Tag Archives: Parent

Boundaries, fencing, & reliving childhood. Surviving the preschool years (and Antarctica).

Through the pack ice to Cape Adare, Antarctica

Through the pack ice to Cape Adare, Antarctica.

I certainly got to experience the full fury of the Southern Ocean the first of several times that I’ve travelled down to Antarctica by ship, either departing from New Zealand in this case, or South America. At one point we encountered stormy weather, complete with 15 metre waves and pitch and roll close to the boat limits. It left me feeling a distinct lack of control over my existence.

The latitudes heading towards the frozen landmass are very reverently referred to as the Roaring 40’s, Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties and travelling these waters for this landlubber usually involves significant, debilitating seasickness.

It’s a heck of a roller-coaster ride through tumultuous seas that generally worsen before you reach the sanctity of Antarctic waters itself, the Silent Seventies.

If you gave me a choice, however, of skipping directly to Antarctica by a comparatively short but uncomfortable five hour plane flight dressed in full survival gear or six or more days of boat and stomach heaving up and down at sea, I would probably always choose the ship-based option.

Never one to typically take the easy road, I’m aware that sometimes the journey itself is the most memorable, if challenging, part. In the case of the Southern Ocean, there is much beauty and mesmerising change to be found along the way that those who travel airborne to Antarctica never get to experience. The constant, graceful companion seabirds, that vary in the type of species one sees as the ship migrates south like accompanying guardians each doing a shift; the subtle changes in the colour and texture of the oceans; the captivating and spectacular icebergs that appear; the whales, seals and finally penguins that bring unprecedented delight once the calmness of the pack ice appears; the pack ice itself- that most magical experience of pushing through these floating sculpted jigsaw pieces with the unnerving sound of the ship rubbing on ice but the most divine colours in water ever; and of course the vista of the frozen land itself- mountainous, treacherous terrain but also the most indescribable, sublime beauty. And we travellers just know looking at it that it offers pure pleasure of exploration once we land.

And the waves, the weather and the cold on that journey- well they just really let you know you are alive. They’re there to test you, to push you to limits at times. All of this extremeness serves to make you think and reflect and ultimately I’d like to think that everyone that heads south is a better person at journey’s end- looking at the world with new eyes, having experienced life on earth like nowhere else on this planet.

Parenting is really no different from ship-based travel south. It’s a damn hard roller-coaster journey as well and we all who travel this route will be sorely tested at times. It will be uncomfortable, maybe even gut emptying painful. Like the waters next to the Antarctic continent itself, where the supposed utopia of the Silent Seventies may still be far from silent, might indeed be unbearably cold with wind that whips straight through the body, our children even as adults may still push buttons and we may never find that elusive stillness. However, along every step of the way, just when it all seems too much our child’s beauty will melt and then re-melt our hearts; their crazy antics will bring immeasurable pleasure and every day we will celebrate the little changes and milestones that occur in our child’s development because no one day being a parent is the same.

Although there are varying research outcomes[1][2][3] on the happiness of parents versus childless adults (something I will delve into more deeply in future posts so just giving you media rather than research links here), parent’s lives are undoubtedly changed by the experience of having children, hopefully mainly in a positive sense (see Leaving a Legacy).

None of it’s easy though and the toddler and preschool years are certainly busy and brain-taxing. They’re frequently referred to as the Terrible Two’s, Terrific Three’s and Fabulous Four’s. In many ways, these nicknames are accurate, although in our case we didn’t find anything very terrible about the Two’s for MissBB; although they certainly are for some families.

There’s no question there is huge amounts of pleasure to be gained from a toddler as they migrate into a pre-schooler, becoming more of an individual and in doing so becoming more of everything- more busy, more noisy, more active, more talky, more tantrums, more whiny, just more! Many parents then may find that the Trying Three’s and Furious Four’s may be more apt descriptors.

We have hit the 4’s with an abrupt full on Roar- maybe that’s why she likes the Katy Perry song so much. MissBB has certainly been letting us know she is her own person with her own opinions and decisions about how she wants her life to be run. There have been some significant developmental shifts associated with this- an explosion of language and non-stop talking in our already vociferous child and the dropping of the day sleep completely. No wonder I’ve been exhausted (The rubber band effect: building and maintaining resilience). It’s also as I alluded to in Time Out coincided with the Why? phase returning- the one where it’s all about the question and attention and nothing to do with actually listening to the answer and when combined with whining has the ability to irritate more than pretty much anything.

And recently at every step of the way there has been boundary pushing and more boundary pushing. Children are born to push boundaries. By age four they are in full combat mode, frequently in armoured tanks, apparently itching to take down all fences. This may seem at times like a curse to parents, but this assertiveness is an essential part of development.

Boundaries constitute the space between one person and another; a limit that allows us to protect ourselves. When we impose boundaries or limits we make it possible to separate our thoughts and feelings from those around us, and in doing so this allows us to take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and actions.

When we do this around our children we are teaching them the process of building boundaries as well by letting them know what is acceptable and not acceptable to us. Everyone has a right to set their own boundaries and it’s important to remember this about our own children. As this is the framework on which they begin their lifelong process of defining their own boundaries, it’s essential as parents to think carefully about how we engage in this space. Boundaries need to be clearly defined but they also need to be flexible and for those with two or more children in their families, consideration needs to be given to the unique needs of each child.

There are several kinds of boundaries: physical boundaries (i.e. the physical space- the space we own around our bodies); emotional boundaries (these help give us the space needed to deal with our own emotions); intellectual boundaries (the right to think what we want and apply it in our own way); and spiritual boundaries (the right to believe in our own spiritual/religious beliefs and respect for other’s perspectives).

Why are pre-schoolers so good at seeing how strong and high the fence is, particularly with respect to physical, emotional and intellectual boundaries? At this age children are slowly becoming aware they need to lessen their egocentric take on the world but typically with strong push-back to maintain it- it’s a great shock to discover the universe doesn’t revolve around them. Alongside that, they also need to know that they are safe– they need to know what their physical and emotional limits are – how far can they go before it’s ‘dangerous’. If we create intact emotional boundaries (and the other types of boundaries too) they allow both parent and child to feel safe, supported and respected in their relationships.

20131230_0012-FenceCreating our boundaries is a little bit like the fence around this grave. The fence denotes a limit, where the remains of the deceased are still respected by a physical line. At the same time it gives someone walking in the cemetery a boundary where they can perhaps feel emotionally and spiritually safe that they aren’t stepping on the dead. Good boundaries are actually a winning situation for both sides.

However, when pre-schoolers are testing any of their limits, it can be challenging as a parent to deal with. As trying as this is, it’s normal behaviour. Parents then need to respond by providing their child with clear (I prefer this over ‘firm’), as consistent as possible, yet flexible boundaries around demands, expectations or requests. Like all things though, it’s important to pick your battles and ask yourself that all important “Does it really matter?” question. It can entirely feel like a game of fencing- one jab in from the child, and another back from parent to demonstrate what the limits are. A fencing game that never ends.

Whatever the limits you decide are important to you, it’s important to unconditionally love. It’s also essential to employ some flexibility with respect to boundaries- each child has their own needs and not paying attention to this can create problems especially in the teenage years.

Gentle guidance with a very nurturing positive approach has been shown to be best. These children are little people and need to be treated with respect, rather than punishment based approaches. Some excellent resources can be found on Our Muddy Boots (e.g. Children have rights too, Why I do not use time out or time in; Bullying my kids),  Evolutionary Parenting (e.g. What is discipline, Bullying, Parenting and Communication), PhD in Parenting (e.g. 3 R’s of toddler discipline: repetition, reaction, reassurance), Lori Petro’s site as well as here. One way to foster boundaries is by teaching appropriate manners and ensuring parents and child use them.

However, at some point the wheels will fall off (the parent) in response to the child and it’s easy to use words and actions that are punitive, shameful, blaming and judging in nature. This is so easy to do because we have all these layers of societal and family filters through which we view the world- the way that we were raised though is not necessarily the way we may want to raise our own children. When we’re parenting at our best we have recognised that these filters exist and battled through them to discover the way we actually want to parent, which may be quite different. When parenting becomes challenging, it’s easy in our stress of losing control and of being exhausted for those filters to flip back into place and revert to perhaps how we were treated as a child without realising there is another way- that it’s actually a matter perhaps of re-finding our own values.

To get back to connection with your child, some of the tips here are particularly fantastic. Usually what is required involves applying the very own strategies I teach to my child to myself: our mantra is Stop (recognise a trigger), Breathe (mindfulness), Think (what the problem is), Do (take appropriate action to solve the problem) or Say (express what you want) to deal with the issue at hand.

Being mindful that your child is a person in their own right, it’s often great to talk about things as Lori Petro suggests. Bring in some humour and some honesty about what behaviour is pushing the limit and troubleshoot together to make the boundaries intact again. Often I think, based on my own experiences it’s us as parents that need to shift our attitudes rather than just expect that our children will comply.

That such positive routines work is shown by a reduction in bedtime tantrums (together with improved marital satisfaction) by Adams and Rickert[5] versus the graduated extinction method. Also, as media reported here Avolio et al[6] found that children that experienced an authoritative (“authoritative parents can be described as being demanding (challenging), responsive, rational, considerate, consistent, and assertive yet not restrictive) parenting style versus an authoritarian (“authoritarian parents are controlling, lacking in warmth, support and consistency”, and favour punitive approaches) style were more likely to take on leadership roles as adults and less likely to engage in modest to serious rule breaking. Parents are indeed the first leadership trainer.

Sometimes our boundaries hold us back- teaching our children when to push through their perceived limits is important

Sometimes our boundaries hold us back- teaching our children when to push through their perceived limits is important.

One of the best ways I can think of to both know what it’s like to be a child pushing hard and to teach them how to both create boundaries and to push through them when they are holding us back is to engage in challenging activities with our child. The activities may be a recreation of our own childhood or something entirely new. I wrote about this with respect to holidays in Time Out and although this can be done any time with your child, holidays provide an ideal consolidated learning opportunity.

It may be something like exploring a cave, climbing a tree, swimming in waves, rock climbing, kayaking or just jumping off something, or even engaging in imaginative play (a trip to Antarctica by boat perhaps?). When faced with the fear of thinking we are at our limit what do we do?: stop, breathe, think, say or do.

As we define and then redefine our boundaries we grow

As we define and then redefine our boundaries we grow

As adults, teaching our children we may feel a little out of our comfortable zone but being aware of the risks, and letting just a little of our control go all the same is such a powerful learning tool. This is the space in which we can all grow.

References:

[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/14/living/parents-happiness-child-free-studies/

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-belkin/parenting-and-happiness_b_1497687.html

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/08/one-more-take-on-whether-_n_4066427.html

[4] http://www.suzannewelstead.com/resources/Boundaries.pdf

[5] Lisa A. Adams, Vaughn I. Rickert 1989. Pediatrics 84(5): 756-761. Reducing Bedtime Tantrums: Comparison Between Positive Routines and Graduated Extinction http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/84/5/756.short

[6] Bruce J. Avolio, Maria Rotundo, Fred O. Walumbwa 2009. Early life experiences as determinants of leadership role occupancy: The importance of parental influence and rule breaking behaviour. Leadership Quarterly 20(3): 329-342. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1048984309000794#

Time out

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I am not sure I can imagine a better finish to a much needed and well-earned family holiday away than a perfectly still, warm night on a beach with a blazing bonfire made of gathered driftwood- my daughter’s first bonfire on her very first camping trip. A dramatic intense sunset slowing working its way across the clouds and through the hues, offset with the first proper blue sky that day, itself contrasting against the darkening silhouettes of jagged mountain peaks. Surf crashing gently on the beach. A smattering of people fishing into the evening. Seabirds gliding through the air and a glassy sea stretching to infinity.

The bonfire drawing others in like moths to a light. Flames mesmerising for young and old: other families and couples come over; camaraderie so easily generated in this moment. Children holding sticks and toasting marshmallows- all brown, crisp, exterior and gooey sticky insides. Roasted bananas split with chocolate melting within. And flour, water, some milk quickly grabbed from the tent to mix into a damper dough, wrapped around sticks and slowly cooked until crunchy on the outer with a scone-like interior. Divine with brown sugar and olive oil spread mixed with raspberry jam- my daughter’s concoction. Shared food passed around. Fireworks created from seaweed balls filled with air exploding on the fire- my natural scientist MissBB came up with this idea herself. Free conversation and utter relaxation- the mind still with nothing but the present. These are the things that create lifelong memories and that catalyse re-creation when children become parents. Total, beautiful magic.

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Kaikoura, where this idyllic scene unfolded is in my mind one of the most spectacular places I have ever been and I’m incredibly fortunate it’s on our doorstep, just three hours from home in beautiful New Zealand. Our brief foray into family camping was but too short. This summer holiday of just 10 days was our first proper travel holiday since a trip south for a week when MissBB was a few months old. There’s been scant in the way of time out in the last four years owing to a variety of factors, including earthquakes and hardship.

Our three days of camping came after another blissful week spending time with some of my partner’s family in the also heavenly Golden Bay, although the weather wasn’t always so sparkly.

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Golden Bay time was a chance for brothers to reconnect as adults, for the wives to bond and for the cousins to form strong friendships and especially for my daughter to have live-in playmates and to negotiate sharing her home life with other children.

Let’s be honest though- not all moments on holidays with children are quite so idyllic and magical. Family holidays can indeed be exhausting and frustrating and at times push you more than being at home- mainly because everyone is out of their comfort zone, despite being hopefully both comfortable and relaxed.

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As a parent it’s easy to tell the people holidaying without kids, unless a couple has been so outrageous as to leave their children elsewhere and are masquerading as a sans children couple. The childless couples are the ones likely fawning over each other, looking stylish and groomed with impeccable hair and makeup, having had unlimited time and a lack of any distractions in getting ready. They’re likely in shape, toned and healthy looking. They’re strolling down streets with just a small, fashionable handbag or along beaches hand in hand, popping into shops for some casual shopping for probably completely unnecessary but lovely possessions, or decadently dining in a café in a long drawn out lunch or dinner. At sightseeing attractions they gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes in between peaceful contemplation of the view. They have long, meaningful conversations. They look relaxed and happy and fresh. Remember those days?

Those with children may well look harassed and stressed, trying to manage child or children and somehow communicate to their partner episodically in frequently unfinished sentences or unanswered questions left hanging, due to the near constant, attention seeking activities of children. Alternatively, they are having harsh words about any one of a number of things (frequently just as an outlet for the frustrations of dealing with the tears, the boundary pushing, the obstructiveness, the incessant I-will-do-anything-to-make-it-stop whining (of the kids most likely)). They will probably have stains on their clothes whether they have a new-born or an older child and feel relatively dowdy, as soon as they catch sight of the glamorous childless, in the outfit they quickly compiled in the few uninterrupted seconds they had to get ready. Makeup may be absent and hair if lucky, brushed.

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They may spend considerable time getting ready and then out of the car at every stop (and the reverse getting back in) and will be carrying large, practical backpacks around full of outfit changes, jackets, packed food that will be refused due to the lure of bought food anywhere. They may be dealing with public meltdowns, manic behaviour. The mummy tummy may well be present, the one that just will not disappear even if there is time squeezed in during a typical week for exercise; bikinis at the beach abandoned these days in favour of the one-piece.

Attempts to find normality in a rare treat of a meal out will be a delicate juggling act of entertaining their child, getting them to eat something, probably with fries despite best intentions and getting out of there quickly without too much destruction or embarrassment. The only shopping done is likely something for their child, because the parents know they will like it (and the adults don’t really need anything, they tell themselves), or alternatively as a means to do anything to stop the whining.

At every step of the way there will be complex negotiation, consideration of sleep routines and dealing with the full gamut of emotions of each child. A true feeling of relaxation may only be captured in moments. Do some of these aspects sound familiar? In our case our holiday has coincided with the unexpected return of the Why? phase to everything, something that we thought we’d left some 18 months ago. What a delight!

Evaluating these two very different scenarios just as presented above leaves the childless scenario at prima facie as by far the most preferable holiday option. However, there are actually many benefits of family holidays. I’m not sure I would trade back to the time of pre-child.

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Taking time out is so important to our wellbeing. Holidays are the big ticket items in terms of recharging our mind and body but there are lots of smaller things we can do on a daily basis to create personal wellbeing for ourselves and for our children (and I’ll refer to them frequently in future posts).

As a mother working a crazily full-on, allegedly part-time job it seems impossible much of the time to have time off, especially this past year, where my workplace has been undergoing significant change. This summer holiday is my first real time off all year, something I will not be repeating I hope in 2014.

Holidays allow us to step away from our routines, to leave chores behind and expose us to new situations that replenish our soul. They’re the chance to get fresh air and exercise, to reconnect relationships- be that with partner, children, family, or friends. They’re the chance to meet new people, to experience new or favourite places, do novel things, or the activities you most love doing. They’re the opportunity to find moments to relax, sleep more, to read a book, to savour food, wine and most of all to find our breath and centre ourselves.

Whilst most of that list can be done without children, there are things that I think holidaying with children do to generate greater wellbeing restoration. My last post discussed what having children does for the wellbeing of adults facing terminal illness; research shows that having holidays also increases the wellbeing of cancer patients. Our moments with our children fly by so fast- holidays provide ideal ways to overdose on capturing the memories of being with our children. Whilst children may seem a whirlwind of energy necessitating your own storm of parenting effort in return, being with children actually forces us to slow down, to savour the little things more, to pace ourselves.

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The best thing though that having children does is it gives us the perfect opportunity to recreate the treasured memories we have of our own childhood and ones that suit our values, now that we are parents. We can do this in the full realisation as adults of just how amazing and special being a child is, so that we truly appreciate the episodes in a way that we could not possibly do as children, when we thought that childhood would last for ever. In a way, it should last for ever and with having children it does.

Helping our children create their own magic holiday memories means pushing the boundaries for all of us- both parents and children alike as we engage in activities that may make us slightly fearful for our own abilities, and maybe for the safety of our children. Yet, it is in this space that we all grow, learn and find ourselves. There are powerful skills that we can teach our children as well- ways that we can tackle our fears to conquer mountains, overcome challenges and acquire new abilities. To me holidays are all about adventures- of the mind, the body, of places.

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On our holiday, apart from tripping around most days to new and old favourite haunts, our adventures were mainly about fossicking in rock pools, climbing rocks, exploring limestone canyons and caves and boulder hopping on rocky beaches. Teaching coping strategies to our little charges is an excellent reminder to ourselves of the techniques we need to employ to cope with the more frustrating and challenging aspects of holidaying with children. Breathe.

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I’ve got two weeks left of my break, based at home now and plenty of home chores to achieve in that time. I’m in absolutely no rush whatsoever, though to return to work. Work can most certainly wait.

I can’t wait however, to go on my next family holiday, to build those memories, find my inner child, discover new challenges to get all of us out of our comfort zone and grow personally and as a family. Unquestionably there’s going to be a beach, bonfire and some rocks in there somewhere. In fact, with all the unpacking still to do but my partner back at work tomorrow, it’s incredibly tempting to throw it all back in the car and sneak away for a mother-daughter adventure.

Life is precious

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This wasn’t the first blog entry I had planned to write. The topic I had in mind was entirely different- philosophical and thought-provoking, yet in keeping with the festive season. It should appear next week all going to plan just in time for Christmas. However, this weekend, life had other plans for me, or more specifically some rather nasty gastroenteritis-causing virus that so typically since becoming a mother danced around the edges of my existence, causing discomfort but not disabling, before it so nicely waged war on MissBB (my only child, aged 4) and my other half. Naturally, this leaves me, the maternal force in this household taking charge, keeping on going, whilst the afflicted victims crank up far too much screen-time in a pallid, limp state.

I am grateful that in the last four years that this is only the second stomach bug my daughter has faced, due I am sure to the extended breastfeeding relationship we have had (expect more on that in later posts). However, it had a violent onslaught at 1am Saturday night and the rest of the night thereafter. The multiple bed changes and all the necessary nurturing, I am sure all parents have to go through at times when their children are similarly attacked by such nasty viral visitors, is exhausting. I should say here that this is but another layer of exhaustion on top of the general working mum fatigue and the fatigue of someone living in Christchurch three years post the quakes that have ravaged my city.

I work an incredibly full-on job as a part-time academic (0.8FTE paid….) but typically far from part-time in hours (more to come in future posts on this). Many part-time parents can relate to this familiar tale of the realities of part-time employment, full time parenting. Some of the flow-on effects can be found here and here (tip of the iceberg- I’ll delve into this intermittently in my future posts). My work comes home with me every night and once the parenting is done, the household chores are sorted, the late shift of work begins. This weekend I had (heck, have, as yet to start) some pressing work to finish, deadlines to meet.

When MissBB first called out at 1am I was trying to get my head around what exactly those work tasks were and decide how I could prioritise to do them the next day. Amongst my instant and instinctive response to attend to my child’s needs, but mainly in the aftermath lying beside her trying in vain to sleep in between holding the bowl for her vomiting episodes, my mind was the pressure of the work tasks ahead of me and the impossibility of the situation. How could I get it all done? Eventually I let go and still much later sleep finally  but briefly slipped over me after 4 am.

Yet nestled within the unpleasantness of dealing with someone being so violently ill, there was a strange but recognisable beauty. Holding my daughter’s hair gently back from her face, whilst she without a whisper of complaint held her head over a bowl for the first time and then again and again reminded me of all the times my mother and partners over the years have done that for me and it felt so soft and gentle to be doing this. Wiping her face with a cool cloth after each episode and holding a cup whilst she ever so delicately sipped water to take away the acid burn was such a symbol of nurturing also, that I couldn’t quite help but be touched by the intimacy of the moments my daughter and I shared.

In the morning that followed with my mind telling my brain to be still about the tasks as yet to be started, I found a pressing need for calm. My daughter needed me and my full attention whilst she lay on the couch, limp, pale and feverish and so uncharacteristically still and quiet. And whilst I may have momentarily glimpsed a sense of panic within me when she curled up on top of me to doze mid-morning for well over an hour (that to-do list just itched to burst into a loud song) , I chose instead to savour that time. My arms curled around her whilst she lay on me in the fetal position like she was a newborn let four years flash before my eyes. It felt so special and so incredibly precious to be holding my daughter and to have this moment that it needed to be cherished, saved up, remembered.

Perhaps I was more sensitive to the need to hold, be still and calm, and reflect this particular weekend. The tragic death of my boss’s wife when their car hit a rogue horse on the road on Thursday reminds me that life is indeed too precious and sometimes far too short. Our greatest gift to the world and to ourselves is our children. No matter how unpleasant the job of parenting may seem at times there is always beauty and tenderness that can be found. Forget the to-do list – it will still be there. Take the time instead to savour the gift you created.