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.

Strategies for Teaching Self-Control

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I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.

– Fred Rogers

The responders to the question “How do you teach children self-control?” provided lots of rich ideas. In addition to theirs, I have added some ways you can teach your children self-control in your day-to-day life. I’ve separated them into four ways that parents can teach any social and emotional skill: modelling, coaching, providing practice opportunities or experiences, and creating a supportive environment.


Point out your own mistakes and ways you are practicing self-control.  We all have a need to feel control over our lives and sometimes that need pushes us into trying to do things perfectly. Although we know that learning requires mistakes, failures and missteps, sometimes it’s not apparent to children that we as adults make mistakes too. We tend to be all knowing in their eyes and sometimes we want to reinforce that thinking to have greater control over their behavior. However for children who are on a constant steep learning curve (meaning mistakes are a part of their everyday lives), it’s important to realize that all human beings make mistakes in order to learn. You, the seemingly infallible parent, can show that by naming it when you do. “See Mommy falls too,” was a recent comment I made when I fell in the hallway. Making children aware that it’s not only okay to make mistakes, but critical to growing and learning will only help your child become more willing to try new things and gain confidence. A powerful moment for your child can be when you are angry with them and you say, “I need to cool off so I am going to my room to be alone for few minutes.” Articulating how you are using self-control, particularly when it involves your children, can turn a difficult moment into a teaching opportunity for both of you.

Use logical consequences. Throughout childhood, boys and girls are learning about consequences. When I do this, what effect will it have on my environment and the people around me? Neuroscientists have found that the brain does not fully establish consistent rational, logical thinking patterns until the early twenties.[i]  An obvious logical consequence is “You break it; you fix it.” But sometimes logical consequences require a bit more consideration on the part of the parent. If a child has hurt another child’s feelings, then a sincere apology may be an appropriate logical consequence. But a child may also need to be encouraged to make amends by doing something for the other child instead of just apologizing. If a child in anger intentionally destroys an object that is precious to Mom, then replacing the object may be in order along with a sincere apology and some time to talk about and practice how to appropriately express anger with a parent. Logical consequences will help children practice reflective thinking and show how, if a child does not use self-control in one moment, they still have a chance to use their self-control and repair any emotional or physical damage they have done.


Help your child work toward his/her hopes and goals. What is your child excited about at school or at home? Is she challenged by riding a bigger bike? Is she learning a new musical instrument? Is she struggling to make new friends? Coaching her through the process of articulating, working toward and achieving her goal will require her to practice self-control with a more experienced adult so that she is coached and supported along the way. Here are the steps that you, as her coach, might follow so that you are guiding her toward successful achievement of her goal.

  1. Help your child articulate her goal. Helping a child specifically articulate her goal can assist her, and you as her coach, in determining the steps required to achieve it. It’s even more powerful if the goal is represented on paper so that it can be posted and seen regularly. Involve her in writing, drawing or cutting and pasting magazine pictures to represent her goal.
  2. Talk through implementation steps. What does she have to do in order to be able to play the flute? Obtain sheet music and an instrument. Attend lessons. Practice three times a week.  It’s easy to have a goal but learning and following through on the steps needed to achieve it can be challenging. Provide supportive coaching for these steps along the way and she’ll have a better chance of success. Also, provide reinforcing feedback and encouragement particularly when the goal becomes challenging and success requires repeated attempts.
  3. Talk about the rules or expectations to be followed in order to stay safe and act responsibly while pursuing the goal. If her piano teacher expects that she will practice a certain number of hours a week, then that becomes an expectation that can guide your child to meet her goal.
  4. Celebrate the small steps along the way. Call out when she reaches various milestones along the way. “Celebration” of the steps can be as simple as just giving an encouraging word and pointing to how far she’s come since she began.
  5. Celebrate and ritualize goal completion. Completing a goal is a big deal and should be properly celebrated. Does your family have a way that you typically recognize achievements? If not, then create a ritual. Go out for a special dinner or dessert. Take your children to a coveted place they usually do not get to go to. Allow them a leadership role in the family that is special because of their achievement.

Create Practice Opportunities and Experiences

Practice waiting.  “Mooooommmm, I need a snaaaackkk!” you may hear from a distant corner of the house. Do you jump to get a snack when you are knee deep in organizing the closet or communicating with your spouse the logistics for the evening? Being a responsive parent does NOT mean jumping at every request. In fact, though it may seem counterintuitive, giving your children practice in waiting is doing them a favor. A family is made up of individuals with needs, all of which are important. If you are in the middle of a task, you can let your child know that they need to wait until you’ve reached a fair stopping point and then you can attend to their wishes. Of course, I’m not suggesting you make them wait if they are hurt or have an emergency but most situations during the day are not those kinds. Children can have daily opportunities to practice self-control if you allow them to wait. It also gives you the chance to respect your own needs and others in the family by not dropping everything to respond to your children’s desires.

Initiate cooperative games, learning or other activities.  Cooperative games and activities require children to work out how they are going to play together. It gives them practice in setting rules and expectations and reinforcing those with others. That practice helps them internalize those rules and along with them self-control so that they begin to use the rules themselves. Playdates, school time, birthday parties and outdoor play are all opportunities to introduce cooperative games. You don’t need any special materials to encourage cooperative games. Recreating a story in dramatic play is an excellent way to spur children’s creativity while practicing cooperative skills. When I was young, we turned our backyard into a haunted “house” experience every Halloween and all of the kids in the neighborhood worked together (without adult intervention) to create it. We also cooperatively created imaginary commercials and video recorded them being performed (Thanks, Dad for that great idea!). “Simon Says” is an example of a game that encourages turn-taking in being a director or rule enforcer. This will give children practice in regulating others so that they can work on their own self-regulation. For more terrific cooperative games, check out the book Adventures in Peacemaking.[ii]

Reframe tattle telling and attempts to control others.  If you watched a video tape of me as a child playing with the neighborhood kids, you might call me “bossy.” Many did. But in reality, I was developing self-regulation skills. All children begin learning self-regulation by first, watching others making mistakes and breaking rules. Children can see the mistakes made by other children much more clearly than they can recognize it in themselves. A child who “tattles” on another child is actually working on regulating others to help himself internalize and learn self-regulation.[iii] Often children are scolded for this behavior because many parents don’t realize this is an important part of their learning process. Parents may worry that their child is becoming a household dictator rather than practicing understanding and following rules and expectations. Instead of reprimanding a child for “tattling” on a sibling or friend, you can respond in a way that respects their learning process. Your child might say, “Becky just ripped a page out of the book and that’s wrong.” You might respond with, “I’m glad you understand that that’s not an acceptable thing to do but I’m guessing Becky is just learning that rule. Let’s go talk with her and see how we can help her repair the book.”

Try something new for fun.  Introduce your children to a new experience or activity and then help them through the learning process. Recently I took E ice skating for the first time on his day off of school. I had forgotten how difficult it was to find balance on the ice and get into a rhythm. He fell a lot. He clung tenaciously to the side wall and to my hands as I tried to gain my own balance to support him. With gentle coaching and occasional words of encouragement, he kept going. And when I asked him if he wanted a break, he didn’t. He was determined to get better and not fall. And he did, of course.  A new sport, craft, musical endeavor or other activity that requires some skill will offer a fun, low pressure way for your children to experience the process of using their self-control to persist in learning a new skill.

Create a Responsive Environment

Be consistent with rules and routines. “I’m so tired. We don’t need go through the whole bedtime routine with books tonight,” might be an idea that’s rattled around in your head from time to time. Or “If I say no, he’s going to throw a fit. Am I up for the fight I know is coming?” It’s challenging in parents’ busy lives to be consistent with rules and routines. It’s even more challenging to create consistency between two busy parents who are on different schedules and have little time to talk more less coordinate rules and routine enforcement strategies! It makes sense to revisit rules and routines of the household periodically involving all members in the conversation (family meeting?) to ensure that all are in agreement.

Ultimately rules serve the purpose of helping all family members achieve their individual and collective goals. Adults need boundaries just as much as children. If children are allowed to enter into a conversation about the rules beginning with their own articulation of their goals for themselves, they come to understand that the rules help them achieve their dreams. As participants in the creation, children will be more willing and responsible participants in upholding your family’s expectations.

One of the standards in our household we reinforce daily is that all toys must be picked up and put away before bedtime. Does E always like that? No. But it is critical that the routines of the household are consistently upheld so that children are learning and practicing expected behaviors (and not confused by changing expectations). Children are also watching parents model their own self-control when they are tired and do not want to, yet again, say no or reinforce a limit.

Toilets overflow and flood the bathroom. Children get the flu but deadlines for blog articles must be met. And in the midst of it all, it often seems we have to focus on our own self-control to get through the day. A sense of humor helps. And an awareness that as we are talking with our children about their hopes and dreams, assisting them in trying something new or helping them mop up the bathroom floor, we are giving them practice in a skill that will serve them for a lifetime.

[i] Giedd, J. N., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N. O., Castellanos, F. X., Liu, H., Zijdenbos, A., et al. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: A longitudinal MRI study. Nature Neuroscience, 2(10): 861–863.

[ii] Kriedler, W., & Furlong, L. (1995). Adventures in peacemaking; A conflict resolution activity guide for school-age programs. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.

 [iii] Bodrova, E., & Leong, D.J. (2007). Tools of the mind; The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education. (2nd Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Readers’ Responses to “How do you teach your children self-control?”

Shannon illustration 001Lots of pretend play! If they pretend to be someone with self-control (like a mom in a long line at the grocery store)….they are practicing having self-control!

– Shannon B. Wanless, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Program of Applied Developmental Psychology, Department of Psychology in Education, School of Education, University of Pittsburgh

Heather illustration 001I make my kids save and use their own money whenever they want something that isn’t a “need.” If they don’t think it’s important enough to work and save for, then why should I work and spend MY money? I get a kick out of my kids saying they can wait till Christmas when it’s only August.

To combat eating junk food, I’ll tell them to have a healthier choice first. This helps take the focus from junk food just because we are feeling hungry.
– Heather, The Helpful Counselor

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– Kimberly Allison, Co-Owner, Table 365



Even beforeJeanne Illustration 001 I knew about it (back when our kids were in preschool) a very intuitive pediatrician spoke at our Montessori school and made a point of making your kids wait, deliberately. It seemed so counter-intuitive to me then, but I came to understand it and use it. She said NOT to immediately grant our kids’ requests but to say, “I’ll get it for you in a moment.” Then to pause, finish what we are doing, and provide the requested item or help. If kids are confident that you will get them what they need (have trust in the parent), they can wait. That was one of my first parenting lessons and it sunk in.

 I recently wrote a webpage for the school district I am working for and it was posted last week. See our SEL@Home. It includes this message about waiting!

– Jeanne Osgood, Consultant, Community Consolidated School District 181, Hinsdale, IL

The Power of Self Control

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We are the hero of our own story.

– Mary McCarthy

In the hero’s journey, an ordinary person is called through extraordinary circumstances to sacrifice a part of him or herself in order to serve the greater good. In doing so, the reward or victory is self knowledge and a demonstration of character that the hero must then use in the world from which he or she came.[i] To be a Jedi Knight in the classic story Star Wars, the means through which Luke Skywalker defeated the darkness was by learning self discipline. Yoda teaches, “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are.”[ii] The modern day hero in all of us must defeat the dark forces of fear, ignorance, greed and ego. Listening to and following our truth when faced with difficult decisions requires practice and repeated trials. Temptation to stray from the hero’s path is part of the initiation. The hero typically fails in his attempts numerous times but persists in striving toward greater self control and self knowledge.

Though the conditions and circumstances differ dramatically, we are all working on our own hero’s journey. And in that process, we are all learning self control. From resisting unhealthy foods and drinks, to messaging or email checking, exercising, watching television, committing to social engagements, working, sleeping, investing ourselves in relationships or taking incremental steps toward a larger goal (home improvement, going back to school, or advocating for a cause), we have multiple opportunities daily to practice and model self discipline for our children.

We adults have problems with self control. So it no surprise that our children also need to learn to control their impulses and become self disciplined. Yet they are faced with a more challenging environment to learn this skill than we ourselves ever had to deal with growing up. The media alone competing for their attention has heightened the level of self discipline required to pursue goals. However despite the difficulty, if there is one skill to be sure and teach your child, it’s self control. Why? At the most basic level, when children are really mad, practice in impulse control will stop them from lashing out at someone through words or fists. But also for our children’s future, learning self control will help them achieve even their most challenging and meaningful goals. It enables a person to put off the temptations of the moment in order to work toward a larger cause that requires persistence and hard work. It also enables a person to be self reflective and make choices that are based upon a sense of ethics, integrity and an awareness of the impact on the greater good. The teaching of self control is character education. Pursuing higher education, being successful in a career, sustaining a marriage, raising confident children or making a contribution to the community all require setting long term goals and investing the time, energy and hard work necessary to achieve them.

In addition to those challenges however, there is an intrinsic personal motivation to learn and practice self control. That’s because all people need to feel a sense of autonomy, belonging and competence (the ABCs of motivation).[iii] Children often say in one way or another, “I can do it myself.” as early as they can communicate it. They want to exert their independence, take responsibility and demonstrate they are competent. Practice in self control will support them in achieving even their most challenging goals.

Because it’s so amusing and demonstrates the importance of self control, here is the story of the Marshmallow Experiment originally conducted in the 1960s by researcher Walter Mischel.[iv] It was popularized in the 1990s by the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence,[v] Daniel Goleman. Researchers at Stanford University studied four year olds and their ability to resist marshmallows. One mouth-watering marshmallow was placed in front of each child and they were told that if they could wait until the researcher ran a quick errand, they could have TWO marshmallows. If they could not wait, they could eat it, or could ring a bell while the researcher was gone. The researcher would come back and they could eat the one marshmallow. Of those four year olds tested, the group divided up fairly equally into one third eating the one marshmallow immediately, one third ringing the bell for one marshmallow, and the final third waiting the full time with the reward of two plump marshmallows and a grand future. All of the children were followed through their school years into their twenties. Those who couldn’t wait were more likely to do poorly in their academics, have discipline problems and not go on to higher education. The group who waited for the two marshmallows scored an average 210 points higher on SATs versus their marshmallow-popping comrades. They had higher GPAs, went on to university education, and generally experienced greater success. If you have five minutes, enjoy watching a news story in which they recreated the experiment.

What does this really mean for me and my family? If I conduct this experiment on my child and he eats the marshmallow, is he doomed? No! Of course not. But it does mean that you need to find opportunities for your children to practice self control in everyday life so that when the big choices come around – like taking or not taking recreational drugs, getting into healthy or dysfunctional relationships or working hard to get into good colleges – you will be confident that your children are ready to make those decisions responsibly. Becoming a skilled practitioner of self control can give your children more power and control to be the hero in their own lives.

So now that you are convinced it’s a critical skill for your children to learn, how do you make sure they learn it? The best way is to give children plenty of practice. No, I’m not proposing the marshmallow experiment in your home which could lead to a full scale meltdown since you would be a parent withholding treats and not a researcher. The experts of the Responsive Classroom program write, “If we want children to get better at piano, what do we tell them? Practice! If we want them to get better at reading or math or spelling, what do we tell them? Practice! But if we want them to get better at developing self control and responsibility, then what do we tell them? Be good! The step we too often miss is practice.”[vi]

I’ve asked the question of you – how do you teach self control at home? Next week Confident Parents, Confident Kids will list a series of simple strategies and also post your responses. You can send your response to and if you include a photograph of yourself, I’ll include an illustration of your picture with your response.

[i] Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. Bollingen, Switzerland: Bollingen Foundation.

[ii] Lucas, G., Gilroy, H. & Takeuchi, A. (2008). Star Wars: The Clone Wars, “Lair of Grievous.” Lucasfilm Ltd.

[iii] Ryan, R. M., Lynch, M. F., Vansteenkiste, M., Deci, E. L. (2011). Motivation and autonomy in counseling, psychotherapy, and behavior change: A look at theory and practice. The Counseling Psychologist, 39, 193–260.

[iv] Mischel, W., Ebbeson, B. E.,& Zeiss, A.R. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 21 (2): 204–218.

[v] Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional intelligence; Why it can matter more than IQ. NY: Bantam Books.

[vi] Brady, K., Forton, M.B., Porter, D. (2010). Rules in school. Turner Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

How do you teach your children self control?

The purpose of the blog is not only to send out helpful strategies and ideas for parents on ways to teach social and emotional skills, it is also to promote dialogue around those issues so that parents are contributing to this important conversation. To that end, please respond to the following question. Send your response to If you attach a photo of yourself, I will post your response with an illustration of your picture. Here’s to a rich dialogue!

How do you teach your children self control?

Dinner: Delight or Disaster?

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A smiling face is half the meal.

–          Proverb

Food is inherently social. Often mealtime can be a source of great stress with children. Each family members’ unspoken goals for the meal can differ. Parents want kids to sit down with them, eat a healthy meal and not waste food. Children are excited about seeing their parents and want to play and not sit and eat. It can also be a chaotic time. Sometimes one or both parents are coming in the door from a full day of work and needing a little space to transition. Children are eager to see the parents they’ve missed and share something about their day.

Dinner together has posed a great challenge for our family. Jason and I value our time together to sit down for a meal. We know it is important to connect after our busy day of work and play. E, our son, has always had a sense that he could control his food intake and make us crazy. Add to the mix a more formal setting (sitting down at the table together) with a need for manners and dinnertime became a veritable pressure cooker.

There are specific, simple ways that you can shake up the dinner dynamic and improve the tone of mealtime to create a more positive dining experience for all. Since we began applying these strategies, our mealtimes have been better. We enjoy each other at the dinner table – which, at one point, we thought might be impossible with a small child. Try one or all of the following and see if you don’t create some positive results.

  1. Involve children in the planning, shopping, preparation and clean up – all aspects of the meal. Children will feel a sense of ownership over the meal and be more invested in making it a good experience. They may even take pride in contributing to the cooking and preparation. You may not have time to involve children with every aspect of every meal  but consider just having them set the table and help clear the dishes. Maybe once a week you could involve them in the cooking process. Even very small children can assist by throwing vegetables into a pot of water or washing green beans in the sink. mom son cooking together illustr 2 001Also, children can get excited by selecting recipes and providing ideas for what they want to eat. Involvement in menu planning can go a long way toward them eating and participating at mealtime. Be sure and highlight their involvement when you are sitting down to eat so that all members know and can appreciate how the meal was planned and prepared.
  2. Take a moment to connect with your child before sitting down at the table particularly if you are coming from work and haven’t seen them for a while. Sit down and ask what they are playing with or about their day prior to the more formal setting of dinner. This provides a sense of calm and connection instead of bringing chaos and stress to the table.
  3. Adjust your seating. Take a look at where each member is sitting. If you and your partner are typically seated at either ends of your table, try repositioning yourself on the side of the table opposite your child or place a child on the end instead. Children are particularly sensitive to power dynamics since they have very little control over much of what happens to them. They are looking for opportunities to exert independence and control. Moving your seat across from where they are seated might give them a sense of equality.
  4. Give thanks. You don’t need to be a religious or even spiritual family to appreciate what you have. Take a moment before eating to appreciate each other, the day you’ve had, the good food and drink before you, and the people who put time and energy into shopping for, preparing and planning the meal. This can also help children learn about and appreciate where food comes from originally and how it ends up on our tables.
  5. Focus on being together and not on how much or what is eaten. Set a timer or point out a time to children on the clock. We set it for ten minutes for our five year old. Give them the responsibility of knowing when their minimum time to sit with you is up. E likes to prove that he can stay longer than the timer and we love his presence. This gives the child a sense of control and helps prevent a power struggle over sitting at the table and eating.
  6. Let go of worries about what is eaten. Make sure that the nutrients you care about your child getting are spread out through the day. Then, let go of your worries about finishing food. Also, serve small quantities that are more likely to get eaten. If you find that there is a lot of waste from dinner, continue to reduce the amount you serve letting children know the reason is to reduce waste.
  7. Focus your conversation on the children and then, when they go to play after their time is up at the table, you can connect with your partner on adult issues. Lead off with a statement – not a question – about something you know they did that day. “I saw Mitchell on the playground today. That’s so fun that you got to see him.” If you ask, “How was your day?” first, you may get a “Fine” followed by silence. Or if you ask, “What’d you do today?” you’ll likely get the “Nothing” response. Enter into a conversation about the child’s life without putting them on the spot and see what emerges.
  8. Set clear expectations for behavior. Boundaries for what is acceptable and unacceptable should be discussed at a time when it’s not dinner. This could be an easy conversation to introduce after dinner is over and the family has moved away from the table. For example, the “yuck” word is just not allowed at the table. The cook doesn’t deserve that kind of negative feedback. If your child uses a “yuck,” “blech” or “poo-ey”-type word or sound, tell them directly that your family does not use that word. Be sure you replace their comments with appropriate language so that they have something they can say. “I don’t like this, Mom. I’m not going to eat it.” Or “May I have something else?” If you are concerned that your children have developed a bad habit of using that kind of language, don’t worry. You can introduce a new rule or routine. Just do it. Announce it is a new rule and enlist their support in moving forward. As long as you consistently reinforce it, it will soon become a part of your family’s expectations for mealtime. Other expectations might be to turn off or not bring devices (cell phones, music or gaming devices) to the table.
  9. Give reminders and reinforcements for good manners before you are seated. If you are concerned about manners – using a fork, not using fingers for example – it’s best to give a reminder to just that child before you are seated at the table with the whole family. Then, you are not correcting them in front of the full family. If you need to remind them during dinner, make it quiet, direct and gentle. They will learn through your modeling and reminders but making a big deal of it can backfire and turn into another power struggle.
  10. Prepare your children for restaurant meals and for meals with other people. On the car ride to dinner, use the time to remind and reinforce. This is not the time for nagging or scolding. Here’s how it might go: “Remember, when we are at the restaurant that we all stay seated at the table through the whole meal. Last time, you ordered from the menu yourself and I saw you make eye contact with the waiter and tell her clearly what you want. That was great. Keep it up!” Keep it short. Give one reminder and one positive reinforcement so that it makes an impression and your child remembers your comments.

When in doubt, ask “What message am I sending or what am I teaching to my child through my words and actions?” As Jim Henson said, “[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”[i]  We know that modeling is one of the most powerful teaching tools so, at mealtime be sure that you are modeling the positive behaviors you want to see.

For more, check out the following terrific resources!

David, L., & Uhrenholdt, K. (2010). The family dinner: Great ways to connect with your kids, One meal at a time. NY: Hachette Book Group.

The producer of An Inconvenient Truth, Laurie David’s new mission is to help America’s overwhelmed families sit down to a Family Dinner, and she provides all the reasons, recipes and fun tools to do so.

Rosenstrach, J. (2012). Dinner: A Love Story: It all begins at the family table. NY: Harper Collins.

Part cookbook, part survival guide, Dinner: A Love Story has all of Jenny’s favorite meal ideas, suppertime tips, and cook’s secrets (read: cocktails) that help make dinner fun again.  – Everyday Food

Also, check out the article, The ABCs of the Family Dinner Table on the blog, Connecting Family and Seoul for lots of creative ideas for mealtime.

[i] Henson, J., Lithgow, J. & Muppets and Friends. (2005). It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider. NY: Hyperion Books.

A Truly Good Morning

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I love the mornings! I clap my hands every morning and say, ‘This is gonna be a great day!’

–      Dicky Fox, Jerry Maguire, 1996

Do you consider yourself a morning person? Are you someone who loves to get up bright and early and has energy and vocal cords that work by the break of daylight? I am not. The only decibel level that I would choose in the household before eight a.m. is silence with the exception of the putt, putt, beep of my coffee maker. Of course silence is just not possible in a family life with kids.

No matter whether you see yourself as a morning person or not, mornings in households with children can be chaotic. “Where are my gray pants?” asks your oldest child. “They’re in the laundry.” you respond. “Mom (add whiney tone), I can’t go to school without those pants!” There seem to be all kinds of issues that become critical in preparation for the day including producing breakfast, packing lunch, putting on appropriate clothing for the weather, and getting out of the door on time. However, there are ways to create a great start with your family each day. Borrowing from successful schools, you too can create a predictable routine in the morning that assures fun, connection and readiness for learning through a process called Morning Meeting[i] (developed by an excellent evidence-based social and emotional learning school program, Responsive Classroom). Similarly at home, it’s the routine and ritual of morning time and brief but important connections made that can pave the way for children and adults to have clear expectations about the day and carry out the responsibilities of the morning smoothly without nagging and hassle.

If you feel stressed early in the day or the household feels chaotic, here are some ideas for creating a truly good morning. First, take a moment to think about what makes that time feel out of control. Is it about time pressure? Are there arguments that occur time and again? If so, what are they? Think about those specific morning stressors as you read through the following ideas and think about how they might be addressed. In addition to preparation, the ideas to be implemented in the morning take mere minutes but can make the difference in creating a regular opportunity for a truly good morning.


If you want to improve your morning routine, talking about it when it’s NOT morning and you are at home and not under any time pressure is essential. Decide on a morning routine in a conversation with family members. Who gets into the bathroom when? What is the progression of events? With your children doing the writing or contributing to a drawing, make a poster or a simple sign for the refrigerator of your morning routine. Break it into simple, shortly stated steps. Number the steps and use as few words as possible though talk about what each step means for each member. This should provide you the opportunity for important leading conversations like, “When it’s time to get on socks and shoes, what could help you in doing that more quickly and without upset?” “Would it help if we picked out your socks the night before and laid them with your shoes?”

This is a good time for you to evaluate your own role in the morning. What stresses you? What can you do about it? Do you need more time in the morning? Can you get up any earlier? Can you enlist your partner to help with a portion of morning preparations regularly or periodically? Do you compete for the bathroom? Do you need to talk about and adjust the adult routines to create less stress in the morning? Small adjustments can mean the difference in starting off the day better.


It is interesting how it is so easy to take for granted those people that mean the most to you since you see them every day. Greeting each member of the family every morning may seem basic and even ridiculous but since it can mean the difference between feeling connected or disconnected, starting off your day well or distressed, it’s worth mentioning. A simple “Good Morning.” with a hug or kiss or touch can be all you need to model for children how they should greet a person. Greeting others is not something that children know or learn automatically. In fact, have you encountered children who are unable to look you in the eye and greet you? There are children in middle and high school who still are unable to greet adults when they are addressed with a simple “Hello.” Model this practice each morning by greeting your children and your partner. It may take a little effort, but once you are in the habit, you won’t need to think about it and your family will benefit from that quick reminder each morning that all members are seen, recognized and appreciated.


Taking a moment over the breakfast table or on the car ride to school to share hopes and expectations for the day can help calm nerves and help children become ready for the school day and learning. So many things occur while children are at school and commonly, children only relay a small fraction of what occurs. So there could be worries of which you are unaware about other children, teachers or subjects that are on their minds prior to the start of the school day. Model first by sharing your own hope for the day. “I hope we see some sunshine and can get outside at least a little while to play today and take a walk after school.” “What’s your hope for today?” And take this opportunity to let your child know what’s planned. Are there any special events? Do you know what they are going to be learning about? What’s special about today? Setting expectations can help provide a smoother transition into the learning environment at school.


After you’ve shared hopes and expectations for the day, it’s a perfect time to remind a child about a positive behavior you want to reinforce. Maybe they have been excluding other children at school and you’ve had discussions about how to be a good friend. This is a great time to remind them of those positive behaviors that you hope they’ll practice at school. This does not include scolding or nagging and in fact, will be less effective and possibly backfire if you communicate in that kind of tone. A reminder can be kept positive by showing through your words and tone that you are confident that they can perform the expected behaviors with competence. “I know you will do all you can today to include the new student in your games on the playground.” “You’ve really been making an effort to show you are a leader by welcoming new kids in your class.”

And finally, remind your child of when you’ll see them next.  Remember the days in preschool when your child clung to you with strength and passion and tears and didn’t want you to leave. Kids all the way through the teenage years experience those healthy feelings of attachment to their parents though they learn not to show it in those ways. Let your child know when and how you’ll see them next and they’ll begin their day with the confidence of knowing that home and a trusted parent awaits at the end of their school day. And of course, no child can hear the sacred words, “I love you and I’m proud of you.” enough so use this daily parting as yet another excuse to say it. These small efforts are worth it to create a truly good morning.

[i] Kriete, R., & Bechtel, L. (2002). The morning meeting book. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.


Happy New Year!

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Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1850

Confident Parents, Confident Kids wishes you a happy new year! We are spending this holiday season with family and friends but will return next Friday and each Friday with high quality, relevant articles to support you in being the best parent you can be — teaching social and emotional skills and creating a caring family environment at home. In 2013, we hope you will join the dialogue! When you think about resolutions, goals and plans for the new year, consider setting this as a goal for your family.

More to come!


Play and a Happy Holiday to You!

Mom (and this Blog's Editor) with Author, Jennifer Miller circa 1976-ish
Mom (and this Blog’s Editor) with Author, Jennifer Miller circa 1976-ish

In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.

– Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Since Christmas is the holiday I celebrate in the coming week and toys are filling my head and attic, I thought it appropriate to focus this article on the importance of play in a child’s life. In our household, we’ve decorated the Christmas tree with ornaments that remind us of vacations, happy times, Christmases and relatives. My husband and I, in addition to wrapping up work, are busy getting gifts, baking cookies, writing cards and hosting gatherings for all of those friends, teachers and colleagues who have played a meaningful role in our lives this year. We are also busy thinking about, planning for and buying gifts for our son that will give him joy and engage his imagination. We – like many – hope for a magical Christmas in which our family feels a sense of joy in giving, in our connectedness as a family and in an appreciation of the good life that we have.

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Dad and Author, Jennifer Miller, Christmas 1980-ish

A good part of my child’s happiness is centered around play. Play is the vehicle through which some of the most fundamental developmental leaps of learning take place. It is the central vocation of childhood. And toys are the tools of the trade. In some developing countries where toys are not readily available, children play with the tools of the household imitating the adults around them to learn how things work. While I cook on the real stove, Ethan bakes a batch of cookies in his play kitchen set. Development, moving from one level of thinking and ability to the next, takes place when a child is in a window of time in which he/she is ready (developmentalist Lev Vygotsky called it the zone of proximal development). Play moves a child toward those next steps when they are ready. And interaction between a child playing with a more competent adult or older child can help facilitate those developmental jumps.

When does a child stop playing? When does play stop enhancing a person’s development? It doesn’t ever have to stop. Teenagers engage in play with video games, puzzles, board games, novels and social fantasies. As adults, though we have less opportunity for play, we do engage in creative endeavors that often times are the most fulfilling because they come from our intrinsic desires to express ourselves.

So my holiday wish for you is that you take time to play. Get down on the floor or if you have back troubles like my husband, sit in your comfy chair. Play can take place anywhere with many toys or none at all. You could be on a bus, a train or an airplane and if you’ve brought your imagination along, the sky is the limit. Here are some easy ways to engage in play this season.

Just do it. Get down on the floor and play. Engage in the interests of your child and see where it takes you. Build a new track system for a train. Rearrange a dollhouse. Build a fort of pillows.

Take a mental trip. Read a book together or if you feel particularly creative, close your eyes with your child, decide on a destination (the beach, Grandma’s House or Outer Space?) and describe your incredible journey to get there and what and who you encounter when you get there. Include details of the experience from your five senses and you will help transport you and your child.

Build a story. Look back at photo albums from former trips and vacations. Make up a story together set in your favorite location.

Buy toys that engage the imagination. Costumes are a terrific way for a child to engage in pretend play. You can likely find some dress-up clothes in your closet. But toy stores also sell a variety of occupational dress-up clothes (chef, police officer, fire person, postal worker, train conductor, princess). Any play sets that involve characters (people, animals, trains, cars, fairies) engage the imagination. Toys that are household tools like blenders, screwdrivers and vacuums are ways that children can play grown-up. For young adults, games, chemistry sets and art supplies can be both fun and engaging.

Reap the benefits of one of the greatest gifts your children can give – attention and presence in the moment. Children naturally have the gift of mindfulness, being aware of what’s going on at the moment it is happening. They learn in time from the adult world to multi-task and become distracted and scattered. But inherent in children is the ability to focus on something they are truly interested in through their creativity and imagination. Take advantage of that gift and experience a sense of timelessness, of “flow.” Turn over rocks in the garden and see what’s there.

I try to “walk the talk” so after I wrote the draft of this article, I played with my son for an hour before it was time to make dinner. I let him lead and cars zoomed off cliffs. The big yoga ball came out for some crazy rolling. Tickling ensued and Daddy joined in. I laughed until my belly ached. So that is my wish for you this holiday. Play! May your belly ache with laughter!


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