Mindful Parenting l November/December 2014

Which of your "brains" do you use when you discipline your kids — your emotional brain, or your logical brain?

If you tend to react quickly to your children’s missteps, as most of us do, you’re probably working from your emotional brain. It’s designed through evolution to fly into action quickly rather than pause, evaluate, and weigh and measure next steps. (Read Two Brains, April/May 2014.)

The most effective parenting comes from our logical brain. It enables us to think about our children’s misbehavior, notice the emotional impact the misbehavior is having on us, and consider all options before we say or do anything. Knee-jerk reactions rarely lead to fine parenting.

For instance, you hear loud sounds coming from your son's bedroom. When you open the door you find him hurling his books and toys off shelves and onto the floor in a fit of extreme anger. His face is red, his chest is puffing, and homework sheets are strewn everywhere. What do you do?

If you react quickly — perhaps scolding, yelling, or demanding that he pick everything up at once — you’re working from your emotional brain. On the other hand, if you slowly survey the scene, notice how worked up you are right now, ask what happened, perhaps acknowledge how angry he seems, and decide to talk to him later about what set him off and how he handled frustration — after you and he both cool down — you're working from your logical brain.

We’re more effective when we respond rather than react … but only our logical brain is capable of responding. It does so only once we move our emotional brain out of the way. That’s accomplished by learning to insert time between the stimulus (what our kids say or do) and our response. It’s part of what’s known as mindful parenting. Maybe we take deep breaths and privately count slowly to ten before opening our mouths. Or maybe we say to our kids, “I don’t like what I see … I don’t like what’s going on … I’m going to think about it and we’ll talk later.” Short of a toddler dashing into the street, few moments with our children are best handled through an instantaneous reaction.

“When emotional reactions replace mindfulness …
it is very unlikely that you will be able to maintain nurturing
communication and connection with your child.”1

1Siegel, Daniel J. and Mary Hartzell. Parenting from the Inside Out. (New York: Tarcher/ Putnam), 2003.

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Enough Sleep | September/October 2014

With the start of the new school year, routines are taking shape. Youngsters are assembling the complex puzzle in which homework, activities, sports, social life and family time compete for a limited number of hours in the day. Frequently it seems there’s not enough time to do it all, that something’s got to give. What often gives? Our children’s sleep.

Cutting corners when it comes to sleep is more hazardous to our kids’ welfare than most parents realize. We may be so accustomed to playing fast and loose with sleep — we often compromise our own as we go about our over-scheduled lives — that we’ve lost perspective on our children’s need for sleep.

What scientists have come to understand is that during sleep, the brain consolidates what’s been learned during waking hours, making that learning accessible later on. In other words, studying for tomorrow’s test is more effective when it’s followed by a good night’s sleep. It’s as though the sleep process stores new learning in a kind of mental hard drive, where that learning proves easier to recall when needed.

This isn’t just about book learning. Sufficient sleep has been found to improve focus and concentration, whether the task is academic, athletic, or the pleasures of a hobby or simple pastime. Sleep has been called “food for the brain,” providing a kind of essential fuel for optimal functioning in every way. It enables persistence and perseverance, making it easier to tackle a math worksheet, a tennis serve or a tricky interpersonal situation with a group of friends. Insufficient sleep has been associated with negative mood, inconsistent performance and productivity, and poor behavioral self-control.i

The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following amounts of sleep for children and teens:ii

    1-3 years old = 12-14 hours of sleep
    3-5 years old = 11-13 hours of sleep
    5-12 years old = 10-11 hours of sleep
    12-18 years old = 8.5-9.25 hours of sleep

It’s easy to look away when our children sacrifice sleep for the activities we particularly value, like academics and athletics, especially knowing they’re apt to kick up a fuss if we dare declare “lights out.” But as a foundation of their overall welfare, adequate sleep is a battle worth taking on.

i National Institutes of Health, National Center on Sleep Disorders Research and Office of Prevention, Education, and Control. Working group report on problem sleepiness. August 1997.
ii Data from The National Sleep Foundation, at www.Sleepfoundation.org.

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Paying Attention l July/August 2014

A local summer camp recently asked its 6- and 7-year-olds to answer a simple question: name something you’d like your parents to start doing with you. Among the responses given by the children were: “Talk to me during dinner,” “Play more games with me,” and “Read me stories.” Responses like these remind us that many of our kids want more of our interest than we realize. In fact, many find themselves competing for our attention.

For lots of parents, work life consumes inordinate time and energy, aided by handheld devices that make work possible wherever we go. One estimate suggests that 10% of Americans are workaholics.1 The proportion is as high as 23% among doctors, lawyers and psychologists. 2 In a survey of Canadians, 38% of those with incomes over $80,000 described themselves as work addicted.3

Let’s be honest: children’s conversation isn’t always compelling. What engages us more? Often it’s some text or email, or checking a favorite website, or our Facebook newsfeed — frequently more interesting than stories of playground dramas or classroom lessons. Kids can no longer count on our undivided attention while we’re in the car, sitting around the meal table, or waiting in line at the grocery store. Walk through family restaurants and notice how many devices are resting on the table, within parents’ reach.

Children need our focused attention to know that they’re important to us, important simply for who they are regardless of their marks in school or skills on the soccer field. When they have to compete for our interest, their sense of self-worth can be easily undermined. What’s required of us is slowing down, paying attention, and accepting that being with the kids will often be less stimulating than when we’re engaged with our devices. (Same for the kids: putting away their devices may leave them under-stimulated … but available for connection with us.)

Let’s show our kids that when we’re with them, we want to be with them fully, a team of two, facing the world together with nothing coming between us.

1 Sussman, Steve, et al., “Prevalence of the Addictions.” Evaluation & the Health Professions. March 2011; 34(1): 3–56.

2 Doerfler, M.C. and P. P. Kammer. “Workaholism, Sex, and Sex Role Stereotyping Among Female Professionals.” (Sex Roles, Vol. 14, Nos. 9/10, 1986).

3 Kemeny, Anna. “Driven to Excel: A Portrait of Canada’s Workaholics.” (Canadian Social Trends, No. 64, Spring 2002).

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