Wildflowers for Jade: Articles & Essays

Articles & Essays

Previously published in various sources

Mommy Songbird

I’m one of those people who hates the sound of her own voice. The one who spends a whole weekend and resorts to gimmicks to record a simple 5 second message on her answering machine. So when I read, shortly after my son was born, that my newborn preferred his mother’s voice more than anyone else’s, I was skeptical. Surely this isn’t always the case. Perhaps it’s true of say, Celine Dion’s lucky baby.  
But I took it to heart and began to babble in earnest to my baby. Because whatever made him happier, I was ready to give. And in spite of my misgivings, he seemed to like it. 

I was later told that not only did he like it when I talked to him, but he’d love it if I sang to him! Now that was going too far. No one liked to hear me sing. The only time I sang was in my car driving down the interstate, windows rolled up and stereo so loud I couldn’t even hear myself. Surely my sweet angel couldn’t be so tone deaf. 

But I tried it. Softly at first, as not to frighten him with my banshee wails. Then I witnessed something strange. His eyes would light up – I swear they did. He’d calm if he’d been fussy. Sometimes he’d smile. He – liked – it! 

Babies not only prefer the sound of their mother’s voice above all else (eat your heart out, Bing Crosby), but they learn from listening to mommy better than anyone else. That means that you can plop them in front of Sesame Street all day long, but they’ll learn the alphabet much faster if they hear it from you. Mommy’s even more fascinating than Snuffleupagus. 

When parents take the time to “chatter” – talking about your day, describing what you’re doing as you do it, explaining what will happen next – your child’s world is expanding with every sentence. 
Music especially holds a fascination for all ages. As you sing songs to your child he’s learning about language, communication, and the world around him. Using hand movements gives him an opportunity to “communicate” in song before he can speak and helps promote motor skills. 

Now I sing all the time. I even imagine that I’ve learned how to (mostly) stay in key. My efforts have already been richly rewarded. When I sing, my 16 month old loudly “sings” with me. Even more off-key and out of tune than I do. It is absolutely the most beautiful sound in the world. When I sing the ABC’s he sings “bee beee beee deeee!” with gusto. He’s fascinated with all things musical, even making me stop on the arts channel to hear the orchestra. When I play the stereo we both sing and dance along to Bing Crosby. 

It is likely that I will always only have a fan base of one. Record labels won’t be knocking on my door, music halls won’t be sold out in my name. But in my son’s eyes I am a songbird just for him. And that is reason enough to sing.

It’s Where We Meet

As I sit on the sofa typing on my laptop, I feel two hands on my back, then two arms go around my neck. Suddenly there is a chaotic scramble then the arms are replaced by legs as my toddler launches himself onto my shoulders and gleefully exalts “Giddup hoowsy!” 

This an interruption, it is a nuisance, and it is a reminder that my son needs his mommy time. Besides I can’t help but be softened by his screaming laughter, so I laugh too and hold on tight while I gallop him around the house for a few minutes. 

Communication is such a vital thing. When I think of the subject I think of Helen Keller, who could not hear words spoken to her, or see facial expressions given to her. Who has not heard her story and imagined just for a second how lonely that must have been? I’m really not changing the subject or waxing poetic. Communication can maybe be better understood as “connecting”. It is words, facial expressions, body language, cries. It’s a flicker of the eyes, the twitch of a mouth, or a shrug of the shoulders that can say worlds. It is how humans connect with other humans. 

Maybe I am waxing a little poetic. But it is to bring us to this point: it is vitally important for a person to feel connected with another person. And toddlers do it differently. As adults we have learned to disconnect. We have learned how to sit properly and chat about things with other adults who sit properly and chat about things. The things we chat about, in general, are usually not very personal, or if they are they are not talked about in very personal terms. What we forget sometimes is that this phenomena is a societal thing and learned behavior. We’ve learned that some things are best kept to ourselves. We’ve learned not to give all of ourselves away at once. We’ve learned restraint. We’ve forgotten that really, it’s not very fun. Just necessary. We’ve forgotten that, to a toddler, this proper stuff is all very boring and stupid. 

A child’s brain is wired differently than an adult’s. It’s full of magic and mystery and just about anything can happen and so much of it is exciting. If you think about it long enough, you’ll realize that it has to be this way. An infant is brought into the world with no disbelief to overcome and a heart full of faith in anything, because everything is new. Their brains have to be wired to accept all sorts of new things. So everything is possible, and so much of it is wonderful. Deep down everyone seems to miss that, but a few of us easily forget how boring and downright mean our parents seemed to be about it sometimes.  

So how, you might wonder, do our children communicate? Through everything they do.  They couldn’t possibly put everything - or anything - they feel and need into words. It’s only a very self-actualized adult who can do that all of the time. They babble and drool and laugh and cry, and they hug and they kiss and they play. They play a lot. They play with their whole selves and that makes it very telling. This is who they are, this is what they do, and they want you to do it with them. “Come join my world!” So I remind myself that though playtime sometimes feels like a chore, I’m thankful that my son wants to pull me into his pretend world. It’s where we meet. 

The Great Mommy Detective

When Jaden was born, I made the decision to follow his cues. I didn’t have a lot of experience with babies, and was never one to follow trends. I hoped that he would understand that I didn’t know what I was doing, and tell me what he needed. And he did. 

He told me, and I listened, but wow! he needed so much. Even first home from the hospital he needed to sleep – not beside me – but with his head on my arm. This was no “I prefer this,” or “I’m spoiled,” but frantic, “where are you Mommy, I NEED to be touching you.” So I did. 
Jaden always needed to be touching me, needed to be in my arms. So he was. He also went into sensory overload when we took him anywhere. In extremes. Sometimes he’d space out, just go away and though his eyes were open I knew he wasn’t there anymore. That was terrifying. So we limited his outings. 
Of course these things got the grandparent’s stamp of disapproval (especially since it limited our visits to them also.) We got the stories of how so-and-so never took their daughter anywhere and now she’s afraid of other kids. 
I’d read about other parents with other babies and their so called “normal” experiences, and I didn’t believe them anymore. They didn’t sound anything like my baby. Then I found a phrase that seemed to fit for me. “High needs child.”
I was glad that my son was high needs. I know, it sounds like one of those things a mother would say in defeat. Jaden put me through mommy boot camp. His need for me to be close to him and meet his high needs made me closer to him than I would have been otherwise. Closer than I’ve ever been to any other human being in this hands-off world. I might have missed out on a really special experience. 

As Jaden grew into toddlerhood he changed. His needs were still huge, but now he needed to GO. Go, go, go. One of his first words was “outside.” He was climbing, moving, jumping, crashing. 
So we adjusted. I like to go a lot of places too, so this was better and more fun for me. Take Jaden places. I can do that. But Jaden was wild. He didn’t want to sit and watch the puppet shows in the library like the other children, he wanted to jump and yell and climb on the stage, and throw a tantrum when he couldn’t. He didn’t want to walk with me on the paths through the park, he wanted to run to the light poles and pull the wiring. He wouldn’t follow along in the Mommy and Me music classes, he wanted to dig in the cabinets and climb on the tables. 
It was excessive to say the least. I got “the look” all the time. You know, the “she needs to discipline her child better,” look. But I knew this wasn’t a discipline problem. He was so sensitive, I just knew too much discipline would break him. I was unwilling to break him. Jaden’s tantrums weren’t screaming “how dare you not give me my way!” They were screaming “This is awful! This is awful! I need, I need!” 
So I sat down, and I reassessed from that perspective. “I need…” What did he need that he wasn’t getting? What was he demanding? I realized that all of our outings were somehow structured. Sit and listen, stay on the path, follow the class. Maybe he was telling me that he needed more unstructured play. I took him to the playground and let  him go. He still tantrumed whenever we had to leave, but he was happier, and even slightly more compliant when we had to do structured things, like go to the store. 

I’m of the conviction that in every action from infancy to toddlerhood, there is a need behind it. Even in misbehavior, there is a need that isn’t being met, or has previously been met in wrong ways. And I realized, from the beginning I’ve had to be The Great Mommy Detective. One mystery after another, what was he telling me that he needed, and why?

The why’s were the elusive part, until his three year check-up. My husband and I brought in our list of concerns. There were milestones he wasn’t reaching. Not enough that anyone was concerned before, because children develop at their own pace. Or so we’ve heard over and over. Not this time. Appointments were made and waiting lists were excruciating. 
After months of more detective work from myself and now doctors and specialists, with some questions unresolved because it’s not an exact science, we understood this much: not “high needs.” Special Needs. 

As painful as this has been, there is one thing that sticks with me. I met his needs. I didn’t understand why he needed what he did, or in such extremes, but I knew that he NEEDED. I didn’t break him or break his will with heavy discipline of something that – to all the world – looked like a discipline problem. I didn’t break his heart and will by leaving him to cry-it-out, thinking he needed to learn to do with without me. 

I have a Special Needs child, but I have a very happy and confident child who loves to talk to everyone and makes countless strangers smile in passing. It could have been worse. I could have made it worse by trying to fit him into a mold of “normal” that didn’t fit him. 

Diverting Anger in Toddlers

With toddlerhood comes tantrums. This is true of every child. While some parents are taken by surprise by the seemingly violent appearance of a child raised in a non-violent home, it is a perfectly natural rite of passage for any child. The reasons behind it are simple: lots of emotions with little logic. The emotions that can overtake a toddler can be a floodgate of overwhelming proportions. 
I’m OK, Your OK
While watching their sweet angel turn into a hitting and kicking tornado may leave some parents at their wits’ end, the idea is not to suppress your child’s anger or frustration, but to teach him to control them. In a young child the strength of his emotions can be scary for him, also.  That’s why it’s important that the parents stay in control  of themselves during a tantrum. When you do, you are showing him by example how to maintain calm in stressful situations, even if it doesn’t seem like he’s getting that picture yet. If you’re out of control, then you are in effect asking your child to do what you cannot; calm his intense emotions. In this situation a child’s fear of his ‘out of control’ emotions may eventually escalate into what psychologists call magical thinking.[1] “If mommy can’t handle my emotions, who can? They must be too strong for anyone.”  This could lead to an abundance of issues in adulthood. 
No one is perfect – at least, no one I’ve met. The best of parents will occasionally fail to maintain perfect calm and no one will be injured for it, but on the whole that is the goal. If you empathize – put yourself aside and try to see things from your child’s point of view – it is easier to be compassionate and not lose your cool. 
Give it an outlet
Anger isn’t a very fun thing to have bouncing around in your insides. It’s got to come out somehow, and  preferably in a way that is acceptable to the rest of the family. For me, I’ve found that some wonderful advice, such as handing my son a crayon and asking him to draw his emotions, didn’t apply to a child under three. When my two year old would try to hit me, I’d take his hands and say “You’re really mad! I know you’re mad! Hit your hands together!” I’d pretend I was mad too, to show him. I’d clap my hands together, growl and say “I’m mad!”. He’d clap his hands together as hard as he could and growl. 
Part of why this tactic works for him is he feels validated. Validation involves listening to your child, then reflecting back to him what he is feeling. 
We all feel sometimes like we are speaking a foreign language. We’re trying to talk, but the person we are talking to just doesn’t “get it”. If it’s someone very important to us, this can lead to a rainbow of very ugly feelings like frustration and despair. To a child experiencing this, those feelings can quickly escalate into rage and hopelessness. 
Attached parents understand not to make our children “cry it out” for this reason. Picking up our babies to comfort them is the earliest form of validation. 
When our babies grow into toddlers, their ways of communicating have evolved a little bit, but not that much. It’s still a rare child who can always rationalize what he is feeling and communicate his needs. Many adults haven’t mastered that skill! It is still up to us to help them recognize what they are feeling, identify it and work through it. 
To a baby, it is enough to pick them up and change their diaper when they’re wet. They learn that “Oh, I was uncomfortable because I was wet. Mommy fixed that.” They not only get a clean diaper but two added bonuses: they learn why they were unhappy, and they learn that someone cared enough to see it and fix it. 
Knowing that someone cares enough to do that for you is one of the basic emotional needs of humanity. Relationships of all types are won and lost in that regard. 
A two year old is just entering the real meat of the emotional arena. Some see their constant need for emotional reassurance as manipulation, or a weakness that must be toughened up. But humans are hard-wired to seek out validation at any age. We must know from someone that we are OK as we are, cared for, and loved. A toddler especially is in an age of discovery: so many new challenges and things he is learning to do, and having trouble doing, and things he can’t or isn’t allowed to do. It can all tie in to a child’s sense of self-worth. The newness that a toddler finds themselves suddenly experiencing leaves them needing more reassurance. 
Most of the time, it is relatively easy to validate a child. All you have to do is pay attention, and reflect back what you see. ”I know you’re mad, (sad), (frustrated), (you’re smiling, are you happy today?)” A validated child feels loved and in sync with the world. 
I could tell that my son and I were making progress when we were in the mall and he wanted to go play in the toy store. Again. We were on our way out and we had already stopped there earlier. I told him no, it was time to go home. He drug his feet and finally sat down and said “I’m mad!” 
“You’re mad?” I replied. “I know you’re mad! I know you wanted to play with the toys. But we still have to go now.”
He climbed to his feet and came with me without any more protest. He had just wanted me to know that he was mad. I was proud of his ability to tell me what he was feeling instead of throwing a fit. 
Play it out
Children love to play pretend, and it can be rewarding and fun for an adult to play too. It is also a wonderful learning tool. Adults can use pretend to teach a child what to do when a real situation arises. 
‘Pretending that you’re mad’ is a fun game for most children. This is the easiest time to show them healthy ways to be angry. This play time gives your child the opportunity to decide what works best for  him, or to even come up with his own stuff. One of our favorite books has a line that says “When I’m mad I stomp my feet, like drummers as they beat, beat, beat.”[2] My son would joyfully pretend that he was mad and stomp his feet.
The next time he’d get really mad I’d say “You’re really mad! Stomp you’re feet you’re so mad!” And he would, crying through his tears, “Beat, beat, beat!”  
It takes repetition for a child to learn to use their new diversion instead of hitting mommy or daddy, or the cat. That’s when you’d just gently  take their hands and say “No, don’t hit mommy. If you’re mad clap your hands together.”  
Mommy’s mad, too
Sometimes, the best way to teach is by example. Some days we all just get overwhelmed. When you’re upset and he’s yelling, an honest “I’m mad!” said in a childish, exagerated way may feel silly coming from mommy, but you’re showing your child that you’re human too. This could be when that light of dawning association may occur. ‘Mommy said it like I say it. Is she feeling like I felt yesterday?’ This is the beginning buds of empathy. As attached parents this is one of our ultimate goals! A child who learns healthy ways of handling his emotions will feel emotionally balanced and more in tuned to everyone else around him. 

Whatever methods you prefer, the important thing is that, as parents, we work towards showing our children what to do when they are angry or upset.  When we do that, we are also showing them that it is OK to feel the way they do. There is no shame in feeling angry. With this validation they can go on to eventually learn more mature ways of dealing with their emotions. 

[1] Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones (1989) Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking

[2] Rick Walton and Julia Gorton (2000) My Two Hands, My Two Feet


Anger Management: diversion
Ways to Say ‘I’m Mad!’
clap your hands
stomp your feet
blow hard
Say “I’m mad!”
color a picture with angry scribbles
get a cloth and twist it really tight
hit a pillow
Sources for Adult Anger Management
Boy Town   boystown.org  1-800-448-3000
Child and Family Support Center    (877) 900-CFSC

No is Not the Lesson, It’s the Tool: Power Struggles

A part on our dishwasher broke.  I spread a towel on the counter and washed the dishes by hand, laying them on the towel to dry. While I was washing, my 23 month old son wondered in to see what I was doing. Seeing the towel hanging over the counter, the temptation was too much for him. He grabbed the towel and started to pull. 
“No, don’t pull that,” I said firmly. He fussed and objected then reached up again. There was a coffee thermos I’d just washed, so I handed it to him to play with instead. He snatched it enthusiastically, but looked back at the towel. He reached up with his free hand and tugged. 
“No, you can’t pull on that,” I repeated. He fussed, then pointed to the thermos lid still on the towel. I handed it to him and soon he was happily playing on the floor beside me.  
It’s possible that some people would say that my son “won” in this scenario. I didn’t use the opportunity to drive home the word “No” and all of its negative connotations. Instead I distracted him with something else that I knew he liked to play with. Let’s explore my other options. 
Alternate Scenario: My son grabs the towel and starts to pull. “No, don’t pull that,” I say firmly. He looks at me and cries while I continue to wash dishes. In a minute he grabs the towel again, pulling harder. “No!” I yell. “I said DON’T PULL THAT!” Being yelled at always sends him into a crying tantrum. This time he objects by trying to pull the towel and all of its contents off of the counter. This in turn spurs me to have to be even tougher with him to win what I perceive as a power struggle. I have to resort to punishment. 
There are several ways parents proceed from here, from spanking to yelling to time-outs. They often involve the eventual domination of the child, and the lesson to him that he is not the power holder, the parent is. 
Discipline is teaching a child about the world, and how we conduct ourselves to get along with others in the world. Power struggles are often involved when you are teaching discipline to a child, but they should not be the subject of the teaching. Too often parents get confused, caught up in the struggle. The object lesson then becomes about who is in control. It often ends with the child in tears and the parent claiming an uneasy victory in the lesson “I hold the power, not you.” Is it any wonder that these lessons end up - by design - making the child feel powerless? 

Alternate Scenario: My son grabs the towel and starts to pull. “Please don’t pull that,” I say. He looks at me and pouts. He immediately grabs the towel again, pulling harder. “Stop!” I cry, grabbing his hand. He struggles to free himself. “If you stop I’ll give you this thermos!” I say frantically. “You always like to play with this thermos!” I give him the thermos. He looks at it skeptically and throws it down, reaching for the towel again. “How about a cookie?” I say. “If you stop I’ll give you a cookie!” That usually gets his cooperation. He lets me pick him up and holds his hand out for the cookie. Then he holds out his other hand, wanting a second cookie. I give it to him because two cookies will keep him occupied longer while I try to finish up real fast and get the towel out of his way. On the way back to the sink I trip over the rejected thermos. 

The difference between redirection and bribery:
Bribery is an if-then statement. “If you stop pulling on the towel, then I’ll give you this toy to play with.” This statement gives the child too much power. It tells the child he has the choice to continue to do something that you do not wish. It implies that you are desperate and begging for him to choose to stop. This continues the uneven power course in giving him all the power and you little or none. 
Choices are wonderful things to give children. Legitimate choices are given on an even basis, without taking authority away from the parent. “Which DVD do you want to watch: Movie A or Movie B?” “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?” I suggest that any parent should look for opportunities to let their child make choices as often as possible. It’s their life, and they should feel as if their input matters. When they are validated in this way on a regular basis, it is easier for them to accept “No” when it’s necessary.
Was my son trying to dominate me?
To understand what’s going on, we have to get a little analytical about the situation. Once we understand the whys, it will be easier to judge how to handle it. 
Why did my son pull on the towel? Because toddlers have a very strong need to explore their world. It is a pre-programmed drive that urges them to get out there and learn. As adults we have been there and back, and don’t see what the big deal is. It’s obvious to us what will happen if you pull on a towel that is loaded with dishes. Sometimes we forget that it’s not so obvious to them. We perceive their actions as if it they were adults and their actions are purposeful attempts to make a mess. Some would even go so far as to think that the child was making mischief just to provoke them or make their life harder, like some form of revenge or passive-aggressive behavior. Manipulative is a word often mistakenly associated with young children. It is sad because it invalidates the true and innocent need for a child to get a handle on the world around him. 
There is a term in psychology called projecting. It’s very much like it sounds. When a person has unhealthy feelings about themselves, they expect that others have these feelings about them too. They then project them onto someone else, even when that someone else is not really feeling that way. 
It’s often the young child that gets to be the screen that the parent’s unresolved issues are projected onto. Young children, even after they’ve learned to talk, are so often unable to articulate their feelings, or control their emotions. This allows ample opportunity for an insecure person to see things in their children that aren’t there. For example, instead of seeing that the child has a healthy drive to explore, their willfulness can be perceived as insolence or a lack of respect. This taps into the parent’s insecurities that say they are not good enough to be respected. This may be doubly hard to hear (though it’s not actually being said) coming from a child -their own child no less!  So the parent comes down harder. They must get respect out of that child, whatever the cost. 
Meanwhile the child is getting another message altogether. They are getting the message that their needs are bad, and their efforts to get those needs met will not be respected. They will be punished. They are also getting the message that they are not good enough to be respected, and that they are only an insignificant child. 
Is it any wonder that a child whose parents perpetuate this power struggle, over time comes to believe that he isn’t good enough, and not respectable? In the future, if he doesn’t deal with those feelings of insecurity, he may come to have a child and find their curiosity a reflection of his parents’ lack of respect for him. And so the tragic cycle continues.  
What was the lesson again?
It’s the winding path of parenthood that often makes us forget the real lesson we were trying to teach in each situation. In fact, like most parents I hardly ever reflect on the practicality of each event in that way. But it’s important sometimes to come back to it, if only to get our bearings. 
So what was the lesson? In other words, why did I say “No” to my son? In this instance it was because pulling the towel down would have undesirable consequences. But, you may object, he did not learn that. No he didn’t, and he won’t for a while. The only way to teach him that lesson would have been to let him pull it on his head, possibly causing injury to himself, and making a lot of work for me. I trust in the course of time and more gentle experiments he will learn the cause and effect of actions such as this. Since I was unable to help him learn what he was curious about, I still recognized his attempts as part of the base need to explore and learn. So I made a substitution. I gave him the thermos because I knew he was curious about that also. He had been exploring it in the past few days; imitating daddy and pretending to drink out of it. It was neither bribery nor dismissal, it was redirection. 
Instead of dismissing my child’s actions, I tried to hear what he was saying to me. In this case it was “I want to learn. I need to explore.” Because I listened to him, he listened to me when I said “No.” Even after he was finished playing with the thermos, he didn’t try to pull the towel down again.  As a mom, I consider that successful discipline. 

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