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We are living in a scary world. As adults, we struggle with our emotions while seeing the devastation wreaked on an innocent nation. Children are inevitably exposed to this – through TV, radios, news sites on the computer, newspapers, overhearing adult conversations and even information they hear on the playground. How do we make sense of this for them? Being appropriate, discreet and aware of how you act and react is the key to your children feeling safe, secure and optimistic about life in  an uncertain world. The following are 7 ways you can help:

  1. BE PARENTAL – always convey that you are in charge; make clear the distinction between adult and kid decisions; continue with your same rules and limits and their enforcement; When children perceive that you and the other adults in their lives are “the big people in charge”, they feel secure and protected and believe the information you supply.
  2. CONTROL THE FLOW OF INFORMATION – control access to the news according to the age of your child and their need to know. Very young children (below the age of 8) should be protected, as well as you can, from any information about the ongoing events. Images on TV, in newspapers and magazines are horrific and frightening. Also, remember that even though children are small, they can still hear! Information overheard on the radio, TV, your phone conversations and dinner table talk can only cause them anxiety. Older children will, and should, receive information but need you to put it in context for them. The appropriate context is that this war is very far away (use a globe to emphasize this) and will not come here. However, older children do need to understand the basic dynamics of the conflict and why we care. Finally, avoid constant, repetitive news viewing which increases anxiety for both adults and children.
  3. COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR CHILDREN – to answer questions, correct misconceptions, and to provide education, perspective and reassurance. Be available for children to express their questions, feelings and concerns. This will most likely happen when children have alone time with you. Also, be aware of children’s non-verbal expressions of concern and fears – play themes, changes in their habits, signs of stress. If it seems they have concerns, you need to bring up the topic – “It seems like you’re worried about something” or “You’re not wanting to sleep alone. Why do you think that changed?” Do not answer their questions in a dismissive or minimizing way. Instead, acknowledge and label their feelings. Explanations and answers should be honest, simple, accurate and age-appropriate; answer only what they want to know. Below Grade 2, help them distinguish between reality and fantasy, between cartoon villians and heroes and real aggressors, soldiers and rescuers. Their imaginative play themes, drawings and story-telling are opportunities to correct misconceptions. For older children, incorporate events, issues and geography into your responses. Teach media literacy so children understand why news coverage is so intense and on-going. For all children, it’s important to provide perspective. Put information they receive into a broader context beyond their literal and limited viewpoint – they are not going to experience this war themselves, war does end, good guys win. If any outcomes of the conflict, such as higher prices will effect your decisions as a family, you want to assure children that their basic needs will be met even though some optional expenditures may need to be suspended for now.
  4. .BE  AWARE OF YOUR REACTIONS – Don’t express your own distress in front of children – present yourself as being calm and in control. At the same time, be aware if you are acting more impatient, yelling more or being preoccupied. While children may not know the source of your upset, they take in that you’re acting differently. Often, they will blame themselves for this. Instead, telling them that you have grown up problems on your mind will relieve them of this worry.
  5. MAINTAIN ROUTINES – Keep to normal daily schedules and activities. Continue normal expectations for children’s behavior and schoolwork. Keep family traditions and plan for future activities.
  6. ENGAGE CHILDREN IN VOLUNTEER ACTIVITIES – If you choose to make your children aware on any level of the conflict in Ukraine, think about how they might contribute in a positive way. This gives children a sense of control and of having some small influence in the world. They can contribute money, select toys or clothing to contribute, accompany you in any volunteer efforts you engage in.
  7. BE ALERT TO ONGOING STRESS IN CHILDREN – Children can suffer from stress as much as adults do They show us their distress through physical, emotional and behavioral means. Please see my blog on signs of stress in children. Communication goes along way towards relieving their stress. If it continues or seems debilitating, it may be time to seek professional help.

During this scary and unprecedented time of COVID-19, children and parents are experiencing tremendous stress. Routines and order have been uprooted and and replaced with chaos and unpredictability, not to mention illness and loss of life. Hopefully, as you read this, you are safe and healthy, but the impact of this stressful time has the potential to define how kids will learn to handle stress for their lifetime. What follows are some strategies for you to get through this in the best way possible.

No matter how you try to keep the worst of the information from your kids, they know life is very different – they’re not at school. they don’t see their friends or relatives, they can’t go out and play or attend activities. Though your child may not be able to express their “stress” in words, they show us in several other ways. Look for changes in their physical health – digestive disorders, fatigue, hyperactivity, unexplained aches and pains. They also manifest stress through emotional changes – fearfulness and anxiety, irritability, loss of joy, anger, more easily upset. Also, look at behavioral changes which signal stress- regressive behaviors, clinginess, being less cooperative, aggression, an increase in nervous behaviors. Some children will even show depresssion – sadness, fatigue, appetite changes,excessive worrying, sleep disturbances.

The following are some ways you can prevent and reduce the stress they experience: I call them STRESSBUSTERS.

Be Parental – Be seen as “the one in charge”. Stick to your rules and their enforcement, maintain routines so life does not seem chaotic. Deal constructively with sibling issues – giving each child alone time by themselves and with you, give them activities they can enjoy together, take a strong stand on physical or emotional warfare separating them when tempers flare, use sibling “team charts” to reward cooperation. Finally, watch their diet – being stuck at home leads to a lot of snacking,and sugary snacks increase the amount of stress people experience.

Control the flow of Information – Neither you nor your children benefit from constant exposure to news about the pandemic. It can overwhelm your thinking and cause stress and anxiety. Children under eight should be protected from TV and radio news as well as from adult conversations about the pandemic.

Communicate with your child – Even if you strictly adhere to controlling the information flow, your child knows something is going on as school and camps are closed, people are wearing facemasks, they can’t have playdates or visit grandma. Talking with your child lets you know what they’re thinking and feeling and allows you to provide correct, age appropriate information, perspective and reassurance. In terms of information, first find out what they know! You don’t want to provide more details than a child is ready to hear. But, always answer honestly – children are aware when we are deceiving them which interferes with trust.

In terms of perspective, children need to know most people are going to be just fine and that the pandemic will not last forever. Reassurance comes from hearing that it’s your job to keep them safe and your job to keep yourself safe. It also comes from hearing that smart people are working hard to to find good ways to get rid of the Covid-19 germ and help people recover.

There are three elements that will make your communication most effective. The first is timing. When children are interrogated or forced to talk, they shut down. Instead, wait for them to ask questions or watch their fantasy play or drawings for opportunities to comment. Time alone with your child, especially at bedtime, often prompts them to open up. This is also a good time to bring up something you know they’ve seen or heard about the pandemic. The second element is demeanor. Whether answering a question or supplying information, it’s essential that you maintain a calm demeanor. Your reactions effect their perspective on this situation more than anything else. The third important consideration is providing empathy. Whether fielding a complaint, handling a meltdown or helping with school work, remember that we are all struggling to cope right now and children have many fewer resources to do so. Empathy is shown through being patient, identifying feelings and even letting them know you share their feelings. Be particularly aware of children who don’t express themselves at all – this doesn’t mean they have no concerns or questions. You may have to prompt them with questions or statements about how many other people are handling the situation. Ultimately, the most important outcome of communicating is the connection you make with your child.

Teach Safety Rules – This serves a dual purpose. It helps children stay healthy and gives them a sense of control over the virus. Make sure to teach them in a non-scary and non-intense manner – again parental calmness is the most important factor. In addition to the well known recommendations for washing hands and social distancing, have children who are old enough also participate in wiping door handles, food, etc. Being proactive enhances feelings of control and security.

Control Screen Time – The pandemic has forced screens to take over our lives! We use it for work, school, socializing, escape and entertainment. Social distancing, being home all the time and the uncertainty of the future is making everyone feel down, hopeless, lonely, bored and agitated. Using social media, binge-watching shows, playing video games or just web surfing actually effects our brains in ways that make us feel better because these activities increase the amount of dopamine our brains produce and dopamine is the “feel good” chemical. But, like other “feel good” activities – drinking, drugs, gambling – our brains crave more and more screen time to achieve the same level of gratification. And, like those other activities, stopping brings withdrawal! That’s why your kids get irritated, angry and aggressive when asked to stop.

Yet, screen time is both necessary and a stress reducer so I’m not suggesting you delete it from your lives. The answer is to balance High Dopamine Activities with Low Dopamine Activities in a one to one ratio. Your kids – and you – need to spend time exercising, doing board games, reading, hobbies, art projects, cooking, etc. If you struggle to remove screens from your kids, try doing a one week detox which resets the amount of dopamine needed to feel gratified.

Manage your own stress – One of the most important measures that will benefit your children during this time is for you to appear calm. This can be a huge challenge given your own anxiety about working from home, the uncertainty of the future, economic issues and much more. So take good care of yourself – limit your exposure to the news so it doesn’t dominate your thinking; keep routines for yourself to emphasize what is controllable and predictable; do what de-stresses you, yoga, exercise, meditation; staying in contact with your support system, etc. If you have a bad moment, let your children know it’s not their fault. Don’t feel compelled to spend all day playing with your children – it’s a good time for them to learn to spend time on their own and for you to have “you” time. And don’t stress over being your child’s teacher – You’re not prepared for this and, in the end, every child will be in the same boat needing to catch up and schools know this!

See the positive outcomes – Believe it or not, this moment in history can have very positive outcomes for you and your child. It’s an opportunity to model and teach tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity, patience with imperfection, resilience, ingenuity and grit. It’s a great time to enhance your child’s life skills by participating in chores with you.And, despite the bad moments, without external demands and activities, it’s a time to bond tightly as a family. These lessons will last a lifetime.

A Few Survival Strategies – Try to inject some fun into daily life. Play games, have movie night, bake and cook together, do a family puzzle, use a silly voice when giving directions, make your child laugh, have them make you laugh, have a picnic instead of eating at the kitchen table, have a scavenger hunt, let the children plan a party… For all the activities they are missing, have them compile a “wish list” of the things they’d like to when we are free to do them. Arrange virtual playdates for your children to keep them in touch with peers and relatives. Make sure to have an agenda – show and tell, book sharing, etc. However, be aware that overuse of virtual contact can discourage kids from participating.

Finally, remember to inject empathy into all your interactions with your children. We’re all having a hard time, meltdowns and anxiety. Uphold your rules, boundaries and routines but do so with compassion for how hard this is for everyone. AND STAY HEALTHY!

With the new school year beginning, all parents are hoping this will be a great year! They’re hoping that their child will enjoy learning, grow in their skills and have positive social experiences. How can you help make that happen? There are lots of contributions you can make and none of them include doing your child’s homework!

First, you can help ensure success by creating a beneficial home environment. This means showing that you value the educational experience not just for grades, but for the ways lessons can be applied to your daily life. It also means having both schedules and routines. Making sure your child has sufficient sleep is very important for learning. Bedtime and wake up time should be set including a bedtime routine and an environment conducive to sleep. Take advantage of the start of the new year to establish homework routines (time and place) and a fixed and strategic place for backpacks full of homework to be taken to school the next day.

Another aspect of a beneficial home environment is setting limits and boundaries with predictable outcomes that you enforce. Respect for adult decisions begins at home and benefits children in the school setting. Finally, be aware of the emotional tone of your household. Try to limit disharmony and stress caused by parenting issues, schedules, responsibilities and siblings. Make sure to establish a morning routine that provides a calm start to your child’s day.

Another way to help your child succeed in school is to help self esteem and confidence to develop. One important way to do this is to set realistic expectations for each of your children, neither too high or too low so they can experience success. Take into account the strengths and weaknesses of each child. Don’t expect perfection and emphasize “best efforts” and “personal bests”.

Encourage competency by not doing for children what they can do for themselves – including homework! Be available only as a resource. Children need to learn how to problem solve, how to prevail through perserverance and how to survive and recover from failures.

At the beginning of the year, promote good work habits. Decide where and when homework will be done. Teach the logical sequencing of a task. Teach “task reduction”, time management list making and use of a calendar for planning.

Hopefully, with homework under control, children will have some FREE TIME! Scheduled activities can be overdone. Free, unstructured time WITHOUT SCREENS allow children to hone their imagination, initiative and creativity and learn to rely on their internal resources – all important for school success.

Social skills are another important ingredient for school success. Children who lack these skills tend to be preoccupied with social isolation or become victims of teasing and bullying. Help your child learn to read both the verbal and nonverbal cues from others and to respond appropriately. Teach empathy, compromise, negotiation and inclusion, rather than hostile competitiveness, bragging, bossiness and aggression. Make sure your child has experience with taking turns and conversational skills. Provide playdates with classmates to encourage connections.

Finally, build a strong alliance with the school and the teachers. Be as involved as time allows. Make sure that you communicate to the teachers any changes at home that will effect your child’s classroom performance as well as any struggles with schoolwork. And, please, be open to and welcome any feedback about your child that the school provides. Potential problems can be averted or corrected by working jointly with the school on such issues.

For many generations,  punishing a child physically for misdeeds was not only accepted practice, but approved and universal. As parenting has become more thoughtful and as we have become vigilant about child abuse, views on this have been changed. There has been an evolution in what are considered appropriate ways to modify a child’s behavior, and as a therapist in private practice, I have had a unique opportunity to watch and advise on this. There are three issues to consider:

First, schools and most parents are teaching their children from early on to “use their words” to  set limits on another’s behavior. “Instead of hitting Johnny when he takes your ball, tell him to STOP IT!”. A child who doesn’t learn this lesson will have problems with teachers, other kids and their parents. Hitting at school is universally unacceptable. If a parent uses physical means to discipline their child at home, they are modeling unacceptable behavior.  I’ve even heard parents say to their kids, “I’ll teach you not to hit your brother –WHACK, WHACK!”. What you model at home is what your child will learn to do with their angry, hurt or frustrated feelings out in the world.

A second problem with physical means of discipline is the message it sends about the position  your child holds in your estimation. A parent’s physical actions  may send the message that they are bigger, stronger, “own” their children and can do what they like. This was illustrated beautifully for my by an 11 year old girl I was seeing in my practice. Her mother was suffering through the pre-adolescent sassiness of her daughter. At one heightened point of rudeness, the mother slapped the girl across the face. The girl very perceptively protested that, “When you’re mad at Daddy, you don’t hit him and when you’re mad at Grandma, you don’t hit her! Why do you think you can hit me?”.  These practices have the potential, years hence, to help your child decide that they don’t like you very much and would prefer to  put emotional or geographical distance between you. Now, I know some of you were physically disciplined and have a great relationship with your parents. The problem is that others do not, and  you won’t know how it will turn out until it’s too late.

Lastly, parents have to be aware of the extreme governmental focus on child abuse. Because this has been ignored for too long, Children’s Protective Services are doing their job passionately, and you can end up in BIG trouble. I have dealt with three families – all very nice, educated and well-meaning but OLD FASHIONED parents – whose children inadvertently “spilled the beans” on a parent to a mandated reporter – a teacher, a therapist, etc. – who must report potential child abuse. In one case, a child away at camp shared with her bunkmate that her father used physical punishment. The bunkmate told the counselor, who told the director who called the police. The other children in the family were taken into protective custody until the father was removed from the household. After many months, many thousands of dollars in attorney fees, and tragic emotional consequences for the family, the situation was righted. In other cases, small children who come to school or camp with a bruise or mark that they “explain” was caused by a parent set off similar investigations and actions.

For all these reasons, correcting behavior using incentives and/or consequences ( that are not physical) can teach the lessons you want your children to learn and maintain a rational and loving relationship between parent and child.

We are living in a dangerous and scary world. As adults, we struggle with carrying on a normal life while seeing the possibility of random terrorism. While most adults develop coping strategies, what are our children to do with the information they inevitably receive? Even if you attempt to shield them, children as young as preschoolers are exposed – through television, radio, newspaper photos and playground chatter. What can you do to recognize if your child has been exposed and how can you help them?

Being appropriate and aware of how you act and react is the key to your children feeling safe, secure and optimistic about life in  an uncertain world. The following are 8 ways you can help:

  1. BE PARENTAL – convey that you are in charge; make clear the distinction between adult and kid decisions; continue with the same rules and limits and their enforcement;  let children know it’s YOUR responsibility and that of other adults to keep them safe. They only believe this if they perceive you as “the big person in charge”.
  2. CONTROL THE FLOW OF INFORMATION – control access to the news according to the age of your child and their need to know. Very young children should be protected, as well as you can, from any information about events. Older children will receive information and need you to put it in context for them. Avoid constant, repetitive news viewing which increases anxiety for both adults and children. Do not have adult conversations about frightening events in front of children.
  3. COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR CHILDREN – to answer questions, correct misconceptions, and to provide education, perspective and reassurance. Be available for children to express their feelings and concerns. This will most likely happen when children have alone time with you. Also, be aware of children’s non-verbal expressions of concern and fears – play themes, changes in their habits, signs of stress. If it seems they have concerns, you need to bring up the topic – “It seems like you’re worried about something” or “You’re not wanting to sleep alone. Why do you think that changed?” Do not answer their questions in a dismissive or minimizing way. Instead, acknowledge and label their feelings. Explanations and answers should be honest, simple, accurate and age-appropriate; answer only what they want to know. Below Grade 2, help them distinguish between reality and fantasy, between cartoon villians and heroes and real terrorists, soldiers and rescuers. Their imaginative play themes, drawings and story-telling are opportunities to correct misconceptions. For older children, incorporate events, issues and geography into your responses. Teach media literacy so children understand why news coverage is so intense and on-going. For all children, it’s important to provide perspective. Put information they receive into a broader context beyond their literal and limited viewpoint – there are very few terrorists, they are unlikely to be present at an event, war does end, good guys win.
  4. PROVIDE REASSURANCE – Young children only need to know that  you can and will protect them. Older children benefit from understanding the actions adults are taking in response to terrorism.
  5. MAINTAIN ROUTINES – Keep to normal daily schedules and activities. Continue normal expectations for children’s behavior and schoolwork. Help children restore a sense of control – give them age-appropriate decisions, plan proactive activities for them such as collecting money or toys for victims, sending letters to rescuers or military personnel. Keep family traditions and plan for future activities.
  6. BE  AWARE OF YOUR REACTIONS – Don’t fall apart in front of children – present yourself as being calm and in control. Be aware if you are acting more impatient, yelling more or being preoccupied. Do not discuss events on an adult level when your children can hear you – this includes phone conversations.
  7. COORDINATE EFFORTS BETWEEN HOME AND SCHOOL – Exchange information with teachers about children’s displays of stress at school or at home. Schools should inform parents of social studies, current events lessons or relevant discussions which may be reflected in concerns or behavioral changes at home.
  8. BE ALERT TO ONGOING STRESS IN CHILDREN – Children can suffer from PTSD as can adults, If this is the case, seek professional help. (Please see my upcoming blog of signs of stress in children.)

A good place to start to help your child succeed at school is to define for yourself what constitutes “success”! Is it getting all A’s? Is it getting into Harvard? We’ve tended to reduce the school experience to these goals. However, there is actually more to be gained – things that will benefit them well beyond those college years. For example, a love of learning. Hopefully we continue to learn all through our lives, and this is more likely to happen if the seed is planted early. We, of course, expect children to acquire knowledge but, just as importantly, to acquire the ability to think and analyze and the tools to achieve their goals – like perseverance and diligence. School is also a place where children can build their self esteem and confidence.

All this is best achieved if there is an alliance between the school and parents. Most parents are pretty clear on the school’s role, but less clear on how they can contribute to their children getting the most out of their school experience. The following is a blueprint for how you can make the best possible contribution to school success.

First, parents need to provide a beneficial home environment. Children should hear from you that  you value education for all the reasons mentioned above.  Beyond that, creating a stable home environment with schedules and routines sets children up to get the most out of their school day and teaches organizational skills. You can do this by regulating their sleep with set times to go to bed and wake up that provide them with sufficient rest. A set bedtime routine and consistent sleep environment will help you achieve this. Good nutrition is another important contributor. Have regular meal and snack times and watch the sugar and caffeine intake   (I know you don’t give your child coffee to jumpstart their day, but be aware that certain foods, beverages and medications contain a fairly good shot of caffeine).  Also, a calm, unrushed beginning to the day will help them arrive at school ready to learn.

A beneficial home environment also exists when you assess the strengths and weaknesses of each of your children and set your expectations of them accordingly – not too high or too low. Be open to accepting feedback from the school as to places where your child might be experiencing a lag so that appropriate intervention can begin. Also, let children know that you don’t expect perfection but rather “best efforts” and “personal bests”, that you value the attempt over the outcome. This means that you need to allow your children to make mistakes and fail. Then your job is to teach your children a “winner’s mentality”. This means that failures and mistakes are opportunities to learn they can survive and are empowered to make changes in future attempts.

Success in school also happens when parents teach good work habits.  Let your children do for themselves all they CAN do without excessive help from you. This builds a sense of competency which is not only a self esteem booster but good practice in functioning well in school.  Encourage perseverance and completion of tasks starting from a young age. Homework skills also need to be taught – decide where and when homework will be done, help children learn time management and the logical sequencing of a task. Remember also, this is not YOUR homework! You are there only as a resource. And watch the number of extracurricular activities your child engages in – they need adequate time to do their schoolwork as well as downtime to be ready for the next day.

Finally, home should be the first place that children learn that the adults are in charge. When children respect the limits and boundaries that their parents set, they come to school ready to cooperate with teachers and to take directions that enable them to learn. These are the children who get an extra self esteem boost because they know how to elicit positive feedback from the adults with whom they have to deal.

How could there be a problem with praise? We all seek it, love it, even crave it! In fact, we value it so highly that we give it to our children in copious quantities, both to inspire cooperation and to build their self esteem. The current parenting wisdom is that praise cannot be overdone.  So, there is hardly a move our children can make without a parent exclaiming “GOOD JOB!!!”. “Good job getting up this morning!”, “Good job putting on your clothes!”, “Good job brushing your teeth!”, “Good job breathing!”.

Another trend in praising children is to attempt to boost self confidence by giving them superlative praise. How could you possibly demean  your child by saying something as lukewarm as “I really like your picture!” or “You really tried your best at soccer today!”? No, parents believe that their children are and deserve THE BEST! “You are the BEST artist in the world!” You are the MOST TERRIFIC athlete I’ve ever seen!”.

But are we really accomplishing our goals with this constant and overblown praise? And, more significantly, are we doing harm? The answers are NO and YES.

In the case of constant praise, the result is that we take away its specialness. Children don’t develop the ability to distinguish between commonplace expectations and exceptional efforts. They can come to believe that simple cooperation is optional. They then take this belief out into the real world and feel that their teachers, peers, and coaches should appreciate them simply going along with the program. Teaching them to expect positive feedback for behaving like a cooperative member of the community will both confuse and disappoint them. Those other people, who also have an impact on their self esteem,  won’t react so enthusiastically leading your child to believe they have fallen short. For parents, a more appropriate way of reinforcing cooperation is to say “I appreciate your getting ready without reminders this morning. It really helps me out.” or “I see that you are being really responsible about your homework”. Save praise for truly laudable behavior – “Wow! You got them all correct on your spelling test this week!” or “The way you organized your room is terrific!”. Be careful, as well, to praise progress rather than perfection. Setting a standard of perfect outcomes is not what you should be striving for. Instead, use and teach your children to use the standard of personal bests and best efforts.

Some parents also believe that praising their children’s accomplishments to the high heavens is a great way to build self esteem. They tell them they are THE BEST, THE MOST, THE GREATEST!!! Because children are literal and give great importance to your evaluations of them, you will end up creating an identity that won’t stand up outside the family. There is always someone who is better than we are. When your child realizes that, they will either knock themselves out trying to surpass others or will find out that you deceived them in your evaluation.

The bottom line is to keep praise proportionate, authentic and reserved for that which is not just expected. Additionally, make sure that praise isn’t given just for performances – whether this be remembering their backpack, doing their homework or helping out at home. Performance praise sets children up to think that only concrete acts are considered worthy of notice. Instead, be sure to praise children for positive intrinsic qualities they display. Comment on their displays of kindness, their sense of humor, their empathy, sense of fairness, loyalty, honesty and other characteristics you admire in them.

Now that school has started, your children will be learning all kinds of things – how to read, do math, learn history and science. However, there are very important lessons that can only be taught at home. One of them is manners.

If you would like to give your child a very significant and lasting gift, consider giving them the information and practices they need to be considered mannerly. Now, I really don’t mean which fork to use (though later in life this may be important!  Who knows if they’ll be invited to dine with the Queen?). Instead, the manners that matter are behaviors designed to take care of the feelings of others and to grease the wheels of sociability. Teaching good manners used to be a routine part of raising a child. However, beginning in the 60’s with the rejection of formality and respect for authority, traditional manners were one of the casualties. Social  expectations were relaxed and democratized. It became a mark of coolness to address everyone by their first name, regardless of status. Instead of greetings, it was much more hip to smile and mutter “peace”. Speaking one’s mind was considered preferable to discretion and caution. People were even “PRIMAL SCREAMING” (look this one up if you missed the craze.).

If you are  raising children now, you are part of the first generation to be brought up on these more informal practices. For example, you are most likely accustomed to children addressing teachers and other parents by their first names – it’s  just your norm. I use this particular example because it goes to the heart of manners – which is respect for other people and their feelings. Now, using a first name instead of Mr. or Mrs. does not necessarily imply disrespect, but it became the top of the slippery slope of treating each other more casually. This casualness has crept into many of our social interactions and even become rudeness. You might be noticing that more and more people don’t RSVP to invitations, whether it’s for a 3- year- old’s birthday party or for a wedding.  When was the last time you wrote or received a thank you note for a present? When have someone called you to thank you for having them to dinner? When was the last time someone ahead of you allowed a door to close in your face instead of holding it? How many formal or religious events have you attended and seen people dressed as if they’ve just stopped in from a jog? And…DOES ALL THIS REALLY MATTER?

YES –  actually, manners now make more of an impact on someone’s impression of your child than ever before. When everyone was mannerly, it was taken for granted. Now when a child engages in considerate behavior,  people notice and the child is  seen as special! This specialness can translate into being more sought after for playdates, being viewed as a more active participant in the classroom, making the cut for a play or a team, enlisting extra consideration for special accommodations at school, making a good impression at an interview, etc., etc. It not only reflects well on your child, but on you as well as a good parent! You have the opportunity to take an unformed human being who is only aware of his/her needs and turn them out, 18 years later, as a civilized member of society who has the heart to relate to others and the skills to enlist  these others in pleasant, cooperative and even loving relationships.

If not the difference between a fish fork and a soup spoon, what should you be focusing your efforts on? With young children, making eye contact and saying “please”, “thank you” and “no, thank you” is a good start. Teaching children to respect authority by having them follow your rules and boundaries will serve them well in all sorts of settings.  Teach them how to be social – how to start a conversation with a peer, how to stay on topic in that conversation, how to take turns speaking and not to interrupt the conversations others are having.

Teach them how to greet someone new by shaking hands and saying “nice to meet you”. Let them know that some adults prefer to be called Mr. and Mrs. and that the adult is the one to give them permission to use their first name. Teach them telephone manners. Teach them to share, compromise, be inclusive and take turns. Teach them how good winners and good losers act. Use their own experiences to help them realize that making rude remarks or stating negative observations about others is hurtful and unacceptable. As children get older, holding the door for others, letting their elders pass through first and standing up to greet an adult guest are sure to make a big impression.

Show them that you respond to all invitations in a timely way and don’t retract your acceptances because a “better offer” comes along. As casual as we’ve become in our dress, having them dress appropriately for special occasions is another way to convey respect for others. Make sure they know how to thank someone for having them over for a party or playdate and don’t say it for them! Practice with them what to say when opening a present so that they take care of the feelings of the giver even if they hate the present or already have 27 of the same toy! Have them write thank you notes even if they can only sign their name. Let them experience the excitement of giving, as well as receiving, holiday or birthday gifts with others, especially within the family.

This may seem like a long list or an incomplete one. (I refer you to “Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children” by Judith Martin for more suggestions.) Feel free to add your own personal and cultural practices and, remember, your behavior is their most potent guide. Even though you have 18 years to get the job done,  it’s not too early to start giving your child the tools to be special!

Susan C. Stone is a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Los Angeles for 33 years.She speaks widely to the parents and teachers of children of all ages. Ms. Stone appears regularly on both radio and television as a parenting expert and is the author of THE INDULGENCE TRAP – When too much is not Enough!

With Easter and Passover around the corner, it seems like a good time to talk about the importance of tradition to children and to family life.  If you ask an adult – or yourself – what positive memories you have from childhood, the answer will often be about things that the family did together on a regular basis – RITUALS and TRADITIONS. These might be ways of celebrating birthdays, vacations, the specific rituals followed on a holiday, Sunday dinners and much more. There are several reasons people remember traditions and rituals as such an important and memorable part of their childhood:

1. Children find security and comfort in repetition. It gives them something to count on in otherwise unpredictable world ( that’s why we’ve all read Good Night Moon hundreds and hundreds of times!). Your traditions give children touchstones that the family returns to despite the continuing changes in your child’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive world. Recreating a family activity over and over gives life a rhythm and markers on which children can rely. This creates a sense of stability.

2. A very basic need of children  – and, indeed, even adults – is a sense of belonging. Doing things as a family, that are unique to your family, builds this sense in children. Children need the sense of security that no matter what issues they have to confront in the world, they have a family to which to turn.

3. Rituals and traditions are an important  way of passing culture and values to the next generation. When parents do this, they often experience the richness of repeating their family’s history. Realistically, there are parents who would rather forget how their parents did things! In this case, establishing new traditions with your own children is a way to break a best-forgotten chain and write your own family history.

4. Family traditions and rituals are important in helping  children with the task of building an identity. They  help create for your child a sense of who they are and who their  family is. They become able to say, “We are a family that…”.  They also experience the roles and responsibilities of family members and are given their own role in that mosaic. This inclusion helps to establish their identity and a sense of purpose or usefulness in the family.

5. Traditions also bind children to you and to the family. Even during the adolescent years when their task is to establish their independence and claim in individual identity, children crave the traditions they have grown up with. The same teen who doesn’t want to be seen in public with you will all of a sudden demand that “traditional” foods you prepare for holidays or expect that grandpa will tell his story about celebrating the holiday when he was a child. It ‘s been demonstrated that teens who are connected to their families are less likely to engage in dangerous behaviors.

6. Don’t think that you have to create elaborate celebrations, birthday parties, outings or vacations in order to have traditions. This misses the point entirely! The activity you select to make a tradition isn’t important – choose what  you value and like:

  •  It can be a family dinner every Friday or Sunday night.
  •  You can choose to ride bikes together every weekend.
  • It can be going to the mountains every summer or planting a garden in the spring.
  • Have a game or movie night with popcorn or pizza
  • Have a traditional way that you celebrate the particular achievements of anyone in the family
  • Donate your time or items to needy families every Thanksgiving
  • Have family dinners as often as possible where you take turns sharing something from your day and receive attention and support from the family
  • Establish a special family tradition for saying good night or goodbye which your children can help to devise

Clearly, I could go on and on! What’s important is that through RITUAL and TRADITION you and your children will reap the benefits of stability, security and closeness to the family.

What your child should be ready for at any age is a concern that worries and confuses parents of children of all ages.

  • When should my child be walking?
  • When should my child be using a bottle, binky diapers
  • When should my child start preschool, kindergarten?
  • When should my child go on a sleepover?
  • When should my child go to the movies alone with a friend?
  • When should my child have a cell phone?
  • When should my child learn to drive?

As you can see, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of turning points parents need to consider, and most parents don’t really know what to expect or decide. They operate from hopes, fears, and a lack of knowledge about development. Some parents worry too much about such issues and some not enough. Can I give you definite ages and expectations for readiness? NO!  Much depends on who your child is and what you are comfortable with. However, I can give you ways to think about these issues.

In the early years and, again, as adolescence begins, children are developing quickly in all ways. There are norms that are predictable and sequential, and the best reading you can do to inform yourself about these are the books by Ilg and Ames -“Your One Year Old”, “Your Two Year Old”, etc. They describe, in every area of development – social, emotional, cognitive and behavioral – what is “normal”. However, the books only provide a broad outline. You have to remember that your kids  haven’t read the books and may be a  bit ahead or behind in any area of development. Also know that the areas develop independently of each other. So, a child may be cognitively advanced while being socially underdeveloped. This unevenness is confusing for parents who are always trying to assess whether their child is “normal”.

To add to parental confusion, children develop or mature at very different rates. While development is predictable, it is also unique to each child. They can’t be taught or pushed or, in the case of puberty, held back!   Many of the answers to  your questions about readiness are determined by “nature’s timetable”. When a child is going to walk, talk, enter puberty, etc. is pre-programmed by birth, and there can be as much as a two year difference in readiness – even between children in the same family  There really are “late bloomers!   Now, while  the environment you create may help children shift from their natural pace and inclinations, you are not a bad parent if the shift is slight or not at all.  Therefore, it’s useless to compare your children to each other or to children outside the family. Doing so can only harm the self-esteem of the child unfavorably compared.

If you do try to hurry a child who is developmentally unready for a new step, you run the risk of sending them the message that they are failures and, thus, damage their self-esteem, giving them a sense of inferiority. This can happen to the most well-intentioned parent when you unintentionally – or deliberately –  manifest frustration or disappointment with one of your children regarding their progress. You may not express this directly but may do so through your facial expression, tone of voice, or body language. Respecting developmental difference will prevent you from unwittingly doing this. It’s also important to remember that rate of development is not a predictor of ultimate success!

Some children who are pushed too hard when they aren’t ready for a task get frustrated and can “act out”. Then they are at risk of being perceived as behavior problems or as having attentional issues which add extra layers to their feelings of inadequacy. This can, in turn,  can become a permanent part of their identity. Other children react to overly high expectations by developing debilitating stress which is manifested physically, emotionally or behaviorally. The main consideration is that you be aware of who each of your children is and do your best to recognize and respect his/her readiness to take on new challenges.

On the other hand, if you allow a child to lag too far behind his/her peers in age-appropriate behavior, if you set your expectations too low, there is also a danger to their self-esteem. Children are usually observant of what their peers are doing – whether that’s giving up diapers, going to sleepovers, or joining sports teams – and can feel bad about themselves for lagging behind even as they are reluctant to take the next step or to overcome  their fears. In these instances, it’s up to you to make a  parental decision to become more insistent that you child move onto the next step in development. This may involve taking away diapers, cheer-leading firmly that your child learn to swim, or discussing with them why they are unwilling to learn to drive. Sometimes this will require some assistance from an outside resource such as a parenting coach or therapist.

On the third hand, there are times when children believe they’re ready for a new challenge BUT  YOU DON’T!  As children edge towards adolescence, they may start to lobby for greater autonomy. It is within your rights, and also your responsibility, to decide if your child has the skills and maturity to move on. Just because other parents allow certain freedoms, such as going out alone with a friend, doesn’t mean that your child is sufficiently mature to handle this situation. Just because a child turns sixteen doesn’t mean you feel they are responsible or developed enough to get behind the wheel of a car. You are still responsible for their health and safety and your assessment has to prevail. However, if your child is going off to college and you still aren’t comfortable with them going out without you, you may have to look at who has the problem!

Finally, a word about significant delays. Respecting readiness does not mean turning a blind eye or deaf ear to your own observations as well as the feedback you get from your child’s school about your child’s progress.  Such input can allow you to pick  up on an area that needs special attention. Then proactive parents can provide appropriate intervention which can make all the difference in children reaching their full potential.

Susan C. Stone is a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Los Angeles for 33 years.She speaks widely to the parents and teachers of children of all ages. Ms. Stone appears regularly on both radio and television as a parenting expert and is the author of THE INDULGENCE TRAP – When too much is not Enough!

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