How to Raise “Includers”

The cars in the drop-off line moved exceedingly slow one cold morning, and I tried to keep my patience while silently chanting, “Pull forward!”

My daughters and I were almost to the exit spot when I watched two girls hop out of a minivan. In an instant, I saw a pack of Justice-clad tweens swarm one of the passengers while the other stood off to the side pulling her backpack onto tiny shoulders.

“Who are those girls?” I asked.

“They aren’t in my class, but they just really love each other, I guess. They are always hanging on to each other at recess,” one of my kids said.

“Are they nice?” I questioned, eager to hear what they thought.

“Yeah, they are really nice when you are around them. It’s just when they are in a group, they don’t pay much attention to anyone else. Pull up, Mom!” My daughter said this off-handedly, and I could tell she didn’t think much of it.

I watched the gaggle of girls walk up the sidewalk arm-in-arm while the other young student sidled slowly behind them, her head cast downwards.

I did not stop thinking about the incident for the remainder of the day. On one hand, those girls did not do anything wrong but excitedly greet a friend. On the other, they ruined another child’s morning without even trying — without even being aware.

The more I thought about it, the more upset I became.

Why is it so hard to raise nice kids? Kids who are kind, kids who are considerate, kids who include? How do we teach these impressionable minds to be aware of other people?

The answer is obvious. It comes from us. The parents.

How many times do you walk into a room, search out your friends and talk only to them?

Would you rather stick your nose in your iPhone than meet a new person?

How often do you see someone standing off to the side and do not go over and introduce yourself? Even offer a smile?

I’m guilty.

I get it. As an extrovert, I feed off the attention of others. But sometimes I am just tired, too damn tired to strike up a conversation and keep it going with someone I don’t know.

But then I think about that little girl. The one who no one was mean to, but yet was ignored. Not even a simple hello or a nod of acknowledgment. That could be your kid. It could be mine. It may be you, and I know it’s been me.

I am tired of hearing that girls are just mean.

I am exhausted from the excuses for exclusionary behavior.

I am sick of listening to parents saying their kids didn’t do anything. Because that is the problem. They didn’t do anything. We aren’t doing anything.

We are guilty, but too unaware to notice. Too busy to pick up on the signs.

It may be worse when your son or daughter is the bully and picks on other kids, but when we teach our children they can walk through life without noticing other people, without being aware of anyone else — well, we reap what we sow.

As parents, we do it all the time. We talk about avoiding the PTA because of the cliques while the members forget how to welcome new faces into the fray. We attend a moms’ group once and determine the quality of the women based on a single interaction. We take our kids to the park to encourage them to play with other children, yet we sit off by ourselves.

So, how do we make the change?

+ Teach your kids how to meet new people. Introduce yourself to strangers in front of your child. Show them how easy it is, even if it feels awkward. Practice it at home.

+ Create awareness. Point a child out to your son or daughter that is playing alone. Encourage her to ask the child to join in the activity. It’s so easy.

+Institute friend goals and share experiences. Set a family goal for each member to talk with someone they don’t know well each week. At dinner or another time you are all together, discuss what you learned about the new friend. Hold each person accountable for participating.

+ Watch for unintentional exclusionary behavior. This is the crux of the issue. As parents, we often write behavior off because we know it was not intended to be mean; but how are children supposed to learn if we don’t point it out?

I cringe when one of my children says, “I want to sit next to so-and-so” whenever we are at a gathering, as I know it makes other kids feel bad. I told my daughters that each time they create a stink about sitting next to a person, they are telling someone else that she doesn’t want to sit by them. After one particularly trying birthday party, we made a family rule that we feel grateful whenever we have a seat at the table, but during the event they may play with whomever they want (as long as they include everyone). It avoids a lot of drama caused by seat shuffling.

+ Be brave. The biggest fear most of us have for our children is that they will be ignored — on the playground, in the lunchroom, or at an event. So, we social engineer each activity to ensure they only go to places where they have a friend. But what are we really teaching them?

When we encourage our children to experience new activities by themselves, they develop compassion for others who may be in a similar situation down the road. I find the courage  comes with preparing my kids beforehand with conversation starters or a script to help them introduce themselves.

We don’t realize this as parents, but kids have an uncanny ability to make friends if we just get out of the way.

+ Model the person you want your child to become. We all know talk is cheap. If you want your child to be inclusive, be inclusive yourself. Lend a hand to someone you don’t know well. Keep your snarky comments to a minimum. Introduce yourself to the new neighbors. Talk to that mom or dad standing alone at pick up.

The worst thing that could happen is you may have to talk to a spitter for five minutes.

The best could be you made a very lonely person’s day.

It all starts with one brave parent.

Be brave today.

I Thought I Would Be Better At This

Recently, one of my daughters and I were in the car together driving to the dermatologist’s office for an appointment to check out some pre-pubescent acne. It is a rare occurrence that her sisters aren’t tagging along, so I relished the opportunity to chat with her about the upcoming school year, and other things we don’t have nearly enough time to discuss, like her love of Pitbull and new skins on Minecraft, whatever that means.

As we rode along, she meekly asked, “Mom, why do I have to go to the dermatologist?”

“Oh, it’s no big deal,” I responded off-handedly. “You’ve inherited Dad’s genes, and we just want a doctor to look at your skin to see what we can do to clear it up. And we want to make sure we do whatever we can to make you feel good about yourself.”

“But I already feel good about myself,” she replied quickly.

The words stabbed me right in the heart. Did I just tell my daughter that the way she looked right at that moment wasn’t good enough? Did I inadvertently slam her body image? Why didn’t we discuss this more and let the choice be hers?

I decided to slam the brakes on the conversation and take a different route.

“No, honey,” I stammered. “That’s not what I meant. You are perfect just the way you are. We just want a doctor to look at your skin to make sure you don’t have an allergy or infection or something like that. It has nothing to do with how you look.”

Phew. That was close to being a body image fail.

“So these pimples mean I’m sick?” she nervously asked.

Crap, I’m right back in it. Now I’m scaring her. Way to go, Mom.

“No no, no. It doesn’t mean that at all! I just meant when you have a reaction to something going on in your body, it’s good to have a doctor check it out,” I said too quickly, hearing my voice get higher as I tried to dig myself out of the hole.

“Like when dad had the wart on his foot?”

“Um, yeah, just like that.”

And then radio silence until we pulled into the parking space. In real-time, I think it was two minutes, but in awkward-parenting moments it felt like three days.

I put my arm around her shoulder as we walked through the office building door, and all I could think was I thought I would be better at this.

I thought I would be better at talking to my kids about the difficult stuff — the stuff that made me die of embarrassment when my mom tried to discuss it with me. I read books about discussing sex and articles about promoting health body image and blog posts about getting through puberty. I listened to my girlfriends as they talked about issues with their daughters and took mental notes. I even bought the American Girl series on puberty — all three books!

I wanted to be my daughters’ source for information. Although my mom swears she had “the talk” with me, I think I blocked it out like a traumatic experience. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret was my go-to source for getting through puberty.

Most importantly, however,  I wanted to make sure my girls felt comfortable enough to come to me with questions before they put themselves in a risky situation — or after if they ever found themselves in trouble.

I wanted to be a boss at awkward conversations with my daughters.

Well, not so much.

When we talked about bras, one daughter was most interested in knowing if she could get one of the thick, squishy bras, like mommy has. Apparently I’m raising a future Victoria’as Secret model.

When I tried to explain sexting after a friend caught her daughter just a year older than mine sending inappropriate photos, the conversation yielded a series of giggles about how disgusting boy’s “private parts” are. Despite my best efforts at a serious conversation, all I got was: “Who would want to see that?”

And my personal favorite is when I tackled the topic of menstruation with my girls, and one of them ended up bawling because apparently I made her believe that you get pregnant every single month. “I don’t want to have a baby every month,” she wailed. Epic fail.

I sucked at this. None of these difficult conversations went according to plan despite my best efforts.

I thought I would be better at this.

Or so I thought.

The other day I took my daughters to Claire’s to spend some gift card money. While there, a young girl sat screaming in the ear-piercing chair, begging her mother to let her out. For ten agonizing minutes, the child screamed while the mom negotiated with her to go through with the piercing, but she continued to cry and stuck her head between her knees.

Listening to them broke my heart. I unknowingly shook my head as I helped my daughter pick out some earrings. That’s when she turned to me and said, “Mom, no one should make you do anything to your ears that you don’t want them to.”

Yes! Yes! We had a conversation about respecting bodies sometime in the past. We talked about that.

And then this summer, my daughter hastily jumped out of the pool. I asked if she was okay and she told me a little boy, a four year-old friend of ours, was touching her inappropriately. “He keeps grabbing my butt, Mom. I know he is little, but he’s not listening, so I thought I would just get out of the pool.”

We talked about that too! Taking yourself out of difficult situations and not allowing others to touch us in ways that make us uncomfortable. We talked about that.

And then my youngest burst into tears one night for no apparent reason. I suggested that maybe she was tired, and she replied: “Maybe. Or maybe it’s those moaning things you talked to us about.”

“Hormones?” I said to my 9 year-old. “I don’t think that’s what it is. But I’m glad you are listening.”

Even the conversation on the way to the dermatologist, the one that broke my heart, demonstrated my daughter is doing okay, even when I flub it up. She confidently told me she feels good about herself no matter what —and I can’t ask for more than that.

Puberty, sex, drugs, alcohol, driving, bullying, boyfriends, body image, guns. etc. The list of things we need to discuss with our kids is long and never seems to end. I’m going to keep tackling these issues, as awkward and painful as it may be for all involved.

And although I thought I would be better at this.

It will be better because I tried.

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Five BS Excuses Parents Make for Mean Girls

I talked to a friend of mine the other night who told me a heart wrenching story about how a group of 7th grade girls literally got up from a lunch table and moved when her daughter sat down at it. They certainly had a good reason to do it. After all, an 8th grade hottie asked her daughter to the dance and (gasp) she said yes. Unbeknownst to her the boy was verbally taken and off-limits. Yes, I know this sounds like Mean Girls, Part Deux but in fact it wasn’t. It’s just another day in a garden variety middle school in a small New York town.

As much as the girls’ vile behavior upset me, it’s what my friend told me next that really got my blood pressure boiling. When my friend called one of the girls’ moms — someone she has known for more than a decade — the response was this: “Oh, I don’t think it was a big deal. I just don’t think they are as close anymore. I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding.”

Um, what the what what?

I get it. It is a hard thing to imagine that your sweet little girl can also be Regina George but are we really that naive? Are we so blinded by the love we feel for our kids that we refuse to believe they are capable of unkind behavior towards someone else’s child, someone else’s little girl?

Regina George

I worry sometimes about my own three girls. Although I know their hearts are kind, I wonder are their minds strong enough to know right from wrong in a moment of weakness, of jealousy, of rage. Or when they see someone they admire acting cruel, will they have the courage to act appropriately? It’s a lot to ask of a young girl and it’s crazy to think they won’t make mistakes.

To be clear, I do not believe that one bad incident does a mean girl make. There is a difference between a child that makes a bad judgment call, and one who out-and-out torments another kid. But, I do believe that the more excuses we make for our children, the more likely they are to do it again. And again. And again.

I read somewhere once that children need to be raised not managed. This is so true. If you hear yourself uttering one of these phrases below, ask yourself, is this how I really want my child to act?

Then take a moment to close your eyes, and imagine it’s your child, your little girl. How would you want another parent to respond? How would you feel if your child was ostracized, and one of the following was the excuses you received:

5.  Your daughter doesn’t seem to be interested in being part of the group anymore, so my daughter and the rest of the girls just don’t talk to her as much. Not everyone has to be best friends. Oh, the classic passive aggressive “it’s not me it’s you” defense. That will work well when she grows up and is expected to actually get along with people “outside of her group.”

4. My daughter said it really wasn’t that big of a deal, and really, shouldn’t the girls work it out on their own? What if the police said that to Charlie Manson’s cult? “I know Charlie is a little crazy, but really, can’t you guys just figure out how to get along with him?” Seriously, when did we get so lazy as parents that we can’t take 15 minutes to talk to our kids about the difference between wrong and right? Why will we drive them hours across state lines to sports tournaments but we can’t spend ten minutes to sort out bad behavior. Yes, kids need to learn to work it out, but there are also times when parents need to step in and course correct. All it takes is one parent to be brave enough to actually, well, parent their kid, and it can make a huge difference.
3. It’s not my daughter’s fault that your daughter is so sensitive. Seriously? There are millions of documented incidents of girls out-and-out traumatizing other girls — some of which are supposed to be their best friends! Don’t automatically blame the other girl. Make your daughter take at least a small portion of responsibility. Reflecting on one’s behavior and understanding your role in a situation is a pretty important life skill.
2. It wasn’t really my daughter being mean, it was her friends. The innocent bystander excuse. Lovely. Because as long as you don’t participate, you’re not really doing anything wrong.
1. Girls will be girls. This is the one that really gets my pants on fire. Since the dawn of time we have been saying girls will be girls. As women, are we not tired of this? As parents, haven’t we all had enough? Wouldn’t it be nice to take the negative connotation off of this phrase and turn it into a positive? This phrase should be abolished. Sometimes a girl just is actually mean, but most mean girls are created, not born that way. We should never use this excuse for bad behavior.
My friend’s daughter will be okay. Fortunately she had other friends to fall back on, and she learned a tough lesson early on in life; but that doesn’t mean every girl treated poorly will have that happy ending.
Let’s stop making excuses for our girls. Let’s start raising them up by not accepting excuses for putting others down.
It starts with one brave parent.
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How Maleficent Taught My Kids How to Look at Bullies

Note: Major spoiler alert if you have not yet seen the movie.

To celebrate the last day of school, I took my three daughters to see Maleficent. While we all enjoyed the movie, it also afforded me an excellent opportunity to address a topic that scares the bejeevus out of me: how to deal with bullies.

You see, there was a boy in one of my daughter’s classes this year that made me a little nervous. I did not know him well, except for what my daughter and her friends shared with me, which included that he received a suspension from school for fighting, often teased other students, and at times would take things out of my daughter’s hands so she would have to chase him down to get it back.

No, it wasn’t particularly traumatic for her. She was not his target, but I had concerns.

One day my daughter asked me why I thought he acted like that. Always one to seize the opportunity for a teaching moment, I replied with: “Well, my guess is he’s looking for attention. Maybe he doesn’t get enough attention from his parents, or maybe something bad has happened to him that makes him act out. Sometimes people treat others a certain way because that’s the way they’ve been treated.”

While I thought my answer rocked and was about to pat myself on the back, my daughter just stared at me. “Like what kinda bad?”

This is the part of parenting that gets me. I never want to scare my kids, but I don’t want them to be naive either. They are growing up and need to be aware that there are bad people out there — and sometimes they are people we trust; but I did not know this particular boy’s situation and did not want to put ideas into her head, so we just went on to speculate that maybe his parents lost a job, travelled or were busy with something else and the conversation fizzled.

Enter Maleficent a few weeks later. Maleficent is the tale of the evil witch in Sleeping Beauty, but told from her point of view. Maleficent actually was born a fairy with powerful wings that never let her down. She is the protector of her land and adored by all. Due to a chance encounter, she befriends a human, a man who falls in love with her, but desires power more. Maleficent suffers the ultimate betrayal when the man takes her wings in order to become leader of the rival kingdom.

source: Imagequotes.org

source: Imagequotes.org

The loss of her most prized possession pushes Maleficent over the edge, and she becomes obsessed with revenge, including placing a curse upon the new King’s infant daughter, Aurora.

In her quest to ensure Aurora’s fate is sealed, Maleficent watches over her. Slowly, Aurora’s inner beauty breaks down the ice in Maleficent’s heart. Their relationship grows, and she eventually realizes that her happiness lies in love, not hate. She says this beautiful line as she realizes her curse has ended Aurora’s life:

I will not ask you for forgiveness. What I have done is unforgivable. I was so lost in hatred and revenge. I never dreamed that I could love you so much. You stole what was left of my heart. And now I’ve lost you forever.

Like Frozen, in the end it is her tender kiss on Aurora’s forehead that breaks the curse, not the Prince’s.

Yes, I got a little misty-eyed.

But more importantly, my kids “got it.” In the van on the ride home the girls and I were discussing our favorite parts. My daughter slowly tried to articulate how awful it would be to lose something that was a part of you, and how she understood why Maleficent was so angry about it. She suddenly blurted out: “Maybe that’s how [the boy in her class] feels. Maybe someone took away his wings.”

Yes, that was it sweet girl. She opened the door and we discussed having compassion towards those that sometimes treat us poorly. We talked about how sometimes someone we trust lets us down, which can make us angry. We touched on the fact that someone could take a piece of us — our kindness, our humor, our ability to feel safe, and how that could change us from someone nice into someone dark…someone we didn’t even know we could be.

And then we got to the good part — that even someone mean and ugly and dark can do right again, especially when shown kindness.

We ended our conversation by talking about how we would treat that boy next year. What did my daughter say?

“Well, if he is in my class, I may not hang out with him all the time, but I’m going to make sure I say hello and good-bye to him every single day, even when he’s mean and annoying.”

Yes. There is no greater weapon we hold in the war against bullying than compassion.

Thank you Maleficent.

I highly recommend this movie, particularly for those kids eight and up. The themes are powerful, but the message is amazing, particularly for young girls.

Mama’s Losin’ It

Does Your Kid Bully You?

It used to be that kids were scared of their parents. Now parents seem scared of their kids.

A TIME magazine article came out recently that I found fascinating. “How Children Have Become Their Parents’ Bullies” underscored something that I feel like I have seen time and time again — parents so scared of upsetting their child that they give in to their every whim.

The piece begins with a situation we have all lived out a thousand times. A mom is in a toy store to buy a birthday present. Her son throws a fit because he wants the toy. Instead of sticking to her guns, the beaten-down woman relents and ends up purchasing not one, but two toys. Lesson learned for the boy: if you are relentless in your whining, no means maybe, which turns into Mom will do whatever she has to do to get out of the store without the manager calling the Department of Child Services.

When our kids are younger, I believe we relent for fear of embarrassment. It sucks when you are at the grocery store and your child is lying in the middle of the aisle with snot running down the side of her nose because you won’t buy her the Kit Kat bar (purely hypothetical.)  And for sure that is when you will see the mom whose five kids under five are behaving like angels, just to make you feel a little bit worse about yourself.

Then, as our kids get older, we hate saying no because we don’t want to lose them, so we give them what we think they want, just to hear that “I love you mommy” one more time.

But this is where the author is brilliant. By giving in after they beat us down, we do end up creating bullies. By definition “to bully” means to use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.

That is exactly what is happening in these types of parent-child relationships.

etch a sketch

I have seen a four-year old slap his mom across her face and not get more than a verbal reprimand (because I was there.) I watched a mom buy her son a violent Xbox game at Target because he was freaking out. And I cringed when a friend told me she extended her daughter’s curfew after she told her she hated her and wanted to move out. I believe my well-intentioned friend also took her shopping.

This leads me to offer the following non-professional, non-medical commentary/advice to anyone who gives in to their child’s bullying tactics:

1. I solemnly swear that if I see you at Trader Joe’s, Target or Toys ‘R’ Us (or anywhere else) and your child pitches a fit for any reason, I will personally applaud your efforts to hold strong. Seriously, I will be in the background cheering you on. There is no embarrassment in sticking to your guns. To me, there are times when parenting is about winning, and you should only be embarrassed if you let your kid beat you.

2. Kids, and especially tweens/teens, are so much smarter than we give them credit for. They smell fear and thrive when engaging in psychological war fare. You see, kids know that we all want to be good parents, and they know we are unsure about what we’re doing. When kids respond to our saying no or setting limits with “You are so mean,” or the crushing “I hate you,” it hits us right in the jugular. It makes us question ourselves as parents and the decisions we’re making on their behalf. Do we want to risk pushing our kids away? Do we want them to think we are uncool? Will they hate me forever or just until The Voice is over?

The answer is yes, so what, and probably not that long! Discipline is a gift we give our children that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. Limits are often about safety — for them and for others. Respecting (appropriate) authority and understanding rules will take them far. These are all important life skills.

Sometimes we have to parent blindly — but with resolve — knowing that we will make mistakes. But we cannot let our kids’ words and actions stray us from the course. Yes, we have to pick and choose our battles, but we have to come out on top at the end. It’s our duty as parents.

Because it is a war we are fighting to bring up good kids. In today’s 24/7 always-on culture, there is a lot of noise out there that children are exposed to each and every day, and if we don’t have control in our own homes, how can we expect our kids to have control out in the real world? If they think they can whine and cry to get their way with us as parents, how do you think they will act towards their teachers, their friends or their future employers?

I for one hope we stand shoulder to shoulder in this war, standing up to each and every bully. In turn, I hope we mold compassionate, kind adults.

Because I plan on winning this war. I hope you do to.

The author of the article, Dr. Robin Berman, is the author of a great book: Permission to Parent. It’s all about parenting with love and limits, which is a nicer companion to my post Why I Don’t Negotiate With Terrorists.

Does your kid bully you? What parenting tactics do you use to combat parental bullying?

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