Monday, 29 October 2012


Between Hurricane Sandy, my parents' visit and my writing commitments else-site, I've not got time for decent writing here.  Still, I'd like to plug this:

Roominate: the wired building toy for girls

This is a new toy, and I am dying for it to be a success.  I've grumbled about gender bias in toys before, and though I wish this wasn't marketed exclusively to girls, it side-steps most of my issues.  It's too old for my daughter (and my son), but this is the kind of thing I'd love for her to be playing with when she's older.

So I'm spreading the word, hoping that Roominate flourishes and also hoping that other toy manufacturers take notice!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Rules of the Table

A few months back, my son suddenly discovered a liking for hot dogs, and I was overjoyed.  Then I recalled that hot dogs were junk food and I felt guilty... but still disproportionately pleased.

It isn't that I'm a big fan of hot dogs, but all summer it seemed like the only safe lunch (and sometimes dinner) was a peanut butter sandwich.  The possibility of having something new and different was like a gift from the heavens.  Not to mention it involved meat (technically).  Perhaps this would be a gateway food.  So yes, we have had hot dogs and rolls in the house ever since, though I don't make them more than once a week if I can help it.

The Ideal and the Reality

Of course, I should not cater to my children's limited palates and only feed them things that I think they'll eat.  I should make things that I like, because it broadens their palate to something compatible with our family.  And also because I can guarantee my own satisfaction, whereas I'm eternally gambling on the children's.  This is something I absolutely believe in, with one qualification--I should make sure that they get meals they do like with reasonable frequency so that mealtime doesn't become a thrice daily ordeal for them.

Yet this theory is not easy in practice.  Every time I serve up something the children don't like, I have to deal with it.  The whining, the refusal to eat, the tantrums when they are not permitted a treat or a snack afterwards....  Most of the time, I don't feel prepared to deal with that.  And most of the time, I try to be good and deal with it anyway, but there will always be a couple of days a week where I take the easy option of the peanut butter sandwich. 

Or at least, that was the easy option, until my daughter decided she didn't like them.  Praise be the lowly hot dog!

So my new project in my ongoing self-improvement quest is our eating habits.  And it starts with the actual process of eating rather than what we eat.  After all, for the past three years, figuring out how to calmly navigate the treacherous politics of mealtimes has taken all my attention.

The Fussy Eater

The children and I eat all our meals together.  Daddy joins us for dinner (and sometimes breakfast).  The children were both brought up on the baby-led weaning method which purports to create less fussy children (among other benefits).  I was skeptical about that and it certainly didn't work out for me, but I was still very satisfied with the "learning to chew before learning to swallow" approach and would recommend it to anybody. But that would be another post altogether.

My twenty month old daughter has just transitioned from the baby who loves food and will eat anything to the picky toddler who has been known to take one look at her plate and burst into tears.  My son, who will be four in two months, has only recently emerged from a two year stint of being utterly fickle with his food, his tastes changing from one season to the next with almost every meal being an exercise in negotiation.

At least we have had two years of experience to settle into a consistent standard--or so you'd think.  Our paediatrician always tells me: "Don't make a battle out of eating, because you will lose."  We still have varying success here, since it is so very difficult not to start down the road of: "Just eat this bit." Or "This is chicken, and you like chicken."  However, we do have our consequence set, even if I'm still trying not to lose my temper/patience with the child should they choose consequence over eating.
My mantra is "Every time you waste food, somebody goes hungry," accompanied by the tacit consequence "and it's going to be you."  I won't go down the route of serving up the same meal over and over until it's eaten, but after discussions with friends, I am quite confident in letting the children know what an empty tummy feels like.  If you do not eat everything you are given, (and I err on the side of small portions), you will get nothing else until the next meal.

This can have drawbacks, such as when my daughter won't eat more than a bite or two of her evening meal. She goes to bed on an empty tummy and of course wakens up to an hour early (though thankfully, never yet in the middle of the night).  Usually, we'll have some success in getting her back down for half an hour, but I always have to get up early on those days.

That's also the one instance where I don't make her wait until the next meal.  I don't want to throw out the morning routine by doing breakfast early, but I won't leave her ravenous when breakfast is ninety minutes away.  So she gets a banana as a snack.  That's the only exception I will make to the rule though.  There have been times when a refused lunch led to six hours of an empty tummy and cranky child.

What makes it harder with her than with my son is that her brother now finishes his meals regularly and is allowed to eat between them.  I confess that we do reward empty plates with a treat, and while my son understood the distinction when his sister was allowed one and he wasn't, vice versa has been much harder.  Thankfully, she now does understand the condition, and although I don't want to deliberately tease her, I don't want to hide this direct consequence of her actions either.  She usually watches tearfully while her brother chooses his treat, and then I ask him to go to another part of the house to eat it.

What we've come across with my daughter that I don't recall being such a huge problem with my son is her habit of crying at the sight of her food if it's something she doesn't want to eat.  Ignoring her tears at a family meal does not work out, so my standard solution is to give her a choice between sitting quietly and trying her meal or going straight to bed (she has a nap after lunch and bedtime after dinner anyway).

Invariably, if I put her to bed, she'll be wailing "Mama," after five minutes.  I ask her if she is ready to eat her meal, she nods and we go back down.  After this, she usually sits quietly enough in her chair and tries a few bites, but we do not have eating by any stretch of the imagination.  However, as long as she tries it and stops crying, she will be permitted to get down with the rest of us and play before bedtime.

The other thing I do believe in is meeting her halfway.  As said before, I try not to give her huge portions (she has no qualms about asking for more if she does get something she likes, though she's supposed to clear her plate first before getting second helpings of chicken or what have you).  Her biggest issue seems to be with carbs... She's not a big fan of bread, rice or potatoes--pasta and noodles are just fine though.  So I'm trying to do a couple of extra meals a week with pasta instead of rice (we usually have rice twice a week anyway), and generally make the carb portion of her meals smaller--which is probably an example we should all follow.

The Slow Eater

As I said, my son has recently become much better about trying things and has decided he likes quite a lot of food.  He will even eat things he doesn't like without too much persuasion.  Our new issue with him became slow eating.  He would sit at the table and poke at his food or chatter away and be silly, anything but actually eat.  A lot of it is trying to get us to feed him; as soon as we're finished, he'll declare that he needs a hand.  How I wish I'd listened to the baby-led weaning rule about never feeding him myself!  Of course, I fell into the same trap with my daughter so I am doubtless doomed to repeat this scenario.

Basically, long after the rest of us were done eating, my son would still have 3/4 of his plate left.  Leaving him to it induced a meltdown, thanks to the clinginess I've referred to in my recent posts; even feeding him was a painful procedure as he started fidgeting and playing around, although it was certainly quicker than sitting and waiting for him.

This situation has improved, but unfortunately not by any solution we've implemented.  There are a few things he'll always eat quickly, and in all meals, he likes to say he's racing us and is winning.  I'm not a big fan of making meals a race, but I have not been discouraging him in the least.  Basically, he seems to have motivated himself to improve, so we got lucky.

Even so, he's often the last to finish by a wide margin.  We're still feeding him as a solution, but neither of us want to be doing that for years to come, so we are using his fourth birthday as a cut-off point.  Once he is four, (less than two months now!) he will have to feed himself.  Googling slow eating, incidentally, is pretty depressing.  There's a lot of stories about how nothing helps.  So I think there's going to be a certain amount of us all accepting this--Mum and Dad accepting that he just isn't eating quickly tonight, and my son accepting that we can't sit around the dinner table for an hour keeping him company.

I had one previous experience with slow eating in my teaching days, when I was sitting with a class of older children.  One child always took dramatically longer than everybody else to eat--too long for the time allotted for lunch.  The tip from an experienced teacher was for me to read aloud a couple of chapters of Mr Popper's Penguins after lunch, and those children who had finished (and cleaned up, etc) could come and listen to the story.  It wasn't a magic wand solution, but it was an inducement for everybody to eat promptly, and it meant that the children who had finished were peacefully occupied without disrupting or being disrupted by the children still eating.

There are a few logistical issues with me doing this here, namely that my son starts melting down if he's missing out on something other people are doing.  Still, I am trying to take the tack that it's his own time he's wasting.  We usually watch half an hour of television after dinner, but I have started insisting that he finish his dinner at least half an hour before his official bedtime, or it will be too late to watch anything.  As is often the case, I am not confident that this consequence has produced results, but I am satisfied that there is a consequence.

Table Manners

I admit it.  We're not huge on table manners in our house.  It is only recently that I've felt ready to tackle "Please keep your mouth closed when you chew!" with my son. Cutlery is used as the child desires: my son uses a fork but usually not his knife; my daughter will poke her food with a fork a bit and then use her fingers.  I suppose if my son regresses to fingers in the future, we'll have to make an issue of this, but letting them train themselves has worked so far.  And the children are allowed to get down more or less when they want--I am tired of trying to eat my food while a child is wriggling and crying less than a foot away.

A few months back, I did start stamping down on "I don't like it," since my son had a terrible habit of coming into the kitchen while I was cooking and telling me that.  These days, nobody is allowed in my kitchen if they say nasty things about the food.  Previously, my reply was always "You don't have to like it, but you do have to eat it."  That still gets trotted out sometimes, but we are also making it clear that "I don't like it," is rude.

My anonymous hero here is a woman whose forum post I read years ago on some message board or other.  Apparently, at the first whine about the food, the offending child was sent packing from the table with no second chances or alternative eating options.  I haven't quite had the nerve to do that, but I sometimes wish I did.

So mealtime for us is very much a pick your battle scenario, and most of the work that needs doing I will continue to procrastinate on.  But it is past time for me to firm up the why we eat when and what we eat into a ruleset for nutrition that will be logical for the children--or at least for my questioning son who is very much at the age of trying to understand the universe.  It won't hurt my daughter either.

I'm currently mulling that over and also striving towards healthier eating habits for all of us.  The plan is to post up the results of my cogitation when they've reached coherent form, but that might take awhile....

Monday, 15 October 2012

Tantrum Updates

My daughter is now fine with her shoes.  Mostly.  She'll occasionally still trigger a meltdown because of the way her shoes or her socks (or this morning, her leggings) feel.  Or else she'll be insistent that she puts them on herself, and she can't, so eventually I have to do it for her and she'll have a tantrum over that.  Basically, we still go through at least one tantrum most mornings, and it's very wearing.

The possible silver lining here is that it provides me with an opportunity to talk through my feelings with my son.  This morning, she was sobbing all over me while I was trying to hang up the last of the laundry on the clothes-horse.  Finally, because I was feeling the urge to slap her just to vent my feelings, I picked her up, put her in her room and shut the door for the minute it took me to finish the laundry.

My son asked why I had done that.  I explained that I was getting upset by her crying, and that I was losing control of my temper.  I put her in her room so that I could get a break from her and get back in control of my feelings so I wouldn't shout at her or at him.

It's probably very beneficial for my son to see such an example of how other people process their feelings.  It's a chance for him to think about it when he isn't emotionally affected.  On the other hand, I do feel like I could do with a break from being the example for my son's psychological education.  And when I'm battling to remain calm, it's really really hard to listen to my son's questions without snapping at him to just be quiet and leave me alone!

Oh, first world parenting problems!

Going back to my son's meltdown issues, it turned out that allergies really were playing a larger part than I had realised.  We gave him Benadryl at night for about ten days, then stopped, and he immediately went back to easily triggered tantrums.  Fortunately, the ragweed pollen seems to have stopped, but a big bottle of Benadryl is likely to remain a staple of our medicine cupboard just in case.

Finally, this post at Sense of Wonder is a fantastic suggestion for dealing with meltdowns.  I'm not sure my son's quite there yet, but I plan on practicing this script from now on, at home and in the classroom.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Cold Weather and (mild) Sensory Issues

The weather's turned cold here, which means we're getting into long sleeves, trousers, shoes and even coats again.  Much as I love our long summers, it does have the drawback that the children completely forget what it's like to have clothing on so much of their skin.  I've often had complaints and fussiness from my son about the change of wardrobe, but my daughter, coming into her second winter, is bringing things to a new level.

I did actually have to take her to the doctor about a month ago because she'd been going into hysterics over some capri leggings I'd tried to put on her.  This was following on from occasional agitation with her nappy or sandals, and I wanted to confirm that I hadn't missed anything crazy, such as her hip displasia recurring.  Physically, she passed with flying colours, but the doctor watched her reaction to me putting the leggings on her, and diagnosed some sensory issues.

Although sensory processing disorder can be a real problem, neither the doctor nor myself felt that she has that kind of issue, so the advice was to get her accustomed to the clothing and come back if I feel it's out of hand (spoiler alert: it's not).

Shoe Issue (bless you!)

Anyway, with a bit of persistence (and protest on her part), she's comfortably wearing leggings and long sleeves.  On Monday, I finally got around to buying her a pair of shoes (as opposed to sandals).  I'd been holding back on this a bit, because she's got wide feet, which means I'm not just going to pick up a cheap pair at Target.  I want something that will fit properly (and that isn't pink.... seriously, why do we have so much pink on girls' shoes?  It's not a neutral colour!  I want something that can go with everything!).

So we went to Stride-rite, and she was in heaven because she adores shoes.  She wanted the Spiderman ones, and I was tempted because she does have a lot of red and blue outfits, but then I saw the price tag Spiderman commands and moved to more standard fare instead.  A non-pink pair of wide-fitting shoes with a butterfly motif (she likes butterflies!) was located, we donned socks, she tried them on and everything was absolutely fine.  Sale!

Then the next time I put them on her, about an hour later, she took one step and had a meltdown, desperately trying to pull them off her feet.

I know they fit perfectly.  I know they're well-made.  I know she can walk comfortably in them.  I think that the actual problem might be the toe-seam in her socks, but I'm not sure if I can avoid that.  At any rate, I can't afford to buy a bunch of different shoes to find a pair that works (though I might have to look into some different socks).

So, it's time to be cruel to be kind, and de-sensitise her.  I have some tactile sensitivity myself, and I've chosen that option before too.  Ultimately, she's going to need to wear shoes, and there's no easy way forward for that.

Operation Shoe-Acclimatisation Begins

We started yesterday, at T J Maxx.  I put her in the car barefoot, and put her shoes and socks (and coat) on only once we arrived.  She started shrieking immediately, so I carried her into the store then set her down, and let her go into full on tantrum mode.

The best way for getting my daughter out of a tantrum is to let somebody else deal with it.  She will be so horrified that she'll immediately gain control of herself so she can rush to me.  When I'm on my own, that's not an option.  In those instances, my policy is to crouch down beside her and offer a hug, but she has to get up to receive it, and I'm not waiting around for it.

Yesterday, my conciliatory offer resulted in her screaming the place down.  I gritted my teeth, stood up and browsed the nearby clothing ignoring her.  Eventually, she pulled herself up and came to me, and when I picked her up, she immediately put her head on my shoulder and started sucking her thumb, the surefire sign that the tantrum is over.

I carried her like that for a minute then set her down, and she happily ran all over the store for the next twenty minutes with all footwear on.  Then we got back into the car for a five minute drive to Target--and she pulled her shoes and socks off.  Sure enough, she melted down the moment I tried to put them back on.

I experimented with a different tack which was to sit her in the trolley (cart for Americans) and tell her that she had to wear her shoes if she wanted to get down and walk.  I spent ten minutes trying to do my shopping while stopping my screaming toddler from hauling herself out of the trolley.  Then I wrestled her into the shoes and repeated what had worked in T J Maxx.  Again, once she'd had her tantrum and calmed down, she wandered about in her shoes quite happily.

We went to the library that afternoon... lather, rinse, repeat....  It's going to be a rough couple of weeks.

Onwards and Upwards

That said, I'm already feeling more confident.  Today although getting shoes on was just as much of a nightmare, once she was settled with them, she did not stop to take them off.  With her sandals, it had become very common for her to sit down after fifteen minutes or so and pull them off, and she couldn't last a car journey with them.  Instead, I had to tell her to take her shoes off when she climbed on the sofa, and later on, when she went for a bath.

So there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Unfortunately, I'm still not sure how long this tunnel is.  I just know it's going to involve at least two tantrums a day and stressed out Mum and big brother (big brother can get very upset by her tantrums, but he was a hero this afternoon and blew raspberries on her tummy while I put her shoes on).

One thing I might do is buy a cheap pair of fleece-lined crocs knock-offs for when we're just popping out to hang up the washing, or if she wants to go out on the deck.  I'm not a big fan of crocs, but that style of shoe is meant to be good for kids with sensory issues, and she'll be able to put them on herself without having to worry about socks.  They can function as slippers too... if I'm really lucky, perhaps her slipper-hating brother will want some of his own.

So just the latest in the expected line of parenting hurdles.  If nothing else, I finally have stories of public tantrum embarrassment to proudly share with other parents.  My son never went in for them, and I've always felt somewhat sheltered, as a consequence.  Not any more!