Category Archives: Parenting Skills

Traveling with Children

Traveling with young children can be challenging! But there are many things you can do to help it go more smoothly. Here’s the TL; DR, with links to more details below.

  • Cultivate Flexibility: Even when not on vacation, use flexible routines to help your child learn to adapt to change.
  • Plan Carefully: Think about your child’s basic needs for sleep, meals, down time. Can you schedule travel times to be compatible? Can you choose lodging that’s a good fit? Is there another adult who could travel with you – that’s more fun, plus an extra set of hands.
  • Prepare Your Child: If they know what to expect and what’s expected of them, it will be much easier for them to behave well.
  • Packing for the Trip: Pack light so you’re not juggling lots of heavy suitcases and cranky children. Strategize ahead of time how you’ll carry everything.
  • Pack a Carry-On Bag of items you’ll need easy access to. Include: snacks, a water bottle, extra clothes.
  • Activities to Keep Kids Busy while traveling include: reading materials, activity books, art supplies or drawing tools, painter’s tape, assorted small toys, a tablet/phone with headphones, and a parent with ideas for fun games to play while sitting still.
  • On your travel day, dress in comfortable clothes, allow lots of extra time, and try to model calm, patience and flexibility.
  • If you’re traveling in 2021, learn more about COVID safety issues.

Let’s look at all those points in more detail.

Long Before Traveling – Develop Flexibility

Young children thrive on predictable routines. Repeating the same behavior over and over helps them to learn how to do it independently. Knowing what to expect helps them to behave well.

However, you want to be sure to build flexibility into the routines, and be careful not to be too rigid. For example, if your child will only go to sleep in their bed, with their fluffy comforter, and these twelve stuffed animals surrounding them, that will make bedtime on vacation very challenging! I try to create portable rituals. For example, my son likes listening to music at bedtime – we use a Pandora playlist that is available on all our devices and even offline so we can have it anywhere (as long as a device has battery life left.) Although my daughter loved being surrounded by stuffed animals, we practiced having her choose just one on some nights so that on trips that would be a familiar situation.

Also, practice skills at home that your child may someday need on a trip. Take rides on your local bus. Go to the mall to learn to ride an escalator. Eat at restaurants. Use porta-potties. Go places where they have to wait in line with you for something. Try a small local water slide before a trip to a huge water park. Before going camping, first try using the sleeping bag in the house. Then try camping in a tent in the backyard. Don’t try all these sorts of things for the first time while you’re on a big holiday trip you invested a lot of money into!

During coronavirus, your child may not have had many outings in the world, so they may need extra practice at things like staying at the table in a restaurant, or sitting in a car seat for a long time.

Planning the Trip

In my personal experience – your mileage may vary – vacations with young children have to be primarily planned around the children’s needs first, and it is easiest for me to think about it as “I’m taking my child on a vacation and will adapt as needed to make sure they enjoy it” rather than getting caught in a trap of “this is MY vacation, and I need it to be exactly what I want it to be.” Around when my kids reach age 6 or 7, that shifts, and their vacation is also totally my vacation and equally enjoyable for us both.

So, think about your child’s napping needs. Think about how much stimulation they can take in before they melt down. Think about their food and mealtime needs. Their attention spans. What time of day they are most flexible and willing to do anything. Do they do well in the car seat for long trips? If you first attend to making sure your child’s bodily needs are met, then it’s easier to plan in fun activities and have them be successful.

For example, if booking a flight, will you be more successful if you travel mid-day than if you have an early flight you have to drag your child out of bed, or if you have a late evening flight that is past their bedtime? (On the other hand, for road trips, we often plan our driving for early morning, nap time or after bedtime so our child will sleep in the car…)

When choosing lodging, having a kitchenette may give you more flexibility for meals; having a washer/dryer can be helpful; having a hotel “suite” with a living room may make evenings more manageable as you can put little ones down to sleep in one room while adults relax in another room. Also, consider airbnb or VRBO instead of hotel rooms. It’s not always a good match, but I personally like sharing walls with as few people as possible when I’m traveling with a baby who might cry in the middle of the night. (I also preferred it when traveling at the peak of coronavirus as there’s fewer people sharing the same spaces than at a hotel.) And they may have an outdoor area where your child can play.

Many parents choose to travel to the same place over and over in those early years so they know how everything works there and they don’t have to keep figuring new things out for every summer – plus, you can have fun traditions like taking pictures of your child in the same place and see how much they’ve grown. You can save the more adventurous travel for when they’re older (or when you get an opportunity to travel on your own without kids!) When I was growing up, in a family with 4 kids spanning 10 years, we traveled in a motorhome, so that we could have lots of familiarity surrounding us as we ventured to new places.

You can choose cheap vacation destinations for young kids. Pick any small town with a cheap hotel, a playground, a lake or stream to wade in and throw rocks in, trees to climb, places to go for long walks, and a library to drop into for some story-time. Your child will be perfectly content. I also find this makes decision making easy… when there’s only a few restaurants in town, you don’t have to debate where to go… you just say “I guess on Tuesday night we’ll have Mexican and Wednesday night we’ll go to the soda fountain.”

You can save the exciting destinations for when they’re older and will appreciate them. We went to the world famous San Diego Zoo when my oldest was two. He spent the day being fascinated by the manhole covers in the sidewalk. Luckily, my husband and I thought the zoo was great!

Consider traveling with family members or adult friends. When my older kids were in elementary school and middle school, they weren’t that excited about visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Wyoming, but were very excited to MEET Grandma and Grandpa in San Diego or at the Grand Canyon or whatever. It was a fun vacation for everyone. When my youngest was little, my sister-in-law was our ” vacation nanny.” We’d meet at our destination, and that meant there was one more grown-up to help with the baby, but also meant that we could leave one grown-up with the napping child while the other two went to a tequila tasting.

If you’re planning to visit attractions, purchase your tickets in advance online if possible. It can be cheaper, and also means you won’t be disappointed by something being sold out when you get there.

Prepare Your Child

Tell your child what to expect and what’s expected of them. Sometimes I see parents scolding their children saying “would you just behave??” And I wonder – does your child know what that means? Seriously – if your young child is in a new environment, how can you expect them to intuit what the rules are there?

So, talk to them about what the plans are for the trip. Pay particular attention to explaining things they might be experiencing for the first time (or in a new way… if they were there as a toddler one year ago, then it will be a whole different experience as a preschooler!) Think ahead where the trickiest parts of the trip will likely be, when you’re trying to attend to adult issues on adult timelines and may not have your full attention available to explain things to them… think about getting through airport security or about setting up a tent or transferring from one train to another. Walk through those tricky parts in detail.

You can also find books and videos about traveling which will help them learn more about what that is like. For example, here are three videos about what to expect at the airport: One from TSA about security: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHjlN5lzCjM; an airport tour with a puppet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-OzTvCzt2o; or with a child guide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OT8XZUZFuWE. Here are recommended books about camping, and more books about camping.

Look for “social stories.” These are prepared for children with autism, but can be helpful for any child. Search online for social stories for general experiences, like the airport or the airport with COVID protocols or amusement parks) or some museums and attractions have their own social stories.

Packing for the Trip

Lots of “travel with toddlers” tips start with a big list of all the things to pack and talk about how important it is to have everything you’re used to having with you when you’re traveling.

That is NOT my approach. I believe in traveling light because some of my most miserable moments of travel have been about trying to schlep too much luggage, abandoning valuable items while chasing children, and struggling through a bus door with suitcases hanging off both shoulders.

Before you start thinking about what to bring, first ask yourself: Realistically, how much can you carry while tending to children? I saw one suggestion which was “don’t pack more bags than you have hands”, but even that can be problematic if your hands are likely to be carrying a child who is tired and cranky.

I find roller bags can be tricky to pull when you’ve got a toddler by the hand, so backpacks can be easier since they leave your hands free. Some parents recommend having 3 – 6 year olds start being responsible for their own bags, and that’s great… but make sure you’ve also planned for how you can add their bag to your load when that backfires. Some parents love traveling with a stroller (often loading it with the luggage while they hold their child). Others find it’s just one more thing to schlep. (A mom I know who travels solo with kids highly recommends a low cost travel stroller.) Some parents use a toddler harness with a leash to make sure their child doesn’t escape them at an inopportune moment. If I’m flying in the winter, I either leave extra space in suitcases so I can shove our coats in before we check the bags, or if we’re doing carry-ons, I bring a plastic or cloth bag I can shove all the coat in to keep them together in the overhead. In the summer or on spring break escapes, I always have plastic bags for wet swimsuits that didn’t dry before it was time to pack.

Regarding car seats and airplanes: my preference if I’m traveling with a child under one is to check the carseat and wear the baby. For one to four year olds, it’s nice to have the carseat on the plane because that can keep them contained for more of the flight rather than wanting to run up and down the aisles. If you have not purchased a seat for a toddler, and it turns out that there is not an extra available, you can gate check the carseat.

It is a pain to carry carseats through airports. Make a plan for how to carry it easily – can you put it in a bag to carry it? Strap it to a suitcase? Here’s info from the FAA about how to use a car seat or a CARES harness on a plane. https://www.faa.gov/travelers/fly_children/

For bigger equipment, like carseats, strollers, and cribs / pack-n-plays, you may be able to borrow one or rent one at your destination. It’s not likely to be the newest or nicest one, but should be serviceable. I’ve known some grandparents to purchase needed items at a consignment store, and then when the children go home, sell it back to the same store.

Food: My oldest child was a flexible eater, who was happy to eat almost anything anywhere. My youngest is super picky. So, on all trips, I have a stash of snacks in the suitcase that I know for sure that he will eat. Otherwise, we don’t pack a lot of food for trips because I don’t want to schlep it and I don’t want to spend my vacation time cooking and cleaning. So, we often just hit a store when we get there and get simple things like cereal, cheese, crackers, fruit, veggies and dip. And we eat one meal out a day for nutritional variety and as one of the “events” of the day.

When I’m packing, my approach is to pack the minimum I think I’ll need. After that, I ask myself – “if I don’t have that, what will that mean?” For example, I now always bring a few Tylenol and a few allergy meds on every trip because of multiple holidays where we had to abandon plans to search out meds and then pay ridiculous prices for a large bottle when we only needed one. And Tylenol is small, so that’s an easy decision to make! For other things I’ve thought: “if it turns out I need another sweatshirt, I can always buy one in a gift shop.” When packing, I have that willingness to buy items if I end up needing them, and it actually has turned out that I’ve almost never really needed anything beyond that minimum that I had packed.

I involve the children in choosing a few comfort items to bring along (like a small stuffed animal), but I also make sure they know that we won’t have as many toys there as we do at home, and that’s OK, because we’re sure to find new and interesting things to do there. (This lack of distractions from home can actually help you be more present and more open to discovery on your trip.)

Packing the Carry On

Whether we’re traveling by plane, train, or automobile, we always have a “carry-on” bag packed with the items that need to be easy to access. I’ll sometimes even pack one for going to a restaurant or to grandma’s house where my child may be expected to stay in one place and quietly play.

I don’t like a bag with a lot of pockets where I need to put things away “just right” for them to fit. I like a tote bag or messenger bag I can shove things into quickly. I use a lot of ziplock bags to organize things in the bag – the extra clothes are in one baggy, the electronics in a baggy, the snacks in a baggy… then it’s easy for me to reach down, and pull out the bag for what I need without rummaging through everything. Also, when I had multiple small children I had separate toy bags for each.

Here are some suggestions to get you thinking about what your child needs in their carry-on:

  • pacifiers or teething toys – have extra in case one gets lost or dirty
  • wipes and diapers – have more diapers than you expect to need
  • have some napkins or wet wipes handy for clean-ups
  • extra clothes for the child, and maybe for the parent (I have a friend who swears that every time she went on a plane from her children’s birth to age 10, they ended up spilling a drink on her.)
  • smartphone or tablet loaded with interesting content (make sure it’s fully charged!!) plus headphones your child is willing to wear
  • snacks – think about things that don’t make a lot of crumbs (like muffins!) or are hard to re-seal and will get goo everywhere (like yogurt tubes). I personally prefer large items they take bites of (chewy granola bars or protein bars, string cheese, fruit strips, applesauce packets) to lots of little bits that get dropped (goldfish crackers, pretzels). But other parents swear by the trick of getting a pill organizer or “snackle box” and filling each section with tiny snacks like Cheerios, raisins, nuts, M&M’s to keep the child occupied for a long time with opening sections and eating little bits.
  • a sippy cup for water (if you’re traveling by plane, fill it after security)
  • if you’re flying with an infant, be sure you know TSA rules for packing breastmilk or formula – https://www.tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures/traveling-children
  • for plane rides: the pressure changes during takeoff and landing can be really hard on a baby or child’s ears, causing a lot of discomfort and leading them to cry a lot. For a baby, plan to nurse or give a bottle during these times. For an older child, have them chew gum, suck on a lollipop, or use a sippy cup with a straw to relieve the pressure on their ears
  • toys / activities to keep them entertained (see below)
  • a plastic bag – for trash, for wet clothes, for an “I don’t have time to re-pack these things properly so I’ll just shove them in here for now bag)
  • Whatever you as a grown-up need to survive the trip. For me, honestly, when traveling with small children all I bring on a plane is a bottle of water and something to read – with no real expectation of getting much reading done while keeping the child happy

Keeping Them Entertained

Whether you’re on a road trip, on a bus, train, or plane, or in a restaurant with hangry folks who are all up past their normal bedtime, there will be times on a trip where you just need your child to sit still, and play quietly.

Some entertainment options that work well:

  • Screens. Tablet or phone with books, movies, or apps loaded and ready to go. Yep… no matter your usual attitude toward screen time, this may be a great time for it. Normally I advocate for passive toys to encourage kids to be active, but here, we actually want a passive child so occupying their attention with the screen can be helpful.
  • Reading materials: I like magazines so we can recycle them when my child finishes them and we don’t have to carry everything with us for the whole trip.
  • Puzzle books / activity books: I would take a trip to a bookstore or Lakeshore Learning before a trip and get workbooks.
  • Art supplies / drawing toys: You could pack a small pad of paper and a bundle of colored pencils or markers. These are great for art, but also for all sorts of paper-pencil games like Hangman, Dots, Tic Tac Toe, etc. I also like small white boards and magna-doodle toys – where the drawing stylus is attached by a string and can’t be dropped, and paint with water books, and Wikki Stix.
  • Magnetic travel games, like chess or magnetic tangrams.
  • For toddlers and preschoolers: masking tape / painters tape or post-it notes are so fun to stick down, pull up again, stick down again, and so on. You can make roads to drive their cars around, or draw pictures to stick around them. For older children, I like the removeable, reusable sticker books. (Don’t use regular stickers or you’ll be scraping them off everywhere the child could reach!)
  • For road trips: I love audiobooks and podcasts – it’s a great way to have a shared experience with kids – especially tweens and teens – it gives you something to talk about at the next meal as you reflect on what you heard in the story. I also like singalongs – put on the Beatles and singalong, or sing every camp song you know. (I have great memories from childhood of traveling in the RV, belting out camp songs!)
  • Assorted small toys – you know how random inexpensive toys enter your life from time to time? I’m talking birthday party favors, Happy Meal toys, good behavior rewards from the dentist, and so on. Things that aren’t great toys, but do provide short-term entertainment? Toy cars, plastic animals, and so on… Pull those out for trips. Some parents wrap them up like gifts or as rewards for good behavior, because opening them also keeps the child occupied a little longer, but I don’t like dealing with the mess of the wrapping paper. (Note: save a few toys for the trip home.)
  • Games to play – I Spy, 20 questions, would you rather, I’m going on a trip and so on! Check out my post on Easy Play Anywhere Games for kids age 5 and up.

A few tips on what to avoid:

  • don’t bring anything that is irreplaceable. (Remember how at the start of this article I talked about teaching your child flexibility? If they are utterly reliant on a single comfort item that is irreplaceable and that gets lost or damaged, that can be devastating. Encouraging your child to rotate between multiple comfort items – if possible – gives you more flexibility. And you can leave the irreplaceable one-of-a-kind item at home, and bring the generic, easily replaced item along.)
  • don’t bring expensive or valued items you feel you must bring home with you (I like the freedom of feeling like if I want to, I can leave anything behind and it will be OK – I rarely do, but I like that I could)
  • don’t bring things that are really messy (paint! play-dough, stickers with backings you remove) or really loud (instruments, electronic toys)
  • avoid items with lots of little pieces where if you drop / lose some pieces it will create great frustration (puzzles, Lego sets where they want to follow the instructions precisely, games with irreplaceable pieces)
  • don’t give your child antihistamines to make them drowsy

Travel Day

If you can check in online, print baggage tags online, get your maps ahead of time, or any other preparation, do so! The less you have to juggle on the road while juggling kids, the better. Dress everyone in comfy clothes, with layers to adjust for too much heat or too much air conditioning, and shoes that are easy to get on and off.

Allow LOTS of extra time. More than you think you’ll need! If you get somewhere early, you can always walk around to burn off some kid energy, or play I spy, or whatever, and you won’t be nearly as stressed when inevitable long lines or delays crop up.

The calmer you stay, the calmer your kid will be. If you’re extremely anxious about your baby crying on the plane, they’ll pick up on that anxiety, and be more likely to cry on the plane!

Teach your kid about “Opportuni-pee.” That means when we have a convenient opportunity to make a bathroom stop, we use it, even if we don’t HAVE to pee right then. Not just before you get on a plane or get on the road, but even at the fair or amusement park – when anyone needs to use the restroom, we all take our turn so it will be longer till we all have to stop again.

Be flexible, be nice to people, have fun… model for your child all the best traveler behavior you can think of! My partner calls this Vacation Mode – if you’re actively relaxed and having a good time, it helps those around you do the same.

At Your Destination

In the packing section, I mentioned we don’t bring a lot of toys, other than a comfort item and the distractions in the carry-on. When parents have a lot of attention to give to kids, it’s easy to improvise play activities. When you’re in a new environment, there’s lots of new things to discover and explore.

Some of my favorite vacation memories: fireflies in a midwest campground after dark, collecting a rainbow of colorful rocks in Australia, stacking plastic cups from the airplane with my toddler son, building driftwood cabins on a beach, making “sock bunnies” when we forgot to bring my daughter’s stuffed animal, stacking flat rocks into tall towers, facepaint from a gift shop, cutting out models of the planets from a cheez-it box when my two year old child was obsessed with the solar system, playing whatever board games we find at vacation homes – including the 80’s classic Mall Madness, and making improvised nature art with my toddler when my teen was sleeping in late.

Slowing down to kid speed on vacation and following your child’s lead can take you to some magical places.

COVID and Travel

For summer 2021, you may have questions about the safety of traveling with unvaccinated children. I gathered resources and questions to consider in this post.

Affiliate links: Note that some of the links in this post will take you to product descriptions on Amazon. If you order anything on Amazon after clicking on these links, I do receive a small referral bonus, at no cost to you.

Parenting Style

There is no one right way to parent. We all make compromises each day that juggle the concrete short-term needs of the day with long-term goals for our child, balanced with our child’s temperament and our own. Having a vocabulary for talking about our parenting style can help us make more intentional choices that can guide us, over time, to becoming the type of parent that we want to be.

Let’s start with a quiz. For each spectrum, there will be two statements representing two different parenting approaches. If the one on the left describes you perfectly, make a mark on the left end of the spectrum (yellow). If the one on the right is exactly what you would say, make a mark on the right end. If you’re somewhere in between, mark somewhere in between, wherever feels right.

What is your approach to parenting a 6 month old baby?

Parent-Led. Parents create structure by scheduling feedings and naps. They may leave a baby to “cry it out” so the baby learns to self-soothe. Attachment-Style. Parents watch for baby’s cues to decide when to feed or to settle to sleep. Parents always respond to crying.

What is your approach to early learning? (for a 2 – 5 year old)

Structured learning. Parents buy educational toys, sign a child up for classes, and when they play, the parent works to find ways to teach new ideas. Child-Led. They have a variety of toys, go out on adventures to see what child discovers / decides to do. When they play, parent follows child’s lead

What is your approach to supervising at the playground? (for a 5 – 8 year old)

Close Supervision. Parents help children on the swings, remind them about rules, encourage them to try all the activities and play nicely with others. Free Range. Parents sit back and let child explore – it’s OK to climb up the slide. If kids squabble, parents allow them to sort it out on their own.

What is your approach to school and extracurriculars (for a middle schooler)

Tiger Mom. To get good at anything you have to work hard. Kids don’t want to work hard, so the parents have to push them/make choices for them. Unschooled. Parents trust their child’s choices about what to do, when to eat and sleep. Children learn what they’re passionate about.

What do your answers say about your parenting style?

Parenting styles are often talked about as three categories. If you tended to make marks in the yellow zones, you may be an authoritarian style parent. If you tended to mark blue, you may be permissive. If you were always in between, that’s called authoritative (or balanced).

Parenting Style and Choice

One way to think about parenting style is how you handle choices. A permissive parent offers a wide range of options and lets the child make the choices. An authoritative parent offers fewer options and tries to educate and persuade the child about how to make the best choice. An authoritarian parent offers few choices, generally dictating what will be done.

The permissive parent may value independence and imagination, and believe that if they allow the child to follow their passions, they can trust them to do their best. The authoritative parent may value hard work and smart decision-making that balances short term desires with long-term goals. The authoritarian parent may value obedience, and believe that learning to follow the rules and doing their best at their assigned tasks is the path to success.

Balancing Expectations and Choices

Parents are generally attempting to prioritize their child’s long-term well-being and success, and feel that they have wisdom and perspective that helps them to know what’s best for the child. Children generally prioritize their own happiness in the moment, and don’t worry much about the long-term. So, part of parenting style lies in how we negotiate that conflict.

Parents who have high expectations for their child’s success (however the family defines success, whether that’s in academics, athletics, financial, support for the family, etc.) tend to want more control over their child’s choices, so lean authoritarian or authoritative. Permissive parents may place more emphasis on the child’s happiness than on their accomplishments.

Authoritarian parents believe they know what is best for their child, are not responsive to a child’s individual desires, and apply the same rules in all situations. Authoritative and permissive parents are more responsive to the child as an individual, and also adapt to the situation. (For example, if the child has had a rough week, the parent may let them skip an assigned chore.)

Questions to Reflect On:

What style of parent do you WANT to be?

What type of parent are you on a rough day?

Are you the same style as your parenting partner? Or different? How is that going?

Are you the same style of parent that YOUR parents were? Or are you very different? Why?

Learn More

I’ve written before about the four parenting styles, about other parenting labels like helicopter parents, free range, and tiger moms, and how parenting style might affect how we handle choices in our families.

Here is a free printable handout of this post’s content on parenting style.

Screen Time – Connection, Context, Content

As a parent, you’ve likely seen countless cautions about the potential dangers of screen time for young children, and you’re exposed to continuous marketing of screen content for children. You know the American Academy of Pediatrics says children 18 – 24 months can begin exploring screen content with their parent, and children 2 – 5 should be limited to 1 hour a day, but you know 10 month olds who are proficient at swiping through photos of themselves on a phone. It can be hard to make sense of it all. Instead of the “just say no” approach to screens, let’s try a more nuanced approach:

We argue that this long-held focus on the quantity of digital media use is now obsolete, and that parents should instead ask themselves and their children questions about screen context (where, when and how digital media are accessed), content (what is being watched or used), and connections (whether and how relationships are facilitated or impeded).           

– The Media Policy Project 

Connection – Are Relationships Facilitated or Impeded?

Screens can disconnect us from each other. In natural communication, we have a series of “serve and returns” – you say something, I respond. I ask a question, you answer. Screens can interrupt that. We’ve all experienced a time when someone glancing at their phone, or the TV that is on “in the background”, pulls our attention away from a conversation we’re in the middle of.

If parents are using a screen, we may not notice a child’s bids for our attention, which can lead to attention seeking behavior, risk-taking, and potentially injury. When a child is using a screen, they can seem zoned out and a parent may get very frustrated, feeling like they’re not being listened to. For all of us, we can get very irritable when someone else interrupts our screen use, and there can be a “withdrawal period” where it’s hard for us to disconnect from the screen and re-connect to others.

On the other hand, screens can help us to connect. Long-distance, video chats have been a key way for kids to connect to family and friends who are distanced, whether geographically or due to COVID. There are ways we can enhance the connection – peekaboo, puppet shows, guessing games, reading stories, show and tell, drawing together… And screens can connect us with others right at home if we use them together. Co-watching shows and co-playing games can be fun for both participants, can be an enjoyable shared experience to talk about later, can lead us into great conversations about complex topics that might not come up otherwise, or extend the screen experience into real world experiences (like watching a show about science, then doing a hands-on experiment together).

Goal: Decrease times when screens disconnect your family, increase connection during screen use.

Context – Where, When, How?

Co-watching with our child any time they’re watching would be optimal. But let’s be realistic. One of the biggest reasons parents use screen time is to keep kids busy while we do something else! Screens are the easiest way to take a demanding child and keep them passive, stationary, and entertained. And sometimes, we just need that break. Just be intentional and don’t overuse it. Be mindful about unconscious screen time – the TV that’s on all the time, continuous social media check-ins, the Candy Crush… A question to ask yourself… if I didn’t have the screen option, what would we do otherwise?

Consider screen time limits and curfews. Consider screen-free times (like mealtime, family time). Some families have screen free time one hour per day, one full day each week, one week each year.

Set rules for where screens can be used – many experts recommend children only use screens where parents can overhear / see what the child is watching. Consider screen free places (like dining table, bedrooms). Some families have screens in low traffic areas of the house – out of sight, out of mind.

Some families say screen time has to be earned – the child has to complete chores to earn it. Some offer a standard amount each day, but it’s a privilege that the child can lose as a punishment. These can both be viable strategies, but be careful not to make screens too special – a forbidden fruit.

Goal: Whatever rules you set for where, when, how and how much, be sure they are rules you can stick to and enforce consistently. If you let them cheat it some days, they’ll ask to cheat it every day!

Content – What is Being Watched?

All screen use is not equal. For example, social time on screens, like Skype/Facetime calls to family aren’t really “screen time” – they’re social time where the screen is the mechanism that connects us, and don’t need to be limited as other screen use does. (Although you should still practice good screen hygiene – keep screens 18 – 24” from face, use blue shade in the evening, use good posture during calls, take breaks to rest your body and your eyes, and spend time outside in nature each day.)

There’s lots of great educational content for kids. Don’t feel like your kids have to use screens to learn what they need to learn in life. If there are other things they could be doing in the moment – like finger painting or playing in a playground – do that! But, if there are times they’ll be using a screen anyway, choose content that helps them to learn new ideas (like science shows), or experience things they can’t experience at home (like wildlife shows), or drill them in things that are best learned by rote practice (like learning the alphabet or basic math skills).

When choosing content for entertainment time – whether that’s social entertainment for the whole family, or solo entertainment for the child – there’s a wide range in quality, developmental appropriateness and questionable content in children’s media. Read reviews and seek out recommendations for the best content. A fabulous resource is www.commonsensemedia.org.

Try to minimize addictive content. Many screen time activities have lots of reward moments, where your brain is flooded with dopamines, and you want to keep using to get more of the feel-good chemicals. For example, many apps and video games are designed to keep you playing forever: every time you clear one level, another presents itself and you want to keep on playing. Many video apps will auto-play one video after another. Choose slower-paced, calmer items that you “consume” one at a time, without that same addictive reward process, and without ads that make a child crave more.

Goal: choose age appropriate, educational or entertaining content that matches your family’s values and priorities.

Tips for Reducing Screen Time Battles

Plan your screen time – agree ahead of time on when it will start, when it will end, and what you will do together after screen time. Ask them what reminders they need about the plan – for example, do they want to set a timer they can see? Then stick to the plan!

When you’re nearing the end of screen time, instead of giving warnings that you’re about to take the screen away, give reminders that “when you end screen time well, then we get to…”

Instead of just yanking the screen away in the middle of whatever they’re doing, try “joining them” on screen – watching what they’re watching and talking about it, and seeing when a good endpoint is coming (the end of an episode, the completion of a level). Then gradually transition them off.

Resources

Failing to Meet Your Own Expectations

Before we have children of our own, we typically form a lot of expectations about what it would be like to have children, and expectations of what kind of parent we plan to be. When those expectations meet reality, we may need to take time to re-evaluate and re-adjust our own definitions of what it means to be a successful parent.

What did you expect?

Our pre-parenthood expectations may have been unrealistically optimistic, filled with the sorts of happy, active families having lovely outings that you see in all the commercials for medications that will fix all your ills. We may have imagined that we would always love spending time with our children, and that we’d teach them to love the things we love, and that they would achieve things we had not achieved. Even if we saw other people’s children being challenging or difficult, we may have reassured ourselves that our children would be better, because we would be better parents – we believed that if we just did things right, it would all work out.

Within a few days after a baby’s birth, we typically discover that the reality does not meet our expectations. Even if we “do everything right”, our babies still cry and they still spit up all over us. And often we don’t do things right. We make mistakes all the time as we try to manage this new full-time job we weren’t adequately prepared for. Parenting is hard work! And it’s made harder by the contrast between our expectations and our realities. That contrast is a significant predictor of postpartum depression. Parents with very high, even unattainable, expectations are more likely to experience mental health challenges.

For parents of infants and young children, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on what expectations you hold for yourself, and making conscious choices about adjusting those expectations to make them more realistic and compassionate.

What expectations did/do you have that don’t serve you?

Let’s examine some types of thinking that parents may have which are not helpful.

  • To be a good parent, do you need to be happy all the time? Fully functional, with a clean house, healthy home-cooked meals, and festive decorations for holidays?
  • Should you always know exactly what your child needs? Should you always be able to meet all their needs? Always enjoy spending time with your child? Never speak harshly to them?
  • Is your self-worth tied to your achievements or your child’s achievements? Are you afraid that if anything goes wrong, you’ll be blamed? If you’re coming from a successful long-term career, do you expect to be just as successful at your brand new job of parenting?
  • What criteria do you judge yourself on? Should you never make mistakes? Should you do all the things that other parents show themselves doing on social media?

How would you like to adjust those expectations?

If you find yourself often thinking you’re not a good enough parent, maybe it’s worth re-defining what it means to be good enough.

  • Can you assess your own personal values so you can prioritize putting energy into the things that matter most to you, and let go of the high demands in areas that aren’t that important?
  • Can you role model resiliency for your child? We can’t always control whether bad things happen to us, but we can control how we respond. We don’t always get everything we want, but we can find ways to be happy despite that.
  • What do you want you child to remember from this time? Do things have to be perfect to make good memories?
  • Can you embrace messy moments when things go badly as learning opportunities? Can you remind yourself often that not everything will go as planned, and it’s OK to make the next best choice?
  • Can you admit that sometimes you’re exhausted and overwhelmed and that it’s OK to ask for support? OK to take breaks? OK to prioritize self-care?
  • Can you let go of your not-enough story? Let go of doing things because you think you need to prove your worth, and start believing in your inherent worth.
  • Instead of setting vague goals – “to be a better parent” or unattainable goals – “to never yell at my kids again”, can you set up clear and achievable steps in the right direction?
  • Can you practice self-compassion? I often urge parents to remember the power of the word YET. Instead of thinking your child will never do something, just think “they can’t do it yet.” We can do the same thing for ourselves – we can hold ourselves to high standards AND forgive ourselves for the times we aren’t yet meeting those standards.

I created an exercise you can do to examine your expectations, and to re-frame them into more reasonable, achievable goals. You can do either art or some creative writing of a “job description” in this exercise.

Parenting Advice is not one-size-fits-all

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I remember very early in my parenting career (in the mid-90’s) looking at a parenting book and feeling uncomfortable about the advice I found there – perhaps it was advocating for cry it out as a response to sleep problems or perhaps it was saying to not immediately respond to your child’s cries because it might spoil them. Those types of advice did not feel right to me as a parent at a gut level. Then I found other books that did feel right – (the Baby Book, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, and Our Babies, Ourselves) and I found parent education classes as well. Those resources offered me the opportunity to learn that there are lots of different ways to parent children and no one-right-way-that-fits-all.

All parenting book authors are sharing ideas that worked for them as parents, and worked for their children or maybe that worked for their clients. If their methods work for you and your child, that’s great. But if not, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent or you have bad kids, it just means you need to find different advice. And you especially need to find advice and support that is strengths-based and responsive – instead of things that say / imply “if you do it this way it will always work, and if it doesn’t work then you’re a failure”, seek out things that say “here are some ideas that work well for many families. If they don’t work for you, here are other resources you could try.”

After 27 years of parenting and 23 years as a parent educator, I believe that even more strongly. And, as the parent of children who are “thrice exceptional” – gifted and autistic and ADD/ ADHD, I especially know it’s true. Different children need different parenting styles, and neurodiverse children may need different parenting approaches than neurotypical children.

For example, let’s talk about “picky eaters.” First, I’m going to say that 30 – 50% of parents say their preschool-aged children are picky eaters! So, if you’re in the 50% that doesn’t have this experience, count yourself lucky! (And don’t pat yourself on the back too much… it might be more about the kids’ temperament than about what you did as a parent.) I work with parents to re-frame some of their assumptions about picky eaters, and see things from their child’s perspective, and I give them lots of great tips I’ve gleaned over years in this work. But then someone says “but my kid is really picky – I’ve tried all those tips, and they still won’t eat!” And I say “I know… I’m right there with you.” Because my first child was a flexible, easy kid with food. My second was picky – turns out she has lots of allergies and intolerances and she knew that some foods made her feel sick or in pain – she couldn’t articulate that as a young child – she just was “picky.” And my third child is a whole other realm of picky eater – he has a VERY limited set of food he’ll eat. He is autistic with sensory issues, and has a hard time trusting food – if he has one bad blueberry, then it takes weeks or months to coax him back into trying blueberries again. So, I have another collection of tips for those super picky eaters, and I have a lot of empathy (and no judgment!) for the parents who are managing that.

And toilet learning… well, based both on all the reading I’ve done and classes I’ve taken, plus my own experiences with my 3 kids, I’ve got one set of standard issue recommendations on potty training, and then advanced tips for children who resist toileting. 20% of children go through a phase of refusing to poop in the potty. And 10% of children (usually boys) will have challenges with bed wetting up to age 8. For the parents who are already struggling with challenges, getting well-meaning advice from others who say “it’s easy – just do this and it will work” just makes them feel worse about themselves as parents. It is so much more helpful when someone says “wow, I’m sure you’ve already tried all the usual fixes – I’m sorry they haven’t worked for you. Can I help you find other resources or do you just need someone to tell you – ‘it’s OK, you’re doing your best’?”

Sometimes these challenges and delays will work themselves out if we just wait for it. Sometimes it may be helpful to seek professional support or testing to figure out if our child has particular challenges that need extra intervention. And as you’re working on challenges, it helps to find books, websites, educators, and/or other parents who offer advice that is helpful and relevant to you and to your unique child.

Today, I was reading advice on a parenting site, and I found something that troubled me. (I am not going to share the source, because otherwise the advice on the site was excellent, and I do not wish to criticize their whole approach – only this particular content which I will be contacting them about.) Here’s what it says:

These signs – things they say show you it’s time to set a limit – almost perfectly duplicate any list you can find of common symptoms of autism.

This troubled me, so I wanted to double-check myself on this. I showed this to my 23 year old, who is autistic, and just said “I was reading this blog post on parenting advice, and wanted to know what you think of it.” She immediately said “These aren’t signs that you need to set limits… it’s like they cut and pasted in the wrong list… these are all things that are normal for an autistic kid. They aren’t signs that ‘truly difficult behavior’ is coming… unless you try to force this kid to act neurotypical, and then yeah, you’re going to see some misbehavior!”

I told her that was exactly my impression. And I worry about parents of neurodiverse kids who would see this site and think… “oh, every day my kid shows all these signs! Either I’m a bad parent who is failing to connect with them, or they’re a bad kid with too many behavior problems.”

I do agree with the overall message of the parenting site that image is taken from – the idea that connection is important for discipline. When our children feel connected to us and valued by us, they want to behave well, and are responsive to our guidance.

I think it’s so important for parents and teachers to understand that connection and disconnection can look different for different kids. For example, for some children, it is absolutely true that eye contact shows they’re feeling connected and avoiding eye contact says they know they’re in trouble. However, many (not all) autistic people are uncomfortable with eye contact, and in many cultures, direct eye contact is a sign of disrespect. Demanding eye contact could set off behavioral problems rather than serving as a path to resolve them. For some children, placing your hand on theirs and having a conversation about what is happening will calm them and resolve problems. For other children, when they’re already on the verge of a meltdown, uninvited touch might set them off, or being asked to talk it through may overwhelm them.

If you do have a neurodiverse child (autism, ADHD, ODD, etc.) or if you have any child that seems particularly challenging to manage following typical advice, you may find that some resources are much more helpful to you than others, because they are either specialized for the neurodiverse population or are at least sensitive to it. Things I find particularly helpful are the Incredible Years program and challengingbehavior.org, the work of Ross Greene (“kids do well if they can“), the Zones of Regulation, and webinars from Bright and Quirky.

Another issue with parenting advice is that the vast majority of it is written by white, middle class folks, raised in the United States. (And yes, that description includes me, and I know it creates unintentional biases in my work, so feel free to call me on them!) And the research it is based on was primarily done with white, middle class folks in the United States. (Read this article on why that matters – as they say “the research, and the parenting advice based on it, might not apply to everyone who receives it.”) Thus, advice might be unintentionally racist, or classist, or may simply not be relevant to your life circumstances.

Based on their cultural backgrounds, parents may have different goals for their children, in areas such as independence, individualism vs. collectivism, self-esteem, and behavior, and thus may have different approaches to achieving those goals, such as differences in warmth / affection, responsiveness, and discipline. For example, physical punishment may be more common in some cultures than others, but to understand its function in a family, it helps to understand it in a broader cultural context. While co-sleeping with an infant may be viewed as unusual to some, bed-sharing is common in many cultures around the world, and education related to safer sleep practices should inform parents of how to minimize the risks, rather than condemning the practice. The best advice is responsive to cultural and socioeconomic differences, and acknowledges challenges, and build on strengths. If you feel like what you’re hearing and reading doesn’t suit your cultural values, seek out materials from those who share your cultural background. It is easier to find diverse view in the days of the internet than it was when all publishing was managed by white, middle class folks.

When you seek out parenting advice, I do encourage parents to check out a wide variety of sources to stimulate your thinking – I get really good ideas even from reading things I fundamentally disagree with. They broaden my perspective and cause me to further examine my own parenting choices to be sure they reflect my values and goals, and are helping my child reach their potential. They help me to notice differences between my parenting style and those of others in my community which helps me better explain and interpret what my child and I might see in their classmates’ experiences. And they help me double-check myself to be sure I’m not making any big mistakes. So, do read things outside your comfort zone for the sake of mind expansion.

But, when you’re struggling with a parenting challenge, and feeling discouraged about your parenting skills or your worthiness as a parent, or when you’re feeling really frustrated at your child, seek out the parenting advice that speaks to your soul. Advice that includes methods you can see yourself doing and doing consistently. Advice that seems like it could work for your unique child with their unique personality, strengths and challenges. And seek out the people whose advice acknowledges your strengths at the same time it supports you as you work to overcome your challenges.