Questioner-in-Chief l January 2016

”How was school today?”
“Did you do anything interesting?”
“How did that test go that you were studying for last night?”

Sound familiar? You’re interested in your child’s experience, but you’re shut out. All you get are one-word responses and then there’s silence, or the conversation moves on to other things.

It’s a culture of engagement many parents try to foster, hoping to hear about a youngster’s school day or their time spent with friends or just their latest daydreams. It’s contact we seek, a sense of connection — and we rely on questions as a way of drawing them out. But for them, we’ve morphed at those moments into an annoying Questioner-in-Chief, putting them on some witness stand where they feel vulnerable and over-exposed. That’s when they shut down or turn away.

We forget that the behaviors intrinsic to a culture of connection can be modeled by us. We can take the initiative and share with our children — no matter what their age — tales from our own life. Tales of conflict are particularly likely to engage them — our own disagreements with friends or family or co-workers. Conflict gets attention. It’s what the Greek dramatists knew 2,000 years ago, and it remains true today. Our children live their lives regularly experiencing conflict, whether with siblings or friends or often with us. And your stories will carry a particular punch when you include your emotions: I felt upset, I felt angry, I felt frightened. Emotions are universal; the kids will relate. You might even embellish your narrative a bit if you think it will make your story that much more engaging. Tailor your stories to their level of understanding and edit out what you think might be for grown-up ears only, including the names of people they may know.

By sharing interesting moments from our day, we set a tone that makes it easier for our kids to do the same. If we’re willing to be vulnerable by emotionally self-disclosing with them, they’re more likely to reciprocate with us. But when they do open up, we must listen neutrally and accept what we hear without judgment or criticism. That’s not always easy, especially when they reveal their uncomfortable emotions. Our knee-jerk inclination to protect and solve and admonish and correct will remind them that we’re not easy to talk to — why even bother? Then we’re back to square one, floundering ineffectively as Questioner-in-Chief. (See The 5:1 Ratio, October 2011).

Bed Time l November/December 2015

Once upon a time … children’s regular bedtime was sacrosanct for many families. Those were the years before we began overscheduling our kids with lessons, athletics, tutors, and increasing amounts of homework, and before the siren call of electronic screens transformed everyone’s life. With so much to do, to see, and to enjoy, something’s gotta give. Typically, it’s the regularity of bedtime. On many days, eight morphs into nine, ten into midnight — despite the research telling us that a regular bedtime plays an important role in our kids’ healthy social and emotional development.

An irregular bedtime — inconsistency from one night to the next — has been found to lead to behavioral difficulties in young children.i Researchers analyzed data from over 10,000 youngsters, collected when the kids were 3, 5 and 7 years old. On measures of hyperactivity, problems with peers, behavioral problems, and emotional difficulties, children without regular school-night bedtimes scored increasingly worse as they got older (based on parent and teacher reports).ii But there’s good news: the negative effects of an irregular bedtime appear to be reversible. When parents made the switch and imposed regular bedtimes on kids who previously had none, youngsters showed definite improvement in behavior. Not surprisingly, the opposite was also found: well-adjusted children with regular bedtimes showed a behavioral decline once irregular bedtimes took over.

Why might consistent bedtime be important? Irregular bedtimes may be harmful by disrupting the body’s natural circadian rhythms, which are known to be slow in adapting to schedule changes, at any age. And when irregular bedtime leads to sleep deprivation, children’s physical development, including brain maturation, might suffer. Adequate sleep is believed to be important in the maturation of regions of the brain involved in the regulation of behavior (see Enough Sleep | September/October 2014).

Many parents believe that regular bedtime isn’t important until the little ones start school. After all, does it matter if toddlers and preschoolers sleep later in the morning as a result of getting to bed later than usual the night before? It does seem to matter. Research suggests that the negative effects of irregular bedtime start early and may be cumulative. Because healthy adjustment in middle childhood depends on healthy adjustment in early childhood, regular bedtime is important right from the very start.

Kelly, Yvonne et al., “Changes in bedtime schedules and behavioral difficulties in 7-year-old children.” Pediatrics. November, (132,5) 2013.
ii The only bedtimes studied were those falling on nights before a school day; weekend bedtimes were not investigated.

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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.”