December 21, 2009

The "Real" World

Parents are often concerned that if they, a teacher, or an environment is atypically supportive, it will harm the child’s ability to “make it in the real world.” An example might be a classroom environment where children who struggle with organizing their belongings and assignments at the end of the day are given help doing so. Or, a class where a student is encouraged to finish a project rather than being given consequences for completing it late. These themes of task and time management are only two of the skills that our kids need to learn by the time they are independent adults. Coping with competition and disappointment and developing an accurate sense of one’s own strengths and weaknesses are others. The question parents ask is: “How will my child learn if not through exposure to the harsh reality of the adult world?”

Our fears and worries drive these concerns. It is as if we envision our child at age 25 as being no different from our 10 year-old, despite our acknowledgment that change will undoubtedly occur. What is critical is that our children are given time to mature, time to develop the skills that will enable them to manage time and tasks successfully. Telling them that they are “irresponsible” is not a method of promoting responsibility. It is an indictment of their moral character.

Today’s elementary students are being asked to function as middle-schoolers were only a generation ago. Evolution doesn’t happen that fast; the demands on our kids have outpaced what is developmentally appropriate for many. Skills are not acquired through critique from the “real” world. In fact, expecting children to achieve what they cannot yet do results in a drop in both motivation and self-esteem. Kids become discouraged if, despite their efforts, they cannot meet expectations. They become hopeless and even less likely to try to meet demands.

The path to helping them develop the skills needed for the real world is to meet them where they are and encourage their growth. The challenges need to be ones that they can, with effort, handle successfully. This serves to increase their motivation and their sense of confidence. It is this belief in one’s ability to handle challenges and the motivation to do so that, in turn, propel growth in one’s skills. Only when kids have time to mature and space to develop confidence and skills will they be equipped to face the challenges of the adult, “real” world.

(Readers can post comments with name only. No URL needed.)

November 11, 2009

The Lure of the Screen

Imagine parents lamenting the amount of time their children were sitting in front of an entertaining screen. Only it was 40 years ago, and the screen was that of a television -- perhaps a black and white one at that. Chances are, there was only one in the house. Programs typically ran 30-60 minutes and could be turned off without cutting you or your children off from contact with friends, work, or school.

Fast forward to today. Text messages and Facebook messages arrive almost constantly. Kids communicate with friends almost entirely on screens. We feel lost when the Internet is unavailable, and kids often need it for school. It's immeasurably harder to separate our lives from screens. While I've heard some making a comparison between the lure of the screen and the alcoholic's need for a drink, it is easier to eliminate alcohol from one's home. I equate the struggle to that of a compulsive overeater. These days, screens are as ubiquitous as food, and we need both to do our jobs. Don't forget, though, you can binge on healthy food too.

What's a parent to do in the face of these challenges? With young children, we have more control. While educational computer games for the preschool set abound, it is important to limit the time spent on them. Better to teach a child to read with actual books. Better to teach about numbers with physical objects. Not that kids will learn faster this way. In fact, the flashier computer games probably offer more immediate gratification. But, if we don't expose them at early ages to how enthralling learning and life away from the screen can be, it will be infinitely harder to engage them later on. Read to them. Sing to them. Dance with them. Play with them outside -- not on the Wii fit. Help them find something they love, and then spark their curiosity. It will be much easier to limit screen time at age eight if they've developed interests (even fleeting ones) at age four.

For any age group, we need to model what we expect of them. As Michael Osit writes in Generation Text, it is important that our kids see us engaging with them and with each other. Such conscious parenting requires that we monitor our own screen use. If we pull out a Blackberry in the middle of a conversation, use our cell phone while driving, look at our cell phones every time we hear that a text has arrived, and always have the computer on, we are demonstrating that these devices are indispensable and merit more attention than the people around us. Kids need to see that we enjoy activities away from screens. Just as we want ten year-olds to spend time together without being in front of a screen together, so, too, do we need our kids to see us visiting face-to-face with friends, engaged in conversation or joint activities. They need to see us relaxing, reading, talking and thinking away from the constant stimulation of the computer and cell phone. Peggy Orenstein's description the Internet in her October 28, 2009 NY Times column The Way We Live Now ("Stop Your Search Engines") is apt. She wrote: "as alluring as we can find the perpetual pursuit of little thoughts, the net result may only be to prevent us from forming the big ones."

Even teenagers might take a brief walk with you and the dog on a beautiful afternoon. Perhaps you might even have a few minutes to enjoy the colors of the fall leaves together, or even have a conversation. You can probably persuade them to leave the cell phone at home for a short while. Just make sure that you leave yours behind too!

(Readers can post comments with name only. No URL needed.)

October 11, 2009

Starting the School Year – Life in Transition

Starting the School Year – Life in Transition

We’ve all experienced it – the abrupt transition from the leisurely pace of late August, with few demands on students to the hectic life of early September mornings, homework load and after-school sports and activities.

Suddenly, students are getting less sleep, have less time to unwind and are being told by teachers all the negative consequences of slacking off. Parents feel the need to impress upon their children the importance of beginning the year on a good note and the value of creating a positive impression with teachers. We feel responsible for making sure that our children establish good work habits at home from the start.

Surprise! Children begin to exhibit behaviors characteristic of their younger selves. Parents’ frustration erupts. A 7 year-old wants to sleep in her parents’ bed. A 15 year-old has meltdowns when returning from school.

As parents, we may feel compelled to jump onto the hamster wheel and become another force for the abrupt change in rhythm. Whether it is during this transition or the next, there are a few things that are worth remembering:

No matter how old our kids are, home serves as a refuge. Let your child know that you understand how hard it is to shift into school mode. Be willing to listen to challenges and complaints without trying to fix or correct your child’s perceptions. Instead, if need be, offer them possibilities for alternatives or solutions. Ask them to keep an open mind and listen to your input. If they are older, make it clear that the decisions are theirs.

Ask them about their goals for the school year and talk about how you can support their reaching those goals. Otherwise, the unfinished homework becomes more the parents’ concern than the child’s. As they mature, help them advocate for themselves when appropriate.

Remember that, in the big picture, your relationship is more important than the particular issue at hand. Only in the context of a positive relationship can we continue to have an impact and influence our children’s views and behavior. If most of our input feels critical to them, they will tune it out no matter how much wisdom it contains. They can’t hear us if they aren’t listening.

(Readers can post comments with name only. No URL needed.)


Consequences … something you’re supposed to give as a good parent. From time-out in preschool to taking away computer time, cell phones or car keys later on, consequences are a staple of parenting. Sometimes, they can be quite effective. Yet, often they don’t seem to do a thing. Here’s why: Kids with learning differences or attention deficits have difficulty applying prior learning to current situations. The lesson you tried to teach your child yesterday by giving a consequence may not be in his/her mind today when you want him/her to apply it. This is especially true if the child is emotional stirred up. (And what potential conflict situation doesn’t leave both parent and child in a state less than serene?)

As Ross Greene discusses in The Explosive Child, kids who may be prone to reacting impulsively may literally feel as if they never made a decision to act in the way they did. It’s as if the behavior happens before they ever register an intention to act. They really may not have meant to do it or may not even realize that they did despite the evidence. So, when a parent gets angry in response, the child feels unjustly criticized. Sometimes, the child may act without thinking through all the implications of their statement or action: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” They didn’t intend it to be a problem, so why should they be given a consequence? Instead of absorbing the lesson of the consequence, they feel misunderstood, blamed and angry. In these situations, the consequence does not lead the child to reflect on the misdeed at all.

The alternative is to avoid the cycle of blame, anger and self-defense. If feedback is given in a non-critical way, the child may still be open to taking it in. Sometimes, all that requires is the parent saying: “Did you mean to say …?” Or: “Did you just mean to…?” “Let’s try that again.” Or: “Do you realize how that just came across?” When given a chance to save face and be given the benefit of the doubt, a child may be motivated to pause, reflect and attempt to correct their own behavior. And, you may save the wear and tear on your relationship at the same time.

(Readers can post comments with name only. No URL needed.)

July 18, 2009

Talented Kids: Are we obliged to help them produce?

The pressure on parents to have their kids produce is enormous. Even middle-schoolers are now worried about college. Whether it’s due to our competitive, “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality or parental anxiety about building a child’s resume, the stress is making it difficult for parents to feel at ease about letting their children develop and achieve at their own pace.

The seven year-old girl with acting talent won’t hurt her future career if she isn’t enrolled in a formal Broadway-bound class. The nine year-old boy who loves to play guitar may still become an inspired, diligent musician even if he doesn’t want to practice technical drills. The eleven year-old creative writer is no less likely to be proficient if she wants to write “for fun” and isn’t interested in getting critique to help her revise first drafts.

In fact, it may well be the premature regimenting of such children’s passions that can squelch their enthusiasm. The young actress may still want to pretend and create scenarios when inspiration strikes her rather than follow the structure of a class. The young musician may not yet have the internal motivation to undertake formal training. And, the young writer may not yet have the self-confidence or maturity to accept constructive feedback.

While some parental cajoling has its place, the impetus to produce or achieve in these ways needs to come from the child. Parents can encourage their kids to stretch their comfort zones a bit, but ultimately, it is important to follow the child’s lead. While training for the Olympics does have a more demanding time frame, most of our children’s pursuits are not subject to it.

Children have less and less time to develop their own interests at their own pace and in their own way. As author Mel Levine discusses in Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, if the primary focus becomes building the impressive resume, high-achieving adolescents may end up with little idea of their own passions, strengths and weaknesses. Yet, it is precisely this self-awareness that will be crucial to both their success and satisfaction in life.

So, let the seven year-old pretend, the nine-year old strum and the eleven year-old write her stories. Sometimes being a supportive parent means just letting them be.

(Readers can post comments with name only. No URL needed.)