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helping kids make good choices

Parenting Time Machine: Imagine your children in the future, and how you got them there

Here's a little exercise that can help you think about what you want to prioritize as a parent. 

First, engage in some time travel.  Imagine yourself in the future, when your kids are grown.  (If you want, you can have it turn out that you don't look any older than you do now and that you’re driving a convertible sports car instead of a stinky minivan.)  From that vantage point, look back at the way you raised your children.  How will you feel about the parenting decisions you've made?  The experiences you've given your kids. 

For me personally, I'm constantly learning new things that make me say, "I wish I'd known that earlier."  I expect I'll probably write a book in the future about what the parenting expert wishes she’d done differently, given the perspective of time (and emerging research.) 

But if you were to ask me now to predict what I will one day say are the most important things my husband I did as parents that made the biggest difference in how well our three boys turned out—in my imagined future, it so happens that my kids are fantastic humans who have a very young-looking mother—here’s what I’d say. 

  1. We disciplined by using reflective dialogues and collaborative problem-solving, rather than punitive consequences.
    Actually, I wish we did more of this, but I truly believe that traditional punishment as a discipline technique is not only less kind and caring, but much less effective as well when it comes to changing behaviors and building character.  (Watch for my upcoming book, No-Drama Discipline, written with Dan Siegel and published by Random House, for a book-length discussion of this idea.) Nearly any discipline situation can be better handled by talking to our kids and at times even asking for their opinions on how to address a situation.  Firm boundaries and high expectations can be maintained while also using discipline moments to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving.
  2. We built secure relationships with them.
    Instead of simply "managing" our boys and getting them to their activities, we got to know them, and let them know us.  We all talked and laughed and argued together, deepening the connections between us all.  We consistently (not perfectly) responded quickly and predictably to their needs, and they had repeated experiences that wired their brains to know that they can trust in relationships.  And, we were tuned in to their emotional world—we focused on understanding and talking about the internal experience:  thoughts, feelings, wishes, regrets, motivations, etc.  Sensitive, emotionally attuned, predictable care leads to secure attachment.  Secure attachment is the single best predictor for children to thrive.  We weren't perfect parents, but we did build strong relationships with our kids.
  3. We sent them to sleepaway summer camp.
    Our boys happen to have gone to a magical place called Camp Chippewa in Northern Minnesota.  But summer camp in general is great for kids, in that it allows them to overcome difficult situations like homesickness.  Being away from parents and living in a cabin with other kids and mentors of all ages is transformative for many children.  The activities at camp are great; they have a blast learning to canoe and shoot a bow and pitch a tent, but it’s the skills, the mastery, and the frustration management that make it so good for their development.  The friendships they make, the traditions and rituals they learn, being in nature, and the independence they gain are fun, and they build resilience.  They learn a lot about themselves through this experience.
  4. We made our home a place their friends wanted to be.
    One of the best ways we got to know our kids was by watching them interact with their friends.  We also liked getting to influence the environment our boys and their peers grew up in. 
  5. We gave them other adults who cared about them.
    Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other close friends all became important people in the lives of our children.  They never wondered whether they were worth loving or being paid attention to, because there was always a crowd of people in their lives who were loving them and paying attention to them.
  6. We were present with them without rescuing all the time.
    Sure, there were plenty of times when we gave the distracted "uh-huh" while we heard about the latest Lego creation.  But we did our best to really be there with our boys.  To listen to them, to talk to them, to pay attention to what bothered them and what mattered to them.  We wanted them to know that we delighted in them as people, and that we were there for them.  Always.  Even when they were badly behaved, or they were having meltdowns.  We saw our job as walking with them through struggles and letting them know we were there with them—without rescuing them from every negative emotion or situation. 
  7. We gave them a chance to find and do what they loved.
    Whether it was sports or piano or art or joke-telling, we did all we could to let our kids chase and enjoy their passions.
  8. We protected playtime.
    I'm not saying that there weren't periodic seasons when our boys ended up being over-scheduled, but for the most part we worked hard to make sure they had time to just hang out and play.  We were big fans of enriching activities, but not at the expense of having time for unstructured play that let them imagine and dream and even deal with boredom.

So that's an example of my list.  What would be on yours?

Notice that this exercise asks you to think about what you're doing well.  You could make a similar list about what you wish you'd done differently.  (Watch for a future article in which I outline some of the regrets I imagine I'll be living with in the future.  There will be plenty of those, I'm sure—although I always remind parents, as I do in this article, that even our parenting mistakes can be beneficial for our kids.)

The point in all of this is simply to remain aware and intentional about what we're doing as parents.  We might see changes we want to make, but we'll also realize that there's plenty we're doing that we'll look back on some day and smile, and even be proud of. 

 

 

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Parenting is transformative. Few experiences are as transformative as parenting. At its core, parenting is about transformation. One of our most important jobs as parents is to witness and influence the evolution of our children from wrinkly newborns with raw nervous systems into integrated, whole humans who know who they are and how to be in the world. And parenting obviously transforms us as well. There are smaller transformations—we learn to do most things “one-handed” while carrying a baby on our hip; we begin to eat at McDonalds; we memorize the names of dinosaurs; we learn to play video games again; we even buy a mini-van (which for some is a bigger transformation than for others). And there are huge, life-changing transformations—we adjust our priorities; we make sacrifices that cost us greatly; we learn to live with worrying and “what ifs”; we forever expand our hearts.

Along the way, we become more creative than we ever knew possible. I’m not talking about the creativity of artists, song-writers, or novelists. I’m talking about the creativity that’s required for survival for anyone caring for children. I knew I’d been forever transformed by my role as a parent when, in my attempt to get through to my non-compliant little streakers, creativity sprung forth from desperation and I made up a song with a chorus that began, “No naked butts on the furniture.” (Unfortunately, it was so catchy that one day I actually found myself singing it in the car by myself. As I said, parenting changes us.)

What’s more, transformation isn’t limited to people. We can also use our creativity to transform moments, so that the situations and circumstances we face can change into something else. Moments can be transformed for the worse, like when our downstairs brain shifts into overdrive and a sweet, bedtime cuddle turns into a fierce battle, complete with crying, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for all involved.   But likewise, we can transform moments for the good of ourselves and our children, so that an ordinary, everyday parenting challenge is converted into an opportunity for growth, connection, and relationship. And to do this, it almost always requires creativity.

Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.

Challenge transformed into opportunity.

For example, while eating at one of our favorite Mexican food restaurants, I noticed that my four-year-old had left the table and was standing behind a pillar about ten feet away. As much as I love him, and as adorable as he is most of the time, when I saw his angry, defiant face coupled with his repeated tongue-thrusting aimed at our table, “adorable” wasn’t the word that came to my mind. A few diners at surrounding tables noticed and looked at my husband and me to see how we were going to handle the situation. In that moment, Scott and I felt the pressure and judgment of those watching and expecting us to lay down the law about manners at a restaurant.

There are many ways to respond in moments like these. But in this moment, two choices popped into my mind as I walked over and crouched down eye-level with my son. Option #1: I could go the traditional “Command and Demand” route and open with a clichéd threat uttered in a stern tone: “Stop making faces. Go sit down and eat your lunch or you won’t get any dessert.”

Knowing my little guy, this verbal and non-verbal confrontation would have triggered all kinds of reactive emotions in his downstairs brain—the part scientists call the reptilian brain—and he would have fought back like a reptile under attack.  The situation would just escalate with this approach.

Or, Option #2: I could tap into his upstairs brain in an effort to get more of a thinking—as opposed to a fighting/reacting—response.

Now, I make plenty of mistakes as I parent my boys (as they’ll freely tell you). But just the day before, I had given a lecture to a group of parents about the upstairs and downstairs brain, and about using everyday challenges—the survival moments—as opportunities to help our kids thrive. So, luckily for my son, all of that was fresh in my mind. I went with Option #2.

I started with an observation: “You look like you feel angry. Is that right?” (Remember, always connect before you redirect.) He scrunched up his face in ferocity, stuck out his tongue again, and loudly proclaimed, “YES!” I was actually relieved that he stopped there; it wouldn’t have been at all unlike him to add his latest favorite insult and call me “Fart-face Jones.” (I swear I don’t know where they learn this stuff.)

I asked him what he felt angry about and discovered that he was furious that Scott had told him he needed to eat at least half of his quesadilla before he could have dessert. I explained that I could see why that would be disappointing, and I said, “Well, Daddy’s really good at negotiating. Decide what you think would be a fair amount to eat, and then go talk to him about it. Let me know if you need help coming up with your plan.” I tousled his hair, returned to the table, and watched his once-again adorable face show evidence of doing some hard thinking. His upstairs brain was definitely engaged. In fact, it was at war with his downstairs brain. So far we had avoided a blow-up, but it still felt like a dangerous fuse might be burning within him.

Within fifteen seconds or so, my son returned and approached Scott with an angry tone of voice: “Dad, I don’t want to eat half of my quesadilla. AND I want dessert.” Scott’s response perfectly dovetailed with my own: “Well, what do you think would be a fair amount?”

The answer came with slow, firm resolve: “I’ve got one word for you: Ten bites.”

What makes this un-mathematical response even funnier is that ten bites meant that he would eat well over half the quesadilla. So Scott accepted the counter-offer, my son happily gobbled down ten bites and then his dessert, and the whole family (as well as the restaurant’s other patrons) got to enjoy our meals with no further incidents. My son’s downstairs brain never fully took over, which, lucky for us, meant that his upstairs brain had won the day.

Again, Option #1 would have not only escalated things, but it also would have missed an opportunity. My son would have missed a chance to see that relationships are about connection, communication, and compromise. He would have missed a chance to feel empowered that he can make choices, affect his environment, and solve problems. In short, he would have missed an opportunity to exercise and develop his upstairs brain.

And I hasten to point out that even though I chose Option #2, Scott and I still wanted to address his behavior. Once our son was more in control of himself, and could actually be receptive to what we had to say, we discussed the importance of being respectful and using good manners in a restaurant, even when he’s unhappy.

Challenge met, opportunity seized, moment transformed. (This time, at least.)

It’s all about watching for the opportunities.

As parents, we look for all kinds of ways to teach our children, to nurture their development. And it’s great to take them to the museum, to piano lessons, to the observatory, to a baseball game. But we also want to pay attention to the rich, minute-by-minute opportunities we’re given, and creatively transform these moments as well. What this requires—and there are plenty of times when I’m not very good at doing it—is that we take ourselves off of auto-pilot and look at each moment with fresh eyes. And though it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, when we can step back and achieve a certain amount of critical distance from the situation at hand, that’s when we can begin to transform moments. And really, that’s just about the most we can hope for as parents. We can work hard to remain watchful for moments—hundreds of moments, large and small, throughout the day—and transform them, and allow them to transform us and our kids as well.

 

A Parent’s Anti-Bubble-Wrap Manifesto

Bubble-wrap is to protect things that are fragile, to cushion them so they don’t become damaged if they get jostled or banged around.  

Our kids are precious, but they’re not fragile.  They’re not delicate.

When we bubble-wrap them and protect them from any injury, any distress, or any potential challenge, we actually make them more fragile.  We communicate to them, “I don’t think you can handle this, and you need me to shelter you.”   In so doing, we deny them the privilege of the practice of feeling and sitting in discomfort and finding their way out, and of seeing that they are strong and resourceful. 

The more we bubble-wrap our kids, the more fragile they become. 

Want your children to believe that you believe in them?  Want them to be resourceful and resilient?  Want them to be able to develop a sturdy, robust bandwidth for tolerating challenges, and then rise to meet them?  Want them to know that they are not victim to their emotions and their circumstances? 

Then let them feel.  Let them wrestle with indecision, with discomfort, with discouragement and disappointment. 

Our job is not to rescue them from hard things and uncomfortable feelings.  Our job is to walk with them through their difficult moments with connection and empathy, allowing them to feel, allowing them to be active participants in problem-solving, and allowing them to discover the depth of their own capacity. 

It’s out of our deep love for our children that we want to protect them, but their capacity will be greater, their spirit larger, if we allow that love to lead us to our own courage, so that we can feel strong enough to let them discover their own strength.  

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.

Overestimating Your Child's Ability to Deal?

We expect so much of our kids, don't we?  But when we misperceive their ability to handle themselves well, we make things hard on everyone involved. That's the gist of my new article at mom.me:

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I hear it from parents all the time.  They’ll come to my office and say, their voices full of frustration, “He’s capable of handling himself well.  He does it at school and usually at home.  But then there are times he just acts so immature and freaks out.”

Sound familiar?  Does to me, too.  In fact, it sounds just like my kids.

And like these parents, I’ll sometimes take the next, seemingly logical, step and assume that the fact that a child can often make good choices and handle herself well, means that she can always do so.

A father in my office last week described his daughter like this:  “She wants things her way.  And if things don’t go her way, she might lose it; and she could clearly make a better choice.  I know she can deal with stuff well, she just chooses not to.”

Again, this can seem like a logical conclusion.  But is it?  In other words, if a child often, or even usually, handles herself well, does that mean that when she doesn’t do so, she’s being manipulative or somehow choosing to make things hard on her parents so she can get her way?

Let’s apply it to ourselves.  Could someone say something similar about you as a parent?  “She’s capable of parenting well.  She does it lots of places, and usually she handles herself great at home.  But then there are times that she just acts so immature and freaks out.”  I don’t know about you, but if someone said that about me, my only response would be, “Guilty as charged.”

But obviously, you and I don’t have bad parenting moments because we’re intentionally acting belligerent so we can get our way.  Manipulation implies that we are calculating.  But when we mess up with our kids, it’s because the emotions get the best of us and we temporarily don’t act like the kind of parents we want to be.

You see the point I’m making.  Just because we parent well lots of times, doesn’t mean we can parent well all the time.  The way we handle ourselves really depends so much on

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Read the whole article here.

Sharing, Taking Turns, and Other Things That Suck

I don't know about your little ones, but mine didn't exactly come out of the womb wanting to share their toys.  Here are some thoughts on the matter. ----------------

I want it!

Give it back!

It’s mine!

Sound familiar? If you have small children, it does.

And, while on the one hand kids love to share and give—they light up when they give a present, for example—self-sacrifice doesn’t come quite so easily.

If you think about it, sharing is actually a pretty complicated social situation. It requires quite sophisticated thinking and emotional intelligence. It demands that we think ahead, consider another person’s desires, balance our emotions and control our impulses. Most adults sometimes struggle with these skills!

RELATED: 8 Reasons to Be Grateful for Tantrums

Sharing is an awful lot to ask of a little one, particularly when we intrude upon what she’s doing in a given moment. When young children have a hard time taking turns or sharing, it's often because they have difficulty handling their big feelings. They don't yet have the skills to say, "I'm sorry, but I’d rather play with these blocks by myself right now.” So instead, they handle the situation their own way. They throw a fit. They grab. They hit. They cry.

Sharing isn’t usually fun. And it’s not easy to do. But as you know, it’s one of the skills children need to learn. So how do we help them develop the ability to share and take turns?

Here are some suggestions:

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Read the rest of the article at mom.me.

7 Ways to Deal With a Toddler's Tantrum

I have a new post up at mom.me.  It begins like this: ---------------- I recently wrote about why we should be grateful when our little ones throw a tantrum. But aside from understanding that a tantrum is normal and even healthy, what else can we do when we’re actually in this kind of high-stress moment with our kids? I don't believe parents should ignore a tantrum. When children are truly out of control, that’s when they need us the most. We still need to set clear boundaries, but our response should always be full of love, respect and patience.

Here are seven suggestions for dealing with a toddler’s tantrum:

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View the whole gallery here.

8 Reasons to Be Grateful for Tantrums

Here's a new post on Mom.me.  It begins like this: ---------------

Grateful?  Really?

I know what you’re thinking: "File this one under 'You can’t be serious.'”

But I am serious.

Nobody likes a tantrum: not your little one, and certainly not you. But even though we don’t enjoy our kids’ tantrums, there are plenty of reasons to be grateful for the times when they get the most upset.

For example . . .

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Click here to check out the whole piece.

Dos and Don'ts of Being a Sports Parent

I have a new article (with gallery) up at mom.me that focuses on being a sports parent.  It begins like this. ------------

I’m no expert when it comes to sports. I don’t regularly watch ESPN or check the box scores. But as a mom of three boys who want to play every sport that’s in season, I’ve learned a thing or two over the last few years. A lot of what I’ve learned has to do with what we, as parents, can do to support our kids and help them get the most out of their time on the field or court. Having sat in the stands for literally hundreds of games, and considering that I’ve studied my share of child development research, I feel I’ve seen enough to put together the following list of suggestions. They're all based on one basic principle: How your children feel about sports, and about playing sports, often has a great deal to do with how you act while they’re playing.

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Click here to see the whole piece.

Should I Use a Leash on My Child?

As you can see here, I recently made a brief appearance on "Good Morning America."  I was asked to share my opinions on whether or not to use a "leash" on a small child.  Only a minute fraction of what I said ended up in the actual segment, so I wrote up my thoughts in an fuller article.  You can read the whole article at Mom.me (where it's already generating a great deal of discussion).  Here's an excerpt from the piece: --------------

You see it at the mall, at the airport, at Disneyland. A small child wears a monkey backpack, and the monkey’s tail is a tether held by the child’s parent. A leash.

Lots of people react pretty strongly against leashes for children. I even hear the practice described as “inhumane.” When I asked a friend about it, his tongue-in-cheek response was, “That’s how you get them to sit and stay.”

In my opinion, a leash is like so many other parenting tools and techniques. It’s not inherently good or bad. What matters is how it’s used: how it’s presented to the child, how and when the parent uses it, what the child’s temperament is, and why the parent is using it.

For example, I can see why a mother of young triplets might use a leash when she takes them to a crowded store. Or why the dad of an impulsive 2-year-old who has a history of bolting might feel the need to use it in airport security because he’s also attending to a 4-year-old. In fact, I’m not sure that a leash in these cases is all that different from buckling kids into a stroller to keep them contained. And, further, it might be a better alternative to what I’ve seen in parking lots, where I sometimes see a parent yanking a child’s wrist in rough ways.

In other words, I understand that in certain situations, a parent may have tried everything and eventually decided that a leash is the best way to protect her child until the child has a little more capacity for thinking and controlling impulses. Some parents are truly afraid for their child’s safety, and that fear is legitimately based on the child’s past behavior. I’ve talked to many caring parents who decided to use some form of a leash when it became a basic safety issue for their overly impulsive child who was, say, 18- to 36-months-old. And some parents feel that this provides them with a basic security that allows them to be more engaged and playful with their child.

However, all that being said, I do have three main concerns about using a restraining device like a leash.

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Click here to read the rest of the article.

 

 

20 Discipline Mistakes All Moms Make

Some of you have seen my posts about common discipline mistakes even the best parents make.  Mom.me has just posted a re-working of those ideas as a gallery with pictures.  It begins like this: -------------------

Because we’re always parenting our children, it takes real effort to look at our discipline strategies objectively. Good intentions can become less-than-effective habits quickly, and that can leave us operating blindly, disciplining in ways we might not if we thought much about it. Here are some parenting mistakes made by even the best-intentioned, most well-informed moms, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations.

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View the whole gallery here.

 

 

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this lofty goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.

Five Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time Outs

More and more, I find myself questioning time outs as an effective discipline strategy.  I’ve written some about this already, but now I’d like to go into my reasons in a bit more depth. I know lots of loving parents who use time outs as their primary discipline technique.  I’m not saying that time outs are completely unhelpful; more that I don’t think they’re the best alternative we have when it comes to discipline—the goal of which, remember, is to teach.

 

Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time-Outs:

#1.  What we know about the brain. 

Because I know that brain connections are formed from repeated experiences, I don’t want my kids’ repeated experience to be isolation, which they may view as rejection, when they’ve made a mistake.

What I DO want them to repeatedly experience is doing things the right way.  So, instead of a time out, I’ll often ask my kids to practice good behavior.  If they’re being disrespectful in their tone and communication, I might ask them to try it again and say it respectfully.  If they’ve been mean to their brother, I might ask them to find three kind things to do for him before bedtime.  That way, the repeated experience of positive behavior is getting wired in their brain.

 

#2.  False advertising and missed opportunities. 

What’s the point or the goal for a time out?  It’s supposed to be for a child to calm down and reflect on his or her behavior.  In my experience, time outs frequently just make children more angry .  And how often do you think kids use their time out to reflect on their behavior?  I’ve got news for you:  The main thing they’re reflecting on is how mean parents are.

When they’re reflecting on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair parent, they’re missing out on an opportunity to have experiences of building insight, empathy, and problem-solving.  Putting them in time out misses a chance for them to practice being active decision-makers who are empowered to figure things out.  We want to give them practice at being problem-solvers, and at making good choices.  You can do your kids a lot of good by simply asking, “What are you going to do to make it better and solve this problem?”  Given the chance once they’re calm, they’ll usually do the right thing, and learn in the process.

 

#3.  Time outs often aren’t linked to the misbehavior.

Usually, we want to choose consequences that are directly and logically connected to the misbehavior.  Using a broom to whack the TV means the broom is put away until the child can make appropriate choices with it again.  Riding a bike without a helmet means no riding for a few days.

Time outs, though, often don’t relate in any clear way to a child’s bad decision or out-of-control reaction.  As a result, they’re often not as effective in terms of changing behavior.

 

#4.  Time outs are too often used as punishment, as opposed to a teaching tool.

Even when parents have good intentions, time outs are often used inappropriately.  The idea behind time outs is to give kids a chance to calm down and pull themselves together.  Then they can move from their internal chaos into calm.

But much of the time, parents use time outs punitively.  The goal isn’t to help the child return to her calm baseline, but to punish her for some misbehavior.  The calming, teaching aspect of the consequence gets totally lost.

 

#5.  Kids need connection. 

Often, misbehavior is a result of a child inappropriately expressing a need or a big feeling.  She may be hungry or tired, or maybe there’s some other reason she’s incapable in that moment of controlling herself and making a good decision.

Like, maybe she’s three, and her brain isn’t sophisticated enough to say, “Mother dear, I’m feeling frustrated that we’re out of my favorite juice, and I’d like to respectfully request that you put it on your grocery list.”  So instead, doing her best to express her crushing disappointment, she begins throwing toys at you.

It’s during these times that she most needs our comfort and calm presence.  Forcing her to go off and sit by herself can feel like abandonment to the child, especially if she’s feeling out of control already.  It may even send the subtle message that when she isn’t perfect, you don’t want to be near her.

 

Again, if done appropriately with loving connection, such as sitting with the child and talking or comforting – often called a “time-in” – some time to calm down can be helpful for children.  But there are often more nurturing and effective ways to respond to kids than to give them a time out.

 

If I Could Tell You Only One Thing about Discipline

Discipline is a complex and complicated subject.  I could write a whole book about it.  In fact, I’ve already started working on one. But when we talk about effective discipline and how parents can achieve the results they want when they interact with their kids, it can actually be it pretty simple.  If it were a math formula, it would look like this:

 

WARMTH  +  AUTHORITY  =  EFFECTIVE DISCIPLINE

 

The research is really clear on this point.  Kids who achieve the best outcomes in life – emotionally, educationally, and relationally – have parents who raise them with a high degree of warmth and nurturing, or what I like to call emotional responsiveness, as well as a high degree of authority, where clear boundaries are communicated and enforced.  Their parents remain firm and consistent in their boundaries, while still interacting with them in a way that communicates love, respect, and compassion.  Warmth and authority are the two sides of the effective-discipline coin.

 

The first side of the discipline coin:  Warmth

When we nurture our children and attune to their internal world, we allow them to know and believe that they are seen, heard, loved, and approved of by their parents.  Then they’ll interact with the world around them based on that belief, so that their brains are wired to expect that their needs will be met in intimate relationships.  On the other hand, if a parent repeatedly shames and criticizes his or her child, then the child learns that relationships are based on power and control.  He will store up all kinds of negative emotions that will be expressed either externally through bullying and aggression, or internally through depression or anxiety, but either way he’ll be forced to seek bigger and bigger ways to get his needs met.  His brain won’t develop in ways that make it easy to problem-solve and reflect on his experiences; instead, he’ll most likely live his life reacting.  He’ll operate from a primitive reactive brain, instead of a thoughtful proactive brain.

It’s absolutely vital that parents nurture their children and do all that they can to offer them love, compassion, and understanding by consistently meeting their needs, even when the kids are difficult and act out with “bad” behavior.

 

The second side of the discipline coin:  Authority

It’s just as vital, though, that parents remain the authority in their relationship with their children.  Kids need boundaries so they can understand the way the world works, and what’s permissible, versus what crosses a line.  A clear understanding of rules and boundaries helps them achieve success in relationships and other areas of their lives.  Our children need repeated experiences that allow them to develop wiring in their brain that helps them delay gratification, flexibly deal with not getting things their way, and contain urges to react aggressively toward others..  By saying “no” and drawing boundaries for our children, we’ll help them know that rules exist that offer safety and predictability in an otherwise chaotic world.

 

Discipline as a Two-Step Process

Emotional responsiveness plus authority.  They go hand in hand, and when we discipline, we need to communicate both to our children.  You can think of it as a two-step process that can happen in either order.   You provide boundaries in a matter-of-fact tone:  “You know the rule about wearing your helmet, and I’m sorry, but you broke that rule, so now the skateboard can’t be ridden for the rest of the week.”  And, you offer empathy regarding the emotional effect of the consequences:  “I know that my taking your skateboard away makes you really sad.”  You can even combine the two steps with a statement like, “I’m letting you face your consequence because I love you, and it’s my job to teach you about being safe and how to be a responsible person.”

We want our kids to learn that relationships are about respect, nurturing, warmth, consideration, cooperation, and respecting other people.  When we interact with them from a perspective of both warmth and authority – in other words, when we repeatedly pay attention to their internal world, while also holding to standards about their behavior – these are the lessons they’ll learn.

I’ll close by emphasizing the point that was a bit of a revelation to me when I first understood it in relation to my parenting:  It really is possible to be calm and loving, and to connect with our children emotionally, while disciplining them and setting clear boundaries.  I don’t always do it, and neither will you.  But it’s important, and it’s healthy and helpful for everyone involved, when we combine clear and consistent consequences with loving empathy.

 

 

 

 

Common Discipline Mistakes Even the Best Parents Make: Part 1

Because we’re always parenting our children, it takes real effort to look at our discipline strategies objectively. Good intentions can become less-than-effective habits quickly, and that can leave us operating blindly, disciplining in ways we might not if we thought much about it. Here are some parenting mistakes made by even the best-intentioned, most well-informed parents, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations. Common Discipline Mistake #1: We lay down the law in an emotional moment, then realize we’ve overreacted.