By Lori Gaon
NYC-Parents in Action is a community of parents who want to be involved, informed and connected. What better way to stay informed and involved than by connecting with experts in our community? To kick off what will be the first in NYC-PIA’s new series called the “Q&A Corner: Ask The Expert,” we spoke to Becky Thomas, one of the founders of the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC), an organization that offers parent education groups to discuss childhood development with other parents and parent educators. With more than four decades of group facilitation under her belt, Ms. Thomas has helped support, encourage and hearten parents through tough and rewarding phases of parenting.
Q: Have you seen parenting styles change over the years? If so, how?
A: When ECDC began in 1973 everyone assumed when you had a baby, you just knew how to take care of it. But that wasn’t true, as most of us were frightened and just were winging it.
Breastfeeding is a good example. Back then, doctors believed it was important to know how much milk babies were getting, so it was all about bottle feeding. Now the pendulum has swung, and we know that it’s beneficial for women to breast feed, assuming that it builds up babies’ natural immunity.
Over the years, beliefs about food and feedings have changed as well. We used to consider three daily meals customary, and discouraged snacking. But now we know that children’s stomachs are smaller and we encourage parents to feed a child smaller meals, more often, like grazing.
We also know about patterning and sequencing now, and how establishing order and routine in a child’s life can be beneficial to the entire family. For example, when a child is hungry and food arrives, they can, over time, anticipate that pattern, providing that child a sense that all is right in the world. If no food comes, or is delayed, it can cause anxiety and the child will be worried when the next time food will come. But if there is a [predictable] sequence in the child’s life— routines with a distinct time that follow the same pattern everyday, like dinner, playtime, reading a book, time with mommy, bed, lights out, and then mommy leaves the room— [the unfolding of] that pattern and sequence of events enables the child to fall asleep calmly.
Q: Why do these parenting support groups work so well?
A: As a society, we used to assume that if you babysat as a child, you knew how to care for a newborn. But, most mothers really don’t know much about caring for a baby, and being a parent to a newborn can be boring and challenging. Having support, a place to share and hear that other people are experiencing the same issues and apprehensions, is very reassuring and helpful.
Q: Anxiety and perfectionism seem to be hot conversation topics in parenting circles right now. Are they manifesting differently in parents today?
A: In my experience, in New York City, a lot of type A people who are good at what they do come together to compete with others of similar standing, which builds a natural, healthy competition. But this competitive push can also lead to unhealthy anxiety, especially when it comes to childrearing. The pressure that kids feel in their schools has always been there, but the anxiety about the pressure is different than in earlier days. This can stem directly from the parents.
Q: Why are we as parents so quick to assume that things are more wrong than they really are when a child acts out? (Full disclosure: This reporter is guilty of assuming the worst when a certain 5-year-old acts out aggressively, when in fact it’s actually age-appropriate behavior, according to Ms. Thomas.)
A: Each age brings with it a set of expectations… if we anticipate a behavior, then we aren’t so shocked when it occurs because it’s expected rather than a surprise. For example, it is actually a normal part of development for a child to bite if he struggles to verbally express himself. The biting is his way to get our attention. But it’s important to keep in mind that anger can be a smokescreen hiding other feelings, including hurt and fear.
Anxiety can sometimes get the better of us as parents because we are fearful for our children’s safety. We are so careful and responsible about keeping our kids safe and free from harm that we’re unable to think rationally at a time when something deeper might be happening to our child.
Q: Do you have any tips for parents to avoid the anxiety rabbit hole?
A: Don’t assume and jump to conclusions. Ask the child a question to find out what’s going on. Here’s an example to illustrate this: A young boy said to his mother, ‘Where did I come from?’ The mother assumed the boy was asking about the birds and the bees and got flustered. However, had she just said, ‘Why do you ask?’ she would have realized that the boy merely wanted to know what hospital he was born in and was not asking about the facts of life. If we just ask questions, then we might not jump to the wrong conclusions.
Q: What do you think is the most important thing that you can teach us as parents?
A. The main thing we try to teach at ECDC is that every child deserves a parent who really holds that child in high esteem; kids should know that the parent always has their back, no matter what.