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September 13th, 2015

Don’t Pick Your Battles

As the children go back to school you may be thinking of all the areas associated with school where you end up battling with your kids. Often we're told to pick our battles but I say don't pick battles with your children. Battles are between enemies and result in a win/lose situation. If you win, your child loses. We often forget this when we talk about not letting our children ‘get away with things’ and not letting them win.

Parents do need to provide discipline for children because their frontal lobes are not yet fully developed (and won’t be until their 20s). So we have to lend them our higher brains with their greater capacity for rational thought and impulse control. We are not our children’s enemy –we are their teacher. The purpose of discipline is not to win, or to get revenge, but to teach. Effective discipline comes from influence over time rather than the exercise of power in the moment.

We need to make sure we avoid the terminology of battles even in our own minds because language shapes our experience and the more we talk or even think about battling with our kids the more that will happen. That’s how our brains work.

What makes you want to go into battle with your child? Is it when you’ve asked them nicely to do something several times and they ignore you? And then you calmly and reasonably give them a gentle warning that they won’t get their TV time or stories… and they ignore you. And then you shout… but they still ignore you. And then you take away the TV or story… and then they react. They act as if that came straight out of the blue and is the most unreasonable thing ever and you are the meanest mummy/daddy in the world.

Generally when people suggest picking your battles it means choosing which things you’re going to get into a lather about and ignoring the rest. At The Parent Practice we say don’t ignore behaviours that you’re not happy about and don’t battle over them. Don’t ignore but take small actions before the behaviour escalates too far and while you’re still calm enough to deal with it.

Take action sooner with take 2s –Get your child to do it again correctly. This works well for little things like saying please and thank you or speaking in a polite tone of voice or asking to get down from the table.

Here’s how you can teach rather than engaging in battles:

  • Understand your child. Is what you’re asking them to do reasonable given his temperament and stage of development? Does he need time to transition from what he’s doing to what you’re asking him to do? As soon as parents start thinking about why kids aren’t cooperating and what their needs are then they can be more compassionate and more effective.
  • Don’t give too many instructions. Young children are likely to forget parts of what you’ve asked them to do and they may feel nagged and tune you out. Reduce the number of instructions you give by having some written rules and routines and by asking the children what they need to do. They usually know.
  • Children have their own set of priorities and their agenda is just as important to them as ours is to us. They will give up on what they’re doing and submit to your control when there is the greater priority of pleasing you. That means they have to know that they can earn your approval.
  • Give lots of approval with descriptive praise. This means that kids want to cooperate. And spend time with them doing fun things.
  • Connect with your child. Acknowledge that he doesn’t want to do his homework, have a bath or stop playing and come to dinner. When we recognise how they feel about the situation children feel understood and are more likely to comply. Once feelings are heard much resistance disappears. 

If something has gone wrong and you’re heading into battle mode:

  1. Take time to cool down - essential to avoid saying or doing something you’ll later regret.
  2. Connect –acknowledge the feelings driving the behaviour.
  3. Take constructive steps –have a problem-solving conversation without anger, blame or judgment (hence the need for the cool down) to help your child see why their actions were a mistake and what they can do about it. Use natural consequences (if they don’t get out of the bath promptly there’s no time for the story) or fixing consequences (clean up a mess or mend someone’s hurt feelings). Teach your child what to do differently next time –practice it.

Kids will get things wrong because they’re learning but the way we teach them how to behave will have long term ramifications for how they deal with disagreements in their lives. Instead of teaching them to get into battles don’t we want to teach them to try to understand, use words to negotiate and compromise?

For more on Positive discipline techniques see www.theparentpractice.com

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September 07th, 2015

Back to school - is it with trepidation or delight?

How are you feeling about the return to the school routine? Perhaps you have a littlie starting school for the very first time? Or a tween making that big transition to secondary school? 

Many clients we speak to are breathing a huge sigh of relief as getting back to a regular routine and a bit of ME TIME is much needed, but there are others for whom the transition may not be so welcome. 

Perhaps you are feeling anxious about the rushed mornings and the thought of getting everyone up and out of the house by 8.15am or earlier! 

Perhaps you have a child who does not like change or transition and finds going to school hard. 

It may not surprise you to hear that the key to a successful return to school is PREPARATION, PREPARATION, PREPARATION! 

Take some time NOW to Set Up For Success  with these top tips

Physical Preparation 

This year make getting ready for school a team effort as much as possible. 

  • Change schedules - Routines usually become more flexible during the holidays. Consider moving back to a term-time schedule a few days in advance of school starting. Allowing time to settle down to the term-time regime BEFORE the impact of the first day back makes a smoother transition.
  • Uniformdo make sure the uniform and shoes still fit in time. Don’t leave it till the night before to check it’s clean and pressed. Consider whether your child is now old enough to take more responsibility for looking after his uniform, putting it in the wash and checking that it’s ready the night before. Is everything marked? Perhaps the children can even learn to sew on those name tapes and polish shoes.
  • Other kitinvolve the children in assembling what they need for school –there will probably be a checklist from the school.
  • Lunch if your child takes a packed lunch to school a few days before term starts practice making it - and eating it - as it may be different from what they’ve been having in the holidays. Involve them in the preparation.
  • Infrastructure –set up notice boards for schedules somewhere conspicuous. Have designated, accessible places for school bags, shoes and coats. Consider whether keeping toothbrushes and hairbrushes downstairs would facilitate a quick getaway in the mornings.
  • Morning task list  - help your children be independent by setting up a list of the essentials that need to be done. After teeth and hair brushing and packed school bag and making bed they then get to select a  non-material reward perhaps choosing which music to listen to in the car, or selecting the scooter instead of walking to school. Be creative and pick a reward that motivates your child! 

Chat through what is needed for the first day back - ask the children questions to get their input and Descriptively Praise their answers.  Ask THEM to write shopping or other lists and check items off. All these things help them not only take responsibility and develop competencies which boosts self-esteem.. 

 

Emotional Preparation 

Emotional preparation is just as important as getting kit together. 

Build confidence by focusing on your children’s efforts, attitude and improvements – not results!

Although schools keep their main focus on results, we can provide an alternate view, putting the emphasis on the journey or process. Keep noticing their efforts WHENEVER your children display them describing in detail the ‘good’ stuff they do. 

Praise them for qualities that they are showing in non-academic areas such as perseverance and  they will likely transfer those attributes to school life.

For example: “I am impressed how you kept working on this juggling. It’s complicated and time-consuming but you persevered until you could do it.” Or “You made such an effort to keep up with everyone today, and you kept a smiley face and a happy voice which meant we all had a lovely day out together.” 

Helping them cope with their feelings

There are many feelings associated with school – good ones, and not so good ones. And we need to know how our children feel – even when the feelings are ones that we’d rather protect them from, or don’t feel comfortable handling. 

When we accept and validate uncomfortable feelings we reduce the need for children to ‘act out’ these feelings in ‘misbehaviour’ - such as being ‘mean’ to siblings or rude to parents or defiance. We help them learn how to identify and manage negative feelings appropriately. 

For example: “I imagine you are totally exhausted by all the new people and places you have dealt with this week. It probably feels quite overwhelming.” Or “You might feel like you can’t possibly do one more thing for anyone this afternoon. You’ve been told what to do all day long, and now all you want to do is nothing.” 

Remember, there is a clear distinction between acknowledging negative feelings and condoning negative behaviour. So, although it’s understandable a child might feel left out at school, it is NOT acceptable to hit a sibling. 

Sometimes children’s excitement at starting school is tinged with the conflicting and confusing feeling of anxiety. 

Sometimes feelings show up in butterflies in the tummy, headaches, eczema or nausea. It can help children to know that these feelings won’t last and there are solutions too, like breathing, visualisations or distraction. It helps to hear that other people have similar feelings – most children love hearing about your experiences at school. 

Empathise with any reluctance to go to school. It is TOTALLY normal for there to be times when they don’t want to go. Knowing that feeling is understood and accepted makes it easier to keep going. 

For example: “I bet you wish you could stay at home today – it’s such a huge change to being on holiday. You probably wish we were still on the beach.”

“You might be wishing you didn’t have to change schools.  You feel sad about leaving your friends and teachers.  Maybe you are worried you won’t know anyone and you won’t make friends quickly.  You might miss your old school for a while. Maybe a part of you is also looking forward to making new friends and having more activities. It can be confusing when you feel two different feelings at the same time.”

Continued reluctance may mean there is something else going on which merits further investigation. 

And three last tips! 

First, remember how tiring school is for children of all ages.  It’s not unusual for children to display regressive behaviour – sucking thumbs, using baby voices, or disrupted sleep and rudeness  because they are so exhausted by their efforts to be ‘good’ at school.  Plan time for them to rest each afternoon and at the weekend – avoid lots of playdates and activities until things settle down. 

Secondly, our children follow where we lead. When we enthuse, we create enthusiasm. When we look forward to new challenges, they do too. And when we show an appetite for learning, they pick this up.  So, be positive about school, and it will help give them a very good start. 

And finally, “rushing is the enemy of love”. I know it sounds obvious but just getting up 20 minutes earlier will enable you to get on top of things and prevent overwhelm and stress. When we start the day off feeling in charge we will feel more confident about using all our skills and get results! 

Follow  these tips and let us know the results and any other great tips for helping your children go back to school?

If you found these tips useful why not sign up for a regular dose of parenting news, information and ideas in our newsletter and share this blog with your friends?

Happy parenting,

Elaine and Melissa

 

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August 03rd, 2015

How to get kids to do what you ask - in three easy steps

How many times have you asked your children to do something – put the milk back in the fridge, hang up a wet towel, brush their hair … the first response you’ll hear back could be any of the following … ‘just a sec’, ‘I already did it’  - as the milk remains on the counter, the un-brushed breath still horrendous!)  The truth is that when we ask our children to do something, we have an underlying expectation: 

I expect that she will do it
IMMEDIATELY
THE WAY I WANT HER TO DO IT
EVERY SINGLE TIME
FULL OF GRATITUDE THAT SHE WAS ASKED IN THE FIRST PLACE! 

Now, let’s say, you’re getting dinner ready and your child calls down for help with homework.  What is your likely first response?  I’m just guessing that it’s not to put everything on hold and race upstairs.  You’re more likely to shout up a ‘Just a minute’ or ‘Be there in a sec”.  We are just as unlikely to drop all that we’re doing – the important things on our own agendas – and immediately run and do what has been asked of us (unless it is a serious emergency).   

It’s just the same with our children.  Our children also have their own agendas.  They have their heads in a good book, or that Lego construction is almost complete, the puzzle only has 5 more pieces to go, they’ve nearly finished that level of Minecraft … and we jump in and expect that they will drop everything and happily do exactly what we’ve asked, to our standards!

Now, I’m not suggesting for a second that our children don’t have to do what is required.  There is however, a really great way to ensure that it gets done in a positive way … without the nagging, cajoling and shouting … and in just three easy steps!  These steps assume that your child has a clear understanding of your family rules and knows what is required of them.   Let’s say one of your rules is ‘Dinner is at 6pm.’ 

Step One:      Go to your child. Rather than shouting from one room (or floor) to another. This is a no brainer … especially as your kids might not hear you otherwise.  You save yourself the frustration of shouting.  Engage with them in whatever it is that they’re doing.  ‘What are you reading?’ ‘Where are you up to?’ ‘Wow, you’re almost finished the whole puzzle!’ ‘I can’t believe you got so much of the Hogwarts set built’, ‘That game looks amazing’.

Step Two:      Give the instruction. It’s 6 o’clock.  You know what that means, right?  That’s right … dinner!  And you’ve looked at me –thank you.  Two more pieces and we need to go. Ask them to tell you what they have to do.

Step Three:  Follow through.  Stay in their space and acknowledge small steps in the right direction.  Empathise with any resistance that comes up.  

It IS possible!  I used it just tonight as my daughter was next door, drawing with her friend.  I went to her, had a look at what she was drawing, told her that it was 6pm and that dinner was on the table.  She asked if she could go back after dinner.  I told her that as she was already heading to the door of course she could go back! 

Three easy steps!  Give it a go!

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July 02nd, 2015

Is it possible to enjoy children’s parties?


I read an article recently about children’s parties, where to host them, what party bags to provide, where to source the most fabulous cakes and find the best entertainers. Well, it left me longing for a simple game of pin the tail on the donkey. Then a friend told me about an 8 year old’s party her child had been invited to at the Mandarin Oriental where champagne was flowing –well the parents would stay if that was on offer wouldn’t they? I have been aware for many years that the children’s birthday party has become an arena for competitive parenting where adults seek to outdo each other in providing the most of everything. When my son was about 7 the party entertainer of choice at the time was Ali-doo-lally who made the party child so much the centre of attention as to exclude everyone else there. But what do the children get from such an event, apart from a sense of extreme entitlement and ludicrous expectations and perhaps a sugar hangover? Do your children even enjoy parties? The article I read didn’t say anything about preparing the children.

Well of course not all parties are grandiose examples of parental one-upmanship and can involve some simple party foods and fun games. But even then do your children like parties? Your child may love a party but you have misgivings about sending them because of how they behave when there. Some children will love parties but there will be some kids who find them quite difficult too. Some children are shy and don’t have the social skills to enjoy being with a crowd of children. Others may find the noise, lights and number of people overwhelming. This child may find the number of activities and foods too much. Some children get over excited and hyped up and then behave badly. Recently doubt has been cast over whether sugar, long thought to be the culprit for hyper behaviour, is to blame. But whether it is down to food consumption or the excitement of the occasion and a pack mentality some children will run around and shout uncontrollably. Then there’s the inevitable disappointment of not winning the games or even not receiving the gifts which may lead to tears. Are you wondering why you’d ever bother hosting a children’s party? And there’s the clean up afterwards. 

If your child has been invited to a birthday party (or indeed is the birthday child or a sibling) and you want to prepare him for it here are 4 simple ways of ensuring it goes well: (these ideas are for children under the age of 8 –if you have a teenager there’s an altogether different set of rules)

  1. If your child has a sensitive temperament then he will need coping mechanisms for all the stimuli you get at festive gatherings. Teach him about his own temperament by making a habit of describing for him all the sensations and emotions he experiences. Let him know that he needs to protect himself from overstimulation. Depending on age you could ask him for ideas about how he could protect himself from too much noise. He might suggest cotton wool/ear plugs in his ears! Make sure he’s well rested before a party so that he can cope. Make sure you reduce the amount of stimulation in that day –so no shopping mall trip to get the present on the way there! Electronic stimulation is also a factor so no computer time beforehand. Get your child to think about what he can do if he feels overstimulated at the party. Can he go somewhere quiet like the bathroom or the garden or a bedroom for a bit? You may need to set this up with his host.
  2. If your child is unconfident in social settings you can prepare by using role play at home. Use her dolls and teddies to practice how to behave and what to say. Get to the party early as it’s easier to talk to one or two people than to come into an established crowd.
  3. When preparing for a party its best to ask your children how they will need to behave rather than tell them, otherwise it just sounds like a nag and they will tune you out. If they’ve said how they will behave it’s more likely to happen. Don’t threaten a punishment for poor behaviour, or offer a bribe for good behaviour either. Instead look out for signs of the type of behaviour you want to see and mention it to them. We get more of the behaviours we pay attention to. Eg you’re eating with your fork –that’s just the way you’ll eat at Sam’s party. I like the way you walked into the house from the car even though you were excited about seeing Granny. That way nobody got knocked over!
  4. Ask them how they may feel when the party child gets given presents or if others win games. For younger children you may need to suggest that they might feel a bit jealous or sad or disappointed that’s it’s not them winning or receiving the gift. Don’t tell them off for feeling that way or tell them you don’t want them to feel like that. Don’t say jealousy isn’t nice. Instead acknowledge that it’s natural and that we all like to win and receive gifts. Ask her what she can do if she feels that way so that the birthday child’s experience is not spoiled. She may suggest coming to get a hug from you if you’re there or an older child may be able to do something else to comfort herself or remind herself that she can have another go in the next game (or say something inside her head to alleviate her frustrations!)

 

Enjoy!

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May 13th, 2015

Getting Boys to Talk

Some kids talk more than others.

If you’ve got more than one child chances are you’ve noticed this. Some of that is down to temperament and some may be attributable to gender. I have a daughter who is very extroverted. She used to come home from school and tell me everything that had gone on in her day in the first 2 minutes. I had to gear myself up for the onslaught the minute she got home. I became really grateful when the kids got home at different times so I could focus on all their different needs. With Gemma my challenge was just to listen, not to jump in with advice. When I buttoned my lip and let her know I was listening the storm would blow itself out and often she would find her own solutions. She would talk in order to work out what she thought about things. She just needed to be heard.

I also have two sons who happen to both be introverts.  They like to think through things before speaking. When they got home from school they liked to chill out and wouldn’t offer anything about their day until the evening. I had a friend with a son with a similar disposition and she used to say she only found out what was going on in her son’s life through what I told her I’d heard from my boy.

Many boys don’t talk about their feelings. Traditionally men weren’t encouraged to and perhaps unwittingly we still give boys messages that in order to be a man they need to manage alone. Sometimes parents still say “big boys don’t cry” or we tell them not to make such a fuss or to be a big boy. If we tell our children to ‘man up’ what do we mean?

If dads model talking about how they feel about stuff then boys learn that it’s ok for men to do so.

The best way to get a boy to talk is not to sit down for an eyeball to eyeball conversation but to do an activity together. This is what Steve Biddulph calls ‘sideways talk’. Some of my best conversations with my sons have been while we’ve been walking or even doing the washing up together. When I picked them up from school we were more likely to get a conversation going if we were walking home. Usually pumping them for information about their day didn’t work. We all know that the answer to the question “How was your day?” is “fine”, with all the information that doesn’t convey. Young children live in the moment and often can’t be bothered to dredge up what happened earlier in their day. Some will actually want to keep their school world separate from home. They certainly won’t tell us anything if they think we’re going to judge, criticise, or perhaps even advise them.

You start the conversation. Tell him about your day. Tell him about age-appropriate things that you care about. Thank him for listening and maybe tell him you feel good talking to him. If you think he has something on his mind tell him you think he might be a bit worried about something. You can tell because of his body language or facial expressions or because of what he has said or done. Try to put yourself in his shoes. If you think you know what he’s feeling describe what that might be like for him. He might not talk now but you’ve opened the door for a conversation. If he does talk don’t say much, just nod a lot. Don’t judge and DON’T offer advice.

I remember when my older son was preparing (or not) for exams he started being mean to his younger brother. He used to do that a lot when he was younger and I was afraid we were slipping back into old patterns. In my anxiety and frustration I was tempted to tell him off or punish him but I realised in time that it might be connected to the exams that he showed no signs of caring about. I talked with him about how he might be feeling, detailing his anxiety, wondering whether he was afraid of letting us down, speculating that it might be difficult to follow in his academically able sister’s footsteps, even that he might be cross with himself for not having worked harder earlier. He didn’t say much…but his body language changed –his shoulders were less slumped and he made more eye contact. And his behaviour toward his brother changed.

I’d like to say he aced those exams but that would be fiction. But he developed better habits for the next set and, more to the point, he learnt to process his feelings well and find appropriate outlets for his frustrations and fears. This son still doesn’t talk a lot about his emotions but he is a great conversationalist and has good emotional awareness - he knows how to manage his feelings.

 

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April 21st, 2015

Improving your Child's Attention Span

Does the fruit of your loins whom you love to death sometimes seem to have the attention span of a gnat? Does your darling child forget what you’ve asked him to do on the way to do it? Are you worried about their future at school?

My boys used to fidget, get up and down, need the loo, stare out the window or chase imaginary rubbers (erasures) around the floor rather than focus on homework.

Instead of concluding that lack of focus is hereditary (as you get distracted by incoming emails and Face book messages) consider first what is realistic to expect for your child’s age (and gender). Under 8s generally fidget and wriggle around a lot and it isn’t always an indicator that they’re not paying attention. Boys generally move around a lot more than girls do. They are impulsive and they forget things. All of this is normal. Research gives us a rough rule of thumb for how long children should be able to focus on a learning task.

Attention span for learning = chronological age + 1

This means that a 6 year old should be able to focus for about 7 minutes on a task that is a learning activity. He can focus for a lot longer on a game that he’s engaged in. So motivation is a key factor. This is a clue for adults trying to get kids to focus –try to make the task interesting or fun!

Other things that will help expand on your child’s ability to focus that you might like to try in the holidays:

  1. limit time spent on electronic games and TV

Most children’s games and TV are designed to be very fast-moving –they flick from one image and idea to the next very quickly, discouraging sustained thought and puzzling out solutions. Several US studies have found that too much time in front of a screen can affect development of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, attention and self-control.

  1. encourage activities involving sustained thought and listening 

Get children interested in construction toys, craft and jigsaw puzzles and give them mysteries to solve such as on http://kids.mysterynet.com/  Play games that involve careful listening like Simple Simon. 

  1. provide opportunities for physical release of energy and enough sleep 
  1. make sure kids are getting enough ‘down time’

Kids need down time to just think and be creative. Make sure they have some non-scheduled time where they can just gaze out the window and come up with some brilliant scheme.

  1. use descriptive praise

When we praise our children descriptively and specifically it really focuses their attention on what they’re doing in a much more effective way than by pointing out what they get wrong. Comment when they’re focused on a task and they’ll do it more.

  1. build your child’s emotional intelligence

Research shows that parents can influence the development of the pre-frontal cortex and encourage emotional intelligence in their children by recognising and validating their children’s feelings. When they do this children can process their feelings and move on. This greatly assists focus. Kids can’t pay attention to learning tasks when they’re consumed by emotions.

  1. when you ask them to do something just get them to do one thing.

Children under 8 can’t retain more than 2-3 pieces of information at one time.

If you use these 7 fun, easy ideas your child’s ability to focus will definitely improve.

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March 05th, 2015

Best Present for a Mum

How would it be if your child turned around to you one morning and said “Mummy, I think this is the best morning I have ever had…..” and you knew that was because of what you had just done? You. Super mum. Deserving of the highest accolades on Mothering Sunday.

A parent in one of our classes told us this is what her son said to her recently and it brought a tear to our collective eye.

By way of background this mum told us that their usual experience of morning getaways was the all too familiar horror story of rushing, nagging, dawdling, nagging, feet-digging in, nagging, cheekiness, telling-off, daydreaming, SHOUTING, crying, threatening, more crying (this time mum) and pulling out of hair. We all know how it goes. She would wake the kids up in plenty of time and get herself dressed so that she’d be available to marshall everybody. She’d go into their rooms and no progress would have been made. At all. None. Nobody would have even started on getting dressed. And by now 20 minutes would have elapsed and the timetable would be seriously jeopardised. So she would berate them for not doing anything. They would look at her puzzled and she would wonder how she’d spawned such half-wits, and realise it must be her husband’s genes. Well when you’re working with poor material you have to be creative. So she’d try again. “If you get dressed and come downstairs quickly I’ll let you have Nutella on your toast.” She’d go downstairs thinking she’d provided the necessary incentive and get going on the lunchboxes. 15 minutes later there would be no sign of anyone so she’d go back up again to find two half-dressed children playing with the Sylvanian families. More shouting and ushering and they were downstairs but she felt like a worn our dish-cloth and it was nearly 8am.

Well our mum had just done our class on Descriptive praise so she decided to try it. You know descriptive praise. You don’t? You don’t know about the magic key that unlocks cooperation? The secret  formula to motivate your child? The thing that is guaranteed to bring a smile to a little face (and your child’s too) and that leads to “Mummy, I think this is the best morning I have ever had…..?” If you don’t know about descriptive praise you must be new to our blogs. If we didn’t tell you about it at every opportunity we would be derelict in our duty. We would be failing in our mission to bring happiness to the families of the world.

So let us tell you now. It’s not rocket science. It does what it says on the tin. You just describe what they’re doing ….positively. You notice something small (and we mean small) that they’re doing that is good, or possibly that is not bad. And you mention it to them. Sometimes you’ll add what positive quality that behaviour shows. So you might say: “I see you two have got out of bed. That’s a good start to our day. That’s a lovely smile to get us off to a good beginning Jacob. Pause. Ella, you put out your clothes last night which will make things quicker this morning. That was really sensible, wasn’t it?  You prepared for success! And you are getting really good at getting your dress on yourself. Would you like me to help with your tights? …Jacob I see you’ve got your pyjamas off now….Oh Ella, thank you for helping him with his shirt. What a kind sister. I love it when you two are being so helpful. I need to put lots of pasta pieces in the jar so Daddy can see what a great morning we had when he comes home.”

And if you think nobody talks to their children like that, we concede it is different from the norm. But the norm is as described above. And the norm doesn’t lead to “Mummy, I think this is the best morning I have ever had…..”

So what would you like? Would you like to talk a bit weirdly to your kids and watch them beam at you and each other, stand a bit taller in front of your eyes, feel more confident and be more cooperative? Would you like them to start their day feeling happy and thinking you’re the best mum in the world?

We thought so. You are the best mum in the world, especially with descriptive praise in your toolkit.

Start using descriptive praise today. It’s free and the results are miraculous. If you want to know more about it check out our face to face courses and our online courses here. Tell us how descriptive praise worked for you at admin@theparentpractice.com.

If this is your first Mothering Sunday, congratulations. If not do let us know about any funny or touching presents you’ve received from your children on Mothering Sunday.

Keep developing your parenting practice with love,

Melissa and Elaine

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March 04th, 2015

How to minimise a meltdown in 5 easy steps

meltdown |ˈmeltˌdoun| noun

1 An external demonstration of emotional distress caused by anything from a dropped ice-cream cone on a hot summer’s day; being given a red cup when all he really wanted was a blue one; having to go to swim practice when she really wanted to go to her best friend’s party; when he didn’t want to switch off the video game … and many other triggers. 

The good news is that parents can support their children during their meltdowns to minimise the negative effects … eventually getting to the point where a solution is possible.  Here’s what happened at my house a while ago. 

Me: Seems like something is bugging you.  It’s not like you to be snarky with me.

Her: I’m fine. (shouting) I-M F-I-N-E FINE … What part of ‘I’m Fine’ don’t you understand?

Me: (Silently to myself) Well … I’m kinda getting that you’re not fine.

Me: Listen, I’m getting that something is up.  You don’t seem like you want to talk about it right now.  I’m going to go downstairs and if want to talk, let me know.

Ten minutes later …

Her: Mum … 

  1. Engage without judgment … or give time to calm

You know your children better than anyone and you know what calms them down.  Some children will respond to a calm, quiet hug; others a few minutes to run around outside; others a gentle voice; others simply some quiet time to play and reconnect the thinking part of their brain with the big emotional part. 

I gave my daughter time.  She was in the bathroom, with the door locked and that was what she needed.  She wasn’t going to hurt herself or damage anything, she just needed to be alone for the few minutes it took for her to call out to me.  I must confess, the time was good for me too because I was feeling pretty helpless and frustrated! 

  1. Listen to the behavior (or the words) and reflect back to them

If your children are speaking, just listen.  It’s often pointed out that LISTEN and SILENT are made up of the same letters.  If they’re not speaking, listen to the behaviour.  If they’re crying, you can say something like ‘you’re so upset about something’.  If they’re slamming doors or throwing things ‘wow … you are so MAD!’. 

My daughter unlocked the door.  She was sitting on the floor crying.  I picked her up and she sat on my lap saying nothing for about 5 minutes.  I just held her quietly.  Slowly she began to tell me about what was going on.  A few months earlier we had moved from the UK to the US and she was missing her friends and feeling like she was “losing her British-ness”. 

  1. Validate their feelings

Acknowledging your children’s feelings doesn’t have to mean that you are agreeing with them.  When a child says “You love [sister] more than me” and you respond with “you’re feeling like I love her more than you” … is not a confirmation that you do.  It’s simply allowing their feeling to be out there … heard. 

My daughter was missing her friends – terribly – she has incredible friends back in the UK.  If I had said ‘come on, buck up … don’t cry.  Why don’t you call your new friends to come over?’ I would have completely invalidated her feelings and tried to fix things for her.  It’s ok to be sad, to miss people, to be nervous about losing a part of your life that is special to you.  Empathy and compassion will always be your best gift. 

  1. Ask questions

We are so quick to want to fix things for our kids and to help them feel better.  Rather than advising them and telling them what to do, it is so much more effective to allow them to come up with their own solutions.  

I asked my daughter what would help her retain her British-ness and how she could maintain her friendships.  Over a cup of tea and a nice Cadbury biscuit (a little bit of Britain!) she decided that she would FaceTime her best friend over the weekend so they could have a virtual playdate.  Her ideas … her solutions.

 Stay Calm

We know this is the holy grail of parenting. (For more help with keeping calm click here.)  It always helps to have a go-to mantra to catch yourself.  I love Bonnie Harris’ ‘my child is having a problem … not being a problem’.  I will also say to myself ‘Choose: respond or react’.  That usually clears my mind to make the conscious choice to respond to the situation with calm compassion.  And each time, that alone makes all the difference in the world. 

Using these five simple steps, meltdowns can be averted or reduced, family harmony restored, self-knowledge gained, understanding achieved, solutions found, self-esteem nurtured, compassion shown and relationships greatly enhanced. 

Wishing you peace and calm in your parenting practice, 

Elaine and Melissa 

This blog written by Ann Magalhaes (The New York branch of The Parent Practice)

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December 04th, 2014

Surviving the 11plus exam preparation

While many of us are looking forward to the holiday season, many families will be trying to combine having some fun with preparing for January exams. What can we do to support our children in the lead-up to these important days, without losing all the festive spirit? 

It’s too easy to say “make a revision schedule and stick to it” because we all know this will work in theory, but what we want to know is HOW we can do it in practice. What’s the right amount of revision? Too much, too little - how do we get the balance right? We all know we need to make revision motivational and rewarding, but we can’t keep handing out sweets or letting them use the i-pad, so what can we say and do that will encourage our child to persevere and feel confident they can do what is required?  We all know that on the day it’s going to pay off to be organised, and if our child is getting anxious, they will need to breathe. But what is the best way of preparing ourselves and our child so they go into the exam with the best chance of doing their best? For full details on how to motivate without pressurising and how to support children’s learning see our publications on 'Creating Happy Learners' and 'How to Handle Homework Horrors'. Below are three ideas that we know will help, but aren’t usually mentioned.  

LET them do it their way (a bit!) and have a choice
And this doesn’t mean doing NO revision! Try, whenever possible, to let your child revise their way rather than insisting they do it your way. Most children find it very hard to sit still and simply regurgitate facts and in fact being forced to be still may impede their learning. Many learn better by moving, maybe hitting or bouncing a ball, or simply walking around the room. Others are more visual and need pictures – get drawing with shapes and flow-diagrams on a white board, or blank postcards. Other children are more auditory and they may find background music helpful and not distracting. They may find making up songs or poems, or using mnemonics helpful – it doesn’t matter if these are wacky and not very serious. They just need to be memorable to your child. Your child remembers things differently to the way you do now as an adult.  

ALLOW them to be upset or worried – name it to tame it!
This probably the biggest stress they’ve been under in their life, so it would be strange if there weren’t some tears and tantrums, but this doesn’t spell doom and disaster.

Our instinctive reaction is of course to reassure and try to push them through to feeling ‘better’ about revision and exams so we say “don’t worry, it will be absolutely fine soon, it will all work out” or “You poor thing, this is just awful and unfair” or “Come along, there’s no need for all this upset, it’s just a test, you need to toughen up and get your head down, getting cross doesn’t help any of us….”

Instead we need to really listen to how they feel and then help them work their way towards a solution. We have to connect first, before they can trust us to redirect them. For example: “I sense this is really getting you down right now. I wonder if it feels like this is all you get to do, and maybe you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe you’re scared about what will happen after you’ve tried your best….”

This doesn’t make them feel worse, or feel anything they don’t already feel, but it does make them feel connected and understood. This in itself is calming. Take care not to add “but….” afterwards because this undoes everything you’ve done so far. It’s usually best to keep quiet and hear how they respond. Most children feel less resistant after they’ve been allowed to express their reluctance to do something.

And make sure that you don’t add to their stress by the way you’re talking about these exams. Scare tactics don’t usually make children perform better.  

UNDERSTAND their reluctance
We can understand how they feel about revising, and still require that they do revise. But we need to understand why they don’t want to do it – we often start with the assumption they are lazy, not taking it seriously, etc, and when we approach it this way, it ends up negative and confrontational. And ineffective!

Children want to do well – it’s in their nature. And they do care about the result and their future (to the extent that they can imagine their future), and what we think about them, even when it may not seem that way!

The problems come when they start to believe they can’t do something well, and that we are not happy with them, so they pull back from trying. Some children will bluster this out and vigorously assert they don’t care or they may simply shrug and refuse to put much effort in. In their mind, they believe this will protect them from the failure they fear is coming – the price they have to pay on the way is to accept the negative reaction they get from us….

Our best approach is to face this head on – but not with a direct question, let alone an accusation! So, try “I wonder if you’re worried about trying hard, and still not getting a good mark. It’s scary to push yourself to the full, and not know whether you will achieve what you hope for. It may feel as if you’ve used up all of your brain power. In fact your brain grows the more you make it struggle with things.”  Wait here, this isn’t the time to go on to lecture about how this is how life works, and they have to learn to knuckle down and get on with things….. Let them open up and talk to you about how they feel about the exams. It may be quite illuminating – they may have some cross-wires in their understanding, which you can help untangle. Or there may be some real issues that are concerning them that you can help them address. These things don’t come out with direction questions such as “what’s wrong, what’s the matter” etc. Most children duck these questions with ‘nothing’ because they sense a judgment in the question that they are wrong to be worried etc.  Empathise also with the fact that they’d just rather be playing and that other children (and adults) don’t have to be working as they are. 

Make sure they do have some down time.

Remember that this stressful time will pass and think of it as an opportunity for your child to learn how to handle the stress that they will inevitably encounter in life. Encourage them to employ some anti-stress measures such as physical play and having a good laugh –maybe a joke book in the Christmas stocking! Make sure you look after your own stress levels too. 2 joke books.

How does your child react to stressful situations? What do you do to inject calm? Let us know your thoughts.

If you found the ideas in this blog helpful do share them on your favourite social media outlet. 

Wishing you a happy Christmas and calm holidays,

Melissa and Elaine.

 

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September 30th, 2014

6 ThingsYou'll Regret Saying to Your Children

Do you ever feel guilt and regret for something that you’ve said to your child? The words that just came out of your mouth sounded as if they were from an alien being (and awfully like some things your mother said to you, and you vowed you would never say) and there is no way you would speak like that to your best friend! Immediately you regret what you said – no surprise that your child is now arguing with you. Both of you have just fallen into one of the parenting manholes – it is deep and dark and unless you have your parenting skills toolkit to hand, you are both stuck!

Don’t feel bad –we all make mistakes with the things we say. Read on to the end to see what you can do to remedy matters if you have verbally vomited on your child.

Faber and Mazlish, authors of ‘How to talk so teens will listen, and listen so teens will talk’ tell a story of a girl in her late teens who had borrowed the family car.  The father always insisted that she return the car with the petrol tank full. He was also a real stickler for punctuality, so the girl was faced with a problem when she had to get home for a family event and found herself short of time. Should she fill up and risk being late, or arrive on time, with a not-full petrol tank?  In the end, she gambled, and filled the tank and still managed to make it home on time.  She was so relieved that she raced in and said, “Dad, I’m home on time AND I’ve filled the car with petrol!”  She was met with, “Did you put oil in it as well?”

We parents get into the habit of noticing what’s wrong with our children’s behaviour and we often don’t notice what they’re doing right. It can feel very hard for kids to win parental approval. And sometimes they stop trying.

So what are the things we say that don’t show respect and don’t motivate our children?
“Hurry up Tom. You are so SLOW…..if it was down to you we would never get to school on time”
“I am so DISAPPOINTED in you  – I should have known better than that!”
“You’re so LAZY….I am sure you will ace those exams if you sit around on your backside all day gaming!”

The language we use with our kids is crucial to developing a good sense of self-worth but in the moment when our buttons get pressed we utter statements that, if said by a friend, would cause us to re-think our friendship!
 Things you’ll regret saying to your children:

1.    Labelling. It is so easy to start labelling children  with LAZY, SILLY, NAUGHTY, SELFISH  – the more we label our children the more they believe what we are saying and take it on as part of their identity. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is why ideas such as ‘the naughty step’ can be positively damaging to our children (watch out for another blog on how the naughty step can damage your child.)

2.    “I’m disappointed in you” –this is a killer statement. It’s not always obvious but our children really crave our approval and this phrase lets them know really clearly that they don’t have it. The connotations underlying this are ‘what a failure you are’.

3. “ I’m proud of you”. I know, you’re wondering what’s wrong with that –it’s definitely not the worst thing you could say to a child. We’ve all said this when our child returns from nursery or school clutching the medal or certificate – we are genuinely thrilled for their success. However it is vital we encourage our kids to value themselves, not be dependent on OUR evaluation of them. Encourage them to assess their achievements, saying:
“what did you do today that you were proud of?” or
“you should free proud of yourself for doing that.”

4. ‘If’-  When trying to get kids to do something we often say “if you tidy up your toys, you can watch TV.” ‘If’ implies it is optional. Replace ‘If’ with ‘when’ and you get a completely different response. ‘When’ implies trust that they are going to tidy up and when this is done they will have earned their screen time.

5. ‘But’ – When you put ‘but’ in a sentence it negates what has preceded it and your child only hears the ‘but’ and the negative coming after it.
“Looks as if you have made an effort to tidy the toy room Laura, BUT you have put the Lego bricks in the wrong place again.” Instead you can say:
“Hey Laura– good on you for tidying up the playroom all by yourself! Do you remember the new place we have for the Lego bricks that keeps them safe and away from baby Tom?”

6. “You’re so clever.” Studies have shown that the ‘clever boy’ kind of praise is actually damaging to kids. Children praised for intelligence perform less well on tasks than children who are praised for effort and attitude.

Words are powerful and shape experience.
 What we are trying to do as parents is use our words to encourage good  behaviours and to build up a strong sense of self-worth. If we get it wrong we can apologise. “I’m so sorry I yelled at you and called you stupid. You’re not stupid. I was frustrated and worried that we would be late.” “This morning when we were rushing to leave the house I didn’t tell you how much I appreciate you helping your sister get ready. She loves it when you brush her hair.”

PS: Grab your free parenting insights by signing up to our mailing list by clicking on the ‘Sign-up’ button on the top left of this page.   I promise it will help you bring out the best in your children and give them happy childhoods and bright futures.

Happy parenting!     Elaine and Melissa 

 

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August 20th, 2014

Moving from a Couple to a Family

Are you ready emotionally?

The tragic news last week of the death of one of the world’s most beloved actors and comics, Robin Williams, has left many of us reeling and wondering why people take their own lives. His battle with drink and drugs and the ‘black dog’ of depression is well documented and sadly is not as uncommon as we may believe.

Another tragic case recently, nearer to our practice in SW London concerned a young mother who, also  suffering from depression, took  not her own life but the lives of her three children. Mental illness can affect us all even without such catastrophic and well broadcast outcomes. A recent report from our local hospital - St George’s in Wandsworth - highlighted that many new mothers are affected by depression post birth.

If you are an expectant  parent, I am certain you will have  prepared for the physical aspects of having a baby, done the ante-natal classes, prepared your birth plan, maybe even packed your hospital bag; you’ve bought the cot, the pram, the clothes etc, etc and you’ve probably being nurturing your body during your pregnancy. Hopefully your medical advisers have spoken to you about post-partum depression.

But are you prepared emotionally for the transition to parenthood?
 
Have you thought about how it will affect you and your relationships with your partner, your parents, your friends? Do you know what to expect of the first few months? How will you cope with all the (well-meaning but possibly conflicting) advice? How will you take care of your own mental health to ensure that your baby gets the best possible start in life?

Every year approximately 720,000 babies are born in the UK. Having a baby is an opportunity for a new beginning – new relationships are built, new goals are set and new dreams are created. However, as well as the excitement that comes with becoming a family the transition to parenthood also brings with it stresses for the couple which can impact on the infant. Research shows that after the birth of a child many couples experience a drop in relationship quality which can lead to compromised parenting and decreased quality in parent-infant interaction. (Source: The Gottman Institute)

Years of research show that a strong emotional life between the parents is the best foundation for a baby’s development

As you move from a couple to a family be aware of some of the changes you can expect. Being aware is being prepared and ensures you are realistic about what changes are afoot.

• Both parents’ love for the new baby can form a very strong bond between them as they take on new responsibility for another life. A couple may act more as a team than ever before; becoming  more flexible, learning to adapt, to be creative. You will reassess your values and goals and get in touch with your fun, playful side.

• Babies can teach adults to wonder and marvel at simple things, to experience the joy of discovery. Children are great teachers and we learn a lot about ourselves through interacting with them.

• Research shows that both men and women (about 67%) experience a decline in relationship satisfaction after the first baby is born and it continues to decline after the birth of the second child (which adds to the complexity of family dynamics and places additional demands on resources). There is also often a change in relationship with your own parents and with friends with or without children.

• Sleep deprivation can lead to depression (one study shows even when healthy volunteers were deprived of sleep for one month they became depressed) so get as much support as you can and don’t be a super Mum! Naps are more important than housework.

 Sex/intimacy declines – be patient. Developing a culture of appreciation for each other will help greatly –that means telling each other regularly what you appreciate about each other. Develop a daily practice around this or it won’t happen. My partner and I kept a little book on our bedside table and we wrote one thing in it each evening that we appreciated about each other. It created a lovely atmosphere of trust and made us both feel more confident in our handling of our new daughter.

• Fathers sometimes withdraw if the mother or the women in the mother’s circle, in an attempt to be supportive to her, inadvertently make him feel not needed. He may also feel replaced in her affections as she bonds with the new baby. This needs to be aired. Fathers have a very special role to play with newborns and are just as capable of caring from them as mums. (More on this in subsequent blogs)

• Reduced emotional availability-conversation/communication declines with tiredness. Awareness of this possibility allows you to make communicating a priority.

• Philosophical/psychological changes-shift in roles, relationship roles may become more traditional than previously, which can be challenging for both parents. If you’ve been a working parent in a challenging job and now you’re at home on leave or you’ve made the decision to be a stay at home parent you may experience a drop in status that is challenging. Reframe these assumptions by thinking about how important, challenging and rewarding your role as a parent is. Nurturing a small human being is a critically important job that goes way beyond the physical aspects of her care.

Ensure you are emotionally prepared for your baby.

Had you thought about how having a baby would affect your relationship with your partner? Do let us know what you do to nurture your couple relationship.

If you found these ideas interesting please share them with friends and family and subscribe to our newsletter. Click here to sign up

PS  Watch out for the follow up blogs on how to build a strong emotional foundation with your partner and reduce conflict between partners and how to communicate and bond with your baby.

Happy parenting,

Elaine and Melissa

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August 15th, 2014

Will you stop fighting!

Does it really push your buttons when your kids fight? When they’re home over the summer holidays they’re in each other’s company more and they may goad each other out of sheer boredom. You know sibling fighting is meant to be normal, but seriously, over who gets to open the door when dad gets home? Which, after all, he does every day.  Really? What did you envisage when you brought into the world a sweet little sister or brother for your adored first-born? That she should become a punch bag for him? That he should call her all manner of names and tease her? That she should provoke the life out of him? I thought not. You were probably like me with fantasies of them playing happily together and keeping each other occupied while you watched over them benignly with cup of tea in hand.
 
When my boys were younger I thought we’d made a serious mistake in having more than one, one which we hadn’t worked out until too late. My older boy turned into a monster around his brother. He tormented him endlessly and seemed so aggressive with him I envisaged a future where I would be visiting him behind bars as I thought he’d turned into a psychopath.

The advice I received was to stay out of their fights. I tried to do this but it was as if I’d given permission for the older one to bully the younger. My younger child felt abandoned. I could understand why I shouldn’t take sides in their disputes but I needed to do something….didn’t I?
Studies have shown that effective intervention has the effect of reducing the number and intensity of sibling rows. (Perlman, M and Ross, H ‘The benefits of parent intervention in their children’s disputes: An examination of concurrent changes in children’s fighting styles.’ Child Development 1997)

Faber & Mazlish’s Siblings Without Rivalry had some good ideas.

Parents need to know when to get involved in their children’s arguments and when to stay out of them.

We need to distinguish between minor squabbles and major on-going battles. We decide upon our intervention based on the level of dispute. We need to be ready to intervene when the children seem to be struggling, or the situation is potentially dangerous, but our intervention is only to encourage and support them to resolve their dispute constructively themselves.

And when we do intervene, we need to do so in ways which not only encourage children to sort out their own disputes but which also support the children’s relationships, and reduce the risk of long term conflict. If we take sides or impose judgments not only does the accused retaliate later but the children don’t learn how to resolve matters themselves.

The basic approach is to:
• describe the problem
• acknowledge how each child feels
• help the children find a solution; support them in using more constructive conflict resolution strategies

Example: Jack, aged 5, wants to watch Peppa Pig on TV but Bella, aged 8, is watching her ‘Frozen’ DVD and singing (loudly) along to ‘Let it go’.

Jack says “I want to watch Peppa now Bella” and Bella just says “no”, so Jack hits her, saying “It’s my turn now horrible Bella.” And Bella shouts and hits him back. Jack cries. Dad thinks it’s time to intervene and doesn’t say “Ok, you two that’s enough. Bella don’t be so mean, give Jack a turn”. (He did that last week and it ended in tears all round – Dad too, well, almost.)

Dad: Jack I can see you’re upset. We don’t hit in this family. Can you tell Bella what you want, rather than calling her names?
Jack: She’s being mean. I want a turn.
Bella: But it’s my turn now. I want to watch the end of this video.
Jack: You watched it on the weekend. I want to watch Peppa now.
Dad: (Dad has some sympathy – he wouldn’t mind some respite from ‘Let it go’ himself.) Jack is saying he wants a turn to watch his show. Bella is saying she’s not ready for her turn to be over….Hmm…That’s a tough situation...I know it can be hard to wait, Jack.
Jack: I don’t want to wait…I want to watch Peppa now! Bella gets to watch her show all the time.
Dad: You feel you’re not getting a fair go? Can you tell Bella that and ask her when she’ll be ready to give you a turn? Bella can you tell Jack, without hitting, what would be a fair time for you to have on the video.
Jack: It’s not fair Bella, you had a turn on the weekend and I haven’t had my turn for ages. When will it be my turn?
Bella: Ok Jack! You can watch Peppa when the next song is finished. Why don’t you be Olaf?
Dad gives lots of descriptive praise for both children for resolving this situation constructively.
Both kids feel heard and they have learnt how to assert themselves without hitting.

Managing sibling conflicts is one of the most difficult parts of parenting. Helping children to resolve disputes without abusing power or resorting to name-calling or violence is a great gift.

If you found these ideas useful please share them with friends and family and for more parenting insights sign up for our newsletter click here

Happy parenting!
Elaine and Melissa

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July 07th, 2014

Exam Results - responding to disappointment

Disappointed boyIn the UK educational system children could be doing exams for entry to their next educational establishment – and getting the results – at any time of year. They sit for 11+ in March, Common entrance (CE) generally in June but possibly January or November also and A levels results come out in August. And sometimes there are disappointing results.

So maybe some time this year your child sat an exam and got results he or she wasn’t happy with or that you weren’t happy with! If the outcome was not as hoped for read on to find out how best to respond. Of course if your child has been accepted at the school/university of your choice congratulations –but you don’t need help from me. Although possibly a word of caution about giving extra rewards for doing well in exams. Achieving the coveted entrée to the school you think is right for your child is the result and the reward for all the work they put in. If you dangle the promise of a trip to Disneyland or a new ipad in the hope of encouraging harder work from your child it may well backfire as your child feels manipulated and such an approach does not encourage self-discipline.

I recently heard about one boy who had undergone multiple exams – Y6 assessment exams for various schools which give conditional offers for Y9 subject to CE, and he’d also done the 11+ for the London day schools. He didn’t get a place. Not surprisingly he felt pretty down. The London day school situation is getting crazy. I hear the numbers are about 10-12 applicants for each place. The pass rates are going up towards 65-70% and the interview which used to be a token check is now considered crucial. The system creates an enormous amount of pressure for children and many educationalists worry that it is destroying their childhoods.

Some children will take failure to get into schools as a massive knock back and really take it to heart. Some will make it mean that they are not up to scratch. It’s not uncommon for kids to give up at that point so parents need to respond carefully.

This particular boy then didn’t do all that well in his end of year exams; not badly, just not quite as well as he or his teachers might have expected. And other kids picked up on it –he was subjected to some tough teasing. On top of his ‘failure’ to get into the schools earlier in the year it hit hard. He retreated into himself and became moody and angry. He found it hard to concentrate in class, and was unwilling to put his hand up or volunteer to take part in activities.

Luckily this boy’s mum was doing a course with us and got a lot of support at a time that is tough for parents. It is so easy to get sucked into the pressurising vortex and add to our children’s anxieties in our efforts to support them. Year 6 is a tough year for these boys, they are still so young, and yet they are expected to produce results and perform well. His mum started thinking ahead and preparing for the two years to come before he faces exams again. She wanted to build his self-confidence and increase his resilience and help him to prepare for his exams to the best of his ability while getting a whole education and without burning out with worry.

Over time his mum can help him by:
•    encouraging and motivating him by descriptively praising him extensively, not just in the academic arena, but generally.
•    avoiding evaluative praise so as to encourage a growth mind set (where he seems himself as someone who can grow through his own efforts) rather than a fixed mindset (where he sees his skills and intelligence as limited)
•    developing resilience and a healthy attitude to failure –partly through using descriptive praise and partly by emotion coaching him (see below) and also by modelling a positive attitude to set backs and failures. What his parents pay most attention to is crucial –is it his results or his effort, the attitude he shows or strategies he employs? What they model around failure will count for a lot too.
•    encouraging independence in thought and action. Give him chores to do which require skill and responsibility. Validate his opinions.  This demonstrates to the boy his own competence and builds confidence. He will learn to trust his abilities, to take risks and give things a go.

For more on this see our publication Creating Happy Learners: How to reduce pressure and increase creativity.

In the short term his mum can respond with emotion coaching:

If this boy is struggling with what the other boys are saying about his results, it will be helpful for him to have a response.  Rather than telling him not to worry what the other boys think, that it doesn’t matter what they say, or that he just needs to ignore them, or suggest he should tell a teacher, which is what we feel compelled to say, his mum can empathise with him. “That’s tough, having them talking about your results. It must make you feel very uncomfortable, even angry. You wish they didn’t know, or if they did know, that they would keep it to themselves.”

Having connected with how he feels about it, she can turn to solutions. The aim is that he comes up with the solution, but he may need a little guidance from her to start. “I imagine you just don’t know what to say when they talk about your results. You probably want to shout at them to leave you alone, that it’s none of your business. I am glad you’ve not been rude. Not saying anything doesn’t feel right either, does it? I wonder what you could say?”

Obviously it depends what they are saying – my experience was some boys taunting one of my sons “we beat you, we beat you, we’re better than you” and his response was “I’m glad you did well”. He wasn’t completely glad, but apart from that it was relatively honest! The point was there was nothing they could say back. We had to practice it a few times at home first but then it was a response he could use.

If you are worried that your child is negative and pessimistic, and this will be particularly hard if you are a positive and optimistic person, accept his concerns in the same way rather than trying to change him straight off. This only has the effect of making him feel wrong.  “I see your point about this – and it’s clearly worrying you. You’ve thought about all the pitfalls and possible dangers. That’s clear thinking. This is what keeps us safe and helps us put things right.” The trick then is to flesh out his worries and then put them into perspective. Are there any possible upsides? Is there any chance things may go well? How likely is each scenario? He will be more willing to do this with you when you have heard and accepted his point of view first.

Life is tough, and part of our job as parents is, not to shield our children from the rubbish bits of life, which we can’t do, but to build strong children who as adults can cope with whatever life throws at them.

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May 09th, 2014

How to use praise effectively - a grammatical approach

Girl and tray

This week I had two different experiences of the use of praise. I heard a psychologist on the radio talking about how it was important to use adjectives rather than verbs when praising children. He said when we use adjectives as in “You are helpful”, rather than “you are helping” this enables children to see themselves as helpful; being helpful becomes part of their identity.

He also suggested that when describing behaviour that we don’t like, negative behaviours, it’s better to use words that distance the action from the child, such as “that was a silly thing to do”. This makes sense at one level. We don’t want our children to see themselves as silly or bad or wrong and they will do that if they hear those labels applied to them. When they think of themselves in those terms it’s not surprising if we get silly, bad or wrong behaviour. We do want our children to take on good qualities as part of their identity, to build strong self-esteem and because a child who sees himself as helpful is likely to behave in a helpful manner.

But there are two problems with this analysis.

The first is that when young children, generally under the age of eight, hear negative labels like naughty, bad or wrong even if they’re carefully being applied by a well-meaning adult to theirbehaviour rather than to them, eg that was naughty, the child often applies it to himself. This is an egocentric stage of his development when everything applies to him. It’s really better to be very wary of using negative labels of any kind around children including ones like shy, disorganised and bossy which we might not think are so terrible. We run the risk of pigeon-holing our children and cutting off possibilities for them to be a different way.

The second problem is that this kind of acknowledgment on its own suffers from lack of credibility. Our children need evidenced-based praise!  I was working with a group of 9 and 10 year olds this week who, when told they were brave or caring or kind immediately denied it! They rejected this form of praise and would not believe it. It was intriguing how uncomfortable the children felt. This often happens as kids get older. A child may hear this kind of praise and doubt it because he is not always a helpful person and it may create pressure for him to be always helpful, which he knows he can’t do. He will know others who are more helpful than he is and discount the well-intentioned words. This is all the more true for a child who has developed a negative identity over time. A child who has grown up hearing a lot of criticism will find it even harder to believe positive words when they come his way.

So what can adults do?  It is more believable and less pressurising if, when you’re praising, you also use verbs “you’re taking your plate over to the dishwasher –you’re helping” to point out what the child is doing that is helpful. Notice and mention what the child is doing right. That way the evidence is before him and he can’t deny it. It is more likely to be believed and taken in at the level of identity. He can see that he can be a helpful person. We call this descriptive praise but it describes the actions of the child and it is an evidenced-based approach which is really effective because it is credible.

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February 18th, 2014

Children Are Hard Wired For Attention

Naughty girl

Parents often comment on the difficulty of managing multiple children and how everyone  always clamours for mum’s attention.

Attention is always a good place to start when thinking about being an effective parent.  Rule No. 1 is that children are hardwired to seek our attention.  It ensured their survival when we all lived in caves.  When everyone is striving to get our attention it is helpful to replace the thoughts ‘Why are they so demanding’, ‘Can’t they see I am overwhelmed’, ‘How do they expect me to do everything at once’………..with the thought ‘of course they want my attention – they’re hardwired for this’.  It doesn’t immediately turn the moment into sweetness and light, but it does make you feel a bit more empathetic towards them….and realize they are not doing this because they are thoughtless and mean.

Here are a few tips to help smooth the way:

Ensure you notice and comment on good behaviour significantly more than bad.  All too often we say nothing when they are behaving well and only pay attention when they are starting to misbehave.  From a kid’s perspective any attention is better than none – so they will take the bad route if they have to.

Try to carve out some individual time for each child.  It may only be 30 mins once a week, but in those 30 minutes let the child lead the activity.  It might be a dolls’ tea party with your five year old daughter or a game of hide and seek with your eight year old son.   The point is they will feel valued and special by having this time – and it is about their agenda – so no pretending it is special time with mum whilst they practice their times tables!

Every so often organise individual ‘daddy dates’.  Perhaps a visit to Pizza Express, a trip to the Science Museum but it could also be as simple as a walk in the park.  Diarise it in advance and mention it in the run up to the event.  It will make the child feel you are really focused on them.

Turn your phone off over meal times so you are not continually distracted and can have a proper conversation.  It is also excellent modeling for the times we want them to turn off their digital devices.

If your children continually talk over each other, institute a talking stick.  This was an ancient Native American tradition where only the person with the talking stick was allowed to speak and they were always allowed to finish before the talking stick was handed over to the next person.  Start with a physical stick and then move to a metaphorical one once everyone understands the concept.

Try to promote collaboration between siblings – not competition.  You want your children to feel there is plenty of attention to go round and they are not in a competition for it.  In this vain try to avoid saying things like ‘I wish you could be more organized in the mornings like your sister’, ‘why can’t you eat as nicely as your brother’, ‘the first child to finish their dinner is the winner’.

Schedule quality family relaxation time at the weekend.  Play a board game together, have a long lunch in which everyone gets involved in helping to prepare and clear up.  Go and play catch in the playground.  Ensure the weekend is not just a non-stop series of scheduled activities with children and parents all going in separate ways

In a recent survey by UNICEF UK the thing that children wanted most from their parents was not more toys, or more electrical gadgets…..it was simply more time with their parents.

Try the suggestions above. The funny thing you find about children, the more they feel confident of having your attention, the less they fear they are going to be criticised for asking for your attention……the less they clamour for it!

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September 03rd, 2013

What did your kids learn these holidays, and what more do they need to know?

(Things to teach your kids before they fly the nest)

Teaching children to cook

What did your children learn over the summer holidays? At The Parent Practice a quick survey of parents revealed an interesting array of skills. This prompted the question what life skills do you think your children need to have before they leave home. Our job is to equip our children with the skills they need to be successful adults and we need to start training while they are young.
Our parents think children need to know how to (these are not in order of importance and only some of these ideas reveal what some of our parents coped with during their holidays! This is a list of practical skills; we have not included social skills here or the list would have covered several pages):
•    iron (a shirt)
•    sew on a button or a hem
•    swim and ride a bike
•    change a fuse and a light bulb … and the loo roll
•    manage money and operate a bank account
•    pay a bill, using a cheque or electronic bank transfer
•    cook basic meals or at least boil an egg and make a cup of tea (it doesn’t matter if you don’t drink tea)
•    write a thank you note/email/text/phone call
•    write a personal/professional/complaint/acknowledgement letter
•    know all your relevant ID information (NHS number, National Insurance, driver’s license, passport … and the relevant   expiration dates…or where to find them)
•    know how to operate the answering machine at home (without deleting a message meant for someone else. There’s a story here!)
•    do laundry properly, that is not just how to operate a washing machine, but how to separate colours, decide what needs a special program, what can go in the tumble dryer, how much laundry powder to use, how to hang laundry out properly so it will actually dry, why not to leave damp laundry mouldering in the basket etc
•    hang up clothes that aren’t heading to the laundry basket
•    do basic first aid
•    use some basic self-defence moves
•    mow a lawn, recognise a weed and what to do with it
•    basic cleaning skills, particularly how to clean a toilet and shower/bath and how often to wash towels and sheets
•    remove stains from carpets and sofas
•    bleed a radiator
•    turn off the stop cock (and know where it is)
•    use public transport
•    fill a car with petrol and oil, jump start a car with a flat battery, open the bonnet, change a tyre, fix a puncture or call the AA
•    drive
•    clean a car
•    use a condom (we did say learn before leaving the nest-it doesn’t have to be tomorrow)
•    use power tools and a screwdriver
•    fill in forms
•    make appointments with doctors and dentists
•    make phone calls or use the internet to get information
•    back up a computer/ipod/phone etc
•    recognise scam emails and fake websites
•    protect yourself on-line and what to do if you come across cyber-bullying and trolling
•    set a SIM PIN on your phone
•    write a shopping list and come home with almost everything on it and not much else that wasn’t on it
•    pack a suitcase
•    not wake a baby, and how to distract the baby when they get really crabby later
•    not make rude shapes out of babybel cheese rinds and leave them in your pocket so they go through the wash and ruin everything else in the machine
•    not get confused between deodorant and hairspray.
•    if you’re moving house or to a new country, make sure to pack the online banking security gadgets, a few kitchen knives and at least 1 wine glass (lesson learned!!)

What to do if:

•    they get lost or locked out of the house
•    someone offers them a lift and they are unsure or offers them anything and they are unsure, basically how to say no
•    with a jellyfish sting that doesn’t involve the traditional weeing on it (it’s vinegar, by the way!)

When  to call a friend, their parents, an ambulance, the police, a computer support person, an electrician, a plumber, the gas man and deal with emergencies

Golly! We’d better start intense training now!

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July 10th, 2013

How to Combat School Break Boredom - Before it Sets In

Things to do lists

Guest blog by Kelly Peitrangeli of  myprojectme.com

“I’m bored.” “I don’t know what to do.”   Sound familiar?

Inevitable words out of the mouths of children during the school break.

It’s great to organise outings and social get togethers, but don’t feel you have schedule their every move. Children need the time and space to transition from busy school life to laid back summer break. It’s ok to feel a bit bored, they just have to learn to overcome it.

A few summers ago I pre-empted the cries of boredom by getting my kids to create a Not Bored Board. It worked a treat and they do it every year now.

Here’s how:

•    Grab a notebook. Get your child brainstorming and writing down ideas to do at home.

•    Divide it into sections: Things to do alone  – read, puzzles, art, lego, play solitaire, listen to music, build a fort, take photos or videos. Things to do with siblings – board/card games, make believe / dressing up, trains, cars, dolls, outdoor games and sports, singing, dancing, choreographing a show, hide & seek. Things to do with you – games, sewing, arts and crafts, cooking/baking. They can rummage through the toy cupboard for more ideas.

•    Next, give them a big piece of poster board to turn their brainstorm session into an art project. They can write, draw, clip photos from magazines or print from the internet.

•    Proudly hang the Not Bored Board and refer them to it whenever they’re stuck for what to do.

Top tip: The most effective time to do this is before school breaks up, when they’re still fantasising about how great all of that free time will be!

A bored child really struggles to think of anything to do and your suggestions never seem to appeal. Get them to create their board before they’re bored and the ideas come fast and furious.

While they are off occupying themselves, use the time to get your own things done and to have a little “me time”. You’ll have more energy and patience on long summer days when you get small breaks from the kiddie action.

Reward your children for periods of entertaining themselves by having quality time with you afterwards. Be fully present and engaged with them during your time together. No checking emails, taking phone calls or prepping dinner. They will soon learn that by occupying themselves for a while each day, they will have your undivided attention later. Good for them – and you.

Happy Summer!

Kelly Pietrangeli is passionate about helping mothers quickly identify where things could be better in life – and taking action. As a busy mother herself with two musical boys and a DJ husband, life is anything but quiet. She overcame her early struggles with motherhood by taking courses with The Parent Practice and has evolved into the happy mama she is today. Kelly is excited to launch www.myprojectme.com on September 17, 2013. In the meantime, check out the Project Me for Busy Mothers Facebook page:  Facebook.com/myprojectme

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June 13th, 2013

Engaging Fathers

Father tending to son

Fathers’ day in the UK is in June. Rather than paying lipservice to it by buying a card for the kids to give Dad or (better) encouraging them to make one, it’s worth considering the role of fathers on this day. Mums, what do you value about your partner? Kids what do you love about Dad? Make sure that if you’re giving him a card you include some descriptive praise for him. In other words tell him specifically what you like to do with him or what you appreciate about him.

Is it the way he pretends to be an elephant and lets you climb on his back? Is it the pillow fights you have? Is it the funny voice he uses when reading you stories? Is it the way he helps you with your homework? Maybe you love his jokes or his crazy singing. Maybe you appreciate that he sits down with you quietly at bedtime and talks to you about your day and stuff you’re interested in. Maybe you love the way he supports you in trying new things like riding your bike or flying a kite or learning guitar. Maybe you just love your dad because he loves you.

There is a great deal of research and evidence that shows that when fathers (and father figures) are engaged in their children’s lives children do better academically and socially and have stronger self-esteem. (A longitudinal study done with 300 families by Stanford University beginning in the 1950s found that the best predictor of adult empathy was dads’ involvement in child rearing when the children were 5 years old and those men and women who had better social relationships in their 40s had experienced increased warmth from fathers as children. Nugent, JK. (1991) Cultural and Psychological Influences on the Father’s Role in Infant Development. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53)

Children whose fathers are emotionally engaged show greater resilience, are able to focus on their studies better, persevere longer, take reasonable risks and are less aggressive. Girls who get positive attention from their fathers also are less at risk from eating disorders and self-harm and make better partner choices. In addition when dads are involved from an early point in a baby’s life the couple relationship benefits, if the couple should separate there is higher degree of father contact, fathers adopt healthier lifestyles, and mothers are less likely to smoke or suffer from depression. (Sources: The Fatherhood institute, Fatherhood: Parenting Programmes and Policy -A Critical Review of Best Practice, www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/?p=3744; the Gottman institute)

So what can mums do to facilitate fathers’ engagement with kids?
It’s not unusual for fathers to withdraw when a new baby arrives. Mums need a lot of emotional support which is typically provided by women who are mothers and dad can feel pushed out. He may feel inexpert as mum spends more time with the new infant (sometimes the women may even laugh at dad’s incompetence at changing nappies, feeding, bathing) so he does what he knows how to do and spends more time at work. He may also feel a strong urge to provide for his new family. In fact studies show dads are just as competent as mums in knowing how to respond to a crying baby (Ross Parke: fathers held and rocked infants more than mums and equalled them in talking, kissing and exploring. Throwaway Dads: The myths and Barriers That Keep Men From Being The Fathers They Want To Be. 1999 Houghton Mifflin).

From the time they are babies right through to adulthood women can encourage dads to take an active role with their kids by not criticising or laughing at their efforts but instead appreciating them for what they do. Recognise that in fact men have something unique to offer in parenting. Fathers tend to foster independence and encourage adventure. Dads tend to give children more freedom to explore. Mothers are generally caretakers and teachers and are often more cautious.
The differences are very marked in the way they each play with children. Mums tend to play visual games and are verbal with children while dads are more physical and tactile. (Gottman: when given a choice of play partners 2/3 of 2 ½ year olds prefer dad.) Dad’s style is more jazzed up and has heightened intensity followed by periods of calm in contrast to mum’s more even style. Provided dads know how to calm a child when over stimulated this style is very effective at helping children regulate emotions.

•    Dads are more likely to be involved when they feel they’re doing a good job -acknowledge them for all their positive parenting input but especially for spending time with the children eg: Thanks for coming home early and minding the children while I went out. It was great to see you had fed everyone and read stories (even if the house is a tip when you get back).

•    Schedule time for Dads to play with the kids. It is a strength for them. Get dads to encourage a healthy attitude to competition – have rules around rough play. When playing board games model a good attitude to losing.

•    Encourage Dads to do practical things around the house such as cooking or hanging out the washing. It is good modelling for the children, stimulates their interest in those activities, includes Dad as part of the team and leaves more time for fun.

•    Use descriptive praise to reward his efforts eg. I really appreciate it when you remember to put the rubbish out/empty the dishwasher, rather than pointing out the soggy bath mat on the floor. Can’t you ever wipe down a surface? doesn’t motivate anyone!

•    Don’t expect perfection in parenting skills either for your partner or yourself. Increase his awareness of the skills by downloading parenting CDs onto his ipod or giving him small chapters of books to read; it’s less likely to feel like nagging or be overwhelming. Praise his willingness to read/listen. When we are criticised while parenting in the moment we can feel undermined and de-motivated.

•    Take the children to visit Dad at work; get Dads to talk about their world and what they do when they go away from the family. Encourage Dads to phone at a regular time when away from the home to make them feel included and to let children know their Dad is thinking of them.

•    Achieve a united front on matters of discipline by scheduling regular time together to discuss child-relates issues eg. A strategy for training children to put their own shoes on (rather than Mum trying to encourage self- reliance and Dad doing it for them) or what to do when they have a tantrum (it won’t work if Mum thinks the child should go to their room and Dad thinks it is better to listen and try to find the source of the problem). Focus on solutions more than the problem and keep track of progress by writing it down. Find a workable compromise for areas where you don’t have exactly the same values eg. how much screen time should children have?

•    Use “I feel” statements rather than “You never, you always” when you have a difference of opinion. Eg “I feel my discipline is undermined if you say yes to something I’ve just said no to without checking with me. That makes me feel like the bad guy and it’s a bit lonely.”

•    Remember less can be more when communicating with men. Sometimes emails or notes work better than direct speech.

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May 04th, 2013

Wedding Bliss. Teaching kids about relationships

I am in a state of euphoria following the joyous and loving wedding last week of my middle child.

Boy working

( I KNOW! How did that happen?) It seems only yesterday I was pulling my hair out wondering how to manage the little renegade, worrying that all my efforts to discipline him were doing him irreparable damage while being completely ineffective anyway. This is the child that regulars in my classes and workshops will know was the impetus for my husband and I taking the parenting course that changed my career and more importantly changed our family’s life and taught me so much about inter-personal relationships generally. So now he’s embarking on his own very important interpersonal relationship and I am really confident that he will handle it well.

When your child takes a partner (and yours may feel a long way off from this – but best to prepare now) you might have a secret wish list that you may not even be aware of yourself for the qualities you would like to find in that person. (Not that you have any say of course –but just hoping!) You would of course wish for them to make your child happy and hope that they will always have your beloved’s back. I am confident that my son and his new wife have three of the necessary attributes that make for a good partnership: they are really good friends, they know how to handle conflict and they share many of the same values. It was apparent that one of their shared values (from the way they planned their wedding) was a common belief in family. Every single member of their extended (and extensive) families was included in some way.

Wedding couple

We can start preparing our children, however young, for future relationships (and current ones) by:

  • modelling for them what it means to be friends and encouraging their own friendships; in particular encouraging in them the qualities that make for good friendships such as sharing, by noticing and mentioning it when we see those qualities in them.
  • spend time with your partner as well as your children so that you can know them well, what they like and dislike, what their goals and concerns are, what makes them laugh, what they value, how they feel about things.
  • ask your partner as well as your children open-ended questions that allow you to find out all of the above.
  • build up a culture of appreciation between your partner and your children by telling them (ALL the time) what you like about them.
  • be on their side, listen to their point of view, give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • model with your partner and teach your children to resolve conflict well, ie ask for what you want or need without criticism or blame (criticism is death to relationships); acknowledge the other person’s point of view; if an interaction gets negative repair and redirect it; compromise.
  • Remember if something has gone wrong it is not as important to assign responsibility for it, ie blame, as it is to repair and move on. I like a quote that was on one of the wedding cards our newly-weds received: if you’re wrong own up, if you’re right shut up.
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January 31st, 2013

2013 Is the time to slow down

Do you ever feel like life is a race and you are left wondering where the finish line is? Are you worried that life will overtake you? Do you feel that your life as a parent  is one big race against time with our quest to ensure our children are doing x in order to achieve Y and not be left behind. Whether it’s speed walking, speed dating, speed dialling and heaven forbid speed drive-thru funerals in USA there is a need for us all to just SLOW down and perhaps not cram so much into our day.

Carl Honoré’s latest book on Slow Parenting  raises some really key questions for us all as parents and has been written as a response to the helicopter parenting we have been seeing where parents are micromanaging their children’s lives to such an extent that parenting is now seen by some as product development or akin to a professional pastime.  Students are not coping at University  – unable to stand on their own and Merrill Lynch offers Parent Days to cater to the professional pack of parents ready to try and negotiate their offspring’s salary package.

As a society we are going badly wrong – robbing children of their childhood as evidenced by increasing cases of mental health issues, eating disorders, binge drinking, substance abuse and prolific teenage sexual activity.

So what can you do as a parent to find your tempo and ensure your children have a balanced journey of discovery?

  • Less is more – spend less, do less, stimulate less
  • Don’t buy elaborate toys for kids that do all their thinking for them and direct how they should play; rather buy them generic blocks and let them build whatever they want. There is no evidence that so-called educational toys have any impact on learning whatsoever
  • Breakfast  in bed for kids, and grown-ups; or other spontaneous events
  • Schedule in unstructured time – yes it probably needs to be scheduled!
  • Have family meal times together. Harvard research indicates this is better for language development than reading stories
  • Create family rituals around birthdays and family events
  • Have regular calendar nights on a  Sunday evening
  • Get up 10 minutes earlier
  • Limit the use of screen time and be disciplined about use. It is insidious and creeps into every corner of our lives. Never allow screens in children’s bedrooms
  • Stop and look at leaves, or sunsets, or clouds….

So if you are worried life will overtake you – you’re wrong. Life is where you are now and when we slow down we find life has a natural groove that is richer more pleasurable and more fulfilling – we may do fewer things but what we do, we do well.

When the Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore – home of tiger mom culture – spoke on the National Day of Singapore about the Singaporean style of parenting, and  launched an attack on tiger mothers in a speech last year , you know it’s time to change . He berated parents for “coaching their three- or four-year-old children to give them that extra edge over the five-year-old competition”. And he added: “Please let your children have their childhood…Instead of growing up balanced and happy, he grows up narrow and neurotic. No homework is not a bad thing. It’s good for young children to play, and to learn through play.”

So when was the last time you stopped and allowed your child to have those moments looking at the ice crystals  and the snow patterns or the rain drops?

When was the last time you took a really deep slow breath and felt the natural air ticking over of your respiratory system – breathing in and out long deep breaths to their comfortable conclusion, until you are flooded with calm.

We all know it’s time to slow down.

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November 30th, 2012

Christmas, Materialism and Toys

Child Psychologist and play expert Amanda Gummer has warned parents not to give in to pressure and buy kids lots of expensive toys this Christmas. (Research, carried out by Sainsbury’s and reprted in Metro on 30th November, has found that parents spend an average of £104.4 on each child.) She thinks that the lists of top toys released at this time of year and of course advertising add to the pressure on parents. She advises: “Don’t give in to the pressure from the media and the school playground to buy the most expensive, latest toys on the market. Often toys that children will play with over and over again don’t make it into the top 10 lists.” (clickhere to see Amanda’s article).

In Carl Honoré’s book Under Pressure he explores the nature of modern toys and looks particularly at electronic toys and toys like iTeddy which do all the child’s thinking for them and concludes that these do not allow for the child’s imagination to grow. Simpler toys like dolls, construction kits, train sets and cars, ‘house’ items like kitchen sets provide the richest experience for children because they can use their own imagination more. Many parents have had the experience of the child unwrapping an expensive, complicated gizmo at Christmas only to find it discarded and the child playing with the box it came in a week later. The Stockholm based International Toy Research Centre concludes that what children really need is time without external input so that they can process their own experiences. Many modern toys superimpose someone else’s story on the users. There has even been a change in Lego from simple bricks which allow the child to create and problem solve to sets with specific dedicated pieces and instructions which dictate what should be made. If children get spoon fed everything, even in play, their imaginations close down, they don’t develop the ability to pursue sustained thought and they get bored easily, always looking for the next electronic stimulus or experience. This can make it hard for children to focus at school. It also means that children get tired of these toys quicker.

In fact at TPP we were pleased to see a mix of traditional toys on one list of top toys for 2012 (John Lewis’s top ten list) –these included dolls houses, scooters, Lego and Furbys and other soft toys as well as some electronic toys.

This might help guide parents’ choices about what type of gift to give their children but they may still be concerned about how much children get at Christmas and whether or not their children appreciate what they are given.

Last year UNICEF UK released a report entitled Child well-being in the UK, Spain and Sweden: The role of inequality and materialism. The UK did not compare well with Spain and Sweden in terms of the wellbeing of children and the role of consumer products in their lives. “…in Spain and Sweden the pressure to consume appeared much weaker and the resilience of children and parents much greater than in the UK. Families in the UK appear to face greater pressures on their time and money, and react to this in ways they feel are counter productive to children’s well-being….Most children agreed that family time was more important to them than consumer goods, yet we observed within UK homes a compulsion on the part of some parents to continually buy new things for their children and for themselves. Boxes of toys, broken presents and unused electronics in the home were witness to this drive to acquire new possessions. Most parents realised that what they were doing was often ‘pointless’, but seemed somehow pressurised and compelled to continue.”

It is real juggling act raising children in the 21st century (particularly in the UK it would appear), where instant gratification has become the norm, where shopping has become a leisure activity and status is defined by what we own. The shops and TV screens are full of enticements, no more so than in the run up to Christmas…. and everyone wants everything….. and they want it now!

As loving parents, we want our children to have the best we can give, we want to show them how much we love them, and, at the same time, we want them to be appreciative of what they have and learn to value their possessions. Many parents are concerned about falling into the trap of over-indulging their children, fearing that their children will grow up to be overly acquisitive and never satisfied, unable to appreciate the true cost of things or differentiate between their needs and their wants.

So how can we instill in our children the values we want and we believe will equip them best for the future, and yet not always have to be the bad cop, saying no, no, no….?

There is one immediate and relatively simple way we can help our children.

We can protect them from the constant advertising which tells them that their value is tied up in what they own and that they need to acquire certain goods in order to fit in. We need to let them know that they are ‘worth it’ even without the advertised product. We can limit their exposure to TV adverts by cutting down on screen-time, or using Sky Plus, and we can discuss with older children the role of advertising and the manipulation involved. Most kids like the idea of not being conned by the conglomerates!

And then it comes down to being clear and true to our values, and communicating this effectively to our children.

So, first, we need to establish what our values are. We need to ask ourselves what does Christmas mean to us and what is the place for gift giving and receiving? What do we want our children to grow up believing is important? What values do we want them to inherit? Are we buying too much for our children?  These may be uncomfortable questions to answer honestly.

The UNICEF report suggests that there are high levels of social insecurity in the UK which is compensated for by buying status brands. Is it also because we feel guilty about the amount of time we are able to spend with them as is suggested in the report? Is it because we want them to enjoy what we never had? Some parents interviewed for the UNICEF report suggested that they wanted status brands for their children to protect them from the kind of bullying they experienced themselves as kids. Do we not know other ways to make them feel worthwhile? Has the availability of relatively cheap goods made us lazy and undiscerning about consumer choices? Do we buy because we can’t bear to see them unhappy and we are unable to say no?

Having clarified our values, we now have to communicate them to our children.

Children learn by copying as much as by what we say to them. So we can talk about what our values are but this will be for nought if our own behaviour doesn’t live up to what we say we believe in. So if we believe in moderation and then buy each child a mountain of gifts we are not walking our talk. If we say we think Christmas should be about others and do nothing to encourage them to think of anyone other than themselves we are just paying lip service.

Giving – before focussing on what they want to receive, involve children in giving – it
can be just as much fun!
* Can they select a family member to choose a gift for?  Discuss the budget and what the person enjoys and will enjoy getting. Don’t just buy a gift for your child to give without involving them.
* Can they give to others less fortunate? Can you organise a toy tidy-out and donate old toys or books to the local hospital, can they arrange to bake some Christmas goodies and take them to a local children’s home? Even if they’re involved in some kind of charitable activity at school it would really reinforce this as a family value if you did something at home as well. Last year the Oxfam goat was sold out – so get there early if you would like to give a female goat to a needy family in countries like Malawi.   www.oxfam.org.uk
* Can they think of non-material gifts?  Home made gifts can be wonderful and really appreciated. Bake cookies or make confectionery with the children or get them to write a story or poem and illustrate it or even make a power point story for someone else.

Receiving – many parents worry about increasing piles of unwanted toys.
* Can you set up a system so people club together to buy one gift for your child – that they really, really want? Some families eschew the idea of buying for huge numbers and instead concentrate their energies and resources on buying one gift on behalf of the wider family. We do this in my extended family (32 and growing) and choose the donor and recipient by drawing names out of a hat each year.
* Can they practice how to receive gifts with grace even if they don’t really love them – or have the item already. Use role plays.
* Take your time – we wait 364 days for Christmas yet the giving and receiving of gifts often happens in a few frantic minutes of unwrapping. Can they be Santa’s Little Helper and give out the gifts?
* Saying thank you – writing letters may seem very old-fashioned, but young children can do a drawing, or dictate a letter to you. Older children could Skype or send an email.

We can also model appreciation by being appreciative ourselves, and noticing and mentioning it whenever they are. This might sound like: “I love it when you say thank-you for the things I do for you. It’s polite, and makes me feel really appreciated.” or “You’re taking really good care of your new train set –you put it away very carefully in its box each time you’ve finished with it.”  Obviously you’ll love whatever they give you for Christmas –one can never have too many novelty ties or socks or ‘cute’ little trinkets. My now grown up children marvel that I found a use for or display place (in my bathroom) for the holiday souvenirs they brought me. Tip: little shell covered boxes are a great place to keep safety pins. None of you will do what my husband’s great grandmother did when she asked who’d given her ‘this ridiculous thing’ as she discarded a gift from one of her children!

Chat throughs
When we prepare for Christmas many of us prepare endless lists of things to do and things to buy but we often don’t prepare our children except for revving them up for the arrival of Santa. If we want to encourage particular behaviours in our children we need to chat through with them beforehand what we expect. This is not a lecture and in fact they should do most of the talking as they are far more likely to do what they say they need to do.

Ask them questions – what will happen on the day, what are they looking forward to and what might be difficult, what behaviour is expected at different points, in church, at the table, when opening presents etc, and how might the child feel….They need to do the talking if they are to be committed to what needs to happen.  It is important to empathise that the child may feel very excited and get a bit wild, when it comes to receiving presents they may want to rush to open them, they may be disappointed with what they receive, they may feel jealous of what others are given, and young children often get overwhelmed. We can ask how the child could handle these feelings – some ideas include telling the parent or using some safe venting technique like stamping feet or pounding their fists or taking some time out in their own room if you’re at home.  It’s really important we don’t make our children wrong for any of their feelings.

If our children have a meltdown, we need to keep calm – remembering children feel things very intensely in the moment but these feelings pass, and remembering too that it is not our job to keep them happy in the moment; instead it is our job to enable them to make themselves happy in the future, by developing self-control and problem-solving skills. What won’t work is to tell them off for their ungratefulness or other less desirable behaviour.

We are more effective when we can empathise with our children, imagining how they are feeling and reflecting it back to them in words. This is the first step in helping our children understand and manage their feelings. This might sound like: “You wish you could have a car like Jamie’s. You really like it -maybe because it’s so shiny and it’s got cool tires. You know what? I’m proud of you for only making a little fuss about this. I know you’re disappointed and you’re finding it hard to focus on the great things you’ve been given right now. When you’ve given yourself a little time I know  you’ll choose one of your own toys to play with.”

Although this may not result in an immediate improvement in behaviour, it does show the child that they are understood and their feelings are accepted, even though their behaviour needs to be re-directed.

Overall, it pays to take time to prepare and train ourselves and our children how best to cope with life in today’s modern material world. It may help to bear in mind the following tough advice from Dr. Phil McGraw,  psychologist and author:
“Your child does not have to love you every minute of every day. He’ll get over the disappointment of having been told ‘no.’ But he won’t get over the effects of being spoiled.”

Hope your Christmas is a happy one and you enjoy being with your families.

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November 14th, 2012

Lessons from the Lance Armstrong Affair. Modelling is 80% of parenting, part II

My husband and I have been following Lance Armstrong’s career since he started racing in the Tour de France following his battle with cancer.  We read his books, bought LiveStrong bracelets and clothes, and in 2010 we even went to Paris for the last stage of the TdF, when Armstrong raced his final Tour.

Recently it was announced that Armstrong had been officially stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, and that his best race result would have been 36th  – before his cancer diagnosis.  This story has been making headlines for weeks, and has been simmering since Floyd Landis (Armstrong’s former teammate and winner of the 2006 TdF) started commenting on the systemic doping that took place.  The recent news essentially eradicates the career that made Armstrong a household name. Pat McQuaid, the President of the International Cycling Union (UCI) said, “There is no place for Lance Armstrong in cycling.  “ [He is] a serial cheat who led one of the worst doping conspiracies in sport.”

Armstrong wasn’t acting alone.  He was part of a team of doctors, coaches, team managers and other cyclists who were all involved in the doping.  The Tour de France is leaving those 7 years without a winner, as they would be pretty hard-pressed to find a cyclist who wasn’t doping during those years. It’s when the story gets a bit deeper and shows that not only was Armstrong doping, it was how he pretty much bullied former team-mates and others who testified against him.  Many articles appeared that describe abusive voicemail messages that Armstrong used against those who would testify against him.  The wife of one of Armstrong’s former teammate “described receiving a voicemail from an Armstrong friend telling her she hoped ‘somebody breaks a baseball bat over your head,’ after her husband spoke out about doping allegations.”  Clearly doping is not good, but covering your tracks and bullying people into helping you cover your tracks?  Well, that’s quite possibly even worse.

Why is this story so interesting story for me, as a parenting facilitator?  Well, Lance Armstrong has 5 children – 3 from his first marriage, and 2 from his current relationship.  In the past he tweeted regularly about his children and especially the joy he and his partner felt when she fell pregnant – especially after all his cancer treatment and surgery.  I can imagine that he will get through the damage to his career – as he said, “I’ve been better, but I’ve also been worse.”  The side of the story I am fascinated by is how you repair the damage with your family and other loved ones.  This situation provides a wealth of learning.

1. Winning at any cost will most likely catch up with you at some point
When we teach our children to play games, we teach them to play fair and to not cheat.  We’ll say thing like “cheaters never win”, and even though sometimes it seems that they do, eventually some evidence will come out that will stamp out the victory.

We can work with our children to teach them rules, to advise them about what is and is not fair play.  We can set up a system that rewards values like collaboration or accepting successes and losses graciously.  We can always be on the look out for when our children are exhibiting the behaviours we want to be seeing more of. We need to notice and acknowledge such behaviour.

We want to be raising our children to take pride in their efforts, their improvement and their attitude instead of being the best at any cost.

2. Model honesty and integrity

About a year ago, Melissa Hood, the co-founder of The Parent Practice wrote a terrific blog called 80% of Parenting is Modeling in which she writes:

“Once we’re aware of the influence we have we can consciously set out to influence our children. Michael Grinder, communications expert, says “The power of influence is greater than the influence of power”.…

Sometimes our children are not copying the things we’d like them to. And for that there is the other 20% of parenting – we need some positive and effective parenting tools like using rules constructively, setting things up so that our children are likely to behave well, motivating them to do the right thing, understanding the causes of behaviour and responding effectively when they don’t. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if our children are learning anything in the moment but it may be years later that your children show they have taken on your values.”

It is so important to have an idea of what values you want to be passing on to your children, to model those values and to establish rules that help you bring those values to life within your family.  One of the values we might seek to model is being happy with our own best efforts, measuring our value, not by outcomes, but by our efforts. Model enjoying sport or other games, even if we don’t win. Focus not on the results of our children’s  matches but on their enjoyment of the game and how well they participated.

Find New Heroes
This past summer was one that will go down in history as probably the best ever for UK sport.  Bradley Wiggins with Team Sky won the General Classification in the TdF, Mark Cavendish had his 23rd TdF stage win and that was all before the London 2012 Olympics & Paralympics where this country saw incredible athletes pushing themselves to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.  We’ll never forget Jessica Ennis, or Mo Farah or the amazing Paralympians.  It is so important to learn from our own limitations, as well as from those of others.  In doing so, we can be honest, authentic parents who set an example of integrity and passion that will empower our children.

3. Make Amends and Move Forwards
One word that Lance Armstrong often used in his Twitter posts was ‘onward’ … continuous positive momentum.  It’s a powerful notion that will serve him well after he takes responsibility for the mistakes he has made.  Like Armstrong, we can all move forward once we take responsibility for our mistaken behaviour, put wrongs to right, and explore ways to make sure that the same thing won’t happen again.  We like to call this The Mistakes Process (or the 4As). It goes like this:

1.    ACKNOWLEDGE
Explore (without judgment) what happened and why it was a mistake.  Use the mistake as an opportunity for everyone to learn.  Acknowledge the courage required to fess up to having made a mistake.
2.    Make AMENDS
This is all about putting wrongs to right.  This can look many different ways ranging from a sincere apology; cleaning up an actual mess; fixing something that got broken; writing a letter; or doing something nice for someone else.  Often, it is the simple act of fixing the mistake that provides the lesson so the same thing doesn’t happen again.  And it is so much more effective than shouting!
3.    ALTER
This is where you want to take some time to explore what could have been done differently so that it will be less likely to happen again.
4.    ACCEPTANCE
This is where ‘onwards’ comes into play.  You have taken responsibility for the mistake, you have cleaned up your mess, and you have looked at how to make sure to get it (more) right next time.  It is done.  It is now in the past.  It is time to acknowledge that a positive lesson has been learned.  Onwards!

I imagine that Armstrong’s oldest son has always seen his Dad as a hero, and it must be very hard to hear that your Dad won because he cheated and to witness the fallout.  The damage to Armstrong’s career is vast, but quite possibly, cleaning up this mess with his family and other loved ones will be an even greater challenge.

While cycling has had an inspirational summer, it is likely that the repercussions of the doping scandal will be felt for a while.  But will the sport move forward?  Of course!  As Pat McQuaid said, “My message to cycling, to our riders, to our sponsors and to our fans today is: cycling has a future.  … This is not the first time that cycling has reached a crossroads or that it has had to begin anew and to engage in the painful process of confronting its past. It will do so again with renewed vigour and purpose and its stakeholders and fans can be assured that it will find a new path forward.”

The message from the Lance Armstrong scandal is a clear and inspiring one for parents: acknowledge your children’s strengths and weaknesses and celebrate their effort and improvement; model honesty and act with integrity; take responsibility for (and truly learn from) your mistakes.  By modeling your own ability to take responsibility and clean up your messes, you are sending a very powerful message to your children.  And when you can teach your children to clean up their own messes (both literal and figurative), you are giving them a real gift.

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September 28th, 2012

A dinosaur ate my trousers

According to this week’s Daily Mail, £187 million worth of school kit will be lost before the school year is out. Although the excuses that our children come up with may make us chuckle, lost kit drives parents mad, as well as adding another pressure on the household budget. So, is there anything we can do? Of course there is. And it’s not just naming everything that can move.

Getting everyone ready for the morning school run is a challenge in many homes. It’s tempting, and often quicker and easier, to do it all ourselves. This works in the moment, but creates another problem in the longer-term because it doesn’t help children learn how to look after their things, or even be aware of what they have with them at any given time.

Involve the children in the process of collating what they need for the day ahead and packing it into their bag. When we position this to them as a powerful and positive thing to be trusted to do, rather than an awful chore that will drag them down, they will be more inspired to try. There are some great practical tips that parents have come up with – including checklists (written by the children!) that can be stuck to the inside of the locker, or sewn into the school bag, as well as having another copy at home in the kitchen or by the front door.

It’s all very well to be told “this is how you need to do it” but actually we all learn best by doing, rather than just listening.

So spend a little time one weekend, with lots of humour and empathy, practicing getting changed into your games kit and putting everything back in your bag. Or talk through a few ideas about safe places to put your jumper when you get too hot. Any idea they come up with is a good one – it shows they’re taking it seriously, thinking about it, trying hard, wanting to be responsible etc. And it’s probably a good enough idea to try. Our children are much more likely to commit to their own ideas. If there seems to be a flaw in the idea, gently point it out and ask them what else they think they can do.

With a little up-front planning and preparation – which does take time, energy and a little patience, but considerably less than the time, energy and patience it takes to go out and buy another blazer- we should find that more items are kept safe. But realistically, school is a fast-moving, busy, crowded environment and it’s almost inevitable that some things will go missing. What can we do now?

First, it helps to remember the £187 million figure! It means they’re all at it – with over 9 million school children in the UK, that’s about £20 worth of lost kit each year. It’s not just your kid!

At this point, we want to avoid throwing our hands up in the air, and saying “well, this is so typical, you would lose your head if it wasn’t attached to your body” because we don’t want our children to start to believe the label that says they’re just the sort of person who loses stuff.  If we believe it about them, they’ll believe it about themselves. And guess what the sort of person who loses stuff does? They lose stuff…..

Instead, we want our children to believe they’re the sort of person who tries hard to be responsible and is a solution-seeker. We don’t want them to be discouraged by problems, we want them to be up for the challenge of sorting things out – and that means finding that missing trainer.

Rather than cutting their pocket-money til they’ve ‘paid’ for the new trainers, which will probably only make them angry with us (it’s so unfair, you’re so mean), we want to give them the benefit of the doubt, that they didn’t mean or plan to lose the trainer, and then brainstorm ideas of how to find it. (I’ve taken my sons to school a few minutes early quite a few times over the years to trawl through an empty cloakroom – and it’s been pretty successful, and a great way to start the day with a ‘phew, I got it’ moment. Once, after two finger-tip searches, we were still down a tracksuit and my son decided to offer a reward. He went into school the next day with copies of a “Wanted: One Tracksuit. Reward: One Toblerone” flyer. The next morning, the tracksuit appeared, and the reward was duly handed over to the ‘finder’.)

So, in essence, we need to be realistic that it’s not easy to keep safe all the items they need, given their relative immaturity, and taking into account the environment they’re in.  It will not be surprising – or a dire omen on their future ability to look after themselves – if they do lose something. However, there are lots of things we can help them to do – before and after – that will help keep their stuff safe, and at the same time build their independence, resilience, and foster good a approach to life.

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September 17th, 2012

Focus, Focus, Focus

The kids are back at school now and some of you ultra-organised ones may have turned your minds to Christmas already. Don’t worry if you haven’t –there will be more on that in our next newsletter. Others may be focused on your child just having started a new school or a new year with a new teacher and will be wondering how to support your child to do the best they can do.

In a recent article in the Telegraph (7th August 2012)http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9458290/Teaching-toddlers-to-pay-attention-is-the-key-to-academic-success.html# reference was made to recent research by child development experts which concludes that it is not tutoring in academic subjects that will help your child to succeed but supporting them to pay attention and to perservere. This particular research by Dr Megan McClelland from Oregon State University, published in the online journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, reflects what the Gottman Institute had noticed as part of their research on developing emotional intelligence. Drs John and Julie Gottman found that children whose parents are emotion coaches for them, that is they recognise, respect and respond to their child’s emotions:

  • Are better able to manage their feelings
  • Have better academic achievements
    - They are able to sustain attention for longer and
    - Able to shift attention from one subject to another more easily
  • They get along with their peers better

Author (and champion table tennis player) Matthew Syed, in his best-selling book Bounce, explores the idea that innate talent (whether in academic, musical, business or sporting fields) is a myth and that all the best performers in their various areas of endeavour have got to the top of their fields by a combination of opportunity, application and focus. (He does concede that it helps to be a tall if you’re a basketballer).

Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University’s research into mindsets is particularly interesting for parents. She developed the thesis that people can have different attitudes to learning which either promote or inhibit their development. With a fixed mindset one believes that one has a fixed amount of innate intelligence and that if you can’t do something it means that you have exhausted your store of intelligence. A person who has this attitude will not want to challenge the status associated with his cleverness and will not take risks that will show him to be less intelligent. Her research showed that children would not tackle harder tasks when in this fixed mindset. By contrast people with a growth mindset believe that they can with effort get better at anything and therefore are willing to try new and harder things.

A child’s mindset is affected by how adults talk to them. When we praise a child for cleverness or talent and when we focus on their results we promote a fixed mindset. However when adults praise kids for the effort they make, the attitudes they show, the strategies they employ; when we focus more on the process than the outcome we encourage in them a growth mindset. So don’t praise your child for being clever and don’t let your first question after a football game be did you win?

Parents often ask us, in classes or consultations, how to help children to focus more. Here is what we say:

  • Don’t pay too much attention when your child’s attention wanders and particularly don’t criticise it. Instead notice when they bring their attention back to the task in hand and mention that. You’re looking at your page. You brought your focus back to your work without me saying anything to you.
  • Praise in a descriptive way whenever you see signs of persistence. Wow, you really stuck with trying to learn to balance on your bike. You didn’t give up until you mastered the wobbles!  One mum told us how she’d been praising her daughter for persevering with tying her shoe laces, thinking it was big word to be using for a little girl. Then when she’d just finished manoeuvring her big car into a tight parking space a little voice from the back seat piped up with “Gee mum, you really persevere.”
  • Our children need to think of themselves as people who can pay attention and persist if they are to do well in life so we need to notice and point out to them whenever there is behaviour which shows up these qualities. Children are natural learners; just look at a toddler learning to walk. They don’t give up despite numerous set backs. We can train ourselves to notice their efforts and point them out to the child. Some families put the words on their fridge so that they remember to notice them. Others use a jar in which they collect tokens for examples of focus.
  • Give lots of descriptive praise, not just for paying attention and persistence but more generally. A child who feels generally capable will be better able to handle set backs and try again.
  • Be an emotion coach for your child. Help them understand their emotions by talking about them so that they can manage them and move on to the next task. This is surprisingly one of the most helpful things we can do in encouraging focus.
  • Some families have found that it helps to use an idea from Neuro Linguistic Programming to help children focus. It might work to use an ‘anchor’ or a talisman which is an object imbued with certain qualities, in this case focus, which the child can look at or hold (or listen to). Choose your object and invest it with its magical properties by recalling a time with your child where they were very focused (something about which they were very enthusiastic). Relive that moment by focusing on all the details of the event; what could you see and hear, what could you feel? While bringing that moment to life have your child hold or look at his object and describe what was happening to him –“you were really concentrating hard, you were so focused.” Then when focus is needed pull out the magic focus object. Refer to it as the focus object.
  • Enthuse about the tasks they are doing. If your child is learning to read try to read with them at a time when you’re not exhausted so that you can be interested. Get into the story they are reading. If decoding the words becomes too consuming that the story gets lost share the reading with them. Look at the pictures and guess what is going to happen next. Talk about how the characters feel.
  • When children are motivated and interested it’s easier to focus but there are many things they need to do where they may not be so interested or motivated. Parents can do a lot to build motivation, mainly through descriptive praise. But even if children remain unmotivated about the intrinsic nature of the task we can motivate through praise for doing what they have to do even when they’re not interested! I know that brushing your teeth isn’t interesting and it gets to be a bit of a drag day in, day out. I know you’d rather just skip it and get on with your game so I really admire you for doing it anyway because you know that’s the only way to have healthy teeth and gums. Not only are you doing it but you’re doing it thoroughly so you now have a really sparkly smile and beautiful fresh breath!
  • Of course it helps if we can provide our children with an environment where it is easy for them to focus so when they’re doing homework or tackling some other kind of task try to eliminate noise and visual clutter.
  • Limit the amount of fast moving TV and computer and other electronic activities your children do where they are not required to focus for more than a few seconds. Instead encourage activities which involve their own creativity and sustained thought to work out a problem or develop a story line, such as fantasy play, building a den or board or card games.

So be focused on developing good habits of focus and perseverance in your child to help them do well in life.

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May 03rd, 2012

Does homework extinguish the flames of curiosity?

Although many 7-year olds (and their parents) are celebrating the scrapping of government guidelines saying they had to complete an hour of homework each week, the rest are still labouring away. And while a few voices, getting increasingly louder, are asking “what are we doing this for?” the reality is that in the UK children start homework in Year 1, and by Year 10-11 are completing up to 2½ hours a night.

And few of them like it. And not many of us enjoy it either

Homework can be the single most stressful issue in a home (at least 50% of parents report having serious rows with their children over homework that involve yelling and crying – the reality is probably higher given a natural reluctance to admit that these things happen) and homework can come to dominate our schedules, and our conversations with our children.

In addition to our parenting role, which can be stressful enough in its own right, in the evening we have to don our teaching hat, and support our children who have already been at school for maybe 8 hours already to do more work sheets, essays, test papers etc.

The ‘quality’ moments where we build and boost our relationship with our children are usually the first casualties of the ever-increasing levels of homework. It also reduces their time for unstructured play or thinking and processing timeHowever, we all want our children to do well at school, and while the debate will continue to rage about whether children need homework, how much should be set, what type, when it should start, and the rest, back at home the parental role is to help our children cope with whatever homework they bring back.

So, what is homework for?

It may seem like a simple question, but the answer may not be that straightforward and until we understand what we are hoping our children will gain from homework , we can’t be sure HOW to help them.

Is homework to improve their learning? Or for them to gain study skills? Does homework teach children about responsibility and self-discipline? Or as Alfie Kohn suggests in ‘The Homework Myth’ is homework simply something they need to get used to, because that in itself is a life-skill they need to learn?

There’s a lot of research about homework – although most of it starts from the premise that homework should exist and then aims to demonstrate that it benefits students.  In ‘The Homework Myth’ Alfie Kohn lays out the case against homework.  The evidence he presents is compelling, if a little overwhelming.

And the central problem is that we’re just not asking the right questions – we ask how we can strengthen our children’s back muscles so they can carry increasingly heavy back-packs, and we don’t ask why they’re carrying so many books, and whether it is doing them any good.  We ask how much is the perfect amount of homework in order to increase test scores, and we don’t ask whether tests are a good way to improve learning. We accept homework, and we content ourselves with asking questions about the detail, rather than challenging the concept.

These are good questions for parents and schools to ask and we need to educate ourselves about this. I do believe it is important that we question rather than simply accept, that we talk to each other, and share our concerns with our schools; that we don’t meekly accept without question something that we don’t always believe is right for our children. For now we have homework and so I want to focus on how we can help our children not just cope with it and not lose their natural love of learning but to be motivated to do it, to develop creative thinking and to get into independent habits of study.

Many schools officially encourage parents to let them know if a child is struggling with homework. But it’s not easy to do this – there are many credible reasons why we feel uncomfortable about it. We may accept that homework should be difficult, that children will dislike doing it, and we don’t want to be seen to be indulgent to our child, or cause a fuss…. It’s a long list. (My 11-year old son didn’t want me to discuss a recent comprehension with his English teacher because he didn’t want his mates to see that his mother had come into the classroom – it’s my world, he said, and it’s not cool for your mum to come in….).

So, as well as considering taking an active role in the homework debate for future children, what shall we do for OUR children in the here and now?

First, let’s go back to the question of what we hope our children will gain from doing homework.

In our classes we ask parents what characteristics they want their children to develop. No parent has ever said they want their children to buckle down and accept things without question, instead they say they want their children to be curious, self-motivated, to know themselves, to be confident to share their opinions, and much more.

Let’s look at a few of the qualities that we strive to bring out in our children, and see how they relate to homework.

 

Taking ownership

In theory, homework COULD teach our children to take responsibility for their own learning, but, in real life, we don’t often give them the chance to take any responsibility for it. The school decides it must be done, the teacher decides what it shall be about, and, in most families, the parents decide the where, when and even how. (“Use this pen, sit here, no you can’t have music on, underline this, rub that out…..”) In fact, we usually don’t even let our children have the responsibility of remembering to do homework – a Californian study found that parents raise the topic of homework within 5 minutes of meeting their children after school!
What shall we do?

(1)        Hold back asking them about their homework – give them a chance to mention it first, and take ownership of their homework.

They may remember and mention it themselves, which is a great opportunity for Descriptive Praise, or they may not. Rather than believe the worst (they’ve forgotten it, they don’t take this seriously, they’ll never achieve anything in life unless I make sure it gets done….) instead, take a breath and consider why they may not have mentioned it. Chances are they’re used to you bringing it up, or they’d simply rather tell you about something else about their day first. Or, of course, they’re not looking forward to it…

If you really can’t wait to raise the topic, try a gentle reminder (“Do you think we’ll get some time after tea to play that game?” or verbalise their reluctance (“Guess the last thing you want to think about right now after a busy day is your homework….”)

(2)        Rather than impose the homework schedule that you believe is best, involve them in creating it.

Sit together and discuss the where’s and when’s and how’s – it’s perfectly reasonable that you set the parameters (they need to be where you can hear/see them,) and it’s effective and fair when they take some ownership of the details (have a snack first).

I have, in the past, dictated the chair my sons sat on, and the direction they faced. I insisted homework was attended to before anything else, including a meal. Then I realised I was using the food as a lure, and I wasn’t comfortable with this. As growing boys with growing appetites, they needed food before they could concentrate for another nano-second, and as normal boys with huge energy levels, they often need to blow off steam first before settling down for another session of study.  So, the routine in our home has changed recently – their favourite option is eat, play, study, which (rather unsurprisingly) is my least favourite option! However, it’s working so far.

Start small, and let them make small choices about their homework NOW so they can make big choices about their homework IN THE FUTURE. (We don’t get better at making decisions by having them made for us!) Much resentment is avoided when they feel they have a measure of control.

(3)     When the homework is completed, encourage them to look through their work and suggest improvements to you.

This replaces us pointing out the errors they have made– not only is this de-motivating, it doesn’t help them get into the habit of checking their own work, and spotting improvements. When we encourage them to look for themselves, it helps them get used to the idea that they will make mistakes, but they can identify them, and put them right and move on.

“You’ve managed to get lots of capital letters and full stops in here. They make your sentences easy to understand. Can you find any places where a full stop or capital letter would make it even clearer?” “You’ve been working hard on your spelling, and it shows in this piece of work. Are there any words you’re unsure about and would like to check?”

Creativity, motivation and the love of learning

The majority of homework is repetitive – and while some repetition is necessary for transferring to our long term memories things like times tables, spelling words and French verbs (and even then there are more creative/fun ways of  doing this) doing the same thing over and over again is boring for those who can already do it, and depressing and stressful for those who can’t. Not only that, it can limit our ability to search for alternative ways to answer problems, and research shows us over and over again that doing something because you HAVE to do it decreases motivation.

“Homework may be the single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity.” Deborah Meier, quoted in ‘The Homework Myth’

Of course we want to teach our children – let’s allow the teachers to focus on the front-end academic side, and let’s focus on teaching our children about real-life. And there’s an awful lots of maths, English, Science, Geography and History in our every day world – there’s even a fair amount of Latin!

What can we do?

(1)        Go out – and take school learning into other areas, and make it fun!

We can visit museums, galleries, exhibitions, theatres, as well as watch films and TV programmes, about the topics they’re studying.   Or simply go for a walk and talk…. Or let them go out in the dark to see the stars or let the children take the lead on how to pursue an idea as they do in some schools in Finland, a country at the forefront of academic excellence and one that eschews the ideas of homework and testing.

(2)     Stay in – and make fractions and ratios real

It’s not as hard as it might seem – watch a bath run and see how things sink and float, or how much water is displaced, or ripples move; make a cake or salad dressing, and weigh ingredients and see how they mix together or not; have a Victorian evening, with candles and playing cards; plot holidays on a globe or atlas, dress up like an Egyptian, make an ant-factory, have a scrapbook or project about anything that interests them.

3)          Model an interest in learning

Each and every time we sit down to read a book for fun, or pick up a dictionary or search the web to find something out we don’t know, or visit a museum or art gallery or go to a talk or do some form of training we set our children a great example that learning takes place throughout our lives.

Independence and involvement

Children are encouraged to do their homework on their own. However, research is showing that working with others, brainstorming and collaborative work, is more productive than working alone.

So that brings up the contentious issue of parental involvement.  We know we’re not supposed to actually do their homework. (In my experience, my ability to do their homework didn’t last as long as I expected or hoped it might…. but then I ‘learned’ a lot by rote, and out of fear, perhaps it’s not surprising most of it has evaporated.)

Research shows that when parents get involved, the level of stress rises.  When parents are told that the homework is for a test, they tend to interfere with the homework more, and the child tends to do less well on the test. When parents are not aware there is to be a test, they tend to stand back more, and the child tends to do better in the test.

What can we do?

(1)     Discuss their homework with them in a positive way– not is it finished or where have  you put it, but ask their opinion, share ideas and thoughts.

This is particularly true for reading. Of course, repeated practice helps children become proficient readers. But reading for enjoyment’s sake is one of the first casualties of homework. Once a child has to read a certain amount of their book, or read for a set amount of time, it becomes a chore and the love is lost.

“The best way to make students hate reading is to make them prove to you that they have read.”Alfie Kohn in ‘The Homework Myth’

After your child has read, either with you or on their own, rather than sign the reading book, talk for a few moments about what they’ve read. If appropriate, perhaps your child can fill in the reading book – putting the date and number of pages read – and give it to you to sign-off. It’s these tiny acts that help them feel involved – that homework is something they do, not something that is done to them. Don’t reward kids for reading other than to praise them for their progress – it should be enjoyable for itself and if we dangle a carrot then we are undermining that message.

(2)        When they moan and complain about homework, hear them.

When we listen to their complaints we may worry that we are agreeing with them. We worry that if we validate the negative things they say they will become negative about other things whereas we want them to be positive. None of this is true. (“I hate this homework, why do I have to do it?” “I hate it too, and I don’t understand why they keep giving it” –this is agreeing – as opposed to “It’s tough having to sit down and do more maths, when all you probably want to do is curl up, or run outside, etc.”-this is empathising)

We’re allowing them to tell us how they feel. How children feel about homework is very important as it affects their whole relationship with school, studying, and learning. When we empathise with them, we can actually lower their reluctance or resistance to doing it and let go of their negative feelings. When we try to explain or cajole them to do it, or make them feel wrong for complaining, we give them the message that their instincts and emotions are wrong, and they need to learn to over-ride them and get on with doing as they’re told. Not only that, they can’t talk about it with us because we’re not going to hear it. Not really the life lesson we want our children to learn, nor the relationship we hope to have with them. When they feel heard they have the experience of someone validating their perspective. When we acknowledge their point of view we can help them be calm and move on.

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February 28th, 2012

What if we could encourage creative thinking and curiosity in our children

girl thinking

Children discover a very important tool for survival when they play –especially when they engage in fantasy play. They learn how to imagine and talk about things not present, they learn how to pretend and speculate. This is such an important tool for life to learn as it enables those who master it to plan, project, conceptualise and to think creatively. When children engage in fantasy play they are involved in an age old process of story telling that enables them to make sense of a sometimes confusing and unpredictable world and find solutions to problems.

Clearly there are inspired entrepreneurs who are examples of creative visionaries such as Bill Gates, who once envisioned a computer in every home; or Steve Jobs’ vision for the series of iProducts; or, Richard Branson with his plan to send people into space.  And with the subsequent generation led by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergei Brin and Larry Page, certainly ‘what-if’ questions are being posed regularly (there’s even a management consultancy called WhatIf! in London).  Clearly these ‘what if’ conversations can and do exist, but in a culture of over-scheduled and hyper-parented children, many of whom are simply learning all they need to know to pass a test, are we instilling in them a sense of ‘what-if’curiosity, or are we simply giving them all the answers?

What is the magic trick to raising kids that are imaginative, creative and curious?  Here are some tips that we think can support you in making it happen:

Play – Allow your children time for unstructured and non –adult directed play.  Let them dig holes in the garden, plant seeds, make dens, allow their imaginations to run wild.  Limit the amount of time your child spends in front of a screen. Give them toys which don’t do all their thinking for them or direct how the game should develop – the simpler the better.

Ask – don’t tell Ask questions of your children that will require more than a yes or no answer.  Even in the madness of the morning routine, you can ask them what they need to do rather than nag them.  They can think for themselves, and will respond to questions more positively than to nagging. We get into the habit of repeating ourselves because we say our children don’t listen but it is the very repetition (nagging) that causes our children to tune us out.

Be interested in what they have to say.  Toddlers will go through the “why?’ stage.  Don’t shut down their questions.  They’re simply trying to make sense of their world. Sometimes you can respond to a question with a question of your own or a direction to where they can find the answer. “That’s a very good question – I wonder if you’d find the answer in your book about dinosaurs/on the internet?”

Encourage awareness of the wider world Talk to your children about things that happen in your life, within your community and around the world. Don’t just talk about world disasters but when they come up rather than leaving them feeling detached and helpless, encourage them to do something to help (e.g. donate some of their allowance to charities to support relief efforts for things like the Tsunami in Japan; or make up a relief package made up of things from their own toy collection and your kitchen cupboards). Encourage an attitude of solution orientedness. Point to solutions people have found such as discoveries in science and medicine. Inspire them with your enthusiasm for new inventions- many men particularly find it easy to be inspired about new gadgets!

Trial and Error Allow your children to fail. We love Michael Jordan’s quote “I have missed over 9000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games; been trusted with the game-winning shot 26 times – and missed.  I failed over and over and over and that is why I succeed”.  Practice won’t necessarily make perfect, but it will sure make things better.

Praise the qualities that will encourage a ‘what-if’ child.

-          Persistence When you see your child persevering at something (even if it’s your toddler trying to get a pea on a fork!) This should be easy to spot as small children get up time and time again when they fall over.

-          Effort When your child puts extra effort into riding a bike or skateboard, learning their spelling, practicing the piano or building a Lego tower.

-          Ingenuity Your children will come up with ideas … if you ask them.  Allow them to contribute to solutions to problems involving them and others in which they are not involved. Eg “does anyone have any ideas how Mummy can remember to take her phone when she goes out?”

-          Improvement Children of all ages are learning every day.  Make sure to notice those small improvements, whether it is a small child remembering to flush the toilet or a teenager remembering to text to say they’ll be late.  You will get more of what you pay attention to.

-          Curiosity Don’t denigrate the ‘why’ questions.  If you don’t know the answer, it’s great modeling to say, “you know what, I don’t know!  Let’s go find out”.  If you model curiosity for learning, it will rub off on your children.  And be grateful that Google does exist!

Play a ‘what-if’ game when your children ask for your help in solving a problem.  This is great for so many reasons including that your children start to see that you trust their ideas, and they learn to trust themselves to figure things out. It’s really simple! It’s nothing more than a conversation with each sentence beginning with ‘Yes, and what if …?’  If your child asks you if they can do something, say build a spaceship, the conversation could go something like this:

Child: What if we get that big empty box from the garage and build a rocket

Parent: Yes, and what if we get the Christmas lights from the attic and stick them to the box?

C: Yes, and what if we get out the paints and decorate our rocket?

P: Yes, and what if you get that jumpsuit Granny made for you and use it as a spacesuit?

C: Yes … and the ski goggles and my bike helmet.

P: What if you need to steer the rocket?

C: What if we get a plastic plate to be a steering wheel?

P: Yes, and you can’t leave your toys behind!  What if I build a toy box inside the rocket?

C: And I might get hungry.  It’s a long way to the moon.   What if I make a snack?

You get the idea.  It’s simply a way of opening up ideas and new possibilities rather than stifling creativity.

Focus on the process, not the result Sophie, age 9, is obsessed with creating a dance camp for kids when she’s 12.  Instead of shutting down the idea because she can’t be bothered, her mother is encouraging her to think about all the things she’ll need to do to get the camp going – whether it happens three years down the road or not.  At the same time her mum is praising her for things like creativity, contribution, fun, sharing and collaboration.

For a younger child carrying their own cup but spilling quite a bit try hard not to take over and do it for them. Instead say something like “You are trying really hard to carry your cup over to the table without spilling it. I watched you walking really slowly and I see that you have discovered that if you keep your eye on it and look up occasionally you spill less and still don’t bump into anything. You are figuring it out all by yourself. There’s a cloth for wiping up on the kitchen bench.”

No idea is wrong Encourage healthy dialogue about ideas within your home.  Discussing an idea will teach your child how to take it to fruition.  It will also help them separate the good from not-so-good ideas!

Create an ideas forum –having regular family meetings is a good idea for many reasons including providing a forum for discussing ideas, finding solutions.

Probably now, more than ever, our children need to be curious, innovative, and have the skills to take something that starts as an idea and take it to fruition.  We once heard someone say that today’s children need to learn skills for careers that don’t currently exist. What do you think Mark Zuckerberg responded when he was a young boy when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up? The whole idea of social media didn’t exist. It is a completely new and innovative industry. He clearly grew up with an innovative and entrepreneurial flair.

Perhaps many of our own children possess the same ability.  As one of the founders of The Blue School in New York says in the film ‘Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture’, “kids come to the table with this creativity and this love of learning.  Let’s just not take it out of them”.

It’s hugely exciting to think about the possibilities that will arise from raising ‘what-if’ children rather than raising kids that are waiting to be told what to do all the time. By encouraging ‘what-if’ conversations, we are more likely to raise children who can imagine, pretend, conceptualise, plan and solve problems. This will help them not just make sense of their world, but redefine it.

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January 19th, 2012

Naughty words

Over the holiday period I spent some time with my nieces and nephews ranging in age from 6 to 18 years which was delightful, and occasionally instructive. On one occasion I was quite shocked to hear my youngest niece address her 15 year old cousin as ‘penis breath’ which prompted the question ‘why?’ And ‘where is she hearing that kind of talk?’ My niece is bilingual and only speaks English at home and I’m fairly sure her parents aren’t speaking to her or to each other in that way. So it begs the question what makes kids use offensive language. But that’s a question we can’t ask until we’re calm enough to do so. If you’re the parent of a child who’s just uttered an expletive that you find shocking, and in particular if its front of others, especially if its front of disapproving relatives, then the chances are your buttons have been pushed and you’re not asking sensible questions about the provenance of the utterance but have responded sharply, maybe punitively or maybe with resignation and an embarrassed shrug of the shoulders… ‘kids these days.’

Once you’ve calmed down and in the privacy of your own home the concerned parent might consider why children use such language. I think there are three reasons and the cause will determine the most effective parental response. It seems to me that kids use poor language because:

  • It is generated by a strong emotion and they need to express themselves strongly
  • They are trying to shock – whether or not they know the meaning of what they’re saying they know what the effect will be
  • They are in the habit of using such language and it means little to them; they may be in an environment where they hear language which would some would find offensive used as an everyday adverb –‘that’s f***ing brilliant’ is not used with the intention to offend.

Swearing and parent challenges

We certainly cannot shield our children from hearing words which we might prefer not to hear coming from the mouths of babes or even older kids. They will be exposed to strong language in the school playground, in the media and on the street. Maybe they hear it from the adults on whom they model their behaviour too. This is one of those difficult areas where parents cannot avoid responsibility –while we might accept certain language from an adult and find it offensive in a child they will of course not make that distinction, or not without learning an early lesson in hypocrisy. “We rejoice if they say something over free and words which we should not tolerate from the lips even of an Alexandrian page are greeted with laughter and a kiss…They hear us use such words…every dinner party is loud with foul songs, and things are presented to their eyes of which we should blush to speak.” (Quintilian 1stcentury AD) What we can do is pass on whatever our values are about language –the appropriateness of certain words at certain times and in certain settings. Sometimes our children pick up on our values without us realising. One day when my daughter was five years old I was driving her and a friend home for a playdate when her friend said something offensive. Before I could say anything my pompous little girl had said “ours is not a rude house”. While I wouldn’t have expressed it like that I’m glad she’d got the message.

Naughty words and swearing

If our children’s choice of words has been dictated by strong emotion then we will teach them nothing if we do not acknowledge the strength of that feeling. “For you to talk to me/your brother like that tells me you are REALLY angry.” “The fact that you’ve chosen that word shows me you really want me to take you very seriously.” Only once the emotion has been acknowledged can we require the child to express themselves differently. This clearly requires a certain level of detachment that you won’t be able to muster in the heat of the upset so come back to it when you’re calmer.

Likewise we will be ineffective in dealing with inappropriate language if we are judgmental. It’s important that we don’t say anything that makes our children wrong even though we think the language offensive –they won’t learn while they feel judged. So don’t say “Don’t say that –that’s wrong/bad/disgusting” because, being egocentric, they will hear “YOU are wrong/bad/disgusting” and will shut down in defence or become retaliatory or resistant or otherwise stop listening.

Introducing a swear box

If ‘naughty words’ are used to get attention conventional wisdom would have it that we should ignore such language but many parents worry that this means we are condoning it. Instead of ignoring we shouldn’t give it a massive amount of attention as we do when we get upset but quietly take the child to one side and explain that we find such words hurtful and that they are inappropriate. If the inappropriate language continues some kind of consequence is often used. Some families use a swear box into which a coin is put when there is an ‘offence’.  

However a more positive approach is to teach your child to get attention differently. If you think that attention seeking is the motivation say so and be clear what behaviour will get your attention and then make sure you do give lots of attention for good behaviours. In this situation it is important not to be melodramatic but speak to the child in a calm, neutral voice. Again this may require a time out to calm down first.

If your child is swearing or using other offensive language merely out of habit changes to his environment will be required as well as an acknowledgment of how things have been to date and what the new rules are for everyone. Is your child being exposed to inappropriate media? Are they watching programmes with a classification beyond their age? Where do they watch TV or use the computer? If you are making changes to these habits your child will not be happy and you will meet resistance. Empathise but be firm. Make sure your expectations are realistic and don’t expect change to be quick.

Acknowledge your child for accepting changes, for trying to control their language and for using alternative ways of expressing themselves when frustrated, thwarted or angry. My daughter’s favourite way of getting her point across without being offensive was to say “oh, rude words!”

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January 19th, 2012

Top Tips for dealing with separation anxiety after the holidays

Getting back into a routine after family holidays can be difficult. Sleeping and eating routines may have been disrupted and general activities have been different. Working parents may have had much more time with their children than usual. Hopefully this was lovely for everyone but it may be difficult for you to go back to work and for your child to start up their usual child care routine again. Separation anxiety – tears, screaming, clinging etc – is very common and a completely normal stage of development. And it’s never easy for parents to handle. Some children never experience it; others go through various periods throughout their childhood. It varies hugely from child to child.

Here are techniques you can use to help alleviate the upset for your child and some understanding that might help you feel less stressed too – and therefore be calmer and more consistent, which in turn helps your child. As with all children’s behaviour, your reactions have an impact on the frequency, intensity and duration of the behaviour.

Overall, do remember that your child’s concern about you leaving is a sure and important sign that there is a healthy attachment between you. For now, they may not believe they can cope without you, and they may feel unable to do anything to bring you back, hence the panic, but eventually they will develop coping strategies and feel safe enough on their own. For others it’s just that they would just rather have you around more.

Babysitters- Try to leave when the going is good – not when your child is tired, hungry or unsettled. And always try to introduce carers beforehand, so your child gets a chance to recognize them and bond.

Develop a routine for saying goodbye – keep it short and sweet and stick to it! This will create familiarity and therefore some sense of security. Don’t go back, however hard it is. It’s fine to call later, and check how things are going, but do leave it a good 15-20 minutes to give everyone a chance to settle.

Talk about how they are feeling calmly – rather than encouraging them to suppress their feelings which inevitably leads to difficult behaviour, as the unrecognized emotion tries to escape, and they won’t learn how to deal with the emotion. If they say how they feel say “Thank you for telling me how you feel. Let’s have a big hug.” Remember it’s not your job to take away their feelings of discomfort –it is your job to help them manage such feelings. When you’re prepared to talk about their intense emotions it makes the feeling less overwhelming or scary.

Allow your child to be upset – don’t negate or deny or ignore their feelings by telling them to be a big boy/girl and not to cry. Instead acknowledge it’s hard to say goodbye and accept they may feel sad when you go out, or leave them at nursery. Young children often can’t put into words how they feel so it’s up to the adult to describe their feelings for them. “You wish mummy didn’t have to go. You’re feeling sad and maybe worried.” Allowing these emotions to be expressed does not make the emotions or the behaviour itself worse; in fact it alleviates the stress these emotions are causing.

Explore with them ways they can cheer themselves up – not only does it help in the moment, but it also helps build up a sense that they have control of their emotions. Sometimes children can draw on the magic properties of a talisman (like a pebble) you’ve given them that gives them courage and comfort or you could give them something of yours (like a hanky) to keep close by.

Descriptively Praise them whenever they are brave, make the best of things, are flexible or adaptable, or similar. For example: “you didn’t make a big fuss when you skinned your knee just now even though I could see it hurt. That was brave of you. You told me you were thinking of the cupcakes we’re going to make when we get home –what a great strategy that is!’”

And bear in mind you will be experiencing your own version of separation anxiety. When faced with intense emotions in our child, our own emotions are strong as well. It can be overwhelming in terms of testing your patience and resolve, and many parents feel guilty. Don’t be tempted to trick them and sneak out without them noticing – it only avoids and often worsens the situation by breaching trust. Instead, find yourself a calming strategy – breathing slowly, have a mantra such as “it won’t last” and use it. Remember that this is a phase that won’t last but also that you are doing the important job of coaching your child to deal with their emotions which helps them in so many ways throughout their lives.

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January 19th, 2012

Top Tips for helping children handle parties

Children's parties

There is an assumption that children and parties go together like bread and jam. And parties are important for the social development of our children.

In many ways, children and parties do have a natural affinity – they both tend to be full of activity and noise, and they’re often somewhat chaotic, and usually quite exhausting!

Parties present a different world to children, a world where the rules are often very different and this can make it hard for them to know how to behave.

Some children don’t enjoy parties – and others enjoy them too much! Either can cause challenges for parents.

There is a wealth of information about how to organise a successful child’s party and plenty to say about whether or not creating a Fabulous Event for a 3 year old is appropriate. But for now we’re going to focus on how parents can make a party a success for the child themselves, helping them feel better, and behave better, and gain from the opportunities offered.

In our experience, these are the 3 main areas parents worry about – and some ideas about how you can help your child:

 

Nerves and reluctance to join in

Some children throw themselves in with abandon as soon as they arrive. Others hang back and find it hard to join in the merriment. Many children feel anxious or insecure in unknown situations, and this can be exacerbated if they are also to be separated from parents/caregivers. (Separation anxiety doesn’t just affect 18month-2 year olds – it comes in fits and starts, and often another peak is at 5-6 and at 7-8 years old.)

When it looks like our child is not going to join in, it can make us feel disappointed that they’re not going to enjoy themselves, particularly if we’ve made an effort to get there, or worried that they’re out of their depth and we’ve done something wrong, or we can’t help them or that they’ll grow up to be a social misfit!

Being the life and soul of the party is not for all of us! And most parents would choose “being a good friend” over “being a party-animal” for their child! If your child’s temperament means they are more cautious, and reserved, this doesn’t make them wrong- it’s just who they are and we need to accept and support them. Understanding our children’s temperament helps us find ways to help them. For example:

  • Talk with them beforehand about how they feel about parties – acknowledge that there is a pressure to enjoy parties, and empathise that parties can feel overwhelming. Wait for them to respond – and allow them to tell you if they don’t enjoy parties – some children are particularly sensorially sensitive and find the lights, noise and activity more stressful. You can empathise about worries they may have WITHOUT making them more worried. This might sound like: “I know you’re looking forward to Charlie’s party because he’s your friend, and I wonder if you’re also a bit worried about what’s going to happen at the party? Sometimes there is so much going on, and it’s loud and there are lots of people and it is hard to join in games….”
  • Discuss with them what friendship involves – it’s not all about playing games at parties and being a standout leader in a group- the ‘popular’ one. Friendship is also about being kind, sharing, and helping others. Encourage your child to see themselves as a good friend, even if they don’t like joining in noisy, boisterous activities. This might sound like: “I know Molly likes music and dancing, and they’re not your favourite things to do. You and she are good friends though – she loves coming here to play with your doll’s house, and spending time with you.”
  • Notice and descriptively praise any progress in the right direction – if your child watches the activities or games from a distance, clutching your hand, that’s better than running out of the room. Some children watch entire puppet shows or balloon displays from the doorway or stairs. At least they’re engaged, as far as they feel they can be, and they have created a great coping mechanism for themselves. Acknowledge them: “I see you’ve settled yourself down there where you feel comfortable. I think you want to watch the clown lady, and you want to make sure you can see your friends, even though you don’t want to sit with them.” One mum helped her child acclimatise to parties in small steps by letting her stand next to her and gradually helping her move closer to the action, until finally the girl said mum could leave!

Over-exuberance and not wanting to leave

Some children jump in feet first, and commit to having a full role in every aspect of the party and may even take over somewhat. And, with no sense of time, and no awareness of all the other things you have to do that afternoon/evening, they find it impossible to leave when they are asked.

  • Practice at home beforehand – do a role play of leaving the party and walk through with your child all the stages involved – from finding their coat, saying thank you to the host, and good-bye to their friends. Have some fun, you can even swap roles and let your child be the host and you can be the reluctant leaver. Role plays work well because they help children practice things they find hard in a safe, non-judgemental, non-pressured, supportive environment.
  • Plan something interesting (and calming!) to do afterwards – discuss and agree this with your child beforehand. When you arrive, you can empathise with their reluctance to leave – rather than make them feel wrong for wanting to stay – and gently remind (rather than nag or threaten!) them about the planned activity at home. This might sound like: “Gosh, you look like you’ve had lots of fun, and now it’s time to leave which isn’t so much fun, is it? Do you remember what we practiced? And what we’re going to do when we get home?”

The evening after the party…..

Once we’ve got home safely, it’s tempting to believe it’s all done and dusted.

Actually, it takes children a remarkably long time to calm down after the intensity of a party. After all the hype, nerves, adrenalin and sugar, it’s difficult for them to adjust to the order and expectations of the real world again.

The more tired they are, the harder it is for them to do anything – including going to sleep. Yet all we want to do is collapse into bed! This can mean we ourselves are not calm, and this doesn’t help.

Rather than pushing them to go to sleep earlier, it can help to start the wind-down to bedtime earlier and make time to do something smoothing and calming. Even if it means they go to bed at the same time as normal, they should fall asleep more peacefully and have a better night’s rest.

Ideas include: deep “sleepy” breathing, gentle massage, having candles/bubbles in the bath, reading favourite stories in your bed. When you’re reading it can help children relax if you gradually slow your voice down and lower the volume, making longer pauses between sentences. It might also help to stroke the child in a rhythm that matches your reading.

It may help to modify some rules or expectations about the evening to allow for the earlier mayhem – for example, if you usually require that your child puts their dirty clothes in the laundry basket, maybe you can do this for them. It doesn’t mean the rule is broken, it’s just the rule applies to “normal” days and doesn’t apply on party night! If you want to maintain any house-keeping rules, be prepared that they might be forgotten, not done so well, or done very slowly and grumpily!

Over all, it always helps us to look at things from our child’s perspective – in time they will be able to do this for you too. When we consider the experience they’ve had at the party, it’s not hard to see how they may crumble or explode later at home.

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January 19th, 2012

Top Tips for Managing Morning Mayhem

One of the most common causes of parental stress is what we call ‘morning mayhem’. Parents often report to us that they have awful mornings where they wind up screaming at their children, nagging and making wild threats. By the time they drop their children off at nursery or with the child minder they regularly feel guilty and the children are often upset or withdrawn. By putting a bit of time, thought and effort into making changes and by applying the methods below parents find their mornings are transformed.

  • Allow more time. Children can find transitions (ie moving from one activity to another) hard. They operate on a very different tempo from adults and rushing them always ends in disaster
  • Do as much as possible the night before
  • Stay focussed on getting the children to do what’s required. When we take our eye off the ball (eg making just a quick phone call) things tend to go ‘pear-shaped’. This often means getting up a bit earlier to get yourself ready first. (Nobody likes this suggestion!)
  • Have written or pictorial routines so everyone knows what has to be done and so you remember what to praise the children for.
  • Talk through with the children as soon as they get up what has to be done. Ask them questions: ‘What do you need to do before we go downstairs?’ Once we’ve had breakfast what needs to be done?’ Praise them for their answers. Even if they’re not correct you can praise the child for taking a guess.
  • Be there while your children are doing what they have to do and praise your children for little steps in the right direction (rather than waiting for the whole task to be completed) ‘Olivia, you have one sock on already and you put it on all by yourself’’. This is much more motivating for children than nagging and chivvying.
  • Empathise with the child who finds it difficult to get going in the morning or has not yet developed good organisational habits or who just isn’t interested in the task at hand. ‘I know you find it hard to concentrate on getting dressed when you’d rather be playing with your train set. You can earn 10 minutes of train-playing after breakfast by getting dressed quickly.’
  • Some children suffer particularly from low blood sugar levels and need to be fed quickly. Some are easily distracted and are best dressed away from the toys in their rooms.
  • Brainstorm with the kids for strategies for dealing with difficult situations. ‘How do you think we can make mornings more fun?’
  • Time events so that good things follow less favourite things eg getting dressed, tidying up, eating breakfast comes before any playtime. We recommend you don’t use TV as a reward in the mornings.
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January 19th, 2012

Top Tips for Surviving Long Car Journeys

For many of us, our families and friends no longer live locally, but some distance away. And with all these lovely sunny bank holiday weekends approaching over the next few months, this is the ideal time to pack up the car, pack up the kids, and get away to spend some valuable time with loved ones.It sounds such a great idea, until you start to think about the long car journey crawling down the motorway, listening to the squawks and whines in the back of the car. Then we start thinking about them saying “Are we nearly there yet?” and “I need a wee-wee” and suddenly staying at home seems a much better idea.It’s not – getting away for a break, and spending time with family and friends, is too valuable an opportunity to be lost.

 

So…..

BEFORE YOU LEAVE

Time your journey as smartly as possible

We all know when the roads are busiest, so see if you can be creative about the time you leave and travel. It will be well worthwhile leaving earlier or later than usual – the roads will be quieter, and if the children are usually asleep at this time, it may well be quieter in the car too! If the children are small, wrap them up in their pyjamas and fill your thermos flask. Alternatively, give them a good run around before the start of the journey to expend some energy.

Plan some stops

Regular stops are not just good for the children, they’re good for you too. Check out on the map or route planner where you can pull off the road every couple of hours and have a run around, and revive yourselves for the next stage.

Pack some emergency supplies

Include baby wipes, plastic bags, calpol sachets, emergency snacks, water bottles, a travel potty may also be helpful! It may be worth taking a spare set of clothes, depending on whether it matters what you look like when you get there….

 

IN THE CAR

Allocate time to various activities

Apportion a set time for different activities – for example, during a 2-hour journey you could have ½ hour for looking out of the window and chatting, ½ hour of games, ½ hour for a packed lunch and ½ hour of stories on the disc player or ipod.

Get as comfortable as possible

Take a pillow or folded up blankets to put under knees or behind necks.

Divide and conquer

Keep as much space as possible between siblings in the back – the closer they are, the feistier they can get. Try a physical boundary like a bag or pillow, or the picnic box between them. Consider rotating children around so everyone gets a turn behind Mummy or by the window or in the back row….

Games for the car

A recent survey showed that, despite all the modern technology that’s available, most families still also play the traditional games in the car, from I-Spy to naming the capital cities or major rivers of Europe. Here are a few of our favourites:

  • Yes and No – everyone take turns to ask any questions of one person, but they can’t reply with yes or no or they are out! (For example “Are you sitting next to Rosie?”)
  • Granny’s Knickers – everyone asks one person a question to which they have to respond with the answer “Granny’s Knickers” regardless of the question, without giggling! (For example “What’s your favourite ice-cream flavour?”)
  • Alphabet Spotting – take turns to name something you can see from the car beginning with a, b, c, d etc.
  • Make A Story – take it in turns to construct a sentence each to make up a nonsense story.
  • Chocolate or cheese – each person takes turns to ask the question “If you had to choose between the following, which one would you choose?” For example, chocolate or cheese, or perhaps being able to fly or become invisible!
  • The 1 Minute Game – choose any topic and talk about it for one minute.
  • My Granny Went To Market – one person starts with “My Granny went to market and she bought a…..” and then you take it in turns to remember the whole shopping list! Be as silly as you like…
  • Car Snooker – first spot a red car for one point, then either a yellow, green, brown, blue, pink or black then back to another red car and repeat until all the colours have to spotted in order! (The pink ones will take some time!)
  • Word Linking – think of a theme, fairly broad, like animals or food, and whoever starts chooses an example, say cat, and the next person has to think of another example starting with the last letter of the one before, in this case t. Have a plan for words ending in y in particular!
  • Backseat Bingo – prepare some grids on pieces of paper before you set off, and fill in with words or pictures of the things you expect to see out of the window – blue car, lorry, bridge, telephone box, zebra crossing, sheep, police car etc. Everyone ticks them off as they see them and when they have a full sheet they call out “Bingo!”
  • Landmark Spotting – similar to Bingo, prepare a simple map of the route and mark out the major sites or towns which can be ticked off on the way.
  • Who Am I – one person imagines a character from a favourite story or show, or history, and the others have to ask questions to guess who it is – are you a boy, are you a girl, have you got 4 legs, do you use a wand, are you an alien, are you a baddie etc.
  • Sponsored silence –seems so obvious now you think about it!

 

WHEN YOU GET THERE

Just when you thought it was all over…….

Do remember that the children will probably fall out of the car when you arrive, either full of energy, sugar and thoroughly over-excited, or groggy, car-sick and nervous. Either way, plan for some transitional activity – whether that’s running up and down stairs or forming a fireman’s chain to deliver bags, or sitting quietly in the corner reading a book.

Overall, it’s safety first. We can NOT simply expect our children to understand what it is like to drive a car, let alone drive with fighting and arguing going on in the back.

But we can explain it to them beforehand – not angrily or resentfully, but gently and respectfully. We tell them that we have to look in mirrors, make signals, use pedals, judge speeds, guess distances, anticipate other people – as well as steer the car. And we can explain they need to keep the noise to a reasonable level – some parents use a “noise meter” where Levels 1-2 are fine, 3 is the absolute maximum and 4-5 is danger zone. Practice it beforehand!

Once in the car, while they are at Level 1-2, make sure you notice and say something! “Thanks guys, you’ve got the noise level just right – I can concentrate and keep us safe, and you can hear each other too!”. Then if it gets noisier, rather than suddenly shouting to them from the front, just refer to the “noise meter” along the lines of “Uh oh, we’ve reached Level 3, so just be careful”.

Ultimately, if the noise does reach a point that you can’t drive safely, don’t drive. Pull over. Explain that it’s too noisy for you to drive right now, so you need to stop. Rather than haul them out and tell them off, get out yourself, take some deep breaths and count slowly to whatever it takes.

When you get back into the car, perhaps you can start with a “sponsored silence” game for a while!

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February 09th, 2011

Bed Time Fears

Bedtime fears

Sometimes small children get very fearful of monsters (although Mike and Sully might have helped with that), things under the bed, dragons, dinosaurs and ‘bad’ guys. The fears all come out at bedtime and just when everyone’s got few energy reserves to call on we need to find ways of reassuring the little darlings so that they’ll GO TO SLEEP so we can have (finally) have some adult time.

These are the years when a child’s powers of imagination are exploding, which means that now she can imagine new and scary things to be afraid of. And because she spends a good portion of her day immersed in fantasy play (in the company of dragons and dinosaurs and bad guys), or listening to stories, it can be hard for her to shut off her imagination at bedtime and go to sleep. Thoughts of monsters can also reflect whatever the child is going through at that age, whether it’s struggles with aggressive feelings, independence, or fears of separation. The cast of characters might include monsters, bad guys, animals, imaginary creatures, or familiar people, places, and events combined in unusual ways.

It’s really important that parents don’t dismiss these fears in our attempts to reassure. When we deny our child’s fears we teach them not to trust their inner experiences and that we don’t take them seriously. They learn not to trust us and we lose an opportunity to connect with them. It is important to talk about the monsters so you can understand what is happening beneath the image and it won’t make it any worse to talk about it. The ideas are already in her head. Perhaps even more than she is letting on.  You can’t put them there or make them bigger. By bringing them out into the ‘daylight,’ you help her to manage them.

What to do:
o    Establish a peaceful evening routine that includes, for example, a warm bath, maybe a milky drink, a gentle story, a quiet song, and a few minutes of you sitting quietly by his bed while he settles. A night light might help.

o    Talk to him about the monsters and his fears away from bedtime if you can. What do they look like?  Can you compare them to creatures he doesn’t find scary – Shrek? Sully from Monsters Inc, The Gruffalo? Perhaps you could make a story about them.  Where do they live?  Do they fall in love and have babies?  Can you use fantasy to make them friendly and fun?

Name it to tame it

Name and tame

o    If he’s really fearful acknowledge the fear. The more you talk about it the more you normalise their experience.If the adults don’t want to talk about it, it must be really scary. Labelling the emotion makes it manageable. “Are those scary monsters here tonight? That is so mean of them to scare you and keep you up all night. Why don’t you draw a picture of them so that I know what they look like so that I can keep an eye out for them? Now why don’t we draw what you would look like if you could be a scary monster, then we can scare them away!”

o    “I can see how frightened it has made you feel.  The fact that you’re crying lets me know that it was a really frightening experience for you.  Was the monster this big to you or this big to you?  Use hands to find out how big it seemed, then say, wow that is big, no wonder you felt as frightened as you did? What else did it make you feel?”  Sometimes it can work to then shrink the monster or give him a funny face.

o    Use fantasy and maybe humour (without minimising her fears) to deal with those pesky monsters – the magical powers of your love and protection can work wonders. You might be able to make the pretend monsters disappear with a dose of pretend monster spray. Some families work with magic ‘talismans’ that can ‘magic’ away monsters –these can be any object that can be invested with magic properties.

Stone

I have found a courage stone to be very useful. Find a nice smooth stone and put it in the child’s hands. Ask them to recall a time when they were brave. Recreate that memory vividly with sounds, visuals and smells. Ask the child to think about how they felt and what they did that was brave. The stone is now invested with the quality of courage. Now whenever the child needs to feel brave he can touch the stone.

 

o    You’re validating her feelings, not necessarily confirming the reality of monsters. You could say something like “even though monsters aren’t real they can feel very real in the middle of the night.” This won’t dismiss her feelings but nor does it suggest that there is actually something for her to be afraid of.

o    Can you make a plan for what she can do next time she thinks about monsters at night? Could she call out to them?  Could she listen to music or read a book for a few minutes?  Brainstorm ways to manage her fear of monsters.

 

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