Notes on Parenting

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Summer Brain Drain Be Gone: Play is the Key

It's summertime. We are all supposed to be on a more relaxed pace, right? No more homework or science fairs, at least for a few months. But all over the place, you see workbooks for preventing the "summer slide" or online programs to help keep your kids academically ahead for next school year.

None of these things are inherently bad. We do want to keep our kids' minds active over the summer. I have started a bit of "schedule" with my boys so that we consistently get in some reading time and handwriting practice (especially for the burgeoning writer 4-year-old). But I've also committed to simplifying this summer and that means not so much pressure to keep up.

I have written a lot about the value of play-based learning here on the blog (and elsewhere). This has mostly centered around young children (birth-preschool age) but I really do feel this playful learning approach can extend into the elementary years (and perhaps beyond). Summertime is prime time for playful learning. What better time to take an interest that your child has and run with it and see how much they can learn out of it.

In past summers, my sons have been interested in worms, ants, slugs, snails, cowboys, just to name a few. Based on his interests, we have read books on these topics, had ant farms, tadpoles, cowboy museum excursions, etc. This is where real learning takes place, in my opinion.

But, you may ask, what can kids really learn from play? Part of the attraction of academic-based early education is the learning is tangible, not subtle. When a child is working on "drill and kill" worksheets, you can ask them what 2 +2  equals and they can answer. The effects of play-based learning are often more subtle so we adults are not as impressed with them. But that doesn't mean the effects are any less real.

So let's think about a summer day with typical summer activities and look at what your young children are learning (without you even trying).

Breakfast--you ask your older child to help make breakfast for his younger sibling(s). He toasts bread, spreads on some butter, and maybe microwaves some bacon.
Lessons learnedresponsibility, caring, fine motor skills

Outside play--the kids run outside to play. You might try this game with them:

Bounce that Ball

My newly-minted 3rd grader loves math so he actually likes to practice math skills like how to represent and compare data using simple graphs. But with warm weather finally here, who wants to sit inside to practice? Head out to the driveway, ball in hand, for a bouncing challenge. Then use those results to make a colorful graph that lets your child compare his results to those of the challenger (you!)

Even if he wipes the floor with you, don't despair. A rematch gives the loser another shot…plus your child gets another crack at graphing practice.

No Worksheets This Summer? No Problem! Your Kids are Still Learning

What You Do:

1. Have your child bounce a ball in place as many times as she can for one minute. Time him with a watch or timer. Record the number of bounces.

2. Now, it's your turn to bounce the ball. Have your child time you and record the number of bounces.

3. Make a pictograph to show your results. Draw a chart with two rows and two columns. In the first column in the top row, have your child write his name. Write your name underneath his in the first column in the bottom row. Using a marker or crayon, have your child draw a ball for each of his bounces. In the column opposite your name, show your number of bounces in the same way.

4. Discuss the data on the graph. Ask your child what each ball represents. Ask him who had the most bounces. Ask him how he knows this. He may say it's by looking at the graph or by counting. Explain to him that many times you can look at a graph and know which person has the most and which person has the fewest, without even counting!
Disappointed with the results? Demand a rematch! And get in some extra graphing in the bargain...
Lessons learned: eye-hand coordination, counting, cooperation

Lunch--you decide to do a read-aloud while you gather for lunch. Here are just a few that we love (even the 3rd grader likes these):

Harold and the Purple Crayon

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Caps for Sale

We're All Wonders

Lessons learned: reading (of course), quiet listening (this is a hard one in my house), vocabulary, following instructions

Quiet time--if you are like me, an hour or so of quiet time in the house is crucial. Little ones nap, older ones have to entertain themselves
Lessons learned: self-control, boredom (it's a good thing), creativity,

Water play--hot afternoons mean plenty of water play--swimming, sprinklers, slip and slide, etc.
Lessons learned: properties of water (volume, mass), pouring skills (eye-hand coordination),

Pretend--siblings decide they want to dress up like their favorite characters--superheroes, cowboys, police, animals, etc.
Lessons learned: life roles (practice for later), divergent thinking, self-control (to remain in character), imagination

Dinner--you ask the kids to help you prep dinner. Perhaps they can use a kid-safe knife for chopping or they can measure out ingredients.
Lessons learned: measurement, fine motor skills, nature (how veggies grow), healthy eating habits

Bedtime--you read stories before bed with your kids. Perhaps you reflect on the day and ask what was their favorite part.
Lessons learned: reading skills, self-regulation (calming before bed), language (discussion with parents), quiet reflection/self-awareness

In one simple summer day, you have just gifted your kids a day full of learning--no worksheets required. Enjoy summer!

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Friday, May 19, 2017

How Breaking the Attachment Parenting "Rules" Taught Me One of the Best Lessons

I clearly remember sitting in my first mom support group 7 years ago. It was summer in Texas so I was sweating from carrying my son in his car seat into the meeting. I was also sweating because I was nervous.

Would he cry the whole meeting? Did I bring the nursing cover?

I sat down and yes, he immediately started crying. I took him out of the car seat and tried to console him quickly so we wouldn't make a scene.

All the other moms seemed so much more relaxed. I seemed to be the only one with a newborn. This was one of the first times I had taken him out of the house by myself so I was just getting used to the whole procedure--car seat, diaper bag, etc.

Soon I heard the other moms discussing things like babywearing, co-sleeping, and attachment parenting. My mind was swimming. I have a degree in human development, but I was confused. Is attachment parenting the same as attachment theory that I had learned about in my classes?

In my graduate classes, there was no discussion of specific parenting "rules" that made up attachment theory. I just remember it being about trying to be as responsive to your child as possible. Hmm...I'm going to have to look into to this.

I remained listening to the rest of the meeting and became more intimidated. I loved my son dearly, but I didn't really want him in bed with me until he was a toddler. That's what seemed to be the norm among these moms. Is that what I need to do to form a secure attachment with him?

I went home almost in tears and confused. I never returned to that group.

How Breaking the Attachment Parenting "Rules" Taught Me One of the Best Lessons

Attachment Parenting vs. Attachment Theory

Fast forward a few years and I now have a much better understanding of the differences between attachment parenting and attachment theory.

I have written about the distinction between attachment theory and attachment parenting several times, but it is a topic I feel is worth revisiting. The word "attachment" is thrown around in modern parenting circles often, but there is a lot of confusion about what it really entails.

This article explains in depth the research behind attachment theory. In essence, attachment theory is about the relationship that is formed in early months and years between a baby and her primary caregiver. The beautiful thing about attachment theory is that it does not prescribe a set of specific parenting techniques or rules per se. At its core, it is a concept that helps explain the subtle, back-and-forth, dynamic relationship that happens between a baby and a truly responsive parent.

Responsiveness means learning to read your baby's unique signals; not a pre-conceived notion of what a baby needs. All babies have basic needs for closeness, care, feeding, etc. But how your baby expresses each need is unique. Some babies like being worn in a carrier, some like the swaying motion of a swing. Some babies need quiet to sleep well, others can sleep in a noisy room.

In real life, that means that attachment between myself and my child might look a little different than attachment between you and your child. It can even mean that attachment between you and each of your own children might look a little different.

How Breaking the Attachment Parenting "Rules" Taught Me One of the Best Lessons

Tale of Two Attachments

For example, my first son was a snuggler. He loved being worn in a baby carrier, loved laying on my chest, etc. So that's what my husband and I did...all the time. He responded well to this and gradually over time was able to sleep in his crib.

We assumed that our second son would be much the same way--I mean what baby doesn't love snuggles. Well, he was a bit different. Of course, all babies love being close to their parents, but as soon as he could lift his head and squirm just a bit, he pretty much tried to wiggle out of our arms. He occasionally slept on us, but really preferred the swing. He still liked being close to us but needed a bit more space.

Now, does one of my sons have a more secure attachment to us than the other? We have never done the "official" attachment test (there is a laboratory procedure to assess this) but based on their self-regulation and interaction with others, I feel fairly confident that they both have a secure attachment to us.

I do not claim that I have always done everything perfectly in terms of attachment-forming with my kids. But here's the wonderful thing about attachment--it allows room for mistakes and correction. Maybe you misread your baby's signal...she will probably let you know in some way and you can try again. Maybe you were distracted or upset one day and could not be as responsive as you would normally be--you can make up for it the next day. It's the predominate pattern of interaction that really makes up attachment. Does your child feel you can be relied upon most of the time for help, care, and assistance with their needs and emotions?

Attachment is really about guiding your child through emotional regulation. As Diana Divecha describes in her article, "parenting for a secure attachment... is not a prescriptive set of behaviors but more a state of mind, a way of 'being with' the baby, a sensitivity to what they are feeling."

With this in mind, I've ditched the culturally derived "rules" (for attachment and otherwise) and have instead tried to focus on the relationship with my kids. I simply try my best to meet my kids where they are at in a particular phase of development.
  • I included formula in my son's diet (along with breastfeeding) even though "the rules" said it was not recommended. I needed enough sleep to be responsive to my son rather than emotionally checked out.
  • I allowed my son to have a pacifier until he was 2.5 years old--another thing "the rules" did not support. I decided I would rather play with him than battle him over a piece of silly plastic. Note: he ended up throwing it the trash on his own.
  • Both my boys were not completely potty-trained until they were almost 4 years old (much to my chagrin). Ultimately, I had to value our relationship over "the rules" of an arbitrary timeline. Plus, you can lead a toddler to potty, but...(you know the rest).
This is where "rules" fall apart--there are no rules for the dynamic, ever-changing relationship with your kids.

The key idea that attachment theory has taught me in a broader sense is that parenting is more about relationships than rules. If I can keep this in mind, things usually fall into place.

"Life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base." --John Bowlby (co-founder of attachment theory)
More Resources on Attachment Theory:
The Thoughtful Parent posts on Attachment Theory: part 1 and part 2

Diana Divecha's wonderful article: What is Secure Attachment? And Why Doesn't "Attachment Parenting" Get You There?

Another excellent article: Can Attachment Theory Explain All Our Relationships?

This article originally appeared on The Thoughtful Parent. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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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 . 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)

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