Affirmation in Parenting

As usual I have a complex knot of thoughts in my brain that I am going to attempt to commit to my keyboard. My thoughts have come from a range of sources including a film, a meeting we had in school and some clumsy comments. It has taken me a while to figure it out but the theme running through them all is affirmation – the act of getting emotional support or encouragement.

More specifically, as parents, do we ever get any affirmation? What happens if we don’t and what difference does it make if we do?

I have written before about my lack of parenting confidence when I had Big Bear (see Goodbye Adoption Leave  ). I can remember those times well. Other parents can be very competitive and instead of taking a ‘we are all in it together’ attitude, they can make you wonder whether you really have made the right decision to feed your baby from a jar (from the shocked look on their face perhaps you really might be setting them on a straight course for Scurvy) or co-sleep with them (you might still be doing it when they are 18). Deciding not to use Controlled Crying caused many a shockwave and invited comments that suggested I was bringing my baby’s sleep problems on myself. Finding my own way was difficult. Whatever I did felt wrong and I rather suspected that every parent out there was doing the parenting thing better than I was (with the involvement of more organic butternut squash, more sleep, a tidier home and a brain that could actually think in a straight line).

Those suspicions continued into preschool and even the first years of school. Thankfully I have now stopped dragged around a heavy load of parenting doubt. I am by no means cocky or complacent about my parenting but I feel quietly comfortable with the way I’m going about things. I have Little Bear to thank for that. His constant development and flourishing have undeniably taken place since his arrival, not prior, so we must be doing something right somewhere.

Whilst I am no longer constantly self-flagellating for my inadequacies, I am not immune to self-doubt or being wounded by a careless comment. Neither, I suspect, is any parent. The thing is we are all just doing our best. We make the parenting decisions we think are right at the time. Crucially, we make the parenting decisions that feel right for our individual children. My own two children have very different needs and sometimes I make different decisions for each of them, because that is what I think will work best for them.

Most of the time I go about my day to day life, analysing, thinking and making decisions about how to parent my children without too much fuss. Grizzly and I might have a chat to decide whether x or y is better. We spend more time analysing and wondering over Little Bear because being adopted does add another layer of complexity. I suppose if I think hard about it we do put a lot of time and energy into trying our best for them but it is not onerous and I don’t think either of us feels we require praise for it. We just do what parents do, like everybody else.

However, there have been occasions recently when I have felt that my parenting is being judged and that the person doing the judging feels that Little Bear’s behaviour might be better were I to parent him differently. The examples I’m going to share are only little things, unfortunate comments, but they bother me, usually by implication.

One such comment was, “Are you going to send Little Bear to Beavers? You should get his name down!” (Made in the context of perhaps if Little Bear had something more exciting to look forward to, he would eat his dinner). It sounds innocuous enough but the implication that came with the comment was “I cannot believe you don’t send Little Bear to Beavers. EVERYONE who is ANYONE sends their child to Beavers. If you do not send him, he will have absolutely no future.” Clearly I exaggerate a little but this is exactly the kind of comment that really irks me because it is so passive aggressive and such a thinly veiled attempt at hiding the speaker’s real view that they are in fact a super-parent and if you don’t do what they think you should do, you are a rubbish parent.

No. Why does she think it is ok to do that? She doesn’t know my reasons for not sending him. She might want that for her children but why do I have to do it for mine? Little Bear is blooming exhausted after trying so hard at school all day and goes up to bed at 6pm. I can’t contemplate sending him to a club after tea yet. Also, I don’t know any of the staff at Beavers and I don’t feel comfortable sending him somewhere he doesn’t know anyone yet and where no one knows him and what he needs from them. I know that I don’t actually have to explain myself, what with my parenting being my business, but comments like that make you start to question yourself.

The same person has also made comments about the snacks I give the boys when I pick them up from school (it’s chocolate, shoot me), why I didn’t send Little Bear to football club earlier and how Little Bear always chooses a baked potato for lunch.

Grizzly says I should just ignore it but I can’t. I think what really pushes my buttons about it is the judgement and inference that I ought to listen to her because her parenting is in some way superior. It’s so unhelpful and a good job I am no longer lugging about my parenting doubts because I would now be feeling very bad about myself. I’m sure she does it to other people who are currently feeling like failures.

No. We are all parenting and doing our best. We should be supporting and affirming one another. People do things differently and that’s ok. Perhaps I should write her a Social Story!

I don’t think loads of gushing compliments are needed but certainly less of the judgment. I think you just need to know from time to time that you’ve got this. You’re doing ok. You are not breaking your children. People can see you are trying your best.

When we have meetings about Little Bear at school, I sometimes feel that there is a suggestion that it is something we are doing that makes him behave as he does in the classroom. There have been comments about him “coming in not ready to work” as though I’ve spun him around 50 times on the way in or laced his breakfast with sugar. As lovely as school are (and they genuinely are mostly lovely) I think there is something in the culture that leans towards blaming parents.

This week, someone from our post-adoption support service came to one of the meetings. It was surprising how good it was to have somebody there who not only values our opinions but made some positive affirmations about our parenting. She made sure school knew that adoptive parenting is hard and that we are putting a lot of effort into this. She made it clear that what will change things (and already has been changing things) for Little Bear is our therapeutic parenting (as well as a therapeutic approach from school). She affirmed our approach, our strategies and that these match Little Bear’s needs.

I think having those things affirmed by somebody who is so knowledgeable was really powerful for me and was something I didn’t know I needed until I got it. It made me feel more confident to fess up to some things I didn’t feel so sure about and to ask for help with them. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable to ask for help if I had felt judged. I came away from the meeting feeling a little lighter and with a little spring in my step.

I suspect the reason so many of us adopters like Twitter is because there is a very safe and supportive community of other adopters on there who don’t judge and are quick to give positive re-enforcement and affirmation. We are probably all very aware of how great a need our children have for affirmation and are therefore fairly natural at dishing it out in general.

During today’s chats I came across a blog by @mumdrah about the difficulties in getting affirmation as a single adopter and the impact this has on how your child views you. As well as making an eloquent point, it includes some pointers about how you can make positive statements to support your partner/ others in their parenting. You can read it here: http://www.mumdrah.co.uk/ducks-in-a-row/

The film that got me thinking (and laughing) was Bad Moms. It’s very far-fetched but illustrates perfectly how negative and harmful a lack of affirmation mixed with competitive parenting and one-up-man-ship can be.

We are all in this together. Let’s stop with the judgement and pat each other on the back now and again. We’re doing our best but the doubt can creep in. Sometimes it’s hard and a little positive comment on those days can go a long way.

 

 

 

Cuddle Fairy
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Affirmation in Parenting

Jigsaws

I know this seems a slightly strange blog topic but Little Bear has taken a real interest in jigsaws recently and in doing so I have learned a lot about how he learns and how he needs to be taught.

Up until very recently Little Bear has not shown an interest in activities that require sitting still and concentrating, such as jigsaws. He has had lots of other needs in terms of developing his play skills so I haven’t been too concerned. Having a bigger brother who does sometimes (not a lot as he too doesn’t like sitting still) do these types of activity has helped Little Bear a lot though. If Big Bear is doing something, Little Bear generally wants to do it too. As I have got really strict with screen time and have been encouraging Big Bear to find other things to occupy himself one evening he did sit down and start doing a jigsaw. Of course Little Bear was in hot pursuit and got one out for himself too.

I had to intervene as I knew that the one he had chosen was too difficult. We swapped it for a very simple one with 4 large pieces. At that stage, it was too much to ask of him that he try to complete it on his own. Little Bear put the first two pieces he found together, couldn’t make them fit immediately, growled and chucked them across the room. It would have been easy to abandon ship at this point. However, I was feeling particularly resilient that day and decided to persevere. “Come on, you can do it” I cajoled, shifting the pieces about so that two that went together were close to one another. Little Bear managed to put them together with a surreptitious jiggle of the bits from me. I made a big thing of how clever he was. Could he stick another piece on I wondered aloud.

I began to get concerned because he didn’t seem at all able to see that we were making a picture and with only two pieces left there weren’t many options. He would try to put a straight edge into a hole or a corner piece into the middle. Each time he perceived himself to be failing at the task (which happened every few seconds), he would lose his temper and throw the pieces and sometimes break the ones we had already done if I wasn’t quite fast enough. Rather than losing my temper (which would be easy to do if feeling frazzled) it made me even more determined that he should feel success and complete the task. I think at one point he got up to wander off and give up. It was hard to know how far to push him but I knew that he wouldn’t think he could do jigsaws unless he actually did one so I pretty much made him come back and finish it off. I gave a lot of help and short of actually putting the pieces in place for him, heavily scaffolded the task. All the while a part of me wondered if I was placing too much pressure on him as perhaps he actually wasn’t capable of doing it?

However, jigsaw finally completed, we were able to high five, applaud and do lots of bows. Big Bear is always fabulous in these situations and spontaneously joined in with the praise. Now that the marathon of completing one 4 piece jigsaw was over I thought we could tidy up and go to bed. However, to my surprise Little Bear had other ideas. He wanted to do another jigsaw. So off we went again. It wasn’t much easier the second time and Little Bear certainly wasn’t a natural at ‘seeing’ the picture and matching bits together. I thought back to the discussions we’d had with the Educational Psychologist in which he said that Little Bear’s language scores were in advance of his visual skills, a statement that at the time I had felt must be wrong. However, was this the type of thing he meant? I had to agree that what I was seeing was concerning and that without a significant amount of adult support, Little Bear would not be able to complete even a very simple jigsaw at the age of 5.

We persevered and geed on by his previous success Little Bear was pretty determined to complete the next one. That is not to say that he didn’t lose his temper or become easily frustrated but with encouragement and a calm approach and I have to admit, an element of me refusing to allow him to fail at it, we completed another and another and about 5 more. In the end I had to call time on it and put him to bed.

I was astonished when in the morning he wanted to do more still. He got out every jigsaw we own one by one and we painstakingly completed each of them until the playroom floor was covered. I tried to teach him strategies to make it easier e.g. that one has a straight bit. It is an edge. It goes at the side. Or that was has two straight bits. It is a corner. I pointed at similarities between pieces. Look, that one has purple on it too or the cat’s tail is missing, I wonder where it is.

I repeated myself a lot. No matter how much I said it, the task didn’t seem to be getting any easier for Little Bear, not least I suspect because ‘edge’ and ‘corner’ were new words for his vocabulary. But I had to admire his persistence. I don’t think there are many children who would want to keep going and going at something they are finding so hard. I kept the praise level high and despite Little Bear repeatedly saying “I’m rubbish at jigsaws” I tried hard to re-frame that thought and help to show him otherwise. Once the floor was almost entirely covered, he began to admit that he might be The Jigsaw Master.

This was just a couple of weeks ago. Little Bear still likes to get the jigsaws out but now he can complete a 30 piece jigsaw on his own.

Nothing about this situation is as I would have predicted it and it has taught me several things:

Firstly, when Little Bear doesn’t appear to be able to do things, is it because he really can’t or because he doesn’t believe he can? I rather suspect that he often gives up at the first hint of failure as his default position is to assume that he can’t. This leads me to think that sometimes putting a bit more pressure on him to complete a task the first time he encounters it is the right thing to do to show him that he can (with a high level of support of course).

However, it is hard to know which tasks to target and whether it is realistic to expect him to achieve them. Taking a hard approach to tasks that he might not be able to complete would be really damaging.

Secondly, I do feel there was an element of Little Bear having difficulties learning the task. I don’t think he was ever going to spontaneously figure jigsaws out by himself. However, it has shown that with specific teaching he can learn and he can generalise his skills pretty quickly. He needs specific teaching of strategies e.g. he couldn’t notice the similarities between pieces so I had to verbalise things that seemed obvious. Once he has been taught these strategies and there has been a lot of repetition of them, he can apply them well. I suspect this is due to differences in his neural pathways, caused by years of neglect. However, just because he can’t learn something the usual way, doesn’t mean we can’t find a way around it and create a new neural pathway for him.

Thirdly, because of the first and second point, Little Bear can’t really be expected to try new tasks by himself. He needs a grown up by his side to keep him regulated, focused and to give him heaps of positive feedback. I really hope we get the EHCP funding we have applied for as this is the very reason why he needs it.

I have found at home that if I get the support wrong the first time we try a task that can be the end of his engagement with it forever, so good support for new tasks is essential.

I am genuinely shocked at his progress with jigsaws and at what he can do now. The fact that he was so motivated to succeed, despite all the barriers, is nothing short of inspirational. He allowed countless repetitions of the task over the course of a few days which will undoubtedly have cemented his skills much more quickly. He even sat and helped with a huge jigsaw of the world that the 4 of us were working on the other day. It was hard for grown-ups but he now believes he can do jigsaws so wasn’t unduly phased. He did brilliantly and Big Bear got bored before he did.

I am now thinking about what other tasks we could tackle in this way. We have managed it with Maxi Hama beads – we had the same “I can’t do it”, “you do it for me” situation the first time we tried those but by the end of the morning he was pushing my hand away saying “I do it myself”.

I have also noticed that once Little Bear has mastered a task his attention span suddenly increases beyond recognition. His teacher called me in the other day as she was shocked that he had sat on the rug in a corner of the classroom for a whole hour by himself doing jigsaws. They had all been muddled up and he had painstakingly sorted and completed them. She had never seen him concentrate for more than 10 minutes on anything and didn’t know that he could.

This weekend, Little Bear spent several hours making Hama bead creations until he had used every single bead and I had to make a hasty Amazon purchase.

Evidently confidence is playing a huge role in Little Bear’s ability to learn. Little Bear, you really need to believe in yourself as much as I do because what you have achieved so far is nothing short of astounding.

And thank you to the humble jigsaw, who knew I could learn so much from you?!

 

 

 

 

 

Jigsaws

Is creativity beneficial for children?

I recently read a blog post by @butterflymum83 entitled  Can Creativity Encourage Good Mental Health? . In it she talks about her need to have a creative outlet and how having one has helped her to combat Post Natal Depression. It was an interesting read and it made me think about my children and how using creative activities with them has had really positive outcomes too.

Although I consider myself to be a creative person and have always had some sort of creative outlet in my life, I wouldn’t say that either of my boys naturally are, despite having fantastic imaginations.

When Big Bear was small my parenting style was different to how it is now. Between the routine parts of our days I tended to follow Big Bear’s lead. If he wanted to run around dressed as Batman then we did. If he wanted to play Lego and get me to “make the man talk” then I did. I always offered creative activities as a choice but Big Bear rarely chose them. In fact he rarely chose anything that involved sitting at a table.

Fast-forward to last year when I now had two boisterous boys to entertain throughout the school holidays. I realised my parenting style had to change. It was impossible to follow two children’s leads at the same time, especially when one child needed close supervision and the other needed to know that my love and attention for him had not been usurped by his brother. Ideally I needed chunks of the day where both boys were in the same place doing the same thing so I could be with both of them. And to be honest, for my own sanity, I did want some quieter times when they weren’t both running around crazily.

The truth is: I have hoodwinked my children into crafting! I took to setting up activities at the kitchen table then calling both Bears to me. They would walk through the door, I would pop an apron over their heads before they even noticed and the next thing they knew they were sitting down getting creative. I quickly discovered that despite the activities not being of their choosing they both loved them anyway.

You can separate the kinds of activities we do into two broad categories: those where I provide the raw materials and the boys just go for it in a ‘creative free for all’ and those where there is a specific outcome that we are aiming for. I have found that both have their own merits.

Having a creative free for all

I mean activities such as painting, Play-Doh, Kinetic sand, decorating biscuits, glue and glitter, Lego without instructions etc.

I started with these activities for Little Bear because he didn’t have much experience of crafty-type things and following the rules was extremely difficult for him. These tasks have very few rules (mainly just staying on the messy mat) so there wasn’t much for him to oppose. They were fairly low risk for this reason and therefore there was a good chance of success for him. Also, most of them are very sensory and suited his level of play at the time.

Whilst a creative free for all was ideal for Little Bear, they were generally fun and accessible for Big Bear too. One of the first times the Bears played together properly they were making Play-Doh ice creams.

My main reason for loving a creative free for all is the huge opportunity for praise-giving that it provides. Because there is no aim or expected end-product, literally anything goes. Imaginations can run wild and free and even if they don’t, you can still say that whatever they produce is beautiful.

Thankfully both Bears are accepting of praise. That being the case I don’t really think it is possible to give them too much. A creative free for all allows you to praise how hard they are trying (my favourite thing to praise), how neat they are being, how expressive/ imaginative/ creative, how well they are sharing materials, how well they are concentrating. The boys seem to have picked up on the positive nature of the task and now take quite an interest in what the other has produced too. They praise each other’s creations which is lovely to witness. They don’t know it, but we are working on lots of other skills while we’re at it. Sharing is one that has improved significantly.

When we have created something we tend to take photos to send to Grizzly or The Grandbearants or we find some space to display it on the shelves. I think this helps the boys to take pride in what they have made and builds their confidence in what they are able to achieve. Little Bear often says “I didn’t know I could make that”.

Over time we have explored different materials such as Bunchems, spray chalk (outside) and most recently craft maize. The latter is our current favourite and kept them both busy for AGES the other day. In fact, the main problem I had was trying to get Little Bear to stop because we needed to go out. You just dampen the maize and it sticks to itself or paper or card. It’s unbelievably easy (I’m not exaggerating, I actually couldn’t believe it was that easy after looking very sceptically at it in the bag) and it doesn’t keep coming apart so has a low frustration factor, which is perfect for the little dude. I highly recommend it.

Creating something specific

I generally mean any creative task that has instructions: baking (I’m nowhere near capable of making it up as I go along); Lego sets; Hama Beads (though you can go rogue); craft kits etc.

I do think children need more of an attention span and a bit of resilience behind them to get creative in these ways. However, I also think that sometimes you have to just try stuff and if you show your child you trust them enough to have a go, they often rise to the occasion.

I remember asking Little Bear’s foster carers if they had ever tried baking with him. They laughed and said “he’s too busy for that” and in so doing wrote off a whole chunk of his potential.

Admittedly I didn’t try it straight away but after a few months when I did, he was far more compliant than usual because the task was so novel and exciting for him. I love the photo I have of him proudly clutching the tray of cookies he made.

Because most of these activities are fun for children I think they are a good time to practise listening to instructions. The motivation to complete the task usually helps with the listening part. Obviously we’ve had our challenging moments but I’ve generally found that the natural consequence of not being allowed to complete the task if you can’t be sensible with it seems to keep them on track.

Little Bear continues to find tasks with too many steps of instructions difficult e.g. building a Lego model but I think the practise is helping to build his resilience and attention span. Getting to the end of a task (even if it’s with help) seems really beneficial. Seeing the end result and being able to say “I built that” (or “I builded it by my own” to be more accurate) is brilliant for both Bear’s confidence and I feel encourages them to have more of a “can do” attitude when faced with other challenges.

 

Now that both boys are in formal education I’ve noticed that the curriculum doesn’t seem to allow much space for expressing yourself so it feels even more important to facilitate creativity at home. I also feel that having more of these tasks around and having gently nudged the Bear’s in the right direction with trying them, they are both much more likely to choose them of their own volition now. This has definitely helped with getting Big Bear off his IPad (I know there is a place for technology but I honestly feel that Big Bear’s growing addiction to it was making him sad). I think he is much better now at finding something to do and doing it, rather than wandering about moaning he’s bored.

The benefits of getting creative have been wide and far-reaching for us. Apart from anything else, we enjoy doing the activities together and that alone is reason enough to carry on. I am struggling to think of any negatives, apart from the tidying up and the stress of having to surreptitiously bin a creation or 3 every now and again to make space for new ones!!

I distinctly remember a little girl we know constantly getting told off for not colouring in the lines when she was very small. It really upset my belief in freedom of expression. Creativity should be all about what you CAN do and not at all about what you can’t. Who cares about the lines? Draw in them, on them and outside of them if you want to.

 

 

Is creativity beneficial for children?