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The New York Times Bestselling parenting expert helping you raise children who are happy, healthy, and fully themselves

Bunks Are Good for Brains: The Neuroscience of Sleepaway Camp

[The following interview appeared in the December, 2013 edition of the official magazine of the American Camp Association.  You can read the original interview here.]

 

Tina Payne Bryson, PhD will be delivering the opening keynote address at the 2014 ACA National Conference in Orlando. Bryson is the co-author (with Dan Siegel) of the bestselling The Whole-Brain Child, which is now in seventeen languages. She's a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist who speaks to parents, educators, clinicians, and camp leadership all over the world. She is a school counselor and the child development director for Lantern Camps. Tina earned her PhD from the University of Southern California, where her research explored attachment science, childrearing theory, and the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology. ACA sat down with her and asked her a few questions.

You're known as someone who teaches parents and educators about the brain. Is that what you'll talk about at the ACA conference?

It’s true that I spend most of my professional time talking to people about the brain. But it's also true that I'm a mom of three boys, and I've become a huge proponent of the camp experience over the last few years as my boys have attended Camp Chippewa in Minnesota, and as I've visited with camp directors and counselors and learned more about the important and meaningful work they're doing.

Put these two roles together — the brain lady and the mom who's passionate about camp — and you get someone who can go on and on explaining to parents, mental health professionals, and anyone who will listen just why camp is so beneficial for the developing brains of kids. I’m quite excited about the tremendous consilience between what camps are doing, can be doing, and what we know about optimal brain development. 

Tell us about the influence camp has on kids' developing brains?

When I visit a camp and consult with the leadership team there, I usually have two main messages. Number one: Whether you know it or not, you're significantly impacting the brains of the young people you work with every summer. In fact, it turns out that the things that build the brain and are best for kids’ development are also the very things that are important for running a successful camp with high camper and counselor retention and successful recruitment. 

And number two: if you know just a few basic facts about the brain, you can be even better at everything I just mentioned. Knowing just a little about the science of how the brain changes in response to experiences, particularly relational experiences, can help camps be even more successful — in all kinds of ways.

Your first point is that camp builds the brain?

Right. Bunks are good for brains. All the things that camps and parents say that camp does for kids — promoting independence, confidence, friendship-building, resilience, thriving, character, grit, etc. — these are undoubtedly real outcomes for kids who have quality camp experiences. But why do these outcomes occur? How do these changes happen in short periods of time, and then over years as well? How do we explain this?

The brain. I could go on and on about cutting-edge brain science and how it relates to the camp experience. For the sake of time, I’ll briefly introduce you to one part of the brain that's responsible for these skills and character qualities, and show you how it relates to the good, meaningful work that goes on at camp.

I want to introduce you to the middle prefrontal cortex. It’s right behind the forehead and eye sockets and is the front most part of the frontal lobe. It gives us the ability to do all kinds of important things: regulate our body and emotions, have insight into ourselves and others, feel empathy, communicate in an attuned way, bounce back after failure, adapt to new situations, make thoughtful choices, and overcome fear. That’s pretty much what's needed for a successful life with good emotional and mental health, meaningful relationships, and the conscientiousness to make things happen in the world.

And camp can help develop that part of the brain?

Whether camps have thought about it in those terms or not, yes. And that’s the exciting part for the camp world: We don’t just influence kids' minds and help them feel more confident. We actually change the structure of their brains.

Experience changes the brain. And yes, I mean the actual activation and wiring of the brain. Particularly when experiences are emotional, novel, and challenging, the repeated experiences kids have alter the actual architecture of the brain. It’s like a muscle. When it’s used, it grows and strengthens. So, when kids have camp experiences that require them to overcome fear, be flexible, handle their emotions (especially away from their parents), be persistent to master something, build relationships, and so on, it builds this important part of the brain. And by the way, this can happen in even more significant ways when counselors are trained to handle emotional reactivity in campers in ways that reduce reactivity and promote resilience. 

But the main thing to know is that when the structure of the brain changes, the function of the brain changes. This means that camps can play a role in how these kids function in the world, and ultimately who they become as adults, even on a neuronal level.

It’s so great that camps that are intentional about all facets of the camper experience and how they train their counselors already inherently provide the kinds of experiences that activate and build this “character” part of the brain. That’s why we can see significant changes in kids who have camp as part of their lives.

So you're saying that camp aids in this development because of the challenges children face when they're away from home?

Yes, that’s part of it, but it's about much more than just the challenges, because kids have lots of challenges in their everyday lives as well. One thing that's unique about camp experiences is that camp is usually fun, so kids are willing to work harder and tolerate more frustration and setbacks because they’re having a good time doing it, and they’re doing it in the context of relationship. They see their peers pushing through as well, and when staff is well-trained, kids have mentors or counselors who are empathic about the struggle, but still encouraging them to endure — pushing them to continue to learn and try. Then they face the frustrations and persist through the challenges. This is one way “grit” gets built in the brain.

So that's your first message to camp directors you work with.  That camp helps build the brain.  What's the second point?

The second is that knowing some of these basic facts about the brain can help directors and counselors be even more successful--both at helping develop great kids with the time they have them at camp, and at running a successful camp with high retention rates and happy campers and parents.

What can camps and camp directors do better?

First of all, even when camps are already doing some really fantastic things in terms of social and emotional and character development, they often aren’t as savvy as they could be about communicating in their recruitment materials how their program and decisions are contributing to that development.

It's about thoughtfully and strategically communicating to parents all the great stuff camp is doing for kids. Learning and using the language that child development experts know can make a big difference. With so much vying for children’s time, most parents want much more than just fun or better tennis skills for their kids. They want to feel confident that their child’s time is spent in ways that lead to their child thriving and being successful.

Can you give us an example of how camp does this?

There are dozens of ways that camp traditions and activities make kids better people and help them develop specific skills, like sustained attention (archery and riflery), overcoming fear (in safe but challenging activities), and serving others (helping with kitchen duties). If a camp can speak the language to make those connections, they’ll attract more parental interest.

Speaking this language also allows camp directors and leaders to clearly communicate to their staff each summer that there are more things going on than just the activity itself.

You're talking about staff training.

Yes. We want staff to keep in mind that in addition to the skills of sailing, counselors are also teaching kids about frustration management, flexibility, responsibility, etc. I love training the staff at Camp Chippewa each summer, and one of my main messages to the young counselors is always, "You’re doing more than just hanging out and keeping kids physically safe — you’re the relational safety net as well."

This is the science of interpersonal neurobiology. When kids feel connected and protected, when their needs are predictably and sensitively responded to, it actually builds the middle prefrontal cortex that I talked about earlier. There’s a hierarchy that staff should understand. When kids feel safe (physically, socially, emotionally), their social engagement system and receptivity circuitry can turn on. As a result, they're more willing to build friendships that make them want to come back. These friendships and counselor connections are a buffer against stress and homesickness and struggles. And they build character skills. In the attachment literature, this is referred to as “a secure base,” and when kids feel secure, they are capable of moving toward independence and they are better able to make friends.

So camps must create a culture and community of safety and connection. When they provide this kind of relational connection, they become the kinds of places kids want to return to summer after summer, and that parents want to keep sending their kids to.

So relational safety nets help retention rates?

Right. And there are all kinds of ways to foster this kind of relational environment through programmatic decisions. This is a lot of what Michael Thompson, the co-founder of Lantern Camps, and I are doing through Lantern Camps, where we visit camps and evaluate their programs, helping them not only provide better training for staff, and more intentional experiences for kids, but also communicate these important ideas to their staff and to parents in their recruitment materials.

Aren't camps already doing a lot of this?

Yes. The good ones are. Like I said, I am already a believer that camp can be a magical, transformative place for a child. In fact, I expect that down the road, when I think about the top experiences that made the biggest difference in who my boys turn out to be, going to Camp Chippewa will be on that list.

What I’m saying, though, is that many camps — and often, even good camps — can do even better at being intentional about what they want to accomplish. We're talking about honoring tradition and what’s working great, while also evolving, refining, and being more intentional.

Sometimes, a camp's automatic and unexamined ways of doing things aren't the most effective strategies — for dealing with homesickness, or difficult personalities, or emotional meltdowns, or whatever — and they’re not optimal in terms of what the science tells us about child development. Many camps are still doing a lot of what doesn’t work very well, which leaves kids feeling disconnected. As a result, they have a negative experience and don’t want to come back. I try to teach staff the same things I tell parents in my office, and teachers at the schools I visit. I try to help them learn how to decrease emotional reactivity and get kids quickly back to a place of feeling adaptive, stable, connected, and receptive to having fun.

I'll say again –camps impact kids — and their brains — in hugely positive ways. Bunks are good for brains. After all, it's experience that changes the brain. So when kids have experiences that challenge them emotionally, when they’re given opportunities to make friends that are outside their typical circles, when they have to keep working at a skill to achieve mastery — these are the kinds of experiences that change the connections in the brain regarding kids' capacity for persistence, how they see themselves, and how healthy they can be, both emotionally and relationally.

 

 

How to Respond to a Grown-up Bully: What parents can do when coaches cross the line

Parental discussions and professional publications are proliferating on the subject of bullying, but one aspect is almost never talked about. What if the bully is an adult? 

As I saw a Little League World Series game on the television this week, I thought of two stories I heard during this last season.

Due to his new braces, a ten-year-old boy was nervous—as I would be!—about taking a pitch to the mouth. Understandably, he chose the batting helmet with the wire mask over the face when he stepped up to take batting practice.  At his first practice with the new helmet, he was mocked by his coach, who then proceeded to zip balls at his head, calling him a “pansy.

The same week, another coach in our area went into competitive overdrive, screaming at his young ballplayers and berating them.  “Be athletic, not  pathetic!” he hollered, and, “You have to know the damn pitch count!” “Stop crying and get control of your emotions! You’re twelve!!”  He continued browbeating kids for throwing to the wrong base, dropping a ball, or hanging their heads.  He even told his daughter he wasn't going to coach her next year if she continued to be upset when he yelled at her.

Other adults were nearby during both sets of events, and in the first case, did nothing.  They just watched and let it happen.  In the second story, a dad in the stands stepped in and respectfully confronted the coach, and then he and his wife followed up with the coach later.  The “do nothing” and the “do something” contrast in these moments initiated a series of conversations with other parents and professionals I know about how parents should respond when they witness an adult bullying a child. 

Here are some suggestions I've been thinking about:

 

Model Supportive Behavior

Creating a bully-free environment starts with you.  In the heat of a game, do you ever scream out comments that stoke an oppressive, hypercompetitive atmosphere—comments that might encourage a likely bully? Keep it positive and remember that the brain is always making associations.  If someone yelled at you each time you stepped to the plate, or made audible disappointed gasps when you missed a ball, would you want to keep playing? 

 

Let the Coach Feel Your Support Early

If you do have to intercede in a bullying situation, you start out a step ahead if the coach has felt your support from the beginning of the season.  When we've connected with someone and begun to build relationships with them, they trust us more when we need to suggest that they make a change.

 

Intercede Indirectly

A bullying coach is a rocket revving up on the launch pad. If you hope to walk back that launch, try to avoid putting him on the defensive—and give him an out if at all possible. The only win you’re after here is the one for the kid.  So you might say, "Coach, Katie's grandparents are here today.  Isn't that great?"  This may be enough to get his attention without having to directly ask him to watch what he's saying.  This is an art.  If we’re abrasive, we'll only fuel the fire and increase the coach’s aggression.

 

Offer to Help

This can often de-escalate the situation. Say something like, “Things have gotten pretty amped up. Can I help?”  Or you can even take the empathy angle, which can often soften the bully, saying something along the lines of “This is frustrating, isn’t it? How can I help?”

 

Confront Confidentially

Calling out the bully in front of others will usually only escalate things, since the adult is probably not fully in control anyway if acting in such a manner. Ask to speak privately—or even slip him a note, saying something like, “Seems like emotions are getting a little intense,” just to give him some awareness.

 

Set Up a Time to Talk Later

I tell parents that in order to teach our children, we have to wait for the teachable moment, which is almost never when emotions are running high. Timing is everything. Talk to the coach about your concerns at a time when he has some perspective and will be more likely to listen and make a change.

 

Join Forces

Confer with the other parents. Chances are they share your concern—and your reluctance to intervene on your own. But there is strength in numbers. Not only will a group approach be more convincing to the coach, it permits a gentler intervention: “We'd like to see a more positive, affirming environment surrounding the team. How can we help you accomplish that?”

 

Enlist a Higher Power

Unfortunately, some unreasonable people cannot be reasoned with. That’s the time to take it out of your hands—and theirs—by going above them. Inform the supervisor or governing body of the harmful words or actions. Again, it’s helpful to bring other parents alongside. Make sure that next season’s kids won’t have to face such treatment.  If you let it slide it will just keep happening year after year.

 

Stand Up for the Victim—Now!

Sometimes you don't have the leisure of waiting for a teachable moment. An adult bully’s actions may render nice notes and confidential conversations moot. And especially if a child is endangered—I’m thinking of the first time the coach whistled a fastball by the ten-year-old’s chin and called out “Pansy!”—you may have to go all superhero. Get your body between the bully and the child, gently guiding the latter away from the situation.

 

I love youth sports, and the vast majority of coaches are kind, supportive adults who really care about the kids they work with.  But we all know that there are still too many exceptions to that rule. Too often we see adults bullying children, and too rarely do adults stand up and do anything about it.  When we don't, we communicate to the children that the bully’s behavior is OK and that they are on their own.  We want to model bravery and doing what is right, even when it’s hard, and even when we feel uncomfortable.  We want to communicate to children that they deserve to be treated with respect.

 

This article originally appeared on Mom.me.

Promoting Independence: How to raise an independent child without pushing too far too fast

A small part of you enjoyed it when your kids would cling to your leg when you dropped them off for the first few days of school.  It’s nice to feel that our children need us.  But now, as they get older, you want to help them loosen their grip without pushing them to let go too quickly. 

Finding a balance is the first step to promoting independence, while honoring the need all of us have to be connected to others.

While there’s no blueprint for how to raise your kids to be successfully independent, here are a few suggestions for fostering healthy independence without pushing children to grow up too fast.

Attachment is not the enemy – For decades, studies have continually shown that the best predictor for how well a child turns out is if he had secure attachment to at least one person.  Repeated, predictable, sensitive care from a caregiver who’s tuned in to the way the child feels lets the child know that his emotional and physical needs will be seen and met.  These experiences wire the brain in optimal ways in terms of mental health and the capacity for healthy relationships—including how your child can provide secure attachment to your future grandchildren!  So one of the very best things you can do to promote independence is to leave no doubt in your child’s mind about your love and constancy.

Don’t push too hard or too soon – Research from a variety of perspectives reveals that when we push our children to be independent before they’re ready, it can often be counterproductive, making them more dependent instead.  For example, if a toddler is afraid to be alone at bedtime, and the parent forces him to do so, the feeling of fear once the parent closes the door may amplify.  The next night, this fear and panic and dependence are even greater because, while you may have been ready for that move toward independence, your child was not.  When children are afraid and their parents push them too hard too soon, they will often feel flooded with uncomfortable emotions and bodily sensations.  The science is very clear that when children feel safe and secure, they will move toward independence, a concept known in research as the “Secure Base” phenomenon.

But push a little – In his research on temperament, Jerome Kagan demonstrated that there’s a line we must walk in terms of how far we push our kids outside of their comfort zone in order to successfully promote independence.  As I said, if parents push too hard, the child becomes more resistant to independence.  Think about how a nervous system that’s overcome with anxiety will try even harder to avoid those feelings in the future. But if parents don’t push at all, the child will stay confined within her comfort zone and won’t overcome her discomfort and fear about taking on new independence or a new experience.  Dr. Kagan found that when parents push their children gently, incrementally, and with lots of support, children learn to tolerate more, and begin to have experiences that let them feel stronger and more independent.  For example, when I wanted to help my son not feel so fearful about going to the bathroom or upstairs without me, I would sing loudly so he could hear I was close, but not right next to him.  He was able to tolerate going off by himself for a few minutes if he could hear me, and in time, he saw that he could feel comfortable doing these things without me.

Find the sweet spot – In the end, then, it’s okay to push a little hard, but it shouldn’t be TOO hard.  For example, I’m a big fan of sleepaway camp once kids are old enough.  Parents will often ask me, “How do I know if my kid is ready?”  Here’s what I say:  If you think your child will be a little homesick, but you expect her to return having had a wonderful experience and wanting to go back, then it’s a great time to let her stretch and overcome.  But if you think that stretching is going to be traumatic and cause your child to be more fearful and less independent, then sleepaway camp may have to wait another summer or two.

Treat each child as an individual – The sweet spot and timing may be different for each child.  Each of my two oldest sons, for example, went to camp at age nine.  One of them would’ve been ready regardless, simply because of his temperament.  The other, though, might not have been able had I not provided lots of secure base-building and nurturing incrementally as he took steps toward independence early on. The key is to give all of our kids the experience of being able to tolerate something difficult in a way that they get to conquer their uneasy feelings so that they can expand what they’re able to handle in the future.  This is resilience!

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

 

 

Second Thoughts About Sleepaway Camp? How to Warm Your Child’s Cold Feet

Last month your child was completely gung-ho about attending sleepaway camp.  But now that the weather’s turning warmer, that enthusiasm might be turning to apprehension.  Doubts, fears, anxieties, and even dread are normal for kids who are going to be away from their parents for a period of time, especially if it’s their first time, and especially if they are introverts.

We’ve got checklists for all the gear our children need at camp, but it’s also helpful to compile a checklist for preparing them emotionally if they are experiencing some cold feet or worries.  It might look something like this.

An Emotion-Prep Checklist for Sleepaway Camp:

  1. Talk directly about feelings.  It’s really unhelpful for parents to dismiss a child’s feelings and say, “You’ll be fine.  You’ll love it!  Don’t worry.”  (Has someone telling you “Don’t worry” made you say “Oh, OK. I hadn’t thought of that.”  Not helpful, right?)  Instead, if you sense your child is having some worries and he’s not bringing them up, you can begin the conversation by saying something like, “Some kids feel nervous about camp as it gets closer.  How are you feeling about it?”  And whether or not your child is initiating the discussion himself, it’s important to really listen and validate those feelings instead of trying to talk him out of them or dismiss them.
  2. Problem-Solve.  Find out what your child’s specific worries are, and then collaboratively problem-solve with her.  Most kids worry about being homesick, but it might surprise you what they are concerned about.  Kids worry whether they’ll like the food, that they won’t be good at the activities, that they’ll wet the bed, and even that their shoes will get wet.  Whatever the worries, it can be helpful to brainstorm together and talk about the “what ifs,” and what she can do in the circumstances she’s thinking about.
  3. Normalize the feelings.  Just knowing that other kids feel that way, too, and that it’s normal to feel worried about doing something that’s different, can be quite helpful.  Talk about a time you stepped outside your comfort zone and how you felt apprehension at first, how you handled your feelings, and how the experience ended up being great. (Make sure to pick a resilient story—no stories about how it ended up being even worse than you could’ve imagined.)
  4. Give kids a strategyor two to help them calm their worries.  One thing you can begin now that will give them tools they can use while they’re at camp is something I use with anxious kids in my private practice.  I give them an assignment that each night, once they are peaceful and relaxed and ready to fall asleep, they should place their hand on their chest (pledge-of-allegiance style).  Only when they’re feeling calm and peaceful.  After doing this every night for a few weeks, the brain makes a connection between the sensation of the hand on the chest and a feeling of calm relaxation.  Then, when the child is feeling worried or upset, he can easily place his hand on his chest wherever he is, and his body will begin to relax and his mind will begin to feel calm. 

    Another strategy is to teach him that while his feelings might feel really wild and stirred up, if he pauses to take a few deep breaths, the worries will settle, allowing him to see clearly again.  The best thing I’ve found to teach this is the “glitter ball” analogy that Susan Kaiser-Greenland created.  You can teach this to your kids by having them watch this super-short video with you.  Then send a glitter ball, or a small snow globe, to camp with your child, explaining that he can shake it up and watch the glitter settle when he’s feeling upset. 

    If you do these two things in the weeks before your child leaves for camp, you can build some skills and empower him with some tools he can pull out when he needs them.  This allows him to avoid becoming a victim to his feelings, but to be able to use his mind to change how he feels.  (You might try some of these tools too, if you are feeling worried about sending your child off!)

This moment is a great opportunity to teach kids that while we should pay attention to our feelings, our feelings shouldn’t rule our worlds.  If you talk, listen, normalize, and strategize, you will be preparing your children to go to camp with the best chance of overcoming their fears and learning something really important about themselves—that they are braver and stronger than they think.  You’ll be doing much more than just prepping them for camp, you’ll be prepping them for life.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

Present-Tense Parenting

You know one mistake I make as a mom?  I forget to live in the present moment with my kids.  I worry about what’s coming in the future, or I obsess about something from the past.  When I do this, I miss what they are really needing, what they are really communicating, and what is really happening.

Does that ever happen to you? 

When we practice fearful-future parenting or past-preoccupation parenting, we can’t practice present-tense parenting.  We don’t give our kids our best, and we often miss what they really need from us.  When we’re not parenting in the present tense, we end up thinking in rigid ways, like this:

 

Oh no!  My six-year-old is still in pull-ups at night!  What if he never gains control of his bladder?
This is future-tense parenting, and it can cause a lot of unnecessary suffering.  It’s normal to worry about the future—I can identify with that—but the problem is that you’re letting fear get the better of you.  Your son will be able to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, just as he learned to feed and dress himself.  I promise. (Unless something very unusual is going on, he won’t be in pull-ups when you send him off to college.)

When my nine-year-old was sick last week I let her stay home from school and watch movies.  Now she’s sick again. I’ve set up a bad pattern, so I’d better make today less fun.
This is past-tense parenting, and it’s also destructive.  There may be times that you see a genuine pattern that needs to be addressed.  If so, then by all means address it.  But don’t let one event in the past so overshadow what’s happening right now that you end up failing to nurture your daughter when she really needs it.

My mother-in-law says I should let my newborn “cry it out” when he wakes at night.  I don’t want him to develop bad sleep habits, so if I don’t nip it in the bid right now, he’ll be a bad sleeper his whole childhood.
Again, fear-based, future-tense parenting.  Babies aren’t able to manipulate.  They cry to communicate when they need something.  Your job is to meet those needs, right now.  If you worry too much about the future, you’ll deprive your baby of what he needs in this moment:  a mom who will be there for him anytime he tells her that he needs to be fed or held.

My thirteen-year-old forgot to turn in her Spanish homework last week, and now she’s turned in her math homework late.  I’ve got to cancel her dance class, since she needs to spend more time being responsible!
Again, there really is something to be said for nipping a problem in the bud.  But be careful not to overreact to a situation based on limited information.  If your normally responsible middle-schooler makes one mistake, that shouldn’t cloud your judgment about her any time she messes up again. 

My ten-year-old picks on his little sister.  She’s crying now, so her brother must be upsetting her again.
Past-tense parenting.  Even if your son is usually the instigator when sibling conflict arises, that doesn’t mean he’s the culprit every time.  If you march into the room and look at him and say, “What did you do this time?!” before you have all the information, you’re going to risk alienating him and damaging the trust in your relationship.

My seven-year-old cries wolf all the time, pretending to be hurt or sick when she’s not.  I need to teach her that that’s not the way to get my attention.
This one is a tough one for most parents.  After all, you don’t want to reinforce a pattern that makes life harder for you, your daughter, and the whole family.  Still, I always say to err on the side of nurturing too much, rather than too little.  Kids often go through this attention-seeking phase because they have a need for your attention.  And just because you are there for your daughter and connect when she needs (or just asks for) comfort, doesn’t mean that she’s going to seek attention in this way all the time.  In fact, you can’t spoil children by giving them emotional connection.  The more your daughter feels your love and constant affection, she’ll be quicker to move through this phase, and she’ll do so knowing that you’re on her side and have her back.  All because you were able to parent in the present tense.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

My Teenager Won’t Hug Me Anymore

A mom wrote me recently, concerned that her fifteen-year-old son was pulling away from her, especially in terms of being affectionate and letting her do things for him.  This is a common occurrence in the lives of parents and kids.  This mother wondered, “How do you provide that same sense of security to your children as they start to break away from you?”  My response offered words of comfort and advice that might prove helpful if you’re experiencing something similar.

 

It’s totally normal.

This is what teenagers do.  What they’re supposed to do.  They pull away so they can figure out who they are without you.  Your child is becoming himself, which is what you want. 

 

This is an important step towards self-exploration.

Your son is creating new attachments to his peers that allow him to become ready to be a "we" with someone else in the future.  This shift in attachment—he’s still attached to you, but in a different way—allows him to take the secure base he has in his relationship with you, and use it as a launching pad to explore who he is apart from his family and in the context of his peers.  This process is a crucial stage in his identity formation. 

 

Find ways to connect, physically.

It’s still possible to be physically close with your son.  Take his cues and respect his journey into adulthood, while still letting him know how much you love him.  At times this may mean a simple pat on the back or the head, or an arm around his shoulder.  But even if it's a bit uncomfortable, try to keep hugging him when you can—even it’s the dreaded “side hug” that can feel so awkward. As much as possible, keep up the affection, and the connection.  You might even see whether he'd be willing to let you climb into bed next to him to read to him or have him read to you.  If not, get the laptop and watch some funny YouTube videos together.  You have to sit super close so you can both see the screen, and the laughter can create a shared moment of joining. 

 

Be thoughtful while also observing boundaries.

Don’t be corny, but come up with gestures that show him thoughtfulness and nurturing without treading on his independence.  Take him a Jamba Juice when you pick him up from school.  Text him about something you’re proud that he’s done.  Challenge him to a game of Ping-Pong.  Take him to dinner and a movie.  And when he's sick, baby him like you used to.   He’ll love it.

 

Sometimes you just can’t win.

One moment he’ll tell you to back off, then the next minute he’s mad that you’re showing attention to his younger sister.  It's very similar to his toddler years, when he’d say, "Me do it," and then get mad that you weren’t helping him.  He's in between two worlds and wants what he feels like he needs—but only when he thinks he needs it.  He wants to be treated like an independent adult, but secretly, he may have times when he just feels like being nurtured like a little kid.  The best thing you can do is to assume he still wants you to nurture him and be a mom, while also communicating that he can tell you to give him space if he feels smothered.

 

Be direct.

Since you’re not a mind-reader, initiate a direct conversation about your uncertainty about how to interact with him.  Talk about your desire to keep nurturing him and doing things for him, while still respecting his space and independence.  Explain that you know how capable he is, then ask for his guidance and advice on this issue.  If nothing else, he'll be aware that you’re trying. 

 

Back off, but be available. 

Self-sufficiency is so important, so you want to encourage it.  But you need to still be sending signals that say, "I'm always here for you if you need me."  Communicate this over and over, both verbally and nonverbally.  Then he’ll know it’s true, whether his actions show it or not.

  

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

 

 

Bedtime Battles? A Few Notes and a New Perspective

“Bedtime is not for the faint of anything.”

This phrase comes to me as I finally escape from tonight’s almost two-hour bedtime, which resulted in my 5-year-old getting to sleep an hour-and-a-half too late. 

As I emerge from the dark bedroom and squint my way into the brightly lit hallway, I decide I’d better take some mental notes to avoid having to endure the forever-long bedtime in the future.  The dos and don’ts flood my mind in no particular order.

Note #1:  When reading the last story of the night, don’t use an even moderately suspenseful voice—much less a raspy, old, witchy one.  Bring characters to life with only funny or regular voices.  Otherwise I may have to resort to butt jokes to lighten the mood.  Or, the extra bright nightlight comes on, which then leads to totally insuppressible desires to make the best shadow puppets ever.  One more, Mom!  You GOT to see this one. 

Note #2.  Save time for inevitable shadow puppets. 

Note #3.  Don’t make the butt jokes too funny.  That can lead to uncontrollable giggling that’s eventually transformed into giddy-crazy.

Note #4:  If he makes a big deal about it, just let him wear the stupid boxers to bed.  I can put a pull-up on his sweaty little body once he’s already asleep.  Sure, it’s like trying to put a too-small wetsuit on someone who’s just come out of the ocean, and the whole process is made more difficult when I have to do it while hunched over in the lower bunk, but it still makes things easier overall. 

Note #5.  Put “extra fresh” water in his cup next to his bed.  Do it while he’s brushing his teeth, just before I get to lie down for the first time all day.  That’s much easier than waiting until we’ve already gotten in bed, read, put on our shadow-puppet show, and turned out the light. 

Note #6.  Plan for much, much more time. 

Note #7.  Start much earlier in the evening. 

As I get to my seventh note, I realize I’m making something of a battle plan, like a general preparing for war.  I’m preparing, anticipating obstacles to avoid, and proactively planning for contingencies.

The battle strategies above won’t ensure success, but they make it more likely.  The battle is always won at some point.  He always falls asleep.  Eventually.  But the casualties in the process—lost sleep, future grumpiness, a relationship potentially damaged by a mother who yells “No!  I don’t want to smell your feet!” and so on—can sometimes be ugly.  Plus, even as I come up with new approaches, the enemy continues to evolve as well, becoming smarter and developing new stalling techniques.

And then I get it.  It’s the word “enemy,” as it pops into my mind, that does it.  Gives me pause.  Wakes me up and helps me see the error of my metaphor.

I remind myself that the bedtime “battles” are a thing of the past for my 8- and 11-year-olds, who look forward to reading, and who, despite an inevitable plea for “one more chapter” when we read together, go to sleep without a fight night after night. 

I remind myself that sleep is a process I can’t force on my littlest guy.  He really does control that.  I remind myself that sleep is a separation, and I understand why he wants to make bedtimes last as long as possible.  After all, for these minutes he has my full attention, and we’re a tangle of arms and legs and hugs and hands on faces. 

That doesn’t sound like a battle at all.  That sounds like we’re on the same side.  That sounds like something to look forward to and delight in and that I’ll miss terribly someday. 

I’m not naïve enough to say that future bedtimes won’t be difficult from time to time.  But I’ve come to the awareness that if I change my expectations and plan better and give us enough time on nights when it’s possible, then that means we both win.

 

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

Common Misconceptions About Parenting

There are certain “truths” about parenting that we act on without ever really examining them.  Maybe we’ve heard them from someone else, or maybe we’ve just fallen into them over time.  Either way, they spell trouble for our understanding of and relationship with our kids. 

Here are some so-called “truths” about parenting that, when we really think about them, simply aren’t true.

 

It’s all up to me.

Parents often believe that they are solely responsible for their child's success and skill building.  Of course parents have a huge impact on who their children turn out to be, but many other forces are at work as well.  One of the most successful contributors to a child's socialization is in fact her own peers. Some of the behaviors you can't get her to change with months and months of nagging will disappear in one moment if a peer says something about it.  Let her pick her nose once on the playground, and see how long that habit sticks around. So it's not all on you. Do your best, but know that other teachers, other kids, and other relationships will influence how your child turns out as well.

 

If I mess up I’ll mess up my kids.

Parents worry that when we yell or lose our tempers a bit, or when we’re not patient, we’re harming our kids. In fact, as long as we’re repairing with them and apologizing and making things right afterwards, small ruptures are actually valuable experiences that teach kids important lessons about how to handle things when conflict arises in a relationship.  Abuse is obviously different, but to a huge extent, our mistakes with our kids can teach valuable lessons when they’re a part of an overall loving relationship.

 

Child development is linear.

Parents often think that kids grow and develop along a straight line that leads from less mature and capable to more mature and capable.  Actually, development usually happens in spurts, with plenty of steps backwards along the way.  Just when they learn to tie their shoes, you may see them regress in some other emotional or fine-motor skill.  Be patient.  Development will happen, it’s just that you can’t expect it to be consistent and predictable.

 

Kids choose when they behave, and when they don’t.

By the time a child is four or five, he knows the rules for the most part.   For example, when he’s mad, he’s not supposed to hit or call someone “Fart-face Jones.”  But he keeps doing it.  And we think, “Why in the world would he do that?”  The fact is that he does know the rule, but his immature brain prevents him from remaining in control, emotionally, so he’s at least temporarily unable to make good decisions.  So it’s not fair for us to expect him to make good decisions all the time.  Sometimes he’s actually incapable of behaving the way he should.  This means we should be talking to him about his thoughts and feelings that led to the behavior, and not just the behavior itself.  This is also just one more reason not to say, “How many times do I have to tell you . . . ?”

 

It’s now or never.

Avoid fear-based parenting.  Just because she’s acting a certain way now doesn’t mean you have to worry that she’ll act that way forever.  You don’t have to teach every skill and root out every misbehavior today, or even by the end of the week.  Resist the temptation to think, If I don't nip this in the bud right this second my child will become an ax murderer. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to address behaviors and build skills each and every week of your child's life.  So relax a little.

 

Consistency is the key to good discipline. 

Actually, this isn’t a misconception, but it needs to be reframed. Consistent love and clear expectations are the key to good discipline. But too often, consistency gets confused with rigidity. Be willing to make exceptions at times, and even to cut your kids some slack when necessary. Yes, children need to know the rules and see you enforce them in a predictable manner; but as you do so, be sure to consider the context of a situation, like the child’s age and capability, the time of day, whether someone’s hungry, and so on.

 

I shouldn’t negotiate with my child.

It doesn’t make you weak to listen to your child’s point of view.  You can still maintain your authority in the relationship while remaining flexible and open-minded.  Be willing to listen to alternative positions, and to reward your child’s ability to make good arguments to achieve what he wants.  If you’re in the right on a position, hold your ground.  But if your child can convince you that he’s right in this instance, then how much sense does it make to continue to insist that he’s wrong?

 

You can be a parent or a friend.

The problem here is the either-or dichotomy.  Yes, you need to be an authority figure for your kids.  They need that in order to understand how the world works and to feel less chaotic in their lives.  But that doesn’t mean that you two can’t also share all the elements of a strong friendship—like sharing your lives, laughing and celebrating together, and knowing you’ve got each other’s back.

 

When we discipline, we need to explain a lot.

I know that sometimes my kids want to scream, “Please stop talking!”  Especially when they’re in trouble and already understand what they’ve done wrong.  Discipline will be much more effective if we simply address the behavior, along with the child’s state of mind that led to the behavior, then move on.  Too much talking quickly becomes completely counter-productive.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

Is It Really Just a Phase? Five reasons not to freak out

Your three-year-old won’t sit peacefully at the dinner table.  Your five-year-old won’t join in at parties.  Your nine-year-old is still asking to sleep with the light on 

People tell you, “It’s just a phase.”  But is it?

Yes.  Most likely, it is.  Whether we’re talking about sleep, eating, toilet training, homework meltdowns, or anything else, here are five reasons not to freak out about this particular phase in your child’s life.

 

  1. Your child’s brain and body are changing rapidly.
    So rapidly, in fact, that your little one will be practically a new kid in six months or so.  You’ll be amazed at how many of the things she can’t or won’t do now, she’ll be able to do then.  You’ll also wonder why you worried so much.
  2. Life keeps changing.
    Just when you think you have something figured out and you’re on top of your game, something changes. A tooth comes in. A cold comes on. You move. A sibling is born. Transitions and surprises keep us from ever really being in control.  Even human development isn’t predictable and linear; it’s more of a “two steps up, one step back” kind of thing. That means that even if you were able to figure out the “correct answer” for responding to this particular phase, things would turn upside down as soon as you solved the riddle anyway.
  3. You get lots and lots of opportunities.

Don't let fear rule you and lead you to expect things from your child that he’s not developmentally ready for yet. Just because he’s not falling asleep by himself at four, doesn’t mean he never will.  You will have lots of opportunities to help him develop this skill as he gets older. It's rarely too late to teach lessons or introduce skills, so do it at a time when it works best for you and your child. 

 

  1. Right now is all you have to worry about.

You don’t have to be concerned about what your child will be like at 15, or 20.  You really don’t.  So don’t give in to the temptation to worry that this phase will last forever.  Your daughter won’t be biting her friends when she leaves for college.  She won’t have a hard time sitting at a dinner table.  Think in smaller chunks of time. Think about semesters or seasons. Give your child a few months to work through this phase, and know that as long as you’re there loving her, guiding her and providing a consistent presence in her life, she’ll get through it and learn the skills she needs.

 

  1. The struggles are part of the process.
    Believe it or not, you’ll probably miss this phase at some point down the road. Think about how other phases that seemed unbearable passed rather quickly in retrospect. Dr. Berry Brazelton reminds us that as kids grow up, periods of disorganization often precede organization.  That means that kids often go through difficult phases right before they accomplish something new.  So think of the struggles as little bumps in the road on the path to amazing growth and development.

 

 

8 Issues to Consider When Making Decisions About Your Kids and Video Games

I recently wrote an article about the dangers older kids face as they move towards adolescence and begin to join online communities and social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram.

Now I’d like to look at school-age kids and video games.  There are several issues we want to consider when we think about how much time our kids spend holding a joystick or remote in front of a computer or TV screen.

Violence and Aggression

While it would be an overstatement to say that video games are the primary cause of violent or antisocial behavior, studies show that violent games can be, at the very least, a contributor to the problem.  Just as watching violent movies can lead to more aggressive behaviors in kids, exposure to violence in video games can contribute to aggressive behavioral issues.

Childhood Obesity

This issue isn’t a media construction.  Kids really do need more exercise, and less time sitting and being couch potatoes.  Yes, more and more games are having kids move around and be active, but for the most part, when kids play computer and video games, they remain sedentary.  When sitting repeatedly replaces more traditional forms of exercise, kids are at a greater risk for obesity.

The Addictive Allure

For many kids, games beget games.  When they play regularly, they want more and more, and they have a harder and harder time accepting “No” when parents tell them to turn off the games.  As in so many areas with our kids, it’s important that they get practice dealing with limits and boundaries.

Motor Coordination

Here’s one of the definite pro’s of video games.  Hand-eye coordination and visual motor skills can improve when children play video games.  A recent study showed that children who spent more time playing interactive electronic games were actually more competent in “object control skills” – like kicking, catching, etc. – than those who don’t play the games.

Educational Benefits

Another benefit is that many video games actually teach kids.  Math facts, reading, geography, and all kinds of other skills can be enhanced by the right kind of game experience. 

Safety and Privacy Concerns

Identity theft, cyber-bullying, and all kinds of other dangers lurk any time we go online.  For kids who aren’t able to protect themselves or who don’t have an adult supervising their game playing, these dangers are much more significant.  Realize that any time your children are on the Internet, they can send and receive information that can lead to real and significant dangers.

Variety of Activities

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit screen time to an hour or two each day.  And that’s the key: limiting.  As I’ve already said, it’s not at all that screen time is inherently bad.  In fact, I tell my kids that I like it that they play video games in small doses—especially ones that exercise their brains by asking them to think and learn and solve problems.  But I also want to make sure that their brains are being exercised in other ways as well—by playing outside, being creative, reading, participating in team sports and other group activities, taking part in community service, and even by figuring out what to do when they are bored.

Age Appropriateness

This is perhaps the most important question to consider when it comes to which games and how long you let your kids play.  In my home, my 12-year-old gets to play games (and see movies and hear conversations) that my six-year-old simply doesn’t.  It’s important that we do our research and make decisions about what we’re ready for our kids to know about, and what we’re not.

 

In the end, parents have to decide for themselves how to handle video games with their kids.  One resource I highly recommend is the website CommonSenseMedia.org.  There you can look up games (as well as movies and books) by title and read about each game’s specifics, as well as receive guidance to help you make decisions you feel good about.

 

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

 

Should I Let My Child Be On Facebook?

Social networking, cell phones, and access to the internet have created a whole new world.  No generation of kids has ever faced anything like it.  The information, the opportunities, and of course the dangers, are completely unprecedented.  For parents it's more than daunting.  It's as if we've all been set down in the middle of a life-size scientific experiment, and we--and our kids--are the lab rats. 

Facebook, texting, chatting, and other social-networking activities offer plenty of positives.  I myself rely on these technologies to stay connected to friends, both present and past.  But when it comes to our kids, we want to remain aware of the many potential dangers the online world represents.

I've got to admit that I'm just beginning to face the reality of the situation as my oldest child enters adolescence.  I--like you--am going to have to figure out my approach along the way.  As something of a conversation starter, I want to offer a list of fundamental issues and concerns we should all be aware of as we think about our kids and technology.

Privacy

Kids rarely have any idea how much of themselves they’re showing the world when they go online.  (Actually, we adults are almost as unaware.)  The fact is that unless we take measures to educate our kids (and ourselves) about privacy and the internet, every picture they post and sentence they write can potentially be seen by anyone in the world.  Something they think they’ve posted for one friend to see could be seen by millions.

Exposure

Of course, it’s just as scary what our kids might be exposed to.  There are plenty of dangerous images and messages they’ll be confronted with in both the real and virtual world.  We can’t shield them from everything, but we can set up safeguards that protect them from as much as possible.  And just as important, we can educate them, so they can use their common sense and make good decisions when confronted with something harmful.

Time limits

Whether we’re talking about social networking or some other type of technology, we want to limit our kids’ screen time.  There’s nothing wrong with watching a TV show or spending time texting.  But we don’t want a screen to take over our kids’ world.  I tell my kids that I’m not against video games, assuming they’re appropriate; I actually like that they’re getting to exercise their brains in that way, in limited amounts of time.  But I want their brains to get exercise in other ways as well, so I make sure that they have time with friends, time for reading, time with family, and so on.

Variety of interests

Related to the last point is the question of what else our kids are doing besides interacting with friends online.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with chatting or Facebooking or checking out friends’ photos on Instagram.  But again, we don’t want those activities to become who our children are.  That can remain one aspect of their life, but we want to raise well-rounded kids who are involved in many different pursuits that challenge them to develop the many parts of themselves.

The example we set

I’ll admit that I’m not always great at ignoring every text that comes in while our family’s having dinner.  But it really is important.  The way we live our lives is a model for our kids, and what they see us doing sets expectations in their minds about what’s OK and what’s not.  So while it’s fine for our kids to know that we Facebook and text and surf, we want to show them that we also know how to “un-plug” when it’s time and focus on things other than the iPhone.

I’ll close by recommending James P. Steyer’s book Talking Back to Facebook, along with his website CommonSenseMedia.org.  Steyer offers practical advice, as well as a much fuller discussion of these issues that can help you make good decisions as you face these new and challenging dilemmas with your child.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

On the Eve of the Last Day of School: A Not-so-Perfect How-To for Embracing the Bittersweet

I can get kind of sarcastic at this time of the year.  Here's my not-so-perfect "how-to" for embracing the bittersweet on the eve of the last day of school:

On the eve of the last day of school, make sure to overschedule your final day of freedom.  Rather than saving the day for more sacred and soul-fulfilling activities, like a long chunk of time at Anthropologie, a relaxing lunch, and a pedicure with your BFF, make sure that you fill every second with errands and checkups and a haircut until the sacred, drop-everything pick-up time at 3 PM so your kid isn’t (again, Mom?!) the last one at the pickup circle.  After all, tomorrow will be filled with end-of-school parties and teacher-gift drop-offs and singing performances and the who knows what else, so you wouldn’t want to actually enjoy this last day of independence and freedom.

On the way to your hair appointment, say out loud, “I LOVE SUMMER. LOVE. SUMMER.”  Think about all the reasons why:  not having to rush the kids in the morning, sleeping a bit later, making bigger and slower breakfasts if you feel like it, less schedule, more time with the kids. . . .  Then recognize the moment that a bit of panic sets in, as you realize that this was your last day of freedom, and how many un-fun activities you’ve filled it with.

Then, let your emotions and a whole different type of panic take over as you realize that tomorrow will be your baby’s last day of kindergarten.  Give way to the tears.  Let the river flow.  First pull over the car.

On the eve of the last day of school, pick up your baby and take him to the “end of year kinder party.”  Smile with the other mothers as you all set down your potlucky-things you signed up to bring.  Sense the secretly judgey thoughts from at least one other parent in the crowd.  Criticism of the “Don’t try so hard” genre and the “Try a little harder” genre:  “I can’t believe she just picked up pizza,” or “I can’t believe she spent all that time making all those homemade rolls—she must have too much time on her hands.”  “Ugh.  So unhealthy,” or “Why does she bother to bring that healthy crap no one eats?”  Since you signed up to bring only napkins, you realize that you are being placed firmly in the “Try a little harder” category.

Smile and talk about how you can’t believe how quickly the year has gone, and how much the kids have grown.  Eat only carrots with all the other moms, pretending you’re not hungry and that you don't have the DTs just looking at those bite-size brownies.  Stick with the carrots because you have just realized that this very party indeed marks the beginning of bathing-suit season.

Plaster on a smile, along with the other mothers, as the kids accidently (except for that one kid you all now hate) squirt you with water-loaded AK47s.  Envy the smart parents who left just after the cake.  Huddle behind lawn chairs with the other imprisoned parents, captive to the wild, armed children.  Protect your cute new summer sandals and your iPhone. 

While drying off, bond with other mothers.  Share stories about peeing and puking on yourselves in very public places when you were pregnant, and about how your husbands who thought you were so beautiful and hot never imagined these kind of moments (thank God), and laugh and laugh.  Realize, though, that it’s not totally funny, and that you’re partially laughing to hide your despair because you all know deep down that your bladder control is still compromised and that sneezing, coughing fits, trampolines, and basically any aerobic activity offers the potential to send you into a humiliating spiral.

And on this eve of the last day of school, eat dinner at Subway because it’s mostly healthy and you’re still a little bit wet from that one kid’s evil water attack, and you can’t bring yourself to cook.  Then hurry to your evening mammogram appointment, asking yourself, “What was I thinking scheduling this for tonight?”  Console yourself by imagining the whole event as a spa treatment that features a “deep tissue massage of the pectoris.”   Almost get there in your mind because of the fountain in the waiting room, the little pink robe, the locker with the bungee bracelet, and the blissful quiet.  But fail to get there because of the hum of the machine as it squeezes the bejeebers out of your boobs.

And on the eve of the last day of school, don’t even feel surprised that at 2:17 AM your kindergartener (call him that as many times as possible right now) wakes you because his bed is wet.  You are not surprised because the sheets were changed today, and you already know that there’s a 157% likelihood that every single time there are clean sheets on the bed, the pull-ups will leak.  (Statistics don’t lie.  If there was a “pull-up leakage” betting system at some off-shore casino, you’d be a gazillionaire, just letting the college savings ride on the bet that urine will always soil recently changed sheets.)

After the sheets have been changed, and there’s a fresh pull-up and t-shirt on your sleepy kindergartener, and he says, “Will you climb in with me?” answer with a full-of-delight “Yes” because you know he’ll be a kindergartener for only ONE MORE DAY.  So slide in close to him, and listen to him breathe and touch his soft, soft cheek and neck, and don’t even care that your legs from the knee down are not able to fit on the bed and are suspended uncomfortably over the edge because your kindergartener has a “pull-up thigh rash” and feels compelled to sleep with his legs spread into a full-on V-shape.

And on this eve of the last day of school, think about your day, and what’s coming up tomorrow.  Tell yourself, “I really need to sleep.”  But then think, “I should go write all this down because it’ll be gone by morning.”  As you pull out your laptop, wonder whether your neighbors can see your butt while you’re typing in the living room, because even though you’ve already lived in your new house for five months, you still don’t have curtains because you have three kids and you sign up for donating napkins for parties, and if you had time to get curtains, you’d take a freaking nap instead.

And in your last few waking minutes on the eve of the last day of school, as you head to your bedroom, hope you don’t dream about what else you’re forgetting to do for tomorrow.  Hope instead to have a great fantasy dream about either Ryan Gosling or taking a nap—either would be thrilling.

Before going to sleep, remember that these days that are so taxing, vanish so fast.   Get back up to put a packet of tissues in the pocket of the camera bag that will go to school tomorrow for the singing performance, because your baby is not going to be a kindergartener after tomorrow.   But lie back down instead.  Assume that you’ll remember the Kleenex in the morning.  Rest assured that if you don’t, you can just go to the refreshment table and use some of the napkins that some other slacker mom donated. 

Go to sleep knowing that all will be well, because it’s summer, and you’ll soon have much more (sometimes too much) time with your kids, and next June 4th you’ll have a similar kind of exciting, taxing, panicked, sad, bittersweet day on the eve of the last day of school—except hopefully (Please, God!) without the pull-ups.

Getting to Know My ABC’s: Teaching Toddlers Letters

One of the best ways to teach something is to make it fun.  This is especially true when you’re working with toddlers.  Here are some suggestions for fun ways to help young children learn their letters.

  1. Write with bathtub crayons.
    Buy some erasable bathtub crayons and take turns drawing letters.  As much as possible, connect the letters to her environment, emphasizing the sound as you write the letter.  S is for Soap.  SSSSSSSoap.  B is for Bubble.  B-B-Bubble.  Accomplish educational and hygiene-related goals at the same time!
  2. Name a letter of the day.
    Borrow from “Sesame Street” and name a letter of the day each morning.  Write it on a sticky note and take it with you from room to room and into the car, pointing to objects that start with that letter.  Come back to it several times a day.
  3. Make letters out of objects.
    Using rope, blocks, blueberries, legos, or anything else you can find, make letters.  Talk about each letter and its sound, and have your child copy you.
  4. Sing.
    We all learn better when music is involved.  Google the phrase “songs to teach kids letters,” and you’ll be amazed at the number of songs available to you.  Some you’ll already know, and some you’ll get to learn along with your child!
  5. Trace letters everywhere you can.
    In the air, in the dirt, in water, in pudding:  Wherever and whenever you can, make it fun to write letters by tracing them in different substances.  This will aid in letter recognition and develop muscle memory that can help kids distinguish among different letters.  Make the sound each time you write a letter.
  6. Use what’s in front of you.
    Everywhere you go, point out letters on signs and products and buildings.  Kids love to play the “Name that letter” game.
  7. “Write” on your child.
    Let your child sense what each letter feels like.  Trace a letter on his hand, or on his back, and name the letter.  After he begins to get a few by memory, play a game that tests his knowledge.  Then when he’s old enough, switch places and have him write on you.  (You might want to verify that he’s not holding a Sharpie before you turn around and tell him to write on your back!)
  8. Read, read, and read some more.

Read to your child all the time.  As much as you can, keep books in front of her.  Even if you’re not constantly stopping to ask her about the alphabet—and make sure you don’t take the fun out of reading by making it about learning the letters—help make her comfortable with words and letters, and their connection to the ideas and stories sh

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

Teaching Toddlers Numbers: Let Me Count the Ways

Kids are naturally curious and will pick up all kinds of information in their normal, everyday lives.  That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t give them a boost along the way.  For example, when it comes to helping children learn about numbers, there are lots of ways we can help build a foundation for the math concepts they’ll soon learn at school.  The key is to keep it fun.

  1. Play Follow-the-Leader
    Have your child imitate what you do.  Mommy’s going to hit the drum once, then you hit it once.  Good!  Now I’ll hit it two times, and you hit it two times.  Continue to ten, assuming it remains fun for your child.  If she’s still enjoying the game when you get to ten, then work your way back down to one.
  2. Sing Songs
    There are plenty of great songs that teach kids about numbers.  Work these into your repertoire.  Every time your child sings “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,” or “Five Little Ducks Went Out One Day,” he’ll gain a deeper understanding of how numbers work.  (I don’t recommend “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall—not so much because it might encourage underage drinking, but because of how annoying the seemingly never-ending song can become.)
  3. Use textures
    Have your child fingerpaint numbers in pudding, or have him use a stick in the sand to trace out numbers.  Anything that allows him to practice writing numbers in novel ways will engrain the practice in his mind.    
  4. Connect Numbers to their Interests
    One boy I know is obsessed with Noah’s Ark.  His playsets offer all kinds of opportunities for counting different animals—and then learning to count two-by-two.  The same goes for dolls, cars, bubbles, baseball games, and practically anything else.  
  5. Count During Activities
    Whenever you think of it, let your child hear you count—and have her count along with you.  Count when you’re pushing her on the swing, when she’s brushing her teeth, when she’s taking steps between the car and the school building. 
  6. Sense Numbers
    While you’re teaching about numbers, teach about the senses as well.  Have your child close his eyes then listen to you clap or snap.  Quiz him on how many he hears.  Or tap his leg and have him count the taps.
  7. Count with the Body
    Teach numbers with activity.  Have your child jump four times, or run back and forth to the fence twice.  Or, play a game where you put out a set of numbers written on pieces of paper, and your child has to run to find the number you name and bring it back to you.
  8. Count with Food

Use mealtimes to teach concepts like more, less, and equal.  Count the number of blueberries or peas on the plate, or chairs at the table.  Again, make sure to make this fun; your child shouldn’t feel like she has to sing for her supper.

 

Numbers are everywhere.  By repeatedly pointing to them, we help kids seem them and understand them in ways that will form the foundation for future knowledge.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

New Year’s Resolutions and Kids: A Different Approach

Here’s a different take on New Year’s resolutions with your kids. Instead of asking them to set down goals and promises for the coming months, help them do a little reflecting about who they are and who they want to be.  Don’t make the conversation too lofty or idealistic, and try to avoid sermonizing.  Just set the scene for a reflective dialogue that helps your kids think about themselves and their relationships and activities.  Over the next several days, watch for times you can have your children ask themselves questions like these:

Am I a kind person?
This simple question asks kids to do some self-examination.  Regardless of how they answer, the good news is that they’ll at least consider the way they act towards others.  Then you can become more specific with questions like…

How do I treat my friends?
Hopefully the earlier question about kindness influences the answer to this one and makes your child see her friendships not only in terms of the fun she and her friends share, but also the ways she interacts with them. 

How do I treat my siblings?
Here’s the hard one, right?  Most kids will quickly want to focus on the latest injustice perpetrated by their siblings, but steer the conversation back to reflection about how they themselves treat their brother or sister.  Again, the goal is to create some self-awareness.

How do I treat people I don’t know?
With this question you may need to offer a bit more direction.  Help your child think about how he talks to a waitress at a restaurant, to a player on an opposing team, to parents of other kids, to anyone else.  Introduce the concept that we can make someone else’s day better—or worse—by the way we interact with them.

What in my life should I be thankful for?
It’s not automatic—for any of us—to stop and reflect and appreciate how good our lives are.  So help your children with this.  Help them appreciate how fortunate they are to have a home, and a family, and a parent who loves them enough to bug them with reflective questions. 

Are all people as lucky as I am?
This question obviously follows from the previous one.  It allows you to add empathy to the insight you’re trying to build.  It moves a child towards thinking about others, and towards compassion, which is the root of ethics and morality.

What’s something I love doing?
The questions don’t all have to be relational.  You can also have your kids think about their own interests and activities.  Thinking and talking about their favorite ways to spend time is another way to build self-understanding.

What’s something I’m good at?
The answer to this question isn’t always the same as the answer to the previous question.  In fact, sometimes kids are good at something they don’t particularly enjoy.  Becoming aware of this distinction can lead them to make better and more knowledgeable decisions about how they spend their time.

What’s something I struggle at?
The answer to this question might be something your child wants to work on to improve.  Or maybe it won’t be.  Don’t worry too much about leading her to the “correct” answer that “makes her a better person.”  The reflection, in and of itself, is what matters.  This is one of the many times when process matters more than product.

What’s my favorite part of myself?
Some kids won’t want to answer—or even think about—this question.  It can seem vain, even embarrassing, to talk about what we like about ourselves.  So don’t force your child to respond out loud.  Just introduce the question, then let it do its work as your child comes back to it whenever it pops up in his mind.  Remember, reflection is a process.  Trust the process.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

What Do I Tell My Kids? (A Parent’s Response to the Newtown, Connecticut Tragedy)

I really don’t know what to say.  I’m heartbroken and speechless.

Facts are still coming in, and I'm just beginning to process everything myself.  What we’ve learned is that close to thirty people, including many children, were killed by a gunman this morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I really don’t know what to say. 

None of us do.

But if we’re parents, we’ve got to decide how to address a horrific event like this with our own kids.  We have to find the words.

The events just took place a few hours ago, so I reserve the right to change my opinion.  But here are my thoughts on a first hearing, based on some questions I’ve already been asked.

 

Should I talk to my kids about what happened?

Usually, I’m in favor of arming children with as much information as possible.  But in this case, if you have young, even school-age, children, I’d be very careful about how much you tell them about what happened in Newtown.  It can be overwhelmingly frightening to a child (or even an adult) to hear that a person has carried a gun into a kindergarten classroom and begun killing kids and their teachers.  If your children haven’t heard about the shooting, I advise you not to open the door to that world.  It’s terrifying.

 

What if my kids have already heard?

If your children hear about the shooting from friends or the news or some other source, then it becomes paramount that you talk with them about what they’ve heard.  In this conversation, aim for four main goals:

Listen.

Begin by asking a few questions.  Find out what your child knows and how they are feeling.  A good question to ask is, “How did you feel when you first heard the news?” or, “What was your first thought?”  Listening is crucial here, because it will allow you to assess where your child is, emotionally, at this moment, and also because it will give you information that should guide the rest of the conversation.

Let your child lead the conversation.

Don't give your child more information then they need or already have.  They don’t need pictures drawn for them.  Answer their questions, and show them the respect of taking their inquiries seriously.  But address their concerns and curiosity without delivering extraneous information that will create more confusion and anxiety.

Help your child feel safe.

This is your highest priority right now. Information is important, but contextualize everything so that your child feels safe.  Explain how rare the situation is, and that they have no reason to expect that it would happen at their school.  Promise that you’re always watching over and protecting them.  Let them know they can absolutely count on you and that you will always try to keep them safe.

Be willing to return to the subject, but only if your child needs to.

Later today, or tomorrow, or next week, your child may need to talk more about what happened.  If so, talk more.  But if your child has moved on and isn’t showing any signs of worrying any more about it, then let them move on.  Don’t create anxiety by bringing it up again and again.

 

What do I do if I feel terrified myself?

I know that these types of terrible (but extremely rare) occurrences make us want to pull our children closer, and protect them more. And yes, you should hold your child close tonight and be grateful.  I know I will.  But don't allow your fears and anxieties to rage so much that your child misses out on freedoms and opportunities that produce mastery and competence.  And remember, too, that kids are very perceptive.  Be careful not to communicate so much of your own fear that you make your own anxiety theirs.

 

I feel a deep, deep sadness for the people of Newtown.  Tragedies occur, and far too often, we’re left without any answers.  I wish I had more answers right now, both for myself and to offer you.  All I know to say as we watch from afar, is that we should let this remind us of our responsibilities to our own children:  to listen to them, to protect them, to cherish them, and to communicate to them—as fully as possible—how much we love them.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

My 12-Year-Old Wants to See R-rated Movies. Should I Let Him?

I get asked lots of questions about parenting, and some of them are really hard to answer.

This isn’t one of them. 

I have plenty of friends who are good parents and let their tweens see R-rated films.  And while that does create some conflict in our household when my son doesn’t get to go along when his friends head to the theater, I feel really confident about my position on this issue.

Here are my reasons:

What we know about the brain.

One fundamental, brain-based truth is expressed in the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.”   That means that our experiences, which cause neurons to fire in the brain, create associations that impact future experiences and behavior.  This is true for older adolescents and adults as well, of course, but for an 11- or 12-year-old, there’s more danger because they aren’t developmentally prepared to deal with some of the content they’re exposed to in certain movies.  And once children are exposed to something, there’s no taking it back. 

I’m not saying that if preteens see a movie that, for instance, glorifies drug and alcohol abuse, they’ll automatically turn into addicts.  But when they see a lifestyle that looks that fun and exciting, it can be hard not to see it in a positive light.  Neurons have fired and subsequently wired.

Nuances can be lost on young adolescents.

Most tweens are simply not socially and emotionally ready to be exposed to the sophisticated nuances of sexual and relational situations that arise in certain movies.  (Language and even violence actually worry me less, although I know that’s not the case for everyone.)  The issue is that my son, for example, isn’t always going to notice that the racist character making all the jokes is being criticized; or to see that the meaningless sex might lead to some pretty negative consequences for both parties.  Put simply, his still-developing brain just isn’t ready yet to consider issues in a larger context.  In a couple of years, things will be very different, but for now, his brain is what it is.

These are the peak sensation-seeking years.

Researchers at the University of Missouri conducted a study that found that more exposure to sexual content in movies between ages 12 and 14 was linked to an increase in sensation-seeking (or risk-taking) behaviors, which included earlier sex and unprotected sex, among other things.  What’s worse, the increased sensation seeking can last into the early twenties.

Adult sexuality can be impacted now.

There is also research that shows that early sexual exposure impacts sexual preferences in adulthood.  Exposing our kids to sexual situations that are not based on love and respect could create problems later.  If neurons have wired together and linked up the ideas of sex and, say, abuse or mockery, a child may grow up to be guided by those same linkages and expectations.

Saying no has other benefits

Even though it makes things difficult, it’s not a bad thing for my son to see my husband and me decide not to go along with what “everyone else” is doing.  Plus, some of the parents we’ve told that we don’t let our son see R-rated movies might be impacted by positive peer pressure and reconsider their position.

 

Before I close I want to recommend a resource for parents: commonsensemedia.org.  Here you can find detailed information and recommendations about appropriate ages for each movie (or book or video game) you’re considering, and the information is presented in a way that’s full of, as the name implies, common sense.  My husband and I consult this site when making a decision about a movie or game to buy.   

There are plenty of parenting issues I’m not sure about.  But on this one I feel very clear about the need to protect my son a little longer.  When it’s time for him to see more adult-oriented movies, we’ll watch them with him and discuss some of the content, using it as an opportunity to talk about ethics, morality, and how to treat people.  For now he may think we’re the strictest and lamest dorks alive, but we’re doing what’s right for him, and he’ll know it in some future decade.

  

To see the original piece at mom.me, click here.

Playing and Learning: Imaginative games that teach social and emotional skills

When kids play, they learn.  And playing just for the sheer pleasure of it is fantastic.  But at times, you may want to find games that teach lessons as well. 

Here are some games you can play with your children to teach them social and emotional skills.

What would you do if . . . 

This is a game where parents present hypothetical, age-appropriate situations that ask kids to consider how they might deal with difficult situations they face.  For young kids you might ask whether it’s ever OK to lie.  For a school-age child, you might say, “If you saw someone being bullied in the lunch room, and there were no adults around, what would you do?”  Questions like these can be interesting to children and help develop their moral and ethical sensibility.

  1. Role-play

    Switch roles with your child.  You be your child, and let her be you.  Mutual empathy can go through the roof when we simply see things through the eyes of another person.  Yes, I said mutual empathy.  It’s never bad for a parent to walk a mile (or even a few steps) in the shoes of her kids.

    Trust fall

    This classic youth-group game lets you emphasize the point that you’ll always be there for your child.  Have her face away from you and fall backwards with her eyes closed, believing that you’ll catch her.  Then talk (briefly) about what it means to really trust someone.

    Expectation challenge

    You can raise some interesting questions by complicating the normal rules  of pretend play.  For instance, if you’re the super-villain being chased by your child, the hero, you might fall down and pretend to have sprained your ankle.  Your child must then consider whether and how to help someone, even if that person is the bad guy.

    Why was that cashier rude?

    When someone has been less than polite, play the “What caused that?” game.  Simply asking the question can begin to create empathy, since the answers could range from “Maybe her mom never taught her to be polite” to “I wonder if something bad happened to one of her kids.”

    Sardines

    In this variation on “Hide and Seek,” one person hides and the rest of the group tries to find him.  As each subsequent person finds the hider, that person squeezes into the hiding place.  Teamwork and cooperation are necessary to succeed.

    Amoeba

    Another “Hide and Seek” spinoff that requires people to work together.  In this case, the seeker searches for the hiders, and when each person is found, she joins with the seeker to find the other hiders.  With each subsequent “find,” the amoeba grows.

    Show me what it looks like when you feel...

    Ask your the child to act out different emotions, showing what feelings look like on our face and body.  This can create an emotional vocabulary and also develop more self-awareness.

    Guess how I’m feeling

    This is a twist on the previous game.  Here you act out a feeling and have your child guess your emotion.  Again, empathy and emotional intelligence are the goals here. 

    Telephone

    
Remember this one?  Have the whole group sit in a circle, and pass along a message from one person to the next.  Depending on the size of the group, you might want to go around twice.  It can be hilarious to see how much the message changes as it’s passed from one person to the next.  Use this as an opportunity to talk about the importance of communication and really listening.

 

 View this piece (as a gallery with photos) at mom.me.

Help! I'm Not Enjoying My Child

Do you ever feel like things aren’t quite right between you and your child?  Before you had kids of your own, you may have assumed that when you became a mother you’d feel wonderful about them all the time.  You knew, of course, that there would be occasional conflict; you didn’t expect them to be happy when you disciplined them, for example.  But still, you knew how much you’d love your kids, and you thought that that love would help you avoid most relational conflict with them.

Now, though, as your kids have grown past the baby stage and developed personalities and desires of their own, things aren’t always as happy as you imagined they’d be.  If you’re like a lot of mothers, you may feel guilty that things aren’t better more often.  You might feel bad that sometimes you feel like you don’t even like your children or your role as a mom.  You might feel like you’re the only one struggling with your kids.  You might wonder what’s wrong with you.

The truth, though, is that relationships ebb and flow.  We know that’s true, and we expect rough patches in long-term relationships.  

Guess what?  What you have with your kids is a relationship, too.  And you’ll go through rough patches in that relationship, too. 

Sometimes, you just aren’t in a good place to connect.  Maybe you’re not taking care of yourself and your patience is chronically low.  That’s not a good match for a child who is simultaneously pushing your buttons or who is struggling with patience herself.

Or maybe your child isn’t in a good place to connect.  She may be going through a phase where she’s experimenting with being a little more independent, and it means you’re not hearing much about what’s going on with her, and this is happening at a time when you’re craving more connection.  Sometimes needs of individuals in the family are in conflict, and we struggle. 

Rough patches just happen sometimes.  Here are four suggestions to help you get some perspective on the whole situation:

 

Take the long view.

Realize that it’s normal for relationships to have upswings and downswings, and if you’re not hitting your stride with your child at the moment, it will likely come back around.  Today may be tough, but tomorrow will be better.  Or this week may be tough, and next week better.  As children develop, it’s normal for them to disconnect from their parents in various ways at various stages.  Stay consistent and loving in your interactions with your child, and have faith that things will come back around.

 

Evaluate your child’s needs.

Ask yourself whether there’s something your child needs right now that he’s not getting.  More time with you?  More affection?  More attention?  Less conversation and more independence?  More responsibility?  Often, a child acts out because he’s needing something and doesn’t know how to ask.  So do your best to listen to his actions and see what’s going on.

 

Evaluate your own needs.

What do you need right now that you’re not getting?  Time by yourself?  Time with your spouse or friends?  More sleep?  More exercise?  You know that old saying:  If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.  So take care of yourself.

 

Keep investing yourself in the relationship.

Time, effort, and intention go a long way.  Just as in your adult relationships, you’ll see your relationship with your child grow and deepen as you put in the time and remain a consistent, steady, loving presence in his life.  As the relationship ebbs and flows, be the rock your child knows she can count on when she needs you. 

 

See the original of this article at mom.me.

Speak Up: Why Self-Advocacy is a Crucial Skill

I know. I've done it, too. We all have. Your child faces some difficulty, and you jump in right away to rescue them. To stand up for them. To make things right. You talk to a teacher. You handle things with their friend. You call their coach.

We need to resist this temptation to handle things for our kids.

Of course there are times we need to stand up for and defend our children. At times, we need to be absolutely fierce in doing so. But more often than not, we advocate for our kids when they should advocate for themselves.

It reminds me of that old saying: “Give a man fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” That makes so much sense, but when it comes to our kids, it’s hard not to spring into immediate action when we see them being treated unfairly or struggling in some way.

RELATED: Teaching Your Child to Share

But here are four main reasons to allow our kids to advocate for themselves:

1. Self-Advocacy Is a Crucial Skill

When we step in and handle a child’s problem, we short-circuit her opportunity to learn how to address a difficult issue. Having to visit with a teacher or address a problem with a friend can be a powerful learning opportunity. Give your child the benefit of getting practice using her voice and her logic. Teach her to assert herself, and to understand that she can be both respectful and strong. (And of course, you can always go with your child for support if she needs it.)

2. Discomfort Can Be a Good Thing

Even as you teach your children to assert themselves, remind them that it’s actually a good thing to have to do things that are difficult and that make them feel uncomfortable. To have to deal with a challenging situation, and to come out successful on the other side, is a great way to build resilience and confidence. Plus, it makes them more capable of dealing with other problems that come up in the future. You might even tell them a story about a time you had to handle something uncomfortable but how you triumphed.

RELATED: When Moms Lose Their Cool

3. We Show Our Faith in Them

Stepping in and addressing your child’s problem communicates that you don’t believe he can handle that particular situation, and that he needs you to handle things for him. Instead, let him discover how much he can do on his own. Again, every time he takes on a tough problem and handles it on his own, he’ll build competence, confidence and resilience. And you can demonstrate that you’ll be there to cheer him on!

4. It Lets You Save Your Voice for the Really Big Problems

You really don’t want to become “that mom.” It’s not that you need to worry about what people think about you; it’s just that if you’re the parent who’s consistently heading to school to discuss every little problem, and when a bigger problem arises you may not be taken as seriously. You will have lost your voice, so to speak.

Again, there are definitely times we need to step in and defend our children. You should be ready to do so, and your kids should know that you’re on their side and ready to do what you have to do on their behalf.

But, more often than not, we need to take a step back and allow them to handle things on their own. They can do it. They really can. And when we let them, we arm them with all kinds of skills that will make them that much better able to handle difficult situations down the road.

You can view the original of this piece at mom.me.