Cultivating a Sense of Competence

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How can the sun always be on fire? Where does the fire come from?

asks E, my five year old son.

I don’t know, I say. Good question.

Papa Dave will know. He’s tall so he knows everything, asserts E.

–          Conversation at our house last week

At all ages and stages, kids admire and desire competence. Particularly as they enter the middle school years, 10-14, figuring out what they can do and what their interests are establishes the basis for their social and academic life. It can define a friend group and sometimes seals the perception of who a student is with his teachers. Is he a straight “A” student? Does she excel at electronics? Is he a skJason Band Pictureilled soccer player? My husband claims that competence in music in high school band was primarily responsible for pulling him out of the shyness of his middle school years.

One of the most incredible aspects of childhood is that a child can dream about becoming literally just about anything they want to be. Children spend much of their time listening to the adults and children around them reflect back to them who they are. This grows their self-awareness. “Look at you swim. Wow! You’re a fish!” These mirror reflections become what children begin to say about themselves. They are creating who they are. After autonomy and belonging (discussed in the last two articles), the third way people are intrinsically motivated is through a sense of competence.[i] This is not an objective fact, but more a subjective feeling that one is capable and perceived by others as capable.[ii] This motivation is a building block of development itself since children are naturally compelled to learn the ways of “being big” – tying shoes, zipping up a jacket, reciting the alphabet, adding numbers and establishing friendships.

Every kid needs to demonstrate competence. Competence means “adequacy or the possession of required skill, knowledge or qualification.”[iii] Competence is not excellence. In order to be considered competent, for example, a child does not need to be the state champion speller. They could just do well in spelling that week. Children are looking to you, as a parent or educator, to help them understand what they can feel competent in. Here are some thoughts on how you can encourage your child to feel a sense of competence.

Allow for trial and error. Encourage your child to take healthy risks and stand back as they try. If they fail, encourage them to keep practicing. Thomas Edison conducted 9,990 different experiments in order to invent the electric light. Professional baseball players at bat miss more times than they make hits. If a player is missing hits 70% of the time (making hits 30%), he’s considered a leader.

Articulate specific strengths using “I notice…” “I notice that you are carefully looking at that bowl of fruit and are able to draw what you see.” Generic statements won’t help and sometimes too much “good job”-ing can have an opposite effect. Using general praise can actually decrease a child’s intrinsic motivation and self-esteem.[iv]

Appreciate progress. Point out small steps along the way toward mastery. Don’t wait until they can write their entire name in a straight line perfectly or play a full concerto. If they have been working hard and have been able to play one line of music well, call out that first step as progress toward their goal. Not only will you be providing encouragement for them to dig into the work ahead, but also you will be teaching them about how to pursue a long range goal.

Be aware of the messages your actions send. If you step in and perfect something (a drawing, the organization of toys or the building of a block tower) that is your child’s creation, you can inadvertently send the message that what she did is not good enough. Be sure that creations of your children are solely their own creations, messy and imperfect as they may be.


What do you do if your child gets frustrated and upset when trying a new skill? Children can put tremendous pressure on themselves or feel outside pressure bearing down when they are trying to learn a new skill. That kind of pressure will work against their desire to keep trying as they feel a sense of urgency and frustration. Margaret Berry Wilson offers some helpful tips in the article “When children get rattled; How to respond effectively in the moment”[v] and I’ve added on to her suggestions:

  • Stay calm yourself or cool yourself down if you can feel your own temperature gauge rising.
  • Comfort a child who is deeply upset. There will be no moving forward with a child who is truly distressed. Work on calming down the child first. Don’t minimize or try to talk away the upset.
  • Take a break. Get a snack. Take a walk. Change the environment to help cool the frustration.
  • Remind and redirect in a calm voice. Remind your child that it takes time and practice to master a skill. If you can, try out together some other aspect of the skill mastery other than the exact task she was working on when she got frustrated. If she cannot write the letter “R,” practice other letters she can write for a while to regain her sense of accomplishment and ability.
  • Calmly guide your child toward a solution. Ask, “Are there other ways you might try to do this?” or “How many ideas can we come up with to make another attempt?”
  • Break down the task into smaller pieces. Sometimes children try to tackle a much bigger task than they could possibly master in a reasonable timeframe. See if you can’t break down the task into smaller pieces and recognize when those smaller pieces are mastered.
  • Point out what she can do and how she came to master that skill. Parents will sometimes hear an impassioned “I can’t do it. I can’t do it!” After calming down and changing the environment, when you are ready to return to the task, tell her a story about how she mastered a skill in the past that required some practice and patience.

Helping your children cultivate a sense of competence can provide the confidence they need to pursue new goals. It can provide a context for developing friendships. And it can serve as a springboard of resilience as challenges arise and your children have experienced the practice of meeting a challenge with hard work, persistence and the sense of accomplishment that comes with mastery.

For more, check out the classic story with beautiful, updated illustrations and reinforce the idea that with hard work and determination, you can gain a sense of competence.

Piper, Watty. & Long, Loren (Illus.) (2005). The little engine that could. New York: Philomel Books.

[i] Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.,+Deci+00.pdf

[ii] Wagner, F.R., & Morse, J.J. (1975). A measure of individual sense of competence. Psychological Reports, 36, 451-459.

[iii] Retrieved April 11, 2013.

[iv] Deci, E.L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.

[v] Wilson, M.B. (2013). When children get rattled; How to respond effectively in the moment. In Teasing, Tattling, Defiance and More…; Positive Approaches to 10 Common Classroom Behaviors. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

A Fork in the Road

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Your children are not your children

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

 –          Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923

Parenting in the year 2013 is a great balancing act. We know that the fear based, authoritarian, punishment oriented, “children should be seen and not heard” style of generations past does not promote a kid with confidence. We also have a sense that later generations with the lassez-faire, allowing and permissive, “be who you want to be without boundaries” is not ideal either. We have read about the helicopter parent, overly involved in the decision making and structuring of a child’s life and recognize that it too does not promote a confident child. The “gift of confidence” as Lev Vygotsky[i], developmental psychologist put it, requires adults to provide caring support for healthy risk taking and exploration. It is the responsive parent, the one who balances input with limits, respect with responsibility, independence with inter-dependence who will support the development of confident kids ready to contribute themselves to the world. So how does choice fit in? When should children have a choice or say-so and when should limits and boundaries be set and enforced by caring parents?

The Importance of Choice

Researchers Edward Ryan and Richard Deci who defined the term intrinsic motivation have found that every human being is internally motivated by three perceptions – autonomy, belonging and competence. Last week, we discussed belonging and the value of inclusion. The need for autonomy or self-determination is also critical to a child’s sense of well-being and engagement in learning. “When self-determined, people experience a sense of freedom to do what is interesting, personally important and vitalizing,” write Ryan and Deci.[ii] Alfie Kohn, author of Choices for Children ; Why and How to Let Students Decide,[iii] sites numerous research studies that show significant learning occurs when teachers involve students in decision making in the classroom and give them choices about the academic curriculum. In the schools with which I worked in Toledo, Ohio, teachers learned through the Responsive Classroom approach to give students a framework in which to make academic choices. [iv]Students were involved in planning, implementation and reflection on a unit of learning. With a responsive teacher facilitating, I witnessed a classroom of students who historically struggled and often failed in other, more traditional classrooms in academic tasks but when given choices were highly engaged, motivated and successful learners. Sue Rowe, a master at this method of teaching says,

Providing students with choices in how they demonstrate their competence in any academic pursuit just makes sense. If the student chooses the how or what, they are motivated to be successful. If they are motivated to be successful, learning takes place. If learning takes place, your teaching goals are achieved.

How Do Rules and Boundaries Fit with Choices?

In order to feel a sense of autonomy, people do not need to have control over everything. They only need to feel that their opinion is valued and taken into consideration. In order for children to learn to respect adults, they themselves need to experience respect. Offering children choices sends the message that a parent trusts their ability to make good decisions even if simple, like what to wear or eat. It offers daily practice in reflecting upon and making choices and participating in the consequences or outcomes of those decisions. Parents maintain the right and need to set limits around issues of safety and in respecting oneself, respecting others and respecting property and the surrounding environment. But parenting rules and boundaries can coexist with the opportunity for the child to make choices about his/her life.

How Do Children’s Choices Fit into Family Life?

A learning family values the development of each member of the family. In this context, each person needs to exercise decision making power about what goals to pursue and ultimately, who they want to be as a person. Responsible decision making and problem solving skills are developed with authentic practice over time. Opportunities like whether or not to include another child in a play group might seem small and insignificant, but lay the foundation for the bigger decisions of life that will arrive on a tween or teen’s doorstep whether the parent likes it or not. Should I do drugs? Should I drink? Have sex? Lie to my parents? Skip school? We are all too well aware of the list of risks. “The integration of these two values, community and choice, define democracy.” and also, help us understand the role for parents. If parents allow for choices, but also guide reflection about those choices – What other ideas can you come up with? What do you think will happen when you do that? Who will be impacted by your choice and how?   – then the child has the opportunity to practice making choices in a responsible manner that considers the impact to himself and others. You might ask: “Is it worth the time and thought required to incorporate opportunities for choice in our child’s life?” Consider that feelings of helplessness and a lack of control over one’s life can lead to depression. Consider that children typically do not have choices or feel much control over many aspects of their lives and are constantly looking for opportunities to exert control. Consider that there are many issues and tasks in life that require your child’s cooperation. Consider that there will be a time when you will not be there when those scarier life risks come knocking. Then, consider the following small and practical ways you can incorporate choice into your parenting routine.


Are there any routines in your day or week that just aren’t working or could be improved upon? Maybe there are regular arguments or frustrations expressed. Maybe you aren’t able to get to school or swimming lessons on time. Identify which routine or transition in the day could be better. Sit down with your family and talk about it when you are not rushed to be somewhere or do something else. How many ideas can you come up with to help make it a better transition? Allow for the children to brainstorm ideas without your judgment. Pick some of the best ideas and think together through how it might work practically so that you are talking through the potential outcomes or consequences.

Daily Tasks

We go about our days with a hum and a rhythm of the familiar so that our busy lives can have some semblance of organization. There are a million decisions you make for your child in a day that could easily be delegated if you give a little thought to it. Toast or cereal for breakfast? Blue or black pants to wear to school? Green or red jacket for going outdoors? And with decision making power comes the responsibility to contribute to the household and family life. How could you as a parent use help in contributing? Might your child participate in loading the dishwasher or folding clean towels? Children may not do household tasks perfectly or exactly in the way you like them done, but you are offering them the opportunity to contribute and training them for future days when they will be able to significantly contribute and feel capable, competent and trusted because you’ve allowed them a role.

Spaces and Places

Allow your child to feel ownership over their own space. Allow them to contribute to decorating their room or arranging it in a way that is appealing to them. Do you have a place where they can post their art or other school productions? Do they have a reading spot in the house that is theirs? They do not need to take over your household with their toys in every room but their own sacred spaces are important. In many families, homework can become a battle as kids would rather watch television, run around outside or play a video game – anything other than doing their homework. Talk about homework time with your child. How can you work together to make it better? How can you create an environment that helps her accomplish homework in a reasonable amount of time so that she can do other things she enjoys? Is there a space that is quiet and conducive to getting the work accomplished and that might be easily accessible to you so that you can help when needed? Are there special tools that could be allocated just for her homework space? Invite your child to help design a desirable space to work in. When you discuss times for homework, figure out together when homework fits into your schedule and how much time is really needed to accomplish all of it. What is slowing her down or does she need extra help? How can you get that help? The more you involve her in working through the problem in advance, the smoother the process will go each evening after school.

Discipline and Consequences

This idea may cause an uncontrollable whince as you think about choice, discipline and consequences. Often we think that the logical consequences of a situation in which a child has made a poor choice need to come from a parent and be well-thought through and “fit the crime.” We fear we will lose control of the situation and lose the obedience of our child if we allow for any discussion or choice when it comes to discipline. However, “Who is being responsible? Obviously it is the adult; so what happens when the adult is not around? Children do not learn to be responsible for their own behavior,” writes Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline.[v] When your child makes a poor choice, talk through ideas for consequences. Throughout childhood and teen years, children are still developing their logical thinking skills. Talk through what consequences they feel would be just and related to their poor choices. A sincere apology? Repairing a broken object? Giving of their time and energy to a project or place where they made the poor choice? Your child could surprise you with their sense of responsibility and follow through on their own ideas of making reparation for their actions.

When Choice is Not an Option

Finally, there are times when choice is just not an option. Julie has to take the medicine the doctor prescribed. Brendan must hold your hand in the parking lot. Marianne cannot run outside without a coat. There are safety or health issues involved or other people are affected adversely and no choice can be offered. These situations can require a lot of patience since often children do not understand the importance of circumstances. Realize that your own emotion in the situation can create and exacerbate a power struggle. The more upset you get trying to convince your child to do something, often times, the stronger their resistance. Try and put yourself in their shoes. Breathe and work on patience. Call upon your partner parent if they are able to remain calm and you are not. Your child is more likely to cooperate if you have patience with them and coach them through the process.

[i] Mahn, H., John-Steiner, V. (2002). The gift of confidence: A Vygotskian view of emotions. In Learning for Life in the Twenty-first Century: Sociocultural Perspectives on the Future of Education. Eds. Wells, G. & Claxton, G., Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

[ii] Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.

And Self Determination Theory site, home page, Retrieved 4/4/13.

[iii] Kohn, A. (1993). Choices for children; Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan, September.

[iv] Denton, P. (2005). Learning through academic choice. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

[v] Nelsen, J. (2006). Positive discipline. New York: Ballantine Books.

Expanding the Circle: Teaching Children Inclusion

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If it is his privilege to be independent, it is equally his duty to be inter-dependent.

Mahatma Gandhi

All children have to deal with and understand the paradox of separateness and connection, of individuality and belonging. In utero, babies have no sense of separation. They are physically connected to Mom through the very liquid they breathe and the cord through which they receive their food. For most children, the birth process will be the biggest stress of their young lives. They discover that they are separate beings but need their attachment to their parents in order to survive. Do you remember in the first few months of your child’s life when he was fascinated with his hands? He was grappling with his individuality and separation. Then, when children enter their first playgroups or preschool, we encourage them to share, to cooperate and to take turns with other children. They have spent most of their time as infants and toddlers figuring out their individuality only to find that they are supposed to connect to others and that there are rules (sometimes confusing since they change in various environments) that govern that involvement.

Earlier this week, I watched as my own preschooler whisked one friend off by the arm and turned to scowl at his other friends, a group he has developed friendships with throughout the school year. I pulled him aside and encouraged him to be kinder to his friends and he did so as I left the classroom. But by the end of the school day, two excluded boys were angry and hurt and the teachers had been informed. E, my son, felt bad too. And so the seeds of inclusion and exclusion are planted early. Our instincts as children may not guide us well. E, my son, was acting on the great excitement he felt from a playdate at his friend’s house playing with new toys and having new play experiences. This enchantment guided him to single out his friend neglecting the others who were regular playmates. So what’s a caring adult to do?

The book Habits of Goodness; Case Studies in the Social Curriculum[i] by Ruth Charney tells the story of a preschool teacher with a roomful of children who were also struggling with being kind to one another. She decided to reflect on what she does to encourage genuine respect while recognizing that everyone is not going to be liked equally by everyone else. She planned to model the desired behaviors and keep communication about this topic open through regular class meetings. She also decided to create the “You can’t say you can’t play.” rule to ensure that all students are welcome and included in all play. A rule like this might not work in fifth grade, for example, but in preschool, as children are learning about rules, it worked. This teacher decided that the needs of the classroom community were more powerful than the needs of the individual in this case. She set a core standard and value for her classroom that kindness is a requirement.

One essential question in these examples that is raised is how do we help our children internalize the values that underlie decisions about their actions? It was easy for me to say “Be kind to your friends.” but if my child continues to exclude others when I leave the room, then he has clearly not internalized the value of kindness and inclusion. The stakes only become higher as children grow older. Studies have consistently found that a student’s sense of belonging at school contributes to greater motivation, stronger engagement in classroom activities and higher academic achievement overall.[ii] And as you might suspect, research has demonstrated the converse to be true. Students who do not feel a social connection or sense of belonging are chronically absent, disengaged and low performing. Add to the mix children’s increasing awareness as they mature of racial, ethnic, gender, learning and appearance differences and whole groups of students can become marginalized.

In examining how teachers have best been able to address this issue and ensure that students are truly learning the value of connectedness and inclusion, there are some common themes that can be practiced at home.

Create a Culture of Acceptance and Caring – Take a moment to examine your own approach to others. Are you accepting of family members? Neighbors? Colleagues? Friends? Do your conversations with your spouse include statements of understanding, compassion and empathy for those who are different or even who may challenge you? Whether you believe your child is listening or not, the perceptions of you and your partner are internalized by your child and become your family’s culture. Taking some time to reflect on your own values and how you communicate interpersonal problems among family members can set the tone for how your child deals with the outside world.

Use the Language of Acceptance and Caring – Young children particularly have a difficult time making distinctions between a person and their actions and choices. A child is tempted to say “I don’t like Billy.” when Billy takes her toy. Instead help her rephrase and reframe her thoughts to say “I don’t like that Billy took my toy.” Every child makes poor choices but each child can feel like they still belong in a family, classroom or friendship circle.

Encourage Cross-Age Kindness and Connection – Whether you have siblings or neighbors of various ages, there is an opportunity to create relationships with children who are different – going through different developmental milestones and experiencing different friendships and curricula during the school day. This becomes great practice for acceptance and inclusion. Do not allow children in a neighborhood group to be marginalized. Encourage your child to be the one to reach out and include a child who is being left out. With siblings, encourage older siblings to care for younger ones and involve them in play at the level they are able.

Discuss What it Means to be a Good Friend – What it means to be a friend and what it means to be a part of a classroom community can be a regular topic for March 2013 009conversation to revisit as your child grows and changes. What does it mean to you to be a good friend? How do you feel when you are excluded? How can you make new children in your school or neighborhood feel welcome? E has a new interest in Spiderman and luckily Spidey’s motto is a relevant one, “With great power comes great responsibility.” [iii] We talked about how he has an opportunity to act like Spiderman in his classroom and be kind to all kids who want to play with him. It’s easy to tell children what not to do (and important in establishing boundaries) but it’s equally important to think through with them what they can and should do instead.

Notice Kindness – The teacher in the earlier example assigned partners to each student and asked them to notice when their partner was sharing or taking turns. At the end of the day, they would write out certificates for each student whose kindness was noticed. The simple certificate read, “I notice Karen shared today. Signed, Billy Goodman.” They worked on it until all students were receiving a certificate. Point out kindnesses when you see them and ask your children to do the same. Use “I notice” language to model observation of other people.

Consider that most children at one point or another will feel left out, excluded from the group or even bullied. Those children who are consistently left out are the ones most likely to act as bullies. So even if your child tends to have many friends and not have problems with exclusion, those excluded can still impact your child’s life directly. It’s a sobering thought to realize that the students who committed the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Columbine, Colorado and other places were consistently marginalized. Promoting connectedness in the school and home community is critical now in keeping children safe. Don’t wait until your child has a problem. Begin now to encourage the values of inclusion and kindness in your family life so that your child internalizes and acts on that value.

[i] Charney, R. (1997). Habits of goodness; Case studies in the social curriculum. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

[ii] Osterman, K.F. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70, 323-267.

[iii] Lee, S., Kirby, J., & Ditko, S. (1963). Amazing Spider-man. NY, NY: Marvel Comics, Marvel Tales # 138.

Take the One Thing for Spring Challenge

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It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in the movement there is life, and in change there is power.

– Alan Cohen

How are you going to teach your children social and emotional skills? How can you, the responsive, reflective, continuously improving parent, incorporate one new strategy to support your children’s learning and development? Trying to do the best for our kids can feel overwhelming. We may ask, “Where do I start?”

This Spring in this season of rebirth, Confident Parents, Confident Kids issues a challenge. The following are twenty-five ideas for teaching, modeling, practicing and reinforcing critical skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making and relationship skills at home. You have the opportunity to pick one and make it happen consistently in the months of March, April and May. Make yourself accountable by posting a reminder note in your calendar or on your refrigerator. Tell your partner and a friend. If you want to make a change or improvement in your life, it helps to have support. If you know others are aware of your goal, you’ll not only have their reinforcement but also their watchful eyes to ensure you are focused in your pursuit. Try one challenge for the next three months and then write in and tell us about it. As you watch emerging buds on the trees and the green of Spring appear, create some new life in your own family by trying one of these ideas. Share your story and I’ll share it with our readership!
Happy Spring!


1. Write or verbally share real or imagined stories of your child and include positive attributes of his/her personality and character. For more, read Story of Self.
2. Use “I notice …” statements with your child and point out specific strengths that she demonstrates.
3. Expand your family’s feelings vocabulary. Brainstorm together as many feelings as you can think of and write them down. Then when discussing a problem or upset, pull out the list and use it to pinpoint your feelings.
4. After an upsetting situation, work with your child to help him or her identify and articulate his/her own feelings. For more, read Parent Private Investigator.
5. Renew yourself for you and your family. Prioritize 15-20 minutes of quiet solitude per day for reflection. Become more self-aware through this daily mindfulness experience.


1. Be mindful and present with your children for a pre-determined time slot each day. Find fifteen minutes to immerse yourself in play. For more, read Play and a Happy Holiday to You.
2. Use a constructive strategy consistently for dealing with anger when upset with your children or spouse. (i.e. Go for a walk; Go to a safe, quiet space; Breathe or listen to calming music).
3. When you need access to more patience in a frustrating situation with your children, take time to breath out loud in front of them.
4. Be proactive about your child’s fears. Pick one fear and work on easing their worries this month by seeking out children’s books that deal with the topic in a constructive way (Learn more about sharks and the purpose they serve in the ocean for example.) and read them with him/her. For more, read Boo! Common Fears and How to Help Children Deal with Them.
5. Practice waiting with patience with your children when the natural opportunity arises and it makes sense. Begin with a short waiting period (one minute? five minutes?) and then work on extending the time. For more, read Strategies for Teaching Self-Control.

Social Awareness

  1. Practice respecting others’ ideas. If you choose this as a goal, make a point of thoroughly listening to others’ ideas and asking clarifying questions or making empathetic comments in response. Save any critical comments for a later time (and use the three-to-one rule, three strengths to one area for improvement).
  2. In a disagreement, work on articulating the other person’s perspective before sharing your own.
  3. Stop yourself before you criticize a group of people. Do not pass stereotypes on to the next generation. Find something empathetic to say instead.
  4. Identify someone in your close circle (family, friends, neighbors) with whom you often disagree. Each time you know you are going to encounter that person, think about their perspective. As you hold more empathetic thoughts, you are more likely to improve your relationship.
  5. Find one service opportunity in your school, community or immediate neighborhood. Is there an elderly person who can’t leave the house? Bring a bowl of soup and good conversation and include your child in that process.

Responsible Decision Making

1. Find opportunities to allow your child choices. Give them full decision making power in an area you feel comfortable. Talk over consequences of choices including the impact to other people and give them valuable practice in reviewing the outcomes and making responsible choices.
2. Practice creative idea generation. When faced with any kind of problem, don’t skip to a solution right away. Ask your child, “What else could we do to address this?” Try to come up with a number of creative ideas before pursuing one.
3. When reading with your children, discuss decision making. Ask “Why did the main character make that choice? What happened as a result? And what would have happened if he had chosen a different path?”
4. Before you make a decision for yourself, talk about why you should or should not do something and allow your children hear you work through the potential outcomes and consequences.
5. Use more open-ended questions with your family. Allow the questions to help explore new paths of thinking and see where they lead. For more, read Are Questions the Answer?

Relationship Skills

1. Practice good listening skills. With your children, act out what poor listening looks like. Laugh and have fun with it. Then show what good listening skills look like. Make a pact to try out these skills each night at dinner.
2. Use paraphrasing (summarizing what a person says) when someone is upset to ensure that you truly understand what they are thinking and/or feeling. And teach your children how to paraphrase as a useful listening tool.
3. Disconnect to connect. Make a commitment to the family being together (you determine how much and when) – for dinner or before bedtime to enjoy one another without electronic distractions.
4. Add “I love you no matter what happens.” to your routine when speaking to family members before bedtime on days when there are disagreements or problems. For more, read Unconditional Love and Attention.
5. Begin using “I” Statements as a regular way of communicating with family members. Teach your children how to use them for effective communication when problems arise. For more, read The Comeback Kid.

Parent-Teacher Conversations


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Productive collaborations between family and school, therefore,

will demand that parents and teachers recognize the critical importance

              of each other’s participation in the life of the child. 

–          Sara Lawrence Lightfoot

Teachers gain plenty of experience over time having difficult conversations about students with parents. However if you are parent, you may only experience difficult conversations with teachers a few times in your children’s educational careers. It’s conceivable that your child may come home with issues or concerns that merit your initiation of a conversation with a teacher. With only your child’s words to inform you, you need more information and the help of her teacher to really understand the problem. “Will I sound like I am accusing the teacher or another student or parent?” “Will the teacher penalize my daughter or like her less because of our conversation?” and “Will my discussion with the teacher lead to tensions between our family and that teacher and possibly other teachers in the future?” These are all valid questions that are raised in the minds of parents before they proceed with a conversation. Last weekend as I attended a once a year lunch date with my college friends, mothers of children from preschool through high school, this common dilemma was a feature of our conversation.

The next day, I asked my Mother, a retired high school English teacher what she might say about this topic. Her response was, “I can tell you what not to do. Don’t stand in the front entrance of the school and yell, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’ ” This parent was calling out for my Mom, angry that his son was accused of plagiarism. So teachers have all kinds of experiences with conversations with parents which may not always be positive. Whether or not you believe your son’s retelling of the event, it doesn’t change the fact that you need to engage the teacher as a partner.  Your approach with the teacher could impact your child’s experience of his teacher and of school itself so taking a well-considered approach is important.

Imagine the following scenario. Your child is in seventh grade. He tends to not discuss much about what happens at school but has been fairly happy so far in the school year. You have been reasonably satisfied with the school and with his teacher. One day he comes home and says, “My teacher said I was looking on another student’s paper. But I wasn’t. And now she’s given me a failing grade when I should have gotten an A.” You spend some time talking with your son trying to find out more. He is adamant that he did not cheat on the test. The natural next step might be to have a conversation with his teacher.  But how does an emotionally intelligent parent handle that kind of difficult conversation?

Considerations before the Conversation

Could your child have a conversation with the teacher first to attempt to resolve the issue? Is this an appropriate issue for you as a parent to raise with the teacher? How old is your child and can they first be coached by you to approach the teacher him or herself? High schoolers are definitely old enough to advocate for themselves and middle schoolers, depending upon the maturity of the child, could be able to as well. A parent will more likely need to get involved at the early childhood through fifth grade levels. If old enough, a best first step is to allow the child to try and work the problem out directly with the teacher in a constructive way. If you decide to coach him to act as his own advocate first, in the imagined scenario, here’s what you might say.

Coach your child not to accuse the teacher or get into a power struggle by expressing his view as right when he knows she holds the opposite view. A child is typically tempted to say,

Mrs. Smith, you think I cheated but you’re wrong, I didn’t. I don’t deserve that zero you gave me.”

Coach your child to avoid placing blame. Instead, he might say,

Mrs. Smith, I know you are convinced I cheated on the exam. I want to prove to you that I did not. Can you think of any way that I might be able to show you that I did not or make up for what happened? I am willing to re-take the exam. I am willing to do extra work so that I might not get a zero for the test.

Wouldn’t it be so nice if a problem like this was all neatly resolved through that one conversation? It certainly could be. But as we know, these situations can extend into the need for further intervention. If you decide that your child has adequately and constructively approached the teacher with an offer to make reparation but the teacher has denied the offer and your child is still highly upset and feels an injustice has been done, then here are the next steps you might consider.

Get yourself into the right frame of mind.

Assume the best intentions on the teacher’s part. Assume competence and caring. Assume that the teacher is trying to do what is fair and, also, teach lessons about habits of learning. I personally have never encountered a teacher who went into the profession without the noblest intentions to help children learn (I know they must exist but I have not yet met one in my career). But of course, teachers are human and make mistakes like all of us. If you are upset or emotional about the situation, first do some journaling, walking or other means of getting out some of your frustrations. Try not to go into the conversation highly charged and emotional if possible. If you do, you are SIGNIFICANTLY less likely to be successful.  James Comer of the Yale Child Study Center writes,

       Children in home-school conflict situations often receive a

               double message from their parents: “The school is the hope

               for your future, listen, be good and learn” and “the school is

               your enemy. . . .” Children who receive the “school is the

               enemy” message often go after the enemy–act up, undermine

               the teacher, undermine the school program, or otherwise exer-

               cise their veto power.”[i]

This is not in the interest the child. He is not mature enough to understand constructive ways to deal with the conflicting messages he is receiving.

Ask yourself: What are your desired outcomes for the conversation? Think about it. If you raise this issue, are there a number of outcomes that might be acceptable to you? Involve your son in thinking through what solutions might be acceptable to him. If there is only one solution that is acceptable and you do not believe that the teacher will either a.) understand or b.) accept that solution, then it sounds like it is not worth having the conversation unless you are only planning to focus on the future. In other words, “What can he do in the future to avoid this problem from happening again?”

Initiating the Conversation. Whether you call or email to set up a conversation, let the teacher know that you would like to discuss your child in general and specifically the problem at hand. Be sure to find the time to go in person. Email and phone conversations seem easier but real resolutions in which all parties feel better can best be reached in person.

Mrs. Smith, I would like to meet with you to discuss how Benjamin is doing in your class. I would like to partner with you and be sure I am supporting your efforts at home. I would also like to talk about the most recent test he took to understand the situation better. Please let me know when we can have that in person conversation.”

The Conversation Itself. Think about a time when you received constructive, helpful feedback from your husband, boss or friend. You want to take a similar approach in this conversation. Begin with the positive strengths of the school year and the teacher’s influence on your child. What do you like about her or what he is learning? Ask for her expertise in how you might support his learning at home. Then, ask about the problem at hand.

Mrs. Smith, I notice that my son has really moved forward in his math understanding and comfort level and I know that is due to your good work and encouragement. I wanted to ask in general if there are ways I can support his learning in my role at home. I also wanted to ask about the recent test he took. Can you tell me from your perspective what happened? After she describes what happened, you might say, “I hear that you experienced the situation in this way (paraphrase what she said so that she is certain you have heard and understood her). My son is upset and feels unjustly accused. Is there a way that he could make up the test or prove to you that he knows the content?”

When you leave the conversation, be sure and thank the teacher for her time and care with your son. Be sure and go through the conversation with your son. If agreements have been made, you then need to supervise your son carefully to ensure that he follows through with those agreements. It may be the case that because of school rules there is no way that a student can make reparation or improve a grade. Your child may have to learn that the zero is the consequence for his actions. Help your child to accept the rules of the school that his teacher is following. Discuss what he can do to avoid the problem the next time. You will not only be working in partnership on his behalf with the school, but also teaching him the valuable lessons of accepting consequences and learning from mistakes.

Follow up on the Conversation. Because you want to continue a good and growing relationship with your child’s teacher, follow up. After your son has followed through on making up the test, for example, check back in with her in a few weeks just to see if reparation has been made and things are going well. This is an easy step to skip. He seems fine. Life goes on. But you want to maintain the relationship with the teacher and let her know that you will continue to be a partner with her. This is what you might do in another valued collegial relationship. So demonstrate the same kind of respect with his teacher. If you focus on your partnership with the teacher as an important investment in your child’s future success and not on the problem of the moment, you will make better choices about how to approach the teacher even when difficult situations occur.


Parent Leaders in Education: Resource Round-Up by Edutopia

Effective Home-School Communication by JoBeth Allen, Harvard Family Research Project

The Dicey Parent-Teacher Duet by Sara Mosle, The New York Times

[i] James P. Comer (20th century), U.S. psychiatrist and author. School Power, ch. 2 (1980).

The Comeback Kid

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There is nothing as sweet as a comeback, when you are down and out, about to lose, and out of time.

Anne Lamott

Rewarding but challenging, comebacks can be difficult to come by when you are in a conflict situation. The following comeback formula can be a powerful retort with great grandmas, in-laws, dads, brothers, neighbors, partners and even your child. Teach it to your child and you will know that they have a tool that can be used anytime they are in a confrontation with another person. It’s easy to remember and a surefire way of keeping ears open when you are talking. Often in a conflict, it’s tempting to use the word “you” since you are typically upset with the other person and are trying to communicate that you are angry or frustrated with them and letting them know why that is the case. But using “you” in a conflict as in “You didn’t do the dishes as we agreed.” only puts the other person on the defensive. They may half listen or not listen at all because they feel the accusations coming. But sprinkle on the following power phrase and you may receive a different, more receptive response.

I feel (angry, hurt, scared, frustrated, concerned, worried, confused, sad)

when you (do that thing you do that makes me crazy)

because (“I lose control over the situation.”; “It seems like you are not listening to me.”;“It makes me feel like you don’t care.”)

This sentence, otherwise known as an “I” message or “I” statement, is so powerful because the one using it is taking responsibility for their own feelings in the situation. It’s difficult to contest a person who is expressing how they feel. “I” statements can be taught to any age child or young adult to use in a conflict. “I can’t believe you took my idea and used it!” becomes “I feel so hurt, confused and frustrated that you took my idea because you knew I came up with it and felt strongly about it.” Schools that teach communications skills or have a social and emotional learning or problem-solving curriculum include this as part of their instruction. But why not utilize this tool at home in your personal life? As with any tool or strategy that can be used during an emotional time, it’s essential to practice when you are not emotional. Start by trying it out yourself. Then after you’ve found your own comfort and success with it, begin teaching your children. Make the role playing fun. Particularly if you begin to use it with your partner and your children, the language will start to feel more natural and become incorporated into how you communicate as a family.

If you have younger children, preschool or kindergarteners, you can use a modified version of the “I” statement[i] and teach them to say “I don’t like it when you (“don’t share your toy with me.” or “grab my toy out of my hands.”) I have used this very successfully with my own preschooler. Often children don’t know what to say when another child is aggressive with them. This gives them a quick response that makes them feel better and hopefully stops the problem. You can let them know that if the action does not stop, they need to move away from the child and/or tell an adult. You may have opportunities to coach them to say an “I” statement in the moment since you are likely in the position of supervising more than you would be with an older child. As your child looks up at you with a helpless expression when they are confronted with a friend in a conflict situation, give them those words, “I don’t like it when you…” and allow them to use it to manage the conflict. Children this age are beginning to communicate frustration through language (and less through physical expression) but are still learning about how to identify and verbalize feelings. This is a critical time to help children articulate their feelings after a situation has occurred. Dialoguing about feelings with an adult will give them the practice, language and self-awareness necessary to graduate to problem-solving involving “I” statements. But this modified statement is one they can remember and empowers them to try and handle the problem directly and on their own.

Stick a post-it note on your desk or refrigerator and remind yourself to try this out. You’ll find this comeback does work. Through its use, you will feel empowered to end the blame game that so often occurs in family life. It can open doors to respect, listening and improved communications with a little practice. Imagine coming home from a work meeting to your pre-teen child after school. She is playing with a neighbor friend and they have not yet heard that you are home. You overhear a heated conflict, voices rising and stop to listen. Your daughter says, “I feel so angry when you talk about Amy (a school friend) that way because she’s my friend too and it doesn’t mean I’m not your friend or like you any less because I’m friends with her.” Observing your children handling their own conflicts with skill is a reward in itself. You will have given your children a communication tool that they can use when you are not there to help them work through problems.

[i] Crowe, C. (2009). Solving thorny behavior problems; How teachers and students can work together. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

ABC Circle Films (Producer), & Levin, P. (Director). (1980). The Comeback Kid (Motion Picture). United States: American Broadcasting Company.

Television, Navigating the Content of our Global Neighborhood

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All of television is educational. The only question is: What does it teach?

–          Nicolas Johnson, Former Chairman, Federal Communications Commission

School age children in the U.S. watch on average twenty-eight hours of television a week according to Nielson Media Research. They spend an average of 5.6 hours doing homework and 1.8 reading. They may only spend five minutes a day on average with Dad and twenty minutes with Mom and thirty hours a week at school. So if you merely look at time spent over the course of a week, just behind school, television is the second biggest influencer of a child’s social, emotional and cultural development and perceptions. Steven Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families[i] writes,

                  It is true that there is so much good on TV – good information

                  and enjoyable, uplifting entertainment. But for most of us and

                  for our families, the reality is more like digging a lovely tossed

                  salad out of the garbage dump. There may be some great salad 

                  there, but it’s pretty hard to separate out the trash, the dirt and

                  the flies.

Last week my guest blogger, David L. Smith, author of Television that Matters and Visual Communications, recommended that you open the dialogue with your children DSCF0042about television and develop rules together. Steven Covey did just that with his family. He and his wife introduced the conversation and listened to their children’s opinions. The kids, tweens and teens, had strong arguments about how everyone at school talks about certain shows so they would feel out of the loop if they didn’t watch. The parents then introduced research articles that articulated the effects of television, which David wrote about in last week’s post. Ultimately they allowed their children to decide the rules. The children came up with seven hours per week as being reasonable and Covey writes, “This decision proved to be a turning point in our family. We began to interact more, to read more. We eventually reached the point where television was not an issue. And today – we hardly ever have it on.” See Creating a Family Media Agreement for a simple format for a family conversation.

David continues this two-part series on how parents can actively manage television usage with their children.

How does a parent determine what kind of content a child is ready for?

Because there’s so much variation between children at different ages, there’s not a one-kind-fits-all answer to this question. Nonetheless, a general guideline is suggested by the basics we want for our children—health and well-being. As part of optimizing their physical health and well-being we try to provide foods that contain some nutritional value—life-sustaining substances, variety and balance. The same applies to mental-emotional systems. As a starter, I offer below a list of values that I consider to be enriching. You won’t find programs that use these values in their title or promotions, but you will find programs and segments that model them. Look for consistency. In part because it lacks commercials, I believe that children’s programming on PBS has been a consistent provider of “nutritional” programming.

Beauty                                  Connection                         Collaboration

Empowerment                      Encouragement                  Engagement

Enhancement                       Expansion                           Faith

Forgiveness                         Goodness                           Gratitude

Honesty                                Hope                                   Humility

Improvement                        Inspiration                           Integration

Integrity                               Joy                                       Kindness

Love                                    Meaning                               Service

Trust                                   Truth                                     Wisdom

Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ Note: Recent research on PBS prosocial programming such as Calliou, Arthur and Clifford has been shown to result in some harmful effects. Those shows focus much of an episode on relationship conflicts. At the end of the show, a solution is reached but children take from it the words and content of the conflict since the majority of the show focused on it. Preschoolers who watched these shows regularly were more likely to engage in relational aggression, or a form of bullying in which one attempts to damage another’s social relationships or status according to a study[ii] published in Nurture Shock, New Thinking about Children. So although PBS does provide some “nutritional” programming, it’s not enough to trust that all shows are helpful. It is critical to know the content of shows and what they are teaching.

Notice child’s reactions after viewing.

Observe the child’s responses to what they have been watching. If it makes them fearful or gives them frightening dreams, cut back. If it makes them feel good about themselves, others or the world and it provokes good questions, seeps into their conversations and play, go with it. Reinforce the positive.

Read reviews (see resource section) and use videos and movies.

Videos produced to entertain and educate can be a good way to introduce young children to the television set. Whereas the act of “watching television”—watching the least objectionable programs that happen to be on—subjects them to the adolescent values of popular culture and risks its attendant consequences, the selection of videos that contain age-specific content can actually promote language and visual literacy, introduce them to the simple stories and enjoyable characters that abound in the culture and even help them to understand the important difference between fantasy and reality.

Confident Parents Confident Kids’ Note: I use DVDs and pre-recorded television exclusively and E is not aware of any difference. It allows me much more control over the content and it lessens the worry of commercials particularly if you pre-record PBS shows. If you want to make the switch from “what’s on” to DVDs and pre-recorded selections, introduce this as a benefit to your child. She can watch favorite shows without the need to search for something that is offered during the time she wants to watch.

Are television and movie ratings enough?

No! The movie rating system is helpful in that it provides an initial sense of appropriateness, but buyer beware. The industry perceptions and definitions of content can and do differ greatly from those of viewers. Consider the rating to be the barest minimum assessment, just a place to start. You are—or should become—the best judge of what’s appropriate for your children.

                 Find out as much as you can about a movie before letting your

                 child watch. Read reviews, check the Internet, talk to friends who

                 have seen it. Choose carefully when considering movies with PG-13,

                 PG, and sometimes even G ratings. If you aren’t sure, see the movie

                 first, and decide if it is appropriate for your child.

–          American Academy of Pediatrics

Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ Note: Furthermore, a study by the Parents Television Council found that a child watching television shows rated TV-PG during primetime will be exposed to “adult-oriented content more than once every six minutes” including sex, violence and profanity.

Watch with your children.

Whatever your children are watching, television or movie, watch with them and engage them in conversations about the subject matter, production techniques and presentation. Increased awareness of the “man behind the curtain” makes them less vulnerable to “his” manipulation and agendas. Rather than diminishing the fantasy, it empowers the child to observe more fully and activate their own creative imagination.

Aside from answering your child’s questions about subject matter, you can introduce topics for discussion by asking your own questions: “How do you think they did that? Do people really talk like that? Where do news’ anchors get their stories? Does that actor make the character seem real to you? Is that true, or are they just trying to get us to buy their product?”

And then you can provide information: “It’s amazing—every word that every person is saying was written by someone and the actors had to memorize it in order to make it seem real.” (This is true of the lion’s share of programming today).  “When they fight like that the actors are like dancers. They practice every move over and over in slow motion. And then they put the camera in a place where we can’t actually see the punches, because they don’t actually hurt each other.” And “Those (monsters, dinosaurs, talking animals) were drawn on film or computers by a lot of artists. Animators can create whatever their imagination dreams up and make it look real.”


Common Sense Media

Thank you, Kimberly for calling our attention to this one. Find age-appropriate movies, books, apps, TV shows, video games, websites, and music that you and your kids will love. Browse our library of more than 17,500 reviews by age, entertainment type, learning rating, genre, and more using the filters in the left column. Common Sense has recently begun a blog about parenting and media issues with titles such as Best 2013 Oscar Movies for Kids, Screen Time Rules for Every Occasion, Watch Out! Cursing in “Family” Movies.

Parents Television Council

A non-partisan organization advocating responsible entertainment provides a color coded rating system in which it rates all shows on Prime Time TV.

The TV Parental Guidelines and The TV Boss

You can take advantage of the V Chip that has been installed in all new television sets to set parental controls on your television. You can program the V Chip to block all programs with a rating that you know is unacceptable to you for your child’s viewing.

Screen It

Provides movie reviews for parents. We are a small but growing team of reviewers who are not affiliated with any political, social or religious group thus assuring that we’ll provide unbiased reviews. By doing so, we allow parents and others to decide whether a movie, video or DVD is appropriate for them and/or their kids based on THEIR values.

More Resources:

Better TV Equals Better Kids Check out the terrific graphics in this article that visually show the effects of television on children!

[i] Covey, S.R. (1997). The seven habits of highly effective families. NY: Golden Books.

[ii] Ostrov, J.M., Gentile, D.A., & Crick, N.R. (2010). Media exposure, aggression and prosocial behavior during early childhood: A longitudinal study. Social Development.

How is television used in your home?

How do you manage television usage in your family? What rules do you set when it comes to quantity – the amount of time it’s on and quality – the kind of content watched? Have you noticed how television has influenced your children? Since the role of television is a complex issue with no right or wrong answers and it’s a part of our daily lives, the dialogue on how television effects us and impacts development is an important one. Write in and give us your thoughts and ideas!

Television, Navigating our Global Neighborhood

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Television takes our kids across the globe before parents give them permission to cross the street.

–          Joshua Meyrowitz

And those journeys through television can offer exposure to various cultures giving our children greater social awareness. However we also know that access to a vast array of imagery, ideas and stories in our homes can lead to pitfalls as well. Since the average American home has more televisions (2.73) than people (2.55) living in those homes, according to Nielson Media Research, television is an ever-present force in our children’s lives. It can be an invaluable resource when children are sick and need time to rest. It can also provoke interesting conversations and ideas about our world which could include travel in outer space, experimentation with robotics or learning about animal habitats. I reached out to an expert on television to ask the questions that parents might most want addressed.

My guest blogger, David L. Smith is the author of Television that Matters and Visual
. He is an Emeritus Professor of Communications and former Director Dave in DC-Editof the Television Center at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has a forty-plus year career in television as a teacher, writer, producer and cinematographer. He worked on two local children’s shows and has won numerous awards for his work including an Emmy and a Silver Cindy.


I asked David to respond to questions on understanding the role of television and how much is too much, the focus of today’s post. Next week, he’ll return to respond to questions on how we can manage the content viewed.

What is the significance of television in our lives?

Because television is pervasive, it’s best thought of as an environment – like a neighborhood, a global neighborhood. Just as your kids are exposed to other kids, their parents and strangers in your neighborhood, they are also – and more frequently – exposed to the people who populate the electronic neighborhood. Exposure equals influence. What our children are watching is helping them shape their perceptions of themselves, others, the world and life itself. So television content is not trivial, it’s formative. Especially for young minds.

How does it influence us, particularly our children?

Everything presented on the screen is value-laden. As carefully prepared expressions of a writer or producer’s consciousness, television’s content and presentation techniques influence our beliefs, perceptions and values. It influences the perception of self (body-image for instance), what’s “cool,” what it means to be an American, our experience of the world, even what it means to be human. Public television certainly makes a valiant attempt to influence in more positive and constructive ways, but like any tool, a medium’s influence largely depends upon what the receiver does with it – the subject of next week’s blog. Regarding television’s output: What we see on the screen has been passed through the subjective filters of the producers, their upbringing, education, preferences, beliefs. Regarding the input: When the message reaches us, we filter it further as part of our need to validate what we know and believe as part of our quest for growth, meaning and success.

The message to parents is to never loose sight of the fact that commercial television is in the business of capturing and holding attention, delivering the maximum number of “eyeballs to advertisers.” It accomplishes this by providing content and images that have mass appeal, elements that stimulate emotions that may or may not be suitable for children. That’s obvious. But because the influence on a child doesn’t show up immediately or dramatically, and it’s so convenient to pass it off, parents do well to keep in mind that passing it off adds to the accumulation of influences. Moderation in all things – including television!

Personally, television has been a very positive influence in my life. I still yearn for the realization of its higher potentials – to educate, enrich, uplift, inspire and empower. Meanwhile, I try to make a good-faith effort to derive what I call the more nutritional influences from what’s currently available.  And you can do the same for your children.

How does a parent determine how much is too much television?

First Do No Harm

              The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages television

              and other media use by children younger than two years and encourages

              interactive play.[i]

Significantly limit television for children, birth through four years old and try never to leave the television on when not actively watching it since it can affect brain development. Because television entrains the mind along particular pathways and provides ordered (prepared) experiences, heavy viewing has been shown to retard the myelination process in the early brain, particularly from birth to age four (Pearce, 1992).[ii] Myelination is the process whereby nerve cells in the brain build up a fatty protein sheath that improves conductivity, enhancing the flow of information from one cell to another. If this process is retarded, there’s a loss in the ability to use the imagination and to generate personal fantasies and realities from within (Buzzell, 1998).[iii] Sustained exposure to language and images packaged to capture attention can stifle a child’s ability to imagine and create a rich inner world. Strengthen these connections instead through engaged play, music, art, dancing and reading, especially encouraging children to make up their own stories.

Below is my prioritized “short-list” of some of the more studied negative effects – consequences of “heavy viewing” (more than six hours a day) – related to children.* You can find more on the internet under the heading of “Television Effects.”

Television –

  • Displaces direct personal experience (play, dinner, reading, sports).
  • Makes aggression, violence, self-centeredness, materialism and greed seem normal.
  • Induces passivity and inhibits creative activity.
  • Generates, validates and maintains stereotypes.
  • Encourages cynicism, skepticism and a lack of trust in others.
  • Contributes to a negative view of life and living – referred to as the “mean-world syndrome.”
  • Can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders and obesity.
  • Has a desensitizing effect on empathy. Increased exposure to violence reduces sensitivity to it.
  • Invites imitation, notably in the areas of violence, crime, aggressive behavior and suicide.

*A caveat common to most studies on “television effects,” is that the medium alone may not be solely responsible for the effects documented, that the predisposition of subjects and other environmental factors could lessen or enhance the severity of the effect being studied. Cautious researchers often conclude that television was a (if not the) “significant” factor in their study.

Set and Consistently Reinforce Rules

        For older children, total entertainment screen time should be limited to

        less than one to two hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs 

        which should be supervised by parents or other responsible adults in the home.

– The American Academy of Pediatrics

Additionally, the AAP has identified a set of potential benefits to limiting children’s television exposure. These include: improved diet, lower risk of overweight, less exposure to violent content and improved sleep quality. Setting times when your children can and cannot watch television eliminates daily arguments. I don’t recommend using television as a reward, that makes it all the more desirable. And try not to vilify television either. That can also make it more desirable in a different way.

Examples of television “House Rules” might include (will vary with age):

• “One hour of viewing on school nights; three hours on weekends. There will be exceptions when something comes on that we all want to see.”

• “No TV until homework is done—and checked.”

• “The bedroom is no place for a television set.”

• “In our house kids never watch television alone.”

• “When friends are over, you can watch a video but not television.”

• “If there’s something special you want to watch (while you’re doing homework or chores, we’ll record it for you.)”

Let your children know the criteria for the rules you and your partner are considering. Have a discussion. Invite their input and listen to their objections. Seriously consider them in making your final decisions, and let the children see that their input was taken seriously. Indicate that the rules are likely to change as they grow.

Next week, David will offer tips on how to regulate and manage television content so the programming that children watch can enrich their lives and your conversations as a family.

For further reading, David recommends:

Van Evra, J. P. (1990). Television and child development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Better TV Equals Better Kids Check out the terrific graphics in this article that visually show the effects of television on children!

[i] American Academy of Pediatrics.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2002). Children and TV violence. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved on July 12, 2006.

American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education. (2001). Children, adolescents, and television. Pediatrics. Elk Grove Village, IL: Author.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2002). Television – How it affects children. Elk Grove Village, IL: Author. Retrieved on July 12, 2006.

[ii]  Pearce, J. C. (1992). Evolution’s end: Claiming the potential of our intelligence. San  Francisco: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1992.

[iii] Buzzell, K. (1998). The children of cyclops: The influences of television on the developing human brain. Fair Oaks, CA: The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.


Unconditional Love: The Prequel

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Love yourself first and everything else falls in line.

–          Lucille Ball

There were so many interesting reader reactions to last week’s article on “Unconditional Love and Attention” that I felt it was important to take the issue one step further this week. One reader asked, “Isn’t unconditional love of self a pre-condition or critical foundation for loving our children unconditionally?” What a question! There is a body of research on self-compassion that answers with a resounding “Yes.” This research defines self-compassion as thinking about pain, suffering or failures in a self-soothing, nurturing and understanding way. Instead of allowing fear or guilt to motivate, the self- compassionate person is directed by understanding and forgiveness of themselves no matter what they are experiencing. Kristin Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind[i] shows how the brain wiring sets a course for optimism, happiness and motivation to change when thinking about a bad situation (even if it’s a problem they cause) in a self-soothing way. There’s a common misconception that this self-understanding could lead to laziness or a lowering of standards. “If I go easy on myself, how will I become a better person, professional or parent?” the argument might go. Her research supports the opposite. People who forgave themselves were more compassionate toward others, were more willing and able to turn feedback into a learning experience and had greater motivation to change behaviors for the better. Dr. Neff found that people who were trying to change a particular behavior like overeating or smoking had greater success rates if they had compassion for themselves through the difficult process. In one intervention, researchers had individuals write a letter to themselves every night for one week about a disappointment or situation which challenged them. Some were to write self-nurturing comments. Others were instructed to express self-critical thoughts. As much as six months later, the ones with self-nurturing letters were experiencing greater happiness; the others, greater depression.

As parents, we know our job is the toughest in the world. If we are learning parents, reflective parents, the kind of parents who read articles like this, then we may be even more prone to self-criticism. This past week my dear friend and an amazing Mom was recovering from surgery and despite her pain and fatigue was jumping up and down to attend to her girls, who were acting out because it had been a stressful week. After being kind and firm with them as they fought as siblings can, she plopped down exhausted in her chair and lamented that she could hardly keep up with them. Later that night, I wrote to her about what a terrific Mom she is and will continue to be. She was grateful for the feedback. So we in the parent’s club need to support one another. I also received an email the next day from a mentor telling me I could be less hard on myself. And so it made me realize it’s so much easier to observe, be compassionate and be non-judgmental about others. But when we look in the mirror at ourselves so often we are critical.

The name “Valentine” means “worthy.” So in this season of love, Valentine’s Day, know that you are worthy. Remember that if you are striving toward goals of improvement in your life, it is self-compassion, forgiveness and nurturing that are going to get you there. Happy Valentine’s Day!

For two great articles that were released in 2011, check out:

Go easy on yourself, A new wave of research urges” by Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times

The science of willpower: Secrets for self-control without suffering” by Kelly McGonigal, PhD in Psychology Today

[i] Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion; Stop beating yourself up and leave your insecurity behind. San Francisco; Harper Collins.

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