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.

Unconditional Love and Attention

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Accept the children the way we accept trees — with gratitude, because they are a blessing — but do not have expectations or desires. You don’t expect trees to change, you love them as they are.

–       Isabel Allende

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d write about our love for our children and their need for attention. Of course, all children have a need for us to acknowledge them frequently. Sometimes they seek our attention (“Mom, come play with me.”) in good ways. But sometimes children choose to misbehave instead. After all “the squeaky wheel tends to get the grease.” If our children are playing quietly, we often might leave them alone, happy that they are entertaining themselves. But if they get too loud or make a poor choice, they receive our full attention. Inadvertently we are rewarding the misbehavior. Parents can teach children to seek attention in appropriate and acceptable ways to prevent misguided behaviors. You can also identify attention-seeking behaviors when they are happening so that you can react in the moment in ways that will stop the behavior from happening again.

In addition, children need to learn that our love is not based upon their behavior. Though we may be disappointed or frustrated by how they’ve acted or reacted in a situation and we may not like them much that day, we always love them. It may seem obvious but unless it’s said, children cannot distinguish between love, approval and attention. Think about how devastating a child might feel when they are scolded for a poor choice if they think that your love is tied to their behavior. So first of all, be sure if you’ve had a challenging day that when you put them to bed you let your children know that you love them unconditionally – no matter what choices they have made.

And what about those difficult days? Is this scene a familiar one to you? Your child is playing really well all by herself on the floor. You think, “Now is a good moment to get in that phone call to the PTA President to prepare for our upcoming meeting.” You say, “Sweetie, I’m going to make a quick call. Please keep playing and I’ll be off the phone in five minutes or so.”  You make the call and no sooner have said “Hello, how are you?” when little sweetie is at your side tugging on your shirt. Or she decides that now is the time to practice the drums that have been left to collect dust. Borrowing from the philosophies of Linda Albert’s Cooperative Discipline[i], Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline[ii] and Marilyn Watson’s Developmental Discipline[iii], try the following.

Identify the goal of the misbehavior.

–          How do you feel when the child is misbehaving? If you are irritated, annoyed, worried or guilty, it’s likely an attention-seeking behavior.  If you are really mad, it’s likely gone beyond attention-seeking into a power struggle.

–          When you give your child attention (whether negative or positive), does the behavior stop temporarily? It’s likely attention-seeking because they have achieved their goal of gaining your attention. But it’s typically temporary and the behavior is soon to return.

Next time you might prevent this misbehavior by

–          Teaching your children to ask for attention in ways that are acceptable to you and your partner. “Mom, I could really use a hug right now.” “Dad, I really want to tell you about what happened to me today.” After practicing together what you want your child to say, work on recognizing when they are asking in appropriate ways and give them attention in response. Sometimes all it takes is five minutes of focused attention to help a child feel like they are getting what they need. After that five minutes, you may be able to get your phone call accomplished without your children competing for your attention. Practice this!

–          Specifically call out positive behaviors. All too often we get in the habit of calling out behaviors we want to change but when things are going smoothly, we are simply relieved and don’t say anything. When you see improvement, tell your child in the moment what they are doing well, particularly if it is a behavioral issue you are working on with him. Be specific. “I notice you waited until I was finished with my conversation to ask me a question. I realize that takes patience and I appreciate it.”Give me 5 illustr 001

–          Agree upon a signal. Create a signal just for your family that lets your children know that they need to wait. You’ll be with them when you are finished. The signal could be a high five, showing them that you need five more minutes. It could be pointing to your eyes and then their eyes with the intended message, “I see you need me. You’ll need to wait until I’m finished.” You could utilize standard sign language. Or make up your own. Practice and then use it regularly.

Stop the misbehavior.

–          Use your signal.

–          Put one hand on his shoulder and bring the other to your lips with your index finger indicating you need quiet for the moment.

–          Hand him a note with a number or “wait” message on it.

–          Redirect his attention to his own responsibility. “When you finish cleaning up your toys, then I will help you.”

If you spend time teaching and practicing what to do in a situation in which you cannot give your child attention, the intervention strategies under “Stop the misbehavior.” will be much more effective. This is yet another opportunity to allow your child to learn self-control. I’m always amazed that when I give my son focused attention first by playing with him for a short while, I am able to gain more time to complete my own tasks without interruption.  So in this season of love, be sure you let your child know that your love is unconditional, that we all make mistakes, and we all need and deserve attention.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your family! I so appreciate all of the readers of Confident Parents, Confident Kids.


[i] Albert, L. (2003). Cooperative discipline. Circle Pines, MN: AGS Publishing.

[ii] Nelsen, J. (2006). Positive discipline. Fair Oaks, CA: Ballantine Books.

[iii] Watson, M., & Ecken, L. Learning to trust; Transforming difficult elementary classrooms through developmental discipline. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Are Questions the Answer?

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Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.

Roger Lewin

What do you know about the biggest creatures on earth?

What nighttime dream do you remember most vividly? Why do you think you remember it?

What super power would you like to have?

When have you been most proud of yourself?

What ideas do you have for ways you could listen to directions so that next time you’ll remember?

Think, think, think,” Winnie-the-Pooh tends to say.[i] The use of open-ended questions, or questions that have no right or wrong response, requires children to really think. It engages children in the natural learning process. For example, your child may for the first time observe an older child playing basketball. The small child asks questions internally to start. “Could I bounce the ball like that?” “How does he throw it up so high?” Then as the child tries to throw the ball as he’s observed, he sets goals for himself. He might ask himself, “How far was he from the net when he threw?” “How do my hands and feet have to be positioned to bounce the ball as he did?” And then after the experience, the child reflects on it internally with questions. “How could I improve when I return to shoot hoops the next time?”

Questions have been the start of some of the most important inventions. What happens if chocolate is combined with peanut butter? The scientific method begins with a question. And faculty spend a significant amount of time helping doctoral candidates craft a good question to begin their research. Growing up, my Father, a college professor, taught me that the intelligent person asks good questions.

The Power of Our Words; Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn[ii] offers rich strategies for educators on connecting with children through language and eliciting their thoughts and feelings to contribute to academic growth. Some of those same strategies can be used at home in a family environment that values learning. One tip they provide is to use tentative words like “might,” “possibly,” “could” or “may” in questions to make sure children understand that there are lots of possible answers, not just one. “How might you use that ball in other ways in addition to shooting hoops?” Another way of asking an open-ended question to promote creative thinking might be, “How many different games do you think we could come up with using our basketball?”

Then, after asking the question, wait. Be patient. Allow your children to think. Some kids will come back with a quick response but others need some time to process and ponder. Waiting allows them time to problem solve and come up with multiple solutions.

The use of open-ended questions can

  • Inspire creative thinking and problem solving. When children are challenged and come to you for a solution, it’s an opportunity to allow them practice in problem solving. If your child is playing with a friend constructing a building on the floor and the building keeps falling over, don’t solve the problem for them. Ask “What are some ways you could make that building sturdier?” “How could you add strength to it to prevent it from falling down?” If children are disagreeing and pulling you in for a solution, respond with a question. “There’s only one ball. What ideas do you have for sharing the ball so that you both get a turn?” When they come up with their own solution, they feel empowered.
  • Assist with teaching discipline and improving behavior. After a poor choice is made and logical consequences follow, ask questions about the experience to promote reflection. “How did you feel when you made the choice to go to a friend’s house without telling us?” “When an opportunity to run to a friend’s house comes up again, what might you think about? How will you remember that you need to ask us first?”
  • Open the door for connecting and allowing for caring conversations. The implicit message with an open-ended question is “I care about your thoughts and ideas. I trust that you will come up with something interesting.”
  • Improve language and literacy. In school, children are often asked to predict what will happen in a story by looking at the cover page illustration or words they see.  When they read a book at home with a parent, asking open-ended questions will help them elicit meaning from the stories. Questions that require them to think creatively also require that their response utilize their language skills to translate their thoughts into words.

Children are also full of questions for adults. Curiosity about the world around us is part of the joy of childhood learning and development. It can feel overwhelming to adults when the questions keep coming, particularly when there are no simple answers to questions like, “Why do people die?” Children will feel validated and connected to you if you think and respond in a way that respects the question and their curiosity. But you do not always need to come up with an answer. Some questions can be researched, which is a great thing to do together. But for questions that are complex or have no obvious answers, you can respond with your own questions or mixed thoughts about the issue. Asking questions together shows children that all members of your family are learning together. How will you use open-ended questions in your family?

For more on this topic, here are a couple of additional good articles.

Top 50 Open-Ended Questions for Sparking Conversation with Kids by Lela Davidson

Open-Questions; Stretching Children’s Academic and Social Learning by Paula Denton

[i] Milne, A.A. (1926). Winnie-the-Pooh. NY: Dutton Children’s Books.

[ii] Denton, P. (2007). The power of our words; Teacher language that helps children learn. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.


This week I am thinking about the value of open-ended questions, those that do not have a right or wrong answer. What questions have your children asked that have challenged you? How have they made you really think? How has it contributed to better conversations or connections in your family? Please send in children’s questions that have no right or wrong answer.

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