Mean What You Say, and Say What You Mean:

giving direct instructions



-Horton, the Elephant (Dr. Seuss)


*Note: the names and details of the following situation have been altered in order to protect the well-meaning*

Working with Carers and Educarers as often as I do, I overhear a lot of adult-child interactions, most of which represent commonly accepted behavior management strategies. Lately I’ve been working with many toddler Carers and have noticed a serious need for change in the way we deal with the behavior of this age group.

During a home visit, I recently overheard an exchange between a toddler and her mother. Two-and-a-half-year-old Elana had wedged herself into a corner by a bookshelf to snuggle inside the dog’s toy basket. Mom addressed Elana with the sweet, sing-song-y tone of voice so many people use with young children and launched into a delicate, toddler-tailored lecture:

“Remember Mommy asked you not to get in there? Alright? Those are the dog’s toys and they’re yucky! They could make you sick, okay? Or you might bump your head, and that would really hurt you. Oouuch. Or you might knock things off the shelf and make a mess. Okay? So be good and obey Mommy, please. Or else you’ll have to sit in time out, and you don’t want to go to time out, do you? Nooo, so be good, okay?”

Elana continued to sit in the basket of soft toys, eyes wide and staring at her mom with bewilderment. I could imagine she was thinking the toddler equivalent of:

“What are you talking about? What do you want me to do? Why am I going to have to sit in time out? What do the dog’s cleanliness and the things on the shelf have to do with me? I thought I was good… What’s going on??”

If Elana’s dad hadn’t stepped in to lure her out of the basket with a fun game, she might have been put into time out for not obeying an instruction that was never given to her.

Notice: Not once did Mom directly instruct her daughter to “get out of the basket.” She reasoned with Elana, she vaguely alluded to past instructions given, she told tales of surrounding safety hazards, but never once gave a direct instruction, leaving Elana very puzzled and totally lost in her mom’s long soliloquy.


This is a widely common mistake made when dealing with well-meaning carers and their toddlers. Toddlers are so small and cute and wide-eyed; we sometimes think we need to walk on eggshells around them. Maybe we don’t want to hurt their feelings by being “too bossy,” or maybe we don’t want to initiate one of those infamous toddler tantrums. Sometimes we don’t even realize that our long speech didn’t actually contain a direct instruction! But whatever the reason, it seems the natural instinct of the gentle-hearted to beat around the bush rather than to be direct, which almost always ends in a lose-lose situation for everyone.

When we use long, detailed speeches to instruct our toddlers, they can easily get lost in all the words and tangents and explanations; it can become way too much for them to process. But even if they are old enough to follow our points all the way through the lecture, it’s certain they are zoning in and out the entire time. This isn’t because “young children naturally have short attention spans,” as is commonly believed; in fact, I consider that belief to be false. No, this is because we have interrupted their natural play process to give an instruction, and they are more interested in getting back to their play than they are in listening to a spontaneous lecture. Therefore, we need to keep our comments short and concise, to show proper respect for the child’s work (for at this age, their “job” truly is to learn through play), while making sure our own needs are met, too.

When giving toddlers instructions, we need not make it complicated or include details. With young children, the more concise an instruction, the better!

Here are some things to keep in mind as you practice your direct instructions:


It’s okay to give a simple explanation about why we’re making a certain request. In many cases, in fact, it’s even most respectful to the child to give them the reason. However, I’ve found that most reasons are way simpler than we try to make them! “It’s not safe to…” is nearly a one-size-fits-all explanation for most instructions we give. For Elana’s Mom, “It’s not safe to play in the dog’s basket. Please get out of it now” would be perfectly ample for getting the message across. If Elana wants to know why it isn’t safe, she will ask! And Mom can have that discussion with Elana once she is safely out of the dog’s basket.


Somehow through the years it’s become the norm to speak to small children with high-pitched, sugary voices. In case you are wondering about my official ruling on this tone: Save it for your furry friends. Speaking to children with these little, sweet voices is not only obnoxious for all bystanders to hear; it is literally belittling! Toddlers are whole people, deserving of respect. Use the same voice when talking to small children as you would use to address a beloved peer: friendly and respectful. That friendly, respectful tone is much easier to take seriously as far as your toddler is concerned.

When you give an instruction, however, add to your friendly and respectful tone confidence and firmness. Those sweet tones we often use, coupled with phrases like “okay?,” indicate that we ourselves are unsure or timid about giving the instruction. How can a toddler feel safe to follow the directions of a leader who doesn’t have confidence in their leadership abilities? If you expect your toddler to take the instruction seriously, speak with a tone that leaves no wiggle room.


There is a difference between the friendly-respectful-confident-firm tone I’ve described above, and the stern tone of voice our mothers and schoolteachers used. If you pull out your stern voice each and every time you have expectations for your kiddo, that would feel disrespectful, and likely bring up feelings of defensiveness or rebellion, which would keep the child from being able to fully hear the message of your expectations. Instead of stern or sing-song-y, your tone should communicate, “I feel confident in my relationship with you and in my responsibility and capability to keep you safe. I definitely mean what I’m saying and expect you will follow my directions. I’m not open to changing my mind.”


Direct instructions and confident tones are not always natural to master, but don’t give up. They are worth the work, so keep practicing. If you notice yourself using a sugary-sweet voice, launching into a long lecture, or asking your toddler if its “okay?” for them to comply with your instruction, pause. Take a breath, check in with yourself, find your respectful confidence, and start over. With time, you’ll notice that tone and structure coming more naturally to you, and you’ll notice a toddler who has more confidence in the leadership skills of her carer.


Today and always, fellow carers, I wish you well!

Lessons From a Toddler Classroom

PART ONE: Asking for Love in Unloving Ways

* Note: Though this story takes place in a classroom, this piece is intended for ANYONE who has ever loved a toddler *

In toddlerhood, we see a lot of limit-pushing and testing, and it’s one-hundred-percent developmentally appropriate. They’re emerging from a stage where they were completely dependent on their Carers but are now beginning to learn how to do new things on their own! They’re learning to walk, to talk, to feed themselves, to build, to explore… so naturally we should expect they will test everything they are interacting with to figure out their new skills and their burgeoning self-sufficiency!

When we put these todds in learning centers and day care settings, however, we see the developmentally appropriate limit pushing added to the testing that naturally comes with new teachers, new students, new classrooms, new routines… and all the uncertainty that naturally occurs in this type of environment.

In an environment where so much is changing and unpredictable (as is unfortunately inevitable in these care-center settings), toddlers need to ask the question, “am I still safe here?”

The Carers charged with the safety of these youngsters are also charged with proving it to them. We must be equipped to create environments which affirm their quest for physical safety—and we are always experts at that! —but, also their quest for emotional safety. And sometimes the situations when emotional safety is in jeopardy from our Little’s perspective are simultaneously the situations when physical safety seems to be in jeopardy from our Caring perspective.

Many weeks ago, I was called in to substitute for an aid in a school’s toddler classroom; these 8 children were all 30-36 months old. Their lead teacher, Mrs. Tabitha, was a wonderful, passionate educarer who was brand new to toddler-care. She informed me that several toddler friends had recently left the room to transition to the older class within the last month, and new friends were being transitioned into this room from the younger class. To make matters even more unstable, the center had been unable to find a reliable, steady assistant for the room in months, often leaving Mrs. Tabitha to work alone with a room full of toddlers, or else to constantly adjust to substitute teachers coming in and out of the room. It was immediately evident that these todds were starved for stability, but also for emotional safety.

As is to be expected, they began testing limits as soon as this new substitute (myself) walked through the door. I was prepared for this and met their testing questions with a jam-packed day’s worth of,

“I won’t let you climb on the cot cart. Put your feet on the ground like this. / I can tell you want to play with these cool cars! It’s circle time right now. We will play with these when circle time is over. / You can sit on the carpet or in my lap. Which one works best for you? / You want to get Mickey Mouse out, but Mrs. Tabitha said not until after lunch. We need to put him away. Do you want to do it by yourself, or do you want my help? / You’re having a hard time sitting on your bottom. I’m going to put this chair away so I can keep you safe. / You’re having a hard time not hitting your friends with the dinosaur. Thank you for letting me know you need help. I will put him away now.”

However, there was also an element of toddler violence present in the room. And as pre-naptime fatigue increased, so did the number of swings, shoves, and kicks. Two-and-a-half-year-old Broden was especially aggressive as his tiredness set in.

He was a child who was clearly already having a hard time using words to express himself (speech delays complicated his efforts), and the mounting frustrations from fatigue combined with weeks of constant change proved too great an adversary for him. After endless corrections from his worn-out lead teacher, one last hard shove landed him in time-out in an isolated corner of the room. Understanding the root of his misbehavior, his cries of despair were more than I could bear to idly listen to.

I scooted over to him and held him close. “Sometimes it’s just so hard, isn’t it.” He cried harder. I rubbed his back. “I hear how upset you are. You are so sad and so angry mixed together. And that is so hard. I hear you.” After a few seconds, his cries became softer and he melted into my arms with only little whimpers left.

“Mrs. Tabitha and I are going to work together to get the cots set up. Then you will be able to get under your blankets and rest.” Again his tears started to flow. “It will feel so nice to rest.” His cries softened. “I’m going to help Mrs. Tabitha. You can lay down and rest right here, or you can look at books until we find your cot. I will be right back when it’s ready.”

Feeling heard and understood, he felt safe enough to grab a book off the shelf and lay down with it. When his cot was ready, I took him by the hand, tucked him in, and asked, “Do you want me to rub your back?” He nodded. I smiled into his eyes as I rubbed his back and said, “Now you can rest. I’ll be right here.” And he fell asleep.

A quote from the Gottman Institute continued to occur to me as I interacted with Broden:

“The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”

This was a classroom full of children BEGGING for love in the most unloving ways. BEGGING for emotional safety.

Broden wasn’t hitting and shoving and kicking because he was a “bad kid;” he was using those behaviors to send an S.O.S.:

“Show me I’m safe! Show me you can handle the worst I can dish out! Show me you’ll still love me! Show me you’ve got this! I’m scared! I feel unsteady! I don’t know if I can trust you! I don’t know if I’m really safe! Show me I am!”

Kids who are begging for safety in this way are ultimately craving connection. They want to be heard, to be understood, to be comforted, to be loved.

They need to know their Carers can handle it; that we can keep them safe through all the scary and uncertain moments of their tumultuous toddlerhood. They need to know we can love them through the experiments-gone-awry, through the meltdowns and tantrums, through the pre-naptime fatigue and pre-lunch attitudes, through the moments they want to run wildly in circles, and through the moments when they just want to snuggle. They need to know they are free to explore this big new world within the wide walls of our unconditional safety, and on our firm foundation of unconditional love.

And for Carers, this is just as enormous an undertaking as it sounds…

But it becomes easier each time we choose to see our Little’s misbehavior as the cry for help it truly is.

… To be continued…

 See if you can begin to hear the real requests hiding beneath the surface of your Little’s challenging behaviors this week. See if you can begin to shift your response to these behaviors toward Connection.

Most importantly, Carers: KEEP BREATHING. You can handle this!

Today and always, I wish you well.

Coming Soon!

Part Two: Lessons From a Toddler Classroom: setting firm limits founded on connection

#SaidAroundHere: “I don’t like that.”

i dont like that flamingosThis one’s geared toward the Carers in schools and daycare centers, but I bet some of my nanny and parent readers can to relate, too!

Many of us have been promoting the phrase “I don’t like that” with our kids for years now. (I first started teaching this communication strategy to kids after a Conscious Discipline workshop with Becky Bailey in 2009.) When it was originally introduced into our childrens’ vocabularies, it was meant as an alternative to “stop that!” and “don’t,” and with any luck, a way to prevent tattling. We wanted our kids to be able to stand up for themselves; we wanted them to be empowered to let others know what was and was not okay with them.

When used appropriately, “I don’t like that,” is a wonderful tool employed in friendly social situations when some boundaries may have gotten crossed. A few examples in case you’re new to using this great tool:

  • Adaline and Bartolo are playing with Legos together when Adaline bumps Bartolo’s building with her truck, suggesting some kind of demolition. Bartolo can say, “I don’t like my building being broken.” * Adaline will most likely make a different plot suggestion.
  • Chante and Dani are having a great time playing together on the slide. Chante pushes Dani down the slide before Dani is ready. Dani can say, “I don’t like being pushed down the slide.” * Chante will most likely say, “Okay!” and they will continue playing without pushing.
  • Eddie and Farid are play-fighting as Ninja Turtles when Eddie jumps on Farid’s back. Farid can say, “I don’t like it when you jump on my back,” * and the play will most likely continue, sans back-jumping.

*Note: the word “that” in the phrase “I don’t like that” has been replaced with the naming of what specific action is disliked. This is the ideal way to teach children to use this communication strategy. The phrase “I don’t like that” alone is often unhelpful because it’s too vague to communicate to the friend what should be changed. Children can often learn to complete the phrase “I don’t like…” with a specific reference as soon as they are able to speak in sentences.

But here’s something we didn’t expect: many teachers have begun using this phrase with their students.

Certainly, if I’m in my classroom and Gemma tries to tickle me, it’s appropriate for me to tell her with a surprised smile, “Oh! You know what, I actually don’t like to be tickled!” But it becomes inappropriate when we, as authority figures, use the “I don’t like that” tool to express displeasure with a child’s poor choices (even more so when it’s paired with a stern voice and facial expression).

A few examples I’ve overheard from well-meaning teachers through the years:

  • Hailee is practicing her downward-dog on her cot at naptime instead of resting flat, so we say, “I don’t like that at all, Hailee! You know better!”
  • Ian is piling mulch on the end of the slide, so we say, “I don’t like that one bit, Ian! Make a different choice!”
  • Jael gets angry at a friend for taking his toy and hits her, so we say, “I don’t like you hitting my friends, Jael! Go move your clip!”

I can imagine this phrase became so common for teachers to use in schools and daycares because it (like some other now-popular phrases, such as “no thank you”) seems like a much gentler way of saying, “no!” or “don’t do that!” I know no teacher intends to confuse their students or to cause them to feel insecure or stifled. My intention here is not to cause my fellow carers to feel insecure or stifled either, but instead to provide some points for consideration, and some ways of discouraging poor choices that are both more nourishing and more effective in our classrooms.

Using what should be an empowering communication tool as a way of scolding rule-breaking undoubtedly does confuse our children, however. It implies their choices can be evaluated as “good” or “bad” based solely on the way others react to them. (This is one way compulsive people-pleasers are unintentionally created!) It also conditions our children to be insecure about their thoughts and desires, since those thoughts and desires can cause such decidedly negative reactions, even from those who are meant to love them and keep them safe.

The inappropriate use of this tool also causes us to miss valuable opportunities to act out the true meaning of the word discipline, which is to teach:

  • Hailee’s teacher missed the opportunity to guide her in learning about the importance of resting during naptime, or about the safest way to be on a cot, and instead caused Hailee to feel that her yoga routine had to be stopped because it offended her teacher.
  • Ian’s teacher missed the opportunity to teach him about safe playground conduct and how to respect his friends’ play on the slide, and instead caused Ian to believe his creative mulch-pile location was unacceptable simply because his teacher didn’t like it.
  • Jael’s teacher missed the opportunity to show him how to express his upset feelings and get his toy back in safe and healthy ways, and instead caused Jael to feel his upset feelings about his toy being taken were unwarranted because his teacher didn’t like the way he expressed them.

Here are some examples of things teachers could have said to Hailee, Ian and Jael that are quick and to-the-point, yet also take advantage of those teachable moments:

  • “Hailee, you are coming up with ways to exercise your legs, but right now it’s time to rest so your body will have what it needs to finish the day. To be safe on your cot, you can lay on your belly or you can lay on your back.”
  • “Ian, you are having a lot of fun making that pile of mulch! I can’t let you build it on the end of the slide because your friends want to come down it, but you can make mulch piles over here or over there.”
  • “Jael, you are so angry that Kaylin took your toy!! I can’t let you hit her. Let’s take some deep breaths together, and when you feel ready, we can talk to her about giving it back to you.”

In these ways, we can continue to reserve the “I don’t like that” strategy for empowering our children to communicate their needs to their peers, and we can continue to firmly guide our children by teaching valuable skills rather than passing unconstructive judgement.

What are some ways you can help your students express their needs using the “I don’t like that” strategy? What are some of your favorite examples of kids using this strategy with success? How can you refocus your energy by teaching valuable life skills without judgment for your students? I would love to hear your goals and anecdotes in the comments section!

Today and always, my fellow Carers, I wish you well.

(And I must give a special, fun thank you to the Nameberry app which provides me with the names for my examples so I can spend my creative energy focusing on the things I want to say! 😊 )

And The World Spins Madly On…

taking care of ourselves through the tragic seasons of life:

Tragedy can, and will, enter our lives without permission; it will swiftly force its way into our homes without invitation, and long after Tragedy has struck its blow and left us, the repercussions will linger on…

Usually, I direct the content of my blogs to those responsible for the parenting, education, or care of children. However, this blog is written to the general human being, to remind you to keep taking care of yourself in the face of tragic and distressing circumstances. As one who has spent many months in such circumstances, I share what I’ve found to be the most important pillars to support a functioning human during those dismal times.

Get enough sleep: it’s tempting to stay up late with a glass of wine, a plate of nachos, binge-watching Netflix for hours past your usual “bedtime,” to bask in the bitter silence of the night while everyone in the house is asleep, and then to hit snooze on your alarm clocks 85 times in the morning. However, as comforting as it may seem in the late-night hours to sit in mindless pity for yourself, it is not lasting and productive comfort which will actually be the result; it will be an ever-deepening hole of exhausted sadness. The more sleep deprived you become, the more easily you become triggered. And when you act out in your exhausted irritation, you create many tiny painful situations which end up adding to a “the world is falling apart around me” attitude. And before you know it, you are in a viscous cycle it will take quite a bit of effort to end…So just go to bed at the same time every night when your schedule permits it, and wake up at the same time every morning. (You should always strive to function on a minimum of 6 hours of sleep, but ideally 8-10.)

Get your vitamins: whatever treats you feel entitled to because of your tragedy, at least commit to yourself to eat more good stuff every day than junk. Keep a list of the five food groups in your phone (vegetables, fruits, grains, protein, and dairy—for those of you who are too exhausted to try and recall all five) and commit to eating at least one thing from each category every day. And try not to count things that come from a fast-food restaurant, if you can help it. (And no, Chipotle doesn’t count as fast food. Feel free to count tomatoes as a fruit and mark off all five of your categories with a single burrito… Literally zero judgment if you eat one every day.)

Stay self-disciplined: it’s okay if you don’t keep up with your regular standards during this season. But don’t let them all go completely. That will just stress you out even more, and further contribute to that “the world is falling apart around me” attitude I mentioned before. Come up with a short to-do list. Figure out what your top priorities are. Maybe you know you need to have a clean kitchen or vacuumed floors to feel sane. Maybe you know you need to make some kind of progress on your personal ambitions. Maybe you know you need to visit the gym at least a couple times a week. Whatever you know you need, make sure you get it on that list, but keep it to just 3-5 achievable items per day. Don’t be too rigid, but make it your goal to get all those things done before your head hits the pillow. Then you’ll know the earth is still spinning; things are still getting done, even if you feel like Life is on pause.

Keep your body moving: when we are in the heart of a depressing season, it feels most comforting to stay in bed or veg out on the couch. And while its okay to give ourselves permission to do that occasionally, it is vitally important that those comforting lazy behaviors aren’t allowed to dominate our lives. Limit your “screen time” to just a couple hours of Netflix, video games, and social media a day. Get up and stretch, walk around, but don’t get too comfy in one spot for hours on end. Getting outside for at least a total of 30 minutes a day will make a surprisingly huge difference, too. Park your car in the outermost spot in the lot, even if its cold, and try to be present as you walk in that fresh air.

Be social: it’s 100% okay to cancel some of the events on your social calendar, even most of them. But don’t cancel them all. Make yourself put on real clothes and interact with other adults in a non-serious setting on a semi-regular basis. (Going to work does not count.) Have conversations about superficial things, about your hobbies and interests, about celebrities or your pets, forget about your misery for a few hours. Just let loose and laugh a lot. Remind yourself that the entire world hasn’t gone dark, even though it might seem that way a lot of the time. Be fully present in the light and laughter that is the company of good people.

Develop and maintain a spiritual practice: do whatever brings you connection with calm, patience, insight, strength and wisdom before you begin your day. This will become the cornerstone of your self-care, and should be the number one, top “non-negotiable” of your day. In times of sadness and pain, we do not naturally have the strength, insight, or wisdom near the surface of ourselves which we might have in brighter times. It’s important to make conscious efforts to connect with your God, higher-self, or whatever higher source of energy fuels you.

If you’re new to this concept, here are a few ideas of how to get started:

meditate with a hot cup of tea before the sun rises pull oracle cards read your Bible, or other religious or spiritual text take a walk or jog in the brisk early morning cold to connect with nature color in a coloring book while listening to lyric-less music do a centering yoga or kickboxing routine to connect your body and spirit write in a journal read or listen to inspirational books watch inspirational YouTube videos

Let yourself feel the pain: something devastatingly life-altering has happened that will forever be part of your story. Let yourself grieve. Let yourself mourn. Let the tears come when you feel them. Let yourself remember the way things used to be before this happened. Learn to have respect for the pain, and for its role in your life. Let yourself learn what it has to teach you. Let your healing process look like whatever it needs to look like, even though it will sometimes feel like you’re moving backwards instead of forwards. You might be “back to normal” in a month, or maybe in two… but you might not be. Let Healing and Growth take their own course; they’re very wise.

Give yourself grace: you won’t check off all these boxes every day. And that is okay. Let your mind and body process the things that have happened. Don’t rush. Don’t hold yourself to a standard. Don’t bury the pain. Just let things unfold the way they naturally will. Tragic seasons aren’t often the most productive seasons of Life, but they can be transformational if you allow them to be.


Wishing you love, peace, strength, and comfort, dear reader. Keep breathing.

What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” –Shakespeare

whats in a name image

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

The sweetness of this day is inspiring me to honor the sweetness our children inspire in us.

I was leafing through my childcare journal and found this entry from a few years ago. I’d like to share it with you on this Valentine’s Day, to focus on the creativity, silliness, and love our families experience with each other!


The 4s class welcomed a new addition today, a little boy with long blonde hair, and the roundest, cutest face I ever saw. I asked his teacher about him.

She took a deep breath, “His name is Sawyer, but he goes by Wallie.”

I was surprised at the jump from name to nickname, and asked if Wallie wasn’t his middle name. She confirmed it was Wallace, and that his parents asked her to call him “Wallie” because that’s what he’d come to be called at home. She seemed to disagree with us calling him by the nickname, so I asked her why.

She answered with real conviction, “Well his real name is Sawyer, but they’re not going to call him by his real name. I don’t want to encourage that.”


This has been a recurring topic lately in my experience.


My friend enrolled her three-year-old in a preschool. He told everyone there his name was “Alvin Wilson,” though his given name is Alden. She explained to his teachers that, through the years, Alden was shortened to “Al,” and “Al” morphed easily into “Alvin,” and “Alvin” had a nice rhythm when followed by “Wilson.” Therefore, he came to be called by his family, “Alvin Wilson!”

The teachers at his school were concerned by this, and refused to call him Alvin, and encouraged his family to call him Alden instead. His parents had to agree: he should be able to know his name is Alden, and at school, he should go by his given name. So, they worked on helping him to know the difference between his name and his nickname.


But “Alvin Wilson” and “Wallie” worked together to start the wheels turning in my head. Why did some teachers jump to the point of disapproval upon hearing nicknames outside the home? What’s the cause for concern? What is in a name?!

Memories of accounts of names and nicknames flooded my head as I considered this point:

  • My cousin is named Sahara, but her brother couldn’t pronounce her name as a toddler. He got so fed up trying to pronounce it that he gave up entirely, and took to referring to her as “That.” Sahara loved it, so her parents allowed him to call her “That.” Eventually, he outgrew calling his sister by a pronoun, and was mature enough to pronounce her name, so he retired “That.” Sahara was heartbroken, and urged him to keep calling her by the nickname, but he never picked it back up.
  • My father’s given name was Douglas Daniel, but the very day his parents brought him home from the hospital, they determined he didn’t look like a Douglas, so they immediately called him “Daniel.” When he was old enough, he legally switched his name to “Daniel Douglas.
  • I have a friend who was dubbed “Scooter” at the young age of three months on account of his scooting motions when sitting in his mother’s lap. His family called him “Scooter” exclusively his whole life: the whole church knew him as “Scooter,” and all his school friends called him “Scooter.” As an adult, his friends, co-workers and in-laws call him by his given name, but those who knew him intimately through him childhood continue to use the sentimental reference.
  • A little boy in my 3s class has a baby sister named Peighton. He was unable to pronounce it correctly when she was first born, and his attempts sounded more like “Penguin.” So now he calls his sister by “Penguin,” and family members have picked up the name for her, too!
  • My husband’s first name has many syllables, and doesn’t fit in casual situations. A comical incident arose when we were dating that led me to begin calling him “Buck,” and he nicknamed me “Doe” to match. Five years later, we seldom call each other by our first names around the house.

My long-in-coming point here is that names seem to be naturally fluid; nicknames are an opportunity for us to bond with our loved ones. It’s a symbol we have a specific and special connection with the person who calls us by a different name than the rest of the world calls us. Names and nicknames are an opportunity for us to tell a story of our most important or amusing relationships.

“That” was a symbol to Sahara of the relationship she had with her brother; no one else would ever have that role in her life.

“Penguin” will explain to her friends on the playground one day, “My brother couldn’t say ‘Peighton’ when we were little. He could only say ‘Penguin.’ So, that’s what my family has called me ever since!”

“Alvin Wilson” knows when he hears that name, someone in his Inner Circle is calling to him. Only the people who know him intimately and love him dearly call him by that name. It is the sound of safety and love.

When my husband calls me “Doe,” and I call him “Buck,” I feel closer to him, and it’s fun getting to explain to people the long story of how that started!

Sometimes, one’s given name doesn’t quite fit them, so their loved ones find a new one that does! As is the case with “Wallie,” and “Daniel,” and even “Scooter.”

Sure, we need to make sure they know to respond to, and introduce themselves by, the name the rest of the world will be calling them. And of course, allowing a child to believe her name is “Rainbow Dash” or “Super Girl” or “Ariana Grande,” or to request others to address her as such, would be unhealthy.

But I don’t think there’s even the remotest chance of damaging a child by calling them a name that makes them feel safe and loved and special. Names and nicknames can be celebrated! They have the potential to strengthen bonds, and to forge relationships.


So, what’s in a name?

The stories of our origins, and the symbols of our most important relationships: the summaries of who we are.


Let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, what great nicknames have come about in your families!

And have a rosey, sweet Valentine’s Day!

Today and always, I wish you well!


How to Keep Your Cool Through This Season of Snow Days

Keep Your Cool

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2017’s holiday season brought joy to you and your families! And I hope 2018 has already delivered some great memories.

As we enter a new year, we are faced with a lot of typical winter challenges as Carers. Here in Ohio, we have already had several snow days, problems with school pipes and heaters, and all kinds of illnesses passed around… lots of reasons to keep the children home from school. All this time stuck indoors with our children, combined with the long winter break, the busyness of the holidays, new toys to fight over, and colds and flus, we sometimes find our patience wearing very thin!

It isn’t easy on our children, either, as they so often need routine and structure to feel truly safe. They let us know they’re struggling with all this down-time, too, by acting out and pushing limits, which thins our patience even more.

When we are feeling overwhelmed, and our patience is already thin, it is too easy to lose our tempers. When we do, we often regret the things we said or did in our anger, and find that—in addition to being stressed and exhausted and overwhelmed—we now feel guilty, too.

In these times of high stress and low patience, it’s important to remind ourselves of ways to manage our own emotions.

We can usually detect our waning self-control when we feel that first wave of heat wash over us: our muscles tighten- maybe we clench our fists or jaw, or furrow our brow- our chest starts to pound with our racing heart-beat, our cheeks may feel hot, and our breathing becomes quick and shallow. This is the sign that fight-or-flight neurotransmitters (the same chemicals released when you see your child fall and hit his head, or when your car is rear-ended in a traffic jam) are surging through the nervous system. These hormones and neurotransmitters are designed to keep us safe in emergencies, but when we are dealing with our child’s difficult behavior, we are not in the middle of an emergency.

When we are interacting with our child, and we feel the physical symptoms of those fight-or-flight hormones flooding our bodies, we know we are beginning to lose our cool. Call it anger, call it patience-running-out, call it mad, sad, upset, irritated, aggravated, annoyed, exasperated… but whatever we call it, we must recognize that the chances we’re going to be able to react constructively at this point are very low.

Before we proceed in dealing with our child, we must return to a state of calm:

Be honest with your child. Take a deep breath and say, “I’m feeling way too mad to talk about this right now. I need to take a time-out and calm down.” Resist the urge to express anything beyond your intention to calm down; it won’t be helpful. This doesn’t mean your child has “won,” or gotten away with anything. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It means your child gets to see firsthand how a mature person exercises self-control. Since it’s a guarantee our children will experience anger in their lives, too, it’s a valuable contribution to their own development when we can model for them healthy emotional regulation. You can finish the discussion when you’ve cooled off.

Find a way to calm down. Splash some water on your face, take some deep breaths, do some jumping jacks (research shows physical activity releases the tension in your body), stand on one foot (this allows your brain to focus on keeping you upright, rather than maintaining your upset), or repeat a calming phrase. (My personal favorite mantra—learned from Dr. Becky Bailey, creator of Conscious Discipline—is “Keep breathing. I am safe. I can handle this.”)

Despite the commonly given advice that you should express your anger while you’re angry, so you can “vent” it or “let it out,” the truth is that talking about your anger while you’re angry actually escalates it further. So, while it’s tempting to call your best friend or your mother to vent your rage, don’t. It will only make it harder to calm down. If you need advice or support, wait to ask for it until you’ve come back into emotional balance. You’ll be better able to find ways to solve the problem when you’re calm, anyway.

All behavior is a form of communication. Remind yourself, “my child is using this behavior to send me a message. She needs my help.” She may simply need a snack, or she might need a longer nap today. She may need you to set a limit so she feels safe, or she may need some time to herself, away from her siblings. It may just be that some one-on-one time with you is needed. Whatever your child might be trying to communicate, you’ll be better tuned in to hear it when you are calm.

Don’t discipline while you’re mad. The actions you take while you’re still worked up will never be what’s best for your child, and will likely worsen the original situation. If you’ve taken five or ten minutes to yourself and you still aren’t calm, tell your child, “I want to take some more time to think about what happened. We will talk about it later.” Then follow through: continue doing what you must to calm down. Then think through the situation, and talk to your child about it.


Give your child the same respect you would expect to receive. When you are calm enough to discuss the situation with your child constructively, approach him gently and ask, “is now a good time to talk to you about what happened earlier, or should I come back in five minutes?” This lets him know the conversation can take place with mutual respect, and gives him an opportunity to prepare himself for it accordingly. When he is ready to talk, use a gentle tone to express your needs and acknowledge his, and work the situation out together. When you can use a calm tone of voice, it helps you to relax. And when your words and tone are calm, your child will begin to relax too, and the tension will dissipate.

Above all, prioritize self-care. If you aren’t allowing your own needs to be met, it is impossible for you to meet the emotional needs of your children. Sometimes it dawns on us, “It’s not my child who is cranky from not getting enough sleep. It’s me!” Give yourself permission to put the kids to bed early so you can get enough sleep, too. Or leave the dishes in the sink tonight so you can unwind with a cup of tea and that book you’ve been wanting to read. Find someone to babysit so you can go grocery shopping alone sometimes or grab a coffee with a friend. You can’t love your children well if you aren’t loving yourself. And if you make it a priority, you will find the time to make it happen.


Our commitment to emotional regulation makes a powerful impact on our children as they watch us model self-control! Let me know how it goes for you during these winter weekends, sick days and snow days.

I wish you well, dear friends, as you power through the joys and challenges of this season!


(These words were inspired by the wisdom of Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, and of Dr.’s Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, authors of The Whole-Brain Child.)

Can I Get a Flag?

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[photo credit: Hector Alejandro]

It has been a long-established habit of mine to stand back when children argue; to support them both as they work toward a solution, but to refuse to tell them what they should do. Recently I was asked why I won’t just tell them what’s fair and put an end to the bickering. Most of us were raised in homes and schools where this was commonly an adult’s response to children’s arguments. As we entered parenthood, the classroom, or the field of child care, most of us naturally used the same strategies on our children which were used to rear ourselves.

Yet it’s important that we re-examine our strategies from time to time when we are working with children, to remind ourselves of our true intentions, and to confirm that we are leading children to the place we desire them to reach. When I was questioned about this particular strategy of mine, I was thankful for the opportunity to check in with my motives that way. So the next time such an argument arose, I evaluated my own response and the traditional response:

Allison and Jaylin were playing soccer near the playground. Jaylin saw an old water bottle left in the grass. She called out, “Look!” but Allison was faster and beat Jaylin to the prize. They came to me with the timeless conflict, “I had it first!” both with compelling reasons it should be theirs.

The traditional standard response from the teacher/parent would be, “Jaylin saw it first. It wasn’t nice of Allison to run ahead and grab it before Jaylin could. Allison, give it to Jaylin. It’s only fair.”

And here’s what would typically follow: Most likely, Allison would refuse to hand it over, and the teacher would probably have to take it herself to give to Jaylin. However, even if Allison accepted the verdict and surrendered the prize, Jaylin would walk away feeling triumphant. She would be thinking something like, “The teacher took my side. I convinced her I was right and Allison was wrong,” with smug satisfaction. Allison would walk away feeling defeated and thinking something like, “The teacher is so mean and unfair. I deserved to keep it. Jaylin is a mean bully and a teacher’s pet,” with bitter resentment. The girls would probably spend the rest of recess either fighting or avoiding each other, and maybe even going to their friends to brag or vent. The next time they had an argument, Jaylin would come tattling to the teacher, hoping she would take her side, and Allison would believe the teacher would rule against her, resenting the teacher before Allison even told her side of the story.

So instead of using the traditional response, I summed up their dilemma for them, “You both feel you deserve the water bottle because, Jaylin, you saw it first, and Allison, because you touched it first. So far you’re not agreeing on who should get to keep it, but I have total confidence you can work together to find a new solution that makes you both happy.” As I walked away, I heard,

Jaylin: “We could throw it away so no one gets it.”

Allison: “No, because I really wanted to use it to collect flowers.”

Jaylin: “We can collect flowers to put in it and then give it to someone.”

Allison: “Let’s give it to Miss Sheryl.”

Jaylin: “I don’t want to give it to her. Let’s give it to Miss Jackie.”

Allison: “Okay!”

They spent the rest of recess happily collecting dandelions, clovers, and fallen leaves together. They brought them inside and worked to arrange the items into a bouquet, and decorated the bottle with sharpies. They were so proud to give it to their teacher.

This interaction and its result illustrates the three main reasons I choose not to make the calls for my children and instead encourage them find solutions on their own:

  1. To discourage tattling.

Let’s be honest. As a parent, teacher, or carer, (second to tantruming,) tattling may be the most obnoxious sound we hear throughout the day. The most effective way to minimize tattling is to refuse to referee. Teach children to resolve their own conflicts. Once they realize you are only going to encourage them to find a solution on their own, they will be less likely to come to you for a quick verdict, and more likely to attempt the process by themselves.

  1. To avoid rivalry and polarizing, and to foster positive peer relationships

When a call is made for them, one child is often the clear winner and the other the clear loser. It can be interpreted by the children as a statement of where they each stand with the authority figure, leading to assumptions of favoritism or neglect, and causing feelings of jealousy or pride surrounding the relationship with the parent/teacher/carer. It can easily breed negative feelings between the children, causing them to rival and scheme against each other, rather than conspiring for cooperation.

  1. To give them opportunities to practice

The ability to resolve conflicts is an important life skill still very necessary in the adult world. If children don’t have the opportunity to practice this skill in their day-to-day lives, they will be severely handicapped and frustrated when they reach young adulthood and realize they no longer have a personal referee, nor know how to resolve conflicts with fellow adults. For this reason alone, we do them a great disservice to insist on making the calls for them as children.

It’s never too late to instill the skills of conflict resolution in your children and students. If this is a new strategy for them, it may take some practice and support to get the hang of it. It often helps to summarize the conflict, express your faith in them to solve it on their own, and then walk away. For example, (summarize) “Neither David nor Sam want to walk the dog.” (express faith) “That’s a tough one. I have complete confidence the two of you can come up with a solution to this problem that you both can live with.” And walk away to let them figure it out by themselves.

If you hear voices beginning to rise, you can interject something like, “It sounds like you’re having a hard time finding a good solution,” and mediate their efforts. And it’s always okay to suggest a break, “I can tell by the volume of your voices that you could use some time to clear your heads. Let’s take a break and finish talking about this after dinner.”

Just take care to let the solution be one of their own creation! They’ll probably come up with some that really impress you! And they will be more willing and able to work together toward a solution next time if they’ve already had a victory.

Today and always, I wish you well.

Shut Up and Listen

It doesn’t cease to fascinate me that problem-solving and conflict resolution are lost skills these days, and not considered a priority by many teachers, parents and carers. I wonder if they were never valued skills, or if we just got off track somewhere along the way.

I admit that most of the time, it seems faster and easier to play the role of the almighty wise Adult in Authority; to just intervene, give the children answers, direct their actions, or distribute consequences when difficult behavior arises.

I have been there: The kids are whiny and constantly pushing each other’s buttons and mine. I’m at the end of my rope and it’s not even lunch time yet. Child A commits some atrocity against Child B, and they come screaming to me for help, telling me their sides of the story at the same time. I make a judgement, and dole out a consequence… preferably something that provides a moment of peace and quiet (but more likely, something that initiates a tantrum). I do not have the emotional energy to sit them down and guide them in deep breathing and listen to both sides in turn and lead them toward peace and reconciliation.

I’ve been there when I’m trying to get a fussy toddler diapered and dressed, and Sister is relentlessly bending my ear about a mean girl in her class. I don’t have time to pause and play counselor. So I distribute a “sounds like she’s not a girl you want as a friend,” and let the conversation end.

I’ve also been there when I have 36 schoolagers to keep track of on a busy playground, and focusing on facilitating a moment of self-occurring wisdom for warring children is honestly just not my top priority.

But over the last several years of my career of working with children, I have been learning and appreciating more and more… Kids already possess the capacity for conflict resolution. They already have naturally developing wisdom.  They already know when they messed up, and they can feel guilty and fix it. They are full and complete (yet small) human beings, just in need of experiences and opportunities to practice.

I’m realizing that I’m making this harder than it is.

In Faber and Mazlish’s book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, they discuss, among other brilliant topics, the many challenges of the simplest idea: Shut up and listen.

It initially seemed so self-condescending to put into practice. It’s hard to let go of the thoughts, “But I have so much wisdom to offer!” “But I have the most perfect points for a great lecture!” “But I could solve this problem with one sentence, and then we’d be done with it!” “But this kid made a terrible decision, and I need them to know it!”

But in reality, if I followed through with any of those trains of thought, I’d be making more work for myself, and denying the child the opportunity to gain some experience and insight on their own.

When I started listening instead of talking, I discovered what seemed like a whole new dimension in my students. It is so hard to learn to resist the urge to respond with more than “Oh?” or “Hmm.” but it is hilariously wonderful what a difference is made when I don’t.


This is my favorite story about this method:

My class was in the woods for recess and Lyla, seven years old and hopelessly in love with all living things, found a toad. Violet wanted to see the toad, but Lyla wouldn’t let her. She walked away with it still in her hands and Violet followed with an incessant chorus of “Just let me see it. I won’t touch it. Please just let me look.” Even I was starting to get tired of hearing her repetitive pleas, as she followed Lyla everywhere through the woods. Finally the trees shook with Violet’s screams and sobs as she ran to me, “Lyla killed the frog!” I heard her story and consoled her through her devastation and trauma. Lyla just watched us from afar, and I left her alone.

I carried on the supervision of my class, but I noticed Lyla walking huge, slow circles around me, which shrunk with each round. Eventually, she was just walking methodically around me, kicking up dust with the toes of her cowgirl boots.

Me: “Hi Lyla. How’s it going?”

Lyla: “Good.”

[moment of silence/ kicking dirt]

Lyla: “Miss Bailey… Violet thinks I killed that toad.”

Me: “Yes, she does.”

Lyla: “I didn’t kill it. She just kept following me everywhere I went, and she wouldn’t leave me alone. I knew if I put it down in a safe place, she’d go pick it up, and he needed to be left alone.”

Me: “Hmm.”

Lyla: “She wouldn’t leave me alone. I didn’t know how to get her to leave me alone!”

Me: “She kept following you.”

Lyla: “Yeah! It was so annoying! She wouldn’t go away! So I threw the toad into the swamp grass. Toads are like cats. They always land on their feet. It was probably okay.”

Me: “Hmm.”

Lyla: “…It probably wasn’t good for the toad… But I had to do it! She wouldn’t leave me alone!”

Me: “She just wouldn’t leave you alone.”

Lyla: “It was so annoying. I didn’t know what to do!… But next time I think I would just hide it. I wouldn’t throw it again. It might have hurt it. And I feel really bad that I might have hurt it. I don’t want to do that again.”

And she ran to play with her friends.


And that was it! All my boxes checked, and I didn’t have to come up with anything.

She realized she shouldn’t have thrown it.

She felt guilty for throwing it.

She decided she didn’t want to feel that way next time.

She decided she wouldn’t make that same choice again.

She felt better, maybe even forgave herself (I hope!), and returned to play.

Everything I would have lectured her on, everything I would have tried to get her to say, everything I wanted for her. And she realized and verbalized it all by herself.


Though it’s tough to keep our wisdom to ourselves, and it’s tough to be patient while the wheels of their mind turn, our children need us to give them space and time to practice these important life skills.

And I’d argue that more valuable to them than our wisdom is empowerment:

Empowerment to make mistakes and learn from natural consequences. Empowerment to find solutions on their own, and adjust them when they don’t work. Empowerment to grow at their own pace. Empowerment that they are capable of using their own wisdom.

And when its time to send them off into the real world on their own, they’ll be ready.


(more on learning to listen still to come)