Parenting and Empathic Fathers, Society

My Son Wants A New Doll…

playing with dolls new

My son wants a new doll, he has given his other one’s to his younger siblings. Now, he would like a more “grown up” one. One that is a bit more like him.

I find an Internet store selling nice dolls and they even have a “eco-friendly” box you can tick to select one you like from that range. However, I am not quite clear what they mean by “eco-friendly” and decide to ring them. The conversation goes as follows:

Me: Oh hello, I would like to find out what the criteria for your “eco -friendly” dolls are? I assume they are all phthalate-free?

Shop-owner: Oh yes, they are all phthalate-free. The dolls in the eco-friendly section have all been made in Europe, but they are all made of the same materials, more or less.

Me: Ah, great. Good to know. Then we could choose one from that range…

Shop-owner (interrupts me… wanting to help me choose): How old is the girl you would like to buy a doll for?

Me: Ah, ehm, my son is seven.

Shop-owner: Oh. (Pause) That’s good you are buying a doll for your son.

Me: Eh… yes. He has outgrown his other one’s and would like a new one and I thought I try and buy one that’s as eco-friendly as possible.

Shop-owner: Yes, we have very nice boy dolls. Have you seen our pirate boy doll on the website?

Me: Yes, he doesn’t like that one. He doesn’t really like pirates and dolls with short hair.

Shop-owner: Oh, but that brand has other boy dolls, I could order some in for you.

Me: Hm… he would like the doll to sort of look similar to him and he has long hair and all the boy dolls have short hair.

Shop-owner: Oh. Well, you could also buy boy clothes…

Me: But, he likes their beautiful dresses. And seeing that he likes wearing dresses too…. and anyhow, I guess the dolls you are selling, well most of them, could really be boy or girl as they don’t have body parts anyway, have they?

Shop-owner: No, that’s true. Hm… you have quite a character there *laughs*

Me: Eh!? Yeah…

Then she proceeded to explain more about the different brands and that some of their dolls are made in China and how some are shipped from China to America, then to Europe and which one’s she liked best. Bla, bla, bla.

In the end it left me feeling a bit odd. My son had also listened to the conversation (being so excited about finally getting his doll…) and I felt sad he had to listen to his dad AGAIN having to explain to others that really boys can like dresses and long hair and dolls, too. Does he feel he is not normal, that his dad has to explain his choices to others? How different would the conversation have been had I said the doll is for my daughter?

IMG_3223Why don’t toy shops sell dolls? Just dolls. Rather than boy or girl dolls? Why have some dolls “make up” on, i.e. red painted lips and dark eyelashes, very rosy cheeks etc.? Yes, can you hear me Mattel? It’s not good enough to have a boy in your ads, the actual problem lies in the doll itself. Barbie doesn’t look very natural to me.

Apparently, children at the age of my son, want dolls as an identification figure. But the only dolls I can find that, sort of, look like him (meaning having long hair) are “girls”. Well, I try and pretend they aren’t but they all have a female name and many very gendered clothing.

However, maybe the more we speak to toy shop owners directly, the more they will think: it’s not just the odd one out. The one weird child… there must be others, like my son! Well, I don’t care if not, he is definitely wonderfully unique, and just right the way he is!

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Parenting and Empathic Fathers

That’s How I Deal With My Children’s Meltdowns, Tantrums And Hard Times

crying child
In German we have a saying that goes like this: ‘Wobbly tooth, wobbly soul’. My eldest, who is seven, has at least three wobbly teeth at the moment. That gives you an idea about his emotional balance. Or should I say imbalance? His unpredictable mood swings feel like a hard ride on one of those very big rollercoasters. Each yeeeaaaaaahhhh-that’s -so-much-fun-moment, follows an oooooh-noooooo-crash. Or the other way around. Or just many oooooh-noooooo-crashes at once.

Most children will go through them: meltdowns, tantrums, emotional breakdowns. And it’s always up to us parents how we deal with them. And, yes, it’s not only the typical two-year-old who throws herself onto the floor in protest; it can happen to your seven-year-old or teenager too (well, maybe not the throwing-onto-the-floor-thing anymore).

As I said, my eldest is not quite himself at the moment. He gets very tense and easily frustrated when he thinks he can’t do something (he’s into chemical experiments right now, and yes, you need a lot of patience there). He will scream and shout or just have another (aggressive) argument with his younger brother. All that and more usually between 8am and 8pm. Every day. And here comes the challenge: when he gets loud, aggressive or frustrated, then my initial feeling is – he needs my help and I’m right there to support him. But this becomes such a hard task when it goes on and on. By the afternoon and after a few of those meltdowns, my first inner response is something like ‘Stop!!! I can’t take this anymore! Leave your brother alone!’ And the like. Not very empathic, eh?

I admit that often enough I feel exactly like that: instead of pouring empathy, love and kindness into my son’s empty glass of emotions, I would give him a stern look and a firm ‘stop’ or ‘no’. The trouble here is, my firmness (or helplessness) won’t give him what he actually needs and cries out for: connection and unconditional love. If he feels both of that he will be able to manoeuvre through all meltdowns and difficult times in the whole world. If not, he will probably feel guilty and might think something is wrong with him.

Giving my child lots of love when he’s behaving like a cage man? Yes. And the reasons are simple and indeed logical: My son does NOT want to annoy me or anyone else. That’s my mantra and it should be every parent’s. He is learning. Every day, every moment. He figures out about social interactions , boundaries, emotions, feelings, skills and so on. His meltdowns are cries for help, saying ‘Papa (or Mama, of course) I can’t take this anymore. I’m confused. I’m frightened. I missed you all day. I’m tired. I’m …’ well, pick your own.

You and I (the parents) have to come to terms with the fact that our children respond so much better to connection, love, and empathy than to commands, isolation, and blame. From observations and talking to parents I can say that many react to a child’s ‘misbehaviour’ by sending the child to his bedroom. That goes with the message he should do some THINKING! Well, that is, quite frankly, bonkers. Why should an angry or upset seven-year-old suddenly start thinking like ‘oh yes, dad is right. I really screwed up here and I deserve sitting in my bedroom on my own. OK. I just calm down and then I go down to apologise.’? Really?

Connection, love and offering help is the better answer. Yes, your child might want and need his space for a moment. That’s often like that with my son. Before he is able to accept my closeness, he asks for his own space. And I have to respect hat. But that also means I’m still there for him if he wishes to connect.

Recently I attended a brilliant talk by Parenting by Connection Instructor Stephanie Parker (Hand in Hand Parenting). She talked about great tools and strategies in staying close and supportive when your child is going through difficult times. She stressed the importance of being there. Offering hugs and cuddles. Don’t leave your child alone or sent him away. Even if he chooses to be in his bedroom, you can wait by the door and say things like ‘I’m here for you. I love you.’

DadsTalkBlueAnother great idea Hand-in-Hand Parenting suggest, is to have Special Time with your child. It can be as simple as having five, ten, or fifteen minutes of undisturbed playtime. And, here comes the trick, your child is in charge. He is the boss telling you what you both do at Special Time. If he wants to play his favourite game with his made-up-rules, it’s your call. Of course, Special Time doesn’t mean you do dangerous things or spend £2,000 on toys at online shops. No. Special Time gives your child the chance to feel more empowered (how often is it the other way around?). And for you it’s a beautiful moment to truly (re)connect with him. It’s like filling up your child’s emotional cup with confidence, love, and trust. Using Special Time regularly can help to prevent meltdowns and tantrums.

Another way to show a more positive attitude is something psychologist Oliver James calls “Love Bombing”.

It could work like this: Spend this Saturday with the motto ‘Let your child decide!’ Yes, everything: from when he wants to get up in the morning (hey, he might choose to stay in bed until lunchtime, so you have the morning to yourself), then the activities he chooses for the daytime, his favourite food, to the point he decides it’s bedtime (agreed, it could be late!).

Oliver James says “I developed Love Bombing to reset the emotional thermostats of children aged from 3 to puberty. It gives your child a very intense, condensed experience of feeling completely loved and completely in control”. He advises to have a go at Love Bombing for a day or two or even a shorter period, followed by daily half hour slots devoted to it.

Both ideas can help you and me to feel more connected to our children. I’ve tried them and I can assure you that my son (and other children too) always felt so much lighter, happier and confident afterwards. Yes, tantrums and meltdowns are still part of my parenting journey and they always will be. I have to accept that and breathe calmly through those moments. When I see him arguing and fighting with his younger brother, then I remember that he is preparing for social interactions in the real world. At home he can test out things safely.

However, I also feel I am allowed, every now and then, to voice my feelings about his tantrums, too. Maybe not right there in the moment, if that doesn’t feel right. But it’s authentic and important to let our children know the effect their behaviour has on other family members. So, for example, I can say: ‘I feel unable to listen to you at the moment. My head hurts and I need some space for myself right now. Later on we can talk again (have a cuddle, enjoy a story together…etc.).’

And, again, my son is NOT meaning to annoy me. He’s not giving me a difficult time, he is going through one. I need to be there to hold and hug him (if he wants to be hold). Reassuring and loving words will guide him. And, yes, the wobbly teeth and wobbly-soul-moments will pass.

Wanna read further? Get my book ‘The Empathic Father’.

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Parenting and Empathic Fathers, Society

That’s Why We Don’t Have a TV

television
“How many ‘nas’ are in Batman?”, a 6-year-old girl asks my eldest son. His response: “???”
“Sixteen! Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na BATMAN!”, she laughs.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who is Batman?”, his answer. She stops laughing. Not quite sure whether she should believe him or if it’s him making a joke now.

You see, my kids (and often my wife and I) get this a lot. We meet people in playgroups or on playgrounds and too quickly just one topic becomes the centre of the conversation (well, that is after grown-ups have exchanged their opinion about the weather): The Television. And everything related to it: programmes, films, news, sequels … From there most dialogues roll like this:
“Ah, have you watched this or that last night?… NO? Oh, you missed something good… I really wonder whether Charlie will marry Sue in the next episode?… Ah, the game show was quite boring this time, far too easy, I knew all the answers… Do you have the big Sky package? …No, Netflix, I see… Yes, cost a lot but it’s worth it …”

UK children watch an average of more than two and a half hours of television a day and spend an hour and 50 minutes online a day. In total more than four hours a day in front of a screen. Are we really surprised that our offspring struggles more and more with problems like hyperactivity, obesity, social interaction, problem solving and the like?

About twelve years ago, before we had children, my wife and I made a decision: let’s get rid of our TV watching habit. So when we moved in together we decided NOT to buy one in the first place. The good news is, we didn’t miss it at all. Life was busy and we spent our nights with seeing friends, going out, playing board games and making love.

When our first child was born life got even busier. With some sleep deprivation and the general chaos most new parents experience, we couldn’t care less about what’s on TV.
Life went on, the children got older, and we had more time in the evenings. Still, we never missed TV. Instead of digital boredom, we rediscovered board games, good books, chatting on the sofa or just going to bed early (yes, really does help with those early morning starts!)

children tvOur children survived seven years without TV so far. And I would say they do pretty well. Yes, they know what TV is and yes, they sometimes watch some (educational) stuff on YouTube & Co. But, and that’s the difference to me, they don’t hang around in front of a screen just to kill time or to get brainwashed with buy-everything-you-don’t-need ads. Their screen time is about 2 hours. A day? No, a month. On average. Nearly no screen over the summer but usually a bit more when it’s cold and dark in winter.

Yes, our children don’t know most super heroes or cartoon characters. That’s fine. I believe they haven’t missed anything. Instead of watching ever repetitive plots, they spend time climbing trees. They have no desire buying the latest merchandise “as seen on TV”, but use their pocket money for motors, solar cells and wires to build electric boats. Their games aren’t about the good or bad guy – stories unfold by imaginary play and wonder.

No, I’m not totally against screens or TV. That would be too easy. But I just remember my childhood and early teenage years. I watched TV. A lot. When I was seven or eight, we only had a few channels but that didn’t stop me from watching it. Even if it was boring or the tenth re-run of something, I had to see it. And I remember too well the moment when I had watched all night, feeling tired and a little empty and wondering where my evening had gone…

No plans for tonight? Leave the telly off. Get a good story book out and read to your kids. Or invite some friends and play a board game. Or just chilling on the sofa and listening to your children’s adventures? It’s up to you.

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Parenting and Empathic Fathers

My Dear Gentle Boys…

painting png
My Dear Gentle Boys,

I can’t believe that you’re already four and seven years old. Where has that time gone? Didn’t you just crawl over the kitchen floor and made your first wobbly steps? It feels like yesterday when you said your first words, and I remember exactly the moment I saw you both dancing together in the garden.

Time flies. And that’s OK. Because now you’re not the Little Ones anymore. Soon another baby will be with us. All of us. And I know how exited you are. I feel the same. That bubbly, fizzy, I-need-to-jump-up-and-down feeling inside our tummies. Like a balloon just before it bursts.

You are unique and perfect to me. When I’m around you I can feel all your positive, creative energy and love. I listen to your stories and watch you dancing. I cuddle up with you or we rough house on the bed. I see all rainbow colours in your eyes when you laugh and I hold you tight when you cry.

You explore the world every day. Bravely you climb the highest trees and you will never stop asking questions until you are satisfied with the answer. Yes, you scream and stomp your feet when things go wrong. But you don’t give up. Every day I see you try again.

You surprise me . Your thoughts and the way you care. When I mess up, you forgive quickly. Yes, you fight with each other too, but you also create an inner peace and harmony in the blink of an eye. Your respect for others make this world a better place.

Here and now I want to pause for a moment and just tell you how much I love you.

Let’s keep walking together. You, Mama and I – and, of course, our little girl to come. I’ll be there for you, behind you, next to you. Keep your clear and critical mind. Don’t feel judged by people who tell you how and what boys should look like or how they should behave. You are strong. You are gentle. Keep playing with the toys you enjoy, care for your dolls as you would care for a baby. Wear the colours you like – let it be pink if you choose to. Whether your hair is long or short; whether you wear ‘girls’ sandals or not; whether you play football or skipping rope – I don’t care. What I care for is your happiness and health.

Let’s keep talking. I love sharing my thoughts and dreams with you. Your stories matter to me. Yes, sometimes I get lost in your tales. Then you roll your eyes and start patiently all over again. Until I understand.

Let’s keep dancing together. Turning up the music and dancing through the house. Getting the musical instruments out and having a spontaneous party. You dress up as fairies and I get three free wishes. You hold my hands and I swing you through the air. We are one.

No super hero on your shirt, no toy gun in your hand, no merchandise poisoning your mind. You don’t need them and never missed them either.

Real feelings, real love, real boys instead. You got me. You got Mama. You got our unconditional love. Forever.

In Love,

Your Father


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Parenting and Empathic Fathers

Say More YES! To Your Children

Yes

‘Papa, can I pitch up the tent in the garden?’, ‘Can you read me a book?’, ‘Please, I want to stay up a little longer tonight, just five more minutes.’, ‘Is there really chocolate ice cream in the freezer?!?’

I get those and probably a few dozen more (or maybe hundreds?) questions a day from my children. And not only me. All parents, I believe. The crucial point comes now: What do you answer? What do I answer? Sigh. I confess, I too often reply with an excuse like ‘Eeehm, maybe later’, or ‘Let me think about that’ (and not really thinking about it at all), or with a simple and straight forward NO! Full stop.

Often enough my NO will evoke disappointment, sadness or frustration in my kids. Yes, they might understand why they can’t have the ice cream right now, but why on earth is Papa not wanting to have a spontaneous campsite in the garden or isn’t in the mood for the favourite book?

The NO-word is easy to say. I’m the powerful parent and can decide and if I’m busy, tired, annoyed, stressed or simply not bothered many projects end up being dismissed before they even have a chance to take off.

Please, don’t get me wrong. There are very obvious and no-discussion-moments when you and I have to say ‘no’ to our children, to avoid danger and to simply protect them. Hey, that’s why we’re the parent and adult. And sure, children are more content, relaxed and co-operative when they know about clear and understandable boundaries.

No, here and now I’m talking about all those moments where I fired my NO without really thinking or reflecting. Sometimes just for the sake of my own peace and convenience. To get that moment of quiet or to enjoy the one little minute longer being on the sofa. And yes, that’s fine, too. We parents need to keep our sanity. But that doesn’t mean to use a NO as our power tool, or even worse, not take serious those things our children want to do.

We can make that change quite quickly and it doesn’t take too much effort. I started by taking my children’s requests for x, y and z more serious. When they asked me for something like ‘Can you play shop with me?’ and I just felt no desire at all in that moment, I decided this: give them the YES and just play for a few minutes. Honestly, a quick shopping trip to your child’s grocery doesn’t take longer than 3 to 5 minutes. I also asked my other son to join me and he went shopping as well. After a few moments they both were very busy with playing shop, so I could sneak out… I did my ‘duty’, gave a positive response by saying YES (even if I didn’t feel like it), but at the same time benefitted from it as both my sons were engaged in a game they liked and I could go back to – doing nothing.

(By the way, I prefer an honest NO (sometimes inevitable, I think) to ‘in a minute’, at least the child is not kept in the air and waiting. They know what to expect and continue in their game/do something else.)

Another way to show a more positive attitude is something psychologist Oliver James calls “Love Bombing”.

It could work like this: Spend this Saturday with the motto ‘Let the children decide!’ Yes, everything: from when they want to get up in the morning (hey, they might choose to stay in bed until lunchtime, so you have the morning to yourself), then the activities they chose for the daytime, their favourite food, to the point they decide it’s bedtime (agreed, it could be late!).

Oliver James says “I developed Love Bombing to reset the emotional thermostats of children aged from 3 to puberty. It gives your child a very intense, condensed experience of feeling completely loved and completely in control”. He advises to have a go at Love Bombing for a day or two or even a shorter period, followed by daily half hour slots devoted to it. He states that parents report a closer connection to their child and that Love Bombing balances the child’s behaviour and personality (read more about it here).

Of course you would have to negotiate. If your offspring ask for a super expensive day out (yeah, let’s go shopping and then to the fun park and then to the cinema and then to the zoo…), let’s calm them down a bit. Having a fun day, doesn’t mean you have to go bankrupt. We often spend an afternoon doing crafts with our children. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Try to see the day through your children’s eyes. They will love it – and you too!

Do you know the saying: When the children are happy, then the parents are happy too? I think that’s right!

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Parenting and Empathic Fathers

5 Reminders for All Great Dads

Brent_and_Daddy
I believe most of us try every day to be the best father in the whole world. And that’s great. But we also have days where everything goes wrong. For exact those days I’ve written my personal list of reminders. Hope those five points can help you too!

  • Love your children unconditionally. Yes, there a plenty of moments where they gonna mess up; where they drive you insane, and where your only safe place is the locked bathroom to get at least five minutes peace. Tantrums, scream fits, broken things and even lies. It’s all part of the package. But, there are still the most magnificent and wonderful people on this planet. So, forgive, reconnect, give the love you would have hoped for when you were a kid and screwed up. Why did I put it here as Number 1? Because it’s my personal reminder and the most important thing to me when it comes to parenting and fatherhood.
  • Spend as much time as possible with your kids. Since I’m a father myself I can confirm this: Time flies. It’s such a precious time. And your children are only little once. Before you blink twice they’ve grown up and go their ways. You’ll still be part of their life (hopefully), but it’s nothing compared with the first years. So, get down onto the floor, or in the sandpit, or into the woods and play. When you join their games be present and follow your kids’ rules.
  • Have a just-before-bedtime-talk with your kid(s). It’s a win-win for my son and me. This way I learn about what’s going on inside him and he sees how I talk about emotions and feelings, that I take responsibility for them and reflect on my actions and words.
  • Connect with nature. Going to the park is a good start. But I’m talking about a real connection. Go wild. Off road. No phone signal (yes, that’s the hardest bit). Take a tent, a fire kettle and a few things to ‘survive’. You’ll discover how little you need. Collect wood, make a fire, respect all creatures and life out there. I always find that spending time with my kids in the woods awakes the most powerful feelings inside me. I slow down, I feel a strong bond to my children and I feel somehow home. And it doesn’t cost me anything.
  • Take time for yourself. You’ve heard right. TIME FOR YOURSELF! Take a day or a weekend (it helps when you talk and plan together with your partner) and just focus on your needs and wishes. I’m dreaming of a weekend where I just go for a long bike ride (cycling I mean). A tent, a sleeping bag and my bike. Then, in the evening, somewhere in the countryside, I will make a fire, roast some bread and veggies and have a beer… Sounds awesome to me. Then coming back to my family, feeling fully recharged and energised. Oh yes, we all need a break from time to time.

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Parenting and Empathic Fathers

Pre-Birth Tensions

birthing poolIt’s so important: the time prior to a birth. Families and couples prepare themselves for the big moment. Ideally everything should be in place and ready for the moment when the baby decides it’s time to enter this world.

Ideally, indeed that’s a good word. We’re expecting our third child. Basically at any time now. Due date was yesterday. And, so far I had the feeling everything is fine, and with the experience of two lovely home births in the past I felt somehow prepared and relaxed.

A few weeks ago we started with first preparations. My boys and I inflated the birthing pool for the first time, our lovely midwife came around to talk things through, my wife and I have been listening to birth relaxation CDs, and we created a backup plan for the whereabouts of our kids when birth takes place. We even raided the kitchen cupboard and made some very delicious energy balls for the time of birth and after.

So, all good then?! Well, I must admit things have turned slightly against us and I get that panicky feeling of being stressed. Today my wife followed her nest-building-instinct: we started clearing and cleaning the house to make it more cosy. Since then everything went downhill:

The boys – running around full of tension, anger and temper. The birthing pool – decided to have a hole. The idea of peace and quiet – gone.

I could scream. Honestly, I was so looking forward to this special pre-birth time, when things quiet down and tensions fall off. The exact opposite is happening here. For about an hour I tried to repair the birthing pool with a combination of blu tac, a bike repair patch, sellor tape and swearing. At the same time my heavily pregnant wife chased after our youngest, who was on a mission to either destroy things or leaving messes in corners we just had tidied. Both results, repairing the pool and calming down the little one, were less than successful.

I could scream again. Well, no, I just decide to take a short break. Really, it doesn’t help now to get worked up about things I can’t change or control. Yes, the boys are tense, no wonder. For weeks and months they have been waiting quite patiently for this time. It must have been like an endless journey for them. So, all their anxieties, joy and excitement is bubbling up now. The pool, well, it’s not ideal but it will be alright. Stop worrying, Torsten!

I tell you what I do now. I’ll go down and make a cake. A nice almond-coconut cake. The boys can help me and things will be alright. After we had the cake we can carry on in building our nest. Not long to go until our little one will be here. Let’s take a deep breath and carry on. I see you on the other side… in a few days… or hours…

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