Monday, January 12, 2009

An interview with Michelle Nicholasen, author, filmmaker, and mother of five

With five kids under the age of 7 (including 5-year-old triplets), it's probably safe to say that Michelle Nicholasen qualifies for a.) sainthood and b.) the title of "experienced parent." An award-winning filmmaker for shows like Nova and Frontline, she's also the author of I Break for Meltdowns: How to Handle the Most Exasperating Behavior of Your 2- to 5-Year-Old, in which she and longtime educator Barbara O'Neal share their wisdom on what to do in the most cringe-worthy parenting situations -- and how to cope when the traditional advice doesn't work. (Read more on her blog and on the book's discussions page.)

Leaving filmmaking for full-time motherhood was a choice Nicholasen, 42, didn't have to think long or hard about. "With five kids under the age of 5, I didn’t have time to deliberate about going back to work or not," she says. "I never wanted to stop working, but our situation was akin to a crisis, so I had to do it." She and her husband, Jim, live in Somerville, Massachusetts, with their children Annamira (7), Josie (5), Bevin (5), Lucy (5), and Cian (4).

We sat down at our respective computers for a Q&A about her new book, dealing with public tantrums, and why the phrase "use your words" is overrated.

Tell us a bit about your pre-book career path.
I had a very exciting, dynamic job making documentaries for public television. The last national show I produced had me scaling the side of a cliff, 10 weeks pregnant, at a beautiful archeological site of early modern humans in coastal Turkey. But you take your work home, believe me, 7 days a week. So that doesn’t fit well with raising so many kids.

What led you to write I Brake for Meltdowns?

First, I turned 40. I had been out of the job market for four years and I thought I would go crazy if I didn’t get a new start. So I drew on what I had been living and breathing: I wanted answers to all the questions I had about raising kids. Given all the absurd and impossible situations I found myself in, I wanted to know the best thing I could do in certain predicaments. So I started writing down all the challenging scenes in my home as a way to distancing myself from the intensity.

The other motivation was my frustration with parenting books that give you nice advice but never tell you what to do if it doesn’t work. What if your child keeps stomping out of the time-out area? What if your child sticks his tongue out at you and runs away when you are trying to talk about something serious? Then I met Barbara O’Neal, the Educational Director of Arlington Children’s Center (a job she has had for 30 years). Now, here’s a woman who knows how to say just the right thing to kids at the right time, and she’s seen it all. She is kind and loves to help parents. I knew I had to have a hotline to Barbara, so I pulled her into the book project.

What was your own worst kid-meltdown experience?

Three years ago we stopped at a Mexican restaurant in Connecticut on our way back from a long car trip from Virginia. After being cooped up in a minivan for six hours, my kids came unhinged. One of my daughters took an ornament off the Christmas tree and smashed it. Another one got annoyed with her food and crawled under the table and wouldn’t come out. My oldest daughter, who I think was 5 at the time, got into an argument with her grandfather and defiantly poured her drink on to the middle of the floor. I will never go back there.

Is there anything to the old idea of boys being "harder" or more prone to meltdowns, tantrums, and limit-testing than girls?

I hear just the same folklore about girls being harder. I don’t think boys are harder, but they do, on the whole, have more testosterone-induced energy that needs to be accommodated. They need to be given opportunities to run, and tear around and roughhouse -- preferably outside. Of course girls need some of this, too. As for testing limits, I have four girls, and there is really no little boy I know who can surpass their ability to dig in their heels.

What is your best all-purpose advice for dealing with a public meltdown?

Find the humor in it, quietly, silently to yourself. Imagine a grown-up acting like your child, and you will soon have to stifle a smile.

Seriously though, we have to expect that our little ones will meltdown from time to time, in any possible setting. Assuming you’ve done your best to prepare our child for the trip, take the pressure off yourself -- this tantrum is not necessarily a reflection of your parenting skills. Do you know what is, though? How you react to it. Parents can make tantrums much worse by yelling at their child to stop, or by threatening them. The behavior just gets worse. Best to scoop up your tyke and take her to a place where she can calm down without being disruptive to others. Is it a drag for the parent? Oh, yes, and tiring, too. But wait out the storm and it will pass.

Is dealing with a meltdown in public any different from dealing with one in private?

As parents, we are much more self-conscious about being judged when our child is misbehaving in public. The things that go through our minds are: Am I raising my child to be a wild animal? Have I not taught him enough manners? My child is acting like a little brat; what am I doing wrong? In our book we include some great tantrum-prevention strategies. But even when you do your best, sometimes a collapse will still happen.

What advice would you give to a parent who is dealing with a particularly exasperating youngster?

Find someone you trust and admire, a very experienced parent or early-childhood teacher, and seek advice from them. Ask them how they would handle a particular situation. Ultimately, you may have to take a new approach to interacting with your child. Like letting him have the last word and just saying, “Uh, hum” instead of arguing. If you can’t find a confidant, there’s nothing wrong with meeting with a family counselor or child therapist. It can be so valuable for an outside person to get a perspective on the two personalities a play -- yours and your child’s.

The final thing I would advise a parent to do is get out of the house on a regular basis to do something alone or with friends. Build in regular outlets like this at least once per week. When we can clear our heads, we come back to our children in a better frame of mind.

Are there any popular parenting myths you'd like to debunk?

I am appalled at the popularity of cookbooks that instruct you to hide vegetables in your kids’ foods. It is a bad trend for several reasons. First, it encourages mothers to work harder in the kitchen when they could be playing games, reading or doing something else more valuable with their kids after school. Second, it plays right into the age-old insecurity we moms have about getting our kids to eat right. (I’ll feel better about myself if I can get healthy foods into my kid.) As if we can control what our kids eat! What’s so hard about serving some chopped fresh vegetables and some meat, protein or pasta? They’ll eat what they need. We’ve got a whole arsenal of whole foods out there, why turn our kids into little foodies?

In your intro, you say that the phrase "use your words" is more trouble than it's worth. Why?

When parents overuse any phrase, it starts to lose meaning and at worst becomes like a reflex or tic. Kids will stop paying attention to it, or even get angry when they hear it. Most likely your child is in a situation where she is too upset to talk. Recognize she has to calm down for a few seconds before you give her any orders. And mix it up. “Go ahead and tell him how you feel.” “Are you feeling angry right now?” “Please don’t hit; tell him what you’re thinking.”

Are there any battles that are absolutely worth fighting with your kids? Any worth ignoring?

A big problem for parents it letting go of status or decorum -- for example, the importance of matching tights, a symmetrical hairdo, harsh words between peers, bossiness in your own child, picky eating. We feel we must correct everything or else our child will grow up uncivilized. But kids learn so much from their social interactions with peers, even if many of the interactions don’t seem fair or balanced to us. Don’t forget -- they learn a lot from being allowed to make mistakes. That’s invaluable. Be in control, but not controlling, is what my co-author Barbara O’Neal likes to say. Let stuff play out among kids, and be there to re-direct when things start to get too hurtful or dangerous.

What’s non-negotiable (95 percent of the time)? Getting to bed at the same time each night. Getting to school on time most days. Bathing, teeth brushing, taking medicine. Treating each other respectfully.

How can moms who work outside of the home make the most of your methods?

The entire book applies to both working and non-working parents. It’s hard to do, but working parents need to be consistent about the boundaries mentioned above, even if it means less down-time after work. They must have a stable work schedule so that their child always knows when he will see his parents each day. Parents should schedule some alone-time with their child every weekend (if it can’t be done on week days). And make it pure: no distractions, and no errands.

1 comment:

Leandra said...

Boy, this sounds like the book for me. I can't wait to check it out -- I need all the help I can get!!