Knocked out Jacq

Throwing punches at parenthood

One on one

Did I ever tell you about the time (in October 2015, when the kids were nearly three) when I became so dismayed by Hattie’s tantrums and my inability to deal with them that we organised for Tristan and me to have a chat with a child psychologist? 

Our main concern was that we really didn’t know to what extent we should be giving our very strong-willed little girl autonomy in her life. Everybody blithely assured us that, as she grew older, we’d be glad of her iron will, but we weren’t so sure. For one thing, part of functioning in polite society is the acceptance that one must often accept the need to balance one’s own needs with the needs of other people. And for another, we both know certain extremely strong-willed people who, even as adults, lack the ability to know when to pick their battles – and from what we’d seen and experienced of these people, the determination to react with belligerence whenever it wasn’t possible to dominate a situation didn’t make life particularly fun (for them, or for the people dealing with them). I didn’t want my little girl, who is sweet, funny, charming, helpful, and utterly delightful 95% of the time, struggling to build friendships or alienating her future teachers because she hadn’t learned how to control her temper. And while we didn’t want go crush her spirit, we also didn’t want to raise a tyrant. 

So, although we certainly didn’t want to change her personality, we did want help to figure out how to teach Hattie to channel her frustrations in appropriate ways, and how to deal with her as parents: which battles we should pick. It was particularly pertinent for me because I bore (and have always received) the brunt of her more challenging behaviour. I’ve heard from many sources that being the parent for whom a child throws a tantrum is, in a warped sense, a symbol of that child’s great love for, and trust in, that parent: the rationale is that the kid saves their worst behaviour for the person that they believe will love them endlessly and unconditionally. And I don’t doubt that it’s true in our case, given that I’ve always benefited from the vast majority of Hattie’s expressions of affection, but it’s scant consolation when your child is losing her shit for the umpteenth time that day and you feel like finding your passport and skipping the country. 

Anyway, beyond the ongoing tantrum issue, we had some big concerns about Hattie’s eating habits and our way of dealing with them – and that’s such a big topic that I’ll save it for a separate post, because OH MY GOD I never knew how much time and energy would be spent thinking about children’s food. And I felt like if I’d tapped the well of support and advice from friends and family members, so we did what we’ve done in the past when we’ve been flummoxed regarding child-related issues: we paid for expert guidance. 
The hour we spent with the psychologist (without Hattie there) was extremely helpful, both because it provided much-appreciated validation concerning our current ways of dealing with Hattie’s behaviour and many other parental issues, and because it gave us a chance to take on board gentle good advice about how to move forward. 

We were comprehensively grilled about our ‘behavioural management strategies’, and the upshot was that our approach (time outs, firm boundaries, all that kind of stuff) was deemed a Good Plan. We also got guidance on the food issue, but, again, look out for another post on that. 
Anyway. This is all a very long-winded introduction to the actual thing I wanted to write about today: one on one time with the kids. The main piece of advice that the psychologist gave me was to incorporate one-on-one time with Hattie as much as I could, to strengthen my relationship with her and to hopefully temper her occasionally confrontational approach with me. 

Spending individual time with kids is probably no big deal in most families, since children of different ages have different interests and capabilities that open up opportunities to do stuff with them. And I know that friends who have twins and an older child manage to incorporate time with separate kids, or at least with one or two of the family’s children. However, as first-time parents of twins it had eluded us (and I do know that other first-time twin parents do manage it far earlier than us, so we’re not necessarily indicative of all twin parents in this respect). 

I think there were a few things that made us not get into this earlier. One was undoubtedly the length of time I breastfed, which influenced two things in two ways: it kept the babies tied to me physically for longer; and it also made feeding them solely my ‘job’, which meant that I was very bonded to them and Tristan didn’t have much involvement in feeding (he never did lactate, despite all of the lactation cookies he scoffed in the early days). He has always been hugely hands on with the kids, which is just as well as I would have been completely unable to cope as a solo mother, but I think it’s been easier for him to deal with the kids without me in the past year or so, as they’ve transitioned out of the baby phase and into the little kid phase. 

A bigger issue has been our great fondness of spending time together as a family in the weekends, which Tristan was particularly reluctant to see eroded by us going out separate ways (and it’s not as if I was itching for us to not spend time all together – it’s more that I could possibly appreciate the benefits of one on one time a bit more, and so was keener to try to incorporate it into our routine. 

Another block for us was how we’d actually split up the kids, considering that they’ve spent virtually every waking moment together since birth, and keeping in mind that they adore each other. But, again, I was mindful of the need to figure out a way for Hattie’s sake, since Joe wakes up from their nap earlier than her every day, and therefore gets daily one on one time with an adult (me, Tristan, or our au pair). Hattie always wakes up second, and misses out on that time: she’s never awake without Joe being around. 

The biggest issue for me was figuring how to split them up without upsetting them, as I couldn’t quite work out the idea of, say, taking one child out and leaving the other one at home. But the fundamental block was that whole ‘they get on so well and I don’t want to upset them’ issue. And I say that as the kind of twin mum who definitely isn’t obsessed with her twins’ relationship, as some people are: I know that they get on well and will probably remain close to each other as they get older, but they’re very different people who will certainly make their own friends and pursue their own interests as they start school. 

The psychologist could understand our attitude, but she said something that totally changed my thinking: “So, you’re prioritising their relationship with each other ahead of your relationships with each of them”. And when she put it that way it made perfect sense, especially as she then pointed out that the kids wouldn’t be turning to each other for support and advice as they grew up: they’d need to have strong relationships with us as their parents, so they’d feel confident about talking to us when it really mattered. 

Despite knowing that one on one time really was important, it’s still taken us ages to do it. Our strategy was to just find opportunities to split the kids up as they arose naturally, but we kept failing to recognise those opportunities. And after beating the brunt of another horrific tantrum from Hattie recently I lost my temper a bit with Tristan regarding it all, pointing out that he wasn’t helping me in trying to prioritise it (which wasn’t an unfounded accusation: he’d said that he didn’t think it was a big deal), and letting him know that it WAS important to me, seeing as how I was the one who had to cope with the misbehaviour. He seemed to take that on board, and I also made sure that I started actively looking for times when I could have time with just one kid. 

The first chance came at a local country show a couple of weeks ago, when I took Hattie for a walk to look at some of the attractions while everybody else (Tristan, Joe, and two grandmothers) watched the competitive wood-chopping (because that’s how we roll at Kiwi country shows). Hattie spent most of the time obsessed with finding a stall giving away balloons, so it wasn’t hugely exciting, and the crowds and mayhem left her fairly overwhelmed (which tends to be converted into naughtiness), but at least it was a start. I took Joe for a walk through an antiques market the following day, but his main concern was about ‘matching’ what Hattie had done the day before: she’d chosen him and her a little treat each from a stall at the show, so he wanted to buy the two of them something as well (and he doing two very cute silver-plated 1960s ice cream bowls, for $5 each, which was pretty cool). 

Over Easter we had more time to have one on one sessions. Joe wanted to go to a bike park and practise on his balance bike, and Hattie wanted to play football at the park, so I took Hattie and Tristan took Joe. Another day, we were at a cafe and Hattie wasn’t hungry, so she and I went for a walk while the others ate, and then Joe and I went for a walk afterwards (during which he mainly wanted to know where I’d taken Hattie). 

Hattie seems to love to have me to herself: she is so chirpy and happy during our excursions. And her behaviour overall has definitely improved: she’s more relaxed, more affectionate, and less melodramatic – we haven’t had a tantrum from her for well over a week, which is a huge improvement! She’s consistently missed out on dedicated time with me, primarily because Joe has always woken up before her, so she’s never been awake without him also being around. Without realising it I think she was really wanting some extra attention, so it’s great to finally give it to her. Joe needs to relax a bit about his one on one time and focus more on what he’d like to do, rather than just fretting about what he’s missing out on when he’s not with Hattie, but I’m sure that we’ll get that sorted as these sessions become more commonplace. 

I’m also really enjoying spending separate time with the kids. It’s such a different parenting experience to be able to cater exclusively to the whims of one child, albeit for an hour at a time. When Hattie and I went to the park we ended up under a big tree with a fallen branch, which she used as a balance beam… 20 or 30 times in a row. If Joe had been there too she would have had to wait her turn, and odds are he would have got bored before her and agitated to go and do something else. It was so nice to just hold her hand while she practised balancing, and to be able to truly ‘be in the moment’ with her and not have my attention diverted. 

   
 
(Very) long story short: one on one time = good times all round. 

Big kids’ beds

It seems to me that there are three big milestones in a toddler’s or preschooler’s life: dropping the day sleep; being toilet trained; and transitioning from a cot to a bed. Hattie and Joe are still enjoying a nap every day (and long may that continue!), and their interest in wearing knickers is patchy, to put it mildly, so today I’m writing about the shift to big kids’ beds (and I’m recycling some content that is due to be published in a future issue of our multiple birth club’s newsletter, so if you are a member of that fine organisation and later read these words elsewhere it won’t be because you’ve gone crazy).

I had been absolutely dreading this stage, having heard numerous stories of twins wreaking total havoc, rampaging through the house, destroying their bedrooms, and generally acting like every night was Mardi Gras as soon as they were released from the confines of their cots. I’d also resigned myself to the prospect of day naps ending once the kids were in beds, and given that they’re early risers who need their sleep, this was a terrible thing to contemplate.

We hadn’t been in any hurry at all to make the change, although it was very helpful that Hattie and Joe hadn’t attempted to climb out of their cots and could safely remain in them. We have always put them to bed in sleeping bags (albeit worn backwards in Joe’s case, to prevent him from breaking out of it), so that had probably hindered any real climbing attempts. However, I know that some kids successfully bust out of their cots with sleeping bags on – I think another saving grace for us was that our two have always been pretty happy in their cots, and have been good sleepers since we had some help from the Baby Sleep Consultant when they were nine months old, so they weren’t hugely motivated to escape.

My mother forced our hand by announcing that she’d replaced the cots at her house with two single beds, which meant that our Christmas visit would be Big Bed Time. I was still a bit reluctant, but she rightly pointed out that we couldn’t keep them in cots indefinitely.

We put them into their beds on the first night (still in their sleeping bags), arranged pool noodles under the edges of the fitted sheets to limit the risk of them toppling out, and shut their door, waiting for drama to unfold. And absolutely nothing happened. They went to sleep. The same thing happened the next night, and all of the other nights we spent at my parents’ house. We then went to a bach in Napier for six nights, and they slept well there as well. And they continued to have a nap every day, which was brilliant. Joe actually had better naps in his bed, which makes me think that he might have been waking up uncomfortable in the cot and not been able to get back to sleep easily.

So we got home to Auckland, put them back in their cots for a couple of nights while we organised beds (and they weren’t happy about being back in their baby cots), and then they were into their Big Kid beds at last. Here they were on their first night:

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The only behaviourial challenge we’ve had has been their new-found tendency to talk and talk (and talk…) when put to bed. This has meant that they’ve typically taken at least half an hour to fall asleep, and sometimes up to an hour, as they’re too busy shooting the breeze to settle down. Multiply that by two bedtimes each day, and you start seeing a bit of a sleep deficit. To address this we tend to play Good Cop, Bad Cop a bit, and also bargain with them, using whatever the preferred currency is this week. Initially I told them that, for every visit we paid them to ask them to stop talking and get to sleep, they’d lose the right to watch one of their favourite pre-recorded TV programmes the following day. This was reasonably successful initially, but it was crucial to understand their current televisual preferences and order the deletions for maximum effect: there’s no point going in there and threatening to delete Mike the Knight if Doozers is the big favourite at the moment.

We’ve also learned that favourite toys can serve as useful currency. Attempts to confiscate old favourites like Betty the bear and Larry the lion has been counter-productive, but kids are faddy, and they’ve usually got something new in bed with them: this week it’s the soft toys from Room on the Broom (which Pat, my mother-in-law, bought them for their birthday). Joe takes the witch to bed, and Hattie sleeps with the dragon, and both kids are well aware that we will remove these toys and also put away the cat, the dog, the bird, and the frog if we can’t get bedtime compliance.

Here’s what I think helped us with a smooth transition from cots to beds:

  1. Waiting until they were nearly three until we made the change. They’re now old enough to understand consequences, which I think would have been a struggle a year ago. This was great advice from the Baby Sleep Consultant, who suggested waiting to as close to three years old as possible.
  2. Keeping them in their sleeping bags for the transition. Putting on the sleeping bag has been a real sleep cue for both of them, and it’s provided continuity from sleeping in cots. It also prevented them from getting too cold in the night if they accidentally kicked off their covers. They’ve now been in beds for nearly two months, and we’ve only taken off their sleeping bags this week (and thankfully that hasn’t caused any drama at all – and they were very excited at this further evidence that they’re officially becoming Big Kids).
  3. Keeping their bedroom door shut. I know that most people leave their children’s bedroom doors open, but we’ve always kept theirs shut and had a monitor on, so they’re perfectly happy like that. Going to sleep with the door shut has probably limited the temptation to get out of bed and roam the house. I realise that this information isn’t much help if you’ve got a toddler and they already sleep with the door open, but if you’ve got a baby and they don’t yet care either way it might be something worth keeping in mind.
  4. Enforcing the idea that beds are ONLY for sleeping. We don’t let them play on the beds, and once they are in bed they understand that getting off will mean toy confiscations. So far, they haven’t forced our hand on this.
  5. Preparing for the worst: we used pool noodles under the fitted sheets on their bed initially, to provide some resistance if they were to accidentally roll too close to the edge, and we’ve arranged their beds so they’re parallel, enabling us to put a cot mattress on the floor between them in case of unplanned rapid nocturnal bed evacuations. I’ve found Hattie asleep on the cot mattress a couple of times, but I don’t think she’s fallen out of bed: I think she’s decided to get out and sleep there. Soon we’ll remove the mattress entirely, but it’s served a good purpose. We also let them have a quick jump on it before they get into bed, so they can get that out of their system and not jump on their actual beds.

So few things go smoothly with little kids that, when something is relatively easy, it feels very satisfying! After all, is there any sweeter sight for a parent than this?

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Free range parenting, NZ style

When Hattie and Joe were ten months old I wrote a blog post in which I mentioned the book Duct Tape Parenting. I really enjoyed it at the time, and I’d like to read it again: in summary, it was all about encouraging parents to sit back a bit and give their children the freedom to try things, and also to fail, and learn from the failure.

It was interesting for me to realise that I was thinking about those issues so early on, particularly as Hattie and Joe are now firmly in the stage where they are capable of actually enjoying any freedom that is granted to them. My greatest joy in life right now is the sight of the two of them playing some game of their own devising, either just at home together, or with some of their little twin friends. It’s brilliant for them because the ideas that they have for play are light years more fun than anything that I, or any other grown-up, could devise – like their Room on the Broom re-enactments that I mentioned in my last post. Here’s a photo of the two of them in action:

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Similarly, when we go to the beach or the park now we really don’t need to actively engage with the kids for every minute, because they’re having far too good a time playing with each other and their friends to have more than an occasional need for us. Today we went to Castor Bay, which is our favourite local beach: it’s got lovely, calm water, a little playground, and a really nice grassed area that includes a hill and lots of trees, and it’s at the end of a cul-de-sac, so it’s very safe. We’ve had some great times there recently with friends, and today was no exception. Hattie and Joe and their friends Ethan and Milly tramped around on a ‘treasure hunt’ with little plastic buckets, and then they climbed a tree together (and actually got impressively high without our assistance). And when we went down onto the sand the four kids took off. The tide was well and truly out, leaving a huge expanse of beach to explore. Ethan and Milly’s lovely mother, my friend Emma, and I spread out a blanket and had a good chat, and the kids played for at least 20 minutes without coming back to see us at all. Can you spot them in this photo (taken from where I was sitting, with my phone)?

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No? Hang on, I zoomed in as much as my phone would allow me:

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They splashed through puddles, looked at shells, ran around like crazy people, and then ended up 100 metres away from us, looking for crabs in the rock pools. And what was absolutely brilliant – aside, of course, from the fact that our kids were hooning around and having a fantastic, child-led experience – was the fact that nobody else on the beach turned a hair at four three year olds being given the liberty to have a wee adventure. And that is why I always knew that I’d be best off raising my children in New Zealand: here, it is still considered normal for kids to play and enjoy themselves. You see primary school-aged children walking to school unaccompanied. You see young teenagers walking down to the beach with their friends for an unsupervised swim. And the sight of preschoolers gallivanting around actually makes people smile, rather than resulting in pursed lips and a call to Child Services. Obviously, I know that there will be plenty of other countries in the world where kids can still actually play, explore, and be kids without a hovering parental presence (I hope there are, anyway), but the only other place that I would have been likely to have kids was England, and there’s NO way this wouldn’t raise eyebrows there. There’s no way that the Famous Five would have been sailing off to Kirrin Island for adventures in modern Britain.

So we’re really lucky to have ended up raising our family in a country that still supports the kind of free range parenting philosophy with which I was raised, and which I’d argue that most New Zealanders would still see as the ideal for kids. Long may that continue!

(And hey, let’s not pretend otherwise: it’s also BLOODY AWESOME to be able to sit and read my book or whatever while the kids play together at home, or to sit and chat with Emma and my other fab friends while the kids are having fun. With two babies each, and then two toddlers each, the chance to even speak an uninterrupted sentence feels like something that we can all only vaguely remember, so it’s such a delight to spend proper time with my friends. Everybody’s happy!)

My role in the drama

After writing yesterday’s post about time outs and other behavioural management strategies that I employ to prevent total anarchy from breaking out in our living room, I thought further about things. And while I still contend that the kids, at the age of three and each possessing fine sparky personalities that encourage boundary-pushing in a variety of ways, are the ones who need to get with the game plan vis-a-vis not being crazy, there is another element that must be acknowledged.

I am a busy person. Even when I’m on holiday, I’m busy. When I was at home with the babies I was editing the multiple club’s newsletter, and later became co-president. Then I started my degree, and for the first year I juggled my studies with the club stuff. And before I had kids and was still living in England I spent the last couple of years holding down a very busy City job, finishing a post-graduate HR qualification, and serving as a trustee of two charities and the governor of a school. In other words, I have a long track record of doing a lot.

The thing that I’ve had to recognise – and try very hard to remedy – is my tendency to continue to be really busy, even when it really isn’t necessary. And when Hattie and Joe fail to comply to the arbitrary schedule in my head, I’ve had the capacity to become so wound up by it. And it’s so ridiculous. As if it matters that we take an extra half an hour to get out of the door! Where are we going that our punctuality is so critical? The three of us aren’t exactly fighting fires or performing life-saving surgery: we’re going to the park, or visiting friends. But there I’d be, getting all “COME ON! PUT ON YOUR SHOES!” or whatever, creating bad feeling between the kids and me, and acting like I’m far more important than I actually am (and if I’m totally honest with myself, that desire to still feel like I’m doing important things might well be part of the reason for this foolish behaviour). I’d even interrupt them having a perfectly good time at home, because of the promise of having a good time elsewhere. That’s mental behaviour.

So, just before Christmas, I realised that I was actually playing the starring role in some of the dramas that were occurring. And with knowledge comes the power to actually change my behaviour, so I tried that one day. A big part of my new philosophy owes itself to Nigel Latta and his adage ‘don’t let their problems become your problems’.

The first day in my brave new non-control freak world involved inviting the kids to come with me to the bedroom to choose their clothes for the day. We got down to their room and, as usual at that time, they buggered around, so after a minute or two I pleasantly said “OK, guys, I’m going to head back to the living room and read my book, so come and find me when you’ve got your clothes and are ready to get dressed”. And I reclined on the sofa and read my Diane Levy book. Ten minutes later Hattie appeared with her clothes, but balked at the prospect of having her nappy changed and getting dressed. So I said, in my new-found supernaturally calm tone, “You’re obviously not ready to get dressed yet, so just let me know when you want to do it”, and continued reading my book. Somewhat flummoxed, Hattie tried to get me to play with her, or read a book (I can’t remember the finer points), but I just smiled and said that I was reading my book, and once she was ready to have her nappy changed and get dressed, we could get on with our day. Meanwhile Joe came in and we had similar conversations. Eventually, both children happily agreed to be dressed, largely because they’d realised that nothing else was going to happen until they played ball. The same scene repeated itself around tooth-brushing, and again before lunch, and I kept calmly reading and telling them to just let me know when they wanted to get moving.

Later that day we were planning to go to the park, but – again – they were buggering around about getting ready. So out came my book again, and they were told that we’d leave for the park once they were organised. Finally we got out of the door, but there was a consequence: we could only have 20 minutes at the park, because they’d eaten into too much of the afternoon and we needed to get home for dinner. And that’s the big thing that I realised: in most instances it’s actually their good times that are eroded if they take ages to get organised – so why was I stressing out about it? I read over 200 pages of my book that day! It was awesome!

By slowing down and not trying to rush all of the time, I’ve realised that the kids doing really need me to occupy every moment for them these days. Often, I’ll make vague noises  about going to the park or whatever, but Hattie and Joe will be having a great time playing together and won’t be in any kind of hurry to stop. This is the marvellous benefit of twins: they actually do play together. Their most recent self-designed game involves acting out the entire plot of Room on the Broom, their most recent favourite book (they’ve both memorised every word of this story, so they really can put on a great performance as they ‘fly’ around the house, picking up animals and being chased by the dragon). And if it’s not a game that’s this structured it’s some kind of random activity that I don’t fully understand, but that they absolutely love – usually involving running around, shrieking with laughter. What’s the sense of interrupting that kind of good time, just to possibly have another good time elsewhere?

That basic approach has continued to work for me (whenever I remember to use it – I’m not yet 100% on it yet, unfortunately, and sometimes I can’t help myself and get frustrated). It’s the foundation of how I handle our mornings now. At present we don’t really have much of a deadline for getting organised in the morning because we’ve all been on holiday, but that is soon going to change: they’ll be back at creche, and later at kindy, and I’ll be heading back to university in a few weeks’ time. I actually need them to get going relatively quickly (and let’s be honest, this will be the story of their lives all through school, the need to be appropriately dressed and ready to go at a certain time all morning).

With all this in mind, my new approach is to pretty much lead them through the morning stuff very quickly, but without fighting about any of it. As soon as they finish breakfast I suggest that we go and choose their clothes (and they like choosing clothes, so that’s seldom a struggle). Once they’ve got dressed and had a nappy change it’s time to brush teeth. At this point Joe occasionally ends up in time out, because he’s suddenly decided that it’s fun to be contrary about something that hasn’t bothered him in the slightest in the past. Why brush your teeth when you can scream and cry for a few minutes? It’s a good early morning cardio workout! But we try to manage that in a calm way, too: it’s a case of saying “OK, it’s time to brush your teeth now, so you have two choices – brush your teeth, or have a time out”. And once he’s in his room we pop in every couple of minutes and ask him if he’s ready to brush his teeth yet. Yesterday morning I think he had to be visited two or three times before he decided that this was a pretty boring way to spend his day.

The next flash point involves doing Hattie’s hair, because wearing it tied up is a recent development and, let’s be honest, that girl does love a bit of drama. And in the case of this (and trimming the kids’ fingernails each week, which Hattie particularly hates), I don’t even try to convince them: I let them have ten minutes of TV in exchange for compliance. Hattie goes into a trance when watching TV, so it’s totally worth it to have her sitting still. And then I turn off the TV at the end, ignore the wails of complaint, and we get on with our day. TV is magic! TV enabled me to get her hair to look like this the other day!

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I also use that promise of ten minutes of TV as a way of encouraging them through the earlier ‘getting dressed and brushing teeth’ stages, if necessary.

The moral of this particular story is that I’m actually the grownup in the Hattie, Joe, and me triangle, so it’s done me good to remember that I can manage the way in which we jointly navigate the perilous waters of daily life. Or something like that. In simpler terms, I can either be part of the solution or part of the problem, and if I’m needlessly rushing the two of them I’m just making life less happy for all three of us.

Time outs and other strategies

I think there comes a time in every parent’s life where you realise that your children are running you absolutely ragged, and that the time for some kind of behaviour management strategy has arrived. Of course, there may be some parents who are so attuned to their children’s behaviour that there is never a problem, but I don’t know those people.

A popular behaviour management strategy with preschoolers is the time out. Essentially, it involves removing a child from a social situation (like playing in the living room), either physically – putting them in a different room, or symbolically – keeping them on a specific chair or something and not letting them join in the fun.

As a behavioural management strategy it has a mixed reputation. The people who claim that it doesn’t work seem to be the people who try the ‘you stay there and don’t join in until I say so’ approach, which must be bloody difficult to administer if said child keeps hollering at you and getting up from the chair. You could easily spend a whole morning doing that, becoming increasingly frustrated with your child in the process, which kind of defeats the purpose of a time out: to take the heat out of a situation and enable the child to calm themselves down and re-join civilisation.

However, people who use the ‘put said child into their room for a couple of minutes, for everybody to calm down’ time out approach tend to enjoy a slightly better success rate.  But there, too, there is a school of thought that says that it’s cruel and unusual punishment to socially isolate your child when they’re playing up: instead, you should practise a ‘time in’, and respond to naughtiness with endless cuddles and understanding. And hey, if you’re blessed with superhuman levels of patience and never get wound up by your kids, I’m sure that’s a nice approach to take. If you can do that with three year olds you are Mother Teresa reincarnated, as far as I’m concerned.

But like anything, the success of a time out comes down to how you do it. And for the first few months that we tried it, we sucked at it. Basically, we would wait far too long before putting the kids in time out, by which time we’d be so fed up with them that there would be frayed tempers all over the place, and nobody was calming down any time soon. I was starting to think that time outs were nonsense, and then I went to a parenting seminar that fundamentally changed my approach. It was delivered by a woman called Diane Levy, who is a renowned New Zealand family therapist with a fantastic ‘take no crap’ attitude. She’s clearly been a very loving and devoted mother, but she has the not-at-all controversial belief that children actually should respect their parents and do what they’re asked.

What I learned from Diane’s seminar was this:

  1. We talked too much when putting the kids into time outs.
  2. We waited too long before putting the kids into time outs.
  3. We were inconsistent about when we used time outs.

Her recommended approach was as follows:

  1. Ask the child, nicely, to do something: “Joe, can you please help to pick up the toys?”
  2. Count to ten in your head, and if Joe hasn’t started picking up toys (not unusual in our house)…
  3. Tell the child, slightly more directly, to do the thing: “Joe, come and pick up the toys now.” Diane suggests physically getting into the kid’s space a bit at this point, and employing that very ‘I’m not fooling with you now’ eye contact and tone of voice that every parent knows so well.
  4. Count to ten in your head, and if Joe still hasn’t started picking up toys…
  5. Pick up Joe and take him straight to the designated time out room, and shut the door.
  6. After the allocated time out period has passed (and one minute per year of life is usually the golden rule), return to the time out room, open the door, and ask Joe if he’s ready to come and pick up the toys now.
  7. If he says no, shut the door again and wait another couple of minutes, and then repeat step 6. And keep repeating it until he says yes.
  8. If/when he says yes, take him back to the living room and tell him to get cracking. If he mucks around once he’s there, repeat step 5. Continue until the toys are picked up.
  9. Resist the urge to make a song and dance of the toys finally being picked up: say a simple ‘thank you’ and get on with your day. Children should NOT need a huge celebration to commemorate them fulfilling their parents’ basic wishes.

Now, this was revolutionary for me. We had been allowing ourselves to get so wound up by the kids’ disobedience before trying a time out, but with her approach the time from making the first request to actually putting the child in time out is around 30 seconds. Her rationale for this is simple: kids decide almost instantly whether they’re going to obey you. They don’t need five minutes to weigh up the options – their gut response will either be ‘yep, fair enough’ or ‘nope, nice try Mummy’. Allowing your blood pressure to creep upwards while a disobedient child strings you along is an exercise in futility. And to borrow a ruling strategy from Nigel Latta, my other favourite Kiwi parenting guru, you don’t want to make their problem (the need to pick up toys) your problem (you getting annoyed, or you giving in and picking up the toys yourself).

I later bought a copy of Diane’s great parenting book Of course I love you… now go to your room!, which has advice for dealing with children up to the teenaged years. It’s easily the best book of its kind that I’ve read. Her approach is the closest I’ve found to what was pretty much seen as normal parenting when I was growing up. Here’s a link to buy a hard copy of the book, and here’s a Kindle version. And if you’re in New Zealand you might be lucky, like me, and find it for sale in a charity shop.

Like anything, some great ideas need tweaking to better meet your own situation, so I freely adapted Diane’s approach slightly. I inserted a ‘warning’ stage in between step 4 and step 5, where I say “If you don’t get started by the time I count to ten, you’re going to time out”, which was effective when the kids were two. Now, as rebellious three year olds I’m finding that they’re taking the mickey out of this particular adaptation: endlessly waiting until I’m at “nine” before acting. So I’ve largely cut out that stage.

The other change I made concerned what was said on the way to time out, in step 5. Diane advocates no lecturing – it doesn’t make any difference to the kid, and it just ends up with you venting – and no talking at all (she believes that the child already knows what they’ve done), but I’ve preferred to say a very brief sentence during the wall to the bedroom: “Joe, you’re going into time out because you wouldn’t help to pick up the toys”. Because we started this when they were two, I wanted to be crystal clear that they could link cause and effect.

The process above is designed for disobedience, and not for full-scale naughtiness that requires instant intervention. Every family will have their own list of capital crimes – ours includes any physical contact (and not much else, really, as we’ve been fortunate that the kids don’t bite or anything like that). In the case of a heinous offence it’s an instant time out, with no warnings given, but with the same explanatory sentence on the way. Hattie had two of these today, once for giving Tristan a smack and once for kicking me. In my opinion you’re mad if you don’t react to that kind of thing with a swift response – and when she was sufficiently contrite she had to return and apologise (we now tend to make them apologise after naughtiness-related time outs as well).

Diane’s approach, with my customisations, has done wonders for us, and the wheels really only fall off our parental wagon when we mistakenly relax and don’t follow it. Sometimes we have to visit the child a few times in their room before they’re ready to rejoin polite society, but that’s OK: Joe was determined that he didn’t want to brush his teeth this morning, and I think I opened his door, asked him if he wanted to brush them, and then shut the door again four times before he agreed that he was really to do it – I gave him a cuddle, took him to the bathroom, and brushed his teeth, and then we got on with our morning.

The reason that this approach works is that you just don’t have time to get cross and frustrated. It is so easy to stay calm when you’re not being eyeballed by a stubborn, non-compliant child. I honestly don’t think I had much of a quick temper until six months or so ago, but now I’m quite alarmed at how quickly I can seemingly boil over. It’s like I will be able to tolerate something for a while – like, “I’m fine… I’m fine… I’m fine… I’m fine…” – and then suddenly I’m raging and shouting. And that is not the kind of parent I want to be, under any circumstances. I am not a shouty person as a general rule, and I’ve spent most of my life viewing people who shout and rage as slightly ridiculous, since they seemed so out of control. And the thing that really bothers me about it is that I sometimes can’t actually feel myself getting annoyed – I can go from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye.

And that brings me to the “and other strategies” part of this blog post. Because time outs are great, but they’re not always appropriate: I’m thinking of the endless, continuous (with my kids, anyway) times when children are just being bloody annoying. Things like endlessly fidgeting while you’re trying to brush their hair and refusing to listen to you when you ask them to sit still, to give you a recent example (which did end up in me losing my cool). I had one very rotten day a couple of weeks ago (it began with the hair episode and got worse), and I was so miserable and upset that evening when I reflected on my ‘performance’ as a parent. The thing that struck me was that, from Hattie’s perspective, I was largely putting up with her fidgeting, tacitly allowing her to do it, until the point when I was suddenly furious with her. Such mixed messages for a three year old to process, and such parental guilt as a result (and I am not somebody who regularly feels much parental guilt, so this was big for me). It just made me realise that I had to change how I dealt with the minor annoyances that cumulatively have the potential to drive me mental. I mean, who could be cross with these two cuties, right?

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Ha!

My answer was to write myself the following strategy, and I’m very pleased to say that I’m following it with a good degree of success. And I did actually write it down, to formalise it, with the following title.

Strategies to avoid angry Mummy

  1. Morning routine: breakfast, then nappies, then choose clothes and get dressed, then brush teeth, then do Hattie’s hair – and no playing until those steps have all been covered. This is because getting organised in the morning was a frequent source of frustration when the children would muck around, particularly if we were due somewhere.
  2. Ask twice and then retire – to another room, or to read my book. This is my ‘don’t let them get to me’ strategy. I realised that I can choose to get wound up, or I can give up temporarily and do something else until things have calmed down. I use this in conjunction with a breezy “Well, we can’t watch TV/go to the park/whatever until you’ve brushed your teeth/let me brush your hair/whatever, so let me know when you’re ready” statement. I’ve found that sitting and reading my book is the most effective approach, as something about me being there but not actually engaging with them tends to hit home, but if they’re really on the verge of pissing me off I will go to my room and chill out there for a while, with my door shut.
  3. Swift time outs for misbehaviour – as per Diane Levy’s approach, without the warning stage.
  4. Stick to the game plan for eating, TV privileges, etc. This is my ‘don’t confuse them by veering away from what we’ve said will happen’ strategy: things like “It’s fine if you don’t eat your dinner, but that’s all there is tonight and you don’t get anything else if you don’t eat it”, and “No, you’re not watching TV now, but you can watch it when I’m making dinner later”.
  5. Tristan to take the evening shift. I become a pretty crappy parent from 7.01pm, so wherever possible I send in Tristan to deal with any bedtime issues, like refusing to go sleep. He’s more patient than me in the evenings.
  6. Put myself into time out if necessary.

Of course, the best strategies in the world are sometimes no match for a couple of bright, sparky, determined three year olds. Today I think each child had at least seven time outs, for a whole host of misdemeanours. But I’m fine with that, because not once did I raise my voice or lose my temper – and all I can control is my own behaviour. And I know that I am pretty good at sticking to my guns, and it must literally be once in a blue moon where I can be talked around if I’ve said no to something, but the kids still try their luck (endlessly, it seems). Like I mentioned in my last blog post, at this age kids seem to have limitless reserves of mischief, and any opportunity to be contrary is eagerly embraced. I feel like I have to remind Hattie and Joe that I’m actually the one who decides stuff, and not them, several times a day. But I am confident that the penny will drop eventually. Hopefully before they’re ready to start university…

 

 

Don’t be that parent

After three years of this parenting gig I’ve realised how lucky I am to have made so many lovely parent friends (entirely separate from my pre-existing lovely friends, who also happen to be parents). I knew that the odds were good that having children would increase my social circle, and the twin mum solidarity thing was also a good bonding element, but having children the same age as somebody else obviously isn’t enough to form the basis of a proper friendship. But I have been extremely fortunate: Hattie and Joe arrived at roughly the same time as many other sets of twins in our part of Auckland, and several of their mothers were the kind of awesome people that I would have loved to have as friends pre-kids as well. So now the kids have all become mates, and the mums and I organise a lot of play dates so we can have excuses to catch up with each other (and also some child-free catch-ups when we can manage it, because you sometimes need to drink more wine than is socially acceptable on a weekday afternoon). The kids’ third birthday party extravaganza involved ten sets of twin friends, plus two older siblings.

So yes, I’ve been very lucky. But having this circle of supportive, witty, kind, thoughtful friends has made me aware of the people who aren’t always as helpful. I’ve broken them down into three categories.

1. People with strong opinions about children’s behaviour and how parents should manage it, despite not being parents themselves.

The people in this group aren’t parents, which makes a bit of a mockery of the title of this essay, but that’s just the kind of rule-breaker I am.

I’m quite sure that every single person in the developed world has made at least one disparaging comment about parents and children before being parents themselves, usually after witnessing a public tantrum or seeing a kid running amok in a restaurant. I know that I was a bloody awesome and highly knowledgeable would-be parent. Of course, those of us who go on to have our own kids rapidly realise that occasionally seeing how our nieces, nephews, or friends’ kids behave is absolutely no substitute for being a parent ourselves. Those of us with any self-awareness blush inwardly at the thought of the stupid things we used to think (and say, although hopefully not to actual parents, who must have really laughed at us in private). Long story short: you can obviously have all of the opinions you like about how children should be parented, but regardless of your experience as a nanny, teacher, aunt, or anything else, if you haven’t actually raised a child yourself you only know around 1% of what’s involved.

2. Parents of older children who endlessly tell you “you think that’s bad – wait until your kid hits the [whatever horrors await] stage!”.

This is a common affliction amongst some parents: the urge to supposedly reassure a parent who is struggling with their child’s current stage by telling them that said current stage is actually no big deal compared with the much more awful stages that lie ahead. I definitely had a few people who pulled this trick on me, particularly in the early days. It’s a response that I will never understand. If, for example, I’m finding the newborn stage really scary, challenging, and exhausting, how is it helpful to tell me that future stages will be even worse? It does nothing to minimise my current struggles, or make me feel understood or supported. It just makes a struggling parent feel like there’s nothing but bad times, now and later, and that’s not good for a person’s mental health.

I’m sure that all parents have a wry smile at some of the things that people who are less far down the parenting track than them say (or post about). I’ll certainly own up to having a wee chuckle recently, when a new twin mum posted on our multiple birth club’s page about how her two day old babies were so good and well behaved. But in my opinion telling somebody who is being driven crazy by their four month old’s sleep regression that the toddler stage is even worse is just unkind. See also: telling parents of tantrum-throwing two year olds that they don’t know bad behaviour until they’ve dealt with three year olds; and telling parents of three year olds that the cheekiness and deliberate naughtiness is nothing on the high jinks of four year olds; and telling parents of smart-mouthed four year olds that they’ve never seen an attitude like they can expect to see when their kids start school; and telling parents of contrary primary school-aged kids that their hair will curl at the antics of teenagers.

The moral of this particular story: parenting is hard, at every stage – not all the time, obviously, but each stage presents unique challenges. A parent who has the courage to actually admit to finding things difficult should not get undermined by a barrage of comments that minimise their current struggles. If you’re a parent with a wee bit of empathy and you remember what it was like when your kids were at that stage, try just saying something like “Oh yes, I remember those days and they were hard. You’re doing a great job – hang in there” – or similarly trite but comforting remarks. It’s all that parents want to hear. You may be well aware that the next stage will make the current stage seem like a day at the races but please, keep this privileged information to yourself. And if you have good, sensible, concrete suggestions to make a parent’s life easier as they grapple with tantrums, cheekiness, big bed partying, or whatever, share them.

(And a subset of this group is the parents of twins or triplets who like to disparage people with ‘only’ one child, whenever said parents of singletons find things difficult. I know that all parents of multiples do this occasionally – I certainly have – but it’s a dickhead move. Everybody is entitled to find life as a parent difficult. Yes, having two or three kids at once is obviously more challenging than dealing with just one child at a time, but the parents of singletons are still allowed to find things challenging. We don’t have the monopoly on tough parenting times. And I’d argue that some singleton kids that I’ve met appear to be infinitely more formidable than my two healthy, happy, bright children combined.)

3. Parents of younger children who think that they know where you’re going wrong with your (older) kids.

This final group is the flip side of the previous group. It’s also, probably, made up of people who were very strong members of the first group, and who haven’t yet developed sufficient humility after becoming parents to recognise that you’re a fool to think that you know much about parental stuff that you haven’t yet experienced.

I know that all parents are guilty of this kind of thing occasionally, but it’s the repeat offenders who really annoy me. Forgive me for being blunt: If you have a young baby, you know NOTHING about what it’s like to have a toddler. If you have a young toddler, you know NOTHING about what it’s like to deal with a preschooler. If you have a preschooler, you know NOTHING about what it’s like to deal with an older kid. I’m sure that you get the idea. When the parent of, say, a sweet little 17 month old who has the occasional stroppy five minutes tells me that they just sternly tell the child “No!” and that this stops the ‘tantrum’, all it does is make me fervently pray that their child turns around one day in a public place and has an absolute meltdown. And then does it again. And again.

The difference between the kind of tantrum that a young toddler has and the kind of apparent psychotic break that an older toddler or a preschooler can go through is the difference between night and day. Younger toddlers who throw tantrums are ruled by frustration and emotion, and a lot can be cured with a cuddle (I learned this the hard way, with Hattie as my fiery daughter). Older toddlers and preschoolers who throw tantrums fuel their breakdowns with frustration, emotion, manipulation, naked bids for attention, and a whole host of other elements that serve as kindling to a bushfire (as I continue to learn the hard way, with both Hattie and Joe). Dealing with this kind of tantrum is utterly exhausting, and getting judgemental ‘helpful’ comments from people who haven’t yet dealt with it themselves is not appreciated. Children don’t throw tantrums because their parents are crap. Children throw tantrums because they’re children. If your child is only a baby, you just don’t know what it’s like.

So those of us with children older than your children will do you a deal: we won’t try to terrify you about the bad behaviour that you might have in store for you, if you stop telling us how to deal with something that you don’t know anything about. OK?

(A subset of this group, which I’ve thankfully only encountered very occasionally, is the parents of singletons who really don’t believe that dealing with multiples is more difficult than what they’ve handled – and I’m talking about parents of perfectly healthy children here. Basically, I think these people lack imagination and empathy.)

Let’s break up this negativity with a cute photo.

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So that’s it: my diatribe about people who annoy me. Can you tell that I’ve been bottling this up for a while? I could have included a fourth group: older people who have totally forgotten about what it’s like to deal with small children, and who like to tut, shake their heads, or (if you have the misfortune to be related to them) tell you where you’re going wrong. But there’s no need to go into that, as I think we can all agree that they’re halfwits.

Hello again…

I can’t believe that it’s been so long since I regularly updated this blog! It’s enabled me to pretty much gloss over the toddler years – on reflection, you’ve only really missed a lot of complaining, so it’s probably for the best.

We’ve now got two crazy three year olds! Proper threenagers (chronologically they’re three, emotionally they’re often like 13 year olds). Living with a couple of three year olds is a lot like dealing with really drunk people when you’re sober – one minute it’s all laughing and good times, and in the blink of an eye everybody is crying and the world has almost ended. But the kids are fantastic. So funny, so sweet, and such great friends.

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Anyway, I’m intending to write updates a couple of times a week from now on. This plan is despite my three week countdown to a full time uni course load, but I’m as determined to do this as Hattie is determined to never eat a vegetable (we’re talking iron will, in other words). There are so many things to write about! And I have many long bus rides to and from uni ahead of me this year.

 

Two years and eight months

I’ve just updated the Hattie and Joe page with a new picture. Here’s the shot and the ones that followed it – needless to say I had no chance of getting the monkey in on the act before the two of them were off and running…

  
  
   
 

Manners

I always knew that I’d be a stickler for good manners as a parent. In my opinion parents don’t make life easy for their kids if they choose not to worry about things like saying please and thank you – everybody seems to respond better to people who automatically know how to be courteous. And I realised late last year that, by emphasising the importance of good manners from young toddlerhood, Hattie and Joe would never remember a time when they didn’t know that you always say please when asking for something, or thank you when receiving something.

Of course they’re only little kids and teaching this kind of habit is a slow process: we still have this kind of exchange several times a day…

Child: “I want milk!”

Adult: [silence; or a querying look; or a reminder about needing to ask in a nice voice, using nice words]

Child: “Please could I have a drink of milk please Mummy!” (This double please thing is their own convention)

Sometimes they get it right first time, which is great. And they’re given absolutely nothing until they’ve asked nicely. The same rules apply with saying thank you, although they’re very good at saying that unprompted nearly every time. Tristan, Nikita, and I all handle the please and thank you thing in the same way, and I’m sure that the consistency has helped a lot.

However, I am quite sure that our approach of never letting the kids get away with not using their manners probably looks like a whole lot of nagging to some people, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it might even elicit some eye-rolls from other adults who witness it and secretly think “For God’s sake, the kid is two, and one missed ‘please’ isn’t the end of the world”. And that would be a fair enough attitude. I know that me thinking something is important isn’t the same as it necessarily BEING important, and other people may emphasise other behavioural elements of childrearing that I’m probably totally neglecting. I also know that most kids will develop decent manners in the fullness of time, if only because they’ll realise that life is far easier if other people like dealing with you. I guess I’m just trying to shortcut that process for Hattie and Joe. And when we do feel the need to remind them of how to ask nicely, or the importance of saying thank you, we don’t do it in any kind of angry way – we know that they’re just little and are still learning everything. But that’s what I see as my job: teaching them how to function in the world, and, for me, understanding the importance of good manners is one of the fundamental elements of knowing how to play nicely with others.

We also emphasise and recognise other courteous behaviour, like making sure that we acknowledge kind behaviour like sharing, taking turns, voluntarily doing nice things for others, and generally just being lovely:

The next big good manners challenge ahead of us involves teaching the importance of replying when people say hello. I don’t expect a great dialogue, but if they’re with me and somebody greets them, they should say hello back, even if they don’t say anything else to that person. This is proving to be a much tougher nut to crack than the whole please/thank you thing, even with people that they know really well.

Another courtesy-related issue we face involves Joe’s occasional tendency to declare a wholly irrational dislike of somebody, often before he’s even met them, and then demonstrate his feelings by glowering at them when he sees them. Combatting that is a work in progress!

There was an interesting conversation recently in a Facebook group to which I belong – a heated discussion about whether it’s a big deal if children use swear words, and whether parents do anything to manage their children’s exposure to ‘bad language’. Now, I swear like a drunken sailor on shore leave whenever I’m not around the kids, as anybody who has ever spent time with my on campus, or seen me after a glass of wine, can testify. However, I work very hard to moderate my language around the kids, and I honestly don’t think that I have sworn in front of them more than a tiny number of times. My confidence regarding this comes from the fact that neither of them have said a swear word – and they are total parrots, particularly with regard to my use of language, so if I was cursing around them, they’d be cursing as well. My reason for this is simple: I think it takes an adult’s maturity to understand when it is appropriate (or not inappropriate) to swear, and when it is just inappropriate. I know, for example, that my 18 year old class mates or my twin mum friends finishing a bottle of wine with me won’t turn a hair if I swear, but I also know that my 60-something lecturer might not feel comfortable with swearing, so I moderate my tone depending on my audience. It’s the basic reason why swearing in public has traditionally been beyond the pale, I think: you don’t know the sensitivities of the listening audience, and it’s not good manners to risk offending people. In my opinion children lack the maturity to understand when it might or might not be inappropriate to swear, and so the best strategy is for them to not be around the language and, if they do hear it, make them realise that it’s only something that grownups say. So I have asked people in my house not to swear, and I’ll continue to do so if they kids are still up. After 7pm you can say what you want, of course!

Despite some ongoing challenges, I feel pretty happy that we’re raising two little people who are going to have sufficient knowledge of social graces to function well in the world. And we’ve had one good breakthrough this week: both kids have recognised the importance of saying “excuse me” if they fart in public. Winning!

Little big kids

Check out the size of these kids of ours now!

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Unfortunately the monthly monkey shots have fallen off the schedule in recent months, largely because of my occasionally uncooperative models. However, I’ve updated the kids’ monthly photo page with shots taken on or near to the 16th of every month. Enjoy!

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