Happy 10th Chinaversary to me!

Today marks my tenth Chinaversary. It’s no secret the most significant event I’ve experienced throughout my decade in China is motherhood, but second to that is the journey that led me to working with infants and toddlers and Montessori.

“I don’t know how you do it…I wouldn’t last a day!”

I hear this all the time and I always ask, “why not?” Often people have never really thought about it, nor asked themselves what exactly it is about young children that is so baffling or scary that they would never dare consider working with them. They just believe they do not have the patience for it. I hate to admit it, but once upon a time I was absolutely that person. Seven years ago if you were to ask me if this is where I saw myself in the future, my answer would have been a resounding NO…

…but here we are.

In 2011, I worked for a young, expatriate couple who had a two year old daughter and they changed my whole perception of family life. The parents were smart, beautiful, and both had successfully climbed to the top rung of their respective journalism ladders. But perhaps the most amazing thing to me was how much and they travelled and how easy they made it seem with a two year old—who was inquisitive with an energy that never slowed [I was exhausted just looking at this child, seriously]. I had always been told that children and travel do not mix and so, I said I would delay having a child for a few years. But I found myself being more and more curious about children as I continued to work for this couple. And so, I began to study child development.

While studying, I had the good fortune of witnessing for myself the wonderful milestones and the developments of infants and toddlers. It was so fascinating to observe all the transformations occur in their physical, cognitive, socioemotional and language skills. I began to understand children and I started to recognise the different ways they learn and the different ways their minds perceive different situations. It was also satisfying to successfully apply the skills I had acquired through the studies. It changed the way I interacted with children. I found myself becoming more empathetic, patient, and generally, just happier to be around them. I had gained an understanding of children that made it a pleasure to work with them—even on those really difficult days, when the cries would cut through you like a hot knife on butter, there was always something to be thankful for because I began to view the world through their eyes; I had gained their sense of wonder.

Now we fast forward seven years and I have devoted many years to studying children. I continue to practice my craft and I continue to find new ways of understanding them and so when people ask me, “How do you do it?” I simply say it’s because, “I want to.”

Thank you, China, for letting me discover what it means to truly love your work.

Daria Morgendorffer helps me parent. Yes, that Daria. 

I’m lying inside a giant box.

No, that’s not some weird metaphor. I am literally lying inside a giant box.

Why? Because when our new fridge arrived the other day, my first thought was, “Charlie’s going to love this box.” And yep, I was right. Now I’m lying inside the giant box as she sleeps sweetly, cuddled into me because, “Mama sleep in box, please,” completely melted my heart. And when your daughter melts your heart. You just can’t say no.

So, as I lie here (at 03:35 am because apparently, my body doesn’t like sleep) I am thinking about the box and why I thought of Charlie when most adults would be excited about the new fridge. (Is it that my brain is now incapable of thinking about anything beyond Charlie? Possible). But then I remembered…Boxing Daria.

For those unfamiliar, Daria was an animated show in the 90s–created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis–and for me, undeniably the best show ever created. Now don’t get confused, animated, yes–but certainly not your typical cutesy, Disney variety (I LOVE those too!). Daria was produced by MTV for a teen audience and it had all your typical teen angsty goodness with a touch of humor. It also spawned my love of satire. In the “Boxing Daria” episode, she finds comfort in a refrigerator box during a difficult time in her early years (thus, me lying in a giant box with my kid). 

While not hugely positive, Daria’s perspectives of the world around her enabled me to explore ideas that challenged social norms and pop culture. I feel like my individualist values are due to her refusal to conform to societal norms. (I’m really putting a lot of stock in a fictional character. Noooot entirely sure what to make of that.)

In my nine years of living in China (It was only supposed to be six months! Yikes!), I’ve witnessed, heard about and experienced for myself cases where people told me what to do and how to do it. I was told how to behave, how I should look, what to eat, what to drink, and what to wear, and what it means to be female and male, and what it means to belong in this society. I’m not saying, this is only in China. I know this happens everywhere. But because of China’s collectivist culture, individualism is not highly valued. There are so many societal pressures and to step away from the norm is just not acceptable here. For some people, at least. But with that, it is also getting a bit better. I still wouldn’t call it progressive, but there are sparks of hope every now and then (Yay, China!)

It’s 06:00 am now and I’m reminiscing about a cartoon (I can almost feel your eye roll…get to the point already). Anyway, so it got me thinking…Daria was socially awkward, completely pessimistic and wasn’t always pleasant to her peers. She was an outlier, yet despite all that, she remained true to herself and it made her resilient. At the end of the day, this is really all I want for Charlie.

I’m excited to watch Daria with Charlie (I mean when she’s 12). It will probably seem so ancient to her by that time, but considering my values are still the same…perhaps, Daria was onto something way back in the 90s.

Case in point, there is so much truth to this response to a question about her goals in life.

(I took this image from Buzzfeed.)

Why an elastic band on my wrist is helping my child become more resilient!

 

Be honest.

 

Have you ever gone a single day without complaining?

 

Okay, I’ll own up. I’m constantly complaining. I know…we all complain. But there are days that I just feel myself being sucked into a rabbit hole—sometimes I just complain in support of friend’s complaints. Either way, it’s all negative energy that I do not need in my life. As Charlie’s role model, I would like to set a good example. I certainly would hate for ‘complaining’ to become one of her learned behaviours. Coincidentally, my (totally amazing) Mother-in-Law sent me this quote by Robert Fulghum, and boy was it a truth bomb! “Don’t worry that children don’t listen to you; worry that they are watching you.” This is now firmly in the memory bank to be accessed whenever I feel myself about to say or do something I would hate for Charlie to mimic.

 

Case in point:

 

“Why do I have to read about politics in my studies? It’s so stupid!” I groaned loudly slamming my textbook down. Then like a ninja Charlie appeared and parroted, “Sssstoopid.” (Shame, Shame!) On the one hand, I perfectly demonstrated the point of the quote above; on the other hand, I also displayed a negative attitude toward learning. Not to mention, a rather pessimistic outlook. What was the point? Complaining about the content didn’t change the fact I still had to read (and write) about it. Needless to say, if one complains endlessly, the action is then normalised and the child accepts this behaviour as an example to follow. Consequently, when the child begins to complain the adult will most likely respond negatively. What does this mean for their development? Well, the interactions they have with those around them will shape the way they view themselves. The child’s self-concept is developed through the relationships fostered during the early childhood years—modifying it as they gain approval or disapproval from those around them.

 

As a parent, one of my (million) parenting goals is to ensure that Charlie grows up being resilient. Resilience provides young children with the effective emotional tools to overcome challenges during the course of their life, which enables them to persevere despite any difficulties they may encounter (“Thanks, Captain Obvious!” Bear with me, there is a point.)

 

What is the easiest, most obvious way to help children develop resilience?

 

Let’s turn to Mahatma Gandhi, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” What does that mean? That means you should always model the behaviour you wish your child to repeat. (Cue Epiphanius music.)

 

So, here comes the point…

 

I’m not saying that parents should never let their child see them complain (We’re only human, after all.). What I am saying is that parents should employ that frustration to problem-solve. In doing so, even if you’re feeling pretty crummy, you’re actively demonstrating resilience and modelling a positive disposition. So, in hindsight, I should have said, “I really dislike politics, but I understand that it’s necessary and reading this information will enable me to form an educated opinion.” (Hindsight is a wonderful thing, amirite?)

 

So, what does this have to do with me hurting myself intentionally with an elastic band?

 

My husband came home last week, he had been listening to one of his many podcasts and he suggested we try the 21-Day No-Complaint Challenge. Essentially, you have to wear an elastic band around your wrist and go without a single complaint for 21 days. Consecutively. It’s all about metacognition and conditioning yourself to recognise when you’re being negative. What happens if you forget and complain? Place the elastic band on your other wrist and start over. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. I started on Tuesday and failed three times before 10:30 am. Then I thought, No worries, Wednesday will be Day 1. Wrong again. So, here I am it’s 6:30 am on Thursday, 25th of May, 2017 and I pledge to go without complaining for 21 days…(I will not give up, even if it takes me months and months, because RESILIENCE!)

 

How about you, are you up for the challenge?

What do fairies have to do with children’s emotional development?

Every day I marvel at my little one. I watch in awe as she explores her surroundings completely, unapologetically curious yet so innocent. I watch nervously, yet excitedly, as she teeters over the edge of the slide unafraid of any consequences that may occur if she falls. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of fear and the desire to provide as many opportunities for exploration. And then there are days, you know the days… the days that just seem to go on forever because it’s the day she decides to explore tantrums, anger, and ultimately, rebellion. Even though her little mind can’t define exactly what this action is she knows she likes it and she likes the reaction it elicits from her parents. So, what happens now? Don’t pull your hair out just yet.

 

Trigger warning: I’m about to use that annoying “Oh, it’s just a phase…they’ll grow out of it soon” reason.

 

Okay, so while it is a phase (and yes, they will grow out of it…just hang in there!), it’s important to understand that the tantrums, anger, aggression, and all the other less than appealing behaviour is the result of cognitive dissonance. Yep. Your little one’s developments (the ones that make you marvel in awe) are also the cause of their little bouts of insanity. New discoveries are a constant stimulus of emotions and unless children have learned to identify these feelings, they will not be able to control them. And here, ladies and gentlemen is the quote that inspired this whole blog to further explain my point:

 

“Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.”

 

Is this not a perfect description of that little human you’re raising? (Good ol’ Jimmy Barrie knew what he was talking about!). Essentially, it’s our jobs as parents to help children identify the emotions they feel and provide guidance to help them solve problems and overcome the many frustrations they will encounter before your first coffee throughout the day. I firmly believe that playtime is the best time to learn. And what better toy to effectively help children to identify their emotions than a Mood Swing Puppet? (Yeaahhhh, I’m still working on a child-friendly name).

 

Step 1: Take some fabric, an old T-shirt will do! Trace a human (ish?) figure onto your fabric and cut two identical pieces and sew the sides together leaving the bottom open (I’m going to be honest: this one was done by a tailor…Ssshh!). If your little one is old enough, they can also do this part. Meanwhile, you can finish that cold coffee you were meant to drink earlier.

 

Step 2: Create the emotions by cutting a sad mouth and a happy mouth from coloured felt material and stick them on both sides of the puppet. Alternatively, you can just use a sharpie and draw the mouths directly onto the puppet. You can also draw eyes, but I’ve chosen to use googly eyes for that extra wow! Also, it’s fun for the little on to stick them onto the puppet (hooray for independence!) Drawing furrowed brows on your sad person to make them grumpy, just sayin’.

 

Step 3: If you want lovely locks of hair, cut coloured yarn and paste them onto your puppet’s head (So presh!).

 

Next time your child demonstrates less than desirable behaviour just remind yourself: they are yet to develop self-regulation skills that provide them with the emotional tools to manage their emotions. (Fun fact: these are the same emotional tools that keep you from pulling your hair out!) So, go forth…talk, explore, sing songs and play games about feelings using your Mood-Swing Puppet! (Yep, couldn’t think of a better name…suggestions welcome!).

 

ABC: a playful post about your child’s interests.

“ABC!” My daughter utters this excitedly at least twenty-five times within the first hour of my day. She is 15-months and is thoroughly obsessed with the alphabet. While she’s not yet able to identify the different letters of the alphabet, she’s able to recognise the difference between images, Chinese characters and letters (Humble-brag much?)…So, “ABC” gets thrown at me a lot, because, well—there are a million books in my apartment and almost everything in our daily lives contains words! Okay, okay…I do have a point to make here…

I’m sure you’ve heard that play is essential to children’s development and that you should always try to encourage your child’s interests by creating play experiences that provide opportunities for them to engage in intrinsically motivating activities. What exactly does that mean? Well, look at your child. What are they doing right now? (Sleeping? What are you still doing here?! Go to sleep!) If there is anything at all, whether it’s an image in a book, an object in the room or their own feet that capture their attention for more than a minute it’s interesting to them and chances are there is something there that is intrinsically motivating.

Okay, back to the ABC! (Thanks, Dr. Seuss!) My daughter really loves it and I know, she’s too young to actually learn it and it’s significance in our lives, but like I said, she’s obsessed. So I go with it. I extend her interests, but there is only so many times I can sing ABC before my brain melts. Luckily, there are a million things you can do and no, you don’t need fancy flashcards (they just eat it anyway) or noisy, headache inducing electronic toys. You can create alphabet art out of literally anything you can find lying around in your home—or even on the streets…but remember to sterilize it first! Once, before she was born (…simple times.) I made ‘fairy rice’. Sounds fun, right? It’s actually just raw white rice mixed with vinegar and food colouring. I found them again the other day and grabbed some white glue and a black piece of paper and wrote a ‘C’ with the glue and got her to sprinkle the fairy rice on it, and Voila! Pretty, pretty, Letter C! You know what else is fun? Paper ripping. Do some amazing finger painting and then let that kid just rip it up to their heart’s content—remember to take photos, because it’s really just pure joy—and then make letters out of the small pieces of paper. You can even glue them on letters that I’m sure you had time to carefully draw and cut out. Also, paper ripping is excellent for their fine motor skill acquisition, just sayin’.

Next time you’re locked in pollution prison and you need something to keep the cabin fever at bay, just take a look at your child…what are they telling you, and more important, what can you do to intrinsically motivate them.


This post has also been featured on the Timeout Beijing Family Blog.