Happy Teacher Appreciation Day! Parents and teachers included, we thank you sincerely for helping us become better than we even knew we could be. Since both of my parents are teachers, I thought I would share some quotes from their students in celebration of all teachers today. We are better because of you!
“You helped me strive to the best of my abilities.”
“Thanks for challenging me to succeed.”
“This was probably the hardest year of English that I have ever taken but it was also the most beneficial for me.”
“I learned so much from you and it carried through my career.”
“I have just realized how much of a difference, for the better, you made to me.”
“I realized this is a person whose advice I should heed.”
“You made me want to write well, and because of you, I think I do. I now hope to be a writer for a living.”
There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what may be. Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.
– Robert Henri1
All individuals are inherently creative. But we typically reserve the title of “Artist” as a sacred one for which only specially anointed individuals are worthy. However, our humanness makes us all creative. My son, E, has no interest in initiating drawing on his own. Although when there is drawing time at school and all of the other children are involved, he will create fascinating pictures that give me insights into his thoughts and feelings.
This week his teacher asked each student to do a sketch. His depiction of “what I did over spring break” was a picture of the Earth as viewed from the moon with our family faces in orbit. We had gone to the Neil Armstrong Space Museum and out of the many other activities of the past week, that is what he chose to draw. He often brings home drawings and we discuss what they mean to him. He proudly displays them on our refrigerator and becomes an “Artist” each time.
Art for the purpose of the expression of feelings has been a central theme for centuries. The famous painter, Rothko (1903-1970) created simple rectangles of color with the expressed purpose of evoking raw emotion in the viewer. Art is also used to tell stories and define cultural experiences. Picasso painted Guernica, perhaps his most well-known, as an anti-war reaction to the Nazi bombing during the Spanish Civil War. And art has been used effectively to heal. Art therapy has been promoted healing since the 1940s. There is research to suggest that art therapy has had a healing influence on cancer patients and children with asthma.2 “Art making may reduce anxiety and stress reactions…”3
Not only can the arts heal but they can also connect us to one another as we get to know the deeper parts of who we are. In our busy family lives, connecting on an intimate level can become difficult as we attend to the obligations of day to day life. But art can be used as a tool for bringing families together, building self-awareness and self-confidence, dealing with intense emotions, exploring perceptions of the world or even envisioning the future.
Remember when you engage in creative activities together, there are no faults, only expression. And in fact, what we might judge as imperfections add only to the uniqueness of the work. Famous artists such as Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt struggled with cataracts and may have viewed the world quite literally through an Impressionist and later, Expressionist haze.4 Ideally, work only on your own piece unless you are creating a collaboration. Though tempting, try not to comment. Even positive comments can change artistic focus, intentions and outcomes. Do focus on the joy of the process itself. And use the outcomes, the end products, as representations of your time working together. Try out one of the following art experiences with your family and see if it might help you connect on a deeper level.
1. Create a hopes and dreams vision board. Put to use that stack of magazines that may collect in your house as they do in mine. Lay out scissors, glue sticks and a poster board. Label the poster “Our Family Dreams” and start cutting and pasting. Do you want to travel to Tahiti? Climb a mountain? Sail on a yacht? Write a poem? Skateboard? You can create your poster in an evening together or leave it out on a table to contribute to over the course of a week. See how it builds and develops over time. Then hang it on a pantry door or bulletin board so that your family can refer to it and talk about how to make your hopes and dreams come true.
2. Create family portraits. For young children, create a full body self-portrait. Have them lay down on a long sheet of paper and trace them with a crayon or marker. Then have the family write qualities or aspects of the person they love. We tried this as a family last night and even the teddy bear and best bunny friend had a full body portrait made. For older
children, I like to use colorful construction paper and cut and paste shapes to make a portrait. But you can also simply use crayons or markers. Put out supplies after a pizza night dinner. After self-portraits are made, pass them around to each other. Write your favorite qualities you see in that person on the border. “Kind,” “funny,” and “generous” are some examples. If you like them, frame them in place of photographs and create an interesting conversation piece for visitors!
3. Identify feelings. Draw together with your child to express emotions. Sometimes children will be able to express more about what and how they are feeling through drawings rather than words. Allow them their own expressions. Keep your drawings on your own paper and about your own topics of exploration. You might say, “Let’s draw pictures about what we are feeling today” and see what your child creates.
4. Express upset or hurt. If your child is hurt, sad or even angry, giving her paper and crayons can be a way for her to express her emotions. We keep crayons and paper at the ready in E’s calm down safe space just for that purpose. If your child is not taking initiative, model it by expressing your own upset feelings through drawing. Maybe your child would do better with something more tactile like sculpting with clay? Try out various mediums and see what works best for your child. You may want to ask if she wants to keep the drawing as a reminder of how she felt. Or you may offer that she ceremonially rip it up and stick it in the recycle bin as a symbol of letting go of the emotions she has expressed.
5. Codify your family Identity. Create a crest or symbol that represents your family. Incorporate things you love to do together or pictures of yourself, your pets and your friends. What symbols represent who you are and what you love as a family?
Let your inner artist out and involve your family to reap the benefits.
* Special thanks to Linda Smith, my editor and a talented artist who has struggled with cataracts, for her research and knowledge of art history.
Oh Magic Timer I love you so I set you, And tick, tick, ding It’s time to go.
The “magic timer” is a perfect tool for taking the negotiation out of daily transitions. It can provide a sense of discipline for an adult or child. And it can promote the comfort of a limited time frame for an activity. We use a kitchen timer, one minute sand timer or a smart phone alarm.
What are the many uses for this simple machine?
1. To move from play to another task. Instead of giving the five minute warning (which before first grade doesn’t hold much meaning), set your magic timer. “When the bell rings, we need to clean up and go.” The timer says so. Get into the habit and move smoothly through your transitions without arguing or negotiating.
2. To focus adult attention. Are your children indicating they need your attention? “Will you play with me, Momma?” my son asks every day he is home from school. And, I stop, full wash basket weighing down my arms while the phone rings and say, “Yes, in just a minute.” If I do make time for play, I can be distracted by my long to-do list. If I don’t get to engage in play, then my guilt reflex rears it’s ugly head. If I set the timer for fifteen minutes, I can settle down on the floor to play knowing that I can focus my attention on him fully for fifteen minutes, because I have chosen to. And when the timer goes off, I am on to my next task.
Conversely, you may be yearning for a moment to read a magazine article that looks so compelling. Set a reasonable amount of time. You know how long your child can go playing on her own. Stretch it a few minutes longer so you offer her some practice in self-control. But not too long that you frustrate her. “Mommy is setting the timer for fifteen minutes while I read this article that is important to me. When I am finished, I’ll come play.”
3. To share attention between siblings. Do you have siblings fighting for your attention? Maybe you do not notice until you get one alone and the noise seems to calm considerably. Sometimes siblings escalate their noise and energy level in order to gain the coveted attention of a parent. If you hear or feel the escalation, flip a coin to determine who goes first and set a timer for focused attention on one letting the other know that they are next. “If you let me fully focus on Ginny, then when it’s your turn Ginny will let me pay attention to you!”
4. To change the pace. Does it sometimes seem that when you need to go quickly, your children turn into snails? But when you are needing a slower pace, they speed up the tempo? The magic timer can slow your child down as she brushes her teeth for two whole minutes as recommended. We use the one minute sand timer and keep it by our toothpaste. It can also help your child beat his own time as he finishes his sometimes slow and arduous nightly math problems for homework.
6. To be right on time. Whenever our family travels, even if it’s a short overnight road trip to Grammy’s, stress is in the air as we try to pack and leave. The timer can assist all members of the family in getting ready on time. Set it several times for packing bags, loading the car, last minute bathroom breaks and snacks, and finally leaving. If all family members know their roles and responsibilities in getting ready (children can pack some of their own bags with some guidance), make it an enjoyable challenge as you each scurry to fulfill your own responsibilities in preparing.
Certainly this is not a problem solver for every situation. But as with any tool, it can become invaluable with particular challenges. Try this one out and see if it works for you.
Every spring is the only spring – a perpetual astonishment.
– Ellis Peters
The birds chirp outside of my window building nests and resting on the newly budded branches surrounding my office. As spring reveals new growth, we watch our children grow and develop, their transformations at times readily apparent and rapid. At a family gathering last weekend, we reconnected with people we haven’t seen in a few months and they noted all of the physical changes of our son. “He’s getting so big!” And there are internal changes occurring as well. How he perceives the world, his awareness and understanding of people and the environment is substantially different in his young life from year to year. Children are constantly forming their sense of identity but they also go through particular developmental periods in which they are experimenting and particularly sensitive to descriptors of themselves and how the world perceives them. They are attempting to answer the questions “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in the world?”.
We, as parents, are also evolving our own sense of identity. I didn’t understand before I took my wedding vows what could possibly be so challenging about marriage, though there seemed to be a consensus that it was difficult for everyone. I recall being told, “You change who you are over and over and the person you are with changes too.” I now deeply understand this reality. We continue to learn and develop as individuals and our own identity changes over time.
Mark Nepo, a poet and philosopher, compares this birth or re-birth of identity to a baby chick being born. It’s a harrowing experience for the chick in the egg who may perceive that she is going to die. The nourishment of the egg goes away as she outgrows it’s use. She begins to eat her shell in need of food. She emerges from darkness into a whole new reality.
Transformation always involves the falling away of things we have relied on, and we are left with a feeling that the world as we know it is coming to an end, because it is. Yet the chick offers us the wisdom that the way to be born while still alive is to eat our own shell.1
This reflection is a metaphor for understanding how our past identity is always a part of who we are as we embrace new versions of who we are becoming. As parents, we look for ways to support our children in understanding who they are and who they can become. How do we know when our children are working on a developmental milestone and how can we be supportive?
The author of Yardsticks,2 Chip Wood, synthesizes child development theories for educators according to predictable patterns. He writes that there are four key principles to understanding child development. They are
Development follows predictable patterns (whether its cognitive, social, emotional, linguistic or physical).
Children typically pass through those stages in the same order.
However, children do not pass through those stages at the same rate. It is normal for children to vary as far as how long they remain in a particular stage.
Growth is uneven and unpredictable.2
As we work to understand how we can support our children’s emerging sense of self, we can become more sensitive to our own developmental path. For example, my external changes in career moving from a focus on schools and education to a focus on parents required inner work and a reforming of my identity. Because I want to integrate my focus on becoming the best parent I can be and my work to support others, I have been undergoing my own transformational path examining old perceptions, patterns from my own childhood, beliefs about myself and my purpose and how that relates to my relationship with my family. Like the common metaphor of a caterpillar in the chrysalis who must turn to “goo” before emerging as a butterfly, my own conceptions of who I am becoming are, at times, uncertain. I use this experience to become more empathetic as I watch my son go through his own set of challenges.
The following are some ideas for supporting the birth and rebirth of identity in family life. They can apply to all family members.
Heighten your awareness when development has sped up and changes are taking place.Development is messy. It comes in fits and starts and is not perfectly linear. The duration of a developmental change is unpredictable. During the time of “goo” as a person is letting go of the old and beginning to formulate the new, individuals are likely more emotional and may act out of character trying on new aspects of who they are becoming. Don’t be quick to judge.
1. Understand regression is likely. In other words, you may see behaviors arise that are
from a previous stage. Tantrums? There is no going backward with development but
realize that who a child was is always a part of who they are becoming. They may revert
to old behaviors for comfort in the sometimes difficult but necessary act of letting go
of the past.
2. Acknowledge that this is a period of trial and error. Children and adults for that matter
may try on new identities for size and see how they fit. They can be particularly sensitive to any feedback you give during this time period. If you do give feedback, positive or
negative, focus on the behavior. Help your child understand that there is always a
chance to make a next positive decision.
3. Recognize that it is a highly emotional time. Erik Erikson, an important developmental
theorist wrote that during a developmental change, there is “a crucial period of increased
vulnerability and heightened potential.”3 Be aware that individuals who are going
through developmental changes can be highly emotional because of the inner journey that is taking place. They may feel that there is a death they are coping with without the
external supports, recognition or rituals. There can be fear of the unknown person they are becoming. Your awareness of heightened emotions can help you be more supportive and calm during the process.
4. Learn more about development. Read about the developmental milestones of a
typical seven year old for example. Check out Yardsticks for easy to read and use lists
of development milestones for ages 4-14. If you or your spouse are undergoing
significant shifts in your thinking, learn about adult development. Check out The Adult Yearsby Frederick Hudson for more.4
Actions speak louder. Children, particularly under the age of 12, learn through “identification,” as Erikson terms it.5 They are constantly looking to identify with the adults around them by adopting their traits and behaviors. Yet another important developmental theorist, Lev Vygotsky, wrote that our understanding of our selves and our emotions begins in other people and is then internalized by the child.6 All of this points to children’s natural ability to learn through modeling.
In Raising a Moral Child,7 the author cites a study with 140 elementary and middle school students in which children were given tokens for winning a game that they could keep or donate to children in poverty. When the teacher told them to give but did not do it himself, children were more likely to keep the token. When the teacher spoke and donated his own money, children gave initially but over time there was no impact on future decisions. However when the teacher did not talk about giving but simply gave all of his own money, the children not only gave but the experience influenced future choices about giving as well.8 What kinds of behaviors would you be proud to witness in your child? How can you model those behaviors?
Express your disappointment and confidence.When children misbehave, express your disappointment AND your confidence in their ability to make things better. “I am disappointed that you took Michael’s toy away from him. I know you are a kind person and want to make things better. How do you think you might make things better? What about going back and offering him a toy or apologizing to him?”
Confident parents and confident kids are ever evolving. In fact, confidence comes from the knowledge that we are always learning and developing to become more of who we are. If we understand and value the learning process, it can allow us greater patience with ourselves and our children.
Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it.
– Tori Amos
When a parent gets sick, life goes on. Kids have to get up and get ready for school. Lunches must be packed. Homework has to get accomplished. It can be a real struggle for moms and dads to get through the day when they have come down with the flu. Harder still, parents go through major life transitions such as beginning a new job, losing a loved one or struggling with depression. And parenting goes on.
How can you deal with those times in a way that allows you to heal yourself and parent healthy children? And how can you avoid placing more burdens on your children than they can reasonably handle? There seems a fine line between asking your children for help and giving them adult responsibilities for which they are not ready.
While I was sick over the past couple of weeks, I reflected on this topic and how I might channel the little energy I had in the direction of healing and being a responsive parent without doing more than I could handle. “I’ll help you feel better,” said E. However, he grew moodier and at times, angry. Children often become angry, upset and worried when a primary caregiver is sick. Their own sense of safety and stability is shaken. They wonder, “Is she going to be able to take care of me and my needs?” and “Is this going to go on forever?” Children are acutely aware that their very survival depends upon their parents despite their desires for independence. Parents who are obviously stressed and struggling threaten their sense of security. So in addition to dealing with your own problems and lack of energy, you also are likely to encounter a child who is not at his or her best.
Here are some thoughts about what you might do in these circumstances.
Ask for understanding.
Communicate with all family members what you are able to give and what you are unable to give. Set clear expectations so that they know in advance what you are unable to do. For most of us, this is incredibly challenging since it feels like admitting a weakness. However, it is a strength to be self-aware and understand your limitations. Communicating with them will allow your family members to support you in the ways that are needed. Model this for your children and they will learn how to become more self-aware and ask for help when it’s necessary.
Acknowledge that the problem is time-limited.
Children often feel as if the current situation will last forever. It helps to assure them that temporary adjustments need to be made while you are recovering.
Arrange for adult supports.
Ask for help from other adults around you. This too can be a real challenge. However, asking your child for emotional or physical support for which they are too young crosses a critical boundary line and can create tremendous anxiety for a child and in turn, you. Create mutually supportive adult relationships and look for chances to help friends and family when they are sick or in a crisis. In addition to the help of my partner, I am so fortunate to have a close friend who when I say I’m sick, brings over all the supplies necessary for healing. We all can have those relationships if we are the first to give and reach out when others are in crisis. Reach out to others and they will likely be at the ready to support you when you most need it.
Stick by your child’s routine.
Being consistent with your daily routines will provide a greater sense of security for your child. They will still likely feel uneasy that you are not doing well. However they will relish in the comfort of your typical routines.
Understand and empathize with your child’s emotions.
Realize that your child is likely to become angrier, needier, sadder and generally more upset when you are sick or stressed. If you meet their anger with anger, it will only escalate the problem. Instead, engage them with the understanding that all family members need to be gentle with one another and forgiving as one member attempts to heal.
Release yourself from extraneous commitments.
During the normal course of the week, we likely have enough commitments to fill our calendars with little time to spare. Ask for understanding from those commitments and minimize what you are responsible for so that you can focus on healing. Gain time later as you invest now in your health.
Set clear, non-negotiable emotional boundaries.
If your burdens are partially emotional, be certain that you are only sharing them with appropriate adults in your life. Your children are unable to shoulder your emotional problems though they will try because they love you. Don’t put them in that position. When you are tempted to talk with them about your troubles, remember that there is a critical boundary line. You remain the adult to allow them their childhood. The book Chained to the Desk; A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners, and Children and the Clinicians Who Treat Them1 talks about the adult consequences of parents who required children to share in their emotional challenges. For those individuals, it can be a life-long struggle of never measuring up, high anxiety in trying to serve others’ needs and not being able to ask for support or help. Allow your partners, friends or a counselor to provide that adult support to ensure you are getting your needs met and are not tempted to unload your worries on your child.
If it’s a life transition you are facing, raise your awareness of what you can expect emotionally. The book, Transition; Making Sense of Life’s Changes2 by William Bridges explains that in each transition (whether it’s perceived socially as positive like the birth of a child or negative like being fired from a job), there is a death which requires letting go (and the sadness that goes with it). There is a state of limbo, an in-between period in which, like the caterpillar in the chrysalis that turns to “goo,” one must release the past and embrace the unknown of the present and future. And finally, the birth of the next phase of who you are becoming. Each phase of a transition produces a bundle of emotions. Raising your awareness about what you can expect will help you deal with them and allow you greater self-compassion.
This can be our most difficult task as we strive to be the parents we most want to be. Investing in your own self-care including forgiving yourself for not being the best version of you while you are undergoing health or transition issues can serve you and all those around you. Often times ironically, the stress and pressure of sickness can add to your anxiety and impede your ability to heal. Kristin Neff, leading researcher on self-compassion, defines it in three ways. She writes that self-compassion involves
…being kind and understanding to oneself in instances of suffering or perceived inadequacy. It also involves a sense of common humanity, recognizing that pain and failure are unavoidable aspects of the shared human experience. Finally, self-compassion entails balanced awareness of one’s emotions—the ability to face (rather than avoid) painful thoughts and feelings, but without exaggeration, drama or self-pity.3
Her research supports the theory that mental health and a healthy self-concept are dependent on self-compassion.
All of these recommendations are easier said than done. However, as I strive to become the best version of myself through continued learning, I strive for my own optimal mental health in order to raise a confident kid. I wish for you gentleness and healing as you do the same.
The sun is nervous as a kite that can’t quite keep its own string tight.
Some days are fair, and some are raw. The timid earth decides to thaw.
Shy budlets peep from twigs on trees, and robins join the chickadees.
Pale crocuses poke through the ground like noses come to sniff around.
The mud smells happy on our shoes. We still wear mittens which we lose.
– March by John Updike
Spring is a time of new life and can also be an ideal opportunity to work on awareness with your children. As a weekend gardener, I am noticing my tulips and daffodils emerging from the soil and the very tips of leaf buds on the trees. I am often amazed by the details that my son notices around him as we go through our day. But I shouldn’t be. Children are hard-wired to notice details. Because their brains are eagerly taking in and making sense of information in order to learn about their environment, they are able to receive many more details than we as adults do. Adults have processed so much over the years about their environment that we necessarily make assumptions and skip over details in order to deal with the sheer volume of information that comes at us daily. However, experiencing greater awareness with your children can enhance your own focus and presence in the moment and it can give your children valuable practice in doing the same. For children, practice in awareness can contribute to their focused attention on any task including school work and allow them the chance to exercise self-control.
Last week, I had the chance to meet Congressman Tim Ryan from Youngstown, Ohio. He has adopted mindfulness as his central message and vehicle for social change across sectors – politics, business, education and health. His book, A Mindful Nation,1 defines mindfulness as simply “finding ways to slow down and pay attention to the present moment.” Not only does a focus on the present moment reduce stress but it also makes us more sensitive to ourselves and those around us so that it can assist in our ability to resist impulses, listen with empathy and make better decisions. It can contribute to better health and deepen our ability to learn. Congressman Ryan claims “Happiness is found by deeply experiencing the exact moment we are in.”
Also some schools have recognized the value of teaching children about how their brains work and how they can become more aware of themselves in each moment so that they are able to focus on learning. The Mind Up Curriculum through the Goldie Hawn Foundation is a series of lessons and activities that promote greater awareness. These programs incorporate “Brain Breaks” throughout the day in which children simply learn to close their eyes and notice their breathing for a few minutes. That simple practice can help calm anxieties and engage them fully in the next activity.
There are many ways you might practice mindful awareness at home with your children. Practicing together can help you connect with your family and assist in managing stress around your household. Try one or more of the following this spring and see if it makes a difference for you.
Modeling presence with your child can be rewarding for both of you. After school is an ideal time since most children need a snack and a break from the rigorous schedule and demands of school. But pick the best time of day for you and just focus on your child and whatever they want to tell you. Notice what thoughts come into your head as you listen. Often we get distracted by thoughts of our own day. If you notice this is happening, gently return yourself to the moment with your child and engage in listening to what they are saying. Ask related questions or make comments that deepen the conversation and continue to focus on your child.
Tell your child that you have an organ in your body – the lungs – that acts like two connected balloons. Picture what the balloons look like together. Visualize them in your child’s favorite color. Close your eyes and envision with your child the air moving from the outside into your balloons expanding them a little. And then exhale as you visualize your balloons shrinking a bit. Try to do this for at least three breathes and see if your child enjoys balloon breathing.
Tennis Ball Tighten and Release
When my son has a strong case of the wiggles before bedtime, I have used this exercise to help calm him down. Lie down side by side on the floor or on the child’s bed, backs to the floor. Close your eyes and ask your child to close his as well. Using a gentle voice, ask your child to pretend there is a tennis ball at the base of his feet. Ask him to try and grab the ball with his whole foot including his toes with all his might. Ask him to hold it for a few seconds. Then, let the ball go. Now ask him to pretend the ball is between his ankles. Squeeze the imaginary ball as hard as possible for a few seconds and then let it go. Try this at his knees, on his tummy, between his arms and his side, in his hands, at his neck and at the back of his head where it touches the floor. Each time tighten those muscles for a few seconds and then fully release. This will guide a child to notice each part of his body, focus on that part and send relaxation to that part of the body letting the tension go.
Eating a Raisin
In the Mind Up Curriculum, students fully experience eating a raising by paying attention to each aspect of the eating process. This is so simple to try at home. Take one raisin per person participating. Examine how the raisin looks on the table. Ask your child to describe it. Then, pick it up and feel it. How does it feel? Now smell it. Describe how it smells. Lastly, taste it slowly so that you savor each bite. See how many words you and your child can come up with to describe the taste of the raisin.
A Bug or Bud Walk
“We’re going on a bug walk, a bug walk, a bug walk. We’re going on a bug walk to see what we can see,” we chant as we stalk the ground for insects. This is a game that is enjoyable no matter the age of the child and can be incorporated into any basic walk around the block. Also spring in particular is a great time to go on a “bud” walk and see if you can find budding leaves or plants on trees, bushes and coming up from the ground. This noticing creates a greater awareness of the environment in which you live.
Drawing or Painting a Still Life
I know I am at my most sensitive to the details of objects around me when I am drawing or painting them. To give your children a chance to look more closely, set up a still life that they might enjoy or that might engage them. A bowl of fruit might inspire you but your child could be excited by a pile of his favorite stuffed animals. Create a scene of many and varied small toys and ask your child to pick out the part that he is most interested in to draw in detail. Notice the detail together and talk about and point out the detail of the subjects of your artwork.
Check out the following resources for more on mindfulness below. Give yourself and your family the gift of presence this spring. It will require your own awareness and some discipline to focus on your family in the moment. But the reward will be great. Great Springtime Children’s Books about Awareness:
This week, I am launching a parent coaching service intended for busy, caring parents who know they could be more effective with their children with a little support. With some goal setting, guidance and simple strategies, parents can more easily teach skills in self-awareness, self-control, empathy, communication and responsible decision making. You can learn to respond to discipline challenges in ways that promote self-discipline. And you can do it in ways that make the most sense for your families. A Mom who went through a coaching process with me reported feeling significantly more confident in parenting from 65% of the time when she began to 85% at the end of our work together.
Your parenting might also benefit from this type of coaching. Find out more about this opportunity to deepen your family relationships and promote your child’s success. Please share with others if you think they may have an interest. One-on-one coaching can be provided in person or via phone or Skype. If you are interested, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And check out the pre-recorded webinar on “Social and Emotional Skills in Busy, Family Life” available for the next month (March-April, 2014) online. A small membership fee to Six Seconds, a global organization committed to Emotional Intelligence, is required to log in and access the webinar but it will also allow you the benefits of multiple resources including webinars given by the biggest influencers in the field of Emotional Intelligence. You can use this link to register. It will also gain you access to many more webinars including those by Dr. Daniel Siegel about the teenage brain, Daniel Goleman on Focus, Trip Hawkins on the new adventure video game “If,” and Vicki Zakrzewski on teaching students positivity. Once you’ve registered & logged in, use the following link to go to the recordings page: http://eq.org/eq-week-2014-recordings/.
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.
– Mahatma Gandhi
“Sammy took my Star Wars Lego out of my hand today at indoor recess. But I forgave him. He loves them too.” relayed my six year old son last week. “How do you know about forgiveness?” I asked surprised. “Because you talked about it,” he said with an implied “of course, you know” tone. I marvel at what sticks sometimes and what does not. I was fortunate that the word and the meaning behind it “stuck” this time. It was a reminder to me to continue to use the language of forgiveness because as he grows older the issues will only grow more complex and the need for forgiveness will only increase.
Forgiveness is defined as a voluntary process that involves an individual’s change in emotion or attitude regarding someone who has offended them.1 The person who has been offended has to make a decision to hold the person harmless and not desire retaliation of any kind. Though often addressed in religious circles, there seems less discussion about forgiveness as a social construct. Yet as children grow and develop, conflict will be a regular part of their relationships. Being able to forgive and move on is a critical skill to practice in friendships and in family life. If all is forgiven, then past hurts or poor behavioral choices are not brought up in the heat of an argument. If the past is forgiven, children and parents always start anew and have the chance to make the best choices for all involved.
One of the finest examples of forgiveness in my opinion is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. An entire nation decided that forgiveness was the central vehicle for dealing with the aftermath of apartheid in order to repair the significant damage done. The Commission states “The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides. No section of society escaped these abuses.”2 People who committed the abuses had to openly discuss their acts of violence and seek forgiveness from those whom they offended. And in the face of their abusers, many were able to forgive. The strength and courage of those people is immeasurable.
Raising confident, socially aware and competent children means that we give them the tools to make responsible decisions considering the consequences to themselves and others. But when they make mistakes or others make mistakes that hurt them, they also have the support, practice and strength to forgive and move on. Here are some simple ways to begin encouraging forgiveness in your family’s daily routine.
Incorporate the language of forgiveness. After a disagreement with your partner that your children have witnessed, let them know that you have forgiven one another and have moved on. This modeling will be one of the most powerful lessons you can provide for them. Also offer forgiveness to your child after they have caused harm. And most importantly, move on. The mistakes in the past stay in the past not to be brought up as an accusation at a later date. Children who feel they have a “record” of past wrongs can get into a negative choice cycle assuming that those poor decisions are a part of their identity. Parents who are able to move on offer children a clean slate and the opportunity to make the best choices moving forward.
Model empathy. As you discuss family member’s or friend’s problems, make sure you include empathetic comments. “It is so difficult on the family that Grandpa decided to stop communicating with your Uncle Fred. But we love Grandpa and we love Uncle Fred. We know they are going through a hard time right now. We will offer support to both of them.”
Facilitate dialogue on problem solving between siblings and with friends. If children are guided through a problem solving process – defining the problem, articulating their feelings, understanding the other person’s feelings, generating solutions and trying one out – they can more easily forgive and move on. For more on facilitating problem solving with children, check out the previous post “Working It Out.”
Give your children opportunities to repair harm done. Children may feel bad about themselves after they have made a poor choice and harmed another. Perhaps they struggled with controlling their impulses. Sometimes in that moment children can feel overwhelmed as if all of the important people in their lives are mad at them and like nothing they can do or say can make things better. Help them practice making good choices after they have caused harm. You might say, “Let’s think of ways we can make this better.” Then offer support as they fix a broken toy, repair a ripped book or offer a popsicle to a child they knocked down. I often find myself saying to E when a friend gets hurt, “Go check on him. Ask if he’s okay or if he needs a bandaid.” The more practice children get thinking about and putting caring energy into repairing damage, the better equipped they will be for situations in which serious damage has occurred and they need to be strong and make better choices. And in turn, when they have been hurt, they will be more ready to give a second chance to their offender. In addition, discuss the consequences of not forgiving. “If you do not forgive Sammy for taking your Lego piece, what will happen to your friendship?”
There will be plenty of opportunities for forgiveness if children receive guidance from an adult. Those experiences will assist them in becoming more empathetic people and perhaps, stronger and gentler with themselves and others.
As I looked back at early March of 2013, I was thinking about E’s transition from preschool into kindergarten. What a major transition that was for him and for our entire family. I spent a considerable amount of time researching and finding ways to ease that significant change. He moved into a unfamiliar building with new children, in his case, ages 6-13. And we all had to learn about and develop relationships with a new set of teachers and staff with a full day schedule and a rigorous curriculum versus the half-day, play-based activities of preschool to which we had grown so accustomed.
Last year, while the transition was on my mind, I wrote the article “In Between Here and There” which I am sharing below again for all of those families who are in the midst of that upcoming transition this year. Among many other supports that eased our transition, there was a mentor Mom, a veteran at the new school, who helped us significantly by answering our questions. Many seemed small but nonetheless added up to worry and a fear of the unknown. At E’s new school, they assigned a mentor family to every incoming kindergarten family which is ideal. However if your new school does not provide that kind of support, ask for it. Ask to get in touch with a first or second grader’s family who knows the culture, routines and expectations. Then all of your questions can be answered no matter how insignificant they might feel. Answering those questions for you, your family and your child will pave the way for a smooth transition.
These words were sung in my house yesterday by my soulful five year old, with a passion that might come from the life experience of a forty year old who has seen hard times. I thought how strange it was that he would pick the somewhat sad and reflective song from his beloved movie, Cars[ii], versus some of the more popular, upbeat songs. My husband reminded me, “This is how he’s feeling these days.” Moving from his current preschool to Kindergarten is his impending world change. Sometimes it feels as if life is one big transition. You are starting a new job or business venture. Your spouse is working on a degree. Your son is taking up the trumpet or beginning a baseball league. Your daughter is entering puberty. Transitions abound. And though sometimes the new seems exciting, the changes can also be scary, frustrating and stressful.
There is an entire line of inquiry devoted to the topic of transitions in the early childhood years for the very reason that there are so many that occur in a young child’s life. They experience both vertical transitions, like graduating from preschool and moving on to kindergarten as my son is about to do and horizontal transitions, like moving from different settings each day from home, to preschool, to the sitters, to gymnastics and back home. And so throughout childhood and adolescence, physical, psychological and environmental changes are nearly constant.
Listening seems to be one key to understanding the kind of support people need in going through a transition. Studies have found that children’s perceptions of what kind of support they need to make major or minor transitions differ significantly from adult’s perceptions.[iii] As is true with parenting in general, there is no one single best approach. However sociocultural research points to the importance of parents being involved nonetheless. I asked my own son the following and tried to listen carefully.
“How are you feeling about moving from your preschool to kindergarten in the fall?”
“I don’t want to go. I just want to stay at my school,” E responded.
And when I asked what we could do together to help make the move from one school to the next more fun and enjoyable, he said, “Nothing.” And so it’s not a simple process to ask questions and listen to the response and then do what your child suggests they need. But when facing a major transition, there are a few ways that you can offer support to those in the transition. Though the ideas for the most part are geared for children, these suggestions could apply to any age.
Raise your awareness.
First, just having a greater awareness of the fact that a transition is taking place and that it’s likely stressful on the participant will give you greater empathy for them. After five years of a whole school change initiative I was facilitating in which an elementary school moved from failing to achieving through much dedication, collaboration and hard work, the district decided to close down the school because it was an old facility. Teachers were let go and had to apply to new positions in other schools. We gave each teacher the gift of the book, Transitions; Making Sense of Life’s Changes.[iv] It is an exceptional resource for any person struggling with a transition. In it William Bridges, the author, explains that in every transition there is a death first – a letting go of the old way of thinking, being or doing. The one in the midst of change must let go of the old in order to embrace the new. Sometimes there are no physical manifestations of the change but only internal differences as in a new understanding. In situations that are supposed to be joyful like having a baby, it’s not socially acceptable to mourn the loss of time with your partner or life before baby but nonetheless it’s a part of the transition. Being aware that there’s a mourning process taking place with your child – moving from one school to another or even leaving a beloved teacher – will give you greater empathy for what you child is experiencing.
Create a ritual or rite of passage.
Somewhere in our backyard is a pacifier lovingly placed in a box and buried in the dirt. E and I had a ceremony to say goodbye to the pacifier when it was time to move on. That experience helped E break the pacifier habit for good and in a way that emotionally supported his transition. When I quit a job that left me feeling disenchanted and depleted, I wrote down all of my frustrations and burned them up in the fireplace. Creating an event to recognize or symbolize the passing away of the old and the passageway to the new can help a person commit to a new path and let go of the old.
If your children are school age, they may be coming to the end of their school year. Why not offer some opportunity for reflection on their year? Some teachers go over the assignments and work produced throughout the year with students to see progress made but this does not happen enough in my estimation. Why not do that at home? Get out the artwork produced, homework completed and papers returned and take a look at all the learning that has taken place throughout the year. Celebrate in some small way with your family (a picnic, special dessert, trip to a favorite park?).
Embrace the in-between.
That place in-between when you’ve let go of the old but have not yet begun the new can be incredibly uncomfortable. We are anxious for the new to begin. After all, we’ve committed to letting go of the past. Sometimes we will even make choices that will escalate the change so that the uncomfortable nothingness of the in-between passes quickly. In the neutral zone, as Bridges calls it, is the optimal time for quiet reflection on what has passed and also on hopes and dreams for the future. Who do you want to become? Children could take advantage of this opportunity with a little guidance each summer since every new school year is an opportunity, a new chance. Provide opportunities for reflection by modeling your own reflection – talking aloud or to your family about your thoughts. Allow children to be reflective by asking questions that do not require answers but only their private thoughts. Allow the questions to hang in the air without expecting a response. You may be surprised as a day or week goes by and a response comes back to you when they have had the chance to really think about their desires for their next step.
Pave the way for the new.
When developmental changes occur, people do not leave the old behind or throw it away. The past stages are built upon and cumulative so that the ways of the infant, toddler, preschooler and beyond are always a part of who they are. If I get frustrated with my son when he has a moment of acting like he might have when he was a toddler, I have to remind myself that the toddler is still in there and a part of him. Sometimes children need reminding that what they are leaving behind is not gone forever. We can go visit a favorite teacher next year and see how she is doing. We can play that old cd from music class and relive the memories. Paving the way for the new means offering ways to stay connected to the old and then focusing on new opportunities. Unknown friends and teachers might seem scary. But going into that new environment before it’s time for school to begin can ease the transition. If it’s in your control, think about ways you can gently introduce the new. Is there a children’s book on the topic you could read and talk about together? Are there other kids you could hang out with who have experienced the new situation and could share their impressions? Any safe, “toe in the water” experiences with the new can help your child feel more comfortable.
Returning from the in-between or reflection stage of a transition ultimately “… brings us back to ourselves and involves a reintegration of our new identity with elements of our old one.… Inwardly and outwardly, one comes home,” writes Bridges. Helping children through the uncertainty and fear of the new and unknown can allow them to explore their new direction with excitement, wonder and hope.
[i] Taylor, J. (2006). Our town. On Cars Soundtrack. Los Angeles,CA: Walt Disney Records, Pixar.
[ii] Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar (Producer), & Lasseter, J., & Ranft, J. et al. (Writer, Director). (2006). Cars (Motion Picture). United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
When national or local news reports a situation in which a person has made a harmful choice effecting children’s lives, I begin to go down the black hole of worry. The dangers that my son faces as he goes about his daily life can seem frightening and at times overwhelming. Also each day our children travel through a digital global environment that is an unpredictable territory promoting impulsive responses with the click of a mouse. Because there is so much that remains out of my control, I choose to refocus my energies on how I can prepare my child to respond in any situation in a way that demonstrates care and concern for himself and others and does no harm. I want him to be prepared with the decision making skills to think through his actions in advance and how they might effect others and the environment around him when I am not there to guide him.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning defines responsible decision making as “the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on considerations of ethical standards, safety concerns, the realistic evaluation of the consequences that stem from actions and the well-being of self and others.”1 And what makes a decision responsible? There are many complex theories on how we develop our sense of ethics. One such theory by respected educational philosopher, Nel Noddings, explains that caring is not an outcome of responsible decision making, but begins in utero as the foundational seed, a precondition.2 Each time a child is shown care, they are forming their sense of worthiness. “Another person is focused on my needs and desires and I am worthy of that attention,” is the underlying message sent each time a parent shows care.
Incidents of great harm are not typically caused by an individual waking up one day angry at the world. We know they are a result of numerous small moments in life that add up to a person’s sense of identity and worth or lack of it. The child who acts as a bully on the playground is expressing hurts he or she struggles to contain. And in turn, often the bullied child becomes the bully as he act out in self-protection. Complicated issues evolve over the course of a child’s growth and development in which they will need to make their own choices. Do I trust this adult? Do I go along with my friends? What should I do if I witness harm but am not yet involved myself?
There are simple ways that we can work on responsible decision making with our children. Small, consistent moments of practice and reflection over time will help fine-tune a child’s ability to think through consequences and the effects of various choices and actions. A child doesn’t “Just say no to drugs,” without a great many small experiences of saying no to minor issues of concern. Typically children do not act as “upstanders,” sticking up for their friends who are being bullied, unless they have received coaching, practice and support for doing so. Here are some ways you can reflect on your relationship with your children and how you might incorporate practice, reflection and coaching on responsible decision making.
Articulate your love and acceptance for the child in the midst of poor choices. When children have made a mistake or a choice that caused harm and are being reprimanded, they are unable to distinguish between the action and their own worthiness as a person. It is an important teaching opportunity – birth through young adulthood – to assure them of your unconditional love no matter what choices they make. Children who do not have a sense of love and belonging and consistently feel bad about who they are tend to also consistently make poor choices to reinforce that notion. If you see a pattern with your child in which they are making poor choices over and over again and not correcting them, consider whether they have heard the message enough and believe that they are worthy and loved. Of course, the action is not acceptable and we are quick to point that out. But next time your child makes a mistake, also take it as an opportunity to reinforce their worthiness. Though challenging particularly when your child has done something that you feel is disappointing or even shameful, this one step will go farther toward helping your child make positive choices than any other.
Reflect on your language. Often negative language patterns will creep into our conversations with our children and catch us unaware. Recall that the language you use helps shape a child’s sense of identity. They understand themselves through your reflections. “Are you being lazy again?” might seem like an inane, harmless comment late on a Saturday morning but becomes a self defining word in a child’s head. So too, sarcasm is misunderstood by children since the meaning and the words are in opposition. Children realize the words are not authentic but hide a meaning that can be hurtful. Take a few days or even a week to heighten your awareness of your language with your children. Jot down on a note pad what judgement words are part of your lexicon. Realize that they are also becoming a part of your child’s vocabulary of “what I know about myself.” What judgment words do you use? How can you catch yourself? What do you really want to say to your child about who they are? Jot those down and enter those words into conversation. “I notice you have quite an imagination when you sit down with a blank sheet of paper.” And how can you reframe those judgment phrases? Instead of labeling the child “lazy,” you might say, “It’s late morning. I missed seeing you earlier.” Brene Brown in her book, Daring Greatly3invokes a conversation from the Harry Potter books that applies here so well. Sirius, Harry’s adult mentor and friend tells him,
You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are. 4
Ask good questions. “Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve,” wrote Roger Lewin. As you observe situations, relay family stories or talk about your day, focus on open-ended questions that help your child reflect on decisions made. “Ginny received a demerit today at recess. What choices did she make? What was Ginny thinking when she made that choice? What did she want? Did she get it? How did her choice effect other children around her? How did it effect the teachers? Will there be any lasting effects you could notice tomorrow when you return to school? What other choices could she have made?” After the emotions have calmed, misbehaviors that you and your child witness or ones that your child commits can be a good chance for reflection. But also it helps to question daily situations that might be taken for granted to expand your child’s thinking. Instead of “What do you want to play next?” you might say, “How many different activities can we think of to play?”
Talk about your own thought process. Are you debating over something? Share some of your thinking with your child. “I’m not sure I want to go into business with a friend. I’m worried it will hurt our friendship. But on the positive side, I do think we balance each others’ skills.” Hearing your own thought process will provide a model for weighing pros and cons and thinking through situations before acting.
Initiate family problem solving. If there is an issue that affects the whole family, use it as a chance to practice problem solving together. An enjoyable topic such as “Where should we go for our family vacation this summer?” could be the perfect chance to brainstorm numerous ideas and consider the pros and cons of each one. There are many structures and strategies for problem solving but they all boil down to the same steps. Define the problem. Articulate the feelings involved. Brainstorm solutions. Evaluate the pros and cons. Pick one all can agree upon. Try it. Evaluate whether or not it worked. If it didn’t, go back to your solution ideas and pick a different one to try.
Look for ways to show care. Find small and regular ways to show care at home, at school and in your neighborhood. Your children’s involvement in house cleaning, chores or recycling all show care of your household. Picking up trash on your walk to school or in the local park shows care of and responsibility for your environment. When planning school parties or events, think about how you can show care at your school. Thank the school secretaries for their hard work with a card or a treat. Work together on planting flowers to beautify the grounds.
Use and discuss consequences. There are many opportunities throughout the course of the week to discuss consequences if you look for them. “What do you think will happen if you do not complete your homework?” Raising questions about predicting outcomes can initiate thinking in a young person about causes and effects. Also in your discipline toolbox, using logical consequences for misbehaviors is another way to generate that thinking. “You threw your toy across the room and it broke. We will try to fix it but it could be that the toy is not usable anymore. What could help you next time you feel like throwing a toy?”
Discuss children’s and young adult literature. “Responsible or irresponsible decision making are a central themes of most great literature,” says forty-year veteran high school teacher, Linda Smith. In any given story, discuss the following questions and allow your child to think about her responses.
What was the character thinking before the action?
What was the character feeling?
What did the character want to have happen? What was the motivation?
How did she consider the effect on others or on the environment?
Why did she make the decision to act the way she did?
Was the outcome what she had hoped?
What other decisions could she have made? What effects would another decision have on others?
The following are a few recommendations of children’s books that are particularly suited to discussing responsible decision making.
Picture Book Recommendations
Curious George books by H.A. Rey – The plot with all of these books involves the monkey George being curious and making a sometimes impulsive choice with disastrous consequences. However, George always finds a way to repair the damage, make things right again and, sometimes, comes out looking like a hero.
The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler – The rhythm of the language alone is captivating. The story is about an unlikely friendship between a snail and whale and their interdependence. Ultimately, the tiny snail is able to save the giant whale through his creativity and caring.
Young Adult Literature Recommendations
Choose Your Own Adventure – There are numerous adventure books that allow the reader to offer choices throughout the book. “If the character enters the cave, go to page 37. If the character runs around the outside of the cave, go to page 45.” These are fun and exciting ways for your tween-age child to explore choices and outcomes.
To Kill a Mockingbirdby Harper Lee – “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This classic Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a coming of age story in which Scout Finch watches her father, Atticus make courageous choices that ripple throughout the community combating racism and injustice.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding – This is another classic novel that explores the issues of responsible decision making. Ordinary small boys are stranded on an island and the basic worries of their previous home life, like homework, become inconsequential. They deal with basic survival issues and power struggles and each make choices that will determine whether they live or die.
When you begin to worry about the dangers in your child’s world, refocus that energy into action. Do something about it by preparing your children. You can give them valuable practice in making decisions that will strengthen relationships and contribute to community life. And we will all benefit.
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