The Importance of Hugs and Loving Touches…

Our Children And Teens Never Grow Too Old (or too cool!) to Need Connection With Us…

We tend to recognize the fact that babies need lots of loving touches. We hold them against our skin. We carry them next to our heart. We soothe them by gently smoothing their hair or massaging their tiny hands and feet. But as they grow, we may not consider how often we touch, how we touch, and the importance of touch.

In fact, there’s research that shows that positive touch can have powerful effects and those findings have significant implications for family life. Touch can deepen intimacy in any relationship creating safety and trust and a sense of well-being. It offers health benefits as well. A study found that those who hugged more were more resistant to colds and other stress-induced illnesses. They found that the support felt particularly through caring touch helped boost immunity.1 Another study measured the brain activity of participants who were lying in an fMRI scanner anticipating a blast of loud white noise. Those who experienced it alone showed that the regions in the brain that are responsible for threat and stress were highly activated. But the participants who had their romantic partner alongside them stroking their arm didn’t show a threat or stress reaction at all.2 As we assist our kids in dealing with the day-to-day stressors of life, touch needs to be on our radar as a strategy that works.

In previous generations, touch was limited since there were worries too much might spoil a child. My Mom recalls reading about the importance of touch and holding babies in the early 1970s when she was raising me while she feverishly read the only parenting guide available at that time, Dr. Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” that sold over 50 million copies. Her mother had been advised to keep her distance. And because my mother wasn’t held or touched much as a child, it felt unnatural to her as a newborn-w-mom-and-dad-by-jennifer-millerMom. Yet she knew it was important to me. So she made a daily hug a part of our routine. And I certainly benefitted from the love and closeness we maintain to this day.

Teachers have long used touch as a way to redirect students who are daydreaming or off task. A simple touch on the shoulder can be enough to help a wandering mind focus on the present. Parents can use this as well. Instead of correcting a misstep your child knows she’s not supposed to be engaged in, try a shoulder touch instead and see if you might communicate through touch alone.

Touch can also be a direct communicator of emotions. In fact, researchers tested this theory with an interesting experiment. They had a participant put his arm through a hole in a wall so that the other interacting participant could only see his arm. The one extending his arm was asked to communicate emotion only through his hand. And the other had to guess the emotion. Though there were gender differences (men interpreted men with greater accuracy and women interpreted women with greater accuracy), the guessed emotions for the same gender were up to 78% accurate.3 Can you tell what your partner or child is feeling just by touching his hand? It could be fun to try!

Kindergartners need hugs just as much as third graders, eighth graders, and those tall Juniors in high school do. Here are some ways to incorporate loving touch into your daily family routine for the benefit of all.

Create a routine time for hugs. Perhaps you already initiate hugs before you go off on your separate ways in the morning and before bed at night. Think about the routines throughout the day in which you see your family members – morning, after school, homework, sports practice, dinner, bedtime? Begin inserting a regular hug into one or more of those times and it will become an expected part of your routine. I counted up my routine hugs with my son and we hug in each of the major transitions of the day. I know that benefits my well-being just as much as his. Try it!

Find snuggle time. Instead of relegating yourselves to different chairs during movie watching time, why not snuggle together under one big blanket? Or snuggle while reading together before bedtime? It will set the tone for a good night’s sleep.

Initiate a quick homework massage. Athletes get massages to work out their tired muscles and help them relax in between games. Homework can be a stressful time for kids. They may be anticipating challenges and can feel frustrated by difficult assignments. Giving a quick shoulder massage before or during homework time can help ease the tension and may even speed up homework completion!

Reward with hugs instead of candy. So often we use candy in celebration. And though kids would never write down a hope for your love and attention on a holiday wish list, they appreciate it and benefit from it more than a box of candy. Shower your love with hugs when you are celebrating positive choices.

Hearts by Jennifer MillerPerhaps, use Valentine’s Day to kick off your very own hug campaign in your family to make sure you are getting your one-a-day despite family schedules. A snuggle before bedtime, a touch on the arm while playing, or a shoulder massage while getting through homework are all ways you use touch to promote trusting relationships and offer the benefits of well-being that come with it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

References:

1. Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D. Turner, R.B., Doyle, W.J. (2014). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science, 26, 2, 135-147.

2. Hertenstein, M., & Keltner, D. et al. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. American Psychological Association, 6, 3, 528-533.

3. Keltner, D. (2010). Hands on research: The science of touch. Retrieved on February 9, 2017 at http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research.

Originally published on February 13, 2017.

Join Me Today: Mindful Kids Peace Summit

Today is Day Two of an incredible week-long line-up of speakers. Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids will be talking with fourteen-year-old founder of Wuf Shanti, Adam Avin beginning at 1:00 p.m. EST today. The photo above appears like Jennifer is singing. Will she sing? Find out!!!! 🙂 Indeed it was a treat to talk to such a wise, compassionate teen who is taking action to make the world a better place!
We’ll discuss…

How To Fit In and Stand Out; Being a Confident Teen

Tweens and teens report that one of the greatest challenges they face are social pressures from friends, classmates and other peers. There’s pressure to be like others, to be interested in what others are interested in, and to spend your time like everyone else does. But most tweens and teens don’t fit the narrow identity those peers may assign them. How do you fit in and stand out? How do you define your unique identity under the watchful eye of peers? How do you stand your ground but also, have a solid group of friends? Jennifer Miller will share some key lessons from successful social and emotional skill and mindfulness strategies that will build confidence and relationships.

Today’s theme is Peace: Kindness and Anti-Bullying (Stop the Violence). Some of the topics and speakers include:

  • Stressed Teens: Riding the Stress Wave by Speaker Gina M. Biegel, MA, LMFT
  • Actor Wayne Brady from the Child Mind Institute
  • Breathing Love Into Communities by Speaker Ross Robinson of the Holistic Life Foundation
  • How Did Your Life Change After the Tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Parkland? by Parkland Teachers and Students
  • Actress Emma Stone from the Child Mind Institute
  • Mindfulness In Schools: Coping with Trauma: Manchester by speakers Emily and Jo Brierly
  • Coping with the Aftermath of Tragedy and Stopping the Violence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Parkland by Parkland Teachers and Students
  • Girls Against Bullying Girls: Teens Stand Up, Speak Out by speaker Elayna Hasty
  • David Lynch Foundation with Paul McCartney
  • Mindful Schools Video: Into Light
  • Dealing with Grief as a Teen by speaker Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT
  • Actor Mark Ruffalo with Child Mind Institute
  • How Adults Talk Trash – How to Handle Negative Self-Talk When It Originates from an Adult in Your Life by speaker Jennifer Fraser
  • Your Three Anti-Bullying Mantras by speaker Dr. Lee Ann Gray
  • We Are All One by speaker John Shearer
  • How to Handle Bullying and Cyberbullying in School by speaker Alexandra Penn
  • Stand Up for Yourself and Your Friends by speaker Patti Criswell
  • Understanding the Relationship between Shame and Bullying by speaker Dr. Laura Martocci

And this is just one out of five days of incredible content! Support this valuable initiative by joining today for free! 

 

 

 

Promoting Focused Attention; Teaching your Child the Essential Brain Break

“Uuuwwaaaahhhh” I heard from our dining room table and recognized immediately the telltale sign of my son getting frustrated with his homework. “He hasn’t been working that long,” was my first thought. My second was, “this is gonna be a long night.” Children of all ages will experience frustration during homework time. And because we want our children to succeed, our reaction to that frustration might be “oh, come on, you can do it” and also, “dig in, don’t give up, keep going!” But when a child is truly feeling stuck, they may begin to spin their mental wheels getting nowhere. This can lead to a long night of parent-child battles as a parent moves from encouragement to insistence. “You’ve got to get this done!” And the child moves from minor aggravation to giving up. “I just can’t figure it out!

Research confirms that short breaks help a person’s brain refresh and process. Staring at the page may not produce any new thinking in your child and in fact, staying there when irritated can burn valuable fuel and decrease motivation to put in the hard work necessary to get through the learning process. 

But if he walks away, gets some fresh air, or moves a bit, he might feel differently. This small change of scenery can boost thinking skills in powerful ways. He can think more clearly and become a better problem-solver when he returns. He may even gain some new ideas or solutions to his problem removed from the work setting. This functions in the same way that we experience the “shower effect.” Do you get your best ideas in the shower too? Or perhaps your most creative thoughts come when you are driving in the car with no laptop or notepad at the ready? Or maybe when you’ve laid down to go to sleep for the night, your brain starts firing off brilliant thoughts. In order to access our top thinking skills, we require a mental rest. Consider that a short brain break for your child is working with their natural thinking processes to facilitate them, not fight against them. 

So although our intention to promote grit and “stick-to-attive-ness” in our children comes from a genuine hope to help them be successful, teaching and promoting brain breaks can help children learn to manage their emotions more effectively while working. And in addition, they may be able to extend their focused attention when they return to work with added motivation from the fuel they’ve gained. 

Here are some simple ways to teach, practice, and promote the essential brain break.

Talk about the Brain Break during a regular (non-frustrating) homework time. 

Or if homework is consistently frustrating, then pick a non-homework time to talk about how to take brain breaks. 

Brainstorm ideas. 

See if you can come up with a few ideas together. What can your child do when taking a brain break? You might ask: “What makes you feel better or gives you comfort when you’re feeling frustrated?” You can share some restorative ideas like walking outside and breathing in the fresh air, doing some jumping jacks or a yoga pose, getting a drink of water, or visiting a favorite stuffed friend. For young children, imitate your favorite animal. Hop like a bunny or jump from limb to limb like a squirrel. For older children, listen to your favorite song or play on a musical instrument. Have your child write or draw their ideas. Keep that paper in your homework location so that when it’s needed, you can remind your child to take a look at what ideas she’s had and pick one. Daniel Goleman’s book entitled “Focus; The Hidden Driver of Excellence” recommends getting outside in nature as one of the most restorative (and just stepping outside your front door counts!). He also writes that checking email, surfing the web, or playing video games are not restorative so avoid those when you are generating brain break ideas.

Discuss school brain breaks.

Yes, brain breaks are key at school too. But does your child’s teacher offer them? Even if they do, they are likely structured breaks for all students and may not serve your own child’s needs at the moment she has them. Help her learn self-management skills by figuring out what she can do in the midst of frustrating moments when she is sitting at her desk completing a worksheet or taking a test. Because mindfulness simply means becoming aware of your body and your thoughts and feelings (and holding compassion for those feelings – not judgement), it can be done anywhere. Your child could count to ten slowly while breathing deeply. Your child could tap each finger on her page individually while breathing noticing the touching sensation. She could wiggle each toe in her shoes noticing how that feels. These pauses can help her bring her focus back to her work.

Set a timer. 

Brain breaks should not be long. After all, your child has work to accomplish and especially on school nights, time is limited. So allow enough time to move away and change the perspective but not so much time that your child gets involved in another activity. One to three minutes could be enough to accomplish that goal. Also, put your child in charge of the timer. You don’t want to be the one managing this break. Give your child that responsibility. 

Do a dry run. 

Practice is important before using it. Include deep breathing in your practice. For young children, try out hot chocolate breathing or teddy bear breathing to practice this important part of the break. For older children, you can merely count to ten while breathing or exaggerate the sound of your deep breathing together. Call “brain break.” Move away from work, breathe deeply, and try out your child’s idea for one restorative practice. This practice will ensure that she is well-rehearsed and can call upon that memory when she’s feeling frustrated and taken over by her flight or fight survival brain.

Notice, remind, and reinforce through reflection.

After you’ve generated ideas and practiced, then notice when you see your child getting frustrated. You might say, “I notice you have a frustrated look on your face. Would a brain break help?” Then after she does a brain break and her homework is complete, reflect. “Did that help you and how did it help you?” in order to maximize her learning.

For parents, teaching and promoting brain breaks with your child can serve as a helpful reminder to us. Yes, we also require brain breaks as we deal with a myriad of responsibilities and attempt to use focused attention with our child, as well as our work, as well as our household and social responsibilities. If you notice you are feeling overloaded with it all, how can you incorporate brain breaks into your own day to help you become more effective? I think I’ll take one…right now.

For Educators, check out this great article on Edutopia on how to incorporate brain breaks and other focusing activities into your daily classroom routines.

Brain Breaks and Focused Attention Practices 

References:

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The hidden driven of excellence. NY: Harper Collins.

Kim et al. (2018). Daily micro-breaks and job performance: General work engagement as a cross-level moderator. Journal of Applied Psychology. 103 (7) 772-786.

The Mindful Kids Peace Summit

On the anniversary of the Parkland school tragedy, tweens, teens, and the parents and educators who love them are speaking up and making a difference! 

Join us for this free, online event – The Mindful Kids Peace Summit – February 11-15, bringing together over 50 expert speakers including Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids with sessions for teachers and for teens and tweens covering topics such as mindfulness, peace, happiness, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and much more! We’ll talk about the value of social and emotional learning and mindfulness in schools and at home and how it can prevent the problems we worry about for our teens while promoting essential life skills and their sense of well-being.

Did you know the evidence shows that social and emotional learning in schools shows…

  • increases in academic performance including a 13% advantage on high stakes achievement tests;
  • increased skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making; 
  • students are more likely to graduate with a high school diploma and a college degree;
  • students are less anxious and depressed;
  • fewer students are diagnosed with clinical mental health disorders;
  • fewer students become involved in substance abuse (drugs or alcohol);
  • fewer students become involved with the criminal justice system; and
  • fewer students become pregnant or contract sexually transmitted diseases.

Did you know that evidence shows that mindfulness in schools…

  • increases focused attention;
  • increases compassion;
  • increases students’ ability to manage emotions;
  • increases students’ ability to experience calm.
  • decreases stress and anxiety;
  • decreases depression;
  • decreases post-traumatic symptoms.

And in teachers and parents, it reduces stress and burnout. And the two – social and emotional learning and mindfulness – can fit and work together to benefit students.

Fourteen-year-old Adam Avin of Wuf Shanti has organized this summit with Helen Maffini of the Preschool Mindfulness Summit because of his passionate commitment to helping kids and teens realize the benefits of building these essential skills while promoting kind, caring, safe schools. Watch together as a family with your tween or teen.

I frequently hear parents say “I wish there was something I could do about school shootings.” Here’s something you can do. Learn, become inspired, and discover there are many simple ways you can contribute to safer schools for our children. This is a great step forward!

Hope you’ll join us! 

References:

Taylor, R., Oberle, E., Durlak, J.A., & Weissberg, R.P. (2017). Promoting Positive Youth Development Through School-Based Social and Emotional Learning Interventions: A Meta-Analysis of Follow-Up Effects. Child Development; 88 (4) July/August, 1156–1171.

For the summary, visit: http://www.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/2017-META-ANALYSIS-SUMMARY-final2.pdf

Mindful Schools. Research on Mindfulness. Retrieved on February 5, 2019 at

https://www.mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness/research/.

When Parenting for Confidence, Independence, and Resilience, Build Self-Management Skills

Parents hope to raise confident, independent, and resilient kids. They can work toward that hope each day by building the skill of self-management. 

What Is It?

The skill of self-management (a.k.a. self-control, impulse control, or emotional regulation) is the ability to control impulses and express emotion in socially appropriate ways that do no harm to yourself or others.

What Does It Look Like In Everyday Parenting?

In the checkout line at the grocery store while waiting behind three sets of customers, Julia’s child, three-year-old Marcus sat in the cart feeling overstimulated by the new sights, sounds, and alluring objects at the store. It only took a glance over at the shelves of candy just beyond his reach to prompt an emotional explosion.

He began, “I want candy!” with a sudden burst of tears as he anticipated his mom’s “No.” As she mouthed the word and shook her head, his tears exploded into a stream down his red face as he extended his arms and hands toward the candy. Not reaching it or gaining his mom’s help, his voice erupted from sobs into screams, shrieks, and pants. He started kicking and flung out his hand to hit his mom’s face. He was fully out of control.

Mom Julia, an educator and psychologist, understood what was going on at a cognitive level but her own emotions took her over. She became upset when a neighboring customer criticized the yelling child. She was losing her ability to think straight. She looked around and felt trapped in the line sandwiched between disapproving customers.

What’s a Parent to Do?

Step One: Julia can ask herself: “What’s going on for me that could be making my emotions right now feel so intense?” (e.g. work stress, time pressures, sleep deprivation)

Step Two: Julia can consider: “How can I calm down and have self-compassion in the moment?” (e.g. How can I accept my feelings as reasonable? Take deep breaths and consider the following before responding.)

Step Three:What’s going for the child that could be making his emotions right now feel so intense?” (e.g. tired, hungry, end of a stress-filled day)

Step Four:How can I help our child calm down and show compassion for needs not being met in the moment?” (e.g. help calm down, offer positive reassurance of loving connection, express ways you will care for their needs, suggest a healthy behavior like, a game of eye-spy or talking to a kind cashier).

Step Five: When back home, reflect with child on the moment and consider what other choices they might have had. How can they practice at home? (e.g. practice with dolls or role play how to deal with intense feelings, decide on a few coping strategies like counting to ten or pretending to blow bubbles or wiggling each toe individually inside your socks. When a tough moment occurs, remind child to try it out.) This step will increase the child’s skill in self-management.

Miller, J., Wanless, S.B., & Weissberg, R. (2018). Parenting for competence and parenting with competence: Essential connections between parenting and social and emotional learning. The School Community Journal, 28(2), 9-28.

For more, check out: https://confidentparentsconfidentkids.org/research/

Get an easily printable version of this: When Parenting for Confidence, Independence, and Resilience, Build Self-Management Skills.”

This represents the first of ten vignettes, or stories that were built from data collected in surveying parents about their challenges. We hope to bring the research to life through these practical examples of how parents can work toward their hopes for their children and for their own roles as parents by turning around challenging times into teachable moments to build critical social and emotional skills.

What would you do? Help us advance this research by simply sharing what you would do yourself in the above situation…

Fill out this very brief survey! We’d love to learn from you!

Join Us This Week… Preschool Mindfulness Summit

Join Shannon Wanless, child development expert, and Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids for a discussion with Helen Maffini of the Preschool Mindfulness Summit about how parents and educators of young children can use mindfulness and social and emotional skill building in their everyday practices. Our interview will be made available this Thursday, January 31st. This online conference is free and underway now.

Today’s interviews include:

  • Bite-sized Mindfulness
  • Helping Kids with Special Needs Relax with Meditation (Including those with ADHD, Autism)
  • The Mindfulness Way to Tame Temper Tantrums
  • Prize-worthy – Mindful Caregiving for Planting Seeds of Self-Worth and Resilience for Children
  • Using the Breath to Feel Calm, Strong, and Happy
  • Mindful Eating for Children Under Five
  • What I Wish I Knew Before Sixth Grade: The Science of Happiness
  • Mindfulness Techniques for Your Child to Thrive

And that’s the schedule ONLY FOR TODAY! The rest of the week through Friday, February 1st is packed with helpful, practical sessions.

Check it out! 

 

Parenting Montana

Governor Steve Bullock of Montana just announced the launch of a website entitled ParentingMontana.org that is designed to provide parents with simple to use, evidence-based tools for developing children’s social and emotional skills from preschool through high school. This unique site was developed in response to a major statewide survey asking 1,200 Montana parents exactly what challenges they faced in their roles, how they promote their children’s health and well-being, and also how they prevent unhealthy risk-taking in the teenage years. Because there was such a strong correlation between parents who used social and emotional competencies in their parenting and preventing high risk-taking in the teenage years, the tools offer parents a specific simple process for promoting social and emotional competencies at various ages and stages.

Organized by age, there are topic areas that came directly from the Montana parents’ stated challenges and also, hopes for raising their children. For each age from five to nineteen, you’ll discover tools on:

  • Anger
  • “Back Talk”
  • Bullying
  • Chores
  • Confidence
  • Conflict
  • Discipline
  • Friends
  • Homework
  • Listening
  • Lying
  • Meltdowns
  • Mixed Messages about Alcohol
  • Reading
  • Routines
  • Sharing 
  • Stress

These tools take parents through a simple step-by-step process seeking your children’s input first, then teaching through interactive modeling, practicing new skills, supporting those skills, and reinforcing them by noticing those positive steps. The site also contains background pieces so that parents can learn more about social and emotional development, discipline for skill building, logical consequences, intentional communication, healthy risk-taking and more.

Montana television will be airing videos like the one below to make parents aware of this tremendous resource. Though the site is specifically designed for Montana parents taking into consideration their desires and needs, it serves as a national model of what’s possible when states work together to support families and their healthy development.

I was so honored to work on this project! I hope you’ll check it out! Congratulations to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, Montana State University’s Center for Health and Safety Culture and specifically Annmarie McMahill, Jay Otto, Jami Arpin, Kari Finley, Anjali Nandi and the entire team who dedicated years to this effort! It’s a joy to work with you! Please check out ParentingMontana.org!!!

What Is Mindfulness and Why Is It Important for my Preschooler or Preschool Classroom?

What is Mindfulness?

Though the word is used frequently, it’s rarely defined. And there are a number of misconceptions too about what it may entail. Very simply stated, mindfulness is noticing your body functions (breathing, heart beating) and emotions, becoming focused on the moment at hand, and thinking about your thinking. It also involves letting go of any judgments about your thoughts and feelings and accepting what is. This noticing has an incomparable calming effect. There are numerous ways to become more aware and focused through simple practices.

Mindfulness is not affiliated with any religion or belief system (though many use mindfulness practices). Mindfulness can be done by anyone, anywhere and is simply a way of connecting to our life and appreciating it. Research confirms that simple mindfulness practices can lower blood pressure, lessen anxiety, promote focused attention, and a sense of well-being among other benefits (Grossman et al., 2004).

Why Preschool?

Preschool is a time of great change, investigation, and discovery for young children. Because there are significant transitions occurring including spending more time outside of the home, being cared for by teachers for part of the day/week and not by home caregivers/parents, adjusting to school rules and routines, and interacting with peers more frequently, it can be a highly emotional time. In addition, young children do not yet have a developed emotional vocabulary nor do they associate their physical symptoms and reflexes with the big feelings they are experiencing. Mindfulness and social and emotional skill building in the preschool years can play a significant role in preparing young children to focus their attention, to get along with their peers, and to deal with their big feelings.

Click here to learn more!

Because young children are going through such a significant time of change and transition and all the feels that go along with it, parents and educators are equally challenged as they attempt to guide them through successfully. Mindfulness and competence in social and emotional skills for parents and educators can offer patience, empathy, understanding, and competence to help them navigate these challenges and transform them into teachable moments.

Join Early Childhood Development Expert, Shannon Wanless and I for a conversation with Helen Maffini, a doctoral educator whose preschool program on mindfulness is used through Asia. We’ll join 25 other experts to discuss important topics such as, How to Teach Preschoolers Kindness and Compassion, Integrating Social and Emotional Learning Into the Preschool Curriculum, and How Parents Can Use Mindfulness and Social and Emotional Learning Strategies at Home and School.

Sign up for this FREE Online Conference. Watch video interviews and learn from the comfort of your home or office. Coming in one week, January 28 to February 1, 2019!

LEARN MORE or sign up here!

 

References:

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits; A Meta-analysis.  Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 57, 35–43.

Differences Do Matter – Why Talking About Them Helps Us Raise Compassionate Kids…

Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s Life and Legacy By Initiating Conversations In Your Own Family Life…

Guest Post by Shauna Tominey, Author, Creating Compassionate Kids; Essential Conversations to Have with Young Children

“A great nation is a compassionate nation…”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you had to pick one word to describe the world you want your child to grow up in, what would it be? Safe? Understanding? Resilient? Compassionate? When I asked this question of parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, social service professionals, business leaders, and other community members, these are the words they chose. And yet, not all of our children experience a world that reflects these values to the same degree.

Coming from a multicultural family, I grew up in a household where multiple cultures were celebrated and multiple languages were spoken. I was taught that differences don’t matter. I heard this same message echoed in our predominantly white community so I believed it. The first real conversation I can remember having about race was in high school. Our sociology teacher asked us each to write down a list of words that defined how we saw ourselves. I don’t remember the specific words that I chose now, but I know they weren’t much different than the words my classmates chose (e.g., nice, smart, funny). “Mr. G” shared that every year, the one or two black/African-American students in his classes always wrote the word “Black” first. So why was it that none of us wrote down the word, “White?”

After graduating from high school and moving around the country for school, job opportunities, and as a military spouse, I quickly realized that the idea that differences don’t matter just isn’t true. 

Differences do matter. They matter a lot. 

In the 20 years that followed, I had the privilege of hearing thousands of conversations between children and the adults in their lives while working as an early childhood educator, parenting educator, and researcher. I couldn’t help paying attention to the way differences, like race, were talked about across settings (rural and urban), socioeconomic backgrounds, races, cultures, and life experiences. Every parent and caregiver I met had something in common: they all loved their children and wanted the best for them. Most adults had conversations with children about how much they loved them, as well as the hopes and dreams they had for them. Many adults also had conversations about family or community values—although specific values differed. 

There were other differences in conversations too. 

While working with military families, deployment, separation, and war were constant conversation topics, but not something others discussed. For families in inner city, urban areas, race and how people look at you and treat you based on the color of your skin was a daily reminder of the discrimination some children faced, but these conversations weren’t happening as often in other families (if ever). Some families talked with their children about why there wasn’t enough food on the table, whereas others discussed which Ivy League school would be best to attend. Families who had a child with a special need or exceptionality spent significant time educating others about the supports their child needed to thrive while also trying to convince others that their child deserved to be valued as much as any other child in their community. And, families who didn’t conform to society’s expectations of what it means to be a family (e.g., mixed-race families, blended families, gay-lesbian headed families, single parent families) carried the weight of reassuring their children and the world around them that there was just as much love in their family as any other. 

I started to wonder how it might benefit other families to hear the conversations that others were having with their children and this thought inspired my own parenting as well as my recent book, Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have With Young Children.

When we teach children that differences don’t matter, we do it with the best intentions. Without intending to, however, we may be ignoring that there are children and families whose lives are defined every day by their differences. We can all point to an example of how we (or our children) feel different or don’t fit in. Sometimes this helps us practice empathy. Sometimes it leads us to overlook the fact that the way differences impact our lives is not equal.

There was a reason a student from a community of color living in a white community wrote down “Black” at the top of his list. Not only did he likely have a strong connection to his own family, race, and cultural heritage, this also was how he was defined by everyone who looked at him (or who chose to avoid looking at him by crossing to the opposite side of the street). Research confirms that the perceptions we have of others makes a difference in how they are treated as well as the opportunities they have (e.g., Gilliam, Maupin, Reyes, Accavitti, & Shic, 2016). For some, this can be serious, if, as a result, they experience bullying or harassment, and even becoming a matter of life and death. 

Rather than teaching children that differences don’t matter, what if we teach children that differences shouldn’t matter, but that they do? As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, let’s consider how we can help children learn to recognize the similarities they share with others, acknowledging the struggles we have with differences in our society, and learn to celebrate these differences.

Try these strategies with the children in your life: 

1) Talk about the qualities that make us and others who we are. Having conversations about temperament, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, race, culture, abilities and disabilities, and different types of families can help children learn about who they are and who they will become. In general, families from non-dominant or minority groups tend to talk with children about qualities, such as race, more often than those from dominant groups (Hughes et al., 2006), but we could all share this responsibility. Teaching children self- awareness often begins with conversations that focus on qualities that we can see in children or expect our children to develop, but these conversations can’t end here. We can also help children learn about qualities that others have too so that they can develop a greater understanding for people who are similar to and different from themselves.

Extend this strategy: 

Draw self- portraits. Use crayons, colored pencils, or paint to draw self- portraits together with your child. Look at pictures of yourselves or into a mirror as you draw. Talk about the different colors you see and try to match your skin, hair, and eye color in your artwork. 

2) Focus on shared feelings. Everyone has the same feelings (though some children have more pleasant or unpleasant feelings than others). Help children focus on the fact that we all have feelings as a way to build empathy. Ask questions like, “How do you think he/she is feeling?” or think out loud, “I wonder how they are feeling?” Stopping to think about how another person might feel can help your child build a connection with that person and focus on what they have in common while also appreciating apparent differences. 

Extend this strategy: 

Go beyond, “How was your day? Ask about different feelings that your child has during the day. “What happened today that made you feel happy? Did anything happen today that led you to feel disappointed? What was it? How about excited?” Take turns choosing feelings and make sure that everyone— children and adults— all have a chance to share. Taking your child’s feelings seriously will help them learn to do the same for others. 

3) Teach children that differences do matter. Talk with children about the fact that people sometimes look at or treat others differently because of the color of their skin, how they look, how they talk, how they move, or for other reasons. Let your child know that this is never okay (unless someone needs a special accommodation that is helpful for them). Brainstorm together ideas for what to do if and when you see this happening at school or in the community. 

Extend this strategy: 

Conduct family surveys. Help your child think of a question to ask family members (or friends) as a way to start conversations about similarities and differences. Ask questions about personal qualities (e.g., hair color, eye color) or likes/dislikes (favorite vegetable, favorite season, favorite game). Help your child write each person’s response, and talk about ways members of your family are similar and different from one another.

4) Use storybooks to highlight diverse experiences and role models. Read many different books with your child that include diverse characters. All children need role models who look like they do, dress like they do, share their abilities and challenges, love like they do, and have families that looks like theirs. Finding role models in storybooks that are similar to and different from your child can help them feel comfortable and confident as they develop their own identity (Kim & Tinajero, 2016). Sharing diverse role models also helps children see one another as part of the same community. 

Extend this strategy: 

Book scavenger hunt. Use the books you have at home, or visit your public library. Try to find books that have different types of people and families in them: families with two parents (one mom and one dad, two dads, two moms), families with one parent (one mom, one dad), families with grandparents, families with adopted children, multiracial families, stepfamilies, and others. See how many different kinds of families you can find. Talk about the types of families that were easiest to find in books, and the types of families that were the most difficult to find. Were there any types of families that you could not find in a book? Why do you think that is? How do you think it feels to families who cannot find books showing families that are similar to their own?

5) Strive to learn more and be inclusive within your own community. You can serve as a positive role model for the children in your life by showing interest in learning more about other individuals and families. Read stories, watch documentaries, and look for ways to learn more about the experiences of others. Participate in community cultural events and get to know other families in your community. 

Extend this strategy:

Tell your child stories about how you learned about your own family culture when you were young. Share stories about your own childhood to teach your child about what was important in your family when you were young. Which of those traditions have you kept? What new traditions have you added to your family? Give each family member a chance to share about their experiences to help your child see where the many different cultural traditions in their family came from.

As we work toward a more compassionate world, there are many things we can do to model compassion and help the children in our lives learn skills to do the same. Too often, individuals and families from non-dominant groups (those from communities of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community, those who have an exceptionality or special need; those who don’t conform to gender or ability norms) carry the responsibility to educate others, to explain themselves, or even to defend themselves. If we actively teach our children to value themselves and others for our similarities and differences, we can share this responsibility as we strive to create an increasingly compassionate community for all children. 

Learn more at: http://www.creatingcompassionatekids.org

Additional resources:

Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have With Young Children by Shauna Tominey

https://wwnpag.es/cckids

Moving Beyond Anti-Bias Activities: Supporting the Development of Anti-Bias Practices 

https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/mar2016/moving-beyond-anti-bias-activities

Teaching Emotional Intelligence in Early Childhood

https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/mar2017/teaching-emotional-intelligence

What I Learned from Teaching My Daughter About Empathy

https://creatingcompassionatekids.org/blog/

About the author: Shauna Tominey is an Assistant Professor of Practice and Parenting Education Specialist at Oregon State University. She currently serves as the Principal Investigator for the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative and previously served as the Director of Early Childhood Programming and Teacher Education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. As a former early childhood teacher and family service professional, Dr. Tominey blends practical experience with research to develop and test programs aimed at promoting social-emotional skills for children and the adults in their lives. She is the author of “Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have With Young Children.” 

CPCK Note: What an absolute honor and delight it is to learn from Shauna Tominey! Her new book is at the top of my reading list and looks truly exceptional for promoting one of the most important skills in our children: compassion. In fact, as I worked with Highlights for Children this Fall, I learned from the 2,000 U.S. kids they surveyed, that kids say they want to help others when they see they are in pain but don’t know how. This article provides a great start and Shuana’s book builds out those strategies into ways of parenting and cultivating a family culture that makes raising children for compassion a way of life. Thank you, Shauna! We need much more of your educational resources in the world! 

References:

Gilliam, W. S., Maupin, A. N., Reyes, C. R., Accavitti, M., & Shic, F. (2016). Do early educators’ implicit biases regarding sex and race relate to behavior expectations and recommendations of preschool expulsions and suspensions. Research Study Brief. Yale University, Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, CT.

Hughes, D., Rodriguez, J., Smith, E. P., Johnson, D. J., Stevenson, H. C., & Spicer, P. (2006). Parents’ ethnic- racial socialization practices: A review of research and directions for future study. Developmental Psychology, 42(5), 747– 770.

Kim, S. J., & Tinajero, J. (2016). Teaching diversity to bilingual children: Mexican- origin kindergarteners’ discussions about children’s literature depicting non- traditional gender roles. Linguistics and Literature Studies, 4, 171– 180.

A Nation At Hope

Check out the recording of the live stream event that happened earlier today entitled A Nation At Hope from the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development. Be convinced or inspired or further propelled into action by students, teachers, superintendents, scientists, business leaders, and policymakers – many, many of whom are also concerned parents – who are saying learning is social and emotional. And how can we intentionally focus on children’s social, emotional and academic development so that we are all more successful?

Check out the tool that Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ helped create for parents to begin conversations around their children’s social and emotional development with their child’s teacher: How Learning Happens: Family and Caregiver Conversation Tool.
A growing movement dedicated to the social, emotional, and academic well-being of children is reshaping learning and changing lives across America. On the strength of its remarkable consensus, a nation at risk is finally A NATION AT HOPE.
From A Nation at Risk to A Nation at Hope (page 5)
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