Parenting: How to Fight with a Child

kidsfightingThe most basic principle of conflict resolution, that both parties in the conflict have to be treated as equals, flies out the window when that conflict is with a child or between children.

Equality is a tricky area in parenting. Yes, this child is in every way your equal in humanity and way ahead of you in potential. He or she is undeniably not your equal in size, power, or – for a while – intelligence and experience. If we allow a child equal power in a conflict what we get is a spoiled, obnoxious child who will put his or her own future in jeopardy by making bad decisions.

Equality is likewise tricky between two children, because we cannot count on children not to take advantage of their greater size, intelligence, or experience. A referee is needed.

When we are in conflict with our children, or they are in conflict with each other, we must treat them with respect as the complete human beings they are, while we decisively withhold the power they are grasping for.

The standard steps to conflict resolution apply, but they must be adjusted for the relative sizes of the combatants.

First, listen. It is all too easy to dismiss a child. You are the parent, you know what they are going to say, and you know what your decision is going to be, so why waste the time, right?

How did that attitude make you feel the last time you were on the receiving end of it?

Take a moment to listen to their side, even if it is ridiculous, because just knowing they are being listened to is a win for a child. This is much easier to do when your 4 year old is explaining to you why she thinks she should have ice cream for lunch, than it is when your 13 year old is explaining why it is not a problem that you caught him smoking. Give them the time to speak, no matter how tempting it is to cut them off.

Actually focus on them and pay attention to what they are saying. Don’t let your mind wander into thinking about what you will say next, or the errands you have to run.  The prize you get for listening is a better understanding of your progeny; as a bonus, they then have to listen to you, to be fair. Another win!

Sometimes it helps to set a timer prominently between you and give each person a minute to speak without interruption.

After one contender has their moment to speak, their opponent should repeat back what they heard. Sometimes what we mean to say is not what comes out of our mouths, and sometimes what we hear is not what was actually said.

Communicate, and insist that they communicate. Don’t fling insults and accusations. Don’t bring up past history. Don’t yell, because yelling looses it’s power quickly. Don’t threaten with ultimatums – they backfire. Never denigrate your child and never label them: labels stick, and children sometimes try to live up to them.  Sit down at their level, look them in the eye, speak at normal volume, and stick to the subject.

Don’t make assumptions, or jump to conclusions. Slow down and give yourself the time to fully understand, or mistakes will be made.

Summarize. After everyone has had a chance to make their points, sum them up. Name the problem, list the arguments on each side.

Start with areas of agreement. In every discussion there are points of agreement. Start with those points, and work from there. We agree that ice cream is delicious, and it does have calcium in it for your bones, but…

In the end, you are the parent and must make the decision that you feel is best. Listening to your children along the way does no harm, strengthens relationships, will make them feel valued, and will nourish their self esteem. Understanding their thought processes and point of view may also help prevent later conflicts. Avoid the pitfalls – jumping to conclusions, towering over your child, name calling – and you will not have damage to repair later.

The experience of being treated fairly and with respect will carry forward and encourage your children to demand respect as they become adults. And learning how to argue without destroying a relationship? Priceless.

Domesticated Momster

Pesticides: Not a Major Food Group

bleach boy-01A recent statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that we should limit our children’s exposure to pesticides.

It turns out that chemicals designed to kill insects and rodents are not good for children. Who knew?

In large doses, pesticides cause acute poisonings, with symptoms including dizziness, nausea, headaches, twitching or weakness. Smaller doses over a longer time can harm your child’s brain or hormonal systems. When pesticides injure a child’s brain they can cause developmental delays, and attention and behavior problems. Hormonal effects can impact your child’s growth and perhaps his or her reproductive ability. We do need to limit our children’s exposure!

Children are more vulnerable to poisons than adults, not less. Their bodies are actively growing and maturing and are thus easier to damage, like a gymnast caught mid leap. They have faster metabolisms: their hearts beat more quickly and their lungs breathe more rapidly, allowing chemicals in more quickly and in larger amounts. Also, their protective systems aren’t mature and don’t work as well as those of adults to stop the damage.

So, how do we lower children’s exposure in our day-to-day lives? The most common place for your child to ingest pesticides is in the food that they eat, particularly the fruits and vegetables. This does not mean they can skip their veggies! Just wash them first, eat a variety of different produce (different vegies have different amounts of pesticides), and buy organic when you can. Your local farm stand is, of course, your best friend.

Children are also exposed to pesticides in their homes and yards, so we may need to make some changes there. Keep all of your household pest products in their original containers with child proof caps intact. Just today I had a child drink a degreaser because her mom had stored it in a soda bottle! Store poisons out of reach and out of sight in a locked cupboard. If you are using a pesticide and the phone rings, close the container and put it out of reach while you are out of visual range. I have seen more than a few kids poisoned when mom went to see why the baby was crying, or to answer the door. Kids are quick.

Read and follow the directions on the container. Use pesticides only when there is a problem, never to just prevent one. Less is always better. When you do use them, use crevice and crack treatments, not bombs. Think about how your kids live on the surfaces to which you are applying the treatment: kids lie on the ground, crawl under things, and touch stuff and put their hands in their mouths. Don’t put the rat poison behind the couch – your 2 year old will find it. My amazing, brilliant grandchild found the mouse poison behind the dishwasher. World’s worst grandma.

Change your clothes after you use pesticides, and store your shoes outside.

If you have a wooden play structure that was built between 1970 and 2004 and not made of cedar or redwood, the wood was probably treated with chromated copper arsenate. Arsenic also is not good for children, so you may want to replace the structure.

Read the ingredients on lawn and garden products and any pet products. Organophosphates (most commonly malathion, but there are dozens) were banned from home use in 2001, but many people have old products sitting around, or use commercial products at home. They are also still used in public parks and schools.

In America we use more than 1 billion pounds of pesticides every year in our farms, homes and public spaces. Ask what is used by your city and at your child’s school. There are many newer, safer products that have been developed in the last few years, so suggest alternatives and avoid the organophosphates when you can.

Stay safe and be healthy!

How to Nurture Self-confidence in Your Child

skateboarder-01In the last several weeks I have seen a mother trying to make her daughter look prettier (she was beautiful without the make-up), a father pushing a son better built for track into football, and a parent making fun of a son’s drawings.

These parents might someday wonder why their children did not have the self-confidence to achieve more in life.

Let’s not do that.

So… top ten ways to nurture a confident child

  1. The most important single factor in building a child’s self esteem is unconditional love from their parents. Children need to be certain that no matter what dumb thing they do, or how badly they fail, you will love them. You may not always like what they’ve done, but you will always have their back. They will have the courage to try, when they are sure you will catch them if they fall.
  2. Give your child a chance at success by laying out clear expectations; they need to know what success is in order to achieve it. Nothing will destroy self-confidence more quickly than trying to shoot at a moving target. What do you hope to see in your child: honesty? hard work? creativity? Be consistent. If you want them to be honest, then you need to be stringently honest in your own life, and require it of them in every part of theirs. No telling your child not to lie, then suggesting a fib about their schoolwork! Expect hard work? Work alongside them, and let them know how much you appreciate their labor.  Exhibit, and reward, the behavior you want to see.
  3. Make your expectations something at which your individual child can succeed. Any child can give their best, work hard, be true to themselves, and be honest. Not every child can be a football star, brilliant musician, or great artist. If your expectation is that your child try new things and do his or her best, then they can succeed at putting paint on canvas, and they will feel pride in their accomplishment.
  4. Find activities in which your child will thrive. You may have to try a few new things; break out the ballet classes and art lessons. Learn to throw a ball. Read books, tour a museum, travel… Explore the world in which your child will live his or her life. Nothing will build self-esteem like success, so seek out and encourage activities they love or for which they have a talent.
  5. Be interested in what inspires them. It’s impossible not to be: you are interested in their hair color and their height, how could you not be interested in their minds and talents? In the end, if mom or dad is interested, they will know that their accomplishments – and they themselves – have value.
  6. Allow time for free play and creative activity. Children do amazing things when they are allowed access to their own imaginations. Freedom will allow them to get in touch with their innate abilities, so that they can discover their best future. Self-confidence thrives when we do work at which we excel.
  7. Examine your own mind. Any left over preconceptions that might injure your child? Your small human is new. He or she embodies a combination of mind, talent, and ability that has never existed before. If you think science is the most important subject, but gave birth to a poet, you need to make sure that small poet doesn’t get the idea that you would have been happier if he or she could grasp algebra.
  8. Expect them to fail: the only people who do not fail are those who do not try. Show them with your own behavior that failure is a learning opportunity, so they will not think that they have less worth when they, in turn, fail. Let them watch you try new things. When you fail, make sure they see you accept that failure and learn from it, so that you can succeed next time. When they fail, tell them it was great that they tried, and redirect them to what they can do differently next time, so that they will get better. No defeatist talk, for the entire duration of their childhood!
  9. Spend time with friends with like interests, and friends who are completely different. Friends who value the same things your child does will reinforce his or her worth; friends who are very different will teach your child that every person has equal grace, whether their talents lie in building an app, a home, or a business.
  10. Be true and honest. Your children know you, and will know when you are not being real. Children do amazing things every day: there is no need for fake, meaningless praise. You love this child, therefore you love and will value the things that he or she is good at, even if you never thought you would before you became a parent. True praise builds healthy self-confidence.

While you’re at it, work on your own confidence. The world has probably battered it a bit. Children will always follow our example. If that example is self-confidence, courage, and honesty, how far might they go?

Anonymity and Denial in the Twitterverse

turtle2-01Playwright Tom Stoppard said, “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

I am old enough to be amazed by social media, with its multitude of words and pictures. It did not exist when I was new. If we wanted enlightenment, we went to the library or read the Post. By the time we found our information, the events were already in the past. We knew people of different cultures existed, and events happened, but it was knowledge that came at a distance, blurred by its time-consuming transformation into letters and pictures.

When we curious children wanted to see what a woman looked like without her clothes, we stole our parent’s National Geographic and leafed through it for pictures of deepest Africa. Kennedy and Lennon were shot, but there were no cell phone videos or instant interviews. The stories unfolded over weeks, with time to adjust and get a little distance.

Social media now comes with immediacy and savage intensity. People’s lives are flayed open and placed on the screen for my perusal. If I presume to know anything about that woman in Africa, she can knock me upside the head minutes later, because she is in reality just a hairsbreadth away. If I pretend to wisdom, the whole world can judge me and let me know where they think are my errors in judgement.

This brilliant transparency should make us more authentic, more determined to write nothing that we would not stand behind to our deaths. We should claim our words without reservation. These words. are. me. Sadly, from a place of weakness and fear it can instead make us deny what we know, as we buffer our truth so as not to be responsible for it.

We write, “Tweets do not replace medical advice, retweets are not to be considered an endorsement.” We backtrack, and pad ourselves against risk. The most powerful thing we can do – put our thoughts into words for other people to see – we disclaim and weaken with “tweets are not meant to be advice.”

Of course they are! What would be the point, otherwise?

If we give thought to and write words down then they need to be true. Words are sacred. We record our words in the hopes that they will “nudge the world a little.” If our words are our truth then they have earned our faith: we have to stand behind them with our names and our identities.

Weakening our words by buying into a fear of lawsuits and judgement is a betrayal of our selves; it costs us a piece of our souls. Our words are us and denying them, even in a small part, allows decay to eat away at our own value.

Conversely, since we wrote those words with our very own minds and hands we should never, in the rush to say something, write down what we know is not truth: those words will also follow us through our lives. People sometimes feel that they can be nasty, petty, or judgmental on the internet because they are anonymous. They can twist the facts just a little to make their point. We must realize that there is no such thing as true anonymity. Even if no one else ever knows who wrote those words, you yourself do.

Persian poet Hafez wrote, “The words you speak become the house you live in.” Write only words that have a strong foundation and the solidity of truth, so that your house is yours alone and can hold up to the hurricane force winds of opinion. Hafez’s words are as true on the internet today as they were in the fourteenth century in ink on paper. Such is the power of words. Believe in them, and in your self.

Growing Brains: Reading as the Anti-Zombie

ROARlogo2-01In The Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams said, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” They can, in particular, change your child’s world.

I am a book pusher. In my office we force free books on babies and children at every visit, compliments of the Reach out and Read program. They generally would prefer lollypops, but they put up with it.

With each book they get nagged about reading. We do this because a child’s brain develops most rapidly between 6 months and 3 years, and reading aloud stimulates the parts of the brain in which language skills reside. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

The problem is that only 48% of families read to their children every day; 1 in 6 read to their children only 3 days a week. One third of children enter kindergarten lacking basic language skills. These kids are typically 12-14 months behind; 88% will never catch up. These kids start the uphill journey of life at a tremendous disadvantage.

The solution is reading aloud. Reading aloud is the single most important thing a parent can do to prepare their child for school and beyond. Reading aloud develops literacy skills, including:

  • Vocabulary. The number of words with which children enter kindergarten directly predicts their later success.
  • Phonics. There is no other way to learn how words sound than by hearing them spoken.
  • Familiarity with the printed word. Opening a book should feel comfortable, warm, and welcoming, not intimidating.
  • Storytelling ability. There is no better way to stimulate your child’s imagination than allowing them to create their own story.
  • Comprehension. Children learn the actual meaning of the words by hearing them used.

Knowledge is power, and it is waiting to be gathered from the words in books. Love of reading is also waiting in those words, needing only to be nurtured by time shared reading. That love will become a mighty tool and support throughout their lives.

There are tricks to doing it better:

  • Ask questions. The traditional questions are what-when-why-where-how? What is the creature in that tree? Why is Clifford so big? Where did that mouse go? Get involved in the book.
  • Describe the book. Talk about the pictures: That dog is bigger than the house! Look how tall that beanstalk grew! Count objects, if there are several: One-two-three apples! Notice the actual letters: Look, there is an “N” – that’s the first letter in your name! Notice and point out colors and shapes.
  • Use funny voices: nothing will entertain your child like you sounding like a duck.
  • Emphasize rhymes; sing the words when you can. Kids love to imitate crazy words. Generations of people can say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. What were the chances?  Is your Mama a Llama? There is a reason “One, two, buckle my shoe” is around long after the demise of shoe buckles. It rhymes, and you can sing it.
  • Relate the book to your own life. If you read “Clifford and the big storm,” talk about that storm you had last week.
  • Have fun. Your munchkin will see your happiness, and their joy in reading will grow.
  • Reward reading. Kids will do what they are rewarded for doing. If reading brings with it hugs, smiles, and time with mom or dad, they will want to do it again.

Bring reading into the rest of your life. Notice signs beside the road; mention the movie marque for the show they want to see. Visit libraries, museums, and parks and talk about what you see. Listen to music, and talk about the lyrics. When your child shows you the picture he or she drew, invite them to tell you a story about it. Where is that dinosaur going? Is he all alone? Show them how you use words through the day, writing your lists, or paying your bills.

Talk about the words themselves:

  • Some words can sound the same, but have totally different meanings. You can bake cookies with flour, or pick a flower off a bush; Grandma’s hip might creak, but it’s not the same as the creek you fish in.
  • Different words can mean the same thing. That flower can also be called a blossom, if you are in the mood.
  • The exact same word can have very different meanings. A dog’s bark is very different than the bark on a tree, as a computer mouse is different than a live one.
  • Words can end the same, and rhyme! That mama llama is an enduring favorite.

Make reading a habit. Children’s brains are designed to form habits. Habits and routine are security to them; use this to your advantage. A habit of snuggling up to read every night before bed will make bedtime a much more enjoyable experience. Happy children sleep better. If you make a habit of reading to your child for 15 minutes each day, by the time they enter kindergarten you will have read to them for a whopping 500 hours. No wonder it makes such a difference!

Parents are a child’s first and best teachers. They are the most important people in their child’s universe. If a parent thinks that reading matters, then it does matter. If they think that reading is enjoyable, then it is.

With a routine of reading, a child will enter kindergarten with a larger vocabulary, a habit of reading and learning, and a habit of being interested. They will know that interest is always rewarded. They will be ready to excel.

Reading can open up the world for children. Anything they find interesting, they can explore. They can discover things they otherwise might never have known existed. They can search for the answer to any question, and be inspired to ask new ones of their own.

Reading lights up the dark corners of prejudice and bigotry, and will help your child become a better person. With reading, he or she can find their own magic, unlimited by their immediate surroundings. To paraphrase Robin Williams in Dead Poets: “… the powerful play goes on, and your child may contribute a verse. What will their verse be?”

Top Ten Rules for How to Raise a Child You Will Like as a Grown-up

storkWe spent last Saturday at BabyPalooza, handing out T-shirts and talking about the importance of reading. There were many lovely, very round, exhausted women, and many questions. Apparently, babies still don’t come with an instruction manual, so here goes: not too long, so you can read it in the scant minutes you have when you are not so exhausted that your eyes won’t focus.

How to Raise a Kid you will like as a Grown-up:

10. Require chores. Equal participation is fundamental to receive the reward of being in a family. The pride your child feels serving the carrots he helped peel is well worth the time it takes to get him to do it. Every member of the family contributes, to the best of their ability. Family bonds and trust will form over the raking of leaves.

9.   Make rules, and enforce them consistently. Rules keep kids safe, teach them right from wrong, and civilize them. Make sure your child understands the rules, and every single adult in his life needs to enforce every rule each and every time, the first time it is broken. No “warnings,” because you made sure ahead of time that they understood the rule. Decide what the consequence will be for a broken rule long before you need to do it; make the punishment appropriate for the crime (timeout? loss of the toy? paying for the damage?).

8.   Feed your munchkin a healthy diet: whole foods that look like they either grew out of the ground or walked on it (I know, but not everyone is a vegetarian). Teach your children to eat when they’re hungry, and stop eating when they’re not hungry anymore. Aim for about half fruits and vegies and about half protein (meat, eggs, cheese, beans or nuts) and starch (potatoes, bread, pasta, corn). Everything else will be easier if they are well nourished.

7.   Keep a regular sleep schedule – both enough hours and at about the same time every day – as much as possible. Kids who are short on sleep are irritable, tired and have no attention span. Everything else will be easier if he or she has had enough sleep.

6.   Keep them safe when you can. There are lots of surprises out there to keep life interesting; there is no need to risk the preventable injuries. Use those seat belts and bike helmets, lock up the household poisons, guns and Grandma’s meds, and get those vaccines.

5.   Teach financial responsibility. Spend less than you make, stay out of debt, and save for the future. Do it where they can see you and explain what you are doing. Go through your budget with them in an age appropriate way, and feel free to say, “We can’t afford that.” Give them an allowance for those chores and require that they save some.

4.   Don’t wear blinders. Your primary job is to protect this child, even if it is sometimes from themselves. Children will lie, take things that are not theirs, and sneak out at night when they are 14. You need to catch them so that they learn that it doesn’t work. If they get caught stealing at 7, they have an embarrassing memory of having to go back and pay for what they took. If they get caught at 25, they land in jail and loose their job, partner, and children.

3.   Love without condition the child you have, not the one you dreamed they would be. Love is not a prize you can give when your child is good, and take away when they do not live up to your expectations. Without the absolute faith that no matter what happens or what horrible thing they do you will still love them, the foundation on which they build their life will by shaky and unstable. You chose to have them; unconditional love was part of the deal.

2.   Nurture your child’s unique talents and abilities; don’t try to fit the ones you want them to have on their unsuitable frame. This little person is an original – why would you want to shove him or her into a standard form? And what irreplaceable gifts would be forever lost because you did not value them? Respect the exceptional person that he or she is.

1.   Inspire them with your own life. Be what you hope for them. Find work you love, maintain a healthy relationship with your partner, eat a healthy diet, and exercise. Learn something new every day. Never lie. Give respect, and demand it for yourself. Keep an open mind, explore the world and grab opportunities when they happen by. Make your children proud.

Hey Mom, Chris has Two Dads!

rainbowweddingbandsI was asked recently what people should tell their children about gay marriage. Apparently there are many opinions on the interwebs. My initial thought was, why is this a problem?

Then I remembered my mother and her friends gossiping about the man next door who – gasp! – had married a Philippino! And later, about the woman down the street who was, dear lord, divorced!! I remembered hiding around the corner, listening, soaking it up and feeling, for a little while, that I was somehow better than their kids. They were less, so I must be more. One small dark spot was added to my soul.

I have given it some serious thought, because this really is a big deal: having respect for every other person as your absolute equal is essential to living a true, honest life and valuing your own individuality and potential. You cannot despise another person without letting rot into your own core.

So here it is:

Tell them marriage is a contract between two people who love each other, promising that they are and will always be on the same team. They will take on life together to accomplish whatever goals they have in mind, whether it be building a home, raising children, or saving the world. From that moment on they will have someone to stand beside them on their path, and guard their backs in times of trouble.

Tell them that marriage is both a cultural tradition and a legal contract. People celebrate marriage in as many ways as there are societies. They arrive on elephants, walk down aisles in churches, and stand under tents together to celebrate their joy in finding a partner. What matters is the validation of this contract with the people closest to them as witnesses, not the details of the particular tradition.

Marriage is also a legal contract, recognized by the laws of the land, and effects everything from how a married couple holds their money and owns their home to how taxes are paid and medical decisions are made.

You didn’t honestly think your kids would care which parts go where, did you? Your problems are not their problems, until you make them so.

What to say?

So, when your child comes home and announces that their new friend Chris has two moms, or two dads, the proper response is “… and?” in the exact same tone of voice that you would use if they announced that Chris had a mom and a dad. “Did you like them? Were they nice to you? Did you have fun?”

Problems start when society’s prejudices poke their nastiness into your child’s innocent brain. Humans don’t deal well with change, and in the matter of gay marriage change is certain. In the same way the fight for racial equality or women’s rights made tiny people do horrible things, the inevitability of equal marriage rights under the law is making people ugly. The future will view them in the same way we now view the forced feeding of women fighting for the right to vote, or the beating of Black men and women fighting for the right to an equal education, but for now we have to deal with their influence on our children.

No two people ever travel the same path, but fear pushes people into a dark pit that demands that their path is the right one, the only proper one, the one that everyone should travel. For them to be secure there cannot be options. These fearful people tend to be loud and righteous, and fling their knives without caring where they land and what damage they do. If you want your child to grow strong and straight, and not be ruled by fear and bigotry, you will need to do damage control.

What to do

Apologize for people’s narrow minded bigotry, and let your child know that you are glad they told you about that ugly thing they heard, or that they were confused. Explain that some people are damaged on the inside, and judging others makes them feel better, like putting a bandage on a wound; that some people are not terribly smart and cannot figure this stuff out; and, worse, some people actually choose not to think, because it is easier.

Explain that this is not acceptable behavior, and you hope that they will not be so thoughtlessly cruel to someone just because they can.

Explain that you hope they will follow their own path bravely, stand up for what is right, and not feel any need to shrink who they are when confronted with bullying and bigotry. Reassure them that your wish for them is to find someone to partner with who loves them, supports them in their choices, and can grow with them through the years of their lives; not someone of a predefined age, skin color, religion, or sex. Explain that you love them, and loving them without limits illuminates that dark pit so that you can love the rest of the people sharing their world a little better, respecting their lives and choices.

Cutting: How to Help Our Children

razorblade-01Everything old is new again. A few decades ago, kids who wanted to hurt themselves used lit cigarettes, pulled out their hair, punched their fists through glass doors, or beat their heads against a wall. Nowadays, the most common method of self-injury is cutting. Parents don’t understand it; sometimes they don’t even see it. I have had parents tell me it didn’t make sense, that their children were only doing it to get attention, or that they were just doing it because it’s a fad. Parents are afraid and confused, and they react with anger and denial. As always in parenting, knowledge is essential. If we want to help our children, we need to start with understanding them.

What is Cutting? 

Cutting is one aspect of self-injury. “Cutters” slice shallowly through their skin with a sharp object, like a razor. They generally cut in areas that can be hidden and are easily reached, most often their inner forearms. We also see it on chests, abdomens, and the inside of legs. They usually slice a series of 2 or 3 inch parallel lines into their skin in the chosen area.

People who self-injure also sometimes burn themselves, punch themselves, bang their heads, break their bones, or carve designs into their skin. They will pull out their hair, bite themselves, or pick at wounds so that they don’t heal. They look in mirrors and  yell obscenities at themselves to make sure they know that they are not worth the air that they breathe. We absolutely have to take this seriously.

Why do they cut?

It is a way of focusing and externalizing emotional pain. Physical pain is much easier to handle than the anger, frustration and depression they carry inside. Self injury is usually impulsive, prompted by an event that causes emotional devastation. Afterwards, they feel relief: they made a decision, took action and punished themselves for the crime of existing. There is a sort of pride in the fact that they were strong enough to see the punishment through. They are balanced on an edge: if they chose, they could cut a little deeper and not have to exist any more. They transiently feel in control, at least of their own bodies; the power is theirs. Later, they are overtaken with shame and guilt. The belief that they are worthless is reinforced, because what kind of an idiot would do this to themselves? The cycle starts over.

Who cuts?

Girls self-injure more frequently than boys; teens more often than young adults. Peer pressure has a huge effect: supportive friends can protect your child from him or herself, and allow a healthier outlet for the pain. Friends who also self-injure will pull them in the wrong direction. If a child is alone and lonely, the anger and self hatred can circle in their heads and build.

Kids are also more likely to break out razors if they have been neglected or abused, and after they experience a trauma; conflicts at home or in school can intensify the behavior. Self-injury is also more common in kids who have questions about their identity or sexuality. It is more common when kids are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Last, it is more common in kids with eating disorders, depression, and psychiatric disorders.

As these children get older, their methods of self-injury change. Young adults develop eating disorders, become sexually promiscuous, drink to excess, take drugs, and put themselves in harm’s way. They might walk in front of a moving car to see if the car can stop in time, irritate people to start fights, or engage in damaging relationships. It is the motive that matters, not the method.

How do we know?

The first step in helping these kids is to notice that they are doing it, and to care. A child who self-injures will have scars from prior cuts, or burns. They will have fresh injuries: broken bones, bruises, cuts, or burns, with poor explanations. They will cover the area of their bodies with these injuries; usually children are quick to show their injuries and tell you the story of how it happened. If you never see your child’s forearms, look. These kids will keep sharp objects handy. In the same way a lighter should make you wonder if your child smokes, a razor blade should inspire you to start a conversation about cutting.

A child who cuts tends to be a loner who has problems maintaining relationships. They tend to have emotional labiality, moving from happy to angry in a split second. There are frequently other behavioral issues, such as trouble in school or with the police. They do sometimes tell their parents, but are not always heard. If your child tells you that there is no point, nothing will ever work out, or they wish they were dead, listen. It is human nature to try to communicate, but we do not always do it in a way that others understand. Self injury is not only a symptom and self therapy. It is also communication, if you will only look, see, and care.

How do we help?

What do we do about it, after we stop crying and shaking?

  • We treat it seriously. Open a conversation, and listen. It is a small step from “I deserve to bleed” to “I deserve to die.” Bring your child to the doctor, even if he or she doesn’t want to, even if you promised you wouldn’t.  He or she will need to see a therapist.
  • Provide emotional support: accept your child exactly as he or she is, love them, and let them know that you will love them no matter what. Don’t yell, punish, threaten, or judge. Issue no ultimatums.
  • Lower their daily stress level. Sometimes this is as easy as letting them know that they do not have to be perfect; sometimes cutting back their work load of academics, job, and extracurricular activities will help. Keep their home stable and safe, and be a good example.
  • Work to repair their self esteem. Part of this will be work with a psychologist. Encourage them to find friends with like interests (perhaps sign them up for classes or activities that they find interesting?), and engage them in activities at which they excel. Nothing repairs self esteem like achievement. Do things together that they enjoy.
  • Their therapist should teach them to distract themselves from circular negative thinking. This is a learned skill; it is much easier to repeat the same old ugly “truths” over and over in your head, until it seems impossible to change.
  • That psychiatrist should also work on teaching them to stand up for themselves. Girls especially are not good at saying “no.” Self respect is essential to prevent self-injury.
  • Monitor the media they interact with, because there are sites that glorify and reinforce self injury. Also monitor them for signs that they are relapsing.
  • Take an interest in who their friends are, and how those relationships are going. Are they able to maintain a friendship, or do they run through friends frequently?

Self injury is astoundingly common, very real, and serious. We need to see our children, listen to them, and believe them. The history in their heads is the true one to them, and the one that matters. Denying it’s validity only reinforces their belief that they themselves are stupid, or wrong, or worthless. Empower them to deal with their truth. Support them with your love, acceptance, and respect. Give them a better measuring stick with which to judge themselves: one that puts their own personality, talents and abilities at the top.

Childhood Obesity: How do we have an impact?

broccoli-01So, last week’s blog was about the whys behind the increase in childhood obesity: why it has gained such a firm hold in our society, and why we need to care. This week is about how we can promote change, going into the future. What works? What is the plan?

Our objective is clear: we want healthy children. To achieve this when our children are overweight, we need to decrease the calories they take in, and increase their activity: get rid of junk foods and get them moving. If children take in more calories than they work off, the excess is stored as fat. Math works.

We also need to get our children to eat only nutritious foods, except on special occasions. If kids eat junk, which does not have in it the nutrients they need, they have to overeat total calories to get those nutrients. Bad idea. So how do we make this happen?

We start by using the power of positive reinforcement. It is a proven fact that rewards work better than punishments to change people’s behavior. It is human nature to repeat actions that make us feel happy and appreciated. Hence the popularity of slobbery dogs. Even better: how long would you go to work if you did not get a paycheck? Do you find that you do better work when you feel appreciated? If we are going to change habits, we need to focus on the positive and let go of the negative. We need to make eating healthful foods and being active more rewarding than stopping for fast food and eating chips. This is not hard, because there are a multitude of easy rewards appropriate for eating your broccoli: from smiles and hugs to feeling good and saving money. How could a toy in a kid’s meal possibly compare?

Never try to place blame: it evades personal responsibility and it solves nothing. Similarly, not only is it unkind to judge and condemn people for being overweight, it is also ineffective as a means for change: it doesn’t work. Stop doing it, and intervene when someone else does it.

Do set up the playing field in your favor. Only buy healthful foods. It is much harder to eat a doughnut when you get home from school if no one bought doughnuts. It is difficult to buy a soda at school if there is no vending machine. It is immeasurably easier to win a battle that is never engaged.

Consistency and routine are your best weapons to take into the fray. If you sometimes stop for fast food on the way home from school, simply getting into the car can elicit demands. The trigger is already in place to remind your children of their habit.  Alternatively, if you never stop for fast food on the way home, why would it even come up in the conversation? If the routine is “never”, the response to a request for a snack cake is a head shake and a laugh; if the routine is “sometimes”, the response to a no is whining, each and every time. Children’s minds settle comfortably into routine and habit, so a habit of only eating healthful food will save you a lifetime of arguments.

Rethink what and how you feed your children at the most basic level, to redesign those routines. Start with awareness of what your children need every day, then plan meals that will get them there. Don’t buy the foods that do not have the nutrients they need. Get rid of preconceptions based on family history, media, and friends (contrary to popular belief, there is no daily requirement for potato chips, and “only one soda a day” is one too many). Evaluate your family home and everyday habits. When and where are we keeping food and eating it? What needs to change? Does your child walk by a pantry filled with snack cakes and chips as he gets home from school? What might happen if we throw those out and place a bowl of fruit in his path? What if the only cold drinks in the refrigerator were water and low fat milk? What if we required our family to gather at the dinner table and converse? Change the routines, because when we change a habit the effect of that small change is magnified by the multitude of days in which that habit would have persisted.

On the other side of the equation is the burning off of those calories. The target for children’s activity is a minimum of 45 – 60 minutes of vigorous exercise as many days as possible. This needs to include all kids, not just athletes, because the purpose is to get fit, not to win fame. By no means should this be their only activity: as a general rule, if they are awake and not tied to a desk or reading, they should me moving. The first step to getting them moving is to limit non-educational screen time to maximum of 2 hours per day. Bore them into activity. They can choose the type, as long as they are moving. The second step is to get up and do it with them.

Make a plan and a commitment, and then act:

  • First, purge the pantry of all junk food (no “We paid good money for that food!”) Throw it away.
  • Make a meal plan of nutritious foods for the week, considering your schedule, and write out a grocery list. Only buy what is on the list. Read labels (watch total calories, not just fat or sugar). Emphasize fresh, seasonal foods.
  • Aim for fully half of what your family eats to be fruits and vegetables.
  • Make less food, and serve smaller portions. Hungry children can have seconds and thirds on the broccoli, not the potatoes, because you didn’t make more potatoes.
  • Teach your kids to eat slowly, putting their fork down between bites to enjoy conversation with the rest of the family. Let their brains catch up with their stomachs.
  • Eat more high fiber foods (they are more filling), less meat and starch.
  • Eat at home, as a family. Restaurant portion sizes are too large, and they use too much salt, fat, and sugar.
  • Teach your children to eat when they are hungry rather than for reward, comfort, or boredom; also to stop eating when they are no longer hungry. Be a good example.
  • Make it a rule that treats are only for special occasions.
  • Do not expect a quick fix; results come over the long term.
  • Last, realize that kids have one big advantage: if they just keep their weight the same, they can grow into it. Don’t make weight loss the goal. The goal is a long-term habit of eating a nutritious diet.

Ignore the peanut gallery, because you have to persevere: their lives depend upon it. It is the responsibility of the parent, caregiver, coach, and school to offer the children in their care nutritious foods and to be a good example. Do not feel guilty because they are temporarily unhappy! You love them; therefor you will not give them foods that cause all those awful health problems. You will do this for ever and ever, because when the grown-ups are consistent, the kids give up.

Recruit your friends and family, because “it takes a village” (sorry, couldn’t resist). This might in the end mean avoiding people – family and friends – who undermine your efforts. Grandma can see her baby when she learns to behave.

Community support is absolutely necessary if we want to turn this around. Schools must consider what food is available for breakfasts, lunches, and in vending machines. The adults in children’s lives need to be good examples: from parents to teachers to Hollywood actors and sports figures. Education needs to be readily available for both children and their grown-ups. Adult education resources are needed for parents, childcare workers and community leaders to learn about nutrition, the basics of meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking.

If we can change the community of thought about food and exercise, kids will not be alone in developing new healthy habits. Their parents will also become more fit, as they role model healthy behavior. Our society’s medical costs will shrink, along with a mountain of heartbreak, family stress and financial woes.

When people have knowledge about nutrition and are in the habit of eating healthy food when they are actually hungry, they will pass this knowledge and these habits down to their children, and their children’s children, and healthy habits will persist. They can change the future of their family.

We can do this, and it is absolutely worth doing.

Childhood Obesity: Why It Happens

So. My goal for this blog was to be both accurate and comprehensive; broccoli-01the result was that it was very long. We need to have a thorough understanding of both the why’s and the how to’s if we want to make a difference in childhood obesity. This week covers just the first half, so you won’t nod off before the end. Today is all about the what and why; next week is about how we fix the problem.

Obesity is defined as weight more than 20% above a person’s ideal weight for their height. Morbid obesity is weight in enough excess that it affects a person’s health, or “causes morbidity.” In 2010, more than 1 in 3 children were overweight or obese. At a time in their lives when children should be running free and unencumbered, they are instead carrying the baggage of a society that has lost its way. Although issues like hypothyroidism and low levels of Leptin (a hormone that makes us feel full) can cause weight gain, medical causes account for less than 1% of the overweight kids.

Obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Rather than 5 or 7% of children being morbidly obese, as they were in the 80’s, now 18% are. Three quarters of these obese teens will become obese adults.

Why do we care? There are, of course, the physical health risks, including:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • high blood pressure
  • type 2 diabetes
  • degenerative arthritis
  • chronic back and knee pain
  • slipped capitofemoral epiphysis (a crippling hip injury)
  • ankle fractures
  • several forms of cancer (colon, thyroid, prostate, and breast, among others)
  • pseudogynecomastia (breast development in boys)
  • gallstones
  • obstructive sleep apnea
  • pancreatitis
  • skin infections
  • deficiencies of zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, and folic acid from a junk food diet

There are also serious mental health risks, including low self-esteem, body image issues by as young as 5 years, anxiety, and depression. Overweight children are frequently the victims of exclusionism, taunts, and ridicule. Bullying overweight people is one of the last socially acceptable forms of bigotry.

Last, there are lifestyle limitations. For overweight children activity is harder, and the vicious cycle of a sedentary lifestyle causing weight gain, which causes a lower activity level, which causes weight gain, persists. Fueling this also is the fact that obese children will be offered fewer opportunities: they are rarely the first picked for the team, or the cool new job. Even their dating choices will be affected, partly by their appearance, but more by the damage to their self-esteem. There are also financial stresses, from the expense of processed foods, to increased medical costs, to fewer chances in the workplace.

So why do we do nothing about it?

First, we simply don’t see it. When our whole family, neighborhood, region, or country is overweight, after a while it becomes what we see as normal. Add on that our child has always been this shape. When shown silhouettes of children and asked which is most similar to their own child, parents of overweight children will pick out a thinner silhouette as theirs. The extra pounds become as invisible as the individual trees in the forest.

We don’t know what to do to fix it and, as adults, we are embarrassed to admit our ignorance. Add to this that people fear change. Grown-ups like to feel capable and comfortable in their lives. People generally take what they learned in childhood as true, and continue unquestioningly down that reassuring and undemanding path. It can take an unexpected event, like a child being diagnosed with diabetes, to shake them up and make them think about their choices. Even then, parents need to be able to find the resources to learn, and there are few easily accessible ways for an adult with only a few spare minutes to learn about nutrition, grocery shopping, cooking, and exercise. So we flounder, and persist in our habits.

If we do decide to change, it can be just too hard. Learning about nutrition, grocery shopping, cooking and exercise, in addition to working at our jobs and taking care of our families, is difficult to fit into the schedule. Then we have to actually do the grocery shopping, cooking and exercising. Add on fighting with children, and possibly a spouse, used to eating whatever they want and zoning out in front of a screen (TV or computer) whenever they want. It is immeasurably easier to let them snack on junk and watch a screen, than to make them eat vegetables and exercise.

Moreover, people believe that preparing nutritious food and getting their kids to be more active requires resources that they do not have. They truly believe fresh nutritious foods are expensive, when in actuality 4 servings of vegetables or 3 servings of fruit can be had for about a dollar. They believe their kids won’t eat healthy foods, and the groceries they spent their hard earned money on will rot. They have seen it happen before. When kids have both healthy food and junk options, flavor saturated junk wins, and healthy foods go bad. Similarly, parents believe that if they want their kids to exercise, they have to pay for expensive exercise programs and organized sports. In reality, play is free.

People see their behavior as acceptable, because everyone they know eats and behaves in the same way. Even the advertisements they see, and the TV and movies they watch, inevitably show people eating fast food and junk.

Last, the reason we hide even from ourselves: parents are unwilling to have change interfere with their own lives. They don’t want to spend what little free time they have preparing food and exercising with their children. They are comfortable with their routines. It is easier to let the screen entertain the kids, and they have no real interest in getting up and playing with their progeny. They are equally unwilling to do without the foods they like, even though they know they should do better. Since no one wants to cop to this, they instead pile the weight of conviction onto all the other, less guilt inducing, reasons.

If we want to improve our children’s health, these are the obstacles and the challenges. Human nature is an unalterable certainty. Ignoring it while trying to force change will get us nowhere. Next week’s blog will be about how to work within the confines of human nature to change the choices parents make, and help our children live healthier lives.