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Birthdays for the highly sensitive child

By Tavish Becker

After his 4th birthday party, my highly sensitive child anxiously asked me if he would have to have another party next year. I said no. I said we didn’t need to host another party ever. The relief on his face was tangible and highly enlightening for me.

A child who runs away or cries when people sing happy birthday, a child who has a tantrum in the middle of a party, a child who hides and refuses to play. These are signs that your child needs you more than ever over their birthday period (and I say birthday period because nowadays birthDAYS turn into birthWEEK or birthMONTHS with some parents hosting 4 to 5 celebrations for their child). For a highly sensitive child, this period can be one of joy and happiness but more likely it is highly anticipated but becomes a time of high distress, with screams, tantrums and general misery. Your child needs you to stand up for their right to peace, harmony and happiness. For me this means avoiding a birthday party, many celebrations, guests and singing. For those of you who do not parent a highly sensitive child, this must sound like the mad rant of a fun-hating miser mom! But without a party, without the singing and the piles of presents, I believe I acted in the best interests of my child.

This year he turned 5. And there was only 1 meltdown over his entire celebratory period (which I managed to curtail to 2 days only). He woke up to 4 presents, a small cake and candles. We unwrapped, ate the cake, and then played quietly. We went to a playdate at a friend’s house but I didn’t mention the birthday. The next day we had a braai in the garden with friends. Again it wasn’t a birthday party. Instead it was an event for the adults, cooking and chatting together in the garden whilst the 5 children (my 2 and 3 others they knew very well) made their own fun. They had an awesome time, but we did nothing to entertain them, to hype them up, there was no singing, no candles and no special attention paid to my son.

Later he told me that he was the happiest child in the whole world. And I believed him.

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8 things to pack when flying with young kids

By Tavish Becker
Planning a trip with kids is like moving an army. Proper gear and adequate provisions must be requisitioned, and one must do some serious scouting to establish whether the terrain is hostile or friendly.

That said, I have managed to knock up some serious air-miles with my two kids, travelling between Cape Town, London and New York and like any serious army general have now got my standard issue packing for the hand luggage of any trip.

I like to travel with a backpack rather than those sexy pull-alongs trademark of the executive traveller.

I have traipsed too many endless hallways of anonymous airports trying to juggle two kids who only want ‘uppies’ leaving me with no hands to pull or push my luggage along. A backpack leaves both hands free to guide children through the gates, coax them into x-ray machines and drag them onto travellators. Kids as young as 12 months can also carry their own small backpacks. Try to pack this yourself! You don’t want to make an unexpected find at the x-ray machine!

  1. Lindt Milk Chocolate balls. Delicious, yes. Necessary, you might think not. However once you have passed the dummy or bottle stage, the air pressure adjustment is hard on little ears. My kids are too young for chewing gum, but I have found that the individually wrapped Lindt chocolate balls – given out as the airplane starts its ascent and descent – take the perfect length of time to melt in your mouth. Also with the individual wrapping, it is easier to convince your kids that they are extra special taking off and landing treats only.
  2. Each member of the family should have a spare set of clothing in the hand-luggage. Projectile vomit can land anywhere, anytime! And inevitably the children spill their juice all over their laps.
  3. Also bring along a small bottle of fever/pain medication with its dispenser. A small tub of Zambuk (my lip-ice of choice, as well as a good antiseptic for a small booboo). The airline will have basic first aid stuff such as plasters, but it’s good to have your own brand of pain-meds. Familiar is better for children in transit!
  4. Nappies, wipes and a cloth. If your child is already potty-trained, remember that airline toilets are scary places for tiny folk who are not used to their toilets rattling, shaking and exploding whilst flushed. Try to get your potty-trained child used to wearing a nappy occasionally.
  5. Passports for all and unabridged birth certificates! You don’t want to get turned back at the gate.
  6. Familiar snacks like their favourite cookies or some biltong. Label each child’s cookies separately to minimise sibling conflict. The airlines do provide food but chances are they won’t eat much of it.
  7. An activity pack which includes a tiny blank notebook, crayons, and colourful spot stickers which they can use to create different monsters or patterns. You don’t want to invite a fight for possession on board, so make sure if you are travelling with two or more that you get exactly the same thing for each – same colour crayons, same spot stickers. Snap cards are also a big hit. I always take books for the kids and fight a losing battle with the airline’s programmes. So my advice is don’t bother, unless it has stickers and is small and lightweight.
  8. And then your child’s comfort object – bunny, monkey, dummy, bottle, whatever. Don’t ever forget this. Ever.

Remember you will be carrying this backpack through the transit areas which are lengthy! Keep it restrained!

Try to put coats and winter gear in with your main luggage. They will weigh you down and are not necessary in transit.

A note on bringing your stroller along. The airlines allow you to do this and it is useful whilst traversing the airports. However after a few disasters with this, I don’t recommend it. Once my kids baulked at sitting in the stroller and then my hands were full trying to push the stroller whilst they ran amok between the airplanes!



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‘The game’

By Tavish Becker

For the past week, my kids have been playing ‘the game’. Every morning Dominic wakes up, has his rooibos tea and then asks ‘Bubs, shall we play the game?’

The game has a constantly evolving theme and ranges across the house and farm leaving little nests behind as it moves. This is the first time there has been such extended co-operative playing between the two of them and I watch it with joy and amazement.

And I keep asking myself three questions.

When did my unruly monkeys learn to share, negotiate and manage themselves so confidently?

How can I support the game unfolding and growing with them?

What are the conditions that allowed the space for a co-operative game?

In line with the RIE philosophy, I have never pushed sharing onto them. Sharing has developed as they have matured. It is easier for my 4 year old then my 2 year old. It seems to be motivated by the children realising that to share prolongs the game and deepens the joy of the playing. And when they are tired of playing together, sharing becomes harder, defending possessions starts to seem more important than the flow of playing. I try to allow this occasional collapse of the game. To me it is a signal that one of them needs a break.

After having supported them through hair-pulling fights and kicking sessions, I am so relieved to see the care and love with which they negotiate with each other through the game. Their attitudes are amazingly tender, showing a completely different aspect of their characters. My intense, sometimes domineering 4 year old son turns into a compassionate leader, using his force of character to steer the play whilst gently aiding his sister over hurdles. My little 2 year old daughter uses all her newly learnt linguistic skills to negotiate and manoeuvre the play. This is real learning!

It is harder for the 2 year old to sustain multiple sessions of play in a day. I can see that the co-operative playing is developmentally perfect for my 4 year old, but is a stretch for my 2 year old’s maturity. I need to lessen the strain on her by providing rest times.  These are outings to the shops where she can sit in the trolley and absorb, times when Dominic goes around the farm with his grandfather looking at the sheep or building with him and she can stay with me and unwind.

For more on not forcing sharing:


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Conflict is good

By Tavish Becker

Siblings will clash. Siblings must clash. And we have to support our little ones through these trials. Conflict is important. It is character and relationship BUILDING. But it is painful to observe and can quickly escalate into violence. How do we guide our little ones through their conflicts, their screaming and bashing matches and maximise the potential benefit these episodes could have?

Take a step back. What would be the best outcome for a conflict between siblings? Peace and quiet you might say. But I think that we can help our kids achieve more than just sullen silence as the fight wanes out of them.  We can give our kids the opportunity to learn about themselves, about each other, about limits and boundaries, about empathy and co-operation and about being assertive without violence.

How to achieve this?

  1. Allow and accept the arguments.
  2. Sportscast the conflict. This means act as a commentator at a cricket or rugby match, an impartial observer. Reflect what you see. ‘Danny has the ball. Bertie wants the ball. Now Bertie has the ball. Danny wants the ball back. Danny is upset.’ This gives the children a sense of being heard and understood. It also gives them a chance to think about the other child’s perspective.
  3. Allow space to resolve the conflict themselves. Once you have sportscast the problem, be quiet. Wait. Sit back. And wait some more. Your most surly child might surprise you by handing back the desired toy. You won’t see the unexpected generosity of children unless you give them a chance to display it. Once the conflict is resolved, don’t make a big fuss. Sportscast the result. ‘Danny looks pleased to get the ball back.’ And move on. The children have learnt valuable lessons.
  4. One can also guide the child whose toy has been taken into their possible courses of action. You could offer a hug, acknowledge their feelings of upset and then suggest they ask for the toy back or go and find another toy together. You want the child to know he has been heard and you also want them to know that you will support them through asking for the toy to be returned.
  5. Should the conflict turn violent, with one child starting to lash out, calmly put yourself in between the children stating ‘I won’t let you hurt Bertie.’ Now the children know your limit and see you enforcing it. You have not resolved the conflict for them. You have not acted as a judge in the matter or labelled one child a bully and another a victim. If they are both pulling on an object to the extent that you think one could be hurt, calmly place your hand in between the children and steady the object explaining ‘This looks like someone could get hurt here, so I am holding this hoop stable for you.’ This gives them a chance to talk about who gets the object rather than fighting over it.

Children often act out when they are feeling disconnected, unbalanced and out of control. If you see the conflicts are escalating, your child is calling for you, his mom and dad, to reconnect with him. Take time out with your child. Sit and observe. Be there.

5 Reasons to Love Conflict

Some wonderful endorsements of sportcasting:

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Valentine’s Day and the romance of motherhood

By Tavish Becker

Valentine’s Day: Heart-shaped chocolates. Candles. Red Roses. Sexy negligee. Babygrows. Burp clothes. Nappies. Bottles. Tantrums. Discipline. Sleep deprivation. Things are slightly different after children burst into our lives. There are still moments of profound romance, but they are tightly wound in and out of changing dirty nappies, waking at 2am for a feed, and then dragging yourself to the kitchen at 4.30am to get the day started.

I attended a workshop with RIE associate Janet Lansbury in June 2014 in New York City. Whilst I brought Rosie (2) with me, I spoke most of the time I had with her about my son (4). I felt out of control, dis-connected, mystified by his intensity. Her advice was simple: ‘Fall in love with your baby again.’

You wake when they wake. You feed and diaper them. You talk to them and try to sense their character from the way their little body responds to your touch. You watch the sky lighting up the world at 4.30am together and experience the quiet of the sleeping world.

But how to fall in love with your tempestuous 4 year old again?

I tried a 2 step connection strategy based on my understanding of RIE.

  1. Connect through care-giving
  2. Connect through conflict

In the beginning, care-giving is mostly concerned with diapering, dressing and feeding. Magda Gerber advises using these times to connect with your child – to fill their ‘love tanks’. For a 4 year old, these care-giving moments are harder to identify. I looked at our interactions closely. Everything I did for him I decided to do with the most love I could muster!

He wakes up early. So I decided not to groan and moan about getting up at the crack of dawn but be ready to enjoy this time together. We would sit quietly in the living room waiting for the rest of the family to join us. Not necessarily talking unless he initiated it. Just absorbing the quiet.

Every meal I would serve it to him with loving eye contact. I would stay with him whilst he ate, instead of starting up another task. Whilst he can mostly manage dressing himself, I decided to make sure that I was quietly with him whilst he did this to assist when he needed help. Otherwise just to observe his choices and trustingly support him through this task.

The second step was to connect through conflict. This was very hard for me. I usually run a mile from conflict of any sort. But I watched Janet Lansbury deal with a few tantrums at the workshop and tried to implement her strategies. I gave each tantrum and crying fit as much time as it needed. I did not get distracted by another drama happening elsewhere in the house, but sat with him as he cried, absorbing the intensity of his emotions. I tried to show him that this was an important time for us, that I was there with him until the end. I needed him to see that I was big enough and strong enough to handle his rage without quaking. I would nod. Sometimes I would say quietly ‘You seem very upset.’ Or ‘You wanted to tear up that picture.’ And I would wait. Slowly the storm would pass. My son, who did not let me touch him for months on end without screaming, would crawl into my lap and lay his head in the crook of my arm. And I fell in love all over again.

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Tantrum – interrupted

By Tavish Becker

My daughter Rosie (2) can be easily labelled the easy-going, charming one of the family. Yesterday, despite having convinced the extended family over the Christmas holidays that she is an angel, she was screaming fit to pull the house down, threatening to find a knife and cut off my fingers and generally behaving like a child out of control. Why this turnaround?

My son (4) had been sick and vomiting the whole morning and was mercifully asleep on his bed, whilst I was outside alone with Rosie playing house. I had been giving her some ‘wants nothing time’, observing her play and co-operating with her imaginings. And then suddenly this precious time together turned into a nightmare scene. I tried to acknowledge her feelings of anger but there was no connecting with her in the state she was in. And then, inevitably, my sick one woke up and wanted attention. I moved across to him, leaving Rosie with my mother. My mother calmed her down with jokes and cuddles.

One might think that this was the end of the scene and the tantrum had resolved. But later when we were alone together again Rosie started up with her screaming and crying over her toys being moved. This was unusual behaviour so I took a step back and tried to remember some lessons I have learnt from RIE.

  1. The tantrum was never about toys being moved, nor about the game we were been playing. It was about pent up feelings that needed to be released. She had been playing with her brother and cousins at an advanced level, co-operating and absorbing big life lessons. There had been a lot of family coming and going, often fussing over her as the littlest in the family. Christmas puts a strain on the adults, but we often forget it also puts a strain on the children who are used to a more sedate pace.
  2. She allowed me to walk away from the tantrum whilst her brother needed me, but she still needed to be with me for a tantrum.
  3. She needed to see that I was not afraid of her big emotions. She has a safe space with me where she can let it all hang out.
  4. Rosie needed me to see her tantrum through to the end, not to interrupt nor distract her whilst she worked through her emotional storm. Staying with her through the second tantrum was very cathartic. It didn’t last too long and I sat with her, not crowding her but nodding in acknowledgement when she was receptive to me.

After the tantrum ended, I gave her a hug and a cuddle and my angel was back. She was calm and happy for the rest of the day.

For more about this different, more accepting approach: