Why Confidence in Yourself as Parent is What Really Matters

Turns out that whether or not you think you’re doing a good job as a parent might matter just as much as your parenting skills.

Would you describe yourself as a good parent? Turns out that whether or not you think you’re doing a good job as a parent might matter just as much as your parenting skills.

Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” In parenting research terms, this is referred to as parenting efficacy. Research suggests that whether or not you believe you’re able to provide the social, cultural, and emotional support your kid needs in ways that lead to positive development impacts his or her development.

Parenting efficacy is the extent to which parents feel capable of effectively managing the challenges their kids encounter. Several studies suggest that this parenting efficacy has an impact on children’s adjustment. It involves issues such as how far parents are willing to go to solve challenges, their stress levels, how they promote their kids’ self-efficacy, and the overall satisfaction they derive from parenting. Parenting efficacy is also influenced by whether or not parents feel supported, and by the positive relationships and interactions they share with others.

According to Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy, people with high self-efficacy are motivated, more likely to take on difficult tasks and to invest the necessary effort to complete tasks, and are also more likely to persevere. In contrast, those with low self-efficacy have greater self-doubt, higher levels of anxiety, avoid difficult tasks, and are more likely to view difficult situations as threats rather than challenges they’re able to overcome.

High parenting self-efficacy is particularly important in early childhood because this is an unpredictable period during which kids learn most. Moreover, the relationships built in early childhood set the stage for successful parent-child relationships in adolescence and beyond. Several studies have linked low parenting self-efficacy to problem behavior during early childhood and to issues such as substance abuse and delinquency in adolescence.

The good news is that self-efficacy is not a fixed trait. In other words, it’s possible to strengthen your parenting efficacy. Here are a few tips to help you promote effective parenting practices.

1 | Be in the know

Research confirms what we already know – when you feel competent in your parenting role, you are more likely to be warm, sensitive to your kids’ needs, and engaged in their learning and development. It’s easier to think of yourself as a competent parent when you have the skills to respond to your child’s needs.

Keeping up-to-date with information from reliable sources can help provide you with useful parenting information. That said, not all the information will necessarily apply to your family. It’s important to pick what works for you and your kid. Focus on both your strengths and weaknesses to decide what matters most and how best to get to your parenting objectives.

2 | Monitor, don’t spy

You’re more likely to feel confident in your parenting skills when you know what your kid is up to. According to the behaviorist theory, kids imitate the models with whom they identify. These models could be their friends and parents, but they could also be TV personalities or other people in kids’ environment. Several studies suggest that kids exposed to violent models are more likely to be less empathetic, engage in aggressive behavior, or demonstrate fearfulness.

It’s important to know who your kid is hanging out with and what he’s watching, but this doesn’t mean you need to spy on him. Watching his favorite show together at least once, playing video games together, and organizing play dates is an easy way to monitor your kid’s activities without spying.

3 | Work on your stress and depression levels

Parenting self-efficacy and stress levels are inseparable. Research suggests that parents with high stress and depression levels are more likely to have low parenting self-efficacy, and the higher parents’ self-efficacy levels, the less likely they are to suffer from anxiety, stress, and depression.

Working on the issues underlying your stress and depression can help increase your parenting self-efficacy. It’s also easier to help your kid manage her stress and anxiety when you have learned to manage yours.

Other studies suggest that parenting self-efficacy is also higher when kids are less emotional. Indeed, there are many occasions on which misbehavior can be explained by kids’ inability to manage difficult emotions. Using appropriate strategies to talk to kids about emotions and help them learn to manage those emotions by themselves can help strengthen your parenting self-efficacy.

4 | Strengthen your support network

The more supported you feel in your parenting, the more likely you are to develop a high level of parenting self-efficacy. Couple support is one of the most important determinants of this self-efficacy. Sharing parenting tasks with your partner reduces the feeling that you’re overwhelmed or stressed, and increases your confidence in your parenting.

Parenting support may also be provided by family and friends. There’s evidence that this support enables parents to deal better with stressful events and to feel that they’re doing a good job as parents. Strengthening your support network also means knowing whether or not to avoid people who constantly criticize your parenting.

5 | Strengthen your kid’s self-efficacy

Strengthening your kid’s self-efficacy also strengthens your parenting efficacy. There are several easy habits that foster kids’ autonomy. When you provide unstructured but creative environments, you motivate your kid to solve problems by herself and you also foster her creativity.

6 | Create opportunities to bond

Strong families spend time together. Creating opportunities to bond strengthens family relationships. If you don’t already have one, start a family ritual. If done right, family rituals can help the whole family connect, reduce sibling rivalry, and strengthen your parenting self-efficacy.

No matter what parenting style you choose, remember that believing in yourself is a job already half-done.

New Study Shows That Even Infants Can Learn the Value of Hard Work

Findings suggest that infants even as young as 15 months may be able to learn the importance of effort by seeing adults try hard.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!

I don’t often use four letter words, but when I do, you can bet it’s because I’m trying to figure out driving directions without a GPS (when my phone dies, naturally), attempting to assemble something with confusing instructions (which is every gift my children have ever received), or going for a run (a habit I take up every two years or so before remembering why I much prefer power-walking). In the midst of these challenges, I tend to get so frustrated that I nearly forget my attentive three-year-old is in tow until I hear his little voice ask in earnest, “What’d you say, Mommy?”

“Oh nothing, honey, I’m fine,” I say, and I take a deep breath and try to reset.

I feel awful when he sees me lose my cool, convinced that he and his younger brother are absorbing all of my stress and learning to become easily frustrated individuals themselves.

But a recent research study, published in the journal Science, suggests that bearing witness to my bumbling efforts may be actually helping my children learn the value of hard work and the pay-off of persistence.

Researchers at MIT designed and conducted an experiment in which a group of infants observed adults performing tasks (removing a toy frog from a container and a key chain from a carabiner) and then were given their own task to work on. Half of the babies watched the adult accomplish the task efficiently, while the other half saw the adult struggle for 30 seconds before accomplishing it.

When the babies were then given their own task (turning on a musical toy), researchers found that the babies who’d watched an adult struggle tried harder to succeed by pressing a button that appeared as though it should turn the toy on. These babies pressed the button almost twice as many times as the babies who’d seen the adult succeed without difficulty. They also pressed it twice as many times before giving up or looking to the adult for help. Researchers also showed that babies put forth more effort when the experimenter directly engaged with them, using their names and making eye contact.

These findings suggest that infants even as young as 15 months may be able to learn the importance of effort by seeing adults try hard. Researchers have not yet studied how long these effects last, but they say their findings still hold a helpful message for parents.

“There’s some pressure on parents to make everything look easy and not get frustrated in front of their children,” says Laura Schulz, a professor of cognitive science at MIT, quoted in Science Daily. “There’s nothing you can learn from a laboratory study that directly applies to parenting,” she says, “but this does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals.”

It makes so much sense. How can kids learn that success requires hard work if their parents, whom they model their behavior after, hide all of our efforts and make everything look easy? That’s just not reality.

So, while my process of completing tasks, solving problems, and achieving goals may not always (or often) look pretty, I do always finish what I start, and that sense of determination is something I do hope to pass on to my children.

After reading this study, I think I’ll start being more honest with them about the effort it takes to succeed when they ask why I’m red in the face and clenching my hands in frustration. (As for the F-bombs, I’m not sure that has scientific evidence.)

How to Guide Your Kid's Inventive Spelling

Encouraging your child to use invented spelling will help her become a successful student, even if the immediate results look disastrous.

Invented spelling – young children’s attempts to write words by recording the letter sounds they hear – has long been common in early childhood classrooms, but new research has brought it into the spotlight this year. A recent study suggests that engaging regularly in this analytical process is more effective at preparing children to read than focusing on word memorization.
What does this mean for parents? Well, for one thing, you can stop worrying that a note from your five-year-old that says, “U R A GRT MOM” means she’ll forever be reliant on spell check. Encouraging your child to use invented spelling will help her become a successful student, even if the immediate results look disastrous.
It also means you might struggle with how to best help your beginning writer. The following tips come from my experience as a kindergarten teacher and have passed the true test: I have a five-year-old inventive speller at home.

Take yourself back to kindergarten

As a proficient reader and writer, your brain works differently than a young child’s. You have a massive mental bank of words you read and write automatically. So it’s understandable if you’re out of practice at relying heavily on letter sounds.
It will be easier for you to help your early speller (and read what she writes) if you temporarily suspend your knowledge that the ending “shun” is often written as -tion or that care written without the “e” would technically be pronounced as the word meaning automobile.
Go back to the ABCs. Consistency between home and school is always helpful, so find out how your child’s teacher introduces letter sounds. Many teachers use a keyword carefully chosen to teach each one, as in this common phonics program. Instead of “E is for Elephant,” it’s Ed, to make the “short e” sound crystal clear. No xylophones or x-rays, either. The keyword for X is fox to teach the ending /ks/ sound.
For extra credit, watch this video clip to confirm you’re pronouncing each sound correctly when helping your child.

Set up for success

You can avoid some common pitfalls by being ready with supplies and ideas when your child wants to practice writing. It’s hard for new writers to plan use of space, so squeezing words into small areas will likely be frustrating. My son always chooses the tiniest scrap of paper, so I try to quickly swap it out for something with plenty of room.
Consider ditching the standard no. 2 pencil, also. Pencils break at the wrong moment and erasing can easily become a messy obsession. These nifty crayon rocks are a fun alternative. They come in a velvet bag, which makes them feel treasure-like, and have the added bonus of a shape that encourages a correct pincer grip. Many teachers also favor these felt tip pens, which slide easily across the paper.
It can be frustrating for everyone when adults can’t read what a child laboriously wrote. If you encourage a new writer to label an item in a picture or an actual object, you have a giant clue as to her intended message. Give your child a stack of large sticky notes and have her label things around your home. “Dangerous!” by Tim Warnes is a hilarious picture book about labeling that inspired my son to whip through an economy-sized pack of Post-Its.
There are many authentic contexts for writing lists, which are a logical next step after labeling. Suggest grocery lists, real or pretend menus, to-do lists, top 10 lists, and so on. You’ll have the list’s context to help you decipher each word. My son spent all summer getting ahead of the game and writing wish lists for Santa. A tad consumer-driven for my taste, but he was highly motivated to include as many sounds as possible so his message was legible.
Finally, if you encourage your child to attempt writing short sentences within a functional framework, the task feels worthy enough for him to see it through, and you’ll have something to go on when you try to read it. Encourage him to write thank you notes, signs, birthday cards or a caption to accompany a picture he drew.

Help, but not too much

So much of parenting is about striking the balance between giving help and leaving enough space for independence. Once your child gets the idea of saying words slowly and writing down letters for sounds she hears, let her go for it.
Constant correction or giving into to “How do you spell…?” requests quickly creates dependence. I find it useful to suddenly become very busy in another room when my son is trying to write something. When I’m out of sight, he trusts himself more.
At the same time, new writers need to maintain momentum. If your child is stuck on a sound, especially if it’s one you’re sure he doesn’t know yet, just supply it so he can move on. It’s okay to provide tips like how to spell the ending “ing” or “it takes s and h together to start shell” without lengthy explanations. My son often gets hung up on people’s names, which can be phonetic minefields anyways, so I just write them on a piece of scrap paper for him if he asks.
Like potty training, training wheels, and Velcro shoes, invented spelling spans just a short phase in your child’s development. I keep reminding myself to appreciate (rather, APRESHEAT) the window it offers into my child’s thinking. I know that, soon enough, the only notes I’ll get from him will be texts that he won’t be home for dinner.

The Mantra That Keeps Me From Trying to Fix Everything

Managing everyone’s constantly changing emotions is a full-time job, and I’m pretty sure I want to quit.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!

One sunny day this summer, on a hike in Maine, one of my daughters was complaining. She was complaining about doing a very short hike (about 400 feet) to get a view of Acadia National Park after biking on wide smooth carriage trails with her cousins.

I know. Ridiculous, right?

My insides squirmed. How privileged of you! How dare you be complaining! Don’t you realize how lucky you are?! Lucky to be on vacation, lucky to be in a national park, lucky to be with your cousins and your parents, lucky to be doing something fun and healthy.

More complaining and then some arguing ensued. My emotions ran away with me, there among the pink granite and pines. They hijacked my body and made my blood boil. My daughter’s unhappiness became my unhappiness. I seethed, cresting the hill. I tried to take in the mountaintop, the ocean, and the tiny islands dotting the Maine coast. They were there, but I couldn’t see them clearly. My view was clouded by frustration. How could I be raising someone who doesn’t appreciate this?

My sister-in-law, who was on the summit already, looked at me. She shared what a friend of hers says to her about dealing with her children, “Be like a colander.”

“What?” I said, confused. I stared at the tiny boats floating like small toys in the bay.

“Let your child’s emotions, whatever they are, flow through you. Don’t hold on to them. They are her emotions. You don’t have to carry them.”

Whoa. I stopped. I looked at her freckled, sun-kissed face and her wind-tousled hair.

“I don’t have to carry them,” I repeated.

“Nope,” she said, and joined her son and husband at a rocky overlook.

This idea was revolutionary.

So I stopped. I let my daughter walk ahead, and tried to be like a colander. She huffed and puffed on the hike down, complaining to the wind, as I joked with my sister-in-law about the movie “Frozen” (we also may have sung a little bit).

The colander idea clearly links to my current meditation practice. I’ve been practicing for a while (using the Calm app). Like many people, I have a very active mind, like a hamster on a wheel. When thoughts come in during mediation, I’ve been learning to note them, as in, “I see you there, but I am not going to focus on you right now. I am going to focus on my breath instead.” Then I say to myself, “I am inhaling…. I am exhaling,” to refocus. I try to picture my thoughts floating down a river. I think, There you are. There you go, floating away. I’ll get to you at some point, just not right now.

While I’ve been able to do that in practice, filtering my kids’ emotions on a regular basis has been much harder to do. As parents, we are biologically hardwired to feel our babies’ emotions and to help them in times of distress. As they get older, this can become overwhelming and overbearing, not to mention exhausting. Managing everyone’s constantly changing emotions is a full-time job, and I’m pretty sure I want to quit.

So, back to the colander.

I started imagining my colander. What would it look like today? That day, mine was a shiny, sparkly hot pink, made of stainless steel. I have no idea why, but I pictured it like that. Water and emotion flowed right through my hot pink colander.

When I was frustrated later, I pictured it again. It helped me think that I am not my emotions, or the emotions of my family. I don’t have to fix everything.

This can be used with anyone who works closely with children, or any humans actually. We can stay with the discomfort of someone else’s emotions without becoming those emotions ourselves. We can show empathy and be with our kids, students, friends, and co-workers without being sucked down a river of emotions ourselves. This might help us be less tired, less on a roller coaster, and more able to manage our complex, daily lives.

So, when faced with strong emotions from a child, partner, family member, or work colleague, I ask you: What color is your colander?

How to End Screen Time Without A Struggle

Do you ever struggle with getting your kids off the screen? Does it often end in tears (both theirs and yours)? This could help.

Do you ever struggle with getting your kids off the screen? Does it often end in tears (both theirs and yours)? Like so many other parents, I used to give my children warning.

“Five more minutes, then it’s dinner!” I’d yell from the kitchen.

This statement would either be ignored or grunted at.

Five minutes later, I’d march into the living room and turn the TV/tablet/gadget off, expecting them to silently accept and for us all to have a lovely, quiet dinner together.

Cue screams. Cue tantrums. Cue cold dinner. Cue grey hairs.

I realized something was wrong. Something was wrong in the way I was approaching the issue. My children aren’t naturally prone to tantrums, so I was thrown by this. I couldn’t work out what I could do to stop the sudden screaming at the end of every screen-time.

I wanted to find a way of gently disconnecting my children from the screen, of bringing them back into the real world without continual bumps and bruises along the way (because this happened almost every night), but I didn’t know how. Then a friend introduced me to a little trick by Isabelle Filliozat.

Isabelle Filliozat is a clinical psychologist specializing in positive parenting. She is the author of many books about children’s education, and an authority on gentle parenting in the French speaking world. From one day to the next, my world changed. I suddenly knew how to handle the end of screen-time without the screams, the tantrums, the cold dinner, or the grey hairs.

Here is Isabelle Filliozat’s very simple method to end screen-time without the screams.

The science behind screen-time

Have you ever had the electricity cut off just as the football game reached its most nerve-wracking stage?

Or your toddler pressed the “off” switch just as the protagonists in the deeply engrossing romantic comedy were finally going to kiss?

Or you ran out of power just as you were going to kill that alien and move up a level?

It’s hard to come out of the state of pleasure, which is what screen-time creates in our brains. It’s hard for adults. For a child, it can be terrible. Literally. Here, according to Isabelle Filliozat, is why.

When we human beings (not only children!) are absorbed in a film or playing a computer game, we are, mentally, in another world. Screens are hypnotic to our brains. The light, the sounds, the rhythm of the images puts the brain into a state of flow. We feel good, and don’t want to do anything else. We certainly don’t want the situation to change.

During these moments, our brains produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter which relieves stress-and pain. All is well – that is, until the screen is turned off. The dopamine levels in the body drop fast and without warning, which can, literally, create a sensation of pain in the body. This drop in hormones, this physical shock, is where children’s scream-time begins.

It doesn’t matter that we parents are quite clear that now is the end of screen-time. After all, we’d discussed and arranged it beforehand (”20 minutes!”), and/or given them warning (“5 more minutes!”). To us, it’s clear and fair enough, but to the child, it isn’t. When in front of a screen, she isn’t in a state to think that way or to take that information in. Her brain is awash with dopamine, remember? To turn the “off” switch on the television can, for the child, feel like a shock of physical pain. You’re not exactly slapping her in the face, but this is, neurologically speaking, how it might feel to her.

Cutting her off forcefully is hurtful. So instead of simply switching the “off” button, the trick is not to cut her off, but to instead enter her zone.

The trick: build a bridge

Whenever you decide that screen-time should come to an end, take a moment to sit down next to your child and enter his world. Watch TV with him, or sit with him while he plays his game massacring aliens on the screen. This doesn’t have to be long, half a minute is enough. Just share his experience. Then, ask him a question about it.

“What are you watching?” might work for some kids.

Others might need more specific questions. “So what level are you on now?” or “That’s a funny figure there in the background. Who’s he?”

Generally, children love it when their parents take an interest in their world. If they are too absorbed still and don’t engage, don’t give up. Just sit with them a moment longer, then ask another question.

Once the child starts answering your questions or tells you something she has seen or done on screen, it means that she is coming out of the “cut-off” zone and back into the real world. She’s coming out of the state of flow and back into a zone where she is aware of your existence – but slowly. The dopamine doesn’t drop abruptly, because you’ve built a bridge – a bridge between where she is and where you are. You can start to communicate, and this is where the magic happens.

You can choose to start discussing with your child that it’s time to eat, to go have his bath, or simply that screen-time is over now. Because of the minute of easing-in, your child will be in a space where he can listen and react to your request. He might even have been smoothed back into the real world gently enough, and is so happy about the parental attention that he wants turn off the TV/tablet/computer himself. (I’ve experienced my children do this, hand to heart.)

To me, simply the awareness of what’s going on in my children’s minds helps me handle end-of-screen-time much better than before. It isn’t always as smooth as I want it to be, but we haven’t had a scream-time incident since I discovered Isabelle Filliozat’s little trick.

Don’t take my word for it, go and try it yourself

Next time your child is sitting in front of a screen, and you want to end it, try this:

  • Sit with her for 30 seconds, a minute, or longer, and simply watch whatever she is watching/doing.
  • Ask an innocent question about what’s happening on screen. Most children love their parent’s attention, and will provide answers.
  • Once you’ve created a dialogue, you’ve created a bridge – a bridge that will allow your child to, in his mind and body, step from screen back into the real world, without hormones in free-fall, and therefore without crisis.
  • Enjoy the rest of your day together.

Winning the Battle, and the War

I never pictured that love would entail holding her body immobile so we could help her by hurting her. It was an act of faith and determination to endure.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!

When Marigold was two months old, Pat Benatar became my own personal manifestation of determination.

It had nothing to do with Pat Benatar herself. I still don’t even know what she looks like, frankly. But in the dead of night, sobbing over my child who could not, would not latch onto my breast properly, body aching, feeling like a catastrophic failure, her words came to me like they were divinely decreed: Love is a battlefield.

A Pat Benatar single from 1983 doesn’t seem like a likely parenthood mantra, I know.

My father, shaped by raising two daughters, told me, “Once you have a child, you’ll wear your heart on the outside for the rest of your life.”

Pat said it in a catchier way, “I’m trapped by your love/And I’m chained to your side.”

If my unarmored heart resided on my exterior, then I was bashing it into everything in hopes that eventually it would hit something soft. I loved that hungry, angry baby. I loved her so much that I felt smothered and trapped, trying to come to the correct decision about how to feed her through the pain and frustration. Giving up on breastfeeding wouldn’t be loving her less, I knew, but I felt chained to her in our battle and I did not want to be the one to lay down arms.

Things started well. She swiftly latched on in the operating room after being pulled from my body and handed over the blue surgical drape. I will always remember the anesthesiologist, posted dutifully at my head, delighting in seeing a baby breastfeeding in the OR for the first time.

Within weeks it had turned into a cascade of problems – her weight chart was a rocky drop-off instead of a climbing mountain, and our medicine cabinet held a veritable apothecary of lotions, salves, and prescriptions aimed at soothing my pain. I missed being able to comfort her. I missed her happiness, snuggled next to me, safe and warm and nourished. I hated that I felt dread when she woke up, bleating her hungry cry. It seemed ever-present.

It often took so long to try to feed her, between nipple shields and latching and re-latching and positioning, that by the time I thought we were done she was hungry again. I’d fumble with plastic and pillows while she cried, pulling her on and off, on and off, seeking a good fit that never seemed to come.The two of us were covered in tears and sweat and ointments and milk. At what point do you break? When does it become too much?

The diagnoses varied: high palate, disorganized suck, shallow latch. Then, finally, on the mandate of my own desperate research and dogged insistence: tongue tie. Not the obvious kind, but tongue tie nonetheless.

I pinned down her arms while the doctor wielded his scissors. Later I hid in the bathroom, hands over my ears like a petulant child, while my husband forced his fingers under her tongue and stretched it three times a day, intentionally interfering with the wound so it would not heal too quickly to make a difference, on doctor’s orders. Marigold is almost four, and Matt is still convinced she’s holding a grudge against him because of it.

Is that love? When I imagined her, as she kicked and rolled in my belly, I never pictured that love would entail holding her body immobile so we could help her by hurting her. It was an act of faith and determination to endure. Love is a battlefield.

Now she eats crackers of undetermined age that she finds in my bag. She loves ham, fruit snacks, string cheese, and popcorn. Our second child combats sleep, not the breast, and so I laid down that particular sword when Marigold finally picked up a good latch, and I’ve never lifted it again.

Still, the words of Pat, Patron Saint of Exhausted Mothers, come to me when I am struggling with motherhood and its pains. Love is a battlefield and that means I will put my heart on the line. I will armor myself with purpose and courage, every day.

Kids Eating Food With Spices? Yes, It's Possible!

My nine-year old daughter Sabrina thinks McDonalds is gross. She won’t eat boxed cookies but likes snickerdoodles dusted with Vietnamese cinnamon. She doesn’t like regular old mashed potatoes but does love when I add in wasabi and mustard. She scoffs at fluffy supermarket bread suffocating in plastic yet loves the jalapeño-cheddar loaf from an old-school bakery in our neighborhood. She loathes the supermarket birthday cakes served at kids’ parties but begs me to make cardamom cake.

I love that she loves spices as much as I do.

Sabrina enjoys blending flour with baking soda, salt, and spices for the cakes we make together. She adds spices to the homemade tomato sauce we make for pizza, enjoying blending oregano, basil, and the Italian salt we bought in London. She loves Sriracha, cardamom, harissa, chipotle pepper flakes, ancho chilies, and chai tea made with tea leaves, fresh ginger, and spices.

What’s made her like spices? I’m not sure exactly, but more than likely it’s because I’ve brought her into the kitchen with me – and to the farmer’s markets, spice stores, tea shops, and other specialty stores that populate New York City.

While some kids might at first feel intimidated by spices, they might like the idea of exploring with you. If you’re having trouble inspiring your kids to try something new, especially spices, then by all means start with taking them shopping with you, perhaps to a market you don’t usually frequent. They might reach for a certain spice solely because of its appearance, but I believe that cooking is a visual process at first. If your child likes how a spice looks, she just might like how it tastes or at least be more apt to try it. Plus, she might become a more adventurous eater, and even be interested in the world behind the spices.

Have your child pick out vegetables at the farmer’s market to pair with some spices. Choose noodles and a few bundles of unique greens in an Asian market to make a spice-filled noodle soup or stir fry. Peruse the aisles of an Indian spice market and take home something new. Then, most importantly, invite him to cook with you. Pull up a stool, hand him a whisk, a spatula, or a large wooden spoon (no sharp knives until he’s older).

While it’s true that some children won’t try new things, others might…especially if you’ve included them in the entire dinner-making process.

Here are five spices to get you going:

Cardamom

As I mentioned above, the only cake my daughter will eat is a cardamom pound cake. There is a recipe for coffee-cardamom pound cake in my cookbook, but you can omit the coffee while still adding in the cardamom. You can add a small amount at first to get them acclimated.

You can also make snickerdoodles and, instead of rolling them in the classic combination of cinnamon and sugar, replace the cinnamon with cardamom. Trust me, you’ll be taking these to the next school bake sale.

Chinese 5-Spice

Another dish to make for some spice-filled inspiration is roasted chicken, a pleasant canvas for many spices and flavors. In The NYC Kitchen I’ve covered the chicken with a spice well-known in Asian cuisine: Chinese 5-spice, a blend of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorns. If they’re just not into the Chinese 5-spice, you can remove the skin for them.

Herbes de Provence

This savory blend comprised of a variety of French herbs (it can differ from blend to blend), including marjoram, savory, thyme, basil, lavender, parsley, oregano, tarragon, and bay powder with the rosemary and fennel. This blend is a more mild way to introduce your kids to spices and herbs. It’s less robust that the Chinese 5-Spice or Smoked Paprika. Add some to roasted chicken, sprinkle onto vegetables before roasting (carrots, potatoes, or zucchini, for example), or dust some onto salmon before baking.

Smoked Paprika

One night I declared, “We having breakfast for dinner.”

Little did my daughter know it would be a tangy, spicy, egg-y Mediterranean dish made with smoked paprika and sprinkled with fresh herbs, but she was game. I picked up a loaf of ciabatta and, instead of dipping it into the shakshouka as many do when eating this dish for brunch, Sabrina made a sandwich out of it and smiled at how much she liked it.

I’d like to inspire other parents to try this. Shakshouka is one of those versatile dishes that you can mix and match according to your taste buds. Add some sweet Italian sausage, omit the smoked paprika if it’s not to your taste, and instead add fresh basil, making it more Italian. Or add chorizo and some red peppers – with some beans, perhaps – to give it more zip and heft. Shakshouka is a humble dish to inspire your taste buds, so experiment and see what you and your children like.

Za’atar

This Middle Eastern spice blend is a generally mix of thyme, oregano, marjoram, sesame seeds, salt, and sumac (another spice I recommend trying). It’s most well-known for serving on baked pita bread and sprinkled on top of dips (like a yogurt-based dip). I also love adding a few tablespoons to a vegetable soup, tossing with olive oil in a salad comprised of Mediterranean ingredients, and spreading some on top of roasted fish. I think you’ll love its versatility. It’s also mild enough that kids will love it, too.

Instead of just making your kids dinner, invite them in to the kitchen to help out. They might like mixing, tasting, blending (Sabrina loves using the old fashioned mortar and pestle to crush spices), and ultimately tasting what they’ve helped you make. There be some extra cleaning involved, but it’ll be worth it. Picking out spices and adding them to your recipes will help your child feel good about food and what she’s eating – and make her more apt to try new spices.

The Parenting Hack That Keeps My Kid in His Room at Bedtime

At the risk of sounding dramatic, bedtime has always been the bane of my existence- until I discovered this.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, bedtime has always been the bane of my existence.

As a child, it brought on anxiety, and fears of intruders and house fires abounded. As a teen, bedtime meant I had to close my computer and end phone calls with friends, and what a terrible thing to have to do. As an adult, bedtime often felt lonely and stressful, with endless to-do lists and existential thoughts suddenly overcrowding my mind. Now, as a parent, bedtime entails being utterly exhausted – bone-tired, brain-fried – but unable to rest until I wrangle my two energetic children into bed and somehow convince them to stay there.

It’s easier with my infant – just knock him out with some of Mama’s milk and he’s not going anywhere, but with my preschooler, it’s a different story. For the first three years of his life, he co-slept with my husband and me. While our family fell into the habit out of sleep deprivation and desperation, I grew to completely love co-sleeping: the cuddles, the closeness, the ease of nursing, the reassurance of having my baby right beside me, and the reassurance it gave my baby.

Still, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and I knew that end was near when I became pregnant with my second son when my first was two and a half. I could tell by then that my big boy was ready for his own bed and his own room (both of which he had – he just hadn’t slept in them yet), but I also knew that this was going to be a tough transition, for both of us if I’m being honest.

I looked to the Internet to help me figure out what to expect from this process, and I came across the term: “Jack-in-the-Box Syndrome,” defined as a common “affliction” causing children to constantly pop out of bed after their parents have put them to sleep due to a major case of FOMO (fear of missing out). The articles I read contained some tips for dealing with it, but I soon learned that I’d have to think outside the box, because my son’s “Jack-in-the-Box” game was on point and strong.

“Hey Mom. I’m hungry.”

“Dad! I’m thirsty.”

“There are shadows on my wall.”

“What’s inside the wall?”

“How many miles have I slept so far?”

“I mean minutes.”

“Is it morning?”

By the third or fourth night of this, I was losing steam. I couldn’t spend the whole night ushering him back to his bedroom, and he couldn’t be staying up so late. I started to waver in my decision to transition him. Should we build some kind of epic family bed instead that can fit our growing family? No, no, no, I thought, this will be so good for him. He’ll learn to love his big boy bed and be proud of his independence.

But how would we get there?

One night it dawned on me as I was using the talk button on the baby monitor to tell my son, “You better not open up that door!” that I could use this talk function for way more than issuing warnings. I could use it as a tool to make it appealing for my boy to remain in his bed by inviting him to engage in actual conversation with me over the monitor. This way, I could open up the lines of communication that he so misses when I shut his bedroom door, and I could also ensure that I don’t miss out on the meaningful talks we always had while co-sleeping when he was relaxed enough to really open up – talks that would be more difficult to have with a newborn in the mix. Plus, we could pretend like we’re using walkie-talkies, and how fun is that? This could be our new special thing.

And just like that (well maybe there were also some toy rewards involved) bedtime started to change for the better. Not only did this parenting hack help my son stay put in his room, it also helped keep our bedtime routine (relatively) short and sweet. Kids will do just about anything to prolong saying goodnight. Now when my little man gives me puppy eyes after we’ve already done bath and books and snuggles, and says, “But I just have to tell you one more thing!” I reply, “And I can’t wait to hear that one thing, over the MONITOR!” and I make it sound super exciting. It works.

Now, of course, this monitor chatting can get a bit out of control, and there’ve been plenty of shit-show moments where I’m trying to nurse the baby to sleep while also fielding questions from my preschooler about why he can’t marry his cousin and how many days are left until Christmas. When this happens, I remind him that he needs his sleep and kindly request that he slow his roll with the questions. For the most part, he does.

Other nights, he barely talks to me at all, but knowing that he can is comforting to him, and that’s what makes this system so great. He gets his own space and chance to self-soothe, which is healthy and important at his age, and I don’t have to spend hours in a dark room waiting for him to fall asleep. I can tend to his baby brother, do chores, or unwind while still helping my son feel secure and heard as he decompresses from the day.

“I love you to the moon and back,” he tells me over the monitor each night.

“I love you to infinity and beyond,” I respond.

I don’t know how long he’ll want to talk with me like this, but I’ll be ready and waiting, monitor in hand, for as long as he does. When my six-month-old gets older and moves out of my bed, I’ll try the same hack with him, although with his chatty and loving big brother around, I may not even need to.

Kid Made Recipe: Butternut Fettuccine

This creamy, delicious (and vegetarian!) pasta dish will warm up any weeknight, and it’s ready to go in 45 minutes or less.

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This creamy, delicious (and vegetarian!) pasta dish will warm up any weeknight, and it’s ready to go in 45 minutes or less. Little kids can handle peeling, and big kids can watch over the simmering squash and take over  the tossing and garnishing.  This is so easy and so tasty you’ll want to add it to your weekly dinner rotation!

Butternut Fettuccine

Serves 4-6
Prep time: 20  minutes
Cook time: 15-20 minutes
Total time: About 45 minutes
 

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb fettuccine noodles
  • 2 ½ cups peeled and cubed butternut squash
  • ½ small yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg
  • Black pepper to taste
  • ½ cup half and half or heavy cream
  • 2 Tbsp grated parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish

 

Instructions:

  1. Combine the squash, onion, and broth in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat to a simmer, add the salt, and nutmeg, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes, or until the squash and onions are very soft and breaking apart.
  3. Meanwhile, in another large pot, cook pasta in well salted water according to package directions, drain, and set aside.
  4. Add pepper to taste, remove from heat, and blend mixture until smooth using an immersion blender, or transfer carefully to a food processor or blender.
  5. Once smooth, add the half and half or heavy cream and blend again on low speed until no streaks remain.
  6. Add the 2 Tbsp parmesan and stir.
  7. Using tongs, toss sauce with warm pasta until well coated.
  8. Serve with more parm, chopped walnuts, and a sprig or two of fresh rosemary.

 

Recipe Notes:

  • If your cooked pasta gets sticky while you wait for the sauce to cook, add a pat of butter and toss before you add the sauce to loosen it up.
  • Add as much chopped fresh herbs as you like! We used rosemary, but sage, thyme or oregano would also be lovely and delicious!

Teaching My Son About Sex in the Age of Harvey Weinstein

I ended the conversation by asking for his trust – that I be the person he turns to if he has any questions or concerns about sex, now or in the future.

It’s an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in coastal Maine, and I’ve brought lunch to our back porch for my eight-year-old son and his spritely female friend whom he has known most of his life. They’ve just come up from the tidal shoreline. The air is salty and thick.
I venture back inside to retrieve drinks and, when I return, I am met with giggling and sheepish grinning between the two old friends. It isn’t hard to imagine what they might have been discussing as I’ve gotten used to observing them unfurl so many of life’s mysteries together.
I have been anticipating a conversation about the mechanics of sex with my son for several years now. I had wanted to follow his lead, hoping to answer any questions he might have and then segueing into the details that I would like for him to know. I have wanted to normalize sex for my son in a way that was never done for me so that he might enjoy this vital connection throughout his life in a healthy way, without the hang-ups of shame and disassociation that so many of us have had to shed.
In my adolescence, my mother – while folding clothing together in our laundry room – spoke vaguely of a man planting a seed in a woman.
My father once made a comment about my holding a penny between my knees at all times and referred to me as a “fallen woman” (in apparent jest) when he found out I was sharing an apartment with my boyfriend after graduating from college.
There was no eye contact between any of us in these off-hand and uncomfortable attempts at providing information about the facts of life. There was no mention of love or connection or protection. There was no follow-up, no books to study. I was entirely unprepared as a young woman – as a human – for what it would mean to enter into my sexuality.
For a boy so deeply curious about the inner workings of all things in nature, culture, and even politics – don’t get him started on Donald Trump – my son has been remarkably indifferent, or perhaps reticent, in his inquiry about how babies are made and what our “private parts” have to do with it all. He’s all about being a boy, jokingly intensifying bodily sounds and functions. But outside of speaking about animals mating, he has shown little interest in learning about the human equivalent.
I’ve been teaching him about sexuality in subtle ways from the start. Our language around the body is anatomically correct, and we have a firm policy about listening to the “no’s” we receive from others. I have established this practice with the understanding that honoring physical boundaries now will translate into respectful treatment of partners’ bodies later in life. I feel a particular responsibility in this regard as a mother of boys and as a woman who recently chimed in, “me too” on my social media account.
When my son falls asleep at night, I sit on the edge of his bed, rubbing his back and neck. Sometimes he will convince me to rub his legs and feet, which can feel a little indulgent at times. He directs me to his sore muscles, so I place extra attention there. In these quiet moments, he tests out what it means to share his inner workings and thoughts while nestled in a bed with a woman at his side who loves him with every cell of her being.
I listen intently to what he has to say and engage in this tenderness of touch so that he may one day experience such healthy intimacy as a mature young man in the embrace of someone he loves. I work hard to preserve his connection with his feelings – to help him decipher them and share them verbally so as not to turn on the switch that perpetuates the male tendency to use sex alone as the sole means for connection and comfort.
Back on the porch, I asked the two friends what made them giggle so. My son indicated that they might have been talking about something inappropriate. They had found a couple of horseshoe crabs stuck together down by the shore, and his friend had said that human beings do a similar thing – stick themselves together – to make a baby.
In the brief pause before I spoke, I took in my son’s face – one part cherub, one part Huck Finn – and noticed how he peered at me squarely in the eyes without shame or hesitation in anticipation of my response. I absorbed how comfortable and confident he felt coming to me with this inquiry.
I told him that she was exactly right, that we humans do put ourselves together in a similar way at times. I assured him that I wanted to share everything he wanted to know on the topic, that families like to provide these details to their own children, and so we would have that conversation very soon and in privacy. But if they had any pressing questions, I would be happy to answer those.
They both looked at me and smiled with ease. No questions.
On Sunday afternoon, the house was quiet, and I peeked my head into where my son was working on a drawing. I asked him if we could pick up our conversation, and he suggested nonchalantly that we talk while he continued working. I agreed. As soon as I began to share my thoughts, he turned away from his drawing and looked at me head-on.
I engaged my son in some guessing about what our various parts are meant to do. It turned out he already knew what went where. I was not surprised, but happy to confirm (in anatomically correct language) what he’d already heard in cruder terms at school.
Then we discussed the things that really matter. We spoke about the love and warmth involved in “human mating.” I assured him that, while he will likely hear all sorts of things suggesting that sex is somehow dirty or bad or something to hide, it is actually a beautiful miracle to be cherished between two people.
I ended the conversation by asking for his trust – that I be the person he turns to if he has any questions or concerns about sex, now or in the future. It felt like any other conversation we’ve ever had about the things he needs to know as a human being new to this earth without a map.
I called my sister later that night. We celebrated another hurdle in forging new ground as parents better equipped than our parents were to nurture our children’s emotional and physical well-being. We know that, if they could have, they would have provided us with more information about sex, and we would have learned about the value of our bodies – our rights and responsibilities as women – in less painful ways.
A few days later, my son came home from school and told me about a boy making a joke about breasts using jocular hand gestures. In all earnestness, he said, “ He doesn’t respect women’s bodies.”
I did a little happy dance inside and stifled a smile.
I don’t anticipate that my son will always be so perfectly respectful. I don’t pretend that he will never test out some objectifying behaviors, which are so frequently modeled in our culture. But for now, I feel assured that he is on the path toward learning that sex is something he can discuss openly with me.
I like to imagine that what I’ve shared will live inside him and be available when the time is right. I like to imagine that the prospect of his sexuality causing him or his partners shame or pain will be something he can never understand.