New Year’s Reflections

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We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.

–          John Dewey

January is always a time in which my family and I reflect on the past year and dream about our hopes for the future. We try and step back and look at the big picture before diving into our specific plans or organizing projects. Why not make it a time for you to reflect specifically on your role as a parent? Sometimes it helps me to have specific questions to lead my thinking. The following series provides an opportunity to guide yourself through a thought process in order to reflect on the past and look toward the future.

What gives you the greatest sense of meaning in your life (this does not have to be parenting!)?

When you think of the person who has made the strongest positive impact on your life, why do you believe he or she has had such a powerful influence?

Who do you admire (living, dead, celebrity or a real presence in your life)? What qualities do they possess? What values do they live?

What are your personal gifts and talents? What do you do best?

When do you feel the greatest sense of satisfaction with your life?

What gives you joy?

How are you continuing to learn and develop yourself? In what areas do you want to learn and grow? Where do you seek support and access opportunities for learning?

What kind of person do you want to be?

What drains your energy the most?

What challenges you the most – in life? In parenting?

What supports do you have or could you consider putting in place that might help you with those challenges?

What are your greatest strengths as a parent?  What do you do really well with/for your children/family?

How are you connecting with your partner? Do you feel you have quality time together? What kind of time do you most enjoy spending with him/her? How can you make that time happen in the coming year?

How are you connecting with your children? Do you feel you have quality time together? What kind of time do you most enjoy spending with them? How can you devote that kind of time in the coming year?

What positive experiences in your own childhood shaped you as a parent?

What experiences in your own childhood are you trying not to repeat as a parent? These are values, strategies or ways of being that you do not want for your children and are purposely trying not to replicate.

Are any of your experiences from childhood serving as a barrier to you being the best you can be as a parent? If so, what are some ways you can deal with them to support yourself and allow for new strategies to take the place of old ones?

How do you define your purpose as an individual? How does your purpose fit with your role as a parent?

How do you incorporate your gifts, talents, joys and sense of meaning into your daily life? How do you incorporate them into your role as a parent? Are there additional ways you could bring those aspects of who you are into your parenting?

How are you modeling and teaching your values as a family to your children?

Considering your reflections on the questions above, which most compels you to action? How would you most like to improve? Set one goal for the new year that is measurable, specific and achievable. Ask, “How will I know that I have accomplished my goal at the end of the coming year?” In addition, make sure you have identified how the implementation of your goal will be supported by your family members and through your daily routines.

I look forward to another year of learning and growing together through our dialogue on parenting and children’s social and emotional development. Happy New Year!

Bring the Holidays into Focus

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Your focus is your reality.

–          Yoda, Star Wars I, The Phantom Menace

As I entered the final stretch before Christmas, I paused, amidst my color coded lists of menu planning, decorating, present wrapping, gift creating, house cleaning and broken toy mending. I could feel my anxiety mounting to frenzy status and needed to quiet my mind. So I put on my gloves, snow boots and other winter gear and walked to the park across the street and stood and listened to the falling snow. And I thought about what I really wanted for the holiday. I am keenly aware that my son will only be six years old for Christmas once. Maybe experiencing the death of close relatives at Christmastime has heightened this awareness. Or maybe having an only child helps me realize there are no do-overs. In any case, I decided I want to be fully present this Christmas, to experience the holiday with joy and soak it all in. I want to give myself, mind and heart, to the moment and the people I love and leave behind the lists and the worries. That is, as the song says, “my grown-up Christmas wish.”

I recall a decade ago when I was engaged to be married hearing the stories from newlyweds. “The wedding day was a total blur.” Or “I can’t remember who I talked to or what was said.” And “I don’t remember the food or the taste of the cake.” I took these as cautionary tales and set my own intention to be fully focused on that important day. And I was. I remember I met my husband’s Indiana relatives for the first time. We ate a delicious chicken with a marsala sauce and had a raspberry cake with white buttercream icing.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence and founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, has written a book entitled, Focus; The Hidden Driver of Excellence. In it, he writes:

       Today’s children are growing up in a new reality, one where they are attuning more to machines and less to people than has ever been true in human history. That’s troubling for several reasons. For one, the social and emotional circuitry of a child’s brain learns from contact and conversation with everyone it encounters over the course of a day. These interactions mold brain circuitry; the fewer hours spent with people – and the more spent staring at a digitized screen – portends deficits.[i]

And so my gift to you this season, whether you celebrate a holiday or simply get some much needed time off of work, is to provide you with some basic ideas for setting your own intention to be fully present to your children and the other people – family and friends around you.

Organize ahead. Make your lists. For Christmas, because I maintain multiple lists, I keep a small notebook where I write down grocery lists, presents to buy and people to whom I want to send a holiday card. Use whatever organization system you are most comfortable with but do plan ahead so that when the time comes to be present, you can.

Delegate and share responsibility. You may possess a grand vision for your holiday as I always do. But you can invite other family members to share in that vision ahead of time and contribute to its successful implementation. The holidays are about giving and receiving. It’s no service to do it all and then come to the party flustered and exhausted. Inviting others, collaboratively discussing roles and responsibilities, particularly with children, can allow for ownership and involvement and create a joyful holiday in which all are actively contributing.

Use digital discipline. Our digital devices divide our attention and pull us away from the most important people in our lives who are standing directly in front of us. Despite our realization of that fact, it’s likely that the beeps, boops, and whirs of the electronic devices will woo us back. That beep may sound to alert us to a sale at a store we could care less about and yet, it focuses our attention on the store and away from those we love. It takes great discipline to put that cell phone down. Do what you have to do to maintain your own digital discipline. And set ground rules for the family. “During the days of celebration, we will only check email twice – once after lunch and once in the evening.” Stick your phone in a drawer or place it on another floor or room of your house. Wear your battery charge down. Do whatever it takes to pay focused attention to those important people who are right in front of you. Remember that your children who are three and five years old, or six and ten, will only have one holiday with this perspective at this age. It’s precious. Don’t miss it.

Make a plan for anxiety, worry and upset. Practice deep breathing when you are in the midst of holiday chaos. In my bedroom, I have a journal at the end of my bookcase with a pen sitting right next to my comfortable reading chair. The journal is solely for the purpose of allowing me to write down my worries and reflect on them. I notice if I don’t, I stew and stew on the thoughts and they take up a lot of brain space I would like to devote to other purposes. It doesn’t take long to jot down your feelings. Robert Garmston, a well-known school improvement expert, writes, “Contrary to popular belief, we do not learn from experience, only from reflecting on experience.”[ii] This method may not be right for you but find a way to get your anxiety dealt with on paper, come up with a solution or resolution to try and move on to more important things.

Play! Two years ago, my holiday post was about the virtues of play. If you want your children to develop focused attention which will aid their success in school and in any life pursuit, then give them your focused attention. Model and enjoy the benefits!

My husband just completed a leadership coaching certification program last week. He and his cohorts shared much of their own thoughts, feelings and life stories with each other. He returned and shared with me that he had the realization that every person in that program was completely amazing. They each had a life story filled with fascinating challenges and inner goals they were trying to achieve. I wonder if we really listened to each person’s life story along with their inner thoughts and feelings, if we might be able to say each person in the world is amazing.

I wish for you this holiday season to hold focused attention on those you love so that yoda on our treeyou might really see how amazing they are. As for me, I have placed our Yoda ornament on the front of our Christmas tree as a reminder that my focus is my reality.  Happy holidays.

[i] Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

[ii] Garmston, R. (2005). The Presenter’s Fieldbook; A Practical Guide.  MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.

Citizen Kid

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What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.

Nelson Mandela

“How’s my little buddy doing?” says Butcher Keith as my son giggles and hides behind my legs. Butcher Bob upon spotting my face takes off for the deli counter to produce a slice of freshly cut Colby cheese, or as we affectionately call it, “Bob cheese” for my son to munch on as we shop. We have been going to our local Mom and Pop owned grocery store since we moved to our neighborhood and certainly since our son was born. He has grown up knowing the names and personalities of each individual who helps us with our seafood or produce or checks us out when we are ready to leave. We also know the name and aspirations of our mailman who is a writer on the side. We know the owner and wait staff of the diner we frequent, the one that produces the world’s most delicious blueberry pancakes. Going that extra step to get to know people who are a regular part of your family’s life can extend your children’s sense of connectedness to their community.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukkah, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa or another winter holiday, there are lots of opportunities for promoting social awareness, connection and contribution to your community. The farther your children are able to extend their connectedness beyond your home and immediate family, the safer and more resilient they will feel knowing that they have supports wherever they go in the surrounding area. Children have the ability to contribute to the community in simple ways if given the opportunity. Children who are raised with a sense of membership, responsibility and contribution to their community have practiced active citizenry. They have a regular and supportive context for exercising social and emotional skills such as self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsible decision making.

The people we admire most in the world are those who grew up knowing and understanding the value and importance of active citizenry. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. among other leaders for positive change started their social justice work in their own communities addressing very local problems and in the process, changed the world. To me, our core purpose for being is contribution. Giving your children small opportunities to exercise their ability to contribute will promote values that can be built upon as they grow into citizens and leaders in any community.

The following are some simple, everyday ways that you can allow your children to make community connections and feel like a significant contributor.

Start at home. How do your children contribute to your home environment and family life? Have you asked them what or how they would like to contribute? Their answer might surprise you. They observe you doing the work to keep up with running a household. Often, they know what is involved. They may be able to name ways they want to contribute. Otherwise, offer suggestions and support them the first few times they attempt to set the table for dinner or wash the dishes. They may not do the task in the exact way that you would hope but they are learning and practicing to be a significant contributor to your family life which is much more important.

Extend yourself to your neighbors. Do any of your holiday traditions include baking cookies for neighbors, caroling or shoveling a walkway? Why not include a new tradition that helps your family connect to your neighbors in some small way and involve your children in the process? You may feel you are too busy this season but maybe you could select one neighbor, perhaps an elderly person, to deliver cookies to with your children?

Get to know your community.  If you are busy buying gifts online or in stores, try and stop in some of the stores close to your neighborhood and support the local businesses. My husband created a stocking last year for me of small gifts including gift cards only from businesses in our local neighborhood and what an incredible gift that was! Get to know the names of the tellers at the bank or the baristas at the coffee shop and show your children that you have invested yourself in your home community.

Contribute to your children’s school. Some schools are excellent at enlisting and putting to work parent volunteers and others are not. If you are lucky, it will be easy to offer to get involved. If your school does not involve parent volunteers regularly, then get in touch with the Parent Teacher Organization or an administrator and explore ways to contribute. Even if it’s cutting out shapes for teachers in the evening on occasion because you work full-time during the day, some contribution will model the value of involvement for your children. Schools also vary on creating service learning opportunities for students. Service learning – service opportunities linked directly to the academic curriculum – not only promotes student’s social and emotional skills, but also offers meaningful, connected learning opportunities and a constructive means for children to engage as contributors and not just passive recipients of curricula or community services.  For more on service learning in schools, visit the Service-Learning Clearinghouse.

Create a family tradition of participating in one service event during the holiday season. Most nonprofit organizations with a mission to serve the community organize some service event over the holidays. From canned food drives to singing at nursing homes to wrapping toys for those who wouldn’t have them otherwise, there are numerous ways to get involved if you choose. Create a new family tradition and participate together. It may be the most valuable gift you can give your family. If you celebrate Christmas as I do, it can help your family focus on the true meaning of gift giving and being a part of a community at holiday time.

Learn about other traditions and holidays. Because there are so many rich holidays and traditions that occur during the month of December, be sure and begin to explore those beyond your own with your children. Expand your children’s awareness of global celebrations through the beauty of holiday celebrations. You might ask, “Why are evergreen trees used in celebrating Christmas? What is the story of the lights of Chanukkah? What is the meaning and purpose of the candle holder used in Kwanzaa? What is the winter solstice?” Use the internet to do some exploration and learn. Or check out some books from the local library on other traditions.

Involve children in thinking about and creating gifts for family and friends. Guiding your children to think about the preferences and hobbies of valued individuals in your life promotes empathy and perspective-taking skills. Allow your children to consider what they might think Dad would most like as a holiday gift. Support them in making and buying gifts from ideas they generate to give them the experience and joy of giving. For more, read “The Joy of Giving.”

Use the language of purpose and contribution. Regardless of belief system or tradition, each person is fueled by a sense of purpose and feelings of belonging and contribution. But often with children this month most conversations seem to be about “getting.” With Christmas it feels like a frenzy in those last few weeks prior to the holiday of anticipation over the toys to come. You can help change that energy by talking about meaning, purpose and contribution. The winter holidays share similar meanings focusing on light in the darkness and a focus on kindness, service and giving. Share the underlying values behind your traditions. Make the ideas of contribution and giving a part of your conversations all season long.

Initiate conversations with elders about family stories and ancestory. While you are visiting with family over the holidays, initiate conversations with elders in the family to learn more about your family history and traditions of the past. In our family, my Mom has a story for every ornament on the tree and, often, they relate to family trips, history and members that have passed on. Allow people to share stories from the past and bring your children in to listen to expand their thinking and help them learn about and gain empathy and respect for a different generation.

Plan for mind-expanding travel. As you begin to make plans for the new year, consider making a priority out of travel with your children to a place that might give them an experience of another culture. You don’t have to break the bank to do it either.  In Ohio, for example, we have the chance to visit Amish Country to see how people live who choose to be “off the grid.” Think about travel experiences for your family that will not only allow for a fun get-away but also help expand your experiences of different people, cultures and traditions. Check out the great blog, Small Hands, Big World for more ideas on “teachable travel.”

You have the opportunity to infuse meaning into your holiday season even if it’s busy one. Include an emphasis on connecting with and understanding those around you in ever greater circles from immediate family to extended family to neighbors to community to broader communities and look for ways to model and involve your children in contribution to those ever expanding circles. You may just prepare your child for changing the world.

For fun videos from a highly creative young voice, check out Kid President, and here’s his inspired Christmas video message.

Holiday Family Meetings

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The way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives.

– Anthony Robbins

Have you ever worked for an organization in which you called your work colleagues friends or “family”? I have had that great fortune several times and in those cases, I have always looked forward to staff meetings. It was a time to check in with everyone and hear about the good work they were doing. The thought of meetings for some has a strong negative connotation since most of us have sat through boring, lecture-loaded gatherings that seem to drone on and not accomplish much. However, the idea of family meetings represents quite the opposite.  A family meeting can take place in a short amount of time, contribute to your feelings of connectedness, introduce new energy and create the opportunity for sincere dialogue.

At our home, December consists of professional travel, family gatherings, Christmas decorating, gift buying and creating, friend and work parties, school activities, volunteering and end of year work and school deadlines. This year, it also included a sick kid to kick off the season. No matter which holiday you celebrate, December typically contains a flurry of activities. Amidst all these extras, it may be harder to fit in dinner together as a family or time when you are all together without busy agendas. A family meeting may feel like you are adding one more thing to the list but I suggest it may save time preventing arguments, confusion, frustration and miscommunication as you go about following through on your many responsibilities this season.

A well-run family meeting can

  • Promote a sense of family connectedness
  • Provide opportunity for effective communication
  • Allot time and energy to problem solving as a family
  • Help each member work together as a team
  • Ensure that each person is seen, heard and feels like a valued contributor
  • Provide valuable practice in social and emotional skills such as listening, cooperation and problem solving.

Numerous parenting experts have recommended family meetings. One of my favorites, Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline writes about being aware that it will take children some time to get onto this new routine. They may need to be taught some skills in the beginning in order to be able to fully participate. She recommends not trying this with children four years old or younger since they will likely not have the attention span or skills to fully participate. If you have older and younger children, you may want to try a meeting with the older family members after the little ones have gone to bed.

I’ve created my own simplified agenda that you may try for your family. Allow approximately twenty minutes. Because the idea is to create fun, promote connection and ensure each person feels they are contributing, work on creating a relaxed and easy atmosphere. Have snacks ready. Or plan to include it in your pizza night. Try the following.

1. Gathering – Get everyone into the meeting space by doing a quick gathering that allows for fun and connection and designate that the meeting is beginning. You might try

    • Producing a funny face – each create a different funny face
    • Singing a favorite song together
    • Making up complimentary nicknames for each other and greet one another using them
    • Sharing high fives and fist bumps with each person
    • Making up a secret family-only handshake, cheer, song or pledge of allegiance

2. Sharing Appreciation – What is one thing each person is grateful for?

3. Problem Solving  – This will require some practice. Use the first meeting as a teaching opportunity. Use easy, low risk problems in those first meetings to allow time for developing skills and understanding the process. Make sure that the problems can be resolved collaboratively. If a problem is suggested for the meeting that involves a hard and fast rule (safety issue?), then this is not the appropriate forum for it.

For the first meeting, you’ll want to ask each person to think about a problem that the family might be able to address together. You may need to offer the first several problems to provide a model for the rest. Practice brainstorming solutions so that all members understand how to brainstorm. Remember the rules of brainstorming? Creativity is encouraged. Piggybacking on other ideas is good. No judgment or criticisms allowed. All ideas should be voiced. This first time, pick an easy problem.

“We are getting lots of solicitors at the door (political requests, donation requests, sales). How should we deal with them?”

Allow each person to give his or her ideas. Be sure and write all the ideas down (and you can trade the recorder role each meeting). Review the ideas and see what you can all agree upon. And decide who, when and how you’ll try the solution out. You can revisit how it’s going in your next meeting. This often also allows for conversations about your values as a family. How will you represent your values through your decisions for action in your problem solving?

For future meetings, ask the family to be thinking about problems that they would like to address in the meeting. They can put their problem idea on a sticky note for the refrigerator or any general message pile you have in your household. This allows for each member to contribute and helps bring new ideas to each meeting.

4. News and Announcements – What’s happening for each person in the coming week? What is one thing that is consuming his or her thoughts? How can we support them?

It’s ideal if your meeting can lead into a fun activity for the family but it’s not necessary. Just this short time of connecting can be a helpful wellspring of connection for a busy family. Try out a weekly family meeting during this holiday season. If it’s successful and you see the benefits, continue it monthly or even weekly in the new year. Particularly during the holiday season, amidst many extra commitments and responsibilities, a weekly connection in the context of a family meeting could ensure that your holiday is cooperative and joyful.


For more on facilitating problem solving with children, check out “Working It Out.”

A Story of Thanksgiving

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As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

–    John Fitzgerald Kennedy

When I started to think about Thanksgiving and gratefulness this year, a memory flashed through my mind that I couldn’t and didn’t want to shake. It was the early 1990’s and I was a shiny college graduate who had moved out of her Ohio hometown for the first time to southern Oklahoma. I had signed up as a full-time AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer with the promise of adventure and finding a way to meaningfully contribute to a community that was brand new to me but with a long and complex history. Probably because I was still a kid myself, I opted to work on a project for young people but not just any group of young people. My great grandmother had been a Navajo Indian, though you may never guess it from my pale, freckled skin and blue eyes. Her cultural heritage was shameful to the family during her lifetime and so not much is known about her including her last name. For that reason, I am unable to trace her history. But in an effort to connect with that part of me, I went to work with a Native American boarding home led by the Chickasaw/Choctaw Nation.

My sheltered private school existence was quickly shattered after learning about the children’s lives that included parents and siblings who were either in prison or addicted to some substance or just simply could not afford an extra mouth at the dinner table. These children attended the city schools and were by some considered unloved criminals and gangsters. They were children who were dealing with abusive adults and children as they tried desperately to make it through school and life in a dorm with two hundred other children of all ages. That Fall, one child attempted suicide and another ran for his life across the long institutional lawn attempting to escape. My job description read “dropout prevention” though I hadn’t the first clue about what those kids were dealing with and how I might help them see the importance of academics despite the intense set of adult problems they faced. I had an inspired boss at our small nonprofit who encouraged me to put together donated clothing and take them over as costumes for the children to play with. I mentioned to the kids I’d come over one evening and bring the costumes and we could try them on together. Each day, I was bombarded by reminders of the commitment I’d made to come back in the evening. “Remember, you said!” “You’re going to come, right?” I didn’t realize that this was the first test to see if I would follow through or disappoint them as most adults had.

The promised evening, I grabbed my black trash bag filled with random clothes, hats, glasses and other strange accessories along with my favorite “Best of Aretha Franklin” CD and drove in my borrowed, old, rusty “hoopty” (as the kids called it) Cadillac to the boarding home. Girls and boys alike tried on crazy outfits over their own clothing and pranced down the stark, fluorescent lit hallway of the dorm as if it were Fashion Week. We sang, “Stop, in the name of love…” with great passion together. Their faces, often so sad, lit up pink with joy and gratefulness. They beamed appreciation. I heard laughter echo through those stark halls. They gave me the joy of meaning and contribution and allowed me to exercise understanding, empathy and compassion. That night and many other moments in the year that followed spurred me to reconsider the traditional career path I thought I was going to follow. I think about that moment because I have so much that I often take for granted. The problems of their lives seemed to be locked in a faraway place and that burden was lifted for one night to allow for pure joy and the true experience of childhood. As I lead my life of abundance today in a house with a reliable car, plentiful food and water supply and a family that loves me and is not a victim of its circumstances, it helps me realize how truly thankful I am.

My husband and I have agreed that an awareness of our abundance and sincere appreciation for the goodness in our lives is a way of thinking and being that we seek to embody as a family. Indeed, I am thankful for you, reader, allowing me the space to initiate a dialogue about how we can be even more caring and connected and appreciative in our families.

There are small ways you can model and make a habit out of gratefulness each day of your busy family lives. Adopt just one small habit of gratefulness and watch as your children begin thinking in a new way. Not only does it help reframe the “gimmy” thinking, but it also gives you an ongoing language of appreciation. Particularly when schedules are tight and conversations are quick and few, interactions can become terse and even biting. You are likely to feel less connected to one another because of a sheer lack of time to connect. Add appreciative comments and thinking to the mix and you may find that connection is possible even in brief spurts of interaction during the busy holiday season.

Add grateful thoughts to the morning routine. When you wake up, greet each other with something you appreciate about the other or about the day to come. “E, I am so glad I have the chance to visit your school at lunchtime today. Your school creates such a welcoming environment for parents.”

Go around the table at dinnertime. You don’t have to have any religious affiliation to say what you appreciate before you eat. Even if it’s a simple, “We appreciate this good food.” Going around the table will allow each person to contribute something they are thankful for that day. It may also enrich and change the tone of your dinner conversation.

Make grateful thinking a part of your bedtime routine. We’ve called them “happy thoughts” since E was born but the content is the same. “What are you thankful for from your day?” E said one night, “I’m thankful for my brain. I wish I could give it a hug.” It’s a reflective way to close the day and prepare for a good night of sleep.

Add appreciation to communicating feedback. We often provide feedback to children and to spouses in daily life. “You forgot to pick up your dirty socks.” “I need you to come home from work on time for dinner.” Consider working on your own delivery of feedback. Can you begin with an appreciative comment? “I notice you often remember and have been taking responsibility but today, you forgot. So go pick up your dirty socks.” “I see you’ve been working overtime at work. I appreciate how hard you work. Could we talk about dinnertime and how we might make some adjustments?”

Make time to get away. Interestingly enough, human nature often requires that we remove ourselves from our current circumstances in order to truly appreciate them. You don’t need to get on an airplane or leave the city. Just get out for an hour for a cup of coffee and time for yourself. I notice the minute I leave I begin thinking appreciative thoughts about my home and family. If you do not, then practice. You can retrain your thinking so that you are sticking to those positive thoughts which will contribute to your health, sense of well-being and relationship with others. Venting, including self-venting does not. If you need to get it out, write it in a journal and then move on to your appreciative thoughts.

Involve kids in thank you note writing. Be sure that when you receive gifts from friends or relatives, you not only write a note but involve your child in the process. If they are pre-writing age, have them do what they can – a drawing or stickers or a thumbprint – can show their participation.

Write down grateful thoughts. Take some time with your children throughout the holiday season to write down your grateful thoughts. Place them in a spot that is October 2012 025precious and can be revisited by your kids. Starting off a season of both giving and getting with appreciative thoughts helps children get in a generous frame of mind. Thanks to “Mema Linda,” we are counting the days until Thanksgiving again this year with a grateful thought each day.

Involve your children in service. There is an abundance of opportunities over the next few months (and always, if you look!) for involvement in community service. Schools and nonprofits run canned food drives for those who need it. Instead of quickly emptying your pantry of unwanted canned goods and dropping off a bag while your children are at school, make an event out of it. Take your children to the store. Have them pick out non-perishable food goods for the drive. Deliver with them. Allow them the chance to feel the value and joy of contributing to their community.

Begin gift giving plans with a conversation about what your children appreciate about each recipient. Allow your children to think about what makes people in your lives unique and special. Talk aloud with them about how those unique qualities could give you gift ideas. Plant seeds for perspective taking and empathy so that your gift giving this year may take on a whole new level of meaning.

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving and/or the start of Hanukkah – or the coming week is just a typical one for you – adding appreciation to your life and particularly your conversations with your family can help you enjoy life more and connect with one another.

If you are a business professional or educator and interested in positive organizational change, there are methods of using appreciation in the workplace to infuse of a sense of connectedness and well-being.  To learn about these strategies called “Appreciative Inquiry,” check out the following resources.

For Education:

Search Institute (Child Development Assets and Strengths-based programming)

For Business and Nonprofit Organizations:

Appreciative Inquiry Commons

Helping Your Child’s School Create a Caring Community: Lessons from a Parent Volunteer

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The garden is a great metaphor for my work on creating caring learning communities with my kid’s schools. You need to enrich the soil, pull the weeds, be patient and allow it time to grow. It takes years and lots of patience.

–          Jeanne Osgood

This week I interviewed a regular reader and responder to Confident Parents, Confident Kids, Jeanne Osgood. Jeanne is someone who has significantly influenced her home school district as a parent over the past fourteen years and I’ve been eager to learn more about her story. Though her two children have graduated and moved on, she continues to educate and advocate for social and emotional learning in Community Consolidated District 181 in Hinsdale, Illinois, a K-8 district with 9 schools and nearly 4,000 students. Prior to having children, she worked for the Art Institute of Chicago as a Museum Educator. In addition to being a long-time volunteer with the schools, she wrote her own job description as a “Communications Consultant” and created systems for communicating with parents about the district’s focus on social and emotional learning. As a result, the District moved from fragmented efforts in character education and a strong focus on academic achievement to a coordinated district-wide integration of social and emotional skill development. They did this as part of their academic curriculum with parents as partners in the process. They regularly communicate with parents through a website and newsletter along with periodic learning opportunities.

Jennifer:  Jeanne, how did you begin working with the district?

Jeanne:  It was really in the Spring of 1999 when the Columbine School shooting occurred. I was concerned about my own children who were in elementary school at the time. I could sense there was enough hostility in the typical school for there to be another Columbine. I made a passionate presentation to the Parent Teacher Organization of my children’s school. I proposed a more concentrated effort focused on creating a caring learning community. Twenty parent volunteers and I began teaching quarterly lessons in the classrooms that focused on building friendships and dealing with bullying. We included home messages in backpacks about social and emotional learning and how parents could help their children.

Jennifer:  How did it grow from one school into a district-wide initiative?

Jeanne:  The superintendent heard about the work we were doing – the lessons and newsletter articles – and asked me to present the concept to all of the district schools. At that point, SEL became a district-wide initiative. We engaged the help of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to provide implementation guidance. A group of involved parents raised grant money to fund the adoption of a research based social and emotional learning curriculum called Lions-Quest. The district put in their own money along with making a commitment to devoting valuable classroom time to regular lessons on problem solving and preventing bullying in all of the schools. It required lots of commitment from all involved – parents, district leaders, teachers – and we had to keep pushing to keep it afloat.

Jennifer:  What advice would you give a parent who is concerned about their child’s school and their involvement in promoting a caring learning environment and kids’ social and emotional skills?

Jeanne:   I would advise any parent to approach teachers or principals as partners. It requires the attitude, we are in this together. We know we want to make their education as good as it can be. And we know that kids’ social and emotional learning is a critical lever for learning. The message, “You are not doing enough.”, only creates resistance.

Jennifer:  What is the core problem you are trying to address?

Jeanne:  I always ask, “Are the kids really alright?” Parents common response is “No.” The biggest problem we see is with anxiety. And it seems only to be getting worse with each new class. There is more testing, more pressure to achieve.

Jennifer:  How do we relieve some of the pressure? I know parents and educators feel it too.

Jeanne:  When you get enraged or overly anxious, it is so powerful to realize that you don’t have to respond this way. There are tools and strategies that can be taught and practiced in schools so that students learn to deal with stress in constructive ways. The problems are not going to go away just because a school has a focus on social and emotional learning (SEL). There will still be bullying. But there will be a system in place to deal with it.

Jennifer:  What would you advise parents to do who do not have time to volunteer in their children’s schools but really care about their children’s social and emotional development?

Jeanne:  Embody it at home. Your example is the most important thing. Model self-awareness and self-management so that children can develop their own self-discipline. For example, a parent in one of our Saturday workshops committed to not “agendizing” after school time. Instead of asking about homework and nagging her child after school, she turned off her cell phone for forty-five minutes just hung out with her child while he had a snack. It’s not about having a “social-emotional” talk. It’s about walking the talk.

Jennifer:  How have you seen that it’s made a difference with students?

Jeanne:  The district has not had the resources to do a major study on implementation. However, there is anecdotal evidence that the norms and climates of the schools have changed. I have had parents tell me they notice a more caring culture here now in the schools. There are also many more opportunities for our students to contribute to the school community and community at large and there is a lot of student participation in service projects and student initiated projects. The principals are very conscious of how they express their expectations of positive behavior. Parents as well are more aware of SEL and appear to value learning about it and related topics. Attendance at community programs for parents is often in the hundreds. Every January for the past 4-5 years we have had social and emotional learning week at every school. This is a terrific way to spotlight how we value personal growth and social skills, and the community of learners. I cannot ascribe all of this just to the lessons that are delivered in the classroom, but rather give credit to the multi-faceted approach the district has for SEL. It involves so many people in a variety of roles and so many different opportunities for children to learn and practice what they learn.

All in all, our partnership on social and emotional learning has given adults and students here standards for creating positive school climate and reasons for many school activities. One middle school calls it “being above the line.” I love that! When someone crosses the line, they are reminded about what it means to be a positive member of the school.

Jennifer:  What have been the most helpful resources to you?

Jeanne:  Check out the Community Consolidated District 181’s Website. It has the history of the “Social and Emotional Learning for Academic Success” project, about social and emotional learning and more resources.

And here are some of my favorite book resources:

Thinking Parent, Thinking Child, (2005). Shure, Myrna B.

Emotionally Intelligent Parenting (1999). Elias, Tobias, and Friedlander.

Raising an emotionally intelligent child. (1998). Gottman, J., Declaire, J., and Goleman, D.

The Whole-Brain Child, 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, (2011). Siegel, Daniel, and Bryson, Tina Payne.

It became apparent after speaking with Jeanne that the common ingredient for her and the district’s successes has been persistence. Through the many changes and transitions, she believed that what she was doing was going to significantly contribute to students’ lives. She committed herself to that pursuit. And the district can measure a difference because of it.

Simple Stories of Kindness

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No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.

–          Amelia Earhart

E’s teacher spent some of her weekend reading about nut allergies to become well informed and ease my worries.

A friend delivered home cooked meals to us when my husband was in the hospital last year.

My husband’s aunt who lives in another town and has few resources always sends E a thoughtful birthday gift each year.

Grandma noticed that E’s feet were always cold so she sent him cozy slippers to wear in the wintertime.

A fellow Mom from preschool days with older children emailed me this summer and gave lots of back to school tips on uniforms, supplies and procedures to support our transition to kindergarten.

Without asking or realizing our family was sick, our neighbor shoveled our driveway during a snow storm.

My husband picks up dinner on occasion to give me a break from cooking.

These stories of kindness may seem simple, even mundane, but that is the point. Simple acts can significantly improve the quality of a person’s life. How do you show kindness to individuals in your family, your child’s teachers, the grocery store cashier or people driving next to you on the highway? Let your children observe you being kind. Make a point in celebration of World Kindness Day on Wednesday, November 13th to involve your children in doing a kind act for another and they will learn from the experience.

Some of my favorite children’s books on kindness:

Bear Feels Sick (2007) by Karma Wison and Jane Chapman. NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Bear Gives Thanks (2012) by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

A Visitor for Bear (2008) by Bonny Becker and Kady MacDonald Denton. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Nico and Lola; Kindness shared between a Boy and a Dog (2009) by Meggan Hill and Photography by Susan M. Graunke. Carpentersville, IL; Genuine Prints.

One Snowy Night; A Tale from Percy’s Park (2003) by Nick Butterworth. Hammersmith, London; Harper Collins.

Dewey; There’s a Cat in the Library (2009) by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter. NY: Little, Brown and Co.

Also, watch this moving eight minute YouTube video on Pitt River Middle School that began a “Breakfast Club” for the purpose of doing random acts of kindness in their school.

Power, Control and Getting “Stuff” Accomplished

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Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.

–          Elie Weisel

Our busy lives require that we move quickly from one activity to the next with our children. Get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, put on coat, grab the backpack, go to school, go through the school routines, come home, do homework, set the table, eat dinner, take a bath, get ready for bed – day after day. Each day contains numerous routines that require the cooperation of your children. Often those routines are mundane and some are even downright unpleasant and certainly not motivating to a child. “I don’t wanna.” may be a familiar refrain in your house or “I can’t,” “I won’t,” or simply “No.” If each of those routines becomes a negotiation and at least some lead to a power struggle, there can multiple major upsets in a day leaving parents feeling emotionally exhausted. After a few days or weeks of those kinds of struggles, parents can feel burned out and unable to bring their best selves to any task. How do you meet your own goals of being on time and moving through the day with your children without power struggles?

The secret, writes Parenting without Power Struggles author Susan Stiffelman[i] is to examine your own goals and motivations – “the thoughts and stories that precipitate your anger, fear or disappointment” and reframe them. She relays that what is most important is the energy you bring to any conversation particularly ones in which you are trying to get your child to do something. Remain calm and you remain in control of the situation. The minute you get angry, you engage your child in a power struggle. Your emotion communicates, “I am losing control. I don’t know if he’ll cooperate.” Push and your child will instinctively push back. Push harder, your child – or any person for that matter – will push harder in response. It’s human nature. And the escalation continues. Once a power struggle begins, adults feel as if they must win in order to maintain their authority but then, who really wins? And what is that teaching the child? The implication is that the way to influence others is to exert your force to break them down. This seems to conflict with a goal of creating a self-disciplined child, a child who is taking responsibility for his or her own actions and the consequences associated.

You may think, “Well if I get angry and yell, my child will comply.” And yes, you may be right. In the moment, they will comply because they fear your reaction. However, they are more likely to push back harder at a time when you most need their cooperation. They may become passive aggressive and they may also seek revenge through destructive behaviors. This is a dangerous route.

And what if, in a fantasy parallel universe, your angel child cooperated with everything you told them to do including the times when you get mad at them? I would tend to be more concerned about that angel child. Where is the sense of self-agency? Where is the motivation to have some control? Where is the strength to assert one’s needs and desires? No, the instinctual push back you receive from your children is ironically a part of who you want them to be – strong, self-determined, independent, goal-oriented (albeit in this case, not your goal but theirs). The good news and the bad news is that the ability to move through the routines of the day without upset lies with you, the parent. Will it always work and go smoothly? Of course not. But there are some ways that you can be a better influencer of your children’s behavior to help them move through the day with greater ease and less angst.

Think about your thinking.

What presses your buttons? What gets you angry, upset or disappointed the most? “He left his dirty clothes on the floor again!” You do the laundry. You’re the one who picks up the dirty clothes to get the laundry done. Your child does not see the importance of remembering to put the clothing in the hamper. So clearly the goal is yours and yours alone. So first, examine your thinking about it. Jot down on paper all of those button-pushers .

–          Not eating dinner.

–          Refusing to put on a coat.

–          Forgetting to bring in the dishes after eating.

–          Going slowly in the morning and not getting out on time.

Now ask yourself the following questions of each of your button-pressers. What is the goal?

–          To ensure he’s getting good nutrition and promote healthy eating habits.

–          To make sure he’s warm and doesn’t get a chill.

–          To teach a sense of responsibility so he cleans up after himself.

–          To ensure that he makes it to school on time.

Why is it important to you? Often the response here is to be a good parent or that it’s part of your role as a parent. What if I know that these things won’t be accomplished if I get upset? That in fact I’ll only be effective as a parent if I can influence my child? In these situations, my anger will defeat my ability to meet that goal. What if I realize that if I get angry and push

–          At dinner

–          When leaving the house

–          After eating a snack

–          When trying to get to school

I am not successfully meeting my goal of doing my job as a parent. Stiffelman writes, “He who is most attached to a particular outcome has the least amount of power.”[ii] Reframing your thinking about the effectiveness of your role in the situation may help you remain calm when those pressure situations arise. But there is more that you can do to prepare for those situations so that you are ready.

Discuss and involve your children ahead of time. Seek your child’s input and cooperation when you are not in the pressure cooker. Find a calm time and bring up the topic of your morning routine. You might say, “We had a tough time getting out this morning. I really want to make mornings fun and easy for both of us. What do you think we can do?” Write it down together. Draw pictures. Formalize your child’s ideas. If you’ve already done this and things are going awry, it’s time to revisit it. Refresh your routine. Things change (like weather requirements for clothing) and routines must also change. My son and I created our first morning routine poster last Fall but it needed a refresher. Poster 2He was able to write and draw his own poster this time without my help though we talked through each part of it.

When we ran into trouble with which jacket or coat to wear, we talked about it after school and decided on a temperature range that determines which coat to wear. Now there’s no room for negotiation in the morning. Instead, we check the temperature gauge. As changes occur, continue to refresh your routine by discussing ways you can improve it when you are not in the moment.

Cultivate calm. My close friend’s adult daughters tease her about her “strange calm” during stressful times when they were little. But they admit that they cooperated more readily when “strange calm” took over their mother’s demeanor. Take a moment for yourself if you need it. The “Let’s fight” attitude from a child can really stir up a parents’ hot emotions so in order to respond with a calm tone, take a moment for your own cool down. Remind yourself that an angry tone WILL escalate the problem and you are allowing your child to engage you in a duel. There are only winners and losers in a duel and so it is better to not engage.

Offer limited choices. Find two options that are acceptable to you and offer them as a redirection. Your child may say, “I’m not cleaning up my toys!” baiting you to engage in a power struggle. Your response could be “Would you like to take care of the dolls or the stuffed friends? I can help with whatever group you do choose.” Or “Would you like to read a book together or go see Dad after we pick up the toys?”

Channel the energy of an intended power fight into helpful behaviors. Engage your child in constructive action. This gives them a sense of directed power. “Mommy has to get the house ready for friends to come over. Will you help me get ready? Which toys would you like to start picking up?”

Act kindly and firmly. Don’t talk. Remove your children from the problematic circumstance by taking their hands and walking them away.  The key is in the words “kindly and firmly.” Allow them to walk on their own. If you pull hard or drag them, anger is implied and the situation will move directly to a power struggle. Move on to your own activity quickly without discussion. The children know what they are doing is unsafe or not right (since they are baiting you to fight) so not talking infers, “I know you know what to do and what not to do. So do it.”

Be brief and direct. Often we ask our child to do something with a question mark at the end. Or we ask politely including “please” because we want to teach them good manners. There are certainly times when good manners are important. When it’s a safety issue or a routine chore that needs to get accomplished, parents can use brief and direct language that leaves no room for negotiation. But if this is done sternly and with an edge of anger, it will result in a power struggle. If you remain calm and confident, saying, “Take this to the kitchen.” It is often enough to gain compliance and also, express that this is what needs to be done for the family. If it’s met with resistance, then try another of these interventions such as giving acceptable choices or asking for help.

Use logical consequences. Often there are consequences that follow from an action that can be pointed to in order to help children learn about cause and effect. Sometimes it requires thinking in advance about times of day or activities that you know are typically problematic and planning how you will incorporate those logical consequences. For example, I know that E has a tough time getting dressed. He is sensitive to clothing and everything but pajamas seems to bother him. If he is struggling with putting on clothes, I can remind him that he will not be able to play with friends when they invariably come knocking. It’s critical that these consequences are a direct result of a particular behavior and make sense. “You will have to go to your room and stay there if you don’t pick up your toys.” sounds punitive and may not directly relate to the action. Instead you may say, “We will not have time to go to your favorite store today if you are unable to pick up your toys. I’ll wait until it’s done.”

Ask whether going to the cool down spot would help. If your child has gotten worked up, then ask if they would be comforted by the cool down spot.  It is important that this is not a punitive time out, ala “Go to your room!” To learn more about cool down strategies and setting a place for cooling down in your house, check out “Cooling the Fire.”

Problem solve after she cools down. Go through your problem solving steps asking what happened? How did you feel? Why did you choose this action? What other choices could you have made? How could we do this differently tomorrow? This reflection will help prevent future similar incidents.

Infuse fun. This can be a real challenge when you are pressed for time. But think about your routines, the ones that you struggle to get through each day. Are there songs that you could create with your child (to a popular tune) or rhymes you could make up together that could help you get through an activity? Preschool teachers play a particular song during clean up time each day that signals the routine. Is there a song you can play while you are setting the table to get ready for dinner?  One constant with children is that they are always motivated to have a little fun. If you can create that opportunity and move through a routine, you can feel pretty great about what you are doing. Please write in to tell me about it! Check out these transition songs for clean up or waiting time.

If you’ve been engaged in regular power struggles with your child, that is life as they know it. If you are trying some new ways of being as suggested above, give it some time. Your child will have one expectation of you, the old way of being, taking the fight to the next level. She will likely be surprised when you do not lock horns. Children change their strategies and adapt in response to adults but they also will continue to test you for consistency. Have confidence that being calm and confident in the situation will lead to better outcomes for both of you.

I tend to be a goal-oriented person with high standards for myself. Checking items off a list gives me great satisfaction. But when it comes to my child, I realize the focus must be on the development of his self-discipline. Remaining calm and focused will allow both of us to achieve our respective goals and even allow for energy at the end of the day for some personal time. Ahhhh.

The Hidden Halloween Treat

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“You’re what?” asked the common or garden spook
Of a stranger at midnight’s hour.
And the shade replied with a graceful glide,
“Why, I’m the ghost of a flower.”

“The ghost of a flower?” said the old-time spook;
“That’s a brand-new one on me;
I never supposed a flower had a ghost,
Though I’ve seen the shade of a tree.”

– Anonymous[i]

The pirate, construction worker, fireman, train conductor, doctor, ghost and Dark Lord Vader have all made guest appearances in our house over the past weeks in hot anticipation of Halloween. Though fear may abound with kids worrying about spooky specters and parents worrying about nut allergies, cavities and street safety, there is more to the Halloween experience than just candy and frights. Children are encouraged to be someone or something else for one night a year. They are not only permitted but emboldened to become a character from their imaginings. Halloween gives them a chance to think and feel from another perspective. The skill of perspective taking is one that has been found to assist in problem solving, communication, multi-cultural understanding, empathy and academic performance.

But how does perspective taking relate to all of those aforementioned critical life skills? When do children begin learning to take another’s perspective? And how can parents encourage the development of these skills? Perspective taking is interpreting another person’s thoughts, feelings and motivations for action (see references for more on the Theory of Mind and Relational Frame Theory). This skill uses multiple executive functions of the brain including self-regulation, empathy and cognitive flexibility (seeing a variety of solutions) making it a skill set that is now recognized as critical for school readiness and when in school, success in achieving academic goals.[ii] Researchers have been able to determine that three year-olds can begin to take another’s perspective and some are even able to detect that another may hold a false belief about an observation[iii] (For example, the teacher says there is an apple in the bag. Many children believe this but one child knows the apple is under the table.). As children begin to form relationships with peers, teachers and other care providers, they will become more adept at communicating their own needs, thoughts and feelings if they are attuned with the other person. A teacher’s facial expression may give away the anger they are feeling with an administrator.  If your child reads the expression correctly, he may choose to wait for a better moment to bring up the fact that his homework was eaten by the dog.

So how can parents encourage and support their children in understanding another person’s perspective? I’ve included some general simple ideas first and then, added more specific ideas related to children’s stages of development.

One easy way to promote perspective taking skills is to ask open-ended questions to prompt thinking. Extend the learning by using perspective taking as a “Guess what…” game at dinnertime or on a car trip when your family is together. Parents I work with have had success with doing this by engaging their family in fun and productive conversation. Each person has the opportunity to guess what another was feeling or thinking at some point that day. It may be an opportunity to reflect and laugh about more stressful moments in the day. For example, “I could see that Dad was angry when I grabbed his newspaper this morning.” The person who is being commented on has to say whether or not the feeling the family member guessed is accurate and if not, what they actually were feeling. Over your macaroni and cheese, watch with great satisfaction as your children become more adept at articulating your perspectives and their own with practice.

I tried a second variation of this game at my own dinner table and found we laughed and enjoyed the fun of it. This one was “If ___ came to dinner, he would say _______.” We inserted famous people and family members and our six year old came up with remarkable responses and he instigated using the various voice intonations of those people. Here’s a brief sampling of our conversation:

Me: “Your teacher, Mrs. Art is here for dinner. What does she say?”

E: “This is a nice dinner.” (read in a sweet, high-pitched voice)

Dad: “Your three year old cousin…”

E: “I don’t like hot dogs.”

Me: “Your cool Uncle Jeremiah…”

E: “E, man, how ya doin.”

Me: “Emperor Palpatine, Ruler of the Dark Side…”

E: “I’ll kill you after dinner.”

Of course, children have differing abilities to take others’ perspectives as they develop. Primary school age children will not be ready for multi-cultural diplomacy at the United Nations’ mediation table just yet but plant the seeds and they will get there. The following are Robert Selman’s five stages of perspective-taking[iv] with my own practical suggestions for how you can support your children’s development through the years.

  1. Undifferentiated perspective taking

Ages 3-6

Children have a sense of their own thoughts and feelings and the fact that their actions cause others to react but sometimes may confuse others’ thoughts and feelings with their own.

Easy practice: Look for chances to identify different kinds of emotions when interacting with others. “Look at that woman’s expression in the store. Her face says to me she’s frustrated.” The posters with multiple facial expressions are great for expanding a feelings vocabulary. Check out this one. My son’s favorite is “lovestruck!”

2. Social-informational perspective taking

Ages 5-9

Children understand that different perspectives may mean that people have access to different information than they have.

Easy practice: When you are reading books with your child, stop when you find a belief, perspective, motivation or course of action that would differ from what your daughter would choose. Talk about the character’s perspective and motivation and from where it may have originated.

3. Self-reflective perspective taking

Ages 7-12

Children can view others’ perspectives by interpreting others’ thoughts and feelings and recognize that other people can do the same.

Easy practice: Guide your children through a conflict situation by asking them, after cooling down, to tell what they are thinking and feeling and then, asking them to interpret what the other person is thinking and feeling.

4. Third party perspective taking

Ages 10-15

Children are able to mentally step outside of their own thoughts and feelings and another person’s and see a situation from a third person, impartial perspective.

Easy practice: This is a perfect time for a child to read biographies about other people’s lives that might interest them. Select a person together because you know something about the person’s life. Or read it yourself and talk about it with your child.

5. Societal perspective-taking

Ages 14-Adult

Begin to see that the third party perspective can be influenced by larger systems and societal values.

Easy practice: Offer opportunities to learn and experience other cultures reflecting on differing perspectives and values. Visit churches, synagogues or other places of worship outside of your belief system. Volunteer in a nursing home or homeless shelter. When you hear your children are interested in another culture, government or belief system, explore the opportunity through books, volunteerism, festivals, travel and other mind-expanding experiences.

Halloween is a holiday that helps us explore our fears in a safe way. It allows us to think about our mortality and our belief systems while having fun. In addition, it gives us permission to be and think differently. Take advantage of this great opportunity to practice perspective taking with your children. Have a safe, happy Halloween!


A good article for educators on teaching perspective taking:

Strong classroom activities on perspective taking:


[i] Klaver, B. Spooky, Scary and Fun Poems that Will Make your Hair Curl. The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved from on October 24, 2013.

[ii] Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from

[iii] Heagle, A.I., & Rehfeldt, R.A. (2006). Teaching Perspective-Taking Skills to Typically Developing Children through Derived Relational Responding. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention. 3 (1) 1-34.

[iv] Selman, R.L. (1975). Level of social perspective taking and the development of empathy in children: Speculations from a social-cognitive viewpoint. Journal of Moral Education. 5 (1) 35-43.

Weapon Play and Villains

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In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.

– Francis Bacon

Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.

–          YODA, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

“I want to be Darth Vader when I grow up,” said E with grandeur as he strutted through the house with the confidence of a Dark Lord. For a Mom whose nickname was once “peace lady,” this statement made me shudder though I tried to contain it. Without any warning, gun play just started showing up in our son’s play repertoire. Similarly preschool teachers will report that when there is a lack of weapons in classrooms with which to play, children will create them out of cheese sticks or paintbrushes. Though a gene for a proclivity to embrace weapons has not yet been discovered, there is likely both a nature and nurture (environmental and social) explanation for children’s and particularly boys’ interest in gun play. Some claim that villains are just more interesting to children. They wear bold costumes and masks or face paint. They are the point of conflict and facilitator of drama in a story. Before having children, in my days as Director of the Center for Peace Education, my position was “I will never buy toy weapons for a child of mine.” Never say never! My son is the proud owner of three light sabers and has inherited from his Star Wars’ loving father tiny weapons galore all assigned to a wide range of action figures. So what do educators and experts say about weapon and villain play? How does it relate to keeping children safe? And practically, what are caring parents to do when it comes to play that involves the dark side?

Educators in numerous studies report that when they allow children to guide pretend play including play scripts that involve weapons and villains, children can engage in highly complex and advanced scenarios. When researchers in a laboratory preschool at the University of Maine[i] allowed children to lead the play and only guided them on adhering to safety rules, they found that the “bad guy” play that evolved was inclusive (all students, male and female) and cooperative. Children pursued stories that allowed for problem-solving, collaboration and communication skills to be practiced. Because of the excitement of the play, children engaged in these stories multiple times making slight changes to the story as they played. These studies indicate that the play that may make adults squeamish (“Are my children learning that hurting or killing is fun and okay?”), actually gives children the freedom to play out scenarios for conquering fear, demonstrating bravery, understanding death and working together with their playmates.

The opposite, however, is true as it relates to television, movies and video games in which children are passive receivers of violent or aggressive imagery. Researchers show that children adopt new and more intense violence and aggression as they see it portrayed in the media. They can be desensitized and actually traumatized by what they view and that can lead to less creativity and imaginative play. For more, read “Television: Navigating our Global Neighborhood.”

Ohio, the state in which I live, has a gun ownership rate of 32.4%[ii] and many states exceed 50% of all households so even if you do not own a gun yourself, it’s likely that your child will play in a friend’s house that will have a weapon. Make sure you have well educated your child on the issue.

The following are some practical ways parents can ensure that children are growing and developing through their imagination and pretend play, promoting values of working together and collaboration (versus violence and separation) and also, staying safe.

1. Educate on gun safety.

Children who are preschool age and up need to be educated about gun safety. Teach your child that they should assume all guns are loaded and ready to shoot. You should not scare your child with stories of children dying (in fact, programs that use scare tactics with children have been found ineffective because the child shuts down to the information when scared). Show him a picture of a real gun. Instruct him that if he would ever come across a weapon in a friend’s house, he should not touch it, leave and let an adult know that it is exposed immediately. If you are a gun owner, be certain that your gun is locked with a key in a place that is not accessible to any children. Many schools who have adopted a social and emotional learning curriculum include violence prevention education in their offerings. For more on social and emotional learning in schools and curricula available, visit the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning 2013 Program Guide.

2.      Buy toys that look like toys.

Never purchase a toy gun or weapon that closely resembles a real one. Why risk confusion when your child could come across a real weapon in your own home or a friend’s home? Only buy weapons that are colorful, clearly look like toys and do not resemble the real thing. Let Grandma and other gift givers know your stance on this as well so that you do not end up with toys that you don’t want in your household.

3.      Cultivate a trusting connection.

You want your child to come to you and tell you when they have a.) seen a weapon in a friend’s home, b.) experienced an adult or another child who is being unsafe or c.) been inappropriately approached (touched, yelled at, struck) by another adult or child. Many children do not tell their parents when such incidents occur because they fear a parent will react in anger or disgust. Some children do not tell because they fear that the action will be viewed as their fault. Parents unwittingly communicate they are not open to such conversations when they criticize other parents or children in front of their child. The child then thinks, “Well if they don’t approve of Jack hitting on the playground, they are really going to be mad if they hear he hit me. They may not let him be my friend anymore.” Emphasize regularly (once is not enough) that you want them to share anything that is upsetting to them with you. You will help them and not be angry. Keep criticisms about other parents and children to yourself or to conversations with your partner when your children are not around to hear.

4.      Set house rules for safe play.

Involve your child in discussing and creating rules around weapon, violence or villain play that keep all involved safe. Some households emphasize “target practice” instead of aiming at a person to avoid accidents. Others set a rule for “no body contact” or “no weapons aimed above the chest.” Make sure the rules are clear when other children are visiting so that you can allow play to evolve but reinforce safety rules when needed.

5. Do not give high emotion or energy to violent play.

Part of the attraction of violent play is the high excitement and emotion of it. Often when we parents are shocked and awed by something, children take notice and repeat the precipitating action again and again. If children are not able to create shocking reactions in adults, they will likely not be as interested in pursuing violent play. Then, their play will turn more toward working out scenarios of conquering fear and demonstrating courage in the face of danger.

6.      Share your own attitudes and values about violence.

“Nothing (good) comes from violence and nothing ever could,” goes the song, Fragile[iii] by Sting and that sums up my own philosophy. Violence only creates more violence. Share your own values about violence with your children. Make a point to raise this issue on occasion so that they hear what you think and believe. And in that moment, make sure that you create a trusting space for them to ask questions and share their own thoughts and feelings to help them to begin to cultivate their own values about violence.

I attempted my own experiment at home. With action figures strewn across the living room floor, E said “Let’s play!” to me yesterday as he often does. He assigned me to play the darkest Sith Lord, the Emperor, along with numerous other good and bad guys and he had his own set of villians. I allowed him to lead the play and as it evolved, I had the Emperor kill all of the good guys because that’s what the Emperor does and said, “Now what?” The good guys were all dead and there was no fighting to be had so “Now what?” He proceeded to resurrect all of the good guys and began playing only with the good guys – pursuing Jedi training, presenting medals to the heroes and celebrating with the Ewoks in their tree houses. He has not seen those movies but knows the stories from the large stack of Star Wars library books we come home with each week. When the bad guys successfully killed everyone, the story became a lot less interesting. Good guys needed to rise again in order to imagine coming adventures. Imaginative play was brought back to life.

When parents think about violence in the world and our precious children, it’s scary…scarier than any imaginative fright that may come up in a movie on late night television playing over the coming weeks before Halloween. There are sensible steps we can take to ensure that we are intimately connected to our children’s lives so that they trust us and communicate with us what really matters when we are not around. We can proactively educate them about safety so that they are stewards of those rules in our homes, neighborhoods and schools. And we can open the door to conversations about violence so that children can begin to formulate their own values about the forces of dark and light. So often the gift children give us is the opportunity for reflection and a reexamination of our own values and how we are living them as models in their lives.

For another good article on this topic, visit:

For a terrific site for parents on child safety, visit:

Also, check an outstanding book on specifically raising boys:

Gurian, M. (2006). The wonder of boys; What parents, mentors and educators can do to shape boys into exceptional men. NY: Penguin Group.


[i] Logue, M.E., & Detour, A. (2011). You Be the Bad Guy”: A New Role for Teachers in Supporting Children’s Dramatic Play. University of Maine Early Childhood Research and Practice. Vol. 13, 1.

[ii] North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics. (2001). The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) Nationwide Survey on Gun Ownership.

[iii] Sting. (1988). Fragile. Nothing Like the Sun. A & M Records.

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