Bridging the Gap

When Charlotte was about two years old, I made the mistake of driving my mini van through a car wash. The giant red scrub brushes right at her eye level, the rushing soap and water covering the car, and the powerful suck of the giant vacuum dryers were all too much for her nervous system to handle. I learned after one horrific meltdown to save that errand for a kid-free day.

The car wash experience created fear and dread for her. For weeks she asked me if we were going to the car wash every single time we began the process of getting into the car. (No. no. No mommy guilt here. None at all. Let’s proceed.) At the time we were attending an Early Start morning program and working with a behavior therapist and occupational therapist. At one of our home visits the behavior therapist recommended a picture schedule to help Charlotte visualize what her day might look like.

I was not opposed at all to this idea. I had plenty of teacher training where I had learned that kids need predictable routines to feel safe in their environment. For Charlotte, she needed to know whether the car wash (or any other out-of-the-norm event) was happening anywhere in her day in order to feel regulated and comfortable. So, for several weeks, I snapped pictures with my phone of many of the places we visited on a regular basis. Initially thinking that this project was going to be overwhelming and time-consuming, I was sadly mistaken that our “busy lives” were pretty limited to grocery stores, therapy, school, and the homes of close friends and family.

When Christmas cards began arriving in the mail, I began to keep a collection. Most of our family and friends have pictures with their smiling faces, oftentimes within their homes or with their pets. Pulling a picture out of a friend or relative and showing Charlotte prior to the interaction made a world a difference in how she responded socially.

I printed out the pictures, organized them on a large board and it eventually became routine to discuss the day’s events and outings and plan our time and even behavior expectations around it. For example, if Charlotte was currently challenged with behavior at a particular location, I could post a clip art picture of Dora or Max and Ruby on her board to let her know that she could watch those shows as a reward for appropriate behavior at the grocery store, school, therapy center, etc.

When the term “good behavior” became a bit too loose, we attached goals to each location and talked about them early in the day and again before we began the activity. For example, Charlotte struggles putting forth consistent effort at her therapy sessions. She  also interrupts the brief but important conversation between myself and the therapist after each session. Our goals for therapy center became simple but effective: Try your best. Listen to your therapist. Don’t interrupt.

Charlotte has a very sharp visual memory, so once she saw the words in print, she had them memorized. She would often tell them back to me as she hugged me good-bye to enter the therapy room. It’s even more effective as she’s beginning to learn (or teach herself) to read.

So our board (pictured above) sits in our main family room and is updated weekly. I have recently added post-it notes with planned-in-advance Paleo dinners. This seems to break down resistance in the form of whining/complaining at the dinner hour and putting a stop to the endless question of What’s for Dinner? CrossFit-style garage workouts for mom and dad are posted on the board so the kids know they’re welcome to join us for family exercise after the heavy weights and equipment are put away.

Somehow the week seems to flow into more of a rhythm when the kids know what is happening, what they’re going to eat, and what is expected of them. Our parenting style seems to be more about preparing our kids to be their best selves in their everyday lives. The board helps them prepare themselves for what lies ahead while practicing self-regulating tools at the same time. In addition, it helps us manage any negative behavior patterns that may come with a change in routine or schedule by talking together about the change and any expectations around it.

In all honesty, it does take preparation, consistency, and effort. It works well for the needs of our family, and I don’t mind planning our week’s meals and activities ahead of time. As a teacher, I planned and prepped lessons for my third graders so it seems to regulate me as well. We’ve never been big fans of surprises and spontaneity, and we’re okay with that. We’ve embraced this lifestyle and try to focus on the benefits of better health for all of us, rather than how much work it is.

Our modern-day society challenges us to meet the needs of our kids and ourselves right up to the dinner hour. This tool helps us bridge the gap between the hectic schedule we must lead to get it all done and the time we need to slow down, share healthy meals, and enjoy each other as a family.

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Triumph through Judgment

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One day over the summer I took the girls with me on a marathon of errands. It was not an ideal situation, but on that particular day I had no other choice. One of our stops was school supply shopping at Wal Mart. Charlotte’s behavior in the store had not be great and while I was loading my bags from the cart into the back of my mini van, I was talking to both girls about making sure they were good listeners at our future stops in order to earn their reward of protein-style burgers at In-n-Out.

During my lecturing and unloading multi-tasking, I noticed a man clearly eavesdropping as he slowly parked his cart in the cart corral next to our car. My mommy instincts kept me close to my car as he approached me and said he couldn’t help but overhearing the conversation I was having with my daughters. He continued to say that he was a parent and grandparent and that he had great success with this particular parenting book.

I heaved a sigh of relief and thanked him politely. As I quickly got in the car, buckled myself and drove away, I took a deep breath a felt a flood of emotions and feelings–Violated and Defensive. Shocked and Angry. I was upset that I hadn’t defended myself and my actions. I replayed the scene in my head where I retorted in anger that “My kids are my kids and mind your own business.” I was overwhelmed and stressed at having to continue the rest of my errands under this blanket of negative feelings.

I posted my experience on my personal Facebook page and received many warm messages of support. Many of them encouraging me to just let it go, and I did, for the most part. But the encounter got me thinking a lot about parenting and judgment.

As a parent and grandparent, the man in the parking lot felt that our shared experience as parents and his status as an elder or more experienced parent granted him the right to share a resource that had helped him achieve success in parenting. I can certainly understand the logic in that.

But what I have come to understand is that any of us who witness parenting in action on any given day have a choice to make. We can observe the interaction between the parent and the child and leave it at that. It’s like taking a picture–it’s a moment in time when the child needs the help of the parent to control impulses, stay safe, learn appropriate responses, etc. The same situation may look different tomorrow or even an hour from now, based on the temprement of the child, the patience level of the parent, or even the time of day.

Judgment comes in when we take our experiences and project them into the situation. Whether helpful or not, our personal parenting successes, fears, and triumphs can be whisked into the interaction we are witnessing and sometimes create a false and unncecessary need to help the arguably struggling parent.

What I realized about the encounter in the Wal Mart parking lot is that I have become uniquley adapted to handling judgment. I once naively believed that a child’s behavior was directly tied to how well they were parented and even how much they were loved. This theory was tested when Charlotte, at age 2, began sensory meltdowns and temper tantrums everywhere we went. I felt out of control and helpless and also judged by others and myself.

It has been years of therapy and hard work, but I have learned to silence the harmful thoughts of judgment in my own head. Charlotte’s behavior is not a direct reflection of my parenting or love. I have come to see any behavior as a moment in time when she is calling out for help or letting us know she’s feeling comfortable in her environment.

Last week I picked Charlotte up from school and had our first “rough day” report of the school year. While anxiety, fear and self judgment wanted to bang on the door and take me down, I was pleased to ultimately feel numb and disconnected from any judgment. I used the opportunity to begin a back and forth journal with her school staff, sharing information about what helps Charlotte at home. I included notes from our recent success–using key words like “warning” help her set boundaries and know that a consequence is coming if she continues he behavior. I let the staff know we were comfortable with reports of Charlotte’s poor behavior and its consequences.

The next week I spoke to Charlotte’s Occupational Therapist about a disinterest and  resistance in certain activities. Again, I let the numbness and lack of my own judgment take hold of my thoughts. As we continued our conversation I was reminded of how she had recently behaved similarly at her summer ballet class. I spoke with Chad about it over the weekend and we began to put some big pieces of information together about Charlotte’s behavior when there’s a lack of stimulation or challenge.

After the yogurt experience earlier this month, I can clearly say that eating Paleo has improved her health in such a way that these patterns of behavior can be monitored and adjusted with our parenting. Had we not been eating a Paleo diet, the sensory issues, behavior issues, and sleep issues would be unsolvable mysteries, wearing down our energies and fueling more self doubt and judgment. We can now proudly say that own parenting triumphs include using Paleo as a tool to help our child, allowing fixable patterns of behavior to emerge. The success and rewards we see and feel everyday in the smiles and laughter of our children.

The experience in the parking lot sat deeply with me for a lot of reasons. I got so comfortable with not judging myself that I dropped my guard and let myself be judged by someone else. It stung to think that the man with the cart thought that I needed support or help in parenting my kids. Maybe my tone was too harsh or maybe my words not encouraging enough for his parenting style and his experience with his own children.

If I were to have that encounter again, I would have taken a step back from the harsh and shocking feelings of being judged and explained what I would write in my own parenting book. Parenting is a deeply personal experience. The way we care, love, and discipline our kids is uniquely ours. Please give me the freedom to find my own success and triumphs.