December 3, 2014

When Good Advice Isn't a Good Idea

Imagine this scenario -- A child is working on a craft project, covering a plain notebook with pieces of attractive pictures she has printed. She puts glue in the middle of each scrap but neglects the corners. As a result, the pieces lift up at the edges. Before waiting to see if the child notices, the parent points out the problem and suggests a solution. This seems logical and helpful; the decorated notebook will certainly look better if the advice is taken. But, if we focus on the logic and reasonableness of the suggestion and on the quality of the craft project, we are missing something much more important. We are missing the unintended message sent by this useful advice.

The insightful young lady in this scenario described the following to her parent: "When you give me help and advice when I don't ask for it, I feel like you don't think I can figure it out myself." Unintentionally, the parent has given the child a message -- not about the craft project -- but about the child's competence and ability to problem solve independently.

Given that children and teens can feel vulnerable to self-doubt at any age, this message is powerful. Whether the child is entering kindergarten or leaving for college, a clear vote of confidence from the parent is invaluable. It is certainly not worth sacrificing for the sake of neater edges.

September 10, 2014

Independence Doesn't Mean Going It Alone

As the school year begins, children from pre-K through college are often told to be more "independent." Parents and teachers know that it is their job to foster this. But, too often, independence is viewed as a black and white, all-or-nothing skill, as if the only two options are to do something oneself or to have someone else do it. Becoming independent is a learning process that takes place gradually with the balance of getting help and taking the initiative changing over time. 

Even the idea of gradual growth toward complete independence hides the full story. How many of us, as adults, are completely independent? Within couples, don't individuals care for each other in different ways? Perhaps one partner does the cooking or pays the bills. As labor gets divided, we do for each other. Friends, too, lean on each other and lend support. Do we think of this as undermining our independence? Probably not, because we don't assume that independence equals going it completely alone. Human beings are more often interdependent. 

As children and teens mature, then, it is important to help them know how and when to ask for help. Growing up is intimidating enough without making young people feel that to reach out to others (even to adults, and even to ... parents) is a sign of weakness. Adults can be a source of guidance whose wisdom need not be lost just because we expect teens and young adults to be more independent. After all, what is "networking" if not turning towards others for help. If it's okay for adults in the work world, why shouldn't young adults have the same luxury? Becoming a full-fledged adult is hard enough without having to battle shame or embarrassment if one is not completely self-sufficient. The truth is, none of us are. Becoming an adult also means knowing how to access help and support. Life is not a solo flight.

June 24, 2014

Other People's Timetables

By the time we become parents, we are used to counting: How many weeks along? How many pounds? How old is s/he? We start measuring: Is s/he crawling or walking on time? When does the child start to talk? Yet, we realize that there is a range of what is to be expected. Some babies walk before their first birthday; others can be closer to 18 months before the pediatrician shows any concern.

As they get older, though, we tend to expect children to fit into the norm -- unless there is a problem. We tend to veer away from the acceptance of a range of what's expected. For example, barring a birthday close to the school's cutoff date, we expect six year-olds to start first grade and to begin to sit still long enough to learn to read and write.

Now, jump ahead to high school, with its demands of long periods of study, high levels of organizational skills and a maze of social and interpersonal situations. What happened to the variability that we accepted when our children were young? Have they suddenly all migrated to the same timetable? As adolescents, are they really all developing at the same pace, hitting the ages to drive or go to college, for example, at the exact same time? What if a teen isn't developmentally ready to take these steps when his/her peers do?

Just like we understood that our children may differ greatly in when they are dry at night, or when they are ready to sleep at a friend's house, we can give our teens leeway about when they tackle the milestones of adolescence as well. Some countries add a grade 13; others require 17/18 year-olds to do community or military service before going to college. In England, a gap year between high school and university is far more common than it is here. Some students also need time to work to earn money for tuition.

No doubt, many of those "older" young people arrive at college more mature and more certain of their academic and career goals. So -- if you are at the point where the time to look into college is near, consider the timing as a decision to be made rather than a foregone conclusion. Just because other people are on a particular schedule doesn't mean it's necessarily right for your son or daughter.

June 13, 2014

The Upside of Labels

Labeling has a negative connotation. Parents often assume they would not want their child labelled. Somehow, the word "troublemaker" is often the label to be avoided. Yet, in other areas of our lives, we want labels. How else would we know the ingredients in packaged food? We look to labels for guidance -- dry clean or machine wash?

We assume labels will come to stigmatize or limit the child. But what if a label can actually provide an explanation -- both for the child and for the adults in the home or school. Many agree that it is invaluable to know if a child has a learning disability. Parents frequently lament that they didn't know sooner. Knowing one's child is dyslexic, for example, can provide much needed relief. The child is able to grasp: I'm not stupid. I'm not lazy. I just need to be taught in a different way. Parents and schools can take this label and tailor the educational materials and presentation methods appropriately. Today's technology can ease the burden.

Yet, adults are still wary of letting others, including the child, know of a diagnosis such as ADHD. Here too, though, it gives the adults a way to understand the child's behavior. S/he isn't always acting willfully and may react before having the chance to think through behavior. Trouble finishing work may be more reflective of distraction than an academic difficulty. Again, children themselves can be extremely relieved to know that there is a name for why they often lose or forget things, act impulsively, or have trouble focusing or following directions consistently. They can understand: I'm not a bad kid. I have challenges to face, but lots of people succeed with these challenges. Some even become famous! Labels can provide guidance and much needed hope.

We're even reluctant to let children know of labels that reveal strengths. Parents fear that if their child knows s/he is gifted, for example, s/he may become arrogant and get a "swelled head." But, isn't the child entitled to know why s/he feels different, while being taught to be gracious about gifts? We don't hesitate to label the gifted in sports -- in fact, the MVP on a team may get a trophy, or later in life, a car.

Labels, then, can help clarify what we already sense, promote empathy for oneself and from others, and serve as guideposts on how to proceed. They do often have an upside.

May 21, 2014

School's Out

It’s that time of year again. The weather is warmer, the flowers have bloomed, and the sun sets later in the evening. It’s the time when children begin to anticipate the end of the school year – or perhaps they have already finished the year. It should be the height of excitement. So… why are they so moody?
It’s easy to comprehend why a graduating 18 year-old might feel a swirling mix of emotions. Making the transition to the next phase can be daunting, and melancholy about leaving long-time friends is understandable. We can even grasp why it might be difficult to leave middle school or junior high and anticipate starting high school – especially as the pressure about college admissions is seeping down to younger and younger teens. And maybe, we can fathom how a student could be nervous about leaving a beloved elementary school, as they worry about changing classrooms or managing the increased demands of middle school. But, what could possibly explain the roller coaster of emotions of a kindergarten student anticipating first grade, or even, a preschooler going to kindergarten? Clearly, there must be more to it than meets the eye!

It may be hard to appreciate, but even preschoolers sense that these “graduations” are big deals. Teachers may begin cautioning students as early as January that “Next year, you’ll be expected to do…” or “This is ok for now, but your teacher next year won’t accept…” Scary words indeed. Rather the interpreting the message as: “We expect you to rise to the occasion and know you’ll be capable of doing so”, students may hear: “The stakes are being raised, and you won’t be able to meet expectations.” For a four year-old, the thought might translate as: “I’m supposed to act like a big kid, but I don’t feel like one.” And hence, the moods or the meltdowns happen. It’s the child’s way, at any age, of saying: “I don’t want to be in a place where I won’t be ok, I want to stay in this familiar, comfortable place where I am.”

The key for parents is to help their children voice any apprehensions about growing up and about the stage to come. While we may know that such anxieties are felt by all of us at one time or another, our children may think it’s just them. For younger children, we can give them a more realistic sense of the scope of the actual changes that await them and help them generate ideas for how to face these changes. It can be as simple as walking through a new school before the year starts or talking to a peer who is a year ahead. Children need to know that they are competent and capable of handling the next step.

Most of all, children need to understand the idea that they won’t be going from childhood to independence in one step or in one year. Explaining the changes as incremental (in age-appropriate terms) can be invaluable. Otherwise, they can feel like the rug is going to be pulled out from under them. Older children can be reminded that there really wasn’t a big change from the last day of being eight years old to the first day of being nine. In fact, children who are sensitive to these transition times can anticipate birthdays with some degree of apprehension for precisely this reason. They think that the transition will be night and day and that they will go from being little to being big in an all-or-nothing way.

The end of the year is an exciting time. Still, children often need help understanding and articulating the mixed feelings they may have about this time of change. And, after all, who among us still can’t relate to that?