Notes on Parenting

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

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. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Subtle Beauty of Child Development

There is has been a lot of talk in the media about rigorous, academic preschools meant to ensure a child’s future academic (if not career) success. First, there was the story of the woman in New York who sued a preschool when she felt it did not adequately prepare her daughter for a high-stakes intelligence test required to enter a competitive private school. She claimed the preschool was not a school, but simply a big “playroom.” 

Then there was the article in the New York Times about Kumon and other tutoring companies catering to younger clientele (as young as 2). This prompted what I felt was a very thoughtful piece by Ellen Galinsky who offered a more middle-of-the road approach to young children’s education. She aptly points out that while children do learn skills from the Kumon-style approach, the key component is not so much the flashcards and puzzles, but the presence of an engaged adult who is eager to teach and learn. In the case of Kumon, this adult happens to be a “teacher” rather than a parent. Do parents feel inadequate to be a teacher/guide/observer with their child? Or are they simply to busy to take on this role and find it easier to hand it over to the tutoring businesses?

Here’s what we know from a research perspective: play is crucial to preschool-aged children. The playground is the “testing ground” for not only the academic skills they will need later, but perhaps more importantly, the social skills they will need to succeed in school and in life. More and more research is showing how children who lack social skills often fail to thrive in school, even though they are academically capable, because the social aspect is so important. Why is this? 

Because interaction with peers is one of the ways children learn not only learn how to “play nice” but it is how they learn to control their own emotions and behavior. This self-control, in turn, is one of the best predictors of academic and career success. In fact, some studies have shown that training in social and emotional skills is as beneficial as academic training in helping students who are struggling in school. Furthermore, developmental scientists will tell you that young children learn concepts of math, sciences, and language better in a play-based setting than a “drill-and-kill” rote learning setting offered by many “academic” preschools, due in large part to the social interaction that is involved in play-based learning.

Beyond the research, however, is the question of why? Why do many parents feel the need or pressure to enroll their young children in such academically rigorous preschools? Although a lack of understanding of child development may be part of the issue, I think other factors must be at play. One issue may be the recent economic decline. Has the economic downturn of recent years made parents so fearful of their children’s career future that they are resorting to academic preschools out of fear? This may be part of the motivation for many parents.

Additionally, I do feel that we have lost some understanding of subtlety in this country. By that I mean that there seems to be an emphasis on direct results, black-and-white answers, etc. The interesting thing about child development is that it is subtle in so many ways. If you watch a child carefully over the course of many months (if not years) you will see them gradually learn concepts, language, ideas, but you have to watch closely. You will not see quick results overnight with most aspects of child development. I think this is why play-based preschools are not as attractive to many parents, especially those parents that are the results-oriented, pressure-driven type. 

Over the course of time, a child will learn about concepts of volume, fractions, and density while playing with water and sand on the playground. This type of learning, however, is much more subtle than a child being able to recite some flashcards that they reviewed for a week straight. A child in a play-based preschool may not be able to tell you straight out that 2 + 2 = 4, but I imagine if you asked them to pick up 4 balls, they would know what to do. I admit that seeing a child recite answers to questions that you’ve reviewed with them is somewhat gratifying to us as adults, but is the other, more subtle type of learning any less valuable?

Although my son is only 2 years old, I have already seen evidence of this difference in learning. Lately I’ve been working with him on learning colors. I’ll point out things at the store and name their color or mention the colors of animals, etc. Now, if I straight out ask him what color an object is, he will inevitably get it wrong. However, if he wants an object and is pointing to it and asking for it, he will almost always call it the correct color (“blue one”). There is something to be said for a child’s intrinsic motivation to learn what important to them, not necessarily what’s important to us.

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Friday, September 2, 2016

How To Survive Toddlers

My daughter is approaching age two and we're experiencing all the fun things like everything being colored on, negotiating everything, constant messes, feeling like you don't have a life because no one wants to be around them, etc. 

It's going to be hard no matter what, but here are some things that might help.

1.  Don't tell yourself, "That Sharpie is fine being right there within reach because she doesn't know how to take the lid off."  Eventually there is a first time.

2.  Don't tell yourself, "I can set this object on this piece of furniture because she's not tall enough to reach that."

3.  Childproof stuff long before they are able to reach something, open it, climb on it, etc.  By the time their skills increase, baby proofing is so much harder because you have to stop what you're doing repeatedly to prevent them from wreaking havoc.

4.  Train your older children. Train train train!  They have to learn how to put away crayons, markers, scissors, etc. or your place is toast!  My 8-year-old doesn't put her coloring stuff away, so we're working on this.  Our house is looking quite colorful at the moment.

5.  Stock up on magic erasers before the messes happen.  They're easier to remove right after they happen.

6.  Always have carpet cleaner.  Do you want to go to the store in the middle of the night? No.

7.  If you're dumb enough to take a toddler to a movie and they act (predictably) horrible, ask the manager for a readmission pass so you can come by yourself next time and watch something you're actually interested in.  I'm not sure if Dory ever found her parents.  Don't care.  Reality is, my kids will want the movie for Christmas or something and I'll watch it way more times than I want to anyway. 
8.  Grandma and Grandpa = sanity.  Make use of them, especially when they offer.  They still think your toddler is cute even when you don't. 

9.  When a stranger is being intolerant of your toddler's good-for-them behavior, show them their awful behavior so they can feel stupid for "helping".  For example, if your high schooler has a choir concert and your toddler is walking around making quiet happy noises and some guy walks up to you and asks if you could stop her from walking around, which you're letting her do to prevent the most awful sounds in the world, definitely pick up your toddler and allow them to scream like a banshee.  Look at the stranger like, "You're welcome jerkface.  Next time you may pay for my babysitter if it's such a problem that I'm ruining the atmosphere of the school cafeteria."

10. Snacks.  Have snacks everywhere you go.  Even if snacks aren't allowed, bring them anyway.  No one wants to listen to their tantrums.  I always feel foolish when I forget snacks and some stranger calms my child down with their snacks. 

This week has been full of mom fails.  Sharpies were involved.  Well, every writing utensil really. Have you had any toddler disasters recently? 

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Day Dreaming" Among Students May Not Be All Bad

As school begins across the country, you may remember back on your own days as a student. I bet many of us recall sitting in class and our mind began to wander or "day dream." Or maybe it wasn't you, but a classmate you (or the teacher) could tell was "day dreaming" and not focused on the task at hand. Well, at the time, this may have garnered some disapproving looks from the teacher, but it turns out that a certain amout of "day dreaming" can be quite useful for the brain.

In recent years, researchers have begun to look into what the brain does during these times of "day dreaming" or what they call "inward attention." They are beginning to see how time spent focused inward may actually help students focus better on outward tasks. Some research has shown that when times of inward reflection were incorporated into the school day, students often became less anxious, performed better on tests, and were able to plan more effectively.

This makes so much sense to me. In our fast-paced, over-stimulating world, it is becoming rare to have a moment of inward reflection. To find this time, you really do have to plan it into your day. For someone with a more introverted personality, such as myself, I find this "down time" to be crucial to my mental health and well-being. I think the same must be true for children. Children are learning and absorbing information almost constantly, especially at school. It's great to be able to allow them some time to just day dream or let their mind wander without having to worry about the end product. I have noticed this even with my 3-year-old. After playing for awhile, he will often just lay down and drink something or hold a toy, seemingly "doing nothing." After a few minutes, however, he will perk up and say something clever or begin playing in a new way. It seems that, given the opportunity, kids will carve out this "day dreaming" time for themselves.

We all know the importance of children learning to focus their attention on outward tasks. In fact, this is one of the key skills of childhood. Focus and attention are consistently linked to all sorts of positive outcomes for kids. An inward focus, however, may be equally important for children to develop intellectually, as well as socially and morally.

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Friday, August 5, 2016

Making Exceptions To Your Parental Rules

Parenting is hard.  I like to teach my children to take responsibility for their own actions as much as possible, but once in a while I find it necessary to break that rule.  My son was supposed to go to High Adventure on Thursday morning.  Throughout the day on Wednesday I asked, "Shouldn't you be packing?  Do you want your list?" 

He wasn't making a big deal out of it at all.  Packing would be easy, he thought, so he waited until bedtime.  That's when he discovered that his backpack that his brother borrowed weeks ago had old macaroni and cheese spilled in the bottom of it.  It smelled terrible and he knew if he woke me up to complain at the last minute that his backpack smelled like vomit and he didn't have another one to use, I would be extremely unhappy with him.

I woke up the next morning thinking I was going to drive him to their meeting location and he was in his jammies.  "You're not going?!" I exclaimed.  We had paid for this trip.  I filled out all necessary annoying forms.  And the mac and cheese excuse was beyond ridiculous to me.  Now I was going to have him home for the next two days and he was going to have no privileges.  Not a fun time for any of us. 

A friend had asked if he was coming because the boys were supposed to come over and pick up their meals.  I told her about the situation and that no, he wasn't going after all.

That's when his Scout leader showed up at our door.  In most situations, I would have said, "Thank you very much, but he wasn't responsible and will not be able to join you", but I felt like my son needed to bond with these boys and have the experience.  His leader said, "I have an extra backpack you can borrow!"  My friend who had all of the camping meals drove them over to our house. 

They all left an hour late because of my son.  How annoying that must have been.  At the same time, it was a sweet example of going after the one and making him feel loved and accepted.  I even found myself making sandwiches for him so he wouldn't be hungry, which is so not my style when it comes to natural consequences.

Just a couple months ago, two of my other boys were supposed to go on a campout with a hike and neither of them brought a water bottle after I told them to wash them out.  One leader said, "Oh, we brought extra water."  I said, "No, they deliberately ignored me, so they can stay home."  They were furious with me, but that's what felt right in that scenario. 

Tell me about some times you made exceptions to your rules! 

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Princess Culture and Gender Stereotypes

research study about Disney princesses? Now this is research we can really use in our daily lives as parents. As a mom of boys, I have secretly been relieved that I didn't have to go through the "princess phase." But wait! This research discusses boys too. Let's take a closer look.

The study involved 198 preschool-age children and examined their exposure to Disney princess media and toys. The researchers then considered if there was a relationship between exposure to Disney princess items and gender-stereotyped behavior.

If you have a daughter of preschool age, this is probably the study you have been waiting for for years. I think most of us parents have wondered if all the princess-saturated media and toys actually have an impact on kids, particularly girls.

From this study, it looks like the princess culture does seem to have some impact on girls and boys behavior. The more girls and boys interacted with princesses, the more likely they were to exhibit female gender-stereotypical behavior a year later. So this means girls acted in more traditional female ways (e.g., avoiding getting dirty, avoiding risks), but boys did too. Of course, the impact on boys was less dramatic because they had less interaction with princess items.

Gendered Values

Of course, the irony of this study is that what we in our American culture value in one gender is not what we value in the other. Culturally, we try to encourage girls to think outside the "girly" box. Many parents want their girls to take more risks and avoid falling into the stereotypical passive female role. While hypermasculinity still reigns, we as parents try to foster a softer, more caring boy mindset.

So it seems, that while the princess culture represents what we want girls to avoid, it illustrates the gentler side we want boys to develop.

So what is a parent to do? Ban all Disney princess items from your home? As in all things parenting, moderation is usually the key. It's helpful for kids to play with a variety of toys and crafts, not just character-themed items.

I think it's also crucial to really understand your particular child's personality. Was your daughter a "girly girl" from the start or did you see an increase in female-stereotyped behaviors as she was exposed to more princess culture? Does she seem to copy the poses or behavior of princeses in a way that you don't want to support? Ask her what characteristics of the princesses she really likes? Is it just their appearance or something else about them. The same could be said for boys. Is your son really bought into the hyper-masculine "tough guy" role or did this increase as he was exposed to more media that supported this role?

As KJ Dell'Antonia smartly points out in her New York Times article, it might be helpful to point out to girls the characteristics of princesses that do not conform to the gender stereotype. For example, illustrate how some of the princesses are very active in deciding their own fate, or how they use their intelligence to get out of a difficult situation.

One aspect of the princess culture that this study did not particularly address is the emphasis on appearance and the sometimes sexualized poses of princess characters that is seen. While these aspects are sort of wrapped up in the overall princess culture, it would be interesting to see if these particular characteristics were adopted more by girls who have a lot of princess interaction. I think most parents would not want to support media or toys that put forth the image of women being only valued for appearance. This I think could be the rallying point for parents of both boys and girls. I think most of us would agree that our adult culture emphasizes appearance and sexualization enough already, our children, both girls and boys, do not need to be inculcated into a culture of devaluing women at a young age.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Screen-Free Activity Ideas for Summer Break

Summer break is now in full swing, and the struggle has become real for parents as they balance screen-time and outside time with their children. Unfortunately, or fortunately, Pokemon Go has helped get people outside, but still with their screens. It is often recommended to have no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day.

Let’s discuss some ideas of screen-free activities that you can do with your children:

  • Visit the library. Borrow a book or two while you are there to bring home and read. Find a book series that you can get immersed into over the summer break. 
  • Become a lego master builder. Dump out the lego bucket and start building something without the instructions, let the imagination flow. If you’re not at master builder level, then dig up an instruction booklet and follow the directions together. 
  • Pull out a cook book and make some delicious treats. And remember to make a mess, not just because it adds cleaning time, which means less screen time; but because baking isn’t fun unless you make a mess. 
  • Find a body of water. Whether this is a pool or a lake, spend some time splashing around and getting soaked. Plus, if it is a hot day, this is a great way to cool off. 
  • Make art. Whether this is painting, drawing, photography, crafting or playing music. Follow what Neil Gaiman said, Make Good Art. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just have fun and maybe learn a little. 
  • Play a game. Not a video game, a board or card game. Dust off the game that they family got for Christmas and make it a family night. Maybe consider inviting friends over. 
  • Play a sport. This doesn’t have to be an organized sport. Just go shoot some hoops, catch a ball, throw a frisbee, skip a rope, or pedal a bike, just to name a few ideas. Again, Wii Fit or Wii Sports doesn’t count! 
Most of all, be creative, have fun together, and enjoy the screen-free time. These were just a couple of ideas to get you started in discovering your screen-free activities this summer.

Put the gadgets and controllers down, and have screen-free fun this summer!

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