film produced for the UnLonely Film Festival and Conference last month
featured a young woman who, as a college freshman, felt painfully alone.
She desperately missed her familiar haunts and high school buddies who seemed,
on Facebook at least, to be having the time of their lives.
It reminded me of a distressing time I had as an 18-year-old
college sophomore — feeling friendless, unhappy and desperate to get out of
I visited the university health clinic where an astute psychologist examined my
high school records, including a long list of extracurricular activities, and
noted that I had done only schoolwork during my first year in college.
nothing the matter with you that wouldn’t be fixed by your becoming more
integrated into the college community,” she said. She urged me to get involved
with something that would connect me to students with similar interests.
I protested that as a biochemistry major with classes six
mornings a week and four afternoon labs, I had no time for extracurricular
activities. And she countered: “You have to find time. It’s essential to your
health and a successful college experience.”
better option, I joined a monthly student-run magazine that fit into my
demanding academic schedule. I soon fell in love with interviewing researchers
and writing up their work. I also befriended a faculty adviser to the magazine,
a grandfatherly professor who encouraged me to expand my horizons and follow my
Two years later as a college senior and the magazine’s editor, I
traded courses in physical chemistry and advanced biochemistry for news
reporting and magazine writing.
rest is history. Armed with a master’s degree in science writing and two years
as a general assignment reporter, at 24 I was hired by The New York Times as a
science writer, a job I have loved for 53 years. In making rewarding social
connections in college, I not only conquered loneliness, I found a path to a
connections, in a very real way, are keys to happiness and health,” noted Dr.
Jeremy Nobel, founder of the UnLonely Project and faculty member in primary
care at Harvard Medical School. In an opinion piece in The Boston Globe written with
Michelle Williams, dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, these
experts stated that loneliness and social isolation play “an outsized role” in
preventable deaths by suicide.
They urged that social relationships be considered a national
public health priority “to roll back those heartbreaking, preventable deaths of
But it’s not just young people who are lonely. “More than a
third of adults are chronically lonely, and 65 percent of people are seriously
lonely some of the time,” Dr. Nobel said in an interview. Among the groups with
especially high rates of loneliness are veterans, 20 of whom take their own
lives each day on average. Even half of chief executives experience loneliness (it
can be lonely at the top), a state that can adversely affect job performance.
The rate of persistent loneliness is also high among older
adults, who, in addition to limitations imposed by chronic illness, may suffer
the isolating effects of mobility issues, lack of transportation and untreated
However, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at
Brigham Young University, told the UnLonely conference that no one is immune to
the toxic effects of social isolation. “It’s so distressing, it’s been used as
a form of punishment and torture,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said.
“Loneliness saps vitality, impairs productivity and diminishes
enjoyment of life,” Drs. Nobel and Williams wrote. Its effects on health match
that of obesity, alcohol abuse and smoking 15 cigarettes a day, increasing the
risk of an early death by 30 percent.
The aim of the UnLonely Project, Dr. Nobel said, is to raise
awareness of its increasing incidence and harmful effects and reduce the stigma
— the feelings of embarrassment — related to it.
“We want people
to know that loneliness is not their fault and to encourage them to become
engaged in programs that can diminish it,” he said. One program featured in the
film festival depicts a group of older women in the Harlem neighborhood in New
York who participate in synchronized swimming. One of the women
said she didn’t even know how to swim when she joined the group but now
wouldn’t miss a session.
In Augusta, Ga., in partnership with AARP, a program of painting
together, as well as music and dance, was created for caregivers who often have
little opportunity to connect with others and reap the benefits of mutual
support and friendship.
Doing something creative and nurturing helps both caregivers and
people struggling with serious chronic illness get outside themselves and feel
more connected, Dr. Ruth Oratz, medical oncologist at New York University
Langone Medical Center, told the conference, convened by the Foundation for Art
The foundation’s goal, Dr. Nobel said, is to promote the use of
creative arts to bring people together and foster health and healing through
activities like writing, music, visual arts, gardening, textile arts like
knitting, crocheting and needlework, and even culinary arts.
“Loneliness won’t just make you miserable — it will kill you,”
Dr. Nobel said. “Creative arts expression has the power to connect you to
yourself and others. How about a monthly potluck supper? It’s so simple, such a
great way to be connected as well as eat good food.”
Much of modern life, though seeming to promote connectivity, has
had the opposite effect of fostering social isolation and loneliness, experts
say. According to the foundation, “Internet and social media engagement
exacerbates feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety.”
rarely relate intimate tales of misery and isolation on Facebook. Rather,
social media postings typically feature fun and friendship, and people who lack
them are likely to feel left out and bereft. Electronic communications often
replace personal, face-to-face interactions and the subtle signals of distress
and messages of warmth and caring such interactions can convey.
So consider making a date this week to meet a
friend for coffee, dinner, a visit to a museum or simply a walk. Online
communities like Meetup.com can be a good source for finding others with common
interests. If nothing else, pick up the phone and have a conversation with
someone. Chances are, you will both be better off for it.
Many parents sending kids off to college worry that their time as a
family is over. But that isn’t always the case these days.
The Sugerman family’s
trip to Southern Utah this past May involved a treacherous drive. There were
hairpin turns; the three adult children needed to move boulders to clear a path
for the car. “We were on these roads which were barely roads, climbing up
canyon walls,” said Andy Sugerman, of Ann Arbor, Mich. “It was night. The sky
was beautiful. Everybody was fully engaged.” The value of shared adversity and
overcoming these obstacles together allowed for bonding unlike any other kind
of experience, he said.
Many parents sending kids off to college weep over their empty
nests, thinking their time as a family is over. And a generation ago, young
adults often wanted to get as far away from their parents as possible once they
entered adulthood. But that isn’t always the case these days. An increasing number of young adults move back home for summers or after college.
And even for those who launch quickly, family vacations present an opportunity
for parents to remain close to their adult children.
The trip to Utah was the latest annual family vacation for Mr.
Sugerman, his wife, Gayle Rosen, and their three sons, Eli, 25; Alex, 23; and
Sam, 19. The family’s first outdoor adventure — a road trip across the West in
2008 — was motivated by the recognition that “as the kids were getting older,
the opportunities for time together would be more limited,” Mr. Sugerman said.
Since then, the family has explored 28 national parks together.
Rosen presumed that as the boys grew into young adulthood, they’d lose interest
in being with their immediate family and that the trips would stop. But that
has not happened.
opportunity to go on a cool outdoor trip with my family continued to present
itself, and I’ve continued to take it,” said Eli, who lives about four hours
away from his parents, in Chicago. “I see no reason why an end would be in
Ms. Rosen feels fortunate that her children still want to go. “I
love being outdoors with them. We all unplug and I get to see the amazing human
beings they’ve become,” she said.
A variety of
factors are keeping young adults connected to their parents — both
geographically and emotionally. Research by Karen Fingerman, a professor of human
development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, found
that, compared to the mid-20th century, young adults today tend to be less
financially stable and are more likely to marry later — keeping them closer to
their families — while many more of them live with their parents. She also
discovered that technology and accessibility of transportation make it easier
to stay close. “The culture is shifting toward increased contact and increased
interdependency” between parents and their young adult children, Dr. Fingerman
Her work indicates that 30 years ago, only half of parents
reported weekly contact with a grown child, while currently nearly all parents
had contact with a grown child in the past week, and over half of parents had
contact with a grown child every day. She found affection and intimacy between
young adults and their parents rising as well. Dr. Fingerman said this is
generally a positive development that benefits both generations. As young
adults turn more to their parents than their peers for guidance, “they’re
getting better advice from people who care about them,” she said.
you can foster close relationships without spending money, taking a family
vacation with young adults is a growing trend, said Rainer Jenss, president and
founder of the Family Travel Association, a company that encourages family
travel. He points to Backroads, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company focused
on upscale active travel for families as an example. Next year, Backroads will
introduce a “20s & Beyond” segment dedicated to parents
traveling with their children in their 20s and 30s. Tom Hale, the company’s
founder and chief executive, said that last year, 6,500 parents and their adult
children went on the company’s trips, even though the trips weren’t specifically
aimed at this older age group.
a relationship psychologist based in St. Louis and author of “Stress Less, Live
Better: 5 Simple Steps to Ease Anxiety, Worry, and Self-Criticism,” suggests
these trips go better if parents manage their expectations, don’t overschedule
and allow everyone to have time to themselves.
Laura Sutherland, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., and her
husband, Lance Linares, have taken their son, now 30, and daughter, now 32, on
10 trips since they graduated from college. The trips now include their
spouses. Ms. Sutherland recommends booking accommodations with private rooms if
possible. She assigns everyone responsibility for preparing or treating for a meal
— and pitching in with cleanup. “We have clear communication in the beginning
that parents shouldn’t be servants,” she said.
If budgets or timing don’t allow for travel, hiking close to home or going out for lunch and a visit to a local museum can work, too. As young adults strike out on their own, there’s a delicate balance that parents need to achieve. It starts with respecting kids’ growing independence in adolescence, said Dr. Ken Ginsburg, co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. They should feel comfortable coming to you for advice. By the time they are young adults, it’s no longer a one-way street.
“When you honor the fact that they can guide and support you,
you’re developing a relationship that can last for decades,” Dr. Ginsburg said.
Dr. Sanford says if a dispute arises, instead of reacting or
getting angry, “pause, take a breath and ask yourself whether it’s more
important to get your way or have the opportunity for a good relationship.”
Carl Pickhardt, a counseling psychologist based in Austin, Tex.,
and author of the blog “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence” and the book Who Stole My Child? Parenting Through the
Four Stages of Adolescence,encourages
parents of adult children to repeat a few mantras to themselves: I will respect
the choices you make and how you face the consequences; I will not criticize or
censor your behavior in any way; and I will cheer you on as you engage in life.
He said to never provide unsolicited advice, but to request permission, saying
something like, “I have some advice I would like to give that would be helpful,
but only if that’s something you would like me to do.” Dr. Ginsburg suggests
determining if your child wants you to listen or to provide advice, using
language like: “I’m so glad that you always feel you can come and talk to me
about these things. How can I be the most supportive?”
Ginsburg emphasized that there are some situations that call for a parent to
become involved if the adult child’s safety is at risk, including dangerous
depression, significant and substantial drug use or domestic abuse.
As young adults
struggle with their identity and their life goals, parents should rest assured
that they continue to play a vital role, Dr. Ginsburg said. “You are the person
who is going to love them no matter what.”
you take a vacation or just spend time together at a movie or a restaurant, he
noted, “Your highest yield time is to just be with each other and enjoy each
We all want to be the best parents we can be for our children, but there is often conflicting advice on how to raise a kid who is confident, kind and successful. Throughout the circus act of parenting, it’s important to focus on balancing priorities, juggling responsibilities and quickly flipping between the needs of your children, other family members and yourself. Modern parents have the entire internet at their disposal and don’t follow any single authority. It’s hard to know whom or what to trust. Here, we’ll talk about how to help your child grow up to be a person you really like without losing yourself in the process.
Your Parenting Style
Good news: There is no one right way to raise a child.
Research tells us that to raise a self-reliant child with high self-esteem, it is than authoritarian. You want your child to listen, respect and trust you rather than fear you. You want to be supportive, but not a hovering, helicopter parent.
All of these things are easy to set as goals, but . How do you find the right balance?
As your child develops, the challenges will change, and your thinking may evolve, but your approach should be consistent, firm and loving. Help your child learn through experience that making an effort builds confidence and helps you learn to tackle challenges. Calibrate your expectations about what your child is capable of doing independently, whether you have an infant learning to sleep through the night, a toddler helping to put toys away, or an older child resolving conflicts.
Remember, there is no one right way to raise a child. Do your best, trust yourself and enjoy the company of the small person in your life.
Conquering the Basics
Your healthy attitude toward sleep, food and discipline will affect your children in the most important ways.
How to Put a Baby to Sleep
Right from the beginning, in their sleep patterns. And parents, too, vary in terms of how they cope with interrupted nights.
There are two general schools of thought around babies and sleep after those early months when they need nighttime feedings — soothe the baby to sleep or don’t — and many parents find themselves wavering back and forth. Those who believe in sleep training, including many sleep experts, would argue that in helping babies learn to fall asleep by themselves and soothe themselves back to sleep when they wake during the night, parents are helping them master vital skills for comfort and independence.
Two techniques for this are:
Graduated extinction, in which babies are allowed to cry for short, prescribed intervals over the course of several nights.
, in which parents delay bedtime in 15-minute increments so the child becomes more and more tired.
And many parents report that these strategies improve their children’s sleep patterns, as well as their own. But there are also parents who find the idea of letting a baby cry at night unduly harsh.
Whatever you try, remember, some babies, no matter what you do, are not reliably good sleepers. Parents need to be aware of what sleep deprivation may be doing to them, to their level of functioning, and to their relationships, and take their own sleep needs seriously as well. So, ask for help when you need it, from your pediatrician or a trusted friend or family member.
For older children, the rules around sleep are clearer: Turn off devices, read aloud at bedtime, and build rituals that help small children wind down and fall asleep. will be even more important as children grow older and are expected to be awake and alert during school hours; getting enough sleep on a regular basis and coming to school well-rested will help grade-school children’s academic performance and their social behavior as well. Keeping (and turned off during the hours before bed) becomes more and more important as children grow — and it’s not a bad habit for adults, either.
As your child hits adolescence, her body clock will shift so that she is “programmed” to stay up later and sleep later, often just as schools are demanding early starts. Again, good family “sleep hygiene,” especially around screens at bedtime, in the bedroom, and even in the bed, can help teenagers disconnect and get the sleep they need. By taking sleep seriously, as a vital component of health and happiness, parents are sending an important message to children at every age.
You can take steps to help your children manage both bullying and conflict – and you’re at your most useful when you know which of the two you’re trying to address. Children who are being bullied are on the receiving end of mistreatment, and are helpless to defend themselves, whereas children in conflict are having a hard time getting along. Fortunately, most of the friction that happens among children is in the realm of conflict —an inevitable, if unpleasant, consequence of being with others — not bullying.
If children are being bullied, it’s important to reassure them that they deserve support, and that they should alert an adult to what’s happening. Further, you can remind your children that they cannot passively stand by if another child is being bullied. Regardless of how your own child might feel about the one being targeted, you can set the expectation that he or she will do at least one of three things: confront the bully, keep company with the victim, alert an adult.
When the issue is conflict, you should aim to help young people handle it well by learning to stand up for themselves without stepping on anyone else. To do this, you can model assertion, not aggression, in the inevitable disagreements that arise in family life, and coach your children to do the same as they learn how to address garden-variety disputes with their peers.
For children, gender is an evolving concept, and not one that they always see through the same lens as adults. Three-year-olds are able to label themselves as boys or girls, yet most boys this age believe that they can grow up to be moms if they want to, and vice versa for little girls. By ages 4 or 5, children come to view gender as a fixed trait. This is often when they develop princess or superhero obsessions, perhaps dabbling in extreme femininity or masculinity to compensate for their sense of losing half of the gender pie.
Left to their own devices, most children move away from rigid gender views before adolescence. All the same, girls generally enjoy more leeway than boys when it comes to gender identity. Tomboys are cool, while boys often vigilantly police one another for behavior they perceive to be feminine.
As a parent, you want to help your child feel good about being a girl or a boy, and to define what that will mean for him or herself. This can involve helping them question highly stereotyped and heavily marketed media representations of gender. And we want to remember that gender identity operates independently of sexual orientation. Who our children feel themselves to be doesn’t tell us whom they will love.
All parents have in common the wish to raise children who are good people. You surely care about how your child will treat others, and how he or she will act in the world. In some households, regular participation in a religious institution sets aside time for the family to reflect on its values and lets parents convey to their children that those beliefs are held by members of a broad community that extends beyond their home.
Even in the absence of strong spiritual beliefs, the celebration of religious holidays can act as a key thread in the fabric of family life. Though it is universally true that children benefit when their parents provide both structure and warmth, even the most diligent parents can struggle to achieve both of these on a regular basis. The rituals and traditions that are part of many religious traditions can bring families together in reliable and memorable ways. Of course, there are everyday opportunities to instill your values in your child outside of organized religion, including helping an elderly neighbor or taking your children with you to volunteer for causes that are important to you.
Above all, however, children learn your values by watching how you live.
When it comes to school, parents walk a difficult line: You want your children to strive and succeed, but you don’t want to push them in ways that are unfair, or cause needless stress. At every age and skill level, children benefit when parents help them focus on improving their abilities, rather than on proving them. In other words, children should understand that their intellectual endowment only gets them started, and that their capabilities can be increased with effort.
Children who adopt this growth mindset – the psychological terminology for the belief that industry is the path to mastery – are less stressed than peers who believe their capacities are fixed, and outperform them academically. Students with a growth mindset welcome feedback, are motivated by difficult work, and are inspired by the achievements of their talented classmates.
To raise growth-mindset thinkers you can make a point of celebrating effort, not smarts, as children navigate school. When they succeed, say, “Your hard work and persistence really paid off. Well done!” And when they struggle, say, “That test grade reflects what you knew about the material being tested on the day you took the test. It does not tell us how far you can go in that subject. Stick with it and keep asking questions. It will come.”
Parents should step in when students face academic challenges that cause constant or undue stress. Some students hold themselves, or are held by adults, to unrealistic standards. Others missed a step along the way, study ineffectively or are grappling with an undiagnosed learning difference. Determining the nature of the problem will point the way to the most helpful solution.
Here’s how to raise a child with a healthy attitude toward shiny screens and flashing buttons.
You could try to raise a screen-free child, but let’s be honest, you’re reading this on a screen. As in everything else, the challenge is in balancing the ideal and the real in a way that’s right for your family. Start by thinking about positive screen-related experiences you want to help build into your children’s lives: watching a movie as a family, reading a book on an iPad, FaceTiming with out-of-town relatives. Technology plays such an important role in children’s lives now that when we talk about it, we’re talking about everything from sleep to study to social life.
“Technology is just a tool and it can be an extremely enriching part of kids’ lives,” said Scott Steinberg, co-author of “.” “A lot of what we’re teaching about parenting around technology is just basic parenting,” he said. “It comes down to the Golden Rule: Are they treating others in a respectful and empathetic manner?”
And then there’s the question of protecting family time. Mr. Steinberg advises setting household rules that govern when devices may be used, and have clear, age-appropriate policies so kids know what they can and can’t do.
Some of these policies will be appropriate for all ages, including parents, such as:
No phones at the dinner table.
No screens for an hour before bedtime.
It’s important to practice what you preach. And in addition to taking time for family meals and family conversations, parents should be taking the time to sit down with young children and look at what they’re doing online, rather than leaving them alone with their devices as babysitters.
Parents as Digital Role Models
When a parent wants to post on social media about something a child did that may embarrass the child, Ms. Homayoun said, it’s worth stepping back to consider why. Are you posting it to draw attention to yourself?
You should respect your child’s privacy as much as you respect the privacy of friends, family members and colleagues. As cute as it may seem to post pictures of a naked toddler, consider a “no butts” policy. That may not be the image that your child wants to portray 15 years from now.
“We need to, from a very early age, teach kids what consent looks like,” Ms. Homayoun said. “It doesn’t begin when a kid is 15, 16 or 17. It begins when a kid is 3 and he doesn’t want to go hug his uncle.” Or when he doesn’t want you to post that video of him crying over a lost toy.
Our children will create digital footprints as they grow, and it will be one of our jobs to help them, guide them and get them to think about how something might look a few years down the line — you can start by respecting their privacy and applying the same standards throughout their lives.
It’s easy to dismiss high-tech toys as just pricey bells and whistles, but if you choose more enriching options, you can find toys that help kids grow. For young children, though, there’s a great deal to be said for allowing them, as much as possible, to explore the nondigital versions of blocks, puzzles, fingerpaints and all the rest of the toys that offer tactile and fine motor experiences. As children get older, some high-tech games encourage thinking dynamically, problem solving and creative expression.
“These high tech games can be an opportunity to bond with your kids. Learn more about how they think and their interests,” Mr. Steinberg said. Some games encourage kids to be part of a team, or lead one. And others let them be wilder than they might be in real life – in ways that parents can appreciate: “You can’t always throw globs of paint around the house but you can in the digital world,” he said.
The Right Age for a Phone?
“Many experts would say it’s about 13, but the more practical answer is when they need one: when they’re outside your direct supervision,” Mr. Steinberg said. Ms. Homayoun recommends them for specific contexts, such as for a child who may be traveling between two houses and navigating late sports practices.
Consider giving tiered access to technology, such as starting with a flip phone, and remind children that privileges and responsibilities go hand in hand. A child’s expanding access to personal technology should depend on its appropriate use.
To put these ideas into practical form, the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidelines for creating a personalized .
Balance both your schedule and your child’s with a reasonable approach to time.
We all know the cliché of the overscheduled child, rushing from athletic activity to music lessons to tutoring, and there will probably be moments when you will feel like that parent, with a carload of equipment and a schedule so complicated that you wake up in the middle of the night worrying you’re going to lose track. But it’s also a joy and a pleasure to watch children discover the activities they really enjoy, and it’s one of the privileges of parenthood to cheer your children on as their skills improve.
Some children really do thrive on what would be, for others, extreme overscheduling. Know your child, talk to your child, and when necessary, help your child negotiate the decisions that make it possible to keep doing the things that mean the most, even if that means letting go of some other activities.
Remember, children can get a tremendous amount of pleasure, and also great value, from learning music, from playing sports, and also from participating in the array of extracurricular activities that many schools offer. However, they also need a certain amount of unscheduled time. The exact mix varies from child to child, and even from year to year. On the one hand, we need to help our children understand the importance of keeping the commitments they make — you don’t get to give up playing your instrument because you’re struggling to learn a hard piece; you don’t quit the team because you’re not one of the starters — and on the other, we need to help them decide when it’s time to change direction or just plain let something go.
So how do you know how much is too much? Rethink the schedule if:
Your child isn’t getting enough sleep.
Your child doesn’t have enough time to get schoolwork done.
Your child can’t squeeze in silly time with friends, or even a little downtime to kick around with family.
And make sure that high school students get a positive message about choosing the activities that they love, rather than an anxiety-producing message about choosing some perfect mix to impress college admissions officers. The point of scheduling is to help us fit in the things we need to do and also the things we love to do; overscheduling means that we’re not in shape to do either.
Taking Care of Yourself
Being a parent is the job of your life, the job of your heart, and the job that transforms you forever. But as we do it, we need to keep hold of the passions and pastimes that make us who we are, and which helped bring us to the place in our lives where we were ready to have children. We owe our children attention — and nowadays it’s probably worth reminding ourselves that paying real attention to our children means limiting our own screentime and making sure that we’re talking and reading aloud and playing. But we owe ourselves attention as well.
Your children will absolutely remember the time that you spent with them — but you also want them to grow up noticing the way you maintain friendships of your own, the way you put time and energy into the things that matter most to you, from your work to your physical well-being to the special interests and passions that make you the person they know. Whether you’re taking time to paint or dance, or to knit with friends, or to try to save the world, you are acting and living your values and your loves, and those are messages that you owe to your children.
You may not be able to pursue any of your passions in quite the same way and to quite the same extent that you might have before you had a child. You may have to negotiate the time, hour by hour, acknowledging what is most important, and trading it, perhaps, for what is most important to your partner, if you have one. You’ll be, by definition, a different painter, as you would be a different runner, a different dancer, a different friend and a different world-saver. But you may well come to realize that the experience of taking care of a small child helps you concentrate in a stronger, almost fiercer way, when you get that precious hour to yourself.
How to Find Balance
Lots of parents worry that their children get an unreasonable amount of homework, and that homework can start unreasonably young. While it may be easy to advise that homework can help a child learn time management and study habits, and to let children try themselves and sometimes fail, the reality is that many of us find ourselves supervising at least a little. You should speak up if it seems that one particular teacher isn’t following the school’s guidelines for appropriate amounts of homework. And for many children, it’s helpful to talk through the stages of big projects and important assignments, so they can get some intermediate dates on the calendar. If the homework struggle dominates your home life, it may be a sign of another issue, like a learning disability.
For many families nowadays, the single biggest negotiation about time management is around screen time. This may be because screens serve so many purposes in children’s lives, so that screen time can be homework time (but is the chatting that goes on in a corner really part of the assignment?) or social time or pure entertainment time. Bottom line: As long as a child is doing decently in school, you probably shouldn’t worry too much about whether, by your standards, the homework looks like it is being done with too many distractions.
And remember, some family responsibilities can help anchor a child to the nonvirtual world: a dog to be walked or trash to be taken out. And when it comes to fun, let your child see that you value the non-homework part of the evening, or the weekend, that you understand that time with friends is important, and that you want to be kept up to date on what’s going on, and to talk about your own life. Ultimately, we have to practice what we preach, from putting down our own work to enjoy unstructured family time to putting down our phones at the dinner table to engage in a family discussion. Our children are listening to what we say, and watching what we do.
In the high-pressure, high-stakes game of school, it can be difficult to know which parenting strategies really promote learning. A successful experience in school is not only about report cards. Ideally your child will learn how to learn, retain information, think independently, ask questions and develop an increasing sense of competence. Here are some guidelines for making sure you start on the right foot and keep enthusiasm and momentum high throughout the school year.
There is so much to think about each school year, but above all else, these simple rules can help keep you stay focused on what’s most important for school success.
Focus on the process, not the product.
Encourage kids to self-advocate.
Keep a long-term perspective.
Maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
Love the child you have, not the child you wish you had.
Compare kids to one another.
Love kids based on their performance.
Value the Process Over the Product
Very young children are naturally driven to learn and explore. They are at the very beginning of their lifelong quest to understand and gain mastery of the world around them. As they reach out, fall and get back up again, they gain a heightened sense of mastery, competence and self-efficacy. Somewhere around kindergarten, however, parents and teachers begin to undermine this process by devaluing the process of learning and replacing it with a mad dash for the end products. Suddenly, the intrinsic motivators of natural curiosity, competence and self-efficacy are less valuable than extrinsic motivators such as stickers, points and grades. Unfortunately, extrinsic motivators undermine kids’ desire to learn over the long term. Want your kid to lose interest in school? Pay them for their A’s and worship at the altar of grades. If you’d instead like your kids to remain curious and hungry for mastery, here are some tips for re-orienting kids’ priorities.
Keep report cards off social media and the refrigerator. We can tell our kids that we value learning all we want, but when we gush over grades and stick them to the refrigerator, we show them that what we value most are the grades. Of course, grades are what most parents are stuck with, even if they are flawed and incomplete indicator of learning as well as what’s known as an “extrinsic motivator,” which has been shown to reduce motivation over the long term, undermine creativity, and encourage cheating. Some schools have moved away letter-based grades and are using reports focused on mastery- or standards-based evaluations, which can help parents and kids focus on what’s being learned rather a grade. No matter what kind of report your child gets, humble-bragging about it on social media only feeds parental competition, raises the pressure for kids and teaches them that your love and approval is contingent on the content of their report card.
Focus on the process they used to get that grade. When we invest less energy and emotion in the number or letter at the top of the page, we can begin to ask our children questions such as, What did you do to get this grade? Which study techniques worked for you and which ones did not? What are you going to do differently next time?
Look forward, not back. The best question parents can ask when faced with a grade, whether high or low, is: How are you going to use this experience to be better next time? This technique works particularly well for anxious and overly perfectionist kids, because they can get stuck in a negative feedback loop, obsessing wholly on the numbers and grades. Helping them shift their focus back to the process can alleviate that anxiety, particularly when we help them prioritize the aspects of learning they can control.
Model: Talk about your own failures and successes with your kids, showing them that you, too, are invested in the process of learning. If you berate yourself over failures, so will they. If, however, they see you being brave and learning from your mistakes so you can be better next time, so will they.
Value Goals Over Grades
One easy way to invest in process is to set goals, both individually and as a family. Try to do this at the beginning of a new school year, the first of the month, or the beginning of a new season. Keep the discussion light and low-pressure. This process isn’t about getting better grades, it’s about supporting learning as a family.
Everyone (yes, that means parents, too) sets three short-term, achievable goals oriented around tasks and improvements under your control. For example, “I’m going to get all A’s this semester” is too broad and too difficult to control. Instead, try “I’m going to ask for help in math more often,” “I will plan one extra help session a week,” or “I will practice my multiplication three extra times this month.”
One of those three goals should be a challenge. We can’t hope to convince our children to be emotionally and intellectually brave unless they see us do the same, so set some goals that get you out of your comfort zone. Take guitar or dance or Spanish lessons, try an activity you have never tried before, or pick up a new hobby. This is, after all, how we expand our cognitive potential and make new connections in our brains that can help us become stronger, smarter and more efficient learners.
A few years ago, one of my sons’ goals was to make a few new friends, a goal that was both challenging and important to him.
Before you set new goals, take the time to assess how everyone did on past goals. Review these goals once a month or once a semester. If you fail to achieve your goals talk about why, and what you plan to do differently next time. If you succeed, celebrate that achievement!
Model: Watching a parent set a scary, ambitious goal and talk about the process of achieving it is the most direct way to teach children that learning and striving to be better are human goals, not just school goals.
Maintain a Long-Term Perspective
Education and parenting are both long-haul endeavors, and improvements don’t happen on a daily basis.
Don’t live in the daily emergency of this homework or this test. Instead, think about where you’d like your child to be in a year or five years in terms of competence and growth. Which is more important to you, that you deliver your child’s forgotten math homework today or that she develops a strategy for not forgetting her math homework tomorrow?
Model: When things go wrong in your own life, talk about them. Keep your focus on doing better next time and your long-term perspective. For example if you mess up at work, frame your discussion around improvement and long-term progress: “Well, this work project did not work out the way I wanted, but I still love what I do and want to be doing something related in five years. Here’s how I plan to learn from this so I can get there.”
Help Them Find Balance
Kids are overscheduled, families are in a constant rush, but a few, strategic pauses in your family’s day can make a huge difference.
Help Kids Create Effective Good Routines
Present mornings, chores and homework time to kids as a problem to be solved together. In a quiet, calm moment, say, “You know, mornings are really hectic around here and it’s hard for everyone to remember to get out the door with everything they need. How do you think we can make mornings easier and happier?”
Kids are more likely to stick with a plan they created themselves. Buy-in happens most often when kids have a hand in creating strategies, and sometimes it’s more important to be functional and efficient than to be right.
Try asking, “What would be your ideal morning routine look like?” or “What would a perfect homework day look like for you?” then help them come up with ways to make those visions real.
Help kids operationalize the systems they create. If it’s a planbook, talk about setting intermediary deadlines. If it’s alarms on a virtual calendar, try different sequences of alerts ahead of a due date. Think of your role in this process like that of the training wheels on your kid’s bike. As our children get more sure of their strategies and systems, we can raise the training wheels up until they are no longer needed at all.
Model: Talk about your own systems, when they fail, why they work for you. As I get older, I find I have to write more things down or I will forget them. When I do, I mention this to my kids, and they have even helped me brainstorm ways to get things down on paper before I lose them to the ether.
Encourage Good Study Habits
Ensure quiet time in your home. Multi-tasking is a myth, especially for kids. Shut off the TV, and if they like to play music, studies show that music with lyrics undermine concentration and productivity.
Ask your kids what their perfect homework routine might look like. Help them create that vision. Some kids might want a break after school to blow off pent-up energy, others may want to get the homework done first so they can get on to free play. Let them choose the space, too. Just because you envisioned a central study location in your home when you designed it does not mean it’s going to be their preferred spot.
Limit phones during homework time. Phones are a distraction when they are in the room, even when they are turned off, one study shows. If they are a distraction for adults, with their fully mature executive function skills, they are even more distracting for kids, whose frontal lobes (and the executive function skills that originate there) won’t be fully mature until their mid-20s.
Model: Let kids see you working distraction-free, in an environment that promotes focus. As ever, kids do what we do, not what we say. Work on your projects the way you’d like to see them doing their work.
Model: When I ask kids what they’d most like me to convey to their parents at my speaking events, one of comments I hear most often is something like: “If you want us to turn our phones off, or spend less time texting with our friends, then parents should do the same.” When we ask kids to make sacrifices we are not willing to make ourselves, they see us.
Communication Between School and Home
When students, parents and teachers communicate openly and honestly with each other about what’s happening at home and in the classroom, everyone can stay focused on the learning.
Keep School-Home Lines of Communication Open
The research is clear: Family involvement and positive home-school communication have been associated with improved grades, positive behavior and attitudes about learning, increased participation and increased attendance. Start by finding out how your child’s teacher would like to be contacted, and honor his or her preferences by sticking to that method.
When something comes up, go to the teacher first, and not to the principal. That is both unfair to both the principal and the teacher. Besides, the principal most likely was not present in your child’s classroom to witness the events in question, so it puts him or her in an awkward position.
Remember the good moments too. Thank teachers for their efforts on behalf of your child. Thanking teachers lets them know that you respect and appreciate what they do and how they do it. I have an envelope full of these notes accumulated over 20 years of teaching Latin, English and writing, and I often refer back to them when I’m having a bad day or feeling unappreciated. Gratitude matters.
Model: Don’t bash or undermine a teacher in front of the kids. Kids hear what you say about their teachers, and it’s essential to preserve the student-teacher relationship at all costs. It can be confusing for kids when parents say negative things about their teachers, just as it’s upsetting when one parent speaks ill of the other during a separation or divorce.
Starting as early as kindergarten, children need to be encouraged to speak up, tell adults what they need, and stand up to people who are not treating them the way they want to be treated. Self-advocacy is a key part of building a child’s sense of self- efficacy, or the understanding that they have the power to control and change their behavior, motivation and environment.
When your children come to you to complain about how another child or a teacher treated them, ask what they said or did (or what they plan to say or do) to make sure they are heard and understood. Simply asking this question can help children reframe the situation and consider what they can do to effect change themselves.
Expect children to be a part of home-school communication from the first day of elementary school and increase your expectations for their involvement each year until your child is the main conduit of information between home and school. You can provide support, of course, but somewhere around the beginning of middle school, your child should take the lead.
Get support for your efforts to boost their self-advocacy. Let teachers know you are making this shift so they can support your child’s efforts to be more effective in their communication.
Coach your children through talking with teachers about problems and talk through the approaches they can take. You can write scripts or role play if a child is anxious about the discussion. This can actually be a fun way to dispel anxiety and play-act the conversation until your child is comfortable.
If children are facing especially stressful challenges as a result of bullying, special education needs or mental health issues, school counselors can be parents’ greatest ally. Today’s school counselors are mental health professionals who are able to guide students in school and provide referrals as needed to other mental health and academic support professionals in the community. They can even direct parents to low-cost or sliding scale providers if needed, and ensure continuity between school-based services and outside providers.
Model: Talk how you ask for help and assert yourself even when it makes you nervous. Explain how you make sure your needs are heard and addressed. If you need to talk to your boss about a misunderstanding at work, make your kid a part of a dinnertime discussion about ways you could approach the conversation. We are, after all, our children’s first teachers when it comes to conflict resolution and self-advocacy.
Work With Their Bodies, Not Against Them
As the best learning happens in the context of healthy brains and bodies, here are some ways to ensure kids are ready and able to learn.
The Link Between Sleep and Learning
Sleep is integral to learning and memory consolidation, so prioritize sleep over other activities. If your child isn’t getting to homework until late, think about what else in the family schedule can move to make that a priority. Talk about scheduling before committing to a new extracurricular activity in the first place.
Less awareness of fatigue. Teens are also less likely to feel the effects of their sleep deprivation, which can lead to falling asleep in school or worse, behind the wheel of a car.
Remember, “catching up” on the weekend does not work because it can throw off children’s circadian rhythms further, compounding the problem.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends adolescents try keeping a sleep diary to put the reality of their sleep habits in black and white. It’s hard to claim you are getting enough sleep when the numbers tell a different story.
If your child asks for “just one more hour” for homework or to prepare for a test you can tell them that all other things being equal, an extra hour of sleep will likely be more valuable for memory consolidation than an extra hour of study.
Model: Let kids see you value sleep. Allow the house to get quiet an hour before a reasonable bedtime, put your devices away, pull out a book and keep good sleep habits yourself.
How Kids’ Brains Work
Until fairly recently, scientists believed that because childrens’ brains are done growing by the age of 10, their brains are mature by 10 as well. This could not be further from the truth. Kids’ brains are still developing on a cellular level, in a process that won’t be completed until their mid-20s.
Children’s brains develop in fits and starts, with a first period of massive growth and development between the ages of 1 and 3, and a second during adolescence (between 11 and roughly 25). During these periods of heightened change, their brains are said to be highly “plastic,” meaning they adapt and grow rapidly in response to their environment.
Increased brain plasticity also means increased potential for learning because brain cells morph from their immature, inefficient “gray matter” state to their more mature and efficient “white matter” state, while building up to 100,000 new synapses per second. Brain cells talk to each other via synapses, and it’s a “use it or lose it” situation. The more brain cells talk to each other via these new connections, the greater the brain’s potential to process and learn.
The last part of the brain to mature is the frontal lobe, where organization, time management and all those other executive function skills happen, so be patient. Middle and high school kids can’t possibly manage all the challenges school and society throws at them, so support kids as they try, fail and try again.
Model: Brain power is built through challenge and so-called “desirable difficulties,” learning tasks that lie just a bit beyond our ability level or comfort zone. The more our kids see us take on challenges and learn from our mistakes, the more likely they will be to do the same.
Intimacy is the glue that holds families together. It’s what connects us over the years and across the miles. It’s what gets us through the hard times, and what makes the good times even better. It’s the grease that smooths the rough interactions of everyday life, and the honey that makes it all worth it.
Intimacy is hard to define, but we all know when we’re feeling it. Whether it’s snuggling in the silence of companionship with your partner or crying on your best friend’s shoulder, intimacy is when we feel connected.
How humans build connections with each other, how we deepen them, and how we repair them when they fray is both as simple as a warm smile, yet also as mysterious and unsettling as the way the ground lurches when we see a picture of someone we have loved and lost.
The Gottman Institute has distilled the creation of intimate relationships down to their practical essence. It turns out that the building blocks of connection are the small overtures we make to each other every day, and the way our loved ones respond. These are “bids,” as in “bids for attention.” We could also call them overtures, as in the opening movements of an opera, which relies on harmony to succeed.
How bids for attention work
In happy relationships, whether between romantic partners, parents and children, friends, or coworkers, bids are made and responded to in a positive, even if small, way. It almost doesn’t matter what the bid is about; the process of reaching out and receiving a response builds the relationship. It also increases the level of trust so that we are more likely to reach out to that person again, and the content of the bids deepens.
If someone begins a conversation with “I’m worried about my job” and receives an empathetic response, they’re likely to elaborate and maybe ask their partner for support. Their trust in reaching out is rewarded with caring. They both end the interaction feeling closer.
If, on the other hand, their comment is ignored, or greeted with anything that doesn’t feel empathetic, they’re unlikely to make themselves vulnerable, and the relationship loses a chance to deepen. In fact, they’re hurt, so a little wall gets built, and they may be less likely to make bids like that in the future.
Our relationship with our child is built on how we respond to their bids
The same process is enacted with our children in hundreds of daily interactions. If you ask your middle schooler about the upcoming school dance and receive an engaged response, you might venture further and ask whether she’s nervous to take the conversation to a deeper level. If, on the other hand, her response is surly, you might back off.
And, of course, children often test us by saying something negative to see if we’ll empathize. If we respond to their bids with understanding, even though they’re expressing negativity, they’ll trust that we can handle their authentic feelings, and they’ll open up more.
But if we ignore, deny their feelings, correct them or judge, they’ll shut down. If this interaction is repeated often, kids get in the habit of holding their feelings inside. Not only do they not reach out to us, but they more frequently reject our bids to connect with them.
How to use bids to nurture intimacy with your child
1. Notice your child’s bids to you.
The inconvenient thing about a bid from your child is that they initiate whenever they want to, and you can count on being busy doing something else. It takes real self-discipline to tear yourself away from your screen to answer a child’s question, but how you respond to their overture is crucial in building closeness. If you don’t give them your full attention, you’ll have not really responded, or worse, turned away from their bid.
Later, when you try to get your child to tell you about what happened at school today, that’s your bid, and by then, they’ve shut down because you didn’t respond to their initial bid. To support yourself in being more present and available, make it a practice to turn off your screens when you’re with your child.
2. Train yourself to respond with empathy, no matter what the comment is.
If your daughter climbs into the car after school and greets you with a negative comment like “Dad, you know I hate that music, can’t we listen to my music?” or “Mom, I had a terrible day and it’s all your fault because you…” that’s a setup for an argument. But it’s also a bid; she’s asking if you’ll commiserate with her, if you care about what matters to her, if you’ll listen to her problems so she can process her feelings, and if you’ll help her make things better.
You’re only human, so naturally, you feel like snapping at her. But if you can take a deep breath and respond with empathy, you’ll find you can turn the entire situation around. So you might say:
“Really, you don’t like the Rolling Stones? Okay, I’ll turn this off and we can talk while we drive about what music to play so we can find something we both like.”
“Wow, you sound like you had a really terrible day! Tell me about it.”
Later, of course, you can ask if she really thinks her terrible day was all your fault. She’ll almost certainly apologize, and you can tell her that you understand, that it’s okay. In the meantime, instead of a fight, you’ve deepened your relationship.
3. If you don’t get the response you want when you reach out, step back and watch how you initiate.
Are you inviting a positive response? Are you asking them to tell you more about how they feel, or what they’re going through? If what you want is connection, don’t start with correction. Always connect before you correct. Remember The Gottman Institute’s advice for couples: understanding must precede advice. Trying to understand your child’s feelings is trying to connect, and advice and problem-solving can come later.
4. If you make an overture and are greeted with something hurtful — disdain, sarcasm, or a blank stare — try not to respond with anger. Instead, show your vulnerability and hurt.
Let them know how you feel hurt, and turn away before you give in to the temptation to lash out. Your child (or partner!) will likely feel bad about having hurt you, especially since you haven’t escalated drama by attacking back.
Later, when you aren’t feeling hurt and angry, you can tell them how it made you feel to get that response. Try to talk only about your feelings, not about them being wrong, and invite them to share any resentments that were driving their hurtful response to you. Like this:
“Sweetheart, when you said I always take your brother’s side, I felt hurt because I try to hard to be fair, and your voice sounded so angry. But it sounds like you really think I’m being unfair. That must hurt you. Tell me more about why you feel that way.”
5. Make time for intimate interactions in your schedule.
Often, we go whole days or even weeks just moving our kids through their schedules, without taking time to really connect. And most parents can’t imagine where they would find more time to connect.
Try to look for opportunities for intimacy that are already in your schedule, where you can slow down and create an opportunity for closeness. Maybe that’s when you help your daughter with her hair in the morning, and make sure to give her a hug and kiss, or when you’re in the car with your son in the afternoon listening to music you both like, or at bedtime when you lie with your child for ten minutes.
Intimacy is a dance. It deepens or fades through every interaction we have. The good news? Every interaction you have is a chance to shift onto a positive track and deepen your connection to your loved ones. Just paying attention for a week to how you respond when your children reach out to you can shift the whole tone in your family in a positive, harmonious direction full of meaningful overtures and caring responses.
A year ago, my toddler accidentally stabbed me
in the right eye with a Doc McStuffins otoscope. I can’t really blame her.
First of all, she was 2. Secondly, she had an ear infection, and I was trying
to give her medicine, and so got extremely close to her face. She was flailing
her arms in self-defense, and she just happened to have that purple plastic toy
in one of her hands.
I tried to shrug off the injury. I went to
work and suffered through several meetings. Then I went to buy an eye patch,
thinking if I just closed my eye for long enough it would feel better. It
didn’t help, and made me look like a pirate.
Later that day, I went to an ophthalmologist,
who told me that I had a corneal abrasion and gave me prescription eye drops. I
asked if this was a common injury for parents of young children, and he said
yes, but that usually he sees it in parents of infants, who scratch their
parents’ eyes with their talon-sharp nails. I was lucky that there was no
lasting damage to my poor peeper.
Anecdotally, we at NYT Parenting have heard
from many people who were accidentally injured by their small children. The
biggest offenders are stepped-on Legos and L.O.L. Surprise! doll detritus, but
head-butting is also an issue for parents of babies, who tend to have poor
motor skills. Teresa Bowen-Spinelli, M.D., an emergency room physician in New
York, said it’s typical to see twisted or broken ankles from tripping over toys
and broken noses from head-butting.
But also, for men, she’s seen “injury to
genitalia.” Maybe a kid throws a ball or swings a bat in unfortunately close
range of your nethers, or you’re roughhousing and get an errant foot to the
groin. Dr. Bowen-Spinelli said, however, that she’s never seen a really bad
case of injured genitals, “because kids don’t exert that much brute force.”
So, how do you prevent injury by your little
ones, who by definition can’t fully control their limbs yet, and who aren’t
great at recognizing their physical limitations? Aaron E. Carroll, M.D., an NYT Parenting contributor and a professor of
pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, said that the first thing
to do is to be aware of the unpredictability of their thrashing. Understand
that little kids “don’t have the guardrails of personal space,” and don’t
understand when they “need to be more careful about flailing around,” he said.
“They don’t have the same kind of differentiation between emotional and
physical actions. When they might be frustrated or upset,” they don’t know how
not to react physically.
With babies who are still getting their necks
in control, be careful about getting very close to their faces, Dr. Carroll
said. Both doctors recommended being mindful of your baby’s nails, and making
sure to trim them frequently, for your safety but also for the baby’s. (If
clipping your baby’s nails freaks you out, filing them is a good option, Dr.
Carroll said. Dr. Bowen-Spinelli recommended cutting babies’ nails while they
sleep, because they may struggle less.) If you’re giving your kid medicine she
doesn’t want, as I did, Dr. Carroll suggested making it a two-person job, where
one caretaker holds down the kid’s arms while the other squirts antibiotics
into her mouth.
If your kid does accidentally hurt you, Dr.
Carroll recommended keeping that string of expletives that you undoubtedly want
to shout under control. “If it is by accident, don’t overreact, don’t scream
and yell,” Dr. Carroll said. If your child is old enough (for many by age 2,
though you know your kid’s cognitive abilities best), try to give him positive
instruction about watching where he puts his body. And make sure you’re giving
what Dr. Carroll calls “anticipatory guidance.” Which is to say: If your
3-year-old is learning how to play tennis, keep a close eye on that racket,
because you can bet that a preschooler with a racket is capable of causing
accidental physical damage.
Overall, though, some of these injuries may
not be preventable — part of the fun of kids is their physical spontaneity and
excitable play, and we don’t want to take that away from them, or from us. But,
dudes, you may want to wear a cup.
FOR SIBLING BATTLES, BE A SPORTSCASTER, NOT A REFEREE
Narrate what’s happening. Repeat back what your kids say to you. Try to be neutral.
Parents in my psychotherapy practice often ask how to make sibling conflict stop.
Understandably, they want the bickering, teasing, aggression and cries of “no fair” to end. But one of the best ways to dial up sibling love is not to squash conflicts, but to learn how to use them. Research supports this, and I’ve seen it in action.
For the most part, sibling conflict is normal and to be expected: Home is a safe testing ground for social dynamics. Siblings often want to play together, but it takes skill and patience when they’re different ages.
Be a Sportscaster
It’s our job to let kids know we see and hear them, but we’re not necessarily going to solve siblings’ conflicts for them (or else they never get the practice). When squabbles start, imagine you’re a sportscaster and describe what you see in front of you, without judgment and without taking sides. This simple practice lets your kids know you acknowledge and respect their struggles, but you’re not immediately jumping in with a solution.
Example: You hear shouting and walk in to find your kids looking upset with each other.
Instead of:Hey settle down in here! Jack, what did you do this time?
Say:I’m hearing really loud voices in here. Alex, you’re looking mad with your hands on your hips. Jack, you’re laughing. There’s a pack of Pokémon cards on the floor.
Narrate what’s happening. Repeat back what your kids say to you. Try to be neutral.
Ah, got it. You’re telling me he always takes the best cards. You feel like he’s the boss all the time. I see. Jack, you wanted to play the game you usually play and Alex wanted to change it up. Alex, you got frustrated and threw the cards. Am I missing anything?
When you repeat back their grievances, it helps kids start to hear each other and work on their own solutions.
Let Siblings Be Mad at Each Other
It’s a knee-jerk reaction for many parents to insist siblings be nice to each other, and try to smooth over tricky or unpleasant feelings. But siblings can feel love, anger, frustration and connection to each other all within the same day. If they get the message that we accept only their sunny feelings, they will either put more oomph into the darker ones so we hear them, or repress and hide them from us. Neither of these is a good outcome. Accept the negative feelings without judgment. The warm, loving ones will naturally resurface.
Example:He always ruins everything! I hate him!
Instead of:Hey, watch it. You need to calm down and apologize to your brother.
Say:Wow, you are super angry at him. What was it that made you this mad?
Example: I don’t want this new baby. I wish she were never born.
Instead of:Oh, you don’t mean that. You’re going to love her, you’ll see.
Say: I get it. Things feel so different now. It used to be just the three of us and it seems like everything changed. I feel it too sometimes!
Know When to Intervene
If you feel as if your kids’ relationship is bordering on emotional or physical abuse, it’s important to intervene quickly and be ready to separate them if necessary. But for the brothers and sisters who are merely annoyed, pause and listen. When voices start to rise and conflict is escalating, those are signs you may need to step in. Start with something like,
Do you guys need help figuring this out?
Can you give me some information about what’s happening here?
Kids are capable problem solvers, even the youngest ones. Assume they have good ideas and you’re there for support.
Use the Iceberg Analogy
Kids’ words and behaviors are only the tip of the iceberg. They’re the easiest to see and the part we fixate on. Usually, there’s something more telling under the surface. One sibling pushes the other not just to be mean, but because he’s angry, he’s testing boundaries, he’s been pushed at school, he’s tired, he’s overstimulated, he’s trying to get attention. As we teach and uphold family rules, it’s also our job as parents to look deeper.
Approaching the situation with curiosity will help you get to the root of the issue, and it also brings the family closer and makes the lessons stick.
The above are a few of the tools my co-author, Julie Wright, and I teach clients to help them tune in and understand what kids are feeling. But you need more for true conflict resolution. We call this strategy the A-L-P model, for the steps of attuning, limit setting and problem solving. Attuning means you lead with understanding, limit setting states the rules and realities, and problem solving is for coming up with alternatives and solutions:
Ouch, that looked like it hurt. Let me check and make sure you’re O.K. You were really mad and you slammed the door on his arm? Tell me what was going on. O.K., got it.You were angry and you wanted space from him. (Attune to both kids).
We absolutely cannot slam doors, because it’s dangerous. Remember that’s a family rule. (Limit Set).
Let’s get your brother some ice. Pause. What could you say, in clear, strong words, when you need space? Let’s write those down, because it’s really hard to remember when you’re mad. (Problem Solve).
This system helped a mom in our practice to feel empathy for her “problem child” — her middle son, who seemed to find every opportunity to provoke and aggravate his little sister. He was downright mean to her in a way that made the mom furious. She sometimes felt as if she didn’t like him.
We had her sketch an iceberg and fill in the possible sources of her son’s behaviors. As she did this exercise, she started to cry. She had written notes like, “Resentment toward little sister for being the baby of the family, attention from adults always on her, jealousy for her easygoing nature, overwhelmed at school, anger at recent family changes.” She worked on seeing him through this lens of curiosity and it made her less reactive and able to acknowledge his struggles.
Eventually, he started opening up and telling her more about how he was feeling. When she reminded him of family rules, rather than sending him to his room, she asked him what he could do instead of provoking his sister, and he actually started coming up with his own ideas.
As time went on, she still heard them fighting, but she also heard them working things out, chatting and laughing. The ratio of enjoyment to conflict was going up. Her empathy for her son was spreading through the family.
IN A WARNING AGAINST SPANKING, SOME PEDIATRICIANS SEE AN ATTACK ON BLACK FAMILIES
Decades of research show that corporal punishment harms children and communities. Yet a vocal subgroup of doctors argues that an anti-spanking policy vilifies African-Americans.
In November, the American
Academy of Pediatrics fortified its 20-year-old stance against spanking with a
strongly worded new policy statement. Armed with
decades of new research, the authors of the policy noted that spanking children
does not improve their behavior and appears to be associated with negative
outcomes, including increased aggression and mental health problems.
medical consensus is clear, and over 70 percent of American pediatricians agree
that hitting children is damaging, many black
pediatricians hold more positive attitudes about spanking.
Moreover, a vocal subgroup is pushing back against the pediatrics academy’s new
policy. By failing to draw a clear distinction between spanking and child
abuse, these doctors say, the policy contributes to the demonization of black
communities, where (as in many other communities, including Southerners and
born-again Christians) corporal punishment is a cultural norm. And, they argue,
pediatricians who discuss the harms of spanking during routine medical exams,
as the policy recommends, risk alienating black parents.
Krugman, a white pediatrician based at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, said he
witnessed the pushback in his professional circles.
doctors who feel that the A.A.P.’s policy is heavy-handed and judgmental of
black families. They also take issue with calling a simple spanking abuse,” Dr.
Krugman said. “All pediatricians have serious questions about how to talk about
the cultural context of physical punishment along with the science.”
Heard-Garris, a black pediatrician based in Chicago, chairs the academy’s
Provisional Section on Minority Health, Equity and Inclusion, which has more
than 600 members from diverse backgrounds. Shortly after the academy released
its policy, which was first drafted before the minority group was formed in
2017, she heard from some members who questioned “which voices were included in
“There were a
lot of raw emotions and the feeling of being marginalized. There was also
healthy debate about corporal punishment,” Dr. Heard-Garris said.
According to Dr.
Krugman, many pediatricians worry that initiating exam-room conversations about
spanking could raise black parents’ fears that their children’s doctors will
collude with law enforcement and child protective services to have their
children removed from their care. While black children do face a higher risk of
being removed from their homes, there’s debate over whether there is racial bias in
abuse reporting and whether child abuse is more common in black homes. Additionally,
state and federal data show that most child abuse reports are screened outwithout any protective
action. The pediatrics academy’s policy update does not change state laws that
give parents the right to physically punish their children.
the pushback from some black pediatricians requires uncomfortable conversations
about the cultural attachment many black families have to corporal punishment
as a core pillar of responsible parenting in a racist society.
about some doctors who grew up with this tradition. So this policy is
challenging how they grew up, who they are, what their mother and grandmother
did,” said Dr. Heard-Garris, who is the mother of a 6-year-old boy she does not
spank. “The backlash is not necessarily a lack of understanding of the science,
but mostly an emotionally-charged response to personal experience.”
Dr. Keisha Bell,
chief of pediatric critical care at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital in
Washington, echoed Dr. Heard-Garris. “Many of us grew up in situations where
spanking was part of our culture. None of us feels that we have trauma because
of it. There’s a difference between spanking and abusing a child. I’m not sure
if the studies do a good job of delineating that,” she said.
Collins-Ogle, an H.I.V. specialist who cares for adolescents and young adults,
was disheartened by the way the academy’s policy “painted this broad brush over
ways that people discipline their children,” she said. “It’s like anything you
do as a corrective measure to get your kid to listen, then you’re a bad
diversity was also a problem, Dr. Collins-Ogle said. “The faces behind the
policy and out front talking about it were all white. But they’re not raising
black children and they don’t understand the nuances of raising a black child.”
noted that, while the pediatric academy’s policy doesn’t explicitly target one
group — and data show that the majority of parents across race and ethnicity
hit their children — corporal punishment is a more public aspect of black
culture, partly as a result of historical trauma. “If you look at the A.A.P.’s
policy without understanding slavery, colonization, discrimination and police
violence against black people, then doctors won’t understand why physical
discipline in our communities is so pervasive,” she said.
color often mistrust the medical profession, which has a long and documented
history of criminalizing and openly sexualizing black children in professional
journals. Racist studies on black children have been used to rationalize public
fears of and violence against black people. In the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, pediatrics journals showcased the voices of white male pediatricians
offering “proof” that black children were strong, insensate and hypersexual.
and Jim Crow, black families did not have the luxury of exploring a variety of
childrearing strategies. As historian Leon Litwack noted in his famous book,
“Trouble in Mind,” for black youths and their parents living under Jim Crow,
the daily reminders of “place” and inequality were nearly everywhere. Just as
they had been during slavery, black parents were powerless to protect their
children from whippings and other assaults. Litwack explained that enslaved
parents “were sometimes compelled to inflict the punishment themselves in the
presence of whites to teach the disobedient child a lesson – and to avert even
harsher punishment if meted out by the overseer or owner. The same mode of
punishment, often for the same reasons, persisted into freedom.” Today, black
parents and professionals still fear trigger-happy cops and a criminal justice
system waiting with open jaws to ensnare black bodies.
“I ascribe to
the historical necessity of having a child who will follow your direction, and
that cannot be overstated,” Dr. Bell said. “When my son was a toddler, my
husband and I made sure we let him know that we needed his compliance the first
shares the same fear. “I tell my son that I don’t want to be the mother of the
son that got shot because you said something wrong, you looked at the police
the wrong way, you talked back to the teacher,” she said.
punishment won’t stall these forms of racialized social control, which began in
the immediate afterlife of slavery. While black
parents’ fears for their children’s lives are legitimate, they do not excuse
preparatory violence in the home.
Between 2013 and
2017, 25 black children were killed by police officers, according to databases
that track such killings; during that same period, 1,558 black children were
killed as a result of maltreatment by their parents, according to reports
published by the Children’s Bureau. Black children are still about twice as
likely to be abused or killed than white children. The pervasive celebration of
“whuppings” as a sacrosanct parenting tradition helps to fuel these outcomes. Whether
spanking itself constitutes maltreatment is a matter of debate, but research
suggests that spanking is a risk factor for abuse and fatalities.
In March, I
spoke to pediatricians who attended the pediatrics academy’s trauma-informed
training session in San Antonio, Tex., and in August I gave a presentation on
race and spanking at the American Psychological Association conference in
Chicago. I told both audiences that hitting children is not native to
pre-colonial West African or indigenous cultures. As I described in my book,
there’s no evidence of any form of ritualized physical punishment of children
in precolonial West African societies prior to the Atlantic slave trade;
African-Americans learned corporal punishment from white slave masters. I bluntly
told them that one of the most powerful things pediatricians and psychologists
can say to black parents is that whupping their children is one of the whitest
things they can do. Physical punishment is not necessary in impoverished or
dangerous neighborhoods; in fact, it is counterproductive because it teaches
young people to solve conflicts with aggression and violence.
In light of the
concerns raised by pediatricians of color, a spokeswoman for the American
Academy of Pediatrics told me that there are plans to continue conversations on
the spanking policy through collaborative, educational programming at its
annual meeting in 2020. In July, the academy released its first policy statement on racism and its
impact on child health.
“Kids of color
in this country are not treated the same,” Dr. Heard-Garris said. “They
experience exponentially more criticism, discrimination and violence. So we
have to parent differently.”
“I will do the
opposite of society.” Dr. Heard-Garris continued. “I won’t parent my son with
violence, but with more love. I will tell him how amazing, kind and smart he
is. Not only because it is true, but because as soon as he leaves my door the
world will tell him otherwise.”
One morning in May 2016 — having unexpectedly become a
single parent several months earlier, and sick of lying awake nights trying to
mentally balance my household budget — I did something that, at the time, felt
drastic and slightly shameful. After taking my 5-year-old to school and my
2-year-old to day care, I returned to our fourth-floor walk-up, tidied the
place quickly and took what I hoped were some appealing photos: of our kitchen
table with its pottery bowl of fruit and cheap, knockoff Eames chairs; of our
overstuffed bookshelves; and even of our tiny bathroom, with the
map-of-the-world shower curtain my daughter loved to inspect at bath time. Then
I went online and opened an Airbnb account. “Private room in family home,” I
wrote, posting my own bedroom on the service. (My kids preferred having me
squashed into one of their bunk beds anyway, I reckoned, and we needed the
money.) Within a couple of hours, I had my first booking request: from
Mathilda, an opera singer from Indiana who’d be coming to New York for
auditions the following week.
For about 15 months, the extra income this Airbnb
arrangement generated was a lifeline for me and my children, a way to stave off
financial catastrophe during a tricky transition in our lives. And, for the
most part, it was also a lovely experience. Almost without exception, the women
who stayed with us were considerate and kind. My kids grew so fond of a couple
of them — Laura, a Danish graduate student who stayed with us during her
two-month internship; and Sara, an Italian pediatrician who had a six-month
research fellowship at Mount Sinai — that they became honorary “aunts,” a
status they retain to this day. Yet, until now, I’ve avoided speaking of the
year-and-change I spent “taking in lodgers,” as my mother calls it.
I’ve been thinking about my Airbnb side hustle again in
recent weeks because, here at NYT Parenting, we’ve been talking a lot about the
intersection of money and family life. Type “finances” and “parenting” (or any
number of related combinations) into a search bar, and the first page of
results will include a half-dozen upbeat articles advising you on how to put
your financial house in order before you even consider reproducing. According
to the dominant public narrative, this is what responsible prospective parents
do: They pay off all their student loans; they purchase “forever” homes;
they’re already thinking decades ahead, making the sort of safe investments
that will allow them to comfortably cover their children’s college tuition.
But, according to the data, this is not how most
Americans with young children are actually living. When NYT Parenting partnered
with YouGov to create an online survey of parents in the United States, it
found that the costs of preschool and day care
represented a “very significant” or a “somewhat significant” financial strain for
nearly 60 percent of us. A 2018 online survey of 1,000 parents in the United
States conducted by Credit Karma, a personal finance company, found that 67 percent of respondents had gone
into debt in order to buy their children necessary items such
as food, clothes and shoes. Revealingly, some 69 percent of those surveyed by
Credit Karma said that they kept their child-related debt a secret, and avoided
discussing it with other parents.
If most American parents are struggling financially, why
do so many of us feel alone in these struggles? Everyone knows that raising
children is wildly expensive, so just what is it about money difficulties that
feels so unspeakable, when you’re a parent? In an effort to answer these
questions, I reached out to Sa’iyda Shabazz, a Los Angeles-based fellow at the
Center for Community Change, a community organizing nonprofit, who has written eloquently about her own
financial troubles as a single mom.
Shabazz believes that some of the sense of stigma
parents experience comes from our fear of burdening our kids. “You don’t want
to fail them,” Shabazz told me. “I don’t ever want my son to see me crying,
wondering if I can keep the lights on this month.”
But much of it, Shabazz argues, is the result of our
cultural attachment to the idea that if we graduate from college and work hard,
we will inevitably succeed. “There are so many of us that are one paycheck
away, one accident away, one wrong move away from really being in trouble,”
Shabazz said. “But we’re afraid to admit it. People don’t want to confront the
fact that it’s not the individual’s fault, it’s the system’s failings.”
According to Emma Johnson, who has built a career
offering financial and professional advice to single moms via her
website, “Wealthy Single Mommy,”parents’
shame around financial struggles is often bound up with a sense of ambivalence
about mothers who work, and exacerbated by a culture that fetishizes intensive
parental involvement. “It’s still a status symbol in many communities to be a
stay-at-home mother,” Johnson told me. Some of the single moms of young
children she works with, Johnson said, feel guilty about their difficulties
providing for their kids and about working outside the home.
“There’s a lot of stigma,” for working single parents,
in particular, said Shabazz, who freelanced from home when her son, now 5, was
a preschooler, because she couldn’t afford child care. “But there’s also a lot
of people saying, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ And I’ll think, ‘Do you really
want to know how I do it?’ Netflix is the babysitter, and I keep him steadily
stocked with snacks.”
When it comes to warnings about limiting kids’ screen time, grandparents are, well, grandfathered in.
Emerging from a theater on a recent Sunday, I turned on my phone and found a flurry of texts from my daughter. My 2-year-old granddaughter had just smashed her thumb in a closing restaurant door.
Wincing, I read on:
They were headed for an urgent care clinic.
They were waiting for X-rays.
The thumb was broken and needed a splint.
My granddaughter, who lives in Brooklyn, FaceTimes with her other grandparents out West almost every Sunday, a way to help bridge the distance. I live only about an hour away and serve as her day care provider every Thursday, so I haven’t felt the same need to video chat.
But this was probably the most dramatic event of her young life. My daughter, filling me in by phone afterward, said that Bartola (a family nickname and a nod to the beloved former Mets pitcher Bartolo Colón) wanted to show me her splint. So: FaceTime.
She appeared on my phone, holding up her small hand with an enormous, bandaged thumb that resembled the Facebook “like” symbol.
Bartola: I broke my thumb!
Bubbe (it’s Yiddish for grandma): Ouch, ouch, ouch. That must have hurt.
Bartola: I cried, but then I calmed down.
Bubbe: You were very brave.
She explained that at the doctor’s office, she’d gotten not one but two lollipops. Did that help? Affirmative.
With that conversation, I joined the 38 percent of American grandparents, according to a new AARP survey, who sometimes or often use video chat to communicate with their grandkids. Many more told the researchers they like the idea, even if they haven’t adopted it yet. Forty-five percent of us sometimes or often stay in touch by text; a third use email and 27 percent use Facebook. We are becoming digital grandparents.
And we appear to love it. My own highly unscientific poll found enormous enthusiasm for staying in touch with far-flung grandchildren through digital platforms.
How can Vivian Carasso, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., see and hear her 11-year-old granddaughter in Portugal play the “Star Wars” theme on the piano, and applaud the performer in real time? She relies on FaceTime.
How can Nancy Masson, in upstate New York, virtually attend a heavy metal concert with her teenage grandson in Massachusetts? She follows his Instagram account. “I didn’t want to embarrass him or make him feel self-conscious,” she said, so she asked if he objected. Nope! “He said, ‘That’s fine; you keep right on doing it.’”
When Rosie Cantu travels from San Antonio to visit her 18-month-old granddaughter in Iowa, “the baby comes to me without any hesitation,” she said. “I believe it’s because of all the contact we have through FaceTime,” which allows them to coo at each other almost nightly.
Even non-distant families stay in closer contact with technology. Nancy Kolodny’s 10-year-old grandson lives near her in Norwalk, Conn., but he recently received a wearable device called a GizmoWatch as a birthday gift. Parents can program it to allow kids too young for cellphones to call or text a few preapproved contacts.
Now that he can reach her directly, without a parent as intermediary, “it opens up conversations that I’m not sure would happen otherwise,” Ms. Kolodny reported. “Last week, he texted me: ‘Can you come over? I miss seeing you.’”
I did hear from one naysayer, who thought her toddler granddaughter already spent too much time with electronic devices, thank you. This grandma lived nearby, so she could maintain a close relationship without them.
But despite the many warnings about the effects of “screen time” on young children, the experts I consulted turned out to be partisans of real-time digital communication for grandparents.
“I’m bullish on video chatting,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, who directs the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “It can enhance bonding and recognition.”
But the academy guidelines, he noted, exempt video chat, which is inherently interactive and doesn’t involve the same sped-up pace, overstimulation or passivity as, say, watching cartoons. “I don’t think it should be considered screen time at all,” he said. “It’s something different.”
Though babies under a year old probably won’t engage much via Skype or FaceTime, Dr. Christakis said, he agreed that video chat had worked well for my conversation with Bartola. “It was enriched by her being able to see your facial expressions and your being able to see her splint,” he said. “Facial expressions are incredibly important” — it’s why we use emojis.
Even parents with strict no-screen policies make an exception for video chat, said the developmental psychologist Elisabeth McClure, who led one of the few studies to date, surveying 183 parents of infants and toddlers in the Washington, D.C., area. Eighty-five percent of participants used it, and more than a third used it weekly — primarily, they said, to stay connected to grandparents.
Dr. McClure is living in Denmark now and regularly uses FaceTime herself (starting in her hospital room after delivery) to keep her two young children in touch with family in the States. “It’s not for entertainment or education; it’s about building relationships,” she said.
No longer a special event requiring an appointment, video chat has become a way kids can share everyday events with faraway families. They may want to show grandpa a block tower or a drawing, a tooth that fell out or what the tooth fairy brought.
Dr. McClure and her research team have watched families find imaginative ways to use the technology, dancing and singing together, reciting the piggies rhyme while a parent squeezes the child’s toes, playing hide-and-seek while a parent follows the child around with the phone. “Families are figuring out how to act as the arms and legs of the grandparents,” Dr. McClure said. “It’s just magical.”
I wondered about privacy concerns as children grew older. Would they resist contact with grandparents, feeling spied on via Instagram or coerced into video chatting? But Dr. McClure felt those were the same boundary issues teenagers have always learned to negotiate. “It’s part of growing up,” she said.
And Dr. Christakis noted that children who have grown up with digital communications may have a very different take on privacy. “They don’t have the same expectations or place the same value on it,” he said. Besides, “it’s actually good advice: Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want Grandma to see.”
Of course, digital contact has its limits; some experiences lie beyond the reach of phones and tablets. Lucky Bubbe: I got to see Bartola’s splint in person. I smooch her bumps and bruises and catch her as she hurtles down the playground slide. We share French toast for lunch.
Ms. Carasso, who has grandchildren in Australia as well as Portugal, feels grateful for video chat. “It makes it bearable to be so far apart,” she said.
“But I can’t reach out and give a hug or kisses, and I miss that terribly.”