Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time Out!

I’m so sick of there being a right way of doing everything. And that that right way changes on a week-to-week basis.

Currently, there is a strong backlash against behaviorism, and I have to admit, it’s throwing me into a bit of a tizzy. Mostly, because I, a self-proclaimed behaviorist, agree with a lot of what is being said against the practice of time out, rewards and punishments. But not all the time, not with all kids, and not under all circumstances.

Alfie Kohn, author and progressive education advocate, wrote what turned out to be a very provocative essay in the Times last week, “When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say’.” His main point was: you should not make your love for your child conditional, that is, contingent upon whether or not your child exhibits behaviors that you consider to be appropriate (giving praise when a child does something the parent considers to be good and withdrawing attention, e.g. “time out” when your child does something you perceive to be “bad.”) He cites research that this “love withdrawal” does not lead to compliance, instead it breeds resentment (we won’t delve into the quality of that research here). Kohn suggests that parents should "take a stance of unconditional acceptance accompanied by 'autonomy support'", i.e., giving rationales for your requests, allowing your children to make choices, being supportive but not manipulative, and seeing situations from their point of view. In a follow-up column, Kohn makes it clear that simply saying, “I love you, but not your behavior,” (something I have always said to kids) is not as easily separated in the mind of a child. How does a child address the philosophical question, who am I, outside of my behavior?

I agree with Alfie in spirit. I am a firm believer in what I’ll call proactive parenting. If Sophia is having a meltdown, gets into trouble, or does something “naughty,” I pretty much consider it to be “my fault.” Not in a masochistic, guilt-ridden way, but in a should have saw it coming…I’ll know better next time kind of way. For example, if I’m trying to get her shoes on to get her out the door and she’s resisting me, begging to “play downstairs,” but I haven’t explained the necessity of getting out of the house ASAP to make it in time for (insert activity) I have no right to get angry with her or punish her for her “resistant behavior.” She doesn’t understand my concern about being late. She doesn’t feel the need to be doing anything other that what she wants to do right now. I immediately see a need for "behavior modification"—but not of her behavior, of mine. I need to change the antecedent…the thing I did that preceded her resistant behavior…instead of asking her to put her shoes on, I needed to explain what is going to happen next and WHY she needs to put her shoes on. This is not indulgent; it is considerate.

(Not to mention it takes a lot less energy to engineer for calm than to later deal with the storm. I would rather explain than yell at Sophia, give her choices than have to follow through with imposing an undesirable option, and empathically soothe her frustrations than withdraw from her, frustrated.)

However, I do believe that with some children who do not or cannot understand your rationale, either because they do not have the language or the cognitive ability to make sense of it, that rewards and punishments can be helpful until they do get it. And then, you fade back those rewards and punishments back just as fast as you possibly can. Case in point: I had a wonderful non-verbal preschooler with autism who came to me with all sorts of maladaptive behaviors—biting, hitting, spitting. He resisted any demands that were placed on him (get dressed, eat, come here, etc.), and he lacked both the receptive and expressive language for me to be able to communicate my expectations. I started off concretely and slowly with him. I lined up a set of pictures that alternated images of what I wanted him to do and what he wanted to do. The intervals of what I wanted him to do were short and the ones of what he wanted to do were long, but gradually…almost imperceptibly…I reversed this. And once a mutually respectful relationship was established (this is key), I was able to teach him language, which came more quickly than I ever could have predicted. And then I was able to give him choices. And when he flipped out, which he still did, I gave him a time out, letting him rage until he calmed and then we went back to whatever it was we were doing. You can do this with love. You can communicate “I love you, but I don’t love it when you hit me.” You can give particular children, under certain conditions a time out to calm down…and not have it be a withdrawal of affection, but a withdrawal from unproductive engagement until you are both ready to try again.

Sometimes, my husband and I take “time outs” for this very same reason.

So far, I have not found a single reason to time out Sophia…or yell at her for that matter… and, to be frank, I have a hard time picturing one. I’m not ruling out the possibility, but for me, right now, the most important thing to remain mindful of is that her behavior occurs in the context of our relationship. The regulation of her behavior seems inextricably bound up with the regulation of my own.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nothing to Be Ashamed Of

Sometimes, the only way to reduce a stigma is to bulldoze over it, flattening it with personal experience and truth, encouraging others to come out and share their truths.

And so, I’m coming out of my personal bedroom tonight. My “personal bedroom” because it is mine and mine alone. Not mine and Kevin’s. And DEFINITELY not mine and Sophia’s. Just mine, all mine.

I wasn’t always comfortable with the fact that Kevin and I slept in separate spaces. In the beginning, when love was raw and young, I thought couples in love were SUPPOSED to sleep together. Wasn’t it an indicator of their level of intimacy? Of their willingness to share the most private parts of themselves? Of a desire to never be apart, even in sleep?

So when Kevin told me that he really had a hard time sleeping with me, that it made his poor sleep even worse, I took it very personally. I felt rejected and unloved. Why doesn’t he want to sleep with me? I wondered. But it wasn’t me. It was any living being who snored, changed positions or simply inhaled and exhaled, including our cat. So, when we first decided to cohabitate, we sought an apartment that had two bedrooms—one for Kevin and one for me.

In our first apartment together (the second floor of an aging, subdivided mansion that was once owned by one of the Johnsons of Johnson and Johnson), my room was grand and capacious with a windowed turret and a marble fireplace. The cat and I lived in fairytale splendor. Kevin slept in the adjacent room, an elongated closet, its windows packet tightly with egg crates and tapestries to block out every last photon. This was an arrangement I could live with, and did, for three years.

It got so, eventually, I couldn’t sleep with Kevin. When forced into a co-sleeping arrangement on a vacation or family visit, both of us would toss and turn with one of us inevitably winding up on the floor or in the bathtub or simply awake all night. Sleeping alone worked for us. And after awhile I came to realize that I actually preferred sleeping alone. I liked the silence. I liked the freedom of being able to keep the light on as long as I liked. I liked not sharing the covers. I liked not being woken by his alarm or when he got out of bed. Our time together is precious. And so is our time apart.

When Sophia was born, having two separate rooms served us well. I kept the baby with me, waking every two hours to feed her, and Kevin slept undisturbed in the room on the other side of our high-rise apartment. It allowed him to go to work each day and function. I had the luxury of staying at home and catching sleep when I could, he did not. But eventually, Sophia and I no longer made good bedfellows. It was time for both of us to have rooms of our own.

So, we went looking for a new domicile, one that had at least three bedrooms—one for each member of our family. We found an ideal situation that had a separate mother-in-law suite on the first floor and three bedrooms on the second. Kevin transformed the first-floor room into a light-proof, sound-proof cave. I claimed the master bedroom (along with the king-size bed and BOTH of the his and her closets), and Sophia landed in a sunny corner room that shares a wall with mine.

It wasn’t until I started showing people around the place that I realized there were those I could tell about our sleeping arrangements and those I actually felt ashamed to tell. Of course, most of my friends and family have known about it for years. But when it came to the babysitters, our new neighbors, gosh even the cable guy, I found myself leading them past “the computer room” or “the guest room,” but never “my husband’s room.”

Which got me thinking: What Sophia is going to tell her friends? Will our sleeping apart make her feel weird and different? Will she accept it as normal and be surprised to learn that her friends’ parents sleep together? Will she worry about the state of our marriage based on the status of our living arrangements? Will she campaign to “bring us back together?”

Will she lie, like I do?

Then I read “Do You Sleep with Your Spouse?” on The Motherlode, Lisa Belkin’s blog on the New York Times website in which she reflects upon the intersection between research and real-parenting. She wrote about the fact that more and more couples are sleeping apart…23% of all couples in 2005, up from 12% in 2001. Okay, not the majority, but a sizeable chunk of the population. She then cited studies on couples who sleep apart v. those who sleep together which yielded an unsurprising finding: those who sleep apart, sleep more soundly. What was most remarkable about the blog was not the facts and figures, but the response to it…parent after parent wishing he/she (mostly she) had a room of his/her own.

So, if I’m gossiped about or considered to be weird by Sophia’s friends’ mothers (which, I have to admit, is one of my fears) maybe, just maybe, those (imaginary) gossiping moms are envious.

And at the end of the day, what’s going to affect Sophia is not whether Kevin and I sleep apart, but how comfortable I am with the arrangement, how I communicate the reasons why we do it, and that I’m a refreshed, well-rested mom instead of a cranky, sleep-deprived one.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Girl Who Mistook Her TV for a Vacuum

Vacuum (n): 1. A space entirely devoid of matter.

It’s not easy to avoid television in America. They're in our cars, our grocery stores, our hospitals, our airports, our restaurants, our shops, our homes. They have migrated from the living room to the bedroom and the kitchen. Some even claim their own “entertainment rooms.” I recently went to a mall near my mother’s house, where they had just installed televisions that hung from the ceiling at 50’ intervals. Just when one had escaped the assault of one TV, another took over, ensuring that, as you shopped, you couldn’t take one step without a commercial blaring at you. A neighbor informed me about a local restaurant that has a television at every table. Now, no longer beholden to watching whatever is on the communal restaurant TV set, you can choose your own programming. Home away from home.

Nielsen reports that the average American watches 5 hours of television a day (Three Screen Report, 2008). The average child watches about 4. And, true to my word, Sophia watches none.

This has been one of the greatest challenges in parenting Sophia. I specifically shop at stores that don’t have TVs. I have rudely asked my friends to turn off the tube when we come over. I have, on occasion, made Sophia face the wall when there was no other option.

Yes, I know you all think I’m nuts. No, I don’t think a ten-minute exposure is going to turn her into a fiend. Yes, I worry that depriving her will make her in a TV junkie by the age of five. Still, I can’t bring myself to allow it…even just a taste. That's the irrational part of me. The thinking part of me is concerned about brain development. Here’s my theory: Years ago, fewer kids were diagnosed with ADHD (From 1997 to 2006, alone, diagnosis of ADHD has increased by 3% each year, CDC, July 2008) . Certainly, the uptake in ADHD diagnoses could be attributed better diagnosis—or even over-diagnosis, with children with high activity levels being mislabeled.

But I think it might have something to do with TV. Hear me out: Three decades ago, when I was a child (and doing my part to contribute to those 5-hour/day stats), shots were long and steady. The camera stayed trained on Mr. Rodgers for what felt like an eternity, (probably at least a good three minutes at a time) occasionally panning to follow him into the kitchen, the front door or the fish tank. But for the most part, there was very little editing.

Fast forward 10 years to 1980. Enter MTV. Music videos spawned a novel, highly visually appealing approach to film making: strobe-like editing. Suddenly, images lasted on the screen for no more than a second at a time. What used to be one cinematic point of view was transformed into hundreds, even thousands of points of view over the course of a few minutes. But here’s the rub—we no longer had to sustain our attention for more than a split second at a time. The images were constantly changing.

Many times a parent with a child with ADHD has said to me something like this: “He can’t sit and focus on his homework for more than a few minutes at a time, but he can sit and watch TV or play video games for hours.” Yes, it is only anecdotal evidence. But I believe there is a reason. I believe that these children are not sustaining their attention for hours at a time when they watch TV or play video games. I believe they are being reinforced for their lack of attention, rewarded with new image after new image.

I would even go so far to assert that the TV is the egg and our children are the chickens: In growing up watching these constantly changing images, I believe the TV actually trains our kids' brains to crave constant stimulation. Why not? Doesn’t every environmental stimulus contribute to a child’s cognitive development? We know that if a child is denied stimulation during critical periods, he/she will be cognitively impaired. So, if a child is over-stimulated during these critical periods, it’s quite possible that a very different sort of cognitive impairment cold result.

I’m operating on a hunch. I’m conducting an experiment. I’m delaying the introduction of TV because, it certainly can’t hurt. And it might help.

Sophia and I were looking at pictures of every-day objects while she was eating her breakfast. She new most of them…jar, elephant, even ice cream, but when she came to a picture of a television set, she paused. “Vacuum?” she guessed.

“In a manner of speaking.” I told her, and we moved onto the next picture.

Monday, September 7, 2009

At the Maul

I am giddy with the purchase of Sophia’s first black pair of Mary Janes and in the mood to do more damage. I push her stroller into Gymboree, and park it next to racks and racks of expensive, adorable clothes—brown crinolines, striped leggings, bright jumpers. Fingering a polka dot hat on sale, I ask, “What do you think, Sophia? Is it you?” Her face breaks into a wide grin, and, like the Cheshire cat, it’s all that’s left of her as I pull the hat down over her ears. I poke through the display table, picking up pieces, glancing at the price tag, and then, aghast, putting them back down again.

There is a family standing a few feet away: The mother is in her early 30’s. Her blond hair is exhausted from too many bleachings. Her t-shirt and shorts are at least one size too small, the former riding up, the latter riding down. She’s talking to her mother in a voice loud enough for everyone in the store to hear. “Isn’t this cute?” she demands of her mother, an older version of herself by about 16 years. The woman nods. Her son, who is lounging in the store’s display window, whines, “Can we go now?” The women ignore him. The young mother is grasping a toddler's hand such that the child has to hold her arm straight up into the air. This little girl is impeccably dressed in pink and gold from head to toe. Her hair is braided in neat cornrows, a matching barrette, sealing off each one. I can tell she’s also had it. Her weight is shifting from foot to foot. Her eyes are pleading and tired. She tugs at her mother’s hand and lets out the mildest of whimpers. “Knock it off!” the mother warms, in her cigarette-roughened voice. She’s picking up the crinoline and admiring it. “Would you look at this?” she says to her mother. The girl whimpers again, and her mother turns to her and threatens, “If you don’t shut up, I’m going to rip your arm off.”

I am stunned. My eyes widen. My jaw slackens. I feel all my blood rush to my head; my body is immobilized. I’m reminded of the moment when Sophia threw a stuffed animal down the stairs and dove after it. She turned a somersault in the air, while I watched, helpless and screaming at the top, but doing nothing. Kevin had appeared right at that moment and caught her, miraculously, before she hit the ground. She didn’t have a scratch. But I was dismayed at my inaction, and it left a permanent stain on my parenthood.

“Is this who I am?” I asked Kevin. “Do I freeze in times of crisis?” Kevin assured me that we all do different things in different situations. “She was okay. I caught her. It takes two.”

But here I am again, appalled my inaction, yet somehow frozen. The sentence that marches through my mind is, “There is NEVER a reason to say something like that to a child.” But I know that this sentence will not save this child and might only result in my arms being ripped from their sockets. I can’t think of a damn thing that would change this woman’s ways. Or alter what I now imagine is the course of this child’s life. So I let them walk away and hope that the horror on my face somehow registered in their minds.