We’re shopping for new rubber boots for Adrian. The old ones were green and had little dogs on them and Adrian liked them in all ways, except they had huge cracks in them and holes in the sole.

He also has another pair, or rather, we have another pair in his size, but those are pink (because they used to be Ingrid’s) and while he can wear them when there is no other option, he doesn’t really accept them as his boots.

One could argue that that’s a waste of a perfectly usable pair of boots… but I imagine myself being forced to wear boots that I consider tasteless and ugly, and I sympathize with him. Besides, the other pair doesn’t really go to waste – it is good to have two pairs of rubber boots so one can stay more or less permanently at his preschool (or school, from autumn).

We went to our usual Estonian playgroup on Sunday. The kids had fun. Myself, I almost snapped, from too much exposure to Estonian-style parenting. Parents who tell their 4-year-olds how crappy their painting is; who constantly demean and humiliate their kids; whose parenting skills go no further than “stop that right this minute” and “why are you such a whiner”.

Not all Estonian parents are like that, of course. But this kind of attitude towards children (and husbands and wives, and other people in general) is sufficiently common that you cannot really avoid it. The general undertone is that other people do not deserve your respect, that really they’re irritating idiots, and you see no point in hiding that opinion.

During our annual trips to Estonia we live in a cocoon, only spending time with friends and family. I have no wish to go outside that cocoon.

I remember so sharply an episode from one of our previous summer trips. We were at a roadside eatery. We sat outside, and when Ingrid was done eating she went to the little playground they had. There were two other girls there, maybe a year or two older. She cautiously tried to make contact, and got instantly, sharply, snippily put down. I don’t think they even spoke directly to her but one of the girls said something mildly but clearly scornful about Ingrid to the other. Ingrid was totally confused and had no idea how to respond. Like, why would they do that?

How do you explain that in Estonia people are like that? Tell her to not go around trying to make friends? I don’t want to need to explain things like that.

Another thing that I always notice in Estonian playgroup is that almost all of the other kids are super reluctant to ever answer any questions from the teachers. Even when the question is something that you cannot fail at, like “can you come and pick one of these stuffed animals for the next song” or “what’s your favourite food”, they don’t. They cover their faces, they squirm, they hide behind mum’s back, they just won’t.

It’s not an age thing, not a phase. The ones older than Adrian and the ones younger than him all do the same.

A deep-seated reluctance to get noticed? Because odds are, you will only get criticised for it? Or maybe I am totally over-analysing this.

To close on a happier note, here’s a totally unrelated photo of two tired kids happily playing together.

I recently read Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditial Parenting. This is one of those books that I wish every parent would read. But I suspect that many would not even take this book seriously. Unfortunately those are the parents who would need this book’s advice the most.

It’s not a book that gives you practical tips to make your everyday life easier. In fact, after reading this book, your everyday parenting will probably become harder – because the book will make you think about parenting in a different way.

Instead of summarizing the book in my own words, I will let it speak for itself, by quoting the paragraphs that made the strongest impression on me.

This book looks at one such distinction [between different types of parental love] – namely, between loving kids for what they do and loving them for who they are. The first sort of love is conditional, which means children must earn it by acting in ways we deem appropriate, or by performing up to our standards. The second sort of love is unconditional: It doesn’t hinge on how they act, whether they’re successful or well behaved or anything else.
(p. 10)

In our society, we are taught that good things must always be earned, never given away. Indeed, many people become infuriated at the possibility that this precept has been violated. Notice, for example, the hostility many people feel toward welfare and those who rely on it.
Ultimately, conditional parenting reflects a tendency to see almost any human interaction, even among family members, as a kind of economic transaction.
(p. 17)

The way many kids are treated suggests a lack of respect for their needs and preferences – in fact, a lack of respect for children, period. A lot of parents act as though they believe that kids don’t deserve respect in the way adults do. Many years ago, the psychologist Haim Ginott invited us to consider the way we might react if our child accidentally left behind some item that belonged to him or her – and then to contrast that with the way we might react if a chronically forgetful friend of ours did the same thing. Few of us would think of berating another adult in the tone that is routinely used with kids: “What is the matter with you? How many times do I have to remind you to look around for all your things before you leave? Do you think I have nothing better to do than…” and so on. With an adult, we’d be more likely to say, simply, “Here’s your umbrella.”
(p. 49)

A fair amount of research suggests that people’s basic parenting styles “are already in place before they gain direct experience with their own offspring.” These styles are deeply rooted in experiences they had long ago.

A man left a message on my website recently that read, in part, “I watch, as if a spectator at a train wreck, as my friends use the same parental behaviors that wounded them when they were little. It is not a pretty sight.” Nor, I would add, is it a simple matter to determine why this happens. The folks he’s talking about presumably didn’t sit down and consciously decide to make their own kids as unhappy as they were.
(p. 106)

If you haven’t experienced emphatic parenting, it’s hard for you to become such a parent yourself. The same might be said of unconditional love: If you didn’t get it, you don’t have it to give. People who were accepted only conditionally as children may come to accept others (including their own kids) in the same way.
(p. 107)

Some parents live in terror of what other people – not only their friends and relatives, but the nameless and omnipresent judge known as “they” – will think of their children, and thus of their own parenting skills. […] Even relatively secure parents are sometimes made uncomfortable by the possibility that someone somewhere might be thinking, “Boy, that mother doesn’t know what she’s doing. I mean, just look at her kids!” Consider how much of what we do with our children is driven by worries about how we’ll be perceived by other adults.
(p. 111)

These excerpts represent the foundations of the book, and the parts that resonated most with me. But there are also more concrete principles and recommendations. This is a book to return to again and again. It is full of immensely important insights. It is also very readable and “just right”: neither too long nor too short, neither too academic in tone nor too breezy. I wish every adult would read this.

Amazon UK, Amazon US, Adlibris

I want to share with you my favourite piece of parenting advice. I am generally cautious about preaching about my parenting approach here – what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. But this is such a universal technique, and so useful, that I wish everybody knew about it. Again and again, when I hear arguments and raised voices between kids and their parents – at preschool, at other kids’ homes, or just random strangers in the street – I wish there was some way I could tell those parents about this.

When a child tells you what/how she feels about something, listen and acknowledge.

That’s it. And it is amazing how many fights, quarrels, breakdowns and tantrums can be avoided using this simple technique.

Consider this scenario, variations of which I have experienced repeatedly, sometimes as a participant and other times as an observer. The kid has spent Saturday afternoon at a friend’s place. You now turn up and say it’s time to go home – grandma will arrive soon to have dinner with you. The kid has had a lot of fun and is not at all interested in going home.

The kid says, naturally: “I don’t want to go home! I hate having dinner with grandma!”

Now as a parent you could do a number of things.

Deny the feelings. “Of course you want to go home – you love being with grandma!”
Forbid the feelings. “How can you say that about your grandma? Never say anything like that again!”
Cajole and bribe. “Come on, we can have ice cream after dinner!”
Distract. “Oh, look at that cute dog – shall we see if it is going our way?”
Try to fix things. “Well, why don’t you invite her to our place for tomorrow morning?”
Appeal to reason. “Well, we have to go home anyway, because grandma will be there waiting for us.”
Philosophize. “That’s the way life is, you know, everything comes to an end at some point.”
Ridicule. “Well, you can’t stay here all night!”
Diminish the feelings. “Don’t worry, you’ll see your friend soon again.”
Ignore. “I don’t care, we’re going home anyway.”
Threaten. “Stop whining right now or you’ll never come here again.”

Some of these responses may work sometimes, more or less effectively. Others may give you the feeling that you’re doing your job as a parent, but are unlikely to actually be productive in any way. I’m sure you can imagine what your kid would reply to any of these – and it probably isn’t “you’re right, Mom, let’s go home”.

The next time, try this instead:

Kid: “I don’t want to go home! I hate having dinner with grandma!”
Mom: “You really don’t feel like going home now.”
Kid: “No! We were having so much fun with Elin just now!”
Mom: “You really enjoyed playing with Elin today.”
Kid: “Yes – and you came just as we were preparing a treasure hunt!”
Mom: “You had something great planned and I came and interrupted you.”
Kid: “Yes, and we even had the maps all ready. Here, look, this is my map and this is Elin’s.”

And by this point, or maybe after two more turns, the situation has usually been defused. The kid has gotten a chance to express her disappointment and frustration. She can now let go of those feelings and move on.

It sounds silly. It seems too simple to work. But it really does – assuming that you do it for real and don’t just pretend to listen to their feelings. Serving canned responses will sound fake and the kid will pick up on it.

I learned this technique from How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, a great book that I would recommend to all parents. It’s got other useful tips, too, but this is the one that I’ve benefited most from. Do read it.

In fact I think it’s time I re-read the book myself, again.

Find the book on Amazon UK, Amazon US, Adlibris.

Last week a reader asked me how I have gone about raising my kids as bilingual. I thought that others might also be interested in this, so I’m responding by way of this blog post.

Some background is in order, I guess. I was born and grew up in Estonia. In 1992, when I was 15, I moved to Sweden. Then in 2001 I moved to the UK with my partner Eric. We stayed there until 2008, at which time we returned to Sweden.

I am by now fluent (but not perfect) in all three languages – Estonian, English and Swedish. I think in all three languages, depending on the situation and the topic. But at a very deep level, Estonian is still my only native tongue. There are some things that can only be said in Estonian. While I could, technically, say to my kids that I love them in Swedish, it would remain bare words. It is only real if I say it in Estonian.

I want my kids to learn both Swedish and Estonian. (English is good, too, of course, but I believe that as long as they get two languages early on, picking up a third one and others thereafter will be much easier.)

My goal is quite practical and unambitious. I want them to have enough Estonian that when we are in Estonia, or in the company of my Estonian friends or relatives, the kids will understand what is going on around them, and be able to make themselves understood when needed. I don’t mind if they have a strong Swedish accent, or get the grammar all wrong. As a secondary goal, I want them to have a foundation in Estonian so that if they at some point decide to learn more, they won’t have to start from scratch.

Really the most important thing I do is the most basic one: I speak only Estonian to my kids. From the very first days I have only spoken Estonian to both Ingrid and Adrian. Anything else would feel artificial. I guess I could train myself to use some other language but I can’t see why I would want to.

I do this not only at home when we’re on our own, but also when there are others around, whether or not they speak Estonian. Almost all are understanding about this and don’t mind; for the very few who do mind and feel left out, I translate. I do use Swedish when I’m adressing everybody, e.g. when I’m talking to Ingrid and her friends.

I try to make sure that they have fun in Estonian: I read books, tell fairy tales, play games and sing songs. Every time we go to Estonia, we stock up on Estonian-language books and movies. When Ingrid asks me to read, I almost always pick an Estonian book.

When I don’t have enough material – when I can’t think of any more Estonian songs, or run out of fun Estonian books, I make up my own. I have my own translations of some of the most common children’s songs: Baa baa white sheep, Twinkle twinkle little star, Björnen sover etc.

When they want me to read a Swedish book for them, I read/retell it in Estonian instead – simultaneous interpretation. The first time with a new book might be a bit of a struggle, but by the third reading my Estonian retelling is as fluent as if I was reading. It just takes a bit of practice. (I usually don’t do this with Ingrid any more because she often reads along with me.)

I make sure that they hear a variety of Estonian. I expose them to other people speaking Estonian. We’ve been going to Estonian playgroup every other Sunday for several years. I encourage my mom to speak Estonian to Ingrid. (She doesn’t think it’s quite as important as I do and keeps switching into Swedish, but I keep reminding her.) We go to Estonia for about two weeks every summer for a thorough language immersion. I always notice a significant step up in Ingrid’s command of Estonian, and her willingness to speak Estonian, after each trip.

I also plan to find an Estonian babysitter at some point (= when Adrian is old enough to be left with a sitter). Ideally I’d like to find someone newly arrived from Estonia, who cannot even understand much Swedish, so that the kids would not be able to fall back to Swedish.

I used to prompt Ingrid to speak Estonian when she used Swedish when speaking to me. When she replied in Swedish or mixed in a Swedish word in an otherwise Estonian sentence, I’d ask her, “what’s that in Estonian?” and help her with the parts she couldn’t say in Estonian. But after a while that became too much of an uphill struggle, so I abandoned this. It is more important that Ingrid can speak freely to me, thinking about what she wants to say rather than how to say it.

Now I’m thinking of starting this up again but less ambitiously. Perhaps during dinner once a week, or fifteen minutes every evening, or something like that.

Things I don’t do. Send the kids to Estonian nursery or school – it would be too impractical for us, and I don’t value better Estonian skills highly enough to orient all our lives around this.

I also don’t force them to speak Estonian.

Not satisfied with recklessly endangering my own children, I am planning to put all of Ingrid’s friends in mortal danger on Sunday during Ingrid’s birthday party. I will be giving them all whistle blowers (gasp!) – thereby totally violating important safety rules, I’ve now learned from The Telegraph.

The EU toy safety directive […] states that balloons must not be blown up by unsupervised children under the age of eight, in case they accidentally swallow them and choke.
Whistle blowers, that scroll out into a a long coloured paper tongue when sounded – a party favourite at family Christmas meals – are now classed as unsafe for all children under 14.

Any parents who object better not bring their kids here.

Raised surface! Near stove! Knives! Power outlet! Glass items!

Smarties: the prettiest kind of candy

I see other kids eat cinnamon swirls for their mid-afternoon snack and eat candy off and on throughout the day. And they still don’t gain weight or have trouble with their teeth.

With Ingrid we need to worry about both weight and teeth. Eric keeps an eye on his weight, and I have weak teeth, so I guess Ingrid inherited the worst from each of us. Se’s definitely got the Bergheden body type, broad and strong and tending towards overweight if you don’t pay attention. Adrian looks like he’ll be following in Ingrid’s footsteps.

The standard Swedish solution for keeping kids’ teeth healthy is lördagsgodis, “Saturday’s candy”, i.e. sweets on Saturdays only. And then they get lots, lots and lots and lots. Many of them really get to gorge themselves on sweets. The argument is that if you eat your sweets all in one go then your teeth get to rest from sugar in between Saturdays. (The whole idea was introduced by the worried public health authorities in 1957, according to an unverified source.)

It’s also supposed to instil in kids an understanding and a habit that sweets are a treat, to be limited, not everyday fare. If a Swede sees kids eat sweets on another day then s/he will probably comment on it, whether in his head or out loud.

But while mid-week candy turns heads, many Swedish parents exclude cakes, fika, ice cream and other such stuff from their definition of sweets, so those are OK on other days, too. And pancakes for dinner are not “sweets” either. Judging from the kids’ menus at restaurants, for many Swedish families pancakes is not a treat but a normal meal. And then there are all the other lingonberry-jam-accompanied kid-friendly everyday meals such as potato griddle cakes and black pudding and meatballs and so on. So the whole Saturday candy thing suffers from serious cognitive dissonance issues.

I also think it leads to an unhealthy attitude towards sweets, and eating in general. Many adult Swedes I know tell me that when they are offered sweets, they are unable to eat just a little, they feel compelled to eat lots. This is not an issue I’ve noticed among my Estonian friends. So instead of teaching kids to limit their intake of sweets, the Saturday candy thing teaches them to obsess about sweets all week long and then gorge themselves. (Pretty much the same problem that adults in many countries have with alcohol – but not in countries where there is a tradition of having wine with your dinner.)

So we don’t “do” Saturday candy in our home. We do “everything in moderation” instead. As a result Ingrid is limited to one small-sized treat per day on weekdays, and two on weekends, when she can have a sweeter breakfast (toast with marmalade, or a sweeter kind of cereal) as well as ice cream after dinner. And pancakes with jam most certainly count as a treat in our home. It seems to work; the long-term results remain to be seen.

Continuing to ponder yesterday’s theme of parenting goals, here’s another angle: what things are NOT on my list?

For example, there is nothing on my list about things I want my children to do or to like. There are things I would like them to do, but these things are not important enough to make it onto the list. Their own choices are more important. I would not agree with their choices, I would be puzzled perhaps, but I would not feel like I’ve failed them as a parent.

Enjoying learning new things, or reading, or writing. Being creative. Being successful. Getting a higher education. Good things, all of them, each in their own way, and the Internet has lots of people who want these and similar things for their children.

But if my children consciously choose to not go in that direction, that is OK. If they decide to live a quiet life on a small farm in the middle of the forest, cut off from society, not learning anything new, that’s fine. If they decide to skip higher education and instead focus on some personal project, that’s fine. As long as they do this because they really want to, and have thought through the long-term implications.

Then there are the things that I don’t agree with, that I specifically do NOT want for them.

I don’t want obedience. I don’t want faith.

I don’t want self-sufficiency. Independent thinking and decision-making, yes. Being able to take care of themselves, yes. But I do not want the kind of self-sufficiency that seems prevalent in some parts of Western society, where the ideal is that you shouldn’t really need anybody. I think it is perfectly OK to need other people in your life, to want intimacy, to ask for help.

I happened to talk to a fellow mum this weekend about how we make different choices in our parenting. I thought I should think (and write) a little bit about what lies behind my choices.

The parenting principles that I wrote about four years ago still apply. But they’re not all there is, of course. My day-to-day parenting choices are also influenced by my values (which I could also write about at some point) and my general preferences (ranging from my enjoyment of reading to my dislike of wasting food, for example) and probably more stuff on top of that.

One angle for thinking about this is what I want to achieve. What would success look like? If I look at my children when they’re grown, what would I want them and their lives to be like?

  • I want them to feel loved, valued and respected, and to be able to love, value, respect and trust other people around them. They should never need to doubt that they are loved.
  • I want them to approach life with joy and enthusiasm.
  • I want them to be honest and non-violent. (This is almost too obvious, almost like saying I want them to be human, but still.)
  • I want them to have a sense of confidence and competence, to want to try things out, to not fear failure. “I can do it!”
  • I want them to be responsible, to think about the consequences of their actions, and to be able to make sensible decisions. To decide rather than to give in to whims. To have self-control.
  • I want them to think for themselves and to take charge of their lives. To be active rather than passive.
  • I want them to make their choices not for somebody else’s approval (especially mine) but because they want it. This goes for their choice of hobbies, of music, clothes, career and more.
  • I want them to have a healthy lifestyle and also a healthy relationship to health. I want them to enjoy good healthy food and exercise – not just to do it but to enjoy it.
  • I want them to be able to cope with the practicalities of life. They should be able to manage their own lives and later also their households: personal finance, cooking, and so on.
  • I want us to have a good and close relationship, to trust each other, to talk to each other, and to enjoy each other’s company. I want us to be willing to spend time together even when they are grown and no longer obliged to be with me.

I wonder what I’ve forgotten – what might so obvious to me that I don’t even think about it.

One of my fundamental principles of parenting is that violence is not OK. Hitting, spanking, slapping, “disciplining”, whatever you call it and whatever spin you put on it – it is not OK.

Non-violence towards children is the norm in Sweden, unlike some other countries where I understand that there are people who publicly hold the opposite view. Here, if you spoke for spanking (and not in joking) you’d be viewed as seriously misguided at the very least. If you’re a parent and you told someone you hit your kids, I suspect that you’d find the social services at your door soon, or the police.

My views on this is not what I want to discuss here. Perhaps another time.

I’ve been reminded of this cultural difference by several books I’ve read for Ingrid. Occasionally we come across mentions of adults hitting kids. In some books it is talked about very openly, while in others it’s a more oblique reference. I often struggle with how to treat such collisions between our reality and the story. Do I let it pass? Do I explain?

In Pätu the father mentions getting his belt. In Sleeping Beauty the cook reaches out to slap the kitchen boy. Even Pippi Longstocking, when telling about how she sends herself to bed, says she threatens herself with a good hiding if she doesn’t obey.

Many of the briefer and more passing references probably don’t make any sense for Ingrid at all, and pass more or less unnoticed. “Ett kok stryk” or “keretäis” (“a good hiding”, in Swedish and Estonian respectively). She isn’t even familiar with these words, it is nothing we ever feel the need to talk about in this household. And fathers reaching for their belts or for birch rods? What for? These I explain when she asks, which she rarely does with things she doesn’t understand in a book.

But when we recently read Kipling’s story about how the elephant got his trunk (in an old Estonian translation) and the poor elephant child was beaten again and again by his family and relatives, and he didn’t react with anything but sadness, I felt I had to explain. That many many years ago people thought it was OK to hit kids, but not any more. That parents mustn’t hit their kids. That no one should hit anyone.

If you are a non-violent parent, how do you deal with such stories?