Micro-Managing or Lessons in Life?

For those who have followed Cheeky Kids for a while now will recall that, at times, I share my own parenting experiences as I journey through parenthood, minus a manual, script or even direction signage. While in recent posts I have been concerned with the current education reforms in New Zealand, and to be perfectly selfish, the inevitable impact on my own children, I wanted to return to my roots in this post reflecting on my current parenting experiences. In particular, my experience in having a 15 year old son……

One of the hardest teenage phenomena to keep ahead of is the influence of peers in the way your teenager behaves and operates. To have some influence in this, we decided long ago that our son would not visit, or sleep over at another young person’s place before we had met them, and they had been at our place. We have kept with this as our son has moved into his teenage years. So this weekend we had the experience of having one such friend stay-over, with eye-opening results.

To have another young person in our house who has never been taught that you say please and thank you, that you look at someone when they talk to you, that you don’t try to operate a laptop and headphones at the dinner table while eating, and that you, at the very least, say thank you for staying over at the point of being returned home. That you actually communicate with those around you, at a very minimum. Don’t get me wrong…..I don’t expect this kid to divulge his life story or future ambition…..but for this young person to be so socially disadvantaged when in another persons house had me quite concerned.

Concerned for my own son……thinking that he held this other boy in such high regard. But I was swiftly reassured that our son, too, was concerned with his friends behaviour. We had not even reversed down the boy’s driveway after dropping him off before I was asked (with nervous glance) ‘so what did you think of …..?’ Our son knew. I didn’t have to do any ‘teaching’ of difference…..I merely had to remind what our expectations were if he were visiting another persons’ home…..or even just talking to another human being…..and the lesson was done. By the time we reached home, my son was planning to contact the friends we suggested may be ones more appropriate to see in future.

We do realise that this could have gone differently. That our son could not have seen the inappropriateness of his friends behaviour, and that we would have had to prepare to monitor his friendship with this kid for a longer period of time. That we would have had to carefully mitigate any damage done with their interaction. It is a hard job as a parent to have any influence over a 15 year old. And as every year comes round that influence becomes less and less. So what underlies a parents influence as they mature? What lives in them, as you, their parent, become less influential in their decision-making and social interactions?

The answer came to me when I stumbled across a recent TED talk on the evening following this experience. Jennifer Senior presented at TED recently about the modern day phenomenon in parenting that is anxiety. Anxiety that we are doing it right, doing it wrong, not providing this and that for our children. But ultimately, our biggest anxiety that our children, heaven forbid, will not be happy. Because isn’t that our job, as parents, to have happy children? As a result of this never-ending quest for children’s happiness, we become lost in the search for what will work, what won’t….what is right and what isn’t. We view each situation as a potential risk or reinforcement to our child’s happiness. And in doing so, we often lose sight of the person we are guiding our child to become. Many parents understand that education is the key to our child’s future happiness…..so we work hard to support them in their learning, monitoring homework, attending appropriate meetings at school, ensuring our teen is doing their study to pass their exams etc. But that is not enough. We then worry about what other skills they may need in life, so children get signed up for after-school activities, such as rugby, ballet, piano and so on. We worry about children’s diet, (what to do if my child eats non-organic, or doesn’t eat their vegetables); about children’s health, about children’s social skills, the list goes on. The point is we worry. We micro manage, instead of keeping an eye on the big picture. All of these worries are valid….but perhaps are indicative of anxiety gone too far. For now, we are told by every parenting ‘expert’ out there what good parents do and don’t do. As Jennifer Senior suggests, there is a book for everything to teach our toddler, short of disarming a nuclear bomb.

What did my experience with my teen’s peer reinforce to me? That my child’s happiness is not dependent on whether we continue to allow him to be friends with another boy with such vastly different social skills to our son. We could be so focused on his happiness that we allow him to liaise with this peer without regard for what he may learn in the process. My child’s happiness is more guided when we return to the basics of parenting. It is by focusing on the good old fashioned stuff that has worked for centuries in parenting. Values of life. What is really important. That you treat others with respect and that you will be respected in return. That respect means saying please and thank you, it means looking at someone when they talk to you, it means being respectful of another persons home when in it, and ultimately it means respecting your friend by respecting their home and family. That that is the value of friendship.

Values are even more important than our child’s happiness. For if we, as parents, can impart values that will serve our children’s future, then surely this will ultimately lead to their own, intrinsic happiness….rather than relying on others for some external sense of satisfaction? And really, if we, as parents are so focused on our children’s happiness, then it is the way of values that will ensure our own happiness in a job well done.

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Throw Away the Instructions

I am known for purchasing ‘educational’ toys, games and resources as an alternative to the endless (and often mindless) stuff available to children these days. I actively try to avoid games that provide little challenge to my children, offer violence as a form of attraction or sexualised concepts such as boyfriends, inappropriate clothes and makeup. I figure my 3 and 6 year old have all the time in the world to become familiar with these adult concepts, so in the meantime I will give them as much opportunity as I can to be kids. To use their ‘kid power’ to grow their creativity, imagination and intelligence all the while preserving their wonderful innocence of youth.

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So despite feeling like I’m pretty aware when purchasing toys, I have still made an interesting discovery about two well-loved toys, known for their ability to encourage creative and deeper-level thinking. Lego, historically, I am sure, has been responsible for the stimulation of creative thought processes in young inventors for many decades. More recently, Marble Run has blossomed onto the market, appearing nationwide in classrooms as students test the many laws of physics in order to have the marble race down the track to the finish line. Despite having these two sets of toys in our house for the past few years, it was only this morning that my children truly used them in an unadulterated, purely creative manner. And why, after all this time of having them in our house? Because I threw out the instructions for their use.

Marble Run comes with a variety of pieces that, when joined together can create mind-boggling towers and paths with which to run a marble from top to bottom. It is about deciding the most creative ways with which the marble can wind, spin, rotate and speed down to the end of the run. In the same game is a brochure demonstrating the sorts of structures the manufacturer suggests children could make with the pieces. When my children were given this game, they initially explored how to use the pieces and familiarised themselves with the concept. And then my son found the instructions along with the visual examples of structures he could make. The focus drastically changed. Instead of spewing forth with ideas and trials in creating his own structure, he held up the instructions and said ‘Mummy I want to make that one’. Suddenly his ‘kid power’ was switched off and he desired the easiest option available – that of imitation. He no longer was hypothesising, problem solving, imagining and creating. He simply wanted a copy of someone else’s idea.

So the instructions magically disappeared from the package one day in our house, never to be found again. Their absence has not been missed. And this morning we saw the benefits of this in my son and his sisters play. Not only did they both create unique structures, but when his top-heavy creation did not balance by itself, he was able to problem solve a solution. He learned the technique of counter balancing. He also learned the art of trial and error, as well as the skills of patience, turn-taking and compromise. All because he was working toward the picture in his head, rather than the picture on the paper. When both he and his sister had created their own structure, they then found a way to combine them both into a super structure, from which the marble could travel through extensively. The sense of achievement as the marble raced through its first successful run was immeasurable. The excitement and enthusiasm to better each run was infectious and the engagement by both children was high. Far more than I had observed in any previous play with the same equipment.

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So engaged in the creative process that he remembered the Lego packed away in the wardrobe. The big container was pushed out and the lid opened. As he dug through the box he unearthed a pamphlet showing once again a variety of suggestions of use that had once been attached to a Lego package. ‘Mum, I want to make a fire engine’. Back to square one. Now to have those instructions magically disappear………

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Growing Children’s Brains In Their Sleep

From the day our children were born, and in the case of my step-son coming to live with us full time, we have insisted on a consistent bedtime routine. There were various reasons for why we developed the routine that is still in place today. The biggest reason though, was to ensure that our children knew how highly valued sleep was in our family. This is, in part, due to the fact that we have highly active children (in body and mind) and as such, they required a very clear indication from the adults in charge that there was a definitive difference between their awake time and the time they were expected to be sleeping. It also ensured that the household had both a time each day that was devoted to our children, and then refocused to ‘adult time’ in the evenings. Toys were packed away, destruction cleaned up and the tv channel safely tuned to programs not-for-little-people’s-eyes. Moments of sanity in a quiet house.

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We noticed from an early age that our children were far more responsive, curious and motivated with at least 11-12 hours sleep every single night. Our children also appeared to have an internal alarm clock rigidly set to 5.30am, no matter the time they went to sleep the night before. Because of this, we developed a bedtime routine that began with bath/shower time around 4-4.30pm. By the time bath, dinner and stories were read, the lights were out at 6pm.

It has amazed me, though, the surprise I am met with when I share that my children head to bed at this time. Later bedtimes for children particularly under 8 years of age seems to have been normalised. The idea that children are left to play, or stay up with the adults in the house until 8, 9 or 10pm when the adults retreat to bed is becoming increasingly common. So what, then, is the impact on these children in their brain development and growth when time asleep is becoming less than time awake?

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Ongoing research is now confirming that the amount of sleep a child has is as equally important as the type of diet and exercise they receive. Younger children need more sleep than older children, although teenagers return to needing a considerable number of hours as their bursts of growth needs are met. In general, children between the age of 5 and 11 years of age need between 10 and 12 hours sleep every night. Given that these children are usually making their way to school by 8am every morning, after a hearty breakfast and preparing their school bag, the need for 10-12 sleep would put their bedtime at approximately 6-7pm the night before. By having this quality sleep every night, children will be better prepared to face a busy school day filled with important learning and social interaction – the work of childhood. The weekend should not signal a change to this level of sleep required. Too often children arrive at school on a Monday morning almost in a ‘hung-over’ like state, as the lack of sleep hours received catches up with them.

It is not so simple as packing the children off to bed as the lights go out at 7pm, however. For children to have quality sleep a consistent bedtime routine is vital. This is a time of calming and quietening down, with the inevitable just round the corner. It is also potentially the most precious time of the day between parent and child. It can be that time when your child receives your undivided attention instead of commonly sharing it with their siblings. If, as parents, you are wanting to support the healthy growth and development of your child’s brain…….turn electronics off during this routine. Engage with your children over a story following a bath or shower and dinner. Allow your child’s brain to calm, rather than being overstimulated with the flashing screen of a TV or mobile device. Climb into bed alongside your child and model the joy of reading books with them. The key to the success of such a routine is its consistency. Do this Every. Single. Night.

Your children’s brains will be all the better for it.

For more information read the latest research here.

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The Quiet Abuse of our Modern Children

In the grand scheme of things I have not been working in the education profession for long. I am not a ‘seasoned’ teacher with a significant number of years under my belt. In the time I have worked in education, however, I have worked primarily in an area where one would see the very worst in child behaviour and emotional well being. I have met children with lives outside of school filled with violence, neglect and poverty. Children who, as a direct result of their parents actions, have been traumatised to where their lives will never be the same again. This level of abuse against children has always captured the eye of the media, for its shock and stun factor with the general public. As a society, it is agreed without doubt that this is a completely unacceptable way in which children should experience their childhood years. And so the big sweeping statements from central government are made, the policies are created, the government agencies are sent out in troops and these offenders (where possible) are rounded up with children relocated…..often into equally unsuitable home settings.

But there is a quiet and subtle abuse that  appears to be significantly increasing yet to capture media (and therefore government) attention. Neglectful Parenting will also have life-long, and inter-generational impacts on society that we are yet to fully comprehend. But neglectful parenting does not seem to be understood in its entirety. Neglect comes to the attention of our government agency charged with child safety when children’s basic human needs are not being met. Primarily food, shelter and supervision from adults. What does not seem to be considered as neglectful within these categories is the inability of adults to love and give attention to the children they are responsible for. Yet, anecdotally, there would seem to be an ever increasing number of children walking through the school gates who are experiencing a level of neglect that is having a detrimental effect to their emotional and social well being. They come from a home where they have food, are clean, and have basic clothing requirements (mostly) met. But they do not have an emotional connection to a significant parent. As a teacher, this is by far the hardest level of neglect to address in a classroom.

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Children from these home environments typically struggle to manage themselves socially and emotionally on a daily basis. They are anxious, defensive, reactive and can display what seems to be an overreaction to minor issues. They do not have the resilience that a child from an emotionally-secure background would have. Simply, they are lost. Lost in a world in which adults are not there to provide calm and comfort, love and care. For some, they learn that when they demonstrate a need for comfort (such as crying, or raging) an adult is not there to respond to them and keep them emotionally safe. For others, they may have had this initially, but as they lose the ‘cute-factor’ of babyhood, they have to ‘toughen up’ and ‘harden up’ and so subsequently lose a model of appropriate emotional response to the trials and tribulations of life ahead. Some children are simply so tired because their lives outside of school are either rushed with parents juggling from one job/event/appointment to the next, or because parents are so unpredictable and have little routines at home to communicate a sense of order for their children. And there are a growing majority of children coping with the emotional burden of adult worries, particularly where relationships have broken down and separations have occurred. For these children, their childhood is not only impacted with the loss of their two-parent family structure, but they are then burdened with the care of their (usually) Mum and her emotional needs of company and companionship.

What is of most concern is that there would appear to be a generation of children growing up that simply do not have the skills to cope with the rigors of adult life. As a result of these types of neglectful parenting, they will enter adulthood without a secure emotional foundation on which to build positive and fulfilling relationships with others. They will have needs that will go unmet. And this will then begin to impact on their ability to appropriately parent the next generation. Thus the snow-ball effect will continue. Predictably there may be far reaching effects into areas such as adolescent and adult mental health, crime rates, rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce statistics and so on. If we do not meet the emotional needs of our young, the problem will become society’s as they reach adulthood.

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There does not appear to be an easy answer. It does appear that the snowball has already begun its alpine descent, and is quickly gathering momentum (and size). What would slow its pace somewhat would be a nationwide focus on preventative, rather than reactive care for parents and their families. Making it acceptable for parents to acknowledge that this job is horrendously complicated, complex and damn hard work. Allowing parents to share their struggles without judgment of their abilities. Having a government department not focused just on the bottom of the cliff, but getting in early and providing parents with education around the fundamental emotional needs of children in the first few years of their lives. Providing families in the midst of separation with education around how to not burden their children with the adult problems going on around them. In short, protecting children from adulthood and all that it comes with for just that little bit longer. Allowing children to experience a pure childhood……with a sense of emotional security that ultimately builds resilience and self-identity. All while modelling to children a pattern of responsive parenting that they can then adopt in adulthood as they become parents themselves.

It is time parents were given the opportunity to reflect on the quiet form of abuse that is neglectful parenting. Parenting is so much more than feeding, clothing and sheltering children. It is so much harder than that. It is about stepping outside of yourself and putting your children first. In every part of your day.

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Piggy-In-The-Middle

As a mother, I am most likely not alone in feeling there are never enough hours in the day to give my children the individual attention they need. In having three children, I find the juggling act at times can be a little uneven. Furthermore having the types of personalities innate in my children makes it inevitable that I spend my days and weeks constantly feeling guilty that I am not doing the perfect job of connecting with my children as individuals in every moment that they ask of me. I have recently struggled in particular with my daughter and my ability to spend time and connect with her the most for all of these reasons.

My daughter is my middle child. She, in many ways is a lot like me. And in as just as many ways (as I am learning) she is the opposite of me. In trying to connect with her and understand her individual needs I often make the mistake of applying my experiences as the sister in the family to her own experiences. I see her world through my eyes and what I saw growing up. However I was the first born, of only two children. I was the more dominant personality and was not necessarily comfortable with my own company. In attributing my childhood experience of being the eldest sister I am assuming this is a childhood she is also experiencing. An ongoing error that I am forever correcting, as she quickly teaches me that she is absolutely her own person in her own right and that she is so very different to me. But because of her nature, and because she has on either side of her two boys who have their own set of needs, she is often misred and misunderstood.

She has inherited her creative flair from her father, an artist by occupation. She enjoys sitting quietly, drawing and coloring and entering into her own world of fantasy and imagination. She withdraws to her room and unless we go looking we often will not engage with her for a length of time. Given the rather loud and boisterous nature of her younger brother, her withdrawal can be met with some relief as we are freed up to get other things done as a result of having one-child entertaining herself. But this is perhaps our biggest mistake. Reading her withdrawal, or happiness in her own company as her not having a need for our attention. While she is happy in her own company, she still very much needs our attention, cuddles, laughter and care in those quiet moments. Where her brother is literally all over us demanding our undivided attention, his sister requests our time through sitting alongside her, drawing or coloring, dressing her dolls or painting her toe nails.

Because of her differing personality, my husband and I have had to become much more conscious of the time we spend with her. We have also had to be very reflective around how we manage any rivalry or conflict between her and her brothers. It is too easy to jump to the defense of the youngest child when body language tells us our daughter has wound him up or has been ignoring his incessant badgering to get her attention. At other times, we are drawn into reprimand when her words get too loud out of sheer frustration with her brother’s actions. It has taken a great deal of reflection and distance at times in order for us to look for other ways to connect with our daughter in order to give her the attention she truly deserves. ‘Dates’ with Mum and Dad are a regular fixture now. Toe-nail painting sessions are booked with Mum in the bedroom behind a closed door and away from little brothers. Holding hands in the front seat when out and about in the car. Sitting down alongside a coloring activity and accepting the invitation to join in. Most importantly, erring on the side of caution when it comes to addressing conflict between siblings. Looking to empower her, rather than reprimand, in turn elevating her status in the eyes of her brother. Complimenting her for her maturity, responsibility and specific skills in those moments when we are caught up with managing her younger brother. Telling her every night before the lights go out how much she is loved, how proud we are to be her parents and most importantly how just wonderful we think she is.

Its difficult being a middle child. My husband attests to this having been one himself. It is yet another challenge for parents to reflect upon when being responsive to the individual needs of each of their children. There is a number of schools of research around the impact family placement has on personality and temperament development. Whatever this development is, parents owe it to all their children to recognise their unique qualities and do their very best to connect with their children on an individual level. But, perhaps for those parents who have ‘middle’ children in their families – consider how this placement impacts on a parent’s ability to be able to connect in these ways with their middle child. It may require more considerate and careful planning in order to have that special and important time so as to mitigate the ongoing and life-long side-effects of being ‘Piggy-In-The-Middle’.

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Pink Potato Stamping

My children really enjoy anything to do with painting and art. Whether this is because of the modelling they receive from their very talented artistic father (it certainly isn’t from my side of the family), or just an inherent desire to create…….they are forever wanting to paint. Because of this, we have a large box of paints, brushes, card and paint trays that are never far from their side. But last weekend I thought we might do a variation of the theme, by introducing them to the idea of mixed media art.

I try very hard to value all the artwork my children create, but inevitably the sheer volume of artwork can simply not be displayed proudly for all to see … we simply don’t have the wall space. So last weekend I thought I would try an idea I saw on a wonderful blog I follow called Lil Blue Boo. So off we went to the Emporium in search of small stretched canvases. Returning home colours were selected, tarp put down in the carport and the canvas preparation began.

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Predictably my daughter hoarded all the reds, whites and purples….which were quickly turned into various shades of pinks. She certainly learned a great deal about blending in her canvas preparation. Our youngest (3) is still very much at the exploratory stage. Which paints go where, what happens when we mix colours and of the most fun is what happens to the water when cleaning the paint off the brushes! As for our teenager, he has definite artistic talent, despite his lack of confidence. He was left to independently create, and so decided to pass on the potato stage, preferring to concentrate on the creation of a landscape piece.

After many laps of the carport and concrete pad on bikes and scooters while waiting for the backgrounds to dry…..it was time to bring on the potatoes. The children watched in amazement as I manipulated the sharp knife into the requested shapes. Trust in my ability slowly grew after the initial standard diamond, circle and crescent shapes were crafted. Requests began to become more adventurous….including the kids initials and the ever popular ‘love heart’. After quietly congratulating myself on my feats of potato carving, the kids were into their stamping.

I must admit I found it very hard to sit and let them create. I had an image in my head of how I wanted their canvases to look. Because of this, I lost sight of the very fact they weren’t my canvases. And the point wasn’t really now they looked in the end….but the process they had experienced in getting them to where they were happy to say they were finished. I had to really bite my lip when my daughter decided to begin her stamping with yet another pink.. The same colour as the background. She did not foresee the issue with using the same colour one on top of the other. But she quickly modified her colour choice when she could see it was it going to work out as she had planned. If I had told her, however, it would not have allowed her to reflect on this herself.

My son learnt that by dunking your potato stamp in the paint the shape became muddled on the canvas. Again, this learning was simply through trial and error. The personality he is he would only do the opposite of any suggestion I would make out of a need to help. And as for my 14 year old…..he produced an amazing landscape piece, with his learning coming from accepting the genuine compliments he has received as a result if it. A hardworking morning for myself and my husband, that what would’ve appeared from the outside as a bit of painting with the kids. But a minefield of new learning opportunities for our three cheeky kids!

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