Activities and sorting them out

I remember when my kids were little and I was home with them. I needed to get out of the apartment, and I was trying to do everything as correctly as a middle-class white mom in a bad marriage could, so we took classes. Music classes, movement classes, art classes, dance classes, soccer classes.

It was pretty simple then. Just sign up for what the kids seemed to like and we could afford, and I'd try to pretend it was exciting for me while I was also hoping all the stimulation would help them become interesting people.

Thank goodness they got older, but now there are actual decisions to be made. I know there are people who load their kids up with as many classes as possible to try to make them "accomplished," and there are also people who think kids shouldn't take any because they "should just be kids." I think there's a balance, and that activities can be fun for kids while also giving them the chance to get good at something.

I tend to feel like kids need unstructured time to hatch their own plots and read and play what they want to. But that activities are good experiences with developing skills in a group setting, and also signposts for the week.

The question, for me, is figuring out what that balance is. Is three a week too much, even if two of them are part of an afterschool program? (What about kids who are in afterschool every day, then? What about kids who take none?)

I also wonder about committment. Specifically, when should a kid be allowed to quit something they don't enjoy? So far we've established a policy that if you are part of a team you need to finish up the season, and you need to finish out any series that's alreayd paid for. We also let our kids choose which activities they do, so wanting to quit is a result of discovering they didn't like something they thought they would.

For those of you with kids old enough to do activities on their own, how do you do it? Do your kids take classes or join activities? Who chooses which ones they do? How do you know when to quit?

Power Ballad of the Tiger Mama

By now you've all heard about or read the brouhaha about Amy Chua's book "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." For those who haven't, there are thoughtful reviews of it all over the place (here's the first one I happened to find).

There are myriad problems with Chua's book and parenting style (I will never get over how proud she is that she called her child "garbage" in public), but what makes me angriest is how she took the word "tiger" and made it dirty.

You see, in my family, a "Tiger Mama" is a mother who fights hard for her cubs. It is really the highest honor my own mother can bestow on someone, that she (or he) fights for their kids, in all kinds of situations. And protects them, and teaches them to protect themselves.

When I think about it, the parents I know and love (including you), are Tiger Mamas and Tiger Daddies. So I thought I'd write down what being a Tiger Mama/Daddy means to me.

A Tiger Mama knows that she is not her children and her children are not her. And that she can, and should, help her kids figure out who they want to be and then run toward that.

A Tiger Daddy is working through his own childhood and how he was parented, and takes the good and leaves the bad behind.

A Tiger Mama trusts her gut and gets a second opinion.

A Tiger Daddy gives praise and constructive criticism, and teaches his children to take both and use them.

A TIger Mama thinks about the question "Would you want to be a child in your own house?" and takes it very seriously.

A Tiger Daddy verbalizes the process, so his kids can hear how we work through trial and error.

A Tiger Mama gets a diagnosis, gets therapy, gets an IEP. Rinse, repeat.

A Tiger Daddy stops and listens and when his children say something.

A Tiger Mama sits back and watches, and then steps in with a suggestion about how they can work it out themselves, so eventually she won't be needed to mediate anymore.

A Tiger Daddy thinks about policies more than rules.

A Tiger Mama knows that equal isn't fair.

A Tiger Daddy is proud of his child for choosing a career that brings satisfaction.

A Tiger Mama gets up every morning, scrambles through the routine and dropoff, and goes to work with a good attitude at the job that feeds her family.

TIger Mamas and Daddies get their kids out of bad situations. Even if that means they split up so they can be good parents separately instead of mediocre parents together.

Tiger Mamas and Daddies hug their kids a lot, and laugh with their kids a lot.

Tiger Mamas and Daddies pay attention to their kids.


What would you add?

Q&yourA: Keeping a baby asleep when you put them down

And now for a classic. I sure can't solve it, but I know we've all got tips, and maybe one of them will work for Andrew, who writes:

"How do you keep a child sleeping when you put them down out of your arms? My 4-month-old daughter has this propensity to sleep heavily when we hold her but wakes up as soon as she is put in the crib, cradle or pack and play. Please help."

Yes, and yes. I remember it well, both times. Out like a log, or at least a lumberjack, in my arms, and then two seconds after being put down, AWAKE. And not happy about being awake.

The only success I ever achieved was lying on the bed with the child next to me and nursing/snuggling to sleep, then waiting until the baby was completely out (10-15 minutes after falling asleep) and then rolling away slo-o-o-owly. Of course, this is a physical impossibility if you're trying to get the baby to sleep in a crib.

Anyone have any help for cribs?

The other path, oif you're not wedded to crib-only sleep, is to wheel the baby in the stroller until she falls asleep and then just leave her there for the nap. Or in a swing.

Just know that almost everyone struggles with this, and it will pass, and I don't think there's an actual magic bullet.

Suggestions? Memories? Laments?

How do you talk about tragedy?

Between the shooting in Arizona here in the States, the flooding in Australia, and the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, there's been a lot to explain to kids in the past few days.

How do you do it?

I try to be honest whenever I talk to my kids, but it can be tricky to be honest and yet not give so muc detail that we scare them. I did tell my older son that one of the people killed in the Arizona shooting was a girl his age, and that sobered him.

I think my gut reaction is to revert to what Mr. Rogers said: "When bad things happen, look for the helpers."

Not only does that divert the focus from the scary thing, it also sets kids up to know that they can be helpers when bad things happen, too. That they're not just helpless.

So what have you said to your kids about any recent events? How old are your kids?

I told mine (almost-9 and 5 1/2) that someone shot at a group of people in Arizona, and some of the people died. I said that we don't have all the information yet, but that it looks like the man had a sickness in his brain that made him think he should shoot the people. And then we talked about the people that helped in the situation.

What have you said? I think this is one of the hardest things about parenting older kids.

Snow days and all their complications

I really hope everyone in Australia is safe.

Those of us in the US and Canada seem to have been having a lot of snow lately.

I called a snow day for my kids today, despite the fact that the mayor kept the schools open. I could only do that because I was able to work from home today, and let the kids watch a lot of tv and whack each other with lightsabers while I work and lock myself in the bathroom when I need to talk to clients.

How the heck do we work this out? Individually and collectively?

What do you do if school is cancelled but you still have to be at work?

What do you do if school is NOT cancelled but in your judgment it's too dangerous to take the kids in, but you need to work?

I ride the same train to take my kids to school that people were stuck on for 10 hours when the blizzard hit after Christmas. I just couldn't imagine putting my kids on that train, not knowing how or if it would run.

Do you have options? How do you get your kids to school or daycare? Do you have a back-up plan?

Tension decreasers

So let's talk about tension decreasers today.

For those of you who don't have one, a tension decreaser is a person who needs to tap it off somehow by ranting. In babies, that can manifest itself as needing to cry to fall asleep. OK, "need" may be a strong word, as plenty of tension decreaser babies have fallen asleep without incident in a stroller or car or even accidentally while lying in a crib. But often the regular routine of falling asleep involves some crying or fussing.

I think two things could be going on, either separately or together:

1. The baby cries to create kind of a white noise and block out other stimulation to be able to fall asleep, and/or

2. The transition from awake to asleep sparks tension that the baby needs to get out before s/he can relax enough to fall asleep.

If you're reading this and it's making zero sense to you, let me tell you what my second son did so you can get what a tension decreaser/releaser acts like. Remember that I'd nursed/rocked my first one to sleep with enormous success. So somewhere in the second or third week of the second one's life, I was nursing him to sleep, and not only was he not falling asleep, but he was also moaning and crying WHILE HE WAS NURSING. And it seemed like he'd almost be calming down, and then I'd shush him or something and he'd get angry again.

Since he was the second kid I wasn't afraid of a little experimentation, so I said to him, "I need to go get a drink of water. I'll be back in a few minutes, love." (What I really wanted to say was "WTF? How are you not falling asleep??" but that wouldn't have been helpful.) So I walked out of the room and got a glass of water and stood there outside the door drinking it and taking a bunch of deep "was it really a good idea to ahve a second one?" breaths, and listened to him cry. First he wailed at the top of his lungs, but by the time I was halfway through the glass he started deescalating and then wimpering and by the time I put the glass in the sink and went back into the bedroom he was asleep.

Mind…frantically..recalibrating… So I tried it out a few more times, and it seemed like he would not fall asleep when I nursed him. Instead, he wanted to be nursed, and then I'd put him down and walk away and he'd wail for 4-5 minutes and then fall asleep.

He is still this way in many ways, at 5 1/2 years old. He can go to sleep without crying, but if he gets agitated or too excited or feels unacknowledged with no avenue for expression he gets into a tantrum and can't be calmed or ignored out of it. The only thing to do is escalate and let him go through the full cycle, and then he relaxes and is happy again.

He is also really, really good at calling people or situations out and getting very emotional about them and then letting it fade away.

Some thoughts about having a tension decreaser/releaser baby (because I have no real strategies, either, and had very easy kids who told me what they needed):

* In some ways it was like winning the lottery because I didn't go through the backbreaking hours of rocking and nursing to sleep, and then the toddler sitting-by-the-side-of-the-bed phase. I'd do the routine, put him down, and he'd cry and then go to sleep.

* But, and this is personality, not something innate about tension releasers, if he didn't fall asleep after crying, I was out of luck because other techniques did not work with him. My older one could always eventually be comforted to sleep. My tension decreaser either cried himself to sleep, or he was awake and we were just looking at each other wondering "what next?"

* His crying cycle was in the 3 to 12 minute range. I have no idea what I'd have done if he cried longer than that, because I don't think I could have stood it, and I'm not convinced that crying for long periods of time is good for people. (Certainly not good for me in the Great Ankle Panic of Sunday evening.) It would be so tempting to make up some arbitrary time and say "they should only cry for x amount of time," but we're looking for the truth of our children, not rules. It just makes me feel lucky that I never had to confront that, and sad for those of you who have had to puzzle out longer crying.

Parent of tension decreasers and adult tension decreasers: What do you think? What have you done? What works with you?

Tension increasers

Let's recap the theory. I think there are a minimum of two kinds of people, hence babies: Those who release tension by crying, and those who increase tension by crying. Which is why some babies seem to need to cry to be able to fall asleep, while others escalate more and more if you let them cry at all.

My first one is a tension increaser, who fell asleep being nursed or rocked, but if I let him cry for even 30 seconds he'd get so worked up it would take hours to calm him down. (Based on my experience with him, I always thought people who "forced" their babies to cry were heartless and selfish, and would pay for it with children with a myriad of emotional problems.)

Then I had my second, who got more agitated the more I rocked him, but when I left him alone to cry he'd scream for a few minutes and then fall asleep. He seemed to need to be able to release tenson by crying, and then once he got it out of his system he fell asleep like it was nothing. (I remember thinking that if he'd been my first I'd have thought people who didn't let their kids cry when they wanted to were selfish and pushing their own agenda onto their kids, and would pay for it with children with a myriad of emotional problems.)

This is absolutely not a binary distinction. My kids seemed to be pretty solidly one or the other, but there's so much variance, and some kids seem to be one for naps and the other for nighttime, or one until one age and then they switch, and personality and culture comes into play, too. So who knows if it's a continuum, or a box-and-whisker plot, or a Venn diagram, or a scatterplot. I'm sure in 40 years parents will be reading this thinking about how cute we are that we were just starting to figure this out, but for now I still find it an interesting puzzle.

FWIW, 10 minutes seems to be about when you can tell. If you let your baby cry for 10 minutes (which is an astonishingly long time), a tension releaser will be petering out and starting to fall asleep or at least winding down and not crying hard, where a tension increaser will be creaming even more loudly and angrily. Try it once, and you'll probably have an idea of which way your child leans.

Today let's talk about tension increasers. Tomorrow we'll talk about strategies for tension decreasers.

As I've said, my older one (who is now almost-9) was a no-holds-barred tension increaser. He would go to sleep easily by nursing or being rocked. Later, when he was a toddler, he needed someone to be in the room with him while he fell asleep, but he always fell asleep. In the middle of the night he could be comforted back to sleep, but he almost always needed some kind of touch.

If I left him to cry, either because I couldn't deal with it anymore, or I had the audacity to need to pee or something like that, or because I bought into the "let him cry" hype, he's keep crying. Louder and longer and more furiously than before, and he'd get more and more worked up. So then, instead of calming down in 5 minutes, it would take 45 minutes to calm him down from the crying. He needed the touch, and he needed to know that someone understood and was specifically paying attention to him.

Contrast that with me. I'm also a tension increaser. On Sunday night when my ankle was killing me and I didn't have a diagnosis yet and one of my friends mentioned "ankle reconstruction surgery" I started crying alone in my apartment, and it made me feel worse, and then I couldn't stop crying because the crying itself was making me feel bad. I cried for two hours, and felt like throwing up.

But my mother reports that when I was a baby I wanted to nurse, then I'd arch my back and want to be put down, and I'd fall asleep. So I didn't want or need the comforting touch that my older son did, but I also could not be left to cry, because it just made me feel worse.

I think there are two takeaways here: 1) If your child is as clear about what s/he needs to fall asleep as my son and I were, you're lucky, and 2) If you can get to a place of no expectations, it might be easier and clearer for you.

What I mean by that second one is that we all bring these ideas into parenting about what babies are like, and also what we're going to be like as parents. I thought that babies needed to be comforted to sleep, and I thought of myself as a mother who comforted her baby to sleep. I was really, really, really lucky that my first child fit into my expectations, and that my expectations of myself happened to be exactly what he needed. If I'd had my second first, we'd have been in for months of confusion, disappointment, and feelings of inadequacy.

If you think that babies sleep a certain way, based either on culture or past experience or something you read in a book (please PLEASE either read no sleep books or all of them) or what your mother-in-law says about how your partner slept as a baby or whatever, then if your child doesn't sleep that way, it may take you a long time to be able to identify cues from your child about what s/he needs because you'll be fighting with your expectations. And you also might have to fight with what you think about yourself, and that's pretty much the last thing you need while you're reevaluating your whole life every night at 3 am anyway.

I initially titled this post "Strategies for tension increasers," but the problem is that all babies are different, so the only thing I can tell you definitively about tension increasers is that it won't do anyone any good to let them cry, so just don't bother.

Other than that, allow yourself to trust that your child won't need help going to sleep forever. You know how people talk about kids needing to "learn to fall asleep"? I think some kids not only need to learn, they need a full apprenticeship of years. And that's ok. The ones who do a full apprenticeship seem to get it with a vengeance, and turn into the kids who fall asleep with no fuss and can sleep anywhere as adults.

Parents of tension increasers and adult tension increasers: What worked for you? Were there tips or tricks that you used to get your child to sleep? How long did it take before your child consistently went to sleep easily alone? Feel free to share stories of waking up in a puddle of your own drool on your child's floor next to the crib.



Back to everything

My ankle wasn't getting any better, so I went to the doctor. Diagnosis: Severe tendonitis. I'll be in an air cast taking anti-inflammatories, megadoses of fish oil, and ibuprofen for the next few weeks.

My morning was actually slightly easier than it usually is. The kids got up and got dressed and ate breakfast and put their shoes on and we left with less fuss than usual. I suspect, however, that that's because they were worried about my ankle and went into caregiver mode to make sure I could get down into the subway ok.

But I'm guessing some of you had some problems getting back into the routine this morning. Which makes me think that we should be sharing tips, because some of us have surely discovered things that could make it easier for everyone else.

My best leaving-the-house tip is actually a packing-lunch tip: I discovered that my younger son loves nori (the dried sheets of seaweed) and thinks it's a huge treat because it's crunchy and a little salty. So I've started packing nori as the vegetable in his lunch. Since it's dried, I can stockpile it and never run out, plus it's flat, and two sheets is a serving of vegetables.

What do you do that gets you up and out more easily?