Subways, Buses, and Backpacks: Teaching Kids Frugal Travel Skills

This is a guest post I just wrote for the Center for a New American Dream website.

I bumped into my friend Sarah the other day.  As we stood in the hot, dry Colorado air I asked about her summer.  Turns out her family had just returned from their annual trip to Norway where her husband’s parents live.

I tried to contain my jealousy, which I found wasn’t easy in 100 degree heat.  Ah, peaceful, idyllic, never-sweltering Scandinavia.  Staying with grandparents, eating delicious dairy products, and sleeping between crisp, clean linens.  A vacation where your biggest concern is which berry patch to visit each afternoon.

My family had recently returned from a different kind of vacation.  On our trip my husband Todd and I discussed how helpful it would have been to have relatives in some of the East Coast cities we were visiting.  Not only would it have lowered the price tag of the vacation, but it would have allowed more down time between explorations.  And there probably would have been fewer wrong turns and buses taken during our forays.

on the NYC subway

For this year’s vacation, we extended our familiar Washington DC trip, where I have family, to include New York City and Boston.  As our kids get older they are increasingly interested in US history and geography.  Our home state of Colorado only has so much to offer in these departments.  Additionally, a while back our 13 year-old son attended a lecture by Peace Corps volunteers.  By the end of the talk, he was inspired to do a future Peace Corps stint – and his enthusiasm has been consistent for over a year.

As Todd and I have pondered our son’s travel visions, we’ve realized that, although our kids are excited about seeing the world, they have few skills for the budget traveling they will probably undertake as late teens and 20-somethings.

We’ve concluded that we won’t be able to offer our children Europe any time soon, but frugal travel is something we can definitely provide!  Since we didn’t have family in New York City or Boston our upcoming trip was an ideal time to begin actively teaching our kids feet-on-the-ground travel.

For starters, our trip included no rental cars, no taxis, and no Broadway shows or expensive activities.  However, there was a train (from Washington DC to Boston and back through New York City), and there were subways in three cities, local buses, and many miles of walking – with stops for frappés, cannoli, or deli sandwiches depending on the city.  In the end we discovered that feet-on-the-ground travel was not only inexpensive, it was also a green way to travel – another skill we wanted our kids to learn.

For the six frugal travel strategies we used, click over to the Center for a New American Dream.

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Why Is the Transition to Summer Always Harder Than I Expect?!

One summer when my sons were 2 and 4, my sister, Heather, came to visit.  At that time we lived in a small apartment near the university.  Due to the size of our home and the wattage of our children’s energy, we spent much of our time outside, frequently at local parks and playgrounds.  Even in the heart of winter.

Not yet a parent herself, Heather may not have realized just how many playground outings she was to take part in on this visit.  In the end it was unclear whether she still considered her time with us a vacation, though I’m sure it felt good to go back to her own peaceful home.

We were returning from one of these outings early in Heather’s stay when I found myself strategizing aloud.  “Heather, when we get inside, you take Stephen and I’ll cover Daniel.  If we don’t they’ll start poking and shoving before we know it.”

“But,” Heather pleaded looking a bit worn out from the running games she’d played with the boys in our dry, high-altitude climate, “won’t they be tired from playing and less likely to fight?”

“One would think so.  I used to think so,” I responded.  “And if there was justice in the world this would indeed be the case. Yet these small beings defy logic.  Instead of arriving calmly at their familiar residence, the transition back home brings out the worst in them.  So get ready,” I added.

At about this time in my kids’ lives, I’d begun to find scraps of energy for skimming the various parenting books I’d amassed.  Many of the books mentioned children’s struggles with transitions.  The teachers at my kids’ preschool gave similarly sage advice about transition times.

I began to notice the many transitions in my children’s days.  What made these times so challenging for my kids?

There were the small, daily transitions – waking up in the morning, coming home from the park, joining the family for dinner.  And the larger ones – ending the school year, starting a new musical instrument or class, spending time with grandparents on vacation.

During transitions we hover between two places, one foot awkwardly balanced in each space.  The ground on which we stand is uneven.  No wonder transitions make us feel unsteady.  During transition times we no longer have our daily structures to support us.  Our time and space feel wide open.  We have too many options available to us.

Because transitions can be unsettling, we often subconsciously reach for something familiar.  Or if we’re under 10, we may jab a brother as a way to regain some control over the uncomfortable moment.

I soon noticed it wasn’t merely my kids who struggled with transition times.  As the haze of early parenthood lifted, I saw I had my own trials during transitions.

Take the yearly event that’s come around once again – the end-of-school transition to summer.  During those first school-less weeks while my kids were experiencing peaks in sibling rivalry and bickering, I was in the same room cycling between day dreams and anxiety.  When I wasn’t engaged in those ever-so-useful activities, I noticed I was eating more than usual whether hungry or not.

My kids are older now.  I’ve experienced the end-of-school transition for nearly a decade.  You’d think I’d be better at it!  Instead it’s become one of those skills you start to learn again and again, but never advance beyond Level 1.  In my life this includes learning to play tennis, bake bread, and knit.

I was feeling bad about my inability to smoothly navigate the regular transitions in my life when I came across Sam Anderson’s recent article on Stupid Video Games.  He suggests that the recent spate of iPhone-specific games (such as Angry Birds) are designed to be played during those numerous transition times that populate our days.

Anderson explains, “we play them incidentally, ambivalently, compulsively, almost accidentally.  They’re less an activity in our day than a blank space in our day, less a pursuit than a distraction from other pursuits.”

While I’ve been handling transitions by overeating, spacing out, and adding to my list of indiscriminate worries, Sam Anderson admits he’s been:

playing when I should have been doing dishes, bathing my children, conversing with relatives, reading the newspaper, and especially writing.  The game[s] were an anesthetic, an escape pod, a snorkel, a Xanax, a dental hygenist with whom to exchange soothingly meaningless banter before going under the pneumatic drill of Life.

Suddenly I felt a little better.

We humans, no matter how free-spirited, like some structure and consistency in our lives.  For a child this may take the form of a toy or blanket that provides magic soothing when needed.  For we grown-ups our trusty iPhones can bestow similar magic powers during unstructured, uncomfortable moments.

So instead of attempting to quietly master transitions and imply that others should do the same, I now point them out to my kids. Together we’ve generated a list of actions that make the larger transitions smoother – exercise, patience, play time with friends, reading a good book, watching a movie.

Lately my goal is to help my kids learn to notice and predict transitions, along with their accompanying challenges, and at least be aware of healthy ways to manage these times.

And if my kids take after their Mom, they’ll reach for these healthier tools perhaps half the time.

 

What are healthy ways you help your kids manage transitions?

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Kids Sharing a Bedroom: Pros and Cons

When our oldest child, Stephen, was 7 he was invited to spend a night in the hotel room of his visiting grandparents.  I expected our middle child Daniel, then 5, would be excited to be the sole occupant of their shared bedroom.

However, as bedtime approached Daniel looked increasingly anxious.  Eventually he took me aside and broke the news that he might have trouble sleeping. “It’s just that every time I look at the closet I think of Scary Green Guy, and Stephen won’t be here to help me feel better.”

You probably know Scary Green Guy as the Incredible Hulk.  On a trip to Target department store, Daniel had seen the Incredible Hulk emblazoned on a 3-pack of boys underwear.  That image was quickly seared into Daniel’s young mind and soon stood in for all scary figures lurking in dark closets.

After Daniel and I discussed his worries about sleeping, I realized he’d become comfortable sleeping on the lower bunk under his big brother.  As Stephen turned during the night the beds swayed slightly, and this regular movement soothed Daniel, reminding him his brother was near.

Daniel’s experience was reassuring to me because having our boys share a bedroom was not always easy.  When asked to dress in the morning, they often happily ignored us and wrestled in their pajamas for another 15 minutes.

We’d established personal places in the room for each boy’s things, and then set up rules about not raiding a brother’s belongings.  Then there were the times one boy wanted to fall asleep to music while the other wanted silence.  Or when one had a bad cough at night.  And sharing a bedroom meant sharing a small half-bathroom as well.

Some days our sons’ room sharing seemed more a liability than an asset.  But at that time we had no other option.

Then one day I decided to adjust my attitude about the challenges of sibling room sharing.  I painted a plaque with the phrase “Close Quarters Create Close Families” and hung it centrally.  Soon I began to notice the benefits of our situation more than the problems.

Sharing a bedroom required my sons to:

  • Regularly negotiate with each other.  (light on or off?  window open or shut?)
  • Be more alert to their roommate’s daily moods.  Perhaps this occurred because sharing a room means you cross paths more each day.  But I think the boys also realized that things ran more smoothly when they noticed the other’s mood.
  • Practice patience regularly.  When you share a bedroom and bathroom, you learn to wait your turn.  And by necessity, you generate ways to pass the time while waiting.
  • Be very comfortable with each other.  The decade of room sharing in my sons’ lives has so far been the time they were closest as brothers and friends.

SOCIAL CONNECTIONS

Our lives include various types of social relationships.  One of the draws of connecting with others online is that you can control many aspects of this contact.  You can wait and watch before you enter an ongoing conversation.  Then you can type a message exactly as you want to say it.  In these relationships you control the level of intimacy.

This is the opposite of what kids sharing a bedroom must learn to manage.  When you’re at your most fatigued you still have to negotiate with your roommate.  He sees you at your best and your worst.  It’s messy, awkward, and challenging, but it’s real life.  Visions of college dorms or marriage down the road?

One day as I walked through my boys’ room, I noticed Stephen had pinned a drawing to their wall.  He was in his architect phase, and he’d drawn a good-sized house, complete with ample deck and small attic room, labeled:  The House Stephen and Daniel Will Live in When They Grow Up.  A sweet 8 year-old sentiment embodying their closeness at the time.

FAMILY TIME

Looking at Stephen’s house drawing, I thought of the recent trend in new home construction with separate suites for each occupant.  I can understand being initially attracted to this floor plan, but thinking of what my boys were learning by sharing a room, I realized this type of house wouldn’t work for me.

It would be too easy to lose touch with my family’s day to day ups and downs if each evening we retreated to our individual spaces to watch a movie on our own TV, or play computer games or check Facebook in our separate bedrooms.  Even reading in our own rooms could be lonely.  There would be no one with whom to share the funny or poignant parts of the book.

As with young Daniel’s experience, it’s comforting simply being in a room together with space for casual conversation.  We are social animals after all.

SEPARATE BEDROOMS

The summer Stephen turned 12 we transformed part of our basement into a bedroom ().  After Stephen’s move downstairs there was less jostling, fighting, wrestling, and bickering.  Our family life became a bit easier and quieter.

Each child has had their own room for a while at this point, and I find I must work harder to get people to congregate in our cozy living room.  Sometimes Todd or I lure the children in with food, then keep them there with a board game or chapter book.  Lately we’ve been reading from David Quammen’s book of biology essays, or playing the game “”.   But fighting the forces of family dispersion takes energy.

Now that my kids are in or near adolescence, I can see that keeping them connected to each other will be increasingly challenging in upcoming years.  I find myself remembering that small bedroom filled with bunk beds, 2 desks, and 2 bookshelves with sweeter and fonder memories than ever.

 

Did you share a room as a child?  What are your memories – good or bad – of this time?  Leave a comment below!

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The Power of the Written Word: New Info from Neuroscience

Recently Jhumpa Lahiri wrote a striking phrase: “[S]urely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time.  To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

I took particular notice of this passage because her writing affects me in this way.  There is something delightfully unsettling about losing oneself in fiction.  I didn’t experience this quite so intensely before becoming a parent, but since then there have been days I crave a novel with the same desperation as spring sunshine after weeks of gray winter.

Reading the right book at the right time is like opening the window in a stale room.  It blows in fresh views from new vantage points.  It distracts from the mundane, pushes a reset button on the day.  It is perhaps my most beloved vice.  A vice because once I’m in that lovely, faraway place, it’s not easy to return.

My husband Todd knows by now that if I come back from my literary vacation in an unexpected mood, one in which I didn’t set out, this new mood likely matches that of the protagonist I’m following.  Now poor Todd must decide whether to address or ignore this new emotion in a household already brimming with various humors.

But it’s a small price for me to pay – riding the waves of a character’s life.  There’s so much wisdom and perspective to be gained!

When our family of five succumbed to the stomach flu within a two week period last winter, I found myself thinking daily about Louie Zamperini, the man at the center of Unbroken, the popular WWII biography.  Louie Zamperini probably had an aching stomach like mine every day of his imprisonment in that P.O.W. camp.  How on earth did he manage it?  I’m embarrassed to admit how much that man’s harrowing experience helped me manage a few weeks of stomach flu camp – small in the scheme of things I know.

Or the times I read a book that truly changes me.  It’s as if a new classification is added to my brain’s file cabinet, and from then on my memory system shifts slightly: B.C.F.S. (Before Cutting For Stone) and A.C.F.S.

When I read Lahiri’s New York Times piece on writing, I realized something.  I’ve been known to push reading on my kids more than some. This works for my child who loves to read.  Then again he probably would have loved reading with or without me.

My mini-epiphany was that I push reading not in fact because books and teachers say to do this.  This had been my operating assumption.  Instead I think I encourage reading because I love to read so much, and I want my kids to experience what has been so powerful for me.  This realization makes me feel a bit better, though it also leads me to make a mental note:  Just because something works well for me doesn’t mean it has the same effect on each of my kids.  There are many activities which generate similar experiences of “flow” and wisdom in my children the way reading does for me.

What’s Our Brain Doing When We Read?

In the same New York Times section there was another enlightening article on fiction, this time from the perspective of neuroscience.  It seems my experience of losing myself while reading great fiction has been elucidated in brain scans.

Annie Murphy Paul explains that when we read a passage which elicits smell or texture, or describes movement, the region of our brain which controls these abilities becomes active.  Our brains even differentiate between a kick (light up the leg region) and a hit (turn on the arm region). The brain doesn’t distinguish fully whether we are reading about something or actually doing it.  Because of this phenomenon, a deep, multifaceted learning occurs through reading.  This brings to mind that almost physically tired feeling that can arise after reading an engaging story.

Don’t tell my kids this when I’m trying get them out of the house for some exercise.  “But Mama, I was just reading a good chase scene.  I don’t need to run around!”

Reading Improves Our Social IQ

Paul writes that because of the multiple ways the brain is stimulated through reading, fiction is a particularly useful method for teaching kids to understand social cues.  Social intelligence involves taking the perspective of others in order to decipher their intentions and emotions.  Reading can help children learn these skills by watching, or perhaps we should say passively experiencing, social situations in a low-stress, low-stakes environment.  Research findings show the more a person reads, the better they read social situations.

Once again I was back to considering the bountiful benefits of reading.  But with or without these literary advantages, I still only have one out of three children who truly loves to read.  How can I support reading in my other kids?  Unfortunately the New York Times didn’t come to my rescue on this issue, but it turns out one of our local papers did.

Graphic Novels for Kids

Colorado author and mom of three boys, Karla Oceanak writes graphic novels for kids.  She assures us that not only do graphic texts quickly hook kids in, but brain scan research suggests graphic novels stimulate both left and right brain hemispheres due to the mix of images and text.  Oceanak adds that “because visuals are stored more readily in long-term memory, we remember better when text is accompanied with pictures” as well.

The moral of my story on stories?  Just because my particular brain does not happen to “light up” upon reading graphic novels doesn’t mean these books aren’t exceedingly worthwhile for my kids.

And who knows, maybe Jhumpa Lahiri is currently working on a graphic novel that would be right up my alley!

Which books hook your child in most easily?

______

Check out what the blog Imagination Soup has to say about graphic biographies for kids.

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How Hard Could Coaching Ten Year-Olds Be?

Sam, the youngest and smallest player on our basketball team had been desperate to “bring the ball up” in a game all season.  My husband Todd, Sam’s coach, was hesitant because he could see what Sam couldn’t.  If Sam dribbled the ball up, he wasn’t likely to make it past half court before it was stolen.  This was 10 year-old Sam’s first time playing basketball and truth be told, he hadn’t even mastered dribbling yet.

But toward the end of the season, in the final minutes of a game, Todd let Sam bring the ball up.  At half court Sam was quickly swarmed by players twice his size and lost the ball.  When he looked over at Todd tears were welling in his eyes.

A moment later our team got the ball back and a kind soul passed it to Sam, who was then fouled as he attempted a shot.  Next Sam was whisked to the free throw line with all eyes on him and the score tied.  He nervously prepared for his shot. (They only get one free throw in this league.)  Sam eyed the basket and hurled the ball with all his might.  We’re still not sure how, but the ball went in.  I could almost see the synapses in Sam’s young brain laying down a long-term memory of that moment, which became the high point of Todd’s and my season as well.

Coaching our kids and their buddies was something Todd and I always assumed we would do.  Todd’s a teacher.  I’m a child psychologist.  Between us we’ve done quite a few sports, and have had a wide-range of coaches.  I naively thought this combo would make a pretty good coaching partnership.

Here’s how it went.  Todd was the head coach and I was an assistant coach of sorts, which often looked more like a good cop and a bad cop.  I was usually the one who put kids who misbehaved into short time-outs on the sidelines.  And I soon acquired the nugget of wisdom that the quickest way to stop an elementary-aged boy from talking when he should be listening was to have someone else’s Mom (me) sit right next to him.

The honest truth is coaching kids turned out to be much more challenging for Todd and me than either of us expected, for reasons which changed with each new group of kids.  In coaching basketball for 4 years at the YMCA, for instance, Todd became the one who always said yes to adding boys who’d never played basketball to his roster.  I mean isn’t this what the YMCA is all about, introducing kids to new sports?  But because of this we often had “Bad News Bears” teams who rarely won.  We noticed that as the boys got older, this was more challenging for them to accept, no matter how much we praised the effort they put in.

We did at least follow the advice of sports psychologists Ronald Smith and Frank Smoll of the University of Washington, in concentrating on player effort.  These researchers advise focusing on effort and commitment because those are within the players’ control, unlike the skill-level of the other team.  Smith and Smoll also emphasize the importance of a positive relationship between coach and players.  I’m reminded of the kids on Todd’s teams who’ve pulled him aside before or after practice to share some non-sports accomplishment with him.

My energetic and upbeat friend Lila has coached her daughters’ first through fourth grade soccer teams for the last 4 years.  She also understands the value of getting to know each girl on her team.  At the beginning of their work together, Lila talks to each player about her personal hopes and goals for that season.

Although Lila has been successful in many areas as a girls’ soccer coach, she has struggled with her younger daughter’s response to having her mother as coach.  Last year Ava, age 7, didn’t appreciate the attention her mother gave to the other players.  “You act like you like them more than me!”  Eventually Lila talked with Ava about this at home, and they came up with a hand-signal code Ava could use with her mom to let her know when she was upset at practice.  Then they agreed on some small overtures Lila could make to Ava at those difficult times.

Lila and Todd are both blessed with deep wells of patience which they draw on regularly as coaches.  (I notice this in others because my well tends to be slightly more shallow.)  But a coach needs more than simply patience to teach young players a new sport.  Smith and Smoll have created DVDs for parents and coaches which describe their coaching strategies supported by many years of research.  One of these strategies is that the progression for teaching a skill is:

1. Demonstrate.   2. Explain (briefly).   3. Practice.

These sports psychologists tell coaches that player mistakes should be used as teachable moments.  However, when a coach is using a mistake for teaching purposes, s/he should use the “positive sandwich” method.  First, note something the player is doing well.  Next follow this comment with specific technical instruction.  And finally end with a note of encouragement.  Praising players when they are giving their maximum effort goes a long way toward increasing effort and commitment during the season.

In one study Smith and Smoll found that girls who played basketball for coaches who’d been trained in these methods had decreased anxiety overall, while girls who played for untrained coaches had increased anxiety as the season progressed.

For many of the above reasons, and because Todd and I have each had coaches who have left negative marks on us, we put a lot of thought into choosing coaches for our kids.

What to Look for in a Coach for Your Child:

  1. The coach shows good sportsmanship at games and spends consistent time teaching players about sportsmanship.
  2. The players like and respect the coach and are motivated to work hard when they are around him or her.
  3. The coach praises kids when they work hard, and doesn’t give empty, undeserved praise.
  4. The coach is able to understand each child’s current abilities and pushes each appropriately for their level.
  5. S/he wants the kids to enjoy playing the sport and isn’t focused only on winning.
  6. In a recreational setting, the coach gives all kids relatively equal playing time at games.

What to Consider If You’ve Decided to Coach Youth Sports:

  1. Try to find another team parent to be an assistant coach, but make sure his or her coaching style is similar to yours.
  2. Get to know your players’ parents.  Ask them their goals for their child regarding this athletic experience.
  3. Spend time developing relationships with each player, and ask them their personal goals for the season.
  4. If your own child is playing on the team, talk to her ahead of time about her concerns about you as coach, and check-in with her regularly throughout the season.
  5. Read some books on how to coach kids’ sports.
  6. Come to each practice with many options, so that you can drop a drill that isn’t working.  Expect this situation to occur somewhat consistently.

I think I expected the experience of coaching youth sports to be more mild and calm, probably influenced by watching too many After School Special, Hallmark-sponsored TV shows as a child.  My vision of the coaching experience was similar to one of those hazy photographs where the bright colors have been tempered.

But what Todd and I found is that when you’re actually working with a team, it’s quite intense.  The highs are high and the lows are low (much more like adolescence than middle childhood).  The beginning of a new season can feel like strapping yourself into a rollercoaster you’ve never ridden before.

I guess I’ll just chalk coaching up to one of the numerous parenting experiences that did not play out as we expected, but I’m glad we took on just the same.

Please forward this to anyone you know who coaches kids’ sports!

And feel free to leave a comment below on your experience with coaches–

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Teaching Kids to Advocate for Themselves – And 5 Ways to Help Little Kids Learn This Skill

Recently my husband Todd, and Daniel, our fifth grader, walked in the door on a particularly gray and blustery afternoon, their grim faces matching the outdoor weather.  “What’s wrong?”  I wanted to know.  “Daniel’s teacher put him next to Jonah for another month, maybe we should talk to her this time,” Todd said with that exhausted, one-more-thing-on-the-to-do-list look.  Todd is usually pretty good at not getting drawn into our kids’ problems, so either it had been a particularly tiring week at work, or Daniel was quite upset about this one (or both).

Jonah is a bright, interesting kid in Daniel’s class, but he can also be impulsive, loud, and off-topic, especially toward the end of the day.  Jonah’s apparently got a few mental health diagnoses which he gladly offered Daniel a while back as the reasons for his troublesome behavior.  Their teacher changes the class table arrangements every month, and Daniel was frustrated because after just one month off, he was sitting next to Jonah yet again.

“It’s so unfair and annoying, Mama!  Jonah talks all the time.  We’ll be working on writing or math and he’ll just blurt something out or ask me a question about the Broncos’ game this weekend.  And he always ends up getting me in trouble!”  Daniel didn’t come right out and ask me to call his teacher, but I could tell this was what he was thinking.

However, what my frustrated child didn’t realize was that I’d been reading, Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World,  by Stuart Diamond.  I’ve decided to read this rather thick tome at least once a year because there is so much to be gained within its pages.  (Here’s the post I wrote after last year’s read.)  Getting More is a summary of the semester-long negotiation class Diamond teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Business School.  My sister, who took the class, says it’s a favorite among students.  And Daniel also didn’t know that I’d just been reading the section on teaching your children to negotiate.

We all know, or at least have read somewhere, that we’re supposed to have our kids solve their own problems.  But so much of the parenting literature just stops there, or perhaps gives the vague advice that we can “help” them to solve their own problems.  How do we do this exactly?  Turns out Diamond’s book on negotiation has some very practical advice, because after all isn’t advocating simply negotiating for oneself?

I think the message our kids often get is that advocating for themselves involves going to the person they are having a problem with and telling them what they want as clearly as possible.  We kind of feel like we’ve done our parenting job if our kids manage to pull this off.  But my guess is that usually our kids forget to consider what Diamond emphasizes is the most important consideration in a negotiation – the person you are talking to.  Diamond’s second negotiation strategy (right after clarifying your own goals) is:  It’s about Them.

“You can’t persuade people of anything unless you know the pictures in their heads: their perceptions,sensibilities, needs, how they make commitments, whether they are trustworthy….Think of yourself as the least important person in the negotiation.  You must do role reversal, putting yourself in their shoes and trying to put them in yours.” 

Diamond also suggests thinking about whether a third person (perhaps a boss or teacher) could be playing a role in the situation without our realizing it.

It occurred to me that we parents could help our kids get into the head of the person with whom they’re negotiating.  We have more life experience and can often better generate ideas of what else might be happening in the situation.

So my relieved husband walked off to grade some papers, and left me to try my hand at teaching negotiation skills to Daniel.  “Okay, even though your problem is with Jonah, you are talking to your teacher about this situation, so it’s her we want to think about first,” I said.  I pointed out that Daniel is one of the older kids in the class, while Jonah is one of the younger ones and asked, “Is it possible your teacher purposely puts you next to Jonah because she knows you’re older and you may be able to help Jonah stay focused on his work?”

Daniel thought carefully about my question.  “Yes.  I think this is why she keeps putting Jonah next to me, because she also asks me to stand next to Jonah when we line up to go somewhere.  But I don’t think she realizes how much it bugs me when he talks to me when I’m writing!”

I then asked Daniel whether he knew of parents who’d complained about Jonah to his teacher.  Daniel said at least one had, and that Jonah regularly met with the principal too.  As Daniel and I discussed the situation as fully as we could, we wondered whether his teacher and the principal were feeling pretty frustrated with Jonah.  If this was the case, I told Daniel that it wasn’t likely his teacher would simply move him away from Jonah, because she may need Daniel to be her helper on this one.

Daniel decided to email his teacher.  He figured emailing would be easier than talking with her in person where he might get nervous not follow through.  He didn’t ask his teacher to move him to a new table.  Instead he told her how distracted he got when Jonah talked at him while he tried to concentrate on writing and math.

The next day Daniel’s teacher had a proposition for him, after reading his email.  She suggested Daniel use certain words with Jonah each time he was distracting.  If these words didn’t help after three times, Daniel could ask her for help.  She also told him he would not get in trouble for speaking out in class without being called on in this particular situation.  Daniel felt immediate relief and agreed to try the new plan.

I was glad Daniel was successful with advocating for himself, because then next time he faced a similar problem, I could remind him how this one had worked out.  And honestly this had been enough work for me, and I was ready to take a little break from thinking about negotiation.

Of course I was I forgetting one crucial thing.  When you have three kids, you don’t always get to decide when to stop thinking about negotiation.  That evening as I drove Annie home from gymnastics class I could tell she was in a bad mood.  She angrily informed me that her teacher had not let her try a flip into the foam pit at gymnastics.  “It’s so unfair!  I’m as good as the other girls.   She let this one girl who’s only seven try one, but not me and I’m eight!”

I don’t think Annie was factoring in that I’d stayed to watch her gymnastics class this time.  Though I’d spent some of the time reading my Getting More negotiation book, I did catch the part of the class where the girls were doing front flips, with the teacher’s help, into a pit of soft foam blocks.  I’d seen that Annie needed quite a bit of help from her teacher.  I’d also watched the other girl Annie spoke of demonstrate she was clearly ready to try a flip on her own.  This same girl, who Annie claimed was seven, was also at least a foot taller than Annie and wearing a bra.  I’m thinking she was more likely twelve than seven!

I listened to Annie vent all the way home about the injustice of it all, but in my head I thought highly of her gymnastics teacher for setting limits with a child who wasn’t ready to try a new skill on her own yet.  I quickly decided this was a negotiation I wasn’t going to enter into.  My eight year-old was more likely hungry, tired, and thus cranky after her gymnastics class.  No doubt there would be more appropriate situations in the future within which Annie could practice advocating for herself, but I was secretly relieved this wasn’t one of them.

5 Ways to Begin Building Self-Advocacy Skills with Young Children

  1. Have kids order for themselves at restaurants.
  2. Have kids make eye contact when talking to adults they know outside the family.
  3. If a problem arises that can be solved via email, have a young child dictate an email to you.  Type it in their words.
  4. Help the child think through a problem by asking open-ended questions such as:  What do you want to happen? What do you think you’ll do first?  What do you think he’ll say?
  5. Role play the negotiation with your child before they make their official attempt.

 

I’d love to hear other examples of children advocating for themselves.  Please leave a comment below!

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6 Inexpensive Ways to Weave Exercise Into Your Kid’s Life – And New Reasons You (and Her Teacher) Will Be Glad You Did!

Here’s my little secret:  When my kids were young (maybe ages 2-7) I spent far too much time worrying about how tireless/active/hyper they were.  In my own non-scientific playground research, I came to the unfortunate conclusion that my kids were on the extreme end of the spectrum for physical activity.  This finding exhausted my already-tired self.  And honestly it felt unfair.  I had three kids — at least one of them should have come out as one of those calm children who spend hours drawing!  I was also tired because no matter how many hours those sleep books said my kids should be sleeping, they seemed to need a good 1-2 hours less than recommended, and each rose at 6 a.m. like clockwork.

On one particularly moody day, I shared these insights with my Mom, assuming she’d feel some sympathy for me.  She’d had two girls, and I was sure we were vastly easier to manage than my brood.  “That’s exactly what I used to think about you,” she responded emphatically.  “It was true too! You were more active than the other girls you played with and don’t even get me started on how little you slept!”  My first thought was, I think I’ll keep this from my husband.  All these years I’ve been secretly blaming him for our over-active non-sleepers. 

Still, my Mom helped me settle down and accept my plight.  In the large scheme of things my burden was obviously quite light.  I simply had to embrace exercise!  My kids were telling me with their bodies that exercise needed to be a large part of our days.  I started giving myself regular pep-talks, “These kids are going to keep you in shape!  And you can get a lot done when you rise at dawn.  Target is practically empty at 8 a.m.”  This was the phase of my life when I never wore shoes I couldn’t run in.  Come to think of it, I still don’t.  Maybe some day I’ll wear flip-flops again.

The more I planned our days around getting enough exercise, the more I came across articles reminding me of its benefits.  This knowledge helped on those sleepy mornings when we were the sole people at our neighborhood park at 7:30 a.m.  We live in a small, cottage-like house which simply didn’t have the space for the rambunctious activity my kids craved.

Sometimes I look back on that phase of my life, now thankfully a blurry memory, and wonder did I really do that?  Then last month I was at a neighborhood party talking with a woman who lives across the street from our local playground.  She said, “I remember you!  You don’t know me, but I used to watch you playing with your kids at the park on early mornings.  I watched you through my kitchen window while I made my breakfast.”  So, it must have been me, or Todd, although he complained about it a lot less.  (He’s always been an early riser.  My kids get that gene from him!)

Okay, the benefits of regular physical activity.  It can:

  • Boost Cognitive Ability
  • Increase Motivation
  • Improve Concentration
  • Increase Creativity
  • Lift Depression (and may be as effective as antidepressants for treating depression)
  • Reduce Anxiety

It was motivating to be reminded of these benefits.  Most things we do frequently we eventually improve at.  Over time Todd and I got better at meeting our kids’ voracious needs for physical activity, mostly by appropriating the resourceful techniques of other desperate parents.

6 Inexpensive Ways to Keep Your Kids Moving Daily

1. The simple frisbee for modified golf.  Make sure each child has one of their own.  Go to an open space with sporadic trees, fences, or playground equipment and challenge your kids to “hit that faraway tree with the frisbee.”  They can count how many tries it takes if this doesn’t start competitive arguments.  (In my family it often does.)  When they hit the tree, have them try for the next object.  Encourage running from throw to throw.  I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that we stole this idea from a man exercising his dogs.

2. Time your kids while they move fast.  Use the secondhand on your watch, or even better, a basic stopwatch to time your kids doing almost anything aerobic.  You’ll be surprised at how many activities kids come up with for you to watch and time.  We’ve found it more motivating to measure them against themselves than comparing their time to an older sibling’s.

3.  Find other ways to measure your kids’ athletic prowess.  I once had 6 kids running back and forth for 45 minutes straight by setting up a long jump course at the playground and measuring their jumps.

4.  Fly a kite.  As an adult who is not an avid kite flier, I had no memory of how much running went into kite flying.  Not only does the person trying to launch the kite run back and forth, but the three kids “chasing the kite” also run like crazy.  You just need to make sure the goal isn’t to get the kite flying high (that’s when all the standing around takes place), but for the kids to run around pulling it behind them.

5.  Create an indoor obstacle course on rainy days.  Crawl under a chair, jump up the stairs, hop in and out of a hula hoop.  To keep them going longer, pull out the stopwatch again.

6.  Bike with your kids to do errands.  Once kids are old enough to bicycle safely on their own, it’s amazing how much calmer they are in the grocery store when they’ve used up their extra energy biking there.  Walking at a good pace is also an option for errand-running, and more conducive to conversation.

Of course all this activity wasn’t about training my young kids for future Olympic bids.  It was merely satisfying the strong drive their little bodies had to move.

Use Exercise to Support Emotion Regulation in Kids

Early Morning Exercise.  When one of my kids has a stressful event taking place at school, I take an early morning walk with him or her that day.  Sometimes we talk about the upcoming event or situation, and sometimes we talk about everything but the stressor.  But brisk walking before school calms my kids on anxious days.

Exercise as an Antidote to a “Day After Christmas Mood”.   This idea was spawned this month out of desperation.  Daniel, our 11 year-old, recently played a main role in a musical.  He loved everything about it:  the practices, his fellow actors, the camaraderie, the performances.  And then it was over.  I see now that after such a wonderful experience, Daniel had nowhere to go but down.  He’d been in a cranky, irritable, fight-provoking mood for two days by the time we finally talked through things.  One of the strategies we came up with to help Daniel through this emotional rollercoaster period after his next play, was to have him exercise even more than usual during the post-excitement transition.

3 Ways Well-Timed Physical Activity Can Make a Parent’s Life Easier

1.  If kids can run around hard after school, they can put the school day behind them, and sit down to their homework in a calmer state of mind (and body).  In addition to this, brain science shows that exercise increases brain volume (both gray and white matter), vascularization, blood flow, and additional functional measures.  I’m not even sure what all of these things are, but they sound like they’ll help my kids get their homework done more efficiently and accurately.  To me this says less homework help (by parents) and less homework complaining (by children).  This works for me!

2. My friend Tina’s daughter has always been a light, finicky eater who hates to stay at the dinner table for long.  One year it happened that her daughter’s soccer practice (during which the kids ran all out for much of the time) ended about an hour before dinnertime.  During that soccer season, Tina noticed her daughter began eating much more at dinner and was less fidgety at the table.  From then on, Tina made it a priority to get her daughter some type of exercise during the pre-dinner time period.

3. I’ve heard similar stories of families with poor sleepers who upped the level of physical activity in their children’s lives and found that the children fell asleep more easily and stayed asleep better.  One caveat to this strategy is that the exercise must end at least two hours before bedtime so that the children have enough time to fully wind down from it.

We used to laugh at this sign when we were kids. “Where are all the Slow Children?!”

Now that my kids are older, their bodies seem more and more under their own control.  Again, sometimes I wonder if they really were as active as my memory suggests.  However, the other day my children found videos we’d made of them as preschoolers.  In one I was attempting to interview my 5 year-old son about all his favorites (friend, color, toy, playground activity, etc.).  The camera is focused on his chubby-cheeked face as he stands in front of me.  But in the corner of the frame you can see the top of another head popping in and out of view.  It’s my 3 year-old son Daniel jumping up and down (for no real reason at all) the entire time I’m speaking with his brother.

I guess not quite enough time has passed yet because the image of that day, as cute as it was, gave me a mini post-traumatic reaction to those times of exhaustion.  Maybe I need to go get a little exercise now so I’ll feel better!

Other creative ways to keep kids moving?  Leave a comment!

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Tears at the Airport: How Kids Can Learn Emotional Intelligence

I was in a Barnes and Noble bookstore not long ago and wandered into the children’s section.  In one corner was a toy train table with wooden tracks and colorful train cars attached to one another magnetically.  Engrossed in play were a mom and her 4 or 5 year-old son.  I stopped to watch, remembering my kids’ love of trains at that age.

The boy was creating a long line of train cars to pull around the track when his mother picked up another car and had it ask, “Can I join your train?”  “No, we’re full,” the boy answered for the long train.  “I think there’s still room,” the lone train car returned.  “I said no,” the boy stated emphatically.  “Well, I feel left out and that makes me mad!”  The mother was still using her train’s pretend voice.  The boy stopped playing briefly and looked into his mother’s eyes after this strong sentiment.   She gazed at him evenly to reaffirm that she didn’t say it, her train did.  “Well, maybe you can join us in five minutes,” the boy offered as his train pulled out of the station.

I wasn’t sure exactly what was taking place here, but it seemed likely that the effect of this train play was to coach the boy on words to use when he felt angry or left out.  This interchange reminded me of what psychologist John Gottman calls emotion coaching.  In The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. he describes 5 steps to emotion coaching, which isn’t necessarily done while playing trains, but more often during one-on-one exchanges:

1.  Become aware of the child’s emotion.

2.  Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.

3.  Listen empathetically, validating the child’s feelings.

4.  Help the child find words to label the emotion he is having.

5.  Explore strategies to solve the problem at hand.

Gottman’s research shows that children whose parents use emotion coaching with them, are more resilient and better able to regulate their emotions.  It’s likely that because these kids aren’t using as much energy to manage their daily emotional ups and downs, they have more energy available to focus on school and social relationships.  In Gottman’s research emotion-coached kids did better in school and friendships than un-coached children.

Preliminary findings by additional researchers suggest that people with low emotional intelligence have higher rates of substance abuse later in life.

Often simply helping a tearful child identify whether he’s more sad or more frustrated can have a calming effect.  Kids know you are hearing them and trying to understand their experience.  After they settle down some, they are more ready to problem-solve, but Gottman encourages us not to jump in with suggestions.  He wants us to coach our kids to come up with their own problem-solving strategies using questions such as, “What do you think you’ll do next?”

This is the part that I have the hardest time with — letting my kids generate their own solutions.  It is so challenging for me to sit there and be patient with an upset child and gently coach her to think of what, let’s be honest, are often barely workable solutions!   Meanwhile I, older and a bit wiser, have maybe 4 or 5 ideas on the tip of my tongue which could quickly solve the problem.

Once the child decides which of her options she wants to try first, then we still have to keep our mouths shut and be supportive.  Again, being a grown-up, I know the initial not-so-great idea likely won’t work out.  And it can all take such a long time!  It’s a little excruciating, especially because I usually have to be somewhere soon.  It’s probably good I didn’t go into teaching.

However, I do want to get better at this aspect of parenting.  I believe Gottman’s advice is valid.  And in Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson emphasize that learning emotional literacy is especially important for boys.  Unlike girls who tend to use emotional language in their play and notice the feelings of those around them, young boys in Western culture are generally taught to suppress their emotions (except anger).  Boys are regularly steered away from focusing on their inner world or the emotional cues of others.  Kindlon and Thompson suggest that teaching boys an emotional vocabulary allows them to express themselves in ways other than anger and aggression.

I have found that with young children, using Feelings Charts or posters (with numerous cartoon or real faces showing various emotions) can be surprisingly helpful.

Homemade Feelings Chart

When I did play therapy as a psychologist I used to bring small laminated Feelings Charts into our play time.  I’d often have a toy we were using land on the Feeling Chart face in order to help the child learn that emotion.  When my own kids were upset as toddlers and preschoolers, I’d have them point to how they were feeling on the Feelings Chart and 9 out of 10 times that simple action helped them begin to calm themselves.

But I do admit it can be hard to “let our kids express their feelings” in public.  Especially those intense emotional spells that happen between ages 2 and 5!  My son Stephen was very attached to his grandparents when he was young, although they all lived far away and could only visit for short periods. When it was time to say goodbye, Stephen would accompany us to the shuttle that took his grandparents to the airport.  He’d begin to cry as we spotted the shuttle driving up, and then stand there bawling and waving to his grandparents as they boarded the shuttle bus.

Todd worried that letting him do this would mean Stephen would be an emotional wreck for the rest of the day.  “Couldn’t we keep him home and avoid a scene,” Todd asked.  I felt fairly awkward as strangers stared out the shuttle window at my sad little boy who kept crying harder as we waited.  But Stephen always wanted to stay until the shuttle left and it seemed fair to grant him this small request.

Stephen’s grandma told us that after one of these times, as she retrieved something from her overhead bag, she saw that half the passengers who’d witnessed Stephen’s goodbye had tears in their own eyes and were smiling understandingly.

And here’s the unexpected part:  We’d bundle our crying child back into our car and talk about how sad he was, but also remind him that he would slowly feel better.  Then we’d discuss our plans for the day.  By the time we arrived home a mere 20 minutes later, Stephen was mostly himself again.  Each time he got through the intense emotion, not stuck in it, as we’d worried.   This was one of our first lessons in emotion coaching, and in the end it wasn’t as hard as we’d dreaded.

Other ways to teach kids emotional intelligence?  Leave a comment!

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“You’re smart.” Versus “You worked hard.”

Eliza lives down the street.  She’s seventeen now but we’ve known her since we moved to the neighborhood eight years ago.  She’s a tall girl with a tangle of blonde curls.  She’s often wearing splashes of colorful apparel, chosen more because the fabrics appealed than the items matched.  When Eliza was fourteen she babysat for our kids a few times but babysitting was never really her thing.

Art was her thing.  Her mom, Marta, told me Eliza has loved making art since she was a little girl.  “She loved making art, but she wasn’t exactly artistic.”  When she was younger Eliza would beg her mom for various art classes:  How to Draw Cartoons;  Making Works of Art from Nature;  Pastel Painting;  Beginning Sculpture;  Black and White Sketching Basics;  and even Sewing.  Eliza greatly enjoyed these courses, but more often than not, the instructor found a way to let Marta know her daughter wasn’t “a natural” in artistic endeavors.

Eliza achieved similarly average results and grades in her art classes at school.  Her sixth grade art teacher informed her mother that Eliza worked diligently in class, but her outcomes weren’t commensurate with the energy she applied.  Marta made sure not to pass along these comments to her daughter.  She herself was continually surprised, though, when Eliza’s attraction to all forms of art grew year by year.

When Eliza was fourteen, a local art studio offered a class in stained glass.  It was more expensive than some, but Eliza requested it be her sole birthday gift and her parents relented.  Six weeks into the class she brought home her first stained glass production, which was but two rows of glass squares in a range of blue hues welded together.  It was the spark in her daughter’s eyes, though, that Marta noticed.  “Mom, I’ve found my medium!  I’m going to stick with stained glass for good.”

Three years later Eliza has been true to her word.  She babysat to earn money for stained glass classes, equipment, and supplies, then organized a small studio in one corner of their garage.  Sure enough, step by step Eliza learned this art form.  It likely took her longer than some, but this didn’t dissuade her.  When she recently showed me some of her gorgeous, newly-made pieces, she acknowledged that not all her works turn out well.  She said this is frustrating because they take a while to make and the supplies cost money, but she always tries to understand what went wrong with those pieces, so she won’t make those mistakes again.

Two months ago Eliza showed her stained glass artwork in public for the first time.  She was shocked by the overwhelmingly positive response to her work.  She told Marta she’d expected people to react as her art teachers had, giving her B-/C+ types of responses.  Thinking about the path she’d taken to become an artist, Eliza figured she’d developed a thick skin over time.  And more significantly she’d become used to creating the art that she envisioned, not that others wanted.

As I’ve watched Eliza grow up over the last eight years, I’ve seen her utilize what researcher Carol Dweck would call a growth mindset.  Eliza has focused on following her aspirations and learning new techniques in art, not on grades or even final products.  She relished the challenge of gaining new skills and expected these learning processes to take time.

In Mindset: A New Psychology of Success, Dweck describes the findings of her numerous studies on elementary-aged children.  In one notable study, after successfully completing some fairly easy puzzles, some kids were told, “You must be smart at this.”  But later these “smart” children were less likely to take on increasingly challenging puzzles.  It seems they didn’t want to risk failing, and therefore losing their “smart” label.  Meanwhile children who were told they must have worked really hard to do the puzzles successfully, were energized by the feedback and wanted to attempt harder puzzles next.

One little sentence highlighting children’s intelligence or diligence ended up having an enormous impact on their mindset.

Turns out some children (and adults as well) see intelligence as fixed, meaning they are born with a certain level of IQ which they have little control over increasing.  Because people with a fixed intelligence mindset believe being smart means achieving effortless success, expending effort makes them feel incompetent.  This is how we find certain exceedingly bright students who “avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty,” Dweck explains.

Children with a growth mindset believe that no matter who you are, you can always become a great deal smarter.  If they do poorly on a test, they are more likely to think about what went wrong and what they can learn from their mistakes, much like Eliza does with her stained glass artwork.

Eliza exemplifies Dweck’s finding that there is no relationship between one’s history of success in a certain area, and one’s current efforts to seek out or cope with challenges.  The ability to master a difficult task is not about our actual skills, but about the mindset we bring to the challenge.  Each time I catch sight of the soaring bird fashioned from a riot of colorful glass which I bought at Eliza’s art opening, I’ll remember this sentiment.

Thoughts or comments?

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Teaching Kids Optimism

My daughter Annie started first grade raring to go.  After all those years of watching her big brothers attend full-day school, her time had finally come.  She was a real school kid.  There was just one problem.  In Annie’s mind, real school kids could read and Annie couldn’t do this yet.

All three of my kids were late bloomers when it came to academic skills such as reading and writing.  If you gave them a ball, bike, or a pair of sneakers, on the other hand, they knew just what to do.  But physical prowess wasn’t what everyone was discussing in first grade, at least not in Annie’s circle.

Like her brothers, the structures and synapses Annie’s brain needed in order to take off in reading were not fully developed in first grade.  Unlike her brothers who didn’t notice much going on around them during those early elementary years, Annie was aware of her situation.  A month into school Annie came home and sadly informed me that she wasn’t in the good reading group.  Then she proceeded to list the kids who were.

“I just can’t read as well as Kate and Amy and Lisa, Mama.  I’m never going to be in their reading group,” Annie said dejectedly.

She was right.  Her reading was progressing slowly, even though she was putting in quite a bit of practice.  But as I’d seen particularly with her brother Daniel at this age, Annie’s reading ability had hit a plateau.  It was as if her current level of brain development could only carry her so far.  Therefore, I couldn’t advise her to simply practice more, as I could with other skills she was truly capable of but simply hadn’t learned yet.  It was a rough time.

Since Annie was getting better at following the plots of chapter books when I read them aloud, we did this frequently during that period.  I also worked with her on math games, such as Perplexors.  Annie adored these puzzles and they came more easily to her than reading.

It’s so challenging to watch kids struggle.  During this phase in Annie’s life I re-read prominent psychologist, Martin Seligman’s The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience in which he summarizes the results of a decade of research on optimism in children.  I was looking for ways to help Annie maintain optimism during her bumpy process of learning to read.  Seligman writes that school-age children begin to develop theories about why they succeed and why they fail.  We parents can have some influence over these theories by carefully choosing how we talk to our kids about their struggles.  Our kids’ theories about success and failure will be the foundations of their later optimism or pessimism about the world.

Optimism v.  Pessimism

Seligman emphasizes that optimism is much more than being upbeat and facing each day with a smile.  It involves accurately perceiving how much control we have over our lives while also taking responsibility when we’ve caused a problem.  Seligman then notes that cynicism and pessimism go deeper than merely being urbane postures donned at parties, paired with the wearing of muted clothing.

Pessimism is a “theory of reality” that our children can learn from us, their teachers, or other significant adults in their lives.  Research finds that pessimistic people get depressed more often, achieve less in school and work, and have worse physical health than optimistic people.

Optimistic and pessimistic personality styles involve habits of thinking called explanatory style, according to Seligman.  This is how we explain things to ourselves.  I learned that I should listen to how Annie explained to herself the struggles she was having learning to read, because certain explanations are more optimistic than others.

What to Look for

There are three characteristics of explanatory style to look for when helping our kids lay the foundation for an optimistic worldview.  The first is how permanent they consider a problem to be.  Pessimistic people believe the cause of something unfortunate is permanent and unchangeable.  Meanwhile children who bounce back from setbacks tend to consider the reasons for bad events to be temporary.  Seligman writes that permanent thoughts make us feel down and ready to give up before even trying.  In contrast, if we believe the situation is changeable, we feel energized and strive to find ways to alter it.  On the other side of this coin, when something good happens to an optimistic person, she tends to view her situation as permanent rather than temporary.

The second quality of our explanatory style is pervasiveness.  When something negative happens to a pessimistic person, she tends to see it as having a global effect on her life, rather than it being tied to a specific issue.  If a pessimistic child doesn’t win a writing contest, he reasons that it’s because he’s not smart.  He probably shouldn’t enter any more contests.  School just isn’t his thing.  An optimistic child, however, might attribute his lack of a ribbon as due to poor editing of that particular paper.  Additionally, an optimistic child would see a success as representing a global attribute.  “I did well on that project because I’m creative and hardworking.”

The final aspect of explanatory style is personalization, deciding who is at fault when something bad happens.  Seligman stresses the importance of viewing a situation with accuracy.  If something was the child’s fault, does she begin to think about how to make amends or does she spiral down into self-blame and become stuck?  It’s also important for children to think about other factors outside themselves which might have played a role in a negative result.

Optimistic people perceive their responsibility for problems accurately.  “I would have been on time for the play rehearsal if I’d started getting ready earlier. But I’m also not the only one having a rough time getting around with all this unexpected ice and snow on the roads.”   Optimists move fairly quickly into considering what they can do to fix the problem. “I’ll apologize to our director for being late and ask her if I can stay after rehearsal to hear what I missed.”

Extreme pessimists often wrongly believe they are the cause of negative events that they had little control over, a characteristic also seen in people with depression.

Back to Annie

When Annie was striving to learn to read, she seemed to be on the fence as to whether her situation was temporary or permanent.  She wasn’t used to skills taking her this long to master.  I, on the other hand, had more data at my disposal.  I remembered how long it took her to learn to talk (again, hello late bloomer!) and I’d seen her brothers learn to read later than many.  Remember the young kids’ book Leo the Late Bloomer about the sweet tiger who learned every life skill later than everyone else?  Todd and I used to read this book to help ourselves feel better at these times in our kids’ lives.

I told Annie that her experience learning to read was very similar to that of her brothers, who have become strong readers over time.  This information helped Annie realize that her situation was indeed temporary.

During her reading struggles, I never heard Annie say this was hard because she wasn’t smart.  I think she was able to look at her situation as a problem with reading rather than a problem with her abilities throughout school, but I worried her view might shift into a global one over time.  Therefore, I frequently pointed out other skills that were coming rather easily to her, such as math.  Some days this helped.  Other days Annie challenged my comments.

When it came to who was responsible for Annie’s problem, there was less I felt I could do.  She, or rather her young brain, was likely the cause.  I never mentioned anything about brain development to Annie, even though this was how I saw her reading situation.  I didn’t think she would have understood this concept.  Since I was fairly certain her trajectory would be similar to her brothers’, I merely tried to help both of us remain patient.

If I had heard Annie say that she couldn’t read because she wasn’t smart, I would have used the technique Seligman calls “disputing”.  Disputing would have involved presenting alternative evidence which challenged Annie’s belief she wasn’t smart.  “What about that good grade you got on your science project?  Or the recent time when your teacher held up your writing assignment as an example for the other kids?  Do these things suggest you aren’t a smart kid?”  (To be honest, I would have probably moved Annie away from the word smart.  In my mind “smart” is a vague concept which means different things to different people.)

Practicing Optimism

Seligman encourages us to teach our older kids to dispute their negative thoughts on their own.  He frames it as teaching our child to be a detective, first noticing that a thought has popped into his head, next understanding that the thoughts we “hurl at ourselves” aren’t necessarily true, then using his detective stance to challenge the thought by generating alternative possibilities.  Because as the saying goes, we shouldn’t believe everything we think.

One way we can teach our children to dispute pessimistic thoughts is by revealing our own thinking process to them.  When the furnace repairman is late we can vocalize our thinking with our kids.  It might start with, “Why does this always happen to us?  It’s as if there’s a huge sign on our house saying ‘Feel free to push us to the end of the list!’”  Then we can take a breath, slow down, and begin to dispute these initial thoughts aloud.  “Well, it is Friday afternoon and there’s a lot of traffic out there.  Maybe he’s stuck in it.  And I guess we are lucky that he offered to come today rather than let us freeze until tomorrow.  It’s not completely true that repairmen are always late to our house.  The plumber who fixed our outdoor spigots came early last month.”  Once we get started, we could even have our kids help us continue disputing our pessimistic stance.

Showing our children our thinking processes and the way we handle them not only teaches them how to become optimists, but gives us more practice thinking this way.  Just because I’m writing about this doesn’t mean I’m out there doing it daily.  Like most of us, I need to commit to practicing optimistic thinking more often.  As I tell my kids, “It’s simple. We become best at what we practice most.”

Annie’s reading did progress over time.  Her improvement trajectory was not a smooth upward slope, but rather jagged leaps and bounds throughout the year.  In the end the thing that helped most was reminding her that her “problem” was temporary.  Annie’s still not in the reading group that she wishes she were in, but she’s much less frustrated about reading now.  We regularly find her reading chapter books aloud to her stuffed animals or hamsters with the pride of having accomplished a long-awaited skill.

How have you handled the late bloomer in your life?  Leave a comment!

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