The Don’t Un-Dress Code

One of my first childcare experiences was working in the toddler room with my mother at our church. There was one firm rule: men couldn’t change diapers. And while I appreciate a healthy distance between poop and myself, the connotations behind the rule were troubling.

It’s a disturbing, and seemingly prevalent, misconception that males who work with children—as teachers, coaches or mannies—have chosen their field with perverse intentions. This is an undeserved, discriminatory assumption regarding those of us who choose to work with kids because it’s a challenging, rewarding job with plenty of perks, laughs, and video games. I’d urge all parents to do their due diligence regarding a potential nanny, male or female, but it’s time to debunk the stereotype about guys who work with children. However, one positive effect of this stereotype was that it prompted me, as a manny, to emphasize the importance of teaching modesty.

With the families I’ve worked with, I do everything I can to avoid seeing the children without their clothes. When I started my manny position with five-year-old twin boys, one of my assigned responsibilities was to bathe them. But, within weeks of my employment, I eliminated bath-time. No, I didn’t let my charges run around dirty and smelly—at least no more than a full day of tennis camp could pile on—but I transitioned them to showering instead.

Showers conserve water compared to baths. Showers cleanse more effectively. And showers can be completed independently, without the assistance of an adult. The Practice Life Method teaches that self-sufficiency is vital to development, and having the boys shower avoids a potentially awkward situation. It’s a win-win.

During the post-shower, pre-bedtime window of our evening routine, the twins initially would tap into their nudist spirits. One would stand with his hands up, expecting me to throw him the football, and I would reply, “I’m not interested in playing with a naked guy.” He’d return a moment later wearing pajamas.

The goal of my policy of avoiding seeing the children in the nude isn’t to shame them, but rather to inspire appropriate situational awareness. Shutting the bathroom door is the best option, and a shirt is expected at the dinner table.

When children are comfortable with someone, physical contact is likely. One of the mothers I worked for routinely urged her boys to give me a hug goodbye as I left for the day. The twins liked to snuggle up close beside me while we watched Yankees games on TV. But I always feel it is important to demonstrate the boundaries of acceptable physical contact and point out when a line is crossed. Once, one of the boys started touching my chest in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. He stopped after I swiftly looked at him with a stern expression and said, “I don’t like that” to inform him that it wasn’t acceptable behavior.

Because of their innate curiosity and inexperience, when working with young children, awkward situations can arise. But even when the circumstances are new or confusing for them, the message I send is crystal clear: clothing isn’t optional, I won’t touch you, you don’t touch me, and let’s get back to our Pokémon game.

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Princesses and Ninjas and Stereotypes! Oh my!

I grew up with two older sisters. In high school, I was the only boy in my class at a performing arts program with seventeen girls. My college, New School, boasts a 71% female student body. I’m a manny. So I’ve been around women. A lot.

It’s no secret that women have a tougher ascent to gain respect in the face of objectification, the wage gap, and playing against millenniums of stereotypes. While I believe everyone should support women’s equality, following are three practical applications I use to teach children that lesson.

Silent Support

“Don’t tell girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. Because it would have never occurred to them that they couldn’t.” –Sarah Silverman

Or as I might say, “If you don’t build them, they won’t come… to think of them.” “Them” being harmful stereotypes.

Encourage your children to freely explore their interests and to try new things. My sister, Sara, played soccer, volleyball, and rugby, and was always a more natural athlete than I. I, on the other hand, was a drama kid, sang in choir, and owned tap shoes in high school. Although obsolete labels might presume the opposite, the dichotomy ended up making us both more well-rounded people because we were able to learn from each other. Today, Sara works in the fashion industry where she regularly dominates her company’s sports pools. And while I still enjoy improv, theatre, and the arts, I try to channel Sara’s tenacity on the lacrosse field.

So if your son wants to do gymnastics or your daughter wants to play on the football team, don’t just let them do those things—don’t flinch and just support them.

No Shame

I usually carry around a messenger bag. It’s an easy target for jokes.

“Is that your purse?” asked one of my ward’s classmates at pick-up.

“It’s a messenger bag,” I responded.

“It looks like a purse… like you’re a girl.”

“Well, call it want you want, I just need a bag to keep my lipstick and pocketbook in.”

Kids say the darndest things, including name calling and teasing. While no one likes feeling insulted, it took me years to figure out the best way to defuse verbal attacks is to play along. That approach, and the lack of reaction, can also help break down stereotypes. If a child says that I’m doing something feminine or calls out something as being “girly,” I play along. “HEY! That’s DOCTOR ‘Mrs. Stinkybottom’ to YOU! I didn’t go through eight years at medical school for nothing. I am a respectable woman!”

Some men find any comparison to women threatening. But I believe that the best way for boys to learn that there is no shame in being called a girl is by observing our response—or lack thereof—to those taunts.

Not Just a Pretty Face

Why do so many girls aspire to be a princess but never the queen? Better still, why don’t they fantasize about becoming the president or other positions of power that have to be earned?

A princess is doted upon and pampered. If a girl has only been complemented for being cute, and has been served as though she’s helpless, then that treatment will shape her identity.

To help break that cycle of thinking, I like to point to females—in real life when possible—who are totally badass! Consider (Princess) Leia in Star Wars who rescues Han from Jabba and helps lead the attack on Endor. Kacy Catanzaro recently became the first woman to complete the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course. Those women are role models for strength of body and of spirit.

And the same approach should also be used with boys.

Sometimes, Ulysses and I are watching some Disney show and he’ll ask, “Who do you like better: Bree from Lab Rats or Jessie?”
“I like Bree ‘cause she’s strong,” I answer.

“Tori from Victorious or Cat from Sam & Cat?”

“Tori, definitely. She’s artistic and sweet and Cat is just stupid.”

Some guys go for the vapid, pretty girls—including the male characters in these shows—so I want Ulysses to see that women have a myriad of other appealing qualities. If I talk with him about a woman I’m dating, I list her physical beauty in the middle of the many other things I like about her.

 

I posted this on Facebook about two months ago:I was trying to be funny. First of all, I’m a hairy gentleman who would look very silly in such an outfit. I’m inviting you to laugh with me should I choose to wear a one-piece halter-top. Secondly, I want to poke fun at the bathing-suit season fitness craze because I believe it promotes negative body issues. I intended comedy. My aunt thought so and played into it. My sarcastic friend on the other hand, who I know is very passionate about redefining gender roles, was offended.

I felt badly about it. Was I being ignorant and sexist? Was I being insensitive to gender equality?

I’ve since forgiven myself for this transgression but it was a useful reminder to be more cognizant of the messages I could be sending. And that’s a lesson we can all stand to learn, and keep learning.

We can choose to fight the current, tread water, or ride the waves of progress toward equality. Giving our children a non-biased perspective on gender can go a long way toward ending misconceived stereotypes. And in so doing, we will give all children the opportunity to develop on a level playing field.

Would Mary Poppins survive in The Walking Dead? How to Hire a Nanny

Hiring a nanny (or manny!) is stressful because you’re seeking a person to trust with that which you hold most dear.  There are many factors to consider when deciding whether the person will be the right fit with your family and the right person to nurture your child’s development.  But, before you make an offer to your top candidate, how can you really be sure that person is qualified to assume such crucial responsibilities?  I’m not talking about resumes or references—I’m talking about the essential prerequisites for the position.  If I was hiring a nanny, the one question I’d ask myself would be:

“Would this person be someone I’d want around during a zombie apocalypse?”

Initially, you might think that caring for kids seems unrelated to fending off attacks from flesh-craving corpses.  But the following four essentials for surviving the onslaught of the un-dead are also quintessential for surviving the antics of the recently born.

Makes Good Decisions despite Intense Stress

Feeling anxiety is not unusual when your life is in danger.  But in the widespread pandemonium of a zombie apocalypse, it will be essential to extrapolate scenarios so you don’t escape the immediate peril for an overwhelmingly ghastly result.

When children present a problem—fussing, fighting, refusing to brush their teeth—your instinct may be to stop the problem as quickly as possible.  But appeasing fussing teaches kids to use fussing to get what they want.  The best reason not to fight is that you might get hurt, so breaking up a fight might interfere with the child learning that valuable lesson.  And if they won’t brush their teeth, playing the long game and withholding sweets the next evening makes a greater impression than threatening or bribing them to cooperate.  You and your nanny should be open and communicative regarding the enforcement of consequences, but if she can’t weather a few crocodile tears or some urine on the carpet*, she’s not cut out for the job.

How can you judge?  If she’s rattled during a simple interview, she probably won’t make it through a week with kids.  If she’s calm and collected, try to throw her a bit of curveball—take a phone call in the other room, something to get her one-on-one with the child—and see if she maintains her cool.

*We’ll talk more about potty training next week!

Physical Fitness

“Zombie Runs” are offered as one variation of the popular “Mud Run” races.  The runs feature a simulation of running from “the infected.”  You might want to consider making the successful completion of one of these races a prerequisite for your nanny applicants.

Children need to be physically active.  It doesn’t matter if it’s soccer or yoga or any other activity, as long as kids can exhaust the manic energy inside of them.  If not, it will come out in another, destructive way.  Your nanny should be able to fulfill this duty, even if your child is enrolled in physically active sports camps or leagues.

It may sound judgmental, but a basic observation of an applicant’s response to questions about their fitness level will tell you if they consider a brisk ten-minute walk to be intense exercise.  Otherwise, inquire about the candidate’s athletic activities and relate your child’s current, or potential, interests.

Good Group Member

Whether you’re on the road or hunkered down, it takes a cohesive effort to outlast zombies.  Communication is crucial to clarifying everyone’s job.  And if someone isn’t pulling his weight, he’s dead weight.

Consistency is the key to a child clearly understanding expectations.  If the parents and the nanny aren’t on the same page, it is more confusing for the child and more erratic behavior is likely.  And while her focus must be on the children, the nanny also needs to understand the collective family goals such as adherence to a schedule or maintaining an orderly house.  So while it may not be her job to clean the house, being a member in that shared space means that she is partially responsible for its cleanliness.  Furthermore, being part of a team means not only following plans, but also interjecting opinions when relevant.  Good team members have useful knowledge and they are willing to share it for the good of the team.  You’ll appreciate having someone on your team who has some good ideas of her own.

If the applicant makes it to a trial day, give her the rundown and see how well she’s able to follow the schedule.  Then, as you come and go, pay attention to how well she integrates herself into the daily rhythm of your home.

Can Wind Down

What’s the point of avoiding death if you can’t live a little?  If you’re driving down an open highway, you want someone nice to talk to in the passenger seat. And if the base is secure, you’d enjoy having a person who can sing or tell a funny story around the campfire.  Otherwise, you might as well shoot them in the leg and leave them for zombie bait.

Kids need to explore their imaginations and be silly frequently.  If you hire someone dull, it may dim or extinguish your child’s creative impulses.  On the flip side, a fun, encouraging personality cultivates an environment where a child can be aptly expressive.

The last phase of the hiring process should be getting to know your new nanny as a person.  Take her out to dinner with your family.  Do you enjoy her company?  Can she be playful and engaging?  If so, you’ve found a winner.

And if the dead do rise… double-win.

I Won’t Say your Kid is Cute

Your baby is adorable. As my sister would say, “She’s just so stinkin’ cute!” The delicate fingers, the tiny toes, and the big, beaming eyes. Those wisps of hair. The “If You Think I’m Cute, You Should See My Aunt onesie. It’s enough to make any man’s heart melt and any woman drop an egg.

You just won’t hear me acknowledge it.

Babies are cute because evolution has designed them that way[1]. But I think it’s dangerous if that’s the only thing we perceive or note about them. And that’s especially true as the child grows out of the baby phase and becomes more perceptive about the words they hear. As children begin to develop a sense of self, it can be exceptionally damaging if the predominate message they’ve heard is “your best—or only attribute worth noting—is your appearance.”

It all starts with the parents. You’ve just met your friend’s new baby and as you prepare to leave, there’s a pregnant pause as the new Mom waits for you to comment about her baby’s beauty. Why do we default to focusing on attractiveness? Baby is a person, not a teddy bear. So in that situation, my response would be “I’m so happy I got to meet her.”

I recognize that with a newborn, it’s harder to come up with something to praise because there’s not a lot they do. But rather than staring down at her and telling her how precious she is, I simply start to name things. “Oh, I see that you’re smiling,” I say and I smile back. “You’re grabbing my finger,” as she wraps her whole fist around my pinky. For babies, hearing spoken words is worth its syllables in platinum—especially when done in an over-articulated, sing-songy voice that helps to clarify different sounds. It’s impossible for baby to hear too much of that. However, if we focus on the physical, we’re just practicing bad habits for ourselves moving forward.

Because very soon, baby will become a toddler and a human sponge. If the cute-factor is all she has to process, she’ll quickly learn to use that to garner attention. Messy eating, randomly undressing, or mispronouncing words may have been amusing at some point, but now we’re trying to get stuff done. While I’m all for silliness and imaginative play, there is a fine but distinct line between that and destructive attention-seeking behavior.

And the toddler age is the best time to begin your practice of praising children for their efforts. Consistent affirmation that you like how they try—and keep trying even when it’s difficult—is the best way to instill a growth mindset[2]. Children who learn to solve problems and the value of persistence will be better prepared to face obstacles than their peers who soaked up attention through immature conduct.

As the child grows and starts school, a focus on attractiveness is, at best, a distraction. I wouldn’t want my hypothetical daughter comparing her appearance to her classmates’ when she could be thinking about her science project or her volleyball technique. While the focus on “cuteness” isn’t something we can completely control and body issues run rampant in our society, as adults we can try to shift the focal point toward healthy living, valuable life skills, and self-awareness.

 

[1] Fitzgerald, Tom. “Probing Question: Why Are Babies Cute?” Penn State News. N.p., 21 Nov. 2005. Web. 16 July 2014.

[2] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.

Don’t Force This, Teach That!

During his tenure, Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL, has enforced a mandate to eliminate taunting and other unsportsmanlike acts from the game. Currently, a player can incur a fifteen-yard penalty for gesticulating at an opponent, spiking the ball, or dousing himself with a fan’s popcorn. This year, slam-dunking the ball over the crossbar of the uprights has been added to the list of taboo celebrations. But with each new rule I read, I ask myself: Is forced sportsmanship really ‘sportsmanship’? By imposing penalties that can impact a game’s outcome, the league is, in effect, acknowledging that they have no expectation that players will exercise self-control or civility.

We create similar structures in our own homes. Reactions to, or rules against certain behaviors promote fear of punishment as opposed to asking a child to learn awareness and restraint. Listed below are three skills parents often try to force children to learn, and alternative ways parents can actually help children develop these attributes.

 

GENEROSITY

“You have to share!”

Uh… no you don’t.

I never preach for children to share. Telling a child to blindly give his toy or some of his snack to his peer is merely enforcing subjugation to the parent’s will. That is not the same as teaching generosity. Furthermore, it may be imprudent for Billy to give his fire truck to Tommy if he knows that Tommy likes to break toys. Billy is actually being responsible by NOT sharing.

The way I teach sharing is simply by doing it: Joey wants a few of my pretzels, take some! Johnny wants to play with my Lego spaceship, go ahead! However, if he eats my entire snack or if he breaks my ship, the next time the child wants me to share with him I will tell him that I don’t feel like sharing again because of his previous disrespectful behavior. And, if a child shares with me, I express my sincere gratitude and tell him that his generosity inspires me to share with him. Sometimes, I just want them to see that I profit from sharing simply by feeling empathetic joy.

If the consequence of sharing with a particular friend is unfruitful—either because he’s disrespectful, if he doesn’t reciprocate, or if that friend takes advantage of the generosity—then I have no problem with refusing to share with that individual. Sharing is only valuable if everyone benefits. That’s situational awareness and actual kindness, not just yielding to externally-imposed rules.

 

REMORSE

At Elliot’s Classes, developmentally-focused movement classes for children on New York’s Upper West Side, founder Elliot Cortez, Ph.D. never tells a child to apologize if he bumps into a friend. Instead, the child is prompted to say, “Excuse me.” “Excuse me” acknowledges the act but does not assume penitence. “Why would I tell a child to say he’s sorry?” Dr. Cortez says, “I don’t know that he’s sorry!”

Many children come to rely on using “I’m sorry” as a get out of jail free card, so that it ends up meaning less and less each time they say it. Merely saying the words does not equal feeling regretful.

I think that children can learn empathy best by seeing and experiencing it. If I hurt someone and I feel badly about it, I apologize like I mean it. I maintain eye contact as I recall what happened, how I feel about it, and how I would like to react differently in the future. And I never fish for forgiveness, which acknowledges that they are just as free to decide if they forgive me as I was to apologize to them.

When a child apologizes to me, I listen and react authentically, and I believe it is critical to express my respect and admiration of the child for apologizing. For example, I worked with a child once who was responsible for a water balloon exploding on me. I rubbed at the wet spots on my shorts and he sat beside me on the park bench in anxious contemplation. After a moment, genuinely, he said, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m still upset because I told you before that I didn’t want to get wet, but I really appreciate your apology,” I responded. The internally-motivated remorse he felt and expressed in the context of the situation will shape his future behavior far more significantly than any punishment I could have imposed.

 

POLITENESS

We hammer in “please” and “thank you” to our young children thinking that it teaches them to be polite. But what happens when you run that script?

“I want juice.”

“Say ‘please.’”

“Please!”

“Okay, here’s your juice.” And the next time the child wants something, I’m guessing you go through the same routine all over again. Sometimes children even try to use “please” as a manipulation. “What do you mean I can’t have a popsicle for breakfast? I said, ’please!’” While I want to acknowledge the polite nature of the request, I am still comfortable illustrating that it’s not time for popsicles.

First and foremost, I teach children that the lack of a “please” results in a non-response on my part. If I hear an “I want…” sentence, I respond with a witty retort like “And I want a chocolate croissant” or “Your desires really fascinate me.” Even if they immediately realize their mistake and ask nicely, I tell them that they have asked in a great way, but I’m unavailable at this moment. And a few minutes later when they do ask nicely, I enthusiastically respond to their request. Before long, they say “please” the first time they ask for something.

But as with the qualities of sharing and remorse, setting the example is the best way to teach politeness. Saying “please” and “thank you” to and in front of children familiarizes their brains with the social expectations.

Remember, politeness should be the outward manifestation of true gratitude. Being polite shows respect and appreciation, so giving the words a personal inflection offers legitimacy. When I want a child to recognize my efforts, I acknowledge hers with more than just the words—a high-five, a smile, something—to let her know I really mean it.

 

I like to imagine a world where people are considerate because they want to be, not because it’s mandatory. Becoming a role model for these causes is the most effective way parents can show children desirable behavior. And in keeping with the tenets of the Practice Life Method, not only does the child develop these quintessential skills, but the parent gets to practice his own thoughtfulness as well.