Helping A- deal with big emotions

Big emotions are part of childhood. Sometimes there’s no way around things, you just gotta go through them. I’m lucky that W-, A-, and I all seem to be pretty even-tempered. A- still has the occasional meltdown, but if I have the flexibility of soothing her, it usually passes quickly.

Helping A- learn emotional regulation is one of my big responsibilities. I think about it more than about teaching her academics such as letters or numbers, or self-care skills such as buttoning shirts. She’ll get the hang of academics in school and she’ll pick up self-care through practice and self-motivation. Emotional regulation, however, is something that many grown-ups still struggle with, so it probably benefits from a more thoughtful approach. The better we get at managing ups and downs, the easier it will be to learn other things.

There are several skills I can help her develop, such as:

  • Oral communication: She can head off frustration by asking for things, explaining how she feels and why, and understanding what I say. I help by focusing on expressing what she wants and feels. I liked how Happiest Toddler on the Block recommended dealing with tantrums by first helping the kid feel heard, which is surprisingly enough also a tip I remember from Never Split the Difference, a book on hostage negotiation.
  • Problem-solving skills: We can figure out ways to deal with challenges. I can help her develop these by thinking out loud and asking questions.
  • Waiting skills: These help us deal with situations where I can say yes, but only after a little while. I can help her develop these by suggesting and modeling strategies, and helping her develop a sense of time.
  • Coping skills: These let us deal with things outside our control. I can help her develop these by empathizing, telling stories, and modeling strategies.
  • General skills: These let me to say yes to more of her requests. For example, teaching her knife skills when she’s calm lets her help me in the kitchen, which avoids some frustration-related tantrums.

There are also skills I can work on myself, such as:

  • Anticipation and preparation: If I try to keep us both on an even keel so that we don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, everything is easier. I can also anticipate potentially challenging situations and prepare for them.
  • Empathy: The better I get at taking her perspective, the more effectively I can connect with her, and the more patient I can be.
  • Developmentally appropriate expectations: These make it easier to pose just the right level of challenge, and they also help me avoid frustration on both sides. Learning about child development definitely pays off.
  • Playfulness: A- often responds better to absurdity than reason. The better I play with her, the easier it is for her to follow along.
  • Transition skills: These help us when we need to move on from an activity she likes more than what’s next. Aside from timers, it can also help to have musical cues, visual supports, playfulness, and flexibility.
  • Improvisation: Getting better at going with the flow reduces friction and stress, and it lets me take advantage of her interest in things. I can minimize external commitments and get better at being in the moment, too.
  • Observation: A- wants different things at different times. The better I’m attuned to when she wants independence and when she wants closeness, the better things go.

A-‘s hot buttons:

  • When she’s tired: She’ll flail about for maybe ten minutes making lots of requests. I grant the ones that make sense, and then try to snuggle her to sleep. It helps to be flexible, like not worrying about leaving something on the stove.
  • When I don’t understand what she’s saying: We usually recover from these after a few minutes, when she accepts that I want to understand and starts answering my questions.
  • When I forget to let her brush her teeth or use the toilet before I do (“First A-, then Mama!”): Normally not an issue unless I really need to go or I’m distracted. Solution on my side: go to the bathroom some time before I need to, and stay more focused
  • When I eat something she didn’t seem to be interested in, even after giving her a heads-up: (“No, Mama, I want the whole sandwich!”) Solution on my side: serve her smaller portions, let her ask for more, accept food waste, or simply serve family-style instead of plating.
  • When she wants to play with me and I’m focused on something else: (“No Mama cook! Focus on A-!”) Solution on my side: try alternating A- time and me time, and support skills for involvement and independent play
  • When we need to go to the hospital, dentist, or ocularist: (“I don’t want to go to the dentist!”) No way around this, gotta go through it. I work on empathizing with her, handling it in a matter-of-fact way, helping her recover afterward with a trip to the playground or family centre, and talking to her and making books about her experiences and reasons why we do things.
  • When I push her toward something she’s not ready for: We’re experimenting with mostly going at her pace, although sometimes I check if the hold-up is on my end and she’s actually ready for something.

I mostly need to watch out for my self-care, since it’s easier to be patient with A- when I don’t feel sleepy and I don’t need to go to the bathroom. I err on the side of more flexibility rather than productivity, so I don’t worry about trying to get lots of things done. I like looking for opportunities to involve A- in household chores and everyday life, although anything we do manage to do is definitely a bonus.

Still, A-‘s going to have to figure out that I can’t reverse time and do other impossible things, and that people also have valid desires, and there are things out of our control. I’m looking forward to working in more ideas from Stoic philosophy and cognitive behavioral therapy as she becomes more capable of thinking about thoughts. In the meantime, there’s so much for both of us to learn.

She’s usually happy, so I get to practise anticipation in the background while helping her develop skills. When she does get upset, it’s great to take it as an opportunity to work on my skills or practise equanimity. Then, when she calms down again, I can help her develop coping and problem-solving skills. We’ll go through this cycle many, many times in life, so I may as well embrace it and make the most of it! At least I get to practise with training wheels (a toddler who’s easily amused by funny noises) before, say, tackling teenage drama.

Anyway, that’s how I’m dealing with the current stage: a healthy dose of luck because of our temperaments and fit, and a thoughtful approach. Everything is fuel, even this!

Ideas for parenting-related things to build

While I’m on this adventure, I want to keep an eye out for things to build that might make it easier or more fun. Here are a few vague ideas I’ve thought about from the first 2 years of A-‘s life:

  • Parent coaching and professional development: I really appreciated having a nurse and a home visitor come to our house many times, evaluate how I played with and fed A-, and give me tips. It’s pretty interesting what you can get out of a short interaction if you’ve got something like the NCAST Parent-Child teaching scale. I also loved going to the city workshops on parenting, literacy, and child development. There’s certainly no shortage of parenting advice from books, websites, and random people on the street, but I liked the reflective, research-backed approach of Healthy Babies Healthy Children. I’m often tempted to find an educational consultant early childhood educator with experience in teacher training who can come in and help me do professional development as a parent, but I haven’t figured out my request clearly enough to set up the appropriate experiment. And the market for people who want to geek out about this and are willing to pay for it might be really small (me?), but it might still be fun to figure out if I can set up something for myself. There are a number of parent coaches available on the Net, mostly focusing on sleep or behavior. I’m curious about continuous improvement…
  • Progress tracking, developmentally appropriate expectations/principles/concepts: I’m curious about semi-structured pedagogical documentation and making it easy to learn about concepts and ideas right when it makes sense to do so, not just based on age. I enjoy keeping detailed notes on A-‘s growth, and I’m slowly figuring out how to make sense of it over time. I wonder how daycares and preschools that have moved to electronic portfolios with apps like HiMama might be doing it… Again, there’s no end of activity idea lists or Pinterest boards. Still, education textbooks are surprisingly awesome. I find progressions useful (ex: detailed development of scissor skills), since they help me understand sub-skills to look for and scaffold. I also like learning about general principles because that helps me improvise based on A-‘s interests. It would be pretty neat to have, say, a natural language AI analyze my anecdotes and help me scaffold things, and have some kind of visual way to summarize what she can do and what’s just a little out of her reach. It would be great to translate my amateur observations and help me find the right jargon to research stuff or link up to things like the ELECT framework. I’ll get the hang of this eventually! (Or I’ll find experienced educators who can help…)
  • Personalized books: Because reading is awesome, and it can be faster for me to make a book than to find just the right book at the right language level or with the things A- is particularly interested in. I see this starting to pick up, so maybe other people can take care of it.

Hah, I think these things might have a market of one for now, but that’s cool. I’m going to see if reading a bunch of books and papers can give me enough of a base so that I can ask intelligent questions. I can pass by drop-in centres to pick the brains of ECEs for free (especially on days where it’s likely to be quiet). I’m thinking of how to take advantage of how teachers and ECEs often look for weekend or summer babysitting gigs, and how there are a number of virtual assistants with backgrounds in early childhood education. I might also get pretty far doing continuous improvement on my own, especially as I create more space for reflective practice and investment.

I’ll probably come across more ideas over the next few years. I figure I’ll put these out here now just in case someone says, “Oh yeah, I was totally in the same spot X years ago, here are my notes,” or “Yup, that’s called Y, go check it out.” In the meantime, I’m having fun scratching my itch. :)

Textbook Thursday: elaboration, board games, tech

I’m reading through J-‘s textbook on child development for ideas to try with A-. The chapter on language development nudged me to take advantage of opportunities for elaborative language. A- does a great job of describing things now. I can repeat what she says, and then expand on cause and effect, perspective-taking (talking about thoughts and feelings), or narrative (relating it to her experiences).

Another interesting tidbit was about how early mathematics is helped a lot by board games like Snakes and Ladders. Kids get lots of exposure to number words, and they develop a good sense of magnitude and the relationships between numbers. Because it’s entirely luck-based, the playing field is even. We could start with a simple board of ten numbers and a coin flip (1 or 2 spaces), then work up to the bigger board. This will probably be a good fit for A- when she’s closer to 3 or 4. Looking forward to that!

The textbook also covered Piaget’s theories and other models of development. It will be fun using experiments and experiences to help A- with conceptual limitations: pouring water between different containers, learning to ignore irrelevant attributes, learning to pay attention to multiple dimensions like weight and distance on a balance scale… If I learn more about the kinds of things kids figure out and the general sequence they figure them out in, I can have more fun observing A- and supporting her learning.

I also squeezed in some time to skim play = learning. I liked the chapter on extending play with creative use of technology. It focused on letting older kids explore building things, but maybe I can make some things A- can play with at an earlier stage. I’m not too keen on special-purpose coding toys yet, though. I like the idea of using tech to make concepts more tangible, like the way kids played with turning food into musical instruments based on capacitance. We have a couple of electronics kits with breadboards and various input/output things, and that might be fun to explore one of these inside days.

Hmm. I like this Textbook Thursday thing. (Not Tuesday, despite better alliteration, since that’s already earmarked for consulting – nice to get that done early in the week.) I should finish this textbook before I get another one, maybe one about play. Learning about principles and research helps me think about stuff, observe better, and recognize opportunities. It tickles my brain. How wonderful that there’s so much out there to read! It would be even awesomer if I could plug into an online community of people who geek out about this sort of stuff. That might come in time, if I can read, try things out, share my notes, and reach out. Whee!

2018-07-09 Emacs news

Links from, /r/orgmode, /r/spacemacs, Hacker News,, YouTube, the changes to the Emacs NEWS file, and emacs-devel.

Checking the balance of my time

I like working. It tickles my brain, and I enjoy helping people through code. Sometimes I get stuck on stuff, but I can generally solve problems and make stuff easier. It’s also good for long-term stuff.

I also like spending time with A- and learning from her. I’d pick A- over consulting because tasks generally keep and kiddos don’t. I like snuggling with A-, and I like playing with her.

If I work late at night, I can generally do 1 to 2 hours of work between interruptions, so there’s a bit of task switching. I can usually pick my stopping point for the night if I stay up a little later. My brain buzzes a bit afterwards, so it’s hard to sleep. That sometimes affects my time with A- the next day.

If I get a babysitter and work in the afternoon, I can talk to people and focus better. I can generally do 2 hours of focused work, and sometimes more if A- is having fun. She strongly prefers playing with me, though.

If I wake up early, A- often insists on snuggling in bed. When she wakes up, I end up stopping work abruptly, so it’s good to take notes along the way.

If I’m careful about the tasks I commit to, I give people a chance to develop their own skills while being able to squeeze in the occasional low effort, high reward thing. I can also get better at making my prototypes easier to turn over with comments and notes.

2-4 hours is a nice chunk of focused time that I can use to make decent progress. How can I arrange my life so that I can do that regularly? Monday night or Tuesday night might be a good time to stay up late working. Monday night is particularly good, since I can take A- to the drop-in centre on Tuesday for social interaction.

It’s also good to use some focused time for personal projects: journaling, Emacs News, kaizen. As A- becomes more independent, I might start modeling 15 minutes of independent reading and taking notes.

So maybe a rhythm like this:

  • S: W-
  • Su: Emacs News
  • M: Consulting
  • T: Free choice
  • W: Sleep
  • Th: Kaizen
  • F: Journal, review

On the flipside, more sleep makes everything even better. When I’m well-rested, it’s easy to be playful and creative. So I won’t push myself too hard, I’ll keep commitments light and manageable, and I’ll code with an eye to turning things over to other people who can run with stuff.

It might be good to experiment with babysitting monthly, to monitor her readiness for it.

I like learning the things that life with A- can teach me, even though they’re harder and less externally validated than coding is. The important thing is to be where I am.

Eventually A- will be in school, or independent enough to want to go play by herself or with other people, or okay with playing with sitters or in daycare. That time will come quickly enough. No need to rush it.

Bringing who I am to parenting

I can’t help but marvel how all the different things I was interested in before A- come into play now. It’s like an integrative project, a chance to see how all these little things work together and build on each other.

  • Kaizen, experimenting: Looking for opportunities for continuous improvement keeps everything interesting. I’m curious about play. This flexibility is also really handy.
  • Thinking out loud, connecting the dots: I’m curious about pedagogical documentation and making learning visible. I’m also curious about taking advantage of external memories and helping A- learn the same (photography, drawing, writing, etc.). I want to document our routines to help A- grow into them, and I want to document nonroutine things to compensate for my fragmented attention.
  • Research: I have fun reading research papers and books. I’m curious about psychology, communication, and so on.
  • Stoic philosophy: This helps me enjoy practising equanimity.
  • Automation: I automate little things on my phone or my computer to help me deal with my fragmented attention. Consulting lets me keep my skills and network warm.
  • Emacs: I summarize her weekly and monthly progress using Emacs Lisp and an Org Mode file. I use Emacs to write notes and document processes.
  • Quantified Self: I continue to track her sleep, nursing, and pottying, which helps me adapt to the rhythm of each day. I keep a list of words she’s said, which gives me another reason to listen to her closely and expand her vocabulary.
  • Sketchnoting: I draw stick figures for A-, who’s curious about emotions at the moment. I also sketch my plans and thoughts.
  • Publishing: I write and illustrate simple books for A-. I’m curious about illustration, so that gives me things to think about on my umpteenth read of a book.
  • Gardening, cooking: Fun to share these with A-.
  • Sewing: Very handy when she was in cloth diapers. I’m looking forward to getting back into this someday.
  • Social media: Sharing notes, figuring out socialization
  • Reading: So much! Speed reading is handy too.
  • Teaching and lifelong learning: And pedagogy, too!

Might be fun for me to go over this old list of interests and see which might be something I can share with A-. Whee!

I’m curious how other people’s backgrounds open up more possibilities in parenting. My dad’s advertising photography work and advocacies brought an endless stream of new experiences to the studio/house, and I learned a ton from my mother’s library and her work with people. I can see how my sister’s photography, zoo volunteering, baking, and humour influence her parenting. It’s fantastic that we get to experiment with so many different combinations. I’m curious – if you’re a parent, how does what makes you you influence how you parent?