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.