My grandson has been having nightmares, so I recently told him about dream-catchers. I also encouraged him to look his nightmares right in the eye and tell them loudly to go away. I explained that the reason the nightmares act so scary is because they’re afraid and must try hard to be courageous. They are confused and think that scaring us makes them more powerful. If we stand up and be fierce ourselves, they just go away because they are more afraid of us than we are of them. Later on, when he was afraid to go upstairs by himself, I made him stop and look all around at the darkened room. "Is there anything there," I asked. He took a few steps further, and I asked again. A few more steps and again came the same question. Each time, the answer was no. It was an "aha" moment.
There are many tricks to help children cope with the dark and their fears, but there is always some deep seated reason that they are afraid. When my second child was young, he suffered terribly from night terrors. He was afraid to go to bed and would wake up screaming in the middle of the night. His father and I tried everything. We talked to him about it. We did a sweep of his room. We burned sage and his dad even did a Native American inspired dance with a rattle, chanting as he went. We hung dream-catchers and had night lights. Nothing helped. No one was getting much sleep, and we were burning out fast.
I worked at The Albany Free School at the time, and we were hosting parent nights once a month at the school. A speaker would come each month to talk about parenting issues. One month we invited David Nevin, a prominent local child psychologist. After his presentation, we were invited to ask questions. My hand shot right up, and I asked about these nightmares. He explained that children are often afraid because they don't have clear and consistent limits. He asked about our rules at home. Then he asked if we both had the same rules and consequences and if we always followed through. Honestly, we both were pretty bad about limit setting at the time. I had come from a background of abuse with very strict rules and no room for me to be myself or even figure out who I was. I was determined not to repeat that pattern and was too lenient. My husband had come from an atmosphere of severe neglect, left to his own devices at a very early age and had no idea what limits were or how to go about enforcing them.
After that night, we had a meeting and decided on some simple rules with consequences attached. It was important that we both agreed on them because we both needed to enforce them. It wasn't easy at first but did get easier over time. And it worked. It was like a miracle. I remember being amazed at how quickly things changed. The theory behind this is that children depend on us to keep them safe. When we are not setting clear limits, they feel unsafe. When we are not consistent and make exceptions, they're not sure they can trust us. If we are always changing the rules or negating them, they feel crazy. I don't know why I didn't get that on my own.
During my childhood, the rules constantly changed. Sometimes it was okay to finish a game and come home a few minutes after being called in. Other times, it was a grave offense, punishable by a leather belt. Sometimes my parents made up a rule on the spot with no previous warning and, once again, this new broken rule called for a belt. I grew up afraid and distrusting of my parents. Not wanting to do that to my own children, I made them feel unsafe in other ways. Even now, it's not always easy, but I've learned that I don't have to be cruel to maintain some order. It's in my expectations, my posture, the look on my face and my tone of voice. Because I love children, I demand good behavior from them, often without having to say a word. It is a loving and compassionate thing to teach them limits. It will also help them if they become parents themselves.
Here are some links to DIY Dream Catchers. The first one is made from a paper plate. The second one is a traditional Native American design. Good luck!
My children and grandchildren often got their best naps outside in the fresh air.
In the last blog post, I asked you what topics you wanted me to cover. I want to thank you for all the responses I've received. They are all good suggestions, and I will get to every one. This week, I’ve been talking about lullabies in my Music Together classes. On Sunday, I finished writing a lullaby for my upcoming children’s CD and Tuesday night, I had an interesting conversation with my 14-year old granddaughter about lullabies. She told me that she went to a sleepover birthday party at a friend’s house then asked me, with an incredulous tone, if I could believe it that none of her friends at the party had ever been sung a lullaby. I told her that I did believe it and that it made me feel sad. She reassured me that she sang them to sleep that night and they all loved it. Then the very next day, I had a parent ask me to write about bedtime routines, which went right along with the recurring lullaby theme of the week. So, this week, the topic chose me.
Bedtimes for me were always about setting a mood. There was no rough housing before bed, though there was plenty of that earlier, so they were tired out. I kept my voice relaxed and low and often only turned on dimmer lights. I made sure they played outside or went for a walk at some time during the day, so they got fresh air every day. There were no sweet treats right before bed. If we had a late dinner, we would skip dessert altogether or have fruit or something else light. Warm milk always helps with sleep, even if there's a touch of cocoa in it, though I like vanilla and a drop of maple syrup. Although this theory has been debunked, most experts agree that the ritual of having a warm drink often induces sleep rather than the drink itself. My recipe is as follows.
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
a sprinkle of cocoa, if desired
Warm the milk in a small saucepan until slightly steaming but not simmering, add vanilla, maple syrup and cinnamon. Whisk until frothy. Or, heat in the microwave on full power for 1 minute and 30 seconds. Sprinkle cocoa on top, and serve warm.
The books I chose were low key and soothing. I often read bedtime themed books but never books that made them excitable. We read those during the day. If my children were having baths right before bed, they were low-key relaxing baths as opposed to the free-for-all bubble baths with exciting bath toys. And, I always sang to them. Sometimes I sang for a long time, other times I only sang one or two songs. I always left time for talking because the lullabies often led to amazing heartfelt conversations. Because they were so relaxed, all the worries, questions and thoughts that had come up during the day came out during lullaby time. This website has lyrics to a few popular lullabies.
Children often live in a magical world of imagination. I always encouraged this and tried to tap into that magical place. I talked with them about dreams, asked them what they had dreamed about when they woke in the morning and told them my dreams as they wiped away the sand the sandman had left in their eyes the night before. We often looked for signs of fairies who may have visited while we were asleep, and I explained that the fairies only came looking in on us after we were sleeping, just like Santa Claus. Our children are filled with wonder at everything around them because it’s all fresh and new. We need to use our imaginations to keep our routines fresh and new, too. I’m not talking about radically changing routines, but just adding a little spice now and then.
I raised my granddaughter for many years. I was already in my 50s when she came to live with me, and I got worn out quickly. One time, she was having a “terrible no-good day”. Nothing went right for her, and I was dealing with one meltdown after another all-day long. I had no idea how I was going to get her to settle down for bed. I suggested a bath, which was usually a winner, but she flatly refused and started in crying again. I walked away exasperated and noticed a few packages of glow sticks on a shelf. Suddenly, a lightbulb went off in my head. I ran a nice warm bath, floated all the glow sticks in the water, shut off the bathroom lights and invited her in. Within minutes she was happily floating in this magical watery wonderland, happy as a clam and went off to bed without a peep.
Sometimes we went outside to look at the stars and planets before bed. If it was cold, I’d wrap them up in blankets and we’d snuggle close in a lawn chair or on a sleeping bag on the ground while I pointed out constellations and told them stories about them. Sometimes they picked out their favorite star. We always wished on the first star of the night and looked for the man in the moon. And I had a song for everything, songs about the moon and the stars songs about bedtime and the sandman, songs about the nighttime sounds and nighttime creatures like owls.
If it was summertime, and they complained because they were going to bed while it was still light out, I recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson from "A Child's Garden of Verses" that my dad used to recite to me. Just as I remember all of the songs he sang to me when I was a child, I remember most of the poems, too.
Bed in Summer
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.
I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people's feet
Still going past me in the street.
And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?
No matter how late my children went to bed, we always snuggled, they were cozied up with lovies of some kind, whether it was their security blanket or a favorite stuffed animal, and I never insisted that they go to sleep. I even told my daughter, who always struggled with sleep, that she didn’t have to sleep, but she had to lie down quietly and rest. She could look at books or read for a short time on her own, then the lights went out, except for a small nightlight. She didn’t always fall asleep right away. She sometimes talked to herself or sang, but she mostly did it quietly and stayed in her bed. If she didn’t, she lost a privilege. Maybe it was star gazing the next night or fewer books at bedtime. Consistency was the key to that success. I had to follow up with whatever the designated consequence was the next night, with no exceptions. But basically, I gave them my time and my love in a relaxed way. If I felt rushed, they picked up on that right away and couldn’t relax. If I was relaxed and unhurried, they responded to that.
We all must figure out our own bedtime routines for our families. The important thing is to be flexible and fair but firm, to be fun and imaginative but not rowdy. Our children count on us to be the parents and set the limits and expectations. I always try to remember that we are the leaders of the pack. If we behave like benevolent leaders, our children will follow our lead.
All of us suffer disappointments from time to time. However, it can often seem devastating to a young child. Sometimes they have big disappointments and sometimes such minor ones, it often makes us wonder what is really wrong. They may have a huge meltdown over something as simple as the wrong kind of sandwich for lunch, or maybe you didn't cut it exactly right. There are times when, no matter what we do, they are going to be upset. Over the years, I've come to realize that sometimes we just need to cry, and we'll find any excuse to do it. I don't believe in that old saying, "There's no use crying over spilt milk." The release we get from crying always makes us feel better, and we're probably not really crying over the milk.
How many times have we asked our children what's wrong and not gotten a satisfactory answer? I can't even count the number of times I have. Often, they have no idea or just can't articulate it. Maybe that sandwich reminded them of something else. Maybe they're just having a bad day. In my experience, if you let them cry it out while you lovingly support them, they will come through the other side and have a wonderful rest of their day.
So, what about those big disappointments? We can do the same thing. Just hold them lovingly and let them cry it out. It's important to validate their feelings. There are some things we can't fix, and that can be frustrating for us as parents. But, we can still acknowledge the hurt our little ones feel when they are disappointed. It can also trigger something in ourselves, but it's so important to let them know they don't have to deal with it alone. Then, when it's over, be sure to do something for yourself - a cup of tea, a conversation with another parent, there are so many simple things available to us. It's not easy to remain calm when our little ones are melting down. It sometimes triggers old memories in ourselves that have been long buried. I've found that my own children and grandchildren kick up memories from when I was their current age. Some of those memories are not easy to look at. We bury them for a good reason. Children are brilliant and have finely tuned instincts. They are not too old to have had them dulled by society. They intuitively know what will rile us up, and have very little desire to avoid those triggers.
What if your child is having a tantrum in a public place? I've had to deal with that multiple times with my own children and children I was care taking. It is not easy an easy situation. The best thing to do is to try to stay calm and ease them out of it. If that doesn't work, remove them to a more private place. I had a 7-year old friend of my son throw himself on the ground screaming, at Hoffman's Playland in Latham, because it was time to leave and I wouldn't buy tickets for one more ride. I knelt down on the ground and tried to reason with him. He was much too big for me to lift up. When a security guard came over and started aggressively questioning me, I leaned down and whispered in this young boy's ear, gritting my teeth and putting as much authority in my voice as I could muster, "Get up now or I promise you, you will be very sorry." I said this very slowly with venom in my voice. It was probably not one of my finest moments, but it worked. He got up, assured the guard that he was with me and was fine, and we left. I did not yell at him on the way home because it was over. I didn't tell his mother because she would have yelled. He was like another son, spending lots of time at our house including many overnights, sometimes more than one at a time. I needed him to trust me, and I'd handled it. There was no need for further drama, and he never did it again.
There are no rule books, no owners manuals, no real guidance given to us when we have children. We have to figure things out as we go. I was lucky enough to have elders whom I trusted and could ask questions of. Not all of us have that. It is the hardest job anyone could do. We make lots of mistakes, but hopefully, our children survive those mistakes and go on to lead productive lives. I know mine did, and I was far from perfect.
Now, for some wintertime fun ...
If we get any more of that frigid cold we've been dealing with up here in the Northeast, you can do this outdoors. Otherwise, it works in your freezer. Just be sure not to let the bubble touch anything before freezing. Your kids will think it's magic.
And, when you go out to build a snowman, why make the same old thing? I've made caterpillars, dragons, snow women, tables and chairs and more. You can use food coloring or watered down paint to add a little flair. Notice in the last photo (the dragon) I used branches for wings and an old broken piece of a pinwheel for the fire coming out of its mouth. It's always fun to experiment, and don't forget to ask your children for ideas. They often have the best ones.
This topic is very close to my heart. I grew up in a family where we were surrounded by music. My dad came from a musical family and sang all the time. We sang in the car, around the dinner table at family events, and many of my mom and dad's friends were musicians. I was singing rounds, descants and harmony by the time I was three years old. I went on to indoctrinate my own children into a musical world as well. Their dad and I played in rock & roll bands, and they came to gigs with us. But, I also sang about everything, as my dad had. Now, I teach Music Together, teaching and encouraging other families to become musical. As far as I'm concerned, I couldn't have a better job.
In the past, communities came together to sing and dance. Families sang and played instruments together. They passed along their histories through songs. Even during the Alaskan Gold-rush in the late 1800s, when prospectors had to scale over high mountains and cross raging rivers carrying their belongings on their backs or on sleds, they brought whatever instruments they had to pass the evening hours. They even dismantled pianos and hauled the pieces over the treacherous terrain to erect dance halls in the "cities". And, people flocked to these dance halls. Actually, those were the establishments that made the most money during that time.
So, why is this? Music brings people together. It gives a temporary respite from hardships and soothes aching hearts. Music teaches history, makes workloads lighter and makes everything a little easier. We all have a constant rhythm beating inside of us as our hearts pump blood throughout our bodies. We connect with all other rhythms as well. But over time, some of us have lost our deep connection to the rhythms around us. We no longer have the need to make our own entertainment. We can play music on our stereo systems or on our phones. We can watch videos of concerts on the web. And, we are often forgetting about live music. Our children are born with an innate sense of rhythm. They automatically start to move to music. Even though they can't yet match the rhythms they are hearing, they have to move.
I learned early on that my life as a parent was much easier when I sang. I sang during diaper changes and made up songs about going on the potty during that transition from diapers. I sang my children into and out of their clothes, and I sang to get their attention. There are so many great songs out there that can be altered to fit your need. Today, I went to a preschool where the theme for the week is winter clothing. We did the "Hokey Pokey" with different outdoor clothing items: put your mittens in; put your mittens out; put your mittens in and shake them all about ... I also changed the words to "The Wheels on the Bus" singing, "The hat on my head it keeps me warm, keeps me warm, keeps me warm. The hat on my head it keeps me warm, all winter long." Don't you think that's a much easier way to convince your child to wear a hat than demanding and possibly entering into a power struggle?
There have certainly been times when I forgot the easy way and caused myself a lot of grief and more work. We will all do that sometimes. The moment overtakes us, maybe we're running late or have had a rough day. That's okay. The more we can remember to fill our lives with music, the easier it will get until it, hopefully, becomes second nature. I hear many parents worry about the lack of arts in schools now. I worry too, but I know that we can make up for that by including the arts in our home lives. Children learn by example. Why not model music making and dancing at home? What child doesn't like to dance with their parents? Not only did I love dancing with my parents, I loved seeing them dancing with each other. Then we are not only modeling music making, we are modeling love for each other, a wonderful thing for them to see. So how about having a family dance party tonight?
Here's a good start:
I'm often asked if I believe that the world is a more dangerous place for children today than it was for previous generations, and my answer is always the same. I don't believe it's more dangerous, but I do believe that young people are less equipped to deal with those dangers. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, I often went out in the morning, stopped back for lunch then went out again until dinner. I'd sometimes ride miles from home on my bicycle. We didn't have cell phones, and we didn't need them. There were always neighbors around, even on school days, and most families had a stay-at-home mom. My own mother worked part-time but scheduled her work for school hours or nights, when my dad was home. When my own children were young, rather than my pursuing a career outside of the home, their father and I decided that I would stay home with them. It was a huge financial struggle, but I value that precious time spent with them. Today, it's an even bigger struggle, and I understand that most families can't afford to do that.
Through no fault of any individuals, children find themselves with very little free time. A lot of them are in daycare or after-school programs until dinnertime. Some of them spend too much time in front of a screen so that adults can get chores done and prepare meals. We've also been convinced that our children are falling behind academically. As a result, they have very little playtime or free time in school to learn important socialization skills that can't be formally taught. Many of them also have a full schedule of extracurricular activities, leaving little time for reflection. They are kept so busy, they don't learn how to deal with boredom which can then become debilitating when they reach adulthood. Young children learn through unsupervised play. By playing with others, they learn to share and learn to compromise and problem-solve.
It's important for us as parents to help them learn how to function in the world. Notice that I didn't say teach them but instead chose to say "help them learn." It's not something that can be taught. We all learn from our mistakes, and so each of us needs to make those mistakes. Yes, we want to protect our children, but if we shelter them, they don't learn responsibility for their own safety. It makes me sad to think that we now have to make a concerted effort to do that, when once it just came naturally, a part of our everyday lives. So what can we do now? I think we need to let our children wander away from us a bit. Some of us live in safe neighborhoods where our children can find other kids to play with. We need to encourage gaggles of kids again. Maybe we need to be less fearful of families who may be different, have different rules, politics or ideals. Eventually, our children will choose for themselves who their friends will be. Why not let them experiment now? My granddaughter recently got herself in a bit of trouble by following questionable friends and learned valuable lessons from that. She then decided to move on to a different group of teens. It was minor trouble but a major life lesson. It's not easy to step back and let them flounder, but well worth it in the end.
In addition to the suggestions above, it's important to let our children make as many of their own decisions as we can. What harm is there in letting them choose what we may see as an outrageous outfit to wear for the day? It may not be what we would choose, but again, that's how they'll learn. We can also give them lots of choices. If we're going out somewhere and want them to look their best, we can say, "Which of these outfits would you like to wear?" That gives them the opportunity to make a decision that we're okay with. Another very important skill to be learned is being organized and neat. If you have a simple easily accessible place for shoes, coats and hats, you can expect your child to put their things away when they come in. They can also easily go retrieve those same things when it's time to go back out. They are very smart. If we constantly take care of the everyday things for them, such as hanging up their coats or helping them put them on, they will come to expect it and will soon be demanding it, when we no longer want to be in that role. Below is a video on a simple and fun way for toddlers to put their coats on. Children want to be independent but we often teach them dependence on us. It's easier and quicker to do things for them. If we can be patient, with praise and encouragement they will master these things and will feel confident and proud of their accomplishments.
If you'd like to explore this topic more, here are some helpful websites.