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Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings,  I teach parent education and parenting classes because parenting is a skill—not something we are born knowing. Get the parenting skills you need today!

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Keep Your Kids Stress Free During the Holidays by Managing Your Own Stress in These Two Key Areas

Elisabeth Stitt

 

By Elisabeth Stitt

Do you remember Christmas as magical? Many people do.  But that was not my experience of Christmas as a child. Indeed, even as an adult, it took many years to experience awe and beauty in Christmas.  Now I love the magic of Christmas, but I’m sure you’ll agree, it can be hard to find and sustain the magic under all the stress.  Growing up I spent the month of December waiting for my mom to blow up.  She so wanted—really wanted—to create magical Christmases for us—and there certainly were moments of warmth and togetherness.  But mostly, we never knew when the gulf between the scene she imagined in her head and the reality of creating (and getting my father on board for) that scene would have her resembling a Halloween witch rather than a Christmas angel.  

Of course, kids can be stressed during the holidays as their routines get upset and they are vulnerable to being over stimulated, but my experience is that their stress depends largely on how stressed their parents are.  In talking with parents, I have found there are two big areas that bring up a lot of adult tension during the season.  

Tip #1:  OVERSPENDING

     In most partnerships there are two different approaches to spending money.  They say that opposites attract, and while I don’t think that is always true, I do think there is something to the notion that part of our attraction to our partners is for something they have or can do easily that we wish we had or could do easily.  My husband is a spender.  I am a saver.  A lifetime of saving has left me wondering if I’m missing something—a little fun maybe?  a little spontaneity? a little luxury?  Living with my husband has been a lesson in learning to spend more and enjoy it!  I am more willing, for example, to invest in something pretty even if it will only get used at Christmas time.  I delight more in buying special holiday foods.  That being said,  I do not think “But it’s Christmas!” is an invitation to spend without thinking.  

     With luck, you and your spouse are learning and growing from each other when it comes to spending.  But if anything is going to bring up money conflicts, I have found the holiday season to be it.  So, my recommendation is to have the conversations early and often.  The saver in the family will want to argue down every little dime.  See if you can adopt an attitude of not worrying about every 3rd or 4th thing and just buying it.  The spender in the family will spend without thinking and will come home sheepishly with packages.  See if you can actively resist buying the third or fourth thing.  If you are a saver, it might help to remember Christmas does come but once a year.  If you are a spender, it might reassure you to remember the Youtube video that came out that showed the kids willing to give up ALL their Christmas presents if it meant that their parents got something they wanted or needed.  More is not more, and sometimes less is more.  Meeting each other in the middle is what will allow both of you to move through the holiday season with a minimum of stress.  

Tip #2:  DEALING WITH EXTENDED FAMILY

     The first stress extended family brings up is who is going to have Christmas where.  Will you switch off between husband’s family and wife’s family every year?  What about with divorced families?  And what happens as the children grow and begin to have serious romantic relationships of their own? No matter how you draw the lines, it seems like someone is disappointed.  Kids overhear our conversations about the logistics and feel disloyal if they want something else. I have no good solutions for these challenges other than to acknowledge that it is stressful and with a deep, deep breath try to let go of the emotion attached to it.  The other step I take for my own self is to have a small ritual that counts as the core of Christmas to me.  That way, no matter who comes to our house or whose house we celebrate at, my daughter and I have sung Silent Night by the lights of the Christmas tree.  I feel like as long as we have that, we can flex with the rest.  

     Family is also often a double edge sword.  On the one hand we long to be all together.  On the other hand not everyone gets along equally.  Here are some of the more mild complaints I’ve heard recently: 

• I like my mother-in-law but she makes me feel like a complete dud in the kitchen, and when I bring something store-bought rather than risk my poor skills, she looks at me like I don’t care enough to make homemade.   

•My father-in-law is a nice enough man.  Until he’s had a little too much egg nog.

•Jack’s sister is great fun, but she has no control at all over her kids and it makes every meal a circus.  

The fact that Christmas comes once a year makes the little time we have together feel more precious, so it has to be perfect.  That makes us less tolerant than we might otherwise be.  

And what is it about stepping back into our childhood homes that makes us feel—and act!—like children again?  I am a mature, generally very secure woman.  But when the whole family is together I fall into the pattern of waiting for people to tell me where to sit, how to help and generally what to do.  No matter how pulled together I feel in front of the mirror in the morning, I wait for my sister’s glance that says I am a disappointment.  Over the years, I have learned what triggers me and am able to sidestep the trigger with more grace.  I recognize that most of what is going on is just in my head, and I just have to let it go.   

Acknowledging to your kids what happens when adult children go home can help prepare them for your unexpected responses and moods.  

Of course there other reasons we get stressed during the holidays.  Quite simply—however lovely events might be—the late nights and break from routines will stress us.  If you can deal with the two biggies—money and family—you will be in better shape to adjust to the late nights and extra socializing.  

 

Are You a Bad Mother?

Elisabeth Stitt

I AM A BAD MOTHER BECAUSE….

 

As parents we can feel guilty not only about the decisions we make but even about the things that are beyond our control.  What parents need to understand, however, is that every decision offers opportunities for learning and/or for some advantage.

 

Let’s look at four situations a parent might feel guilty about that actually can be really beneficial to their kids. 

 

1.     I am a single or divorced mom.

 

Even if you grew up with a single mom or divorced parents, it can be really hard to give up the notion that family = mom, dad, sister, brother and maybe the family dog.  As a single or divorced mom, you might feel like there is no way you can be enough of what your child needs. 

 

Here’s the reality:  Single and divorced moms are much less likely to fall into the trap of doing too much for their kids.  They just don’t have the time.  Stay-at-home moms, for example, tend to feel that they have to make their children’s breakfasts and lunches to be good moms.  Doing so robs children control around food.  For one, it tends to make food an ego thing (You like my food = you like me.)  For two, children who have to make their own breakfast and lunch make what they will actually eat.  Parents still get to set guidelines about the kind of food, but kids are the ones who actually know what they will eat when they get to school.  That way a lot less food gets wasted, and it cuts down on parent-child conflicts. 

 

2.       I work full time.

 

Again, more than 50 years after the 1950’s there still seems to be this notion that good moms stay at home.  Smooth running, calm households where Mom is always accessible (perhaps with her apron tied around her waist?) appear picture perfect in our minds as the goal to aspire to.

 

Here’s the reality:  Working moms tend to give their kids more space.  Busy with their own agendas, they are more likely to check in but then expect kids to get their work done pretty independently.  Moms who are not working are more likely to get overly involved with their kids.  I remember a mentor of mine saying, “Elisabeth, it is a good thing you work.  You are pretty intense, and all that energy poured into your daughter would be a lot for her to stand up against.”  You can imagine, I was a little stunned when she said that.  Wasn’t the ideal to spend as much time with your kids as possible?  But looking back, I can see the truth of it.  I would have been wanting to teach her something all the time, to instruct her, to suggest a better way of doing things.  As it was, I always had my next set of essays to grade and was much more likely to mutter, let me know if you need any help.   

 

 

3.       I don’t have enough money to give my kids what they need. 

 

Whether you live in a poor neighborhood or a rich neighborhood, you are always going to be able to look around and find families who appear to be giving more to their kids than you are.  Sometimes the pressure is worse in rich neighborhoods where it appears that there is no limit to the amount of money people will spend on their kids.  Here in Silicon Valley, it is routine for parents to provide extra weekly tutoring even for students who are not struggling—just to be on the safe side.  Parents who are not doing the same easily feel they are failing their child.

 

Here’s the reality:  Kids need love.  They need the security of knowing that no matter what happens their parent is there for them.  Furthermore, kids are resilient. Kids who are told frankly, we don’t have money for a private tutor, can help by researching and brainstorming other possibilities such as teen centers or free tutors at the library.  Being empowered to be part of the solution makes kids feel important and like they are part of the team.  Besides, more important than any specific tutoring a child might get is the parent’s belief in the child.  The will to succeed is more important than the skill of the teacher.  Every parent can help a child develop a growth mindset by having him focus on effort, improvement and looking for a new strategy to try.  A parent’s greatest power is holding fast to the vision of what is possible for the child. 

 

4.     I didn’t grow up here; my English isn’t very good. 

 

I am still living in the area I grew up and I know that that made it easier for me to know about and access resources for my daughter.  She went to a wonderful school I would probably not have been aware of if it weren’t in my hometown. She got her medical care at the same clinic I did as a child.  I knew exactly what kind of education she would need for the path to college.  I feared, however, she was in danger of being limited in her view of the world. 

 

Here’s the reality:  Yes, raising your child in a new environment will be harder for you in many ways.  And at the same time, you have a richer, broader perspective to give your child.  First of all, if you speak another language at home—though it may be more challenging for your child in the short run—in the long run the research is showing that bilingual children have many advantages when it comes to being successful.  Bilingual students’ brains are able to handle more complexities—perhaps because they have always had to process information in two languages.   Additionally, you will be able to teach your child lessons about life and culture in other parts of the world.  They will be much more prepared for meeting people with different expectations and ways of doing things.  This will make them more flexible and better able to adapt to different school and work environments. 

 

What if you are a happily married, rich, stay-at-home mom who grew up in the town you live in?  Should you now feel worried you are not being the best parent you can be?  Please don’t play that game with yourself!  My point here is that every life situation has advantages and disadvantages.  Every child will learn important lessons from you and still have to go out in the world and learn a lot more lessons that it wasn’t in you to teach.  Trust that whatever your current situation, there is value in it for your child.  Worry more about what you can give your child rather than what you can’t. 

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF MY KINDERGARTENER IS OUT OF CONTROL AT SCHOOL?

Elisabeth Stitt

 

There can be lots of reasons why your child is out of control. What you should do depends on why he is out of control. (For the purpose of simplicity, I am going to address this with the masculine gender, though it could just as easily be a girl who is out of control.)

Is this his first experience with school? These days, Kindergarten can be a real shock for kids who have had not gone to childcare or preschool up until now in their lives. It could just be that he is totally unused to having restrictions placed on him. Other children may have already learned “school” skills like lining up quietly, taking turns, sitting still, listening to the teacher’s directions. If your son has not, start by reassuring him that he will learn these skills and it will get easier and easier to control himself.

If he is not out of control at home, is it because you always accommodate him? Perhaps he has never had to throw a fit to get what he wants, because it has always been easy to give him whatever he wants. Again, sometimes with an only child, a parent does not even realize how often he is giving into his child’s demands because there is no other child making counter demands. If that is the case, although it might make life at home harder in the short run, you can lovingly teach him about limits by beginning to set some expectations. Perhaps you are going to ask him to sit at the grown-up table and turn off the tv during dinner. If he has always eaten in front of the tv, this could be a big battle. That’s okay. Right now, you are trying to teach him that life will not always be arranged just as he would like it to be. Just offer him lots of sympathy that it is hard when expectations change but assure him that you are looking forward to having him at the table so that there can be pleasant conversation at dinner. If he has a tantrum, stay with him, empathize that change is hard and keep repeating that it will get easier. The day will come when he will sit happily at the table and share in the dinner conversation. Learning to do this at home will help him to learn to do it at school.

Kids can also lose control at school because they are overstimulated. Again, if he has not been in a group setting before, the shear number of kids could be overloading his system. Or the noise. Or the lights of the classroom. Or the many transitions. Talk to your son. Say, “You seem to be having a hard time controlling yourself at school. Why is that?” If he has a clear answer, go to the solution phase. Talk with his teacher and get her input on ways to give your son some relief. Ideas might include permission to go to a quiet corner, to step outside, or to find a desk that is away from everyone else (or at least is together with quieter students). Some teachers might allow him to wear ear plugs or ear buds (that aren’t attached to anything) if noise is an issue. If light is an issue, maybe he can work underneath his desk. Keep trying different solutions until you find one that allows him to remain in class without over loading.

Does your child lean towards anxiety? This could be another reason he is out of control at school. If this is the case, yelling and running around may be an effort to calm his nervous system. He can learn to replace out-of-control outbursts with other calming, anxiety reducing techniques like deep breathing, closing his eyes, squeezing a ball or stuffed animal. At home you can help him by training him to be able to imagine a calm, safe space so that he can call that image up in his mind when he gets stressed at school.

If none of these possible reasons for his out of control behavior feel right, see if you can get permission from the teacher to observe him at school some day. Just sit in the back of the room and take notes. Write down the time and what you see in language that is neutral as possible (ie, what any objective observer would, not what his loving mother would intuit). Share these observation notes with the teacher and principal of your son’s school. They are experienced professionals and this data will help them make recommendations tailored to your son.

My #1 Tip for Helping with College Admissions Essays (The younger your child, the more you need this!)

Elisabeth Stitt

was an English teacher for 25 years and worked as a writing tutor on the side, often helping kids with their college app, including my own three children. That experience has given me my own perspective on the college admissions essay process. 

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Teaching Kids to Meditate: Ages 2 to 12

Elisabeth Stitt

You have probably heard of the benefits of routine meditation practices.  Studies have linked meditation to decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life.  Studies have even found that people who practiced meditation regularly had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.  A parent asked me how young you can start meditation with children.  I don’t know, though there are studies on kids as young as second grade, and my guess is there is no reason not to start sooner—as long as it is does not become one more thing parents feel they should do with their kids.  With one in five children saying they worry “a lot or a great deal” about their lives, meditation may be one way for them to calm their monkey brain.

The question is how to teach very young children to meditate.  I would start by saying it is a process! 

An important aspect of meditation is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is really about paying attention to the moment by opening one’s senses fully. Ask children to sit and close their eyes. What do they hear? smell? What textures are they aware of? Can they feel their bones on the ground? Can they feel the movement of their body as they breath in and out? Can they hear their heart beating? Can they slow their breath but breathing in? Over time have kids extend the number of seconds it takes to breath in, pause, and then breath out, pause, breathe in, pause, breath out, pause.

Get kids to become aware of when and where they are tense.

The next approach might be teaching them to tense and relax different parts of their body. (In a classroom, this can be done sitting at their desks). This helps them learn to focus and it helps them feel the difference between tense and relaxed muscles. Work from the toes up to the head. Ask children to curl their toes as hard as they can and then relax, flex their feet as hard as they can and then relax, tighten their straight legs as hard as they can by pulling them together. Continue to work in this way up through the top of their head. Then work back down to their toes. Then ask them to take a deep breath in and out and as they let the air out to let their whole body relax.

Kids are naturals at guided meditations as they already live in their imaginations. 

As a third step, have kids do a guided meditation. I have introduced kids to this as an eyes open exercise. I have allowed them to draw or color as I imagine them walking through nature. With a recording of sounds of nature playing in the background, I guide them down a woodland path to a glen with wild flowers and birds and a still pond with water bugs making the only movement on the water. As I describe it, they draw whatever they are inspired to draw.

With kids at home, choose a time when your kids are sleepy and you can go straight to going to eyes closed on the floor or even in bed and just have them imagine the journey. If you have the space in the classroom for your kids to lie on the floor, then work towards having them do the guided meditation not drawing but just with their eyes closed. Start with short ones and then as they learn to settle into it, you can make them longer. (A guided meditation can be an excellent introduction to a writing exercise. You might ask them, for example, to describe what they see in the glen when they get there. Or if there is a river in the guided meditation, ask them what they find further down the river.

If none of these techniques work, don't worry.  Modeling meditation through developing your own daily practice might work.  Or you might just wait six months and try then. 

A combination of these ideas keeps things fresh for kids while at the same time helping them get the benefits we associate with meditation.  Again, take it slow!  Keep it light and playful.  You might scoff at the idea of a first grader worried because she has not been able to meditate right, but I have stood in line at the grocery store as one mother complained to another about her own meditation and watched the expression on her little girl's face.  To me it seemed to say, "Oh no.  One more thing for me to worry about!"  So, have fun with it.  If it helps your family--or one particular child--great!  If not, LET IT GO!!  Playing outside on the grass or climbing a tree will also go far to restoring kids' equilibrium.   

 


In the way that sometimes happens, I finish writing a blog and then I find another someone else who had covered the same material but even better!  You might enjoy this INFOGRAPHIC

What Is the Best Resource to Teach Kids Phonics?

Elisabeth Stitt

You. You are your child’s best resource.

The more you engage with your child, the more language she will learn. When you sing songs and chants, especially nursery rhymes, you are training her ear to hear differences and similarities in language. When you exaggerate the “buh” of bat and compare it to the “puh” of pat, you are teaching phonics in an organic way. Of course, you can also name the letter. Point out to your child she needs to p-p-p-pat the cat. That’s the letter P! You can even make a joke. You can say, “Don’t b-b-b-bat the cat with a B! Cats like p-p-p-pats with a P!”

Phonics is simply teaching the sound or sounds associated with a letter, combination of letters (like “sh”) or syllables.

Teach phonics awareness by connecting words to his how life.

Start with words that are the most meaningful to your child: his own name, Mom, Dad, the names of his siblings and pets. If he has a dolly or stuffy he is attached to, teach that. If he has a name like Thomas, teach “Th” as a unit and point out that sometimes it says “t” but mostly it says “th” as in Thank You.

Encourage your child to write. First this will be scribble. Just ask him what he has written. If he has written something about someone in the family, you can say, “Let’s write Mary’s name again.” Ask, “What sound do you hear in Mary?” He will probably pick out the “m.” Write a capital M. Then ask, “What other sounds do you hear?” He will probably identify the “r” or maybe the “e” sound from the Y. Leave the spaces for whatever sound he doesn’t hear and write down the sounds he does here. Then just tell him, “Mary also has an “a” here and and a “y” at the end.

As he gets more sophisticated he will begin to write words with the main sound. It might look like this: I lv mi dg rky. You will see he has written I love my dog Rocky. Pick out just one word (probably Rocky) to write out fully for him. Identify the “ck” combination as one of the ways we write the “kuh” sound.

Read, Read, Read

In addition to talking and singing lots, read lots. Lots. If you have a wiggler who can’t sit still, ask her to sit with you for the first story or the first few pages or the first chapter but then let her engage her hands with a puzzle or blocks or drawing. Even as she plays, you can stop your reading from time to time to highlight words or letters. Say things like, “The boy in this story is named Robby! Look. Robby starts with R and ends with y just like Rocky does. Can you tell me what the sound in the middle of Robbby is?”

The trick is to incorporate awareness of sounds and letters as you go throughout the day with your child, NOT to think, Oh, we have to drill phonics for 10 minutes a day! Leave the formal lessons to the teachers. You can do the fun lessons at home. As you are making cookies, ask your child to get you the flour container. He will probably be able to pick out the jar marked flour as compared to the jar marked sugar. (Don’t ask him for the jar marked sugar to begin with since the spelling of the “sh” sound as an “s” is not very common and is confusing. Of course, if he asks, just point out, “Mostly the letter S makes the “s” sound, but sometimes it makes the “sh” sound. Pretty sneaky, uh?”). If you print out the ingredients list in big print, he can help you read the ingredients. Adding pictures will help. In this way, he will see the purpose of reading in action. Reading = cookies!

Learning can happen anywhere.  

When you go outside, help him write letters and words in the dirt, in the sand, formed out with pebbles or sticks. In the bath, write letters with soap bubbles on the tiles. Finger paint is another awesome place for kids to practice letters.

Above all, don’t get carried away with teaching. As soon as it is no longer fun, you are being counter productive. Children naturally want to communicate. They see that letters and words are communicating all kinds of important information to adults all the time, and they want to be a part of that—if they are not pressured unduly.

SIBLING RIVALRY: What Role Do Parents Play in Keeping It in Check?

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt

What do sibling rivalry and scarcity have in common?

Much of sibling rivalry really stems from the fear that there is not enough to go around.  In the law of survival it makes perfect sense that a child would do her best to push her sibling aside so that she is sure to get what she needs.  Parents can counter that innate fear by making sure that each child gets enough attention and her share of resources

What it really comes down to, though, is teaching a philosophy of sufficiency rather than the tension of scarcity vs. abundance.  If a person sees the world as black and white—as I am one of the haves or one of the have nots—there is always the fear of loss on the one hand and the need to grab on the other.  This produces an internal anxiety which not only sets up a rivalry among siblings but carries insecure attitudes towards money and other resources into adulthood.  

Teach your kids: Once the bucket is full, you don’t need one more drop of water—or love

When kids learn that what they have is sufficient—whether that is clothes or food or parental attention, they let go of worry.  Knowing that everyone will get what he needs means that kids don’t have to get equal resources in order to feel secure.  Think of it as a bucket.  A full bucket of water is sufficient; there is no need for one extra drop of water.  A full bucket of water is enough, so you don’t really need one more drop, and it will probably go to waste.  It may even be unpleasant.  Consider how it feels to keep drinking water when you are no longer thirsty.  You feel bloated and tight and perhaps like you want to throw up.  Even very little kids can see that if you keep adding water to the bucket, all it does is flow over.  This begins to give them the sense that there can be too much of something--even a good thing.  

Another activity you can use to teach the concept of sufficiency is lighting one candle with the flame of another.  Tell your child that there is always love to go around.  Show how when you use the flame of one candle to light another candle, the first candle has just as much flame as it had before and can be used to light a third candle.  And even a fourth and fifth.  Some families “pass the love” by lighting a candle for each family member at dinner every night.  What a beautiful way to concretely remind a child that there is sufficient love for every one.

Help your kids understand that fair does not mean equal

Developmentally kids go through a stage where they are very concerned with fairness.  They tend to believe that fair is the same as equal.  They think if Brother has 3 trucks, I must have 3 trucks, too. One way to explore this concept with your kids is to observe your kids at play.  Note how many of something do they use.  I recently babysat a three-year-old who had his six fire trucks lined up ready to play with.  Once he started playing with one, I kept waiting for him to go back for more trucks with the idea that he was putting out a really big fire.  He did put out a big fire.  But one truck was all he could deal with at a time.  Watching him, it became clear to me that 6 firetrucks were certainly sufficient—likely even more than enough.  Would he have gotten more pleasure out of an 8th or 9th or 10th firetruck?  No!  Even if he had a sibling to compete with, there would have been no need for more fire trucks to have a good time.  And yet had he a sibling, I imagine that if he is living in the mode of scarcity, he would believe his brother having more took something away from him.  If all he needs is one truck to have fun, it is ridiculous to think that his brother having more robs him of his chance for happiness. 

Siblings who are reassured that there are sufficient toys—or treats or turns or hugs or whatever precious commodity of the moment—and that they are going to get what they need they learn not to confuse wanting and needing.  They let go of having to hoard what they have.  Just keep reminding kids (and modeling through your own words and deeds) that they have enough and that they should focus on fully enjoying and appreciating what they do have.  

Finally, families that have clear gratitude practices see less sibling rivalry.  That is especially true when it comes to love—there is more than enough to go around and as siblings they are especially fortunate because unlike some kids, they have parental love and sibling love!  When kids feel and express their gratitude for what they have in the world, they step into the idea of sufficiency. 

What else? 

Teaching your kids the idea of sufficiency does not mean they won't fight.  

At different ages and stages, you will need to take extra steps to make each child feel secure.  For example, making sure your second child feels fully included in the activities of the new baby being introduced to the household is key.  And you will still need to teach both children how to communicate peacefully and how to resolve conflict constructively.  It is just human nature that as individuals with different needs and sensitivities rub up against each other, there will be conflict.  It takes lots of support to teach kids the empathy and emotional awareness needed to be great friends as well as siblings.  

Is Sibling Rivalry Making Your Household Miserable? 

Let's talk!  Your kids are going to have each other a lot longer than they have you.  Having a good relationship with one's sibling is a gift your children will treasure their whole lives.  Sign up HERE for a complimentary strategy session where we will identify a plan for connection and warmth among your kids. 

Warmly,

Elisabeth

Elisabeth Stitt

Joyful Parenting Coaching  •  Elisabeth@stitt.com  •  650.248.8916

Homework: The Debate Continues: Helpful or Not?

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt  

Considering I taught in the public schools for 25 years, you would expect me to be a big proponent of homework.  At the end of the day, I am not, as it might be a waste of time and in some cases might do more harm than good.  Here are 5 considerations regarding homework. 

 

1.    Homework Does Not Give the Bang for the Buck You’d Expect

Considering all of the emphasis put on homework, you would expect it to make an enormous difference in student outcomes.  And while homework can improve student performance, there are a lot of guidelines for what makes effective homework and how much should be given.  In my experience, teachers mostly do not give homework that meets researchers’ recommendations for kind and amount.  Furthermore, I think most teachers—especially those without children of their own—have only a vague notion of the impact their assignments are causing at home. 

 

2.    Most Teachers Assign Homework That Is Easy to Grade—Or They Don’t Grade It Properly

I was an extremely hard-working and effective teacher.  I actually did assign writing assignments that actually did take me hours to grade. I kid you not.  An essay took at least 20 minutes to read, write comments on and assign a grade.  With 90-150 papers depending on the week, grading took a minimum of 30 hours to grade. If I assigned an essay every three weeks or so, that was 10-15 hours of grading a week minimum.  That alone might have been manageable, but that did not include the vocabulary, spelling and grammar work that I felt compelled to assign along side of that.  Swamped by the piles of paper I needed to process, those secondary assignments got short shrift (which students took full advantage of, writing ever more meaningless sentences such as “The boy was lethargic”). 

 

3.    Homework That Is Not Thoughtfully Graded and Returned to the Student Promptly Does Not Fulfill Its Purpose. 

Let’s take the vocabulary sentences example again.  A teacher assigns using the weekly vocabulary words in a sentence in order to show understanding of the words’ meanings.  Either the student writes a sentence so banal and without context that the word could mean anything (In “The boy was lethargic,” lethargic could as easily mean fat or kind hearted as apathetic) or the student uses the word incorrectly because he does not understand the meaning of the word.  If the teacher does not correct his paper and get it back to him the next day, he will not be able to correct his understanding before he fixes the word in his mind for a test.  In this case, not only has homework failed in its positive benefit, it has actually hurt the student be reinforcing a false concept. 

 

4.    Teachers Mostly Do Not Assign Recommended Amounts of Homework

I used to tell my students to work 25 minutes and stop.  Seventh graders at my school were supposed to get 25 minutes of work in each core subject (math, LA, social studies and science) adding up to a total of 100 minutes. [Note: research recommendations would be 70 minutes.] With the understanding that students took different amounts of time, we assumed that we were giving between an hour to two hours of homework a night.  (After two hours the efficacy of doing homework falls off completely). The reality was that kids were spending much longer on some teacher’s homework—either because they were struggling with the material and needed the time or because they were super conscientious and wanted a top grade no matter how long it took them.  The longer I taught, the more anxious kids got about their grade, and the more kids I had that fell into the last category.  But mostly, teachers didn’t know how long assignments took because they didn’t ask. 

 

5.    Parents give the wrong kind of help with homework.

Ideally, assignments would be just long enough to test or reinforce a concept.  Kids would do homework on their own; teachers would grade it immediately to assess whether or not the kids got the concept.  Parents would support the homework process by providing a quiet place to study (away from electronics) and asking open-ended questions like, “What strategy could you use to approach this problem?” or “Did you go back and review the material?” Ideally, parents’ focus would not be on the specific content but on helping the child develop strategies for breaking down and managing the work. 

 

6.    MY RECOMMENDATION

If homework in your house is taking more than the recommended 10 minutes per grade, I would start by keeping a log for a couple of weeks.  Write down how much time each child is spending on each subject.  Make note of how much help you need to give and what kind of help you have had to give.  If you end up regularly teaching concepts at home, ask to have a parent-teacher conference.  Ask the teacher if your child is paying attention and asking questions in class.  If no, that is where you need to help your child make changes.  If yes, then share with the teacher how much teaching you have had to do at home and ask her what her expectation is.  A good teacher will say, “If you teach at home and your child comes to school back with perfect homework, I assume I have taught the concept effectively.  I will not know that I need to adjust my teaching or leave more time for review.”  A poor teacher will complain about the number of standards she has to teach and whine that there is no way to get through them in a single year.  At that point, you might consider a conversation with the principal (bring your log).  In any case, I would put my foot down in my home and limit the amount of time students could spend on homework.  Children need play, they need downtime, and they need to participate in helping out with family life.  When we let homework dominate the day, we do a grave disservice.  

If Homework has taken over your home and you'd like some help putting it in its place, Sign up HERE for a "sample session" and we can make a plan that works for your family.

Tips for Getting Kids to Sleep and to Stay Asleep

Elisabeth Stitt

Here are some of my guidelines for getting kids to sleep and to stay asleep

 

Consistency, consistency, consistency

The actual practice that a parent sets up for getting a child to fall asleep independently is less important than that he sticks with it from as early an age as possible.  At heart we are creatures of habit, and like Pavlov’s dogs, given stimulus A we will react with response A.  That means the same general sequence of events—done night after night--will signal to our body, sleep time is coming. 

•Put your kids to bed earlier than you might think.

If your child needs to up by 7:30 a.m. in order to get through the morning routine and off to childcare on time, she should probably be asleep by around 7:30 p.m.  That means starting bedtime around 7:00 p.m.!  That might seem impossible.  By the time you are coming in from work and picking your kids up from childcare, you might be lucky to get dinner on the table by 7:00 p.m. If your child is a really solid napper (at least 2-3 hours a day), you might be able to fudge this, but if you have a kid like mine—who was down to one hour-long nap after lunch at around 18 months—you are going to need to protect her nighttime sleep.  The inherent problem in this is that it gives you very little time to actually interact with your child.  Unfortunately, our children’s need for sleep has not caught up with our modern day schedules. Furthermore, if your child is cranky and having tantrums because she is overtired, not only is she going to have a harder time falling asleep but the time you spend together is going to be tense and stressed.  

• Find  2-3 markers for a bed time routine.  

For my kids “bedtime” was change into pajamas, one story and one song, and then a sleepy time music track that played for around 45 minutes that got turned on as the parent walked out the door. Changing into pajamas and reading a story was done with reduced lighting.  The song (including a little back rubbing) was done by the light of the night light.  Parents should beware of a too long list of bedtime rituals as it makes it very hard on a night when you come in late from an activity or having gone to dinner at a friend’s.  Tasks like taking a bath can be on a list I call “Before bedtime tonight we have to….”  By phrasing it that way, if it should happen that you come in too late for a bath, you aren’t changing the bedtime routine.  

•Ideally, train infants to fall asleep by themselves so they are already in the habit as toddlers.

Parents who give their infant her last feed of the day while she is still awake (I advise doing it in a different room from where her crib is) may have a harder time teaching her to fall asleep alone in her crib in the short run, but they will have much better sleepers as toddlers.  These babies know how to put themselves to sleep and back to sleep when they wake in the night. 

•Kids can “practice” good sleep habits at a time when it is not bed time!

What do you do as an adult to help you fall back asleep?  Somewhere along the way, you developed a trick—and I bet that most nights it works.  I don’t count sheep but I do do my times tables.  Other times I practice meditative breathing—Breathe six counts in, hold it six counts, breathe six counts out, hold it out six counts.  Kids can start with three counts and work their way up.  Even 18 month olds can learn to do belly breaths by placing a pillow or stuffy on the stomach and practice watching the stuffy go up and down.  Kids can also learn to do progressive relaxations by tensing and then relaxing different parts of their bodies working from their toes to the crown of their heads.  All these techniques can be practiced in the middle of the day where you are there to guide them through it.  You can set them up for success by asking, “If you need help falling asleep, which technique are you going to use?”  

•Once it is sleeping time, interact with your child as little as possible

If you have a toddler with challenging sleep habits and you are just getting started at establishing good ones, know that it is going to be a slow process.  The trick is to take baby steps forward, but no steps backward.  The first step is to make yourself minimally interesting once you have gotten up to leave the room.  Even if you have to physically put your child back in bed, do so with as little comment and eye contact as possible.  (On a side note, if you were someone who could let your children “cry it out,” you probably would have done that already.  It only works if you are absolutely 100% consistent, so unless you are 100% committed, I don’t recommend it.)

 There are, however, ways of weaning your child from his need for your presence as he falls asleep. If you have been lying down with your child in order for him to fall asleep, tell him that from now on you won’t lie down with him, but you will sit next to him.  When he is accepting that without tears and tantrums, tell him that from now on you won't sit next to him where he can still touch you, but you will sit at the end of the bed with your hand on his foot.  Once he can fall asleep with you at the foot of the bed, move to sitting next to the bed on the floor or on the chair.  Progressively you are going to move closer and closer to the bedroom door.  Eventually, you are going to sit outside the bedroom door as he falls asleep and one day (miracles of miracles), you are going to close that door—maybe even all the way!  

 

This process might take 3-4 weeks and feel like torture to you (after all, when you lay down with your kids while they fell asleep, there were no tears and you probably got a little nap, too!), but imagine that three weeks from now bedtime from start to finish takes around 15 minutes and your child puts himself back to sleep when he wakes up for the night!  Imagine your kid not waking up tired because he has gotten enough sleep.  Imagine spending time connecting with your spouse in the evening.  Or taking a long shower.  Or going to bed on time yourself!

 

Good sleeping habits support a good future

Good sleep is so important for learning.  Establishing good habits early on can support good study habits for school all the way through.  Despite taking hard classes and getting good grades, my daughter had relatively few moments in high school where she was completely stressed.  Even in college she goes to sleep by 10:00 p.m.  She organizes her studies so that she does not have to pull all nighters and gets 8-9 hours of sleep a night.  Good sleep wards against depression or a dependency on caffeine or other stimulants to perform. Putting in the work now to develop good habits, might be one of the most important parenting steps you take.  

Teaching your children to be good sleepers might be the most important thing you do for your marriage.  

Admittedly, I do not have any studies to support this claim, but my personal experience in dealing with families is that households where "bedtime" takes a couple of hours are more stressed than ones where kids go to bed relatively quickly with minimum support from their parents.  Parents need time to regroup, to be "off the clock."  They need time to connect each other and to connect to themselves.  

NEED SOME HAND HOLDING WHILE GOING THROUGH THE PROCESS OF ESTABLISHING NEW HABITS?

Let me help!  As much as you are retraining your kids' expectations around bedtime and falling asleep independently, you are retraining yourself to stand firm and committed to valuing good sleeping habits in your house.  Regular coaching calls give you a place to vent and to strategize.  Sign up HERE for a "Getting to Know You" call and we can make a plan that works for your family.

Every Day is Labor Day

Elisabeth Stitt

Every Day Is Labor Day!

September 5, 2016

And Every Day is Independence Day...

by Elisabeth Stitt

Maria Montessori's rule of thumb is, "Never do for the child what he can do for himself."  Her entire educational program is built around the idea that by building on kids' basic skills and giving them more and more to do, we build their power--their self-confidence, their self-control and their self efficacy.  

I love the word self efficacy.  It means a person's "confidence in the ability to exert control over one's own motivation, behavior, and social environment."  

It is worth remembering that when we give kids positive control over their lives, they have much less need to gain negative control through whiny, bratty, out of control behavior.  

Set Kids Up for Success with the Skills and Tools they Need

By asking kids to help--to labor--along side you, you will be giving them a sense of personal power.  There are a lot of ways to do this with toddlers and preschoolers.  I outline some here in my blog on making pancakes.  My blog on Making the Bed is really about connecting with your children through daily activities, but it also demonstrates how a daily chore can increasingly be given over to the child.  HOW TO GET THEM UP AND OUT THE DOOR ON THEIR OWN is a blog that also resonated with lots of parents. Another really great resource is Jeanne-Marie Paynel's videos on how to set up basic living skill development for your kids. Here, for example, is a demonstration of how to teach a small child to peel a hard-boiled egg and what competencies it will help develop.  

For young children helping out means being a connected part of the family.  It means stepping into their own power--not as dependents but as contributors.   Many kids' first real phrase is along the lines of "Me do.  No Mommy do.  Me do."  

Historically, children worked along side their parents, learning the tasks of home and hearth, field and barn from the moment they could toddle.  Now they mostly spend the day separate from us.  Depending on the preschool curriculum, your children may get opportunities to learn independence tasks at school, but it still mostly falls on us to structure home life in such a way that kids become increasingly independent.  

Recommendations for Building Independence:  

•Make a list of basic skills that kids need for daily tasks.  This includes things like pouring and squeezing with control, spreading and cutting with a knife, snapping, buttoning and tying, stirring and mixing dry goods and wet goods without spilling.

•Look to where kids can practice these skills in their daily play--in the sandbox, with play doh, dressing and undressing stuffies, in the bathtub. Use whatever old bowls, spoons, pots, cups, etc. you have on hand. Be willing for things to get messy and be willing to sacrifice things like cups of rice, dried beans, expired pancake mix or baking soda to their exploration.  

•Look to where kids can help you--sorting the laundry, fluffing the pillows, cutting something soft, brushing teeth

•Decide on one or two tasks you'd like to focus on.  Make sure your kids have opportunities to practice these skills as part of their play.  Then start practicing the daily living task on days when you have a little more time (like the weekends or a day you don't have an early meeting).  

•When they are competent enough (not perfect), hand the task over to them as a daily responsibility.  A two year old, for example, can put his dirty clothes in the hamper or hang them on a low hook.  Yes, she will need lots of reminding, but eventually it will become habitual.  

•As your kids become automatic with one task, start introducing the next one.  The aim is to provide challenge without letting it get to the point of frustration.  

Seeing Kids as Being in Progress While Keeping the Long Term Goals in Mind

Your long term goal is to have children going through their off to school and going to bed routines independently (which should free you up to go through yours!). Most children are capable of getting there eventually if you are persistent.  It will take some longer to get the physical coordination they need; it will take some more reminders.  Some kids will need visual reminders; others will respond to a timer being set to keep them on track.  Many will just fall into the routine.  The trick is to keep your long term expectations for independence high while keeping your day-to-day expectations realistic.  

If you are struggling with getting your kids to do things on their own, I am always ready to help.  Sign up HERE for a complimentary Labor Day Strategy Session.  

Middle School: the Time for Parents to Step Away or Not?

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt

It’s not time to leave your child completely on his own yet.  

Too often parents who have stayed at home or worked part time think that middle school is the time for them to start working full time.  That’s a mistake!  The switch to middle school is a big step—often even bigger than going to high school.  Middle schools tend to be big—more than twice or even three times as big as the elementary schools that students are coming from.  Kids feed in from sometimes as many as six or seven elementary schools.  To top that off, instead of moving through the day with the same set of kids, most middle school kids regroup every period.  A student is lucky to be in class with someone he knows much less a friend.

The middle school curriculum really does get harder.

The middle school content standards make a jump in the amount of critical thinking and problem solving required.  The pace is relentless as the emphasis is on getting through the whole list of standards rather than mastering a few key ones. At my school, when we looked at the 6th graders’ marks, they were lower first trimester than second and lower second than third.  Even the best students wobbled a bit while adjusting to the change in academic expectations. Parents should know this and reassure their kids that they will figure out how to handle middle school work given time, but most schools don’t give parents that information.

Middle School teachers get “harder.”

The biggest change, however, is the mentality of middle school teachers.  Unlike elementary school teachers who see their primary goal as encouraging self-esteem and a love of learning, middle school teachers lean towards focusing on kids accepting that a lot of life is about jumping through hoops and doing things in a certain way.  Docking points for incorrect paper headings and throwing away papers with no names on them is common practice.  

Students will complain their teachers are mean.  We don’t see ourselves as mean.  We see that we are the last stop before high school where kids can still get low grades with no consequence to their long-term future.  We feel it is our job to teach what high school is going to be like before it counts towards graduation and college admissions.  In middle school, grading shifts from assessment of a student’s ability to an assessment of her performance.  That means the student who has skated by on test scores and an occasional brilliant project is now going to learn that consistency and attention to detail are actually more highly valued.  These are important skills to learn before high school. 

It feels like parents are not wanted, but that is not true.

Parents often feel left out of the equation in middle school.  Because their children might say they don’t want them there and because there is no room parent organizing volunteer activities, they feel unsure of how to be a part of school or, worse, they feel unwelcome.  While it is true that you might not be asked to man math centers every week, it is not true that parents are not needed or wanted.  Being involved at school in any way gives you a chance to stay connected with your child at time when his instinct is to shift toward his peers.  

Even if you do not volunteer in your child’s class, by finding a volunteer job at school, you will hear more about what is going on.  You will learn what clubs and activities are available to your child and will be able to encourage her at home to participate whether it is the joining the soccer team or signing up for the spelling bee.  As you fold flyers or stuff envelopes, you will overhear gossip about which administrators are supportive and which are a waste of time to approach.  You will learn the rational for the new homework policy and what teachers are doing to prepare kids for the state tests.   

Middle school is a time for parents to step back, but not to step away.  

Parents are still a child’s touchstone.  They are still the best person to help a child process what she is experiencing.  Getting grades based on percentages for the first time can be a real blow to the ego.  A child’s sense of himself can be seriously shaken as he will associate his grade with how smart he is.  A parent can help a lot by making the distinction between intelligence and following procedure and letting a child know that both are a part of being successful in life.  Parents can continue to be there as a sounding board, but if in the past they have done most of the talking, it is time to develop deep listening skills.  Asking your child, "What is your next step here?" might get you farther than, "Here's what you should do."  

What does stepping back look like?

Stepping back might take the form of letting a child suffer the consequences of lost or incomplete homework without swooping in to defend the child.  (Do continue to offer a lot of empathy that it feels awful to have worked hard on something and then not get credit for it because of one little mistake—like not putting your name on your paper or forgetting it on your desk at home.)  Stepping back can mean not micro managing students’ projects but asking questions like, ‘What’s your plan for spreading out the work of the project?” or “Have you done your best work?” or “What part of this paper are you especially proud of?”  When students get graded work back, instead of focusing on the grade, parents can ask, “What is your plan for doing better next time?” or “What resources do you have for getting help understanding this?”  Above all parents can help their kids talk to adults at school not by doing the talking for them but by roleplaying how conversations with a teacher or administrator might go.  In this way, a parent is still staying connected and supporting his child and at the same time allowing his child to stand on his own two feet.  

Middle school is the time for parents to stay connected and know what is going on, but it is also time for them to position themselves as guide rather than driver of their child’s life.  

Are you struggling with making the shift from driver to guide? 

It is the key task to successful middle school parenting.  Sign up HERE for a complimentary strategy session where we will identify where your child might need a steadying hand (and what that looks like at this age) and where you need to loosen the training wheels. 

Warmly,

Elisabeth

Elisabeth Stitt

Joyful Parenting Coaching  •  Elisabeth@stitt.com  •  650.248.8916

5 Skills to Focus on This School Year

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt

It’s back to school time, and most parents ask themselves what academic skills are my children going to learn this year?  What number concepts will they have mastered?  How will their writing improve?  

Not to worry.  Your children’s teachers have those topics covered.  

But what are you going to focus on teaching your child this year?  Life skills are first and foremost the responsibility of the parent.  Here are some of the key skills that will support your children’s school success:

Emotional Awareness

Emotional awareness has to do with being able to identify emotions in yourselves and others.  This is built in children first by helping them identify emotions and states of being in themselves by narrating their experience.  That means guessing what is going on with them by connecting their physical clues with their likely emotional states.  You might say things like, “You’re shivering.  You must be feeling cold” or “You are pulling your eyebrows tight together.  Are you angry about something?”  Increasing the emotional vocabulary beyond mad, sad and glad also helps children be more aware of the range of emotional states.  Are they annoyed or furious?  A bit blue or down in the dumps? Content or jumping for joy?  Emotional awareness can then be extended to their interactions with other people or characters from a book.  You might say, “I see that Camille’s lower lip is jutting out like this and the corners of her mouth are turned down.  How do you think she is feeling right now?  The more sophisticated kids get at perceiving their own and other’s emotional states, the more efficiently they can offer solutions for altering that state. 

Resiliency

Resiliency means bouncing back relatively easily from difficult experiences (Note that it does not mean sheltering our children from difficult experiences!).  Being emotionally aware is a good first step in building resilience in children.  Naming emotions and connecting them the physical states allows children to step back from their emotions and be less overwhelmed by them.  Let’s say that a child is feeling some strong emotions because she has lost a game.  Perhaps she is disappointed at her own performance.  Perhaps she fears being judged as “less than” compared to her peers.  Perhaps she feels disconnected because attention has shifted to the winners of the game.  Knowing what the strong emotion is allows her to take an action that will address that specific need.  If she is disappointed in her own performance, she might make a plan for what to practice for next time.  If she feels being judged compared to her peers, she might remind herself that there are lots of other things she is good at.  If she feels disconnected, she might reintegrate herself by congratulating the winners on their accomplishment.  Each of these actions has the potential for helping to regulate her strong emotions.

 Taking Responsibility for One’s Own Actions

A big part of taking responsibility for one’s own actions is seeing oneself as being “in process.”  When we accept that as we learn new things we are bound to make mistakes, it makes it easier for us to own up to actions or decisions which in hindsight were maybe not the best choices.  Parents can help their children learn this by encouraging their children to reflect on their actions rather than to just be critical about them.  Children who have parents who model forgiveness learn to forgive themselves.  That makes it safe for them to admit when they have messed up. This in turn aids in their picking themselves up and moving forward.   (For a complete blog on accepting blame, go HERE.)

Problem Solving

One of my favorite questions for kids is, “What needs to happen now?”  Spilt milk? What needs to happen now?  Lost sweater? What needs to happen now?  Little brother crying because you grabbed a toy from him?  What needs to happen now?  Failed to save your homework on the computer and don’t have it to turn in?  “What needs to happen now?”  

Many parents have a tendency to rush in too fast.  They rush to make things better.  They rush to punish.  They rush to find a solution.  But given the chance, kids are natural problem solvers.  Milk spills?  Even a toddler has seen you wipe things up dozens of times.  Next time try asking, “What needs to happen now?”  Most toddlers will run grab a rag (You can help them out by hanging some rags or having a paper towel rack at their level).  Computer glitches?  Maybe you can work some magic to recover a lost document.  If yes, great.  Take the time to teach your child how to do the same trick.  If no, offer lots of sympathy, but at the end of the day, let your child suffer the consequence whether that is redoing the assignment or getting in trouble with the teacher.  When you solve things for your child, he might be grateful in the short run, but in the long run you have failed to teach him anything. 

Independence

     Mentally walk through your child’s day and consider where she could be more independent.  If she is a toddler or preschooler, could she do more to put on her own clothes? Handle her own ablutions? Pick up after herself more?  With training, bit by bit, a child can do all these things before entering Kindergarten with very little supervision.  An elementary school child can learn to get his own cereal, make his own lunch and pack his backpack for school.  He can begin to read the weather and make guesses based on the season (or check the app!) to decide whether he needs a sweater or a jacket in that backpack. He can sort his laundry and make sure it gets to the laundry room.  He can fold it and put it away.  An upper elementary school child should be doing homework independently and asking for help only after trying a couple different strategies.  She should be getting comfortable with walking away from you physically—next door to borrow some sugar or to the other end of the store to pickup the milk or down the block to a friend’s house.  A middle school child should be keeping track of her own schedule and communicating her needs (for carpooling or other support) to her parents and coordinating what will work for them.  She should be able to talk to her teachers and coaches when she has questions or concerns.  

The Bottom Line:  Parents Set Their Kids Up for Success

Parents are their kids' first teachers.  Kids who have learned these five life skills come to school ready to learn.  They have the external structures which allow them to work efficiently and the internal structures that allow them to cope when things get hard both socially and academically.  In the end, these are the skills that allow your child to focus more fully on her academics, so if you want your child to do well at school, don’t ask him to do extra assignments or get him extra tutoring.  Help him learn to regulate his emotions, to find ways to stay positive when things get hard, to see the effects of his own actions (positive or negative), to find solutions to problems and, finally, to take charge of his own life as much as he is developmentally ready to do so.  

These skills do not happen over night.  The mastery of each of them represents many hours of thoughtful parental guidance.  It is easy to feel impatient as a parent.  You might wail, “I’ve told him a thousand times to….”  Look for improvement and take heart.  As much as possible, try to use questions rather than “I told you’s.”  Asking, “What is the result of leaving wet towels on the floor?” is much more effective than yelling for the umpteenth time, “Hang up your wet towel!”  A child who can verbalize that wet towels lead to mold, smelly bathrooms, and maybe even wood rot is much less likely to just throw the towel on the floor.  

Get Support in Supporting Your Children

Parenting is a life skill.  It is something we learn, not something we just know how to do.  How effective are you at instilling life skills in your children?  Which ones come easily?  With which do you still struggle?  I hear a lot of variations from parents along the theme of "But my kid just isn't ready" or "Well, my kid has ADHD, so I can't trust him to do that on his own."  Few children are able to jump from A to Z, but all children are capable of learning if you break the learning down into small enough chunks.   

Do you need help scaffolding these life skills for your kids?  I can help!  Sign up HERE for a "On the Road to Responsible" 20-minute Strategy Session.  

 

Be the Architect of Your Family: Build Connection Through Family Projects

Elisabeth Stitt

 

 

When's the last time you sat down as a family and got your fingers sticky together?! 

If your family goes to a regular religious service, you already have a lot of ceremony and ritual built into your life.  These practices not only connect your kids to a greater power, they make them feel more connected to you.  As you sit in physical proximity focused on a common uniting experience, your energies and body rhythms line up and match

 Have a Deliberate Plan for Connection

Families without the external structure of coming together have to be more purposeful about creating these experiences that will nourish your children’s sense of being woven into a part of the bigger whole that is your family. 

Of course, playing a game or cooking a meal together as a family are wonderful ways to bond, but some children need something more concrete or visual.  That’s why I love the idea of putting some time aside as a family to do a project that represents the family.  

Here’s an idea you might try:  Family Placemats

Purpose:  To create a visual depiction of family memories and values; to have each family member contribute equally; to foster a positive view of both individual members and of the family as a whole.

Procedure:

1.    Print out or draw multiple pictures of each family member (pets included!).

2.    Create multiple sentence stems and have each family member fill them out:

Ex:  What I love about our family is _________________________.

        We are the kind of family that __________________________.

      My favorite family memory is when ___________________.

      Our family is special because we ________________________.

3.    Brainstorm other symbols or images that represent your family.  Perhaps you will print out pictures or maps of where your family comes from or what you love to do together. 

4.    Use markers to write the positive qualities of the family members in large print.  Are there people in your family who are thoughtful? Funny? Disciplined? Creative? Hard working? Good problem solvers?  Write those things down.  Don’t attach names to them.  In this case, we are deemphasizing the traits of the individual and instead displaying what are the strengths this family team has together.  

5.    One you have a rich pile of materials, give each family member a placemat size piece of construction paper.  Have each person take one item from the pile and glue it onto the placemat.  Now hand each table mat clockwise to the next person.  Again, each person will choose something from the pile to glue to the placemat.  Once done, rotate again.  Continue this process until each placemat is full and/or the pile of materials has been used up.

6.    Once the glue has thoroughly dried, cover the placemats with clear contact paper or take them to your local copy shop and have them laminated. 

 

Benefit:

  Not only will this project allow for you to focus on what makes you unique as a family, but it will be an oasis of time when you are creating goodwill among you.  Even more importantly, by creating the placemats in the round-robin style, no one person feels ownership over the design of any one placemat.  Each mat will reflect the developmental stages of your children and will be a mixture of more or less sophisticated efforts depending on their ages and personalities. (No perfectionism allowed here!)  Because you have all had a hand in creating each one, when it comes to using them, family members will be delighted to get whichever one they happen to get. 

Think this idea is too corny to do with your older kids?  Think again!  Make some excuse if you need to.  Perhaps one of your children is entering high school—or even moving away to go to college or get a job.  Tell your kids you want to mark this passage and have a way to daily remember the best part of being a family, even as kids grow up and outward.   Teens might not admit to enjoying such a family project, but they will secretly treasure it and carry with them that warm fuzzy feeling of family love and connection. 

One last rule!  Ban electronics from the table while doing this project. The point is to come together as a family—not to each be checking Snapchat or Facebook.  Your kids might grumble, but in the end they will be glad they have done it.  

Happy Gluing!  Looking for other ideas for bring your family together and creating good will?  Let's do a strategy session on that!

5 Tips to Raising Happy Children

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt

Ask most parents and they'll say, I just want my kid to be happy.  But how are they teaching their child to be happy?  

That's right.  I said teach.  Maybe you think that happiness is something that either happens or it doesn't.  Not so!  Aren't you glad to hear that?  Happiness is something you can develop in your child.  Why?  Because like learning to read or write or draw a picture or throw a ball--or become an effective parent!--much of happiness is built with specific skills. Sure.  Some children are born with naturally sunnier dispositions.  Does that mean you accept the grumpy kid "for who he is"?  Well, no. No more so than you would accept a child who was struggling to read.  In fact, it is with the child who is struggling with whom you sit down and break the task into ever smaller and manageable bits

How do we teach happiness? 

Let's look at some key practices that have come out of current positive psychology research.

1. HAPPINESS BRINGS SUCCESS. 

As parents we need to rethink the idea that success brings happiness.  Current research suggests strongly that the reverse is true:  Happiness brings success.  So lead your child towards happiness practices and let nature take its course.

2. NOTICE THE POSITIVE. 

Is the glass half empty or half full?  Help your child learn to see that the glass is half full by having her focus on the positives in her day.  Model it by showing appreciation for the little things in life.  Here are some positives from my day yesterday:  Someone let me pull into traffic in front of him; the weather was the perfect temperature with a slight breeze; I got in an extra walk in the afternoon. 

3.  AMPLIFY THE POSITIVE. 

Research shows that when we feel something, certain neuro pathways are excited.  The cool part is that when we tell someone about what excited us, the SAME neuro pathways are re-excited.  That's like getting two for one!  So what does that mean?  It means we need to actively share all our little joys.  When I was able to pull into traffic easily because of someone's generosity, I told my friend, "I was afraid that I was going to be late but this really nice guy let me pull into traffic.  I LOVE that!"  Not only have I modeled finding the positive for my friend, I get to feel gushy all over again.  It turns out, my brain doesn't know the difference between the actual event and the relived event!

4.  DEVELOP A WIDE POSITIVE EMOTION VOCABULARY. 

Research suggests that the richer vocabulary we have to draw on, the greater the variety of positive emotions we can feel.  Partly, what you are doing is teaching a child to appreciate a wider scope of emotions as positive.  Stuck with just the word "happy" a child develops a very narrow view of what he can count as happy. Teach him delighted, content, elated, or genial, and he can recognize when he is feeling all those things. 

5.  MODEL GRATITUDE. 

Of all the positive emotions we can feel, the super power of them all is gratitude. In general, a life lived directed towards others is a happier one.  Feeling and expressing gratitude supports our happiness in so many ways.  It reduces stress which improves our health, it causes us to be less materialistic which gives us easier access to a spiritual life, and it improves our relationships by establishing a positive feedback loop. 

The very best part of teaching our children happiness skills?  By modeling the skills, we increase our own happiness!  And if it is not enough for you to be happy, it will comfort you to know that happy people learn better, are more productive and are more resilient in the face of setbacks. 

 

Why Kids Lie and What Parents Can Do About It

Elisabeth Stitt

Lots of kids lie, and often lying is particularly upsetting to parents.  I think that one reason lying affects parents so strongly is because we want to keep our children safe.  As long as we think we know what is going on in our kids’ heads and what they are actually experiencing, we figure we can take action to protect them.  When our kids lie to us, however, we find out that perhaps our kids have been exposed to dangerous or negative situations out of our control.

 WHY LYING UPSETS PARENTS

Let’s say for example, that you find out your nine year old has ridden her bike outside the agreed upon streets.  She has been lying to you by omission, and then one day you find out that she has crossed some major streets with a lot of traffic.  A big part of why you are upset by her lie is your fear about what might have happened to her—the accident she might have had, or whom she might have encountered so far outside your sphere of influence.  Plus, in the face of one lie, you begin to doubt what you can trust about other parts of her life:  Is she telling you what is going on at school?  What happens when she plays at her friend’s house? 

 WHY PEOPLE LIE

People lie to get some kind of emotional need met.  We all have needs for a sense of security, autonomy, attention, status, acceptance, excitement, intimacy and love, connection to others, self-esteem, and so forth.  We lie, then, either when we think telling the truth will get in the way of having one of those needs met or when telling the lie will get the need met.

 

In the example above, for example, the nine year old is more than old enough to know that she is lying.  Perhaps she has lied because of her need for autonomy.  She feels she is old enough to handle crossing a busy street and she wants to test it out.  Perhaps she has lied to gain status, and another child has dared her to cross the forbidden street or she has bragged that she is allowed to do so and now must show that she can. 

 WHAT PARENTS CAN DO ABOUT LYING

The question remains what should a parent do in the face of a child lying?  Certainly it is reasonable to have a consequence for breaking a family rule (and ideally that consequence has been worked out the same time the bike riding boundaries were set up).  But in order for a parent to feel secure her child won’t lie again, it is important that she take the time to figure out what emotional need was the child trying to meet by engaging in the behavior which required the lie (including the lie of omission).  Only then can parent and child work out more acceptable ways of getting the need met. 

 WHAT ROLE PARENTS PLAY IN THEIR CHILDREN'S LYING

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Shefali Tsabary says, "There is only one reason a child lies to its parents: the conditions for it to feel safe have not been created.”  You may well bristle at the idea that you have caused your child to lie, but having dealt with kids’ lying at school over the years, it feels possible to me.  When I talked with kids about why they lie, these are some of the answers I have heard over the years:

         •My parents will over react and won’t listen to me.

         •My parents just won’t understand.

         •If my parents found out I did that, they’d judge me.

         •All my mom cares about is X; she doesn’t understand that                 X isn’t that important to me.  (Or that Y is more important).

         •All my dad cares about is how it will look to other people.

         He doesn’t actually care about what happens to me. 

I have certainly seen parents over react, and with some parents I do feel that the parent cares more about his own reputation than about what his child is thinking and feeling.  But in most cases, lying occurs in households where communication has broken down.  Because kids have not felt seen, heard and valued, kids have stopped sharing.  They don’t want the hassle of arguing with their parents because they feel they don’t get anywhere with it, and at the same time they still have powerful unmet needs.  The drive to get their needs met—even if it means accepting negative consequences—makes lying worth it to them. 

 

The next question, then, is how do you keep the lines of communication open.  I think first and foremost, you own up to your own foibles as a parent—own that sometimes you do over react.  Own that you get triggered—by safety concerns, by fears for the future, by wanting to seem like a perfect parent.  Own that you grew up in a different generation and/or a different culture and that what seems okay to your kids feels really wrong to you.  Own your own hang ups.  Maybe your parents didn’t let you drive into the city on your own, so now your automatic response when your child asks permission is to say No Way without even giving it any real thought. 

 IDENTIFYING THE NEEDS BEHIND THE LIES

Next, even if you do end up saying no to your kids (and I fully support your right to do that), really take the time to listen to what they want.  Be curious about why they want it (what need would get met if they got to do whatever it is they want to do).  Then, work to see if the underlying need can be met in some other way.  Maybe you can find a compromise.  Let’s say, for example, that you catch your son stealing money to buy junk food at school.  He knows you have a strong value about healthy nutritional choices, so he sneaks behind your back.  The first question is what is the need—sweet food?  Or is it to have the cool packaging of snacks from the vending machine?  Or does he like having the whole vending machine array to choose from without having to agree with his siblings?  Each of these is a very different need and requires a different approach.  That’s why it is so critical to putting your own concerns aside so you can first be open and curious. 

 BRAINSTORMING ALTERNATIVE WAYS TO MEET NEEDS

Once you know what the unmet need is, you can work on that.  Brainstorm ideas. What sweet foods would be acceptable?  Is the need to be cool about the need to fit in, and if so, why is that so important?  How else could a person find a group he feels included in?  How could the family provide more opportunities for the son to have some things just as he wants them without having to consider the rest of the family? 

 

Even the act of brainstorming and trying to find a solution acknowledges your child as an individual with his own needs, preferences and desires.  In a particular case, you might not find a way to compromise.  If you have found workable solutions other times, however, your child will be able to accept when no compromise is possible.  He will know that you care about his feelings and are not shaming him for having those feelings. 

 

In summary, I would let a consequence for the poor choice stand, but I would go deeper to find out the underlying motivation for the poor choice. 

 STAYING CONNECTED EVEN THROUGH CONFLICT

Lying is complex.  We lie for so many reasons, and I have really only addressed a few of them here.  No matter what the reason, though, I urge you to approach your child as a work in progress and use the lying incident as an opportunity for growth and self-reflection.  Finally, assure your child that as he matures, he will find it easier to find ways of getting his needs met that do not make him feel that it is necessary to lie. 

 

 

 

 

 

CHORES! The Way to Making Your Kids Successful and Happy

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt

Okay, I can't guarantee the happiness promise but a recent article called "Science says parents of successful kids have these 13 things in common" published in Tech Insider does list chores as one factor that might lead to children's success as adults.  They quote author Julie Lythcott-Haims (How to Raise an Adult) as praising chores because it teaches kids that that they "have to do the work of life in order to be part of life."  

Let's look at the benefit of chores a little more deeply (and I will put forth my not-scientifically-proven theory on why it also makes kids happier).  

1.   Doing Chores Raises Self Esteem

Self Esteem is confidence about one's own worth and abilities.  Little kids may not have learned to read and older kids may be struggling with long division or quadratic equations, but most kids can learn to make their beds and sweep the floor.  Are these worthwhile tasks?  Of course they are.  And it is much easier for a child to understand the usefulness of a clean floor than to grasp where algebra is going to work for them in their lives.  Kids who feel capable and competent have higher self esteem.  Chores are one area most kids can develop competency relatively easily.

2.  Doing Chores Makes Kids Feel Needed

When we wait on our kids hand and foot, it gives kids the wrong estimation of their own importance.  Ironically, just like praising kids too profusely, doing everything for kids does not build their sense of being important; rather it leaves kids feeling adrift and disconnected.  What kids want to feel is that the are important because their family needs them.  When the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird explains to Scout, the main character, why he runs away from home, Scout asks herself, "what I would do if Atticus [her father] did not feel the necessity of my presence, help and advice” (143).  Scout firmly recognizes her place in her family and knows how essential it is to her to feel needed by them.  Contributing to the well being of the family by doing household chores is a great way for kids to feel they are an integral cog in the wheel of a smooth family life.  

3.  Doing Chores Shares the Work

In previous generations, families had a lot of kids precisely because a large work force was needed just to keep the family farm or business going.  As soon as they could toddle, children were given simple chores to do.  In this way, all the tasks of life got done and families thrived.  Today, although more tasks are mechanized and there are fewer chores to do at home, people are also a lot busier outside of the home.  With parents working and kids going off to a schedule packed full of extracurriculars, there is very little time left to what chores they are.  And yet, "according to a survey by Braun Research in 2014, 82 percent of grown-ups polled said they had regular chores when they were growing up, but only 28 percent reported asking their children to do anyP (July 12 2015).  Wow!  Instead, imagine a home where the work was shared as equally as possible among the family members.  Kids would have a much greater appreciation for what it takes to keep everyone fed and dressed in clean clothes.  Appreciation is linked to happiness!  

4.  Kids Doing Chores Reduces Parental Stress

With only 28% of the kids helping out on a regular basis, parents are coming home after a full day's work and are facing a full evening of chores.  Just thinking about it is exhausting.  Parents complain to me that they have no time to just hang out with their kids.  But is that because their kids are watching t.v. or playing video games while their parents fix dinner?  How about having the kids in the kitchen with you?  One child can grate cheese while another cuts up vegetables.  (While kids' hands and attention are busy is a great time to ask more in depth questions, open ended questions.  Chore time becomes connection time, and human connection is one of the most important factors for happiness.  One last hidden factor in reducing stress is that parents who are not up washing the dishes or folding the laundry after their kids have gone to bed might actually have time to sit down next to each and connect themselves!  Connected parents do a better job supporting their kids and making them feel secure. 

5.  Doing Chores Teaches Kids at Home Skills They Can Use at School

Uh?  How does doing the laundry help with writing a clear, well-supported essay?  Well, doing laundry teaches responsibility, accountability, planning, attention to detail and follow through (Did you ever have a bunch of clothes go moldy because you forget to transfer them to the dryer?).  Aren't those all skills that you need in essay writing?  Of course!  And in all kinds of school related tasks like doing homework on time, turning homework back in, chunking assignments into multiple steps, etc.  Kids who have learned to take on tasks as their own are the same kids who are independent learners.  They are also great team members for group work.  They know that many hands make light work and they stand at the ready to do their share.  They do not expect someone else--much less Mom or Dad--to do their work for them.  

And that's not all!!

So here you have four arguments for chores increasing your kids' happiness and one argument for chores increasing their success in school (not to mention later in life).  And here's one more argument:  Doing chores as children helps teach kids early on about work/life balance.  Life is not just about doing school work, dutifully practicing piano and going to soccer practice.  It is also about creating a salubrious space in which to live and cooking nutritious meals that bring the family together.  Those have long been considered mainstays of a happy home.  Oh, and did I mention that kids who take part in the cooking have more varied, nutritious diets?  And that kids who sharing in the washing and cleaning take better care of their clothes and toys?  Really, the more I think about it, the longer the list gets.

So what's stopping you? Need some advice on HOW to get your kids to do chores?  You might try my friend Elva Anson's very comprehensive book How to Get Kids to Help at Home:  Help Your Children Become Capable, Responsible, and Independent--And Have Fun Doing It!  Or if you want hands on support, you might consider signing up for my 5-week Harmony at Home ONLINE Group Coaching Class that starts August 10th.  

Do You Have a Case of the Middle School Mom Blues?

Elisabeth Stitt

Did you see the article in the Wall Street Journal about Middle School Moms’ Blues?  

A new study finds the stress and anxiety Middle School Moms feel is even greater than that of moms of infants!

Well, with the bulk of my teaching career spent with middle schoolers, that is no surprise to me.  In fact, I started my business, Joyful Parenting Coaching, because of a conversation I had with the mom of a 7th grader whose daughter was coming home crying every day.  This mom felt at a loss, but to me the saddest part was that she did not trust she could share what was going on with other moms in the class.  The feared being judged, looked down on or pitied kept her from reaching out.  

That broke my heart.  

But I don’t think she was alone.  The more work I’ve done out of the classroom and directly with parents, the more I see how many of them are carrying the burdens of parenting in isolation.  

I would never have survived parenting—any stage of it—if I hadn’t felt like I had trusted people around me with whom to compare notes—or to just let off steam!!  I don’t know about you, but I have certainly had days when I could have killed my child.  Or at least cheerfully sold her to the gypsies.  Of course, I never would, but it sure helped to have close and loving friends who could give me their Amen to That, Sister! rally before helping me find constructive solutions.  

The article does not really break down why Middle School Moms are so stressed.  

Here is my theory on why Middle School Moms find parenting harder than other stages: 

1.  As our children go up in grades, the ways society measures their success gets narrower and narrower.  Academic ease and performance become key.  Sports and Artistic proficiency can provide some secondary credit, but in our get-into-a-good-college-at-all-costs society, measurable numbers (grade point averages, state testing scores, SATs) hold the most weight.  Lots of parents start obsessing about those things and find it hard to stop.  

2.  As our children go up in grades, the percentage of moms who are working full time also goes up.  That means as women we spend the whole day talking business, not kids and parenting.  Last week I volunteered at the high school for a couple of hours stuffing envelopes (the beauty of working from home, being my own boss and living close to the high school).   I realized it was pretty much the same moms I had seen the two other times I have volunteered this year.  Their chatter was incessant and far ranging.  These moms knew each other well and clearly had spent a lot of hours together.  They felt perfectly comfortable airing their dirty laundry—and getting and receiving advice from each other.  

But most moms don’t have that.  Many moms drop their kids off at school in the morning and pick them up from childcare or after school activities in the evening.  Not only does that not allow that mom much time for connecting with her kids, it really doesn’t allow her much time to meet up with a girlfriend and compare notes (and I am not saying you cannot or should not be comparing notes with your spouse, but it is really useful to get the perspective of what is going on with other kids in other households).  

3.  Perhaps the most significant reason parenting a middle school child is harder than other ages and stages is that the rewards are not as great.  With an infant you are exhausted and lose sleep, but then that child smiles at you—or laughs for the first time—and in a moment you are totally in love again.  The preschooler balances tantrums with ardent declarations of “I love you, Mommy!” In lower elementary, kids become a lot less work and at the same time still look to you for you insights and views on the world in general and their own worries in particular.  But the middle school child?  Well, I don’t know how you were in middle school, but I was miserable.  I hated school, I basically had no friends, and I was an emotional wreck.  On top of all that, I was convinced my mom (who always painted a picture of her friends and fun activities in middle school) could never in a million years understand what I was going through.  8th grade was the year my grades went down, I lied, and I even cut school!  My poor mom!  

So in middle school we have all the worry, doubt and work of other stages but few opportunities to be our children’s heroes. 

Our kids may still need our advice and counsel, but they won’t admit it to save their lives.  Furthermore, they need us to step away from our god-like positions and become the wise elders who walk beside them.  One of my favorite analogies for teens is that they are on a roller coaster ride; Mom’s job is not to get on and ride with them but to stand on the platform ready to be there when they get off.

For all these reasons that make it especially challenging to parent kids in middle school, that’s why I have created the Middle School Moms’ Mastermind.  

Are you familiar with the concept of a mastermind?  I am in one for solo entrepreneur women.  We are smart, motivated and we face similar struggles.  While only our intrepid leader claims to be the expert, we still get a wealth of advice and good ideas from our fellow entrepreneurs.  We have a community of people to ask, What do you think of this idea?  Or Has anyone of you tried X before?  I love this group of brave, creative go-getters.  They are at once my role models and my friends, and when I get to share my own advice and experience, it makes me realize how far I have come as a business woman.  

We use a Private FB group as the primary means of communicating with each other (though I have also had private phone conversations from time to time with individuals who have a lot to share about a given topic). In twice monthly group coaching calls, our outstanding business coach gives us concrete advice both through direct instruction and through answer our specific questions about our specific situations.  

Imagine having that kind of support for your parenting!

That is exactly what I want for you.  The Middle School Moms’ Mastermind  will bring together a maximum of 15 moms of middle school kids.  I will moderate our private FB group where moms can post questions and observations.  Both moms and I will post relevant articles that we come across.  Moms will be free to post advice for people who ask for it as long as they do so in a way that has no shaming, blaming or judgment.  Additionally, I will lead two monthly calls (recorded so you can access them any time).  On these calls I will spend the first 15 to 20 minutes educating participants about some topic specific to early adolescents and then the rest of the call is your chance to ask me about your particular needs.  

Of course, I do not have all the answers (no one does!), but I do have three adult children and in my 25 years of teaching, I have dealt with more than 3,000 kids between the ages of 11-14.  That means I have pretty much seen it all—all kinds of kids and all kinds of families.  Working with such a large and diverse sample has taught me how many different ways there are to parent effectively.  It is incredibly useful to hear the views and insights of fellow parents.  Hearing a lot of different approaches allows you to get new perspectives and ideas for your own parenting.  

 

 

Does this sound like a group for you?  

Could you use a safe haven to share your woes, to compare notes, to get ideas on how other families handle things and to get access to my 25 years of expertise?  Let's talk.  Email me at elisabeth@stitt.com or call me at 650.248.8916 (Pacific time) to find out if the Middle School Moms’ Mastermind is the tribe you have been longing for!

Act now to reserve your spot.  

I am gathering a group of moms who are dedicated to supporting each other in being the best moms they can be.  I absolutely believe that you can love parenting your middle school child.  I know that I love helping parents find the joy in whatever age or stage their children are, and while I cannot guarantee 100% that you are going to love parenting your middle school children as much as I love teaching them, I do guarantee the fellowship of other women, lots of laughs and unstinting faith that you are the parent your child needs.  

Why don't you try a complimentary group coaching call?  Our next call is Wednesday, October 19 at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time.  (If this time doesn't work for you, let me know what does so that I can let you know when else we are meeting).  

I can’t wait to talk to you.

Warmly,

Elisabeth

Elisabeth Stitt/ Joyful Parenting Coaching/ 650.248.8916/ www.elisabethstitt.com

8 Terrific Tips for Taming the Tangle of Toys

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt

KEEPING YOUR KIDS’ TOYS ORGANIZED

Tip 1.  Help your kids identify their value behind why a particular toy is important to them.  Then help them prioritize their values.

            By prioritizing what is important to your kids and having them articulate that to you, it will help you decide how much space to devote to a particular kind of toy.  Let’s say, for example, that your child is nuts about dinosaurs.  It just makes sense that he’d want a wide variety of dinosaurs represented, doesn’t it?  On the other hand, a kid who loves dolls might be convinced that it is more important to lavish love and care on a limited number of dolls—and that the rest could find good homes elsewhere.  That child might need more space for doll accessories, like a crib, but can make do with 2 or 3 especially beloved dolls.  

Tip 2.  Have as much shelve/bin/drawer space for your child as you can spare, so that they can stay organized.  

     Help kids learn to categorize toys by the shelves or bins.  This will allow your child to see visually how much she has of one kind of thing—and in turn help her decide how much she needs of one thing.  Often it is not until all of one kind of toy has been gathered into one place, for example, that a child realizes she has as much as she does.  Seeing it all together helps her realize one good set of colored pencils and/or crayons, for example, makes boxes and boxes of duplicate colors superfluous and therefore a waste of space.  

Tip 3.  Be creative about ways to store toys when you have limited space.  

     It can be really worth it to find storage or display cases for the size toy you have.  My sister, for example, was a big collector of porcelain animal figurines.  No one was bigger than around 4” by 4” so my dad built her a grid of shallow shelves that was about a foot wide and went all the way to the ceiling.  With less than a foot of floor space, she was able to safely display more than 100 figurines.  Deep but narrowly spaced shelves for things like boardgames and puzzles allow kids to store long flat things on shelves that resemble big CD holders.   This kind of shelving can often be found in teachers’ supply catalogues.  Rather than duplicating that kind of storage for each child, have a central location for similarly shaped toys.  Soft things—like stuffed animals and costumes, can be hung from a series of hooks suspended from the ceiling (provide a foot stool, so children can reach up).  Shelves that slide out on rollers allow you to place toys 2-3 deep, and kids can still be able to find them (especially if you think in categories, like dump trucks one behind the other, etc).  

The best way to organize kids’ toys is to limit the number of toys they have to the toys they actually play with and use.  Tips 4-8 address how to do that!

Tip 4.  As toys and arts and craft projects and science kits  and the like come into the house, write a date on them with permanent marker.

     Has your child given a birthday party where all 20 of his classmates bring him a gift?  She opens them all, but in reality only four or five things actually get used?  By putting a date on presents as they come in, you can show a child concretely how long it has been that he has not touched the toy.  That can make it easier for a child to let a toy go out the door.  If a child is still reluctant to let go of a toy, give a date a month out by which the child needs to use the toy.  Tell him that if he doesn’t use the toy in that time that, you will be donating the toy to a local charity.  The key to this tip?  Do NOT remind him that the month is close to being up and do not rub it in his face that you will be giving the toy away.  Simply get rid of the toy, and if your child remembers about the toy AFTER the give-away date, comfort him and assure him that next time you are sure he will not let the give-away date come and go.  

Tip 5.  Help kids let go of toys by identifying the “best of” in the category.  

     Let’s say that your child loves doing arts and crafts, and your shelves are filled with the remnants of half used kits.  Have your child identify which of the projects provided the most fun and satisfaction and offer to get refills for that project.  Let’s say, for example, that your kid really loved the weaving kit she got for her birthday and she did all the projects listed in the manual, but then she ran out of supplies.  The tissue paper and pipe cleaner flower kit, on the other hand, engaged her for an hour or so and hasn’t been touched since.  Knowing that you are going to buy more weaving supplies, might make it easy for her to say good-bye to the flower making kit (and if not, go back to the Tip #3 plan and put it in place for the flowers).  

Tip 6.  Put away toys that your child is not ready for or isn’t likely to ever play with.

     Go back to the 20 presents from a birthday party.  It is very likely that you are a good judge of what your child is actually going to play with.  In the chaos of the party, it is easy to “put things away” for safe keeping.  If you put a bunch of the toys away, likely the out-of-sight-out-of-mind principle will apply and your child will completely forget they even got that toy.  If a couple of months go by, and the child doesn’t ask about it, quietly send that toy away with the next Good Will bag.  Along the same lines, if your child gets a toy which looks like it will someday interest your child but is too sophisticated for him or her at the moment, put it away in a closet—and assuming that your child doesn’t ask you for it in the meantime—YOU can gift it to your child when your child is old enough for it.  OR you can later make it available for your child to give to one of his friends!

Tip 7.  Use natural transitions, like the start of a new school year, to mark a Big Clean Out.  

     If tips 1-4 have not helped clear out the accumulation of clutter, apply a 10% tithe.  Let your kids know that they are going to have to donate 10% of their toys to charity.  They might balk at first, but this is another excellent way to get kids to prioritize and decide which, for example, of their books they absolutely must have.  It will help them recognize that they still have books on their shelves that they read 2-3 years ago when they were much younger.  Similarly, unless you have massive amounts of free space for enormous Lego projects, my guess is most kids will not register a 10% reduction of their Lego blocks (They simply don’t have the space to build something that would actually use all their blocks).  If your kids greatly resist the idea of donating some of their toys, I highly recommend checking out the laugh-out-loud-funny Too Many Toys, a delightful picture book by David Shannon.  

Tip 8.  Help keep toys organized by making some clear guidelines about how many gifts can come into the house.  

     Share your value with your kids that they not equate stuff with happiness or security.  Help them see the value of fewer treasured objects by encouraging more thoughtful gift giving.  Let relatives know that less is more—or perhaps ask relatives if they would like to go in on a gift together.  Some toys, like a fancy model kit, for example a) can be quite pricey and b) actually requires extra supplies—like glue, additional paint, a big board the project can be done on so that as it is being worked on it can be slid in and out from under a bed.  Relatives who think of the big picture could go in on all the pieces together.   That way one gift comes into the house instead of 6-7.  

     You can also enlist help from close family friends and relatives by asking that they provide your child experiences rather than toys that will add to the clutter.  Perhaps your daughter's best friend's family will invite her to go to the zoo with them the next time they go.  Perhaps your son's uncle will take him to a hockey game.  These gifts work on so many levels:  They say to your child I am valued, People like having me around.  They give your child time with another caring adult, so you are creating that larger safety net.  The activity itself is often memorable--especially if it is in the child's honor.  Again, these are great opportunities for families to go in together on an outing that might be more expensive:  Grandpa can pay for the ticket, Uncle can actually get the child to the game, Aunt-who-lives-far-away can provide a gift certificate for cotton candy or a souvenir.  

Is Your Middle School Kid Still Blaming Others When Things Go Wrong?

Elisabeth Stitt

IT IS NATURAL FOR YOUNG KIDS TO PUSH BLAME AWAY FROM THEMSELVES

(THEY ARE STILL WORKING ON CAUSE AND EFFECT)

BUT WHEN OLDER KIDS BLAME, IT IS TIME TO TAKE ACTION.

     When kids blame others it is often because they have a fixed and not a growth mindset.  Jean Tracy, MSS, wrote a blog called “Stop Kids From Blaming Others” (http://kidsdiscuss.com/feature_article.asp?fa_id=184#sthash.UOywUZWA.dpuf), and I wanted to offer my own comments on her ideas.  Tracy gave six skills people need to learn in order to shift away from blaming others:

1. Accept responsibility for mistakes
2. Learn from mistakes. 
3. Brainstorm better solutions. 
4. Choose the best solution and act on it. 
5. Become accountable and dependable. 
6. Develop a strong moral character.

Skill #1 is Accept responsibility for mistakes

What makes it hard for a child to do that?  The first reason might be that she fears a harsh or very critical response from her caregiver.  But even kids with sensitive parents can be reluctant to accept responsibility for mistakes.  This is usually a sign of a child having a fixed mindset:  She does not need her parent or caregiver to chastise her; she is busy with an internal crisis about her own sense of how capable she is.  Remember, the primary concern of someone with a fixed mindset is fear that people will discover she is not as capable (as smart or talented) as people currently think she is.  She is, therefore, highly motivated to cover up her mistake so that no one else finds out she is less than they thought before.  Not accepting responsibility for her mistake is critical to hanging on to what self-confidence she still has.

Skills #2-4 are all supported by teaching kids to focus on strategy.

How does a parent deal with a child who cannot accept blame because it will damage her sense of herself?  The first step is to teach your child about a fixed and growth mindset.  Researchers have found that just teaching kids about how the brain works—and especially how it grows when it is learning something new—helps kids to develop a growth mindset.  There are lots of videos for kids of different ages to help explain the brain in action.  The second step to helping her develop a growth mindset is to ask her what strategy she was using when she made the mistake, why she thought it would work, and finally what strategy she might try next.  Focusing on strategy will teach a child how to Learn from her mistakes (Skill #2) and how to Brainstorm better solutions (Skill #3) and Choose the best solution and act on it (Skill #4). 

Confused about how to teach kids to focus on strategy?

Some people get confused about strategy, but it is really nothing more than breaking down HOW you do something.  Here are some strategies typically used in academic settings, but many of them cross over to other areas of life.  The list below might seem overwhelming, but a lot of these are so automatic for you, you don’t even think about them.  They might not be automatic for your kids, however:

            •Brainstorming

            •Outlining

            •Note Taking

            •Mind Mapping

            •Color Coding

            •Making a List So You Don’t Forget

            •Keeping a Calendar

            •Identifying Tasks As Beingof High, Medium or Low Importance

            •Reading Directions from Top to Bottom Before Starting (recipes, doing arts and crafts)

            •Checking for All the Supplies Needed Before Beginning

            •Underlining Key Words (and Checking Their Meaning)

            •Asking Questions to Check for Understanding

            •Repeating Information Back to Check for Understanding and Thoroughness

            •Looking at Examples/Samples of What You Are Trying to Do

            •Editing and Rewriting (Look at your last paper and see what you got wrong.  Did your teacher ask you to focus on transitions? Richer word choice? Providing enough detail?) 

            •Asking Others for Feedback as You Go Along (Have I provided enough detail in this section?  Does my example make sense?  Is it clear who everyone in my story is?) 

            •Double Checking Numbers and Arithmetic (say when doubling a cookie recipe)

            •Allowing Enough Time to Work Slowly and Carefully

            •Allowing Enough Time to Review Work

            •Allowing Enough Time to Print, for the Cake to Cool Before Frosting, for the Paint to Dry Before Transporting

            •Recording Steps So That If They Work It Is Not Trial and Error Next Time

            •Looking at the Pictures and Graphics for Clues (What is the birdhouse supposed to look like when it is done?)

            •Putting the Work/Problem Aside for a While and Coming Back to It Later

            •Reviewing Learning to Apply the Next Time (Did you wash a wool sweater and shrink it?  What have you learned about wool?  About checking labels?)

            •Reviewing Successes to Apply the Next Time (Letting each color of paint dry first keeps you from smearing the next color.  Grouping the same size plates makes it easier to load the dishwasher to full capacity.  ) 

            •Getting the Big Picture Ahead of Time (Look at the whole journey on the map and see it in your head before going to the close up view.)

The Role Metacognition and Critical Thinking Play

In focusing on strategies, what you are really teaching your child is metacognition—thinking about how we think.  As you begin to identify strategies, you can then prime the pump before a child gets started by asking, “What strategy are you going to try here?  If it doesn’t work or you make a mistake, what is another strategy you will try next time?”  Asking the question this way teachers the child to expect that mistakes are a part of getting things right and that a lot of times getting something right is a process of trial and error.  You can model for your children that you don’t always get things right by reflecting out loud on your own process and mistakes.  You might say out loud, “There was too much heat under the pan for the first batch, so they got a little burnt, but I turned the flame down for the second batch.”  Or, “the African violets don’t seem to be thriving on that window sill.  I’m wondering if the problem is too much sun or if I am maybe watering them too much.” 

Children are learning to think critically from a very young age.  Helping them identify what they are doing—especially when they get something right—helps them be more aware of their own efficacy.  For example, you might observe to a toddler, “When you rotated that piece, then you were able to fit it in.”  Now the toddler learns in a more concrete way that rotation is a strategy when fitting things together.  Even just asking the question, “What is another strategy you might try?”—and resisting the need to step in and do for the child—helps a child learn that “trying” doesn’t just mean doing the same thing over and over:  Often it means approaching the problem in a different way. 

What is your child's core belief about herself?

So, notice how much of getting your child to not blame others is really about fostering your child’s own sense of being capable of figuring things out on her own—along with developing the belief that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process.   You can aide in her learning by giving her opportunities to practice skills as part of her play.  For a toddler and preschooler, activities like pouring all sorts of things (liquids, beans, rice, beads, etc) from one container to a next, screwing all sorts of things on and off, putting things on and off shelves, all help her become competent. 

Skill #5 is to become accountable and dependable

Becoming accountable really means a) admitting when you failed to do something and b) figuring out how to make amends or to ameliorate the situation.  Kids who are reluctant to admit failure are trying to push shame away from themselves because they do not know how to make amends.  Training kids to make amends, allows them to be accountable because it is then within their power to make things better. 

Being dependable is essentially a critical problem solving exercise.  Kids do not want to disappoint others; it does not feel good.  But often they need support in finding the right structures that will assure that they can keep their word.  For example, a child who has agreed to put the garbage out on the curb and then fails to might be being passive aggressive (and that’s a whole other blog), but more likely she does not have a system for remembering that Thursday night is the night to put the cans out.  She might need your support in marking the calendar in red, setting an alarm on her watch, putting it in her homework planner, etc.  Once she has it down as a routine, chances are she will remember. 

Skill #6 is to develop a strong moral character. 

That, obviously, takes years and years of interactions with your kids.  Push comes to shove, though, kids learn by example.  One place to look, then, is how much are you modeling blaming vs. taking the blame?  If your kids hear you blaming others when things go wrong all the time, naturally they are going learn to do that, too.  On the other hand, if you model taking the blame for your part in something—especially when it comes to recognizing how you have contributed to a negative situation with your kids—you will teach your kids to take the blame gracefully.  You need to model honoring your commitments and apologizing when you fail to.  I used to promise my daughter that I would give her as much advance warning as possible about family social events.  Sometimes I would forget and she would get mad—and let me know I had let her down.  Well, that was on me.  It was disrespectful of me not to give her a heads up about family plans when I had agreed to.  I would apologize and resolve to be more considerate in the future. 

What’s the bottom line?

Helping kids develop a growth mindset is central to getting kids to stop blaming others when things go wrong.  When they see themselves as being “in process,” they are able to cut themselves some slack for their mistakes and failures.  That, in turn, allows them to own up to their role in the situation and to look for ways to make the situation better.  Making things better—or using critical thinking to make a plan to assure that things will go better next time—washes away a person’s shame or guilt.  That makes it much easier to take the blame.  

THE ART OF CONVERSATION

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt

 

Using technology to babysit buys a moment’s peace at dinner:  Developing conversational skills gets a lifetime of delightful dinnertime companionship.     

I witnessed two father/child conversations this week. 

On Tuesday, I was eating in a restaurant next to a father and daughter out to dinner. My guess is that the daughter was around four.  The pair sat down, and Dad immediately pulled out the iPad and set it up for her.  Dad quietly sipped his glass of wine.  For the moment I will put aside my own personal rant about the blurps, bings and dings from the video disturbing my own meal and focus on the idea that ten years from now this father is going to be lucky to get any conversation out of his child at dinner at all.  

 

The Cost of Relying on Technology to Parent

 

Obviously, I don’t know what their day or their week has been.  Perhaps Dad and Daughter have already spent a couple hours playing together.  Perhaps the iPad at the dinner table is screen time she earned for being cooperative about doing her chores all week.  Perhaps they had a long conversation while driving to the restaurant.  Perhaps going out to eat is a big treat and it is the only time Daughter is allowed screen time at the table.  

But for the moment, let’s go with the assumption that as Dad was in his business clothes, he probably picked his Daughter up from Child Care at 6:00.  Hopefully they did have a good conversation about her day in the car.  But it would not surprise me if she had access to the iPad in the car, too.  And just as at dinner, Dad was not watching it with her.  He was not engaging with her about what she was watching.  Not commenting, not asking questions, not explaining what might be new concepts.  

Now don’t get me wrong.  I have certainly gone to dinner when my daughter was young and brought coloring books or other quiet games with the hope that she would quietly entertain herself.  Especially as a single mom with just one daughter at home, I spent a lot of time playing with my kid, and if I could snatch a moment of self-absorbed contemplation, I certainly did.  Likewise, we go to dinner with my nephew almost weekly and for much of the meal he is absorbed in whatever book he is reading.  That is okay with me because I recognize that sitting at the table for more than an hour—as we do most weeks—is a lot to ask of a nine year old.  Nonetheless, once the food does arrive, we do get his attention and he joins in the family conversation.  

Conversation Is an Art

Conversation is an art.  Children need to practice it.  Adults have the responsibility to scaffold the learning by helping kids structure their answers.  Later in the week I saw a dad do this beautifully with his daughter.  She was also around four—maybe a little younger than the girl from earlier in the week.  He started by asking her what she had done during Outside Playtime at school.  She answered I don’t know.  Instead of letting that stop the conversation dead in its tracks, he asked her to think a moment and assured her that she would remember.  Then he just looked at her quietly and patiently.  When she said she still didn’t remember, he coached her:  He said, “Start by saying, ‘Usually during Outside Playtime at school, I _______.'”  She filled in the blank and said “go on the slide.”  He praised her, but had her repeat her answer using the whole phrase.  She repeated the complete sentence, and then without prompting she continued on saying, “but today I played in the sand box with Jesse.”  Then Dad said, “Oh! Tell me about that!”  By now Daughter was off on a roll and she shared quite a bit about her sandbox play.  Clever Dad.  Chances are if he had asked, “What did you play?”, he would have gotten a one-word answer.

Conversation is a Two-Way Street

Now, what happened after this conversation was the part that impressed me the most.  When Daughter had finished telling about her day, Dad said, “I had a good day, too.”  When his daughter didn’t pick up on his conversational gambit, Dad reminded her, “Honey, when you are talking to people, the conversation has to go back and forth.  I asked you about your day.  Now you should ask me about my day.”  Daughter perked up and looked right at her dad:  “Tell me now, Daddy!”  While Dad shared a few details, she kept her attention on him the whole time.

If Dad keeps up gently prompting his daughter through having a full conversation, imagine the benefits they will both reap.  Not only will he stay in touch with his daughter as she grows up, she will have an awareness of him as a person who also does interesting things and has thoughts and feelings of his own as an individual.  No doubt, over the years, their conversations will range far and wide.  Remember, connection is a key to effective parenting, and conversation is an easy way to feel connected with a person.

  In January 2015, Mandy Len Catron wrote an essay published in The New York Times called, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”(http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/modern-love-to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html).   In the essay she tells how she and a mutual acquaintance increased their trust and intimacy using the 36 questions from a study done in the 90’s by Arthur Aron et al designed to see if you could make  people fall in love with each other.  The study found you could.  Carton found she did.  Imagine using these questions—or questions like these—over the years to connect to your kids.  

The Cost of Not Developing Conversational Skills

Now let’s ago back to that other Dad from earlier in the week.  Presently he has the easy love that a small child gives her parent.  To a four year old, you are the sun, the moon and at the stars all connected.  But over the years, as a child makes the shift to peers, parents who have not already established conversational habits have to work much harder to not drift apart.  Just because you are physically at the table with your kids does not mean you are reaping the many (many!) benefits of eating together.  Harvard professor and researcher, Dr. Anne K. Fishel, points out that, "the real power of dinners lies in their interpersonal quality” (http://thefamilydinnerproject.org/food-for-thought/science-eat-dinner-together/).  The more we get sucked into our electronic gadgets, the more parents have to systematically teach their children good interpersonal skills.  In less distracted eras, family members looked to each other for entertainment.  Card games, board games, story telling, and singing together were some of the only sources of entertainment available.  All of these required families to not merely be near each other, but to actually talk to each other.   

Keep the Flow of Conversation Going

Once you have gotten them to the table (and banned the distractions), getting your kids to talk to you is a two-part process.  First, help your kids give detailed, complete answers to daily questions like, “How was your day?”  Teach them that while that might be a courtesy question out in public to which a polite “fine” is acceptable, when you ask it, you are looking for some real sharing without having to pull teeth.  Of course, for your part, you have to be a good listener who absorbs what your kids are telling you before you jump to criticize or solve.  Your primary job is to keep the flow of conversation going.  Use prompts like Really?  What else?  Tell me more. How do you feel about that?  Especially in the short run, listening is much more important than your response.  If you are really worried about something that comes up, I suggest you circle on back to it at a later time—maybe in private at bedtime. 

Getting Creative and Thinking Outside the Box to Get to Your Kids Talking

The second part of getting your kids to talk is coming up with good questions.  You want to balance questions about daily life with questions that will expand your kids' thinking.  The Family Dinner Project ( http://thefamilydinnerproject.org/conversation-2/conversation-starters/ ) suggests questions like, “If you joined the circus, what would your circus act be?”  As someone who long had fantasies about running away to join the circus, I love that question.  (I would have definitely chosen being a trapeze artist, in case you were wondering!)  

TiffinTalk—A Tool to Help

Another fabulous resource is a company called TiffinTalk.  TiffinTalk creators Kat Rowan and Michael Friesen have written over 4000 cards each with a question that provides "thought-provoking, open-ended questions that prompt meaningful conversations – no matter what the age of your child.”  4000!  And every card is different. That is extraordinary. The cards are boxed into groups by age from preschool through high school.  Like Arthur Aron’s questions designed to help two people fall in love by increasing intimacy, TiffinTalk’s questions start out more general and broad and go deeper over the course of the each themed week.  Themes from the boxes for 6-9 year olds, for example, include topics like Clean or Messy, Homes & Houses, Being More Than You, How to (Not) Argue with Adults, and Firsts. These cards are not games; each are meant to be personalized cards from parent to child and are meant to be shared in one-on-one, face-to-face discussions. 

In June 2015, I interviewed TiffinTalk Creative Director and CEO Kat Rowan.  One of the points we touched upon was how opening the lines of conversation on a host of topics makes it much easier to bring up more difficult topics like death or sex education.  If you and your child are not used to talking about touchier topics, when the time comes to bring them up, they feel much heavier and weighted than they need to be. In fact, some parents never do have “the Sex Talk” because it seems too overwhelming—a mountain when it could be a mole hole. On the other hand, parents who have been exploring a range of themes like the ones TiffinTalk provides have likely already dealt with a lot of related topics, having discussed questions about relationships, friendships, how dress affects how people see us, our bodies, etc.  TiffinTalk’s boxes of cards (beautifully produced) are complete and comprehensive.  By the time you work your way through the whole series, there will be very little you have not touched on. The inclusion of blank cards allow parents lots of flexibility to address questions that occur to them, while the themes give the parents something concrete to fall back on.  

Of course, you may be able to come up with lots of topics on your own.  If that is the case, you probably already know the joy of having kids who are mentally present and eager to join you at the table—a daily touchpoint of love, warmth and connection.  

You will never regret putting energy into teaching your children the Art of Conversation.  Well, you may regret how much you miss their sparkling wit when the grow up and go away, but I trust they will come home to visit!