tufts universitytufts magazine issue homepage
contact us back issues related links
features columns Take It From Me Scholar At Large Kids These Days Animal Instincts Negotiating Life planet tufts newswire the big day departments


Mothers of Invention

Child-rearing tips you won’t get from experts

Do you ever find yourself getting bored with all the sensible advice to mothers from experts on child rearing? I do. “Praise your child for doing good.” “Set up routines to help get children to bed on time.” “Make a game out of getting dressed in the morning.” All good methods, but all very boring.

These days I am more interested in hearing about techniques that mothers come up with themselves. These homegrown ideas may not all get the parenting experts’ seal of approval—but many are worth considering.

Take, for example, the mother whose little girl refused to leave the car when being dropped off at the babysitter. The mother pointed to the house next door to the babysitter’s and said, “See that house right there? That’s a daycare center run by the caveman from the Geico commercials. You can go into the sitter’s house, or you can go to caveman daycare.” No fan of the scary-looking TV character, the little girl readily complied. Now, would T. Berry Brazelton ever have come up with something like that?

Here’s another example of creative parenting: To get her four-year-old to stay in bed when the lights went out in his room, one mother proceeded to turn out all the lights in the house. Then she sat quietly in the living room until her son got to sleep. With the house totally blacked out, the boy was too scared to get out of bed. To prevent getting out of bed too early, another mother hung a bicycle basket on the crib and filled it with toys for her child to play with in the morning instead of waking her still-sleeping parents.

Mothers are especially inventive about getting their kids to eat healthy foods. One mother made vegetables into pancakes. Another dyed potatoes blue and rice green, and another made eating oatmeal an adventure by having pirates (raisins) search for treasure marked on the map she had traced on the surface of the oatmeal. Another mom gave her young son an extra-wide spatula with a serrated edge that empowered him to spread all kinds of good food on slices of bread.

Manners are another source of inspiration. One mother had her children practice going out to eat. Once or twice a month, she made a really nice dinner, set the table with fine china and silverware, and lit candles. The family would get dressed up and go downstairs to the “restaurant” for dinner. Then the mother would have everyone use “inside” voices, and understand that it was rude to talk with mouths full or put elbows on the table.

Bathrooms, of course, are hotbeds of invention. Try to picture the mother who put on a visor, sun glasses, and whistle at bath time, and lured her reluctant bather by saying,“It’s time to go to the pool”—and then produced a beach ball and a laundry basket to use as a boat. And think of all those devious potty-training methods—from telling a pirate-loving son that pirates had called to say they wanted him to join them, but they only took new pirates who were potty trained (it worked!), to the mother who called in the family dog to sniff his approval at the boy’s success on the toilet.

Mothers are interesting actresses—as when one mom, in response to her child’s tantrumming, got down on the floor and threw a tantrum of her own. The child was so fascinated with his mother’s shaking head, pounding fists, and shrill screams that he forgot all about the fit he was supposed to be pitching.

But, of course, the question that inevitably arises is, Which homegrown techniques can you safely adopt in your own home? The answer, as usual: It depends. Sometimes it is necessary to control children so as to ensure their safety and compliance right now (as in the Geico daycare method). But wise parents try to reduce the need for those emergency ad-hoc solutions. Like the mom who set out early-morning crib toys, they prevent problems from arising. Or like parents who have fun tutoring their children on table manners, they offer guidance in how to behave properly in the future. Prevention and guidance, unlike coercion, ensure positive relationships and a positive experience for the child.

You should also consider whether a method may have negative consequences down the line. The Geico trick won’t relieve the child’s long-term anxiety over being babysat. Similarly, when parents allow their small child in their bed, the child gets a good night’s sleep but may leave the parents exhausted. In other words, you have to achieve a balance.

Inventive parents become inventive out of necessity. Happily, the good inventions of parents aren’t patented. We can all dine in home “restaurants,” deliver messages from pirates, and even get down on the floor and throw a satisfying tantrum.

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and contributor to the book Proactive Parenting: Guiding Your Child From Two to Six, written by the department’s faculty.

  © 2010 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155