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Nanny Newsletter - November 2010

Uh-oh, it’s time again for school! Here’s something on snacks for school and such -- do you ever get tired of providing food for every event your children attend? Then a piece about a toddler who wants to join the adult conversation but can’t get anyone’s attention. And finally an introduction to a different kind of language, one to help you beat the Terrible Two’s.

Snacks Without End/unceasing

I always try to help out in the church kitchen at fundraising-brunches. I meet people, I keep busy, and I get to sample everything. I sometimes cook something as well, and bring it with me.

But recently I rebelled: another brunch requiring another donation of both time and a dish. I refused. At about the same time I read a New York Times column protesting the need for parents to provide snacks for every event, every party, concert, reception, or soccer game -- don’t people get enough to eat at home? No wonder America is getting fat.

I’m not sure what to do about the expectation of refreshments, and I think the potluck approach is nicer than leaving the host to do all the cooking -- after all, he/she also needs to clean before and after, and it’s really too much.

But maybe feeding people is not the best way to love them. Or maybe feeding them is fine but deserves more thought, more consideration for those who’d rather NOT eat sweets and fatteners. In fact, we encourage bad choices rather than discouraging (or ignoring) them: we buy cookies or chips instead of taking the time to make something fresh.

How about this: instead of putting out cookies and cakes and chips and sweets, we consider fruits, large or small -- grapes in small bunches, tangerine sections or apples whole or dried for the quick pickup and maybe cheese chunks for protein, or even celery, carrot sticks, or veggie morsels with or without hummus.

And the board needn’t necessarily groan with food, either. I noticed at a party recently that our hosts put out only one setting of refreshments, -- no refills offered. When the food stopped looking wonderful and started looking only slightly (but still) tempting, it was time to go home anyway

Follow Through

As a former Montessori teacher I’m always interested in the interactions between adults and the children we spend time with, whether our own or someone else’s. For the month of August I lived with a family in Brittany, France, who have a three-year-old girl named Chan (pronounced Shan, Breton for Jeanne). Chan is of course a delight and her parents are very clever and attentive, but Chan has her moments. When they occur I find myself wondering how Maria Montessori might have responded.

For instance, when Chan is given potatoes that she hasn’t asked for (even though she likes them); or when no one is listening to her conversation, -- when adults are just having their own conversations and she wants to participate, -- she may get very loud or even throw something on the floor. Then all conversation will have to stop while the matter is addressed.

Is Chan spoiled? Are her parents doing something wrong?

To me, the reason is not so obvious. It’s not that her parents are “spoiling” her. It’s more that they are unaware of the basis of the problem.

Maria Montessori pointed out that toddlers have a particularly sensitive period for order. They are in, or approaching, their Terrible Two’s. No longer babies, they are very small children, miniature versions of the adults they will, with a few changes, become. They are growing up.

Put yourself in a position like Chan’s: if you were in transition, perhaps starting a new job or about to lose one, or in some new social situation for which you aren’t quite equipped, wouldn’t you be on edge, maybe even testy? If you found yourself repeatedly in such a situation, what would you do?

Toddlers have to work from what they already know about the environment and their own needs within it: who does what and when and how. What they need and don’t need, or at least what they may feel that they don’t need, is a potato just now. They don’t want or to have someone else serve them a potato when they were just about to serve themselves, -- whether they are doing it “right” or not.

In other words, excess adult intervention tells children that they don’t themselves know what they want, that adults know best. To the contrary. When children are learning the art of knowing and choosing, they need a little slack. If they don’t build on what they already know, how will they learn? When she didn’t “know” what she wanted, Chan was content to be served, but now she knows.

Another example. Imagine that you are starting a new job with a boss who constantly looks over your shoulder to say you are doing it wrong. Worse yet, no one tells you exactly how you should do it. Meanwhile you try constantly to communicate your needs and no one listens.

You’d cry, too.

Toddlers are moving from utter dependence to increasing measures of independence. They can walk, run, feed themselves, toilet, and talk a bit. Increasingly they can say what they need to say and do what they need to do -- just not always exactly when we want them to. Chan is experimenting with finding (or creating) a pause in the conversation that allows her to express her own interests. She wants to share in the conversation.

What Chan’s parents need to do is to respond to Chan before she has a tantrum, so that the tantrum is not what they respond to but the need from which it springs. This means that when her parents are talking, they need to keep an ear open to Chan as well -- not so easy, but doable for the few weeks it takes a toddler to get the point.

They’ll also need to teach her how to find that necessary break in the conversation -- a more subtle skill. It will take longer but it, too, is teachable. Maybe Mama or Papa could finish the current thought or sentence, -- while reaching out a hand to touch Chan. That would give her the sense of attention but also of the need to wait.

So when your infant has a tantrum, try not to launch immediately into the standard response of many, many parents, i.e., scolding. Better yet, try not to shut your toddler’s signals out from your adult conversation. Come up with a signal (such as touching the child lightly, or putting your arm around her) that says, “In ten seconds I will respond -- try to wait.”

And follow through.

A Language That’s Better for Babies

If only we could understand what babies want. If only they could talk.

Of course babies can and do communicate, although not in words. They cry and thrash about, tighten up, or smile and wave their arms. They reach for and often grab what they want.

It turns out that a baby’s muscular development, if not his or her tongue and lips, is capable enough of communicating clearly when channeled. Hence baby sign language.

After all, sign language starts with body language -- adults and children alike communicate nonverbally all the time. Why not explore this capacity? It would be worth it to avoid the tantrums of the terrible two’s, when a child will sense the need to communicate but be utterly frustrated by the inability to put it into words.

The advantages of sign language go beyond infancy. There are always moments in life when a silent signal trumps words. Consider these situations: you want your child to say “Thank you,” but she doesn’t want to be embarrassed by your reminding her audibly. Your little boy needs urgently to pee but is on the other side of the room. Your daughter doesn’t like someone but shouldn’t say so aloud....

Signals are of course useful between adults, too. You want to leave a boring conversation or party but your husband doesn’t realize it. Or much later in life, when hearing may deteriorate with old age and your children need to communicate, wouldn’t it be nicer if they didn’t have to shout? Baby sign language is as simple as waving “bye-bye.”

Here are some signs to get you started. They cover the most basic needs -- see if they don’t make sense to you. They might come in handy.
  1. It looks like Baby is hungry/thirsty and wants to nurse: Hold your dominant hand (right hand if right handed, left hand if not) horizontal and open at breast level, palm facing inward. Open and close your fingers. At the same time provide the words you would like to teach: “You’re hungry/thirsty? Would you like to have a little something?” Or, “Oh, that’s what you want...” The child may use the same signal upon seeing another baby nursing, to say that he is hungry, too.
  2. If Baby can drink from a bottle or cup, here’s that sign: With your hand closed as if for hitchhiking, raise it to point your thumb at your mouth. Again, be sure to give the words.
  3. Eating, or hunger: Join your fingertips, thumb included and gesture toward your mouth. You might say, “I’m just about to set the table so we can eat. Would you like to help me?“ Or, “What’s in this little box? Ah, raisins. Would you like to have some?”
  4. Here is “Would you like an apple?” Hand open but rounded, as if holding an apple. Raise your hand to your mouth just once. “Would you like to eat some apple? We have one right here!”
  5. Here’s “Would you like to play?” Both hands closed but with thumb and pinkie outward, and held at shoulder level, rotated twice as if for puppets. “Shall we play a game?” Or, “You see your friend Charley -- shall we go play with her?” “Let’s play a game. What would you like? Pat-a-cake? HIde-and-seek?”
These signs all make sense to me. But perhaps through a desire to keep most signs at chest level (visible above the waist), some are less transparent, more arbitrary. “Pee-pee” is indicated with thumb extended, as if for hitching, but pointing twice at the sternum. “Bowel movement” is signaled by pointing twice, with index finger, at one’s throat. Advocates of American Sign Language (ASL) ask that the signs they teach not be altered, so that a tradition of signs will be available to all. But you can add your own signals if when they come naturally to you -- they just won’t be useful with other people. such as a deaf person or the child of another family.
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