Last week there was a lot of noise about that crying it out study, which indicated that “graduated extinction” (which is different from simply leaving the baby to cry) isn’t harmful to infants. On my Facebook feed I heard (like many of you heard) a lot from both sides of the debate, decrying the study as too small to be useful or hailing it as the definitive answer from science. People ask me to weigh in on research like this because I’m a counselor who specializes in working with new parents but I’m not that interested in getting parents to do things some mythical right way to raise babies because there isn’t one.
When my son was a teensy-tiny infant I thought someone should invent a sim baby program so that I could make the most appropriate parenting decisions every single time. I could try virtually feeding him rice cereal as a first food and then hit restart to go back and try feeding him sweet potato to see which made him turn out best. Because even then — when the internet was fairly primitive and we all used Netscape — there was so much information out there and such strong opinions about every little thing. It’s not like my mom’s day where the parenting experts were limited to the people you actually knew and saw on a day-to-day basis (and maybe your dog-eared copy of Dr. Spock‘s book). Now there are a whole slew of people who have opinions on every little thing from first foods to sleep habits to how to tell your child that you like the painting they made in preschool (that is if you fall in the pro-preschool camp because oh boy are their opinions about that, too).
Here’s the thing, I don’t want you to raise your baby in any particular way. I want you to raise your baby your way. I don’t want my clients making decisions solely based on the headlines generated by researchers in South Australia; I want them to figure out how to tune into what they need and what their babies need and make decisions based on that. If the researchers in South Australia help inform those decisions — whether that’s helping parents feel good about sleep training or highlighting their own reservations about it — then great.
You and your baby are a unique dyad. You and your baby and your partner and the rest of your family, you are a complicated and distinct system. However you choose to handle sleep with your baby, it’s only one of many decisions you’ll be making over the course of your parenting career. Those decisions are opportunities for you to build your family culture based on your values, wants and wishes for your child. They are opportunities for you to explore and respond to your child’s individual temperament and learn more about the person they will eventually become. And they are opportunities for you to begin to understand who you are as a parent.
There are definitely absolutes about parenting like your babies should always be in car seats and they need to be fed (how you feed them is up to you). But studies like this, while useful and important, cannot take into account the whole colorful array of personalities and practicalities that make up each family.
If you were to come to my office and say, “Should I let my baby cry it out?” I would want to know so much more like who are you? And who is your baby? And what is the context of your lives together? As frustrating as it might be, I would not give you an answer because I want to help my clients find their own answers, the answers they can stand behind and feel good about. I want them to gain the confidence they’ll need for the rest of the hard work of parenting — choosing a kindergarten and giving the sex talk and figuring out curfews. As the kids say, you do you (because trying to do somebody else will just make you unhappy).
Do I have strong opinions? I sure do. I have strong personal opinions about my own parenting choices. But as I say (often), there are lots of ways to be a great parent and to raise great kids. I don’t have a lock on the best way; I’ve just figured out what works for me and mine. For example, I believe my kids are best served by being force-fed a lot of show tunes and being lectured on the superiority of Sondheim over Webber. You will not convince me otherwise but I also promise not to visit that strong bias on you. You go ahead and listen to Phantom and I’ll just sit over here with my well-worn copy of Company.
So if you come to me for answers, I won’t give them to you but I promise you that I will help you find them for yourself.
I was not at the Cincinnati Zoo when that 4-year old bolted from his mom into the enclosure. I am not an expert on gorillas or on zoo design. I don’t know the child in question or his parents (some reports state dad was there, too, although he’s not come under fire like mom has). We do know that it was a tragedy — a child (and his family and the bystanders) were traumatized, a 17-year old gorilla lost his life.
Preschoolers are developing their impulse control; they don’t already have it. You might have heard about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. That’s the test where researchers sat down with children 4 to 6 years old and gave them a marshmallow. The researcher tells the child something like, I need to leave and you can eat that marshmallow or you can wait and then you’ll get a second marshmallow when I get back. Then the researcher leaves the room and observes what the child does through a one-way mirror. And what they found is that the younger a child is the more likely they are to eat the marshmallow.
Young preschoolers, they are bird (marshmallow) in hand type people.
And then there are those children who have a harder time with impulse control. Those kids tend to be more active, less scared, more persistent (the ones who will nag nag nag you) and less concerned about punishment and reward. They are kids who live in the RIGHT NOW. These are the ones who eat the marshmallow before the door finishes closing behind the researcher. That’s a temperament thing; some kids just have more impulsive personalities than other kids and will need more support, understanding and opportunity to develop their self-control.
Back to that marshmallow test. They’ve looked at it a lot over the years and one of the things they’ve found is that children are able to delay gratification (be less impulsive) when their environment is “reliable,” i.e., when their environment is more predictable.
Here’s a video that explains that:
Now I want you to think about this when we think about young children in public spaces, where reliability is generally lower. If you’re at home or at your daycare or at your babysitter’s, you pretty much know when you’ll eat and what you eat. You know where the bathroom is. You know when your little sister goes down for her nap. You count on this consistency.
Then there’s the zoo that — with all it’s fun and excitement — is extremely unreliable. You will likely have to wait for the potty, It may be one of those scary self-flushing potties. Your juice might be warmer than you like it or be the wrong juice or the wrong straw. Your dad promises you that you’ll see the snakes but when you get there the exhibit is closed. Children have finite resources to draw on so even a child with pretty good impulse control might hit their limit at places that lack reliability.
I’ve been to the zoo with a slew of 4-year olds (my own and other people’s including some pretty hectic trips with a whole preschool class) and I know that at a certain point everyone is tired, grouchy and done-in. For any child — not just one who’s struggling with impulse control — this is the point where the lousy behavior comes out. Stand at the exit of a zoo sometime and watch how many kids are carried (or dragged) out sobbing. Notice how many wrench free of their parents’ hand or let go of the stroller or their parents’ back pocket to run to the cotton candy stand or souvenir store with their parents hollering at them to “Get back here!”
This time it was something far more dangerous with tragic results. On another day it might have just meant a lecture or a time-out.
Like I said, I wasn’t there and I didn’t see it. I don’t know that child or his parents and I’ve never been to the Cincinnati zoo so I can’t speak to the efficacy of the barriers around its exhibits. But I do know 4-year olds. Events like these are blessedly rare but impulsive behavior by preschoolers is not.
The internet has brought us a lot of nice things like kitten videos, the ability to watch only the funny parts of Saturday Night Live and really great gifs. But it’s also brought us a lot of ugliness, sometimes in the form of support groups that can actually make people sicker.
There are a number of web sites populated by young teens and young adults that perpetuate the very illnesses they purport to help. These are blogs, hashtag communities (where users find each other via hashtags on social media accounts) and message boards centered around eating disorders and self-harming.
Here are two articles (one recent, one not) that talks about the research that’s sprung up around these virtual communities:
Parents of tweens and teens have a hard time navigating the sticky, complicated waters of online safety and groups and sites like these make things even trickier. I’ve had plenty of kids come to my office with an online support system that really worked for them. I’ve also had kids who were learning specific ways to be sick — or strengthening their identity as someone who is sick — because of their online community. Because a site that says it focuses on, for example, recovery can still be a place where people compete to be the most ill. After all, if you get completely well then what happens to those friendships? Kids who are hurting crave connection, even when the connection is harmful.
Now I love the internet and I’ve been participating in online communities since about 1995 so even though this scares me, too (I mean, I’ve got kids and I care about the kids who I see in my office and I care about the kids my kids and your kids run around with) I don’t think that the answer is to lock down all things internet mostly because it isn’t realistic. Even if you have all the security settings on your home network, there are library computers, friends’ laptops, and friends’ phones and iPods. Our digital kids are smart — smarter than we are — and they will find work arounds if they really want to find them.
(Do you know how many of my teen clients who aren’t allowed to have an Instagram account or a Tumblr or whatever but who manage to have those things anyway? Almost every single one of them — and that’s just the ones who admit it to me. They’ll post from a friend’s phone or add the app at school and delete it before they get home.)
I’m not sharing this information to scare people; we need to know what’s out there so we can figure out how we’re going to handle it.
This is why I encourage parents to think about the advantages of allowing their child access to Tumblr or Instagram with caveats, like that safe mode stays on, the account stays private (or stays anonymous) and that you’re going to be monitoring them. If you find out that every Instagram account they’re following is tagged with #secret_society123 (that’s a proana hashtag) then you know it and you can do something.
But don’t just monitor for the yucky stuff, ask them to show you the fun stuff. Go ahead and sit through an episode or two of their favorite YouTuber, ask them to share the community they’ve found on Tumblr, get involved just like you do with their real life experiences so that if and when you need to intervene you’ve already built it into your relationship. The internet won’t be something you fight about; it’ll be something you talk about.
Just like we don’t keep our children from participating in the great big real life world because there are some really scary things it, so we shouldn’t keep them from participating in the great big virtual world. Our kids need to know how to manage being an online citizen; we’re the ones who have to teach them.
We do not raise children to go out into the world and be perfect and build perfect relationships with perfect people. That would be impossible. We raise children to be good enough to build good enough relationships with other good enough people. Therefore, good parents are, by definition, not perfect. It’s our imperfections — deftly handled — that will help our children to grow up and handle other people’s imperfections with compassion, understanding and good boundaries.
With that in mind, these are some of the pervading myths of good parents.
Myth: Good Parents Don’t Get Angry.
Actually good parents do get angry. Sometimes they even yell and stomp around. But good parents work hard to manage their anger appropriately, apologize when they handle it inappropriately and work to get help if their anger feels out of control or truly scary. Good parents need to know that their children are going to deal with people who get angry (otherwise known as: everybody) for their entire lives. They also know that their children are learning how to handle their own anger so they learn to see the everyday challenges of living as learning opportunities for all of us.
Myth: Good Parents Always Enjoy Their Kids.
No. they don’t because the children of good parents are not always enjoyable. ‘Nuff said.
Myth: Good Parents Have it All Figured Out.
Actually good parents get that this parenting thing is a process and it’s changing all the dang time as kids move from one developmental stage to another. Good parents may feel great about parenting a 3-year old and absolutely lousy about parenting a 13-year old or vice versa because those are totally different kinds of parenting, which take a totally different skill set. Good parents get help (books, friends, therapists) when they feel stuck and most good parents will eventually feel stuck because parenting is hard.
Myth: Good Parents are Fair.
Nope, good parents try to be just but they are not always strictly fair. That might mean different bedtimes, different chore expectations or different privileges for different kids. Sure, sometimes good parents take the easy way out and just buy everyone the same pack of gum — no arguing! — and other times they wearily wade into explaining yet again that just because your sister gets to go to a birthday party doesn’t mean that you get to go to Kroger’s to pick out a cupcake. Good parents learn to withstand tears and sorrow with sympathy but without giving in. Sometimes they don’t because, remember, good parents are imperfect.
Myth: Good Parents are Patient.
In fact, sometimes good parents are patient and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes good parents don’t have the energy to be patient or they’re having bad days. Good parents learn to bring this experience to build empathy with their own impatient kids.
Myth: Good Parents Have Clean Houses, Lots of Home-Cooked Meals and Amazing Holiday Traditions.
Ummm, sometimes? Sometimes not. Good parents do some things really well and other things not so great. Good parents may be terrific softball coaches with filthy kitchens. Good parents may know how to make a mean pot roast but can’t make cookies to save their lives. Good parents don’t always remember to buy pumpkins in time for Halloween or advent calendars in time for Christmas. Good parents don’t always have money for the tooth fairy. Good parents sometimes don’t notice their kids have grown out of their tennis shoes until they notice them limping across the playground. Good parents forget to pack the diaper bag.
Myth: Good Parents are Confident.
Sure, sometimes good parents look at a parenting challenge and say smugly to themselves, “Yeah, I got this.” But lots of other times good parents lie in their beds wondering if that decision they made about homework or screen time or dessert was the right one after all. They work hard to model the great grand work of self improvement, understanding and relationships. They live complex lives that sometimes create challenges they hoped their children would never have to face — divorce or death or depression. They struggle and worry and fret. They move forward because they have to, not always because they’re sure.
Myth: Good Parents are Consistent.
This is one of the things every parenting book says: Be Consistent. And it’s true that consistency will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. If you always say no to the candy aisle in the grocery check out line your kid won’t necessarily stop asking (or whining) but they’ll learn that when you say no, you mean it, which will come in handy when they’re teenagers. But sometimes the candy seems like a good idea because you’ve got such a headache that you’ll say yes to anything to get them to shut up. Good parents sometimes make short term decisions just to cope because life is like that.
Myth: Good Parents are Born, Not Made.
No way. Most of us have to work hard — ongoing — to be good parents just like we have to work on our skills to do anything else well (play tennis, bake yeast breads, create killer TED-inspired presentations, etc.). Good parents sometimes get tired of all of the self-growth and effort that being a good parent takes, particularly when they look at the 2-year old wailing on the floor or contemplate the disaster-area of an 11-year old’s room or note that the 16-year old is missing curfew. Then those good parents reach out to friends for a night out or call a therapist for help or reread How to Talk So Kids Will Listen again. Sheesh, says the good parent to herself, when am I gonna get it? But the good parent keeps trying.
Do you want support in the hard work of parenting? Contact me. I’m a big fan of helping parents (and the kids who love them).
Both in my office and in my real life (the one where I’m not wearing my therapist hat) I am meeting more and more kids and teens who identify as transgender, gender variant or gender queer. And I am also talking to more and more worried parents who are trying to make sense of this. They want to know, how do I support my child? Is this a real thing or just a phase? What do I do next?
First let’s talk some about the language. It’s important to know that the language around gender identity issues is changing quickly and language that one person uses may be offensive to another person. I am using the language suggested in this infographic created by the TSER (Trans Student Education Resources). Their organization defines transgender as an umbrella term that includes anyone whose gender identity is different than the gender assigned to them at birth. This would include a child designated “boy” at birth who identifies as a girl as well as a child designated “boy” at birth that does not identify as any gender (agender) or whose gender identity varies (often referred to as gender variant or gender queer).
Gender is culturally defined. What it means to be a boy or to be a girl depends on where, when and how you live. In India, straight men hold hands. Here in the states, not so much. So something that we know to be “true” about masculinity — that straight men do not hold hands with each other — is not actually true; it’s a gender performance that differs depending on one’s cultural surroundings.
Our gender performance is just that — performance. We are taught gender norms before birth (is it a girl or a boy?) and within the context of those teachings we learn how to perform gender. We learn who wears make up and who cooks dinner and who shaves their legs and who is loud or quiet and who is allowed to take up the most room on the subway.
Discussing gender performance can be challenging for people who believe that girls are naturally this way and boys are naturally that way. Many of us also have experience that tells us that boys really are louder or dirtier or rougher than their sisters. I would argue that whether or not we can prove this is unimportant. We can acknowledge the rough and tumble 5-year old boy in front of us, seeing the truth of his expression and we can also know that “boys will be boys” is a cultural norm that can be freeing (for the boy who wants to be rough and tumble) or stultifying (for the boy who does not). We can recognize both the personal experience and the cultural construct that surrounds it.
To be clear, understanding cultural norms around gender doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge that people we’ve identified as boys and girls may be different; it means acknowledging that how we understand, code and define these identities and these differences is complicated and dependent on social values and mores.
Children generally become aware of gender roles between two and four. When I taught preschool I had short hair and many of the kids in my care would ask me if I was a boy because of it. Children who are trans may start speaking up around now — Johnny declares he is a girl. Louisa declares she is a boy. Some of this may be about trying on gender roles, for example some kids realize that the opposite gender has access to gender performance that they want, like a boy who wants to be Cinderella or a girl who wants to be G.I. Joe. This may not indicate that they are transgender; lots of little kids figure things out by trying on different identities.
These conversations tend to come up again in the tween and teen years. As kids become more aware of the demands and expectations of gender performance — particularly as they head into their teens and adulthood — they may question them or feel critical of them. Children who are transgender and who are likely going to live out their lives under that umbrella have a “consistent, insistent, and persistent” identity with a gender that was not assigned to them at birth. This means the child identified as a boy at birth will always know she was meant to be a girl or the child identified as girl at birth will always know they are gender queer.
So what about the child who does not show consistence, insistence and persistence? What about the child identified at birth as a girl who wore tutus all through preschool, dresses all through early elementary and who now only shops at the boy department and insists that you call them Jack? Is that just a phase? Should the parents be alarmed?
Let me be clear that this blog post is meant to support all three — the transgender child, the gender variant child and the child who ultimately will align as cisgender but who is exploring. There’s something happening — I call it the Tumblrfication of this generation — where our kids are having more complicated and more nuanced discussions about gender than their parents’ generation (i.e., us) could ever hope to have.
Let’s go back to Jack, the child identified as a girl at birth who announces he is a gay boy (i.e., a boy who likes other boys). Wait a second, says the parents. Doesn’t that mean you’re a girl? Or a tomboy?
Or Jack says he is a straight boy (i.e., a boy who likes girls). Wait a second, says the parents. Doesn’t that mean you’re a lesbian?
Here’s the thing, Jack gets to decide who Jack is. And who Jack is may change. Jack may go back to be Jeannie. Jack may even go back to Jeannie and marry a man and live out life ostensibly as a straight woman some day. But what does that mean for Jack right this minute, 13-years old and standing in front of you in skinny jeans and a beanie and a buzzcut?
It means right now, right this minute, Jack is Jack.
There’s a great podcast about asexuality that you can find here. Asexuality is just what it sounds like — it’s people whose sexual orientation is to not be sexual. (Learn more about it here or listen to the podcast.) In the podcast there’s a part where the interviewer asks (and I’m going to paraphrase here because I don’t have time to boot up the podcast and find it), so what happens to your identity if you do become sexual? What if you meet someone and realize you want to be sexual with them? And the interviewee says, basically, Who I may become does not negate who I am now.
For parents, this is an important message. Who our child is right this very minute is what matters. Helping them make sense of it and supporting them as they forge their identity is our job. We can’t look into a crystal ball and know if Jeannie will stay Jack or become Jeannie again. We might make educated guesses (again, consistence, insistence and persistence are our guides here) but how incredibly disrespectful to Jack’s journey to insist we know him better than he knows himself.
For one, we might be unaware of Jack’s consistence because we shut down his insistence. Perhaps Jack knew early on but realized the first time he said, “I’m a boy” at three that this wasn’t going to fly. Maybe Jack’s coming out now is part of a long persistent journey.
Or maybe Jack didn’t have the language to explain what they meant. Perhaps Jack didn’t know how to display their gender variance, to say they didn’t feel like a boy OR a girl or felt like both a boy AND a girl.
Or maybe Jack is playing with gender, unpacking gender. Perhaps Jack is exploring the cultural performance and will come back to her identity as Jeannie with a new understanding of who she is and who she can be. And this is just as valid an experience even if it seems “temporary” when her identity eventually aligns back with her gender assigned with birth.
I see all kinds of experiences in my office but I guarantee that the number of non-binary kids I see — and that other counselors are seeing — have increased in this generation. This is the part that I call the Tumblrfication because yes, there are kids who would never identify as trans in any way, shape, or form in another time and place who are identifying now because they’ve read about it on Tumblr or saw it on Mtv or have friends who are genderqueer. Instead of calling it a phase or being dismissive, I think we need to recognize this as the cultural change that it is. Kids today (not all but many) are willing to dialogue with and about gender in ways that are not familiar to those of us who were raised to only recognize the binary. Many of us may find this threatening. What does it mean to be male if you can be a man without having a penis? How do we know who is “really” a girl and who isn’t?
This is why I encourage parents to get support along with their kids. When our children unpack gender, we’re forced to unpack it, too, and confront the biases, assumptions and prejudices that we took for granted as “true.”
When I’m working with kids who are identifying in some way as trans or genderqueer, my goal is not to herd them towards a definitive statement of gender identity. My goal is to help them understand who they are and what they need in order to align their outward experience with their inward experience. Unless a child is going to be seeking hormonal support to support their gender identity, there’s no rush. (And if in the course of treatment it becomes clear that a child/teen is going to need hormones, then I will refer out to a therapist with expertise in transition since this is beyond my scope of practice.) I ask parents to do this, too. Instead of saying, “Who are you? What are you?” I encourage parents to say, “How can I support you as you discover who you are?”
If your child tells you that they are transgender or genderqueer, believe them. Right in this minute this is how they identify. Some of them will find a home in that identity and will need to craft a support system that celebrates and honors who they are. Some of them will move through that identity on to something else and they deserve our support and understanding, too.
All of us have to make that journey. All of us need to know who we will be in the context of our whole lives — within and beyond our families, within and beyond our cultural surroundings. We have to make sense of it. We have to forge a way to learn it since, for most of us, crafting our identity is a lifelong discovery. (I am an adult, I am a parent, I am a parent no longer raising children — who am I now? I am a partner, I am a spouse, I am alone — who am I now?)
- Here in Columbus we have a great organization to help your child find respectful support. Kaleidoscope Youth Center has support groups and activities for kids and young adults from 12 to 20
- We also have a support group for kids 5 to 11 hosted by therapist Erin Upchurch that meets monthly. You can learn more about that (along with support groups across the country) here.
I have written this post in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, which you can learn more about here.
I see you over there, avoiding playdates, avoiding Facebook (or staying up late reading Facebook like a punishment, because you think you deserve to feel bad about yourself). I see you at the grocery store with the tantruming 3-year old, trying not to cry or scream or completely lose it yourself. I see you at the high school, hurrying by to meet with the guidance counselor yet again. I know that you dread family gatherings where people will give you advice you didn’t ask for and don’t need.
I know your baby’s birth didn’t go the way you hoped and you think it’s your fault.
I know your child will only eat buttered noodles (straight, not curly) and you think it’s your fault.
I know the teacher keeps calling you for conferences and you think it’s your fault.
I know your teenager is depressed and you think it’s your fault.
You know what? It’s not your fault.
I don’t want you to beat up on yourself anymore.
So much of this parenting thing is out of control, which is one of the scariest things ever. That’s why we give ourselves (and each other) such a hard time over it. It feels safer to say, “This is a direct result of that!” instead of acknowledging that in so many ways kids are exactly who they are no matter what we try to do about it.
One of us follows the book to a T and our 6-month old sleeps through the night. One of us follow that same book the same way and yet we’re going on a year without more than two unbroken hours of sleep a night.
I’ve got a secret for you. Are you ready? This insight comes from decades of working with other people’s kids and reading about child development and having my own kids. It’s hard won wisdom and I’m going to share it with you:
Some children really are easier than others.
Some go to sleep more easily and eat a wider variety of foods. Some handle their emotions better. Some are naturally neat and clean and sweet and even-tempered.
Some parents just get lucky.
Then there’s this other thing, which is that life happens. Bad things happen and hard things happen and sad things happen and parents lose their way sometimes. We all lose our way sometimes.
There’s not a parent alive who hasn’t made mistakes but that’s not the same thing as being a bad mom. Making mistakes doesn’t mean that this is all your fault. Making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job.
You know the best way to handle mistakes? Try again. Get help if you need it and try again. Try it differently. Try it with more support. Try it with better information or better friends or better tools. And you know what’ll be great about that? Your kids will learn that mistakes are inevitable but we can do something about it. They’ll learn that taking responsibility is not the same thing as succumbing to blame and shame.
When we can do that, that’s called resiliency. Really when it comes right down to it the best thing we can do for any of our kids is teach them how to be resilient, teach them to survive the hard stuff, even when the hard stuff is us.