Monthly Archives: February 2010

On a lighter note…oh, and thanks for the therapy

Funny - Mom 1 It might be the relatively low ebb I've been operating on the last two weeks, the fact that – after a relatively snow-free (yes, I am in Canada) winter – I came to work in slushy armageddon this morning, that the last few pounds have turned into the last several pounds, the planning now for activities in August when I can hardly even imagine what we'll look like by then…I don't know. But I need a break! Levity please, enter stage right. 

I was truly heartened to hear readers owning up to a mix of parenting styles and, better yet, to how comfortable many of you sound with the parenting you are STRIVING for. That's key isn't it?  Take the self-judgement and blame out of it. Do your best, adjust as needed and then just accept the kind of parent you are (are still becoming). 

I am a working Mom. Do I do my best? I try to. My style – strong authoratative flavour with a pinch of permissiveness, garnished with authoritarianism. Hey, we have places to get to on a schedule. I cannot use every "putting on coat" opportunity as a teaching point. It just isn't going to happen.

I yell. Oh how I yell. Not often, but when I have to. I don't say anything demeaning or humiliating, I don't shame. It's not about my child's character. It's about his behaviour. Period. We get past it. I am sensitive enough to notice that I am not crossing his emotional boundaries – you know how you can sometimes see someone's face fall when they've just heard something hurtful? I think I've have managed to avoid that. 

I'd say we generally get along really well. He's pretty reasonable, I try to accomodate with an eye toward safety, good health, progress in education and long-term social and emotional well-being. The rest is me – flawed, human. I sincerely hope he is learning something from that too. I certainly wouldn't trade being a parent for anything – anything.

What I am really trying to say with this ramble…is thanks for making me feel so much better today. Seriously. When readers write comments that shows "hey, I'm doing my best, I've taken some lessons from my own childhood, I make mistakes, but I am giving it my best effort and I'm okay with it" (all far better expressed than I've just summarized here), it actually makes me feel relieved. There is a connection in that I find very reassuring. It's the reason you should get out of the house when you have a new baby and go join that play group. The other moms may or may not become your friends, even best friends, but they are like you. It isn't all rosy all the time but you can make peace with that and still enjoy the whole thing.

Some may let the house (or their hair) go when things get overwhelming. Be of no doubt that those things happen to me to. But when I feel overwhelmed, I need levity. I need to see the lighter side of the whole parenting/homemaking process. Call it a salve for my winter-beleaguered soul. This somehow allows me to tolerate leaving the upside down house with what my mother would call "a rats nest" for hair (I've got a lot of wavy/curly stuff) in the knowledge that it will eventually not always be this way.

So with warning that it could just be my mood that's causing me to see the humour in this stuff, here's a bit of levity to get you through…

Scroll down and read "Patience of a Saint".

On baby names…

See also this clip

And this one…hope he isn't getting a stomach ache, oh and this!

Have a great weekend.



Parenting styles

Developmental psychologists have been studying parenting for around a century. It's a general topic that's received lots and lots of attention. One of the most popular and productive approaches to research on parenting has been the studies and theories around the idea of "parenting style." We've been talking a lot about parenting "techniques" or "methods" — those ideas are supposed to be much more specific than parenting style. Many methods or techniques may fall under the same parenting style umbrella. Parenting styles are supposed to describe the complex pattern of parenting; they are more approaches than specific parenting behaviours per se.

The research on parenting style is largely based on Diana Baumrind's seminal work in the area, starting in the 1960's. The styles that she identified are meant to describe variations among all sort of "normal" families — in other words, this classification system was not a way to identify clinical or seriously distressed families. The categories capture two main components of parenting: Parental warmth (or "responsiveness") and parental demandingness (or "control"). BOTH aspects are considered to be important dimensions of parenting that predict children's well-being later in life.

Most people talk about 3 styles, but there are actually 4, if you take all the possible combinations of the two dimensions:

1. Permissive Parenting: Also referred to as "indulgent" (because child psychologists can sometimes be mean with their labels). This parenting style is characterized by HIGH warmth and LOW demandingness. So, there's lots of affection and love that's expressed in the family, but there are very few rules and boundaries that are set. Limit-setting is minimal and discipline is often either unenforced or very lax.

2. Authoritarian Parenting: These parents are LOW in warmth or responsiveness (it's usually the latter — they aren't focused on responding to the child's emotional states, basically) and HIGH on demandingness. These are families who place a great deal of value on children being obedient. They set firm rules, have firm disciplinary consequences and they provide highly structured, organized and predictable home environments.

3. Authoritative Parenting: These parents are HIGH on both dimensions. They are warm and responsive to their children's emotional needs at the same time as they set clear standards for behaviour and enforce those standards with predictable discipline strategies. They are assertive with their children, but they also place high value on raising responsible, cooperative, but also self-regulated children.

4. Uninvolved Parenting: Most parents reading this blog will not fall into this category, given you're reading about PARENTING and are searching for information about your child and his or her well-being. The uninvolved parent is low on both dimensions: there is little warmth and little demandingness.

You can probably find yourself in one of these categories quite easily. The tricky part is that they're not "pure" categories in that each category can be further divided according to a third dimension: PSYCHOLOGOCIAL control. This is a really important aspect to consider, I think. It refers to control attempts that CAN BE intrusive and disruptive to the child's emotional and cognitive well-being (they aren't always, let's keep in mind). The prime parenting strategies to psychologically control children include: guilt induction, shaming and strategically withdrawing parental love. So, within each of the parenting styles, you can be high or low on psychological control as well, and that makes for a very different type of parent in each case. Classically, the big difference between Authoritative and Authoritarian parents is that the latter is much higher on psychological control — both types of parents set out clear limits and follow up with predictable consequences/discpline if those rules are not followed, but Authoritarian parents do so through strategies that induce shame and guilt while Authoritative parents more often use problem-solving, explanations and negotiation.  

It's probably going to come as no surprise to hear that Authoritative Parenting has been empirically linked to better outcomes for children than the other types of parenting styles. Children and adolescents of Authoritative parents turn out more socially skilled and more skilled at the pragmatics of everyday life than kids from the other types of parents.

Also not surprising, the Uninvolved parents produced children with the most troubled outcomes; compared to the other types, these children were more socially, emotionally and academically impaired. 

There are some interesting variations in these results when you consider ethnicity and cultural background differences, but in general, the Authoritative parenting style usually wins out on almost all outcomes we would care about for our children. Of course, WITHIN each category, there are lots of parenting BEHAVIOURS that are more or less effective for children's well-being. And you can probably predict by now that I will say that temperament will play some role — some children will be able to flourish under Authoritarian parents, if they're less sensitive to shame or guilt and/or if they simply were "born with" a sense of their own efficacy in the world or a less rebellious spirit. Another child in the same family may not fare as well. Also, surely parents' own personalities will have a large impact on how these parenting styles are actually manifest in day-to-day interactions with their children.

I think it's interesting to consider these dimensions of parenting as a first step, but I'm much more interested in the boundaries between the typologies and how various parenting behaviours can feel really wrong in some parenting contexts, but just right in others. For example, I think guilt can be a very effective, useful and PROSOCIAL way to influence our children's behaviour, especially as they get older than 5 or so. Too much is no doubt detrimental, but perhaps a little may be necessary to promote empathic, ethical behaviour from our children. How high would I rate myself in psychological control?  Does its detrimental impact depend on the larger parenting context (the love, warmth, connection, openness in a family)? Does that control work differently at different ages? You won't be surprised to know that I think the developmental age of the child is critical to consider: As children get older, it may be optimal to move from being relatively high on demandingness/control to relatively low, ending at the end of adolescence/early 20s with an ALMOST equal balance of power. In terms of warmth, I suspect high levels of it would be important throughout development, but perhaps the way we express this warmth will be less overt as children grow up and get creeped out about us wanting to rock them to sleep just one more time… (Yes, THAT book comes to mind).

Do you think these dimensions are useful when you consider your own parenting style? What were your parents' style of parenting and do you think that influences yours? What's missing in these dimensions for you?

The post that almost was…

Wow!  I feel like I've been gone for YEARS from this space. Sorry about that. My day job (which turned into a night-job when I was overseas) got the better of me and it's been hard to find the time to sleep, nevermind write a coherent sentence on this blog. I was going to post on parenting styles today (following some requests in the comments section): differences among authoritarian, authoritative and permissive parenting and some of the child outcomes associated with these styles. But I'm going to be lame and just say tune in tomorrow because I can't finish it yet.

For now, as I'm catching my breath, I'm wondering: What do YOU let go of when everything becomes overwhelming (in other words, when 24 hours can't possibly cover the things you need/want to do in a day)? And what do you never, ever compromise?

For me, the three things that go to hell when I've got too much work to do are sleep, writing this blog and exercising. (This past week, I can also add: emailing back friends, reading blogs, reading books, cooking, eating or drinking anything other than bread, butter, cheese and wine). The two things I almost never compromise (if I have any teeny-tiny bit of choice) is time with my kids on the weekend (I don't work until they're asleep) and deadlines my boss has set for me. What about you?

More Ideas On Dealing With That Anger: Wear It Out, Hug It Out

Video-thumb-activity-184I'm picking up on a theme here from the many awesome comments received in response to Bella's last post. A few people mentioned that the empathising-with-the-angry-child strategy didn't seem to work as well, especially for some younger kids. Many of you pointed out that the anger seemed to need to run it's course and that trying to reason or empathize, in the moment, just seemed to make things escalate. Someone expressed concern about the message we send when we immediately act to divert attention away from the anger. Are we teaching our kids that expressing bad feelings should be avoided at all costs? Let me pass on a couple of thoughts.

To "Mom2boys" and others with little ones that start to strike out when they are angry, you might want to get your
hands on "
No Biting" or "No Hitting" by Karen Katz. Fun, light, lift-the-flap books that are great for redirecting toddler misbehaviour. E.g. One page on the left in "No Biting" says "No
hitting mommy" with appropriate picture. On the right page it says, "What can you hit?". Lift the flap and it says "A drum!". There is a great picture of a mini drummer letting rip!.  My son LOVED the whole series
by Karen Katz (the art work is beautiful) but particularly this book and it seemed to work. After a couple
of readings he would run and find his toy drum when he was mad and just have at it.

This brings me to my first suggestion: Wear it Out! 

Perhaps with younger and/or more intense children who are not yet able to self-regulate very well, you can help them wear that anger out and therefore get to a more reasonable place. My son was not actually very big on "tantrums" (I'd know way before that the anger was brewing, which was a bonus because I could move to cut it off at the pass) but he sure is intense and when he did really lose it, it wasn't subtle. He couldn't even hear me, even if I was empathising, so I would try to help him work the anger out. I'd say, "It's fine to be mad/angry, let's go in your room and punch your pillow until you feel better."  Sometimes I would bring the pillow to him and he'd actually lay into it. After a few minutes of me actually ALLOWING the anger, he (or is it we?) wore it out. My take on it is that it is a more action-oriented way (as opposed to psychologically-oriented) way to empathise or acknowledge that anger and then help your child get to the point where other techniques like distraction can take effect. I remember this to be especially helpful at around the 18 months to 3 years age, when kids really are more action-oriented anyway, generally speaking. 

My second suggestion?
Hug it Out! 

Your anger is pretty scary to children -
justified or not, non-maligning or not and we need to acknowledge this. Even if
you are totally justified in your anger (and in parenting, there are MANY times when we are), it's important to repair. 

It's not that different from any other relationship. Lord knows I've had very justified outbursts towards spouse, but even then I think it's good to "make amends" when you've had your say. It puts things on a more even footing rather than having the memory of the interaction being more like that of a powerful-figure-scolding-the-helpless. The repair can help re-establish a sense of partnership and hopefully lead to more co-operation on the issue in the future. It also says, it's okay to be angry and to express it. We'll come out the other side and it'll be okay.

Maybe not right away, but even
when X seems fine after the outburst has subsided and we've moved on, I try to revisit the issue briefly, say at bed time. I usually say that "I don't like
yelling, don't want to make you feel bad…I just get frustrated and then I
don't know what to do anymore. So I yell. Can we please try to avoid that
next time? Can you please try to listen to me when I ask you to….?" Then I usually say, "I think maybe we should hug it out." And we do, and we feel like comrades again.

And on that sweet note…I leave you to a lovely weekend.

–by Tracy

(with apologies for the varying font, I cannot for the life of me, fix it!)

Parenting challenge #3: I feel your pain… now do as I say

I'm traveling overseas for work, so I'm going to have to keep this short (for me, anyway). This week's strategy was mentioned on this blog a few weeks ago, on the post dealing with temper tantrums.  (If you're new to the blog: WELCOME! You can find the first and second Parenting Challenge here and here). 

I have found this method useful for both my kids since they were about 18 months or so. It can work in loads of different contexts… but, as usual, it won't work for all kids, at all ages. For this strategy in particular, I think it would be really helpful for parents to pipe up with their experiences because I find that temperamental differences and our own emotions play a particular large role in how well this works.

The step-by-step discipline strategy comes from the fabulous book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk. It's meant to convey to your child that you understand his FEELINGS, but do not approve of his BEHAVIOUR. Unfortunately, I left my copy at home so I'm hoping I've got the precise sequence here (feel free to correct me, for those of you well-versed in the method). The idea is that when your child begins to melt down, argue, tantrum or otherwise freak the frack out, try the following steps: 

(1)  When he’s starting to whine/complain (but is NOT tantruming yet), give him words to express what he feels (e.g., "Jonny, you’re feeling so mad that mama won’t let you watch TV! Mad, Mad, MAD!" or "You're really frustrated that no one will listen to you!") 

(2) Scrunch up your face and look mad, so he gets that that’s what he looks like and YOU get that that’s what he’s feeling. 

(3) Repeat your rule, accepting his feelings, but not his behaviour ("You can only watch TV after dinner; You can be mad at mommy but you can’t throw things/scream, whatever"). 

(4) Fantasize with him: "You know, I ALSO wish it was TV-watching time. I LOVE watching TV with you O! I wish mommy didn’t have to work, but I can’t WAIT until after dinner when we can watch together." 

The idea of trying to empathize, accept and "join" with our child while she's feeling particularly vulnerable and out of control is a fabulous one, I think. For many children, the core reason why they become so upset sometimes has less to do with the surface features (e.g., I want more candy/tv/to push baby etc) and more to do with the frustration of feeling misunderstood or not heard. So these steps are meant to address that core need and, as a result, can work miracles in diffusing a stressful conflict. 

As we discussed at length with the Playful Parenting challenge, I think one of the most challenging things about implementing these steps is REMEMBERING to do so when we are frustrated, angry and/or anxious about our child's behaviour. Also, some children feel overwhelmed when they're faced with their parent mirroring their emotions too intensely, so it can be difficult establishing how much is too much "empathizing."

I've gotta run now. I may be less involved in the discussion early on in the week, given my trip, but I'll be checking in regularly and hope, as usual, that you can join in the challenge if it feels right for you and tell us about how it's going in the comments.

Is being mad all that bad?

I've been thinking about this week's challenge a lot, as I try to implement more constructive ways to express my anger to my children. And one of the things that keeps coming up for me is: How bad IS it really, to lose my cool, to lose my PhD and to just be, well, my Romanian mom to my own children? My mother was a yeller. When she was (or is) mad, she yelled in the most stereotypical "Latin" style. She was also one of the warmest, most affectionate and most supportive parents I know. I never for a moment doubted her love for me, her adoration, her over-the-top belief that I was the smartest, most beautiful, most perfect person in the world (she literally expressed these things daily). But if I messed up, she wailed at me. She freaked. She was known to go on some nutty tirade for hours before she finally calmed down. And she would never EVER use "I statements" or try to constructively problem-solve with me about whatever the problem happened to be (she would later, but not in these conflict moments). And she was even known to call me "lazy" or "insensitive" or "thoughtless" or other things that, indeed, attacked my personality or character. So how did I come out of that relationship with a reasonable sense of self-worth, confidence, and so on? How did I come to see her angry tirades as one of her personality flaws rather than something scary or damaging?

I realize this is starting to sound like I'm saying, "Hey, what's the big deal with all this anger?! My mom freaked out on me and I turned out alright. It must be fine to rage against your kids." But let me be clear that I'm NOT saying that. I think there are lots of good reasons to try to constructively communicate our anger without frightening and belittling our children. And believe me, I'm not into making a big huge argument on a case study of 1… particularly when that sample of 1 happens to be me. But I think I'm not the only one with this experience. So what I've been wondering is how our children are "protected from" or "resilient against" their parents' angry outbursts. I'm particularly interested in this because I think that a whole lot of us WILL lose it once in a while, despite our best intentions and our copious reading of parenting books and blogs. We'll lose it and then we'll wonder how much we are actually damaging our children.

I don't have a direct answer to this question, but here are some thoughts. First off, it may be that the more global family context (the general warmth, connection, and loving support that is just FELT or UNDERSTOOD among family members) is more important for long-term development than any single episode during which parents might screw up once in a while. There are a few studies that seem to suggest that this is true. Second, John Gottman's work with marital couples is interesting to think about in this context. He finds that the most successful marital interactions (i.e., the ones that don't end up in divorce) are the ones that maintain this "golden ratio" of 5:1 of positivity to negativity. In other words, he finds that couples who remain in their marriages for a long, long time (I can't remember the span, but I think his studies go out to 20 years at least) express five times the amount of positivity than they do negativity. The reason this is SO FREAKING interesting to me is that there are at least 3 types of relationships that can maintain this 5:1 balance and they are SO different: (1) the "validating" couple are the couples that talk a lot about their emotions, they share their fears and empathize a whole lot with each other and they have a relatively few negatives expressed daily, but not a lot, and still 5 times as many positives, (2) the "withdrawn" couple: they have almost NO negatives and relatively few positives, but again, the ratio of 5:1 holds, and (3) the "volatile" couple (count me in this group): these are couples that express a whole LOT of negativity, but a whole lot MORE positivity, again, 5:1 ratio.

So, what I'm thinking is that maybe that "golden ratio" holds with parent-child interactions too. Maybe if we screw up, lose our cool, rage in front of our kids or even TO our kids, maybe it's still relatively ok if we balance that with a boatload more positive stuff every day. I have no idea what the "golden ratio" would be for parenting… but I could see 5:1 being a good start. Of course, I want to believe this because I DO screw up and I will continue to do so, I suspect. But I also think about this because I really believe in the power of cutting ourselves some slack. I think that if we allow that we will sometimes lose our cool and that doesn't mean we're parenting failures, it will set up the conditions for us to more easily repair our interactions with our children. The alternative is often that we feel intensely guilty or frustrated or ashamed when we DO lose it. Equally likely is that we feel resentment towards our kids for "making us" rageful, mean, bad parents. And the intensity of these emotions can often make us feel stuck such that we can't flexibly move to a place where we can re-establish a connection with our kids. This all has to do with how important I think repair really is in our relationships with our kids. I'll address this more in the next parenting challenge.

Does this ring true for any of you?

Parenting challenge #2: Be honest… you’re angry

 "Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness; and concealed often hardens into revenge."  ~Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

This week's Parenting Challenge was inspired by a number of comments and subsequent discussions that were brought up in the comments section of the first Parenting Challenge. In particular, a number of us made the point that trying to be playful during conflicts or discipline episodes is so hard sometimes because we're just too damn angry to feel playful. When we feel angry, we don't WANT to come up with a cute little "pretend" scenario that will gently pull our child into complying with our wishes. Some people observed that  the "playful parenting" solutions like trying to involve our children in pretend play may only work in more calm contexts in general, rather than the more heated temper tantrums or times when we're over-the-top sleep-deprived and at our wit's end. 

This week's Parenting Challenge comes from Ginott's classic, Between Parent and Child. This book has a ton of explicit and implicit parenting gems (while at the same time feeling very dated in some of the examples, language, and so on). One of the most useful discussions I found in the book was the one on parents' own anger and how to deal with it. Ginott says that ALL parents feel angry at their children sometimes, and oftentimes it is completely justifiable. The problem begins when we try to completely deny those feelings. Usually, our children feel our tension anyways, so the first point is that when we try to swallow our anger, our children feel some strange vibe in the air that is unsettling at best for them. The second point Ginott emphasizes is that anger in and of itself is not a bad thing — it is an emotion that signals both to ourselves and to our child that something is amiss. LACK of anger in some contexts can in fact communicate indifference to the child… not such a good thing either. The feeling in and of itself isn't so bad, it's what we do about it that can have either beneficial or harmful effects. Finally, Ginott makes the point many of us have acknowledged: like it or not, angry feelings INEVITABLY arise when we're parenting. Figuring out how to deal with it best is what we can aim for (rather than the complete elimination of this "basic" / biologically-based emotion).

Here's the challenge then: Let's try to actually EXPRESS our angry feelings, instead of completely quashing them. But let's try to do so with Ginott's prescrption:

"Anger should be expressed in a way that brings some relief to the parent, some insight to the child, and no harmful side effects to either of them." 

Tall order, I know… But the idea is that we don't want to express that anger such that it ESCALATES our bad feelings or our child's bad feelings. But we DO want to communicate our frustration in a way that opens up the possibility for repair and connection, with some learning potentially thrown in. I'll talk more about repair (either this week, if that feels right, or next). But I think before we think about how best to repair interactions when they go awry, we need to first think about how we can express those negative/angry feelings in the first place. 

So, there are a few tips given in the book about communicating anger:

  • Accept, WITHOUT ANY GUILT OR SHAME, that we will get angry at our children sometimes. 
  • We can express our feelings of anger as long as we don't do so by attacking our child's personality or character (e.g., avoid saying things like "I'm so angry because you're a lazy / slow / stubborn / mean / bad / stupid / etc. child.").
  • Use "I" statements when expressing anger: "I feel frustrated when you don't listen to me." "I'm getting more and more angry the longer you take to pick up your toys." "I'm angry at you because it took me 30 min to cook dinner and you just threw it all over the floor."  
  • If the first mild expression of your anger gets no reaction, elaborate and express your wishful actions: "I'm so angry that you dumped your toys out of the bin right after I cleaned them all up. It makes me so, so angry that I don't want to play with you now." "When you hit your baby brother, I see red, that's how angry I get. It makes me want to stomp upstairs and not let you play with baby brother." 

The idea here is that expressing your authentic feelings of anger does two things: (1) communicates your dislike for some behaviour you'd like your child to change in a way that is more "real" and, thus, more easily understood and respected by your child and (2) allows for you to move on from that emotion, because it's expressed and you no longer have to expend so much energy to suppress it. This is energy you could more productively use to flexibly figure out a solution to the conflict. 

Again, I'll refrain in this first post from giving a bunch of theoretical background why expressing anger with our children might be important. I do want to add my own developmental thoughts (preliminary as they may be): (1) Very young children who can't understand the words for particular emotions are going to have a tough time with this one, but it's not impossible to start even with them. A one-year old may not fully understand the words you're using, but she may still get your facial expressions and your intentions to communicate something important, so all is not lost on the very young with this approach (and obviously, we parents are still benefiting from being able to express some of our frustration and practicing how to do so in a safe, non-insulting way, so that when they ARE old enough to understand our words, we'll be more versed at this strategy). (2) Children around the age of 2.5 years old will be able to really understand emotion terms and get their impact. Before that, you're not wasting your time, but it's more like you're setting the stage. After that, there will be variability in terms of how interested children will be in learning what you're teaching them (just like there's variability in how interested kids will be about numbers, letters, trains and dolls). (3) Children in "sensitive windows" of development, particularly the 18 – 22 month and the 3.5 – 4 year old stages may be particularly vulnerable to our expressions of anger because of the emotional challenges they're dealing with (e.g., struggles with autonomy vs. independence with the 18-month old; battling with potentially overwhelming feelings of shame and/or jealousy with the 3.5 year old). That doesn't mean we shouldn't still try to express these emotions, but being aware of our children's increased vulnerability may help us temper the manner in which we express ourselves. (4) Children over the age of 3 or so, or children with older siblings, may particularly benefit from watching their parents express anger in a non-violent, non-explosive, but nevertheless authentic way. Their cognitive capabilities are such that they may even initiate repair strategies with us… not a bad outcome. 

As usual, I could go on and on with elaborating why this might be a tough strategy to implement, the kinds of contexts that it would be impossible to do so, and the different types of children for whom it might work or blow up in our faces. But I want to leave most of that discussion to you. Let us know: Do you express your feelings of anger to your children? Do you think it's a good or bad idea to do so? When you try to communicate angry feelings, how does your child react? What makes it difficult for you to talk about your angry emotions? Were your parents able to communicate anger in a way that was not terrifying or soul-crushing? 

A developmental approach to sleep training: The highlights

Approximately half of the readers of this blog continue to be parents struggling with sleep-deprivation due to young children's whacky sleep habits. Although we haven't been focusing so much on sleep issues in the last couple of months, I wanted to reassure those readers that I WILL keep posting questions and research on the subject over the course of the next few weeks/months. I also wanted to urge readers who are most concerned about sleep (or "obsessed" or "consumed by" or "frantic about") that there's about 6 months worth of archived information about all sorts of sleep-related issues (the first 6 months are entirely focused on sleep). Please check them out: there are readers' questions, my answers to those questions and comments in response, and there's TONS of research that's reviewed in those early posts. 

Also, since the US edition of Bedtiming has come out in the last month, I've had a few emails requesting more information about our approach: What's different about this book? What's our parenting philosophy? What method of sleep-training do I most strongly advocate? (People have a VERY hard time with my answer: It depends). So, in a nutshell, here are the 10 main points that we discuss in the book (this was one of my first blog posts, so a few of you might have read them already). 

1. Timing is everything: No matter what method of sleep training you use, it is more likely to succeed at particular developmental stages, and more likely to fail at others. The vast majority of children follow a predictable developmental schedule of emotional and cognitive changes in the first 5 years of life.

2. The best times for sleep training are neither early nor late. Many people assume that getting sleep training over with before the child gets too clever or too entrenched in nighttime habits is the best approach. Others assume that waiting until the attachment bond is strong and/or kids are more independent is important. Both are wrong. The best stages to sleep-train follow a pendulum swing from one age to the next, with difficult periods interspersed between periods of relative ease.

3. Stages that make it harder to sleep-train are those of heightened emotional vulnerability. In these predictable periods, your child will be more dependent, vulnerable, or prone to separation distress, jealousy or shame.

4. Stages that make it easier to sleep-train are when your child is less emotionally sensitive. For an infant, these are periods she is more interested in the nonsocial world of objects, actions, and locomotion, and less concerned with other people. Resilient periods in toddlerhood are when children are not feeling compelled to assess parents' availability, attention, and affection, when they don't need to define their own territories or intentions through defiance, when they are less prone to jealousy and shame and when they are more concerned with winning approval than testing limits.

5. Most sleep-training methods are equally effective. There are at least half a dozen popular sleep-training methods, ranging from "cry it out" to "gentle no-cry solutions." None have been proven more effective than another so pick something that feels right for you. That means go with a method that seems to match your parenting philosophy or approach in general. Ultimately, you have to live with your parenting choices and you know your child best.

6. There are some ages at which particular methods are likely to work better than others. If you understand the emotional vulnerabilities and strengths that characterize each developmental stage, you will be better equipped to match a sleep-training method with your child’s age.

7. Pick a method you know you can stick with. That means apply the method consistently, and do so for at least a week.

8. Things often get worse before they get better. Children already have sleep habits when we decide to sleep train them. Breaking those habits may involve some disruption, disorganization, or outright rebellion on the part of your baby or toddler. As a result your child may sleep less or wake more frequently before she settles into a new routine.

9. Sleep training is often not a one-shot deal. Even after your child learns to sleep through the night, sleep setbacks can occur at (predictably) difficult ages, requiring parents to think about what's different and how to re-implement effective sleep training.

10. A family that is getting enough sleep, is a happy, healthy family. Mothers in particular often feel guilty about sleep training because of messages from the media, friends and family (including fellow mothers, unfortunately) that their first and only priority should be their child’s happiness. Parents who are considering sleep training for reasons beyond just the well-being of their child (gasp!) are not only perfectly normal, but are doing the right thing. A sleep-deprived child is a cranky, inattentive one who will have a tougher time learning and socializing. A sleep-deprived parent is often irritable, angry, depressed and ineffective. A well-rested mother and a well-rested child will both be happier, healthier, more alert and more affectionate.


Tune in Monday for a new Parenting Challenge. And if you're joining us (or still want to join us) for the first challenge, by all means come by last Monday's comments section and share your ups and downs with us. It's been a GREAT week of generating new ideas and problem-solving together and the weekend is bound to be full of new "opportunities" (ahem…) to pretend-play our kids into complying with all our wishes (Bwahahahahaha!).

Being playful is serious business

So, if you're following along with the Parenting Challenge, you'll remember that I wanted to also share my own experiences of applying some of the techniques that I'm reviewing on the blog. I've been thinking a lot about why it's so hard for me sometimes to take the playful route to gaining compliance from my kids. Beyond the situational factors in the moment, which are VERY much at play (feeling stressed, grumpy, overtired, etc.), there are also larger, "historical" factors at play. In particular, I think that the way we ourselves were parented when we were children will make a big difference in how we think about discipline and parenting. This is kind of obvious on a general level but the way it plays out may not be as obvious. Many of us may have not had the experience of "playing" with our parents very much. But even those of us who did play a lot with our parents, we probably didn't do so during a discipline-related situation. Part of the reason I so often "forget" to take a playful approach to parenting my kids during a conflict is that I myself had parents that took the more "conventional" approach (terrible term for it, but I can't think of another one right now) to discipline. They would put their "foot down", yell, bribe, cajole, insist with threats of punishment and finally resort to punishing in the end. Nothing horrific, just your fairly run-of-the-mill strategies for dealing with power struggles. That's the model I am most influence by, even when I'm not explicitly aware of it.

As a result of how we were disciplined ourselves, we may be more likely to advocate spanking, harsh punishments, threats, and so on. These approaches worked on us, after all… and we turned out "fine." Why wouldn't they "work" for our own kids? And so when I try to implement some of these more gentle, playful and, ultimately (IMO), more effective strategies (at least for my kids), I kinda feel like a wimp sometimes. When I'm frustrated and getting increasingly angry, my reflex is to yell and insist on the kind of compliance my own parents insisted on. I think "Screw this playing around stuff, forget all the psychobabble I've read, I need you to listen to me NOW without all the hoopla of some elaborate game of pretend!"or, just more simply, "I AM THE BOSS OF YOU!!!"

What keeps me coming back to these more playful approaches, however, is watching how magnificently the more power-heavy approaches fail with my boys. We all end up in a heap of tears, or frustrated grumbling, and no one actually feels like they've "won." Here's a passage from Playful Parenting that really resonated with me. Does it ring any bells for you?

"I think parents avoid playfulness in difficult parenting situations because they are afraid of rewarding bad behavior. I have to remain stern and angry and cold so he'll know he did wrong. But being playful isn't about rewards or punishments, it is about restoring the missing ingredient — connection — that caused the problems in the first place. Take the risk of being playful. You will do a much better job of teaching your values and getting cooperation with your rules by being playful than by being stern."

Laurence J. Cohen, Playful Parenting