Birthday Party? Do it as you please!

  
It’s my son’s birthday this month and as we have some friends who were born in January too, we are entering busy birthday party season. I am looking forward to it, although I am also familiar with all the uncertainties which can make an innocent children’s party stressful. Of course it’s about our children having great time and celebrating together. But it is also about being exposed as a parent to other parents, who as we know, are sometimes harsh judges of our choices (or maybe we only think they are?). It’ s normal to be preoccupied about being accepted by the group and it’s also natural that the group is expecting us to conform to its norms and standards of doing things. Unfortunately it’s also the case, that conformity kills creativity and even threatens our identity. Group norms can be insensible, irrational, stupid. We might disagree with them completely and obeying them might hurt us. And yet, we still go with the group flow, because we want to be accepted and we want the same for our children. 
This reminds me of an article I read in Irish Times about birthday party etiquette.

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/parenting/how-to-host-a-child-s-party-without-breaking-the-bank-or-your-kitchen-1.2416806

It answers in details what is an accepted way of buying presents, making guest list, serving sandwiches, preparing goody bags, etc.

It is the brightest example of social pressure which glorifies group obedience and doesn’t allow for any creativity. It fuels anxieties and supports the phantasy world of the group which benefits from all the members being exactly the same. The imaginary good coming from this homogeneous world would be lack of conflict, lack of confrontation, eternal peace and happiness. 

At first glance the article looks as a helpful guide through the common doubts I mentioned above. But when you read it through, you realise that it creates a strange world in which all parents and children want exactly the same environment to celebrate, eat and enjoy the same things and expect others to do what majority does. There is a real thread which can be read between the words: If you don’t obey the etiquette, you become an outcast, a weirdo, someone who doesn’t deserve to be part of the clan. 

Parents are surrounded by this kind of ‘do and do not’ guidelines, which are doing more harm than good, because they make us forget about the most obvious truth: we are adults, able to think independently and perfectly capable of making our own decisions regarding our children and ourselves.

It’s important to remember that the fear of being rejected is fuelled by the phantasy, that we all should be the same. We are all different and that’s all right. We can host the party which doesn’t obey any etiquette and most likely we will be appreciated for being authentic and honest. 

This post was First published on xpose.ie 

Image: http://www.aliexpress.com

Child-led play – What I learnt from a parenting workshop

  

photo: http://www.evoke.ie
Have you ever heard of child-led play? When I first did, I thought I am doing this with my child every time we play! But now I know I am not. This week I attended parenting classes, run by Linsey McNelis, an accredited Play Therapist (www.playtherapygalway.com). It was interesting evening, with good bit of knowledge, completely non-judgemental atmosphere and ‘gentle’ exercises, which supported our reflection and practice of child-led play skills.
Some ideas really changed the way I think about my role in my children’s play and I’d like to share it here. It’s going to be quite prescriptive, as we were explicitly told how parents should behave and what should they say – adopting child-led play rules means following a particular scheme. For the certain amount of time you are setting the scene for child-led  play and within this time limit you are consciously trying to follow your child and follow the rules. 
I can’t speak for other parents but for me it turned out that I am not doing child-led play ‘instinctively’ that is, when I spontaneously play with my child, I am doing things which direct my child in certain way and which are focused on learning rather than play itself. It comes naturally; I don’t feel it’s dominating the room, but I know it’s there.

Schedule it
So my first discovery of the workshop was that it is important for the child and for our relationship to make sure that in our interaction there is a space for child-led play. Instead of going to classes for toddlers, or some other structured (and paid) activity, you can do your own ‘classes’ at home and it will be the one which your child invented.
Child is in control
Second discovery is that once we are in this space, the child is behind the steering wheel and her imagination is the limit (within safety limits of course). So what I learnt is that in this particular moment child doesn’t learn anything from me. We are in the world where ‘anything can be anything’ and that includes 4+1 equals 13 and a toy figurine is having all the colours on her sweater mixed up and cat pretends to be a cow. It is all right for a child to make mistakes and it’s parent’s rule number one not to stepping in with corrections, lectures on animal classifications and classes from logic and morals. It can be difficult to just leave the things out of order and sabotaging grandma’s efforts to get the numbers right, but at this present moment it is more important that the child doesn’t feel assessed and criticised in any way.
There will be time for practicing the colours later and there will be time to get the maths right.

Praising children in new ways
Third discovery is about praising children (in general, not only during child-led play). I love praising my children and my language is full of positive adjectives like: good, beautiful, great, fantastic – they are all apply to my wonderful child in general. I think it is great that children hear a lot of applause from parents and I am sure it motivates them to ‘do well’. But what I was missing out was different ways to engage in positive feedback with the child. The one I learnt this week is using more descriptions and concrete comments about child’s actions and achievements. I am practising this for the past two days and it doesn’t come easily. Sometimes it sounds unnaturally and weird. But few times I did came up with replacement for ‘good girl’ which was adequate to the situation and went something like: ‘you helped me with all the dishes, even the heaviest! The dishwasher is all empty and ready to use again’. I was impressed with our co-operation in the kitchen and by describing my daughter’s input, I supported her in learning about her achievements from actual outcomes of her actions. This (as we hope) is going to influence her self-esteem and let her built it on more internal rather than external motives. And this is believed to be more solid base for confidence and strong Ego.

I am a trainer of personal skills and before a break for becoming stay at home mum I led many workshops during which I was presenting participants with some ideas of how to change the way they give feedback, set boundaries, deal with the stress. I am reminding myself, that the real learning starts ‘at home’, when people actually decide to try out and practise new ways. I am doing this now and waiting for a feedback from children involved.

 

    

 

Sweets Banned From Schools Why people resist reasonable changes 

  
There are some obvious facts about human health, which are being ignored by many people, for many generations. We all know that sugar causes teeth decay and is a major factor in growing obesity. Yet, we are surrounded by sweets, organised in a way which tempts us to buy them on every step. Cheap fat and tons of sugar wrapped in an expensive brand, waiting for us, lined up next to checking points – always handy.
Many of us know that eating habits are developing in early childhood and are difficult to change later on. This why we all – as a society – should be interested in doing something about those millions of products, directed to children and being packed with fat and sugar even more than products directed to the rest of our population.

I’ve been always fascinated by the subject of individuals and societies making conscious changes about themselves. How does it happen? Is it possible? What are the ingredients of a real change? Why on Earth it is so difficult, even when the reason for change seems obvious?
This latest case from Polish schools is an example of powerful unconscious forces, which work collectively against the change. 
 Starting from September, Polish government banned unhealthy food from school shops and canteens. I can’t see more reasonable decision and I am pleased, that authorities are able to take an ethical stance and take a lead in changing school environment into a healthier place. The message is clear: ‘We are responsible for what happens at schools. We know that unhealthy food is bad for our children, so we can’t allow it on our ground. We do what we believe it’s right and we expect other adults to do the same’.

It’s perfectly understandable that policy makers don’t want to collude with the system which doesn’t care about children’s health and wants more profit from selling unhealthy food.
Resistance to change came from many angles:
– Polish Employees Association takes it as an attack on small businesses 
– Social media circulate the jokes about chocolate bars dealers in schools. These posts are presented by people working in education sector and by parents

– Shops surrounding schools are packed with children during breaks. Shelves with unhealthy food get empty

– Children bring their own salt and sugar to the canteens.

What worries me is that adults, who should be representing voice of reason, collude with this behaviour and support it. The cause of making government look stupid is much more important for them than the real chance to make a healthy change in their children’s lifestyle.
The change isn’t going to happen if all parties don’t engage with it. Children have their right to oppose the change and laugh at it, but the role of parents and teachers is to distance from this reactive laughter and set an example for positive outcomes which will be attractive enough to follow.
It’s important to realise that our resistance to change has it’s unconscious side. 

Consciously, people bring to the table various ‘rational’ reasons for not wanting to obey new rules: they would be saying it’s bad for small businesses, it’s a violation of freedom of choice, it’s pointless in a world where you can buy sweets around the corner anyway, it’s badly implemented.

But what brings these arguments to live is an unconscious dynamic of our emotions. To really engage with change we would have to become aware that:

– we are in denial: we emotionally cut off ourselves from health warnings. Simply speaking, we don’t want to hear it and act accordingly

– we regress: we employ our ‘child within’ to fight a reasonable ‘adult voice’.

Introducing healthy eating habits is a task for policy makers, local businesses, people working with children, parents and of course children themselves.

Each of us can start by reviewing our attitude towards change itself. We need to focus on what’s positive in the idea, even if it is implemented by a government we don’t particularly like.      
   

photo: sqworl.com

Coming back to school – why it is an emotional experience

  
Children are soon going to go back to school after two months of holiday. For some it was time filled with pleasures, alarm free waking up, visits to families and exciting adventures. For others it was bitter – sweet mixture of school and task free time, but also time spent alone, while friends left town and parents were mostly working. There are also children who had a horrible time being off school, because it meant for them time of no care, no break from stressful family dynamics, no structure to hold on to. It’s certain that children coming back to school have very different experience of holiday and very diverse expectations about what is to come. This can create emotionally difficult situations and it gets more challenging when it soon becomes clear that there is no time for proper adjustment. A demand to get to work kicks on very quickly. Structure of classes, every day routines, homework – this all comes together as a reality so different to what most children experienced during the summer. 

While some children will be excited about seeing friends and buying new school equipment, others might feel anxious about coming back to peers who create challenging pressure to fit in, or about being embarrassed to see their parents struggling to get money for necessities.    
At school, among other children and observed by adults – parents and teachers, students are exposed and there is nowhere to hide.
For the above reasons, and many others, end of holiday and beginning of school is emotionally challenging situation. Even if children mostly look forward to starting the learning, it is still an important transition and this always creates some level of anxiety.
What is our adult and parents role in this process? 

1. Understanding our children 

We need to help the children to understand what is going on for them. Our role is to provide a safe environment for our child to express emotions and to find a space within ourselves to contain the difficult ones. This means being careful observers. If we see our child acting out and not being themselves, it’s worth to try and find the meaning of it.

2. Knowing ourselves 

We should know how we feel about starting a new school year. If we get anxious about getting back to school routine, we should be aware of it and accept our not so positive feelings. If we are afraid of how our child is going to deal with difficulties this year, we have to separate our feelings from child’s feelings and make sure we deal with our own emotions, instead of projecting them onto the child.  

3. Being sensitive to other children’s issues.

As I mentioned before, some children are coming back to school with very heavy emotional baggage. They most likely aren’t able to maturely express and verbalise difficult emotions. They instead might be acting them out, getting rid of tensions by getting into fights, rebelling against teachers, etc. They might also have difficulty with focusing on tasks and conforming to the school’s norms.Trying to understand these children and not just reacting to their behaviour is an important task for all of us – parents and teachers. We are part of a wider community and there is a risk that instead of dealing with our own problems, we will see the troubled children as the only ones who have problems and they will soon become scape goats.

Teachers and parents should be sensitive to diversity of experience and acknowledge that for some, coming back to school might be a real struggle and for some a rescue – when the structure provides a safety net that may be missing at home.  
In short, it’s time to be awake and ready to take in and work through children’s emotions. 
I wish you all that it comes together with real joy of starting something new and exciting.  
* photo from https://familymattersmallorca.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/primary_school_children_540x299.jpg

Parents and Experts: how far have we come?

David Beckham and his daughter Harper. http://bit.ly/1L3bfl1 photo from: Guardian

I visited my grandma today, together with my mum and my 6 months old son. We were chatting a lot about children and two comments stayed with me. One was my 87 years old grandma’s recollection: ’ we had to feed babies to a strict time schedule, it was the most horrible thing ever”. Then, later my mum said: ‘And then, there was this most horrible thing ever: parents were not allowed to stay with their ill babies on a hospital ward’.

Both memories made me think about the significance of experts back in early 1960s and 1980s There was no discussion with parents, doctors and nurses decided the regime of feeding and care and it would be dangerous to question them as they had total power over your child’s welfare.

Can you imagine the trauma of a child being fed at certain time against his or her will? Can you imagine the stress of a parents who felt that they are doing something against what they knew was right for their child, but they were under such a pressure that they proceeded with what they have been told to do? My grandma and my mother until this day hold these memories as ‘The most horrible things ever’.
This leads me to question, what is the role of experts today? Clearly a lot has changed and the brutal and total power regimes have changed, but there is still a huge power imbalance even if it’s more subtle.  

Are we able to say ‘no’ to Dr’s, teachers, psychologists or other ‘experts’ when we know that their advice is not right for our child? Do experts really listen to the parents who know the child best, who know their children’s needs, and have the direct experience of that child and their own expertise? Does it need a lot of courage to question the experts today? 

Experts’ advice are omnipresent in every space: online, at GP’S, in parenting books. David Beckham reacted recently to a newspaper that got an “Expert” to criticise his parenting when he gave his child a dummy (pacifier), he hit back and said “Why do people feel they have the right to criticize a parent about their own children without having any facts ?”
The trouble gets worse when our child is ill or not doing well at school, and as a parent we feel worried and vulnerable. Then it’s harder to be confident and to trust yourself against the experts, or even if you know you are right, to stand up to their power. 
Experts often cite science and research to support their advice, but it’s worth remembering that so often they offer conflicting advice, each claiming their own scientific proof. It is also worth remembering that experts used to claim many truths that have since been proven very wrong, such as blood letting and claims that smoking was a healthy habit. 
Let’s learn from it and don’t let our own parenting voice to be under-heard. Of course we should listen to experts and try to find out what’s best for our child, and of course experts should listen to us. There is still a lot of room for improvement for ‘experts listening to parents’, and part of that is taking responsibility ourselves and developing as more confident parents. 

What sort of parent are you?

 
Parent ‘tag’ is very popular in media. It’s easy to join or at least follow many conversations about parenting going on in social media. I read or scan so many information directed to me as a parent not because I’m parenting blogger but because I am a mother breastfeeding the baby and wanting to occupy my mind with something during that process. Or a mother having half an hour break for myself and being too tired to read the book. Or a mother searching for input on a particular issue which worries me. As a parent of small children I also find parenting the most interesting subject at the moment.
What I look for in those all numerous articles, advices and opinions is a consolation – a comfort of someone else saying something close to my view on breastfeeding or praising the way parents manage children’s screen time, which happens to be similar to mine. I also get excited when some opinion appears to be totally opposite to my view: I criticise it and I go mad: ‘it’s wrong’ I think ‘you can’t say that! it’s not a right way of bringing up children!’

Right – Wrong, Right – Wrong. This is a good way, this is The Way to start a spoon feed, this is The Way to breastfeed in public, the way to deal with siblings rivalry etc. etc.

Parenting world of opinions is completely polarised and it sucks people into thinking in these black – and white categories.
This creates a world where any real reflection or discussion which could enrich people with different views is practically impossible. The comfort becomes a distant dream too.

I lately read an article about letting children to fall asleep on a breast when the night time comes. The author was pro breastfeeding to sleep and critiqued the other article in which a psychologist was warning mothers that this is a bad habit, that breast is for feed not for comfort and that a child will have trouble falling asleep when gets older.

At first I was reading and thinking: ‘oh, great, the woman is talking sense – I am in fact breastfeeding my child to sleep now.’

But then the detailed explanation came and I started to feel bad: ‘ the child is unable to separate herself from the mother until 18 months old’ says specialist. ‘Every attempt to break the mother – baby fusion before 18 months is against nature, is wrong, unfair, can be damaging for a child’. 

‘Oh dear’ – I thought – ‘I do break the fusion…Sometimes it’s my husband putting children to sleep…Oh no, I left my daughter for a week with her father when she was only 14 months, have I done something wrong?’

And then I realise: It’s unfair to impose on us parents such a strong opinions, from arguably informed sources. No one is better informed about our children and family context then ourselves. This is very understandable that we seek reassurance about the way we do things, so yes: we’ll keep reading the stuff. But in my experience we are more likely to get doubts and worries fuelled, rather than become more confident with what we are doing.  
So I keep reminding myself: black and white world is a phantasy. There is no one magic formula to bring up children. Every child and every parent is different. 

What is in your childhood luggage?

We all were once children. Last week I came across very interesting interview (with capturing title: No one annoys me as much as my mother) which addresses relationship with parents from a perspective of grown up children undergoing psychoterapy. The interviewee is a Polish psychotherapist – Danuta Golec. 

I translated a fragment of this interview, which I found very helpful in understanding one of the most crucial parenting skill: containing difficult emotions. 

What are their [adults who talk about their parents] complaints?

It varies, but I can observe one commonality, which I would call: a lack of psychological consciousness.

Some adults think that they weren’t seen in childhood. Their difficulties and needs – emotional in particular – were pushed away. We are not talking about neglected children; they might have had great conditions – being taken to horse riding, swimming lessons, but parents didn’t know what conflicts children were struggling with and what kind of help they needed.
There was a lack of thinking parent, who would understand that child has an inner life. Lack of someone who is able to stand [contain] emotions.
To stand emotions?
Yes, we are talking about parent’s internal space, where we allow our child’s emotions – be it anxiety, sadness, anger. We can take these emotions there, look at them and change them, so as they can become less frightening. We can compare this process to digestion. Child is not able to swallow big chunks of food, we need to break them up. Some adults are not able to do so. Ten year old girl is sharing her difficulties at school and mother is getting anxious, so she sighs: if you won’t stop I am going to get crazy, (…) I’m going to hang myself. In this way mother communicates to the girl that she can harm mother with her problems, so she shouldn’t disclose them anymore, or shouldn’t even have them. Later in life, this grown up girl can hold the unconscious conviction that if she approaches someone and gets very close, she can destroy this person, and this person will lost their mind or die. Obviously, every parent may have a moment of being psychologically unconscious, unavailable, but if this becomes a repetitive pattern it causes trauma to a child.
In some adults’ experience parents were strongly focused on themselves and their own needs. For example they saw the child just in one dimension which was fulfilling their aspirations. They wanted a happy and cheerful child, who amazes everyone. So they did. But if the child tried to show his/her different side, more true version of the self, they went into panic, or just did not accept it. Child was talking to hand – I don’t have friends at school, I am sad. – When you grow up you’ll laugh at this. Go and play.

Anything else?
Sometimes adults feel that something was pushed into them in childhood years. Parents, instead of accepting and taking in child’s emotions, thrown their own unwanted emotions at a child. Psychological maturity means (among other things), that we are able to see ourselves as a range of things, not only as a pure goodness. We can see anger, guilt and envy. If a person is unable to do it, then every unwanted piece of himself/herself needs to be removed or placed in someone else. Am I envious? Never! You are! (…). We call this mechanism projection
If this is parent’s main way of functioning, a child is constantly bombarded by unwanted emotions. He/she catches a lot of content, which parent doesn’t know how to deal with. Child also doesn’t know what to do with this kind of baggage. This emotional situation can be repeated in people’s adult life problems. They constantly deal with someone else’s psychological baggage. They feel obliged to live other people’s lives. I am a luggage filled with objects, something is banging there, but I don’t know who does it belong to.’

 

Full interview by Grzegorz Sroczynski, Wyborcza.pl 20.05.2015