teaching social graces

My preschooler has started noticing differences in people -- the size of their noses or other body parts, their age, their clothing, etc. -- and has been making rather indiscreet comments about his observations. When I talked to him about it, he was sort of bewildered about why it wasn't okay to talk loudly about things like this in public, because a big nose is no better or worse to him than a small one. He sort of has a point, so what's the best way to explain this social grace to him?

Oooh, first, let me say how much I love that you are even asking this question. Your son sounds deeply honest, aware, and insightful, as do you. I agree that he does have a bit of a point. And I also appreciate your concern as you navigate through this topic with him.

Here's what I'd probably say:

Yes, honey, I agree with you that size does not make a nose (or whatever) more or less beautiful. And not everyone thinks that way.

Can you imagine ... some people feel bad about how they look? And, there are even some people who laugh or make fun of others who have something sort of unusual about them?

Some people have had really sad experiences when it comes to their differences, and their feelings are a little bit tender. Some people LOVE their differences and wear them proudly.

Since we don't know which kind of person is in front of us, I would feel better if we didn't mention their differences where they could hear us. And as soon as we are in the car, you can ask me anything that you are curious about, and we can talk about it.

The saying From the mouths of babes did not come out of nowhere - kids are often candid in their expressions, sometimes refreshingly so. Change may not happen after just one conversation.

Don't forget how powerful it is to teach by example. You may want to make your social decisions more transparent to your child, by saying things like: I noticed that her nose was really big but I decided that wasn't something I wanted to talk about, so instead I asked about her flower garden, because I know she's so proud of it.

I hope this helps. I'd love to hear what you think, and invite readers to comment on how you have handled this successfully with your child.


overzealous playgroup participants

There's a toddler in our playgroup who is constantly tackling the other kids, much like a football player. He doesn't appear to be angry when it happens, and his mom steps in immediately to issue a firm NO and remove him from the situation. But within a few minutes he's running across the room to "attack" once again. What can we do?

Physically aggressive kids in playgroups can really raise a lot of parental hackles, and it's almost MORE exasperating when the physicality doesn't appear to be motivated by anger. Since the attacks seem so random and unpredictable, the other parents feel the need to keep their guard up all the time, and therefore don't relax or unwind. Not much playing gets done, by either parents or children.

I suspect the mother of this child is also quite upset by her son's behavior, since it is impacting her social life as well, and she is probably concerned that they will not be welcome at the playgroup for much longer if this keeps up. She's probably feeling embarrassed and ineffectual and frustrated.

So there's already a lot of stress in the room, and we've only thought about the parents so far!

Now let's look at what could be going on for the little boy. Bryan Post and Heather Forbes, in their book Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control, ( http://www.beyondconsequences.com/ ) make an unusual yet powerful suggestion about the roots of aggressive behavior. My summary of their theory is that when kids (or adults) experience stress, they display a variety of unpleasant behaviors. The nervous system heats up, and an outlet must be found to release the steam. Some kids cling, some whine, some collapse. Some cry, some hit, some grab things, and some run. Others tackle.

Stress is an internal condition, not an external one, so the same situation may be stressful for one child and not for another. Think about the sensory stimulation at playgroups - strange surroundings with unfamiliar sights, smells and sounds. Other kids may be eating food that not everyone can share. There's usually only a certain number of toys, yet manners and turn-taking are not yet developmentally online in most toddlers. Plus, the parents may be hoping for a break and some adult conversation. Sounds like a set up for a meltdown, doesn't it?

If we look at our children's unpleasant behaviors as red flags that signal a nervous system on overload, our intervention changes. Of course we still jump up and remove the child to ensure safety for all. However, we don't then expect him to control himself and send him back in to the fray.

That would be akin to taking the battery out of a smoke detector to quiet that shrieking alarm until it's more convenient for us to leave the house. We'd get pretty burned if we did that. Instead, we drop everything and get out of there, pronto.

When a child's nervous system is overstimulated, he's sending us a message with his unpleasant behavior. That message could be Get me out of here!

So if his mom asked me what to do, I'd tell her to get him outta there when he starts tackling. They may not have to go home, though. She'll want to become a detective to learn what helps him settle down enough that he can safely reintegrate.

Maybe they can go outside and run a race around the fence together. Maybe they can go to the car where it is quiet and read a story and then come back in and see how it goes. Maybe a snack in another room will help. Maybe they need to go to the park before the group meets, so he's just a little bit tired. Maybe he's acting out BECAUSE he's a little bit tired, and instead he needs a quiet morning with lots of lap time before coming to the group. There's no one-size-fits-all solution that will work for every child.

If Mom experiments with many interventions to help settle him down and finds that absolutely nothing works, it may be useful for her to have him checked out for sensory integration issues. Occupational therapy can be a huge help for some kids who don't seem to know where their own bodies stop and start.

Some kids with sensory integration issues truly don't realize they are not hugging, but tackling -- either because they don't feel the feedback in their own bodies, or cannot yet control what their muscles are doing. Some kids with sensory issues hardly feel anything, and run into walls, other kids, and big objects just to figure out where they are in space. Early intervention can be profoundly helpful. Here's a terrific website with a lot of info on this topic: http://www.sensory-processing-disorder.com/.

In summary, tackling other kids could be his way of saying, "This situation is too much for me." As he matures, he will develop better strategies to communicate this and to settle himself down. But for now, he needs an adult to help him take a break, or take him home if necessary. And it may be worth a checkup to see if sensory integration issues are preventing him from behaving as his best self.

What do I do when my young child becomes physically aggressive?

I'll tell you one thing that many of us wish would work but usually doesn't: Saying things like, "Stop that!" or "Don't do that!" from across the room.

When your young child starts using his or her body in a way you are not happy about, you'll probably need to use your body to intervene. If your child is hitting, you'll gently catch his hand and hold it still or push it against something that is okay to hit. If your child is kicking, you'll gently catch her leg and move it in another direction. If your child is throwing, you'll gently aim his arm at a safe target. If your child is flailing around, you'll gently hold her arms and legs wrapped up in yours until she gathers her self control again.

Notice how often the word gently shows up in those sentences? Please use only exactly the amount of force that is necessary to redirect, contain, or protect, and not one ounce more. In our parenting workshops, Robin and I call it "protective action," a term we borrow from Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication model.

The idea is that our job as parents is to keep everyone safe. This includes protecting young children from doing damage to themselves, others, or property while their developing brains are still unable to control their impulsivity. We do a child no favor when we let him hit or hurt us or anyone else. Since he's too young to be reliably in control of his body, especially while he's feeling strong emotion, we need to be his external safeguard.

As we are gently containing, protecting, or redirecting, it can be helpful for us to say, "I will keep us safe." This reminds us that our intention is protection, not punishment. And it lets the child know that we are stepping in for the good of all concerned, including the aggressor.

When a child is acting out physically, it's not a teachable moment. Trying to use words to stop or redirect the behavior at that point is sort of like talking to a reptile. Emotions and learning don't mix. So take protective action until your child is calm enough to listen and talk. Then you can discuss alternative behaviors that will work better for him.

watch out for questions that are actually criticisms

Are you wearing THAT?

Do you really want to do that?

Are you aware of how that looks?

You don't really feel that way, do you?

Why are you doing that?

Feel kinda slimed as you read these? Me, too.

That's because these are not really requests for information or clarification -- they are actually thinly disguised criticisms. The underlying message seeps out between the lines: I disapprove of your choice. Now I want you to justify it to me so I can show you how wrong you are.

Whoever is asking these questions has already decided that the clothing, behavior, or decision in question is wrong, unwise, inappropriate, or ill advised. Most of us, teens included, react defensively to this kind of covert attack. We're not usually eager to have an extended conversation about how stupid someone thinks we are.

Want your teen to talk to you? Try these openers instead:

I'm wondering if you might get really chilly tonight wearing a sleeveless shirt to the football game.

I see you've decided on a plan of action. Can we talk about some of my concerns?

I'm worried that the skirt you are wearing might attract sexual attention from older men. What are your thoughts about that?

I'd like to hear more about how you feel.

I'm nervous about some possible ramifications of that decision. You've probably thought about this already ... and I would feel so much better if we could chat a bit so you can reassure me that you've covered all the bases.

You'll create a much stronger relationship with your teen if you can leave disapproval out of the recipe. Assume she has good (but not always totally well informed) reasons for the choices she has made, and make a genuine request for her to share her perspective and reasoning with you.

Listen respectfully, and ask permission before sharing your concerns or opinions. Ask questions like, "How have you decided to handle any potential unexpected obstacles ... an injury ... car trouble ... or if someone you rode with starts drinking?" Bringing up contingencies this way respects our teenager's autonomy, and introduces potential pitfalls onto her radar screen without insulting her.

Strive to become curious rather than critical, respectful rather than judgmental, and you will position yourself as an ally to be consulted rather than an enemy to be avoided.

sneaking in veggies

Here's my recipe for a delicious smoothie that your kids will never know contains the equivalent of two huge salads!

2 c. fresh fruit juice (I like OJ best)
2-3 bananas (either fresh or frozen will work)
1 c. blueberries (fresh or frozen)
4 c. lettuce or salad greens (I use the organic stuff from Costco that comes in a big tub. It's already washed and ready to eat.)

optional: a peach or mango if you have one handy
whey protein powder

Blend it up, adding water if necessary. The blueberries will disguise the green color. My teenage daughter has the most discerning palate in the world, and she could not taste the lettuce -- even after she knew it was in there!