December 30, 2014

Start Now to Teach Your Child to Drive

If you drive a car, sooner or later your child will expect to drive one too. For most teens, the day they can legally drive is the moment they want to get behind the wheel. How can you make certain your child is ready when that time comes?

First, learning to drive starts now, no matter how old your child is. As you drive through town, with your child in the backseat, talk about the rules of the road as they come up. Notice the signs and talk about what they mean. Talking about driving starts long before your child is tall enough to see over the steering wheel.

As soon as your child is old enough to sit in the passenger seat, that’s where he should sit at least some of the time. Now your driving conversations get more specific, as you point out possible hazards and how you handle them. Get your child thinking about driving, watching the traffic, and helping you notice dodgy situations.

Second, make it clear to your child long before he turns 16, that driving is a privilege that carries with it some heavy responsibilities. Driving is not a right. Let him know that you will be watching for signals that he’s ready to drive a car and that when you see he’s ready you will agree to let him learn.

At the same time, don’t make learning to drive an exercise in extortion. Don’t make your permission dependent on getting straight As in school or setting other impossibly high standards as a prerequisite to learning to drive. Be fair and treat your child fairly.

Remember that driving is a complex skill and it takes lots of practice to get good enough at it to be safe. This means that even if your child takes driver’s ed in school or gets private lessons, you will still have to help her practice driving as much as possible. The more situations, the more weather, the more sorts of roadways your child drives under your watchful eye, the better.

Keep your eye on the law. Be careful to get things off on the right foot by keeping your child out from behind the wheel until he’s legally allowed to get a learner’s permit. Once your child gets his license, pay attention to the limitations your state puts on teen drivers. In most states, new drivers are not allowed to drive after dark or to drive with other teens in the car. Make certain your child follows the law – and make certain he knows the law even if he’s just riding while a friend drives.

Finally, as always, model what you want to see, even if you don’t want to see it for another five years. Now is the time to be mindful of your own driving, so your children see the best possible example. Don’t use your cell phone when you drive and avoid other distractions, like hunting for something on the floor while you go down the road. Always use your seat belt. Don’t speed. Come to a full stop at stop signs. Do not put yourself in the position later of having to insist on rules your child thinks you yourself ignore.

When it comes to preparing a child to learn to drive, “Do as I do and do as I say,” is the safest way. Start modeling good driving now and start talking about good driving. No matter how young your child is now, the time to start driver’s ed is today.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at

December 13, 2014

How to Get Kids to Do What You Want

It is not true that people do things only because they will be rewarded for doing them. Children are not trained pigeons or laboratory rats, who will do whatever will get them a treat. Kids like treats, of course, but there is something they like even better. Independence.

So trying to get children to behave by “catching them being good” and rewarding or praising them for it will only get you so far. You might get a smile. You might even get a repeat of the good behavior. But over the long haul you’ve taught your child something different from what you think you’ve taught. You’ve taught your child that your approval can be bought and that she’s the one in charge.

This isn’t what you expected. This isn’t what happens with lab rats. Rats don’t suddenly ask the researcher, “What will you give me if I do what you want?” They don’t ever say, “No, thanks. That’s not enough for me.” But children do. Once you’ve put a price on good behavior, you’ve put the choice to accept that price or reject it in your children’s hands. Children weigh the value of your approval against the value of their own independence and self-esteem. Sooner or later, your approval is worth less.

No one - not even a child - wants to be manipulated. So when rewards and promises are used to coerce good behavior, children understand perfectly what’s going on. As far as a child is concerned, no reward is better than being an independent, free person. A child might accept your offer of a reward today – as a free, independent person, that’s his prerogative – but he might reject your offer tomorrow. Children are their own selves, not our puppets. They know this and are ready to teach parents a lesson.

So this means that the plan you might have had, to not punish your children but to reward them when they do as you wish, has a huge flaw in it. Rewards just don’t work all that well over the long term. Kids can be bought, yes. You can get a child to clean up her room by promising to take her to the movies if there’s a movie she wants to see. But expect her to demand the same “payment” for cleaning her room next time, or for her to tell you she’s just not that interested in cleaning her room since there’s no good movies around. Rewards don’t develop a child’s sense of responsibility or obedience, only a sense of power.

Now it is your child who is doling out rewards  - her cleaned room - and you whose behavior is being manipulated – ponying up for a trip to the cinema. Was this what you had in mind?

What can you do instead?

The problem with rewards lies in the trickery rewards imply. We are tricking our children into doing as we wish by holding out a reward for doing it. Remove the trickery and make things more straightforward. Say, “This room is a mess! It’s time to clean it. How quickly do you think you can get things into better shape?” Let the child decide on a time target. Set a timer. Announce, “Go!” If it’s a small child or if the room is really awful, pitch in to help. Get it done in the time allowed. Then celebrate with a cookie or a high-five or a trip to the movies. Whatever. Just avoid holding out the celebratory reward ahead of time.

Or, forego the reward altogether and simply comment on what you see. Instead of saying, “Thanks for taking care of your baby sister. Here’s three dollars,” just say, “Thanks for taking care of your baby sister. She looks like she had a great time with you.” If you never start down the payment-for-responsible-behavior road, your child will feel more responsible, not less, when you share your sincere appreciation. There’s no need to taint the moment with money or another reward.

It’s not that you can never say, “Wow, that was a terrific thing you did. Let’s celebrate!” You certainly can. But it does mean that you can’t develop the kind of responsibility you’re looking for if you instead say, “If you do a terrific thing, then we’ll celebrate.” The problem is not with the celebration but with the cause-and-effect condition put on it. A celebration is something you do with another person. A reward is something you do to another person.

No one wants to be done-to.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at

November 28, 2014

Is Your Child Keeping Secrets From You?

If you are the parent of a child aged nine and up, you are already aware of the shift in perspective that happens in the preteen years. Suddenly, peers and friendships take on more importance than before.  While your child still values your opinion, you certainly are no longer the center of your child’s social world. Her friends are. And with this shift comes a need to keep from you some of what’s going on.

You won’t be told everything. Your child will keep from you things that he thinks should be secret. He won’t tell you things that are just between him and his friends. And this, obviously, can be a problem, because he is not yet a good judge of what he can handle and what you need to know.

Keeping secrets becomes something of an obsession in the preteen years. This is the age of the locked diary, after all. Mystery, intrigue, and hidden information of all sorts attract older elementary school students. Being able to keep a secret is a mark of self-control and competence and kids this age know it.

So children in the preteen years are likely to keep secrets. In addition, your child’s friends may make her pledge to keep a secret. Your child may be burdened not only with secrets of her own but with the secrets of others and the weight of a promise not to tell.

Couple this interest in secrets and the power of children’s social relationships with a preteen’s growing awareness of adult issues and sexual vulnerability and it’s obvious that a kid can get in over his head pretty quickly. Keeping secrets becomes a trap. Even if he is not personally involved in his friends’ worries, hearing about them and pledging to keep them secret can cause your child problems. Research has shown that adolescents who keep secrets and cannot unburden themselves to a trusted adult are more anxious and troubled than children who are not.

You cannot derail the interest in secrets. But you can keep the lines of communication open. Do this in two ways:
  • First, have a conversation with your child today – before you even think there’s a secret she’s keeping – about sharing important information. Let her know that some things should be told, even if it seems scary or dangerous or even if she’s made a promise not to tell. Let her know that if a friend shares a secret, your child should decide for herself if keeping the secret is a good idea or if telling an adult is actually the better course of action. Empower your child to be thoughtful about secrets.
  • Second, make certain you are someone who can be trusted with confidential information. Be someone who isn’t easily shocked, who doesn’t immediately jump to conclusions, and who doesn’t shush or shame a child for revealing disturbing information. If you want your child to tell you what’s bothering him, you have to be the sort of person who makes things better, not someone who makes things worse. You establish your credibility over time. The time to start being open-minded and non-judgmental is now. 

Even with this sort of advance planning, you will stumble on secrets your child is keeping from you. What should you do then?
  • If you suspect your child is keeping secret something you think you and she should talk about, then say so. There’s no need to ask the child if she’s keeping something secret – there’s no point in forcing her to lie to you. Instead, say what you suspect and start the conversation from there: “I’ve noticed that your friends were talking about shoplifting at the mall. Tell me about that…” Remember that your ultimate objective is to keep the lines of communication open between the two of you, not to shame your child or make her feel she has to hide things from you. Make this a friendly conversation.
  • If you discover a secret your child has been keeping from you, the same process applies. Don’t ask questions that will encourage lying but simply say what you found out and go from there. “I was cleaning your room yesterday and I saw some things that make me think you’re smoking pot. Tell me about that…” Your child may accuse you of snooping. Don’t deny it. Say, “Yes, I was putting your clothes away in the drawers and I found things.” 

Which brings up the question, should you snoop? Should you read your child’s diary, go through her desk drawers, search her computer? Maybe. If you really and truly have cause for concern, if you think your child is considering suicide, for example, or is acting erratically, then searching for clues might be the wise thing to do. It might save your child’s life. But keep in mind that your relationship with your child is built on trust. Whatever you do that erodes that trust has potential to erode your relationship.

Keeping secrets can become a trap. It’s the mechanism on which pedophiles, bullies and abusers rely.  It’s the place where feelings can spiral out of control and lead to catastrophic consequences.

Help your child and your child’s friends know the difference between secrets that are fun to keep and secrets that must be shared.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at

November 14, 2014

Is it Wrong to Say "That’s Wrong"?

Most of us like Right Answers. Knowing the right answers got us where we are today – pretty successful grownups who feel competent most of the time. We are good at knowing things and we feel in some ways it’s our mission to make sure our children know things too. We like it when our kids give us the right answers. We don’t like it so much when our kids are wrong.

Is that a problem? If we correct children, and make them repeat the Right Answer, even tell them they’ve given us a Wrong Answer, is that itself the wrong thing to do?

Yes. The answer is yes. It’s wrong to say, “That’s wrong.” Here’s why.

Children have an awful lot to learn before they leave our care and go out into the big wide world, even if we’re only talking about heading off to kindergarten. Learning all that stuff takes quite a bit of effort and a large amount of courage. A person has to be persistent. A person has to feel she’s making progress. All of this is undermined if a grownup is hanging around criticizing.

When an adult tells a child, “That’s wrong,” the message received is, “You’re incompetent. You’re incapable. You’re dumb.” Certainly the grownup doesn’t mean all this. The grownup only means to point out that an answer or a thought was wrong. But the vulnerable child hears an indictment. She hears a message that tells her she’s not good enough.

The child also hears that it’s safer to not think. It’s safer to wait for someone to tell him the Right Answer so he can just memorize it. It’s safer to be passive, to be dumb about learning. This is the child who is always asking if the teacher likes his paper. This is the child who watches others to see what they’re doing before he dares to try something himself. This is the child who doesn’t bother to think but waits until the Right Answer is spoken by someone else.

When we tell children their ideas are wrong, we make learning a guessing game, not an exercise in thinking. Guess what the right answer is, we’re saying. If you’re lucky or if you’re smart, you’ll guess right. If you’re unlucky or if you’re stupid, you’ll guess wrong. It should be obvious that this isn’t fair. This doesn’t contribute to a love of learning. Telling children they’re wrong when they venture an idea stops their brains.

The problem, of course, is that we adults love the Right Answer. Wrong answers give us the willies. We hate how a wrong answer lingers in the air, infecting everyone. What if the child continues to think a wrong thought? What if his brother or sister agrees with a wrong idea?

We could calm down. Our anxiety is all about us and our feelings, not about the children and theirs. Eventually, the truth will become apparent and children will come round to what we think is “right.” Or, maybe, they will stumble on a new truth and we’ll be forced to agree with them. Either way is okay. The big issue isn’t landing on a question’s one right answer.

The big issue is thinking about questions at all.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website

October 30, 2014

How to Handle Sibling Rivalry

To a certain extent, sibling rivalry is normal. Teasing, arguments, and sabotage are pretty common even among good friends and it’s reasonable to see these behaviors in kids who share the same household. 

But sibling rivalry can come to dominate family life and even descend into bullying. What can you do to smooth things over among your children and reduce the level of animosity?

The root cause of sibling rivalry is competition. This is obvious, since the word “rivalry” suggests a pitting of one side against another. Competition is learned. The way to reduce sibling rivalry is to reduce the level of competition in your home. Here’s how.

Share your attention fairly. Parental attention is a zero-sum game: attention given to one child necessarily means less attention to another child. Children actively jostle for your attention, even resorting to bad behavior so you have to focus on them, and actively undermine attention you give to a brother or sister. So notice if you tend to attend more to one child than another, if you let one child “get more” than a sibling, and if children may reasonably believe you have a favorite child (and it’s not them).

Naturally, the baby needs attention and a preschool child (or even older child) may resent all the time the baby takes. The same can be said for a child with special needs and her typically-developing siblings. Sometimes it’s just impossible to be fair in how you share attention. But at least be aware of the impact this difference has on the other children in the family. Be sympathetic and supportive. Give children fewer reasons to think you don’t love them.

Don’t pit one child against another. Making comparisons between your children, so that one feels lower in status than another or one feels higher, is obviously a trigger for sibling rivalry. Competition isn’t a very good motivator, especially when the stakes are high – and there’s nothing higher than earning a parent’s favor. Avoid comparing one child to another or suggesting that one child is faster, stronger, smarter, better looking, more responsible, or anything else than his sibling is. Instead make statements that are not comparisons: “You’re really strong” is better than “You are so much stronger than your brother is.”

Children will be competitive without you injecting competition into everything. Little kids want to be just like their older siblings, and older siblings work hard to stay ahead of the younger kids. Don’t add to the competition by setting things up yourself.

Draw the line about being mean. There is a good bit of evidence that bullying happens at home as often as it happens at school. Your children shouldn’t feel intimidated by a sibling or unsafe in their own home. Remember that bullying isn’t just physical but includes also verbal abuse and sabotage. Set clear standards for courteous behavior and make certain all your children adhere to them.

This is where favoritism creeps back in. Children believe their siblings get away with behavior they themselves are punished for. They say their parents ignore them when they complain about a sibling who is abusive. Open your eyes. If children say they are uncomfortable, they are. Deal with it.

What can you do if sibling rivalry is already a habit among your children? Besides changing your own behavior, as outlined above, what can you do to put a stop to the nastiness? 
  1. Identify one problem to focus on. Don’t single out any one child as the instigator: remember that almost always both parties contribute to the trouble in one way or another. Then notice your own default patterns of reaction and how you might be supporting or contributing to the problem. Settle on one frequently-occurring situation to fix.
  2. Decide on a way to change the pattern. Depending on the situation and whether this is fueled by temperamental issues, developmental stuff, or just bad habits, settle on your plan of approach. This might involve changing how things happen or it might include having a talk with the kids and settling on a new way of interacting. It might mean that you arrange things so the situation doesn’t occur. It probably means you will change how you yourself react. Whatever you decide to do will signal to your kids that a change is underway.
  3. Avoid setting yourself up as the referee or judge. If you sit down with your children and tell them that you will punish the next one who does X, you encourage tattling and extortion. Tattling and extortion are not what you want; you want peace and quiet. So stay positive. Work out with your children how they are to act in the problem situation in the future. Say nothing about what will happen if they don’t.
  4. Go on a positive comment campaign. Notice pleasant behavior and comment on it. Notice when children resolve the problem you discussed in a positive way, even if only one child did this and his sibling did not. Mention only the good behavior, not the bad. If you’ve been commenting only on the negative stuff, you’ve been inadvertently supporting it. Ignore bad behavior as much as you can and heap praise on the good stuff. You’ll soon see more good and less bad. 

When you replace unpleasant actions with more acceptable behavior, you guide your children in handling difficult situations and handling themselves. These are valuable lessons.

When you reduce the perception of favoritism and competition among your kids, you and they will get along better.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at

September 25, 2014

Five Little Words Your Child Wants to Hear

A couple of college football coaches have asked their athletes this question over the last 30 years: "What is your worst memory from playing youth and high school sports?"

You might be surprised by the answer: "The ride home from games with my parents."

Stuck in the car with a parent still mulling over the game, a child cannot escape. He gets asked why he missed that play. He gets asked what he can do to play better next time. He gets asked why the coach put so-and-so in or what he thinks about that call by the ref. Most kids are focused on just getting home. Many parents are not.

Those same college coaches asked their athletes a second question: “What did your parents say that made you feel great about being involved in sports?”

The answer here was simple: parents said, "I love to watch you play."

Saying “I love to watch you….” is a statement without any strings attached. It doesn’t suggest how a child can make us happier by being even better. It doesn’t imply we’re not so happy right now as a child could make us if she just worked harder and earned more acclaim.

Saying “I love to watch you…” can’t be said without a warm smile. It’s a sentence that feels good to say and feels good to hear. It’s a gift.

So try it. After the next game look your child in the eye and say, “I love to watch you play.” Just that. See if he doesn’t light up.

After your child practices the piano, helps his little sister, or just sits in a corner reading a book -  whenever you see something you want to encourage, something you want your child to do more of -  don’t make any comment or give any advice. Just say “I love to watch you…” do whatever you saw. Just that.

Then spread the love around. Tell your partner, “I love to watch you play with the kids.” Tell your mother, “I love to see you and the baby having such a good time.” Stop and appreciate the wonderful people and talents around you. There’s no need to tell people how to do things better. They’re doing just fine on their own right now.

Once we appreciate our children and tell them how much we love to see them in action, we really will appreciate them more. We’ll feel less inclined to judge and correct and we'll feel happier to just let them be. We’ll be able to see how wonderful our children are.

And our kids will be happier to let us watch. Our kids won’t be afraid of the ride home.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

September 16, 2014

Grumpy Mornings? How to Start Your Kids’ Day Right

If getting everyone up and out the door on time is becoming more and more difficult every day, you’re justified in feeling frustrated and angry.

But you’ve probably also noticed that yelling at the kids and nagging them isn’t working. It doesn’t get the day launched happily and it makes you feel worse, not better. So what can you do differently? How can you quit being a witch and still get the children to the bus stop on time?

A good start to the day begins the night before. The time to finish homework is before going to bed, not after getting up from it. Make it a habit (for you) to check on homework well before bedtime to make certain that nothing’s been forgotten. Evening also is the time to check the backpack for notes that need your signature and to inquire about what’s going on at school the next day. The time to find out about the field trip to a marsh for which boots and gloves will be needed is well before the morning light.

In addition, the night before is when you need to know about issues your child might have about clothes for the next day (is it school spirit day and the only shirt in a school color is in the wash?) or about a broken zipper on her jacket and other issues. Make it a habit, as the day winds down, to talk over the next day with your child in time for her to remember what she’s going to need or want. If it helps you, create a checklist:
  • What to wear tomorrow?
  • Homework done?
  • Library books or other equipment needed?
  • What’s happening at school tomorrow?
  • Notes that need to be signed?
  • Early start or early dismissal tomorrow?
  • Lunch or snack needs tomorrow?

Ask your child to set out his backpack and other things needed for school the next day. If your has troubled deciding what to wear in the morning, help him to make his choices at night and lay out clothes, ready to go, the evening before.

Make certain kids get to bed and turn off the light early enough to allow for enough sleep before morning. Children need between 10 and 12 hours of sleep throughout the elementary school  years and teens need nine to 10 hours. Many children don’t get all the sleep they need, and this makes it very hard for them to wake up on time and feel alert and ready.

In the morning, make certain you and your kids get up with plenty of time to do what needs to be done before the day begins. This includes dressing and breakfasting, of course, but it might also include walking the dog, feeding the cat, brushing snow off the car, and other routine tasks. If you’re always rushed, you might just need more time. Get up early enough to have time for what is needed.

Keep off distracting electronics. Make it a rule that the television and computer stay off, tablets and handhelds put away until after the kids are dressed and fed, brushed and organized, ready to go. This has the double advantage of limiting distractions to necessary tasks and also adding an incentive to accomplish tasks efficiently.

Give everyone a couple minutes’ warning ahead of the actual out-the-door moment. Set a timer to beep at the right time and then reset it for two minutes later. Kids tend to obey the impersonal sound of a timer better than your own voice.

Finally, factor in the time needed to actually get going. You know this isn’t instantaneous! Depending on the weather, children may need more or less time to get their coats and boots on. If you’ve got everything ready the night before, no one will need to hunt for essentials. But kids – especially preschoolers – need time to pull on their jackets and zip them up. Give them the time they need to do it themselves if they must.

Once you’ve got things down to a routine, your mornings will flow like a gentle breeze. Get the day off right for everyone with a little planning and care.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Check out the free downloads page at

September 11, 2014

And the Moral of the Story Is...

When you choose a story to read to your child, do you care if it has a moral? Even when the story doesn’t have a moral, do you make one up anyway? Is it important to you that children “get the point” of the consequences of the main character’s actions?

A lot of traditional stories seem to be built with the moral in mind. Aesop’s fables are particularly explicit in this regard. Think of the fable the Hare and the Tortoise and the moral “slow and steady wins the race.” The story of Little Red Riding Hood seems an elaborate warning to stay on the path and not talk to strangers. In fact, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears bothers us just a bit because nothing really happens to Goldilocks who broke into the bears’ home and destroyed their possessions. It’s as if we’d rather Goldilocks got eaten by the bears instead of being allowed to escape out the window.

Many modern books for children revolve around a moral, especially the storybooks parents can find at the supermarket and other big box stores. The Curious George books have morals that are gently emphasized. Recent titles in The Berenstain Bears series are more heavy-handed. The question is, does all this moralizing pay off? Do children pick up on the moral of a story and use that to guide their own behavior.

The answer is, “It depends.”

A recent study with children aged three to seven found that some classic tales that emphasize a moral failed to have the intended effect. For example, stories that hinge on the bad outcomes resulting from telling a lie did not reduce children’s own impulse to lie. Here’s how the study worked.

Over 260 preschoolers were asked to play a game in which cheating would have made them a winner but no one would know if they actually cheated. A videotape of the process revealed who did cheat and, later, who lied about cheating when asked. Next, children were read a story that illustrated the consequences of lying, like Pinocchio or The Boy Who Cried Wolf. (If you’ve forgotten, Pinocchio’s nose grows longer when he lies and his lying leads to other bad consequences; in The Boy Who Cried Wolf, a boy is not believed when he reports that a wolf is approaching the village because he lied about this in the past.) Then the children played the cheating game again. The result? Children were as likely to cheat and as likely to lie about cheating after hearing the stories as before.

A second experiment used the same cheating game but a different story, the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. In this tale, the young future president is confronted with a ruined tree and, instead of covering up his deed, admits to it, saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” In this experiment, children were much less likely to lie about cheating and much more likely to admit that they cheated.

So here’s the take-away: morals that depict terrible consequences for lying (and perhaps for other misdeeds as well), do not reduce bad behavior but stories that depict a main character resisting the temptation to behave badly do reduce bad behavior. Morals work, but only if they present positive choices.

The implications of this reach beyond the realm of reading aloud to children. Here are some thoughts:
  1. Rather than threatening punishment if your child makes a bad choice, promise a celebration for a good choice.
  2. Be quicker to celebrate good decisions than to punish bad ones. We do get what we pay attention to, so pay attention to the good things.
  3. When you choose books and movies for your children, avoid those with heavy moral messages, especially those that illustrate the negative consequences of bad behavior. These don’t improve behavior and are unpleasant for their audiences. Even children know when they’re being manipulated and don’t like it at all.
  4. When you tell personal stories, of your own childhood or of what happened during your workday, tell stories not about how someone got away with something or how they were punished for what they did but tell stories about how someone made a good choice, even when it was difficult. 
Children learn to make good, moral decisions through observation. They watch what happens and over time develop their notions of how the world works. Morals that hinge on positive decisions teach best.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at


September 04, 2014

What’s More Fun Than Playing Video Games? Making Stuff!

For many parents, breaking a child’s grip on his handheld device requires more than human strength. While there’s nothing wrong with video game play now and then – even some game play every day – a child’s reliance on the digital universe limits his own universe. Smart parents find ways to challenge a child to put down the game and do something else.

But what? What’s more fun than video games?

This is our problem. We want a child to do something different, we set limits, we crab and complain, but we don’t have anything else to offer that’s so interesting as game play. We think our child lacks imagination but really it’s we who are stuck in our ways. What’s more fun than video games? Think like a kid and you’ll know.

Power tools. Rockets. Medieval weaponry (like catapults and trebuchet). Parkour. Treehouses. Skateboards. Wood carving. Cooking like a French chef. Take your cue from cable television, which seems to be aimed right at the 12-year-old mentality, and help your child make and do cool things.

My grandson, a fan of the show Mythbusters, spent a several days this summer making things out of duct tape including a fully functional backpack. Another kid I know, who likes to skateboard, spent most of a month designing and painting his own graphics on a blank board, then attached the wheels and took his creation to the local skate park. What does your kid like? What activity will move her from being just a viewer of someone else’s ideas to a creator of her own?

Tinkering in the garage has a long history in this country but it’s a history that seems to be retreating rapidly from view. The modern garage is too neat and doesn’t hold any intriguing possibilities. What power tools are there are off-limits to kids. The only way a child is allowed to participate in rocketry, radio-controlled vehicles, building stuff, or even using the stove is when an adult is not just present but is directing the action. This is no fun. You know it’s no fun. Doing stuff with Dad (or Mom) lost its appeal at about age six. Older kids want to play around with their own ideas, try things out and see if they can make things work, without a grownup looking over their shoulder, giving advice.

Sure, there are safety concerns. No one’s suggesting you just turn your preteen loose with the table saw. But kids are smarter than we give them credit for. If you want your child to be more interesting and have more interesting things to talk about than what level she’s reached in Minecraft, then it’s up to you to loosen the reins just a bit. Here’s how to start.
  1. Find a local maker’s group or workshop. These are everywhere these days, though you might have to search. Most groups offer workshop space and classes. Go with your kid, of course, at least the first few times.
  2. Let your child do what she most wants to do. If your first answer is usually “no” trying going with “yes.” A child I know wanted to make a CO2 powered car. He needed grownup help and attention to safety, but he was allowed to not only do this but do it himself.
  3. Quit being so neat. Interesting bits and bobs are inspiration. Keep a box of nifty things that could have another life and let your child sift through them.
  4. Bankroll your child’s imagination When your child needs six rolls of duct tape to make a backpack, help her fund that. Sign her up for a class in welding or stained glass, if that’s what she needs. The cost of another video game is about the same.
  5. Be helpful without taking over. You’re the adult here and you are better able to foresee danger and help your child avoid injury. Do that, of course. But don’t manage the work so there’s no chance of failure, so things always go right, or so the outcome is perfect in your eyes. Let your child do real stuff on his own.
To broaden your child’s horizons and spark his imagination and creativity takes some broadening of your own horizons first. If you want your child to put down the handheld and do something, then let him find something cool to do.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

August 27, 2014

Should Your Child Walk To School?

The answer is probably “yes.” Yes, your child – every child – should walk to school if it’s possible to do so.  There are solid reasons why.

First off, early morning exposure to the outdoors contributes to better sleep at night. This is so counter-intuitive that it needs some explanation. Sunlight tells the brain to wake up and resets a person’s biological clock. Without this reset, the brain’s natural cycle is longer than 24 hours, meaning that a person is likely to gradually go to sleep later and later – and get up later and later. To keep the brain on track, outdoor light early in the morning (even on cloudy days) is important.

To wake your child’s head up for school and get your child’s head to sleep at night, walking to school is the perfect solution.

Second, early morning exercise has been demonstrated to increase learning and lead to academic success. A study at one high school that compared students who started the day with gym class to those who took gym later in the day found great increases in academic success among the early exercises. In fact, students with first-period gym and who had access throughout the day to exercise equipment doubled their reading scores and increased their math scores by as much as 20 times.

Walking to school is a simple way to get early exercise into the day. Walking gets the brain going, increases oxygen to the brain and releases neurotrophic factors essential to brain health. Walking anytime during the day can do this, but why not start the day off right?

In earlier eras, all children walked to school. We’ve fallen so much into the habit of transportation to school that even when a child is not eligible for school bus service, parents are likely to drive their child to school in the family car. This leads to congestion around schools twice each day, contributes to air pollution around school buildings, and adds to the danger for children as they enter and exit the school. You can reverse this trend and make your child smarter at the same time. Here are some tips.
  • Walk to school with your child. There are few greater pleasures than walking and talking to and from school. The walk back home alone is the perfect time to think about your own day too.
  • Link up with other parents and take it in turns to walk to and from school with children from several families. Organize a Walking Schoolbus in your neighborhood.
  • Drive part way if the walk is too long. Parking several blocks from the school and walking the rest of the way gives your child the benefits of an early morning walk but keeps the distance manageable and reduces traffic around the school.
  • Walk to school in the morning and let your child take the bus or a car home.
  • Don’t let the weather stop you. Remember that weather almost always seems worse from inside the house. Get out in the weather and enjoy every day, not just the sunny ones.
  • Just do it. There are lots of excuses. Don’t accept any of them. Instead, work through solutions to the barriers and make walking to school what your child does.

How would the day be different if it started more calmly, with a bit of exercise, a bit of seeing what’s happening in the neighborhood, a bit of conversation with your child? If you think that recapturing just a bit of a past pattern might get the day off right, then do it. Start a trend. Let your child walk to school.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

August 14, 2014

Is Your Child’s World Too Small? Was Yours?

The fun a child is allowed to have depends on when he was born, according to results of a survey conducted by Slate magazine. When the data from all 6,000 respondents were tallied, the results became clear: your parents had more fun than they let you have and your kids are allowed to do less than you did.

The world of experience has shrunk dramatically over the past 30 years.

Take walking to and from school, for example. People born in the 1940s were allowed (some would say required) to walk to school, starting in the second or third grade. Children born in the 1980s weren’t allowed to walk to school by themselves until fifth grade, and by the 1990s children couldn’t walk to school on their own until they hit middle school.

All sorts of other ordinary activities follow the same trend, like going to the playground alone, being out after dark, using the stove, and using sharp tools. People born in earlier eras were allowed more freedom than children born in later eras, with the greatest difference in the 1990s compared to those born in the 1980s. Adults who are now in their early 20s grew up in a much smaller world than adults who are now in their early 30s, and in a much, much smaller world than their grandparents experienced.

It’s reasonable to assume that the trend continues. Because the survey participants were all adults, the experience of teens and children born since 2000 was not included. But given that a parent in South Carolina was arrested recently for allowing her 9-year-old child to go to the playground alone, it’s fair to guess that the limits put on kids’ activities have grown even greater. What do you allow your kids to do on their own?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the world is much more dangerous for children today than it was in the 1960s and it takes a lot of oversight to keep kids safe. But this is flat-out wrong.  While it’s true that child abductions have increased in recent years, this increase is entirely due to kidnappings by non-custodial parents of their own children. While the divorce rate has increased over time, and so the number of disgruntled exes, the rate of kidnappings by strangers has not.

The impression that children are snatched off street corners on a daily basis is supported by today’s constant stream of news updates unheard of before the Internet era. Child abductions seem more common simply because events in remote localities now make the national and social media news. In fact, the jump in parental restrictions between the 1980s and 1990s can be attributed almost entirely to Reagan era panic over child safety. This is the time when Have-You-Seen-Me milk carton messages started, when Reagan declared National Missing Children’s Day, and when playgrounds were shutdown nationwide because of equipment suddenly deemed unsafe, despite years of uneventful play by generations of children.

Children’s shrinking world is a problem for their development and so for our development as a country. As you are well aware by now, we get the brains we need for how we spend our time. Spending time in the house, playing with electronic gadgets or even reading, develops the brain in only one way. Children miss out on opportunities to learn and develop complex skills that make them more capable of handling adult challenges and solving big problems. When we make our kids afraid to go outside, we set the stage for dependency, obesity, and rigid thinking.  And we start our future grandchildren on the path for even duller lives than the ones we’ve given our children.

It’s not your fault. If you were born in the Reagan era, the fault for your own timidity lies in the fear-mongering and over-reaction to danger that was common among grown-ups when you were in your early years. But the solution is your responsibility.

Will you continue the trend and keep your children closer and even more limited than you were as a child? Will you shrink their world to something even smaller than yours? Or will you embrace the rich experiences that only come with freedom to explore and learn?  Here are some first steps:
  • Let your child walk to school. If school is within walking distance, great. If it’s not, park a few blocks away – in an area where other kids are walking – and let him walk from there. Walk 15 feet behind him if you must, but let him go.
  • Let your child go at the playground. Quit saying “be careful” all the time and let your child figure out what is safe to do. If you have to stand nearby, go ahead. But don’t be obvious about being your child’s spotter.
  • Let your child make his own purchases at the store. Don’t count out his money for him and don’t count his change. Stand behind him as if you were the next customer in line and let him manage this for himself.
  • Let your child cook something. Yes, the stove gets hot. Yes, knives are sharp. Your kid’s no dummy, she knows this stuff. She’ll be more careful if you’re not hovering over her every move. Be nearby if she needs some help but otherwise get out of her way.
  • Let your child play in your yard without being supervised. For goodness sake, isn’t this why you got a house with a yard, so the kids could play in it? Let them go outside, even in the front. 

If your child is old enough to make his own decisions, let him. Widen his world.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

August 05, 2014

Do You Call Your Teen When He’s Driving?

We all know that talking or texting while driving is a bad thing to do. We know that teens are especially likely to use their phones while behind the wheel. But who are they talking to? You!

A study of 400 teens, aged 15 to 18 from 31 states, reported that more than half of their calls – 53% - were from their mother or father. According to Noelle LaVoie, lead researcher, “Teens said parents expect to be able to reach them, that parents get mad if they don’t answer their phone and they have to tell parents where they are.” Teens also said their parents use their phones while driving and don’t seem to think that calling or texting while driving is a big deal.

Of course, it is a big deal. In 2011 cell phone use was blamed in nearly one-quarter of all fatal crashes involving teen drivers. Cell phones are responsible for an even greater number of non-fatal accidents, accidents that can put your teen in the hospital, raise your insurance rates, or damage your car. Yet a 2013 survey found that 86% of high school juniors and seniors routinely use their cell phones while driving.

You are part of this problem. Here’s what you must do, starting right now.
1.     If you know your child is driving, don’t call her. Just don’t. Wait until you can imagine she’s safely arrived at her destination.
2.     Instead of calling, text your child. Nothing you have to say is so important as keeping your kid’s eyes on the road. You can afford to let your child get back to you when it’s safe to do so.
3.     Make it clear to your child that you do not want her to answer your call or text if she’s driving. In fact, make it clear that she should never answer anyone’s call or text while on the road. Don’t crab at your kid or penalize her for not answering you immediately.
4.     Set a good example. Quit talking on the phone or texting while you drive and stop answering the phone when you’re on the road. If you believe an incoming call is vital, pull over and stop the car.

The notion that a brain can do two things at once has been demonstrated to be false. Instead, brains do one thing at a time, switching attention between competing needs. Teens are not any better at multitasking than adults are. They have not somehow trained their brains to attend to more than one thing at once.

Similarly, the notion that driving is so automatic that there’s lots of brain bandwidth left over for phone use is not true. Certainly while you drive, your brain has time to think of things you should be doing and people you need to talk with. But your brain doesn’t have capacity to actually do those things or launch those conversations. Get where you’re going, then do what you need to do.

Parents have been demonstrated to be a huge part of the problem of teens’ distracted driving. Now it’s time for parents to be a huge part of the solution.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

July 24, 2014

What Your Teens Think You REALLY Care About

Here’s a quiz. Which of these do you care about most with regards to your middle school or high school child?
-- That they achieve at a high level
-- That they are happy
-- That they care for others
Certainly each of these is important, but you can only pick one. Which one do you want most for your kid right now?

Got your answer? Well, no matter what you chose, here’s what 10,000 teens from 33 different middle and high schools around the U.S. think their parents care about the least: caring for others. Fully 80% of teens think their parents care most about kids’ achievement or kids’ happiness. Only 20% think their parents, first and foremost, want them to be caring people.

In addition, that same 80% of teens mirror what they think their parents want: they also care most about achievement or being happy. Few teens care most about being compassionate and helpful to others.

Harvard researcher Rick Weissbourd believes that parents send mixed messages. They may talk a good game when it comes to community service, volunteering, and participation in religious and charitable efforts but what they really reward are good grades and school honors. What parents bend over backwards to do is ensure their children’s happiness. One student said that his parents permitted him to give up helping out at a local soup kitchen when it cut into his studying. The priorities were clear.

College admissions forms ask about community service and many high school students volunteer in the community in order to have something that is worthy of note from admissions officers. By and large, college admissions, especially to select schools, depends on grades, courses taken, academic honors, and maybe athletic or other extracurricular achievements far more than on evidence a prospective student is a good and caring person.

Despite the emphasis in many schools on character education, being a person of good character often means only that a teen doesn’t have a police record. Parents, schools and colleges alike really don’t pay much attention to caring, compassion, and public service.

If it matters to you that your child grow into a helpful, responsible person – and I hope it does! – then here are some tips for making your interest in raising caring kids more clear to the people that matter – your children themselves.
Encourage participation in all sorts of service. Giving back to the community doesn’t always mean working in a soup kitchen. It can include river cleanup, food drives, helping to tutor kids, working at the animal shelter, or writing letters in support of an issue. There’s no one right way to be involved, so let your child choose.
Encourage participation even in causes you don’t care about or oppose. Maybe your child is passionate about something you could never support yourself. That’s okay. Support the impulse to participate even if you disagree about the issue. When you and your teen discuss his cause, be respectful and try to learn more about it not persuade him to give it up.
Encourage baby steps. Even choosing to be friends with the new kid at school is an expression of care. If your child isn’t interested in organized efforts to make a difference in the world, let her make a difference in little ways, one person at a time.
Give compassion equal time with achievement. Studies have shown that the most successful people are people who have good social skills, show empathy to others, and understand others’ point of view. Being caring is a component of being a happy, sought-after friend and colleague, not just a quality nice to have. It’s not true that nice guys finish last.
Model compassionate service in your own life. One way teens know their parents don’t really value caring behavior is that their parents don’t seem to care about others themselves. Find your own cause and make it a priority. Let your kids see that caring for others and making a difference is important enough that you engage in this too.

One word of caution. To raise a really caring child, it’s important your child get to choose her cause. While having a family cause, one that everyone in the household supports and volunteers in together, seems like a nice idea, it doesn’t do much to inspire compassion in children. Like most other aspects of family and parent opinion, teens are likely to flee from a family cause at the first opportunity and not look back. Instead of imposing a family interest, encourage your teen’s sense of justice and moral outrage at the need he sees around him and let him choose to care.

Choosing to care. It’s important. Make sure your children know it’s important to you.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

July 07, 2014

Be Careful About Saying "Be Careful!"

We’ve had lots of out-of-town company at our house these past two weeks, with children and aunts and all engaged in lots of activities. The Number One phrase that seemed to come out of people’s mouths the easiest was “Be careful!” That got me to thinking. Is “be careful!” the best thing to say?

Of course our motives are good. We see the potential for injury or breakage and a warning seems in order. But “be careful!” often doesn’t do what we intend. “Be careful!”  - when it does anything at all – seems confusing. That can’t be good.

First of all, “be careful!” isn’t very specific. If there’s a real danger, it makes sense to spell it out. “Be careful with that knife because it’s very sharp” not only gives a warning but tells what action the warning is about and why. But we often don’t say what a child should be careful about. We aren’t very clear.

Second, “be careful!” isn’t very instructive. It tells that there’s danger ahead but not how to avoid it. It would be better to say, “Be careful with that vase. It would be good to hold it with two hands.” This provides a pause in the action that gives a child time to reconsider the possible outcomes but also suggests a way to avoid disaster.

Third, “be careful!” limits a child’s actions. An active child is a learning child but “be careful!” cuts off learning. When our warning makes a child stop and wait for a grownup to do things for her, or makes a child stop and not try at all, then our warning keeps a child, not just safe, but little. Competence and confidence come from doing things. We have to let kids do.

This is the very reason why our “be careful!” often is ignored. Children want to expand their abilities. They are eager to try new things and become more capable today than they were last week. So even though we whine, “be careful!” kids laugh and do things anyway. “Be careful!” when it’s said over and over about even trivial actions loses its punch.

I’ve said that it helps to add to “be careful!” either what a child should be careful about or how to take care with whatever he’s doing. In addition, it helps to ask a child, “what can you do to stay safe?” or “what can you do to keep that safe?”  Asking a child to stop and consider both the danger inherent in an action and what he can do to be proactive in keeping himself or others safe does two good things: it signals our confidence in his ability to be safe and it inspires him to be responsible about planning for safety. Confidence coupled with responsibility is what we really want, isn’t it?

If you find yourself overusing the phrase “be careful!” try being more supportive of your child’s desire to become responsible and confident. See if your child becomes - instead of more reckless - more safe.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.