Birdy and I have been enjoying a beautiful picture book recently. It’s called The Saddest King by Chris Wormell. In this fictional kingdom, happiness is compulsory by order of the King. Until one day, a small boy breaks the law, he cries. He gets dragged before the King, and explains that he wants to be sad because his dog has died. In the end it’s revealed that the King’s happy face is just a mask, and that deep down he’s very sad too because his dog died. Together they have a good cry and the message of the book is that it’s OK to be sad, sometimes you just have to be the way you feel.
I’ve been realizing the importance lately of teaching children to recognize their emotions and stories are a great tool to help kids do this. When you look at the pictures together you can ask your child to identify the expressions on the characters’ faces. This will help you to gauge their emotional literacy. On the most basic level, kids should be able to identify whether somebody is happy or sad. But it’s helpful for them to learn about more complex emotions too – frustration, anger, love, jealousy, worry, satisfaction. Helping them to identify these emotions in a story can expand their emotional vocabulary and enable them to identify their own feelings more accurately.
The reason I think stories are such a useful tool for identifying emotions is that they link the emotion to its cause. In the well-known book Giraffes Can’t Dance, Gerald feels shame because the other animals laugh at his bad dancing and he feels left out. In Where the Wild Things Are Max feels angry because his Mum calls him a Wild Thing and sends him to bed without his dinner. Helping your child to see the link between the characters’ feelings and whatever it was that prompted them is a skill that will set them up for life.
Another way to help your child to learn about their emotions is to draw or cut out different facial expressions. Ask your child what they think the person is feeling and what might have made them feel that way. Tell them about a time you felt that emotion yourself, what caused it and how you dealt with it.
Also you can help your child identify how their physical needs affect their moods. For example, my daughter Birdy always gets grumpy when her blood sugar is low. A quick drink of milk or a snack of fruit will snap her out of it. For other kids it might be when they’re cold or tired or have been inside for too long. You may start to recognize a certain emotional response they fall back on, like hitting when they feel threatened or not sharing when they feel jealous. Helping them to recognize the emotions that drive their behaviour can guide them towards finding more positive ways of expressing themselves. After all our emotions are there to tell us something about ourselves.
By the way, I’ve only recently learned the importance of this because I’ve realized my own inability to express my feelings. That might sound odd, given that I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, but I tend to talk about what I think, rather than what I feel. Even when asked about my feelings I tend to answer in ‘thinking’ language – maybe because in my world it is normal to express ideas and opinions, but not emotions. I consider this to be a handicap because it takes me a long time to work out what I’m feeling and why, and I usually only come to a conclusion via a long and tortuous discussion of some other, more incidental ‘issue’. See. There. I just said ‘conclusion’. It’s a thinking word, not a feeling one.
Another book series I’ve found helpful for children is the When I’m Feeling… series by Five Mile Press. We got the When I’m Feeling Sad book for Birdy after our dog died, and it explains what sadness feels like, what kind of things can make us feel sad and some comforts that might help us feel better. It’s also got notes for parents in the back. But like most things, books can only teach so much. What kids will really learn most from is what’s modeled to them. We have to be prepared to gently share our emotions with them, so they understand that its OK to feel sad or frustrated or lonely or excited. If we pretend everything is OK all the time, we can’t expect them to ask for help when they really need it.
Are your children good at expressing their emotions or come out in other ways? Have you noticed any patterns in their behaviour? Have you discovered any useful tools for teaching children about their emotions? Do you sometimes find it hard to express or share what you are really feeling?
Cracked nipples. Mastitis. Breast pads. I left out all the gory details when I discussed this topic on breakfast radio this morning. I wanted to talk about breastfeeding today because some new research has come out looking at the public health impacts of early weaning. 90% of 35 – 45 year olds were weaned before 6 months, and that’s impacted our overall health as a nation.
One reason for early weaning today is women returning to work, but the other is that there’s not enough breastfeeding support and expertise in the general community. Before I breastfed my daughter I’d never seen anybody attach a baby. We’ve lost that communal passing on of knowledge. I know a few mothers who chose not to breastfeed because they didn’t like the idea of it. I think the sexualisation of our culture is partly to blame – young women just aren’t used to thinking of their breasts as a functional piece of equipment for feeding.
Personally I had a positive experience of breastfeeding. I absolutely loved it. I loved the closeness and the bonding – the skin on skin contact with my baby. But, I also remember one phase at about six months where I got sick of it and wanted to quit. Sometimes I felt like I did nothing else for that entire year. But fortunately I never had any problems with my milk supply – actually I had so much milk I felt I should be bottling it.
So what made breastfeeding work for me? I don’t think there was any one thing, but some things that helped were:
– I found out as much as I could before I gave birth. They ran a breastfeeding course at my hospital and I did it twice – once before I gave birth and then again afterwards. I’d really recommend that to anyone who’s having their first baby or who’s wanting to breastfeed for the first time.
– When I was in hospital I rang for the midwife every time I fed to make sure I had her attached correctly. If you don’t get a good attachment then you can really do some damage and it affects your confidence as well. I think it’s really important to get as much help as you can in the first few days.
– I also asked lots of dumb questions. Every midwife has a slightly different opinion on how often you should feed, whether to wake your baby, how long to feed for, but the more you ask, the more you learn how to make those decisions yourself.
– Also I had a goal for how long I wanted to breastfeed and I was determined not to introduce bottles until I was ready to wean. So many Mums I knew were disappointed when their milk dried up after a few months, but they’d been substituting breastfeeds with bottles and then their milk supply dropped. So don’t substitute or supplement with formula until you’re ready to wean (unless of course your baby’s starving. That’s a different kettle of fish!)
People have very different ideas about how long to breastfeed for. I don’t actually have a strong view on when is the right time to wean. In terms of health benefits, the first 6 months are the most important. But extending breastfeeding does extend the health benefits. My goal was to breastfeed for 12 months, because that’s when you can introduce cows’ milk. So I started weaning at 12 months and had her totally weaned by 14 months. That felt natural to me because that was when Birdy started walking and it was a clear time of transition from baby to toddler. But some babies just wean themselves and there’s nothing you can do about it. Finally, I think it’s valid to consider the mother’s social, physical and mental needs when deciding when to wean. After all, it takes two people to breastfeed! Both parties have to be happy with the situation.
PS. I received a wise piece of advice once. When you meet an adult, you can’t tell whether they were breastfed or not! So if, with all your best efforts, it didn’t work out, don’t stress too much!
Did you breastfeed your babies? Was it easy for you or did it take practice and persistence? At what age did you wean and why? Would you have preferred to breastfeed for longer? Did you breastfeed in public or were you too embarrassed?
I never pictured myself as a ballet Mum. I never intended to enroll my daughter in ballet at all, let alone at 3 and a half. But like lots of things in parenting, my child had other ideas. So I had a choice: either to stick with my own pre-conceived ideas about what I expected my child to be or to throw the book out the window and go with the flow.
Ask my daughter what she’s going to be when she grows up and the answer is the same every time: A ballerina. I don’t think there’s much chance she will be an actual ballerina (Hey, my niece wants to be a mermaid, so she’s one up on that!) but as she’s been giving the same answer for about six months I figure it’s time my husband and I stopped rolling our eyes and smirking at each other every time she says it.
Birdy’s favourite game is to play ballet lessons. When my sister was visiting recently, I would come home from work everyday to find them playing ballet lessons, (which was rather hysterical, considering my sister’s never even done highland dancing, let alone anything resembling ballet). Finally I found a class that fit with our schedule and we went to our first real ballet lesson this week.
First we had to buy a leotard. Well even before that, Birdy had to learn how to pronounce it. She practiced saying it even though she didn’t actually know what a leotard was. She just knew it was something you had to have for ballet. Then off we went to the shops. While we were there, Birdy told every person we passed that we were going to buy a ballet dress and a leotard. I mean every person. Other mums. The 21 year old guy serving in the bookshop. People waiting in the toilet queue. Her excitement was completely uncontainable.
When we finally found the dance clothes and tried them on, she was beside herself. Captivated by the image of herself in the leotard, ballet dress and slippers, she clapped her hands together with joy. “Oh Mum I will be so beautiful at my ballet lesson. I’m so excited.” From then on, she proceeded to tell every person we passed that we had just bought a leotard and ballet slippers. She couldn’t have been more excited if I’d just bought her a trampoline.
And so finally we made it to the magical world of the ballet class. I was immediately drawn into the theatre of it all. The costumes, the fancy French words, the play-acting. Even the teachers’ New York accent added to the sense that we were being drawn into an alternative reality, where jumps are referred to as something that sounds like a cooking method, and where grace, elegance, gentleness and patience are the most prized virtues of our time. And it dawned on me that ballet offers something that modern life lacks: ritual, ceremony, peacefulness, repetition, the joy of doing something just for the sheer pleasure of doing it, a chance to concentrate on nothing but physical movement. Both the girls enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment they got from taking part. As soon as the class was over my niece asked me “Can we come back to this ballet class again tomorrow?” She’d sensed that she was part of something special.
I still don’t really think my girl is cut out to be a ballerina. But I love the fact that her eyes light up just at the sight of her ballet slippers. And isn’t that what we all want for our kids? To help them find the thing that lights them up on the inside and lets the authentic them shine out.
What gets your kids really excited? Have they found an activity or interest they really love? Have you had to change your ideas and expectations of what you would like them to do? What was your favourite activity or interest when you were young? Has it influenced what you want for your children?
Why is it in Australia that we seem to have such militant lobby groups around our health care system? You can’t go within coo-ee of a labour ward without realising there’s a virtual war of words going on between midwives and obstetricians. The midwives accuse the obs of over-medicalising childbirth and being too interventionist. The obstetricians think the midwives are too focussed on the process at the expense of outcomes. Or something like that.
There’s strong feeling on both sides of the vaccination debate too. Those who are against vaccinations are really against them. Last week though, one mother’s story was dominating the headlines. That of Toni McCaffery, who lost her four-week-old baby girl, Dana, to whooping cough last year. Toni wasn’t particularly involved in the vaccination debate before her baby died, but after Dana’s death became public, she says she was targetted by anti-vaccination lobbyists who argued that Dana must have died of something other than whooping cough. The lobbyists believe the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease. But if a four week old baby dies, that throws the theory out with the bathwater.
I interviewed Toni McCaffery on my radio show last week. (You can listen to the interview here.) I was surprised by how mild mannered and reasonable she was about the vaccination debate. If my baby had died of whooping cough, I would be shaking my fist in rage at anybody who didn’t vaccinate their kids. Toni simply makes the point that her area on the north coast has the lowest rates of vaccination and also the highest rates of whooping cough. For vaccinations to be effective, she says, you need a high level of herd immunity, so that those who are most vulnerable – like newborn babies – aren’t exposed to the disease. As soon as the vaccination rate drops, community safety is threatened. Those who choose not to vaccinate have to be sure they can live with the knowledge that it may not be their child who dies from the disease – it may be the newborn baby they unknowingly pass it on to.
I don’t doubt that there may be some problems with vaccinations. Every time my daughter has been vaccinated, she has developed a persistent unexplained cough for about a week after. There’s been some suggestion of links to increased asthma. I have no idea if there’s any evidence for that. But if that’s what it takes to make sure that somebody like Toni McCaffery doesn’t lose her newborn to whooping cough, then I’m quite happy to make that sacrifice. Overall, we all benefit. Our kids aren’t dying or deformed as a result of smallpox, rubella, or polio. Not to mention the fact that there are many places in the world where vaccines aren’t so widely available and people still suffer the consequences of preventable diseases. Maybe if we had to live with those consequences ourselves, we wouldn’t take our health system for granted so much. I guess that’s exactly what Toni McCaffery is doing… living every day with the terrible consequences of somebody else’s decision not to vaccinate their child.
Did you vaccinate your children? Do you think there are too many vaccines these days? Do you have concerns about some vaccines or are you in favour of widespread vaccination?