I think my son was four when he decided he had to be right about everything. Four is generally the time when kids find their inner sassy. (Some kids get there earlier; some kids are born full of sass.) Anyway, he was around four and suddenly he was always right and I was always wrong. He’d make wrong statements full of confidence.
“Mommy,” he’d say. “Birds can’t fly in the rain.”
“Sure they can, sweetie,” I’d answer, thinking I was still talking to my reasonable 3-year old. “Remember yesterday when we were outside in the drizzle and we saw that cardinal flying?”
“No, they can’t. Because the raindrops hit their wings and they crash.”
“But don’t you remember? We saw the cardinal. Let’s look it up in your bird book.”
“Nope,” he’d say, casually swinging on the arm of the couch. “I don’t need to look it up because I already looked it up” (said the kid who couldn’t even read yet) “and the book says they can’t.”
I’d catch myself in these arguments several times a day. Peanut butter isn’t made of peanuts. Target sells zoo animals. Daddy has the day off tomorrow. New York is the capital of Cuba.
I don’t know why it drove me so crazy but man, it drove me crazy.
“Cheerios are made of green cheese,” he’d announce, calmly eating a bowl for breakfast. “Cats are humans in disguise. You were born during dinosaur days. I can fly on Thursdays.”
Ok, I’m exaggerating and also I don’t remember what we were arguing about, which is my point actually, because the arguments — or at least winning them — didn’t matter.
It took me awhile to figure that out. For a long time I’d try to be reasonable and then I’d try to prove my point and then I’d get louder and soon we’d be glaring at each other, our day ruined and tear-stained all because for some reason I really needed my 4-year old to acknowledge that I do SO know how to bake cake and the ingredients do NOT include ground up birthday candles.
Four year olds are practicing being in charge and they are practicing their command of their growing vocabularies. In The First Five Years of Life, Gesell writes about a 4-year old who asserts that a nursing lamb is getting gasoline from his mother. Writes Gesell:
In a vague yet concrete way he knew that gasoline is a source of energy. Gasoline makes things, including lambs, go. Four has powers of generalization and of abstraction which he exercises … frequently and deliberately. … [However] we underestimate the vastness of his terra incognita. An intelligent 4-year old, while building a playhouse, was heard to say, “Houses do not have tails.” This lucid judgment was the sober product of an inquiring mind. Four has a busy rather than a profound mind. His thinking is consecutive and combinative rather than synthetic.
In other words, four knows what he knows and does not know what he does not know. Four is figuring things out and to figure things out we have to get things wrong.
When I argued with my son I was upending his process and really for no good reason. I mean, he’s seventeen now and he knows what cheerios are made of and that birds can fly when it’s raining. I can’t remember his specific wrong assertions because he quit asserting them. It all turned out eventually but I thought it was my job to teach him things even when he wasn’t interested in my teaching.
Fortunately when my daughter hit four I understood that it was better for all of us to just roll with it. I could respond to her statement, “The sky is purple” by saying, “Oh, is it?” or even “Tell me more” without even blinking.
I know, I know, it sneaks up on you. At one point your child is looking to you for Answers to All Things and next he’s basically saying that you know nothing. It happens at four and it happens at ten and it happens in the teens and I hear tell that adult children are awfully prone to correcting their parents particularly when it comes to new technology or the proper use of slang.
Here’s my takeaway in all of this:
- All behavior serves a purpose and often that purpose is developmental. Kids are supposed to get stuff wrong on their way to getting things right. If it isn’t a safety issue, see if you can comfortably let it go and trust them to figure it out. So what if they think the sky is purple. Who really cares, right?
- Sometimes what looks like misbehavior is really just behavior. A 4-year old clinging to a ridiculous belief isn’t actually being sassy as much as looking like sassy. Their initial assertion isn’t the problem, it’s the arguing that happens if we correct them. So again, maybe we can agree to disagree and skip the arguing.
As I say — often — parenting is not for sissies. Remember whether it’s your 4-year old or 14-year old who is driving you crazy, you can come to the Thursday night group Parenting Challenging Children for support, insight and ideas. Enrollment is ongoing.
I was interviewed for an article that appears in Brain Child Magazine this month.
Neither the introverted or extroverted personality is better than the other—they’re simply different, points out Dawn Friedman, a family therapist based in Worthington, Ohio.
Friedman knows of what she speaks. Her household includes a smart, funny 16-year-old introvert named Noah, who displayed a few innie quirks from the get-go: “He liked preschool,” says Friedman, “but after the meager two and a half hours, he was done. He wouldn’t talk on the way home, and he’d be a little fragile for the rest of the day.”
…But as a parent and therapist, Friedman recognizes that introversion comes with real challenges. “The world is built for extroverts. Very often introverts are taught to fight their introversion—to suck it up and go glad hand people, try to be popular, have lots of friends—and that’s not the introverted way,” she says. “So when I get a child in my office who is clearly struggling in part because of her introversion, a big part of our work together is psychoeducation about introversion. Most of them are so relieved to find out that they’re perfectly wonderful, healthy people who just don’t happen to fit the currently popular mode.”
from Quiet Riot: Celebrating Introverted Kids in an Extroverted World | Brain, Child Magazine
A culture that expects people to have lots of friends, enjoy social activity, work well with others, etc. can be hard for an introvert. I work to help my clients — and their support people — understand self-care for introverts. It can be difficult to know when a teen’s withdrawal is worrisome and when it’s a healthy way to nurture herself after a wrung out extroverted day and these are things we talk about. Is the child who shuts himself up in his room after school depressed? Or just recharging? Is the teenager wearing headphones 24/7 struggling with anxiety or being self-protective when she’s overwhelmed?
When parents — and teachers — understand what normal, healthy introversion looks like, they can feel more confident about supporting those introverted kids who need some alone time to be the best they can be.
I’ll be giving a free talk in on Kids and Anxiety this fall and we’ll talk about some of this then. Mark your calendar if you’d like to be there. I’m also available to speak to your group if you’d like me to come to you. Just let me know.
Perhaps the hardest thing about parenting a difficult child is the way that the day-to-day struggles undermines your confidence. It’s hard to feel good about yourself or your child when you wake up feeling helpless and dreading the day together. As the old saying goes, “You are only as happy as your unhappiest child”; when one child is struggling, the whole family follows.
With this in mind, I decided to create a psychoeducational support group for parents who are having a hard time with their kids.
The group will be gently structured to give us learning opportunities will still allowing parents to bring their concerns to each meeting.
Do you have a difficult child?
The group might be right for you if you answer yes to any of the following:
- Your child has a diagnosis, IEP, 504 or none of the above;
- Your child has been labeled “spirited” or “high needs”;
- Your child explodes with anger or withdraws and feels impossible to reach;
- You feel trapped in a rut and want to create change in your relationships;
- Your marriage or partnership is suffering;
- You want new tools and the space to reject what doesn’t work;
- You feel that your less difficult children are getting short shrift in the family;
- You feel isolated, judged or even condemned by others who don’t understand your struggle;You want to be acknowledged as the person who knows your child best but still want direction and support.
The group, Parenting Challenging Children, starts on Thursday, September 4th and meets from 7:15pm to 8:30pm in the group office at Building Family Counseling, 6660 North High Street (suite 1G for groups). The group is $100/month, which ends up being $20 to $25 per session depending on how many weeks there are in the month. This is an open group, which means enrollment will be ongoing although we’ll cap the group at about 12. You can register for the group by going here and you can either pay online or in person at your first meeting.
It doesn’t matter how old your child is or what your struggle looks like, I hope to see you there if you are struggling.
If you have questions, give me a call at 614/301-8030.
The parental voice, it’s like the voice of God. It spoke to us with such power when we were small and so we carry it with us for good or for bad.
“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” And we learn that our sadness is not true sadness.
“How can you be hungry? You just ate dinner!” And we learn that we can’t trust our own appetites.
“Come on now, Santa’s not scary; sit on his lap and tell him what you want for Christmas!” And we learn that we can’t believe our instinctive fear.
“You do not know yourself as well as I know you!” That’s what those things say to children. That’s what was said to many of us and so we don’t know. We don’t believe ourselves. We try not to cry because our problems are not worthy of our sorrow. We eat when the clock — not our bodies — say. We ignore that sinking feeling that something is very wrong and stay with the person who hurts us.
We parents, we sometimes have a hard time remembering that our children are fully their own people. It’s understandable because for such a very long time they do seem to be completely of us. The infants we carry, the babies we know, the toddlers who need tucked in to sleep even though they want to keep running — no wonder we have a hard time believing them when they insist that they’re full or that they are truly afraid of the bathtub drain. We know them best; we knew them before they knew themselves and those first breaks away are painful and hard.
It takes practice to separate on both sides. It takes practice to say, “I end here and there you begin.” We’ll make mistakes and insist on coats when they don’t want them and buy them gifts they don’t like because we’ve read them wrong. Generally, if there’s love and respect and (importantly) a willingness to acknowledge that we may be wrong our children will thrive in spite of those mistakes. But when we insist, when we tell them that our filters have to rule their worlds, we do real harm.
Some of us do that harm because harm was done to us. We grew up believing that we could not know anything because we were so small. We believe that our parents ignored our wants, wishes and needs for our own good. We repeat the damage because confronting our own losses is just too hard. To acknowledge that our children are separate if we were not allowed to be is to confront the loss of the self-awareness we were denied.
This is one reason parenting is so dang hard. We’re not just parenting our children; we are re-parenting ourselves.
As I replied to Helen’s comment on this post, I don’t like to play with my kids. I like to play with other people’s kids in a structured, time-limited way such as the therapeutic hour because mostly what I’m doing is observing; with my own kids I’m counting down the minutes until I can go read my book. I don’t mind occasional (emphasis on occasional) board games, puzzles, building or other task-oriented play but despite loving to play-pretend as a child, I never really liked to play-pretend with my kids. Oh sure, I’d attend a tea party now and then or “babysit” a doll so they could finish up an adventure but those times were rare, as my kids themselves will tell you.
Their dad is great at it. He’ll get down on the floor and move the little guys around and make the little guys talk to the other little guys but me, I’d rather stay over here with my book, thanks.
I may be lousy at playing but I’m great at talking. Give me a deep discussion or a quick conversation and I’m there. Ask me about sex, drugs, rock and roll and religion and I’m up for it. That’s how I parent — I’m about talking.
Their dad is less great at that. Go ahead, ask him something potentially controversial and watch him change the subject so fast that you’ll be discussing the weather without even realizing how well he’s deflected your question. But he’s got that playing thing down.
My husband is great at some things and I’m great at other things. And you, you’re great at things, too, just not all the things because none of us is great at all the things.
I know a lot of parents feel guilty because they don’t like to play (or paint or cook or whatever) with their kids and I want you to know that I am a licensed expert on this parenting stuff as well as an advocate for less guilt, more joy parenting and I absolve you. You are absolved.
Now your kids still need to play but that doesn’t mean that they need to play with you all of the time. If you like to play then go for it. Do it lots. If not? That’s fine, too.
There are lots of parents who don’t like crafty things (me, I’m raising my hand again) or messy things like fingerpaint or playdough (these I can do). That’s fine. You can farm that stuff out. You can sign them up for a great preschool where they’ll get lots of messy play time or you can look to the library for crafts or you can check out the rec center to see if they offer sewing classes for middle schoolers. You can enlist friends and relatives or ask if anyone knows someone willing to come teach your child archery or Minecraft for cash or barter. You can ask your neighbors if their fourteen year old will come over and talk Pokemon with your obsessed 5-year old while you cook dinner so you can listen to a not-safe-for-children podcast instead.
And you don’t have to play with your kids, or at least not as much as they’d like you to. You will probably have to play some. You will probably have to sip some imaginary coffee they make you or run around the backyard fighting bad guys a little bit but you can say no. You can be not into playing and super into other stuff.
It takes a village, this parenting thing, and the village can cover the things you don’t like to do so that you can really really really enjoy spending time with your child doing the things that you both like.
I can’t remember how old my son was when he stopped playing. One day he was spending hours creating worlds with his little PVC Pokemon figurines and then the next day he wasn’t but I can’t really remember when that was. But I remember that he was sad about it, when his play stopped working, and it made me think about when my big sister came home (at around 11 or 12) from her first babysitting job. She trudged into my room, watched me setting up my kitchen set to make dinner for my doll and then said, “You know, playing baby dolls isn’t as much fun once you’ve played with a real baby.”
It’s hard to grow up and it’s hard to lose the opportunity for play.
Fortunately when kids (and grownups) read — particularly fiction or non-fiction with the same kind of imaginative scope, the kind that sets you to wondering — works our brains the same way that play does. Unlike television, which is fun and can be playful, books ask us to supply the sights and sounds and to imagine the people who are speaking. It’s a form of pretending, which is one reason that it’s so important that kids (and grown ups) get time to read for pleasure.
Graphic novels count, so do books below grade level. Lots of kids like to revisit their favorite childhood books particularly during times of big growing because it’s comforting to spend time with the familiar when there are a lot of new challenges happening so don’t fret if your 10-year old comes back from the library with a pile of Henry & Mudge books instead of Harry Potter.
Finally audio books are a great way to “read” for the child who is a kinesthetic (i.e., physical) learner. If she can’t sit still long enough to read to herself, let her listen to books on CD while she colors, moves around or jumps on the trampoline. She’ll get many of the same benefits — training a longer attention span, building her vocabulary and that all important imaginative “play” time — without being frustrated.
I hear sometimes about parents who use books as punishment or consequences or bribes, for example, read for one hour tonight to earn an hour of computer time. That doesn’t build literacy; it builds kids who dread books. If you’ve got a book-friendly household (access to books either on your shelves of via regular trips to the library; adults who love to read; acceptance of everyone’s favorite genre regardless of it’s respectability or educational value) then you’ll have children who understand the value of reading whether or not they become bookworms.