Father Holding Daughter's Hand

Raising Happily Productive Kids in Every Kind of Family The Same Rules Apply Whether You’re Divorced, Single, Gay, or ‘Normal’


Father Holding Daughter's Hand The principles of wise parenting are timeless, and apply across all situations. What works to support children’s optimal development works, whether you’re raising your kids in a traditional family, in the midst of divorce, part of a gay couple, or doing anything else that doesn’t look like ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ Here are ten rules for raising happily productive kids, no matter what kind of family you’re creating.

Yes, alternative family compositions bring unique challenges. Families going through divorce are in a vulnerable and potentially volatile restructuring process. Single parents usually have fewer resources to help them through times of trouble. Gay parents can experience prejudice and criticism, and so can their kids. Adoption brings its own set of challenges. Raising kids across more than one culture or religion can be dicey. But lots of traditional families experience problems too. Abuse happens in every kind of family, as do alcoholism, mental illness, and economic pressures.

Family composition is less important to children’s long-term development than kindness, boundary-setting, and meaningful learning opportunities. A single mother or two gay fathers can provide everything a child needs to become a happily productive adult. Such parents need to find sources of emotional and social support, but so does every other parent, no matter the situation.

I’ll briefly describe some current research on three non-traditional family groupings. Then I’ll outline the ten basic rules for raising happily productive kids, rules that apply to all parents in all kinds of families.

Divorce and child development

As with other changes in a family’s structure, there are many possible effects of divorce on every aspect of a child’s development. Kids can become depressed, suicidal, or angry. They can become antisocial or excessively social. They can become mistrustful of close relationships, or hypersexual. Their grades might plummet, or the child might throw himself into schoolwork to the exclusion of everything else. Kids can develop eating disorders or any number of other psychological problems.

None of these effects is inevitable. In fact, the preponderance of current research shows that most children are beginning to function reasonably well within two years after their parents’ divorce. How the parents handle the divorce makes a big difference in how well children get through it, very much including the support the children get in navigating the inevitable period of disruption.

Divorce can actually bring benefits to children, especially those whose pre-divorce experience included fear, chaos, unpredictability, or abuse. Children can begin to thrive when one or both parents create home environments that are calmer and more dependable. Children who feel loved and supported through the divorce process and whose parents negotiate custody amicably can become more competent and capable. When one or both parents move on to create fulfilling lives for themselves, divorce can help children learn about coping with changes and setbacks in their own lives.

Single-parent families

It’s normal for single parents to experience a sense of overload at least some of the time. They struggle to find enough time, energy, and money to do everything that needs doing. Regardless of the financial situation, it can feel overwhelming when there’s no other adult with whom to share the joys and worries of parenting, as well as the daily tasks of life—shopping, cooking, reading bedtime stories, cleaning, taking kids to appointments, and all the rest of it.

Single parents do best when they develop networks of social support. Friends and relatives who care about the children can ease the burden, as well as providing alternative role models and adult confidants for the children.

Single parents need to pay attention to their own physical, intellectual, and social needs if they’re to do the best possible job with their kids. This is no more or less true for single parents than others, but it can be harder to make it happen when there’s just one adult trying to handle all the tasks of the household.

Same-sex parenting

Same-sex parenting has been controversial for some time, but as the research accumulates, it becomes increasingly clear that gay couples can raise kids just as well as other couples. Researchers at Columbia Law School have launched a project that pulls together all the peer-reviewed studies in this area. They’ve concluded that, in general, kids with gay parents do just as well as others.

Depending on where they live, the children of same-sex parents can experience social pressures that other kids don’t. They can be subject to bullying and prejudice similar to that experienced by mixed-race families in previous years (and in some communities still). There is an additional stressor placed on same-sex parents to ensure their kids feel safe, confident, and well-informed, but at the end of the day, the same factors that apply in situations of divorce, single parenting, and adoption apply in families where there are two parents of the same sex: love, support, and guidance make a much bigger difference than who’s doing the parenting.

Raising Happily Productive Kids: Ten Basic Rules that Apply in Every Kind of Family

  1. Practice loving attunement. Parents in non-traditional circumstances who realize the power of being present to their kids—patient, loving, engaged—are well on their way to overcoming any obstacles their family structure might entail. As frequently as you can through the day, make time to listen to your children, with love.
  2. Set and enforce dependable rules. Kids need reliable boundaries in order to feel safe. This is particularly important in alternative family situations where social and cultural norms don’t apply, and parents are tempted to break the rules in order to compensate for extra challenges they feel they’re imposing on their kids.
  3. Play. Free play nourishes children’s curiosity, self-awareness, and imagination. It also strengthens self-regulation, autonomy, decision-making, conflict resolution, and friendship skills.
  4. Hug a tree. Spending time in nature—even urban nature—reduces stress, increases optimism, improves health, stimulates the senses, frees the spirit, and enhances creativity. It also improves attention and focus, thereby increasing academic and other kinds of achievement.
  5. Discover enthusiasms. Help your kids engage in exploration and discovery activities in as many different areas as possible. Support them in developing their curiosities into passions.
  6. Daydream. The restful neural processing that occurs in daydreaming is essential to self-discovery and self-actualization. Busy kids need downtime in order to replenish their spirits and find their creative wellspring.
  7. Breathe. Mindful breathing helps kids manage stress, sleep soundly, and focus their attention. Mindful breathing helps them concentrate on tests and exams, and cope with challenging situations.
  8. Welcome setbacks. Teach your kids the importance of hard work, persistence, and patience. A growth mindset—welcoming setbacks as learning opportunities—leads to well-being and productivity in every area of life.
  9. Turn it off!  Most kids are spending way too much time on electronic devices. By limiting screen time, you’ll free up time for outdoor exploration, unstructured play, daydreaming, and self-discovery.
  10. Be grateful. People who actively appreciate what’s good in their lives feel better, happier, more energetic, more optimistic, and are more empathetic than those who feel entitled.

These ten parenting practices can help your children thrive, no matter your family structure. Temperament and other personality factors can also contribute to how well an individual child manages alternative parenting situations. Those with growth mindsets and positive attitudes to problem-solving do better at coping than those with fixed mindsets or dependent personalities. And those who seek and receive social support are more resilient than those who feel they can sort out their own problems.

If you follow these ten basic rules, you’re supporting your kids in making happily productive lives for themselves, both now and in the future.

For more on these ideas:

 Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster

‘Optimal Development across the Life Span,’ by Dona Matthews in The Creativity Post

‘26 Simple Gifts to Last Forever: An Alphabet List of Inexpensive Holiday Treasures for Children,’ by Dona Matthews

‘Play, Run, Skip: Physically active children are smarter, happier, and healthier,’ by Dona Matthews 

‘Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming,’ by Rebecca McMillan, Jerome Singer, and Scott Barry Kaufman)

The Science of Raising Happily Productive Kids,’ a podcast with Dona Matthews, by Scott Barry Kaufman

Is Divorce Bad for Children?Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld Scientific American

‘The Challenges of Single Parenthood,’ Healthy Children

‘Single Parenting and Today’s Family,’ American Psychological Association Help Center

 ‘Single Parent? Tips for Raising a Child Alone,’ by Mayo Clinic Staff

‘What We Know—Really—About Lesbian and Gay Parenting,’ by Nathaniel Frank

‘What Does the Scholarly Research Say about the Wellbeing of Children with Gay or Lesbian Parents?’ by the Public Policy Portal of the Columbia University Law School

 

girl at window

Ten Steps toward Parenting for Happy Productivity Forget the résumé: Focus on self-actualization and legacy virtues instead

girl at windowAccomplishment, achievement, and recognition are good goals for our children, but being loving and happily productive on one’s own terms are better. For my children and grandchildren, what delights me more than any prizes the world might offer is a confident integrity; a radiant inner light; a life lived with love, kindness, courage, happy productivity, and appreciation.

David Brooks recently wrote a column in the New York Times called ‘A Moral Bucket List.’ In it, he distinguished between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues: ‘The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?’

Brooks goes on to write that although most of us see the eulogy virtues as more important than the résumé virtues, it is the latter—the attributes that bring wealth, status, recognition, and success in worldly terms—that we put the heaviest focus on through our culture and education. Kids are given more support for developing the skills and strategies they need for getting into top universities and making lots of money than for establishing the character strengths that lead to a life of happy productivity, love, and fulfilment, the kind of life that creates a meaningful legacy.

What can parents do who want their children to radiate the inner light that’s a symptom of self-actualization and the legacy virtues?

  1. Slow down enough to be loving and attuned. Too often, parents’ patience gets lost in the flurry of their busy lives, but loving attunement is the most powerful tool they have for supporting happy productivity across the life span. As frequently as you can through the day, make time to listen to your children, with love.
  2. Ensure ample time for free unstructured play. Free play—invented and managed by kids, both solo and with other kids—enables children to nourish their curiosity, self-awareness, and imagination. It also strengthens their self-regulation, autonomy, decision-making, conflict resolution, and friendship skills.
  3. Spend time outdoors. A daily dose of outdoor time—preferably in natural settings—reduces stress, increases optimism, improves health, stimulates the senses, frees the spirit, and enhances creativity. By improving attention and focus, it also increases academic and other kinds of achievement.
  4. Help kids find their passions. Provide opportunities for exploration and discovery in the arts, the sciences, architecture, gardening, and more, as widely as possible. Support your children in developing their curiosities into passions.
  5. Welcome daydreaming, do-nothing times, and boredom. The restful neural processing that occurs in daydreaming is essential to self-discovery and self-actualization. Busy kids need downtime in order to replenish their spirits and find their creative wellspring.
  6. Teach your kids to breathe. Kids who learn mindful breathing techniques are better able to manage their stress, sleep soundly, and focus their attention on cognitive, emotional, and physical activities. They can concentrate better on tests and exams, and cope better with challenging situations.
  7. Model a growth mindset. Reinforce your children’s awareness that abilities develop step by step, with hard work, persistence, and patience. Holding a growth mindset—including realizing that intelligence and creativity develop incrementally, and welcoming setbacks as learning opportunities—leads to higher measures of well-being in every area of life.
  8. Limit screen time. Yes, there is a time and place for electronic devices, but most kids are spending way too much time on them. By limiting screen time, you’ll free up time for outdoor exploration, unstructured play, daydreaming, and self-discovery.
  9. Restrict homework and other structured activities. Yes, it’s important to support kids’ interests and abilities, but somewhat counter-intuitively, play and downtime are more important for happy productivity across the life span than more hours of homework, extracurricular lessons, organized sports, practice, and other good things.
  10. Say thank you. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. It’s the opposite of entitlement, and people who actively appreciate what’s good in their lives experience higher levels of well-being, happiness, energy, optimism, empathy, and popularity.

In the end, parenting for self-actualization is probably all about balance. The first step—loving attunement—is the most important, and should come before everything else. After that, you can start with any one of the remaining nine steps, take it where it goes, and then try another. The ultimate goal is to integrate all of them into your children’s lives, in balance.

For more on these ideas:

‘The Moral Bucket List,’ by David Brooks 

‘Optimal Development across the Life Span,’ Dona Matthews’ blog in The Creativity Post http://www.creativitypost.com/authors/list/162/dmatthews

 ’26 Simple Gifts to Last Forever: An Alphabet List of Inexpensive Holiday Treasures for Children,’ by Dona Matthews

‘Play, Run, Skip: Physically active children are smarter, happier, and healthier,’ by Dona Matthews

‘Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming,’ by Rebecca McMillan, Jerome Singer, and Scott Barry Kaufman 

Scott Barry Kaufman interviewed me recently for a podcast in his series for Scientific American called ‘Beautiful Minds,’ where he explores intelligence, creativity, and the mind. We talked in some detail about the science of raising happily productive kids

In Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, Joanne Foster and I consider most of these ideas in more detail: www.beyondintelligence.net

 

Photo by Aikawa Ke, Creative Commons, Flickr

play outside

Play Outside! Twelve Ways to Health, Happiness, Intelligence, and Creativity, and to Environmental Sustainability

play outside

Spending more time outdoors, preferably in natural settings, may be the simplest, healthiest, and most economical remedy for the terrible increase in numbers of children diagnosed with social, emotional, and learning problems over the past two decades. It may also be the answer to many problems suffered by adults in our increasingly rushed, technology-focused lives. And on a global scale, there’s evidence that more people spending more time in natural spaces would contribute to solving the environmental challenges that are increasingly disrupting our lives.  Read more

Love, Play, Reflect; Passion, Gratitude, and Grit: Parenting for Success and Happiness across the Lifespan

Love, play, reflect; passion, gratitude, and grit; a blog by Dona Matthews

Childhood giftedness is a great start, but it doesn’t predict happiness, success, or fulfillment across the life span. What does the research say about parents’ roles in helping their kids become happily productive adults?

1.       Love:

The single most important ingredient in the early days, weeks, and months of life is the security of a home environment characterized by loving warmth. Infants who develop an early attachment to a caregiver—usually a mother—do a lot better over the life span than those who don’t.  Parenting characteristics of a secure and loving environment include emotional attunement, reassurance and comfort, holding and snuggling, and listening and responding to children’s needs.

Kids do best whose early home experience includes warmth, acceptance, sensitivity, stimulation, and engaged conversation. That means limiting electronic (and other) distractions when you’re spending time with your kids. Device-focused parents don’t look their kids in the eye as often, hear what they have to say, pick up on their feelings, or transmit that sparkle in the eye that makes children (and adults) feel valued. Read more

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Parenting and Multi-Tasking in the Digital Age

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Tracy Dennis is both a mother and an eminent developmental psychologist who is interested in the impact of digital media on human development across the life span. She’s written several posts on this topic on her Psyche’s Circuitry blog. One of my personal favourites is the one where she writes about two ideas for parents to keep in mind when they are using digital media to multi-task while taking care of their kids.

Dr Dennis does not think that digital multi-tasking around children damages them, but does think it’s important to keep it in perspective, and keep it to a minimum.  Read more

child at play sign

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

child at play signFree play should be bumped up in priority—ahead of organized sports, lessons, and other extracurricular activities designed to assist in kids’ résumé-building. In a new book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, Peter Gray makes the point that free play is vital to children’s healthy development. Read more

Why are some poor kids resilient? Parenting makes the difference

There’s fascinating new research showing us something about where ‘grit’ comes from. ‘Why do some children who grow up in poverty do well, while others struggle?’ Alix Spiegel asks in this article. She answers the question with some fascinating new research showing how the quality of an infant’s attachment to her mother makes an enormous difference to sensitive kids, and that this difference grows over time.

Some infants are a lot more sensitive to the environment than others. These sensitive babies are the kids at highest risk of behavioural problems as they get older. Sensitive babies in this research who showed an insecure attachment to their mothers in infancy (i.e., not soothed by the mother’s presence, not happy to see mother after a separation) are the ones who grew into troubled children with the most severe behavioural problems.

Fascinatingly, though, the sensitive babies who showed secure attachments to their mothers in infancy were the ones who grew into the best kids, with the lowest number of problem behaviours.

(The children with low set points [an indicator of less sensitivity to the environment] were not as good as the best or as bad as the worst, no matter their parenting.)

And perhaps most interestingly, Spiegel writes that ‘The behavior of the children with high set points and secure attachments to their mothers compared favorably with the behavior of children whose environments were often much easier.’ The kids who were growing up in high-risk poverty who were sensitive to the environment (‘high set points’) and who experienced secure attachment to their mothers, actually did better than kids growing up with a lot more advantages.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/02/25/172880140/to-spot-kids-who-will-overcome-poverty-look-at-babies

Thank you to Ben Peterson at Newsana–http://www.newsana.com/— for bringing this to my attention!

For those interested in following this farther and deeper, you can go to the source:

Poverty, Problem Behavior, and Promise: Differential Susceptibility Among Infants Reared in Poverty, by Elisabeth Conradt, Jeffrey Measelle, and Jennifer C. Ablow  http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/01/29/0956797612457381

You might also be interested in Dan Keating’s work– http://books.google.com/books/about/Nature_and_Nurture_in_Early_Child_Develo.html?id=0hdB63OT_RYC

or Stephen Suomi’s fascinating studies with cross-fostering monkeys, discussed by Dan Keating in The Nature and Nurture of Early Child Development, and elsewhere–

e.g., http://books.google.com/books?id=R8-HitN5Jp0C&pg=PA254&dq=stephen+suomi&hl=en&sa=X&ei=rCAuUcbnFIba9ASqvYDYDw&ved=0CEwQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=stephen%20suomi&f=false

Experiencing Awe: A Great Way to Inspire Happiness

January is a good time for taking stock, for thinking about what’s good in one’s life, and what might need some shaping. One place to look for adjustments is whether our focus is on gratitude or entitlement.

Some children find enormous pleasure in helping others, and feel gratitude for what’s good in their own lives. They discover themselves that way, and make friends at the same time. Others are robbed of these happy pleasures by feelings of entitlement, thinking it’s smart to take care of themselves and ignore the needs of others.

Recent research shows that the experience of awe can be a catalyst for becoming someone who feels gratitude rather than entitlement, and who lives that out in acting positively to others. Parents who express their own awe–whether it’s at a sunset, an act of kindness, or a mathematical equation–help their kids learn to do that, too.

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/an_awesome_way_to_make_kids_less_self_absorbed

Grit + Social Support = Success

The idea of ‘grit’ is being talked about a lot these days, inspired in big part by Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power of Character. I agree that grit is too often ignored and that it’s hugely important–but it’s also important to remember that grit rarely leads to success unless it’s accompanied by some help and support along the way.

In this article, ‘Success comes from grit–and plenty of helping hands along the way’, Emily Hanford talks about the importance of social success in overcoming the challenges of poverty. Studying graduates of the YES Prep charter school network in Houston (founded in order to help poor and minority kids graduate from college), she wrote, ‘YES data shows that the students most likely to complete college go to schools where there are good support services and often a concerted effort to encourage and retain poor and minority students.’

http://www.edsource.org/today/2012/success-comes-from-grit-and-plenty-of-helping-hands-along-the-way/21768#.UIaYBsXR6uJ

Thank you to Annie Murphy Paul for posting this article on her blog.

Playtime! Possibly the Best Learning of All

February 22, 2012

Children need more unstructured playtime in their lives. They need time enough to get bored. If they’re going to learn and grow and achieve as much as they can in the long run, they need ample opportunities to develop their self-regulation, imagination, self-awareness, and other important life skills.

Over the past few decades, playtime has become more about things—toys, educational puzzles, electronic games, etc.—than about imagination and activities that children invent for themselves. It’s also become a lot more adult-directed, with an eye on academic learning and productive use of children’s time, a lot less child-directed and apparently aimless. Instead of being filled with spontaneous improvisation and discovery, children’s time is increasingly being scheduled by adults and gobbled up by electronic devices.

While many parents think that an increased focus on the productive use of their children’s time will give their kids a leg up in the competitions to get into the best preschools, schools, and—eventually—colleges and universities, there is increasing evidence that it does the opposite. By robbing kids of ample time for imagination, exploration, and collaborative invention, we are taking away essential opportunities for them to develop the skills prerequisite to real achievement and fulfillment over time.

Self-regulation skills include managing and controlling one’s feelings, moods, behaviour, and intellectual focus. Like self-regulation, collaboration skills and self-awareness are key components of emotional intelligence, which is a much better predictor of academic, career, and other kinds of success than IQ or other intellectual or academic ability scores.

Kids who spend good chunks of their time building forts, playing house, or constructing narratives of pirates, paupers, cowboys, and circus clowns are more likely to take ownership of their own learning and their own environments. Interestingly, they’re also more likely to co-operate independently in cleaning up after a free-choice period in preschool. In an interview on National Public Radio in the USA, child development expert Laura Berk reported, ‘Children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that [clean-up] responsibility with greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting.’ (To see the complete article, go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19212514)

Although it may look like they’re wasting time or doing nothing much at all, kids involved in imaginative play may be investing their time as productively as possible for the long run. When they’re making up their own rules and their own games, they’re learning about themselves and others, exploring and finding out what they like doing, what they want to learn more about, and how to interact successfully with others. So, let’s not insist on giving kids the scripts and the props we think they need for their play, but rather, let’s allow them to find and invent their own ways of playing and learning, at least for good parts of their day.

Children do need planned stimulation and enrichment opportunities—classes, clubs, puzzles, building toys, educational activities, museums, performances, outings, etc.—but their lives shouldn’t be so jammed with these good things that there’s no time left for imagination and unstructured playtime. Somewhat counter-intuitively, too much focus on enrichment and achievement can actually impede their cognitive and emotional development. Do-nothing times can be the most productive times of all.