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The Competent Parent: Sharing mom

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Sharing Mom

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I found the ideal take-your-child-to-work job. I recently became nanny to three good-natured young children. The job is mostly fun, since it forces me to plan and get out of the house. We visit parks, the library, and the children’s museum regularly. However, my three-year-old daughter is not as happy about the arrangement as I am. “Missy” gets whiny and clingy, sometimes breaking down in tears over the simplest things. Any suggestions?


Click here to read last week’s column about how to get kids to clean up their rooms!

Dear Stretched,

Yes, it’s hard to share. You are the most valuable object your daughter owns. You provide love, fun, food, guidance, safety, structure, comfort, and above all, the security of knowing that she is always foremost in your thoughts. At age 3 she often needs your help – dressing, finding things she wants to play with, negotiating with other children, calming strong emotions, and basically understanding herself and how the world works. She enjoys sharing her discoveries and creations with you. “Look at me!” is likely a common exclamation.

As you have observed, Missy’s expectation that you are vigilantly attending to her is challenged as you divide your attention among four children now. When my son started nursery school at age 2, he would tell family members that he “go work with Mom.” From his point of view, I was still the center of his world. He knew I was “a teacher” as well as his Mommy; he had joined me in my classroom often if I had work to do after the children left. One advantage we had over your situation is that he arrived in a smoothly functioning class in late spring, and was welcomed as “Miss Debbie’s baby.” The children expected him to be on my lap at Circle Time. He would have been just as content to accompany me to work if I were a bank teller (and could hold him on my lap!).

From Missy’s point of view, three interlopers – competitors for your attention – have entered her world. The best way to reassure a child that Mommy is still operating in all her essential Mommy functions is to set routines for as many of Missy’s needs as possible. For example, Missy was probably used to you carrying her or holding her hand through a parking lot. With four children, you are out of hands. Establish how you and the gang will ALWAYS exit your car – who is carried, who holds whose hand, or whatever method allows you to be able to maintain safety around moving cars. Likewise, snack and mealtime should include staple foods and familiar containers. Routine actions preceding the food – a hand-washing song, standard seating assignments, etc. provide the assurance that thirst and hunger will soon be satisfied.

Responsive caregiving with regular routines assure children of what’s coming next. They don’t have to worry whether their needs will be met. It’s like the friendly neighborhood gas station, open all hours, that you can depend on for a fill-up when your gas gauge is getting low. Security can be thought of as a guarantee that your tank will be re-filled as the need arises. A secure child continuously has her needs addressed by re-filling. She’s attended to before she feels ignored, fed before her hunger hurts, diverted to a new activity before she’s so bored or frustrated that she throws or breaks the toy, calmed before she has to explode, and guided to sleep before the crank monster takes over.

It shouldn’t take too long before Missy is satisfied that this new arrangement doesn’t threaten her well-being. Social development theory predicts she will soon have play routines – following one another up and down a playground slide, taking on roles for playing house, etc. – that revolve around the children you are caring for. Instead of competing with them for getting all of her needs met through you, Missy will come to rely on getting some of her needs met through them. And when you and Missy are just the two of you after the work day is done, be sure to give her a good fill-up of high quality Mommying.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com.

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