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

 

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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

A Call to Action in Support of Giftedness and Talent Development

A Call to Action to Support the Development of Giftedness and TalentAn editorial in the New York Times on December 15, 2013, discusses the most recent (2012) findings of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), in which the US is once again in the middle of the pack in math and science–34th out of 65 countries. In order to address the declining economy, the author advocates more educational attention to developing giftedness and talent, especially in the STEM subjects, across the population:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/15/opinion/sunday/in-math-and-science-the-best-fend-for-themselves.html?_r=0

The author reports the experts’ conclusions based on the PISA findings, showing that the best educational systems include “High standards and expectations; creative and well-designed coursework; enhanced status, development and pay of teachers; and a culture where academic achievement is valued, parents are deeply involved and school leaders insist on excellence.”

The author goes on to make several important suggestions in a call for action. These include increased federal and state government spending on gifted education and on teacher development; an increase in available options for acceleration; better access to early college admission; and more attention to psychosocial supports (such as mentoring and coaching leading to resilience and coping skills).

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Canadian Aboriginal Students: What They Can Teach Us All about Gifted Education

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‘We are gifted and very talented. But you’re not going to find out the way you are asking us your questions.’ Alanis Obomsawin, award-winning filmmaker of Abenaki descent.[i]

Although I haven’t been able to find solid numbers on the participation of Canadian students from Aboriginal backgrounds in gifted education programs, there are many indications that it’s lower than we’d see in kids from non-Native communities. The lower participation rates are partly a result of the poverty of educational opportunities experienced by many of the children growing up in Aboriginal communities, as well as the social and economic conditions their families experience. There are, however, other factors operating here, too, factors that suggest that Native perspectives on giftedness and talent development have something to teach mainstream educators about gifted education. Read more

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What Comes After High School?

which_bookSome kids—no matter their ability level—need gap years, time away from formal education after high school. They might want to consider options, opportunities, and interests they haven’t had time to explore during high school. Others need time to think seriously about what they want to do next in their lives. Others feel a need to recover from the previous twelve or fourteen years at school. Others need to take care of more urgent priorities, like a sick parent or grandparent. And some kids need to make some money to pay for their higher education. Read more

In the Eye of the Storm: What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me about Social Media and Technology

A thought-provoking article on the importance of real–not electronic–community and connection. Also perhaps a cautionary tale about the isolation that electronic connectivity brings — fascinating! This suggests a need to rethink the ways we’re connecting with our friends and neighbours–open the doors, let the children out, ask people in!

In the Eye of the Storm: What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me about Social Media and Technology.

via In the Eye of the Storm: What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me about Social Media and Technology.

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.

What Does It Mean If a Child Is ‘Scary Smart’?

January 17, 2012

‘People have told me that my little girl is “scary smart”. Is that going to be a problem for her as she gets older?’

‘Kids shouldn’t be allowed to get ahead of themselves. If someone’s already great at math, let him learn about reading or develop his social skills.’

‘I’d rather be normal than super-smart.’

In my work with families and schools over the years, parents have sometimes confided that friends, relatives, or even teachers have described their kids as ‘scary smart’. I’ve also heard similar ideas from teachers or parents who question whether or not it’s okay to let children learn more than what’s expected for their age levels, and from kids who experience being unusually smart as meaning they’re ostracized by other kids and even adults.

A lot of things can underlie observations and questions like these, but very often, what people are really talking about are their own concerns. They wonder if they have what it takes to parent their energetically curious child who surprises them with what they know, teach students who have IQ scores higher than their own, or “be” extremely bright. Sometimes they’ve encountered critical reactions from friends and family members, and sometimes they’re worried about the praise, suspicion, envy, or expectations that can come when kids are noticeably ahead of ‘normal’.

My response to observations, questions, and concerns like this is to talk about what very high intelligence is, and what it isn’t. A lot of people think it’s a mysterious gift that some people are born with, and that others aren’t. But, the more that scientists learn about how the brain develops, the more it turns out that intelligence is actually an ongoing process that depends very much on the temperament and will of the individual child, as well as the environment that the child experiences at home and then, later, at school. Intelligence-building does involve genetic predispositions, but it is also dependent upon all those moment-by-moment environmental influences and learning opportunities that make up infants’, toddlers’, and older children’s experiences of life and the world. It’s not nearly so mysterious – or frightening – as some people seem to think.

From where I sit, highly intelligent or unusually “gifted” children are not scary creatures at all, but rather they are young people who are actively engaged in interesting developmental processes that are more complex than—but not as mysterious as–often imagined. They are experiencing what’s been called a ‘rage to master’, and they’ve been blessed with the kinds of social support and opportunities to learn that they need in order to pursue whatever it is they are raging to master. In my opinion, exceptionally high intelligence is a healthy and positive developmental process, and totally ‘normal’ within the context of particular circumstances. By looking at it this way, fears and concerns about kids who are ‘scary smart’ melt away, and parents, teachers, and children become free to continue engaging in enjoying learning together.

For more thoughts on this topic, go to www.raisingsmarterkids.net

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.