8 Ways to Get Your Kids to Eat More Than Just Cheese Puffs

In my efforts to get my kids to eat right, I’ve failed more times than I’ve succeeded, but I have succeeded on occasion.

Interested in having your kids eat nutritious food that hasn’t been processed and pummelled into a dinosaur or star shape? It’s tricky, in this age of happy meals and cookie-flavored cereal, to coax our children into eating actual food.
In my efforts to get my kids to eat right, I’ve failed more times than I’ve succeeded, but I have succeeded on occasion. Below are a few proven methods that have actually worked. I hope that you, too, are blessed with a child who sometimes consumes food that doesn’t fall into the cheese puff family.

1 | Ban “candy”

No, I don’t mean ban actual candy. What with Halloween and birthday party bags and in-laws, removing all traces of candy from your home is impossible. But you can avoid the word “candy.”
The reason this is so important is because once your child is thinking about manufactured sugar, it’s tough to get them to accede to eating a food that only contains naturally occurring sugars (most of them do!). So take care around these two syllables. It’s a word that must never be spoken, kind of like Voldemort.

2 | Feign apathy

Sure. You really want your kids to eat the chicken and sweet potatoes you have lovingly prepared for them. Your heart breaks when they look at the plate and a stricken expression clouds over their features, as if a live goldfish had been placed in front of them.
But here’s the thing about getting your kids to eat well – the more you need for them to eat something, the less likely they are to eat it. It’s a control thing, and since children own their mouths, they will always win this very unhealthy power game.

3 | Obscure the goodness

This one only works if you have time to cook and bake, but hiding spinach in a batch of brownies really does work, as does sneaking carrots into a smoothie and disguising zucchini as a type of muffin.
Kudos to whoever thought of adding a cup of spinach to a cake batter. Also, who on earth thought of adding spinach to batter?

4 | Condiments!

Sauces and dips are a parent’s best friend. Solitary carrot sticks look as sad as they sound. But the same exact thing next to a bowl of hummus? Magic! That’s because anything that’s messy will appeal to your kid. You probably already deduced that by now, because look at the state of your house.

5 | Negotiate at your peril

“If you eat three more cucumber slices, I will let you drive the Lamborghini” is something you should not say under any circumstances, and this isn’t just because you have never owned an luxury Italian sports car.
Bargaining with kids – while tempting – usually backfires. You know this. We all know this. The fact that we all still negotiate with our children sometimes is concrete proof that parenthood addles the brain.

6 | Reimagine pasta

My kids, and most kids, do like some healthy foods. Pasta is one of them. But because my kids enjoy it, I sometimes forget what a good, wholesome food this is. We may never own a Lamborghini, but we’ll always have this awesome Italian export.

7 | Sous chef junior

To let your child help you in the kitchen, or not to let your child help you in the kitchen – that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler to allow small people to feel as if they are contributing to the housework, or better to just get it done efficiently and neatly while they’re watching “Paw Patrol”.
Honestly, I don’t have the answer to this age-old question, but most kids are more likely to eat something when they’ve had a hand in cooking it. You know what they say: The course of true parenthood is completely chaotic.

8 | The DIY meal

Whether it’s tacos or pitas, kids like to put things in other things. That’s why you once found 23 pennies inside your favorite pair of wedge pumps. Assembling their own meals is fun for kids and, like with the condiments, they will make a mess. Making peace with mess is just part of parenthood. Just like dealing with picky eaters!

8 Common Parenting Phrases That Backfire

If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve used some or all of these phrases at some point or another.

If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve used some or all of these phrases at some point or another. Here are some research-backed reasons why these eight common parenting phrases often backfire in ways we wouldn’t expect.

1 | “Don’t cry”

It can be so tempting to tell children not to cry because we deal with crying all the time, but telling children not to cry invalidates their feelings and teaches them not to openly share their emotions with you. Instead, try naming their feeling by saying, “You are so sad/scared/upset right now.”

By giving them words to describe their emotion, you validate it while also giving them the language they need to describe that feeling the next time they have it.

2 | “Stop _____”

Stop running. Stop yelling. Stop throwing things. Any time a parent uses this kind of directive, research shows that children are actually less likely to stop their behavior. Children’s brains are programmed to do what they hear. So if you say, “Stop running,” the last thing they hear is “run.” By saying, “Remember to use your walking feet,” you are telling them exactly how they should be moving. It also frames the directive in a more positive light.

3 | “Say sorry”

Young children are being taught to say “sorry” long before they’re actually developmentally capable of feeling sorry for their actions. The act of saying sorry appeases adults because it’s the polite thing to do, but research shows that saying sorry isn’t what causes children to become empathetic adults.

Instead, it’s much more productive to teach children to take action to help the person they’ve offended. For the child that breaks down another child’s block tower, have her help fix the tower. For the child that bites, have him get the other child some ice. By teaching our children that their actions have real consequences and require more than an un-empathetic “sorry,” they’ll become less likely to do these things again and become more empathetic in the process.

4 | “We don’t hit”

Or “we don’t throw,” “we don’t bite,” etc. This one is tricky because the purpose of this phrase is to show the child that they’re a part of a group that has rules to keep us safe. Unfortunately, for many children that are “repeat offenders” in terms or hitting or biting or any other negative behavior, this phrase can make them feel like an outsider of the group.

A much more productive approach is to say, “It is not okay to hit,” and to express how it made you or the other child feel. Follow up by having the child take action to help repair any damage that was done. 

5 | “See?”

This is the classic “I told you so.” You tell the child to stop jumping on the couch; she doesn’t listen, and ends up falling off the couch and hurting herself. You respond with “See, I told you not to jump on the couch.”

This response shames the child and doesn’t provide her the opportunity for problem solving or reflection. It’s best to wait until the child is calm, and then have a conversation about what happened and ask her how she will make a better choice the next time.

6 | “No whining”

Whining is a challenge. It’s so annoying that you just want it to stop – and quick! But telling kids not to whine doesn’t stop their whining. Instead, try saying, “Use your strong voice,” or ask, “How can we solve this problem?” By tapping into the child’s problem-solving capabilities, you empower him to have some control over the situation.

You can also try parenting expert Lynn Lott’s “Asked and Answered” strategy. When your child has asked a question and you have responded with “No,” and yet he keeps whining, you can say, “Asked and Answered.” Once the child understands this phrase and it’s used consistently in the home, the child will be less likely to whine, nag, or negotiate.

7 | “How many times do I have to tell you?”

This phrase backfires because it sends a message that you’re willing to tell your child something more than once. If the child hasn’t responded the first time, it’s likely that she either 1) didn’t hear you or understand the direction the first time, or 2) is avoiding the direction. How we deal with this situation varies based on which category it falls into, but saying “How many times do I have to tell you,” sends the wrong message and doesn’t get our children to do what we’ve asked.

8 | “Wait until your father gets home”

This classic phrase does two things: it builds fear for the reaction of the parent that’s not present, and it sends the message that you aren’t going to take action in the moment. Consequences for young children must happen in the moment in order for them to be effective – waiting for Dad or Mom to get home makes the consequence ineffective in the long run. Additionally, when children build up a fear of their parents’ reaction, it makes the child less likely to come to the parent when he’s done something wrong for fear of punishment.

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Be a Guide, Not a Guard and Raise a Happy, Responsible Kid

As guides, we help children develop internal motivation to do what is right because it’s right, rather than to do what is right to avoid being punished.

“Be a guide, not a guard” perfectly describes the kinds of parenting behaviors that create happy and responsible children. It’s a term I learned at a recent training session focused on reducing controlling parenting behaviors.
When I ask parents “what have you tried to help change your child’s behavior?” little breaks my heart more than hearing a long list of punishments. The story will go something like “the rule is that he is to clean up his room but he never does it so we took away his tablet, then banned watching TV, we smacked him, we put him in time out all day, cancelled his play dates with his friends and then grounded him for a month. It doesn’t matter what we do, he doesn’t care.”
This is parenting like a guard. It is inflexible, rules-based parenting that requires punishment when a child doesn’t behave. The punishments often escalate and may be harsh, cruel even. In the worst case scenario, a child raised in a controlling environment will comply due to a fear of being beaten but will not do anything other adults say if there is no risk of being hurt. The most anti-social children are often parented in this way. They don’t care about the meaning of the rules set; instead they decide whether to comply based on whether they will get hurt. Controlling parenting practices are also correlated to poor mental health in children and youth.
When we parent like a guard we are trying to stop behavior through control and dominance. In an attempt to get rid of the behaviors we don’t like, we use consequences. A guard expects trouble and treats people as such. A guard does not care whether you feel sad, confused or don’t feel like you belong. A guard only cares if you comply. As a guard we can’t be flexible and this means if a child doesn’t comply, regardless of the reason, our only option is to escalate the consequences until they do. Even if this means excluding them from the very systems we want them to belong to.
When we parent as a guide we work to encourage behaviors we want to see in our children. We help children belong in our world and all the systems that come with that. We use care and compassion in our parenting practices. When we see unwanted behavior that cannot work or is unacceptable in our systems, we look at what steps we can take to help that child learn to fit better in our world. We don’t use harsh consequences that will exclude the child from the system; instead we see their difficulty as a skill deficit. We don’t use escalating consequences; instead we look for ways for children to want to be part of the system and to want to please us.
As guides, we help children develop internal motivation to do what is right because it’s right, rather than to do what is right to avoid being punished. We want our children to comply because they want to be part of our community, they want to help us and because they understand the value of their chosen behavior.

How to be a guide

See your child’s perspective

Being able to hold your child’s perspective is essential to being a guide. It helps parents understand how best to help their child. It helps us identify that difficult behaviors are often related to emotions or skills deficits. This doesn’t mean we accept all behaviors as ok, it means that we understand that there is a meaning to whatever behavior we are seeing.

Encourage behavior through praise and noticing

Children love receiving genuine praise and being noticed. If they feel you genuinely care about them rather than that you are trying to control their behavior, they are more motivated to work for you. Children are less receptive to praise that functions to control behavior such as “aren’t you a good boy for sitting up straight today?” A genuine “I can really see you are listening, and that makes me feel good” is more effective.

Promote values-based living

Show your child what matters through the way you live. If you want to raise a kind and responsible child, lead by modeling kind and responsible behavior. Notice when your child is kind and responsible and praise the behavior.

Be flexible where possible

Give your child opportunities to choose. Avoid controlling choices unless there is a good reason not to offer a choice such as safety or legality. Guides raise kids who choose to be responsible. Guards raise kids who conform to avoid a consequence.

Promote intrinsic goals over extrinsic goals

Encourage your child to do things for personal growth, for health, to create meaningful relationships and contribute to their community as opposed to doing things to achieve financial success, popularity, power or for their image. People with intrinsic goals are happier and engage in more pro-social behavior.
Next time you see your child doing something that you don’t like, whisper to yourself: “Be a guide, not a guard.”
Acknowledgement: Thanks and gratitude to Darin Cairns for introducing me to the helpful term “Be a guide, not a guard.”

Women vs. Other Women and the Myth of the Zero-Sum Game

While she’s waiting, she begins to question the very worth of this victory: If she’s so triumphant why is she alone?

A woman’s primary nemesis is a scale – not the bathroom variety, though its adversarial powers are fierce – I am talking about a balance scale, the kind whose likeness is etched in bronze outside a courthouse. The kind of scale that compares the weight of one thing to another and registers the slightest sliver of inequity by dramatically tipping its arm. A woman imagines herself standing alone in the little gold dish on one side of the scale. She is weighted, grounded, secure. She wins if she is more, and she is more only if the other side is less. Like a zero-sum game, the outcome is distributive, never integrative, never shared. All or nothing, winner take all.
In the second gold dish, on the opposite side of the balance arm, stand other women. Women she knows, women she loves, women she has never met yet knows intimate details about. Women who hurt her feelings back in high school, women who pretend to be interested when she talks, yet can’t bring themselves to ask her about her life. Women who begrudge her success in whatever realm it may be: another pregnancy, weight loss, a promotion, a good manicure. Women who complain about her behind her back, or don’t invite her, or don’t bother to learn her name. Women she is “friends” with, but who won’t give her the satisfaction of “liking” the pictures she posts of her daughter’s first tooth, her 5k run, or her 10th anniversary.
These other women, they weigh against her, weaken her, upset her advantage. Standing alone in her little gold dish, she worries their gain will be her loss. She becomes suspicious, reading maltreatment into motives and assuming the worst. She grows wary and defensive and, by turns, isolated and disconnected. She has invested so much time and effort into this notion of measuring herself against another – surely, it means something. It has to mean something. Only one woman can be the best mom, the most organized, the fittest, can have the cleanest house or the smartest kids. Only one woman can tip the scale.
In the interest of self-preservation, she retaliates, scrutinizing her competition, always looking for a crack. She judges, she’s sarcastic, she’s critical, she arms herself with snark. She withholds compliments lest they detract from her own appearance and give the other side an edge. If there’s a finite amount of admiration or approval in the world, she’s not going to waste it on others. Classic strategy of a zero-sum game, remember?
She plays like she’s been taught, mimicking the catty, spiteful maneuvers of effective women everywhere. She grows a second face to wear, like her mother and her mother’s friends, and keeps it by the door in a skin-deep jar. Beauty, her most valuable asset, is the commodity she traffics. If she wants to win favor – men’s favor, in particular – this is how she must act. Girls compete for self-worth, right? That’s just what they do. That’s what the cosmetics industry, soap operas, “Real Housewives,” Miss Universe Pageants, Angelina vs. Jen, and every season of “The Bachelor” espouse: The only way to win is to make them lose.
She wants to win, and let’s say she does. She tips the scale, and finally, after all that fighting, she can rest on her laurels and receive her prize. She waits in her little gold dish, tired and depleted, thinking “What on earth could be worth all this conflict?” She waits, rehearsing a gracious acceptance speech, and she wishes she had someone to share her good news. She can hear the other women from across the long arm of the balance scale, laughing and talking as if nothing were lost. While she’s waiting, she begins to question the very worth of this victory: If she’s so triumphant why is she alone?
She wonders how winning at the other’s expense could be considered a victory at all.
Still no one comes, and she sears with the growing realization she’s been played. She has been duped by the myth that building someone else up must come at a cost to her, for it doesn’t. Life just isn’t a zero-sum game. There is not a limited supply of goodness and beauty, success or happiness.
The truth is the other women grew exponentially as they gave, their strength increasing with every share. Competing with them only kept her apart. This scale – this rudimentary, archaic device – this scale is her opponent, not the creatures on it. Rivaling did nothing but reinforce the status quo, a status quo that dictates aggressive self-promotion and pits the women against each other, a status quo that levies vulnerability and rewards isolation. Why does she invest in it?
Luckily, there is a way out. An easy, obvious, immediate way out.
She withdraws her fortune from the zero-sum bank, climbs out of the little gold dish, and joins the other women.

How to Find the Right Music Teacher for Your Kid

If your kid is passionate about music, how do you find a music teacher who will bring out the best in them?

Your child is passionate about music, has a great sense of rhythm, and begs to learn an instrument. How do you find a music teacher who will bring out the best in your child?

Parents of musically-inquisitive children rarely know where to start. Many have little direction, and typically seek music instruction locally, through word-of-mouth referral, and where it is affordable and convenient. Some teachers may be accomplished musicians, some may be retired music educators, some may have been teaching privately for years, and some may be just getting started.

However, what works for one child may not work another. Just as some classroom teachers follow a structured curriculum and have difficulty accommodating each child’s unique needs, some music teachers adhere to rigid views of what is acceptable pedagogy. They insist on a strict format of study and don’t know when to hold back or when a talented child needs more encouragement.

Recent articles have highlighted the emotional and cognitive benefits of music instruction and the long-term effects of musical training on the brain, but finding the right teacher for your child can be a challenge. Specific qualities seen among excellent music teachers are outlined here, but what’s also critical is the teacher’s understanding of your child’s developmental, emotional, and motivational needs.

Here is one example of what can go wrong:   

Jake’s parents responded to their five-year-old’s sense of rhythm and interest in piano by seeking lessons at a large, well-known music school. The school had fairly rigid expectations – for example, requesting payment up front for an entire nine months of lessons. Before agreeing to this, Jake’s mom requested a trial lesson first. Jake was assigned to a young teacher, who initially told his mom to wait in the hallway along with a group of other parents. She insisted on attending the lesson, though, so she could assess the teacher’s approach and see how Jake responded.

The teacher asked Jake to play something, since he had some rudimentary understanding of musical notation that he’d acquired from his parents (both had studied music in the past). When he could not follow additional written instructions on the page, the teacher appeared frustrated and asked him the meaning of a particular word. Jake became quiet and said nothing. His mom had to remind the teacher that Jake was only five, and could not read words like that yet.

When asked how future lessons might proceed, Jake’s mom was informed that she would not be permitted to stay in the room despite Jake’s wish to have her present. After they left, Jake told his mom that he did not like the teacher. The entire experience was a disappointment, and they did not return. Jake’s mom kept searching, and eventually found a lovely, experienced private teacher, who was highly attuned to the developmental needs of young children.

Situations like those that occurred with Jake’s family happen frequently. While Jake’s first teacher may have been an accomplished musician, she seemed unfamiliar with how to engage with Jake and what was appropriate for a five-year-old. Many parents without a musical background may be afraid to assert their concerns, and tolerate a stale, uninspired, and often developmentally-inappropriate approach to learning.

What should you consider when searching for a music teacher for your child?

1 | Recognize your child’s temperament and developmental needs

Each child is unique. A six-year-old clearly requires a different approach than a teen, and a good teacher will appreciate this. Wise teachers know how to capture your child’s interest, instill motivation to practice, and help her set reasonable goals. Anything too demanding will result in resistance. Anything too simplistic and rudimentary will be viewed by your child with skepticism. Even a young child can sense when a teacher’s expectations are out of sync with her abilities.

2 | Stay attuned to what is happening during lessons

Music lessons are different from classroom instruction. Don’t let a teacher keep you out of the room. While you must respect the teacher’s authority and should not interfere during the lesson, you also need to know what’s working, what your child is expected to learn, and how he responds. Find out how you can (or should not) help in between lessons to encourage him with motivation and practice. Older children and teens may be more comfortable without you present; however, some contact with your child’s teacher will keep you informed about you child’s progress and aware of areas that need improvement.

3 | Notice signs of resistance in your child

Your child will convey signs of resistance, such as boredom, frustration, and disinterest in her music instruction, just as she might with schoolwork. This can be expressed through lethargy, avoidance, anxiety, and even melt-downs when practice becomes too overwhelming. Be alert to any signs that your child worries excessively about disappointing her teacher, or feels ashamed of a poor performance. Some resistance may be due to normal avoidance of hard work, but it also may signal that she is not getting what she needs from her lessons.

4 | Keep expectations in check

Watching a child’s musical development can fill any parent with pride. How you respond to this, though, can impact your child’s motivation, drive, self-confidence and even his potential to rebel. Excessive boasting about his successes, overt or even subtle pressure to achieve, or dejection if he performs poorly at an audition can have an impact. It may be confusing for him to distinguish his passion and drive from the needs of his family.

It’s just as essential to find a teacher who understands the emotional impact of his or her words, and who refrains from any coercion, pressure, excessive criticism, or shaming. Instruction and critique must be offered in a respectful, upbeat, and encouraging manner, reinforcing that mistakes are a necessary part of learning.

Children who feel excessive pressure to excel or are shamed for their mistakes, even if these messages are not overt, may develop perfectionistic standards or low self-esteem. They may push themselves relentlessly and become increasingly anxious, or may slow their progress, refusing to take on challenging new assignments where they might struggle or fail. Some may give up completely. Older children and teens who are confident in their abilities may be more receptive to a challenging and rigorous approach; however, your child’s temperament is a better predictor of whether this would be beneficial than her age or talent.

Supporting, encouraging, and nurturing a musically talented child can be a challenge. There are few resources and no clear roadmaps for parents. Finding the right teacher takes time and effort. Don’t necessarily settle for the first teacher your meet, or the one your neighbor recommends. Keep searching until you find the right fit.

Trust your instincts – after all, you know your child best! Keep in mind that your child’s needs may change over time as he matures both developmentally and as a musician. Sometimes a new teacher may provide just the right motivational boost to reignite that spark. Most of all, enjoy this wonderful journey with your child!

On Halloween, by a Candy-Loving, Dentist's Daughter

I’ll admit, as a dentist’s daughter and a lover of candy, I’m a little Jekyll and Hyde over the matter.

Halloween (and in particular the candy procured) is one of my favorite Holidays – which is curious considering my dad, his dad, and my dad’s two brothers were all dentists. Of course, growing up the candy-loving daughter of a dentist had its daily challenges. Simply biting down on a blow-pop induced heart-wrenching guilt. (That sticky sugar just sits between your teeth!) But – oh holy day! – on Halloween, my dad the dentist smiled his pearly white smile, and allowed me to guiltlessly celebrate the holiday in all of its sugar-laden, cavity-inducing glory.
Even as an adult, there are many reasons to love Halloween – the crisp fall air, the childhood excitement, the silly and scary decorations, and obviously the candy – plus, there is no atoning for our sins and no sitting through sermons. It’s a holiday of untainted indulgence, until I learned information that shook my moral compass: A nationwide program called Halloween BuyBack is working with dentist offices nationwide for children to trade in their candy in exchange for money. I’ll admit, as a dentist’s daughter and a lover of candy, I’m a little Jekyll and Hyde over the matter.
To better grasp this internal conflict, it helps to understand that a comically tortured relationship with candy runs in the family: My dad used to keep a personal stash of sugary orange circus peanuts and sticky black licorice in his office cabinets – right next to boxes of “Stillman, DDS” engraved toothbrushes. He is now retired from his practice, but according to the website halloweencandybuyback.com, it doesn’t matter: This year an estimated 22,000 dental offices will be participating. I checked the website, and there a six dentist offices within five miles of my house alone. That certainly makes it convenient for my family, but do I make my kids bring in their loot?
While the child in me sees Halloween BuyBack as a Halloween horror story, the mom in me sees the obvious benefits. Like so many parents these days, my husband and I are stringent when it comes to our kids’ sugar intake. We are aware that too much sugar may lead to childhood obesity and childhood tooth decay, not to mention that my kids are like suped-up wind-up-toys when they get a pinch of the white stuff. We never give them soda. Juice is for special occasions. Dessert is a treat, and often taken away for bad behavior. Yes – when it comes to sugar, we are a million times stricter than my parents ever were, despite my dad’s dental profession.
Yet, like my parents allowed for me, Halloween has always been a free-for-all for my kids. So when I brought up the cash for candy concept with my third grader, he looked at me like I offered him broccoli for dessert. “No way!” He said incredulously.
With logic on my side, I tried to talk sensibly: First of all, he could not possibly eat all the candy he’d collect, even over several months, even with my help! And then there’s the “selfless lesson” because it’s for a good cause – the candy goes into care packages for US Troops. Lastly, it’s bad for you! It will rot your teeth and your body!
But honestly, my heart wasn’t in the argument. Nostalgia (and hypocrisy – I’m eating sour skittles as I write this) get the best of me. I remember the thrill of dumping my precious treasures into my desk drawer after a long night of hitting every house in my neighborhood. When I was little, I would have screamed like I saw Freddy Krueger at the thought of someone ripping my hard earned candy from my sticky fingers, and no amount of cash would have lessened the blow. (Keep in mind, this is coming from someone who asked the Tooth Fairy for gummy bears.)
But I’m an adult now. The teacher of healthful living, and selfless giving. So this year, I’ll try to be a better person. I’ll let my kids run house to house until their little arms ache under the weight of all that delicious, teeth-rotting junk-of-the-Gods. Then, that first night, I’ll let them gorge until they feel physically ill (like roll around on the floor, clutching their belly, ill). The next day – candy hangover in full effect – I’ll have them fill a ziplock bag to take to their local dentist office. I’m not sure who this will be harder on, them or me.
In the weeks following, they’ll each get a piece for dessert or as a treat in their lunch, until they forget it about it altogether. The rest is mine, all mine (duh!). And yes, Dad – I promise I’ll floss.

A Mother's Proclamation About How This Day is Going to Go

Today, we will get out of the house. This will be no easy feat, but we will get out of the house.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
Today, we will get out of the house.
This will be no easy feat, as I will need to dress both of you while you are fully committed to this riveting episode of Paw Patrol. It will be like attempting to tug clothes onto an angry octopus, or actually, like trying to dress two fighting octopi that can’t keep their tentacles to themselves.
But we will get out of the house.
I must pack enough snack rations to feed an entire small town for a week, even though we’ll only be gone for a couple of hours and you just ate your weight in muffins at breakfast. And I need to make sure I have exactly the same number of banana applesauce pouches for each of you. Strawberry applesauce is obviously not acceptable.
And you, my dear daughter, must go potty. I realize this is a 42-step process, and that you will shout “I pooped!” just as I am trying to wrangle your brother to the ground, pinning him down with my body weight so I can change his diaper. But we can do this. We must.
And then we will be ready – hooray! Dressed, bag packed, faces (somewhat) clean, hair brushed. We will just need to find your shoes and socks and put them on. Easy-peasy, right? Yes, I know we are missing one of your gray socks with blue whales, and that it is nearly impossible to go on living without it, but we will prevail.
Despite all of this, we will get out of the house.
We will figure out a way to get in the car, even though you will each insist that I buckle you into your car seat first.
We will go to the library to return our overdue books and pick out new ones, even though you, my sweet son, will sob, your little face scrunched in rage, because I have the audacity to insist that I hold you while we cross the street.
After the library (where one of you clearly will not respect the quiet rule), I will – despite my better judgment – take you to the bakery next door for a donut. You will argue over who gets the bigger half (news flash – they will be exactly the same size). You will coat every square inch of your face, the table, and the floor with cinnamon sugar.
But today, I will get out of the house.
Here is a list of things I will not do:

  • Fold the load of laundry that’s been waiting for me in the living room for three days.
  • Clean the kitchen, which may be reaching health code levels of dirtiness.
  • Spend any measure of quality time with my husband.
  • Clean out the back of my car, or finally take those clothes on top of my dresser to Goodwill, or do our weekly meal planning, or write, or go for a run, or take a nap.

I will not do any of those things today.
Some days I wonder – what am I doing with my life? Am I achieving enough? Am I reaching for my dreams? Am I doing anything really worthwhile? And importantly – will these kids ever sleep? Will my house ever be clean again?
I am often tired and frazzled, overwhelmed by how much you need me and by my inability to do it all. But I do know deep down that it is all okay, and that nothing lasts forever – not even these days, which are messy, mundane, and maddening … but also magic if I am determined enough to pay attention.
Today, I will get out of the house. I will take you to the park. I will watch as you play in the sand, giggle your way down the slides, and shriek with joy while you chase butterflies. I will push you on the swings, one hand on each of your little backs. I will raise my face to the warmth of the sun and be grateful.

Rewards Don’t Work – Here’s What Does

While a reward system may get kids into the habit of behaving in the desired manner, it’s not a long-term solution.

“Mom, can I have the vacuum?” asked my five-year-old daughter.
I was confused and also reluctant to turn over my beloved cordless Dyson.
“Why, sweetheart?”
Normally you cannot see my daughter’s floor through the forest of books, dolls, and clothes. She grinned while imploring me: “Come see.” She marched down the hall and into her room, leading me by the hand. When we got to her doorway I laughed in surprise. The floor was completely clear. I ceded control of the Dyson until my daughter got bored (about 47 seconds later). After I vacuumed neat rows back and forth over her pink, gray, and white chevron rug, I texted the preschool teacher photos of the immaculate room along with all the happy emojis.
Earlier that day, in frustration, I’d begged the teacher to help me find a way to quell the power struggles that had been erupting between my daughter and me for months. If I’m being honest, years. No sticker chart or time-out could tame her steadfast refusal to do what I asked, whether it was to do her chore (she literally has one chore), to get out of the bathtub, or get her shoes on.
Her teacher suggested a marble jar. Here’s how it works: I put a marble in a jar every time I “catch” my daughter being good. When the jar is full, she earns a treat. The teacher said to follow a rule of never removing marbles as a consequence for bad behavior. I added my own rule: Requesting a marble (e.g., “Will I get a marble if I do my chore?”) precludes you from receiving one.
My daughter’s response to the marble jar was a classic example of positive reinforcement at work. According to Ira Chasnoff, M.D., author of “The Mystery of Risk,” positive reinforcement is the only one of the four types of discipline that actually works. In light of that, the steep improvement I saw in my child’s behavior should not have been surprising.
Still, I had questions. Why had the sticker charts not worked? And why, even as I grew lazy about rewarding “marble-worthy” behavior, did the power struggles continue to decrease both in frequency and intensity? There had to be more to the equation than simply positive reinforcement.
I talked to Sarah MacLaughlin, parent educator and author of “What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children” to fill in the gap. She cautions parents to use positive reinforcement only “as training wheels” – and even then, only if they’ve already tried approaches emphasizing the relationship. In other words, while a reward system may get kids into the habit of behaving in the desired manner, it’s not a long-term solution.
MacLaughlin cites the work of education and parenting expert Alfie Kohn, who calls rewards and punishments “two sides of the same coin” in his book “Punished by Rewards.” As MacLaughlin explains, whether you’re rewarding good behavior or punishing bad behavior, “the goal is to influence/control/coerce a child and their behavior, [a strategy that has] a rapidly approaching expiration date.” She recalls offering her son candy as a reward for taking a necessary dose of bitter medicine when he was five years old. “He burst into tears and wailed, ‘Why are you threatening me?’ It took me a minute to work out how offering him M&M’s to take the stuff was a threat, but then I realized – the threat was that he wouldn’t get the chocolate unless he took the medicine.” MacLaughlin says she then realized she’d inadvertently attempted to coerce her child, something she’d never advise parents to do.
While MacLaughlin feels positive reinforcement may be effective, it should be used sparingly, if at all. She says children tend to respond well to positive reinforcement for the same reasons adults do. Most of us would be more motivated to meet performance goals for a manager who rewards our efforts than be subject to punishment for poor performance. However, MacLaughlin points out “I’m also not likely to care much about positive reinforcement or rewards from someone I don’t respect or feel connected to.” Both MacLaughlin and Chasnoff agree on one important point: When it comes to motivating our children, no system or method can (or should) take the place of a loving relationship.
One of the risks of using positive reinforcement, says MacLaughlin, is raising a child who becomes an extrinsically motivated adult. Extrinsic motivation is when a reward or recognition motivates a person to perform. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is what causes people to accomplish something simply because they want to. According to Daniel Pink, career analyst and author of “Drive,” when it comes to creative problem solving, the prospect of extrinsic rewards actually hurts performance.
But the main issue with positive reinforcement is that it ignores the greatest source of influence on your child – your relationship. Says MacLaughlin, “Behavior is always driven by either development (i.e., it’s normal and to be expected), an unmet physiological need, or emotion/stress (children don’t have a fully wired brain and their off-track behavior is often a result of a dysregulated brain state).” As parents, it is crucial to understand that it’s our connection with our kids – not any “sticker, star, gummy bear, [or] punishment” according to Dr. Becky Bailey – that can help get them back on track. Bailey is a developmental psychologist and early childhood expert whose TEDx talk “Wiring the Brain for Success” explains the neurology responsible for this phenomenon.
But if offering a marble isn’t the way to go when your kid is not cooperating, or worse, having a meltdown, what is? MacLaughlin advises parents to listen. And listen some more. If your child is having a fit, she says it is futile to attempt to give consequences or feedback when a child is an elevated emotional state (e.g., crying or screaming). That does not mean you should ignore bad behavior, however. If for example, your child becomes physically aggressive, MacLaughlin recommends you first help her calm down. Only when kids are calm do they have the capacity to listen and learn. At that point, she says,

“You can validate a child who is heated by saying, ‘You tried to kick me because I said NO to dessert. I understand you’re upset, and I won’t let you hurt me.’ Then listen more, say less, and offer no ‘consequences’ or feedback until they are calm (the Hand in Hand model calls this Staylistening). Once you gauge you’re past the point of triggering those big emotions, you can offer feedback and education. For example, ‘I know you know that hitting is not okay. As you grow and mature you’ll learn how to stay in charge of yourself and not hit when you’re upset.” I call this combo a Truth Bomb Pep Talk–information, a reminder, and encouragement all rolled into one.”

If your child is simply refusing to do what you’re requesting, MacLaughlin urges parents to remember that kids are doing the best they can, and to assume that they aren’t cooperating because they need help, whether emotionally or physically. She says there could be something bothering them on an emotional level, in which case she recommends the Staylistening approach. Or it could be that using humor – making your request in a funny voice or with an accent – will get them on board. If that doesn’t work, and before you lose your cool, MacLaughlin suggests stopping what you’re doing and set a limit by calmly, kindly, physically guiding the child to the chore or task. She says parents are often surprised at how well this works.
Whenever my daughter’s marble jar filled up, she chose a treat. We would either hit the bagel shop or the used bookstore, but no matter what, it was just us. Her love languages are apparently carbs, books, and quality time. In light of what I learned from MacLaughlin, it’s clear the positive reinforcement was just the “training wheels” she needed to start rolling in the right direction. I’m convinced that it was the “reward” of spending rare one on one time together that took care of the rest.

Tonight's Lights Out Struggle

The light flicked on again. I stop and stare at the shining coming through the bottom of the door. “How can he still be awake?” I ask my husband.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
The light flicked on again. I stop and stare at the shining coming through the bottom of the door.
“How can he still be awake?” I ask my husband.
“He’s going to be exhausted tomorrow,” he says while shaking his head. I take a deep breath.
“Okay. My turn to check this time.” Setting my laptop on the couch, I have a feeling that this won’t be the last moment getting up.
Padding across our dark wood floors, I lean on our three-year-old son’s door and gently push it open. His lamp is on. There are toys strewn across the floor. That’s when I notice him. Our son is sitting on his bed wearing a hard hat and boots with his superhero cape tied around his neck. He’s meticulously lining up his dinosaurs on his pillow. He looks at me. Based on his expression, I think I walked in at a very busy time.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Building.”
Hmmm, a one-word response. This usually means he has no intention of stopping and would like me to leave the room closing the door behind me.
“It’s time for bed. You have to get up for school tomorrow.” Carefully slipping the hard hat off his head and tugging the boots from each foot, my son stops to look at me.
“I don’t want to sleep,” he whimpers.
“How come?” I ask while gathering each brontosaurus and tossing them in the bucket.
“I’m scared. There are monsters in my room, and it gets too dark.” Yawning, he crawls into my lap.
After checking under the bed, in the closet and in his drawers, I confirmed the expected. There are no monsters in his room. Calling dad for backup reassurance, he does a quick sweep of the room and agrees there are no one-eyed furry creatures lurking in the dark.
With another kiss and hug, we flick the light.
“Now go to sleep.”
I find my cozy spot on the couch and park my tired body. What’s on Netflix? Flipping through the channels looking for a new binge series, I hear a car horn. Ignoring it, I keep searching.
WeeOoooWeeOooo
A police siren? I glance back at my son’s door. Sure enough, he’s awake again. This is the third time going into his room. Feelings of frustration are boiling.
Not bothering to knock I walk into his room.
“We just checked for monsters, and there is nothing in here. Lights out. Now.”
He looks at me. A slight smirk is forming on his face. For some reason, I’m starting to think I’m being tricked.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” He’s squirming around in his bed. I send him the Mama Bear stare.
“Hurry up and go. No more playing around.” Picking up his little body and walking to the bathroom he randomly starts sharing a friendship problem from school. This quick trip to the john has suddenly turned into a long drawn out affair of problem-solving.
“I’m sorry those boys were running away from you at the playground. Remember, you want to play with friends that make you feel good. If they always hurt your feelings, then it’s best to find a new friend.”
With a nod of his head and smile on his face, I’m feeling confident we solved the world’s problems for the day, and we can finally get some sleep.
Again, lights out. Eyeing the open spot on the couch, it begins calling my name. Lingering outside his door for another minute, I take a deep breath. Burying myself into the cushions of the couch I close my eyes. It’s late. There’s no time for an episode of anything.
“Looks like we forgot to take that Christmas book out of his room again.” Charlie Brown’s “O Tannenbaum” was playing from down the hall. Such a thoughtful gift from Auntie, but there should be a silent button on musical books.
This boy is determined tonight. Pointing my finger at my husband, he takes the cue and claims it’s his turn.
After he closes the door, it becomes silent again. Angels begin to sing, or maybe that’s in my mind. My eyes start to feel heavy. I drift off to sleep.
Unsure of how long I’d been out, I sit up and look around. Where is my husband? Maybe he went to bed. I clumsily make my way to our bedroom fumbling for the lamp. Click. Staring at a messy bed, with the cat sprawled out at the foot, it’s empty.
Poking my head in our son’s room, there curled up under his covers is my three-year-old. Wedged in next to him is my husband crammed into the toddler bed. I smile and for the last time, turn off the light.

My Place With the Playground Benchwarmers

Where there is a playground, we will be there as Protectors of the Peace, like mundane super heroes keeping an eye on petty criminals.

It is almost 3 p.m. and I am standing around with a bunch of other parents waiting for the torrent of children to come barreling out of the school doors like a herd of screaming cats. Some of us chit chat idly with each other, some look at phones, some kind of stare aimlessly. It’s a fairly subdued scene, save for the slight hidden tension in anticipation of the impending barrage. Then the bell rings.
Some things never change, and certainly the end of the school day looks much like it did for me when I was a screaming cat in the herd. Like a river flowing forth from a burst damn, tiny people come streaming out of the doors, heads whipping wildly about in search of their respective rides home. Some charge off to the school bus lines, while other throw their backpacks in the general direction of their guardians and run recklessly to the parking lot.
Others, my son among them, greet their elders with pleading cries requesting playground access with their peers. Since I’m a sucker both for time spent in pursuit of physical activity and my son’s begging puppy-dog eyes, I graciously relent and we head around behind the school, my scion at top speed and me lagging behind with a newly acquired schoolbag.
The playground is ground zero for childhood, and these kids are anxious to spend as large a portion of their pent-up energy as possible before the cluster of parents at the picnic table finally decides we’ve had enough and it’s time to go home. They charge into whatever game they’d presumably created at recess earlier and just like that, they’re off.
As an experienced Playground Benchwarmer I know it is only a matter of time before the younger siblings that have been dragged along to pick-up will find something to complain about, and somehow in my seven years of parenting I still haven’t figured out the appropriate amount of snacks to bring to a venture such as this. So I bide my time as I commiserate with the other Benchwarmers about the nightly homework arguments and what new learning style has been introduced this year.
There was a time once, in the distant past, when I determined I would follow my son on the playground and do what he did, because I wasn’t one of those lazy parents that just sits around all the time while their kid plays. Oh no, I was one of those active, fun parents that likes to play with their kid and run around and swing on the monkey bars! I was able to keep up with him respectably for approximately three minutes, following which I collapsed on the nearest bench and spent the rest of the evening caving to TV demands just for a moment’s rest. Since that atrocious folly I have realized my place among the adults, and I stray no further from the bench than necessary.
This playground hierarchy, with kids rampant at play while parents sit nearby or push a younger sibling on a swing, translates to any and all designated play areas equally, I have found. There will always be a few guardians who get more involved, a few who remain aloof and remote, and the majority watching out of the corner of their eye from the sidelines. The Playground Benchwarmers are a stalwart bunch, braving the afternoon sun on an August afternoon or huddling around a steaming cup of coffee on a crisp November morning. Where there is a playground, we will be there as Protectors of the Peace, like mundane super heroes keeping an eye on petty criminals.
At the slightest sign of discord, the more alert and attentive of the bunch will call out a cease and desist cry, warning of the terrible consequences of non-compliance as the offending children pretend to listen before finding a sneakier way of breaking the rules. This is the way it has always been, and the way it will always be. One generation makes way for the next, but the bench will be forever warmed.
Finally the call has been made by one of the monitoring elite, and soon the rest follow. Momentum is a powerful force, not to be understated when children must be removed from a playground. Once one child has been suitably convinced of the need to leave, the rest will be much easier to persuade. It is imperative, therefore, the Benchwarmers work together as a group so as to avoid disruptive meltdowns and lengthy arguments. Slowly the playground clears out save for a few stragglers, and the sweaty children are led to their chariots to be carted off to the familial snack huts.
The Playground Benchwarmers have done their job, and the playground has been used and vacated without bloodshed or tears. Tomorrow is another day, and another chance at mutiny for the children. Against the Swingset Supervisors they stand little chance, however, and life will proceed as it has for generations.
I carry the bounty of second-grade math papers and left over lunch on my back as my son exchanges his last remaining potty jokes with his guffawing friends. As the sun sinks lower in the afternoon sky, we finally make it to the car and climb in, contentedly weary. All is right with the world now, as we head for home. Proudly I offer the bounty of Goldfish I actually remembered to bring this time, to which he replies that he has suddenly decided he hates Goldfish and is desperate for water, which of course I forgot to bring. Seven years in and I still have no idea what I’m doing.
This article was originally published at lifeoutsidethebox.me.