Using Art To Help Children Tell Their Stories

Illustration by Joseph Belisle

By Guest Author Joseph Belisle

Long ago I bought an “art box” that was filled with about fifty post cards that featured a wide range of art done over the centuries from artists all over the world. When working with some of my art students, it is always a fun exercise to go through this box and let them pick out a favorite. They always choose something unique and surprising and they always tell me something insightful about themselves using the art from the postcard as a springboard for their feelings. Sometimes words can’t be found until a visual stimulus jogs a memory or suppressed feeling.   

For as long as I can remember, one painting in particular has stirred my soul and captured my imagination; Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. It always fascinated and simultaneously disturbed me. Once I laid eyes on it, I could never really get it out of my head. Years later, when I finally committed to producing my first children’s book, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Wyeth, Christina, the Olson House and that endlessly wide chasm of grass that separated Christina from that house. I reference this painting in my new children’s book, What if Wilhelmina, because it so strongly affected me and I found a way to use it to help tell my story.

In the book, which I both wrote and illustrated, I make use of classical art in my illustrations. As an art museum fan and lover of art history, I was intrigued by the idea of using classical art in this way. I wanted to somehow use the great artists that have long inspired me to help explain what was happening in the story I tell. I write about a real-life experience that happened to me and my family when my daughter was seven years old. I admittedly take some fun liberties in the book but it is based largely on real-life events. 

What if Wilhelmina is about my daughter and the time she lost her beloved pet cat and furry “sister” (as Wilhelmina is affectionately known in our house). On its surface, the story is indeed about a lost cat, but for me, I wanted to delve deeper into what my distraught daughter was really thinking during this upsetting time of “what ifs!” Referencing classical art helps tell my story, it also educates and helps explain the emotional state of my seven-year-old protagonist.

One example of how I use classical art in my book can be found when the little girl is being counseled by her parents.  At this point in the story, our little girl is very distraught about her missing animal. She’s in a veritable storm of worry and her parents fruitlessly try calming her down. What better painting to put over her head in this illustration than the dark and tumultuous Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt? It’s a classic and powerful painting that speaks to her fragile emotional state at this point in the story. 

In addition to being a children’s book author/illustrator, I run an LGBTQ youth group for a non-profit agency called Lighthouse. We meet once a week in a relaxed, social environment where the kids can talk about their feelings and share whatever is on their mind in a safe, non-judgmental space. Sometimes we have our meetings at local art galleries or museums and these are some of my favorite memories with the group. When we do this, I ask each of the kids to wander around the space and choose a specific piece of art that speaks to them. Then we gather around their favorite art and they talk about it.

Visiting galleries and museums like this has proven to be such a powerful and transformative experience for these teens. Each person had a different piece of art that spoke to them. It was incredible how, through the art, they were able to open up and talk about their feelings. They each saw something unique that, at first glance, didn’t resonate with me but through their stories, the artwork gained new life and meaning for me and for all of the other members. I saw how they connected with the artwork and I heard how it helped them tell their story of frustration, joy, heartbreak or whatever it was they were trying to say. The artwork helped them express bigger issues that were on their mind. 

Though What if Wilhelmina is aimed at a younger audience for ages 3 – 8, I’m so thrilled that it is connecting with all ages. Children are sending me their own drawings about more “what if” scenarios. Some of this art features more mischief that befalls our poor, lost cat and some of the art is about “what if” scenarios featuring the disappearance of something that they love — like a favorite stuffed animal that once was lost but now is found. The idea of loss or even impending loss can be upsetting and through art children can tell their own stories and subsequently heal.

I am planning more children’s books in this “What If” series. A second book is written but I’m still pondering what classical art I’ll use to help tell this next story. I’m trying to write about fears that hex children. That is what piques my interest. By using classical art references to tell my stories, I hope it will further enrich not only the books I write but start children on life-long journeys to loving art history. Art has so much to teach us and I’m just beginning to tell my stories and write my books. Hopefully, I’ll have more books to come that will feature even more art-enriched experiences that we can all learn from.

Art can have an amazing effect. Two people can look at the same image yet still have completely different reactions to it. You may connect with a piece of art that leaves me flat or I may see something in an abstract painting that you see as just blobs of color. That’s the fun and interesting thing about the visual arts; it’s up for interpretation by the viewer. 

Art can be a great way to connect with your child when words just won’t suffice. Give them ample opportunity to be creative by always having lots of art supplies around and at the ready. Take the time to look at art with your children by simply looking at a picture books or magazines together, browsing online together, or by bringing them into galleries and museums. This can make for very rich, fun and rewarding experiences that will help you both grow and learn more about one another.     

Author: Joe Belisle is the Coordinator & Lead Adult Facilitator of the Kids In Crisis LGBTQ teen group, Lighthouse. He is coming up on his ninth year working with LGBTQ teens and he learns something new from them every time they meet. Joe is also an author and illustrator of a new children’s book called “What if Wilhelmina.” The book is based on a true family story and will launch in early March, 2021 from Blair Publishing. He, his husband David, 12-year-old daughter Faith, and Wilhelmina the cat, all live happily together in Old Greenwich.

To order “What If Wilhelmina,” check it out here!

CPCK Note: We love this book and are so grateful to Joseph for writing about how to use art to help children express their feelings! This tale of a little girl losing her beloved cat shows how children can quickly escalate their little worries into big ones imagining catastrophes that haven’t actually occurred and amounting to an emotional spin out. With numerous opportunities for dialogue about the themes, this delightful children’s book shows how pausing, seeking support in caregivers, expressing feelings – through words and through art – can offer valuable support in tumultuous times. Highly relevant and relatable, this is a story that will help families discuss how to manage times of worry or uncertainty.

Jennifer Miller and her son learned about three game-changing female artists this week in seventh grade homeschool including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keefe and how they expressed their feelings through their work in recognition of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month!

Setting Emotional Boundaries — For Our Children and Ourselves

Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.

Brene Brown

Boundary lines define the playing field. They outline the perimeter and if you step outside, you are, at least temporarily, out of the game. Emotional boundaries operate in the same way. They are the rules of engagement and often, they are disguised or unspoken. Our sense of emotional boundaries can be established by a combination of our culture, religion or belief system, community and our own upbringing.  As a result, it can be a tricky terrain for adults and children to navigate. Trickier still, each environment we enter and each person we encounter has a different set of boundary lines. At Karen’s house, it’s “inside voices” only. In the first grade classroom, we raise our hands before we speak. At home, no one leaves the dinner table until the last person is finished. Children need to learn how to navigate through various environments and relationships with awareness and adjust their behaviors accordingly. Becoming sensitive to boundary lines raises children’s social awareness and ability to adapt to a variety of environments and situations. They can be more adept in relationships because they have more information about how to be respectful.

I often tell E, “You are the boss of you.” He loves hearing it. And I’ve seen surprised reactions from other adults when I’ve said it. I get a look akin to, what happened to “When you are under my roof, you play by my rules?” These two principles are not in conflict. Children are the boss of their own behavioral choices. They are in charge of their body and how they use it. And with that great power comes great responsibility. Encouraging their awareness of their own control and ability to make decisions helps them exercise their self-regulatory skills. If they have regular opportunities for practice in their own boundary setting, they will be prepared to respond when faced with ethical questions or inappropriate boundary crossing with peers or adults when you are not with them. And in your household, your family’s boundary lines can become internalized and understood by all so that your child makes decisions using those lines as a consistent guide.

As kids grow older, they will most certainly be challenged by emotional boundaries with their peers. They will face questions such as, “How much is acceptable to share on Facebook or other social media? How much information do I share with others when there are serious family problems at home? When does a comment from a classmate become a serious threat to safety? What is considered cheating and how far should I go to get a good grade?” Creating opportunities to discuss and become more aware of boundary lines throughout childhood will provide that chance for practice. This practice is central to the development of emotional intelligence, or the “expression of emotion, the regulation of emotion in the self and others, and the utilization of emotional context in problem solving.”[i]

In Rules in School,[ii] one of the co-authors writes about an experiment conducted in her household when she was a child. The children in the family knew the rule of cleaning up after themselves but weren’t adhering to it. They didn’t care. It was too much trouble to take dirty dishes to the kitchen or put toys away. And so her parents decided to remove the rule. And as a result, the kids left the dirty dishes on the table and the toys in the middle of floor. No clean up. The parents remained calm over six days of the accumulating mess. The kids began to feel stressed and chaotic until they couldn’t stand it anymore and worked hard to clean up. Because they had directly experienced the consequences of the absence of the rule, they internalized the meaning and importance and from then on took the rule to heart. Though this experiment is not always possible (or tolerable for parents!), it is possible to promote ownership over rules and boundaries in a household.

Raise your awareness of your sense of and sensitivity to boundaries. Do you feel taken advantage of by others? Do you feel someone has not respected you and your values? If so, then have you constructively shared those feelings and perspectives with the other person to articulate your own boundaries? The toughest work in becoming the parent we want to be is the work on our own emotional intelligence. Yet, we know that the modeling we do is more instructive than a thousand lectures. Take a moment to write down your own feelings of violation and ask how you’ve dealt with them. Have you communicated in a way that owns your feelings and perceptions? Have you clearly communicated your defining lines so that the other person knows the rules of interaction with you?

Involve your children in discussing, setting and understanding the rules of the household. Though we know that “because I said so” is no longer a parenting strategy that works, what takes it place? Lectures or long explanations to help children understand the meaning of a rule often fall on deaf ears. Neither strategy promotes the child’s ability to practice self-regulation. Beginning with questions can help a child consider the possibilities themselves and help you understand what their perceptions are. These questions can emerge from the goals and desires the child holds dear. For example, “I know you love your train sets. How do you think we can keep them safe when you are not playing with them?” “What if Dad walks through the living room with a snack in his hand and doesn’t look down and steps on your train?” Wait patiently for a child’s response. Allow them to do some thinking about the rules and household safety. Even if what they comment on is not exactly on target, they are thinking about it and trying to answer your questions. Talking through possible consequences can help them practice thinking ahead to the logical outcomes of an action or inaction.

Open and facilitate ongoing dialogue about where to draw boundaries lines in order to help your children understand their ever changing world. Maintaining a trusting connection with your child is critical in keeping these lines of communication open. Invite discussion about ethical dilemmas and challenging situations in a non-judgmental way without providing ready answers. “I’ve been hearing about kids sharing pictures of themselves online. What do you think about that? Where might you draw the line on what is appropriate and what is not?” Give your son or daughter a chance to think through the question. He may not respond to you in that moment. Let it hang in the air. Give him a chance to reflect and come back to you another time if needed. Raise the question and then create the safe space for a dialogue to occur.

Create safe boundary lines at home. It’s not surprising that a child that is uncomfortable with the boundary lines at home will have a much more challenging time understanding and respecting boundary lines at school or in the community. Sometimes our awareness of this is raised by watching our child struggle with school relationships. Discuss your own emotional boundaries at home. You will know when boundary lines have been crossed because family members will be upset and feel disrespected. Because boundary lines are different for each individual, defining the lines in a family means communicating about how each family member can feel respected whenever a problem occurs.

Understanding what a child is dealing with developmentally can help a parent listen and act with greater empathy. I have summarized the following developmental points related to boundaries and rules from the book, Yardsticks; Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14[iii] by Chip Wood, an outstanding resource for understanding the typical developmental trajectory of a child.

Emotional Boundary and Rule Understanding by Age/Developmental Level:

Preschoolers –

Want to know, “Who’s the boss?” Feel safe and comfortable with consistent routines. They are working on understanding the rules. It may be enough to say, “It’s the rule” particularly if it’s part of a consistent routine.

Kindergarten and Early Elementary –

Experience a whole new level of rules and expectations so work hard to grasp the new rules. May talk about rules often. May also “tattle” on another child who is breaking the rules. In these cases, remember that a child helping to enforce a rule with another child is their way of internalizing and understanding that rule.

Middle Elementary –

Are increasingly interested in logic, natural laws and how the world works. May become interested in issues of fairness and argue for fairness and justice.

Middle School Age –

Interested in and developing an ability for deductive reasoning and mathematical problem solving. They have a strong desire to test limits and rules. “Saving face” or maintaining a sense of respect is very important. They are highly aware of their social image. Children need access to trusting adults who will discuss important and serious social issues such as drugs, alcohol, sex, disease, violence, friendship and family problems.

High School Age –

Are eager to examine greater social issues and justice and fairness. Feelings can be easily hurt. Peer influence is of great importance and can create a high level of anxiety. Young adults can grapple with cause and effect but do not have a fully established logical brain yet. This means they are not able always to connect their choices to possible outcomes and need practice with consequential thinking. They are fighting to define their own identity but also crave trusted adult connections.

Particularly when a friendship is at stake and more importantly, a child feelings of self-worth, it takes great courage to speak up and draw the boundaries necessary to maintain a healthy relationship. But with practice, your children will be ready.


[i] Mayer, J.D., & Salovey, P.  (1993). The Intelligence of Emotional Intelligence. Intelligence, 17, 433-442.

[ii] Brady, K., Forton, M.B. & Porter, D. (2010). Rules in Schools; Teaching Discipline in the Responsive Classroom. Turners Falls, MA; Northeast Foundation for Children.

[iii] Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks; Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14 (3rd Ed.) Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Originally published on Confident Parents, Confident Kids on January 23, 2014.

In Parent Magazine — “71 Play Ideas to Keep Kids Busy While You Are Working from Home”

Author Michelle Crouch got in touch with Jennifer Miller to talk about the benefits of play, how we can inspire play, and what parents can do to create the conditions that lead to independent or cooperative play in our family. Hope you’ll visit the Parent Magazine play to check out this extensive list of ideas! Here’s how it begins…

So Netflix has played babysitter more times than you can count already this year? No shame. We asked experts for the holy grail: screen-free playtime ideas that hold kids’ attention long enough for you to clear out your inbox. Read the full article here!

Growing Hearts in our Families and Schools

By Guest Author Lorea Martínez, PhD

My 6-year-old started crying inconsolably a few days ago. “¿Qué te pasa cariño?” (what’s happening, dear?), I asked her. Her response left me cold: “You and papa are always working or talking to each other, my sister is reading all the time, and I don’t have anybody who wants to play with me.”

It was difficult to admit… but she was right. It had been a busy week, and I hadn’t been able to spend as much time helping her with her kindergarten assignments, let alone playing with her. Although my husband and I are at home all the time due to the pandemic and distance learning, the truth is that we hadn’t given her our full, attentive presence. I felt guilty and disappointed with myself. 

This situation is not uncommon for families. Young people are grieving losing and being isolated from loved ones, having limited relationships with peers, and increasingly losing a sense of control and normalcy in their everyday lives. They may feel anxious, overwhelmed, lonely or disconnected. 

At the same time, parents continue to be challenged by the need to balance work responsibilities with distance learning, lack of child care, systemic racism and social inequities, and most recently, a winter weather crisis. Parents may feel guilty and disappointed—like I did—or they may experience increased stress, anxiety or plain exhaustion. 

It is a lot that both children and parents need to navigate. And while these emotions are normal, if we ignore or try to suppress them, they will impact our children’s ability to focus their attention and learn, and our ability to show empathy, exercise patience and be fully present for our children. 

A path to grow hearts in our families 

In my new book, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, I discuss the importance of understanding emotions and how they affect learning. “Emotions drive our attention; they influence our ability to process information and understand what we encounter. They can energize our thinking or distract us from our goals.” 

In recent years, new knowledge about human development—from neuroscience and the science of learning and development—has demonstrated that emotions and social relationships strongly influence learning (Darling-Hammond & Cook Harvey, 2018.) In fact, affective neuroscientist Dr. Immordino-Yang has found that it is neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts or make meaningful decisions without emotion. 

In short, we need emotion for thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making. 

Unfortunately, we are conditioned to believe that painful feelings—such as feeling anxious, lonely, depressed, defeated or stressed—are “bad” and pleasurable ones—such as feeling happy, excited, loved, valued or energized—are “good.” For many of us, it’s easier to avoid or neglect those painful feelings, even if they provide important information about our internal weather.

Think about it this way: if it’s raining outside, you take a raincoat or an umbrella to avoid getting wet. You check the weather and then take action accordingly, right? So then, why do we ignore our internal weather and try to “push through” even when there may be a snow storm inside? Or tell our children “get over it”?

Emotions are an important part of being human. We don’t want to ignore or suppress them because they provide valuable data about what is happening inside ourselves and the world around us. As parents, if we want to grow socially, emotionally and culturally competent children, we need to help them to accept and embrace all emotions, including the unpleasant ones. 

And if we want that for our children, we need to start the work with ourselves. 

It starts with us

Parents model social and emotional skills with their children whether consciously or not. For example, consider what happens when something has angered you and you say something harsh to your children—they learn from this behavior. They may think, “When I am upset, it is okay to express it by saying something hurtful.” Even when we experience strong emotions, we can model for our kids how to name and process our feelings, and then make a different choice.

This is why many schools and parenting experts, such as Jennifer Miller from CPCK, are emphasizing the importance of not only teaching social and emotional skills to children, but also findings ways to support adults in developing their HEART capacity, so they can model them for children. 

In my new book, I present the HEART in Mind model, a practical application of essential knowledge, attitudes, and skills for students and adults to be socially, emotionally and culturally competent in their lives. These important skills are represented by the acronym HEART and are organized to show you a developmentally appropriate progression of skill development. In addition, these skills are described using a verb to indicate a specific action, something we can do to put that skill into practice. 

In this next section, you will find the first 3 skills in the model-Honor your Emotions, Elect your Responses, and Apply Empathy—and ways in which you can model them at home. 

  • Honor your Emotions means naming, interpreting and appropriately communicating feelings. Make it a habit to name your emotions and ask your children about their feelings. It could be over breakfast, at the end of the day or when something challenging happens. Consider how the degree of intensity in your emotions may change during the day or when your kids are being cooperative. Encourage the kids to regularly communicate their emotions.
  • Elect your Responses means creating space to make constructive and safe decisions. Discuss coping strategies to manage big feelings with your children (go to loreamartinez.com/resources for some examples.) You may share a recent situation when you had to use one of these strategies. Invite the kids to choose one or two that they want to try and remind them to use it when the opportunity arises. When you are having a difficult time, use one of these strategies and share how you did it with your children. Then, when your child is experiencing big feelings, support them to choose one of the strategies and practice it together. Over time, they will be able to use the strategy independently. 
  • Apply Empathy means recognizing and valuing the emotions and perspectives of others and taking action to support them. This may seem like a difficult time to show empathy, since many people are having a hard time. However, being able to understand how others feel will help us to nurture a sense of gratitude for the things we do have and the people that support us. At home, discuss how different people are experiencing this pandemic (doctors, delivery workers, elderly people) and encourage kids to name the things for which they are grateful. In family life, this can be a wonderful conversation during dinner, where everybody can take a moment to feel grateful for something or someone. 

Emotions provide valuable data. By “making friends” with our emotions we are growing our families HEART capacity and planting the seeds for healthier social and emotional development for our children and a more enduring sense of happiness and life satisfaction. 

Author: Dr. Lorea Martínez is the award-winning founder of HEART in Mind Consulting, a company dedicated to helping schools and organizations integrate Social Emotional Learning in their practices, products, and learning communities. An educator who has worked with children and adults internationally, Dr. Martínez is a faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College, educating aspiring principals in Emotional Intelligence. Her second book for educators, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, is currently available. Previously, she was a special education teacher and administrator. Learn more at loreamartinez.com

Learn more about the book: loreamartinez.com/book

Purchase the book: https://amzn.to/3dNaIau

Today on the Preschool Mindfulness Summit — Using Play to Teach Social and Emotional Skills

Today’s theme in the Preschool Mindfulness Summit is “Calm Remedies.” Join Helen Maffini and I for a discussion about how you can become intentional about using play to promote social and emotional skills. Other topics today include dealing with the pandemic, raising children on the Autism spectrum, promoting sustainability in family life, the roles of praise and blame, mindful art, and teaching mindfulness in the early childhood years.

Sign up here free!

Coming Soon! Preschool Mindfulness Summit!

I am delighted to again join my collaborator and friend Dr. Helen Maffini for the Fourth Annual Preschool Mindfulness Summit, February 22-26th, 2021. As with any skill or practice, it varies by age and stage. The preschool years pose an opportunity to build emotion and body awareness and develop social and emotional skills that will help them collaborate, include all in their play, build healthy relationships and more readying children for their school years. There’s much to learn from this week-long event!

This is a 5-day long, virtual conference where Dr. Maffini will be broadcasting pre-recorded interviews with 35 experts. Past summits have attracted an audience from over 72 countries around the world and have featured speakers such as Dr. Daniel Siegel, Dr. Daniel Goleman, and Dr. Rick Hanson, and many other wonderful speakers. In it, you’ll learn:

  • Mindfulness activities that children will enjoy and benefit from;
  • What science says about mindfulness;
  • Why research supports mindfulness practice for teachers, parents, and children;
  • Why preschool is the perfect age to introduce mindfulness;
  • Tips and strategies to create a well and caring classroom or home;
  • How to increase your own mindfulness;
  • And more!

In it, Helen and I will discuss social and emotional learning and well-being ideas and strategies that can be used with and by students, teachers, and parents.

Everyone who registers free will be given the chance to ‘upgrade’ their ticket for one year of access to the recordings on a membership site. Some of the proceeds of the Summit will go to support an educational charity in Siem Reap, Cambodia where Helen worked.

Sign up here free!

Learn to Love Podcast – Raising Confident Kids

Confidence encompasses so many hopes and dreams we have as parents for our children. We don’t hope for an average life or an average existence, we want our children to love who they are and love who they are becoming in the world. And we want to feel like we can do the best job in supporting that. After I decided that is what I needed for myself, I discovered it’s a common theme for many parents.”

– Jennifer Miller

Zach Beach host of the Learn to Love podcast envisions a world where we teach kids just as much about love and communication and relationships and forgiveness as we do like chemistry and math and history. Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids agrees which led to an interesting conversation about education, about family life, about dealing with feelings of anxiety and overwhelm as adults and how we can gain confidence and competence.

How can we best instill confidence in our children? How can stressed out parents take care of themselves? What’s the connection between our emotions and our confidence? Find out in this week’s episode of The Learn to Love Podcast, where your host @zacbheachlove interviews educator, author, and illustrator, Jennifer Miller, M.Ed., @confidentparentsconfidentkids about Raising Confident Kids. Click here to listen and learn more: https://www.the-heart-center.com/ep-44-raising-confident…/ Available almost anywhere podcasts are, you can learn more atwww.the-heart-center.comwww.zachbeach.com

Confident Parents, Confident Kids is grateful to Zach Beach for generating such a compelling conversation!

Reexamining Our Love Language

In these long, snowy (in Ohio!) months of winter and while in the midst of a pandemic when remote learning, hybrid learning or homeschooling are still a reality for many of us, our nerves with family members can be more raw and reactive. We may be on edge and not show the love we hold for our intimate family members as often. The coming of Valentine’s Day seems an ideal time to write about one of the greatest, most enduring loves — our love for our children and how we express it. There are moments in our lives when we feel like bursting with love for our kids – when we see their sweet faces poke out from their blankets just before going to sleep at night or when we measure them and see how they’ve grown. But how do we express our love through our words?

Every family’s ways of expressing love will be different and unique. There is no one way to show love. And in fact, there’s much we can learn from one another about ways in which we share love with our family. So the following reflections are to prompt your thinking with genuine questions for our community of learners. How can we learn from one another how we can build deeper, more trusting relationships between family members and truly express the love we feel for them? Here are questions and reflections on ways we can reexamine our language of love with our family.

How can we express love everyday?

With a pandemic that is taking so many lives, we cannot avoid the subject of our mortality and the mortality of those we love. if we avoided the subject before, we may be considering it more frequently now. At times I will ask, “What if this were my last day?” Have I said the things I want my family to know related to how I feel about them? Kids will always benefit by hearing a direct, sincere “I love you.” from a parent. I notice some adults wait for their children to say the phrase to them. Some are even hurt that they don’t hear it more often. Rest assured, our children feel love. But we, as adults, are responsible for modeling the articulation of our love. That’s how our children learn and feel free to express and name what they feel. A friend told me, “I was never told that I was loved as a child so it feels strange and unnatural to say it to my own. But I do. Sometimes I have to get up for it. Force myself because I know it’s the right thing to do.” That’s the kind of commitment that is required if we are to break patterns we don’t like or value from previous generations. Our children are ready and eager to hear that they are loved and in the absence of that, they create stories – untrue stories – about why they are not loved. Make sure they hear that they are. What are the words you use to express your love to family members?

How do you assure your love after a conflict or poor choice?

Children feel particularly vulnerable after they have made a poor choice or have argued with you. It’s human nature to worry that behavior can influence or even determine love. And we, as parents, put a premium on actions (since we often focus on them) so children have a hard time understanding that they can make a poor choice, you can be mad and you can still hold love for them all at once. So when a poor choice occurs, focus your words on the action not the doer of the action. You may not be able to express love in the heat of the moment (though sometimes it does help to de-escalate a conflict but only if it’s genuine and from the heart). But say it at the end of the day so that your child knows she is loved no matter what, unconditionally. Tomorrow she can make a new better choice knowing that you love her and will support her in doing so. Call it your own legacy. She will be well-equipped to love her family members unconditionally as she grows because of your example. Have you created any patterns or rituals for yourself with your child to share your love after a particularly difficult day or circumstance?

How do you actively listen?

There may be no greater demonstration of love than deep listening.

Listening with empathy involves truly seeking to understand both thoughts and feelings. If your child only shares a thought but you can hear there is feeling behind it, ask. “It sounds like you are feeling frustrated about your friend. Is that what you’re feeling?” The insightful book Clean Language. Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds suggests that, though tempting, it’s important to keep advice out of your reflective listening.

Even the best listeners can unwittingly put ideas and suggestions into the mind of others – it can be so subtle that people don’t know they are doing it…They (those who use clean language) use only the other person’s words and questions related to those words to get results. 1

And the “results” to which the authors are referring in this case would be showing trust in your children’s ability to think through their actions and feelings to better understand themselves, the people around them and the results or impacts of their actions. Facilitating a child’s thinking in this way can support him in internalizing thought processes that lead to responsible decision-making. It also paves the way for a more trusting relationship so that if problems arise, he feels safe enough to come to you to discuss them. How do you listen to family members with an open mind and heart for their thoughts and feelings?

How do you reflect back feelings to show empathy and understanding?

We tend to be in the habit of not using feelings words. Despite all of the important work done in the field of emotional intelligence, culturally, there is still a sense that feelings are a weakness. Emotion words don’t have to signal weakness if we use them intentionally. But they do make us more vulnerable. And that is the very reason why it’s so important to share with family members how we are truly feeling. Emotional honesty allows for intimacy. As we search for the words to articulate our emotions, we are becoming more self-aware. And simultaneously, we are modeling self-awareness for our children. We can address their hurt, anger, and frustration much more effectively if we have helped them develop a way to communicate those difficult feelings so that they can be understood. How do you listen for feelings, accept them, and seek to better understand them?

How can you use figurative language to help discover and define feelings?

We use metaphors so often in life, we tend to take them for granted. “She looks like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders.” “He is eating like a pig.” “This match was made in heaven.” Kids hear and attempt to figure out the metaphors adults use regularly but sometimes get confused by them. I find myself often explaining metaphors in books I read to my son. The Clean Language authors claim that metaphors can allow us access to our unconscious minds and can serve as a powerful tool for understanding how we are really feeling about a situation. For children who are just learning about metaphors, we can become more aware of the language we use and model self-awareness and emotional intelligence. For example, if I were to say “I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders today.” I might catch myself and talk a bit further to describe the feeling. “I am feeling overwhelmed by how many items are on my to-do list. I’m thinking about it so much that it feels like a physical pressure. I need to do something to help ease my worries. I could make a list. Or I could sit and breathe. You want to help me?” What comparisons do you draw from the natural world or your home life to help in your child’s understanding of feelings?

How can we recognize the good?

Noticing and pointing out when your child is kind or takes responsibility without reminders can be challenging in our busy lives yet so important. So often, we play the “Gotcha!” game as parents. “You forgot this.” “You left that behind.” “You made a mess here.” And because we are so busy focused on the mistakes of life, we forget ourselves to point to the good even though we all tend to forget daily tasks. “Oops, you are going to have to wear a day-old shirt because I forgot to get the laundry done last night.” is a common refrain of my own.

It doesn’t take long to recognize the good but it does take some presence of mind. We do have to pay attention to our kids not to catch them doing wrong but to catch them doing right. If kids are reinforced by recognizing their faults, they too will focus on their faults. And along with the fear of making mistakes (which often leads to more of the same), they will accumulate shame for their long list of missteps. All it takes is a simple “I notice you put your laundry in the washer. That’s taking responsibility. Great!” statement. If we are able to regularly find and shine a light on their strengths and the many ways they contribute to our family lives, they will grow with an identity that is confident and resilient. How do you help yourself remember to observe the good and call it out?

How do we cultivate a curiosity and deeper understanding of our kids?

Because so often our greatest challenges with our kids stem directly from their developmental struggles to learn what they know they need to, learning about children’s development deepens our understanding of them. We gain empathy for their challenges. We recognize their mistakes as an important part of their learning process. We work harder to support their learning. And we gain more patience along the way. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children (not available in any store) is learning about their development. In what ways do you take steps to learn about your child’s development?

How do you avoid harmful language?

Adults use any number of words, phrases and expressions that children don’t understand. Even in adolescence, though kids may “try on” sarcasm, they still do not truly understanding the intention since the words are the opposite of the feeling behind the words. Speaking directly, cleanly and clearly can be an aspiration we can all work toward. Try to eliminate language that shuts others down like “Shut up.” by asking how it makes a child feel when it’s said to him. In addition, children sometimes retaliate in a parent-child argument with hurtful words like “I hate you.” Try not to take those statements to heart. Though they are intended to wound in the moment, they are coming from a feeling of a lack of control. If you meet that lack of control with you own lack of control by getting upset, it will only escalate the situation. Better to walk away and take time to cool down. In calmer moments, discuss how those words are painful and how you could rephrase in order to express upset without harming. You might ask, “Could you say instead, ‘I hate what you did. I hate what you are doing.’?” Also, I’ve heard adults say that in moments of anger and upset, they have “joked” about not loving a child or loving another more or wishing a child hadn’t been born. Those kinds of remarks can stay with a child for a lifetime. Better to walk away or simply stop talking so that you don’t regret your words later. What are you tempted to say that could be harmful? How do you rephrase your language so that you are hurting your child?

Maybe all love is complicated and simple at the same time. This certainly is true for the love we have for our children. We feel so deeply for them that we want them to have the best of everything in life. Yet they have their own minds, personalities, desires and purposes along with the need to express who they are in their own unique way. Often the toughest, most important job of a parent is stepping back and letting children think and act in ways in which they can learn for themselves. And knowing that, we will always be right there to love them.

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Happy Valentine’s Day! 

References

1 Sullivan, W. & Rees, J. (2008). Clean Language. Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. Wales, UK: Crown House Publishing.

Digital Kindness

By Guest Author Leslie Boggs, President, National Parent Teacher Association

Daily life for most of us looks radically different than it did at this time last year. Virtual classrooms, working from home, video calls with doctors, limited social gatherings and other public safety precautions are now part of our routines to help stop the spread of COVID-19 across our country.

With so many aspects of our daily lives now conducted digitally, it’s more important than ever to do so in a way that’s safe, kind and inclusive. 

In February, we celebrate Safer Internet Day, an international education and awareness-raising effort to promote safer and more responsible use of digital devices and online technology, especially for children and youth. As we continue to rely heavily on technology, this is the perfect time for families to evaluate their online habits, do a refresh of online safety tips and best practices, and make digital kindness a regular practice.

Here are a few ideas for digital kindness that families can practice together:

  • Celebrate your friends and family. Scroll through a family member’s and friends’ social media feeds intentionally looking for reasons to celebrate. It could be something big like a graduation or wedding or something as simple as a friend mastering a new recipe. Leave a kind note for your friend or family member celebrating their success.
  • Leave positive reviews. Whether it’s for your child’s favorite book or your family’s favorite local restaurant, writing a heartfelt, positive review spreads joy, especially during this challenging time.
  • Create opportunities to be interactive. Many people are struggling with feelings of isolation right now. Use your social media to connect with people. Create a post offering to share a favorite memory or give a compliment to anyone who comments. It might just make their day!

As parents, it’s also important to review your personal example and to monitor and model your own technology use. Kids follow what adults do, and they benefit greatly when expectations and good digital habits are modeled for them. 

Learning about online safety and digital kindness together and having proactive, open and ongoing conversations with our kids will help keep them safe; build good digital habits; and create a kinder, more inclusive online community for everyone.

Learn more about digital kindness at National PTA’s upcoming event Real Conversations with Families About Digital Kindness on Tuesday, Feb. 9! For even more tips and resources to help your family manage digital life, visit PTA.org/Connected.

About the Author:
Leslie Boggs is president of National PTA, the nation’s oldest and largest child advocacy association. National PTA brings together parents, families, students, teachers, administrators, and business and community leaders to make a difference for the education, health, safety and well-being of every child and make every child’s potential a reality.

Resources for Black History Month

Original Photo by William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images with Illustration by Jennifer Miller

Compiled In Partnership with Pamela McVeagh-Lally

This month, we recognize in particular the need to teach the full history of the American story and indeed our World’s story and how it has impacted Black lives. We encourage you to ask the question whether in your family or school or both: How are you, in your own role, explicitly seeking to understand our history with Black Americans or as a Black American and what are you doing to create a more racially just world? Certainly, teaching our children about the history of slavery, the actions and champions of nonviolent change, the important work of abolitionists and understanding white privilege historically and currently is an important start. In order to maximize your support as you engage with your family or students, we are listing a wide range of resources here.

  • Check out this extensive list of anti-racism resources including articles, webinars, podcasts, books, policy statements, professional development and guidance on talking about race and anti-racism with children and teens from the American School Counselors Association. 
  • Inspired by our United States’ National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, check out this Facing History and Ourselves’ lesson plan for students grades 6-12, and an article on a young Cleveland poet’s reactions to her poem, “The Hill We Climb.
  • Explore this rich resource developed by the Abolitionist Teaching Network, The Guide to Racial Justice and Abolitionist Social and Emotional Learning. We appreciate SEL for Ohio Leadership Team member, Rochonda Nenonene, at the University of Dayton for sharing! 
  • Teaching Tolerance’s Coshandra Dillard, provides insights here about focusing on liberation, creativity, and the identities and incredible contributions made by Black Americans. 
  • School Psychologist and founder of Lessons for SEL, Byron McClure says “Time’s Up”  in his inspiring and practical “Call to Commit to Culturally Affirming SEL.” Thanks to SEL for Ohio Leadership Team member, Juanda Jones, at Columbus City Schools, for introducing us to this resource!
  • Wondering how the new Biden Administration plans to address social and emotional learning with an equity, anti-racist lens in education? President Biden modeled these skills through the language he used in his Inaugural speech. Check out these reflections written by Kamilah Drummond-Forrester. 
  • The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is offering a wide range of digital programs for all ages this February. Check out the list of adult and kid-friendly online opportunities.

Check Out these Six Questions Abolitionist Teachers (and Abolitionist Parents/Caregivers) Can Ask to Build Relationships with Students1:

1. What can you tell me that helps me better understand you as a person?

2. How can I be the best teacher for you?

3. How can your school be a place where you feel seen, valued, and excited to learn?

4. What matters most to you (i.e., in life, at school, in your community)?

5. How can I support you mentally, emotionally, and in your community?

6. What is your love language (see the following article for more information on children’s love languages)?

This month, my family and I (Jennifer Miller) will be visiting the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in my original hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio to learn and experience together. They have numerous online resources including understanding slavery today and how to get involved in being an abolitionist. How will you give your family an experience of Black history this month to deepen your empathy and broaden your perspective?

Finally, we appreciated that the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) revisited their research-informed definition of social and emotional learning this past year to ensure that equity and inclusion were explicitly outlined. Check it out here. Like CASEL, I hope you challenge yourself this month to question your own roles and institutions and find out what you can do to create greater inclusivity.

References:

Abolitionist Teaching Network. (2020). Guide for Racial Justice and Abolitionist Social and Emotional Learning. Abolitionist Teaching Network.

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