June 26, 2013

Can You Break Your Shushing Habit?

One of my sons’ family recently moved from a second-floor condo (in a three-level building) to a single family home. My daughter-in-law told me she’s noticed how relieved she is to not have to constantly “shush” her children, ages 4 and 10. Now that there’s no one to disturb in a unit above, in a unit below, or in a unit to the side, she feels she can finally let go and let her kids be kids.

A widely-distributed blog post this week addressed the same issue. The author makes the point that children naturally are loud. Trying to make them be quiet is frustrating… for everyone.

So here’s a challenge: take note of how many times during a day you shush your kids. Is being quiet the most important thing in your family, at least as measured by how many times it’s reinforced? You might be surprised by how frequently you shush.

In more formal times, the maxim “children should be seen and not heard” described ideal behavior. Children were expected to not to speak at all unless they were spoken to. But in a free society, shushing a child seems downright un-American.

Keep in mind that learning to talk requires not just listening to others (though that’s important) but practicing speech by talking too. Children who are inhibited from talking may have smaller vocabularies and smaller command of grammar and pronunciation, and they may be overshadowed in school by their more vocal classmates. We cannot have it both ways: we can’t ask kids constantly to be quiet then cajole them to “speak up!”

In addition, silencing our children silences more than their voices. It silences their opinions as well. The ability to think through problems and negotiate conflict requires freedom to speak one’s mind in a coherent argument. This is especially true when the speaker is younger and less capable than other people in the room, or when some groups of children (girls, for example) are shushed more than others.

Finally, keeping children quiet teaches them to “play small.” It makes being less-than a habit. Parents who are eager for their children to stand out can start by letting them speak out.

This isn’t to say that children have to yell all the time. Here are some suggestions that might make shushing a thing of the past in your house:
  1. Model what you want to hear. If you yell, your kids will yell, just to be heard. Instead of upping your volume to carry your voice over the din, speak more quietly. This means also to avoid calling loudly up the stairs… go to where the person is to speak with him.
  2. Turn down or turn off competing sounds. If the TV is always on, if video games or music is played at max volume, or if the dog barks constantly, kids will have to yell to be heard. Turn things off and train the dog.
  3. Get outside. What’s the point of having an “outside voice” if you never get a chance to use it? Make certain your children get outdoors every day and don’t make them be quiet when they run around and play.
  4. Listen to your children. Sometimes kids get loud just to get your attention. Don’t be too busy to listen, to admire, and to interact with them.
  5. Teach volume control. If you’re modeling your best indoor voice, your children will have an easier time knowing what speaking “normally” is. But they still will need to know – in a nice way – when they are speaking too loudly for the situation. Try suggesting, in a near-whisper, “Speak only to me” when your child is declaring things at the top of her lungs.

No one likes to be shushed. But we parents shush an awful lot. See if you can break – or at least reduce – your own impulse to shush.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

June 11, 2013

What To Do If The School Year Ended Badly

A friend asked for advice recently about a second-grader whose final report for the year was a disaster. This came as a surprise, since earlier reports had included only As and Bs.  The final report, though, showed no good grades at all – everything was a C or D.

Worse, the teacher provided no information. If you can imagine it, the teacher sent this report card home and walked out the door. The parents and this child were left on their own to try to figure this out.

Maybe it’s easy for you to imagine something like this. Maybe something very similar happened to you.

So now you’re left holding a burst balloon. Your confidence in your child and in her school progress has been completely deflated. What are you supposed to think about this and what should you do over the summer to get the next school year off to a good start?

First, understand your child probably doesn’t know what happened either. She might, if she’s an older child who can reflect back on her performance, on her on-time submission of homework and on her behavior. But younger students – up through elementary school and maybe even in middle school – may really have no clue. So grilling your child about what went wrong will only increase everyone’s anxiety and frustration and really won’t help. Don’t do it.

However, your child probably is just as dismayed as you are. So as you and she look over this report, it’s good to express your puzzlement and to confirm that this is unexpected. You and she both expected better because you know that she’s really a good student. It’s important that your child know you don’t accept this bad report as truly reflective of her performance and that, at worst, this report is a one-time occurrence.

Next, though, you should plan this summer to do a couple things.
First, support your child’s development of “executive processing skills” of listening, sticking with a task, evaluating his own performance, and controlling any impulsivity. These skills are essential to school success. The child who is weak in these areas may have been more scattered in the last months of school, as disruptions like testing, field trips, and so on interrupted the usual school day. Working with your child in chores around the house is the way to support these abilities, but make certain your child is not treated like a mindless drone but is encouraged to figure out how to do things and to evaluate his own success.

Second, support your child’s independent reading during the summer. Remember that all reading is good reading, so reading comic books, non-fiction, magazines, and even the directions on video games is all fine. Read to your child every day, choosing chapter books you both enjoy (for older kids, this can be Sherlock Holmes, for example, and for younger students Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings or whatever else you both think will be fun).  Learning through reading becomes more important the higher children get in school, so being able to read unfamiliar words and make sense of complex sentences becomes increasingly important. This sort of skill comes through practice.

Finally, integrate math into everyday activities. Measuring, estimating, calculating and so on are part of ordinary living and usually you just do these actions on your own, in your head. This summer, make your thinking process plain to your child and get him involved in solving problems along with you. Online resources like Mike’s Math Page on Facebook can get both of you busy figuring things out. This is not just about math, of course. It’s about tackling tricky problems, persisting even when things seem hard, and using brain power to solve problems.

Don’t worry about the past, just get busy in the present.  And have a great summer!

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

June 07, 2013

“Our Little Secret” ... The Conspiracy To Keep Parents In the Dark

"Psst... don't tell your mom!"
Kim Estes, expert on child safety, relays this incident from a mother, who wrote, "I recently had to stop play dates between my child and a schoolmate when I discovered that the child's mother had not once, not twice but three times had either asked my child to keep a secret or had offered to ‘not tell your mom’ about something that had happened on a play date.”

Would you have done the same? Is the impulse to keep secrets from you so serious a problem it’s a reason to limit a friendship?

Well, yes. And here’s why. Anyone who asks a child to keep a secret is asking the child to lie. Obviously, this is a problem. In addition, someone who asks a child to keep a secret is teaching the child to practice deceit and trickery. This is confusing to child who in all innocence doesn’t see her parents as “the enemy” or as people from whom she needs to conceal what she’s doing.

Children keep secrets, of course, and the older the child the more secrets he will have from you. Just as you have secrets you don’t share with your children – or even with your best friend – so will your older child or teenager grow to distinguish between facts she wants to share and facts she wants to keep private. This ability to edit information for various audiences is an indicator of her growing social sensitivity and it usually doesn’t mean your child has anything earth-shaking to conceal.

But it’s different when the child who would share something with you is required not to. Sometimes a child is coerced into silence by a playmate who threatens to end their friendship if the child tells. Sometimes a child’s impulse to be truthful is held hostage by a friend’s parent or older sibling, who implies that telling will bring shame and unhappiness down on the child’s head. Embarrassment and shame are keen emotions among elementary school kids. The threat of exposure – even of something the child doesn’t understand was improper – is a powerful brake on your child’s conscience. Anyone who asks your child to keep something “our little secret” doesn’t have your child’s best interests at heart.

And that’s the real danger. Even though the first secret your child is asked to keep from you may not be very important, the second might be. This is how child sexual abuse is perpetrated and this is how kids are introduced to pornography, drugs, and shoplifting. Children are easily led. They go along with something unwittingly, then find themselves committing to secrecy. Parents who said they never knew are parents whose children swore never to tell.

You want to keep the lines of communication open. You want your children to believe they can tell you anything, anything at all, and you won’t go ballistic. You want your children to be able to look a would-be conspirator in the eye and think to themselves,

“No, I can’t keep this quiet. My Mom and Dad will want to know.”

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

June 04, 2013

Should Daddy Stay Home?

These days, in most newly-married households, both adults work. Then, when children come along, parents sometimes decide that one of them should stay home with the kids, either to reduce the cost of childcare or because quality childcare isn’t available. For as long as anyone can remember, that stay-at-home parent was the mom.

But there’s a shift underway. These days, with women earning more college degrees than men and with the rise of service-sector jobs, increasingly it’s the mother who earns more than the dad. According to Stephanie Coontz of the Council on Contemporary Families (as reported recently by National Public Radio), in more than a quarter of families (28%), it is the woman makes more money than her husband. The old notion that  the parent with the smaller paycheck should be the one who stays home with the children is leading to a rethinking of parental roles and a new appreciation of what fathers can do.

The U. S. Census Bureau reports that only 3.5 percent of families include a stay-at-home dad but this figure is thought way too low by most observers. It often misses fathers who work from home, either as telecommuting employees or as home-based entrepreneurs. Just as many stay-at-home mothers run businesses, many stay-at-home fathers have more than the children to think about during the day. In reporting their activities to the Census Bureau, stay-at-home dads are apparently less likely to credit childcare as their main activity than are stay-at-home mothers.

Being children’s chief caregiver is not a well-accepted role for men. They may be viewed as filling in for mom temporarily by teachers and pediatricians, who are more familiar with dealing with women. They may be ignored by fellow caregivers at the playground. And men may be thought somehow deficient in parenting skills, even though the most respected and best-selling authorities on parenting are male. Even mothers may doubt that dad knows what he’s doing.

But here’s the truth of the matter. While fathers typically interact differently with children than mothers do, this is simply a difference, not a deficiency. Men tend to be more physically active with their children and more supportive of exploration and problem-solving. According to the American Psychological Association, children raised with men as their primary caregiver have at least equal language skills, reading and math achievement, and social abilities compared to children raised by women. For parents of both sexes it comes down to who is more available and more comfortable in filling the stay-at-home parent role. If it’s the father, then that’s okay.

One of the great advances of the past thirty years is a rethinking of what is “women’s work” and what is “men’s work.” Another great advance is the availability at home of all the technology needed to do many creative and vital jobs from the convenience of one’s spare bedroom. It should come as no surprise that both mothers and fathers are taking advantage of these two innovations to craft a family support system that works for everyone: the adults and the children.

Should Daddy stay home? Maybe. It’s not a problem if he does.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.