or before, many can.  To return to my original point about culture, I suppose that the advantage of being able to stay at the table carries a price too, but I can’t for the moment think of what it would be.