By Ann Brown
It’s another rainy afternoon. Perfect for making soup, reading, avoiding work, and napping. You’d think I’d be perfectly happy. But no.
I am not snugly in my comfort zone. One of my toes is hanging out.
Kids start off with a very small comfort zone. It’s pretty much Baby + Parents. In preschool, the circle widens to include Teacher and Friends and, often, Mommy’s Favorite Barrista. As we grow older and evolve, we expect that our comfort zone will stretch and grow, as well. We expect we’ll re-evaluate the original blueprint, move walls, increase space, put on a second story, and bump out windows to accommodate our larger life. Getting comfortable in a bigger comfort zone is one way we know our therapy is working and worth the hundreds and the thousands of dollars we have poured into it for all these years, relegating ourselves to living in debt, driving old cars, running up our Master Cards, and eating government cheese.
Raising kids is a daily practice in venturing out of our comfort zones. Well, at least it is for alarmist, hand-wringing, nervous-stomach, neurotic mothers like me. I am ancestrally programmed to circle the wagons and hunker down. I would totally NOT have left Egypt, choosing instead to bring Pharaoh a nice spinach lasagna and offer him parenting advice in exchange for scoring my sons an easy gig working on the nearby pyramids. It is not easy for me to stretch and grow. And, subsequently, it is not easy for me to push my kids to stretch and grow.
Happily, however, they learned to do it despite my hanging to their ankles, crying, “please don’t go!” I tried telling my youngest, when he applied to Georgetown for college, that there were actually no colleges east of Idaho. That all those names – Harvard, Georgetown, Yale – were made up. Like “Brigadoon”. Unfortunately, West Linn High School did a better job at educating him than I had hoped and he called my bluff. Well, not so much called my bluff as patently ignored me and went off to DC for four years.
This reassures me about parenting. It tells me that even when we mess up – and we are going to mess up a lot, and often – all is not lost. Even when we cannot personally provide everything our kids need, we can share with them the experiences of our own inabilities, insecurities, weaknesses, and failures. And sharing those things does indeed provide a rich and meaningful lesson for our kids.
My kids know that I am an overprotective parent. So I try to make the most out of self-deprecation, to take the stinger out of my fretting, to not make them responsible for it. I like to text them with messages like, “just worried for a moment that you are dead and life has no meaning. Please text back within 24 hours.” Or, “please call me every five minutes while you are on the road. Or at least, please call me when you arrive.”
Because my tiny, cramped, overcrowded comfort zone is not their problem.
I first wrote about this topic in 2000 when my oldest left for college. And then again, about six years ago. And, if I am lucky enough to still be writing parenting articles in ten more years (Yikes -I will be almost SEVENTY years old then -let us pause for a moment to consider that -YIKES), I am certain nothing will have changed by then, either. Because the point is not that I need to change myself. (Well, my therapist might disagree. But let her write her own column.) The point is that I cannot allow my overprotective issues to become my children’s issues.
So, I am making soup this rainy afternoon. And reading. And avoiding work. And even though none of my kids lives near me – one lives in New York even though I told him that New York does not exist –and I wish wish wish we were all together safe under one roof, I am comforted to know that I raised them to live their own lives and follow their own destinies. Despite my offer of a zajllion dollars to stay here. Because, and this is worth repeating from the paragraph above, I do not want my issues to become their issues. Well, I kinda secretly do, but at least I know it’s wrong.
Easier said than done, I know. But we can all get there. Walk this way. And if you are in NY, can you make sure my son is dressing warmly? Much obliged.
By Ann Brown, Parenting Coach
Those of you in my classes and parenting groups have heard me start many sentences with, “after the revolution, when I am in charge of the world and we all live on communes in peace and harmony….” But today, I am going to write about what we can do while waiting for the revolution.
It’s getting out of hand, all the “stuff” we all have. Even those of us who endeavor to buy mindfully wind up with too much stuff. And not only is there too much of it, so much of it is…well, you know what I am thinking.
What do kids need? Other than the basics, of course: love, acceptance, security, a home, clothing, food, and family. And other than the next round of basics, of course: friends, community, appropriate exposure to the beauty of the world (art, music…), laughter, and a sense of being necessary to others.
Hmm….actually, that list looks pretty complete to me. I’d add a few more things: a spiritual grounding (not necessarily religious, but mindful), ritual, milestones, and stories.
Yup, that looks complete now.
But we also live in the modern Hallmark world and gift giving exists. So, I ask you this question – how much is enough? And how courageous are you willing to be in defending your personal definition of “enough”?
Let me repeat myself (yet again), albeit abridged this time. For generations, parents knew that their goal was to make a better life for their children. And those children, in turn, tried to make a better life for their children. My grandparents came from Eastern Europe, fleeing oppression and genocide – it was clear that what they wanted for their children, who would be born here, was safety and religious freedom and a chance out of poverty. My parents, living a better life than their parents, still strived to make a better life for my sister and me. We had a nice home, college educations, summer camp, family vacations, and Barbie dolls. It was a little more difficult for my sister and me to figure out how to make OUR children’s lives better than our own.
Those of you who have enough, who have more than enough, have a huge responsibility as well. What will your children strive for, if all children strive to improve their lives over their parents’ lives? What can they achieve to surpass you, other than an even bigger house, a nicer car, and newer technology?
My father used to tell us that each generation must leave the world in better shape than we received it. This comes from traditional Jewish teachings, but it’s not an instruction only for Jews.
If you are fortunate enough to have enough, then you must teach your children that what they must strive for is helping those who do not have enough. Allow me one more Jewish teaching: “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Beginning to use the word “enough” with your kids is a big first step. It’s a hard word to use with kids because they will fight you on it; after all, “enough” is so utterly subjective. But you must be strong, courageous, and committed to not raising kids who cannot even count how many toys they have in their bedrooms.
I forgot to get her permission to use her name, so I will just say that there is a woman in one of my classes (we will call her, “Mom”) who can afford to get her kids lots of gifts, but has chosen to give them each only three gifts at Christmas. This is a radical, revolutionary act. If every family who could afford to buy a lot, simply chose to give their children three gifts at Christmas, I bet it would make a small dent somewhere. And children would know that being fortunate enough to have money means that we need to be responsible with it. And those three gifts would be really exciting to the kids. And they wouldn’t get lost in the hail of wrapping paper and more gifts and endless crap that turns it all into mindless acquisition. And there’d be some money left over to share with others who are not so fortunate. All because of one pebble being dropped in the water when a family with money chose to give their kids only three gifts at the holidays.
I hear the drums beating. Next step, we buy land for the commune. Now, who’s with me?
By Ann Brown
I’ve been listening to The Four Tops. If you don’t know what I am talking about, if you do not know who The Four Tops are, if you are not familiar with their music, well, then, I really don’t know what to do with you. Maybe a time-out. Oh wait, I don’t believe in them. And I certainly cannot spank you. So, for now, I will give you “what am I going to do with you” shrug and make a note to myself to meet with you later, privately, to give you a quick tutorial in Motown music and to remind you what is truly cool.
“Sugar Pie, honey bunch,” they are singing, “you know that I love you….I can’t help myself…”
Can’t help myself has been a topic in parenting class recently. In behavior speak, this is called impulse control. Which is the stuff young kids lack.
Let’s not even get to kids yet. Judging by the empty box of Wheat Thins and Manchego cheese next to my computer (we will overlook the half-empty wine bottle, but we both know it’s here), I would add that impulse control is something that 56-year-olds aren’t exactly full of, either.
Sure, I told myself that, say, twelve Wheat Thins were enough, and that a few slivers of cheese is all I need (and that opening the second bottle of wine was just asking for trouble) but when push came to shove, my impulses kicked the derriere of my control.
Impulse control is a wily thing. You have it one minute, and the next minute you are completely consumed by other forces. You tell yourself that you are giving up caffeine, that it makes you jittery and gives you ulcers, and the next minute you are face down on the floor with yesterday’s funky old coffee filter stuck to you lips, sucking in the old grounds.
And that’s adult behavior.
Impulse control in the hands of a preschooler, well, you can just imagine. Oh wait, you don’t have to imagine. You are living it. Want some wine?
Preschoolers know a lot of stuff. It amazes us how much they know. It also confuses us, however, because we tend to mix up “knowing” with “being able to retrieve the information at appropriate situations and overpower impulse with intellect.” Easy mix-up.
What does your kid know already? Let’s just name a few things:
Don’t run into the street.
Don’t unbuckle your car seat.
Don’t pull the cat’s tail.
Don’t sneak candy from the Halloween bowl.
Don’t take Mommy’s lipstick and practice making “M”s and “N”s on the wall.
Don’t stick stuff up your nose.
Don’t pick your nose. Or anyone else’s nose.
Don’t scream while you are waiting for the toast. Screaming doesn’t make the toaster go any faster.
Don’t throw your new toy on the ground just because I didn’t open the stupid package the way you wanted me to.
There is no wrong way to open a stupid package, anyway.
Don’t hit your sister even though she’s been bugging you all morning.
Get the idea?
Now…how many of those things does your child NEVER EVER EVER do?
I am presuming none of you answered that your child never does any of those things. And if one of you did answer that way, then why on earth are you sitting around reading an article on parenting? Go. Get up, get dressed and go accept your Most Awesome Parent award at the Kodak Theater. And don’t expect any of us to be your friend anymore. There is such a thing as being too awesome, you know.
When we rely on their impulse control to keep our kids in line, we are not only setting ourselves – and our kids – up for failure, we are not respecting the reasonable expectations of their developmental stages. And, we are going to be feeling and projecting a lot of disappointment, exasperation, and frustration towards our child. And sooner or later, that comes back to bite us.
So, instead, we need to give our children appropriate doses of power, of choice, or frustration; we need to set them up for success. And in doing so, we get the added benefit of not feeling like our heads are going to explode any minute.
A single example:
Your child runs away from you. You say to him, calmly, while he is still in his car seat, in the parking lot, “now remember, you need to be safe and not run from me.” Or you say, “remember to wait for me at the corner so I can cross the street with you” or, “Listen, you little snot-nosed rug rat, I’ve HAD it with your running away” (for the purposes of this article I am not judging).
Your child listens, nods, agrees; she can even recite back to you why it isn’t safe to run away from Mommy or Daddy. You unbuckle the car seat. She bolts.
Yes, she bolts. You yell. You chase. You grab. You lecture. She promises. You reiterate, for good measure. She is contrite (or exultant, high on her victory). You hug.
Then she bolts again.
There is another way, my friends.
Do not give your child the opportunity to fail, to defy you, to get hit by a car. You can do this while still building his confidence that he is capable of making good choices (even when he isn’t making them right now).
You pull into the parking lot and you say to your child, “I am going to help you remember not to run away because it is my job to keep you safe.”
Try not to say too much more than that because after a few paragraphs, we are pretty much nothing but white noise to our kids. And spouses.
And then you unbuckle the car seat, help your child out and NEVER EVER LET GO OF HIS HAND UNTIL YOU GET INTO THE BUILDING.
He will protest. He will negotiate. He will yell. And you will look at him with compassionate detachment and shrug. If you feel an overwhelming need to talk and if he is listening, you can say, “we can try it again tomorrow (or next month, whatever) to see if you are ready to keep yourself safe.”
It’s not a magic strategy. It’s not flawless, but it works. I promise you that it works.
Now, pass the wine and cheese over here. And open up a new box of Wheat Thins, wouldja? And don’t be giving me that “what about your impulse control?” look. I’ve had a hard day.
By: Ann Brown
Doing the work I do and having grown children who no longer pick their noses in public or have screaming tantrums at Whole Foods, affords me a certain amount of, um, flexibility with the truth. I mean, my kids are 25 and 30 years old and they are great kids. They make me look like I knew what I was doing when I raised them.
Which, of course, I didn’t. Nobody knows what they are doing in the middle of doing it. Raising kids is pretty much a leap of faith and a commitment to not keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Yeah, I talked a good talk even back then and I totally lorded over Robin that I WAS A PARENTING INSTRUCTOR and he was an electrician and that meant that I was right about everything, but I was just as clueless as the rest of the hoi polloi.
Which is why it is helpful when my grown kids tell me where I went wrong. And by “helpful”, I mean it is a huge pain in the derriere and nobody asked them, anyway.
Still, you can’t unring a bell. So I endeavor to listen with an open mind when they tell me these things. And I endeavor to share honestly with you about the mistakes I’ve made so you can benefit from my cluelessness. And if you cannot benefit from my cluelessness, then I endeavor to offer really good coffee and snacks in class. And wine in my private groups. Because, you know, raising kids is hard, and eating brownies and drinking wine helps take the edge off. Even when your kids are 25 and 30 and doing great.
Last summer, one of my kids made a comment about my parenting that blew my mind. We were talking about how vehemently he refused to do things he didn’t want to do, and how it was nearly impossible to talk him into trying new things.
He said, “I wish you would have forced me.”
I said, “What are you talking about? You were very strong-willed. And besides, I wanted to give you a voice in the decisions.”
“Yeah” he said, “but you should have just forced me to do some of the stuff. I would have had more experiences, you know?”
Since then, I have been mulling this over. Not only does it fly in the face of my general parenting philosophy, I actually don’t know how I would have forced him to, for instance, go to summer camp. Tie him up and throw him on the bus?
I get his point, however. When it comes to pushing someone (or myself) out of the comfort zone, I tend to err on the side of DON’T. On the side of STAY. On the side of IT’S NO BIG DEAL. CLIMB BACK INTO BED AND HUNKER DOWN.
Clearly, there has to be a middle ground in this. I couldn’t have been the kind of parent who, say, throws a screaming kid into the deep end of the pool. That isn’t who I am. And I had VERY articulate children. Even at age four, they presented strong arguments against my opinions. I remember one of my kids – at age three – saying to Robin, “what makes you uniquely qualified to know if I am tired? It’s my body.”
So, hearing that he wished I had not given him so much power is an intriguing thought to me.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I didn’t let them make all their own decisions about everything. It wasn’t complete Woodstock over at our house back then. But when it came to issues that pushed me out of my comfort zone, I tended to not push the kids that way. So, for instance, if the kids made a stink about, say, taking a hike on a beautiful day and the truth was that I really didn’t want to have to get dressed and leave the house that day, I let it slide. Or if they hated soccer after one game and I was secretly relieved not to have to schlep them to practices and games, I let it slide and let them quit.
And I was probably wrong to have done that. So I tried to remedy it by forcing the kids to take a walk the last time they were here. They said, “we are grownups now. You can’t force us to take a walk.”
I said, “I am old and might die soon.”
We had a nice walk.
I see that the trick, now that I have the benefit of hindsight, to this forcing/giving a voice conundrum is to get very clear about where we – the parents – are on the issue. We so often tell our kids to do something before we have really processed out how important it is to us. And then when the kid refuses or argues, we automatically take an opposite stand. And a fight ensues. And we get stressed. And we run out of brownies and wine. And life sucks.
The trick is to give our kids a very clear message. This is what we are going to do because it’s something that is important to our family. Or, I would like you to try, but ultimately, it is your decision. Unfortunately, we too often give them a message that is nebulously in-between the two. We say things like, “I really, really want you to do this. You will make me very happy if you do it.” Which is really nothing more than guilt mongering for young kids.
I mean, let’s say you asked your child to clean his room, or come with you to visit Grandma or do the extra credit homework or feed the dog or take the SAT or bring you a glass of water or drive the neighbor to her doctor appointment or write a thank-you note. And your child argues that there is no time, or s/he is tired or it’s not important. The first thing we have to ask ourselves is, “how strong is my commitment to having this done? Where does it find into the big picture of the kind of kids I want to raise?” If you figure that out first, your response to your child’s refusal will come easily. And arguing will be greatly reduced. And it will stop raining and unicorns will dance in the meadow.
But you will still be out of brownies and wine.
By: Ann Brown
A parent dropped off a magazine article to me a few weeks ago, saying, “I thought you’d like this.” I am always curious to see what kinds of things you think I’d be interested in because I know I kinda have a reputation for being a bit….well, offbeat. I remember a while back, a parent in my class brought me a book on parenting by the alignment of the stars, certain that I had already read it, perhaps even co-authored it. And I still have the article a parent gave me when I taught in LA, on how to raise your child without ever saying the word no; with a personal note attached: I bet you agree with this, huh?
I hope I don’t need to tell you that I most certainly do NOT agree with that idea. Although I do feel that we say no to our kids before we are committed to enforcing it, and that causes all sorts of problems.
But I digress…
Admittedly, I do embrace some of the more Bohemian ideas in life; however, I have not raised my kids by the alignment of the stars, never telling them no, hydroponically, speaking only Esperanto, in a Skinner Box, or by feeding them food that correlates to their inner temperaments. Okay, well, I did do the food–to-temperament thing but only because my son really did like the fruits that grow high on trees. (It’s a Waldorf thing.)
But this parent last week was right on target with me. I loved that article she gave me, titled, “The Benefits of Boredom”. It’s so refreshing to read something academic; something with scientific data that supports my soapbox pontificating. I knew from years of being a parent and more years of being a teacher that our kids do not get enough “off duty” time. I knew it in my intellect and I knew it in my heart, and here it was in black and white: “…some experts think that allowing kids to do nothing may be the most creativity-building activity of all.”
Pretty revolutionary words in this age of in-utero Baby Mozart.
There was an expression in the article that I particularly liked: unbroken days. That expression evoked in me visions of warm, sunny days, long summer afternoons and full relaxation. As parents, the first thing we relinquish to our new life is the promise of unbroken days. Who among us doesn’t long for an entire month, week, day, even an hour of uninterrupted time? To begin a project knowing that we don’t have to stop until we are done. To sit quietly with our thoughts. To be the master of our own time. To be free of the insidious alarm clock within us that finds us only half-enjoying our free time, never knowing when we will be called away, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Anyone with kids knows what I am talking about. We are so burdened with schedules, time limits, hurrying, doing, doing, doing.
And yet, we visit this burden upon our children. In our sincere and noble quest to enrich our children’s lives we might have forgotten the value of doing nothing. “The moment you start slotting things in and breaking up time, you’re breaking up the opportunity for discovery,” reads the article. It goes on to praise giving kids space to daydream. A first grade teacher remembers scolding one of her students for daydreaming during a lesson on the letter M, but when she asked the child what he was thinking about when he was supposed to be thinking about the letter M, he replied, “I was wondering… if people are flying in a jet that’s going faster than the speed of sound, would that change their conversation?” A daydream worthy of Einstein, to be sure.
Summer is here and with it comes the rite of modern society: summer activity sign-ups. The papers are filled with summer camp advertisements, classes, enrichment programs. It’s easy to get pulled along. It’s easy to think that your kids are missing out on important opportunities if they aren’t enrolled in Advanced Papier Mache class, or Conversational Sanskrit, or SAT for Tots. It’s easy to think that your child needs a handful of playdates during a week-long school break. It’s difficult to swim against the stream, to introduce your family to doing nothing. We all want to avoid hearing the dreaded, “I’m bored” when it’s only 10AM on the first Monday morning of a three-month summer vacation.
My sister and I used to perform “plays” for the neighborhood kids when we were young. These plays were conceived in long, boring, hot summer days when we had given up bugging my mom to take us to the beach, to take us to a friend’s house, to take us ANYWHERE. We flopped around on the backyard lawn for a few hours and then we started on that day’s play. Lucky for us, the rest of the neighborhood kids were as bored as we were, else they would have walked out on our daily musical extravaganzas, which consisted mainly of my sister putting various costumes on me while singing the “ya da da da ta da” theme from The Can-Can. But the point is, we didn’t need to be enrolled in a children’s’ theater class (though our critics might disagree) to inspire us; we simply needed the time and the absence of distraction.
I am not against all extracurricular activities. And spending a summer or a weekend at home, but glued to the tube or in front of the computer is also not what I am talking about. I am talking about giving our kids the gift of unbroken days. Letting them be bored. Letting them discover their thoughts, their inner quietude, letting them discover themselves.
And discovering who you are is a truly enriching activity.
By: Ann Brown
The mistake I want to talk about this month is difficult to label in a few words. I guess I could call it thinking that I needed to entertain or engage my kids when I was home with them. I know that it’s nearly impossible to get anything done when you are home with young children; what I am trying to figure out is why. Well, I know why; what I am trying to figure out is how to get the balance back.
In class, I often refer to other cultures or other generations when attempting to get a perspective on the problems parents face today. I think that one big difference is that parents today have somehow gotten the notion that it is their job to play with their kids. I know that’s a simplistic way to put it and I certainly don’t mean to say that we should never play with our children. But we do seem to devote a lot of time to dealing with the cry of, “Mom! Dad! I’m bored” or “play with me!” Even if we aren’t playing with them, we are explaining to them why we aren’t. Either way, we aren’t getting our things done.
This is not an article about how to be more efficient at home, or how to organize your chores. This is, instead, a more philosophical look at the messages we give our kids when we allow their activities to rule our lives.
Those of you who have sat through my endless analysis of the PBS series of “Frontier House” will have to humor me one more time because I think the lessons learned from that show are worthy of considering. (Quick recap: modern families spent eight or nine months living in conditions that were as close to actual frontier families’ lives as the producers could recreate.)
The parents in those cabins didn’t waste a whole lot of time helping their kids find something to do all day. Not only did the parents have to tend to their chores; so did the kids. It was a matter of survival. I see some tremendously important messages in that: one, that life demands things of us and it isn’t ours to whine and protest and have hissy fits about it; and, two, that each of us holds an essential link in the chain. We are responsible for each other, as well as for ourselves.
In class, I call this a sense of purpose. And I do believe that it is one of the two keys (the other being a sense of belonging) to a healthy and happy life (and a healthy and happy society, in my opinion, but that’s an article for another month).
When a child has a hard time separating from Mom or Dad in preschool, I sometimes like to approach the problem from a new angle. Instead of devoting lots and lots of time to feeding the role of being sad or homesick I offer a new role to the child. I entrust the child with a task, a contribution, a sense of purpose in the class. I do this because I believe that we all rise to a higher place when people are counting on us. Someone in my class a few weeks ago made a parallel analogy. She was in an elevator that got stuck between floors. This woman was a bit claustrophobic, and when the elevator stopped she began to panic, feeling her heart starting to race. She looked to the other woman in the elevator for comfort and help. But before she could say what she had planned to say (which was, “I’m freaking out. I am going to faint”), the other woman started hyperventilating. “I’m claustrophobic,” the other woman told her, “I’ve got to get out of here.” Well, in a remarkable turn, the woman in my class immediately assumed the role of the one in control. She talked the other woman through her anxiety attack and kept her calm until the elevator started up again. It wasn’t until the woman in my class was safely back in her hotel room that she realized what had happened.
When we are necessary to others, to our family, to our community, we rise to the occasion. The mom in my class rose to the occasion. The kids living in the frontier times (or, at least the kids living in the televised recreated frontier times) quickly realized that milking the cows or chopping the wood or taking care of the things they have or even simply staying out of the way of their parents were things that were necessary to eating, staying warm, and having things. And, in the end, having purpose, being a contributor to the family, raised their sense of worth and self-esteem to heights that few modern children possess. In fact, when these kids were interviewed after returning home to their modern lives, they all expressed feelings of emptiness and depression despite their TV’s and CD players and Game Boys and action figures and full refrigerators. They felt happier, more connected when they were back in the frontier house with only one handmade toy and long hours of chores.
To begin a quest for a sense of purpose for our children we need to put our own lives under a microscope and evaluate the lifestyle we’ve created. As I’ve said many times in class, it is indeed a challenge to create a sense of survival in a world that offers pizza delivery, gas fireplaces, twenty-four hour online shopping and already-peeled onions at Zupan’s. It is indeed a challenge to find meaningful contributions our young children can make to their family and their community. But it is a quest so worthy of our time and efforts because with a sense of purpose, almost everything else falls into place.
By: Joe Newman
Our boys are in trouble. They are falling behind girls academically, socially, and psychologically. Consider the following:
• Boys are 30% more likely to drop out of school before graduation.
• Girls outperform boys at all levels of schooling, from elementary to graduate programs.
• Boys are 11% less likely to get a B.A. and 10% less likely to get a graduate degree than girls are.
• Boys make up 2/3 of special education programs.
• Boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed and medicated for ADHD.
There has been a confluence of cultural shifts responsible for this dangerous trend, a sort of perfect storm that is ravaging the psyches of our boys. The shifts fall into one of three categories:
Shifts in what our boys do with their free time, shifts in our schools, and shifts in the parenting. Understanding these three areas will point us in the direction of how we can take practical steps to save our boys.
First, boys are spending a lot of their free time playing video games and watching porn on the internet.
• By age 21 boys have spent an average of 10,000 hours gaming, 2/3rds of that in isolation.
• The average boy watches 50 porn clips per week.
The result of this is that boys are developing “arousal addictions” and they are developing minds that seek constant change, novelty, excitement, and arousal. This makes them unprepared for classrooms that are predominantly interactively passive, static, and analog in nature. It also makes it more difficult for them to develop real relationships which build gradually and subtly (from Philip Zimbardo: The demise of guys? – http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/zimchallenge.html).
Next, the culture of our schools is increasingly alienating boys.
• Boys are expelled 3 times as often as girls.
• They are suspended 2.5 times as often.
• They are 2.75 times as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability.
• They are 3.24 times as likely to be diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.
Ali Carr-Chellman of Penn State attributes the above to three factors. First there is a “zero tolerance” policy toward weapons or violence. This is often translated into not only a ban on real and toy weapons but also writing about these things or about topics that seem destructive or violent in nature. Second, there is an appalling lack of male role models in our elementary schools. Ten years ago 14% of elementary school teachers were male. Today that number has dropped to 7%. And third, there has been a compressing of our children’s curriculum in essence making “kindergarten the new second grade”. The effect being that teachers are under pressure to move children quickly through the curriculum and there is much less tolerance for the child who is active and needs to move (predominantly boys).
Finally, in the last 30 years, our parenting culture has shifted from an emphasis on raising children who respect their parents to raising children who respect themselves. Consequently, our children are more confident, assertive, and willful. Add to this that the ways in which parents deal with conflict has shifted to using more and more communication and explaining instead of action consequences; the result is children who are stronger but more difficult to control. This lack of effective boundaries also stunts a child’s capacity for intimacy and promotes feelings of anger and isolation. (For more on this see my book Raising Lions or my blog ‘The Beautiful Tyrant’.)
Add these three factors together and we can see how boys are slowly being marginalized at our schools and consequently within our culture.
Here are some practical steps parents can take to bring back our boys:
• Move all computers into the public areas of the house. This will prevent a lot of your children’s ability/desire to watch porn. And use a porn filter to make it more difficult when you’re not home.
• Place a limit on video gaming time. Between 2 to 4 hours a week at most. Let your child choose how to divvy up the time.
• Encourage activities that aren’t virtual: Building projects, theater, Cub & Boy Scouts, sports and playing outside.
• Watch the TED talk by Gever Tulley “5 dangerous things you should let your kids do” then do these with your sons.
• Advocate for, and encourage, your sons to write about and express what they find interesting, even if it involves weapons, battles, and things being blown up.
• Learn to set action consequences instead of giving information in response to problem behavior.
• Create real jobs for your children to do that support the daily functioning of your home. This goes beyond traditional chores to include learning to make dinner, changing light bulbs, doing dishes or laundry, spending a day painting the kitchen with Mom and/or Dad. This can contribute greatly to your child feeling a sense of responsibility and connection to his immediate community.
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators, and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.
By: Joe Newman
Struggles, difficulties and deferred gratification are good for children. These things used to be a much bigger part of growing up and there wasn’t any other option. Today most parents have the option of giving their child almost everything they want (attention, toys, constant stimulation, choices about everything, lavish praise). One of my clients called the sickness this creates in our children “affluenza”. In today’s society it’s necessary for parents to create deferred gratification even when they have the resources to give immediate gratification. Struggles, difficulties, and deferred gratification are essential to the development of emotional regulation, intimacy, self–discipline, and feelings of connection with the world around them.
Parent like an adult, not like your inner-child. There is a natural, but unhealthy, tendency to parent our children in terms of what we needed and never got as children. Although doing this feels like being considerate of what your child needs, it’s not. It’s self-involved. Try not to parent in reaction to the way you were parented. Make a concerted effort to listen to feedback from others about your parenting and be extra reflective about recognizing the difference between what you needed as a child and what your child needs right now. Remember, no parent thinks they’re permissive.
Match the will of your child, but don’t shame it. We are raising children who are strong, confident, and tenacious. Parents must be prepared to be at least as tenacious about enforcing boundaries as children are about pushing them. It’s natural that our children push boundaries more fiercely than we did. Don’t expect them to respond to the same things that worked with us as children; they’re stronger so we also need to be stronger. At the same time we shouldn’t resent it when they question and test so often.
Recognize and acknowledge your child’s power. In both times of cooperation and of conflict do your best to point out and respect your child’s ability to make their own choices. Rather than telling them what they “should”, “must”, or “have” to do, point out that they are free to make their own choices even when you disagree with them. It’s a good way to teach them what they control and what they don’t control. “You can decide to _______, but _______ leads to this. If you’re okay with that then that’s your choice.” They control their choices. You administer the outcomes.
Don’t explain to a child what they can figure out themselves. Too much explaining makes feeble, passive children. Never tell a child something they could realize themselves with a bit of coaching or consequence. Ask questions about whether the choices they made served them well. And never tell a child something you are sure they already know. Never address problem behavior with explanations and information they already know.
Let consequences teach. Children make their choices based on what works. If rude and inconsiderate behavior gets them what they want, don’t expect them to change because this violates your moral reasoning. Don’t blame your children for their bad behavior. If you don’t like their behavior change the consequences of those behaviors.
Take the anger, judgment, disappointment, and moralizing out of your parenting. All of these things can be forms of manipulation and eventually they will backfire on you. While it’s natural to have an emotional reaction to some of the things your child does, never use emotion to manipulate or shame.
The parent is in charge and this is the natural order of things. Children who have too much control over their parents become anxious, angry, and lonely. Children are comforted by parents who assert control without negating their needs or feelings. These children are better equipped to internalize the boundaries the parent holds.
Have your own needs,and make sure your child learns to consider them. Teaching your child to consider your needs is as important as considering theirs. It’s important that parents maintain an independent sense of what they like, want, and enjoy and not allow their identity to be dominated by their sense of themselves as an excellent parent.
Embrace conflict. The less you shy away from conflict the less of it you’ll have. Learn to deal straightforwardly with aggression and dependence.
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators, and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.
By: Joe Newman
I recently saw a 20/20 program entitled Stupid in America with the tag line – “Kids failed to make the grade because their schools failed them” in which they looked critically at grade schools in America as compared to schools in other countries. The program showed how schools in America were producing much less capable children and implied this was because of the incompetence and lack of effort put forth by American teachers. They did this without offering any explanation as to why our teachers had apparently lost their efficacy and ability to care.
As I watched how European students far outpaced their American counterparts of the same age, I thought, “Of course Europeans are outperforming us! Their teachers don’t spend half their time trying to overcome the culture of entitlement. American teachers spend an inordinate amount of time on classroom management and attempting to deal with children who believe their opinions are just as important as the teacher’s. Hours of classroom learning are lost each day and by the time our children are graduating high school their European counterparts have had many more years of real education.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the reporters at 20/20 used the same kind of thinking to examine the problem as was used to create it – “Our parenting, our culture, and our children are perfect; blame the teachers.”
The unspoken assumption I see in most children at school is that they are perfect and correct until proven otherwise and that it is the responsibility of the teacher to prove himself or herself knowledgeable, entertaining, and engaging. Every teacher must constantly battle this assumption in order to get to moments of real teaching and learning.
While not all children come to school with this assumption, this is the current classroom zeitgeist and it pervades our classrooms.
Deference and appreciation is a rare commodity in most of the children I see in schools today. And these attributes are fundamental to creating an atmosphere that is conducive to learning.
Here are a few of the myths that are instilled in our children at home that create this culture of entitlement and undermine our children’s capacity to learn.
Education is something they’re entitled to, not something they are fortunate to get. Children feeling a sense of appreciation toward their teacher and their school is the first step toward a child coming to school with a seeking mind and willingness to work hard.
The child’s opinion is just as important as the opinion of the teacher. Children who are given choices about everything learn to question anything they don’t prefer. This might seem fine for a tolerant parent at home, but by the time these children enter school it becomes extremely difficult to deal with their belief that their opinions are just as valuable, or more valuable, than the opinion of their teacher.
Children should be treated with the same deference that teachers are. Wrong! Teachers, and for that matter most adults, are entitled to more deference than children because they have more experience, know more, and have gone through difficulties the child has not yet faced. And more to the point – if children come into school with this belief, the implication is they should have as much of a say in running the classroom as their teacher does. The teacher who has a classroom full of these kinds of children will spend an inordinate amount of class time dealing with behaviors and negotiating boundaries.
The following are some concrete steps you can take to prepare your children to learn at school.
- Give children choices about some things and not others.
- There should be times when “no discussion” is the rule.
- Teach your children that having choices is a privilege that can be taken away if they don’t respect the rules that govern them.
- Tell them the rule once, or not at all. Repeating rules over and over is condescending and tells them it’s the adult’s responsibility to remember the rules and not the child’s responsibility to proactively consider others.
- Choose what deserves praise. When everything a child does is praised, your praise becomes meaningless.
- Be authentic. Don’t be afraid of telling a child you think they could do better when it’s clear they haven’t given their best effort.
Transforming the state of education in this country will start with transforming the culture of parenting.
By: Joe Newman
One afternoon, I was watching a first-grader named Jimmy playing Legos with two other boys when I heard him say to his friend Ryan, “That’s a stupid way to build it. The wings are gonna fall off. Give me the ship. You’re stupid!”
Ryan looked hurt, put the half-built spaceship down, crossed his arms and turned his back to Jimmy.
Jimmy was very impulsive and often said the first thing that popped into his mind without thinking. He was trying his best to make friends but most of the children still didn’t like him very much. He and Ryan had become friends about two months earlier and had even had a few play dates together after school.
I winced when I heard him call Ryan stupid, not only because he clearly hurt Ryan’s feelings, but also because I was afraid he might lose one of his precious few friends. So I called Jimmy over and said to him, “Jimmy, let me ask you a question. Do you want to have more friends?”
Jimmy looked at me suspiciously and gave a tentative “Yes.”
“Okay, and are you happy about how many play dates you have or do you want to have more?”
“I want to have more.” Jimmy said.
“So right now, after what you just said to him, do you think Ryan wants to be your friend?”
“But Ryan was being stupid. If you put the wings on like that they’ll never stay. You need to ….”
I broke in and said, “Hold on, hold on. I didn’t ask you if Ryan was being stupid, maybe he was. I’m just asking you if you think he wants to be your friend when you call him stupid.”
“I don’t know. Probably not,” he said.
“Well I just wanted to ask you because I know you want to have more friends and play dates, so I couldn’t figure out why you called Ryan stupid.”
Then after a pause I said, “Do you want to go back and play?”
“Yeah.” Jimmy said.
“Go on then.”
Jimmy had always been resistant to anyone telling him that something he did was wrong or a bad idea. I’d learned that if I asked him questions, and didn’t force him to admit he was wrong, he was more likely to talk with me honestly and change his behavior.
Guidance Without Manipulation
There are all kinds of subtle manipulations in the language we use when we talk with children. This new generation of children, children with more highly developed communication skills and a stronger sense of themselves, are highly sensitive to manipulation and they will resist it. The use of manipulation is an attempt to shape and change them based in a fear that the child will not come to the correct conclusions on their own. The child’s resistance will start an antagonistic and oppositional dynamic. The most effective way to speak to these children is to speak to them in terms that acknowledge their independent will.
Recognize that children ultimately make the decisions in each circumstance and that we cannot make decisions for them. Also, the language that we use with children should communicate to them a belief that they are capable of making logical, healthy decisions that are respectful of themselves and others. The language commonly used to speak with children is filled with manipulation, moralizing, and innuendo about what they should and shouldn’t do. This kind of language communicates to them our lack of faith in both their ability to make decisions, and in their capacity as moral and ethical persons.
Learning or Realization?
There are two different ways to teach a child –through a process of learning or a process of realization. When trying to teach a child after a moment of conflict or difficulty it is much more effective to use a process of realization.
Learning happens when you take information, or the conclusion about something, from someone else. The adult gives the information or conclusion and the child takes it.
Realization happens when you gather your own information and come to the conclusion on your own. The adult can lead a child to realizations by asking questions rather than giving answers.
Using a series of questions to lead someone to certain realizations is commonly called the Socratic method. Wikipedia defines Socratic method as “a form of philosophical inquiry in which the questioner explores the implications of others’ positions, to stimulate rational thinking and illuminate ideas.”
Did That Work for You?
The key to having a Socratic dialogue with children is to base your discussion around asking them, in as many ways as possible, “Did the choices you made get you what you wanted?”
When you lead a child to examine the facts and ideas based on better understanding of what’s in her own self-interest, rather than telling her your conclusions about what she should and shouldn’t do, she will more easily embrace the realizations and conclusions she’s come to because she feels respected and not manipulated.
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com..
[Photo Credit: ianus]