Parenting

Why don't I feel like I'm bonding with my newborn?

It takes time to feel attached to someone you just met, even if they grew inside you, so try to drop the guilt and get to know them.

If you’ve Googled about your lack of attachment to your newborn, you’ve probably also come across research that says early bonding is linked to everything from better mental health to smarter kids. Uh, no pressure or anything. But, despite what those sentimental diaper ads lead you to believe, not all parents fall in love with their child at first sight. In fact, in a 2018 meta-analysis, Norwegian researchers found that a sense of detachment from a new baby is common for moms—as is the ensuing guilt and shame.

I asked Deborah MacNamara, a clinical counsellor and director of Kid’s Best Bet Counselling in Vancouver, about those feelings, and she confirms they’re not unusual at all. “The idea that our child comes out and we’re not instantly madly in love with them? Well, we don’t know that child yet! We’re just getting to know them and they’re getting to know us.”

What’s important is that you’re able to take care of your child, she says. “Sing to them, touch them, feed them. Once you take responsibility in that way, your caring will come.” MacNamara stresses that attachment isn’t a task to achieve; it’s something that develops over time.

To help your connection along, watch for early signs that your baby has fallen in love with you example, when they follow your voice, gaze at your face and snuggle into you.  As difficult as those early days and weeks with your new baby can be, you’ll find yourself melting with love soon enough. But if you are concerned about how you’re feeling about your new baby, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider. You may be experiencing the baby blues or postpartum depression, both of which are common and treatable.

a graphic that says '10 normal questions all moms Google' with 'stupid,' 'weird' and 'embarassing' crossed out

Parenting

Prepare thyself: One day, your kid will watch porn

It may be a decade or more away, but it will probably happen—and if you do the right things while they’re little, you can help mitigate any potential negative effects.

I thought I was ahead of the game when I installed parental controls on my son’s tablet at the tender age of seven. But one day about a year later, when the controls had accidentally been switched off, I found this in his search history: “looking at girls without there tops on.”

He hadn’t made it past the tiny images in the search results, but he’d broken a rule against internet use without an adult, so I knew I had to set a consequence around his tablet privileges. At the same time, I didn’t want to associate a feeling of shame around his very natural curiosities about sex and the human body. And yet, the internet is a scary place, so what now? Hide old copies of Playboy around the house and let him satisfy his curiosity the old-fashioned way?

Porn is a tricky topic for parents. Clearly, an eight-year-old is way too young for it. But it’s never too early, it turns out, to have conversations that can protect them from the worst aspects of porn down the road.

What’s so scary about porn, anyway?

Again, eight-year-olds obviously shouldn’t be exposed to sexually explicit pictures or videos. But what is it, exactly, that freaks most parents out about the idea of their kids watching porn even as teenagers? Some worry it will lead to their kid having sex earlier than they might have, or worse, becoming porn addicts, sex addicts, risk-takers, violent or otherwise messed-up. But the scientific research doesn’t find real evidence of that. On the other hand, some porn can have some positive mental health effects, particularly for queer or trans youth.

If the effect on behaviour isn’t parents’ main concern, what is? According to Jessica Wood, a researcher with the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada, it’s the effect on a kid’s attitudes—and this fear is legit. “If youth are consuming sexually explicit material and they don’t have critical media literacy skills, a person to talk to about it and a place to turn to where they know the information is good, then this could impact their attitudes,” she says. The result is that kids might internalize stereotypes around gender, sexual orientation and sexual identity, or might believe that sex should be a grand performance.

And the skills, those conversations, those resources that can prevent kids from developing those negative perceptions and attitudes? Parents can begin instilling and offering them at a young age—as in, while watching Paw Patrol. Yes, that young.

Good examples crowd out bad

No one’s suggesting parents talk to kindergarteners about pornography. But how about a chat about lack of female representation on their favourite show? “How come there’s only one girl dog? What’s up with that?” says Wood, illustrating the kinds of conversations parents can initiate to develop media literacy skills. “Ask them questions like: ‘Is that what’s going on in your classroom?’” Pointing out a lack of girls in a cartoon may seem to have nothing to do with how your kid might handle porn as a teenager, but the research says it does. A kid who knows how to recognize a lack of respect or equality will be better equipped to deal with harder-core versions of that later on.

Similarly, talking to young kids about consent and healthy relationships from a very young age can mitigate the negative effects of some types of porn a decade later. “When my sons and I recently watched Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, I paused during a scene where Merlin has magically changed shape into a chipmunk and a female chipmunk won’t leave him alone, to talk about how ignoring a clear ‘no’ shouldn’t be played for laughs,” says Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, a Canadian non-profit organization that promotes digital and media literacy. Just be careful that you don’t sound too negative about the show you’re critiquing, he warns. If kids feel like we’re telling them not to like something they enjoy, they might tune us out.

If kids also know how to access high-quality resources to satisfy their natural curiosities about their bodies and sexuality, they’re less likely to turn to unhealthy ones. Wood recommends the Every Body Curious video series by sex educator Nadine Thornhill and researcher Eva Bloom. Aimed at kids aged 9-12, it goes beyond “the talk” to help both parents and kids get comfortable talking about love, healthy relationships and consent. Wood is also a big fan of the book Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg. In addition to providing solid information about puberty and other standard fare, says Wood, “it also talks about having good relationships and being a good person. It establishes sexuality in the values of respect, care, and justice.”

Look for opportunities in your day-to-day life to talk to your kids about things like relationships, consent, body image or human diversity in media. We worry that one day, our kids will experience negative representations of these topics in pornography, but Johnson argues that your kids are already seeing them “in other kinds of sexualized media, like music videos and video games.” So have those conversations early.

The bottom line is that when kids understand equality and respect, and can discern what’s trustworthy, it’s like a vaccine against the most troubling aspects of porn. As they get older, they’ll likely make better choices about what they seek out, and won’t be as influenced by media (whether online or not) that shows stereotypical, violent or disturbing things.“The stronger the positive message they get from you, the less space there is for problematic media representations to have an influence,” says Johnson.

What about parental controls? 

Parental controls work by restricting what kids can access on the internet and experts agree they can be a useful tool. But they aren’t perfect, and won’t always perfectly filter out all adult content. Plus, down the road, they’ll also block your child from accessing good information on sexuality. Parental controls can’t be a substitute for the skills kids will need eventually. “They’re going to have access at some point in their lives,” says Wood. “And we want them to go into that with the best tools they can have.”

“The most important thing for parents to do when kids start using the internet more independently is to clearly communicate the rules and values they expect their children to follow when they’re online,” says Johnson. MediaSmarts produces a handy contract that parents and children can sign before a child is given a new device, covering all aspects of online safety and respect. Parents should review those rules with their kids regularly.

What if young kids still end up seeing something X-rated? 

If you think it’s rare for kids to be exposed to pornography, you may not have spent much time in elementary school lunchrooms. Although the data on these kinds of events are sparse, they tend to involve kids stumbling upon images rather than seeking them out, according to Wood. Still, by the time kids are twelve, seven percent have made purposeful visits to pornography sites. That percentage is higher if considering boys only, but even here, check your stereotypes: MediaSmarts research shows that kids are less likely to visit porn sites if their household has rules against it—and those rules are more often in place for girls.

So what if, like me, parental controls fail, or a pop-up ad defeats them, and your kid sees something disturbing or simply not age-appropriate?

First of all, hopefully you discovered this because your child told you about it. “The top rule for kids should be to tell their parents right away any time they have problems online, whether it’s somebody contacting them through the chat function on Minecraft or Roblox, or a video turning out to be something other than what they expected,” says Johnson.

The top rule for parents, he adds, is “to not freak out when they do.” It may be difficult to stay calm, but it’s essential. “We want children to feel comfortable turning to us for help and advice when these incidents happen,” says Johnson.

Take a deep breath, and start with something like, “Thank you for telling me.” Ask them in a non-judgmental way what they saw and how it made them feel, and answer any questions they might have. Remind kids that most porn is acted and not realistic. As Thornhill explains, kids understand that car-chase scenes in movies aren’t realistic because they have direct experience with cars, but they won’t have that context when it comes to sex.

Know that as shocked or even appalled as you may be, saying things like, “How could you look at stuff like that?!” or “This stuff is really bad” to a naturally curious kid could do more damage than porn itself. “Shaming by parents is absolutely worse than seeing sexually explicit media that is confusing or makes them uncomfortable,” says Terry Humphreys, psychology professor and editor of the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. “Shaming them only perpetuates a cycle of negativity with respect to their own understanding of sexuality.”

And if you’re breathing into a paper bag, remember it’s OK if you don’t know what to do immediately. Parents sometimes worry about not having the right answers and so chose to say nothing. “But you can seek out the answers,” says Wood. “You can find that information and bring it back to them.” As with many things in parenting, saying nothing is saying something. According to Humphreys, many parents believe that they are open to their child coming to them with sexuality questions, but if the topic is typically met with silence, awkwardness or negativity, the kid is likely to turn elsewhere.

Starting early works

For my family, the foundational approach paid off. Ever since the “girls without tops on” incident, my son and I have had frank conversations about how it’s natural to be curious about sex and nudity, but the internet contains a mix of OK and not-OK things, so he should always talk with me first. My son is now almost thirteen, and he recently sat me down on the couch and said quite matter-of-fact: “Mom, I think I’m ready to look at, what’s that thing called again? Erotica? Yeah, that. I’m not ready for anything else yet.” He’s reportedly happy with a photos-only website called “Boobs Around the World,” which sounds like something a 13-year-old heterosexual boy would have created.

This may sound daunting to parents who haven’t encountered the teen years yet. But personally, I’m far less fearful that my son is vulnerable to the darker corners of the internet, even though I give him a fair bit of online autonomy at this age.

Even when my son was eight, when his tablet privileges were still on hiatus, I had indications that communication channels hadn’t been damaged. “Mom, I’ve noticed something about boys.” He looked at me, doe-eyed and earnest. “When they look at something they like, their crotches get hard. Have scientists discovered this yet?”

Yes, sweetheart. They have.

Parenting

8 parenting phrases you probably say that can totally backfire

Why experts say phrases like "I'm proud of you," "Use your words" and "Hands are not for hitting" might not give you the results you expected.

As a developmental psychologist who helps parents and children learn best practices for maintaining caring relationships, Lele Diamond thinks a lot about what adults should and shouldn’t say to kids. And yet, when her nephew loomed over her niece with a lightsaber, she heard herself say: “Oh, no, thank you!”

“That is absolutely not what you want to be saying when you’re warning somebody off of physical violence,” she says.

Don’t get her wrong—it’s a good thing that parents these days recognize the need to be positive and warm in their communication with their kids. What’s not so great are the verbal tics we’ve developed to take the edge off when trying to correct undesirable behaviour and be effusive in reinforcing what we like. The experts say many of us are getting it wrong with these phrases. Luckily, there are some easy swaps.

PARENTING PHRASE #1: “No, thank you”

Why it backfires: The phrase “No, thank you” in place of “don’t” or “stop” has gained popularity with parents in recent years. But Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, says the true purpose of “No, thank you” is to communicate “I don’t want that, but thank you for offering it to me.” When caregivers use it to soften a “no”—for example, in response to a child trying to snatch something from our hands—we send a confusing message. It also misses the mark on helping kids understand why their behaviour isn’t working, adds Toronto-based parenting coach Sarah Rosensweet. What’s more, in her experience, “no, thank you” can be disingenuous, with a parent feeling disapproving and even upset but uttering this saccharine phrase in a sing-songy voice.

The phrase is also seen by some as dangerous for girls specifically. “It tells them an assertive ‘no’ is not acceptable,” says Diamond, and that they always have to “put things in a way that takes care of the other person.”

What to say instead: It’s simple: Just say no. “It’s okay to set a really stern, firm limit,” says Markham. Rosensweet suggests starting a sentence with “Let’s not …” and finishing with an explanation (for example, “Let’s not wrap that cord around your sister’s neck. I know it makes the perfect puppy leash, but the only way for her to get air is through her throat and she could get hurt badly”). What if you accidentally say it out of habit? “Just correct it in the moment,” says Diamond. You could say, “Actually, cancel that. What I meant was ‘no.’ Just ‘no.’” Modeling the ability to backtrack and fix a mistake can in fact be more potent than just doing it right the first time, she says.

PARENTING PHRASE #2: “We don’t” or “big kids don’t”

Why it backfires: When a parent says “We don’t do that in this family,” it feels to a child like we’re telling them they’re wrong for having the desire, and that all of us good, kind people don’t have similar impulses, says Diamond.

If your kid just hit their sibling and you respond with, “We don’t hit in this family,” it can sound to your kid like “they are outside the family and don’t belong,” says Rosensweet. She adds that it’s a phrase meant to shame, and can introduce insecurity.

What to say instead: Rather than “we don’t hit,” try empathizing: “I see you’re frustrated, and I totally get why you would want to smack your brother. Last week my boss made me so angry I wanted to throw a highlighter at her!” Then focus on simple truths (“Getting hit will hurt her body and her feelings”) and propose alternative behavior (“Tell her why you’re angry” or “Tear up this sheet of paper into as many pieces as you can”). Maren Schmidt, the early childhood educator behind the popular Montessori newsletter Kids Talk, says parents would be smart to phrase instructions in terms of what a child should do, not what they shouldn’t do. So while “don’t bite” is better than “we don’t bite,” “be gentle” and “chew food, not arms” are more constructive.

PARENTING PHRASE #3: “Hands are not for hitting”

Why it backfires: This statement might work well for very young children who quite literally don’t know yet that hitting isn’t OK, but it’s condescending otherwise. “Unless your child is under two, they already know this,” says Rosensweet. “It’s not an information gap. They’re doing it because they can’t help it, because they are disregulated. So responding with ‘hands are not for hitting’ is like, no shit.”

What to say instead: When a kid who knows better hits, it’s because they need help managing their emotions and resolving a conflict in a more acceptable way, says Rosensweet. Jump in and help. Don’t treat them like they’re an idiot who forgot the rule.

PARENTING PHRASE #4: “Was that a good choice?”

Why it backfires: Your child is angry at their sibling and whacks them with a toy. After you console the hurt kid, you turn to the angry kid and ask, “Was that a good choice?” But what kids will hear is, “Was the choice to get angry a good choice or a bad choice?” Trouble is, the emotion wasn’t a choice at all, says Diamond. “It was an experience that happened to them.” To frame it as a choice “is like saying that they want to be bad,” says Rosensweet.

What’s more, a child’s calculus can be complicated: “From the perspective of, ‘Was it effective in helping me vent my anger?’ Well, yeah, it was, but I’m not getting the lightsaber back for a whole week now,” says Diamond. Markham echoes Diamond’s point: “The kid already knows it’s a choice the grown-ups didn’t want him to make.”

So why do parents even say this? “Parental sadism,” says Diamond. In moments of frustration, a lot of us will end up shaming our kids. “Like, ‘you have been torturing me for an hour so I’m asking you this question, because I want you to suffer a little bit,’” she explains.

What to say instead: “You must have been so upset with your sister—tell me about it,” acknowledges the complexity of a child’s choice, and it’s a way to connect before trying to correct or redirect, Markham says. Even a subtle change—most importantly, dropping the shorthand to show you really want to engage in a back-and-forth and not just rub their nose in a mistake—can work. Diamond suggests: “Did the choice to keep standing there over your sister work out well for you, or is there something else that you wish you would have done?” The idea is to find a way to genuinely ask “What were you thinking?” without wielding those words like a judgmental weapon.

When you’re pretty sure your kid made a considered, unemotional choice to, say, draw on the walls with markers, asking them if they think they made a good choice, or how they feel about it, won’t be as effective calmly issuing a logical consequence: “The markers will live on top of the refrigerator now, and you’ll have to ask when you want to use them. In a week, we can try again to see if they can live on your table and find their way onto paper, not walls.” Then plop your kid in the tub with washable paints to address the underlying need for a fun, transgressive-feeling outlet for their creativity.

PARENTING PHRASE #5: “Use your words”

Why it backfires: This phrase is so popular, it even made its way into a Daniel Tiger song: “Are you sad? Are you hungry? Do you need a hug? Or you want someone to play? Use your words and say how you feel. Use your words, use your words!” 

While being able to do so would be lovely for everyone involved, Markham says it’s often not possible: “Children don’t know what words to say, and in a moment of upset, they are cut off from the actual thinking part of the brain.”

“I hate ‘use your words’ so much,” says Rosensweet. “If they could use their words, they would!” Imagine being truly upset in a conversation with your partner, crying and shouting, and they tell you to use your words. It would not go over well, Rosensweet says: “It’s like nails on a blackboard.”

What to say instead: Markham recommends giving the child the specific words they need: “You can tell your brother, ‘Move please.’ You can tell your sister, ‘I’d like a turn.’ Put the words right in their mouth,” she says.

PARENTING PHRASE #6: “OK?”

Why it backfires: “It’s time to put on your jammies, OK?” Almost every parent is guilty of this one. But when we say say this, we’re not really asking. Usually, we’re just trying to get buy-in, or reassurance of their intent to cooperate. But Schmidt, the Montessori guru, warns that by ending your request with “OK?” your kid might think they have a choice, and in most cases, you’re not truly offering one. The way Rosensweet sees it, when adding “OK?” to an instruction, you’re either intending to follow through regardless of how they respond and are a little insincere in asking, or you are giving up your role as a strong leader. Neither is a great option.

What to say instead: Just drop the “OK?” and maybe sub it with a “please” or a “thank you.”

“It’s reasonable to use please when you give your children guidance,” says Markham. She suggests, “We’re in the library now, so you need to lower your voice, please,” and adds that, “It’s very reasonable to thank them after we do it (‘I really appreciate how you lowered your voice when we entered the library’).” Just make sure you don’t throw out a “thank you” when the child hasn’t done anything to merit one!

PARENTING PHRASE #7: “Good job,” “I’m proud of you,” and “Good girl/boy” 

Why it backfires: “Good job” is one of Diamond’s least favourite phrases, and the research backs her up. For example, research finds that the more we say “good job” to a child, the less they raise their hand in class. Why? Without us meddling, kids act out of natural curiosity and internal motivation. Overusing phrases like “good job!” and “so proud of you!” turns kids into “praise junkies,” says Markham, and creates a kid who is dependent on external affirmation. What’s more, these phrases don’t even accomplish parents’ primary goal—making children feel seen and heard and appreciated—because, “it sounds reflexive, like a social nicety, or like something you might not really mean.”

“Giving our kids ‘good job’ tickets when they do stuff that conforms to our ideal of what a child should be gets in the way of appreciating who they really are,” says Schmidt. “Good boy” and “good girl” also imply conditionality, suggesting your child is only valued when behaving or achieving. The end result? Potentially lowering self-esteem and resilience, not boosting them.

What to say instead: “You did it!” mirrors your child’s own enthusiasm rather than assessing whatever it is they’ve done. Getting more specific also works—describe what you saw and then use a word that sums it up, Schmidt suggests. For example: “I see you figured that puzzle out all by yourself. That’s what I call sticking with it!” Markham likes to point out the benefits of the accomplishment for the child so they “can decide whether to repeat the behaviour to get that good feeling inside.” That includes pride. “You must feel so proud of yourself” sounds similar to “I’m proud of you” but it sends kids a different message.

PARENTING PHRASE #8: “You’re so smart” and “You’re the best”

Why it backfires: The work of American psychologist Carol Dweck revealed that kids who hear these phrases begin to internalize that they should be able to get things right on the first try. Rather than seeing their brains as muscles that grow stronger with use and their current skill sets as temporary, everything feels fixed. Calling the phrase “insidious,” Markham says she actually forbade her mother-in-law from testing her son on the colours and then saying, “You’re so smart,” when he got one right. “Sooner or later, she’s going to get to a colour he doesn’t know, and what happens then?” He’ll think, “I guess I’m not smart after all.” Then there’s a dad she knows who routinely tells his ballet-loving daughter that she’s the best dancer. “She’s only five—she’s not the best dancer in the world,” sighs Markham. Implying otherwise puts potentially harmful pressure on a child and makes them think life is a performance. Despite parents’ best intentions, what children hear is, “I only love you when ….”

“When we feel that conditionality, it really can shape who we become,” says Rosensweet.

What to say instead: Here too, the trick is to flex your brain a little and get descriptive. For example: “You just kept trying and you figured out how to attach that stuffed animal to your purse!” Parents are often told to praise effort, not just the results, and that’s key, but don’t forget to also speak to your child’s pleasure, says Markham. Phrases like, “You are really enjoying dancing these days, aren’t you?” also draw children into conversation instead of evaluating.

“What parents need to know,” she says, “is that the best kind of encouragement is to enjoy what your child is doing.” And a stock phrase can’t do that. “There’s an aspect of building a core sense of self based on being recognized by others,” Diamond says, and only responding to kids with specificity and intentionality does the trick. There are no shortcuts.

Parenting

How to get your kids to use the bathroom all by themselves

Even once your kid is out of diapers, they still need a lot of help in the bathroom. Here's how to encourage them to master those skills—and get yourself on the other side of the bathroom door.

Whether potty training was a walk in the park or a long, painful process, it’s a pretty big moment when your kid can finally recognize the need to go—and hold it until they make it to the washroom.

But even once you’ve kicked daytime diapers to the curb (woohoo!), toilet-trained kids will still need an adult’s help to get through all the elements of the bathroom routine. You may not mind wiping, flushing and washing for your kid, but working toward bathroom independence—where your kiddo can handle the whole process from beginning to end without assistance—is a good and necessary step for kids as they enter preschool and kindergarten.

Here’s how to help them master those skills—and get yourself on the other side of the bathroom door.

Break down the steps

As adults, we’re so used to the typical series of bathroom events that we don’t really think about what we need to do, but to a preschooler, it can be tough to remember all the steps and to do them in the right order. Borrow a trick from preschool: Affix a visual representation of each step of the process on the bathroom wall. “Having visual cues is really helpful, because this happens multiple times a day, and we’re trying to avoid that naggy voice of, ‘Did you do this? Did you do that?’” says Suzie Warneke, an early childhood educator at Wind and Tide, a preschool in Langley, BC.

Draw your own pictures if you’re artistically inclined or look online for a printable. Warneke says that developmentally, young kids can handle a maximum of about five symbols, so pick what’s most important to you. Flushing, putting the seat up and down or turning off the light, for example, may not make the cut.

Assess your bathroom

Look at the space from a preschooler’s point of view. Is it easy to reach the toilet paper, the soap and the towel? Is there a stool that’s both sturdy and easy to move from the toilet to the sink? Some parents even redecorate a bit to ensure the room feels kid-friendly. “I made the bathroom look calming and inviting,” says Danielle Fitzgerald, a mom of two in Thunder Bay, Ont., whose sons, Darius and Silas, are now five and 10. “And since they were right into racing, I bought a soap dispenser that looked like a car.”

Dress your kid for success

Stacey Cham-Klein’s girls, Olivia and Elaina, are all about the party dresses with long, fluffy skirts and sashes. But when each one was four and starting junior kindergarten, the Thunder Bay mom made a point of taking the frocks out of rotation for a bit, since hiking all that extra fabric up could pose a problem. She also put the jeans away, offering stretchy leggings and sweats instead. “Why make them fiddle with buckles and zippers, leading to potential accidents and embarrassment, right?” she says.

Zero in on wiping

First, show them how to get toilet paper off the roll, and how to scrunch or fold it. Don’t get too hung up on the amount of paper they take, says Warneke, as long as it’s not so much that it could clog up the plumbing.

Show how a pee wipe is more of a gentle pat at the front, whereas a poop wipe has to be front to back, to prevent skin irritation and urinary tract infections, especially in girls. The poop wipe, of course, needs to be done a number of times, until the toilet paper isn’t marked anymore. As far as positioning goes, here’s another preschool trick: “Say to them, ‘Tickle your toes,’” says

Fitzgerald, explaining that if your child bends forward on the toilet and touches their toes with one hand, that puts them in a more open position for wiping properly with the other hand and then dropping the used toilet paper in the toilet. You can also try this parent hack: Smear some Nutella, peanut butter or seed butter on a paper plate and have your child wipe it off with toilet paper. This helps them understand how much pressure is needed, and how many wipes are required, to get the job done.

Keep in mind that—despite your best efforts at teaching this skill—you’re going to have to deal with skid marks for a while. C’est la vie!

Choose soap strategically

Liquid hand soap can take a long time to rinse off, whereas foamy soap is quicker and can also help make washing fun for kids. You’ll have to explain how long to scrub for. “Saying ‘wash your hands for 20 seconds’ means nothing to them,” points out Warneke, but singing a favourite song like “Twinkle Twinkle” all the way through means they wash well. Don’t let them run off with wet hands—damp hands are more likely to pick up and spread bacteria than dry hands.

Celebrate all the wins

Finally, keep on celebrating like you did when your kid first started toilet training, says Fitzgerald. “Darius likes to FaceTime my parents when he does something big on his own,” she says. Time for the bathroom party dance!

Parenting

How I stopped being the shouty mom

I was becoming the parent I didn’t want to be. Then I heard about RIE parenting. This alternative style of parenting saved me from myself.

At 18 months old, my easy-going twin daughters, Chloe and Claire, suddenly transformed into tyrant toddlers. They shouted no, cried over who got their diapers changed first and refused to eat the carefully crafted organic meals that their father and I lovingly prepared. I changed, too, right along with them, but not in a good way.

One afternoon, in particular, sticks in my mind. As soon as my girls had finished their snacks, I put them in the gated-off play area in the kitchen so that I could tackle the dishes. But Chloe and Claire immediately started to cry and sign “more.” I eyed the stack of dishes. They climbed like prisoners over the gate to get out of the safe play area, screaming at me. I snapped.

“I just gave you food,” I shouted. “What else do you want from me?” They stared at me, wide-eyed, and screamed even louder. I hated myself for yelling. I didn’t want to be the shouty mom, but here I was, screaming at my daughters for wanting another snack.

That night, I couldn’t sleep, so I Googled “RIE parenting.” A new-mom friend, who seemed impossibly zen with her toddler son, had mentioned that she practised RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers). This parenting philosophy has been around for decades but is spreading like wildfire now. RIE (pronounced “wry”) was founded as a non-profit organization in 1978 by infant specialist and educator Magda Gerber and paediatric neurologist Tom Forrest and now counts Penélope Cruz and Tobey Maguire among its loyal fans. The principle is simple: Trust that your infants and toddlers are capable of participating and playing without a lot of parental intervention. It sounded a little flaky, but my current parenting style—yelling and feeling guilty—clearly wasn’t working.

I had mealtime battles. I had constant panic attacks at the playground, afraid that they’d fall and hurt themselves. I was my kids’ referee when they fought over toys, pushed each other’s faces while nursing or smacked each other. I was exhausted, frazzled and ready to give anything a try.

Lesson #1: Keep calm

In the opening chapter of Janet Lansbury’s eye-opening book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, she writes that you need to “respond in the moment, calmly, like a CEO.” I decided to test this theory by bringing my girls outside to our backyard.

We have a section of gravel in our yard and my twins like to put rocks in their mouths, so I’ve always felt that a one-to-one ratio of supervision is required. Usually, I’ll yell “Don’t eat that!” and wrestle the rocks out of Chloe’s mouth while Claire gleefully grabs a handful of them. But this time, when Chloe stuck a handful of rocks in her mouth, instead of losing it I said, “I don’t want you to put rocks in your mouth,” and then fished them out.

The amazing thing is, as soon as I was calm, they lost interest in their weird rock-eating contest. Instead of chasing them around the yard, I let them play, only intervening if they hit each other or put rocks in their mouths. In the hour spent outside, I was surprised at how well they played without needing much involvement from me. I even sat down on our patio furniture and watched them play happily.

Lesson #2: Lower your expectations

When my daughters were born, they were in the NICU and had trouble gaining weight. Even though our paediatrician assured me that they were healthy, I constantly worried about them gaining weight and became extremely nervous if they didn’t eat all of their food. Ever since then, mealtimes have become a battleground between us.

The author's daughters eating a snack at a small table

Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Chen

At dinner that night, instead of cajoling Chloe and Claire to “eat one more bite” while pushing a spoonful of food into their mouths, I followed Lansbury’s advice about food fights. “Lower your expectations about mealtime,” she writes. “Since toddlers sense our feelings, wiping the slate clean and projecting confidence and calmness work best.” This time, I didn’t fret over each bite they didn’t take. I sat with them while they ate in their high chairs. I didn’t count bites. I didn’t hover with a spoon. I ate a snack of almonds while they munched. They ate, I cleaned them up and then they played. The drama disappeared.

Lesson #3: Trust your child

The biggest RIE test for me was the playground. Before RIE, I stuck to my daughters like glue, watching their every move and stressing out over every ledge they were near. I was convinced that they’d break an arm if I wasn’t right next to them. The next time we went to the playground, my husband and I stayed at the bottom of the play structures while they climbed and used the slides. It took me weeks to let go of my nervousness, but I observed something tremendous over time—something that Nervous Me never saw: how capable and confident my daughters are at the playground. I could see their wheels turning while they climbed a ladder. Without me acting as an annoying coach, I witnessed Chloe and Claire try new things each time we went.

Why is RIE so effective?

I spoke with RIE parenting expert Janet Lansbury about why this style of parenting works. (When I told my mom friends I was interviewing Lansbury, there was a collective gasp. “She’s a celeb in our world,” they said.) “In RIE, parents have a better understanding of their role and what they need to control and what they need to let go of,” she told me. “They understand that it’s positive for children to feel a whole spectrum of feelings. Once they accept where they are, it’s a relief for parents. Instead of trying to control things, you and your children are experts in learning together.”

Some advice that Lansbury shared with me hit home. “We want to micromanage, but when we trust that our children are capable, our children feel more confident,” she says. “As parents, you’re the secure base, and this allows your children to be free to explore.” Before RIE, I was the micromanaging, nagging boss who barked orders and yelled when I wasn’t being heard. No wonder my twins weren’t listening to me.

What I’ve noticed since starting RIE parenting

Instead of doing everything for my twins, they participate in changing their diapers, getting dressed and cleaning up. During meal prep, instead of me doing everything, we work together to strip kale from its stems or make pizza together and they pour on the sauce. I’m not fazed by their double tantrums or anger anymore. I take deep breaths when I’m feeling challenged. I’m more specific with directions. Rather than say “Let’s clean up” in their playroom, I’ll say “I’d like you to put your books in the pink basket.” Now when they fight, I let them resolve it and only intervene if they try to physically hurt each other.

I’m not perfect at RIE. The reality is, I’m human. I get frustrated. I said, “You can’t do this!” to Claire when she was trying to buckle the straps on her high chair. But even the seemingly unflappable Lansbury has her moments. When I asked her about making mistakes as an RIE parent, she says, “I continue to be a work in progress and my children are adults. I’m still challenged to let my children feel their feelings. Allow yourself to be human and make mistakes. We all do.”

Recently, I was away from my daughters for four nights on a work trip. It was the longest we had ever been apart. I knew Chloe and Claire would have some big emotions about me being gone. RIE prepared me to ride out their storms. Two days after I returned home, Chloe had an epic temper tantrum. My husband and I sat with her while she kicked, screamed and cried. When Claire said to me, “No more mama—dada!” during a diaper change, I calmly said, “It sounds like you want your dad. He’s not here right now. I’d like to finish changing your diaper.” Before RIE, Chloe’s tantrum and Claire’s insistence on her dad might have hurt my feelings, but now I realize that all feelings are valid, including ones I might not like.

One of the author's daughters about to go down a slide

Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Chen

The best part of RIE is that I enjoy time with my daughters more than I did before. It’s not that my twins don’t have tantrums anymore or don’t say “no” to my suggestions; it’s just that I don’t lose my mind every second of the day, and that has made all the difference. I’ve seen my daughters’ confidence grow as they learn to put on their pants, help feed the dog and tackle new playground equipment. They love trying new things and aren’t timid about food. Right now, as they approach their second birthday, everything is “no” and “mine,” but instead of screaming and becoming a big ball of stress, I am calmer and happier and, as a result, my daughters are, too.

How to use RIE in everyday situations

Situation: Your child has a tantrum.
What to say using RIE: “I see that you’re really feeling a lot. I’m here for you when you’re ready.”

Situation: You’re frustrated with your child screaming at you.
What to say using RIE: Nothing. See the screaming as an appropriate way for your child to express her valid feelings, not a personal attack. Stick it out, nod and let her wave of emotion pass over you. Be the anchor, and don’t get carried away by her anger. It’s not about teaching your child how to control her emotions; it’s about teaching her how to allow emotions to pass and let them go. It’s about teaching your child how to react appropriately with her behaviour.

Situation: Your child puts something in her mouth that isn’t safe.
What to say using RIE: “I don’t want you to put that in your mouth. It’s not for eating.” If the behaviour continues, say “You’re still putting that in your mouth, so I’m taking it away.

Situation: Your child hits, bites or kicks you.
What to say using RIE: First, physically block your child’s hand or foot to prevent her from hitting you. Then tell her “I see you want to hit me, but I won’t let you because that hurts me.”

Situation: Your child does something you requested.
What to say using RIE: “That’s really kind of you to be so gentle with the dog.” Validate the effort.

This article was originally published online in February 2018.

School-age

Developmental leaps happen well beyond the baby years—here’s what to expect

Some of the toughest phases kids go through result in developmental breakthroughs and new emotional regulation skills.

With five minutes to go before Liz Brenner’s* six-year-old son, Nate,* had to leave for school, he seemed on the verge of a full-blown tantrum. “He was frustrated about the way his sock seam felt inside his boot—it’s always something sensory, which he has traditionally struggled with,” recalls Brenner. Nate got panicky and started stomping around, even stepping on his mom’s bare foot. After Brenner said “Ow!” to the stomped-on foot, a sudden shift happened: Nate looked up at her and pulled himself together.

“I watched him calm down, recover, shake the tantrum out, and then he came over, said ‘Sorry,’ and gave me a hug—all unprompted. And I remember it distinctly because it felt like a turning point. He definitely wouldn’t have been able to calm down on his own six months ago.”

What Brenner witnessed was a combination of self-regulation and the ability to see something from another person’s perspective. Psychologists call this “theory of mind,” and Nate was just at the age when these two things start to spark in kids’ brains.

Brain development in kids under six is an intense process. “From age zero to two, the brain is making a million new neural connections a second,” says Vanessa Lapointe, a Vancouver-based psychologist and author of Parenting Right from the Start. Things like language, gross and fine motor skills, cognition and emotional intelligence are all developing alongside each other and at differing rates. And it goes beyond the leaps in the popular Wonder Weeks app and book you may have consulted when your kid was a baby. The brain continues to overpopulate itself with neurons and neural connections throughout childhood, through the teen years and into adulthood, but it’s “most prolific” for the first six to eight years of life, says Lapointe.

Parents will often report that when their kid is having a burst or progressing in one area, like language, for example, they will become suddenly clumsy, have a really short fuse or experience disrupted sleep. “That’s because of a hyper overdevelopment of neural connections. It causes a muddiness between the neural connections, and that’s where you get that spillover effect,” says Lapointe.

The development of a newborn’s brain into an adult brain—and transforming from an impulsive little kid into a reasonable, mostly rational human—is by no means a smooth process and there will be plenty of meltdowns along the way. But you can take heart in knowing that these growth spurts of the brain will make them more regulated, happier, easier-to-deal-with humans. You just need to get through them first. Here are three major shifts to watch for as your kid grows. 

Managing emotions (age 3 to 7)

A lot of what we eventually expect from kids—the ability to share, do chores, handle disappointment and make compromises—comes from the prefrontal cortex, the last area of the brain to develop. “The brain grows from bottom up,” says Lapointe. The first area of development is the emotional foundation of the brain, called the limbic system, which starts developing at birth. When kids hit the three-to-five-year age range, other layers of the brain start to develop, progressing to the prefrontal cortex, which houses the executive functioning system. Around this age, parents may notice small signs of reasoning and regulation. “We’re starting to see a little bit of sparkiness, but still a complete inability to manage things independently. They are still going to struggle with everyday things, on the regular,” says Lapointe.

Then, somewhere in the five-to-seven-year age range, connections really start to form in the prefrontal cortex region and kids are able to problem-solve and self-regulate. “Instead of having a meltdown, hitting my brother in the face or stealing the toy from my friend, we’re going to think through this and use some logic and some delayed gratification,” Lapointe explains.

It’s not like a light that switches on and stays on, though. Sometimes kids will be able to handle some distress one day, whereas the same situation will send them over the edge the next.

Psychologist Kofi Belfon, associate director of clinical services at the Child Development Institute in Toronto, points out that this is not dissimilar from an adult who has a bad day. “For example, if I had a wonderful day at work and I’m walking in the house and I trip through all the kids’ bags and shoes and all kinds of stuff, I’m much better able to manage that in a regulated way than if I had a crappy day at work. My ability to manage my emotions in that moment was stretched.” The same goes for our kids, he says, adding that whenever we have a behavioural expectation on our kid, we should make sure it’s appropriate for the age they’re at and the situation at hand.

Sharing and empathizing (age 3 to 5)

Have you ever arrived at daycare pickup only to see your kid turn into an unrecognizable wrangy terror? Inevitably, as you stare in bewilderment, the teacher will assure you they were not like this all day long.

What’s going on here, explains Lapointe, is the child’s inability to hold two thoughts in their mind at once. On the one hand, you are their caregiver. On the other hand, so is the daycare teacher. “When they’ve been with the daycare person all day, they know, ‘That’s my person.’ Then their parent walks in the door and now they have to traverse this grey zone.” They’re pulled in two directions and unable to control their emotions, explains Lapointe. “The more intense your child is, the bigger their ‘blah’ at daycare pickup.”

This concept can also impact a kid’s ability to share. “If a child is only able to hold one significant idea in mind at a time, 99.9 percent of the time, that idea is going to be one that’s egocentric. The idea that they are going to hold in mind is the idea that serves them,” says Lapointe. Being self-centred as a toddler is essentially a survival method. It’s not until age five, six or even seven that kids are able to hold on to two ideas at once: for example, the idea that they really want to play with a toy, because it’s their favourite, and the second idea, that if they don’t give their friend a turn, the friend will be sad. “When you can have both those ideas in your mind’s eye at the same time, then you can make a ‘good choice,’” says Lapointe.

Things like sharing also involve the ability to see someone else’s point of view. This is the “theory of mind” concept again. It’s also what allowed Brenner’s son to understand that stepping on her foot hurt her—even if stomping around was making him feel better and providing an emotional release.

“You can weigh out what’s going on and take the perspective of the other person,” explains Lapointe. “You can say, ‘You’re going to have a turn for five minutes, then I’m going to have five minutes.’” But it’s not until age five to seven that kids can really do this. And keep in mind that kids who are tired, hungry or coping with a lot of stressors or things on their mind are not going to be able to see both points of view. “They’ll revert to one or the other, and it will almost always be the egocentric option,” says Lapointe.

Growing up too fast (age 7 to 9)

When kids hit the school-aged years, their worlds suddenly open up beyond the cozy comforts of their homes and primary caregivers. “They become a little too smart, a little too quickly,” says Lapointe.

Children this age are old enough to cognitively understand that there are other forces at work in the world that could disrupt their sense of peace or stability—like their parents could separate or a family member could get in a car accident—but they are not old enough to see the bigger picture and understand that there are systems and other things in place that will provide control, says Lapointe. “It’s a bit of shaky ground to be on developmentally, because you are aware of things cognitively, but emotionally you haven’t developed the complexity of understanding.”

She adds this is why eight- and nine-year-olds seem so grown up some days but other days melt into a puddle over the slightest thing. “It’s like they were looking forward to those preteen years, and then all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Nope, I’m not doing it.’ And they throw the brakes on and slip. They become three and four years old, right before your eyes.”

During the pandemic especially, we’ve seen young kids adapting to new rules, social distancing recommendations, and daily routines, such as switching back and forth between in-person and virtual school—all very grown-up and disruptive things. So Lapointe recommends giving your kid the benefit of the doubt if they are suddenly or uncharacteristically acting like their younger selves: “You should still have rules and boundaries, but when you’re being firm and saying ‘Here’s the expectation,’ the key is to also have some heart and compassion. Match the level of firmness with a giant dose of kindness, so they feel understood rather than shamed.”

Belfon, the psychologist, adds that fear and anxiety are completely natural emotions we all face, and there’s no need to worry if your kid is expressing them. He says the takeaway should be, “As a kid, I might feel sad, but I can manage the sadness because everybody feels sad sometimes.” (If anxiety is interfering with their lives, then you should speak to their doctor.)

Brenner reports that in some moments, Nate’s self-regulation and self-sufficiency skills really shine through, but he’s still struggling at other times. Most days last winter he managed a full day of virtual school on Zoom, mastering grown-up tasks like the mute button and following along with online lessons and journal prompts. But on several occasions he “completely lost it” and dissolved into tears of frustration and lashed out, even during a simple art class YouTube draw-along activity.

“It can really be a roller coaster of emotions, which makes it hard for us, as parents, to constantly adapt and respond without always trying to ‘fix’ every problem or hiccup. But I am beginning to see these glimpses of maturity,” says Brenner.

Lapointe says these kinds of ups and downs, as kids work through all these intense feelings, are completely normal. It’s not always a straight, upward trend: Expect some zig-zags, especially during times of stress. “As parents, we want to make sure we give our kids the benefit of the doubt—they are trying their best.” 

*Names have been changed.

Parenting

We babied our third kid—and now we're paying for it

We even encouraged our older kids to cater to him, and they did so willingly to keep the peace. But now that our "baby" is five, something needs to change.

Our third son is a charmer and he knows it. Chubby little cheeks, big brown eyes and a killer smile. One pouty look and anyone’s heart would melt.

Problem is, he turns on a dime when he doesn’t get his way. My husband referred to him once as a mini-dictator and at times, this is a very fitting description. And it’s totally, 100 percent our fault.

When our second was born, our first was only two years old, so we often felt like we had two babies. Our third son came along when the other two were seven and four, so the new guy was truly the only baby in the family. Our older boys fully understood what was going on and wanted to be immersed in his care, contentment and entertainment.

Peace was fairly easy to uphold while he was in that “blob baby” phase where he couldn’t really do anything and didn’t need much other than to sleep, eat and be cuddled. Enter the toddler years and suddenly things became more challenging. Little toddler humans have big demands and bigger voices such that the path of least resistance is often to just give them their way. And that we did. An awful lot.

We even encouraged our older kids to cater to him, and they did so fairly willingly to keep the peace. They let him play with the toys he wanted, shared their treats with him when he’d devoured his own portion, and let him sit next to me or hold his dad’s hand if that’s what he desired, even if it was an inconvenience to them.

As he got older and emerged past the toddler stage, the pattern continued. It was just what we had always done. And because he was so used to always getting his way, the eruptions that ensued when he didn’t get his way just didn’t seem worth it.

Fast-forward a few years. It’s a random night and we are sitting down for dinner as a family—but there are only four of us at the table. The “baby” (who is now kindergarten-age) has always been a picky eater and has never been great at staying put at the table, so he often feels completely free to just do his own thing during meal time. For some reason, on this night, it was suddenly very apparent that his behaviour and our enabling of it was having an impact on our family unit. Our older two were getting frustrated that their littlest brother was held to a different standard. They started calling us on it and we had little defence.

That is sometimes all it takes—looking at a moment in time and wondering, How did we get here?

It was time for some changes, so we instituted a five-point plan:

  1. Be more deliberate with lessons about sharing and compromise.
  2. Don’t always give the baby first choice.
  3. Suffer through the tantrums, knowing they’ll pass.
  4. Hold everyone to the same standard and remind everyone of that standard often.
  5. Be consistent.

Easy peasy, right? Ha. It’s been a challenge. Undoing bad habits is really hard. We’re making a bit of progress, though. If nothing else, our older boys really appreciate our efforts. Another win: Now when their little brother yells “THIRSTY!!!” at the top of his lungs, nobody budges. (I can’t believe that was ever a thing.)

I’ve also realized that we really weren’t doing the little guy any favours. He didn’t learn to share or compromise at an early age like his siblings did, nor did he learn how to be sensitive to the needs of others.

Hindsight is 20/20 and, as parents, we often make decisions in the moment that make the most sense. I’m not going to beat myself up over it. On the flip side, our littlest guy is incredibly playful and funny and creative and boisterous so I wouldn’t undo anything at the risk of changing the awesome things about him. That said, we now have a clearer path forward.

I’m sitting at my desk writing this article when I hear “Mommy! MOMMY!” from you-know-who. I brace myself slightly for the demand that will inevitably come.

“Yes?” I reply, through gritted teeth.

“I love you!” he yells in the most adorable, sing-songy voice. Just for no reason. I sigh. We must be doing at least a few things right.

This article was originally published online in April 2020.

Parenting

5 good reasons to be a bad parent

I was parent-shamed at my kid’s playground. Then I realized I have nothing to apologize for.

Last summer, my son Sam was turning two and delirious with new superpowers. At the playground he was like an overeager puppy: he’d tear around, climb the big kid slide, jump screeching into the splash pad and, when he wasn’t eating it, bury himself in sand. I was interviewing for a new job, so I had one eye on him, noting if he was in mortal danger, and the other checking my phone for LinkedIn notifications. One day, another dad stopped me and said I really should keep my boy under better control because he was setting a bad example.

Every playground has two basic cliques: good parents and bad parents. If you’re good, you’re hyper-vigilant about safety, humblebrag about your homemade non-GMO flatbread, provide impromptu sermons on the latest studies about screen time evils, and manage to turn every play activity into a civics lesson. The good ones practice enlightened parenting (parents and kids are in a partnership, not a hierarchy) or RIE (a trendy Californian model that bans toys) or they’re simply (but it’s never simple!) classic helicopter parents.

Bad parents, on the other hand, are self-absorbed and neglectful. They’re careless: they feed their kids industrial farmed blueberries, let them spend mindless hours staring at an iPad, and dress them in poly-blend T-shirts branded with a certain popular cartoon with safety-minded talking dogs. (There’s a definite class divide at work here: good parents are typically wealthier, upwardly mobile and able to afford what’s organic, handmade, artisanal.)

I’d fallen into the bad parent clique. Many of us end up here by default, not by choice. Keeping up with good parents is exhausting—worse than sleepless nights with a teething kid. My child-rearing borrows from the late ‘70s and early ’80s, when my mom and dad raised me. Compared to today’s good parenting rules, they practiced a form of benign neglect. For them, there was no such thing as a parenting style—parenting just happened.

My first instinct when that dad chastised me in the park was to apologize—until I realized I had no reason to be ashamed. My kid isn’t a hitter or a biter, and despite his daredevil routines, he carefully avoids bonking into other kids. I rolled my eyes at the park dad, said I didn’t realize toddlers succumbed so easily to peer pressure and dragged Sam in the opposite direction.

There are good reasons to embrace bad parenting. Here’s why:

1. My kid is learning true independence

When I think back to my childhood, I’m amazed how I didn’t maim or kill myself. Every weekend, from the moment I was old enough to tell time on my Casio watch, my parents would send me outside and shut the door. I’d track down friends in the park or in the remains of a nearby cancelled suburb. Our parents had no idea where we were (no GPS trackers) and trusted us to make it home eventually, starved after hours of wild activity. They didn’t want to know that we were swinging from the branches of willow trees, trudging through creeks swollen with spring melt, discovering mouldy stacks of vintage Playboy magazines hidden in a bush, and riding our pint-size BMX bikes to far-off convenience stores to collect Garbage Pail Kids cards.

Sam isn’t yet ready to venture out on his own, but in a few years he will be. And by letting him, I’ll risk being accused of neglect. Sure, today’s world seems so much more terrifying if you’re going by the number of serial killer series on Netflix or believe every border is in need of a 20-foot wall. But we shouldn’t overreact: the world is in fact safer than it has ever been, in no small part because crime has been falling for decades. The kids of the ’70s didn’t get into serious trouble because we were deeply aware that our parents had given us the responsibility to keep each other alive. We were left to explore the world—instead of waiting for our parents to make our decisions for us. What’s stopping us from allowing our kids today to build up that same independence now?

2. My kid has more me-time—and so do I

For the first couple weeks of daycare, Sam would wail when I dropped him off inside the play yard gate. His “Daddyyyyyyyyy” crushed my heart—we’d never been apart for so many hours before, and I wanted to take him back and hold him tight. But I resisted, and made a point of consistently responding to his tears with a quick, zero-drama goodbye. Then, one morning, a switch inside him was flicked and, upon entering the gate, he raced away from me to play with the other toddlers. No tears. He didn’t need me anymore—it was crushing in an entirely different way, but I got over it.

One of the many reasons to avoid helicopter parenting: it saps all your strength and makes you semi- or fully delusional. When you spend all your time helicoptering—there’s only one speed, it’s all or nothing—you have no time left for yourself, and a warped perspective about what your kid needs to build his or her confidence. It’ll never happen if you can’t leave their side. One ugly effect of this is you, the parent, start to lose your own sense of who you are. Your entire life becomes consumed with hovering over this little tyrant. Your identity starts to blur with your kid, and your kid inevitably doesn’t know what it’s like to not have you there approving his or her every eye-blink. And it ruins their emotional health: a 2018 study published in Developmental Psychology found that kids with helicopter parents are less able to regulate their behaviour or confidently negotiate challenges in the real world.

3. My kid isn’t over-scheduled

There are few events as painful to me as preschooler birthday parties. Now that my cohort is thick with kids, the past couple years has been filled with them. The conversation among the attending parents inevitably turns to what they’ve signed them up for. It goes beyond the usual soccer and swim lessons to early math tutorials, third-language classes, music intensives, ski classes, and March break coding boot camp. These parents are plainly terrified of two things: that their kids will be at a disadvantage if he or she misses out on any opportunities, and that any gaps in their daily schedule is a sign of terrible parenting, and only invites excessive screen time. When did unstructured time become wasted time? So far, I’ve signed Sam up for exactly one class: a weekly singalong program, which gave him another excuse to jiggle and bang castanets. The rest of our time easily gets filled with grandparent visits, grocery runs and, the best of all types of activities, spontaneous fun. He loves random trips to the small city zoo nearby with its llamas, peacocks and impressively smelly bison. He gets a kick out of the fish tank at the supermarket. Right now, what he prefers most is to stay home and smush Play Doh into our heating vents. What I know for sure: he’ll be well prepared for the world, especially when he’s required to identify strange bovine odours.

4. My kid isn’t a screen addict

When Sam was just six months old, we were cuddling on the sofa in our family room one rainy weekend, watching a Bob’s Burgers marathon. I realized he wasn’t just playing with his toes and was actually watching it, too, when he laughed every time Louise, the daughter who wears the bunny ear hat, appeared. Soon he started to wiggle and dance in my lap whenever the bouncy theme song came on. I was torn between being proud of this milestone and guilt for letting him anywhere near a TV.

Screen time” is the most paralyzing parental challenge: there’s contradictory information about how much is too much, or if you should allow it at all below a certain age. This past December, a group of researchers from the University of Guelph published a study that followed children between the ages of 1.5 and 5, and found that the more parents use screens, the more their kids do. Which sounds like an obvious finding, but the hazards make me queasy. A 2017 report from the Canadian Paediatric Society found that screen exposure makes kids more sedentary and more likely to become obese. It impairs short term memory, math and language skills, and psychosocial health. They recommend absolutely zero screen time for kids under two—gulp.

Paediatricians make you feel that using screens this way, and as a reward (implicit or overt), turns your kid into an antisocial idiot and definitively makes you a bad parent. But what they don’t admit is that almost every parent resorts, to some degree, to using screens to control a kid’s behaviour (especially on plane trips, any car ride of more than 10 minutes, at the dentist, in line at the supermarket—basically everywhere, especially when they’re toddlers). They also ignore the reality that screens are unavoidable today. They’re part of every facet of our lives, and there’s a real hypocrisy in a parent who keeps screens away from his kid but is himself staring at one every other minute (to check LinkedIn notifications or otherwise).

What’s more, not every kid is going to become a screen addict. I’ve noticed that in my circle, the parents who severely limit screen time transform screens into greater temptations—the kids obsess over it like Gollum over his ring. With Sam, I’ve been consistently laissez faire. At two and a half he’d figured out his way around the Netflix menu, and has gravitated to BBC nature doc series, especially if they involve whales, and anything with Wallace and Gromit. But if we’re watching from the parents’ menu, or if the TV is off, he’ll do his own thing (Play Doh and vents, mostly). The less we obsess about screen time, the less we fear it, the less he seems to care for it.

5. My kid is a kid

Good parents don’t seem to be able to decide if their kids should be coddled and infantilized (the helicoptering instinct) or treated as mini-adults, ready for sophisticated conversations about emotions and playground politics. They never treat them as kids who just want to be kids. After all, this is their one window in life when it should be OK to be irrational, silly, spontaneous and absolutely nothing like a boring adult.

The saddest story I read this year was about a kindergarten class in PEI in which the students are required to perform a morning routine of core strength exercises—planks, tossing balls, etc. The teachers instituted this because they’d noticed the kids had poor motor skills, which they attribute to not enough outdoor play. In other words, their well-intentioned parents have kept them inside, safe from imaginary dangers, and stunted their growth. I see it as my job to enforce some basic rules (don’t put yourself in danger, eat three meals a day plus snacks and more snacks), but other than that the best a parent can do is get out of the way. It’s time to set the kids free.

This article was originally published online in March 2019.

 

Parenting

Eulogy to a marriage lost to parenthood

I gave everything I had advocating for my son. There was never enough time, space or energy for anything else.

Photo: Alyssa Bistonath

Marriages sometimes end.

I should know that better than most people: I’ve been a family-law clerk for 14 years—my entire adult life—and I, myself, am a product of divorce. Were it not for marital woes, I wouldn’t have a job. I’ve been toiling in the unhappiness of others for so long, I’ve become desensitized to it—so much so that I thought, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my sheer exposure and experience alone dictated that I’d never be in the same situation as my clients. I thought I knew the hows and whys better than they did because (I thought) I had insight, while they only had hindsight.

What happened to my marriage is, sadly, so cliché. My husband, Simon*, and I just broke it.

When our first son, Isaac, was born, only a year into our marriage, he was so sick, and we didn’t know why. He was born with a rare disease called galactosemia, an inborn error of metabolism where milk and milk products become like poison to him. Involuntarily, I allowed that to become my focus in extreme ways. I read what felt like the entire Internet. I researched developmental milestones, dairy-free recipes and calcium supplements. When I got bad news, I tried to position myself against it—as the person who would have a “best case” outcome. I cried at doctors’ appointments and had difficulty falling asleep every night. The stress was overwhelming.

I took his illness on my shoulders and let it wear deep grooves into my skin. I let the guilt of our combined bad genetics eat away at me like a ravenous vulture, and the guilt of inadvertently poisoning my son with breast milk became an inexplicable burden. I’m still working through that guilt, and I guess, at the end of the day, no person can be expected to live beside that kind of sadness and despair.

I’ve dealt with what I hope is my lifetime’s share of adversity over the past six years since our eldest son, Isaac, was born. He is a gorgeous, dark-eyed, always-smiling, thoughtful boy who loves his little brother to bits. Along with galactosemia, Isaac has autism spectrum disorder, global developmental delay and a moderate intellectual disability that dictates that he’ll likely never be literate or self-sufficient. His speech skills are limited, and his fine motor skills are behind. His ceiling, they say, is that of a second grader. Those are tough pills to swallow individually but tougher still when presented as a cocktail of sorts.

But time is a sieve, and sometimes we give in and walk away. Isaac’s conditions waged a very quiet yet painful war of attrition against me. A life full of fight is so exhausting. Isaac is the most beautiful boy and, like all parents, we wanted only the best for him. As a special person with special needs, his best is simply different from that of most children. Fights popped up everywhere, from the type of child care and classroom that were best suited to him to the type of therapy he needed to the best way to access the information we needed.

My spirit was forever altered when I realized, first-hand, the struggles of a person who is simply not a carbon copy of you or me but rather a special person with special needs. It was in that change that my unanticipated advocacy for my boy became so personal. I put everything I had into it, to get for him what I thought he needed. I wrote letters, petitions and emails and spoke to other parents. I sought out advice. I spoke to newspapers and magazines. I started an advocacy group, ran a marathon every year for SickKids and raised more than $60,000 for research. I let it take control of me, and I ignored the rest of the world operating around me, independent of my strife. I retreated and pulled away—not just from Simon but from everything.

I find that it helps to eulogize these hardships. It’s therapeutic, like wringing out a damp cloth until every last drop of water has fallen and until your wrists hurt from the twisting motion. By doing so, I am able to be clearer with myself. A eulogy should never be confused with an elegy (a poem for the dead) or an obituary (a biographical notice of death). Indeed, eulogies are written in high praise and recognition of a person or a thing. They can be given at a funeral, but they can also be given at a wedding, a retirement party or any other life-cycle event you can think of. And so, my eulogy to my marriage is written with respect, admiration and commitment.

United as we once were in our love for each other, we now stand united in our mutual desire to provide the best lives possible to our two most important accomplishments: our sons. Each day, I grow more comfortable with the idea that, as fiercely as I loved my marriage and my husband, I didn’t always show it. And though it’s over, I can still write. I can still acknowledge that if you could ever write a love letter to someone you no longer love, this would be it.

SCHWARTZ, Charlotte & Simon

Started: May 23, 2008

Ended: Sometime, though it’s not clear when

Charlotte and Simon Schwartz, proud parents to Isaac and Eden, east-end Torontonians, fitness enthusiasts, galactosemia advocates, avid road-trippers and readers of the most opposite of books, slipped away late last night after a long-fought battle arising from complications of losing their way. They were together for eight years.

She was 33 years old. Outspoken, crushed by the world’s injustices and unrelenting in her pursuit of what was right, she insisted on doing things most people would pay someone else to do for them. She walked great distances for no reason and gave tremendous effort for often-infinitesimal returns. She was stubborn—a trait that only increased with age and time. She loved beautiful things and was hopelessly nostalgic, forever plagued by a memory with a vice-like grip on the past—a memory that, against her will, always allowed past events to seep into current ones and poison them. She felt worn down, tired and underappreciated—the plague of the modern-day, control-freak mother who does everything and never accepts help. Most of all, she loved her family and her children and was only just becoming comfortable with the imperfectness of it all.

He was 35, with a stoic but unwavering devotion to his children. He always reminded her that everything would work out, even when he knew that perhaps it wouldn’t. He was quiet but loud when it mattered. In their early days, he once told her, softly before the day began, that she “made everything OK,” and she hung on to those words and carried them through eight years of life’s most unexpected challenges. This moment fuelled her belief that, no matter what, they could figure things out. After all, she made everything OK.

He taught her great things about life, organization and deeper thinking. He inspired her to do more, to know more, to read and, indirectly, to write more. He always made sure that the chicken was cooked through. He was constantly busy, always working at jobs and hobbies and forever trying to strike a balance between what the heart wanted and what the head wanted. He was the person who possessed the most simple goodness she had ever known. When their newborn fell ill, he became her hero among ordinary people by calming her fears. In turn, he had made everything OK.

On their wedding day, she promised to dance with him on their first anniversary and on their 25th. She promised to walk (or run) alongside him for all time. But words are so easy, and in a life of living like ships passing in the night, there never seems to be enough time to use them anyway. We always think we’ll have more time.

Asked about the loss of the Schwartzes, friends and family described Charlotte and Simon as a great team. Their union was one of schedule dominoes and overlapping obligations but one that always ended up working out. They expressed shock and sadness at the couple’s demise. If any two were going to make it, it was supposed to be them—not because of evidence of an incredible bond of love tying them together but, at the very least, for their boys. There would always be time later for love. Once the dust settled from the initial hardships, so soon after their marriage, they would find the time. They would make the time. They would figure it out.

Friends expressed their deepest sympathies for the inevitable transitions that the family members would undergo, for Isaiah and Rivers especially. Knowing what they knew of Simon and Charlotte, though, they were confident that, eventually, everything would be fine. They knew Simon would stand by quietly while Charlotte proclaimed her sorrows as piercing cries, fits of rage and streams of unintelligible profanities and that Charlotte would eventually accept that Simon’s silence was part of who he was, not a metric of how much he cared.

In the den of the tiny, drafty east-end Toronto home where Charlotte lives now with the boys sits a first-edition copy of The Brothers Karamazov, one of Simon’s favourite books and her gift to him when they moved into their home together. It reads “You will burn and you will burn out; you will be healed and come back again.” Those words shall be inscribed on the epitaph of their marriage, encouraging the theme of healing and moving on and recognizing that fatigue is never equal to failure. No one gave up; they only gave in.

In lieu of flowers, the Schwartzes ask that visitors bring words of warmth and honesty and that they refrain from the fuel of gossip and speculation. Until you’ve lived the eight years they have, you don’t know what you don’t know. You can guess at what you might do, but you’d almost always guess wrong.

*Names have been changed. 

This article was originally published in June 2017.

 

Parenting

Why mom guilt is the biggest lie of all

If all moms feel guilty—and research shows that we pretty much all do—then there's no “better” mother to compare ourselves to. Turns out mom guilt is a sham.

When I was nine years old, I liked to come home from school, turn on the television and watch The People’s Court. For 30 minutes, everyday citizens would come before a black-gowned, white-haired man named Judge Wapner and argue their cases—usually unneighbourly disagreements.

Wapner would collect all of his information and then deliver his decision in long, convincing paragraphs that made you think he was going to side one way. Then, at the very last minute, he’d turn the whole thing around with swift logic and rule in favour of the other guy. Boom. Slam of the gavel. “Guilty!” I called it every time.

So maybe I should have been more prepared 20-something years later when, going back to work after the birth of our first son, that guilty gavel dropped from the sky, seemingly out of nowhere.

Like most American women, I was back at work sooner than I wanted to be, at 12 weeks. Still, I’d bought some new pants, hired a nanny, brushed my hair and stepped onto the New York City subway, ready to go do something I knew I was good at: my job. I hated handing my ten-pound son to a woman I barely knew. But I did not, I told myself—and my well-intended neighbour, who’d inquired in the elevator—feel any guilt for supporting my family and returning to a career that I’d built for years.

What I felt was: unhealed, anxious, tender-nippled, stressed, sweaty, free, exuberant, old, young, hurried, exhausted, ugly, capable, incompetent, leaky, appreciated, alien, unmoored, excited, relieved. I held these emotions like the bouquet of flowers I’d bought for myself on my way into work, a mixed bunch that looked surprisingly okay when squished all together in a vase with the stems cut the same length. My desk had never been cleaner! I was a woman who bought herself flowers! And then came the inquiries:

How’s the guilt?

How are you doing? Do you miss him so much? Any regrets?

Oh, look at that picture! How could you leave him?

Isn’t it so crazy how the dads never feel guilty?

The gavel slammed down hard, rattling the vase. And then there was this one:

Don’t worry, honey. If mama’s happy, baby will be happy.

But mama wasn’t “happy,” exactly. Mama was the aforementioned annoyingly metaphorical bouquet. Did that mean my baby was just as confused?

Within days, I felt guilty. Guilty for all of the work my colleagues had covered for me, guilty for missing God-knows-how-many gummy little smiles, guilty for spending my nighttime nursing sessions scratching at my baby’s flaky cradle cap rather than gazing into his eyes, or calling the doctor. Guilty when I did call the doctor, for taking up her time…she had a new baby too. Guilty for not having felt guilty sooner.

Guilt became a reflex. And, addictively, it was my indoctrination into The Club. You know the club I’m talking about. The mom club. The club that lets you, with the roll of your eyes, bond with another incarcerated guilty mother. I liked the camaraderie, but did I really have to torture myself with self-flagellation to belong? It felt demeaning, like hazing.

Like nearly every challenge of motherhood so far, the thing that helped most was the passing of time. It had been a swift sentencing—thank you, Judge Wapner—but all those hash marks on the jail-cell wall had served a purpose. They were boring. I wanted something more. Like so many working mothers—and like most millennials now—I sought meaning in my work. If I was going to be made to feel this guilty for not being with my child, I might as well be doing work that made the world a tiny bit better for him one day. I found comfort in studies like the one out of Harvard that showed that working moms had daughters who were higher-achieving in their careers, and sons who grew up to help more with childcare.

I started doing some of my own research, too. One day, a colleague thanked me for being so honest about working motherhood; rather than scaring her off, I’d shown her it was possible—hard, but possible. That was a light-bulb moment, and it set me off on a book proposal. I’d call it The Fifth Trimester. My little side project grew into more than 100 in-depth interviews, and a survey of 700+ new working moms.

I worked round the clock and as I paged through my interview transcripts, one word leapt out again and again: “guilt.” The moms I’d interviewed had little else in common, actually. There were hourly workers and Fortune 500 executives. Part-time workers, freelancers, moms on career-pause, adoptive moms, single moms.

They all reported feeling guilty.

So I looked more closely. Turns out, guilt meant different things to different women. Their random-flower bouquets of emotions were as varied and motley as my own. But none of these women, to my eye, seemed like they actually had done anything wrong. Judge Wapner wouldn’t have punished them, certainly. So why were they punishing themselves? Collectively, they make a strong case: If everyone feels guilty, there is no other “better” mother to compare ourselves to. Mom guilt is a sham.

Mom guilt is also not helpful, on an individual level or a largely cultural one.

Research has shown that feeling guilty doesn’t reform our future behaviour. Rather, it gives more power to the part of the brain that seeks gratification.

And, as I saw in my interviews, there’s no “behaviour” to be reformed anyway. There are choices and compromises made in challenging circumstances: Biologically, we are built to have our children during what should be the boom years of our careers. Extended families live further apart. The school day ends hours before the workday. Most households need two incomes. The better question—a better use of our emotional energy as mothers—is this: How do we change those circumstances to help new parents feel supported so they can make compromises they’re comfortable with?

In order to answer that question and be part of the solution, we must do more than just stay in the game in our careers. We must exonerate ourselves. We must be open and honest about the challenges of new parenthood, about the names of every one of those flowers in our bouquets.

When I give talks about my research, I like to end on an Australian study that looked at what it takes to get through that awful feeling of wanting to quit—something a lot of the mothers I interviewed told me was tied tightly to their feelings of guilt. The research is shockingly simple: People need to feel valued. When you feel valued—as a worker, as a parent—you become, the researchers found, more confident in your compromises. I love that. I love the acknowledgment that there are always going to be compromises we make as mothers striving to maintain our own identities while nurturing others’.

Life is not a courtroom. And, it must be noted, my mother never felt guilty when I watched TV.

Lauren Smith Brody is the founder of The Fifth Trimester consulting, which helps parents and businesses collaborate to improve workplace culture. Her bestselling book, The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity and Success After Baby, is out in paperback March 6, 2018.

This article was originally published online in March 2018.