Monday, September 14, 2015

Muddling Through, the Parenting Edition

I mostly try to keep parenting stuff in perspective: people are amazing resilient and adaptable. I hate the hand-wringing, high stakes style of a lot of the things that get written about parenting. Relax, I think, a lot of this is out of your control, and we barely understand the stuff that is in our control. We're complex creatures, and it seems unlikely that any one parenting choice will make that much difference.

But... the sum of our parenting choices can make a huge difference. The hard part is that we don't know ahead of time which parenting choices are going to be the big ones.

A bunch of things have combined to make me think about this lately.

I'm reading Bob Sutton's book Good Boss, Bad Boss, which was a follow up to his famous book The No Asshole Rule. And I started to think about where assholes come from. I don't really think anyone is born an asshole. Or more accurately, we're all born assholes (really: newborns are the most self-centered and demanding creatures on the planet) but most of us grow out of it (mostly). So why do some people stay assholes? I suspect parenting has at least a little bit of a role in it. I don't think it is all down to parenting, and if you're still an asshole as an adult, I blame you, not your parents... but if I think about why some people are assholes, I think the answer is "no one taught them not to be," and parents have a big role in teaching their kids not to be assholes.

People like to make fun of the "touchy-feely" parenting approaches, but maybe they're reducing the number of assholes in the world. Or maybe they aren't. We don't really know. Still, I seriously doubt anyone sets out to raise an asshole, so there are probably some parenting choices that matter in this regard.

I also continue to think about the Patrick Blanchfield post about Sandy Hook and privilege that I linked to a few weeks ago. The part that is really sticking with me is the bit about how sometimes the "right" thing to do as a parent is help your kid learn to adapt to the world, rather than forcing the world to adapt to your kid. Of course, sometimes the world does need to adapt to the kid. Knowing which situation you're in is not as easy as I assumed it would be.

And let me tell you, these particular parenting stakes feel really high sometimes, even when you're faced with issues far less complex than what Nancy Lanza was dealing with.

Pumpkin is a wonderful, delightful child. All of her teachers and camp counselors tell us that. She has plenty of friends, and is happy at school. What more could I hope for?

Well, she's also a fairly sensitive kid. Sensitive isn't the right word, but I don't know what a better word would be. High strung is too pejorative, although I will confess to thinking of her as high strung at times. Emotional isn't quite right. Highly empathetic only partially covers it.

Anyway, she feels things strongly. She can get overwhelmed by her anxiety sometimes. She can't stand to watch most movies, because she's worried about the scary bits. "Scary bits" does not mean what you might think: they include most elements of plot. She really wants to go on the Ariel Under the Sea ride at Disney California Adventure, but is worried about the part with Ursula, and is now saying she won't go.

You get the idea.

How much do I shield her from the stuff that bothers her, and how much do I work with her to find ways to handle it? I feel no need to make her learn how to tolerate more movies, but then there's a little bit of rain on the way to school in the morning and she almost loses it over the prospect of having to watch movies instead of having recess, and I wonder if maybe we should be working on teaching her to like movies.

I want to help her find the confidence to risk more and explore more, without making her miserable in the short or long term, and without sending the message that there is something wrong with who she is.

How the hell do I do that? I have no idea. We muddle along, trying our best. Some days, I'm sure we're screwing up completely. Other days, I'm marginally more hopeful.

We have a similar issue with food. We all agree that it would be better if Pumpkin ate more things, Pumpkin included. But getting there is not as easy as you might think. There is a lot of great advice out there for parents of kids who have fairly normal picky eating issues, but less information for how to handle a kid like Pumpkin, who is really afraid of new things. I am sympathetic- I am not that dissimilar- but we're at the point where it is hard to plan a trip to Disneyland (for instance) because of issues with what she'll eat. She knows this, and feels bad about it, and that can start a truly unhelpful spiral of anxiety. So I've been working with her on strategies for finding things to eat when we're out and about. Am I getting them right? Should I instead take a "too bad, this is what we're eating" approach? I don't know. I really don't. I just know that letting her get hangry doesn't seem to do anyone any good, so we tend towards the "accommodate her quirks" side on this one.

We are working on learning to like scrambled eggs, though. I offered a reward for being willing to try something new once a week, and scrambled eggs are what she seems to want to try the most. Will this work? I don't know. All the usual advice says that offering a reward for trying new foods is a bad idea, but those people don't have to try to plan my family vacations and I've tried all the usual advice and it hasn't helped at all.

We are all the products of so many experiences, the majority of which are not under our parents' control. I remind myself of this, and of the fact that I am a picky-eating, movie hating, sometimes overly anxious grown up who still lives a happy life, For the most part, all of our parenting dramas turn out OK in the end. I don't know that I ever ate a vegetable growing up, and now I make salads to accompany dinner most nights. I still don't care for most movies, but those are easy to avoid as an adult.

So we muddle on, loving our quirky kids, trying our best to figure out when to embrace the quirks and when to try to smooth them out, hoping we're doing OK.

Two delightful, quirky kids, neither of whom has starved.
Parenting: sometimes it is super high stakes, sometimes it doesn't matter what the hell you do. And you never really know which is which.


  1. That sounds like a tough situation. It sounds like you are doing all the right things in terms of encouraging her to try new things (the psychologists like to refer to this as "exposure"), rewarding her when she does, and giving her coping skills to deal with her anxiety. Nancy Zucker at Duke has some recent research suggesting that some kids may be picky eaters given that they have a heightened sensitivity all around - which sounds a bit about how you describe Pumpkin. Hang in there!

  2. I'm like your daughter with movies. My solution was to bring a book to movies. So when Where the Red Fern grows was being shown as a reward, I read The Once and Future King. Like you said, emotionally charged movies are easy to avoid as an adult.

    Pretty much all of my anxieties are easy to avoid as an adult. When I was getting CBT for test anxiety, which was negatively affecting my quality of life, the therapist asked what other major anxieties I had and I mentioned my ochlophobia... but since I no longer have to go to high school dances, fear of (disorganized) crowds has had zero effect on my life. So she said we didn't need to worry about it. I don't go clubbing. I'm not missing out. Note, though, that I did do CBT and I think everybody should do CBT. In high school, even. They are just really useful helpful techniques.

    Re: food, who knows. Your oldest is old enough that she can be reasoned with and make her own choices, which in many ways makes things easier. In terms of extrinsic motivation, rewards have been shown to create intrinsic motivation for things that need practice (ex. poor readers gain intrinsic motivation when paid to read, but good readers lose intrinsic motivation when paid). So it's possible that rewards for trying new things may not be harmful. Especially since sometimes new things are their own reward.

    Also, I don't think it's just the parents. I think it is the entire village. So in the South belief in rigid scheduling and punishing your kids and obedience over curiosity is combined with a teaching system that rewards rote obedience and literally legislates against creative thinking. And yet, these kids can open up and change to critically thinking for themselves in their 20s when getting a masters degree. Friends and teachers and colleagues and bosses... everyone a person comes in contact with helps them become who they are.

  3. My youngest is both picky and has food allergies. Also, he is probably among the minority of the kids in the world who don't like bread or pasta -- the kid has never in his life eaten bread, pasta, cookies, the dough part of a cupcake, nothing!

    He basically eats potatoes, salami and sausages, hot dogs, beets, goat cheese (allergic to cow's milk and soy milk, but goat cheese is OK), beans but only at school, raw carrots, and he is very good about eating fruits. He drinks coconut milk. There are (many) days where all he has are cereal and potato fries (baked in oven). Well, at least any place we go out to eat has fries and apple wedges.

    I feel your pain, but it definitely does get better with age. My two older were really picky when younger, it gets much better around the age 8 or 9. Eldest now eats pretty much everything, like a grownup. Middle boy is allowing stuff (even things like spinach! broccoli!) in his plate without meltdowns, we are asymptotically nearing consumption of greens.

    As for sensitivity... Well, I am in my 40's and I still don't watch horror movies and I can't fall asleep if the movie is to engaging one way or another. With the little kids I think it helps to tell them that it is all pretend, none of this is real, the characters aren't really hurt or dying or whatever. My littlest is very much into Scooby Doo these days.

  4. Sarah7:30 PM

    I generally don't comment, but thank you so much for posting this. Deciding what matters, where to bend and where to stay firm has been an unexpected challenge of parenting (and it's so easy to second guess in the face of criticism). I appreciated a post that tackled parenting philosophy vs. specific parenting challenges.

  5. It sounds like Pumpkin has trouble with changes to her routine, and finds comfort in the familiar--that would seem to apply to daily activities and to food (and to movies--what's happening next is unknown, and therefore cannot be properly anticipated), based on your description here.

    Honestly, I have very little patience for "the usual advice." I think parenting is so individual, and while it can help to get outside ideas, no one really knows what's happening with your children--and what works and what doesn't work with them--better than you do.

    Example: Rewards. We got paid for grades that were B and up. My father said that going to school was our job, and he got paid to do his job. But we didn't get paid that much for our grades; I never remembered about the reward until I was on my way home with the report card, so while it was a nice perk, it wasn't a motivator. I got good grades because I wanted to get good grades, and because I had parents and teachers who made it clear that I was expected to.

    On food, I just try to make the whole thing as stressfree as possible. We take macaroni and cheese with us when we go to someone's house for dinner, whether that means making it ahead of time or swinging by KFC. I'm sure there are people who think we should work harder to get Baguette to eat a wider range of foods. Those people can come over and do it themselves, if it means so much to them.

    Do your kids know you love them? Do they feel safe with you? Then the rest is just details. We're all human, even our children, and it'll probably all be fine.

    1. Yay! I love your comment so much, especially the last paragraph. I need to print that out and read it on the regular.

  6. I'm pretty sure the menus for Disney are available online, perhaps some creative Googling would let you show her what is available. We have passes so if you have any questions, feel free to give me a shout.
    No matter what you read, you can always bring water and snacks into Disneyland. I've found that a box of raisins while waiting in line can work miracles.
    As for all of the other fun of parenting, I saw the meme a few days ago that says basically "you shouldn't toughen up your child so they can face the world, you should raise them so they can change it and I was thinking along these lines too. My kids have other sensitivities and it's a fine line between teaching them that the world does not revolve around them and helping life go smoothly so that we all aren't miserable. It's not an either/or -- it takes tremendous strength to change the world for the better.

    I always wish those people who say that their kids eat their dinner or don't eat until breakfast would come and put my kids to bed and then deal with their lack of sleep as a result of not eating...

    1. I have been studying the online menus! What I really need is a map of all the places we can buy those Mickey Mouse shaped pretzels....

      We'll be OK. Thanks for the info about snacks. We do best if I bring some applesauce pouches and granola bars to fix things when there is nothing acceptable on the menu, and I couldn't remember if those would be allowed.

    2. Happy9:19 PM

      There is an app called "Lines" for Disney World (I am guessing for Land as well but I don't know for sure). You can search the menus for any park and it will show you where all the places are that have the item you're looking for. We're hoping it will be very helpful in resolving the anxiety surrounding food on our upcoming trip. Of course, in this case, it's adult anxiety of the grandparent variety but the solution is the same. Good luck!

  7. Specifically regarding your thoughts about creating assholes, I think their is a difference between accommodating your kids' quirks & still teaching them that its not necessarily the world's job to do this (but you do it because you love them!) and coming up with work-arounds (like bringing a book to read instead of movies, or agreeing on x number of foods to eat when traveling) vs. teaching/showing them that indeed, the world must bend to their oh-so-special whims (demanding that teachers don't show movies because they upset your child or that special food is served at a party for her). You are definitely on the former side of this, and I think accommodating those things, when they lead to anxiety, are actually important to making her feel safe and worthy.

  8. Thank you for the supportive and helpful comments, everyone. I am running late this morning, so can't reply to each one individually- but I love them all! You all are the best.

  9. I think you wrote this about my older daughter! The movie thing exactly. We're also working together and muddling through.

    I recently read 'Raising Your Spirited Child' for some insight in to my younger child, but realized that it really applied to her as well. That sensitivity is a real thing that they feel deeply, so I don't believe it's something they can just 'get past'. We working on coping strategies and that book has some good ideas for parents and kids!

  10. Anonymous7:13 PM

    you might want to check out she has talked alot about HSP (hihgly sensitive people) especially children. It sounds alot like what you are dealing with.

  11. She honestly wants to increase the number of different foods she eats, so I think the additional incentives for trying new things would be helping rather than hurting. I've also noticed that kids seem to be much more willing to try new foods on a full stomach rather than when they're hungry.

  12. Anonymous7:56 AM

    My friend has two daughters that sound exactly like yours. She has read a lot of Dr. Elaine Aron's work on Highly Sensitive People and has found it to be quite helpful: There are resources for parents of highly sensitive children as well. Thoughts and prayers!

  13. Nicole6:51 AM

    My oldest sounds similar to Pumpkin - she feels things deeply, gets anxious, and thinks about things too much. We've had pretty good success recently on making a Plan A and a Plan B, with their being an tantalizing incentive at the end of Plan A. For example she was scared of using the new bathrooms in her kindergarten room. Plan A was to not have any more accidents, and for every day she was accident free that week, she could order a book from Scholastic. Plan B was to put extra clothes in her bag so she could discreetly change without having to ask for help (she hates asking for help!). The next day we were picking out books thankfully. I used to be apprehensive about 'bribes' but for her, it really gives her brain something to focus on instead of the barrier that's causing her anxiety.

    It's taken us a long time to figure out strategies that help, but we still haven't figured out how to counteract the 'perfectionist' side. Anyone else's kid not play Simon Says for fear of getting it wrong? Sigh....

    I like the take a book option during movies at school - I'll have to remember that!

  14. Anonymous7:51 AM

    I feel for Pumpkin - I was a lot like her. I always feel most comfortable when people around me don't make such a big deal about change, and let me have my space to explore. I am much more willing to try things when I don't feel like there are expectations or anything attached to it. I would practice something I saw on television (a baseball move, or a crafting thing, etc... I watched a lot of PBS educational shows!) in a quiet, isolated space before deciding whether or not to show anyone what I was doing.

    Feeling things deeply hopefully doesn't go away, but an important part of learning to cope with that (I've found) is to have people who support you when you say you aren't ready for something or need alone time. Or to help you recognize what's needed/at issue.

    Good luck!


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