A Story of Thanksgiving

JSM singing with students 001

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

Jeanne Illustration 001

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

Raking leaves 001

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

Vetruvian girl illus 001

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

perspective taking Halloween illus 2 001


“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 http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/240370 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 www.developingchild.harvard.edu

[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

darth and leia illust 001

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.

Thank you, CASEL!


Thank you, CASEL for recognizing Confident Parents, Confident Kids blog-iversary in your national e-newsletter. We appreciate your support! For the latest information on what’s happening nationally and internationally with social and emotional learning in schools in research, policy and practice, learn more on the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning website.

Happy One Year Blog-iversary

One year anniversary illust 001

In recognizing this milestone of one year of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, I want to thank all of those who have contributed to making this blog a success! Thank you most especially to my editor extraordinaire, Linda Smith (known to me as Mom and an incredibly skilled and diplomatic editor) for her weekly partnership. Thank you to my husband and son for being a supportive learning laboratory. A big thank you to the individuals illustrated above who have read regularly, provided feedback and promoted the site. And thank you, reader for visiting! Here are the stats:

56 Posts

106 Countries – people from 106 countries around the world have visited the blog

112 Weekly subscribers, with some also on the Facebook fan page, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn



Here is a review of the articles and topics covered over the past year. Check out the ones you may have missed.

Building a Positive Family Environment

Practicing Social and Emotional Skills


Modeling Social and Emotional Skills

Tone Tuning (Tone of voice)

Helping Children Understand Death

The Fear of Failure

Summer Reading

The Perfection of Being Imperfect

In Appreciation of Teachers

In-between Here and There   (Transitions, Change)

In Praise of Specificity (Reinforcing   language)

In Times of Disaster…Look for the Caring People

Television; Navigating our Global   Neighborhood

Television; Navigating the Content of   our Global Neighborhood

A Truly Good Morning

Wisdom from Mister Rogers – “Look for   the helpers” (in crisis)

On Edutopia (www.edutopia.org – The George Lucas Foundation)

On “What’s Hot?” Radio Show (Podcast   interview)

Boo! Common Fears and How to Help   Children Deal with Them

Catching Emotions


Mine, Your and Ours (Turn taking)

Back to School Butterflies (Anxiety)

Let the Games Begin (Cooperation, Communication)

Working it Out (problem solving)

Cultivating a Sense of Competence

A Fork in the Road (Choices,   Decision-making)

The Comeback Kid (I Statements)

Unconditional Love; The Prequel   (Self-compassion)

Unconditional Love and Attention

Are Questions the Answer? (Open-ended   questions)

Strategies for Teaching Self-Control

Play and a Happy Holiday to You

The Joy of Giving

Holiday Marathon (stress management)

Waiting Games (Social awareness)

Is this School about Heart and Head?

Top Ten Reasons for Parents to   Proactively Teach Social and Emotional Skills

How do you Teach Kids Social and   Emotional Skills?

Cooling the Fire (self-management)

The Story of Self (self-awareness)


Junior Teacher (Interactive modeling)

Making New Friends

Expanding the Circle: Teaching   Children Inclusion

Take the One Thing for Spring Challenge (Parent Goal Setting)

Parent Teacher Conversations

The Power of Self-control

Dinner: Delight or Disaster?

What Can I Do about Sandy Hook   Elementary ? (parents’ role in preventing school violence)

Gifts from the Heart

A Grateful State of Mind

The Heart of Family (relationship   skills)

Parent Private Investigator   (children’s emotions)


Please help celebrate by providing your feedback. What has helped you? What topics are you most interested in? What would you like to see on this site in the coming year? What are your greatest parenting challenges? How can Confident Parents, Confident Kids help you in meeting your own parenting goals? Place a comment on this article with your feedback or email me at confidentparentsconfidentkids@gmail.com. Here’s to another year of dialogue and support for one of the most important jobs – parenting. Thanks again for joining me on this journey!

Tone Tuning

Tone tuning illust

Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little

Cheep, cheep, cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more.

–          From the musical, Music Man (1957)

It is easy to forget that the music of our speech, our tone of voice, communicates just as much as the actual content of what is said. In fact, we may often feel that what we said has not been heard but notice that the emotion behind it causes family members to react. A gentle, monotone, “The dishwasher is broken.” is very different than a stressed, high-pitched, “The dishwasher is broken!” We offer instructions, directives and corrections to our children all day. We require their compliance to get through our routines. So how does our tone of voice affect what our children hear and how they respond? And could our awareness of our tone of voice make a difference in everyday life?

Because children are learning and developing, because they may be clumsy or make poor choices, parents may correct their children many times throughout the day. School age children are being corrected and then come home to more. That feedback and particularly how it’s delivered can build over the course of day and lead to upset, non-compliance and a child who feels like he is not valued or that something is wrong with him. It may become an unintended cycle fed by children feeling negatively about themselves, misbehaving to gain your attention or to push you to negate their bad feelings about themselves and your frustrated reaction. tone tuning misbehavior cycle 001

Children and adults sometimes don’t distinguish between critical feedback and how a person feels about them in general. Interestingly, a respected researcher on marriages, John Gottman,[i] found that the commonality in successful marriages was not how partners fought or did not fight. The key was a five to one ratio of positive interactions to negative ones. That might be a helpful lesson in talking with our children as well.

Take the Tone Test. Mark your calendar for three days that are fairly typical days in cropped sticky notesyour family’s life. Place three sticky notes on the refrigerator with the headers “calm, non-emotional,” “negative,” and “positive.” Place a check mark on one of the notes each time you have a conversation with your child in which you are asking them to do something. You may not be able to capture every time but set a goal for capturing five interactions each of the three days. If you are gaining their compliance and not seeing upsets this exercise may not be needed. But if not, then how many of your interactions when you are correcting your children are negative? Are you balancing that out with five times as many positive interactions? How can you think about those moments to try to tune your tone a bit to gain their trust and compliance?

Use gentle reminders. Instead of waiting until the inevitable disaster you can see shaping up in the living room, give a reminder while the issue is still small. You are likely not terribly upset or angry yourself (yet!). Use a calm, non-emotional voice. Walk closer so that you don’t need to raise your volume. Put your hand on your child’s shoulder gently to engage her attention. Use as few words as you can and be direct. “Jenna, go move those toys so your brother doesn’t fall.”

Listen and paraphrase. As you hear a scream in the other room, you walk in to see your two children on the floor struggling with some toys. They may both run to you with great passion and tell you how the other behaved terribly toward them. Get down on their level. This is true for any size child or teenager. If they are sitting, sit at their level. Say, “I want to really hear you both so we are going to take turns. Jake, you go first and then, I will listen to Lydia.” Listen carefully and paraphrase their feelings and their perspectives.

“What are you feeling, Jake?”



“Because Lydia ripped my airplane out of my hands and when she did it, the blaster came off. Now it’s broken.”

“Okay. You are mad because Lydia took your airplane and the blaster broke.”


“Jake, now we need to let Lydia have a turn and listen to her. Lydia, what are you feeling?”

“So mad.”


“Because I was playing with the airplane first and I set it down but I wasn’t done with it. He took it and wouldn’t give it back. It’s not fair.”

“Lydia, you are so mad because you were playing with the airplane first and you weren’t done with it.”

“Lydia, what can you do to make things better?”

“He needs to give me back my airplane!”

“This is not about what Jake can do. Lydia, what can YOU do?

“I can take a turn with the airplane and then he could take a turn.”

“Jake, what could you do?

Use an approachable tone. If your child is beginning to get frustrated, calmly invite his communication. Let him see it’s safe to share with you what he is thinking and feeling. “I see you’re getting frustrated. What are you working on? How can I help? What do you think might happen if you move the puzzle piece over there?” It helps to get down to their eye contact level to make them feel more understood and in control.

Keep responses to misbehaviors brief. Your child may be baiting you for your attention and negative attention will be the payoff. If a child deliberately does something you know she is aware goes against the rules of the house, be brief in your response. Show confidence in your child’s knowledge of the right thing to do. Allow her to show you the right way. Get closer so that you do not have to raise your voice. In a calm, even tone, say, “Show me how we put away toys in this house.” Or “Show me how you should handle the dog.” Oftentimes, if we make a big deal out of a misbehavior with upset and a time out, it will feed the negative cycle of misbehavior.

Reinforce positive behaviors but do not shower praise. It is important to articulate when you have noticed a specific choice or set of behaviors that you want to encourage. Maybe you have been working with your child on taking responsibility for taking his plate into the kitchen at the end of a meal. When he remembers to do it, say, “I notice you remembered to take your plate in to the kitchen tonight. Glad to see it.” For more on ways to be specific versus the typical “Good job” that we so often hear, check out “In Praise of Specificity.”

And what if you have lost it? What if you are angry and can’t maintain a calm tone of voice? Model calming down strategies by using them yourself. It is the most powerful teaching tool for your children to watch you do what you need to do to calm yourself before interacting with them. Say, “Mommy is mad. I need a minute.” Walk away. Have a place in the house that you can sit alone to breathe for a moment. It may need to be close by if you have very young children that you can’t leave unsupervised. Have a strategy in mind ahead of time since you know, sooner or later, it will happen. Place your baby in the “Pack N’Play” where he’ll be safe for a few minutes and go sit in your bedroom. Breathe, calm down and formulate a plan before you return. Even a few minutes can restore blood flow to your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that helps you think rationally in those situations. You will be able to return and act as the better version of yourself.

Avoid sarcasm when you can. The expert educators at Responsive Classroom argue that sarcasm has no place in the classroom. I would say it has no role in speaking with children of any age in general. Even teenagers, though they may use it, have a difficult time understanding it. The reason it has no place is because the song of sarcasm, the tone that is communicated, is light and funny in direct conflict with the weighty message which is typically denegrating, shaming and the opposite of the intended meaning. Though we slip into it easily and it is a part of our cultural language, sarcasm is dishonest and does not model or teach children language that we want them to use.

I notice that when I turn on classical or jazz music softly in the house, there is a different energy that permeates. My partner will comment on it as he notices the difference. Thinking of your voice as the soundtrack of your family life, what do you want to serve as the backdrop your daily routines? Becoming more aware of your tone can help you make small adjustments to add calm sounds to your communications. All members of the family can benefit from your efforts.

[i] Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1994). What makes marriage work? It’s how you resolve conflict that matters most. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 10/1/13. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200910/what-makes-marriage-work

Helping Children Understand Death

talking with children illus 001

Mostly it is loss which teaches us the worth of things.

–       Arthur Schopenhauer

Vrrrwow… the sound of a light saber comes close and pokes me in the back. I have been play-killed by my son, sometimes seen as Darth Vader, on a typical morning in our house. “You’re dead,” he says. Yet he expects me to get up and engage in another duel with him. I realize my five year old is attempting to understand death and conquer his anxiety through his pretend play. We have had three family members die within the past three years. All of them knew E and allowed for special times to play and connect with him at family gatherings. Though I suspect E would be wielding a weapon regardless of these experiences, I see him trying to understand but not yet grasping what it means when a person dies. In the midst of my own emotion dealing with the loss of someone I love, I notice it becomes challenging to remember that children are processing the experience of losing someone differently than I am and may need supports related to their level of awareness in order to cope with the loss.

Our local Mom’s club asked me some important and relevant questions related to children’s awareness of death and how a parent can best support a child. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on it for myself and research and share ideas. When a death occurs, there is typically a flurry of activities whether it’s preparing for the travel to a funeral, calling loved ones or making arrangements. In addition, you are experiencing your own complex of emotions. Often there is not the time or the ability to consider what children might be thinking and feeling in the situation and how they may need to be supported. Our instinct might be to protect them. Book a sitter and don’t take them to the funeral might be our quick reaction as we are taking care of details. So reading, reflecting and considering how we might support our children when we are not in the midst of a crisis can better help formulate a plan so that when we face those difficult situations, we have already thought through how we might handle it.

Children begin to gain an awareness of death between the ages of 3-5 depending upon their life events and exposure. Similar to any developmental milestone, awareness arises around the same age but differently for each child depending upon their maturation process. In the first stage of awareness, they do not have a sense of the permanence of death. They begin to understand that someone is gone and can also understand that the biological processes have stopped but there may be a sense that they will return eventually. Children have a natural interest and curiosity about death which is accompanied by anxiety, worry and confusion. Why? Part of being human is dealing with mortality and the fact that change is constant. Children begin working on that understanding very early in life. Children begin to grapple with separation when left with a babysitter or going to preschool but they also engage in games to assert their own control and work on understanding mortality. Parents automatically play peek a-boo with a baby convincing them that even though they disappear for a moment, they will return. Games like freeze tag and hide and seek allow children to “play dead” or practice separation in order to help deal with some of their confusion and worry in a fun way.[i]

The Children’s Grief Association provides a detailed, helpful guide to understanding death from a developmental perspective.[ii] The following are some of the developmental awareness milestones they note. A child of any age may show regressive behaviors when dealing with the death of a loved one. At birth to two years of age, they can feel the emotions of their caregiver and sense the absence of a person but cannot understand that the person will not be returning. Because of an infant’s mirror neurons (the way our emotions are hard-wired), the feelings of loss will be there because of their experience of the feelings of those around them. But infants will not understand why they are feeling the way they are feeling.

Between three and five years of age, children will begin to understand and be curious about death. They will still not understand the permanence of death and will expect that person to return. Because this is the magical thinking stage, children may imagine thoughts that are worse than the reality and fear that another will die. They may become interested in pretend play that involves killing or death.

At six to nine years of age, children generally understand that death is final and they will not see the person again. A child of this age may be interested in death caused by sickness or an accident. A child may think that death is punishment or that he is the cause of a person’s death in his life. The child may have anxiety about who will take care of him if the caretaker dies. Also, he will think of important milestones whether it’s holidays or a graduation without that person who has passed. Reactions could include acting as if the death did not happen, social withdrawal, concentration difficulties including declining grades, being overly protective of loved ones and/or acting out aggressively. Between the ages of nine and twelve, in addition to the reactions and understandings of a six to nine year old, children may have a heightened awareness of death and worry that others may die. Children at this age understand the finality and are forming their understanding of spiritual concepts. Children may worry that they were the cause of the death. They may be particularly curious and anxious about the physical aspects of an illness or death.

Tweens and teenagers understand that everyone dies at some point. They may feel that their death and the death of others is impending. They may worry about being seen as weak if they show their feelings. They may have a sense of conflict between wanting to become independent and their need for dependence upon adults in their life. They may engage in high risk or impulsive behavior. In addition to mood swings, they may change their peer group and not perform as well in school. They may be more aggressive and could change their eating patterns.

The following ideas are ways to help children deal with their loss and help them feel supported during the death of a loved one whether it is a parent, a grandparent or a pet.

Things You Might Say

  • Help them to know what you think and feel about the death. You may say, “We are sad that we are not going to see Grandpa Jim again. We loved him and we will really miss him.”
  • Teach empathy for others who are sad. “I see you are noticing that your older brother is sad. Why don’t you pat him and tell him you are sorry he is so unhappy.”
  • Listen and reflect back their feelings to them. “You sound sad about Uncle George. I understand. I feel that way too.”
  • Do share your beliefs if they are positive (and don’t share if they are not positive and will make the child worry). “I believe that Grandpa Jim is in heaven – a good place – and though we cannot see him, we can talk to him whenever we want to and tell him we love him. I think he is listening even though he will not be able to talk to us in return.”

Things You Might Do

  • Do maintain your usual routines as much as possible. Routines give children a sense of safety, comfort and stability.
  • Do include your child in the mourning process. They do not have to participate in every step with you. But allow them to participate in some of the process with you so that they have the advantage of the supports that a ceremony or ritual brings. For children six or older, ask how they might want to remember the person or express sorrow for their passing. Allow them some choices in how they mourn the loss.
  • Allow children to regress. If they are showing behaviors that you haven’t seen since toddler days, keep in mind that this is normal. Empathize and allow them comforts of their earlier developmental days – stuffed animals, blankets, toys.
  • Encourage children to play and have fun. If they choose to engage in play related to death, allow it such as a funeral for a doll. Pretend play can be a constructive way for a child to gain control over her anxiety.
  • Do make sure that the child has a photograph of the person or pet that is their own to keep. When they are sad and missing the person or pet, have them talk to the photograph.
  • Drawing, doing artwork and writing in a journal or diary can also be a good way to express feelings and deal with sadness and anxiety.

Particularly if the person who died was important in the life of your child, create a ritual that will help your child deal with the passing and help with saying goodbye. Maybe you could plant a tree in the backyard with his grandpa’s or pet’s name on a plaque or simple label beneath it. Maybe you place a valuable object of that person’s in a box and bury it in your backyard. Or give the child an object that was the person’s to hold onto in a special place to remember him. Also if your child is dealing with the death in self destructive or aggressive ways, you may want to seek the support of a family or child counselor to help your child deal with the many difficult emotions.

Most importantly, when your family is coping with the death of a loved one, realize that your children’s understanding and experience of it will be different from your own. Seek support so that while you are emotional, you are able to receive guidance on how to support your children in their grieving process.

For more helpful information, check out the Children’s Grief Education Association’s site, www.childgrief.org.

The following are some children’s books that can help guide a conversation.

Picture books:

Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Michaelene Mundy (Author) , R. W. Alley (Illustrator)

When Your Grandparent Dies: A Child’s Guide to Good Grief (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Victoria Ryan (Author) , R. W. Alley (Illustrator)

Grandpa Loved  by Josephine Nobisso (Author) , Maureen Hyde (Illustrator)

This is a recollection of the special times a young boy spent with his grandfather in the city, in the forest with the animals, at the beach, and with his family. Although the boy misses his beloved grandpa’s presence he feels assured that his passing has brought him to a better place and he knows that his grandpa’s love will always be with him.

I Miss You: A First Look at Death (First Look at Books) by Pat Thomas (Author) , Leslie Harker (Illustrator)

Mending Peter’s Heart by Maureen Wittbold (Author) , David Anderson (Author) , Larry Salk (Illustrator)

Mending Peter’s Heart is a book designed to help a child come to terms with the emotional issues raised by loss. In this case, it is through the loss of a beloved pet, Mishka, that Peter has to face the realities of death and dying. A sensitive neighbor comes to Peter’s aid and places the loss of Mishka into a larger understanding and compassionate framework.

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie with Robert Ingpen. 1983. Bantam.

Using examples of humans, trees, and sea creatures, this book explains that all living things have a lifetime with a beginning, an ending, and living in between. This simply-worded book is a good resource for explaining the life cycle to young children.

There is a video on YouTube for Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. It is read and illustrated and may be another helpful tool for using with children.

The Saddest Time, by Norma Simon. Illus. by Jacqueline Rogers. 1992. Albert Whitman and Company.

A child experiencing the loss of a loved one is the subject of these three gentle stories. While each presents a different scenario (death by illness, accident, or old age), all of the stories address children’s sad feelings and present different coping strategies.

Samantha Jane’s Missing Smile; A Story about Coping with the Loss of a Parent by Julie Kaplow and Donna Pincus

The PBS Kids site lists good chapter books for tweens and teens. Check it out.

Check out the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s recommendations on children’s books on death.

[i] Children’s and Adolescents’ Understanding of Death. From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. http://www.deathreference.com. Retrieved on 9-19-13.

[ii] Lyles, M. M. (2004). Navigating Children’s Grief: How to Help Following a Death. Children’s Grief Association.

%d bloggers like this: