Category Archives: life

Channeling General Leia Organa


As wretched as 2016 was, I am not looking forward to 2017 and Trump’s rise to power.A lot of people are going to be hurt, and there is going to be a lot of suffering. And I’ve simply been overwhelmed by the smack down the feminist movement received and feelings of powerlessness that trying to fight seems insurmountable.

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Stand Up Without the Guilt

Like a lot of women, I struggle with standing up for myself without being racked with anxiety and guilt afterwords. While I’m often proud of my trait of empathy, there are also times I admire the ability of people who aren’t as attuned to other’s emotions to just not give a damn. As I grow older, in some ways it feels as if I’ve put up with enough bull shit that it gets easier to stand up for myself without worrying about hurting anyone’s feelings. Today I had an experience that shows that while I’m getting better with the standing up part, the whole not being consumed by anxiety and guilt afterwords still needs progress.

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Why Modern Parenting is So Hard

I’m currently reading The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond. It’s a look at modern hunter gatherer and traditional small farming communities and explores how they structure their lives. Diamond takes pains not to romanticize these societies, he draws attention to the bad as well as the good (for example, infanticide, either deliberately or through neglect). While reading the chapter on parenting in traditional societies, I was really struck by how different things are in the US where I lived from the societies that humans evolved in and were more acclimated to.

In hunter-gatherer societies, the care of children is spread out among the whole tribe. While mom is the primary caregiver, dad, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are all readily available to help if mom needs a break or is busy doing something else. A new infant is frequently passed from caregiver to caregiver. Considering how intensive caring for a new infant is, this must be a tremendous help to a new mother!

Considering in the US, childcare is highly concentrated in the hands of the parents, particularly the mother, I think it’s little wonder women are struggling with postpartum depression and feeling overwhelmed by caring for their children. We live in houses separated from other people in our neighborhoods, not to mention separated from our families. This may have been the society we built, but it was not the society we evolved in.

The other thing that struck me was the notion of egalitarianism for children in hunter-gatherer societies. For an adult to impose his or her will on a child is considered a grievous offense. Physical punishment is seldom or never used while it is permissible for children to hit their parents (they are expected to grow out of it at a certain age). Children in hunter-gatherer societies are left to play with dangerous objects such as knives and near fires. Adults in those societies tend to have burn scars.

I tend to hold egalitarian views even for my children. They are little people, trying to figure out this world, and I have to show respect to them. In general, I only try to intervene with them when they are going to hurt someone else or hurt themselves.

I also believe that the less I intervene, the better. For instance, if Buddy puts his clothes on backwards, which he often does, I don’t make him turn them around. Either he’ll do it himself (which he’s started to) or he’ll ask me for help (if they ask for help I’ll give it). If he doesn’t want to wear his jacket I don’t press the issue, but I’ll carry one in our hiking bag. If he gets cold enough he will ask for it. If he hits a difficult part of the hiking trail I give him time to figure it out for himself. Same with Sissy, who sometimes takes five minutes to buckle herself in her car seat, but she does it herself (and yes, I check to make sure everything is tight and properly done). In general I try not to impede on their autonomy.

One day my kids are going to be adults, and I do not want to be doing everything for them at that time. So I give them as much responsibility as possible so they learn to take care of themselves. I’m the anti-helicopter parent.

And it’s the hurting themselves is where a lot of the hang ups come in.

In theory, I like a lot of the ideas of the Free-Range Parenting movement. Despite what we see on the news, child abductions are rare. And I would love to let my son, who is five, go and play in the woods on his own like I did when I was five.

Here’s the thing. When I went in the woods when I was five, I lived on an Air Force base and went into the woods with about 5-8 other children. This being an Air Force base, all of our parents knew each other, and further, security was extremely tight. If one of us children fell or was hurt, we would usually divide ourselves, one into a group of children who would wait with the wounded child and the second being the group that went to get a parent.

And it was the same in hunter-gatherer societies. Everyone knew everyone, children played in large groups, and the adults would watch over each other’s kids.

In the US, our society is no longer set up like that.

I rarely see my neighbors, even though the ones who live right next to us have about seven kids whose ages overlap with mine (they come from a culture where men and women who are not married are not allowed to socialize, if I see the father he does not acknowledge me, though the few times I’ve talked to his wife she was really nice). Yet with our big houses, our multitude of indoor entertainment, we just somehow never make it outside to see our neighbors. And while we don’t use the garage for parking our cars (we let our cat in the garage) plenty of other neighbors do, so you don’t even see them entering and leaving their house!

Further, as often as I use the park by my house, I am strangely an anomaly in my neighborhood. Most people with small kids do not regularly walk down there with them. It’s either an infrequent occurrence or they drive down. I have had yet to find another family that is at that park as often as we are. Further, when I take my kids to the trails by the creek, I am for the most part the only parent doing it. Occasionally a frisbee golfer will have a kid in tow.

By and large, I don’t worry about a stranger kidnapping my kids. I worry about an off roader running them over. Or one of them falling in a cactus patch. Or finding a poisonous snake. Or falling in the creek and getting caught  by a strong current and drowning. Or tripping and spraining their ankle. Heck, when I was pregnant with Sissy I was walking my dog and found a mountain lion walking up ahead of me on those trails. Um, me and my 65 pound German Shepherd promptly turned around and headed home.

And while some societies are structured so that children are monitored even if not by people who are their parents, the society I live in is not! If I sent Buddy to play in the woods by himself and anything happened, it’s likely that no one would be there to witness it and get help. Heck, sometimes I get to a certain part of the woods and think about how hard it would be to give an ambulance directions to where we are if there is an emergency and wonder how reckless it is to go alone with two small children into the woods even though I always take my phone with me. In truth while we never get more than 2000 feet from the main park with the playgrounds, the woods is thick enough and there are enough hills and crevices that no one would know what is happening in some of the places we trudge through, especially now that I’m going into places the off roaders have not encroached on.

While there are a lot of benefits about our modern society, I think something we lost along the way is community with the people we live close in proximity to. My close relationships are not with people who live in the neighborhood. The drawback is the burdens of raising children fall solely on me and my husband. Our neighbors are not going to look out for them. They will not go into the woods with a group of neighborhood kids to watch each other’s backs. Somehow we lost that social support.

And that’s why I think parenting is so stressful in this modern age. We evolved in a society where it took a village to raise a child. We don’t have that anymore.


Parenting without Rewards and Punishments

Before I had Buddy I was a firm behaviorist. My dad liked the works of B.F.Skinner, and while in college I did therapy with children with autism based on behaviorist principals. In a nutshell, desired behavior was rewarded, undesired behavior was ignored. This worked well for me in college. And it worked well for me in a children’s hospital.

I even used these principals to train my dog, a German Shepherd named Amelia who had spent years in a shelter and was not well socialized when I adopted her. One of the things she used to do was bark if more than two people were in the room or if we were watching tv, making conversation or listening to the tv impossible. We broke the habit by immediately leaving the room if she did it and giving her attention if she was in the room with us and quiet.

Buddy came into the scene, and with him I’ve had to throw behaviorism out of the window and embrace more cognitive theories. I also had a challenge. Buddy may have autism, but he is also incredibly smart. He doesn’t like being manipulating into doing things for rewards, and punishments don’t deter him, if anything he retaliates. This didn’t just have implications for his behavior, but for things like speaking. Speech therapy has been challenging for us, largely because he’s aware he’s being manipulated into speaking and would refuse to speak just because he was being manipulated.

For instance, one time I found I could get him to say “again” if he wanted me to read a book again if I sang “again.” He’d sing it with me. This worked for two nights. Then if I sang “again” expecting him to join in he’d just get off my lap and move on to a different book. This flies in the face of behaviorism.

Rewards do not motivate, punishment does not deter. Considering my behaviorist approach to my clients and dog, this was quite the curveball. He has a high need for control of his environment and getting into power struggles with him is something I constantly have to be on guard for (on the plus side, I do not worry at all about peer pressure when he’s a teenager. If he doesn’t want to do something, he will not do it!) And what works very well one time might not a second time if he feels he was manipulated, so I’m constantly being creative with him.

Even with these challenges, I’m making progress raising him with respect and helping him to learn how to control his emotions and reflect on his behavior and figure out the best decision on his own. Here’s what it boils down to.

  1. Environmental modification. All parents do this to some extent. Baby proofing. Buddy is sensory seeking and craves stimulation. One way he does this is by dumping all of his toys on the floor and rolling on them. And then there was the time he was fascinated with the flour. He would keep going into the pantry and dump it on the floor and play in it. He’s also a climber. We got a lock for the pantry to keep him out. The other problem we had was him trashing his room. I’d bought a lovely organizer for all his toys, and he kept dumping everything on the floor and rolling on it. Eventually I moved his toys to a separate locked room and I only get out certain boxes each day.
  2. Routines. Like a lot of kids with autism, Buddy thrives on routines. Things like wearing a seat belt or helmet aren’t an issue with him because he knows it’s the routine.
  3. Lots of outdoor time. Exposure to natural light. Running, hiking. All of the textures he’s exposed to. When we can’t get outdoors much because of the weather or being too busy I notice he acts out more. And time outdoors helps with the impulsivity.
  4. Teaching him to manage overwhelming emotions. This has been difficult because he does not imitate and does not like being manipulated. When people get mad, we often forget to exhale fully, which causes carbon dioxide to build up in our system and increases the feelings of anger. This is why breathing techniques are taught as part of anger management. One time when Buddy was melting down I saw some bubbles on the window sill and grabbed them, held out the wand and asked if he wanted to blow bubbles. He started blowing bubbles. AND he calmed down. Finally I’d found a way to get him to do breathing technique when he was angry! When he’s angry or hyper I would run for the bubbles. Now I’m at the point where I can prompt him to blow bubbles and he will exhale even if he doesn’t have a wand.
  5. Asking reflective questions. He’s less likely to respond if I give orders. For instance, while taking a walk when we get to the street if I ask, “What do we do when we get the the street?” He’s more likely to stop, and as he’s lately started saying, “wait,” if I say, “stop when we get to the street.” he’s more likely to run into the street. Most of the time he knows what he’s supposed to do, he just doesn’t want to be told what to do. The other day he took Sissy’s special toy monkey, which resulted in lots of tears from Sissy. I asked, “What that a nice or not nice thing you did?” He thought about it. Then I asked, “What would be a nice thing to do?” Amazingly, he handed it back to her.
  6. Always have an activity on standby for him to do. Having too much unstructured time leads to him destroying the house or acting out. If he starts getting antsy I grab an art project or sensory activity. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. I currently have him drawing pictures in colored salt (just add food coloring) on a cookie sheet. And as he is sensory seeking, he loves this stuff. Another standby is cornstarch and water. It makes this gooey substance that he loves playing with.

I still can’t have conversations with Buddy, but he’s shown that if I asked him to think about his behavior he does. And ultimately that’s what I want. I’ve noticed that some people approach parenting believing they can control their kids and have to force morality on them, while others respect that kids are going to make their own choices and our job is to teach kids how to make good choices. I obviously belong to the latter group. I’m not always going to be there to police Buddy’s behavior, so he is going to need to know how to behave appropriately when I’m not around.

Cleansing Time

Three weeks ago I left my job. The month started off rocky as I had my first UTI and then my kids got a stomach bug. But things have since settled down. We’ve gotten into a good routine, but more importantly I’m starting to recover emotionally from burn out.

I’d worried that I would go insane at home with the kids, but I’m actually enjoying it. I had been working four tens, getting up at five and waking my husband (and he is not someone who is easy to wake up and get moving, truthfully, it is easier to get my autistic five year old up and moving than it is my 34 year old husband) and kids up,. And since Andy does not do mornings, I was the one getting the kids ready and in the car and dropped off at daycare. And I am not a morning person myself. The pressure of doing all of this was getting so bad that I would wake up at 2AM and stare at the ceiling for three hours, unable to sleep due to the worries about oversleeping and failing to get everyone out of bed and out the door on time.

Now I sleep through the night AND I get to sleep in till 7, have a leisurely breakfast with my kiddos and then take them for a walk.

Buddy got a bike for his birthday, and he loves riding it. Every morning he talks excitedly about riding his bike, and I love watching him ride it. He’s very good at stopping when he gets a certain distance away from me and Sissy and waiting for us to catch up. Sissy insists on walking the 10 minute walk to and from the park like a big girl, though I carry her on my shoulders if need be. She’s becoming quite the naturalist and loves chasing birds and looking at plants and trees and collecting what she finds. And considering I don’t have a lot of mental energy in the mornings and tend to become more productive as the day passes, I like being able to take an hour or two (yes, we stay there that long, and usually I’m dragging the kids home because they don’t want to leave) in the mornings to just enjoy being outdoors without doing anything emotionally taxing.

One thing I worried about when I started to accept that Buddy had autism was his ability to bond with his sister. And I can happily say they are bonding. They both love being outdoors, eating popcorn, reading, dancing, listening to music and they’ve even started singing together. And at night during their bedtime routine they’ve started cuddling with each other when I sing. Yes, they also tease and torment each other and if one of them dares touch the other’s toy it’s WWIII, but that’s part of having a sibling. Overall they seem to like each other, which is good, because they’re stuck with each other!

Monday, after a fun two hour visit to the park in which Buddy and Sissy threw a tons of rocks into the creek, I got an email from my business partner talking shop, and I remembered that heck, I’ve got to get back to work in January! It was a bit of a shock just how much I was enjoying my breather, but it’s more than that, it’s been healing.

One thing I’ve found is that most counselors experience a lot of anxiety. I’m no exception. Strangely our clients tend to think we’re perfect beings who don’t understand the anguish of anxiety, but trust me, odds are if you’ve ever seen a counselor, that counselor has struggled with anxiety.

I was starting to reach record levels this year. For the last four years I’ve been working with clients who are essentially compelled to go into treatment to get their children back from the state or for probation/parole. Naturally, these people are not exactly excited about treatment, and have serious mental health issues that warrant state involvement and tend to be a difficult bunch.

When I was fresh and excited about my work, one thing I loved was seeing a pissed off, difficult client start group and transform into someone motivated and pleasant. In fact, some of my favorite clients started off as my more difficult ones. The group process is amazing, and by and large once people realized I wasn’t going to preach morality at them for 3 hours a day they tended to come around and were eager to work on their issues.

However, while a lot of the times there were good outcomes, sometimes there weren’t, and strangely, dealing with someone who was a reluctant newby didn’t become easier with time, it became harder and more and more emotionally taxing. There was a sense of, “well, I got X number of people motivated, and still more come in.” I just didn’t have it in me to continue dealing with the anger and resentment people have when they start treatment. And knowing that someone is only coming to see you because they fear the consequences of not doing so isn’t exactly good for the self-esteem.

Worse, seeing the new people was causing clinical levels of anxiety for me. When I would see a difficult or reluctant client it would get so bad that my chest would feel tight and I would have difficultly breathing enough to speak. It was hard for me to not think about all the bad ways a session could go or wonder if I would finally have someone go off the rails and do something horrible. I even had one that I worried was going to come into the office with an AK-47 and start shooting.

Combine this with caregiver fatigue. At work I took care of people. People who by and large have experience trauma. And then at home I took care of people.

To handle it I started detaching emotionally at work. I was pretty much doing what doctors do. I went to work for 10 hours and didn’t feel and walked around detached. It didn’t matter what anyone said or did to me because I’d turned myself off. It’s not a good way to live or practice counseling.

I have a lot of thoughts about CPS, probation, substance use and treatment, but I still can’t get those down yet. I’ve tried several times to get something together but keep hitting a dead end.

Overall I really needed this change. At the time I realized I was detached but I didn’t see how bad it was. Now I’m moving onto a career where I will be seeing clients who aren’t being forced to attend treatment, and my friends who have gone down that path before me assure me it is easier on the ego, more satisfying and less soul crushing. In some ways I’m kicking myself for not getting out sooner, but I think the important thing is that I got to this point.

Because it means beautiful mornings walking in the park with two little people who want to be with me more than anyone else in this world, as opposed to a cheerless room with a group of people who are compelled by the state to be with me. I’ll take the former, any day.

On Parenting an Internally Motivated Child and an Unmotivated One

This morning our dog, who is getting old and I believe is starting to become senile, had an accident. I sprayed some cleaner on it and when I went to put it up, I looked into the living room and found that Sissy had grabbed the rag I had out and was already scrubbing the carpet with it. While I was proud of her for wanting to help clean up a mess, it’s not a task I want my 21 month old doing, but it didn’t surprise me that Sissy tried to help. It’s what she does.

She “helps” me unload the dishwasher. She helps me pick up. She is always asking for napkins when we eat so she can wipe her face and hands. When she realizes I’m getting ready to leave, she starts gathering everyone’s shoes and socks and brings them to me. I could go on and on, but the point is that Sissy helps out. Well, as much as she is able to considering her age and small size.

I’m glad she’s a little helper. Trust me, I need it. But there are things I worry about.

Namely, Buddy. Who has the nickname Wreck-It. Essentially we put all of the toys, books, DVDs, etc, in a room and lock him out of it. If he gets into it it is trashed in under 10 minutes. And he won’t clean up after himself. Rewards do not motivate him, punishment does not deter him, and going hand over hand results in hours of frustrating manual labor for Andy and I to essentially force him to clean up after him that just leaves all three of us cross and angry. So at night I take out toys, books and videos for them to watch for the upcoming day and keep him away from the room at all costs.

And so it goes with Buddy. Some days he will put his plate in the sink. Other days he won’t. Sometimes he will help. Other times he won’t. And there’s no way I’ve found that I can entice him to helping with chores consistently.

Thus far Sissy has been developing typically. I have no concerns about autism with her. So she’s likely going to grow up as the typical child who has a sibling with disabilities and have those burdens. This is also one of the many reasons I wish I’d had Sissy first, because she does have such an intrinsic desire to help. But I worry about burdening her with all of the chores and responsibilities. And I especially don’t want to send the message that Buddy doesn’t have to do housework because he’s a boy while Sissy has to do it because she’s a girl and it’s expected.

I’ve thought about rewarding Sissy for her household contributions, but social psychology 101, if you reward a child for doing something they like, they tend to stop liking it so much. Ever heard of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation? When we do something because we want to, that’s intrinsic motivation. When we do something because we are compelled to, that’s extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is pretty much always better than extrinsic motivation, because even if no one is motivating you, you’ll still do it. For instance, people who love to read will read regardless of whether or not there’s a test on the book, whereas someone else will read a book only if there’s going to be a test on it and they care about their grade.

Since Sissy already seems intrinsically motivated to help, I want to nurture that. But therein lies the problem. I thought about having a rewards chart and letting Buddy and Sissy put a sticker on it if they helped pick up their toys at the end of the day, but while that might help Buddy clean up, it would also likely destroy Sissy’s internal motivation, quite simply because rewarding a child for doing something they find intrinsically rewarding gives them an externally motivating factor to do it.

For instance, if you give a child who loves to read pizza for reading a lot of books, they’ll stop enjoying reading as much. However, if you give a child who doesn’t like to read pizza when they read a certain number of books, they’ll start to like it and read more.

So I feel kinda stuck. Do I do the rewards chart and entice Buddy to help around the house and sacrifice Sissy’s internal motivation? Or do I just try to get them into a clean up routine in the evening and hope Buddy will eventually start to pull his weight? For the moment at least Sissy doesn’t seem put out at all by the fact that Buddy doesn’t help out, but if he doesn’t start I have a feeling that will change as they get older.

The Santa Thing

I saw this post in defense of Santa Claus, and I must say, coming from radically different religious viewpoints, I tend to be in line with the author’s way of thinking.

Among atheists, Santa is rather controversial. Some believe telling your kids that Santa comes down the chimney and gives them presents is lying. I’ve even known some radical atheists who discourage anything make believe with their children, and considering what solace I’ve found in imaginary worlds I find that to be downright harmful. Then there are atheists who believe that Santa is harmless fun.

The author in the above post makes the point that Santa is a myth best conceptualized as the Spirit of Giving. While there may not be a man in a red suit who climbs down chimneys, the Spirit of Giving is real. The more I think about it, this is what sums up my experience with Santa growing up, though I’d also extend it and say in some ways, though I could never articulate it as such, I realized I was partaking in a ritual.

I know some people, my mom for instance, were devastated when they learned Santa wasn’t real. When my mom had the talk with me I remember thinking, “this is it.” I would insist Santa was real, but deep inside I knew I was playing a part in a ritual. In other words, I wasn’t surprised by my mother’s admission. I took it in stride. It was part of growing up. My parents pretended to be Santa and I received gifts. While I wanted to believe, every logical thing I knew about the world told me it wasn’t possible for a man to drive a sleigh pulled by flying reindeers to deliver presents worldwide. But I was expected to play the role of the believing child, so I did.

And when my mom brought me to reality, I asked to help them play Santa with my sister. Adults and children old enough to know the truth had to play the part of the Spirit of Giving in my mind. It wasn’t earth shattering, it was just the way things were.

Andy and I talked a little bit about how to address Santa with our kids. I don’t think Andy’s family seriously did the Santa thing. We decided to go through the routines and let our kids come to their own conclusions. Sissy is still so young, but Buddy knows who Santa is. Strangely, he knows him through “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but Buddy seems to understands that there is something special about him because unlike the other characters from the movie, Santa pops up at the mall and other media. Santa is one of the few things we can point to a picture of, ask Buddy, “Who is that?” and he’ll respond enthusiastically, “Santa!”

I don’t know if Buddy understands that he is a fictional character like Jack Skellington and Sally or if he thinks Santa is real. I don’t know if he believes that Santa brings him presents or if he thinks Mom and Dad gave them. But I know he loves Santa, and seeing Buddy respond with such joy dispels any doubt about the merits of playing Santa with him. Santa may be fictional, but he helps Buddy interact with the regular world. And atheists who downplay the importance of imaginary worlds do a disservice to the critical role that the imagination plays in child development and language development.

Might Buddy or Sissy feel betrayed when they get older? I hope not. I hope they take it in stride like I did, though I can’t say for sure. What I think is more important, though, is that giving becomes more important to them

Like Amy Weir, we focus more on giving out of love and grace, not because someone earned it for good behavior. My mom always strongly insisted that Santa gave gifts because he loves us, and that’s what we’re doing with our children. And more importantly, I want to see my children be gracious and to give themselves.

For me, part of growing up was focusing less on what I was getting and more on what I was giving. I can honestly say that I look forward more to seeing someone’s reactions when I give them a gift that I spent a lot of time picking out than opening a gift that’s for me. I hope my children get to that point, and I hope that they go out of their way to give.

Right now I’m still waiting for them both to get a bit more mature, but when they do, I have a few activities in mind to help them give back to their communities. But not just at Christmas. That’s something that needs to happen year round.