Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Are Video Games Ruining Our Children?

There are so many things to worry about as a parent--is my child eating healthily, is he/she developing well, am I letting her watch too much TV, etc. The list could go on for miles. 

In recent years, one topic that has dominated many media headlines is that of the impact of video games on children and teens' behavior. You hear stories of isolated teens who spend most of their time play games and have few friends. These images often portray gamers as socially inept, isolated and sometimes the victim of bullies.


Is there any truth to these images? Are they just stereotypes promoted by the media or are video games really detrimental to our children's well-being?

As with any complex topic like this, there are never easy answers. In this case, however, we do have quite a bit of research from which to pull to help answer these questions.

Luckily, I did not have to dig up all this research myself. Psychologist, Dr. Rachel Kowert, a specialist in video game research, has done the work for me in her new book, A Parent's Guide to Video Games.

I just finished reading the book and it was very helpful in understanding this topic. The book is definitely written with parents in mind. It offers a clear, concise review of the research but in a way that is quick to read and easy to understand the "take away" messages for parents.

The book covers all the main topics that we as parents have questions about regarding video games:
  • Can video games be addictive? 
  • Is there a link between video game play and aggression? 
  • What is the impact of video games on cognitive development? 
  • What is the impact of video games on physical and mental health? 
  • Is there a link between video game play and sexist attitudes? 
  • What are the social outcomes for kids who play video games? 
  • Are there any positive learning outcomes for kids who play video games? 
As with all social science research, video game research is complex and there are often nuanced findings that can be hard to figure out. Additionally, research on this topic is relatively new, given the constantly changing technology and gaming industry. However, Dr. Kowert compiled all the latest research, even those studies that are compilations of others studes (i.e., meta-analyses).

I won't go into all the topics here, however, what parents should know is that the media portrays of isolated, aggressive teens who play video games and become social outcasts is largely a misrepresentation. The research outlined in the book offers little evidence of a relationship between video games and violent behavior, lack of social skills or declines in cognitive skill.
In fact, some video games have the potential to enhance skills like leadership ability (through online cooperation) and problem-solving.

As with any technology, video games have their pros and cons. Some video games have been shown to promote sexist beliefs, at least in the short-term. However, long-term research does not seem to support any changes in attitude over time.

I encourage you to check out A Parent's Guide to Video Games if you want to delve deeper into the effects of video games on kids.

While this issue is important, for me it brings to mind the larger issues at hand. What does it mean for us to be parenting our children in an era so consumed by media and technology?

Dimitri Christakis, a leading researcher in the field, makes the distinction "digital natives" and "digital immigrants." Today's generation of children are considered digital natives because they were born after the influx of modern digital technology (e.g., email, internet, iPhones, etc.) so they have never known a world without these inventions. We (and older generations), on the other hand, are digital immigrants because we only came to experience the internet and related technology as adults. In a sense, it is our role as parents to guide our children through a media landscape that we ourselves did not experience as children.

These "digital native" children are often more adept at the new technology than we are, but one thing we as adults are more skilled at (hopefully) is self-regulation. We know how to regulate our use of technology so that we turn it off if it is distracting us from our task at hand or causing other problems. Children, on the other hand, are not usually very skilled in self-regulation at an early age.
Some would argue that there is nothing wrong with this type of multi-tasking, media immersion. Isn't this type of immersion going to prepare children for the work world they will face in the future? Multi-tasking is the name of the game in the business world, right? While I know that this type of technology multi-tasking is commonplace, I think something is lost in the blur of constant noise (not to mention that research shows multi-tasking to be ineffective).

Regardless of one's religious/spiritual beliefs, I think almost everyone recognizes the need for silence in their lives. Time for reflection, thinking about decisions, beliefs, etc. It is increasingly difficult to find this type of silence in our media-laden world. It has become very difficult to find time to disconnect from all our technological devices long enough to focus on our inner thoughts.

To me, this is the real concern with technology--it acclimates kids at a fast-paced mindset that is just unnecessary at a young age. Soon enough they will be inundated with media images, video games, etc., why not let young kids enjoy the simple, slow pace of childhood.

Just as important, we want our children to find and pursue their interests and passions in life--to find something that they really love to do. I feel it's hard to get in touch with this if you are always connected to some type of media or device and do not allow time for silence.

I can already tell that raising "digital natives" will have its challenges. Finding the balance between using technology for productivity, education, and entertainment without having it consume my children's lives will be difficult at times. Personally, my goal is to help my sons learn to use technology effectively at each age, but also learn how to turn it off and enjoy the silence.

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Scientific Reason Why Yelling Doesn't Work

Have you ever wondered how the emotion used in your voice affects how your kids listen or understand what you tell them? No doubt most of us have had moments where we “lost it” with our kids and raised our voice or yelled at them. This expression of angry or frustrated emotion may have gotten your child’s attention rather quickly, but do moments like this really reinforce their memory of what you say to them?

A recent study of vocal emotion and memory may shed a little light on this topic. Although this topic did not specifically consider emotion in parents’ communication, I think the implications of this study could be applied to parenting situations. 



During the study, participants listened to words spoken in either a neutral or sad tone of voice. Later the participants were asked to recall the words from memory. Interestingly, results of the study showed that people tended to remember words spoken in a neutral tone better than those spoken in a sad tone. Additionally, participants remembered words spoken in a sad tone more negatively than the other words.

This research makes perfect sense based on what we know from previous studies. As most of us know, psychologists have shown that individuals (kids included) have a much harder time remembering things or functioning well cognitively when their brain is flooded by distressing emotions like anxiety or fear. This is why children consistently exposed to stress or trauma have a hard time learning. Scholars studying the impact of poverty on children have found that this emotional stress is a common hindrance to their learning. For children living in poverty, emotions such as fear or anxiety are all too common and they can ultimately interfere with their brain’s ability to process new information effectively.

The interplay between emotion and cognitive functioning may even be more relevant for relationships between young children and their parents. Depending on their temperament, young children may be easily frightened or made anxious by a harsh tone of voice used by a parent whom they normally trust and rely upon.

All parents occasionally lose their temper or raise their voice with their children. What all this research shows us, however, is that the potential anxiety provoked by this tone of voice probably undermines any message you try to get across to your child. When distressing emotions flood the brain, it is very difficult for children (or adults for that matter) to remember and process words or information very effectively. As difficult as it may be, a calm tone of voice may actually help your children remember what you are saying in the long run.

As important as this research is, it is hard to remain calm at times when your kids are pushing your buttons. One thing I have found helpful is to understand the developmental stage that you kids are going through that may be prompting the irritating behavior. Especially with toddlers and young children, their behavior is often a sign of an oncoming developmental change.

Another big step in remaining calm is having reasonable expectations of children's behavior. As one of my favorite child development writers, Janet Lansbury, says,
"During the toddler years, our most reasonable expectation is the unreasonable.  Expecting the madness makes it far easier to keep our cool."
I have found this type of approach to be helpful at older ages as well. Of course, it makes more sense to have different expectations for an elementary-age child, but it is helpful to understand that their behavior may have less to do with you and more to do with them just trying to mature and learn. At times, they may not be trying to intentional irritate you but simply do not yet have the emotional tools to express themselves in a more appropriate way.

These site offer other wonderful tips for dealing with children's behavior in a calm way:

9 Best Ways to Stay Mostly Unruffled with Toddlers
Two-Year-Olds Aren't Terrible; They are Just Learning to be Human?

This post originally appeared on The Thoughtful Parent. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.
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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Play: The Engine that Drives Kids' Problem Solving

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you have probably picked up on the idea that learning through play is really at the heart of early education. Research is continuing to show how toddler, preschoolers (and even early elementary kids) learn best through play, not rigorous academics.



How this really works in our kids' daily lives, however, is often hard to see. As parents, we see our kids playing, but we may not pick up on the learning that's really going on. That's why I think many adults do not value the playful learning approach and why we have seen such a proliferation of "academic" preschools.

Ironically, the connection between play, problem-solving, and learning was really clarified for me after reading an odd combination of articles--piece about early childhood education and a research piece on problem solving. How do these two relate?

Play in Early Education: The Intersection of Knowledge and Sociability

Even young kids have gained knowledge about the world around them (e.g., trucks are vehicles with wheels) and they use that knowledge in play with other kids to test ideas and learn new ideas. For example: Tina and Elliot are playing with vehicles on a ramp. Tina's car is small, Elliot's truck is larger. While rolling the vehicles on the ramp, Tina notices that her car rolls faster and a longer distance than Elliot's large truck. She asks why and they begin talking about reasons why the car would go faster than the truck. With the guidance of a skilled teacher, they learn that the car goes faster because it is smaller and shorter. By interacting with each other, and through the guidance of an adult, the kids learned some new ideas through playing with vehicles.

Problem-Solving: The Engine for Learning

In the example above, how did the learning actually happen? If you look closely you will see that problem-solving is really the key component. The kids had a problem they did not know how to solve--why is one vehicle going faster than another? Research is showing that problem-solving is really the engine for learning in children. Another key point is that problem-solving seems to have less to with raw intelligence, but with the child's ability to interact with others (the social aspect) to use and interpret the knowledge they have towards the completion of a goal.






This article originally appeared on The Thoughtful Parent (reprinted here with permission)
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Friday, December 16, 2016

What To Teach Your Children About Failure



Are you familiar with the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Remember than song about failure? Here's a reminder:

Every bursted bubble has a glory!
Each abysmal failure makes a point!
Every glowing path that goes astray,
Shows you how to find a better way.
So every time you stumble never grumble.
Next time you'll bumble even less!
For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!


Well, it turns out that there's some real research to support this idea of persisting in the face of failure.

If you have a child that is of school age, you have probably encountered issues of how to deal with a situation in which your child has not done as well on a task or event as she/he expected. This situation often rears its head in the form of competition, but it can show up in academic tests or other settings where there is some sort of evaluation made on the child's performance. In short, your child feels like a failure.

None of us like to feel as though we are not good at a task or skill. We all want to be good at everything we try. For children, however, how we help them understand failure can be crucial to their future understanding of their own intelligence and skill.

Growth or Fixed Mindset

Research has told us for awhile now that it is best for us parents to encourage a "growth mindset" in our children. That is, to help them understand that intelligence is not a fixed trait but one that we can grow with practice and diligence. You can see why this mindset would have a significant impact on a child's motivation and persistence. If a child feels that intelligence is a fixed trait and that a person is either "smart or not" then they will have little motivation to persist in a task that is difficult. They will simple feel that they are not "smart enough" to accomplish this task. On the other hand, if a child feels that intelligence is a trait that we can grow through hard work, then they will be more likely to persist in a task, knowing that they have a chance of success if they persist.

Okay, that's great to know, but how do we instill a growth mindset in our children? Further research has shown that parents do not typically pass on their mindsets about intelligence to their children.

Failure is Not all Bad

So how do kids learn either a "growth" or "fixed" mindset about intelligence? It seems they learn it from a much less obvious force in their lives--failure. More specifically, they learn their mindset from how we parents react to their failure.

A recent study showed that if parents view their child's failure as a negative event, then the child is more likely to adopt a "fixed" mindset of intelligence. Ultimately, the child comes to see that the parents are concerned more with performance than learning.

In contrast, if parents view their child's failure as an opportunity for learning and understanding how to improve, the child is more likely to adopt a growth mindset.

We All Fail Sometimes

As parents, it is hard to see our kids not succeed at something. I think it hurts us sometimes as much as it hurts them. Helping them see how failure is all part of the learning process, however, is key to them learning to persist in the face of discouragement.

I have faced this issue recently with my 6-year-old son who is learning to play chess. He's just starting so he is not as good as some of his friends at school. He is very competitive and wants to win so badly. I have actually heard him say things like, "I am just no good at chess" or "I never win at anything." I knew I had to intervene before that "fixed" mindset took hold in his mind. I started a discussion with him of how we have to persist to learn a new skill, etc. I think some of my words sunk in with him, but now that I know this research, I have a better idea how to address this issue in the future.

As always, our kids learn more by our actions than through our words. This research clearly shows that children pick up and internalize our feelings about failure and its role in our life. With my son, I pointed out several examples in my own life when I failed at something and what I learned from it and was able to move on in a more productive way. I think he understood, but it's an ongoing process of helping our children respond to the challenges they face in life.

In our ultra-competitive world where status and success seem like the ultimate goal in life, it's just as important to learn how to fail with grace.


Lyrics credit




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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Parents Grow, Too




We parents sometimes seem to get over-occupied with monitoring our children’s inches and ounces while guiding their steps in the social, emotional,  linguistic, cognitive and whatever-else department. Our efforts to safeguard our offspring’s steady growth in all areas may be so much on our minds that we forget that we, their parents, grow too.

Eight stages


Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson proposes a sequence of eight stages from infancy to adulthood (1). In his theory, successful completion of each stage results in the acquisition of a basic virtue, going from hope, will, purpose, competency, fidelity (infancy through adolescence) all the way to love, care and wisdom (young adult through maturity).

So there you have it! Even though, to us parents, young adulthood might seem the end station of our children’s growth, development goes on after that. Life does not stop challenging us when we reach our twenties. As we move from young adulthood to middle age and beyond there are more stages of growth to go through.

Overlapping development


Now comes the interesting part for us, parents: our kids’ and our own development overlap. While our offspring is moving through the first five stages of life, we, their parents, move through stages six and seven. And it is these two stages that we are looking at here. These two stages, six and seven, invite us to acquire the virtues of love and care.

Could it be that life has arranged all this such that, while we help our kids grow, they are in fact helping us grow, too? Whether this circumstance was by design or not, fact is that it works out that way and being aware of the overlap can be a tremendous boost in your parental coping capabilities.

A Knife Buttered on Both Sides


Consider the wakeful hours in the middle of the night when you nurse your baby or comfort your crying toddler, cradling her back to sleep. Rather than feeling sorry for yourself for having missed precious sleep and rest, you can now know that in meeting the challenges that presented themselves to you at these untimely hours, you have contributed substantially to the development of your child (who is engaged in the process of acquiring hope and will) as well as to your own development. Each nightly episode met with patience and forbearance builds towards the acquisition of love and care, virtues life is inviting you to explore and experience at this stage in your life.

Consider the after-school activities your child may be involved in, and the carpooling that is often part of that scene. When it is your turn to be the driver and kids are piling up in your car, life is presenting you with a knife buttered on both sides: while guiding your child and its peers in their efforts to acquire competency, you yourself are in the best possible position to explore, practice and experience tolerance and harmony, qualities that are building the virtue of care you are in the process of acquiring.
 

Stretching and Growing


I challenge you to think of other instances where child rearing situations are stretching each and every capability you as a parent and a person have developed so far. Chances are that exactly on that spot, the spot where you feel something is cutting into you, you will find the knife buttered on both sides, allowing both you and your kids to reap the benefits.



See also the blogpost "Parenting and Spiritual Growth", posted on this blog.

(1) McLeod, S. A. (2013). Erik Erikson. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html . As with most theories in any subject you will find those that are supportive and those that critical. Most will agree though, that Erikson’s system of eight stages is a tool, providing a framework within which to consider human development.



This blogpost appeared simultaneously on the author’s personal blog “My Kids Grow and So Do I”.

Pictures from the family album: my grandniece Nora.






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Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Dory and Nemo Can Teach Us About Parenting



My boys (ages 3 and 7) are finally old enough to (mostly) sit through a movie in an actually theater (imagine that!). I took advantage of that feat this summer and we enjoyed a couple of kid movies during those long, hot afternoons. Like millions of others, we went to see Finding Dory.

At first glance, it appeared to be just another fun movie about fish on an adventure. However, later as I thought more about the movie I realized it actually illustrated some interesting parenting issues. As I discuss this, some spoilers might slip out, so take note if you haven't seen the movie.

In this latest adventure, Dory is still friends with Nemo and his dad Marlin. Early in the movie she realizes that she really wants to find her parents who she long-ago got separated from. You may remember from the first movie that Dory suffers from short-term memory loss. So most of the movie involves Dory trying to find her long-lost parents with the help of Nemo and Marlin. During the process, there are numerous flash-back scenes to the story of how Dory came to be friends with Nemo and Marlin.

Here's where it gets interesting from a parenting perspective--Dory and Nemo, as you may remember, both have physical challenges. Nemo has one fin that is smaller than the other, while Dory has short-term memory loss. What we see throughout the movie is how each of their parents handle their challenges in very different ways.

We learn from the flashbacks that Dory's parents realized her challenges with memory at a young age. They talked to her about her memory loss and explained with much repetition (as necessary with memory loss) and were very patient with her.

Nemo's dad Marlin handled his son's physical challenge in a very different way. In the movie he tends to be very overprotective and wanting to limit Nemo's activities and not let him go far from home.

What struck me about these two different fish families is that we can easily see ourselves in each of these scenarios. Regardless of whether our children have any apparent challenges or disabilities, we all at times have probably taken on the role of Dory's parents or Nemo's dad. 

What is even more revealing is how each of the "children" (Nemo and Dory) respond to the different parenting strategies. With the guidance of her very patient parents, Dory is able to learn to explore on her own and develops ways to find her way back home. Her parents give her tools and strategies like songs and sea shell trails to help her do things independently. They know they might not always physically be with her, but their voice becomes the mantra in her head to guide her home. Instead of limiting her, they give her the skills she needs to be brave and explore.

Nemo, on the other hand, has a very different response from Marlin's overprotective nature. He rebels. He feels that his dad is limiting him and his exploration. He knows he has a physical challenge but he doesn't want it to limit his abilities. Instead of listening to his dad, he simply rebels to the point of taking dangerous risks (e.g., touching a boat and getting captured). In other words, his dad's over-protection stifles him.

What can we learn about our own parenting from these two scenarios? Although it is just a movie, I think it portrays somewhat realistic situations. Being the child development geek that I am, I always return to the research. Is there research that can inform us about these two different parenting strategies?

Dory's parents took what I would call an authoritative parenting approach. Authoritative parents provide age-appropriate limits and guidelines but are not overly intrusive. They offer a balance of both responsiveness and control. Research dating back to the 1960's consistently shows that this approach (which is easier said than done) is most likely to give children the best chance at being psychologically well-adjusted. One of the most compelling aspects of this approach is that parents change as the child develops. They gradually give the child more autonomy and allow appropriate risk-taking as the child meets growing challenges and decisions. This is what gives children, like Dory, confidence. A real, lasting confidence that cannot be easily shaken.

Nemo's dad, in contrast, is what I would call a helicopter parent. Of course, given his history of trauma, it's not surprising that he took this approach. We know from research looking at recent generations of young adults, that this helicopter approach does not really serve our kids well. If they don't rebel, like Nemo, then they often reach college-age lacking the resourcefulness and grit to face tough decisions and challenges. As child psychologists describe it, the parents have become a "crutch" for the child.

There is a neurological basis for this too. When young children face challenges on their own, their brain actually becomes more complex and more neural connections form. One researcher describes it this way,
"As children explore their environment by themselves—making decisions, taking chances, coping with any attendant anxiety or frustration—their neurological equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated. Dendrites sprout. Synapses form. If, on the other hand, children are protected from such trial-and-error learning, their nervous systems “literally shrink.”
In reality, we've all had times when we were more like Marlin with our kids and other times when we took the approach of Dory's parents. It is good, however, to be aware of these different approaches and the impact they may have on our children's development.

Just keep swimming...







This post originally appeared on The Thoughtful Parent (re-posted here with permission)

Photo credit




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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Giving Kids Choices: The Parent's Guide


If you are the parent of a young child you know that choices make up a big part of your parenting vocabulary on a daily basis. All the parenting “advice” out there says to offer your toddlers a choice between two options to help them feel empowered and perhaps prevent some meltdowns. For example, you might say, “Sally, would you like to wear the purple socks or the white socks?” This, of course, is a method to prevent the unheard third option of the child refusing to wear socks at all.

I do this often with my kids and it does work…most of the time. Over the years, however, I have learned that offering choices to my kids can sometimes backfire. They get used to the idea that they have a lot of input into how we will progress through the course of the day. As adults, we know that this does not always work. Sometimes we have to go to the grocery store or the doctor’s office and there is no choice in the matter.

This caused me to wonder if having too many choices can actually be paralyzing to kids. We have all had the experience of going to a shoe store or clothing store and tried to pick out items for our child. If you have your young child with you and give them some input in the choices, you know this can go downhill fast. The thought of getting something new coupled with a dizzying array of choices can cause many kids to meltdown quickly. In our affluent society, there are so many choices of things like clothes and shoes that kids are simply overwhelmed.

This idea came to mind as I was listening to a podcast the other day and it was all about the science of choice. Not something we think of too often. After years of studying how people make choices and how their choices affect their happiness, psychologists have found one thing to be clear—people are actually happier when they have less freedom to change their choice.

Researchers conducted a study in which photography students were told, after working for months on their photographs, that they could only pick one to take home and one to leave at the school. One group was told that they could switch the one they took home at any time. Another group was told their choice was final—they could not switch which photo they took home and which they left. What the researchers found was that the group who had to make an irrevocable choice were actually happier with their choice months later.

Why is this? Psychologist think that it is because we rationalize the choice we make when we know it is final. On the other hand, if we have in the back of our minds that we can switch our choice, we always doubt whether we made the right one.

It seems counterintuitive but I think there is a kernel of truth in this that can help us with parenting young children too. Choices are good, but they must also have boundaries attached to them. Young children do need to feel empowered to choose, but the choices must be limited in some way. Given too many choices, young children go from feeling empowered to feeling out of control.

To my mind, this is the essence of authoritative parenting. Children are given choices, at the right developmentally appropriate time and within certain boundaries. As children grow, authoritative parents provide increasing chances for kids to test their decision-making skills, but the parents are always there to provide the firm boundary beyond which the child cannot go. It’s no surprise that authoritative parenting is what in research is associated with the best outcomes for kids.

Authoritative parents provide some choices, but the choices are limited based on what is best for the child at a certain age. For example, they may allow an older child the choice to walk to a neighborhood park or a neighbor friend’s house, but they may not leave the neighborhood to go anywhere else. This gives the child some sense of empowerment, but firm boundaries on what the expected behavior will be. If the boundaries are crossed, then the opportunity to make choices goes away and the child stays at home.

Sometimes psychology seems like common sense, but other times the research conducted in labs actually reveals something that is counterintuitive, but that can really help us in our daily lives. This research on choice really helps us understand that for both kids and adults choices can be good, but certain boundaries on them can actually be helpful.

This post originally appeared on The Thoughtful Parent blog





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Monday, September 26, 2016

When Tragedy Strikes What do we tell our Children?

by: Dyan Eybergen
In light of the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 it proves prudent to address what to tell our children in the wake of disaster. When tragedy strikes, such as recent mass shootings, it’s important to keep a balance by letting children know that there are people on this earth who make very bad decisions for reasons we can't always understand, especially when those decisions hurt others; but we also need to emphasize that there are still a lot of caring and peaceful people in the world too. In incidences such as this, highlight the heroic stories for our children; talk about the people who were there to help – who went above and beyond for humanity. Tell stories of compassion and empathy –make those people the focal point of any tragedy.

It may not be realistic to think that we can shield our children from all the images of such devastation. Pictures are everywhere and kids today are so technologically savvy in accessing information. Let kids know that it is okay to talk about their feelings and that it is normal for them to be upset. Be available to them when they need to ask questions. Listen intently and answer with sensitivity, modeling emotional strength. Do be careful how you talk about the event – try not to sensationalize it with gory details. Take in to account your child's age and stage of development. Only tell them information that they are cognitively able to understand. Give your children extra hugs and reassure their safety. When things happen of this magnitude it can skew are interpretation of how safe our world is.
Take this opportunity to provoke empathy and do something positive to promote kindness – in spite of these tragic events. When we are empathetic we do not invite or participate in violence. Get involved as a family to do something for the people of enduring any tragedy; pray together for them; collect and donate money to send to victim’s families; write letters of appreciation to those who helped; get involved with other organizations to promote peace in the world. These acts will help empower children to take a stand against violence. We need to teach children that if they want to make a statement about something violence is never the answer.
Keep in perspective that random acts of violence at schools, concerts or sporting events are not about the events themselves. Take the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013 for instance; that marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon dating back to 1896. For 116 years the Boston Marathon was safe! And for the last 3 years it has proven to be safe once again. 

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