A celebration of parenting with Katrina Roe

Monthly Archives: February 2010

Photo by Lisa Jay

What has happened to me?  At the moment I spend about 50% of any given day making inanimate objects talk.   It doesn’t matter what activity I do with Birdy, whether it’s play-dough, swimming or playing with dolls, within the first minute or so she will say to me, “Mum, can you make the frog talk?  Mum, can you make the penguin sing?  Mum, can we be mermaids?”

The first time your child engages in symbolic or imaginative play it’s soooo endearing.  I don’t know if you remember the first time your child fed a dolly, or turned a toilet roll into a telescope, but I remember thinking, “Wow, my baby is turning into a real little person.”  It was like a whole new world of play was opening up to us.

Now I’m totally over it.  The other day, when Birdy was in the paddling pool I spent an entire hour simulating a fictional conversation between a fish and a baby boat.  (I was the fish, she was the boat!)  At the end of the hour I was exhausted.  I was tempted to say, “Let’s go inside and watch TV”, but she would have happily kept playing out the fish/boat drama all afternoon.

The thing is, I know that this kind of imaginative free play is really important to children developmentally.  So much so, that some early childhood experts are expressing concerns that kids are spending too much time in structured activities and not enough time in free play.  The reason it’s so important is that we now understand that the early childhood years are formative years, in which future abilities for self-expression, problem solving and communication are developed.  In play, kids can use their imagination to solve problems, to understand different social roles by acting them out and to learn and practice self-expression.  (If you have trouble understanding how kids can learn through play, try this simple exercise.  Roleplay your child’s bedtime routine, but you play the child and let your child act as the Mummy or Daddy.  You’ll soon get an insight into how your child perceives your parenting role.)

So how can you encourage imaginative play?  Here’s a few tips.

–       Create a nice play area but don’t have too many toys available at once.  Cubby houses and other special places can also encourage children to create their own worlds.

–       Limit time spent watching TV, playing computer games and other noisy, flashy, over-stimulating toys in which a child’s interaction is limited to just pressing buttons.

–       Spend time telling stories, both from books and from real life.

–       Try not to interrupt your child when they are involved in imaginative play.

–       Get outside and into nature – sticks, stones, shells and sand can be the best playthings.

–       Provide open-ended toys that can be used in more than one way.  Like farm sets, tea sets, blocks, train sets, dolls, hand puppets.  And try not to correct or limit your child’s interpretation of those toys.  (If they say the teacup is a swimming pool, then let it be a swimming pool!)

So, it turns out I’m not wasting my life by spending half my day as a talking fish.  There is more at stake.  Like, my child’s whole future.

Do your children engage in imaginative play?  How have you encouraged them to be creative?  What are their favourite scenes or stories to act out?  Has there been a particular toy or theme that has captured their imagination?

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Last week, I went to hear one of my favourite authors speak at the Sydney Opera HouseAlexander McCall Smith has written gazillions of novels, (he’s best known for the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series) but in his 44 Scotland Street series, there’s a character called Bertie, a 6 year-old-boy who lives in Edinburgh with his extremely pushy mother, who drags him around to yoga and Spanish classes and saxophone lessons.  Anyway, at this talk Alexander McCall Smith had everyone rolling in the aisles as he told anecdotes about Edinburgh’s notorious pushy Mums.  But after I stopped laughing I suddenly thought:  Hang on, am I a Pushy Parent?

I don’t have Birdy learning the saxophone or doing baby pilates, but we’ve been doing swimming lessons, we’re starting dancing next week and I’m thinking about a pre-school piano class for next term!  But it’s not because I want my daughter to be the best at everything.  It’s just something to fill up the hours because it’s so difficult to keep a pre-schooler busy and entertained day in, day out.  I have lots of friends that take their little ones to classes like Gymbaroo – not because they’re trying to prepare their toddler for Olympic Gold – but just because it’s a nice sociable outing that doesn’t take too much effort!

So what’s the real definition of a Pushy Parent? Here’s my top five signs that you might be a Pushy Parent:

–       If your child speaks more than three languages in pre-school

–       If they’re reading chapter length books before they even start school

–       If they’re learning more than one musical instrument or three kinds of dancing

–       If you’ve entered them in a pageant of any kind before they’re five

–       If you actually start expecting them to win stuff – whether it’s sports, academic prizes or beauty pageants

Any of these could be signs that you’re turning into a Pushy Parent – either that or you just have the most gifted and talented child on the planet!  But on a serious note, kids do need lots of free time to develop skills in imaginative play.  So the child that is over-committed will actually be missing out developmentally on a crucial part of their childhood.  But more on that another week…

Do you suspect that you might be a pushy parent?  Or did you have a pushy parent yourself?  If so, did it do you good, or would you have liked a more relaxed attitude?  Is a little bit of pushing a good thing?

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No, I’m not talking about statistical linear regression or the downward spiral of society. I’m talking about potty-training. Splodges, puddles and soggy underpants.

See, you go through the whole rigmorole of potty-training – star charts, prizes, adulation, and then… SUCCESS!!! They finally get it. They know when they need to go and they go in the right place. Hooray! No more nappies and no more wet undies, or at least only on the odd occasion.

How can it be, then, that having finally arrived and having put all that behind you, it can suddenly and inexpicably become an issue again?

This is something my husband and I have been surprised by in the past couple of weeks. Our three year old daughter was fully toilet trained during the day and never an ‘accident’ did we see. We were just thinking about how to encourage her to stay dry at night so we could lose the nappies all together. Then, a couple of weeks ago as I helped her put her pants back on I noticed that her undies were damp. “Oh” I said, “These are a bit wet. Never mind, lets get some dry ones on.” A couple of hours later, I made the same discovery. And a few hours later, the same again. I became rather less understanding about it and said “Look, you know better than this. You need to go before you’re busting, okay?”

My husband and I are both teachers and have been well schooled (no pun intended) in the way that both positive and negative attention reinforce behaviours. We’ve been trained to emphasise positive affirmation of good behaviour rather than focussing on the negative, with the understanding that kids will often settle for negative attention so long as they’re getting it at all. It certainly became apparent to me in the past couple of weeks that my cross words, exasperated sighs and growls of frustration were not helping El to remember to go to the toilet in time. In fact, the problem became worse, rather than improving.

I knew we probably needed to go back to what DID work – giving step by step encouragement, reminders to go frequently, and celebration and rewards for every success. And yet, I felt a strange reluctance to do this. I didn’t want to congratulate her on something which I felt should now be taken for granted. And even though it did nothing to change the situation for the better, I still wanted to let her know how cranky I felt about all the extra washing she was creating for me. I didn’t want to show grace.

You know what though? A few days ago I finally got to the point of accepting the situation and adjusting myself to deal with it, and life has been so much easier! Not only have there been fewer accidents, it’s also worked against the friction that was building in our relationship over the whole issue.

The first day that I really set myself to have a proactively positive frame of mind we went for a shopping trip. When I asked El to go to the toilet before we left she resisted and I had to make a conscious effort to change my attitude and speech so that, rather than saying: “You need to go because otherwise you’ll wet your pants and I’m sick of washing them!”, I said instead (with an encouraging and conspiratorial grin) “But El, your mission today is to have zero wet undies (forming a big zero with one hand), and the best way to do that is to use the toilet when you have the chance!”

Do you know, I actually saw the stubborn expression melt off her face, replaced by a smile and a light in her eye that said “I’m up for that challenge!”

While at the shops she told me twice when she needed to go and as I helped her on to the toilet the second time I congratulated her on her still-dry underpants. “Great job, telling me in time! Well done, darling!”

She beamed back at me and said “You happy, Mum? That makes you glad?”

“Yes”, I smiled back at her, “that makes me very glad!”

Maybe she should know how to keep her undies dry without reminders now, and maybe she shouldn’t need to be affirmed every time she uses the toilet, but I guess grace is all about giving something that isn’t deserved. And while it might not always come naturally, accepting ‘how it is’ and responding with grace makes life that much sweeter for all concerned.

We’ve really entered a new era since Birdy turned three.  I feel like we’ve turned some invisible corner.  We’ve passed out of the terrible twos and she’s now a big grown-up three year old.

One of the biggest differences is that we now have a lot less tantrums and a lot more negotiation going on.  For example, the other night we were having dinner and she’d eaten everything except four little pieces of broccoli.  Then she asked me if she could watch a bit of television, so I said, “You can watch one episode of Charlie and Lola if you eat all your broccoli.”  Never have I seen broccoli disappear so fast!  Now depending on how you look at that, you could say I bribed her with television, you could say she got a reward for eating all her dinner, or you could say that we negotiated an outcome that we were both happy with.

Of course, some people reading this will question whether you should reward kids for something that they’re supposed to do anyway, like eating dinner. Some child psychologists say that you shouldn’t use rewards, as they encourage competitive behaviour rather than teamwork, but I think rewards can be a useful tool for teaching new skills.  And for little children, learning to eat dinner or use the toilet properly is actually a skill.  But far more important is the skill of being able to delay gratification, because that is the basis of all forms of discipline.  For those who aren’t familiar with the term, delayed gratification means doing something you don’t like now, so you’ll get a bigger reward later.  Another way of describing it is learning to control your impulses.  Most kids from functional families learn this skill quite naturally throughout childhood, but those who don’t will end up in a lot of trouble.

To some extent you can teach delayed gratification through negotiating… like saying “if you come and help me do the grocery shopping, I’ll take you to the park afterwards.”  But mostly it’s going to be taught through modeling.  Part of the reason that a three-year-old is so much easier to get on with than a two-year-old is because developmentally they are starting to learn impulse control.  When a two year old asks for icecream, they’ll cry and say “I want it now!  I want it now!” and you can’t reason with them, but a three or four-year-old is more likely to accept that if you eat all your dinner, then you can have some icecream.  The flip side of this is that we need to make sure we don’t unconsciously reward impulsive behaviour by giving in to every unreasonable demand.  Because that teaches children NOT to delay their gratification, or NOT to control their impulses and that could have really terrible consequences for them down the track.

Do you use rewards to control behaviour or are you philosophically opposed to any use of rewards?  What kinds of rewards do you use?  Do they work?  Do some children respond more to rewards than others?

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