Monday, February 16, 2009


Wilma and Thelma are in a conflict of some kind. As far as Wilma can see, Thelma's behaviour/fears/views are completely irrational. In fact, as far as anyone except Thelma can see, Thelma's response is irrational. As in, the moon is made of blue cheese or the earth is flat. But Thelma is not to be reasoned with about the make-up of the moon.

What is the right response to what I suppose could be called a phobia?


Does the phobia have any impact on anyone other than Thelma? Is the phobia relatively benign? For instance, someone living in North America with a phobia of kangaroos isn’t going to be negatively impacted by that phobia very easily. Zoo trips might need creative planning. Some nature programs will be avoided. But such a phobia will be primarily irrelevant – a personality quirk that can be worked on if Thelma ever decides to do so.

Of course, if the phobia negatively impacts Thelma and those around her on a regular basis, it’s a different story. Moon made of blue cheese? No big deal. Water will melt all people like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz? Massive problems.

I’ll assume the phobia is the latter variety – one that causes constant and severe problems for Thelma, her family, and her friends. The right response to such a phobia? Patience, I’m thinking, and a willingness to creatively confront the phobia. It seems likely to me that there will be a balancing act between creating safety for Thelma and creating opportunities for her to revise her ideas.

Another very obvious and very important piece to pay attention to is Thelma’s view of the world. There is a good chance that there is some small nugget of truth in her phobia. Maybe she’s terrified of ants because once she stood on an anthill without realizing it and suddenly discovered the little critters climbing all over her legs and into her pants. This isn’t irrational. Maybe the scene from the Wizard of Oz, with the melting witch, reminded her of the shock and fear she felt when splashed in the face at the local swimming pool. This isn’t irrational.

Whatever the phobia, whatever the story, there is real fear there, and she needs to be able to safely address and dismantle that fear. I definitely don’t think that has to mean deep, probing questions about the nature of her fear. (In fact, I think too much conversation can sometimes reinforce the bigness and badness of the phobia – which is absolutely not helpful.) I do think it is crucial to cultivate a real awareness about what, precisely, the fear is rooted in. The idea that Thelma is irrational to be afraid sets the rest of us up to dismiss her real fear – I think that’s a mistake. Dismissing the fear entirely leads us away from the careful exploration that can get us to the root of the problem. If water in the sink is okay, but water coming out of the faucet is terrifying, start there. Play with water in the sink. Notice when and where the fear isn’t an issue, and build on those experiences. Create opportunities for success.

As always, optimism, playful exploration, and remaining present in the moment are your best tools. And as always, I hope something here helps!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mean Boy

I have a nephew who is 6 years old, a year older than my daughter. He is my brother's son, who I get on well with as I do his wife. We do a lot of things together with the kids but lately his behaviour is beginning to get me down that much that I would rather not do things with them. This would be a shame because I really enjoy the company of my sister in law as we have a laugh and enjoy doing similar things. She does the same job as I do only in a primary school, we are both TA's (teaching assistants) so know all about positive praise and so on but my nephews does not respond to this and answers back all the time to anyone. His behaviour is horrendous, he is sly to my daughter and other kids, pinching and poking, telling tales, says nasty horrible things to her like he hates her and me if we ask him to stop. He is also physically violent kicking and punching at anyone who crosses his path. When his mum confronts him he tells her to shut up and hits out at her too. I just can't believe he is so horrible he is not like a little boy but like a brooding argumentative teenager. I have spoken to my SIL about him but she just laughs it off and say's that he is a good boy really, when clearly he is not. When he hurts or upsets other children she makes him apologise but what's the point when he doesn't mean it. What else can I do other than avoid them?


I have to admit, right up front, that I feel so sad for this little boy. He is “horrendous,” and “sly,” he “says nasty horrible things,” he is “not like a little boy but like a brooding argumentative teenager.”

And he’s six years old.

Is it good that he’s treating people like this? Of course not. It’s awful. For all of the people he’s hurting, which, please remember, includes himself.

It can be a very tricky thing, I think, figuring out how to create healthy relationships with other people’s children. There is so much implicit and explicit ownership of children. Parents feel judged by other parents for how their products are turning out. Parents feel protective of their babies. Adults try to force their agendas on their children, through fear of punishment or fear of withholding of affection. If you’re willing to step outside of the established protocol, sometimes it just gets messier. I’ve found that the one thing no sane parent ever objects to is having other people truly appreciate their children. If you can find a way to approach this boy, and the dynamic that is currently in play, with a genuine interest in befriending the boy instead of vilifying him, then, I think, there is hope.

So… Why does he pinch and poke? What are the tales he tells? What happens when people view him not as a horrible boy but as a frustrated or sad or lonely boy, a boy having a hard moment? And, maybe more important, what does he enjoy? When does he laugh? What would be fun for him?

I guarantee you, it is not fun for him to spend time with people who monopolize his mother and don’t like him. It doesn’t feel good to hurt other people, though it does sometimes feel better to get negative attention than to be ignored. It’s also important to remember that you are responsible for protecting your child. Maybe adult conversation needs to be put entirely on hold while you help the kids find their way. What happens if you’re there, shielding your child, and reacting to a seemingly violent attack with a laugh and a mock karate chop? What happens if you start listing all of the things you hate – certain foods, nasty drivers, stepping in mud puddles – instead of lecturing about how hurtful the word “hate” can be? What happens if you listen carefully to the tales he tells, and really truly try to hear his problems, his concerns, his unhappiness? In other words, what happens if you approach him with light-heartedness, interest, and maybe even love instead of with fear and contempt?

As for his mother, I would be interested in finding out what happens if you simply tell her “please, don’t force him to apologize on our account. He’s clearly having a hard time, let’s solve the underlying problems.” Forced apologies are like putting band-aids on tumors – they disguise the problem, but they don’t solve anything. In fact, by disguising the real problem they enable it to fester and grow, unchecked. To the mother’s claims that her son is a good boy, one response is “of course he is, but this situation isn’t working for us. What can we do to help him feel safe and comfortable? What can we do to keep my daughter safe and comfortable?” This is a complicated situation, with many different relationship dynamics clashing hard. If you want to make positive changes, you have to take responsibility for acknowledging and addressing the problems.

It seems to me that you’ve got several choices here. Figure out how to engage with the boy in a positive and meaningful way – try to see his side of the situation – and continue to build on your relationship. Or distance from the family altogether. Or arrange adult meetings so that you can continue your friendships with the adults without subjecting your child to abuse and their child to a clearly painful situation.

I hope something here helps.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I give a lot of thought to this idea that parenting does not have to be a win-lose situation. And I try to apply it to my parenting and my everyday life with my kids, and we are all mostly very happy.

Once in a while, though, I wonder if I am not just using my high principles as an excuse, and if what I am doing is not just laissez-faire parenting.

Do you have any thoughts on this matter? How would you recognize the difference?

--Thinking Mom

It seems to me that these are actually two separate questions. The first question is whether win-win solutions somehow impair people by denying them the experience of dealing with losing. It rings true to me that successful people are not stopped in their tracks by occasional failure, or by losing from time to time. But how, exactly, do we help ourselves and others develop a healthy attitude towards losing? I think that problems with losing and failure are linked to identifying oneself as a loser or a failure. If we are able to view the failure in context – as an experience to learn from, instead of a label for our psyche – then I think it becomes simply something that has happened, instead of who we are. The truth is, striving for win-win solutions has the potential to empower us, to remind us that situations are not inherently doomed, and that we are not failures when we occasionally fail. From what I’ve seen, winning a lot actually causes most people to feel more mellow and accepting of occasional losses. I think repeated success tends to enable people to cultivate an interest in what sometimes goes wrong without internalizing those failures.

The other question I see here is about control, engagement, and happiness. Children are at the mercy of their parents. Parents, whether they realize it or not, have a huge amount of control over the world that their children are born into and have access to on a daily basis. People thrive when they are engaged in their world, in their activities, and in their lives. The question, then, is whether parents can take their children’s happiness at face value. If everyone seems content, if there are no major problems, if it looks like a win-win situation… Is it really? What if the kids would be happier going to the zoo around the corner, but they don’t even know that’s a possibility? What if they would rather have their parent playing a game with them than working on the computer? What if….

The only people who can answer those what-if questions are the people around you. The only way to know whether a particular “win-win” is actually just a “kinda okay-that’ll do for now” is to check in, with yourself and with everyone else involved.

If it feels like laissez-faire parenting, dig deeper into your own mind. Is this anxiety about what people should do, what learning should look like? Or is this a reaction to subtle cues that the environment could be richer, the parents could be more engaged, the locus of control could be more clearly within each individual? I think that’s where the real answers are.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Video Games

“I have a partner who I love and respect. Said partner enjoys video games and likes to play them to relax in the evenings and on the weekends. The playing of these games does not negatively impact on my partner or the other people in the family in any way. In my family of origin, video games of any sort (also many other things; TV, 'bad foods', staying up late) were vilified to the extreme, prohibited, and other people who engaged in these activities were looked down upon. It is hard, for some reason, to get over irritation/repulsion caused by video gaming. I would like to be more balanced and less dogmatic in my views than my family of origin, because I found being that rigid exhausting and restrictive! I do not feel the need to talk to my partner and ask hir to play less/elsewhere/with headphones on. I would really like to stop feeling guilty and annoyed about the presence of video games in my house!


I think there are several things going on here… It seems really likely to me that you’ve deconstructed the criticisms of some of the vilified activities from your childhood. In other words, the idea of “bad foods” has been rearranged for you, which could mean that what your parents considered bad you now consider good, or that you’ve realized that food has many facets, and you’re able to appreciate some good intertwined with what was once deemed “bad.” My guess is that this has not happened for you with video games. You want to be more balanced and less dogmatic, but you still believe that, in essence, video games really ARE bad…

I think if you want to change how you react to video games in your house, you need to examine very closely what you believe about video games. So, does it make sense to be accepting of something that really is bad? And if video games really are bad, can you share that with your partner? If it’s true, it should be possible to articulate that, yes? So, are you right to believe that video games are bad? What, precisely, is bad about video games? If you articulate this for yourself, you’ll be able to deconstruct your own beliefs.

There are lots of sources of information about video games, and like many hot topics in our culture, most of that information is clearly biased. If you want to dismantle the negative view you have, it seems like a good idea to me to immerse yourself in the literature that supports video gaming. You might even find it useful to actively avoid the video game related fear mongering, at least for now. Instead, try reading articles like this Wired article about video gamers developing scientific methods to beat their games. Or this BBC article about video gamers improved eyesight. Or this article from the Sydney Morning Herald summarizing our current understanding of some of the positive attributes of video gaming. For personal stories about the positive role video games play in many peoples lives, check out unschooling icon Sandra Dodd’s videogame page. For a more comprehensive look at the benefits of video games, consider reading James Paul Gee’s books about video games, or Steven Johnson’s book about the benefits of current technology and pop culture. These resources are just the tip of the iceberg. There is much, much more out there about the positive influence of gaming on individuals and our society at large.

Have you ever played a video game you enjoyed? I’m guessing the answer is no. I’m also guessing that, if you were willing to try, you could definitely find a game you might like. There is such amazing diversity in the world of video games these days. Games that give much of the control of the game to the player– where you get to decide what your character will look like, and whether the point of the game will be to charm lots of friends, or defeat all your enemies. Games that invite physical activity and interaction. Games with sweeping vistas and story lines that foster complex relationships via the internet. Games that tell lush stories. Games that are all about solving puzzles. New York Times Crosswords as a video game. Trivia games. And so, so, so much more. It might be worth it to find a game or two or three that you actually really enjoy. Play. See how that shifts your perspective.

If you happen to be a book lover (common, that – love books, vilify video games) then it might be eye opening to consider that a couple of hundred years ago, books were damned by many for the exact same reasons that video games are damned today… Books were seen as a bad moral influence, a hindrance to real learning in the real world, time wasting, and on and on. The media has changed, but the public is still skeptical and fearful of new forms of learning and entertainment.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that you’ve already done this kind of research, that you’ve already changed your thinking, at least on the surface. If so, and if you’re still hitting frustration in this area, then it seems possible that you’re tangling things up that aren’t connected.

Are you always annoyed by video games? Or just sometimes? If it’s the latter, look closely at your thoughts when you’re annoyed.

Were you wanting to connect with your partner, but the video game seems to be preventing that? If so, what would happen if you just sat down and snuggled up close – not interfering with the game playing, but opening yourself up to seeing the game through your partner’s eyes. What would happen if you asked hir to pause the game to go for a walk or have a cup of tea? It’s not a problem to ask for connection, though it can absolutely be a problem to demand it, or to blame/shame/guilt someone for not wanting the same thing you want.

Were you wanting quiet, or to listen to music, or to create some other shift in the environment that the video game somehow negates? If so, how can you create that shift? Close a door, open a window, light a candle, put on your own headphones, take a bath, step outside – the possibilities are endless here, so long as you are able to take responsibility for creating the environment you want, instead of unintentionally expecting someone else to do that for you.

Were you bored, and looking to your partner for inspiration? If so, maybe snuggling up is a solution, or calling a friend, or creating your own list of activities that you enjoy that you can refer to in an aimless moment.

Self-awareness is key here, along with a heavy dose of confidence in your own power to create the life you want for yourself. You know what you want to change, so put in the thought and the time and the effort, and you will absolutely manifest that change. Life is change, yes? So focus, and encourage change that you will feel good about. Change that feeds the relationships you value in your life. I hope something here helps you on your way.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


"After months of thinking, deliberating, and soul-searching, the time has come for me to make a big decision. How do I work up the courage to say something one way or another and stop the dithering?"

I think we dither when we aren’t ready yet. If dithering is happening, I see that as a sign that the big decision isn’t actually made yet – more time is necessary. Maybe it’s time for less thinking and deliberating and soul-searching, and more percolating and breathing and just plain waiting for clarity. It’s possible, I think, to focus in too tightly on a problem. Maybe backing off a bit will help you figure out what you want to say as well as how to say what you want to say in such a way that working up courage will become unnecessary.

Of course, it’s also possible that courage is necessary because what is right and good for you directly conflicts with what you believe is right and good for the people you’re afraid to talk with. If that’s the case, waiting a bit might still be useful because it might help you figure out what your fears are so that you can address those fears without hurting the other person. The danger here is that waiting, if you are truly clear about what you’re wanting, might end up hurting the other person even more, since (assuming this is something they will have to find out about eventually) waiting will add deception to an already difficult situation. You know what I mean… “You’ve known this since then and you’re only just now telling me???!!!” If that’s the case, then reminding yourself that you’re causing more pain by waiting than by being honest right now might help you gather the courage you require.

I hope something here helps, although I realize that with my long delay in replying to your question you are probably all done dithering…

Friday, August 15, 2008


“Child does not wear nappies during the day or night. When they want to pee/poop, they ask for a nappy.

Parent has offered the toilet/potty intermittently, and occasionally talks about how "I go in the toilet... Grandma goes in the toilet... Nathan [who you completely hero worship] goes in the toilet..."

Idea of child going in the toilet/potty is met with horror.

Underwear, either just like parental ones, or with favourite cartoon characters, are rejected with disgust.

We want to avoid bribery. We certainly don't want to force child to sit on loo/potty (even assuming we could do the necessary gymnastics)

Any splendid ideas not involving bribery or forcing? It's certainly a psychological barrier rather than a physiological one.”

What is horrible about going in the toilet/potty? I think that seems like the important question to answer.

Splendid ideas not involving bribery or forcing would really hinge on what is unappealing about the toilet/potty. I think diapers are obviously unappealing… It’s pretty nasty to have poop smushed on your skin. Lovely to avoid that mess. Lovely to just flush the yucky stuff away. Lovely to be clean and dry. If I understand the situation, then this particular child already appreciates how comfortable it is to NOT wear a diaper, since diapers are requested when pee/poop is on the way, and not worn all the time. Perhaps it would be helpful to point out, explicitly, that using toilets enables one to totally skip that yucky feeling?

Maybe it’s mobility? Diapers enable people to go wherever they want without soiling anything. Portable potties can be similarly useful – you can have one in each room, and they can be used to scoot around on hardwood floors. Connected to mobility is how very boring bathrooms can be… Perhaps a few drop of red food coloring in the toilet so that pee turns the water orange? Or blue to make green? A hand held video game? Digital camera handy to document the varied shapes of the poop logs before they get flushed? And, of course, good books or magazines are a classic… Toilet paper with little flowers or hearts or teddy bears or whatnot? Step stools, smaller toilet seats, fun soap for handwashing… Taro Gomi’s book, Everyone Poops, is a fun read.

Maybe it’s the idea that giving up diapers means giving up babyhood? Even if parents never say this explicitly, it’s a concept that appears in many, many, many books and shows made for children. It’s also often implicit in lists of who uses the toilet and who doesn’t… Of course, in the eyes of a parent, any child will always be loved and cherished. Sometimes stating this explicitly helps. Just remember to really relish and enjoy the current moment. Whatever happens, however the diapers are ditched, they will eventually be ditched. So love the person. Might also be interesting to put it out there that many, many people end up in diapers again in old age. Check out the adult diaper section… Joke about the prospect of the child changing the parents’ diapers in years to come… It's also worth noting that some babies never wear diapers. Parent could offer to hold the child over the toilet the way that families practicing elimination communication in our culture do. It might be interesting to see pictures of tiny babies without diapers. Basically, separate babyhood from diapers.

Or maybe it’s a direct reaction to emotional undercurrents in the family? "This is important to other people, but I get to decide what I do with my body, thank you very much." If this is the case, then backing way, way, way off seems important. No matter what, no matter when, eventually the diapers will be ditched. And the truth is, the child is in control of this. Parents can offer information and support, or they can push and prod, or they can do a little of everything, but ultimately, the child is in control.

Or maybe it’s about ritual – diapers have become a ritual? Would it be fun to lay a diaper in the potty – not on the child’s body, the diaper is still catching the pee and poop, but the pee and poop is not trapped against the skin? This could be a way to see how potties and toilets are actually more comfortable without totally ditching the diaper ritual. A transition, if you will?

Well, there you have it -- lot of thoughts, some goofy, some serious. As always, I hope something here helps you find a solution. Honestly, I hope that in the time it took me to craft my reply you’ve already found a way forward together.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Other Parents

How and should one attempt to convince other parents that behaviourism is ineffective and detrimental in parenting?

Every time I hear "If you do that again, you won't get any chocolate!" I want to try to tell the parent that they nobody wins with such threats. I suspect that there is not much I can say without alienating and offending, which of course would not help anyone.

What do you think?
-- Willow

Honestly? I think it is more productive to focus on the positive changes we can make in our own lives than it is to hone in on the mistakes others are making. Often, I think, we notice things in others that we are bothered by in ourselves. Maybe you’ve moved beyond blatant threats, but it might be worthwhile to look closely at the ways that behaviorism still exerts a subtle grip on your thinking. Or maybe not.

Another thing to consider is simply this: what is it you are wanting – to share your own excitement about ideas that make sense to you? To offer a ray of hope to another parent? To gloat? To articulate your beliefs? To help a child? If you’re clear about your own intentions and desires, it might be easier to find ways forward that will be truly productive and satisfying for you.

At this point in my own journey, I think that setting out to convince others is often a mistake – a misdirection of energy and attention. It makes more sense to me to keep looking closely at our own issues, our own shortcomings, our own successes. To keep building our own lives. If our ideas are as good as we believe them to be, then living by them will indirectly impact many, many other people.

I hope something here proves useful, or at least interesting!