Family Tips

Make Them Wait l May/June 2017

We increasingly hate to wait. If waiting is a kind of muscle, it's fair to say we're exercising it less now that packages arrive the same or next day, Visa and Mastercard let us bring stuff home right now, and our devices cushion the waiting-in-line distress while we surf the Internet or read and send texts. Waiting is unlikely to go extinct any time soon, despite its evolution through the decades.

The Stanford Marshmallow Test of 1960i is a well-known study about waiting. Youngsters alone in a room were shown a treat -- often a marshmallow but some were shown candy or a pretzel -- and were told by the researcher that he'd be leaving them alone for 15 minutes.  He explained that if they waited until he returned before eating the treat, they'd receive two treats instead of the one. Some of the children predictably couldn't resist the temptation and gobbled down the treat, while others waited and received double the reward.
What gave The Marshmallow Test a unique place in research psychology is that Walter Mischel, the primary investigator, tracked down many of the study participants years later. He was astonished to find that the children who delayed gratification and didn't eat the treat while the researcher was out of the room were found to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other indices.
The Marshmallow Test has been a reference point for the importance in life of delaying gratification. While there's some controversy about Mischel's conclusions, it's hard to dispute the idea that youngsters who demand instant gratification -- "I won't wait! I want it now!" -- may find it difficult to achieve long-term goals.
It seems wise, then, to give our children practice in delaying gratification. They've trained many of us -- with our complicity -- to answer their phone calls instantly when their name shows up on the caller ID, and to respond to their every text as soon as it arrives. Deep down we sense something awry in our puppet-like obedience, but we've embraced the myth that "it could be an emergency" to justify our behavior. It might do our youngsters good to delay our response and sometimes, when what they want has no particular urgency, to not respond at all until we see them later that day. It's a form of muscle exercise that can serve our kids well.


Invite Boredom l April 2017

Has boredom become extinct?

Do our kids' ever-present devices prevent them from experiencing in-between moments when they aren't engaged in something -- bored moments when there's "nothing to do"? The idea of "nothing to do" seems quaintly old-fashioned in a world where kids busy themselves texting or online, filling every micro-moment. Once upon a time, they might instead have done a bit of daydreaming or reflecting on the past, musing about the future, observing the people and space around them, or just following their imaginations to new and interesting places.

Screen-attached kids nowadays are missing out on...boredom! Why does that matter? Because boredom is the prelude to imagination. When bored, the mind is given the time and space to do nothing but drift and wander -- to indulge the imagination. It's the imagination at play when we daydream, follow our thoughts and fantasies, work out solutions to problems and challenges, and discover what interests us most.

Research has recognized for years a connection between children's imaginative capacity and their exposure to external sources of stimulation. A large-scale study in the 1980s of three Canadian communities compared the imaginativeness of children who lived with no television against kids who watched TV. The children in a community lacking TV reception scored significantly higher in imaginativeness than the kids with television in their homes. Two years later, after TV became present in all the children's homes, the difference in imaginative capacity disappeared.i

"Imagination is important," writes psychologist Teresa Belton. "Not only does it enrich personal experience, it is also necessary for empathy -- imagining ourselves in someone else's shoes -- and is indispensable in creating change. Children...often fall back on television or -- these days -- a digital device to keep boredom at bay."ii

You needn't feel guilty if your kids complain of boredom. Better to see boredom as an opportunity, not a problem that needs fixing. Encourage your kids sometimes to do nothing but gaze out the window, or find new ways (with your oversight) to occupy themselves with stuff already available -- in the basement, attic, kitchen, garage or yard. There's much to be gained by exercising imagination to pass the time, rather than always depending on a screen to do the work for us.

i Williams, T. M. The Impact of television: a natural experiment in three communities. (Orlando: Academic Press) 1986.
iiBelton, T. How kids can benefit from boredom. The September, 2016.

When Kids Cry l Feb/March 2017

Perhaps the toughest thing when our children cry are the emotions their tears trigger in us: empathic upset and sadness, plus a sense of helplessness that comes from thinking we need to do something while unsure what that would be. If we ourselves feel uncomfortable with those emotions -- upset, sad, helpless -- our kids' tears will be that much harder for us to be around.

For some parents, kids' tears trigger discomfort with vulnerability (crying being an obvious expression of vulnerability). Many men in particular can't tolerate the sight and sound of a crying youngster, regarding it as a sign of weakness and, with tearful sons, effeminacy. Those parents may sharply insist: "There's no reason to cry," "I'll give you something to cry about!" "Big boys/big girls don't cry," "Don't be such a cry baby," etc. In contrast, parents less unsettled by the vulnerability of crying may offer gentle words of comfort yet still wish to stem the flow ("It will be all right," or "It's not worth crying about"). Such parents often pull their tearful child into a physical embrace.

Why do people cry? A prevailing view is that certain positive and negative emotions -- upset, sadness, awe, joy, hurt -- experienced at strong intensities knock us off our emotional equilibrium, crying being the body's natural way of restoring equilibrium. Strong feelings create a build-up of a kind of emotional tension which crying releases, allowing emotional balance to be restored. Some researchers believe that emotional tears (versus tears generated by itchy eyes or chopped onions) release stress hormones or toxins. Emotional tears contain a natural painkiller -- leucine encephalin -- which may explain why we can feel better after "a good cry."[i]

What our sobbing kids need from us is precisely the opposite of what we tend to deliver: they need to feel our uncritical acceptance of crying (and the feelings behind it). So give the crier room -- emotional and physical space -- to experience the tears and the feelings, without doing anything to interfere. Being touched, and especially hugged, interrupts the restorative process that crying seems designed to deliver. Delay the urge to touch -- the hug can come later. Offer caring words of empathy: "I see how sad/upset/frustrated you are..." while staying physically close. Say, "It's good you can cry," and just remain quiet while reminding yourself that tears, allowed to run their course, restore our emotional balance.


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