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Toy Guns in Play Therapy

Toy Guns in Play TherapyI have a basket of miscellaneous toys on my shelf and the kids like to rummage through them. Most popular are the real cell phones even though they’re not smart phones. The kids really like the ones that slide out so they can “text”. There’s also a magic wand, some rubber balls and a toy gun. Toy guns in play therapy aren’t as controversial as, say, toy guns in preschool but they are still part of an ongoing discussion that play therapists have with each other.

We all agree that a fully stocked play therapy office needs to include some ways to be aggressive like rubber swords, dragon puppets, lion figurines or guns. Most of us are ok with guns and some of us are not. We have different ideas about what kinds of guns can be used (at the agency where I used to work we had Nerf-type guns that shot spongy “bullets”) and we have different rules about how they can be used (some therapists don’t allow kids to point a gun at the therapist and some do — my decision depends on context).

The gun I have looks an awful lot like the cowgirl cap gun my mom bought me from Sears to go with my red-with-white-fringes cowgirl Halloween costume. I think that was 1975 so this one is a little different — it has more plastic, less metal and it has the orange tip that they started adding to toys in 1992.

I chose this gun because it is so clearly a toy. It doesn’t look like a modern gun (it isn’t black, you have to cock it) and it doesn’t actually shoot anything. Lemme tell you, I got really tired of helping kids dig under chairs for those spongy yellow “bullets” so when I set up my own office I decided no Nerf-type guns.

Some kids are very excited when they find the toy gun. Other kids don’t care one way or the other. Very, very occasionally a child will tell me that he or she is not allowed to play with toy guns and ask me to remove it and of course I always respect this request and we talk about that.

My decision to allow toy guns in my play therapy office is indicative of my belief that kids should have a full vocabulary in the language of play. As a mother I struggled with gun play and it was something my friends and I discussed at length. We all fell on different sides of the decision — some of our kids had full arsenals and some weren’t even allowed to play with figurines that had guns attached to their tiny hands — but we all thought about it a lot. Other weapons like swords, knives, and bows and arrows didn’t cause us as much concern. I suppose there are vestiges of this struggle in my decision to use an anachronistic cowboy gun in my play therapy room. But I never considered not having a gun available to my clients.

Kids are smart. They get that the play therapy office is different then the rest of the world. They understand that the rules I have aren’t the same as the rules that  their parents or their teachers have. Children who aren’t allowed to use guns in the rest of their lives but who welcome the one in my basket are OK with leaving it there when they go. (Although they are usually super excited about showing it to their parents — sometimes they even run out to the waiting room with it when they find it!)

Some of the children I work with use the toy gun to work out feelings of helplessness or power by shooting my stuffed dragon or the picture of the guy doing a handstand on a horse that hangs above my couch. Some of them don’t use it at all but keep it near them while they work in the sand tray or color; having the gun nearby makes them feel safe.

Sometimes children shoot my Feelings poster (a grid of pictures featuring kids making faces to illustrate different emotions) often as an indicator of their own frustration at their inability to understand or name their own feelings.

Sometimes kids tell me who they would like to shoot or announce that they’re shooting someone while they aim into the middle distance. This can be upsetting for parents to witness but I liken it to an adult saying in my office, “I could kill my boss!” or “I wanted to throttle my brother-in-law!”

Often children just want to use the gun because they think it’s fun. This includes both the kids who can play with guns at home and those who aren’t allowed to. Some of them include it in their play because it’s part of a language that’s familiar to them. Others use it because it’s novel and they’re excited to explore. Many, many children glance at the gun, cock it and pull the trigger a couple of times and then put it back never to play with it again.

Frankly the cell phones are way more popular.

If you bring your child to see me and have concerns about the gun or any other toys I have in the playroom, I encourage you to bring it up.

What I’ve learned in a decade of parenting

morningbeach-insideThis post originally appeared on my old this woman’s work personal blog. I’m adding it to the site because I saw some people clicking an old link to it on a parenting forum and getting the 404 message that it was missing. I’ve now been parenting for more than one and a half decades and my toddler is now a tween, my tween is now a teen. Basically the message I have is the same: It’s OK. You’re doing OK. Go easy on yourself.

Since my kids are so far apart in age (seven years) I find myself with a whole new cohort of parenting peers. Instead of moving on to parenting a school-ager while having a preschooler like most spaced-sibling families, I’ve got a school-ager and a toddler. Unless my friends have more than two kids (kinda rare), I’m hanging with a new set of people at baby gym class, etc.

In my daughter’s rec center classes, most of the parents have kids that are younger than my oldest (not all but most) and for many of them, the toddler tumbling around is their oldest and so they are fairly new parents. Listening to them really brings it all back to me — the worry, the fretting, the rigidity, the belief that there’s one way to get it right. I remember. But in ten years of parenting and watching my friends parent their kids, I realize that all the things that used to get us worked up just aren’t as important as we thought they were. I hear them discussing the things we discussed with the same earnest conviction and it makes me … tired. I don’t want to live those debates again and I also no longer care whether or not people I like are doing things the way that I think they ought to be done. (In other words, when a woman leans across the child in her lap to speak urgently about the dangers of television I neither feel defensive nor passionate in agreement. I simply don’t care about anyone else’s television choices and I don’t care what they think about mine.)

I also have found (horrors!) that I am very much one of those women who tries not to say, “Wait and see” when someone is telling me that their child will never play computer games/eat fast food/own a Barbie. I try not to be but I can’t help it. (Never say never should be the theme song to parenthood.) I can’t help but raise an eyebrow when a passionate new parent swears s/he will never send their child to school or let them eat refined sugar. Or when they lecture another parent (as I was so happy to lecture) about the proper way to get a child to sleep through the night or learn to pick up his toys.

I hate to say it, but parenting the baby/toddler/preschooler? It’s easy. Well, easier. Why? Because their domain is so totally in your control. Yes, it’s exhausting and physically tedious and certainly a huge challenge but they get bigger and not only do they become more themselves (and less amenable) but also the rest of the world intervenes and suddenly you’re not dealing just with your inlaws, who totally don’t get this whole no refined sugar thing you’ve got going on, but with the birthday parties of friends or the Bratz fad that’s infiltrating the neighborhood. (Note from Dawn of the future. Bratz have fallen by the wayside. It’s all about Monster High these days.) I mean, when they’re preschoolers, you can keep them ignorant or else you can just come down hard and fast. Preschoolers mostly listen because what do they know? But bigger kids? They’ve got opinions and sometimes their opinions are absolutely at odds with yours.

Then there’s this other thing — people with a good kid think they’ve got the key to good parenting. I know this because I thought it myself. My oldest is a pretty good listening kid, a kid who wants to please his parents and who craves structure and I thought that was our superior parenting but the truth is, it’s him. He had and has his challenges — not sleeping through the night for the first 3.5 years, an inability to process change well or easily, a tendency to the dramatics — but he’s a pretty easy kid. We’ve parented our youngest exactly the same (mostly) and she’s a fireball of loophole seeking and arguments (but also slept through the night much earlier — go figure). We never had to childproof with him because one stern shake of the head and he’d immediately back off from whatever it was that held potential danger but our youngest has gone out of her way to find the most deadly things in our house and try ’em on for size. A “no” to her is simply a sign to wait until her parent’s back is turned and then try harder.

I love new parents. I love their shell-shocked pride and out-sized concern. I love their myopic devotion. I so remember how important every decision felt. Me and my friends, we were such intense devotees of motherhood. Oh the debates about flaxseed oil! About kindergarten curriculum! About toothbrushing and fluoride and non-punitive discipline! Oh the discussions about the right way to give compliments and the proper way to put a child to bed! And as it turns out? The choices are less important than the values that drive them. When they’re ten, no one can know that you used sun-bleached organic diapers or disposable. You can’t even tell the breastfed babies from the ones who got bottles. The homebirthed babies who ate nothing but organic for their first years are standing by the soda machine jingling their change. The daughters of feminists are putting on lipgloss; the baby boys who nursed their trucks are wrestling on the gym mat. It’s not that our choices have no impact, it’s just that the impact isn’t always what we expect.

I say this not to be discouraging but to be reassuring. It’s OK to let go of some rigidity — your good kids will be good kids even if you “slip” and let them eat jarred baby food instead of painstakingly steaming that organic potato before you run it through the food grinder. It’s the big picture stuff that matters, not so much the tiny decisions that we fret about. I’m just not all that convinced that baby signs or Ferberizing or infant toilet training are going to matter all that much by the time our kids hit their twenties. It’s more about why we do those things.

So I guess I’d say that in ten years of parenting I’ve learned that you do the things you need to do to get through the day with love and hopefully some laughter, you trust your kids (and yourself), and you let yourself have fun along the way.

So I was watching Martha Stewart

I don’t really feel one way or another about Martha Stewart because I’m not crafty and I’m not interested in having the best most perfect ice cubes on the block, which is also why I don’t read many magazines and why I have never done a very good job of hanging out on Pinterest. But anyway, I was watching it a long time ago because my daughter’s cold was making her cough and I had to hold her while she napped to keep her upright  so I was stuck in the rocking chair staring at the television.

(This was a very long time ago. My daughter has not been small enough to be rocked in my lap for years.)

It was her “commit to be fit” or “fit to be tied” or some such week where she’s lecturing about what she eats for breakfast and how she does two hours of Ashtanga a day and I’ll admit the bit of bossy, oblivious Martha was amusing me but then this poor woman gets on and they do a moving video of her sad trials as a woman who wants to get healthier for her kids and who wants her kids to be healthier, too. The woman, however, has some daunting challenges. One is her reliance on convenience foods. Two is her lack of exercise routine. But the biggest — and what plays into both of those things — is that this woman gets up at 6:30am to get to work and doesn’t get home until after 7pm.

Well, now things are getting interesting. I’m looking at this woman’s life, which is making my life look positively leisurely, and I’m thinking that Martha is really going to pull some Martha-magic. I’m waiting for some really useful info because this is Martha and she’s going to give us something original, some Good Thing that really will improve this woman’s life and I can’t wait because I could use a little more healthful living in my own life so I’m just about ready to take notes except for the deadweight of a snoring toddler on my lap.

You want to know what they told this woman? Are you ready? Here it goes:

Cook more, exercise more, eat more whole grains. Oh and here’s this magazine subscription, here’s another magazine subscription, here’s a membership to a gym, and here’s a whole spiritual take on connected eating or some such.

You know, some of that is helpful. You want to get more fit then I’d say cooking more and exercising are the way to go. And when the special guest (some doctor-type) said that one reason they were giving her a subscription to one of the magazines was to reset her thinking, I thought that was ok. After all, reading about cooking veggies can help you start adding veggies to your menu, right? But the big piece missing is when in the hell is this woman going to do all this? When is she going to hook up with her new trainer? When is she going to fix these healthful meals for herself and her kids?

And there’s all this shame underlying their messages to her because they’re not acknowledging how busy she is; they’re just acting like she’s lazy.

It’s one thing if they’re just saying, “Hey, if you don’t know how to cook vegetables or whole grains that’s all right because that’s what cookbooks are for.” But it’s another thing when they’re saying all that and not acknowledging that when you’re gone from home for 12 hours a day and probably getting ready to leave for a couple of hours before that and then getting everyone settled in for a couple hours after (because she has kids and they have homework and she has a home and it needs vacuumed and people need laundry and she probably needs to stare into space now and then just to stay sane), it leaves precious little time to peel carrots.

So I was watching and wondering when they were going to help her find some time in her day. Like how old are her kids? Can they take on some of the work? Does she have a partner? Could her partner help? Could she join a cooking co-op? Can she afford housekeeping help? Could Martha buy her housekeeping help and a cook and maybe a vacation so she could catch her breath before making major lifestyle changes?

It’s like when I was teaching at a daycare and went to a mandated training about handling stress. The leader took us to our “happy space” (the usual suspects: ocean, breeze, sun, etc.) and said that the next time the kids were giving us fits we should go to our happy spaces. Great. But who’s going to watch the class of 21 preschoolers while we’re deep breathing in the supply closet?

That pretty much sums up what I think when I see most of this “improve your life” advice in magazines and magazine-style television. I think that a lot of the time the little bits of information they give us are just more flotsam and that becomes more jetsam when we get next month’s issue inevitably about decluttering.

Here’s a way to declutter: Stop buying the magazines. Stop hoarding the tips. Stop thinking, as we are all prone to think, “If I could just figure out how to clear out this junk drawer I might finally have a handle on my life.”

Life is messy and that’s fine. Small children are hectic. Twelve hour days are a problem and it’s way bigger than any gym membership will solve. Small steps are big enough and you don’t have to solve everything all at once.

There you go. Go easy on the Pinterest, people, because a little goes a long way.

This post was originally published in a slightly different form on my old blog, this woman’s work.

Talk More

jump-sliderI know that a couple of weeks ago I told you to talk less when you’re redirecting your kids but in most other situations I’m going to advise you to talk more — especially when it comes to talking about the hard stuff.

What hard stuff? The usual: Sex, drugs, body image, bullying and other important topics. Many of us schedule these discussions for particular set times. We might sit our children down to have The Talk when it comes to sex. Or we might create loving rituals to talk adoption, like the families I know who say a prayer to birth parents every night. This is great. Formal talks are great and loving rituals are definitely great. But our kids need more talking. They need it more often and in more places and in more contexts. The big talks and the rituals are terrific but they’re meant to be jumping off points to a bigger conversation.

Back when I taught preschool we had a big alphabet banner that ran across the side of our room, right at 3-year old eye level. The children in our care liked to tell themselves the ABCs using that banner. They would sing their way down the line, pointing at each letter. Or they would whisper to themselves, “A is for apple. B is for ball,” pointing to the letter than the picture next to it. But many of them couldn’t go and find the same letter in a book or on another banner. They knew the alphabet in that context — there on the wall  in our room — and not when they found it in the rest of the world.

The same goes for sex and drugs and all the rest of it.

These topics need to exist in the everyday world to make sense, otherwise it all stays theoretical. Bringing it up in other settings also creates opportunity for your child to reconsider the discussion in new ways.

The preschoolers I taught eventually understood that A was for apple on the banner but also at the grocery store and that A was for Annie when they read Henry and Mudge. They learned that because they had exposure to more and opportunity for more.

When should you talk about the things that are hard to talk about it?

  • When they ask questions. And they might ask questions at weird inconvenient times (my kids both had the uncanny knack of asking deep philosophical questions when I was merging on the freeway) partly because they are feeling self-conscious about asking. If they can toss it off when you seem distracted then it’s not as risky as sitting down and asking you point blank. That’s one of the Catch-22s of parenting; you have to be prepared to answer questions when you’re least prepared. As tempting as it might be to put it off, if you get an unexpected question grab the opportunity. If it really is a bad time then promise to answer later and keep the promise. 
  • When they don’t ask questions. Maybe one evening you’re watching a family movie and it makes you think, “Man, this reminds me of XYZ. I wonder if it reminds my child of it, too?” Chances are it does. But don’t wait for them to tell you; bring it up yourself. Speak your thoughts out loud and see what happens. If they haven’t experienced it the way you have (if the movie hasn’t made them think about adoption or about grandpa’s illness or about the friend who’s moved away), you’ve still let them know that it’s a topic that’s open for discussion. That’s important. You’re paving the way for future questions. So if you feel an unspoken question hovering in the air go ahead and give voice to it.

It’s ok to be awkward talking about hard things. It’s ok to not be sure and to say, “I don’t know.” Like most of parenting, we get to learn as we go. It takes practice to move these discussions out of safe context and into the rest of our lives but it’s worth it. And it might make merging on the freeway infinitely more interesting for your family, too.

Why kids cry more on the days you’re depleted

When I was a preschool teacher I noticed that the kids seemed to be extra rambunctious on those days when I was feeling lousy. On the mornings that I dragged myself into work with a bad headache, the kids were way more apt to be climbing the walls (and me). The more I needed them to be quiet, the louder they got. They were picking up on my distraction and found it scary; they were trying to drag my attention back.

It’s a mini-version of that still face study I shared before.

Those of you who have kids have likely noticed the same thing. You come home from work dragging and everyone seems whinier. Or you wake up with that sore throat that’s going around and that’s the day your toddler decides that every little thing frustrates her and she can’t manage without your help.

And I don’t know about you, but my children are psychic and can sense when I get on the phone to have a nice long chat with a friend. Nothing brings them underfoot faster, right?

It’s not your imagination; your children are trying to reestablish the balance that feels safe to them. They want your eyes back on them. For children who have experienced loss or trauma, these reactions might be stepped up.

Teens do this, too, sometimes on a much larger scale. The teen years aren’t just about hormonal upheaval. Families have developmental stages just like individuals do and the developmental stage of preparing children to move up and away is hard on the system. Everyone is doing that weaning dance — stepping towards each other, stepping away — and sometimes the steps aren’t in sync. Parents may embrace the relative freedom of having a teen a little too forcefully, relaxing the rules and the supervision too much or too fast. Teens react by revving up unsafe behavior both because they can and because they may be unconsciously asking the parents to come close again.

When you recognize that your children are working to bring back balance and aren’t just trying to drive you crazy, you can figure out ways to do that while still taking care of yourself. On the days you need some quiet, you may find that if you can give some concentrated time to your child that she’ll be more willing to let you pull away later. Same goes for a teen who seems to be wanting — however much he says he doesn’t — more of you. Building in some focused family time may help reassure him that you’re not expecting him to leave the nest just quite yet.

And for fun, here’s a song that’s about trying to talk to someone on the phone while you’ve got kids. Whether you’ve been the one trying to talk or the one trying to listen, I think you’ll find it very familiar.

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