Sharing Picture Books to Make Meaning

Meeting Storybook Characters

The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.

– Muriel Rukeyser

Rabbits and owls happen to be two of E’s favorite animals so when we read a story about a friendship between them, we were both eager for the tale. The good friends built their homes next door to one another but Owl couldn’t see out over Rabbit’s vegetable garden. So Owl built a taller house. But Rabbit decided he wanted his home to be the tallest. They built and built to touch the sky until both houses fell down. Did they rebuild? Were they able to remain friends? You’ll have to read “Two Tall Houses” with your own children to find out. “That reminds me of Jonathan and me,” said my son. “When I talk about my toys, he always says his are bigger and better.” And another interesting door to dialogue is opened between my son and me through the story we read together.

“Children’s ability to learn reading comprehension is inextricably linked to their ability to work together and to bring values like responsibility, respect, fairness, caring and helpfulness to bear on their own behavior and interactions.” write the authors of Making Meaning, an evidence based literacy curriculum. Making meaning of text also involves understanding our own identity and emotions and our place in the world. Sharing books with children can be one of the richest and simplest ways we, as parents, can discuss social issues, create conversations around social and emotional themes and ultimately participate in our children’s moral development.

When you go to the library or bookstore to find stories, look for key words that can clue you into the themes without requiring a thorough read-through such as friendship, loyalty, trust, feelings and courage. Often children are drawn to books with characters that they see on television and in the media and some do offer compelling stories that can insight dialogue. But try and mix in your own selection of stories you know will bring up key issues your child may be working on developmentally. Maybe your child is struggling with kids who act aggressively on the playground. Local librarians can do wonders in finding just the book for you that will address that theme so take advantage of the free resource.

There are far too many picture books in children’s literature to recommend but I will place below some of the favorites in our household organized by the five areas of social and emotional competencies. Check these out or begin to pay attention on your next trip to the library to those books that will instigate the most interesting conversations with your children.

In My HeartIn My Heart; A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek, Illustrated by Christine Roussey
A girl explores the feelings of her heart and describes what she feels when she is happy, calm, brave, hurt, angry, sad, hopeful, afraid, silly, shy and proud. This is a perfect book to introduce a conversation about emotions and the purpose they serve as clues to who we are. There is no shame or guilt in feeling any of these emotions. They are all equally a part of this girl’s heart as they are a part of ours.

Discussion Questions
How does she describe how she feels when she is brave? Afraid? Shy? Hopeful?
How would you describe yourself when you feel those emotions?
How do your feelings help you?
Are there times when you don’t know what you are feeling? How do you discover what you are feeling?

Mouse Was MadMouse Was Mad by Linda Urban, Illustrated by Henry Cole
This is a hilarious book about a mouse who gets critiqued about the ways he is expressing his anger until he finds his own way to cool down that impresses all of the other animals. This is an excellent book to discuss and learn about the ways to manage anger.


Discussion Questions
What are the different ways Mouse expressed his anger?
How did the other animals respond?
What did Mouse do to impress the other animals?
Were they able to do what Mouse did?
What happened when Mouse tried standing still and breathing?
How do you act when you feel mad?
What makes you feel better?
Are there things Mouse did that you might try?

Don't Be Afraid Little PipDon’t Be Afraid, Little Pip by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman
Little Pip has been told he will learn to swim with all of the other penguins his age. He is scared of swimming and his interest in flying becomes the excuse for not learning to swim. When he accidentally falls into the water, he learns to swim and overcomes his fear with the support of a friend.


Discussion Questions
What is Little Pip afraid of and why?
Do you ever feel scared? Of what and why?
What does Little Pip do when the others are learning to swim?
How does he learn to swim and overcome his fear?
Have you tried something you are scared of? What helped you?

Self and Social Awareness
The Skin You Live InThe Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler, Illustrated by David Lee Cscicsko
Race and skin color can be a challenging subject to bring up with our children though so important. This book can help! It describes the beauty of a variety of skin tones using dessert imagery. Then, it moves beyond skin color to talk about all of the qualities that make a person unique – their imagination, their hopes and dreams.

Discussion Questions
Do you notice difference skin tones? What are the varieties of colors?
How does the book describe the different colors?
How would you describe your own skin color?
How would you describe the skin color of your best friend?
What does the book say skin is not?
What makes up you unique beyond your skin?

Social Awareness
Who's In My Family?Who’s In My Family? All About Our Families by Robie Harris, Illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott
A family takes a trip to the zoo and notes all of the different make-ups of human and animal families. It discusses how different families eat a variety of foods and live in varying environments. There are multiracial families, single sex couples, adopted children and stepparents. It makes the point that it’s normal to have all sorts of different kinds of families and family members.

Discussion Questions
What were differences you noticed in the families in the book from our family?
Were there families or people represented that were new to you?
What different kinds of families to do you know?
What were the common elements of families that you noticed?

Children Around the WorldChildren Around the World by Donata Montanari
This book introduces individual children from many different corners of the world starting with Emilio from the Philippines and ending with Rosa from Boliva. Read about their experiences in their countries, where they live and what they do each day.



Discussion Questions
How are children around the world like you?
How are children around the world different?
What surprised you?
What do you appreciate about where you live?
Which places and people would you most like to experience?

Relationship Skills
A Pocket Full of KissesA Pocket Full of Kisses by Audrey Penn, Illustrated by Barbara Leonard Gibson
This is an excellent book for siblings or with only children who feel envious when their parents share their attention with other children. Big brother Raccoon struggles with his younger brother’s need for attention. Mama Raccoon is able to explain, using each of her paws and the sun’s rays, that there is plenty of love for both and between the brothers too.

Discussion Questions
Why is big brother Raccoon so upset?
When have you felt that way?
What happens when Mama Raccoon gives love to the younger brother?
What does big brother Raccoon discover about his mother’s ability to love him and his younger brother?
How much love do you feel is there for you and your siblings?
What can you do if I am giving your sibling love and attention and you are feeling sad about it?

Too Tall HousesToo Tall Houses by Gianna Marino
Friends Rabbit and Owl build their homes next door to each other. But when one feels the other’s house is bigger, the other starts building his own. A competition ensues to build the tallest house. In the midst of their building frenzy, both houses collapse and they must consider what to do next. They find that their best solution is to rebuild one home to share together.


Discussion Questions
What kind of relationship do Owl and Rabbit have?
What happens to their relationship as they both try to build the tallest house? How are they feeling?
What happens to change their minds about building the tallest houses?
When their houses collapse, what do they decide to do?
How do you think they will get along in the future?
Do you ever want to do something better than your friends? What do you want to do?
How do you feel when you compete?
How do you feel when you work together?

Responsible Decision-making
The Lion and the MouseThe Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
This is a particularly interesting “read” with a child since there are no words – only illustrations. Give your child the opportunity to narrate the story and see how they advance the events and interpret the pictures. A lion spares a mouse by not eating him when he encounters him. The mouse promises to help him one day. The lion laughs off his offer figuring he is too small to contribute. But when the lion gets caught in a hunter’s net, the mouse chews the rope and sets him free.

Discussion Questions
What do think the lion thought of the mouse before he saved him?
What happened to the lion?
What choices did the mouse have when he heard the lion cry?
Why did he make the choice to help him?
Have you ever made a choice that scared you but you did it anyway? Why did you do it?
What do you think the lion felt when he was set free by the mouse?

The Snail and the WhaleThe Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
This delightful rhyming tale is about the unlikely friendship and adventures of a snail and whale. When the whale’s life is threatened, the tiny snail uses a unique attribute to attract attention and enlist help to save the whale.

Discussion Questions
Why do you think the snail went with the whale when all his friends stayed behind?
What was he feeling as he rode on the tail of the whale?
What event put the whale in danger?
How did the snail decide to help him? What other choices could he have made?
What would have happened had the snail chosen not to help him or felt he was too small to do anything?
Could you imagine saving something so large? What would you do if you had the chance to save the whale?

Reading pictures books with your children can deepen your connection with one another. The experience can bring up topics that may not typically enter your daily conversations but are fundamental to understanding oneself and each other. Enjoy tales and explore open-ended questions together to enrich your awareness and understanding.

What are your favorite picture books?  

For a related article, check out:

Mom and Son Reading Together illust by Jennifer MillerA Storied Childhood; The Impact of Stories on Children’s Social and Emotional Development

“The Power of Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning” in Huffington Post Today!

Five SE Skills by Jennifer Miller

Check out my article, “The Power of Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning” on the Huffington Post Education site today!

Elements of a Confident Kid…Kindness

Elements of a Confident Kid...KIndness by Jennifer MillerElements of a Confident Kids by Jennifer Miller

: of a sympathetic or helpful nature 1

About Kindness

It is said that at the root of kindness is compassion. Compassion has to do simultaneously with how we feel about and care for ourselves and how we feel about and care for one another. When you walk into another family’s house, there is typically a scent that is particular to that family. The members of the household are often unaware of the scent but you, as an outside visitor, can sense the new smell immediately. Similarly, there is a culture – a predominant set of feelings, expectations and assumptions – that are a unique signature of each family. Some families are intentional about the tone and make-up of this culture and others are not. Think of the families you know. Which ones have a culture of kindness? What do you think they do to engender this in their families? And how do their kids get along with others and in school? Now, consider what words might be used to describe the culture of your family. Would kindness be amongst those descriptors? Confident kids are also kind kids. They are easy to like and appreciate because they are accepting of others differences and they relate to others in ways that demonstrate caring and respect.

“He took my Nerf gun,” said one brother. “But he hit me with his toy,” said the other feeling justified in the actions that led to a crying, red-faced child. On any given day, children have the chance to practice playing out feelings of frustration, upset and anger often and certainly, how parents guide and coach children in expressing and managing those emotions can alter relationships from destructive and unhealthy to growthful and healthy. Similarly we feel love, caring and a desire for connection each day. Parents have the chance to guide and coach children toward expressions that have the power to engender a sense of well-being, empathy and confidence.

Some interesting research shaped by events that made headlines can shed some helpful light on our ability to reach out and be kind to others. There was a grisly murder that took place in New York back in 1964 that was closely examined because it was committed while a whole group of neighbors were watching.1 No one took action to help the victim. So studies emerged to understand the “bystander effect” and asked the question, “Are we hard-wired to look out for our own best interest and not intervene when others are in danger?” We know plenty of examples that conflict with that kind of hypothesis, one of the most obvious being military service, the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for a greater cause. Later studies were able to show that when individuals were among others that articulated, valued and expected compassion, they were quick to help others in need. The obvious conclusion is that our social environment contributes significantly to how we interact with others. Are we predominantly defensive or empathetic? If we cultivate kindness in our everyday existence in small ways as an expectation of family life, then we create the conditions in which children will inherently be kind.

A focus on kindness – creating the experience of kindness in family life – is one that enjoys the multiplier effect. Your investment in family caring is internalized and passed on by each family member who goes out into the world – school, workplace, community – and shares it with others. When my neighbors are kind, it impacts me and in turn, my whole family.

Promoting Kindness

Renew your own resources. If you are feeling like you don’t have anything to give, then focus on renewal first. How can you be kind to yourself to renew your own resources? Maybe it means taking a quiet moment to breathe each morning or read something inspirational. Maybe a little time out on your own while your partner takes care of the kids could help renew your spirit. If you are hurting, find ways to express your sadness, disappointment or frustration constructively (journaling, talking with a counselor, walking in nature). Be kind to yourself so that you feel you are able to give generously to others.

Create everyday habits and routines of kindness. If we want to create the experience of kindness so that our children and all members of our family pass on the caring then what are small ways you can do it? Perhaps it means extending your patience and listening to the stories that your children want to tell you about their school days. Parents can create routines among family members to show kindness. When kids get home from school and have a snack together, it could be a time to practice listening to one another. In addition to promoting taking responsibility for each person’s own possessions and clean up, ask, “What are ways you can help your sister today?” Older siblings can be called upon as “leaders” to demonstrate how to act responsibly with younger siblings. Younger siblings can show how “big” they are getting by helping out their older siblings.

Cultivate gratefulness. We can combat a sense of entitlement by cultivating gratefulness. Researchers who study gratefulness in children and the authors of Making Grateful Kids claim it takes regular reflections on what we are grateful for and why we are grateful in order to help kids get into the habit of being thankful for the abundance in their lives. Here are some ideas:

  • Pick one meal a week to highlight one family member and why you are grateful for them.
  • Pick one family routine in which you talk about thankful thoughts each day. What happened that day you are grateful for? Breakfast? Dinner? Bedtime?
  • Place a favorite framed photograph of your family or your home near an entrance/exit door. Touch it each time you come and go in appreciation of your family and environment.
  • Take stock each season of your stuff. Go through your clothing, toys and other items – as you might with spring cleaning – and appreciate what you love, separate out what you don’t need, fold and bag kindly and give away to charity so that it can be reused.

Notice and appreciate. We are quick to observe and point out faults but how often do we point to actions that we appreciate? This is a worthy habit to develop and not only can contribute to each family member’s sense of well-being but also it can promote good choices and prevent problem behaviors. “I notice you took out the trash tonight and I know you were tired.” A partner needs to hear they are appreciated for their actions just as much as children do and each time, you will be modeling kindness.

Guide toward forgiving actions. There will be conflicts and angry words exchanged in families. But after the heat of the moment, how do you handle the resolution? A sincere apology can be an important step but often, action beyond words is needed. How can you model repairing harm by showing kindness to your partner after an intense disagreement? How can you guide your children to repair harm between one another? The best solutions always come from the ones with the problem so ask, “What can you do to help your sister feel better?” No matter the role in the situation, if there are hurt feelings between siblings, there is an opportunity for each to show kindness to the other but often some prompting from Mom or Dad is needed.

It’s empowering to think that we can choose the tone of our day and the culture of our family. On balance, if we focus on injecting kindness into our experience, it will shape our feelings about ourselves and how we connect with and interact with others. Next time your child says, “I’m having a bad day,” you might view it as an opportunity to turn it around by enacting a kindness together. You can count on the multiplier effect returning the kindness right back to you.


1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved on 4-14-15 at

2. Judah, S. (2013). Making Time: Can We Teach Kindness. BBC News Magazine, October 3.

3. Froh, J.J., & Bono, G. (2014). Making Grateful Kids; The Science of Building Character. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.

The Chance to Wait

Wait for It Illustration by Jennifer Miller

I grew up with six brothers. That’s how I learned to dance – waiting for the bathroom.

– Bob Hope

“Are we there yet?” This is the common refrain from the backseat on the long road trip to Grammy’s house. We “moo” at the cows. We examine the red barns. We talk about the funny words on signs like “Woussickitt.” My smart phone, e-reader and laptop are all safely packed away. We don’t need them. We are practicing waiting.

First, you may ask, who cares and why is waiting so important? Even the word “waiting” may strike an annoying chord within you because it involves patience and self-control. But it’s worth the effort because it can allow for reflection and deeper, more creative thinking and support the delaying of gratification in order to pursue higher goals. It can promote family connectedness and even impact academic achievement.

Educators have been using wait time since the 1970s to prompt better listening, thinking and involvement with questions in the classroom. A teacher’s typical response time to a student’s comment is one second. But if teachers ask a question and allow more wait time, student’s responses begin to evolve with the use of logic and higher level thinking processes. Also students in classrooms with shorter wait times were found to be more restless than ones with longer ones.1 Though it may seem counterintuitive, slowing the pace and allowing empty space creates opportunities for children’s minds to focus.

As with any learned skill, children need practice. They will have limited ability at first. Set a timer and create a “wait challenge.” The reward only need be the accomplishment of waiting for the time you allot. At a time when your children normally watch a video, you may say, “Let’s set the timer for one minute and see if we can wait that long before we watch television.” The true test is if you can wait alongside your children without engaging with your phone or other device. That modeling will be necessary if you ask them to do it. The following are additional examples of how waiting may fit into your busy family life.

After School Catch Up
“How was your day at school?” you ask genuinely hoping for something, anything to give you a clue about his experience. When a sliver of silence creeps in, you continue “What did you do? Did you have gym last period? How’d that go?” Your tired boy responds, “Fine.” And then, you move on to the next activity. But what if you had let the first question hang in the air and patiently waited? Maybe he will have time to remember that he played an exhilarating game of huggie monster tag at recess.

Running Errands
“I just know he’s going to have a melt-down right in the middle of the Kohl’s return line. It’s just easier to give him my iPhone and let him play a game.” You may have similar thoughts as you try to accomplish tasks with children in tow. And yes, he may have a melt down the first time you don’t provide entertainment. You may even have to leave the store. But be consistent, and he will accept that waiting is to be expected.

Kids’ Requests
The next time you hear, “Mooooooom, I need a snack!” from a room away while you are up to your elbows in dish soap, you may want to let your child know that you’ll help him when you are finished. Each person in a family has needs which should be respected. Dropping everything is not necessary in order to be a responsive parent and in fact, may add to your own feelings of resentment over time.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for you, or any of us who require caffeine to get through the day with children, will be the self-discipline to model waiting and become a regular practitioner. If you succeed, the payoff will be great. It will come when you least expect it. That moment when your car tags are about to expire and you view the epically long line at the BMV, you and your children will be ready. They will know waiting is a part of “the way things are.”

Like a pencil in a backpack, your children will bring the skill of waiting to school with them. It will extend their ability to focus. And they will bring their best selves to academic problems since they won’t need constant entertainment to remain stimulated. If we offer children the chance to wait, the space to focus and think for themselves, we offer them the chance to develop a critical tool for success. They will be prepared to be thoughtful and contributing individuals.

Rowe, M.B. (1986). Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education. Sage Publications: 37; 43.

Originally posted on May 14, 2014

The Power of Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning


Check out the latest article by Confident Parents, Confident Kids author Jennifer Miller on the “Smart Parents” blog series published by influential educational reformer, Thomas Vander Ark and his team at Getting Smart. The article will also appear on the Huffington Post Parents blog later this week!

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a field leader in advancing the science and practice of social and emotional learning in education, has begun a collaboration on “Parenting and Social and Emotional Learning” with experts Roger Weissberg, Chief Knowledge Officer of CASEL, Shannon Wanless, Assistant Professor of Psychology in Education at the University of Pittsburgh and Jennifer Miller, author of Confident Parents, Confident Kids and Contributor to NBC’s Parent Toolkit. This is the first article written for this collaborative project with more to come.

Here’s the introduction…

The Power of Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning

On the one hundredth day of school, my son’s teacher morphed each first grade child’s photograph into an elderly individual with the facial lines of life experience and asked, “What do you want to be like when you are 100?” My son wrote in response, “I want to be kind to kids.” And I immediately thought, “Yes, me too.” It seems simple. But is it? As parents, we want to prepare our kids to be successful in life but figuring out what that means and what steps can be taken toward that intention each day seems anything but simple. Yet the question of what it takes to prepare kids for success is worth asking. A recent survey from NBC’s Parent Toolkit using the Princeton Survey Research Associates International found that the majority of U.S. parents interviewed ranked social and communication skills as the most important to build success for school and life even beyond academic grades. National experts would agree and offer greater detail on what those skills are.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) involves acquiring and effectively applying the knowledge, attitudes and skills to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (CASEL, 2013).

Follow this link for the full article. 

Thanks Thomas Vander Ark, Bonnie Lathram and Smart Parents for the chance to contribute!



Empathy, Kids and Nature

Feeding Backyard Animals 2 by Jennifer Miller

We must widen… “our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

– Albert Einstein

“Feed the birds, Mom. Don’t forget today,” E tells me with fervor on one of the last freezing cold days of Winter while the birds chirped longingly for Spring. He heard them on our short walk to our car before school and recognized their need for food. And I appreciated the prompting. Empathy, though crucial to our very survival, is not unique to human beings. Researchers have documented the origins of empathy in numerous animal species. 1 And if you have ever had a pet dog or cat, you likely have experienced this firsthand. When a family member is crying, a cat will come over, sit on the person’s lap, purr and generally, offer comfort. Empathy, our ability to feel another’s feelings and take another’s perspectives, is evidenced from our earliest days when infants cry at the sound of another’s crying. In primates, it’s true as well. But when outsiders pose a threat (in the primate and human worlds), the feeling changes to defense and sometimes aggression. The greatest challenge of our time, writes Frans de Waal an expert on primates, is the “globalization by a tribal species.”1 In other words, empathy, moral thinking and collaboration are more supportive of our global inter-dependence in contrast to competition, defense and us-and-them thinking.

Though we have a natural proclivity toward empathy in conducive circumstances, the skills and thought processes of empathy can be cultivated and honed throughout childhood. In fact, children who demonstrate empathy also show greater social skills, healthy friendships and academic achievement.2 There’s strong evidence to support parents’ significant role in the development of empathy. Parents who are responsive and non-punitive help children develop higher levels of prosocial behavior.3 In addition, there are numerous ways parents and schools can influence the development of empathy. Talking about feelings, exploring consequences to actions and facilitating caring behaviors all contribute.

Springtime is a perfect opportunity to connect to the natural world around you and involve your child in the practice of caring and empathy for other living creatures. My son has been gently moving an extended ladybug community in our bathroom to the outdoors. Even the smallest act can demonstrate the seeds of moral development. Get outside with your children. Explore and while doing so show your respect and care for other living beings. In addition, here are some other ideas to try.

Plant a seed.
E and I have been busy planning for the new vegetable garden we are putting in this year. He cannot wait to plant pumpkin seeds, tend to them and reap the harvest in the Fall. Simply planting one seed whether it’s in the yard or in a cup in your window will give children the experience of tending to a seedling, caring for it and watching it grow.

For more specific ideas and guidance, check out from the National Gardening Association.

Take a nature treasure walk.
Kids don’t have to be convinced to look for natural treasures on a walk. On our walks in central Ohio, we can easily find buckeyes, rocks – some with fossils, bird feathers and more. Along the way because of your careful observation, you might spy interesting creatures running up trees or under rocks. Create a box or other repository for your treasures and at season’s end, display your collection.

Care for your backyard animals.
We fed a resident bunny with carrots over the long, cold winter and delighted in watching the carrots disappear overnight. Putting out nuts for squirrels and chipmunks or birdseed to attract local birds can be a delight and a process of discovery for a child.

Pick up litter.
Doing any activity to clean up the environment will help show care. Wear gloves and go to your local park and pick up trash. Talk about the effects of litter on animals that might live there. Perhaps, take a picnic snack to enjoy at the end of your efforts to bask in the beautiful environment to which you’ve contributed.

Create your own species list.
Avid “birders” create a “life list” in which they note every type of bird they have the chance to view. Do this over the Spring and Summer. Take a notebook on your walks and note the different species you observe. If you find a creature you cannot identify, look it up together and learn more about it.

Photograph or draw beauty.
With a camera in hand or a drawing pad at the ready, you and your child may notice details you had not previously observed. Participating in nature as an artist helps enhance your own sensitivity to the environment. Your keen observation can also contribute to feelings of empathy.

In this season of rebirth and new life, being intentional about the experience of nature with your child can enrich your experiences and deepen your connection. It can also help widen your family’s circle of compassion.


1. Waal, F. D. (2010). The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. NYC, NY: Broadway Books.

2. Bonner, T. D., & Aspy, D. N. A Study of the Relationship Between Student Empathy and GPA. Humanistic Education and Development. 22/4 (1984): 149- 154.

3. Eisenberg, N. (ed.). Empathy and Related Emotional Responses. No. 44 in New Directions for Child Development series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1989.

Elements of a Confident Kid…Artistic

Elements...Artistic by Jennifer MillerElements of a Confident Kids by Jennifer Miller

– exhibiting sensitivity


– the creation of works of beauty or other special significance

– the exercise of human skill

– imaginative skill as applied to representations of the natural world or figments of the imagination

Being artistic is a human desire, one we all possess by virtue of the fact that we want to be known and accepted for who we truly are. We are all born artists though we develop our outlets for self-expression in diverse ways. It remains a mystery why a child gravitates toward any one interest sometimes fully of her own accord when others around her are not involved in that particular subject. Being artistic brings feeling, thoughts and actions together. A child acting on artistic impulses feels a passion or enthusiasm for a subject or medium and without inhibition explores that desire.

“Listen to this!” Michael says each time he comes over to play. He may be plunking out notes on the piano, strumming the guitar or expanding and contracting our toy accordion. Whatever the instrument, he initiates playing music while our son never touches any of our music making tools. “Do you have paper?” Theresa will invariably ask. She wants to draw animals and will do so regardless of the play others are engaging in. E instead will design elaborate train track systems or line the entire living room with a patchwork of pillows following his own aesthetic sense.

Developing the artistic side becomes increasingly more challenging as a child grows. There are numerous ways self-expression is squashed or discouraged. “Trees don’t look like that,” a teacher might say. Or a dad might comment, “That doesn’t sound like music to me.” Though trial and error is part of the learning process and an important part of artistic exploration, some children never have the opportunity to explore because the peers and adults around them frequently tell them they are wrong. For a child who is keenly attuned to learning social and cultural norms from other’s cues, those comments can shut down exploration indefinitely.

And why is artistic exploration important for any child? Because a journey of discovery helps a child understand his own sense of identity, being artistic is an essential part of development. Denying intense feelings exist has detrimental consequences for the individual. He puts up walls that do not allow others access to his true self. And in doing so, prevents the establishment of healthy, intimate relationships. Suppressing artistic pursuits makes children, and adults for that matter, feel that some aspect of who they are is unacceptable, unworthy of expression.

In addition to the ability to explore one’s identity through artistic expression, a recent article in The Washington Post articulated ten critical skills children learn through the arts. They are creativity, confidence, problem solving, perseverance, focus, non-verbal communication, receiving constructive feedback, collaboration, dedication and accountability. In addition, a number of research studies are confirming that doing art has a calming effect and is increasingly being used as therapy with children diagnosed with ADHD or Autism.

Promoting Your Budding Artist

Listen, Observe and Provide Opportunities
Children will tell and show you exactly what they are interested in pursuing. The trick is to really listen and observe. What kinds of activities do they engage in with their whole self? Often the play that consumes their focus and puts them in a sense of “flow” will indicate the kind of self-expression they desire. Provide the tools of the trade, camps, classes or experiences that allow a forum for expression.

Step Back
Often our toughest role as parents is holding our comments. We are tempted to save or correct as mistakes occur or children are less than we hope they might be. But it’s critical to remember that giving them the chance to falter will also give them the chance to improve. The best policy with children’s self-expression is to resist commenting – positive or negative. Artistic expression is a subjective experience. If you offer judgment, you risk your child losing passion for the art itself.

Facilitate Creative Thinking through Open-Ended Questions
Creative thinking is a powerful life skill that can enhance relationships, increase problem solving abilities, and even impact academic performance. Children who are practiced at thinking of alternatives to a problem will perform better on high stakes tests and work more effectively in collaborative environments in which there are multiple stakeholders with multiple opinions. Creative thinkers are able to see others’ perspectives and know that there are always numerous options in any given situation. So ask before you answer. Question before you jump in and solve. “Too often children are given answers to questions rather than problems to solve,” wrote Roger Lewin. If your child wants to know what to do about a problem ask, “What choices do you have?” “What could you do?” Then follow through with “If you do that, then what happens?” Allow them the opportunity for a creative thinking process and you will not only encourage self-expression but also responsible decision making as they being to consider cause and effect.

Parent’s Relationship with Art Education and Evaluation
Certainly with any art form, there are technical aspects to master. Those skills often take instruction, practice and time. And hopefully, art teachers will support the development of those technical skills while simultaneously promoting self-expression. It’s a delicate balance for arts educators to not quell the passion or vulnerability. And for parents, it’s a delicate balance too, particularly if a parent has mastered the technical skills of an art form. So what’s a caring parent to do? Though it may be challenging, avoid excessive praise or criticism. When an art project is brought home, helpful comments that could encourage future explorations and skill development could include:

“What were you feeling when you made this?”
“What were you hoping to express?”
“What do you appreciate about it?”

Allow children to come to you for help or instruction if you possess an expertise that they are interested in and want to learn instead of initiating a teaching session. Placing an emphasis on self-evaluation can help children develop their own reflection skills. Here’s a Self Evaluation from First Gradeterrific example from E’s first grade teacher. The benefit is that it not only helps a child self-reflect on their own learning experience but also serves as a helpful reminder to a parent using it to refrain from their own judgments.

We as adults struggle with the ability to connect with others, fit into our social and cultural circumstances and allow for our own self-expression. Often those goals work in conflict so finding our own footing can be a great challenge. But we want more for our children so it’s worth exploring how we can facilitate their development in a way that they grow up able to express who they are, develop the associated skills necessary to help them shine and connect with others fitting into their social surroundings. By its very definition, a confident kid is one who is able to express herself. Promote confidence with your children by giving them the chance to think, feel, act and reflect for themselves.
The Inherently Creative Family

Online Dictionary. Retrieved on 3/31/15 from British definition

Strauss, V. (2013). Top Ten Skills Children Learn from the Arts. Washington, DC: The Washington Post.

Feedback That Leads to Change

Feedback that Leads to Change by Jennifer Miller

Feedback is the breakfast of champions.

– Ken Blanchard

I walked out of my front door, hot tea in hand and a light jacket, on the first sunny, balmy 55 degree day signaling the beginning of Spring. I took a breath of fresh air as I examined the tulips that were sprouting just a half an inch above the soil, when a hoard of kids, my own in the mix, ran right through the flower bed squashing the seedlings. “Don’t trample my flowers!” I yelled instinctively sounding like the elderly ladies from my own childhood neighborhood. But that instinct didn’t serve me well as, a mere five minutes later, I sat and watched them run right back through the same garden patch heading in the opposite direction. I decided I had to either change my tactics or allow all of my hard work planting bulbs last Fall go to waste.

I reevaluated and thought about my options for providing feedback that would actually work this time. I came up with many solutions in my head, some simple and some as elaborate as building a little fence around the garden. Ultimately, I decided I would first pave the way for the kids’ success and then, provide feedback in the most constructive way I could. Then, I’d sit back to see if it worked. There were two stone pavers through the garden that offered a pathway for the keen observer but I fully filled in that pathway with stones to offer an obvious route through the garden. Then when the kids came back to our yard, I got down on my knees and called them over for a huddle, as if involving them in a conspiracy. “Glad to see you guys are having so much fun. I’ve created a kids-only pathway for you to run through the garden safely. Can you use it?” I got a resounding “Yes!” as they took off across the pathway. As I sat and sipped my tea, I watched as they ran back and forth using only the new passage. I made eye contact with each one discreetly giving them a “thumbs up.” That’s all it took. My tulips are now a good four inches high and the kids received the feedback and translated it into a change in their actions. This might not have happened had I kept yelling, “Don’t trample my flowers!”

In the workplace, managers work hard to learn ways to give feedback that will be well-received and used constructively. And since we often give feedback to family members, it’s helpful to think about how we can use it in a way that contributes to learning and improvement. Our reactive feedback may not tend toward the constructive. We can slip into blaming. “It takes you forever to get on your shoes!” you may be tempted to say though the child might hear, “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah!” like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Nagging or blaming can effectively shut down communication. A child’s defenses go up. And you have lost your opportunity to truly influence his behavior for the moment. Instead you could say, “Our routine seems to slow down when we put on shoes. What can we do?”

Think about a circumstance in which you gave feedback quickly, as in my flower garden example, that was not received well and did not result in a change of actions. Play out that example as you read through the following tips and see if you might find some alternatives for directing your family members (other grown ups included!) toward positive action.

Calculate your timing carefully. It can mean the difference between success and failure, receptivity or deaf ears. Wait until the heat of the moment has passed. If your child is upset, angry or frustrated, pursue calming techniques with her first. Waiting can be tough in those moments where you are eager to get your child to change. But your self-control can ensure that the feedback you are trying to provide is received.

Prepare. Think through what you are going to say and how you are going to say it in advance. It may only take a few minutes. But stopping to plan what you are going to say can help you frame your comment constructively.

Notice and specifically reinforce the positive without qualifying. If you are trying to Superboy illust 001change a particular behavior like running through the flower bed, look for chances to
reinforce positive behaviors without qualifying or following up with a criticism. Instead of subjective terms like, “I like…” you might say, “I notice you were trying to avoid the flowers when you were running.”

Give specific and brief redirection using a warm tone. Sharing feedback with a respectful tone will allow the adult to remain in control and keep the lines of communication open. Providing direct and succinct feedback can help prevent a tendency toward lecturing or nagging. “Use the path to keep flowers safe.” is one way you could say it.

Invite child reflection. If you involve your child in solving the problem, she will have more ownership over the successful implementation of the solution. So you might ask, “How can you move through the garden with your friends and keep the flowers safe?”

Provide a simple reminder to support the change. If a habit has developed, it can be challenging for a child to remember not to act on his impulses but to follow the alternative you’ve given him. We all need reminders when we are making changes. So here are three ideas for simple reminders.

1. Use a one-word statement 1. That one word will help remind him and serve as a
clue to your expectations without any nagging necessary. You might say, “Path.”

2. Post a visual reminder. You could draw a picture together or write words and post it near the challenge. If the problem relates to getting on shoes, post a picture right by where shoes are kept and point to it before you encounter the challenge again.

3. Set up nonverbal signals. The nonverbal signal can be a great way to provide a
reminder without risking a tone of voice that may sound like fault-finding. I used a
thumbs up in the garden example to reinforce. But also, you can remind in advance of
the challenge by establishing a code signal between you and your child and using it
each time. You might use a high five or what we call, a “foot five” (bumping feet) before getting on shoes.

Let go. Give your child the chance to show you they can do it. Step back though sometimes that can be difficult. Then, be sure and notice their efforts.

Feedback can be a useful tool for parents to guide behavior change and learning. Try these suggestions,reinvent the way you communicate and you might change influence habit changes with your family.



Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (1980). How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. NY, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Elements of a Confident Kid… Cultural Awareness

Elements...Cultural Awareness by Jennifer Miller

Elements of a Confident Kids by Jennifer Miller

– the beliefs, customs and arts of a particular society, group, place or time. 1

About Cultural Awareness

Culture is who we are, how we act and how we communicate. It defines our membership in multiple communities whether they are professional or personal, spiritual or practical.

Our families are a culture. “Michael doesn’t have to wear a coat? Why do I have to?” said E this past week as we teetered between chilly and warm temperatures. You likely hear similar comments in your household. If some other child can do it, “Why can’t I?”, children often want to know. And the answer is simply that each family has different rules and expectations. And it’s a critical lesson for kids to learn. Children must “code switch” as they enter varying environments. Schools have different rules than restaurants than churches than amusement parks.

Being culturally aware means that a person accepts that there are differing rules, practices and ways of being among groups of people and in various environments. The work and opportunity of a new person introduced to any culture not his own is to learn with an open mind and work toward empathy and understanding. It may be as simple as your child spending the night at a friend’s house. In those circumstances, not only do parents have expectations of his behavior while away, but also the host family has expectations of the child’s behavior while in their home.

Cultural awareness requires self-control. Because we are hard-wired to size up people immediately, we may find ourselves quickly passing judgment. The culturally aware individual notices that judgment occurring in her thinking. She realizes that critical thinking creates distance and puts up walls that may prohibit her from feeling empathy and certainly does not allow for the creation of a relationship. She manages her opinions and works on listening for understanding. She knows that if she remains open-minded, she may learn about the other person. And more importantly, she may discover something about herself that will help her better understand her own identity.

Promoting Cultural Awareness

Be curious and encounter cultural diversity
Perhaps the most important way we, as parents, can help our children learn to be culturally aware is to expose them to diversity. Drive a little further once a month to grocery shop in a community outside of your own. Attend summer festivals held by a cultural group other than your own. Try out foods from various countries. Extend yourself to people who are unlike you to expand your own view of the world and your children will notice and learn. Express your curiosity about people who look and act differently and your children will show their curiosity too.

Talk about other cultures and your children’s impressions and experiences. “What did you think of the way she was dressed?” I asked students I was working with after attending an Indian Pow-wow in Oklahoma. If children are learning discriminatory biases from the cultural around them, asking open-ended questions begins the conversation. You can share your own opinions about the richness of any culture you may be encountering.

Diversify your reading
There is not a holiday that goes by that I don’t buy a book for my child. It’s part of our family tradition to give books in addition to toys or candy. We also make regular library trips. When looking for a new children’s book, consider finding stories from other cultures. Not only will it add interest to your bookshelf, but also it will help your efforts to promote a culturally aware child. The Delightful Children’s Books blog has an incredible list of children’s books from around the world. It’s a perfect place to start! I’ve also listed some of my favorites below.

Practice catching judgments
I find myself hesitating to show acknowledge my own negative thinking in front of my son. After all, I am supposed to have everything under control as Mom. But catching ourselves in the middle of judgment can be an incredibly powerful teaching experience for a child. As I am talking mindlessly criticizing another Mom who is yelling loudly at her son in public, I remember that this is not the model I want to establish for my son. I say to him, “I really don’t want to say that. What I want to say is that I wish her the best. Maybe she is struggling with stress we are unaware of and that’s why she is yelling at her son. We can’t know the circumstances.” Turn your words toward compassion and empathy. Your child will witness your use of self-control and learn that even adults need to exercise it in order to get along and connect with others.

Practice perspective taking
Trying to understanding another’s perspective is often a struggle for adults. We all require practice since we cannot truly know someone else’s feelings and interpretations of experience. Practice whenever you get the chance. Whenever it comes to mind, ask “What do you think that Dad is feeling while he’s pushing his child on the swing?” or “What do you think the boy is thinking about?” Your child will become experienced thinking about other’s thoughts and feelings.

Prepare for new experiences
Though we are constantly adjusting and learning about appropriate boundaries according to the environment we are in, parents can support children by helping clue them into the new expectations that come with each new environment. If you are going to a friend’s house for dinner or attending another’s religious ceremony, think ahead to the expectations they may have for children. Then prepare your child in advance. “In this new environment, people are expected to listen and whisper only if they have a need.” Children can learn to act in accordance with the new setting if they are well prepared by their parents.

Cultural awareness does take a commitment to exploring realms outside our comfort zone. Facing those who are different can make us feel awkward or even disturbed as it forces us to examine our own self-identity. Showing that struggle to our children, though we may feel vulnerable, is the way they will learn that it is worth the effort. And it’s required if we truly want to grow as individuals and as part of a global community.

Photos of Classrooms Around the World
The World’s Harvests – photos of farmers harvesting their crops all over the world
Where Children Sleep – photos of bedrooms of children from around the world
Hungry Planet, What the World Eats – photos of typical meals around the world
A Global Family Portrait – photos of 30 statistically “average” families around the world

Picture Books:
Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
All Kinds of Families by Mary Ann Hoberman
All Kinds of Children by Norma Simon
The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler


The Story of the Maligned Wolf

Read the story of the “Big Bad Wolf” from the wolf’s perspective and discuss with your children what they think of the different perspective. Talk about a time when they might see things differently than you, a peer or a teacher. 2

Young Lady, Old Lady

Remember this picture? What do you see first? Can you see both the old and the young lady? View this with your children who likely have not seen it yet and help them understand that each individual sees with a different perspective.

For Educator’s:

How I Talk to my Kindergarten Class on Race by Madeleine Rogin

1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved on March 24, 2015 on

2. Educators’ for Social Responsibility. Originally developed by Uvaldo Palomares et. al., A Curriculum on Conflict Management. San Diego, CA: Human Development Training Institute adapted from Fearn, L. (1974). The Maligned Wolf. San Diego, CA: Education Improvement Associates.

Results from NBC Parent Toolkit’s New Parent Survey


This week, NBC Education Nation’s Parent Toolkit released the results from a “State of Parenting” survey they conducted in partnership with Pearson and Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI). Eight hundred and three American primary caregivers, parents and guardians of children ages 3-18 were interviewed by phone in English and Spanish last Fall. The results provide insight into what these surveyed parents think about education and what they value most for their children now and in the future. Particularly interesting results included that a majority of the participants ranked social and communication skills as the most important for their children’s development.

Some of the key findings are listed below but it is also well worth going to check out the full report illustrated with easy to read graphics on their site.

Key findings…

Parent surveyed confirmed that more than ever, they need a variety of skills and talents to effectively balance the demands of their own lives and the challenges of raising well-adjusted children. Slightly less than half said they need skills in patience and understanding most. One third said they need support in setting rules and guidelines in family life. And 17% expressed a desire to get involved in their children’s education.

When parents were asked which skill they think is most important for children to develop, 54% said good social and communication skills. Almost a third said grades were most important. But only 9% said an understanding of technology was most important. And a small percent listed specific qualities such as moral values, respect, motivation, drive and focus.

Nearly four in five parents said their family has dinner at home together most days of the week.


Respondents were divided in how satisfied they were with their own involvement in their children’s education. Over half said they are satisfied with their involvement but 47% wish they could do more.

Over half of parents say they spend more time with their children than their own parents did with them.

You can learn more about this new study by visiting the Parent Toolkit site.  And you can access the Spanish report.