Thursday, June 18, 2015

Late Blooming Sap

Most of the time, I’ve been pretty firmly on the non-sentimental end of the Mom spectrum. While others cried putting their babies on the kindergarten bus, I waved with a bright smile then went inside and had a virtual margarita. (Not a real one - I’m not much of a drinker - but I like to have mental drinks to celebrate things.)  Generally, the older my kids get, the better I like them. I love seeing them move on in life, become more mature, learn new things and leave me behind for new interests they’re excited about. My babies not needing me anymore is a good thing in my book.

So what a surprise to find myself crying at the Forest Hills 6th grade final Parade through the Halls.

This was new one on me – though my first kid started at Forest Hills some thirteen years ago, I don’t remember this event happening before. Sure, my first year there, I went to the outdoor Celebration of Learning, which very soon became known in our house as Baking on a Hill While Not Caring about Box Tops for Education (I told you, we’re not so sentimental here). I noticed that only the other first grade parents were there (suckers) and figured I could skip that one in the future. But as my final kids were preparing to exit Forest Hills, I heard about this 6th grade procession and I thought, hey, I can get away from my desk for that.  The younger kids and any parents who could make it would line the hallways and cheer the sixth grade classes as they walked through.

So, I got there on time, said hi to a couple of moms and dads and grabbed a spot along the route. As usual, I didn’t have a camera so I got out my phone, figuring this showed at least some sense of the significance of the occasion. I wouldn’t want the kids to think I didn’t care about their milestone. The intercom system that normally only sends out barely intelligible crackling messages from the principal started to play Pomp & Circumstance.

And then, I blubbered.

It wasn’t about the kids at all – many of whom I knew from years of being in the school. Most of them looked self-conscious or bored, alarmed at my occasional attempts to high-five them. I used to teach 7th grade, and I recognize the signs. They were ready for middle school for sure. Somehow it was about the school itself. Just thinking I wouldn’t have any reason to come here anymore. Gratitude to all the teachers who guided and taught and cared about all my children for more than a decade. Long after the shuffling, awkward parade was over, I stood in a line to hug the principal and cried again. What the heck?  I guess I’m a late-blooming sap.

You always learn the most from the parents who are maybe five years ahead of you. And there’s one thing they’re always saying. Pay attention, savor these moments, because you will miss them later on. I never did regret the ending of the dubious joys of toddlerhood, but I think I’ve finally arrived at my sappy threshold. I guess it’s time to get the camera and the Kleenex for the final lap of parenting. I am going to miss these moments, after all.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Coming Soon: Managing Kids' Expectations

Every year, I get a reliable laugh out of my cardiology appointment. An ultrasound is part of it. They get me in there, I conquer the task of putting on that weird robe that somehow seems to have three arm holes, I lie down, and right before they put this ultrasound scanner against my chest, they warn me, “This gel may be cold.”

Lord have mercy! Not cold gel!  Because that would be way worse than other things they’ve done to me at that hospital, like slicing me wide open and taking babies out of me. I have to laugh.

What they’re trying to do, though, has a point. It’s generally easier to get through tough things when you know what to expect. That’s even truer for kids.  Because of their emotional immaturity, they can fly apart at all kinds of situations.  If you know your kid and trust that feeling in the pit of your stomach, you can often tell ahead of time what the pitfall might be.  Managing their expectations with a three-part process goes a long way to help head off trouble:

1)  Tell them that something tough will or may happen. This could be all kinds of things. It could be something obvious that most kids dislike, like a shot. It could also be something particular to your child, for example, the likelihood of losing a game against older kids for a competitive child. It could be a change in routine if your child gets thrown by changes.  Let your kid know that this situation may cause some discomfort.

2)  Explain why this tough thing has to happen and anything you’ve done to mitigate it.  For example, why the routine has to change that day, or how the older kids are going to be supportive of you as you are learning the new game. It helps if the suffering isn’t pointless and if people are trying to make it as tolerable as possible.

3)  Give them a mental script to respond to the tough situation. Kids typically lack the wisdom and experience to roll with the punches.   They need parents to coach them in self-talk before situations that are tough for them.  For example, the competitive kid could be coached ahead of time to think, “My goal today is just to learn the rules of this new game. I’ll probably lose and that’s ok.”  An inflexible child could be coached to think, “I’m disappointed, but I can handle this change in our plans.” Even if it’s not true (yet), you’re helping put a wise voice in your kids’ heads so they can develop this ability over time.

Usually just talking through these steps is sufficient. For big-deal situations or kids who really struggle with expectations, take a cue from the autism community and put it in writing (google “social stories, Carol Gray” for more on this).  For example, before surgery, or before starting a new school that the child is nervous about, reading and re-reading a paragraph about what will (or may) happen, and how to think positively about it, really helps.

Next time I see the Cold Gel guy, I hope he’ll do a more thorough job of managing my expectations. He will not only tell me the gel may be cold. He will also tell me I need this ultrasound to help my heart and that he warmed the gel up as much as he could.  He’ll tell me that I can handle the cold gel for the sake of my heart. 

I think I feel calmer already.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Get Used to Disappointment

Like all geeks everywhere, I love the movie The Princess Bride. There’s a scene in it where the master swordsman Inigo Montoya is fighting the mysterious Man in Black. Montoya just can’t believe how good this mystery man is and curiosity consumes him.  The following conversation ensues as their blades clash in an amazing virtuoso display:

Inigo Montoya: Who are you?
Man in Black: No one of consequence.
Inigo Montoya: I must know . . .
Man in Black: Get used to disappointment.
Inigo Montoya:  (shrugs) Okay.

I love to think about this related to kids, because teaching them that they can handle disappointment is one of best gifts we can give them.   Kids are definitely not born with this ability. Babies cry insistently because they actually can’t survive being disappointed of their simple eating and sleeping needs. Toddlers and preschoolers are even worse because their expectations are higher. The disappointment of not having the right shape of chicken nugget, or the trauma of having a corner broken off the NutriGrain bar might kill them.  The result of disappointment is a tantrum.  Learning not to have tantrums is partly learning better ways to get what you want, but mostly a lifelong “get used to disappointment” process.

I got a glimpse into how this works this past summer. We were at the lake with a big group of extended family. One morning, my brother, sister and a couple of cousins decided to canoe over to Diver’s Rock, the site of fondly remembered yet perhaps ill-advised adolescent jumping adventures. Kid 5 wanted to come along. In my normal foggy-headed way, I guess I didn’t really think this through:   that everyone would revisit their childhoods and actually jump off this thing. But there we were with an intrepid four-foot-high girl, with inadequate footwear, who really wanted to race down this slanting rock face and launch at the perfect moment like her parents and aunts and uncles and teen cousins and – I was not okay with it. I could feel my cousin, who is still parenting toddlers, tensing up next to me. I could feel the “walking on eggshells” feeling still inside me as well, carrying over from ancient days, plus simple sadness at how she was going to feel.  But after explaining why she couldn’t jump this year, I just said, “You can handle disappointment.”  And miracle of miracles, she didn’t fly apart. She even rationalized, “I guess I didn’t even know we were going to a place we could jump until just now.”  She put her disappointment into perspective for herself. 

“You can handle disappointment” is something we parents need to say to and believe about our kids. Kids are not made of glass. When their problem-solving fails . . .when they don’t get their way. . . their emotions won’t kill them. They may never really “get used to disappointment,” but with coaching, modeling, and practice in the school of hard knocks, they can learn to shrug and say, “Okay.” That’s the gift of resiliency we can give our kids for life.