Saturday, April 25, 2009

More About Babies & Siblings

This is a quick follow up to my parenting post from the other day, Positive Discipline from Day One. I have another technique about helping older siblings and babies get along that I didn't think to include in that post, called Putting Words in Baby's Mouth.

Many times when the older kids have a screaming match conflict with each other, it's partly because they can't understand each other's body language and other context clues about what the other might be feeling.

They have a pretty decent grasp of the English language (understatement of the year), so when they're having a problem with each other, we help them remember to express their feelings with words instead of actions. So when Ryan and Morgan are fighting over a toy, we help them identify and state the problem first, and then assist with the negotiation process, if necessary. I wrote another post about the fine art of negotiations a couple months ago.

Now of course, Sean is not able to articulate his thoughts and feelings just yet. And the older kids are used to verbal exchanges. So what I do is become Sean's mouthpiece and interpreter, because a lot of times, the older kids just don't understand what Sean is doing.

So I'll say things like:

  • Sean is mad! He wanted to hold that toy!
  • Sean is mad! He wanted to play with the cat food!
  • Sean is crying because you took that toy and he's saying "I want a turn!"
  • When you hear him yell like that, he's saying "Stop! I don't want you to sit on me!" (Seriously, I have said this. A lot.)
  • He's mad because you scooped him up and he wants to move his body independently.
  • It looks to me like Sean would like to play with you, that's why he's standing by your table. Is there something he can hold so he feels like he's helping you?
  • I know it hurt when Sean pulled your hair. I'm so sorry. He wasn't trying to hurt you--we'll teach him that pulling hair hurts a lot! He's a baby; he doesn't know.
  • I can tell that Sean might be feeling sorry because he sees you crying and now he's crying, too. He knows something is wrong.
  • See how Sean is smiling and rocking back and forth? He loves to watch you dance and sing! He's saying, "Do that again, Big Sister!"
  • I can tell Sean really likes it when you sing that song--he's clapping his hands and laughing.
  • When you bring him his drink, he is feeling that you're taking good care of him. He really likes that.

I say things like this so often that it's become automatic for me--and of course I've really been doing it since Morgan showed up. To a certain degree, I still do a little bit of interpreting with the older kids--Morgan is still not consistent with saying, "Stop! I don't want you to do that!" to Ryan. So, after reminding Morgan to say words, I'll tell Ryan, "When she's squirming and making that screaming noise, that's your clue to climb off of her and ask her 'Is something wrong?' " (Seriously.)

Another idea we've been showing Morgan is to use non-verbal cues, such as holding up her hand in a "HALT!" position, which is easier for her to do, since it seems like she has trouble coming up with words in stressful situations. I think this will help her quite a bit (thanks, Kelly, for the suggestion). And Ryan has been told to respect the Halt Hand as he would a verbal "Stop!"

The main advantages to being the interpreter for the baby (or even an older child who is having a hard time verbally communicating) are that it helps the older siblings understand why the baby is acting the way he is, and also that he is a person who has valid feelings. If they understand the reasons behind the baby's actions or reactions, they can learn to Assume Positive Intent with him, and they can figure out how to help him or get my help. If they understand that he is an actual person, then they will begin to respect his boundaries and rights.


Diana Hsieh said...

I would imagine that the same technique would also help kids behave respectfully towards family pets. The meaning of animal behavior isn't obvious, although it often seems that way to people with life-long experiences with animals. I wrote about the general issue with respect to adults in this NoodleFood post.

Rational Jenn said...

I remember that post of yours; it's a good one.

As a matter of fact, we do the same thing with helping the kids understand the cat's behavior. They know that a twitching tail and flat ears means that she is feeling mad and wants to be left alone. They know that our cat doesn't want to be touched when she's eating, and we've made sure to tell them that's a good general rule for ALL animals. We've shown them where the kitty likes being touched, and where she doesn't (she's an old persnickety thing!).

Morgan is so interested in dogs and we've taught her never to pet a dog that's not with its owner, and always to ask permission before petting the dog. Incidentally--are there other things we ought to teach her about dogs? It's been so long since I've had a dog, I just can't think.

So, yes! It's very much the same thing!

Rational Jenn said...

Also, I'd like to say that it's only fair to explain these things to children. So many times I've seen parents take it for granted that the older kid (who is still very young!) will somehow just know how to treat younger siblings and pets.

All of this interpersonal relationship stuff is not self-explanatory, and frustration and time will be saved simply by explaining a little bit at the outset (and of course consistently reinforcing the rules). And it's fair all around!

Crimson Wife said...

I didn't know that there was an actual term for this but I do it too. I've been working with my 6 year old to not yell "bad baby!" when her 3 month old sister does something to upset her. I sympathize that it hurts to have the baby pull her hair or whatever but it's not okay to yell at her.

Ansley said...

About interacting with dogs...once we have permission from the owner, I have Charlie put his hand out for the dog to smell before he starts petting. This allows the dog to approach Charlie on its terms and know that there is no threat.

I have found that Putting Words in Baby's Mouth has not only helped my son to know his own feelings; by recognizing and valuing all of his emotions, I truly believe that he can better recognize mine. I have been surprised more than once when I stopped trying to force the situation I wanted and said, “Mommy is frustrated!” or “Mommy does not feel well and needs your help,” and he responded to it positively! Who woulda’ thunk that it could be possible for a child younger than 2 could have empathy?! Certainly not most parents that I know in my parents’ generation.

Diana Hsieh said...

What do people need to know about dogs? Let's see...

Perhaps most importantly, a person needs to be able to tell the difference between aggression and excitement. People who aren't raised around dogs will often fear a dog bounding towards them, even though the dog is only excited by the prospect of someone new to pet them. Or worse, they might not recognize a serious threat.

They need to know how to treat a dog respectfully. When I was at the Tea Party with Conrad, a woman asked me whether her young son (about 2 years old) could pet Conrad. He's great with people, so I said "yes." Much to my surprise, her son proceeded to hug Conrad tightly around the neck! GACK! I explained to him that he shouldn't do that to a dog he doesn't know, blah blah blah. (I've had ten-year-olds do the same.)

A person should also be able to tell when a dog is relaxed versus stalking when lying down, the signs of friendliness versus standoffishness, etc.

Oh, and a person should know how to give commands to a dog. People without experience with dogs seem unable to speak with the required authority. By their tone of voice, they ask rather than command. In particular, they should know how to intimidate an unwelcome dog into going home or leaving you alone. (I'm very good at that.) It would help to watch some episodes of "The Dog Whisperer" -- to illustrate what it means to be a firm alpha.

There's more, but I've got to get back to work!

Diana Hsieh said...

Oh, just one more thing:

While I do think that kids should leave pets alone during feeding, any adult should be able to remove the pet's food without the pet retaliating. That's particularly important with dogs, as otherwise possessiveness over food can be a failure to submit to human authority -- and hence a trigger for aggression.

christinemm said...

The things you do are the same things I did with my kids a lot when they were younger. Now at ages 8 and 11 I don't need to do this as much. Good job.