Thursday, January 1, 2015

On griping.

First New Years with my husband.
Anyone who follows this blog knows that I'm kind of big into New Year's Resolutions. Last year I resolved not to buy anything for myself for a year. That was kind of extreme, so I only made it about six months, but it was a good exercise that made me realize how materialistic I really am even though I'd never thought of myself that way. This year I'm thinking about something less tangible, but kind of important, and it can be summed up thusly: I do entirely too much griping.

I used to joke that complaining is how I get energy from the universe. Because I was such a prolific complainer, I developed a method that made it entertaining for me and my listeners, employing hyperbole, sarcasm, and cutting wit. This kept me just shy of being insufferable, at least for most people... I think(...?) But lately, perhaps because the world seems to be turning into a hellhole everywhere but here, I've come to a realization that has left me feeling a little embarrassed about my former behavior: I have nothing to complain about.

See? Cute.
My kids are beautiful and healthy, my husband is supportive and loving, both my parents are still living, my kids enjoy a very devoted uncle, and I have the two cutest dogs on Earth. I live in a relatively nice house that backs to a preserved natural area in the middle of my town, situated in sunny Colorado where the weather is just about perfect 85% of the time. I have reliable transportation and access to affordable healthcare through my husband's stable nine to five job. I am self employed in my dream profession, and reasonably well preserved for my age. Most of the time, on most days, I don't have to do anything I don't want to do, and that makes me luckier than about 99% of people on the planet.

The view from my picture window. Nice place to live.
There are things that I wish were different, naturally. As a stay at home mother of young children I feel isolated sometimes, and dissatisfied with my looks from certain angles, and I get irritated by my family when I'm tired and hungry, and I wish my book sales were stronger, but all in all, most of the time, I'm a very happy person.

When I look at the violence in Syria, the oppression of women in Afghanistan, the unemployment and economic uncertainty endured by most people on Earth, I really have nothing to complain about. I am so lucky it's almost ridiculous.

AND SO, this year I resolve to be much less of a complainer. I will be looking on the bright side, and keeping my snits to myself. I will have to find some other use for my wit, and some other way of entertaining my friends. I expect this practice will make me more grateful for my wonderful family, my pretty keen job, and my life in general. I will let you know how it goes.

Friday, November 7, 2014

On Headbangers.

No, I'm not talking about Ozzy Osborn fans. I'm talking about toddlers, the little people with huge emotions, and a specific subset of these little people: Headbangers.

Baby Girl is a head banger. Her anger and frustration escalate so quickly and to such proportions that she can't express her feelings any other way than thudding her head on something hard. Wood door. Wood floor. Sometimes she'll just hit herself with whatever she's holding in her hand: baby doll, magic marker, Play-Doh, her sister's head. It's shocking and scary and very upsetting to behold.

The first thing people always say when I share this is: "Is she autistic?"

"No. She is not autistic."

Then I get the sideways glance, the thoughtful pause in the conversation, and we move on to another topic, because my head banger toddler makes people anxious.

Oh believe me, she makes no one more anxious than me.

But she shouldn't. She has been looked at by occupational therapists, behaviorists, and pediatricians, and they all give her a clean bill of psychological health. She's just a normal kid who, when she feels bad, copes by banging her head. In truth, about 20% of toddlers do this, almost all of them healthy kids who, when they're really mad, put bruises on their dear little foreheads. And believe me, it's awkward walking around with a bruised kid. I have never, ever hit my kids. Ever once. Never. But people wonder about me when they see those bruises, and that hurts.

If you have come to this blog post, I'm assuming it's because you are out of ideas and you've performed a desperate internet search looking for answers. I got all kinds of advice from all kinds of experts, and ALL of them told me some version of this: "Put her in a safe place where she can't hurt herself, ignore the behavior, and she'll stop it."

I followed their advice. I bought a play yard, covered it with foam so she couldn't hurt herself, and we named it The Thunderdome. When she lost control, we'd put her there, saying something like, "You're not allowed to bang your head," and we'd let her tantrum run out. I was told by doctors and occupational therapists and behaviorists and speech therapists this was the right thing to do. For more time than I want to admit here, baffled and scared and worried, I ignored her head banging, walked away, withheld the attention she was supposedly seeking with this violence, assured by these folks she would get the message and stop.

Did she stop? No. She did not stop. In fact, it got worse.

Finally, one day we realized that maybe not every emotion a kid has is meant to seek attention. Maybe not every single behavior they engage in isn't about making Mommy pick me up. Maybe our poor baby girl was banging her head because she didn't know what else to do.  Her emotions were just as scary to her as they were to us, and this practice of isolating her was making her feel alone and rejected when she most needed love and understanding.

It makes me weep. But at least we caught it while she's still young.

We retired Thunderdome. We said goodbye to those well meaning experts. Now, when I see her escalating, getting ready to bang her head with something, I don't walk away, I don't isolate her. I get down on one knee, put a hand on her back and say softly, "You're feeling really frustrated right now! I don't blame you! You wanted things to go another way and they didn't work out, and now you're upset! Let me give you a hug sweetie."

Empathy. Lots and lots of empathy, with a very soft soothing voice, and a gentle touch.

It doesn't always work perfectly, but more and more she puts down the hard object. She comes into my arms. She snuggles against my neck, and I kiss her little cheeks.

Which is what I wanted to do the whole damn time.

Is there a moral to this story? There is, and it's this: When your kid is feeling out of control and scared, don't give her the message you don't want to be around her. Give her the message you love her, you're there to support her. Instead of banging her head, she'll eventually come to you for hugs, and everyone in the house will be MUCH happier. Always, ALWAYS, err on the side of love.

And read this book:
http://www.amazon.com/No-Drama-Discipline-Whole-Brain-Nurture-Developing/dp/0345548043http://www.amazon.com/No-Drama-Discipline-Whole-Brain-Nurture-Developing/dp/0345548043

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On the Stories We Tell Little Girls.

I have three little girls and they're all at an impressionable age, so I let them watch Frozen, written by the brilliant Jennifer Lee, as much as they want to. I do this because Frozen is the most important children's film to come out in decades, and I hope that it's as influential on future films as it deserves to be.

That's a pretty big statement I just made, but I'm prepared to defend it.

Frozen explodes one of the predominant fairy tale conventions of the twentieth century, (and probably every century before,) that the love and attraction of a man is the only thing that can save our heroine. The trope of the dashing prince, or rogue, falling instantly in love with the accursed princess dominates Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and probably others. Even Tangled, which is a very well written movie, still operates under this convention, portraying romantic love as the saving force for our besotted princess. While the heroine of Tangled is hardly helpless, Frozen is the movie that recognizes the fallacy in fairytale logic. The two pronged idea of a man falling hopelessly in love with a woman based mostly on her beauty, and that without this love she is lost, amounts to an indoctrination into the patriarchy that has kept women vulnerable for centuries, and gives members of both sexes a very unrealistic idea of romantic love. Frozen begins to undo the damage.

Anna is our princess in trouble in Frozen, and the first time she's released from an isolating childhood she meets the dashing Hans. They have a conversation full of sparks and laughter, and she takes an instant liking to him. She is so excited about the idea of romance as the solution to her troubles that she accepts him as her future husband by the end of their first night together. All this follows the trope of the princess being saved by the dashing prince who is so taken with her beauty that he proposes immediately. But then the trope begins to unravel. Her sister, the queen, refuses to grant her blessing for the union because she sees how unwise it is for Anna to marry someone she just met, and this causes a fracture in the already fragile relationship between the sisters. The crisis point is reached when Queen Elsa loses control of her powers, causes a deep winter freeze in the middle of summer, and flees the city to isolate herself in the mountains. Anna must delay her marriage to Hans and go on a quest to bring back Elsa, and with her, summer.

This bit about Elsa and her powers constitutes the second fairy tale myth that Frozen explodes, which is that powerful women tend to be evil. Indeed, the original Hans Christian Andersson story upon which Frozen is based, The Snow Queen, depicted an evil, powerful woman causing all kinds of mischief with her magic. Evil queens, naughty witches or malicious mother figures inhabit many fairy tales, including Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Tangled. Frozen rises above this trope to beautiful effect by telling Elsa's story in a new way.

Elsa is incredibly powerful. She can manifest snow and ice at will, just by thinking about it, but in childhood her magic injures Anna by accident. And so she is taught to hide her power, to pretend she is ordinary, to dread her own magic, and above all, to fear her own emotions. "Conceal it. Don't feel it. Don't let it show," is a mantra her father repeats with her again and again.

This illustrates another indoctrination into the patriarchy, and it's a well known one. Little girls and women are, both subliminally and overtly, taught to hide their anger, control it, to concentrate on being cooperative, nurturing, and helpful. (For a study that illustrates this perfectly, see here.) Strong, fiery little girls who are destined to be leaders are softened, and they learn to hide their leadership attributes. These pressures have very negative effects on young women. More than one study, (see here) has shown that a girl's self esteem is likely to drop when she reaches her teen years. Many specialists think the reason is she is increasingly aware of her passive role in society as a sexual object rather than as a powerful agent acting for her own good. Even worse, suddenly it becomes a girl's job to be in competition with her sisters for male attention, which alienates them from each other, complicating friendships between women, sometimes irreparably.

Elsa's journey follows this social tragedy almost in lock step. Just as she is discovering her own personal power in early adolescence, she is taught to hide it, deny it, and cover it up, which alienates her from her sister Anna. This fracture between the two girls sets off a spiral of psychological torment for both. For Elsa, this torment only intensifies her power, and she loses control of it altogether. Only when Elsa finally learns to accept and embrace her power, and to mend her relationship with her beloved Anna, is she able to assume her proper role as a powerful leader who can accomplish great things for her people. In other words, my dear sisters, it isn't the love of a man who will always save you. We women will all do better if we accept and cultivate our own power, and admit that our relationships with our sisters are just as important as our relationships with men, perhaps more so.

And what about Anna and her love affair with Hans? By the end of the movie we learn that Hans
seduced Anna, making her think there was an instant connection between them, for his own selfish ends. When he denies her the "true love's kiss" that would save her life, we see he is a nasty little sociopath who wants to feed off of her and her family. This is how a lot of stories of "love at first sight" end in real life, and it's a valuable lesson for every little girl, and boys too.

So yes, I let my daughters watch Frozen as much as they want, and we talk about it, and I answer all of their questions, because I want them to understand how easy it is to be tricked by a man you're attracted to, and how easy it is for a girl to lose her own sense of personal power and her connection to her sisters. This knowledge will, I dearly hope, help them avoid some of the more negative experiences many adult and teenage women have in their love lives and their working lives. Above all, I want to see more movies like Frozen that take a second look at the fairy tales we tell our children, and refashion them into the truth.