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Parenting Tips: Loving Our Messy Kids

Loving Our Messy KidsOne of my children really liked to make messes when she was small. You take a kid who is curious, who is sensory seeking and who is creative and you get a lot of messes. (Many of you are nodding and sighing and wringing out a sponge ready to clean up your own child’s brand new mess.) This child of mine used to find new and unusual ways to make already messy things even messier. She used to find a particularly sticky or wet or ooky thing and she had to take it to the next level, wondering how it felt or how it smelled or how it might look over here instead of over there or what might happen if she dipped a stuffed animal  into it.

Now I have to give her some credit because even when she was small she would clean up her messes with the caveat that first she had to realize that they were messes. If she didn’t realize it then I would find it eventually and she was generally amenable to being handed a sponge and being told to go to work. Most of the time I could be pretty calm about it. I understood how it was for her — she often didn’t realize that the mess has begun until it was already pretty crazy. At the first part she would be in the moment. She would be humming and swishing her hands through the soapsuds for quite some time before she realized that the soapsuds have spilled out of the sink onto the book she brought into the bathroom with her or that the water was running out of the sink onto her shoes. She was very in that moment, focused, experiencing the mess. And when she did realize it, she was often dismayed. She did not want to be that messy girl all the time. She didn’t like having to come tell me what happened so I could help her figure out how to clean it up.

My way of dealing with it was to emphasize how responsible she was even before she knew what responsible was. So when I came into her bedroom and saw that she’d found a stray bottle of black tempera paint and that her resulting art projects had gotten out of control I would say, in a calm (but certainly sometimes simmering) voice, “I know you are a responsible person so I expect you to take responsibility for this.”

And she would as much as she could and I would help her the rest of the way.

Eventually when she spilled her soup after deciding to fix herself a little snack she would say, “Don’t worry, Mommy, I’m responsible. I’ll take care of it.”

I was thinking about this because we sometimes have to fight not to give a messy child a negative self concept because she happens to be a messy person. It’s hard, I know, because I’ve been there.

When things were NOT messy, I would sometimes talk about what a creative, curious person my messy child was (and remains) and how sometimes this makes for messes and then I would add, “But you are so responsible, you always clean them up. Even if you whine a little first, you take responsibility for it and you take care of it.”

Jean Luc Picard

Jean Luc Picard has faith that the messes will lessen. Trust him.

I said this before it was true. I said this when the only reason she took responsibility was because I stood over her and coached her through it. I said this even when her efforts made things worse as she toddled behind me imitating me cleaning it up. I said it to make it true. My husband and I gave her that self concept, “You are responsible” and we are still giving it to her because we are like Picard, we are saying, “Make it so.”

The other thing I would do is tell her that it’s OK to be a little kid and to be messy. I would say, “Yes, you are having trouble with X but that’s because you are X age and kids who are X age are learning about that.” So when my child was lamenting her propensity for messes, I would say, “You make messes because you are learning. You will get bigger and you will make fewer messes. Besides it doesn’t matter as long as you take responsibility for your messes, which you do.”

I’m not trying to pretend that I didn’t tear out my hair or stomp around or holler because I did those things, too; after all I’m human. When I saw yet another roll of toilet paper ruined or another bar of soap squished into wet oblivion I sometimes did not behave with an iota of grace or patience. But we worked on it together and I trusted that if I said it often enough and gave her the tools, she would get better. And happily she has. She’s still creative and she’s still messy but she’s also independently responsible about cleaning things up 99% (ok, maybe 96%) of the time.

So these are my parenting tips for loving our messy kids: Act like Picard (“Make it so”) and give them a little perspective (“It’s normal to do XYZ but my job is to help you grow out of it”). Not necessarily in that order.

Playing with the sand tray

sandcastle-insideWe used to have two gorgeous handmade wooden sand trays at our agency but when our boss left she naturally took her toys with her and that included the sand trays. I knew they were leaving but didn’t think much of it because I figured we’d get out the old Rubbermaid boxes we used to use and I thought, well, they aren’t as lovely but what the heck, they’ll work just fine.

Funny thing, though — they don’t work nearly as well.

An official sand tray is wooden and is painted blue inside (to symbolize water). They come in different sizes (and some of them are round) but the standard size is around 24″ x 30″ and about 3″ to 4″ deep. The reason they’re so big is they’re meant to hold an entire world. The reason they’re not even bigger is that they’re meant to hold that world in a space small enough that the child can see all of it without turning her head.

The Rubbermaid containers are smaller and they’re not as pretty. The small size matters because the kids who are used to the bigger trays are annoyed to find the worlds they make are now all cramped up. And the prettiness matters because the toys we use are our means to communicate with our clients and the better our tools, the more we are conveying our respect for what they have to say. I believe that the respect that comes with working in a solid, lovely sand tray makes a difference in how welcomed the child feels in our sessions together and the Rubbermaid fix — while workable — doesn’t have that same gravity and consideration.

I didn’t have a sand tray for my private practice because I was holding out for a good one and they’re not cheap. I kept thinking about giving in and buying something makeshift but I didn’t want to compromise. Once I saw the difference our switch to the Rubbermaid containers made in my sessions at the agency, I became even more determined to wait until I could get a good, solid, wooden tray.

Then I found these instructions for making your own. Hurray!

Now I’m not handy so I knew that I wasn’t up for the task but when I was talking to my father-in-law about it he volunteered to make me one. And he did and it is beautiful and I am thrilled.I’m still working on building up my miniature collection and exploring ways to display it to make it accessible (right now it’s a jumble). I’m thinking about using molding to create shelves for the figures but want to make sure that they’re not prone to tumbling off before I start drilling holes in the wall.

I love using the sand tray with my clients. It’s such a great way for a less verbal child to communicate with me and it calms down the sensory seekers like nothing else (except maybe play dough). Children who are feeling shy about choosing toys in the playroom will generally dive into sand tray work much more quickly and then it seems once they’ve established their place in the sand then they are able to transfer that sense of ownership over to the rest of the toys.

It’s also a useful way to get a better understanding of relationships since families can create trays together. Watching two brothers negotiate a world together gives me a glimpse of how they work together (or don’t) at home.

A sand tray is an important investment for anyone doing play therapy and getting a good one is definitely worth the time or money. (I tried to talk my father-in-law into making himself available for building one for local friends but he said that while it was an easy project, it’s not something he’s rushing to do again. But he does encourage the handy among you not to be afraid of trying to build your own.)

A Look at Clinical Supervision

chair-insideGroup supervision is similar to group critiques in a creative writing class. You present your case and then people chime in to try to help you with it. Sometimes you need help with practical matters — like what to do ethically or what clinic protocol demands — but usually the cases you bring to supervision are the ones that have you banging your head against the wall.

Case presentation looks something like this:

My client is this age and ethnicity. My client came to counseling because of this reason. Here is what is most important for you to know. (That might include her diagnosis if she has one; her background and history; her progress so far.) This is how often I’ve seen her.

And then the big question:

Here is how I am stuck.

The point of group supervision is not to throw a bunch of theories at the presenting clinician or for participants to show off with how much more they know. The point of group supervision — and individual supervision — is a lot like the point of counseling; it’s to help the clinician to find the answers in her own experience. Sure, we share things we know with each other — research we’ve read or similar cases we have experienced — but only if doing so will illuminate the presented case for the presenting clinician. Very often we spend a lot of time asking questions not only to clarify the case for ourselves but in the hope that giving us the answers will clarify the case for the presenter.

In graduate school we used a Gestalt technique where someone would listen to the case presentation and write down aspects that seemed particularly relevent. If we were to do it for say, Harriet the Spy after her notebook was stolen and her parents take her to the psychiatrist* then the list might include: Notebook, parents, Ole Golly, spying, isolation and friendship. Then each person would pretend to be something on that list and speak as that thing out loud. I know it sounds silly (and it can feel silly doing it) but it can also lend unexpected insight.

The person playing the notebook might say, “I am Harriet’s notebook. I hold all of her secrets and keep them safe for her. I let her examine things from all sides and speak without reservation. I am a reflection of her innermost thoughts. I let her take those thoughts out and give them room to breathe. I help her open up space in her busy mind.”

It’s all open to interpretation, of course, and the person pretending to be an aspect of the case could certainly be wrong but that doesn’t matter. The exercise is meant to give the clinician a different perspective.

Perhaps the therapist listens to the person playing the notebook and she starts to think, “Without her notebook Harriet must feel so cramped and trapped. Perhaps she feels like she can’t think without it.” And it might change the course of their treatment in some small way that lets the clinician get unstuck.

While I don’t like role plays where you play the client and I play the clinician or vice versa, I did like this technique. It was often so jarring (“You be the client’s entrenched views about her mother’s religion; you be the client’s nightly vodka tonic; you be her beloved poodle; you be the man she met on the internet) that even when it wasn’t my case I was sure to learn something new to bring to my clients the next morning.

* If I remember correctly, Harriet’s therapist gives her a notebook and she spends the whole session scribbling in the corner, frantic to write because her parents have taken her others away. When she goes out to the waiting room clutching the notebook her parents remove it from her possession and she doesn’t see the therapist again. Do I have that right? Probably her dad calls the therapist a fink. There’s a lot of finking in that book.

“Without someone in a tree nothing happened here”

rosytree-insideListen to this. This (click on the song title) is Sondheim’s favorite piece of work: Someone in a Tree. This version is from the original soundtrack of Pacific Overtures — I like it better than the version used in the recent revival although the revival has B. D. Wong and I have a small crush on him. The revival version, ack, the samurai sounds like he’s doing a bad imitation of the cowardly lion. But never mind that. This is the version I wanted you to hear.

I’ve been thinking about memoir lately and this song kept coming back to me. I was listening to it again while I was playing solitaire and waiting for Noah to be done with Hebrew class. Playing solitaire and listening to showtunes is my version of meditation; it always gets me thinking.

I’ll set the song up for you. Listen to how it starts so simply — there’s a narrator in this show and just before the song begins he says that there’s no record of the meeting that took place between the first European visitors to Japan and the Japanese sent to meet them but then here comes this man to say he was there. The part where he’s repeating himself, “I was younger than; I was good at climbing trees” — he’s trying to climb the tree that was there. Hear the music building? The way it repeats itself as it builds? There — his 10-year old self has just come in and scurried up the tree. “Tell him what I see!” he demands. Hear how radiant the music is when he arrives?

There were two witnesses to the event — the boy who is now an old man (they are both telling the story, they tell it together, they help each other refine it/rewrite it) and then later a samurai enters and says he was there, too, under the floor listening. So there are three people telling us — two witnesses and a witness remembering.

When we remember our stories and then relate them to others, they exist because we were there. We are the story — our vantage point becomes the part of the story that matters most. “I’m a fragment of the day,” sings the boy/old man. “”If I weren’t, who’s to say / Things would happen here the way / That they happened here?”. … It’s the ripple not the sea / Not the building but the beam…”

I love this song so much; no wonder it’s Sondheim’s favorite. I love this celebration of our creative memories, the way it acknowledges our limitations (the boy sees someone, “Someone very old” and the man he has become explains apologetically, “He was only ten” — perhaps the man he saw was not so old at all — who can tell now?) but also doesn’t saddle us with those shortcomings.

“There was someone in a tree / Or the day was incomplete / Without someone in a tree / Nothing happened here…”

* Note on the recording: This whole soundtrack is just stunning and it’s swiftly becoming my favorite Sondheim recording, which is really saying something. If you get a copy of the Broadway DVD that was on PBS a couple of years ago you can see Sondheim rehearsing this song with the actors and the look on his face while he’s watching them sing — well, it’s inspiring. You can also hear another version from a Sondheim retrospective here.

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