Too Many Helpings l September/October 2015

You’re probably accustomed to helping your kids whenever you can — giving advice, solving problems, coming to their aid. In fact, we live in an era of the over-helping parent, whether our kids’ challenges are big or small. Perhaps it’s because we just want them to be happy, and when they come to us looking glum or tearful, complaining about something gone wrong, we do whatever it takes to restore a smile and help them feel that all is well again.

Or perhaps we ourselves simply refuse to tolerate discomfort — our own as well as our children’s — and so we move quickly to resolve their distress (because theirs easily triggers ours).

There’s a serious downside when we step in too soon to help our kids. When we do something for them that they might be able to do themselves, we rob from them an opportunity to feel the satisfaction and pride that comes from their own sense of accomplishment. Facing up to their daily challenges is one way they build their confidence and come to feel good about themselves — what’s sometimes referred to as self-esteem. Of course we don’t always know what they’re capable of, but often we move too quickly and offer our help before we've given them a chance to work things out on their own (or with only minimal involvement from us). Better for us to slow down, step back, and give them time and space to maneuver — to reflect on their situation, to put some thought into determining their options, and to give their solutions a try.

“I don’t have anyone to play with,” complains a youngster on a Sunday afternoon. Better than helping, ask, “What do you want to do about that?” Allow them time to reflect; don’t get hooked by the easy lament of “I don’t know.” Same for when you hear: “I lost my homework sheet,” “My brother is teasing me,” “I don’t like my math teacher,” “I can’t find my soccer shoes.” Such moments offer priceless opportunities for our children to practice problem-solving. It’s the training ground for self-reliance.

In place of helping, offer patience — move slowly and give them time to figure things out — and encouragement: “I have confidence that you’ll come up with ideas of your own.”

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What, Be Still? l July 2015

Imagine sitting quietly in a room for ten minutes, doing nothing but being still. Could you — or your kids — handle it? Or would you, if given the option, self-administer electric shocks as a preferred alternative? That’s what more than half of the subjects chose to do in one research study — they gave themselves electric shocks rather than sit quietly with their thoughts and feelings.i

Being still isn’t easy. And it’s grown even harder since we’ve become accustomed to filling every microsecond with some form of distraction. Non-stop input — texts and apps and phone calls and websites and television and music — stretches the brain beyond optimal functioning, impairing focus, learning, retention, and more. There’s a problem here, and it’s called “cognitive overload”: more input than the brain can effectively handle. Studies have found youth particularly susceptible to overload, as their immature brains have developed fewer mechanisms to tackle so much. “Overload” can lead to ill effects on health, relationships, and academic success.ii

Once upon a time, our brains enjoyed moments of relative stillness. Waiting in line and simply thinking. Riding in the car and simply looking. Walking down the street and simply observing. Our children’s developing brains especially need a break from the overload. Moments of stillness allow the brain to organize and process what it’s been exposed to in the classroom, on the sports field, in conversations with friends and family. A quiet mind allows the day’s learning to become consolidated in the brain’s “hard drive,” where it’s more accessible for recall.

We human beings need stillness in order to recharge our batteries … to think creatively, to plan, organize, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn new things easily … and control our emotions … everything we need to do in a given day.iii

Here are some ways parents can impose stillness:

  • In longer car rides, enforce at least 15 minutes without screens, conversation, or radio.
  • At meals, allow nothing that uses batteries or electricity.
  • Thirty minutes before bedtime, put technology to rest. Keep phones and laptops in the kitchen until morning.
  • Turn off the television when it’s just providing background noise. Use the mute button to silence the commercials.

Remember that our children’s eyes are often on us. If we don’t set an example of regular stillness, we shouldn’t expect them to be still either.


iWilson, Timothy D. et al. “Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind.” Science, 345. Issue 6192.
iiFrein, S., Jones, S., and Gerow, J.E. 2013. "When It Comes to Facebook There May be More to Bad Memory than Just Multitasking." Computers in Human Behavior (29:4), pp. 2179-2182. Also: Calderwood, C.; Ackerman, P. L.; Conklin, E. M. (2014). "What else do college students "do" while studying? An investigation of multitasking." Computers and Education 75: 19–29.

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Stay Out of It l May/June 2015

It’s an undeniable fact of family life: siblings bicker. Some studies suggest that young sibling conflict occurs an average of eight times per houri. It can drive a parent crazy!

But their fighting has an upside: it’s how they learn the consequences of playing unfairly (your playmate might up and leave), or the consequences of provoking someone bigger and stronger (you might get punched in the arm). Sibling relationships are a training ground for life.

Too often, parents step in when conflict erupts. We referee and look for fault, we admonish or preach, we dictate what should happen next — in so many ways we usurp our kids’ ability to discover they can work it out themselves.

And worse, we unwittingly tilt the scales, admonishing one sib more than another, fomenting jealousy and resentment. Studies reveal our lack of neutrality, how frequently parental differential treatment (PDT) occurs. Our sympathies — consciously or unconsciously — go to the child who reminds us of ourselves, or the smaller child who seems more vulnerable, or the child whose temperament is easier to live with. Rarely are we neutral referees. It’s no surprise then that PDT — what kids perceive as favoritism — is associated with less positive relationships among brothers and sisters.ii

If your bickering kids rush over to you, acknowledge everyone’s emotions (I hear how upset you both are) . Say: I have confidence you can work it out yourselves. Then walk away, or usher them out of your airspace. I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing with all the noise, so please take your bickering elsewhere.

In the annals of sibling conflict, broken bones or emergency room visits are virtually unheard of; your fears are likely overblown. Only when there’s physical or emotional violence on a regular basis (and weeks of staying out of it have brought about no improvement) should you step in, interrupt the fight without taking sides, and engage the services of a family counselor.


i Berndt T.J. and T.N. Bulleit. Effects of sibling relationships on preschoolers’ behavior at home and at school. Developmental Psychology. 1985; 21(5): 761-767. Also Dunn, J. and P. Munn. Sibling quarrels and maternal intervention: Individual differences in understanding and aggression. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 1986; 27:583-595.

ii Brody, G.H., Stoneman, Z., and Burke, M. Child temperaments, maternal differential behavior, and sibling relationships. Developmental Psychology. 1987; 23(3): 354-362. Also Stocker, C., Dunn, J. and Plomin, R. Sibling relationships: Links with child temperament, maternal behavior, and family structure. Child Development. 1989: 60(3): 715-727.

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