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

 

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

teen on screens

Stop Worrying! Six Reasons to Get Over The Amount of Time Your Teenager Spends on Screens

A guest blog by Amy Poeppel

teen on screensThere’s no opting out of technology anymore. Despite our nostalgia, determination, and occasional self-righteousness, we are faced with the fact that computers, cell phones, and tablets are as much a part of our lives as food, underwear, and indoor plumbing. When I worked in the admissions department of a NYC private school, I encountered many parents who wanted to make technology nonexistent or at least inconsequential in the lives of their kids, but I never understood how that could work.

One morning I had an interview with an 11-year old boy who was completely screen-deprived. His parents were convinced that computers, and especially video games, are damaging to developing minds, so they kept their young son away from screens entirely. They believed in old-fashioned, wholesome fun – fresh air, board games, and books. Maybe they’re right, but what I saw was a kid so obsessed with computers, that I couldn’t conduct a constructive interview with him. All he wanted to talk about, literally all, was access to computers at our school.  Read more

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.

Wisdom in Children?

October, 2011

Although wisdom is often associated with later adulthood, its seeds are planted in childhood. The most important thing that parents can do to support the development of wisdom in their children is to model these attributes in their own lives. That means taking others’ needs into account, as well as one’s own, and doing that explicitly, sharing the reasoning processes with children.

“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of wisdom in coping successfully with turbulent times, and realising that wisdom is as important for children as it is for adults. Although it is often associated with later adulthood, the seeds of wisdom are planted in childhood. More than ever, now is a time for parents and teachers to help children learn to make calm, reasoned sense of what’s happening around them, and to make wise decisions in their lives. This is always true, of course, but the urgency of thinking and behaving wisely is accentuated in times of stress.

Think, for example, about the British campaign asking citizens to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ during the bombing raids of the second world war. This was an appeal to people’s wisdom, and the collective ability of the British population to respond positively to this message was almost certainly a factor in the outcome of the war.

Practically speaking, what can parents do to support the development of wisdom in their children? Because wisdom is an abstract idea like love or compassion, it’s a good idea to start with what it looks like in practice: ‘Wise people do not look out just for their own interests, nor do they ignore these interests. Rather, they skillfully balance interests of varying kinds, including their own, and [others’]…Wise individuals realize that what may appear to be a prudent course of action in the short term does not necessarily appear so over the long term.’ (from Explorations in Giftedness (2011), by Robert Sternberg, Linda Jarvin, and Elena Grigorenko)

So, we’re back to the question that motivated this blog: how can parents support the development of wisdom in their children? The quote at the top of the blog from Martin Luther King provides a clue: wisdom requires well-developed thinking skills (or intelligence), as well as a strongly developed character. I have addressed elsewhere the ways that parents and teachers can support the development of their children’s intelligence, and focus here on the ‘character’ component of wisdom. This is where Sternberg’s description comes in, suggesting that wisdom includes a focus on skillfully balancing interests of varying kinds, including one’s own as well as others’; and an understanding that one needs to consider the longer term, as well as immediate and short term, effects of a decision or action.

The most important thing that parents can do to support the development of wisdom and character in their children is to model these attributes in their own lives, sharing the reasoning processes with children, as they become able to understand some of the factors that are involved. ‘Others’ here is broadly inclusive, from immediate family members, out through extended family and friendship networks, and community, national, and global interests. That means, for example, thinking about the environmental effects of one’s actions. It means treating others the way one would like to be treated, and also being as good to oneself as one is to others. It means making a habit of asking, ‘What would happen if everyone behaved as I do?’

Modeling wisdom also means thinking about the long term consequences of any behaviour or action, as well as possible immediate and short-term consequences. It might be alright to eat one more chocolate bar right now, but in the longer term, too many decisions like that will prove unwise. The family might be able to afford an expensive holiday this year, but perhaps that will mean depleting resources, and having trouble if the roof starts leaking or the car needs repairs. Sometimes a holiday is badly needed—whether for physical or emotional or family-building reasons –and is the best possible way to spend the family savings. Knowing when it’s a good idea to push the limits, and when it’s a good time to conserve, is where wisdom comes in.

Second to modeling wise decision-making, the most important thing that parents can do is include their children in decision-making processes, as appropriate to the child’s age and abilities. This is best if it starts small and personal – should Maria do her homework when she gets home from school, for example, or can she wait until after dinner? By the time a child becomes a teenager, decisions are getting more complex and have bigger consequences, so it’s great if some wisdom has already been acquired. Because children of eleven through fourteen are going through extraordinary internal and external changes, they go through a stage when they may appear to have lost any wisdom they’d already gained, so it’s important that they’ve already consolidated some basics of wise decision-making before that.

Raising kids who are not only smart, but who are also wise enough to make the decisions that will lead to a sense of fulfillment and happiness across the life span, is a serious challenge faced by all parents. This is the challenge that Joanne Foster and I address in our work together, most explicitly in Raising Smarter Kids. We write there about what we think parents’ ultimate goals for their children should be. This includes a feeling of well-being, and, ideally, happiness. Integrity. The recognition that change and challenge can be good. The ability to welcome adversity, and to cultivate resilience in the face of hardship. The ability to think, communicate, and act coherently, responsibly, creatively, and decisively. A collaborative spirit. Ample capacity for fun and relaxation. And, a lifelong love of learning, fueled by a calm, self-assured motivation and drive. Wisdom, in other words.

As with creativity and intelligence, parents have a much larger role in their children acquiring wisdom than many realize. Parents can make a difference by providing the kinds of environments, challenges, role models, and social supports that increase the likelihood of their children making wise decisions, both in the short term, and in the longer term.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

August 28, 2011

The world is changing rapidly all around us, in large ways and small. As I write this, Hurricane Irene is raging up the east coast of the United States, the rebel fighters appear to be making advances into Tripoli and bringing down the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, countless new electronic devices and approaches to health are being invented that will someday change my life, and my daughter has just given birth to my first grandbaby. And who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Joanne and I are putting some finishing touches on some new collaborative work, thinking about the impact of change on the roles and responsibilities of parents. The bottom line for parents, I think, is that although the world around us is changing at a breathtaking speed—we hardly get a chance to recover from one set of changes before the next set presents itself to us—the basic principles of raising children are the same as ever. Children need their parents’ love, guidance, attention, support, and rule-setting.

At the same time, there are specific practical tools that parents can use to help children learn to adapt well to change. That’s very much the focus of Raising Smarter Kids. It’s also the focus of an article I wrote with Rosanne Menna a few years back, called ‘Solving Problems Together: The Importance of Parent/School/Community Collaboration at a Time of Educational and Social Change’. You’ll find that article under ‘Reflections and Opportunities’ in the Resources page of this website.

The Broom Is More Powerful Than the Baseball Bat

August 14, 2011

Late this week, across England, brigades of mostly young people gathered, carrying brooms, in areas where looting had destroyed their neighbours’ shops and homes over the previous few days. The broom brigade came together in the same way that the gangs of looters had come together with baseball bats a few days earlier, using social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, to let people know what was happening, and encourage them to get involved.

There’s been a lot of talk in the wake of the looting about the role of parents – should parents be held accountable for their children’s antisocial actions? Should parents be evicted from their community-subsidised housing if their teenagers set fire to a shop, or steal from one?

This turmoil across England, and the ensuing community-minded clean-ups, echo socially disruptive and cohesive activities happening around the world, in the Arab Spring, in China, and elsewhere. They provide an opportunity for parents to think about the values they’re living out themselves, and what they’re teaching their children about a person’s roles, rights, and responsibilities in society. Parents can take this chance to affirm the importance of each of us taking an active part in investing in creating a civil society, especially in times of stress and turmoil.

In response to many requests from parents for advice on how to support their children through troubled times, Joanne and I wrote an article several years ago that has been reprinted several times, in newsletters and other publications around the world, called ‘Troubling Times: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Understand and Confront Adversity.’ In it, we recommend that parents help their children see their own roles in making the world a better place, one manageable step at a time. In short, we recommend that parents show their children by their own example how much more powerful is the broom than the baseball bat.