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Book: Unconditional Parenting

Posted: - Modified: | book, parenting, visual-book-notes

Updated 2018-07-29: Added note about doing to / working with.

For (Text)book Thursday, I actually managed to make a sketchnote! Hooray! Hooray! It’s been so long, I’m not even sure what my process for posting these things was…

2018-07-26a Unconditional Parenting – Alfie Kohn #book #sketchnote #parenting

Anyway. On with the book notes.

Unconditional Parenting (Atria Books, 2005) resonates a lot with the kind of parenting we seem to be doing, and it challenges me to go even further. I’m looking for alternatives to timeouts and reward charts mostly out of curiosity, not because I judge people who use them or that I’d judge myself if those techniques end up being what we feel we need. It’s good to explore possibilities and learn from experiences.

I remember reading a parenting article that inspired me to try moving away from evaluative statements like “Good job!” towards you-focused statements (“You did it!”), or better yet, more specific, descriptive statements (“You put the wooden block on top of the other block!”). A- is almost two and a half years old now, so it might be interesting to see what we can do with more questions. (“I see you made two blue handprints on the pink paper. Can you tell me about your painting?”)

I have so much fun observing A- and acknowledging all the cool things she’s doing. I need to be careful not to crowd her, though, or to make her feel that she’s only interesting when she’s doing new things. She’s good at telling me when she wants me to do something different (“Mama dance different dance!”) or when she wants me to do the same thing she’s doing. (“Play playdough together!”) I’ve been working on toning down the running commentary for words she already knows, giving her more quiet time, and waiting until she prompts me by looking at me or talking to me. It can be hard to sit there, though. I also catch myself thinking in terms of positive reinforcement of behaviour, so that’s something to watch out for.

So far, we have the flexibility to invite A- to make lots of decisions with us and to accommodate many of her preferences. For example, she’s not keen on babysitters at the moment, and that’s okay with me. She’s getting better at telling me how she feels and what she wants, and she’s even starting to propose ways to solve problems. For my part, I’m getting better at turning things into games, which has been handy for brushing her teeth.

I like focusing on A-, not just on what she says or does. Today, for example, she was suddenly a teenager: “I hate this fish. I hate beansprouts. I hate everything.” Instead of telling her not to use the word “hate,” getting offended, or getting frustrated, I tried different things and found out that she actually wanted her own portion of fish from the fridge, not off my plate. She’s experimenting with big emotions, boundaries, language, and will, and I’m glad I have the space to support her through that.

The book has a few details on helping kids develop perspective-taking skills, which was one of the skills in the ELECT framework that I wanted to focus on. I’m looking forward to modeling perspective-taking through conversation, and practising taking her perspective too. I like how it can turn even unpleasant encounters into opportunities for reflection, which reminds me a lot of Stoic philosophy.

Unconditional Parenting is quite different from most of the parenting books I’ve come across, and it probably isn’t a good fit for everyone. It’s a little heavy on the negative side, and would probably get lots of people’s hackles up. I would have liked to read more about the challenges of applying the approach and how to figure things out together. That’s often the challenge with parenting books – the anecdotes sound so smooth, but I’m more curious about the figuring-out parts and the repairs and the let’s-try-agains. I guess I’m looking for something less sales-y, more open source support forum-y, if they makes sense? Anyway, I think we have a good opportunity to try out a few of the ideas from it, though, so it might be fun to explore while we can. It’s been a while since it was published, so I wonder what more recent recommendations say.

I do like the book’s distinction between “doing to” parenting and “working with” parenting. It reminds me of the way pedagogical documentation reframes the grown-up’s role from the dispenser of wisdom to a co-learner supporting the kid’s growth.

The book reminds me of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves and How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, both of which feel like books I can recommend a bit more generally. Janet Lansbury’s stuff, too.

As always, it’s all a grand experiment, so if something different works for your family, great, good for you! Goodness knows different things work for us at different times, too. It’s good to have things to think about and try out, though!

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Tips for new parents near High Park, Toronto

Posted: - Modified: | parenting

Getting through the first few weeks:

  • Telehealth +18667970000 – 24-hour access to nurses so you can ask questions and find out if you need to go to the emergency room or the doctor, or if it’s perfectly normal.
  • At the first few well-baby visits, your doctor or midwife will ask you about sleep, number of wet / poopy diapers, and bottles / nursing. I found it impossible to remember these things, but an app like Baby Connect makes it easy to track stuff like that. It’s even multiuser.
  • You’ll also weigh the baby a lot. Since babies tend to protest about being undressed, it can help to use a good scale to weigh the baby’s clothes and a dry diaper before you dress the baby up, allowing you to just weigh the baby with everything on (change their diaper if wet). If you want to weigh the baby in between scheduled well-baby visits, you can either schedule a weight check with your doctor or drop by a breastfeeding clinic (https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/children-parenting/pregnancy-and-parenting/breastfeeding/services/breastfeeding-clinics/ – Crossways is nearby, Tue 11-3 / Fri 10-3).
  • It’s totally normal to need help figuring out breastfeeding. You can go to the breastfeeding clinic (see above), find a La Leche League meeting close to you, text or email your local La Leche League leaders, or find a lactation consultant.
  • Extra flannel blankets make good burp cloths. A flannel bedsheet can be cut up into soooo many flannel wipes.
  • Stash snacks and water bottles wherever you usually nurse/feed, and figure out which meals you like that can be easily eaten one-handed.
  • The BabySparks app suggests activities and helps you track milestones. In Ontario, we have free access to the Looksee Checklist at ndds.ca. There’s a wide range for normal development, so don’t worry too much about it.
  • Babywearing is a great way to free up your hands. Carry Me Close Toronto (https://m.facebook.com/myCMCtoronto/) has meetups and a carrier library, so you can try different carriers and get tips on how to carry babies correctly.
  • You can ask Google Maps to show you accessible routes, which is handy for taking a stroller around.
  • There are Facebook groups for pretty much everything. Locally, there’s a Junction Parents Meetup and a Junction Moms Meet Up Group. Bunz Kid Zone Toronto can be a good way to barter for stuff (or get rid of stuff).
  • We like using WiFi Baby Monitor as a free baby monitor on our Android phones. There’s probably something similar on iPhones.
  • Take pictures/videos even of ordinary moments. It’s fun to look back, and kids like reviewing them too. It’s totally okay to ask someone to take a picture of you, or to prop your phone or camera up and get a picture of yourself with the baby.
  • Google Photos can automatically back up all your photos, and it offers free unlimited storage for regular-quality images. Definitely good enough for printing 4×6 or 5×7.
  • If you want to share pictures and other updates via Facebook, a secret group or closed group is a handy way to control access and organize the photos. You can add people, and they can remove themselves or unfollow if they don’t want to be flooded by kid pictures.
  • Whatever works for your family works for your family. There can be a lot of judging online and in person, and it’s easy to feel guilty or insecure especially as a first-timer. Don’t worry, you got this, you’ll figure things out.

Later on:

  • Once things have settled down a bit, you might enjoy going out with your new baby. The City of Toronto has many free programs and drop-in centres. “Living and Learning with Baby” and “Make the Connection” are both registered programs run by nurses where you can ask questions, learn about stuff, meet other parents, and pick up songs and rhymes. If you can get into the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program, it’s great – a nurse and a home visitor come to your house to help you learn how to parent and play.
  • Libraries often have baby storytimes. Also, it can be hard to find time to read paper books with a newborn, but you can get e-books and audiobooks from the library too.
  • There are plenty of EarlyON child and family centres. One of our favourites is the Junction Family Resource Centre in the basement of Annette Library (M 10-1, T/Th 1-4, http://www.centralhealthline.ca/displayService.aspx?id=132493), which even has a toy lending program. They also accept donations of toys and baby clothes, which is a good way to declutter. The Parkdale-High Park Ontario Early Years Centre on Dundas West (near Dollarama, https://www.childdevelop.ca/programs/healthy-child-development) has a baby program on Monday afternoon, too.
  • The Where to Go Kiddo app focuses on the west end of Toronto and lists other free drop-ins. Also, http://kidsprograms.ca/ lets you search programs.
  • The Children’s Book Bank (http://www.childrensbookbank.com/) is a great place to get free children’s books, or to donate ones you don’t need. It’s close to Riverdale Farm and the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, so you could pair it with one of those for a field trip.
  • In terms of paid stuff, we liked the Smart Start music classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music. They have programs for 0-12mo, 12-24mo, and so on. The Royal Ontario Museum was a nice place to walk around indoors during the cooler months. Try the biodiversity section: the animals are behind glass, there are some textures to touch, and you can point to things.
  • Shallow pools: Joseph Piccinnini Community Centre has a nice warm indoor wading pool. Regent Park Aquatic Centre has wide steps going into the pool. The indoor wading pool in Trinity Bellwoods has several levels.
  • Baby sign language: We found the signs for “more” and “milk” quite useful.
  • Elimination communication: Surprisingly less intimidating than I thought it would be, or maybe we were lucky. Great way to cut down on poopy diapers and make toilet training easier later on.
  • You can get nutrition advice from EatRight, and you can also sign up for the Peer Nutrition program offered by the city. Toronto Public Health recommendations are generally in line with Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility: you’re in charge of what and when, and the kid is in charge of whether and how much.
  • You can still catch movies if you want to – Movies for Mommies (http://moviesformommies.com) runs baby-friendly screenings. Or you can borrow movies from the library, and I think the library even offers streaming.
  • daycarebear.ca is a daycare search engine. Also, ratings for licensed daycares are available through the City of Toronto.
  • It can be lots of fun learning about child development and appreciating all the little things your kiddo is learning.

Have fun! There will be lots of tough moments, but you’re in for a great adventure. :)

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Textbook Thursday: Conceptual development

Posted: - Modified: | parenting

Just a quick reading session today, since our sleep has been a bit disrupted lately. I read chapter 7 of How Children Develop, which focused on conceptual development. It was interesting to find out that 2-year-olds are mostly capable of understanding that desires influence actions, and that they can predict that a character in a story who wants something different from what they themselves want would choose differently too. I should work that into my storytelling. They don’t have a similar understanding of how beliefs influence actions, though – maybe closer to when they’re 5 years old.

I found it reassuring to read that a 2.5-year-old’s sociodramatic play (like when A- wants to play restaurant or dentist with me) becomes more sophisticated when scaffolded by adults rather than by peers, and adult support also helps them develop storytelling skills. I sometimes wonder what she might be missing out on by not being in daycare, but then again, I’m not sure how much time they have for sociodramatic play in daycare and what kind of support they get. I definitely see some sociodramatic play among the 3- and 4-year-olds at the drop-in centres, with some of them more oriented toward other kids instead of toward their parent/caregiver. I’m looking forward to seeing how A- grows into this, too, and what she can learn by watching/joining other kids’ play (as research says). At home, I can bring in props, playdates, or babysitters to mix things up.

There was a lot of information on how kids learn to understand categories. Plants are hard to see as living things because they don’t move as obviously as animals do, but calling attention to how they bend toward sunlight and how roots grow down toward water can help. I wonder where I might be able to show A- Venus fly traps or makahiya here – rapid motion might be a fun way of supporting her categorization.

I learned that categorical statements work better than statements about specific instances. The example given was that kids learn more about categories from “Belugas are a kind of whale.” rather than “This beluga is a whale.”

Other little things:

  • Causality: 5-year-olds appreciate magic tricks.
  • Spatial transformation: solving puzzles helps a lot. Moving around also helps build spatial understanding.
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Stalling

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I’ve been having a bit of a challenge around A- stalling, whether she’s on the toilet or we’re getting ready to brush teeth. She wants to do things first (“First A-, and then Mama.”), but then takes forever (“I have a hard time”) or resists starting (“I don’t want to brush my teeth.”). I even got tempted to head down the road of counting down.

Fortunately, Janet Lansbury described a much better approach to dealing with that kind of boundary-testing. If I can observe A- more closely and get the hang of providing confident momentum when she just needs a liiittle more help, that could smooth things over. (“It looks like you might need a little help. Would you like me to put toothpaste on for you, or hold your hand as you brush?”) I’m not entirely clear what to do about the toilet situation aside from offering hugs and a footstool to brace against, but if I manage my own needs more proactively, I can be more patient with her.

Time to read Janet Lansbury’s books and go through her archive…

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Montessori, Reggio, and other thoughts on toddler learning

Posted: - Modified: | parenting, play

Montessori

I like the Montessori approach of taking kids seriously and helping them develop practical life skills. On its recommendation, we:

  • got A- real glasses and let her use real plates: Duralex Picardie tumblers and Corelle
  • introduced spreaders, knives, and scissors early
  • involved her in cooking and doing household chores: The Learning Tower is such a great help.
  • got two sets of magnetic letters as our movable alphabet
  • chose simple clothes to promote independence
  • got a small pitcher (actually a creamer) so that she can practise pouring
  • resisted the temptation to go overboard on toys, keeping her play area organized
  • respected play as the work of the child: be patient with repetition, help her find the right level of challenge, and so on.

I look forward to using sandpaper letters and other manipulatives. I like the idea of self-correcting materials and may experiment with a few. On the other hand, they do take up some space and are essentially unitaskers. Maybe the Montessori tackle boxes approach might be a reasonable compromise.

We might consider the Montessori casa system next year, when A- is 3.5, if finances permit. I think she likes pretend play a lot, though, and that doesn’t seem to be as aligned with the Montessori approach. I think we’d lean toward a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach for preschool or kindergarten, mixing in elements from Montessori.

Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Emilia approach resonates strongly with me. I like its focus on child-led projects, with the grown-up focused on designing the environment, supporting exploration, and documenting projects. I like its support of play. I like its belief that kids are capable of amazing things if we let them, and the Wonder of Learning exhibit I got to see in 2016 had many examples of that.

The Ontario kindergarten curriculum looks great on paper, with lots of aspects like pedagogical documentation reminding me of Reggio Emilia. I’m all for play-based learning thoughtfully supported by grown-ups. While I’m home with A- and she’s more oriented toward playing with me than with other kids, I want to focus on supporting and documenting her play.

Here are some ideas In applying from Reggio Emilia:

  • Co-learning: A- is the primary investigator. I help ask questions and explore ideas, and I take advantage of the opportunity to learn from her too.
  • Art for exploration and expression
  • Pedagogical documentation: making learning visible
  • The use of technology: We take a lot of photos and videos, and A- loves reviewing them. I talk about taking pictures to help us remember. She also has her own waterproof, shockproof camera, although she still tends to take pictures with her finger over the lens. She sometimes asks me to take a picture for her.
  • Embedding print in play: I write down her order when we’re playing pretend restaurant, and I take advantage of other opportunities to model reading and writing
  • Going out into the community

I want to get better at designing her environment to provoke her interest, and collecting loose parts that we can transform.

I’m also working on building social ties with other families who might be interested in regular playdates so that the kids can come up with projects together when the time comes. I’m also really curious about floor books, but I’m not entirely sure how to implement them one on one with a toddler. Time to experiment!

There’s a Reggio-inspired daycare opening up close to us, but I’m reluctant to commit to it while it’s under construction. There’s a highly recommended private school that follows a Reggio-inspired approach for preschool and kindergarten, and we might go for that if finances permit. Alternatively, I can probably help make public school kindergarten a great fit with parental involvement.

Tools of the Mind

I’m curious about Tools of the Mind’s approach to developing executive function and self-regulation. Play planning sounds like fun. I want to talk about plans more with A- and model drawing the plans too.

In general…

A- is pretty good at learning stuff. She imitates quickly, can focus on an activity for a surprisingly long time, and comes up with new variations. She’s starting to ask questions, and I look forward to helping her explore them.

I tend to be pleasantly surprised by what A- can do when other people try activities with her, which probably means that my developmental expectations are calibrated a little low. Bringing her to drop-in centres and classes helps me work around that by exposing her to other people’s ideas and interactions. If I get better at pedagogical documentation and reflection, I might be able to improve my ability to scaffold her play, or I might be able to bring in more help from someone who can get more of a longitudinal view of A-.

If I keep involving her in daily life, I’m sure she’ll learn all the important stuff. I’ll also make room for unstructured play and exploration, because the world is an interesting place. If I pay attention to what she’s learning and how, I think I’ll have tons of fun and growth along the way too.

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Slow days

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Some days, it feels like all we do is get through our daily routines. I made these visual schedules to see if they could help A- get a sense of the sequence, provide more opportunities for autonomy, and keep us moving. A- recognizes all the steps, and sometimes even asks for the cards. (“I want bedtime routine index card.”)

Between each neatly-outlined step, however, are unpredictable gaps filled with reading, playtime, soothing, exploration. In fact, we rarely start the morning routine until 12 or 1 PM, and it often takes us a few hours until we’re ready to get out the door – if we make it out at all.

Today we didn’t make it out to the playground because A- wanted to read lots and lots of books before dressing up, blow giant bubbles on the porch, and splash lots of water in the backyard. Actually, come to think of it, it was a pretty good day. Not the day I thought we’d have when we finally got up at noon, but still full of wonderful moments that I was sometimes too preoccupied to appreciate.

I could push A- more, but that’s probably missing the point. Besides, it’s good to experiment with this level of flexibility.

I realized I’ve been approaching this schedule thing incorrectly. I let it become a drumbeat in my mind, and toddlers have their own rhythm. What do I really want? I want A- to recognize distinct steps in the sequence so that she can say what still needs to be done, and grow into being able to do things herself. That can come later. Better to keep our daily routines joyful for as long as we can.

Back to Stoic philosophy. There are things that are not entirely under my control, but I can choose how to perceive things and what to will. The drag comes from wanting something that is different from what is, and what’s the point of that? I may want to go to the playground or the science centre for A-‘s benefit–or is it mine, seeking stories that also reassure me that we’re Doing the Right Thing? Phrased that way, the answer is clearer to me. She’s telling me that she’s just as fine learning from the everyday moments we share. Probably even better. It’s good to work with the grain instead of against it.

Sometimes I want to nudge her along faster because I’m tired or hungry, or I need to brush my teeth or go to the bathroom. I’m the grown-up. I can get better at anticipating my own needs or bearing a little discomfort. I’m also okay with weathering the occasional upset when I need to insist, but I’d rather get better at solving the problem on my end whenever I can.

As I bring myself closer in alignment with what’s out there instead of what’s in my head, I’ll be able to appreciate A- more. What a great opportunity to practise being flexible, even if I might occasionally fumble.

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Helping A- deal with big emotions

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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!

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