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The Children Are Always Listening

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           I was recently at a school where there were some challenging social dynamics amongst a group of second graders. I know this must be familiar to parents of school-age parents: the rise of social media and early exposure to our culture through the Internet has created a complex social hierarchy amongst our youngest students. Clothes, possessions, vacations, cell phones, who's playing what games, and gossip are the social currency - a mirror of our adult world, no? Even the political debates of our times - immigration, taxes, climate change, gun control - are woven into our children's conversations.

           I am not advocating overly protective parenting: kids will get numerous messages no matter what we do. I am advocating that we as parents model the traits that will lead to greater understanding: listening, tolerance where possible, agreeing to disagree, and the willingness to find common ground with everyone we meet:

·        Listening: Do we allow ourselves to hear one another? Do we truly listen without simply formulating our next response? Do we provide eye contact, body language that is open and accepting, and a willingness to be present with another person? This is essential with our children and also essential with one another.

·        Tolerance: Many of us have been engaged in political arguments that only refute others' points of view. We have seen religious intolerance, racial intolerance, ethnic intolerance, gender intolerance, and social class intolerance played across all media. Can we model tolerance of others' experiences - when their points of view do not threaten or limit our free expression of our experiences?

·        Agreeing to disagree: Can we have a loving truce with our friends and families? Can we show our children that "being right" is not the only important facet of a relationship?

·        Finding common ground: Can we find the places where we agree and work from there? A love of Italian food, a shared passion for the Mets, or a soft spot for country music may be all we come up with, but it's a start.

          Back to those second graders: one student shares that there is a playdate coming up and only Suzie and Jake are invited - with three other classmates standing right there. Meanwhile, outside of school at pick-up time, two parents go on and on about the trip they are about to take next weekend, with other parents within easy earshot and unwitting participants in this conversation. The same thing, no?

          Children are always listening - not just when we are telling them what to do but also when we are driving, talking on the phone with our own parents about our siblings, and chatting with our friends. (How many times have we said "be nice to your brother!" while we bad mouth our siblings in front of the kids?) Can we choose to be loving, capable, compassionate, and tolerant individuals when the kids are around? Or even when they aren't around - just for the good of everyone?

 

 

     Recently the psychologist Judith Rich Harris passed away at age 80. She was the author of the book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, a work which questioned the extent to which parents - as opposed to genetics and environment and peers - actually influence how children grow up.

      I read her book when it came out in 1998 and found that she and I had a lot in common: we both practiced psychology without PhD's (she was asked to leave the Harvard psychology graduate program because she didn't fit their "stereotype" of an experimental psychologist, and  I left the Harvard Ed School to get married); we both recognized the enormous influence of peers (especially on teenagers); we both encouraged parents to lighten up on their own angst and young adults to stop blaming their parents for everything.

In the book Harris cited her own examples of the parental nurture fallacy: children of immigrants sound like their peers rather than their parents; children of deaf parents learn to speak without difficulty; adopted children often do not resemble their adoptive parents in personality.

     How often have you turned to your co-parent and asked "where did we go wrong?" It's time to put things in perspective - genes yes, environment yes, nurture yes, but parenting techniques maybe...It's a mix of everything that goes into the development of an adult.

     What is our role as parents - regardless of our influence?

·         Provide a safe home as free from shame, want, and needless suffering as possible.

·         Allow natural consequences to occur - like falling off a bike when learning how to ride - and encourage learning from every situation.

·         Be an example - "let your life speak" as Quakers like me are likely to say - and go light on the lectures.

·         Make good choices as much as possible as to where your child goes to school and how involved in that school you will be.

·         Provide many opportunities beyond school (houses of worship, community groups, sports teams, service organizations) for your child to encounter peers who might indeed share your value system.

·         Be the grown-up - don't take everything so personally!

·         Relax and realize that we only can influence so much...

 

     In some ways this re-affirms the concept of "it takes a village to raise a child." When I was growing up every parent on the block in suburban Long Island looked out for everyone's kids: if I got in a fight down the street at David's house my mother knew about it before I got home! And my choice of clothes in high school - button down shirt and khaki pants - clearly came from my best friend Jack and not from my factory worker father. The world is bigger than two parents and their kids.

            As we go forward in 2019 let's all look out for all children and provide the safety and unconditional love that will allow our children to know pour values, experiment with their peers, and yet somehow hopefully land in the right place.

Let's face it - conflict is inevitable. We all cannot get what we want the way we want it all of the time, and thus our needs and wants and personalities will collide. SO - let me suggest that the goal is to handle conflict well so that:

  • we maintain mutual respect;

  • we look for win-win (rather than win-lose or lose-lose) solutions;

  • we restore domestic tranquility - life is too short to stay in the fight!


Here is a valuable technique - which I first learned from Mary Pipher's book Reviving Ophelia (which is still a must-read for parents of daughters) - that can achieve these goals. Thesandwich technique has praise as the top piece of bread, hope as the bottom piece of bread, and your criticism as the "fixings" of the sandwich.


Here's a scenario you might relate to: you come home from a long day at work to find the kitchen full of empty jars and boxes, a sink filled with dishes smeared with tomato sauce, and a half-empty gallon of milk on the counter. This is the result of a pasta-cooking event led by your son and his football buddies. You want to get dinner started, and now the kitchen is a mess. How to proceed?

PRAISE: Hey John, I really appreciate how you take care of your buddies and share our home with them. You are a good friend to them, and I enjoy having your friends at our house.

CRITICISM: I do feel, however, that cleaning up after yourselves before I get home is an important part of our shared family agreement. Today's mess in the kitchen is just too much for me to deal with right now, and it needs to be cleaned up before I make dinner.

HOPE: I hope we can continue to respect our common spaces in the house and take care of one another. I know you can be a kind and conscientious kid, and I believe this won't happen again.


Let's look a bit closer:

  • Praise that is specific, helpful, and true opens up the listener's ears and heart and helps our message to get through to others.

  • Criticism that looks at the "directly observable data"  - like the dirty kitchen - and avoids labeling - like "lazy" and "slob" - is most likely to get good results.

  • Hope in the message getting across suggests faith in the other person and a positive attitude when looking ahead.  

So - why not give it a try?

          Most of us who are parents and grandparents remember well the issues that arise as a new school year begins:

·        What will I wear the first day?

·        Who will be my new teachers?

·        Will my friends still like me?

·        How can I possibly pass Algebra II/Physics/AP History???

(We might also remember that many of issues are issues of privilege: how many students in our country and around the world have limited access to new clothes, poorly staffed schools, peer groups dominated by gangs, and few opportunities for advanced courses?)

In the midst of this very natural angst there are also opportunities for new goals, new experiences, and new challenges for growth. But - as always - "chance favors the prepared mind" (to quote Louis Pasteur). How do we prepare ourselves and our students for the new beginnings that come each September?

·        Start adjusting the home schedule before the first week of school: wake-up times, meal times, and bed times can be quite flexible in the summer. Many of us need to slowly adjust to the school day, homework time, and fall sports schedules.

·        Set goals for the new school year: have your child pick one new activity they will try this year and hold them to that choice. Suggest grades or specific achievement points for various school classes that hopefully can be attained, and write those down as a "pledge" or "contract" to be reviewed at Thanksgiving (or after the first grading period). Making a team, running for an office in school, and learning a new skill or musical instrument all would apply here.

·        Make your home "school-friendly": be sure there are appropriate spaces for doing homework, knowing that these spaces will need to change as your child grows up and has different needs. Have appropriate healthy snacks available for after-school munching. Try to have your home be a welcoming space for your child to do school projects with other children.

·        Have a family "screens" policy: screen time is here to stay, but parents can still set the standards for screen use at home. Have clear policies about dinner time (no screens and phones for parents, too!), multiple screen usage while doing homework (multitasking is a myth!), and how you will collect screens before bedtime (eliminate those 2 am texts!).

If we do not provide values and structures for our children the culture - which is based upon social media and consumerism - will fill in the void. We have a responsibility to raise our own children, and that takes time and effort.

 

 

I have had the luxury of working with children of all ages for the past 45 years. I especially enjoy middle schoolers - the group often dubbed the most challenging to parent and the most challenging to teach - because of their energy, their idealism, and their willingness to try new things. If you talk down to a middle schooler all is lost - they have radar for adult disdain. If you enjoy and encourage a middle schooler they will be an enthusiastic fan - recruit one for your next personal project, treat them with respect, and enjoy their loyal participation.

I recently began working with a middle schooler and - as usual - asked about personal interests: what's your favorite TV show? Your favorite book? What kind of music do you listen to? What's your idea of a perfect Saturday? This young person immediately told me about Grey's Anatomy - a long-standing TV show about doctors in a Seattle hospital - and so I agreed to watch "a few episodes" to get the gist of things. (Previous young people have introduced me to the band Nirvana, Beavis and Butthead, Taylor Swift,  Dexter, The Witches of Waverly Place, and YouTube videos on how to solve Rubik's Cubes quickly - you get the picture...)

Well, over 250 episodes of Grey's Anatomy later (I got my wife hooked, too), I now enjoy the various relationships and professional quandaries everyone finds themselves in on that show. And - in fact - there is parenting advice to boot!

In one episode one of the regular characters - Doctor Alex Karev (played by Justin Chambers) - is helping a new father whose baby has just been born to a mother who is about to die. The father is struggling - "I don't know how to be a father by myself!" - and Karev (in his usual brusque but loving way) says, "There is only one trick: just show up!"

I think this is good advice for all of us as parents: just show up for the events that will shape our child's life. These can be the usual "special days" - like birthdays, school concerts, playoff games, and the like - but they can also include making breakfast together, taking a walk, driving them places with their friends, and just "hanging out" after school.

This also means being really "present" - no electronics, no reading the newspaper while asking about their day, not taking phone calls on that walk. We used to joke about "quality time" but it is a useful concept: "be here now" is more than just a saying from the 1960's.  Some people talk about the "precious present" - not a material gift but the gift of now. That gift is available to us - and our children - all of the time. Just show up.

Parenting for Non-Violence

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We certainly struggle as parents when we hear about school violence. As we read the news feed and try to understand the family dynamics of the young men who engage in school shootings, we often ask: where were the parents? how did this happen? Clearly mental health issues can be a cause for such behavior - I am not solely blaming the parents here - yet we as parents can choose to be actors in our children's lives in ways that can hopefully help to prevent such tragedies.

I believe we can actually parent for non-violence. Most of our children have a natural tendency to do "the next right thing" - what Quakers call "growing into goodness." Our parenting style can support this process if we have a belief in the innate goodness of each individual. We can also undermine the confidence of our children if we believe that our role is "spare the rod and spoil the child" when disciplining them. Discipline - which comes from the Latin word "discere" (which means "to follow" as in a "disciple") - can certainly happen without violence. Discipline based upon natural consequences allows our children to face the results of their actions, be responsible, and still maintain their dignity.

So if we ask ourselves, "what is violence?" - what comes up for us? If we were to brainstorm a list of behaviors that are "violent" we might begin with the more physical examples (hitting, spanking, fighting) but soon we must move to more emotional examples (shaming, verbal abuse, gossip, neglect, withdrawal) as well as cultural forms of violence (sexism, racism, elitism, ageism, ableism). Do we really want to be "violent" with our children?

If we ask ourselves, "what is non-violence?" - a different set of behaviors and values emerge: love, respect, inclusion, community, peace, service to others, and others. So how can our parenting embrace these values?

There is a good formula for addressing issues: it is "non-violent communication" as defined by a psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg. It goes like this:

·        Observe without judgment: instead of saying "you are such a slob - just look at this room!" you can say "I see a room with dirty dishes, clothes all over the floor, and an unmade bed."

·        State your feelings: begin with "I" and take ownership for what you feel. "I feel sad and discouraged when I see this room."

·        State your needs: "I need a home where I can feel comfortable to walk into any room." Kids need to know that parents have needs, too.

·        Make a request: "I want this situation taken care of as soon as possible. If not there will need to be consequences."

Think about what this means: a child can correct her behavior without feeling attacked. That is parenting for non-violence.

All of us do better when we have the opportunity to make adjustments and maintain our dignity. Let's reduce violence in the world by beginning with our own families.

Raising Kids Who Bounce Back

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I believe that there is a continuing revelation of truth in the world - that we are always going to find new ways to be authentic. Our children's development is a form of continuing revelation: they will grow and teach us who there are, what they need, and how they will live in this world.

 

I also believe that children - with the right nurture and the right environment - naturally grow into goodness. That being said, life presents challenges, and thus we need to talk about how we help our children - and ourselves -  deal with setbacks - the concept of resilience.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity with positive

  outcomes and optimism. We all need it - but how do we develop it? Here is a list of qualities that we can nurture in our children to develop this "bounce back" skills:

·        Learn how to have positive relationships.

·        Cultivate a good sense of humor.

·        Develop an "inner compass" and learn right from wrong.

·         Encourage independence in age-appropriate ways.

·         Model and cultivate a love of learning.

·        Model and develop flexibility

·        Look for self-motivation in things they are passionate about - baseball, painting, gymnastics, reading - even if these passions would not be your first choice for them.

·        Honor and applaud competence - self-esteem is based upon competence, not self-praise...

·         Make your home a place of creativity.

·        Model and nurture perseverance: learn a new skill with your child.

·        Recognize spirituality in yourself and your child: how do you practice as a family respect and awe for the divine?

A major challenge to resilience that many parents ask about is bullying. Let's first talk about what bullying is:

1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

It is also important to know that bullying is not teasing (between friends with no power differential and with a goal of humor and not aggression) or a random unkind act (which is regrettable but can be addressed as a single incident).

So what can we do to stop bullying?

1)                 Teach children to use their words first and ask for what they want.

2)               Empower children to a) find common ground with others; b) seek positive cohorts who can be allies in positive activities; c) walk away from bullying situations toward friends and allies; d) remain calm and confident, and e) (when all else fails) ask for adult help.

3)               Avoid solving the situation for children when is first arises - instead use Fay and Cline's Love and Logic formula (respond with empathy...pause... "what can you do about this?"...pause... "I love you, you are a competent child, I am sure you will figure this out"...walk away.

4)               Letting us know at school if nothing has helped and all three criteria for bullying (listed above) have been met.

 

Here is the text of a Good Housekeeping "sidebar" on resilience (December 2010 issue, page 124) that staff writer Jacqueline Nochisaki put together after interviewing me:

 

Four simple moves that'll nurture a bounce-back kid from John Scardina, a school psychologist and parent educator in City Island, NY:

 

 GIVE YOUR CHILD THE REINS: When your child is talking about a tough situation, let her finish, then say, "This must be really tough." Pause. "What are you going to do about it?" The key here is to show you are tuned in by acknowledging the pain she is feeling,

 

 CAST A VOTE OF CONFIDENCE: As your child formulates a plan, give her a boost by saying, "I see someone who is caring," or "...strong," or "...good at x, y, z." Reflecting her assets back to the child helps her realize she is capable of handling the situation, tough as it may be at first. "Say, 'I know you can handle this, but if you need help let me know.'"

 

 CREATE A GRATITUDE LIST: Help a kid going through a tough phase count his blessings and cultivate optimism: Have your family write up and post a gratitude list of five to ten things to be grateful for. The message: These good things in life are here to stay, regardless of challenging situations. When your child is feeling low, remind him to check the list

 

 CALL IN THE PROFESSIONALS: If your child has a rough patch and experiences sleep or appetite disruption or lethargy, or if you notice a change in relationships with family or friends, it may be time to have a therapist step in. Ask your pediatrician, family practitioner, religious leader, or school guidance counselor for references.

 

As always it is my privilege to work with you and your families.


Growing up with Dick and Jane as my school reading book main characters - Dick usually building something and Jane watching with her hands clasped behind her back - gender modeling was pretty straightforward. Those who did not conform with the male and female stereotypes - and those were the only choices our culture seemed to offer - stayed out of sight if they wanted to avoid the pain of stigmatization and punishment.

We now understand that gender - a cultural construct that assigns roles to individuals - and sex - a biological trait based upon anatomy and physiology - are different. There is a continuum - a spectrum (like the rainbow, in fact!) - of gender possibilities, and our assigned gender (what was recorded on our birth certificates) need not be the same as our identified gender. Some of us - called "cisgender" - have our gender expression aligned with our sex. Some of us - called "transgender" - have a gender expression that is not the same as our sex. Can our culture be big enough to embrace both types of individuals?

Children can often be gender fluid, and our role as parents can be to provide the opportunity for exploration of many ways to be our authentic selves. How we dress, what toys we choose, what sports we pursue, and what arts inspire us can all be free of "one story" gender stereotypes. Some of us will also have children who have "girl brains" and "boy bodies" or "boy brains" and "girl bodies" - and thus we will need to find the tools and love and compassion to help these individuals find their own ways of being authentic.

In the end, all parents can treat all children in the following ways to help make our families gender-inclusive:


  • say "I love you" often;

  • learn as much as you can about gender issues;

  • work for equality and inclusion;

  • become a protector and an ally of all children;

  • listen;

  • document your child's awesomeness;

  • decorate their room as the child sees fit;

  • use gender-inclusive language that avoids binary gender-bias (like "children" instead of "boys and girls" and "friends" instead of "ladies and gentlemen").


         Each of us strives for authenticity - to be our true selves and to do our best work with the gifts we have. All individuals deserve the chance to pursue their dreams and goals - you do, too!



      There is a lot of news these days from different political and cultural points of view about holidays, statues, and the various ways in which national heroes and patriotic events can be seen in a new light by having a new perspective. How do we really feel about Thanksgiving, Robert E. Lee, the Declaration of Independence, or Christopher Columbus?

We as parents want children who can think critically - they will be making life-and-death decisions in their teen years as they learn to drive, face the widespread use of drugs and alcohol, get involved in intimate relationships, and vote. It is never too early to develop critical thinking skills - and remember, a young person's brain doesn't fully develop until age 24, so you can make a difference in their lives for quite a while.

We as a nation want young people entering the work force who can take on multiple perspectives and make wise and deliberate decisions. Letting young people lock into one ideology, one point of view, or one idea about how life should be lived leads to fundamentalism and intolerance. Our schools and our faith communities do best when we present multiple points of view, looking at how we are connected rather than how we contradict one another.

We as a planet need a global perspective on how our actions affect everyone alive today as well as the generations to come. Deciding to support the fossil fuel industry in the USA while other industrialized nations are moving toward independence from fossil fuels represents a different approach to meeting the needs of all people. Is the already epidemic rise of childhood asthma in the USA related to the dangers of unregulated emissions here at home?

SO - what can a parent do?

·         Look for ways to discuss holidays with your children that include multiple perspectives: How did Thanksgiving turn out for the indigenous peoples of New England? How can we look at the historical facts, face the difficult choices our ancestors made, and still maintain the spirit of gratitude and family that we cherish about this holiday?

·         Look at patriotic events with your children in wholistic terms: When the Declaration of Independence says "all men are created equal" do we make sure our children understand that this phrase only pertained to white men of European descent who held property? How did women and people held in slavery and indigenous people benefit from this document? (Hint: they didn't...) This was an historic event to be sure - thus our July 4th fireworks! - but it didn't change the world for many people living here.

·         Find ways to engage your children in your own process of political discernment: When someone says "don't dump on the Bronx" but is in fact not talking about garbage but human beings, we can point out how political rhetoric can be inflammatory in ways we would not allow our children to speak? Encourage them to look at candidates with you and practice the skill of making an informed choice when voting. Your children may have a perspective about a candidate that can inform your own voting patterns. They will be voting soon enough - and don't we hope for an informed electorate?

 

If, as John Dewey said, the goal of education is to build a new world, then we need to be educators who open our children's minds and hearts to the multiple possibilities our future world can embrace. 

We parents know that kids have "radar" - if there is turmoil or tension in the home or in the community, children pick up on the emotionality. All of us can have trouble articulating our lack of ease when things are tough, and children have even more difficulty understanding where these feelings come from.  Instead we see more stomach aches, more whiny behavior, and more fights between siblings. (With adults we see road rage, blaming others, addictive behaviors, and general acting out, right?)

Our world's tension - especially after events like the Charlottesville violence or the Barcelona attack - has seeped into our psyches. Some psychologists have said that, since 9/11, we have suffered from a generalized anxiety disorder as a nation. Fear trumps love for most of us much of the time, and "the other" - perhaps a person of a different color or race, a person from a different socioeconomic class, or a person with a different gender expression - can be greeted with suspicion rather than acceptance if we are not careful to check in with our initial reactions. (Remember Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink? Our first reactions are often not representative of the person we want to be - or think that we already are...).

We are also seeing more depression and anxiety amongst our children. This leads to general unhappiness, poor school performance, anger issues, and a tendency to give up on those positive goals that are worth working for.

So - since we parents create the emotional climate on our homes, what can we do to provide a healthy home environment for our children that allows them to go to school as healthy peacemakers rather than unhappy troublemakers?

1.       Be clear about your values as a family: For some of us with a faith tradition to follow, this is easier: what does my church or temple or mosque say about love and fear? For those of us who do not have a faith practice - which is a large portion of the USA population these days - our lifestyle and home need to project the values we choose and perhaps we need to be more explicit. In the absence of the Bible or the Torah or the Koran in our daily lives, how explicit are we with our children about what is important? So - a suggestion: have your family choose a precept or slogan each month: "be patient with those who are different from us" or "practice random kindnesses with strangers" or "make a new friend from a very different background from our own"? (I have borrowed this from the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio). Post the precept around the house and check in at dinner every day as to how it is going. Change starts in small ways...

2.     Learn to be a peacemaker yourself: Many of us grew up in households where racism, sexism, classism, and ageism were part of the normative culture (such as the 1950's in my case). We need to unlearn some of these old attitudes - even as we profess new beliefs - and understand that we all can be racist/sexist/classist/ageist at various times. So - a suggestion: take a workshop like the Alternatives to Violence Project or Undoing Racism to explore your own beliefs and to learn how to promote tolerance and inclusion in your own life.

3.     Be sure that your child's school is teaching peacemaking skills: Ask about programs that promote upstander behavior through bully prevention training  and healing circles through restorative justice practices. Did you know that the NYC Department of Education is exploring restorative justice training for all schools to reduce violence and suspensions? So - a suggestion: ask your child's teacher if they would like to know more about such programs and have them contact me. I would be happy to be a resource person as we strive to prepare the next generation to be more loving and tolerant than we have been ourselves.

4.     Do something about changing the world: Volunteer with your kids - pick up the trash on your street - make a donation - choose whatever irks you about "things as they are" and decide to make a difference.

 

Let's have a good school year - and let's help our children become the peacemakers we sorely need today.

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