10 Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in Middle School
Parental support plays an important part in helping preteens and teens succeed in middle school. But as students grow more independent during these years, it can be hard for parents to know which situations call for involvement and which call for a more behind-the-scenes approach.
Here are 10 ways to keep your child on track for academic success in middle school.
1. Attend Back-to-School Night and Parent-Teacher Conferences
Preteens and teens do better in school when parents are involved in their academic lives. Attending back-to-school night at the start of the school year is a great way to get to know your child’s teachers and their expectations. School administrators may discuss school-wide programs and policies, too.
Attending parent-teacher conferences is another way to stay informed. These may be held once or twice a year at progress reporting periods. Many middle schools, however, only set up parent-teacher conferences if parental involvement is needed to address issues like behavior problems, falling below grade-level expectations, or alternatively, benefiting from advanced class work.
If your child has special learning or behavioral needs, meetings can be scheduled with teachers and other school staff to consider setting up or revising individualized education plans (IEPs), 504 education plans, or gifted education plans.
Keep in mind that parents or guardians can request meetings with teachers, principals, school counselors, or other school staff any time during the school year.
2. Visit the School and Its Website
Knowing the physical layout of the school building and grounds can help you connect with your child when you talk about his or her school day. It’s good to know the location of the main office, school nurse, cafeteria, gym, athletic fields, auditorium, and special classes.
On the school website, you can find information about:
- the school calendar
- contacting school staff
- special events like dances and class trips
- testing dates
- sign-up information and schedules for sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities
Many teachers maintain their own websites that provide access to textbooks and other resources, and detail homework assignments, and test and quiz dates. Special resources for parents and students are also usually available on the district, school, or teacher websites.
3. Support Homework Expectations
During the middle school years, homework gets more intense and the time spent will probably be longer than during the elementary years, usually a total of 1 to 2 hours each school night.
An important way to help is to make sure your child has a quiet, well-lit, distraction-free place to study that’s stocked with supplies. Distraction-free means no phone, TV or websites other than homework-related resources. And be sure to check in from time to time to make sure that your child hasn’t gotten distracted.
Sit down with your child regularly to talk about class loads and make sure they’re balanced. It’s also a good idea to set a specific start time for homework each night. Helping preteens and teens establish a homework schedule sends a message that academics are a priority.
Encourage your child to ask for help when it’s needed. Most teachers are available for extra help before or after school, and also might be able to recommend other resources.
4. Send Your Child to School Ready to Learn
A nutritious breakfast fuels up middle schoolers and gets them ready for the day. In general, preteens and teens who eat breakfast have more energy and do better in school.
You can help boost your child’s attention span, concentration, and memory by providing breakfast foods that are rich in whole grains, fiber, and protein, as well as low in added sugar. If your child is running late some mornings, send along fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, or a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Many schools provide nutritious breakfast options before the first bell.
Preteens and teens also need the right amount of sleep to be alert and ready to learn all day. In general, preteens need about 10 to 12 hours of sleep each night and teens need about 8½ to 9½ hours.
Bedtime difficulties can arise at this age for a variety of reasons. Homework, sports, after-school activities, texting, TVs, computers, and video games, as well as hectic family schedules, can contribute to students not getting enough sleep.
Lack of sleep can make it difficult for preteens and teens to pay attention in school. It’s important to have a consistent bedtime routine, especially on school nights.
5. Instill Organization Skills
No one is born with great organizational skills — they have to be learned and practiced. Being organized is a key to success in middle school, where most students first encounter multiple teachers and classrooms on a daily basis, and where some students are participating in extracurricular or after-school activities for the first time. Because time management skills are usually not explicitly taught in school, preteens and teens can benefit from parents helping with organizing assignments and managing time.
Class information and assignments should be organized by subject in binders, notebooks, or folders. Teach your child how to use a calendar or personal planner to stay organized and schedule study times. Calendars or planners should include your child’s non-academic commitments to help with time management.
It’s also a good idea to make sure your preteen or teen knows how to make a daily to-do list to prioritize tasks and manage time. An after-school to-do list can be as simple as:
- swim practice
- walk the dog
- study for social studies test
- finish math worksheet
- read over science class notes
- put clothes away
6. Teach Study Skills
Planning is a big part of helping your middle-schooler study for tests now that he or she is juggling work from multiple teachers.
Be sure you both know when tests are scheduled, and plan enough study time before each. When there’s a lot to study, help determine roughly how much time it will take to study for each test, then make a study calendar so your child doesn’t have to study for multiple tests all in one night.
Remind your child to take notes in class, organize them by subject, and review them at home each day.
Help your child review material and study with easy techniques like simple questioning, asking to provide the missing word, and creating practice tests. The more processes the brain uses to handle information — such as writing, reading, speaking, and listening — the more likely the information will be retained. Repeating words, re-reading passages aloud, re-writing notes, or visualizing or drawing information all help the brain retain data. Remind your child that it usually takes a number of tries to remember something correctly.
In math or science, doing practice problems is a great way to review for tests. Your child can ask the teacher for appropriate online practice resources.
And remember that getting a good night’s sleep is smarter than cramming. Recent studies show that students who sacrifice sleep to study are more likely to struggle on tests the next day.
7. Know the Disciplinary and Bullying Policies
Schools usually cite disciplinary policies (sometimes called the student code of conduct) in student handbooks. The rules usually cover expectations, as well as consequences for not meeting the expectations, for things like student behavior, dress codes, use of electronic devices, and acceptable language.
The policies may include details about attendance, vandalism, cheating, fighting, and weapons. Many schools also have specific policies about bullying. It’s helpful to know the school’s definition of bullying, consequences for bullies, support for victims, and procedures for reporting bullying.
It’s important for your preteen or teen to know what’s expected at school and that you’ll support the school’s consequences when expectations aren’t met. It’s easiest for students when school expectations match the ones at home, so they see both environments as safe and caring places that work together as a team.
8. Get Involved
Volunteering at your child’s middle school is a great way to show you’re interested in his or her education.
Keep in mind, though, that while some middle school students like to see their parents at school or school events, others may feel embarrassed by their parents’ presence. Follow your child’s cues to determine how much interaction works for both of you, and whether your volunteering should stay behind the scenes. Make it clear that you aren’t there to spy — you’re just trying to help out the school community.
Parents can get involved by:
- serving as a grade-level chairperson
- organizing and/or working at fundraising activities and other special events, like bake sales, car washes, and book fairs
- chaperoning field trips, dances, and proms
- attending school board meetings
- joining the school’s parent-teacher group
- working as a library assistant
- mentoring or tutoring students
- reading a story to the class
- giving a talk for career day
- attending school concerts, plays, and athletic events
Check the school or school district website to find volunteer opportunities that fit your schedule. Even giving a few hours during the school year can make an impression on your child.
9. Take Attendance Seriously
Middle schoolers should take a sick day if they have a fever, are nauseated, vomiting, or have diarrhea. Otherwise, it’s important that they arrive at school on time every day, because having to catch up with class work, projects, tests, and homework can be stressful and interfere with learning.
Middle schoolers may have many reasons for not wanting to go to school — bullies, difficult assignments, low grades, social problems, or issues with classmates or teachers. Talk with your child — and then perhaps with an administrator or school counselor — to find out more about what’s causing any anxiety.
Students also may be late for school due to changes in their body clocks. During adolescence, the body’s circadian rhythm (an internal biological clock) is reset, telling a teen to fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning. Keeping your teen on a consistent daily sleep schedule can help avoid tiredness and tardiness.
For students who have a chronic health issue, educators will work with the families and may limit workloads or assignments so students can stay on track.
10. Make Time to Talk About School
Staying connected with preteens and teens as they grow more independent can be a challenge for parents, but it’s more important than ever. While activities at school, new interests, and expanding social circles can become more central to the lives of many middle school students, parents and guardians are still their anchors for providing love, guidance, and support.
Make efforts to talk with your child every day, so he or she knows that what goes on at school is important to you. When preteens and teens know their parents are interested in their academic lives, they’ll take school seriously as well.
Because communication is a two-way street, the way you talk and listen to your child can influence how well he or she listens and responds. It’s important to listen carefully, make eye contact, and avoid multitasking while you chat. Be sure to ask open-ended questions that go beyond “yes” or “no” answers.
Besides during family meals, good times to talk include car trips (though eye contact isn’t needed here, of course), walking the dog, preparing meals, or standing in line at a store.
When preteens and teens know they can talk openly with their parents, the challenges of middle school can be a little easier to face.
Best Free Apps That Take Kids from “Screen” to “Green”
There are many ways parents can use technology and video games to motivate learning and facilitate family time with joint media use.
The Pokémon Go craze, which got 21 million active players to get outside and explore in the real world, is the perfect example of another way you can use technology to your benefit: connecting your kids to the outdoors. This opens a world of possibilities for learning and growing while positively affecting their mood and self esteem.
You can take advantage of this same idea — using screen time to give your kids more green time — with a variety of other fun games. Here are seven free apps, all available on both Android and iPhone, that you can use to entice your young gamers to explore their surroundings, use observational skills and have an adventure right in their own neighborhood!
- Geocaching: This real-world global treasure hunt has been extremely popular with hobbyists, and the tech explosion has made it even more accessible and user-friendly. The game is simple: boxes are hidden in “caches” around the world, and the goal is to find these using longitude and latitude coordinates posted online. While geocaching was once played largely with maps and handheld GPS devices, now there are several apps to make the journey even more tech-infused and fun, such as the aptly named app
Geocaching. Geocaching is a family-friendly activity, with caches rated on difficulty and terrain type; many are even accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. For Dinosaur Train fans, learn how you can find or create a Dinosaur Train-themed cache.
- Nature Cat: The hit PBS KIDS show “Nature Cat” is all about exploring the outdoors, and the new Nature Cat app helps your little gamers do exactly that. Every day, a brand new adventure awaits your explorers, connecting them to the real world outside. The app explores concepts such as trees, weather, and compasses, using location-based input from your device. Children can create their very own nature journals, drawing pictures, taking photos, and recording sounds that they hear in the great outdoors.
- Wild Time: If you and your little one have a few minutes to spare, open up Wild Time and get outside. You input how much time you have — from 10 minutes to half a day — and the app gives you and your child something to fun to do outside in that time. All of the activities are unique and encourage kids to be adventurous and creative. For example, some suggestions include Bird Dinner Party, Shadow Watching and Smell Catching.
- Project Noah: Project Noah launched as the #1 education app in the U.S. for good reason: children are helping to identify new species all over the globe by photographing all the animals and plants they find outside. There are three different ways to play and encourage your kids to explore nature and get moving:
- Spotting: Take a picture of an interesting plant or animal, put it in a category, tag the location and add a short description and submit.
- Location-Based Field Guide: Kids can see what plants and animals have been spotted near them and learn more about them. Map, list and grid view are available to pique your little one’s interest.
- Field Missions: These missions come straight from research labs and environmental groups, and your child is helping them by photographing the plants and animals requested.
- Plum’s Creaturizer: This game, based on PBS KIDS’ web-original property, “Plum Landing,” encourages kids to explore and appreciate our beautiful planet. With Plum’s Creaturizer, children get creative as they create their own creepy, crawly, cool creature. Once finished, players turn screen time into green time by heading outdoors to explore with their new creatures. Devices with cameras allow players to take photos of their creatures superimposed onto the world around them. Kids will get a kick out of watching their creations run around their own backyards and favorite playgrounds.
- Ready Jet Go! Space Explorer: With expert curriculum backed by NASA, the Ready Jet Go! Space Explorer app, gives kids a suite of tools to play with and learn about the wonders of outer space. Little astronomers can browse the Solar Encyclopedia, learning more than 300 fun facts about planets and constellations. They can add a splash of color to the night sky by painting constellations, and best of all, the device’s GPS allow your astronauts-in-training to turn their attention to the sky overhead and view the positions of stars, planets and constellations in real time.
- Monkey Spot Scavenger Hunt: Entice your children to go outside with the fun and exciting Monkey Spot Scavenger Hunt, which gives them a collection of themed tasks to complete, many of which are to be done outside. Different hunts come with different tasks, and many come pre-loaded with the free version. The best part is that you can use this at home or when you’re already out and about. For example, there’s an Art Museum Adventure that will make your family field trip more exciting. Children take a photo to document the completion of a task, whether it was to spot an animal on a walk or find items that start with each letter of the alphabet.
Top 10 Homework Tips
Kids are more successful in school when parents take an active interest in their homework — it shows kids that what they do is important.
Of course, helping with homework shouldn’t mean spending hours hunched over a desk. Parents can be supportive by demonstrating study and organization skills, explaining a tricky problem, or just encouraging kids to take a break. And who knows? Parents might even learn a thing or two!
Here are some tips to guide the way:
- Know the teachers — and what they’re looking for. Attend school events, such as parent-teacher conferences, to meet your child’s teachers. Ask about their homework policies and how you should be involved.
- Set up a homework-friendly area. Make sure kids have a well-lit place to complete homework. Keep supplies — paper, pencils, glue, scissors — within reach.
- Schedule a regular study time. Some kids work best in the afternoon, following a snack and play period; others may prefer to wait until after dinner.
- Help them make a plan. On heavy homework nights or when there’s an especially hefty assignment to tackle, encourage your child break up the work into manageable chunks. Create a work schedule for the night if necessary — and take time for a 15-minute break every hour, if possible.
- Keep distractions to a minimum. This means no TV, loud music, or phone calls. (Occasionally, though, a phone call to a classmate about an assignment can be helpful.)
- Make sure kids do their own work. They won’t learn if they don’t think for themselves and make their own mistakes. Parents can make suggestions and help with directions. But it’s a kid’s job to do the learning.
- Be a motivator and monitor. Ask about assignments, quizzes, and tests. Give encouragement, check completed homework, and make yourself available for questions and concerns.
- Set a good example. Do your kids ever see you diligently balancing your budget or reading a book? Kids are more likely to follow their parents’ examples than their advice.
- Praise their work and efforts. Post an aced test or art project on the refrigerator. Mention academic achievements to relatives.
- If there are continuing problems with homework, get help. Talk about it with your child’s teacher. Some kids have trouble seeing the board and may need glasses; others might need an evaluation for a learning problem or attention disorder.
Optimism & Motivation: Keys to Your Child’s Success
Have you ever wondered how:
- An 18-month-old knows if he keeps making noises eventually you will understand what he’s communicating?
- A 3-year-old knows if she keeps scribbling someday people will recognize what she’ s making?
- A 4-year-old knows if he keeps looking at the words on the page one day he’ll be able to read?
These behaviors can be best explained by the concept of instinctual optimism, one of the two early, critical keys for successful learning. A child doesn’t have to learn by experience alone because natural instinct also guides her. With her inborn optimism, she remains confident that, no matter what challenges she faces, with perseverance she will ultimately succeed. Instinctual optimism is a quality that we believe is genetically driven in our species and is the engine that drives children’s daily quest to understand and master the world around them. All children come into the world with instinctual optimism, some to a much greater extent than others, depending on their temperament.
Children’s curiosity, driven by their instinctual optimism, is all the reward or reinforcement they need to engage in new activities. This internal drive is known as intrinsic motivation, the second critical key to academic success. Young children engage in activities not because they receive external motivators, but because they simply enjoy the activities.
Supporting students’ motivation and optimism at school
Most children are eager to go to school. For them, school is just another developmental challenge that they are instinctually optimistic they will master and intrinsically motivated to engage in. However, students soon find they’re judged and evaluated in a competitive atmosphere, and no matter how well they perform they’ll always be reminded there is room for improvement. Our education system is often driven by the promise of a reward, the threat of a punishment or the challenge of competition. These external motivators may be effective and well-intended, but they clearly work against the continued development of a child’s intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation — participating at school for the sheer pleasure of learning — is soon eclipsed by the promise of external rewards, and a child’s natural enthusiasm for learning may be dampened.
When children have learning, emotional, behavioral, social, academic or other developmental problems, they often struggle in school. Yet, even children facing challenges are born with instinctual optimism and intrinsic motivation. Unfortunately, our education system has determined that students who struggle need a greater degree of external motivation to stay engaged in academic tasks. Yet it is exactly these students whose intrinsic motivation must be nurtured and reinforced. We’re not suggesting that grades, rewards, punishments, or competition should be banished from our educational system, but rather that we must strike a balance between the use of external rewards and the reinforcement of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation drives self-reinforcement, which we believe is the foundation of academic success, even more important than intellect, ability and opportunity.
When any child struggles with instinctual optimism and intrinsic motivation, we must guide and provide her with experiences that will further develop those qualities. It’s understandable that such a child will be prone to see her mistakes as failures, to avoid academic challenges, ultimately developing a helpless or hopeless approach to school. It’s reasonable to think that offering her an external payoff will motivate her to engage in a difficult task, yet doing so may well dampen her natural motivation.
Research and real-life strategies to help kids
There are many ways to strengthen children’s inborn motivation and optimism. These techniques are based on our own work in the area of resilience and motivation as well as the research of others. We are especially impressed with the research of psychologist Edward Deci at the University of Rochester. Instead of wondering, “How can people motivate others?” Deci asks, “How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?” This is an important distinction as it shifts the focus away from motivation based on external rewards and punishments to intrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation based on what Deci labels “authenticity and responsibility” and a feeling of having choice). Deci proposes that people’s intrinsic motivation thrives in environments that meet their most significant needs. He highlights three such needs:
- To belong and feel connected
- To feel a sense of autonomy and self-determination
- To feel competent
- It’s important for parents, educators and other professionals to keep these needs in mind and to establish conditions that will nurture motivation and hope in the children they care about.
Let’s explore these core needs a little further:
To belong and feel connected
Children and adolescents will feel increasingly self-motivated in environments in which they feel welcome and sense that adults care about them. This need is very important in schools, reflected in the oft-quoted statement, “Students don’t care what you know until they first know you care.”
At home, we recommend parents regularly set aside special time alone with each of their children. Devote that time exclusively to your child and tune out any distractions or interruptions. When your child feels she has your attention and unconditional love, she’s more likely to be cooperative and feel motivated.
To feel a sense of autonomy and self-determination
At the core of Deci’s theory of motivation are the concepts of ownership and self-determination. If our goal is to create environments in which children are self-motivated, then we must make certain they know their voices are heard and respected, and that they have some control over what transpires in their lives. If youngsters are constantly told what to do and feel that adults are dictating their lives, they’re less likely to be enthused or motivated to engage in particular tasks. If anything, their main motivation may be to avoid or oppose the desires of others; a power struggle, uncooperative behavior and anger are likely to follow.
Intrinsic motivation is nurtured when adults seek and respect the input of children and teens. We should also provide opportunities for children to strengthen their problem-solving and decision-making skills. For instance, a group of students were asked to do research on various charities. Based on their research, they decided which charity to support and how to go about raising money. These activities enhanced their self-esteem and determination, and nurtured an attitude of compassion toward others.
Even offering children seemingly small choices can enhance their self-motivation. In one school we visited, teachers gave students a choice about which homework problems to do. For instance, if there were eight math problems on a page, they told the students, “It’s your choice. You have to consider all eight problems, but do the six that you think will help you to learn best.” The teachers reported receiving more homework of higher quality when they allowed students some degree of choice.
The feelings of choice and ownership are closely associated with the research of Dr. Carol Dweck. In her recent book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck advocates, “You have to teach students that they are in charge of their intellectual growth” while her colleague Lisa Blackwell emphasizes, “The message is that everything is within the kids’ control, that their intelligence is malleable.” However, in teaching children that learning is within their control, we must provide them with learning strategies that play to their strengths and address their weaknesses. We should also explain that if one strategy isn’t effective, there are other strategies to try.
You can nurture your child’s self-determination and motivation by encouraging her to use problem-solving skills. Try to refrain from constantly telling her what to do but rather encourage her to consider possible solutions. One question many parents ask regarding motivation is why a child will complete her homework but not turn it in at school. For some children, this has nothing to do with motivation but rather reflects their disorganization and inattention (problems which can be addressed). However, any child who struggles in school probably dreads having to do additional schoolwork at home. For this child, the goal of doing homework is to earn freedom, i.e., her parents will allow her playtime and privileges only after she completes her homework. Once she finishes her homework and earns her freedom, turning in her homework the next day is the last thing on her mind. You and her teacher(s) may want to engage your child in a problem-solving session to come up with a system that motivates her to turn in the homework she completes — perhaps by offering an external reward and, as importantly, helping her realize the satisfaction she will get from turning in her work.
To feel competent
In our work, we use the metaphor “islands of competence,” observing that too often we fixate on problems to be corrected in children rather than on their strengths. We believe every child has areas of strength that can be a source of pride and accomplishment. We encourage parents, teachers, and other adults to identify and build upon each child’s unique strengths. This task is even more critical for students who struggle with learning and often believe they are failures with few, if any, strengths. Deci and other researchers and clinicians have emphasized the importance of reinforcing islands of competence as a catalyst for self-motivation.
When people are in environments where there is little, if any, acknowledgement of their strengths and an inordinate focus on their weaknesses, they’re more likely to feel defeated and even hopeless. When these negative emotions dominate, intrinsic motivation, instinctual optimism and the desire to face new challenges will suffer.
Helping children succeed in school
There are many ways to help children feel more competent. In school, educators should insure that they teach students in ways in which they can learn and succeed, recognizing that all youngsters have different learning styles.
Helping children succeed in their areas of interest
As a parent, you can help your child feel competent in his strengths by making sure he has opportunities to engage in his interests. One father told us that his son’s area of competence is art. The father, whose passion is sports, isn’t interested in art, while his son shows little interest in athletics. However, recognizing the importance of honoring his son’s interests and talents, he signed up for an art class with his son at a local museum. After just one class he called to say they’d had a wonderful time and that his son was delighted to display his talent in front of his father.
Providing your child with opportunities to help others
Another strategy for fortifying islands of competence and intrinsic motivation is to provide youth with opportunities to help others. Kids who engage in contributing to the well-being of others experience satisfaction, feelings of competence and an increased motivation to pursue various activities, even those they previously found difficult. Examples we have used in the school setting include:
Older students with learning problems reading to younger children
A hyperactive child being asked to serve as “attendance monitor,” walking the teacher’s list to the school office (and burning off excess energy at the same time)
Cooperative learning in which students of varying abilities work together as a team, each bringing unique strengths to a project.
One of the most far-reaching approaches to assist children and adolescents to feel competent is to lessen their fear of failure. In schools, this fear can be addressed directly when teachers initiate discussion about how the fear of making mistakes generates feelings of humiliation and impacts adversely on learning. A teacher might share her own experiences of making mistakes as a student. She might then involve the class in a problem-solving activity by asking what they can do as teachers and what the students can do as a class to minimize the fear of failure.
As a parent you can help your child become more comfortable with mistakes by not reacting to your child’s mistakes with judgmental or derogatory remarks. Rather, you can use mistakes as teachable, problem-solving moments, by offering a constructive comment such as, “Things didn’t work out as you would have liked this time, but let’s think about what you can do differently next time.” When children know they won’t be condemned or criticized for mistakes, they’re more optimistic and motivated — and more willing to take realistic risks.
Nurturing your child’s motivation and optimism over time
Instinctual optimism and intrinsic motivation appear to be integral characteristics that drive each child forward and which can be nurtured (or undermined) throughout childhood. Nurturing these qualities in some children will require extra care, but the time and energy adults expend in this way will help strengthen children’s optimism and motivation over time.
Is Your Child Resilient?
Protecting our kids is an impulse deeply woven into our parental DNA, but no parent can shield their child from every disappointment. Whether it’s personal —a failing grade or the death of a grandparent — or misfortune on a wider scale — Hurricane Katrina or atrocities in Syria — loss is an inevitable part of the human experience. You can’t protect your child from every setback, but you can help her develop skills to navigate and even learn from them. According to Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, resilience is essential for success in school and the work place — and it’s also a key ingredient for life.
Why is resilience so important?
Life is uncertain. There’s a lot of fear and worry. Resilience enables people to pick up the pieces and go on after they face adversity, loss, or trauma. It allows people to move on from the inevitable disappointments we all encounter. Resilience is essential in today’s world, and it’s a key factor in living a long and satisfying life.
Do you think kids today are less resilient as a result of helicopter parents?
Parents don’t like kids to be uncomfortable. This makes sense. But when you swoop in to help whenever things get tough, it’s hard for them to build resilience. Going through a disappointment and finding resources to get themselves through, this is how children build resilience. Invoking a positive outlook on life is another key way to build resilience.
How can parents help kids build resilience?
When your child faces a challenge, talk about what happened. Listen carefully, and don’t immediately jump in with advice or brush off your child’s concerns.
Say your child fails a test. If your child feels discouraged, help him reframe the situation. Ask questions like, “What do you think you could have done differently?” The goal is for your child to take responsibility and learn from the experience. Encourage him to come up with a strategy: “Maybe I didn’t study enough. Next time, I’ll study more.” That’s how you develop resilience: by incorporating the difficult experience into your life and making meaning of it.
Resilience has a lot to do with how you appraise a difficult experience and learn from it. For example, if your child’s pet dies, encourage your child to have her feelings of grief, then slowly shift to a more positive place: “My pet died and I’m sad, but I’m also grateful for the time I had with my pet and all the memories I have.” It’s important for children to realize that grief is not an illness but a part of loving others.
I know a teacher who keeps a Book of Death in her classroom. When students experience a loss, they can talk about their loved one and put pictures into the book. This is great because it helps children bring their loved ones into daily life.
Gratitude is also very healing. You can emphasize gratitude when your child experiences a loss: “I am so grateful we had that time with Grandma. She loved you so much.” This helps your child recognize other feelings along with the sadness.
Is it important for parents to model resilience?
Modeling is everything. Your kids are watching, whether you realize it or not. Think about how you handle your own difficult situations. Say you’re fired from a job. How do you react? Your language is important. Are you saying things like, “This is the worst thing that ever happened” or are you saying, “This is hard, this is disappointing, but I know I will feel better tomorrow”? It’s important to show your kids that you have optimism and hope.
There’s a difference between just coping with a situation and genuinely healing. You can’t just bury your feelings. Healing comes from bringing the pain or disappointment into your life and making meaning of it— and relating to yourself in a forgiving way. As a family, talk about what you’ve learned from your mistakes. This will help your kids see that mistakes can be our teachers.
How do you recommend talking about resilience with kids?
I’d teach them to think of resilience like a muscle you build every time you face a challenge. Remind your children that they’ve been through difficult experiences before – and survived. “It’s a disappointment that you didn’t pass that test. But remember when you didn’t make the team and you were so disappointed? You worked hard and made the team the next year.”
You’re not going to erase disappointments in life. But every time we manage a difficult experience, it helps us realize we can do it again. Developing resilience isn’t something you do over night — it’s the work of a lifetime.
7 Reasons to Eat Family Dinner Together
Over the last 20 years, dozens of studies have confirmed what parents have known intuitively for a long time: Sitting down for a nightly dinner is good for the spirit, the brain and the body. Research shows that shared meals are tied to many teenage behaviors that parents pray for: reduced rates of substance abuse, eating disorders and depression; and higher grade point averages and self-esteem. For young children, conversation at the table is a bigger vocabulary booster than reading aloud to them. The icing on the cake is that kids who eat regular family dinners grow up to be young adults who eat healthier and have lower rates of obesity.
As a working mother, who has learned by trial and error with my two sons and husband, and as a family therapist, who asks every family about their dinners, this is what else I’ve learned:
1. It doesn’t have to be daily.
You don’t have to have dinner every night to reap the benefits. It could be breakfast, a weekend brunch, a take-a-break-snack at night or a combination of these. And there’s no magic number. The point is to make a commitment to a family meal where everyone sits down to share food, have fun and talk about things that matter.
2. Play with your food.
With so much of our play now conducted online, adults and children have lost the opportunity to play with real objects that can be touched, smelled and transformed. So play together. Cooking is an activity that still involves our senses and our hands, and it is something we still can do together. You can set out salad fixings and have everyone choose vegetables to create faces, trees and cars. Play with taste by slipping in a new flavor or spice and asking everyone to guess the ingredients.
3. It’s doable.
Despite parent’s hectic work schedules and kids’ busy extracurricular activities, it’s very doable to have nightly dinner. The whole process of cooking and eating together can take just an hour (less than 30 minutes to cook and the average meal is 22 minutes*), and that hour is transformative. If we still planted vegetables, played instruments for our entertainment and quilted on the front porch, we might not need family dinners, but it’s the most reliable time of day that we have to connect with one another. When kids feel connected to their parents, it’s like a seatbelt on the potholed road of childhood.
4. Try new activities and share talents.
Dinner can be a great place to try out new behaviors. A family dinner is like an improvisatory theater performance. The family shows up night after night, and as a group they can try out new ways of interacting with one another. Or, one member’s behavior can set off a cascade of others. For example, a family might agree to refrain from making any negative comments at the table and see what happens. Or, a teenager might be invited to make a family dinner or to create a musical soundtrack for the meal.
5. Share your family history.
The dinner table is the best place to tell stories, and kids who know their family stories are more resilient and feel better about themselves. Most inspiring are lemonade-from-lemon stories, stories about adversity where a lesson is learned, or negative events that transform into something good. Stories help us make sense of the world, and they help kids connect to something bigger than themselves. Tell stories about yourself and other family members when they were the same age as your children. Tell stories about romance, first jobs, immigration, how names were chosen, a childhood pet, a favorite recipe or kitchen disaster.
6. Stay connected.
Table conversation is one of the richest language experiences you can provide for your children. When else do we sit and talk for several minutes, offering lots of comments and explanations on one topic? Try asking questions that go beyond, “How was your day?” For example, instead ask everyone to tell a rose (something positive) and a thorn (something negative) about the day, as well as a bud (what you wish will happen tomorrow).
7. It’s good for you, too.
Rituals like dinner, which punctuate a world that often feels frenzied and out of control, are good for adults, too. Knowing that one part of your day is going to unfold in basically the same way, day after day, is comforting.
12 Tips to Raise Truthful Kids
Brace yourself for the cold, hard truth: all kids lie. They do it for many of the same reasons adults do: to avoid getting into trouble, to avoid hurting another person’s feelings, or to make themselves look better. The ability to tell a lie develops early — as young as 2½ for some kids — and it’s a normal and important stage of kids’ cognitive and social development. By age 4, all kids lie; by age 6, some estimates are that kids lie as often as once an hour.
How can you convey to your preschooler the difference between the truth and the whoppers she tells you about her day? Or teach your elementary school-aged child that it’s better to come clean about having made a mistake? Or get your teen to be honest with you about where they were on Friday night? We asked experts — researchers, child development specialists, and psychologists — for their advice on teaching kids the value of honesty at every stage.
1. Model honesty
It sounds obvious, but if you don’t want your kids to lie to you, don’t lie to them, and don’t let them hear you telling lies. “It’s one thing to say to kids that honesty is important, but then if they see you lying, it sends a mixed message,” says Victoria Talwar, associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at McGill University in Montreal and a leading researcher on kids and lying.
It’s surely less effort to say, “I don’t have any money with me” than to explain to your child that they can’t have ice cream because they’ve already had a sweet treat that day or because it’s too close to dinner. Or to tell the fundraiser on the phone that you aren’t interested in donating rather than saying you already did. But over time, so-called “little white lies” teach your child that dishonesty is okay in some situations — and leaves them to interpret which situations those are. If you want your child to grow up with the belief that honesty is the best policy, do your best to live by that credo, too.
2. Don’t set them up
Particularly for preschool-aged kids, one way to deter lying is simply by not inviting them to. When you see your child with a juice-stained lip and an overturned bottle on the table, there’s no need to ask, “Did you spill this juice?” Kids this age will lie out of a desire to avoid getting into trouble, says Dr. Peter Stavinoha, a clinical neuropsychologist for the Center for Pediatric Psychiatry at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas. ”If you know they did it, don’t ask! If you ask, you’re giving them the option to lie. So they lie, and then you get upset about that, and now there’s two things where there used to be only one,” Stavinoha says.
“Looks like you spilled some juice. Let’s clean it up together,” keeps things focused on the issue at hand. And if you’re not sure who broke the vase, or which sibling is lying about it, Stavinoha says, go straight to the consequence. “Don’t engage with the question of did they break it or which child broke it. Focus on what you want accomplished. ‘We have a mess here. I’m asking you both to clean it up.’ You’re showing them that there’s no positive consequence for denying responsibility.”
3. Tell positive stories
In a study led by University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee, researchers including Talwar found that kids ages 3 to 7 who heard the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, which illustrates a positive consequence of honesty (George is praised for telling the truth), were much more likely to tell the truth than kids who heard the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, which illustrates a negative consequence of lying (the shepherd repeatedly calls for help as a prank, but the one time he really needs help, the villagers don’t come to his rescue).
“We talk about lying being bad, but we don’t highlight the alternative behavior. Kids need examples for how to behave in situations where lying might be easier, stories that show how to be honest, what does that look like? Those are important messages,” says Talwar. For older kids, talking about the honesty of the characters in the books they’re reading can provoke inspiring and instructive discussion.
4. Ask for a promise
If you need a straight answer about something you’re concerned about, such as an incident at school, asking your child to promise to tell you the truth before asking them a question increases the chances that they will, studies suggest. But note that this strategy is not a guarantee, and it should be used sparingly so that you don’t wear it out. “You don’t want to overuse this one or it may lose its efficacy,” says Angela Crossman, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York. And as Talwar notes, promises tend to feel more binding to younger kids.
5. Say truth-telling makes you happy
Young children, under the age of 8 or so, are very motivated to please authority figures, says Talwar. Her research shows that telling kids that you’ll be happy with them if they tell the truth increases the likelihood they’ll be straight with you. Tweens and teens, she notes, tend to care somewhat less about pleasing authority figures and more about their own internal sense of what’s right. (Another study found that telling 9- to 11-year-olds that they would feel good about themselves if they told the truth decreased the chances they would tell a lie.) At all ages, look for opportunities to make your child feel good about being trustworthy.
6. Teach tact
Kids learn early — from their parents — how to lie for the sake of politeness or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. “Thanks, this book looks great,” instead of, “I already have this book!” or “I can’t play because I’m busy,” instead of “I don’t like playing with you!” Researchers call these kinds of lies “prosocial” because they smooth our interactions with others. But being honest does not have to equal being rude or hurtful. The key, says Talwar, is to balance honesty with consideration for the other person’s feelings. “We want to teach our children to be honest but we want to teach them to be kind as well. We need to teach honesty in a way that potentially helps others rather than potentially hurts others,” says Talwar. In the case of the book, this might mean saying it’s an author they like, or expressing appreciation for the thought that went into choosing it.
7. Don’t reward the lie
When your child lies, there’s a reason — they’re seeking something. And if they get it, that can reinforce lying as an effective strategy. So if you notice that your younger child always fabricates a story about getting hurt at school as soon as your older child starts telling you about their day, it might be an attention-seeking behavior. “When a child lies, figure out what dynamic may be going on,” suggests Crossman. “Are there ways you can ignore the lie so they don’t get the reward? Can they get what they’re wanting in some other way?”
8. Catch them being honest
We often catch kids in lies, says Talwar, but if we want to teach them to value honesty, we need to look for opportunities to acknowledge when they tell the truth, especially in situations where it might have been easier for them to lie. When your child tells you the truth about something they’ve done, take a moment to show that you appreciate their honesty by saying, “I’m really glad you told me the truth.”
9. Discipline calmly
In environments where punishments are doled out harshly and arbitrarily, research shows that kids learn to lie earlier and more skillfully than their counterparts in less punitive environments. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discipline. But in an atmosphere with a punitive, authoritarian approach to discipline, developing the ability to lie can be seen as a protective measure.
“One thing parents can do is simply not have a great big emotional reaction. The more explosive the parent gets, the more frightened the child gets, and the more likely they are to lie. Simply remaining calm and sticking to the facts you’ve observed is one way to get kids to tell the truth,” says Stavinoha.
10. Have a conversation, not a lecture
The more open and conversational the relationship between parent and teen, the more effective, says Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of the best-selling The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. “That means more discussing and less lecturing.” When clashes happen, waiting for the situation to abate and approaching your teenager calmly is always going to yield a more positive outcome, he says. And when it comes to raising truthful teens, he recommends discussing issues of honesty and lying openly with your child. “Something along the lines of, ‘We want you to feel free to be honest with us, regardless of what you have to say.’ Teens respond well to this type of communication, but parents have to be prepared for the honesty!”
11. Set clear rules
Ninety-eight percent of teenagers worldwide lie to their parents. That’s the conclusion of Dr. Nancy Darling, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Oberlin College, who has researched teens and honesty for two decades. Darling says setting clear rules is important for cultivating an honest relationship with teens — and that being strict is okay. However, she says, it’s essential that parents pair this with being emotionally warm and open and accepting, so teens don’t think they will be harshly and unjustly punished.
“If you balance these two aspects of parenting clearly, your teenagers will be more likely to ask for your permission and more likely to confess if they have broken a rule. They need to respect you and believe you will be warm, accepting, and non-punitive,” she says. “If kids think you have the right to set rules, if they respect you, they are more likely to be truthful — but they’ll still want to argue with you about what is safe and what they should be allowed to do.”
12. Give them space
Respecting teens’ natural desire for privacy can encourage more honesty, Darling says. “You don’t want to be intrusive, you don’t want to get into their business more than you need to,” she cautions. “Ask for only the information you need. If you do that, they will probably provide additional information.” For example, you need to know your teen was safely at a friend’s house on Friday night; you don’t need to know what they talked about. Prying too deeply is asking for teens to push back by putting up barriers or lying, Darling says. So keep it on a need-to-know basis, and if they still clam up, just explain, “You don’t want me to butt into your business, and I don’t want to butt into your business but I have to know because …” and tell them why you need an honest answer.
How to Minimize the Effects of Gender Bias on Your Daughter
At our girl summer camp programs near Chicago, we have always been about empowering young women. As we put it, we exist for girls as they are so they imagine the women they can become.
Lynn Johnson of Go Girls! wrote a recent blog detailing how gender bias negatively impacts young women. Below are some takeaways from the article, with tips on how you can minimize the effects of gender bias. The whole piece is available at this link: http://blog.spotlightgirls.com/gender-bias-is-hijacking-our-girls-right-to-lead-what-to-do
- 65% of Americans believe that women are more compassionate leaders than men
- Women comprise only about 20% of state and national legislators
- 40% of teen boys and 23% of teen girls prefer males over females in powerful positions, such as politics
- There are more white men named Jim in the California legislature than black and Asian-American women combined.
What to do?
- Become aware of your own biases.
- Cultivate family practices that prevent and reduce bias.
- Teach teens to spot and effectively confront stereotypes and discrimination.
- Don’t just let “boys be boys.”
- Challenge teens’ biased assumptions and beliefs.
- Use programs and strategies that build girls’ leadership skills.
The First Cell Phone: Rules for Responsibility
You’re not worrying too much.
Research shows that virtually all kids who are allowed to keep their cell phone in their room overnight will answer a late-night text, and most of them have spent at least some late nights sending texts.
Only 11 percent of parents suspect their teens have ever sent, received or forwarded a sexual text, while 41% of teens admit they’ve done so.
Only 4 percent of parents believe their teens have ever texted while driving, while 45% of teens admit that they routinely text while driving.
Studies show that texting begins in the fifth grade, on average. Pornography consumption begins around age 8.*
Half of all kids admit they are addicted to their cell phones and worry that they use them too much. Their parents agree, and 36 percent of parents say they have daily arguments with their kids about their phones.**
It takes a fair amount of self discipline to manage the responsibility of a mobile phone — and most kids are not ready for that before middle school, if then. In fact, since the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid-20s, middle schoolers are famous for not having as much impulse control as we’d like. Middle schoolers have a hard enough time managing the temptations of social media, sexting, and addictive games on computers. Handing them a phone that they can use constantly, without your supervision, is like handing a child an addictive substance and then not monitoring them.
So it’s natural to worry when your child is ready for her first cell phone, even if you think he or she is generally responsible. Yes, this device is an instrument of connection, and it will allow you and your child to be more connected when you’re apart. But it’s also a symbol of separation, a reminder that your child is now spending enough time at a distance from you – and other supervising adults — to need it. Worse, it’s a harbinger of the dangers lurking in the outside world that threaten to pop up and menace your child at any time, without you there to stop them.
The problem isn’t with kids today. In fact, the research shows that teens today are more responsible than my generation was in driving, drinking, sexuality and drug use. No, the problem is that smart phones pose new risks.
Luckily, communication and supervision can dramatically lessen the risks. How?
1. Don’t give your child a phone too early.
If your child is with a trusted adult, he shouldn’t need a cell phone. It’s when kids start to walk to school by themselves, or otherwise are without supervision, that they need a cell phone for safety reasons. The younger your child when she gets the cell phone, the more you’re asking of her, because it will just be harder for her to act responsibly with it. Can you trust that she’ll follow your rules about which apps to download, for instance? How often does he lose things? Some parents give their younger child devices that are more limited than a smart phone, that can’t be used to go online, or to call anyone not authorized by the parent.
2. Agree to rules, before that first cell phone.
Most parents think a “contract” with their child is unnecessary and silly. But a written agreement is a great way for your child to step into this new responsibility without you “over-parenting.” When that first cell phone comes with written rules and responsibilities in the form of a signed agreement, young people learn how to handle them responsibly. If you ask your kids what they think the rules should be, and negotiate until you’re happy, they will “own” those rules. For a starting place, check out the rules at the end of this article.
3. Use parental controls.
There are parental control apps available for all phones, and iphone have built-in parental controls that can be enabled.
You know how when a building goes up, there’s a framework around it? Once the building is complete, the scaffolding is unnecessary. Your job is to give your child support –like scaffolding — as he learns each new skill.
So don’t just buy a cell phone, give a lecture, and hope for the best. Instead, see this as a year-long project. In the beginning, plan to talk with your child every single night about his mobile use that day. Review with him what calls and texts came in and out, what apps he used. Ask how it felt to him to use his phone. Did it change anything in his life to have those calls and texts come in? Were there any challenges as he considered how to respond? When you see a mean text from one friend about another one, you’ll have the perfect opportunity to ask him about social dynamics, listen to the dilemmas he’s facing, and coach him about how to handle these challenges. Even once your kids have had a phone for awhile, I recommend that parents reserve the right to spot check their messages and texts occasionally without warning. Erased messages should be checked on the bill. This gets kids in the habit of being responsible, because their phone use doesn’t feel so “invisible.”
5. Talk, and listen.
At the dinner table, comment on news stories that involve cell phones, from sexting to dangerous apps to driving deaths. Ask questions about what your child thinks, and listen more. You might find, for instance that your teen thinks sending nude selfies via Snapchat is fine because the photo will self-destruct. But does your child realize that the receiver can take a screenshot, and that there are now apparently ways to subvert the auto-notification that should tell the sender a copy has been made? And does your child know that having a photo of an underage person on his cell phone is illegal?
6. Role Play.
When a young person is faced with a new situation, how should he know what to do? Roleplays may be hokey, but they give your child a chance to think through the situation and his options. By planting those seeds, your child has more resources to act responsibly in the heat of the moment. I’ve been known to launch into parent-child roleplays about the topic of the day, pretending to be a friend asking, for instance, “Hey, send me that photo you took at the sleepover!” to help my child consider various responses.
7. Porn-Proof your child.
All kids will eventually see porn; it is just a question of when. But smart phones give children access to porn, so before you give your child a cell phone, you need to educate him about porn. Porn is almost always dehumanizing, because it depicts sex without warmth, intimacy or love. Most porn today also includes verbal and/or physical aggression toward women. If you need help talking with your child about this difficult issue, check out the book Good Pictures, Bad Pictures by Kristen Jenson, which you can read with children as young as seven.
8. Know your child.
The research shows that when kids have problems with technology of any kind, it’s because they’re having problems that go beyond technology, and those problems will show up in the rest of their life. So if your child is mostly responsible, considerate and happy, he or she is probably responsible with technology, too.
Cell Phone Rules
1. Never write or forward a photo, or anything in a text, that you wouldn’t want forwarded to everyone in your school, your principal and your parents.
Remember that everything you send can become public.
2. Always ask before you forward a text or photo.
Be respectful. How would you feel if someone forwarded an unflattering photo of you?
3. Always ask before you take a photo or video.
Even once someone has given you permission to take a photo, ask before you post it.
4. If someone asks you to send a sexy photo…
…remember that even with Snapchat (which “evaporates” the photo), the picture can be copied and forwarded to others. Anyone could see it — every kid in the school, your teachers, your parents. It happens all the time to great kids. Just don’t send it. And talk to your parents about it.
5. If you receive a sexy photo…
… immediately delete it from your phone, tell your parents, and block the number so you can’t receive more. Possession or distribution of sexual pictures of people who are underage is illegal. If the person who sent it to you asks why, just say “It’s illegal. Let’s talk instead.”
6. Never post your cell phone number
…on Facebook, or broadcast it beyond your friends (because it leaves you open to stalking.)
7. Never broadcast your location
…except in a direct text to friends (because it leaves you open to stalking.) Don’t use location apps that post your location.
8. Never respond to numbers you don’t recognize.
9. If you receive an unsolicited text, that’s spam.
Don’t click on it. Instead, tell your parents so they can report the problem and have the caller blocked.
10. Don’t download apps without your parents’ permission.
11. Don’t spend your baby-sitting money all in one place.
You don’t need web-surfing or ringtones. Get unlimited texts so you don’t have to worry about budgeting.
12. Don’t wear your cell phone on your body
…and don’t use it if you can use a landline. Cell phones are always looking for a signal, and that means they’re sending out waves that you don’t want going through your body. Cancer? Maybe. We don’t know enough yet. So why not just be cautious?
13. Set up your charging station in the living room
…so your phone is not in your room at night.
14. No cell phones at the dining room table.
15. No cell phones out of your backpack while you’re in class.
And of course turn the sound off.
16. Have a life.
Don’t feel obligated to respond to texts right away and don’t text until homework is done, during dinner, or after 9pm.
17. L8R – Later! If you’re driving, turn off your cell phone
…and put it in a bag where you can’t reach it in the back seat. (Make sure you have directions before you start out.) Cars kill people.
18. Nothing replaces FtF.
If a “friend” sends you a mean message, take a deep breath and turn off your phone.Talk to them the next day, Face to Face, about it. Never say anything via text that you wouldn’t say Face to Face.
19. Monitor your phone usage to prevent addiction.
Our brains get a little rush of dopamine every time we interact with our phones, so every text you send or receive, every post or update, feels good. Why is that a problem? Because it can distract us from other things that are important but maybe not so immediately rewarding, like connecting with our families, doing our homework, and just thinking about life. To prevent addiction, make sure you block out time every day — like while you have dinner and do homework — when your phone is off. If you feel like that’s too hard, talk to your parents about it and ask for their help. There are programs that prevent your phone from being used at times you designate.
Raising Kids with the Right Values
“Values” has become a popular word in recent years, especially when preceded by the word “family.” To talk about them is to talk about what kind of person you want your child to be. Most parents, whatever the flavor or fervor of their faith, or whether they live in a red state or a blue, aspire to a short list of universals: honesty, compassion, trustworthiness, generosity of spirit, courtesy, fairness, self-respect, self-discipline.
Of course there are many more. How you rank virtues in importance, and what shape they take in your family, depends on many factors. Religious, cultural, and political convictions are the obvious starting blocks. Your upbringing, life experience, and interests—and those of your partner—color them, too.
Ultimately, though, we “teach” values best by our own example. The characteristics we prize influence the choices we make for our kids, and so do the everyday things we do and say. The cultural backdrop can help (going to church) or hinder (snarky PG movies come to mind), but more than anything else within our control—more, I think, than discipline, socioeconomic status, or education—our values shape the essence of who our children become.
That’s powerful stuff. And it’s why my own short list of core family principles includes the universals, yes—but also these not-quite-traditional ones:
One of parenthood’s most unexpected pleasures for me has been how each of my four children came complete with a strong and distinct personality. When Henry was born, I thought, “So this is what babies are like.” Then when his sister Eleanor came along, I thought, “Well, boys are like Henry, and girls are like Eleanor.” Wrong again, of course. When another sister arrived, and then another, it became clearer and clearer what incredible individuals kids are—from birth.
Preserving this individuality, and helping them to see it in themselves, is one of my top missions as a mom. Once I caught on, that is. I used to avoid dressing Eleanor in pink as a baby because I didn’t want to stereotype her as “girly.” Guess what her favorite color turned out to be?
It can take a little trial and error (and a lot of self-restraint) to figure out where your ideas should end and your child’s begin. Especially when he’s not the person you expected. Although neither George nor I am athletic, Henry’s very first sentence was, “Play ball, Daddy!”
Another time, when Henry was 8, we insisted he take piano lessons. It was a battle to get him to practice. Ever. After less than a year, he quit. On the other hand, four years later Eleanor asked to learn to play, and she practices diligently on her own, every day.
Since then I’ve tried harder to support their natural inclinations. I now take a deep breath and follow their lead (within reason) on books, activities, toys, clothes, and room décor—while still retaining veto power, of course.
I can think of no greater gift to a child (aside from giving life) than helping him to grow into the person he is.
Most parents want their child to be well educated. And George and I are no exception, from buying the first stimulating crib mobile through our choice of a Montessori preschool. But when we moved to a new state, it wasn’t just for a good education. We were drawn to a broader concept: a foundation of possibility.
Because we are both self-employed, we can live anywhere. But as much as I love my parents and siblings (and the mountains and the seashore), we wound up picking a small city with no great natural beauty and no preexisting acquaintances or relatives. It had a national reputation for excellent public schools, a professional population, and proximity to two top universities and a host of smaller colleges. (And, okay, a decent climate.)
I couldn’t care less whether my kids go to Harvard. But I do want them to know it’s out there—I didn’t as a kid—and that it’s part of a whole spectrum of choices. I want them to grow up in a place where people expect to feed their heads and hearts, where you get a base that prepares you for anything. I really like living in a place where their friends come from Japan, India, Europe, and China, and that there are lots of things for all of us to do.
I know it’s also true that cream will rise, love will find a way, and presidents grow up in log cabins. Where you live isn’t everything. But having someone besides your parents whispering “Go for it!” in your ear is.
We have a wacky house. Or so a visiting preschooler once informed me. Many a time my husband has told a young guest tall tales of the monkeys in our freezer only to be met with a solemn stare.
I can appreciate that not everyone is naturally goofy. I’m more the serious type myself. But small children come by silliness naturally, and they deserve to have it preserved as long as possible.
I want my kids to appreciate the absurd. To see tigers in the trees. To make up knock-knock jokes. To know it’s okay to yodel dumb songs (so long as they don’t sing them at the dinner table). To not freeze up with suspicion like some of our visitors when asked our household’s long-running nonsense poll: “Are you a salty dog or a pepper cat?”
(Don’t ask what it means. It’s been years, and I still have no idea.) Kids don’t learn just manners by example; they also learn how to laugh. This wasn’t our stated goal when we started making up silly family songs or laughing off ordinary household disasters. But it’s become a priority.
The first year Henry and Eleanor encountered “TV-Turnoff Week” at school, they refused to participate. “Like that’s going to prove anything!” they snorted.
My first impulse had been to insist they sign the pledge forms like their teacher wanted. But I had to admire their logic. Turning off the TV for a week doesn’t solve the real causes of obesity, violence, and illiteracy. And even at 10 and 8, they understood this.
To learn to think for themselves, kids need conversation, not marching orders. My favorite part of eating dinner together (that undervalued activity worth more than 1,000 soccer practices and music lessons) is being able to sit around talking about the world and everyone’s day. Asking “What do you think?” can take you to some pretty interesting places.
Children also need the downtime and space to think, which is why I’m loath to overschedule their afternoons. I supply lots of white paper, crayons, and backyard time. You also can’t beat open-ended toys like dress-up clothes, blocks, and dolls that don’t have words already programmed inside them.
Prompt disclaimer: I do not starve my kids. (I’m the last pro-Oreo holdout among the moms I know.) The kind of hunger I want for them is the kind of longing I grew up with — of not having life handed to me on a silver platter and every heart’s desire made readily available. Some of those old longings are still palpable: the Barbie Dream House my cousin had while my dolls slept in a cardboard box. Heading out west. These unfulfilled desires still fuel the choices I make as an adult.
It’s not that I’m into deprivation. In many ways my kids have more than I did as a child—bigger house, more books, more “enrichment,” farther-flung vacations. Yet I try to stop short of making everything happen for them, just like that, just because I can.”What do you want Santa to bring?” I once asked a 5-year-old visitor.
“I don’t know. There’s not really anything I need,” she shrugged. She already had a bedroom so stuffed with every toy that she really didn’t want for anything.
Not here. There will be no $30 allowances in this house. No computer at 1, no iPods at 8. No new clothes if the old still fit. Partly it’s about money, sure. But mostly it’s about teaching my kids the hidden values of effort and desire. It kindles a little fire in the belly. So I don’t rush to replace lost lunch boxes. I drag my feet about feeding this year’s trendy toy craze. Waiting to see London or Paris means they’re more likely to properly appreciate it later. (Okay, so I bought the girls a deluxe pink Dream House and the Barbie Cruise Ship, too. But I held the line at the karaoke machine. I’m a little indulgent, but I’m not crazy.)
Does my list have you nodding in agreement—or wrinkling your nose in disgust? The only way to sort out your own roster of family values is to mull it over.
Start with your reactions to my priorities. Maybe you think I left out something essential. More chores? Less goofiness? Do you place family over all else, and if so what does that look like day to day? Maybe your worldview turns more firmly on fiscal responsibility or hard work or faith. What do you wish for your child?
Compare notes with your partner, too. For all our differences, George and I tend to be made of the same core stuff. But couples are often surprised at how their differences of religion, ethnicity, politics, money, and so on—things perhaps blissfully ignored prepregnancy—play out now. Whether you conflict or compromise is hard to say until you’re in there taking inventory and then trying to live in a way that makes those values spring to life.