Friday, 7 December 2012

Don't laugh at my fear. I won't laugh at yours.

We were walking in the park the other day, a slow lovely afternoon. A dog ran past us and Antek - who is afraid of dogs - walked very quickly to the other side when he saw the dog approaching. The owner of the dog smiled at me and said, in passing, 'so cute'.  I try not to engage in conversations like these, with people who walk past and make casual comments about my child, even ones I completely disagree with. I try to ignore, most of the time. I do, however, have to say this: fear is not cute. A person who is afraid or uncomfortable, is not cute. My fears are certainly not cute. Are yours?

I am afraid of spiders. There, I said it. See, when I was a little girl my cousin's favourite game was catching spiders, putting them in my hair so deep they could not get out and then laughing his head off when I was trying to get them out. My hair was long, back then. And we lived in Poland, so we are not talking tarantulas or anything big and hairy with thick legs, nothing that could bite you. But does it matter? I don't think it does. Fear is not always rational. In fact, probably most times it is not. Can a tiny little spider hurt me? No. Do I know that? Yes. Am I still scared? You bet.

"What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?" (Toni Morrison)

I think none. It doesn't matter if the thing you're scared of is real or not; it definitely doesn't matter if it's scary to other people - it is scary to you. This is you emotion, your battle, your fear. Only you can deal with it. And I'm sure we would much rather get rid of all our fears (well, most of them), but is it that easy? Here is another thing, too. I believe other people making you feel bad about how you feel is not really that helpful. I am beginning to be more comfortable around spiders. I would not want one as pet, but I don't run out of the room the second I see one. Do you want to know my secret? My husband, for years now, has been patiently taking spiders out of my view and out of the house. Not once did he judge me. Not once did he laugh, or say it was 'cute'. Not once did he say anything along these lines: 'Hey, don't be scared, it's just a small spider'. See, I *know* it's just a small spider - I can see it. And I would much rather *not* be scared.

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”  (Fred Rogers)

How often do we hear comments towards children: 'Don't be scared. It's just a dog.' I'm sure this child knows it's *just a dog*. To him, however, this dog is scary. It is big. And maybe, just maybe, he was accidentally knocked down by one when he could barely walk (like our son was), and is just not up for another challenge yet. Think of the perspective, too - things that are small and insignificant, or just plain normal to us, might not be to our children. Children who are scared are not 'cute' or 'adorable'. They are scared. Would I rather see my son happily running after dogs and playing with them as comfortably as I am? Sure. But does it matter what I would rather see him do, in light of the way he feels? One day, I'm sure, we will get a dog and he will love it, like I did mine. Heck, we might even get a spider. But until then, we are stuck with our fears, and the empathy of those around us is much more helpful in dealing with them than the wink of a stranger. Don't laugh at my fear of spiders. And don't laugh at my son's fear of dogs. We will not laugh at yours - everyone has something they are working on.

'Don't be scared' means, at least to my ears and my mind, 'Don't feel what you are feeling.' But can we really do that?

Janet Lansbury's wonderful post about the problem with words like 'cute' is right here!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Autumn Agendas

It's difficult to let go of our agendas. Well, for me it is. Somehow it seems easier when it came to development, language, movement - we knew it would come, we didn't wait. We didn't anticipate. We didn't want specific things at specific times. But when it comes to... fun?

It's autumn here, and although for Maureen and Katherine it's closer to strawberry season, up here leaves are putting on their finest colors and organizing a show. We were walking in the forest, just the two of us. Leaves were dancing, and it was as beautiful as it can be in autumn. I had been there the day before and wanted to show Antek a hut I had found - someone put together a bunch of large sticks and branches and made a really lovely place for kids to play in. He would love it. I knew he would, and I wanted to get there quickly. I wanted him to have fun. I was anxious to see a happy smile on his face when he saw the hut, when he realized he could climb into it, and that the floor is made of leaves and sticks.

He knelt down suddenly and kept looking down on the ground, on the leaves. I looked where he was looking, but tried to get him to get up and go - come on, let's get to the hut, you'll like it. He looked at me and kept looking down, fascinated with something I could not see, maybe something that was not even there? I knelt down next to him and waited. And waited. And waited. And then waited some more...

Suddenly I remembered that morning, Antek came running to me from the garden with a cup he had found somewhere in the sand. He was holding it up, I was busy doing something else. I looked at him and said: 'Oh, are you having tea?'. He looked at me with the same expression he just had a few minutes ago. Not knowing what I was talking about. Not sure what I meant. Sure, I wanted to join in the fun, but did I have to jump the line? Whose game is it, anyway? Had I waited a couple more seconds, I might have found out what the cup was, or maybe that there was something about it, or that it was a part of some building, or a ship...

Paweł came home the other day from the playground laughing about some woman who was urging her son to stop playing with whatever he was playing now, because 'it was time to go and have fun on the slides, come on you like the slides.' How easy is it to assume we know better what the other person wants? And why? It seems especially ironic, when it comes to having 'fun', don't you think?

And then I remembered. Something that disappears the second you hold on to your agenda. Something I'd forgotten for too long, but luckily it was still there. There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. (Thitch Nhat Hanh). I moved closer to Antek and looked where he was looking. I took a deep breath and looked down. That's it. Not waiting to get to the hut, just sitting and looking to sit and look.

Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it. (Confucius)

The leaves were beautiful, their edges were sharp as if someone had traced them with a thick brush. They were piled one on top of the other, with sticks coming out of the pile, as if someone had a plan, some lines and some curves. It could have been a detail from one of Escher's paintings. But then I saw something moving underneath, a flurry of little legs trying to get somewhere, in a hurry but also in a lot of effort - beetles were trying to push something aside to make room for... I could not see what. There were three of them, I had never seen ones like these before - they were dark blue and green, moving really fast, their colors shiny in between the leaves. I could not stop staring at them. Antek looked up at me and smiled. Did he know?

After a little while we got up and slowly walked playing with the leaves. We got to the hut and had fun in it. Unhurried, unforced fun. Fun when we were ready for it. The way we wanted, and at the time we both wanted. Would he have enjoyed it as much if I had hurried him over there? I don't know. All I know is that it is all to easy to forget who we're doing something for, or why we're doing it in the first place.

It's difficult to let go of our agendas. But if we do, we might just catch a glimpse of that beetle.

Photo: Paweł Banaś

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

On the move. Or: how to tame the dragon.

We have moved. Again. Yes, I know. And no, I don't want to talk about it. I am beginning to have a reaction to cardboard boxes. When I notice a book missing on the shelf, I begin to panic - is this it again? Are we packing, again?

Antek will be two in May. On his birthday he will have lived in seven flats/houses, in three different countries, on two continents (and two hemispheres). On one hand if I had it my way, we would have our own fridge a long time ago. But on the other - this is my way, no matter what I say, and if I want to be very honest about it, I would not have it any other way. So here, I'm not one to give advice, but I can share what I know about moving around with children of different ages. I can tell you what worked and what didn't for us. And I can tell you that so far it looks like Antek has taken it extremely well - from moving houses, through unpacking boxes to 48 hour flights. 

Moving is stressful. Going away with a small child is not stress-free either, even if you are going for a long-awaited holiday in Sardinia.  Packing is not pleasant, flights even less so, the return home (or setting up a new home) is not the easiest thing we have ever done. But it is part of the journey, like every change, and if we need to do it, we might as well make it a meaningful part of the journey rather than the dreaded bit that will be over soon.

Here are a couple of thoughts. I am putting them all here, some work for some ages, others for other... ;) So this really is a messy write-up of everything I know about dealing with changes, moves, planes and such. The way to tame that dragon.

Talk, explain, and then talk some more

We did this with every trip we took, every new thing that came our way, every change that we expected. From the beginning. We tried to explain what was going to happen, what was happening, and later went over what had happened. It might seem like a lot, but isn't it what we naturally do anyway? Think about it this way: when you are planning to move home (go away, change something) you talk it over with your partner, your friend or whoever is involved. You then continue talking your way through it (do you think this is the right exit? which bus should we take now? do you have the address?). And once all is done, it all needs to be said, it appears, so we pour ourselves a glass of wine and ... well, talk about it. We love to talk :)

Babies and small children tend to be left out of this experience, and maybe they are actually ones who need it most. Talking and explaining what will happen prepares the baby for the unknown. It is a way of taming the experience beforehand - things are not as scary when we can give them a name. We know that about feelings, but I think we also know that about events and things that surround us - once they have a name, they are not strange and unknown anymore. When Antek was smaller, we showed him pictures of trains before we got on a train. We played with airplanes when we were about to leave for New Zealand. We gave names to things and events that were about to happen. And then, once it was actually happening, we repeated what we had said before - and these were no longer unfamiliar strange things it was 'the train we told you about? This is what it really looks like'. And in addition to making it familiar, it was also an adventure - this train we talked about is finally real.

After our big move to NZ on the first evening Antek couldn't sleep (time difference, season difference - any change possible, you name it, we had it :). We talked about the trip, that we just took. We talked about what we did. We remembered funny things that happened on the plane, we laughed and Antek seemed again to calm down a bit more. Now that he is finding his own words, the house we have just moved into is 'our new house'. A lot of rooms got names before we moved - 'You will have your own room for the first time. It will be called "Antek's room"'. When we moved, we showed Antek his room and he looked at us and said: 'Antek's room', and went down for a nap on his new mattress like a charm. Words matter - they give a different meaning to our experience. Something we cannot describe seems much more scary than it may really be.

Add pictures to your words

I don't paint or draw for Antek. This is the only time I make an exception. 

'One picture is worth...', well, you know. Sometimes it is easier to explain when we have an image alongside it. This is what I learned from my wiser friends -  telling a story is one thing, but illustrating it gives a rise to completely new feelings. So in preparing for the trip - take a piece of paper and draw and airplane. Then after you come back, take it out again - do you recognize this one? Remember how we were on one? Some happy or unhappy feelings can emerge in the process, so be prepared. But if they don't emerge, it doesn't mean they are not there, so...

When we came to live in Holland we stayed with a wonderful couple for the first month. When we were about to leave, the lady we were staying with took a piece of paper and made a simple picture of herself, her husband, and their house. 'This is our house. This is where you have been staying. But now you are going to move'. Antek kept this picture, and after a few weeks he still kept taking it out and showing it to us: 'Aunt Aafke' he would say 'she is home'. To tame the dragon you have to know what the dragon looks like.


This one I find really hard to remember about, but also really important. We know the drill - we have done it so mane times, the airports, the buses, passport control, boarding passes. Kids don't. The ones who are doing it for the first time, have no idea what is about to hit them. And rather than pretending like it doesn't matter, and look there is a man with a funny hat, and it will be over soon, we prefer to prepare.

It can be a game - you can go through the steps together, pretend you are at the airport, or getting on the bus. Pretend that a piece of paper is the ticket, explain what happens. Don't underestimate your little one's memory, we found Antek remembered really well what we do on the bus once he played with a 'bus card'. Also - once it is fun at home, it might actually be fun once you get there!

Don't pretend it's not going to happen.

It is. It is going to happen if you tell yourself it won't. But don't sweat about it either. If you have to move - you will move. If you pretend it's not going to happen it might hit you. If you worry too much and are anxious about it - your child will be anxious too. We had to take 6 flights to get from NZ to Poland (the airline cancelled some flights, the changes were awful, there were also delays). The minute I found out what it was going to be I panicked (thank God I didn't know there were also going to be delays...). But then we thought: we have to do it, no matter what. There are no options. So worrying about it is not going to change anything. We will still have to do it. It will be tiring, but we will get there in the end.

That's it.

And we got there. After 48 hours and 6 flights. To a place Antek has not seen before (again...)

If you worry - your child will panic. If it is worrying or scary for you, imagine how scary it is to see your Mum or Dad scared. If it scares them surely it must be something I should be scared of? But if you are scared, you won't fool your little one that you're not. So, as always, take care of your own feelings first. Have a glass of wine. Talk to your husband, or wife. If it has to happen, it has to happen. And it will. And it will be like that dreaded visit to the dentist - in 48 hours it will be over.

So yes, we will move home, get on that plane, have that change in our lives again. But since we have decided, it is what it is, all we can do is do it with grace, patience... and just that last bit of energy :)

Get everyone involved

Let your child see the new home (the plane) at their own pace. If you can - let them touch what they want, and allow as much time as you can. Walk around the plane, tell them what is where. remind them what you talked about before. But also - let them have fun. To the extent that you can allow it - let them chose things, let them have things their own way.

In our new flat in Amsterdam, we were unpacking really slowly for the first time. And we found this was much better, even thought it may have been tiring at times. Rather than getting it over with as something terrible, we played with the moment (until we got sick and tired of dust and went away for two days not worrying about the remaining boxes which I also highly recommend!). We let Antek help put his things together. We let him chose what he wanted where (which was admittedly not what I would have done with his toys, but these were the choices we let him make - again, only to the extent we could live with). He found a pot he liked and decided he wants it in his room, on the shelf. So be it. There is enough stuff we have decided on, if the pot is what it takes - sure it can live in Antek's room :)

It was fun for him, more relaxing for us, but above all - it was a process of becoming familiar with everything. Of taming the dragon.


I don't know if this helps. But if you are going to move with a small child, remember that all they need is you. The house will change, the country will change, the plane will be shaky. But you, the most wonderful Mom and Dad in the world, are still there. And you rock. You have tamed the dragon.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

I don't know how to tell you...

I saw this photo the other day.It made me smile, but only for a moment. Then it made me think - why do we lie to our children? 

I go to work most days of the week. It's not easy leaving the house, I would much rather stay at home and spend time with my son, but that, unfortunately, it is life ;) When my Mum came over for a visit Antek started crying when he saw I was not there. 'Shhh' she said 'Mama is in the toilet'. He got up, ran to the toilet door, pointed to it and said: 'mama pee?'...

Too small, too young...

More often than not I think the reason we lie is to protect our children from something. Protect them from the truth, which might, in our opinion, be too difficult for them to handle. But that is an assumption we are making, and we can't know for sure - we are assuming these emotions will be too much for our child. And to a certain extent, they probably are. But how else can we learn to handle these emotions, if not by feeling them in the loving arms of those who care? So, instead of providing a seemingly easier solution ('Mama is in the toilet') it might be worth telling our children the truth and help them deal with it. So that in the future they can do it on their own...

When I went back to work and Antek started staying with his Dad during the day, he cried when I was leaving. Every day. He was sad that I was going to work, as was I. But he also started to understand that this is what happens every day, and started waiting for me to come back after his snack. Now when I turn the key in the door I hear a loud happy 'Maaaaama!'. Pawel helped him through those sad moments in the mornings by being there and explaining. Not making life seem easier, but treating his fears and anxieties with respect.

They won't remember

Sometimes we lie, because we think they won't remember. I've done that. I know now it's not true - they will remember. Antek has. And even if they don't remember, they will start remembering at some point - but how do we know when to stop making things up?

Sometimes when our kids want something in the shop we tell them they have another one at home, waiting. When they want a sweet we tell them they will get it later. Or tomorrow. And then we forget, or hope that they will forget. So we make promises we know we won't keep, or threaten them with things we know we won't do ('If you don't stop I will...').

But maybe it's ok to just say, honestly and respectfully, to our child: 'I know you want that toy, but we can't buy it'. Or just simply explain that we will not let them hit, throw or kick, without making "promises" we won't keep. It might seem like a difficult thing in the beginning, but once we started doing just that, Antek seems to accept certain things much easier now. Sometimes he wants something (don't we all?) that he can't have. We've all been there and know it's difficult (I know I really find it difficult sometimes...). Sometimes he gets angry - but don't we all get angry when things don't go the way we planned or hoped? So now we say: 'I know you really wanted to play with that jar. But it's made of glass and I can't let you have it'. And then he shakes his head and walks away... most of the time :) But we work hard on not saying: 'If you don't stop touching that I will...' or promising 'I will buy you a different one' and then forgetting about it. How many promises like this before he stops believing in what we say?

Just because it's easier

I was sitting on the floor the other day and Antek brought me a little box he'd been trying to open. I wanted him to try and open it by himself, but he held his hand and passed me the box. 'I can't open it' I said quickly. Pawel looked at me and laughed 'Maybe you should at least try?'. We both laughed at this, but I never did it again. If I don't want to do something, I say. If the toys have to stay in the box we say they have to stay in the box. We don't say that toys are tired, or that we can't find them anymore, or that we don't know where they are, or that the box is closed so tight we can't open it anymore (yep, that and more - we've done it all :).

It is interesting though, how hard it is sometimes, and how easy it is to just say something very quickly to get the desired effect. We want things fixed. Now. But what about the long run?

It's easier to lose trust in someone than to gain it back. And I'm sure all parents would want their children to trust them. And there is, of course, the other side too. We want our kids to behave politely, so we behave politely - we model their behaviour. We say 'thank you' and 'please' so they learn to say 'thank you' and 'please'. Well...

photo taken from

Sunday, 22 January 2012

A personal note on rewards, praise and punishment...

Parenting is exciting. We knew that it would be. What we didn't know, was that it was not only going to be about parenting our son. We had no idea it would also be about parenting ourselves. 'Reparenting' ourselves. And getting to all those bits and pieces we put away and have kept hidden hoping they would not turn up, ever. Or to those bits and pieces that we put away, and hoped to return to later. Now, apparently, seems to be the time.

Same thing?

We have consciously chosen the life without punishments or rewards. Antek is now just over 20 months old. So far so good. No punishments of any kinds. No rewards and really working hard on 'acknowledging' rather than 'praising'. In other words: 'You did it by yourself' rather than 'Well done' or 'Good job'. We are very careful of all of this, because parenting Antek we have also realised he is not the only one going through this process. My husband was raised with punishments. I was raised with rewards and praise, lots of it. We have both found it really hard to know what we really want in life and even harder to go for it. He - because he is often scared he will not be good enough, or what will happen if he fails. I - because I am still fighting with the overwhelming need to please others, to have them looking at me when I succeed, to applause. We both fear failure, for seemingly different reasons. We are both working on understanding our dreams and following them, even if (or especially when?) other people think this is not what we should be doing. It is equally hard for both of us. So, in our house - no praise, no reward, no punishment. Or maybe it is all the same thing?

Rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it is a coin that does not buy very much. (Alfie Kohn, 'Punished by Rewards')

When Pawel and I first started talking about it we didn't really understand what it meant. How can praise/ rewards and punishment be the same? But the more we talked the more we understood, that all this really is, is a way of controlling someone. If you're good, you get a cookie. If you're bad, you don't get to read a book with me. Now, I know that this is oversimplifying things, but... is it really all that different?

The need for praise

While a lot of people agree wholeheartedly on the 'no punishment' bit, it seems to be a bit more controversial to talk about 'no rewards' bit. It seems great to be telling your child how wonderful they are, how beautiful their picture is, how proud we are of them, And I used to agree - it boosts self-confidence. But I realised it does something more than that. I fight often now, years later, against looking for applause when I have achieved something. I have made decisions in my life that were not 'mine' really - they were made because they would get me approval, applause and, well, praise. And it gets worse - I have done things and made decisions because I knew they would get me some applause, without stopping to think if that was what I really believed in, or if that was what I really wanted to do. In other words, how I have felt about myself depended on other people's approval. I'm still working on it...

Antek was in the living room with Pawel the other day, both of them happily playing the djembe. It was great to watch them having so much fun together. Antek finally worked up the courage and started drumming on his own, smiling to himself. He looked up for a minute and saw me standing in the doorway. I looked at him, smiled back and (???) nodded my head as if approving of what he was doing. I have no idea where that came from. I know it was subtle and I should not overreact. But I also know that after that he kept looking up all the time, looking as if he wanted my approval. I went back to the kitchen. So, no 'good job' or 'well done' in our house.

Maybe we don't need it?

I have one more problem with rewards and praise - one that I see as contradicting what I believe to be essentially human nature. I believe human beings want to do things. I believe we want to play, learn, create. And we don't need a cookie to do that. In fact, a cookie might be in the way.

... our everyday practices rest on an implicit theory of human nature that fail to do us justice. When we repeatedly promise rewards to children for acting responsibly, or to students for making an effort to learn something new, or to employees for doing quality work, we are assuming that they could not or would not choose to act this way on their own. If the capacity for responsible action, the natural love of learning, and the desire to do good work are already part of who we are, then the tacit assumption to do the contrary can fairly be dehumanizing. (Alfie Kohn, 'Punished by Rewards')

I have seen Antek over and over trying to achieve something, leaving it, then going back. The block does not fit in the box. He looks up at me, goes away then comes back, tries again and again and again. When he finally gets the block in the box he is so happy, there is nothing more rewarding than that. He smiles to himself, sometimes says something, or even laughs out loud. Sometimes he looks at me. 'You put the block in the box' I say. He nods and walks away happy. 'Fantastic, I'm so proud of you' I think. 

And on the ridiculous side of things...

But also, with all the praise we hear, is it not becoming a bit meaningless? A bit worn-out? Does it not also sound like that to children after they heard it seventeen times that day? And then I wonder what happens - do they (or rather, do we) just become immune to it? Or do they need it more and more...

We spent Christmas in Poland, with our families, where everything Antek did was 'fantastic', 'wonderful' or 'great'. Everything he did ended up with a round of applause. We are back to our daily lives now, and we had to work hard for Antek to get back to his routine. And to doing things just because he likes doing them, not because someone will clap. Sometimes we had to look away. 'Great sitting' (hmm?), 'Wow, look at you walking, wonderful!' (huh?), 'Good job eating dinner!' (this one was actually a little worrying). The only thing Antek did that received no applause was passing gas. Still waiting for that one, though :)