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

 

26 Simple Gifts to Last Forever

26 Simple Gifts to Last Forever An Alphabet List of Inexpensive Holiday Treasures for Children

26 Simple Gifts to Last Forever

26 Simple Gifts to Last Forever

Simple inexpensive gifts can form the memories that will nourish your child when you’re not with her to remind her of your love. Companionable walks through a wintry wood, car rides singing together at the top of your lungs, laughter shared when everyone’s being silly, these are the treasures she’ll take with her through times of happiness and times of trouble, long after she’s grown up and started a family of her own.

Here’s an alphabet full of ideas for simple holiday treasures that won’t cost much money, but just might last a lifetime:

  1. Appreciation poster. Using words or pictures or objects, make a poster that shows how you appreciate your child: his contributions to the family, his enthusiasms, his questions, his own special ways of thinking and being.
  2. Books. My favourite childhood gift was the well-chosen book I could curl up with. Whether fact or fiction, biography or mystery, travel or adventure, think about how your child might enjoy having her world expanded, and find a book to do that.
  3. Compassion. The holidays are a wonderful time to share with others who might not have so much. Make time with your child for compassionate actions, and help him experience the spirit of the season.
  4. Dance. Take a few minutes every day through the holidays for a happy dance. You might feel silly and self-conscious to begin with, but your daily happy dance will soon feel as great for you as it does for your child.
  5. Enthusiasm. Think about what fills you with enthusiasm, whether it’s cooking, watching movies, or writing a book. Share that with your child. Talk with her about your enthusiasms and hers.
  6. Forgiveness. There’s no parent or child who doesn’t mess up sometimes. This holiday season, clear out any misdeeds or disappointments that have been building up, both yours and your child’s. Ask for and grant forgiveness as needed.
  7. Gratitude. Help your child put the emphasis on all the good things he already has, rather than all the things he wants. Find and express an attitude of gratitude inside yourself, and encourage that in your child.
  8. Health. At this time of excess, remember to pay extra attention to your own health and to your child’s. Try to make time for enough sleep, nutritious food, and outdoor play.
  9. Imagination. Include your child in designing and creating low-cost gifts for family members and friends. She’ll feel much happier with the gifts she gives, and learn something about true value.
  10. Joy. Look for the joy in your life and in the world around you. Express that out loud. Help your child feel the warmth that fills a person up when she smiles from the heart.
  11. Kindness. At a rough point in my family’s life, I asked my young daughter to perform a daily mitzvah, a random act of kindness with no hope of personal gain. It was transformative, and shifted her attitude from entitlement to appreciation.
  12. Laughter. Just as good for you as a daily dose of Vitamin C, try to ensure a daily dose of laughter. At the end of the day, ask your child if he’s laughed enough yet, and work together to make sure you’ve both met your quota.
  13. Music. Music can enrich a life in so many ways. Think about a musical instrument, some music lessons, sheet music, or CDs, depending on your child’s age and interest. And be sure to include music in your holiday activities, too.
  14. Nature. Consider giving your child the gift of nature, perhaps in the form of a weekly outdoor experience you enjoy together. Discuss possibilities like a walk in a nearby woods, a hike on a trail, or building a birdhouse together.
  15. Optimism. Talk to your child about what she can look forward to and work toward over the coming year. Help her find ways to develop her strengths and believe in herself.
  16. Patience. Patience is a gift in the morning when everyone’s getting ready for the day, and all day long with your child’s attempts to master things for himself, even if you could do it so much faster.
  17.  Quiet Times. Especially important at this busy time of year, your child and you both need quiet do-nothing times for contemplation, reflection, and recharging your batteries. Talk about how you can give each other this gift.
  18. Resourcefulness. You might make resourcefulness a family challenge this year, looking for ways to be both economical and environmentally friendly. With decorations, food, and gifts, think about ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
  19. Slow it down! Doing things more slowly will calm you down and help you breathe. And somewhat counter-intuitively, it will also help you realize you have all the time you need to do what needs to be done.
  20. Time. Keep your schedule as flexible as you can, so you’re free to go skating with your child, take him to a movie, play Monopoly, or make popcorn and watch TV together.
  21. Understanding. Work actively to listen to your child, to attune to his moods, needs, feelings, and ideas. Do what you can to understand who he is, and celebrate that without trying to change him.
  22. Vitality. Don’t hold back on your vitality. Spend all your energy on your child each day. It will renew itself tomorrow, and each today will be vibrant.
  23. Wonder. Celebrate your child’s sense of wonder, and cultivate your own. Take time to savour the sound that snow makes on a crisp winter day, the taste of golden raisins, the lengthening sunshine that follows the darkening gloom of the winter solstice.
  24. eXcitement. Cherish your child’s excitement every day, and especially at this time of year. Try to find your own spirit of seasonal excitement too.
  25. Yesterday. Take time to affirm your family’s traditions. Talk about the people no longer present, the sweet and funny things your child did when she was younger, and your own childhood holiday memories.
  26. Zest. No matter how exhausted you are, try to find some zest to flavour the memories your child will take into her adulthood.

And finally, if you’re looking for a gift for a parent on your list, think about Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids. In this book that I wrote with Joanne Foster, we talk about these ideas and lots more secrets for raising kids who grow up into happily productive adults:

For more:

How to Stress-Proof Your Parenting for a Happy Holiday Season, by Ariadne Brill 

‘Children, Gifts, and Holidays,’ by Dona Matthews 

Finding the Wonder in the Ordinary, by Dona Matthews 

 Music by Raffi

child and dandelion crpd

Overscheduled? Too busy to play? Six ways to push back and create a healthy balance for your kids

child and dandelion crpdBalance is one of the most important secrets for raising happily productive kids. It’s important to provide lots of stimulation, challenge, and learning for your kids, but it’s just as important to ensure ample time for free play, nature, reflection, imagination, and even boredom. Here are six ideas you can implement starting today that will help you push back against overscheduling, and create a healthy balance.

  1. Make time for play. It’s through playing with other children in games of their own devising that kids learn to make decisions wisely, manage their emotions, see things from others’ perspectives, sort out conflicts, and make friends. Other benefits of unstructured playful exploration include better self-regulation, self-awareness, and collaboration skills; greater ownership of one’s own learning; and a freer imagination.

Free up your kids’ time in whatever ways you can. Reduce the emphasis on organized sports, homework, lessons, and practice. Encourage their curiosity, playfulness, sociability and deep desire to learn by assigning a top priority to playtime.

  1. Go outside! Time spent outdoors increases well-being in every area: psychological, physical, cognitive, and creative. Time in nature expands the imagination; stimulates all the senses; frees the spirit; and makes a person calmer, more optimistic, healthier, and more creative. It enhances academic success by improving attention and focus. Kids are calmer, more optimistic, healthier, more creative, and more successful at school when they spend time outdoors.

From the time he’s born, make sure your child gets some outdoor time every day, no matter the weather or your schedule. An hour outside every day is great, but even if it’s only twenty minutes, he’ll experience many benefits, including stress reduction and increased sense of well-being.

  1. Turn it off! For too many kids, too much of the time in their lives that could otherwise be spent playing, thinking, or being creative, is being gobbled up by electronic gadgets and screens. Although there’s a place for technology in children’s lives, too much time on computer games, television, smart phones, and the rest can encourage lazy habits of mind, where a child comes to rely on entertainment and activities created by others instead of creating his own fun and discovering his own interests.

Wise parents turn off their screens, too. As cognitive psychologist Tracy Dennis has written, ‘Multi-tasking on our devices all the time is a sure-fire way to interfere with our ability to look our children in the eye, hear what they have to say, sensitively pick up on their feelings, and transmit that sparkle in the eye. The multitasking mode is the opposite of mirroring and of being present.’

  1. Let there be downtime.Ample time for doing nothing—the ‘restful neural processing’ that occurs when we’re daydreaming and dawdling—is essential to self-discovery, and to optimal learning and happiness over the long run.

In The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents, William Martin wrote, “Lost in the shuffle of uniforms, practices, games, recitals, and performances can be the creative and joyful soul of your child. Watch and listen carefully. Do they have time to daydream? From your children’s dreams will emerge the practices and activities that will make self-discipline as natural as breathing.”  

Parents can support their kids in acquiring the important habit of reflection by allowing themselves to slow down and think. Through modeling and active encouragement, help your children welcome downtime as an opportunity for self-discovery, consolidation of learning, creativity, and regeneration.

  1. Breathe and be mindful. Kids who learn about breathing and other mindfulness techniques can do a better job of balancing their inner and outer experiences, and feel more solidly in control of their responses to the environment. Mindfulness reduces stress, improves sleep quality, and heightens the ability to focus. It helps kids concentrate on tests and exams, soothes their anxieties, and helps them cope better with challenging situations. This is particularly important for those with attentional and anxiety issues, and it’s also been proven effective with kids with autism.

‘Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.’ That was written by Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, but these practices are also being supported by scientists like Jim Swanson, an expert in ADHD at U of California, Irvine, who said, ‘Mindfulness seems to be training the same areas of the brain that have reduced activity in ADHD… That’s why mindfulness might be so important. It seems to get at the causes.”

One of the best ways to help your kids slow down is to practice mindfulness techniques yourself. Breathe deeply when you notice yourself stressed, or see signs of stress in the people around you. Practice yoga. Meditate. Listen to your children, your environment, and yourself. Think—and take at least one good thoughtful breath—before you speak.

  1. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Children who feel grateful for the people, activities, and opportunities in their lives are happier than others. They score higher on measures of well-being, energy, optimism, empathy, and popularity.

When parents model appreciation for the small gifts of everyday life—sunshine, food, time together with loved ones—they help their children achieve an attitude of gratitude. Kids (and adults) don’t need to fill their time with busy activities when they take time to feel happy with what they have.

 

In a culture that prizes overscheduling, pushing back against being ‘crazy busy’ takes courage, but it is very much worth doing. By thoughtfully slowing down the pace of your children’s lives so they have time to play, go outside, decompress, and breathe deeply, you enhance their chances of creating happily productive lives for themselves.

To read more about these ideas:

‘Protect Your Child’s Playtime: It’s More Important than Homework, Lessons, and Organized Sports,’ by Dona Matthews

‘Free Play Vital to Children’s Healthy Development,’ by Peter Gray

‘How Nature Makes Kids Calmer, Healthier, Smarter,’ by Laura Markham

‘Play Outside! Twelve Ways to Health, Happiness, Creativity, and to Environmental Sustainability,’ by Dona Matthews

‘Overwhelmed Moms Choose NOT to Be Busy,’ by Jacoba Urist 

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

‘The Wonder of the Ordinary: A Crucible for Creativity, Talent, and Genius,’ by Dona Matthews

‘Exercising the Mind to Treat Attention Deficits,’  by Daniel Goleman

and for more resources on supporting children’s optimal development:

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

worried girl and soothingadult.rsz

Helping Kids Handle Terrible Events in the News: 15 Top Tips for Fostering Children’s Resiliency in Times of Trouble

worried girl and soothingadult.rszChildren’s natural worries can intensify when they hear about terrorism, floods, diseases, fires, and other disturbing events. The recent deadly shootings in Montreal and Ottawa—two places usually considered safe—remind us of the importance of helping kids cope through troubling times.

Times of trouble provide opportunities for parents to help their children learn how to manage their feelings, confront challenges, and acquire resilience. By providing a safe environment, and being calm and attentive—and seeking professional help when it’s needed—parents can alleviate the fear, dismay, or confusion children often experience during chaotic times, as well as helping them develop coping skills that will serve them well going forward.

Parents shouldn’t dismiss a child’s desire to learn about what’s happening, no matter how troubling the circumstances are. Instead, they should listen carefully, acknowledge the fears as valid, and offer support in discovering more about the situation, its possible causes, and what’s being done to prevent recurrences.

Adults who listen actively to their kids, and provide a safe and dependable environment for them, are on track to supporting emotional well-being during troubling times. Regardless of a child’s age, temperament, ability, situation, or concerns, adults can work effectively to soothe worries that would otherwise cause deeper distress.

Following the same principle as the airlines’ instructions to fix your own oxygen mask before adjusting a child’s, parents have to wrestle with their own anxieties and emotional responses to adversity before they can address their child’s. This means developing effective coping strategies for themselves. It also helps to communicate regularly with others in children’s lives, such as grandparents and teachers. If a child perceives that the adults in her life are upset, distracted, condescending, or harried, she may be more worried.

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

5 ways to increase happiness

There are a lot of reasons people are feeling more stressed right now than usual–Hurricane Sandy, economic worries, political uncertainty, and also (in the northern half of the northern hemisphere) the fact that it’s November and the light is decreasing every day.

If you’re a parent–specially of a small child–it becomes even more important to manage that stress well. Little ones absorb our feelings and worry when we worry. Here are five great ideas for coping, and reducing the likelihood of the added stress burden leading to further problems:

5 ways to increase happiness.

via 5 ways to increase happiness.

Emotional Attunement: Good Food for Babies’ Brains

Warm, caring, attentive human connection is as essential to babies’ developing brains as food and sleep are to their physical growth.

An emerging area of science is demonstrating something that most parents know instinctively, and that attachment theorists have known for a long time: When an infant’s mother is calm–even in the face of daily disasters such as the baby’s hunger, exhaustion, or discomfort–the child absorbs and acquires a capacity for calm self-soothing. When his mother is distressed or agitated, the baby absorbs and learns that.

‘Attachment neurobiology,’ ‘biological synchronicity,’ ‘limbic resonance,’ and ‘mommy mind-meld’ are some of the names being given to emerging findings that show the deep connections that are formed at the brain level between infants and their adult nurturers. All of these terms, including ‘mommy mind-meld,’ refer to an infant’s experience primarily with her mother, but also with any other adult with whom she has a strong, nurturing connection, including a father, grandparent, or other close, caring, and consistent person in her life.

In a recent blog, Mary Axness discusses the science behind this phenomenon. She cites the research of neurobiology pioneer Allan Schore, who describes the mother as ‘downloading emotion programs into the infant’s right brain,’ and the child as using the mother’s right hemisphere as a template for the imprinting and hard wiring of circuits in his own right hemisphere, giving the child a template for mediating his emotional experiences.

Axness also discusses problems with all of the electronic engagement-replacements available today—television, videos, Baby Einstein, iPhones, iPads, and other computerized programs designed for babies. These may appear to give a sense of engagement, but excessive use of these media devices is actually associated with delayed language development. In 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics went on record against using electronic media with children younger than the age of two, stating that they ‘probably interfere with the crucial wiring being laid down in their brains during early development.’ In the ensuing media debate on the topic, an AAP spokesperson declared that ‘parents hoping to raise baby Einsteins by using infant educational videos are actually creating baby Homer Simpsons.’

Understanding the power of infants’ connections to their parents as ‘mind-melds’, where babies are downloading certain aspects of their caregivers’ brains—is a great argument for parents and other caregivers to take very good care of their own mental health. In addition to all the basics for good physical and emotional health (good nutrition, regular exercise, as good a sleep regime as possible), caregivers might consider integrating yoga, journal-keeping, mindfulness, meditation, or other reflective, mind-calming practices into their lives.

Another practice to consider is conscious attunement to sources of gratitude. The fields of positive psychology and psychoneuroimmunology demonstrate the ways that the choice to feel appreciation for what one has in one’s life (and to combat feelings of entitlement and resentment) changes the level of oxytocin available, thereby changing one’s attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours. A parent who attunes regularly to her sources of gratitude provides a clearer, more positive mind for her baby to meld with, thus giving her baby a better start on creating a good life for himself.

For more information:

My inspiration for this blog: Mommy Mind Meld blog by Marcy Axness: http://mothering.com/all-things-mothering/mothering/nourish-infant-brain-development-with-the-mommy-mind-meld

A great background resource for people interested in the science behind these ideas:  Schore, A. N. Attachment and the Regulation of the Right Brain. Attachment and Human Development 2, no. 1 (2000): 23-47.

For more on the effects of media use on infants’ development, see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.01027.x/full  for an article by Dimitri Christakis, called The Effects of Infant Media Usage: What Do We Know and What Should We Learn? Acta Paediactrica 98 (2009): 8-16. Christakis’ conclusions: ‘No studies to date have demonstrated benefits associated with early infant TV viewing. The preponderance of existing evidence suggests the potential for harm. Parents should exercise due caution in exposing infants to excessive media.’

For more on the power of gratitude to change our minds, see Laura Markham: http://www.ahaparenting.com/_blog/Parenting_Blog/post/How_to_Change_Your_Happiness_Set_Point_with_Gratitude/

For more on similar topics:

Raising Smarter Kids blog: www.raisingsmarterkids.net

Children, Gifts, and Holidays

December 17, 2011

Another holiday season, another reason for buying presents. Or not. Another reason, maybe, to think about the kinds of gifts we’re already blessed with, and those we have to give, without buying much at all. There’s nothing new about this anti-materialistic perspective, but when I look around me, I realise it’s a timeless message, and one that bears thinking about once again this year.

Christmas is a stressful season for most of the people I know who grew up in a Christian tradition, certainly including myself. My friends and relations who come from Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and other traditions seem to have an easier and happier feeling about this holiday season. Many of them can say—without irony or wishful thinking—that they actually ‘like’ Christmas. I find it far too loaded with memories of Christmases past—times of sadness, loss, longing, and disappointment, as well as happiness, joy, excitement, and pleasure—as well as with perceived expectations and need for preparations, so that no one will be sad or disappointed this year—to feel anything as clean and simple as ‘liking’ for it.

One of the big seasonal stressors concerns gifts. Adults worry about finding the right gift for each of the people on their list. They worry about the price of everything, and how they’re going to pay for it all. In the hustle and bustle and stress of the season, they sometimes don’t see that their children can be worried, too.

There are children whose only worries concern whether or not they’ll be getting what they want for Christmas—the right doll, toy, bicycle, building set, or something else— but a lot of children have the same worries as their parents: will they be able to find just the right thing for each of the people on their list? And if they find something right, will they be able to afford it? And if they buy only what they can reasonably afford, will they look cheap? Will others think they don’t care? And I’ve also known a surprising number of children who worry deeply about people who don’t have so much.

By thinking creatively about what we give our children, we help free them from some of these worries. By providing a model of thoughtful expression of the spirit of Christmas –love, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit—we can help them relax a bit, and maybe even enjoy the season. What are some of the possibilities?

Gifts of presence. One of the best gifts we can give our children at this time of year is the reassurance that they are the biggest gift of all. That their presence in our lives is the biggest and best present they could ever give us.

Gifts of our fully present time. We can give them discussion time, to talk about and find out what they might like to do, and then do it with them. It might be time to take a walk together, do some cooking, go to an art gallery or zoo or museum or movie or bookstore together. Time to take a trip together, whether it’s to see the Christmas displays in the downtown store windows, or to somewhere else you’ve both been wanting to go. And then to be fully present to them during that time – we snatch the gift out of their hands if we’re irritable or impatient, or spend some of our together-time on a phone or iDevice.

Gifts of developing gifts. My professional life has focused on developing giftedness in children – finding children’s passions, interests, and abilities, and then looking for ways their parents and teachers can support them in developing those gifts. One of the best gifts to give children at this time of year is to acknowledge what it is that makes them special and unique, even if it is only a dream. It’s even better if we can also give them something to help make their hopes and dreams become real — a computer for the wannabe writer, ballet lessons for the child who loves to dance, paints and brushes for the child who is interested in art, a chemistry set for the aspiring scientist. And when money is tight, to look for ways to provide access to these opportunities in ways that don’t break the bank or overtax the budget.

Gifts of sharing.  In our family, we’ve stopped buying presents for each other, except for the smallest children. We still get together to share the season, enjoy some great food together, and be present to each other in ways that reflect the reason for the season –love, generosity of spirit, acceptance, forgiveness. Several of us also choose this time of year to give something—time, money, or something else— to a cause that helps others who aren’t doing so well. Children can derive huge pleasure in thinking about others at this time of year, and finding ways to make the world a brighter place for people who are struggling.

Gifts of doing. I remember one Christmas, one of my daughters gave me a package of tickets she had carefully printed out in her eight-year-old hand. The parcel included tickets for folding the laundry, being nice to her sister, going to bed when asked, clearing out the dishwasher, and a number of other gifts of doing, things she knew would ease my daily life. What a delightful and thoughtful gift that was, and one that kept on giving for many months.

Gifts of making. I’ve always treasured gifts that people have made for me—baking, sewing, woodworking, knitting—and I try to give handmade gifts myself, as much as time and my creative imagination allow.

It may be inevitable that Christmas is bittersweet for those of us who come from a Christian tradition– that the joy, the laughter, the food, the music, the expectations, the happy holiday gatherings—will always be shadowed by thoughts of absent friends and family, awareness of people who are having a hard time of life, and memories of sad and disappointing Christmases past. One burden we can let go of, though, and relieve our children of, is the need to spend a lot of money on gifts at this time of year.

 

The Intelligence Edge

December 3, 2011

We come back to a theme we’re encountering a lot these days: parents – stressed by the demands and insecurities they’re experiencing in their own lives— wonder how they can ensure their children will have the intelligence edge they’ll need in this fast-paced and rapidly-changing world. What can parents do to support their children’s ability to cope successfully with—and even welcome— the challenges they will inevitably encounter?

So much is changing so rapidly in the world right now, and in individual people’s lives. Very few of us feel as confident about the future as we once did, and when so little seems stable and predictable, it is easy to become overwhelmed by worries. Parents I talk to are concerned about the stresses in their own lives, and have questions like these about raising their children:

How can I make sure my children aren’t damaged by the sex and violence that surrounds them–in advertising, computer games, music, cartoons, television, and more?

Is it okay if my child has no interest in reading?

I’m feeling uncertain about my own job. How can I possibly prepare my child to earn a living one day?

The bottom line for these and many other questions concerns how parents can best prepare their children to thrive in a fast-paced and rapidly-changing world.

The answer to most of these questions is surprisingly simple, although not always easy to implement. The single best way to give children an intelligence edge—a well-developed ability to cope successfully with and even welcome the challenges they will inevitably encounter –is to spend time with them.

Listen patiently and respectfully to their concerns. Discuss your ideas and theirs, and do some problem-solving together. Convey a confidence in their ability to figure things out—with your help, as needed, and only in those areas where they have some reasonable age-appropriate control over the situation. Be present to their fears, their hopes, their worries. Help them see that managing change and meeting challenges can feel good.

There is more than this to being a good parent, of course, including supporting your children in developing habits of mind like perseverance, hard work, critical thinking, creativity, and flexibility; and in having character traits like honesty, kindness, loyalty, and integrity. Children need lots more than just being listened to — love, for example, and guidance, patience, social interaction, physical play, sensory stimulation, and intellectual challenge.

Joanne Foster and I discuss all these important things at length in Raising Smarter Kids, but if given the time and opportunity to make only one suggestion to a worried parent, it is almost always about the intelligence edge their children will have if they have someone with whom to communicate openly—someone who they can trust in order to share their perspectives and ideas. And, that is truer today than ever.

When the world is rushing along madly, children need to feel a sense of sanctuary, attention, and respect at home.