Connecting Over Cartoons

December 17, 2013 at 1:30 pm (Positive Discipline)


When JJ was 5, he used to love watching Ninjago. It was a weekly half-hour show about Lego ninja that he looked forward to immensely.

Whenever the show came on, my first thought was always that I could get a few things done while he was watching it–like cleaning, getting dinner started, or finishing the laundry. But really, the show was just not long enough for me to get a lot of tasks done. Throw in the fact that I had to help him fast forward through commercials, and my time spent doing anything else was not very productive. So although I didn’t have a huge interest in ninja or cartoons, I ended up sitting down and watching the show with him every week.

After a season of doing this, I could tell you exactly how much my son LOVED this series and why. I knew what his favorite parts were and who his favorite characters are. Because I’d seen the episodes, I understood exactly what he was describing to me when we played “ninjas” during our daily one-on-one time.

As we watched the show each week, we’d talk about it and say things like, “Uh-oh! Now what’s he going to do?” We laughed at the jokes together, and made guesses as to how the episode would end. When the characters treated each other rudely, I’d say, “Oh, why did they do that? I wonder how the other guy feels?”

I was so surprised at how watching this show together helped JJ and me grow closer. I often feel worlds apart from him in our interests and personalities, but even that small weekly bit of TV time together helped us understand each other. He understands that I can appreciate something he loves, even if I don’t love it as much as he does, and I understand a little bit more about what makes him tick.

Screen time doesn’t have to come between parents and children! Use it in a way that helps you get to know each other…sit down together, watch it from your children’s perspective, show an understanding of why they like it…It’s possible for screen time to help bring you closer together.

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A Tip For Throwing Food

December 11, 2013 at 8:27 am (Play Time, Positive Discipline)


Always aim for the chest so you can get maximum splatter, yet minimal harm.

Oh wait, not that kid of tip…how about a tip for when your child is the one throwing food? Yeah, that’s probably what you were hoping for. So your child is one, two, three years old? And has entered a phase in which is is fun and exciting to throw the food from her plate instead of eating it politely?

The #1 tip for this problem is: Don’t serve your child food to throw.

Serve her food to eat only. This means giving her no more food than she can eat in one bite.

If she has a plate full of food, there’s one bite for eating and tons of bites for throwing and playing with while she’s chewing.


Even if you try to narrow that opportunity down by portioning out three bites of food at a time, that still gives her one bite to eat and two bites for throwing while she’s chewing.


Take that opportunity all the way down to zero by serving her one bite of food at a time. That’s one bite for eating and…well, that’s it. You’re eliminating the chance of her throwing her food.


When you get to the point at which you’re serving her another bite of food and she throws it instead of eats it, that’s your cue that she’s all done. You can say, “Oh, you must be all done eating!” Wipe her hands and excuse her to play.

But, you ask, what if she’s still hungry?
She would have eaten the food in front of her.

What if she gets hungry in just a short while because she didn’t eat her meal?
Yes, she may be hungry soon. She can either wait until the regularly planned snack time (at which she is offered the regularly sized snack to eat) or she can wait until the next meal. She’ll make it. And she’ll be hungry and ready to eat, not throw.

The food-throwing phase is just that: a phase. It can be a difficult one because of the careful monitoring of food at each meal and the potential for hunger-induced behavior between meals. But it’s not cause for shaming or scolding a child for what is developmentally normal behavior, nor repeatedly issuing the same instructions of, “Don’t throw food,” nor catering to your child’s pleas for snacks because she literally threw her food away mealtime.

Your child is simply very, very young and driven by sensory experiences. She lacks the neural connections in her brain to control the impulse to play with her food. She will soon develop this and mealtimes will go smoothly. To help with this need for sensory stimulation during this age, you can also plan playtime activities that offer the same kinds of sensations as playing with food. Things such as shaving cream or whipped cream tubs, rice or bean bins, finger painting, or body art offer toddlers the same kinds of tactile sensory experiences without the expectation of appropriate table manners. This free play will help satisfy those sensory needs while she outgrows the instinct to throw food.

(But if you are ever in a food throwing situation yourself, try getting down low and aiming up for a great splatter to the neck and face. And use something light, like whipped cream. Way fun.)


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Five Expressions of Empathy

November 18, 2013 at 6:57 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)


I use the word “empathy” a lot when I’m talking about parenting. Sometimes I forget it might not be entirely clear exactly what is meant by using empathy when communicating with children. When you hear or read that children need empathy and that parents can help resolve conflicts and bridge connections with empathy, what do you think? Do you know right away what to do or how to respond?

As Brene Brown so succinctly says, “Empathy is the antidote to shame.” It is what’s needed when a child feels bad, struggles emotionally, or has made a mistake. What children don’t need in those moments is additional shame tacked on to their mistakes and unpleasant feelings to make them feel worse or unlovable. What children do need is empathy to see them through those moments. Empathy to reinforce your relationship. Empathy to help regulate brain chemistry; to assure a child, “The way you feel is normal. You’re normal.” Empathy to provide validation. “You have a right to feel that way.” Empathy to help a child get on the road to self-acceptance and self-love. “You may have made a mistake, but you are not a mistake.”

Here are five things you can do that will help you respond to a hurting child with empathy:

1. Take your child’s perspective. See the world through his eyes. His problems might seem trivial to you, but try to see them as he does. Broken crayons, lost toys, stuck zippers, or nightly clean-up time mean more to your child in his world than they do to you in yours.

2. Refrain from judgment. Yes, you may disagree with your child. You may think she was “wrong” for what she did, said, or felt during the conflict she had at school that day, but put that aside for now. Your child doesn’t need your judgment, she needs to be able to impart her own judgment. Help her do that by focusing on her feelings regarding what happened.

3. Communicate your understanding of your child’s feelings. This can be a glance, a nod, a knowing look. It’s kindness in the eyes and an “I get it” arm-wrap. It can be words, sure, but above all it’s a message. It’s a message that you understand because you’ve also had similar moments and similar feelings. Let him know you are here as his equal in this moment.

4. Stop before you say BUT. “Yes, you got into an argument with your friend. That happens. He got angry; your feelings were hurt. You’re very upset. BUT, you still should not have hit him…BUT that’s no reason to quit the game…BUT you need to learn how to control your temper.” It’s that last part that needs leaving off–that’s not part of empathy. Empathy is just sitting with the feelings for a bit. That might be really hard! It might feel unfinished. It might feel awkward to stop at, “You were really embarrassed.” and not add on some kind of resolution or suggestion. Don’t go there though…not yet.

5. Instead, try AND. After a period of empathic listening and probably plenty of tears, you can move on.
“…and your friend got hurt.”
“…and now what should we do?”
“…and what if this happens again?”
“…and is there something that will help you in the future?”
“…and is there a way to fix this mistake?”
“…and is there a way I can help you?”
Only after you have helped your child process her feelings through validation and understanding will she be able to move on to problem solving and the “what-to-do-now”s.

When we raise our children with regular expressions of empathy, they will learn through experience just what empathy looks like, sounds like, and feels like, and they will, in turn be able to give it to others.

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What Does a Time-In Really Look Like?

November 8, 2013 at 10:30 am (Positive Discipline)

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Ah, the time-in. Often recommended in positive parenting, a time-in is an alternative to a time-out–a connective moment instead of an isolating one. Here are some different ways time-ins (also called positive time-outs) are described:

Go to a specially designated spot that feels safe and cozy, and snuggle up. You connect, which may be all your child needs to pull herself together. If you can, you get her giggling, because laughter vents those stored-up anxieties almost as well as tears. ~Laura Markham, How to Transform Your Time Outs to Time Ins

The Positive parenting tool called time IN or positive time out  is when a child that is having a difficult moment  is kindly invited to sit somewhere, near by a care giver  to express their feelings and eventually cool down. ~Ariadne Brill, Time Outs vs. Time Ins

Sometimes just changing the scene and making reconnection a top priority can create a dramatic difference, and the tension is gone as soon as you get to the couch, so you might end up just goofing around and being silly together. ~Lawrence Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, as quoted by Marcy Axness in Time Out From Time Out.

By the way, I’m linking these articles because I think they are great. I just wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the language that’s typically used to describe what a time-in means. I myself have said the same thing:

A positive time-out is a chance to pause, regroup, and collect ourselves (children and parents).  Time-outs are effective when they are about feeling better. How to Make Time Outs Positive

All of those descriptions are true; those are what time-ins are about. They sound so lovely! A time-in instead of a time-out sounds peaceful, connecting, calming, even fun.

And that’s what I want to talk about for a minute. Because for us, time-ins were never “fun.” They weren’t ever peaceful. They were chaotic with my son’s emotion. And frustrating for me. And not cuddly in the least.

The way it typically went was:

My son started losing control. He would get angry or frustrated or upset by something going on. It could’ve been a game he was not winning. It could’ve been toys he did not want to pick up. It could’ve been a conflict with another child in the house.

He was never shy about expressing his emotions around other people, so in his anger he would cry. Eventually, as the situation did not change (the conflict was still there, the toys still needing to be picked up, the game still being lost), his tears would escalate into shouts or harsh words, and any of our attempts to calm him were met with kicks, hits, or pushes away. This was an indication that he had some huge feelings that needed to be offloaded–and this was best done in private, without an audience.

Our words for taking a time-out were, “Take a break.” Either I or my husband would let him know it was time to take a break and that we’d go together. Except, because he was so caught up in those HUGE, overwhelming feelings of the moment, no rational thoughts occurred to him. He was 3 or 4 years old then, and it wasn’t like he’d sit there and go, “OK Mom, you’re right. I do need a break. I need to take time for my brain to feel better. Will you please stay with me?” and calmly take my hand as we went for a time-in.

No. One of us would have to carry a writhing child off to a room (with a door) so we could be alone and have a time-in while the flood of emotions passed.

And not just his emotions, ours too. By the time we had been through the escalating conflict (whatever triggered the meltdown), the initial attempts to calm him, the receiving end of any physical lashings, and the struggle to get him to a calm-down place, my husband and I were feeling quite emotional, too.

For me, as I sat with my back against the door and listened to his tearful, stammering shouts of, “I– want– to– go– OUT!” while preventing his attempts to shove me aside and throw open the door so he could run back to the living room and carry on in front of everyone, I was very aware of my own emotions. My own rising level of anger. I could feel my own shouts within me, crouching just below the surface, ready to spring forth at any moment.

I had to put my head down on my knees and  take deep breaths.

I  had to wait until until he stopped trying to get past me.

I had to repeat, “I’m going to stay here with you.”  No other words than that.

I had to wait until his movements calmed.

I had to wait until his sobs slowed.

I had to wait for him to accept my touch.

I had to wait to say, “I love you.”


And I had to wait even longer than thatwhile he truly calmed down and was ready to rejoin our family and friends and find some resolution of the original problem. But I loved the warmth that swelled in my heart when I looked at my son after those moments. His reach, his touch, his hugs and kisses the rest of the evening told me I had given him just what he needed–an outlet, acceptance, unconditional love. Our connection revived.

Positive parenting doesn’t always look as positive as it sounds. It gets messy. It can be tumultuous. It takes a long time. It’s not always as pleasant as the literature makes it sound. But it does require us to stick with kids through all those messy moments. It tells our kids they aren’t too much for us. We can handle the big feelings; we can handle them.

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Turn Into the Skid

November 4, 2013 at 12:14 pm (Positive Discipline)


If you’ve ever hit a skid while driving, you know that suddenly heading a different direction while out of your control is scary. Your first instinct may be to think, “No! This isn’t right; this isn’t the direction I need to go.” Your instinct might be to jerk the wheel back to your intended path. However, when your car is skidding, what is actually the most effective way to get back on the road? By turning into the skid first. Then you’re able to slow the momentum and gain some traction.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D. and author of Hold on to Your Kids, says that strong-willed children have similar reactions to a hard turn away from a skid. “Counterwill is an instinctive, automatic resistance to any sense of being forced,” says Dr. Neufeld. “It is triggered whenever a person feels controlled or pressured to do someone else’s bidding.” This is actually a positive attribute, as it protects children from being influenced or pressured from anyone to whom they do not have an emotional connection. When you find yourself at odds with your strong-willed child’s energy, find a way to join her where she is—in other words, turn into the skid—in order to redirect that momentum. Connect with your child by acknowledging her feelings and understanding her perspective:

  • I can tell that you’re really upset.
  • You are having such a fun time playing this game!
  • You are sad to say goodbye.
  • You feel very strongly about this.
  • You need to be able to make your own decisions.
  • You are feeling so angry right now.
  • You must feel like you don’t have any control.
  • You really want to play with your friends right now.
  • You were hoping to have a cookie.
  • You love that toy, and you’re upset that you can’t have it.
  • You wish you didn’t have to get dressed right now.
  • You’d prefer to stay home today and not go anywhere.
  • Yeah, I can understand that.

For strong-willed children, the need to be heard and understood is especially important, as their energy can run so powerfully in the opposite way. Coming alongside children through empathy, validation, and acceptance allows them to feel connected enough to steer their energy in the desired direction.

This is an excerpt from my article, “Parenting the Strong-Willed Child,” out now in the current issue of Nurture magazine.

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