In my workshops, I love to recommend books. I also frequently get emails asking for book recommendations–both for kids and parents. If I had to pare down the options to just 5, this is what I would choose.
My 7 year old asked me this question not too long ago. It took me a minute to understand what she was saying—her pronunciation was ‘creative,’ plus the topic took me by surprise. But once I figured it out, I was both sad and grateful to her for asking the question.
I told her that yes, I had seen segregation as a child. I grew up in rural Louisiana, which in the 80s was very segregated. I told her my strongest childhood memory of segregation—how the doctor’s office that we went to had two waiting rooms, but patients separated by race instead of sick & well. Sadly, I had many more stories of segregated spaces to share: my high school lunch room, every church I’ve ever been in, and every neighborhood I’ve ever lived in.
Like most of the white progressive families I know, my unconscious default is to not talk about race. I was certainly brought up to believe that doing so is extremely impolite. It’s really only in the last few years that I’ve begun to challenge that for myself and with my family. As I see it now, though, it’s not impolite, it is crucial.
Research over the years has demonstrated clearly that even very young children notice racial differences, and all humans are susceptible to what’s known as “in group bias.” In-group bias is that hard-wired tendency to prefer people who are like us in some way, and to make decisions and value judgements based on whether someone is in our group or not. I think these two findings make a very, very strong case for the importance of talking with kids about race.
So how do you do that?
Well, sometimes your kid makes it easy and asks a question, or, less comfortably, you might also hear your child saying something that reflects bias. Either of those two situations is a perfect “talkable” moment for conversation. You can prompt good conversations, too—using daily life situations to point out issues related to race and social justice. For example, when you spot (or suspect) white privilege moments, observed segregation, or stereotypes in the media.
It’s also important for parents (especially white parents) to do their own work here. How can/should we grow personally in our own awareness of (and work against) racial injustice? How segregated is your daily life? Can you change that? Watch your inner voice and reactions through a racial filter—can you catch yourself (even inadvertently) revisiting old racist stereotypes? Can you self-talk out of some of those reactions?
The thing I keep coming back to is the reminder that we DO need to talk about race with our kids. We need to help our kids be aware that racism is both “out there” and “in here.” We need to expand our relationships and experiences to include increasing diversity. We need to role model and encourage empathy and critical thinking, and the kind of moral development that is always working towards equality and justice.
We can and should do this work.
If you’re interested in learning more about talking with kids about race, including what sorts of conversation and lessons are appropriate for which ages, consider joining the webinar I’m co-presenting this Friday.
Recommended books about sex for kids
What’s the Big Secret is my recommendation for any age. It talks about pregnancy, sex, relationships, good touch, and privacy. Toddlers in the potty-training years especially find the page with the boy & girl peeing quite interesting.
It’s So Amazing is my recommendation for an older child, one who already knows some information and is now ready for more depth. The reading level in this book is upper elementary.
My favorite puberty book for girls is “The Care and Keeping of You.” This is part of the American Girl series, and there’s a second Care and Keeping of You, a Feelings book, and several more. They are all good. The first “Care and Keeping of You” has great information about puberty, but does not include any information about reproduction.
A good puberty book for boys is “The Boys Body Book.” One note about this book–it does use heteronormative language to talk about romantic feelings/attraction. (ie, it tells boys you might find yourself looking at girls a little differently.) That’s exclusive language and it’s my one big complaint about this book.
And for parents, I recommend
From Diapers to Dating. It’s a reference source and guide for all sorts of information about children and sexuality and development. The author is a minister, interestingly, and does address how to share your family values about sexuality with your kids as well.
There are many other good books, but these are my favorites. Happy Reading!
This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive compensation if you click the links and then buy. (and if you do, thanks!)
Imagine that interactions about behavior in your parenting life can be neatly divided in to two categories of situations. Overly simplistic, yes, but work with me here for a minute. Depending on the category, I propose that two distinct types of situations, goals, and behavior management strategies apply. And, knowing which category you are dealing with (and keeping an eye for how much time you spend in each one) is an excellent asset for parenting well.
Category 1: Finish Line Parenting
Finish Line Parenting is what 99% of us were employing this morning at 7:30am. In my house, weekdays at 7:30am during the school year often look about the same. PUT ON YOUR SHOES! WHERE IS YOUR BACKPACK? HERE’S YOUR LUNCH! ACCCKK HURRY UP! I might not be actually yelling, but I am often wound up a bit and/or micro-managing, Worse, there are the days when the usual techniques aren’t working, and parents feel like the only way they are going to get their child out the door in time is to use bribes, threats, yelling, consequences, etc.
I call these situations “Finish Line Parenting” situations, because in those moments, our priorities are about an outcome, ie the ‘finish line.’ The finish line might be getting to school before the tardy bell, hustling a tantruming child away from judging eyes, or getting your child to back away from a busy street curb, but your primary goal for that moment is about achieving something external IN that moment.
When parents have short-term goals, and a child’s participation is necessary for success, there is a potential for conflict. If our child doesn’t just happen to feel like doing whatever it is that we want them to do, and we don’t think that the goal should be postponed or discarded, we are left with a situation where the only way to achieve our goals is to make another person to do what we want. The techniques for doing that are generally techniques that use power, like the above named yelling, bribes, threats, etc. Our focus on a short-term result, when combined with our child’s non-agreement, means that we will likely need to use our power in order to control our child. This, while necessary at times, is a parenting technique that comes with some less desirable side effects.
Think about a time when you felt like someone didn’t care about what you wanted, but rather only their own opinions & priorities. I’d wager that it felt bad to you, and our kids are no different. Overused power and control techniques tend to result in lower relationship closeness, increased deceit, and more power struggling.
Now, having said all that, I will also strongly say that I don’t think it’s possible to parent without doing this some of the time. Children, by definition, are immature and unable to always make decisions based on long-term health and well-being. Part of our job as parents is to make them do things even if they don’t want to. So, don’t read this like I’m saying that Finish Line Parenting techniques are bad. They aren’t bad, they are just better when used thoughtfully and sparingly. Our goal should be to limit their use, and look for situations where we can pull tools from the other category.
Category 2: Growth Parenting
Growth Parenting moments are those when we can choose to opt out of our otherwise goal-directed activity, and let our child’s preferences or needs take priority. Growth parenting techniques vary widely, but typically involve lots of calm energy, patience, and good boundaries, and sometimes also include physical calming, playfulness, reflection, validation, and parental time-outs. Growth parenting lets the child’s needs set the timeline. Growth Parenting techniques are flexible and responsive to the situation, and especially to the needs of the child.
Growth parenting techniques are what we are employing when, for example, we see our child struggling with something, and we think twice about intervening. Growth parenting is when we see our child getting more and more upset because they didn’t get the thing they wanted, and we take a deep breath, stay present but not over-involved, and let them wrestle with those difficult feelings in an age-appropriately independent manner. Growth parenting is when we offer calm connection during hard times, and wait until later to handle needed feedback or reparations.
Growth parenting is when the trip to Target you thought you were about to take gets set aside because you realize that the priority is now giving your child a chance to practice tolerating some uncomfortable emotion. This is no longer Target-shopping time on your calendar. Target can wait. Your new agenda item for 2pm is “Let my child practice feeling and tolerating and managing difficult emotions.”
Growth Parenting techniques can challenge us–it’s hard sometimes to stay calm when your child is escalating and not being cooperative. The effort pays off, though, because these moments facilitate long-term growth and maturity for our children, particularly around the critical skills of tolerating and managing difficult emotions. The other payoff–these techniques strengthen our relationships.
Telling them apart
Last thought– improving our ability to differentiate between growth and finish line parenting moments is really where the rubber meets the road. When I can see that a moment isn’t a finish line parenting moment, it instantly steers me towards a way of being with my child that is inherently de-escalating.
If you’d like to put this in to practice, identify 2-3 moments recently where you parented as though it was a finish line moment, but can now see that it did not have to be. Once we begin to identify them in real time, there is freedom and connectedness in those moments.
Think of a time recently when your child was upset, maybe really upset. What he was upset about wasn’t a major life loss, or a safety issue. Rather, he was just very displeased about something, for example, he wanted the green one instead of the yellow one. Or he was really excited about going to the museum but you just found out that it’s closed. Or you promised to bring him something from your trip but you sadly forgot. Really, the situations that can cause upset are limitless—the key component is that your child is upset, and you’ve tried and been unsuccessful at talking things through. You may or may not care deeply about your child’s complaint, but you definitely care about them, and you have tried to help them calm down, but your reason, logic, reassurance, perspective or compromise offerings haven’t been successful. So what’s left?
60-40-0. Use this equation as a guide for how you are going to interact for the next few minutes. (*) Take a deep breath (always a good idea in most any parenting situation) and begin to nonverbally send a message that 60% of your energy is compassion. Allow your body to slump a little. Put a compassionate expression on your face. Mine includes knitting my eyebrows together and poking my lips out a little with a slight downturn—but you do what’s normal for you. It’s generally better not to speak, but if you must, make little noncommittal mmm-mmms and the like. I often find that I tip my head to one side and nod as well. Spend a moment channeling compassion towards your child for the emotions that they are feeling.
After the first few seconds of channeling compassion, make sure that your non-verbal communication demonstrates that 40% of your energy is… bored. Yes, bored. You’re mostly compassionate, but really, you are also pretty bored with this tantrum, these behaviors, this fit… the Gene Wilder/Willy Wonka meme above isn’t quite perfect, but hopefully you get the drift. Your level of interest in the fit starts to decrease steadily. To be clear, don’t express snark, provocation, or teasing, as those will totally backfire. Just… don’t be super interested.
And the last bit of your energy—precisely 0%, is “not getting sucked in.” Your child is having this tantrum. It’s his. The feelings that provoked the tantrum? Also his. You have tried to help him, but he wasn’t ready or able to accept the help. So… your job is to be compassionately present, while not letting his feelings nor his management of those feelings trigger you to react with your own emotions. (**)
* If the tantrums are not measured in minutes, please consider individualized advice from a professional—an article isn’t enough support.
** It’s okay to move in and out of “presence,” too, for example after a couple of minutes you might say “I can tell you are really feeling upset about this. I’m sorry it’s so hard. I’m going to step out of here for a minute but will come back to check on you shortly.”
Although Gavin de Becker’s book Protecting the Gift is a most uncomfortable read, I recommend it to parents whenever discussions of child safety come up. One of the many practical pieces of advice is how to tell when your child is ready to be left alone–ready to play a major role in assuring their own safety. Can you answer yes to all of the questions below?
The Test of Twelve
- Does your child know how to honor his feelings? If someone makes him uncomfortable, that’s an important signal.
- Are you as the parent strong enough to hear about any experience your child has had, no matter how unpleasant?
- Does your child know it’s okay to rebuff and defy adults?
- Does your child know it’s okay to be assertive?
- Does your child know how to ask for assistance or help?
- Does your child know how to choose who to ask? For example, he should look for a woman to help him.
- Does your child know how to describe his peril?
- Does your child know it’s okay to strike, even to injure, someone if he believes he is in danger, and that you’ll support any action he takes as a result of feeling uncomfortable or afraid?
- Does your child know it’s okay to make noise, to scream, to yell, to run?
- Does your child know that if someone ever tries to force him to go somewhere, what he screams should include, ”This is not my father”? Onlookers seeing a child scream or even struggle are likely to assume the adult is a parent.
- Does your child know that if someone says, ”Don’t yell,” the thing to do is yell? The corollary is if someone says, ”Don’t tell,” the thing to do is tell.
- Does your child know to fully resist ever going anywhere out of public view with someone he doesn’t know, and particularly to resist going anywhere with someone who tries to persuade him?
Like ice cream comes in different flavors, I, too, come in different versions of myself.
When I have slept well and enough, eaten healthfully, gotten exercise and happy time with loved ones, and don’t have big worries hanging over my head, I am generally a good version of myself. I’m more patient and peaceful, I laugh more, care less about small stuff, and am more generous with myself and those around me.
However, when those conditions aren’t met, I am more likely to be the grouchy version, or the inflexible version, or the anxious version of myself. Those traits (grouchiness, inflexibility, anxiety) are always in me, but when I am at my best, they just don’t show up in quantities that are a problem. But when I’m not at my best, my unique human imperfections are more evident, more frequent, and more annoying to those around me (so I’m told. ;^) )
Each of us has a unique set of human imperfections, but the size and severity of those traits are always affected by our overall wellness. For this reason, when parents focus on their child’s problem behaviors, it is sometimes more helpful to steer them towards ways to help that child be the best possible version of themselves.
If you have noticed that your child is exhibiting more unwanted traits lately, start addressing the problem by focusing on general well-being first. How is sleep? Healthy foods, exercise, drinking water? Would they benefit from some extra connection time with you? How is school? What might be stressing your child out? Are they sad or worried about something?
If we can reduce the stressors (whether physical, situational, relational, or psychological) we’ll also likely trigger the happy side effect of reducing the unwanted behaviors. So the next time you aren’t pleased with certain behaviors, remind yourself to also focus on increasing your child’s overall wellness. Bringing out the best version of your child (or yourself) is a wonderful way to get back to the smoother, happier path.
The Arc of the Tantrum video has been hugely popular, so I’ve made another one. This one is on a topic I speak about in various ways all the time: Behavior is Communication. Click below for 2 minutes and 38 seconds’ worth of coaching on understanding your child’s misbehavior. (and see directly below for a rudimentary transcript.)
Behavior is Communication, notes from the video:
- Imagine that your child’s misbehavior is a misguided attempt at fulfilling an unmet need.
- A few examples of typical unmet needs: power, attention, overwhelm, intense engagement. (Intense engagement: that extra level of attention children need from us, and they can get it from us in positive or negative ways, ie: “OH! I’m SO proud of you!” versus “WHAT are you DOING!?”) They want the positive intensity, and of course it’s healthier, but they will settle for the negative because kids desperately need doses of that intensity from their parents.
- We can learn to translate our kids’ misbehavior—translate what you see them doing, and see if you can identify what the unmet need is that drives that behavior—what’s underneath it, behind it, driving that misbehavior. This frees you up to respond to the need behind the misbehavior, instead of simply reacting to that behavior.
- When parents can identify the unmet need, we can (a) help them get their needs met better, and (b) minimize the unwanted behavior without having to resort to control or punishment techniques, which makes the parent-child relationship a little easier, smoother, and better.
- So that’s that: behavior as communication: learn to translate your child’s behaviors, identify potential unmet needs, and respond to those needs instead of the (symptomatic) behavior.
My house is quiet. I have a pot of stew on the stove that will feed my husband and me suppers most of the week. All the laundry is clean and put away and I’ve had an hour to play on the computer with no particular purpose. When I finish writing this essay I will read myself to sleep. I’ve talked to both grown daughters and had a happy IM conversation with a grand daughter this evening. As much as is possible in an uncertain world, I feel happy about where they are in their lives and unworried about their well-being. There is no crisis. No urgency.
I remember when the pace of my life was very different, so fast I could barely stop for breath between the needs for homework help, listening, limits, dance tights without a rip in the toe, decisions about everything every minute, and dishes that piled up dirty as soon as they were washed. And there was my professional life, growing in fits and starts. the idea of “life work balance” made me laugh. One afternoon during that crazy time, my girls and I walked up the hill to the library and I found a book which gave me a story that let me catch my breath. It even predicted the calmer life I’m living now. I don’t remember the title of this book, but it was the story of the seasons on a mid western farm.
In the spring everything is fresh and hopeful and busy as the last of the snow melts and the family prepares the ground and plants the crops. They work hard in spring, but they play too. There is time to pick flowers for the table, sing over the dishes, admire a rainbow. Then summer comes and the urgency of work overwhelms the family. Everyone works from dawn to dusk, and has to. There is just so much to do to keep the crops growing, and there are no guarantees. A storm can destroy a crop in an afternoon. Or it might not rain at all. Uncertainty and urgency fill every heart and every moment. Finally, the heat begins to ease off. The first crop comes in, then the next. The family is able to enjoy its harvest, to rest on Sunday afternoon, to take time for board game at the table or a roll in the leaves. At last all the crops are in and the snow begins to fall. The days are short and the evenings long and quiet, and the family sits by the fire and mends tools worn down over the summer, tells stories from that busy season, and remembers.
That day at the library it hit me between the eyes that my young mother life phase was like summer on the farm. And like summer, it was just a season, to be negotiated as gracefully as possible, lived as wisely as possible. It was just a season, a hard, rich, fast paced season, which would pass. And it has. I’m in the middle of my autumn now, crops pretty much in, winter coming but not yet. I watch my daughters buy school supplies, fix lunches, worry about jobs, and I remember when that was me. Or I see a young mother in the grocery store with a toddler in full tantrum and an cart full of melting food and I want to tell her, “Summer is just a season. Summer passes. The harvest comes in.”
Victoria Hendricks is an author & therapist in central Austin, with a private practice specializing in individuals & couples. Victoria helped me get my start in private practice, and is a mentor to me still. I asked her to write today’s post after she told me this story in person (after a conversation in which it was obvious that I was feeling very “summery” (as I now think of it.) Victoria has been featured on this blog once before, on helping children grieve. If you’re interested in more from Victoria, you can call her work number: 512-458-2844, or email her at: seastarvsh AT aol DOT com.
Even though their bodies may look mature, a teenager’s brain is not. They don’t always have the skills or ability to use words to describe what is going on internally. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t done growing yet. That’s the part of the brain where we can see long-range consequences, for example—something that teenagers are famously bad at. But despite the fact that they aren’t fully “cooked” yet, teenagers still need plenty of opportunities to practice their developing independence. But the challenge is that your teenager probably isn’t going to tell you that they want and need that independence in ways that will inspire you to give it to them. Instead, teenagers are more likely to argue, defy, or jump without asking (or thinking.)
Whether they ask nicely or not, a parent who learns how to “translate” teenage behavior will be able to understand and respond in ways that are more effective and more loving. So here are three examples of typical teenage behavior, translated!
What your teenager is doing:
Eye rolling, shoulder shrugging, or giving one word answers: fine; dunno; whatever.
What it means:
“I need to feel less like a child. This kind of attitude/body language makes me feel more in charge and less under YOUR control. Plus, it puts space between us, which sometimes helps me to feel more grownup. But please don’t move away from me all the time because I still really need you. Sometimes this behavior is directly related to something that you are doing and sometimes it is not.
What they need:
Your teenager needs age-appropriate opportunities to feel in charge of his/her self, time, activities, choices, surroundings, and more. She or he needs to still have plenty of opportunities to be close to you, but also to have increasing control over how/when that happens. Your teenager needs to know that you really, really see that am changing and growing—and especially that they are capable and trustworthy.
What your teenager is doing:
Staying up too late on Facebook/Skype/texting.
What it means/what they need:
Teenagers are developing skills now that they will need their entire lives. Balancing multiple priorities is one of those important skills. Sleep is important, but social relationships are too. Your children will have to balance self-care and responsibility with fun and friends their whole lives. If you are trying to control them, or force them to adopt healthy habits, you may very well be standing in the way of the lessons they need to learn. Focus instead on helping them to tune in to their body’s signals for sleep and the consequences that come from ignoring those signals! Additionally, teenagers need you to give them the space now, when the stakes are somewhat limited, to experiment, fail, succeed, suffer consequences, and reap rewards. That’s how they will learn the lessons that will shape their future behavior into healthy habits. (and yes, they do still need some support and possibly reminders about healthy limits, and they definitely need consistent expectations whether or not they went to sleep on time.)
What your teenager is doing:
Wearing headphones All The Time. When we are out as a family together, my teenager walks at a distance from us, sits at a separate table, or just asks if for permission to do “x” all alone.
What it means/what they need:
This is actually very similar to #1. The difference is that this child is withdrawing in a less confrontative way, but the general meaning and need is the same. Teens need opportunities to be independent and to metaphorically stretch their own limits and identities. It’s very hard for them to do this, to feel bigger, when they are surrounded by their immediate family. (To illustrate—have you ever noticed yourself falling in to old roles when you go back home? It’s hard to not be who you used to be when surrounded by family.)
There are many, many different messages that our children’s behaviors can be sending, but the need for age-appropriate power and control are almost always an influence for teenagers.
*Photo cropped & reprinted under creative commons license from this source.