Thursday, September 28, 2017

Chores: Building Self-Esteem

I'm not particularly fond of the word "chores".  Chores are routine household jobs that we do without thanks and without end.  The word rings of drudgery.  It brings to mind the endless responsibilities of running a farm:  milking the cows, feeding the chickens, weeding the garden, mending fences.....  But even in urban households, chores are essential to the smooth functioning of a family:  cooking, shopping, laundry, cleaning, etc.  Chores are a necessary evil for adults, but they bring rich rewards to children. In fact, assigning chores to children is at the top of my list for building self-esteem, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. I wish there were a different word for chores that would better reflect their positive effect on our children.

Assigning jobs to children is routine practice in early childhood classrooms.  The jobs rotate, usually weekly, so everyone has a turn at each.  Common jobs are weather watcher, line leader, snack helper, attendance monitor, pet feeder.  Children love jobs.  I once overheard a 4 year old say to his friend, "We have the best school because we have jobs".  Jobs for children need to be real; they visibly contribute to the smooth running of the classroom.   Completing these tasks makes a child feel competent; "I can do this. I have value."  The child learns the importance of cooperation and respect.  We are all equally needed to make our group work.  We take care of the school environment because it matters to us.

As early childhood director, I often used jobs as a strategy for helping children who displayed behavioral issues in class.  A spirited child, with lots of energy, can use that energy in positive or negative ways.  Making her responsible for an important class job, say picking up newsletters from the office or holding the door at recess, helps channel that energy positively.  Her ability to complete a task successfully,  combined with her sense of importance to the group, are the makings of self-esteem.  Such a child is much more likely to cooperate with class activities.

Chores at home enforce the same lessons.  Each member of a family assumes a share of the responsibility for the smooth functioning of the home.  A small child can pick up his toys, throw out his trash.  An older child can set the table, clear the table, make his bed.  The older the child, the more she can accomplish.  I like the expression "carry your weight".  The load of the chore should be commensurate with the size/age of the person assigned to it.   Keep in mind however, that you must accept the best your child can do.  She is unlikely to fold towels or slice fruit  the same way you do.  Decide where you can compromise in order to afford your child the feeling of accomplishment.

Children who are expected to do chores at home will gain all the benefits of self-esteem, responsibility, and respect.  In addition, they will acquire important knowledge of how things work, and how to take care of themselves.  One of the most rewarding emails I ever got was from my daughter the year she spent in Israel, between high school and college.  She shared an apartment with several other girls who had no experience keeping house.  She apologized for all the complaining she had done over the years about her household jobs, and explained how shocking it was to wake up to dirty dishes and sticky countertops. Finally disgusted by the dirt, one girl picked up a mop for the first time in her life. She ended up stuck in a corner until the floor dried!

I do not believe that children should be paid for chores.  Every member of the family should be expected to contribute, for the good of all.  I think a weekly allowance is a great idea for kids, but it should not be connected to chores.  The only time I might pay for a chore is if it is something above and beyond expectations.  For example, a child may be expected to put his outdoor toys away, but not necessarily to rake the yard.  Raking might be worth something to a parent, and could teach a lesson in negotiating.  Unlike routine chores however, if a child is to be paid for something, we can expect a higher standard.  My children made their own beds, but I had to train myself to look away and not re-do them.  I wouldn't feel the same way if I were paying for the job.

Many people mistakenly think that a child's self-esteem comes from parents or others telling him how great he is.  No.  Self-esteem can't come from other people.  Self-esteem comes from the knowledge that we are capable; we can contribute to the world.  And the only way to gain that knowledge is to be given the chance to prove ourselves.  Give your child chores, and watch him grow.

Monday, September 25, 2017

What Did You Do In School Today?

Our children spend long hours away from us at school.  Naturally, we are eager to know about their experiences:  are they happy, well-liked, understood, appreciated? ; are they challenged, engaged in learning, finding new interests?  Many parents eagerly await their children at home and ask, "How was school today?  What did you do?", only to hear "Good.  Nothing.".  Huh?

There are a few children who recall the day's events from start to finish and are happy to share with their parents, but they are in the minority.  By the time most children get home from school, they are done.  They're ready for the next part of the day.  Children are completely invested in the present moment.  Their energy is spent on the activities of now, with minimal thought or interest in back then.  Yet there are many good reasons, aside from our own curiosity, to help them review their school day.  One reason is that reviewing the day helps children acquire a concept of time.  Putting the day's events in order teaches sequencing and forms a framework for understanding the parts of a day.  In addition, mentally revisiting interesting activities strengthens the learning that was gained; sort of like reviewing for a test.  As a child recalls building a zoo with blocks, she remembers finding the right shapes and animals, the give-and-take involved with another child in completing the construction, and the stories they made up to go along with it.  This review is a valuable process for children and our interest shows them the importance that we place on their learning activities.

Before we attempt to talk with our children about school, we have to be clear that they are ready to have a conversation.   A child who arrives home hungry or tired cannot engage in any meaningful activity until those needs are met.  A healthy snack and some quiet play should be the priority.  When you feel the time is right, here are some suggestions to help your child open up about his/her day.

1.  Try to avoid starting a question with  "Did you.....".   Young children are still in the "magic years".  They don't lie, but they don't always distinguish between fantasy and reality.  Answers to  "Did you...."  require only a "yes" or "no" and may not even be true.  One of my favorite quotes is from my daughter's Pre-K teacher:  "If you promise not to believe everything your child says about school, I promise not to believe everything she says about home."

2.  A better idea is to look for a "hook".  Anything your child brings home from school can be a springboard for conversation:  artwork, a teacher note or text, even a dirty shirt!  "I see you have something orange on your shirt.  Where did that come from?" .  (And be happy -- dirt is proof of fun!)  Or, "Your teacher wrote that you have a new hamster in the class.  Tell me about it".

3.  Ask your child to think about something he might like to do in school tomorrow.  "What is the first thing you want to play with in school tomorrow?  When you come home, I'd like to hear all about it".

4.  Challenge your children to think of one fun thing that happened each day.  My daughter does this with her 7 children.  At dinner, each child has a turn to tell something happy or positive that happened during the day.   Great bonding activity, and great way to build gratitude.

Opening conversations about children's school day is part of sharing our lives with them.  Discovering what interests them most will give us the opportunity to build on their strengths  and work with them in paving their way through school and life.  

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Tradition: The Story of Us

As I prepare for Rosh Hashana, I can't help but think about the myriad traditions in our lives and the important role that they play in shaping our identities.  I have so many fond childhood memories of holidays and yearly outings with my parents and siblings.  My own children still talk about vacations and holidays from their childhood. And now we are building new traditions for their children.  Many family traditions center on holidays:  visiting extended family and friends; preparing special foods; exchanging gifts; sending greeting cards; maybe visiting a house of worship.  Our memories of those special times and the unique ways our family marked them occupy a special place in our hearts. They spark rich conversations between the generations in a family, providing a connection between the past and the present.  

The traditions we practice as children give us a sense of self.  A child sees himself as part of a family who celebrates in its own way.  This is who we are.  This is what we do.  This feeling of belonging gives children security, as does the predictability of holiday celebrations.  Similar to daily routines, when our children know what to expect, they feel more in control, calmer, and safer. 

Traditions are not only about holidays.  Many families create traditions around birthdays or other occasions. Traditions can be any activity that we do together again and again at specific times; once a year, once a season, once a month.  When I was a little girl, my family used to go to an amusement park called PlayLand every summer.  My parents would wave to me and my brother and sister as we went on the rides.  We would laugh with the thrill of being spun around, and our parents would smile with joy at making their children happy.  When I became a mother, my parents continued the tradition and brought me and my family to PlayLand every summer.  It was so much fun to wave to my children as they went on the rides, and very special to watch my mother wave to them!!   Even when I became a grandmother, my parents continued the PlayLand tradition.  A special memory is the summer my dad had just gotten out of the hospital and insisted on taking us to PlayLand.  We got him a wheelchair to ease the burden of all the walking, but he used it to push the cooler!!  My dad passed away several years ago, but my mother still brings us all to PlayLand every summer, waving at her great grandchildren as they go on the familiar rides.

There is also a beautiful gift for adults who share traditions with young children, which is the ability to see those traditions in a new light.  As we experience life through the eyes of our children, many tired, old actions seem fresh and new.  A child's participation in a family holiday or tradition reinvigorates the adults around her to invest more attention to time-honored practices.  It's joyful to observe children as they introduce their own personalities, actions, and reactions to things so utterly familiar to us.

The traditions that we create for our children form the story of their lives.  Think back on the family traditions of your childhood, and the ways in which they are now part of who you are. How do you want your children to remember the holidays?  What are some things that you can you do to make those special times more meaningful?  Know that the family traditions you create now will live on in your children's memories and bind them to you forever.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Discipline: Key to Maturity

Does anyone use the word discipline anymore?  It seems to have fallen into the "politically incorrect" category; words we shouldn't say because they're offensive.  Discipline has become equated with punishment, and we don't talk about punishment.  The word punishment is harsh. It's too close to "abuse".  Modern psychology teaches us to treat children kindly, with respect and empathy.  We use positive language and methods to shape behavior, not punishment.  But confusing discipline with punishment is hurting our children.   Discipline means training.  Disciplining children is the act of setting appropriate limits so that they learn to develop self-control.  It's about raising our children to be responsible adults.  

Participating in a civilized society means accepting the limits imposed by a governing body.  We have a system of laws in our country, states, and cities.  We follow codes of conduct prescribed by our workplaces and schools.  We agree to terms and conditions before joining clubs and online sites.  As a microcosm of society, the limits set at home by parents predict a child's development as a capable, responsible citizen.

Though it may seem counter intuitive, living and working within established limits is actually liberating.  Only when we know the do's and don'ts are we capable of making a choice. If there are no rules, there are no ethical decisions.  That's not freedom, it's licentiousness:  unrestrained behavior; every man for himself.  On the other hand, behavioral guidelines give us the power to make our own choices and most importantly, to live with the consequences of those choices.  

Any set of limits is accompanied by consequences.  We know in advance the consequences to expect from breaking a rule . For example, if a driver speeds, he knows that he is liable to get a ticket.  If we come to work drunk and curse out our co-workers, we won't be surprised to get fired.  These are not punishments, they are consequences. The same should apply at home.  If a child uses her markers to draw on a wall, she is showing that she is not yet ready to play independently with markers.  It's fair to take them away and only allow her to use them with supervision.  A child who pops a water balloon in the house will have to mop up the mess. As children navigate the limits at home and school, they become aware of the consequences of their choices.  They learn to internalize limits and control their behavior.

I recently went to a lecture where the speaker described an example of discipline.  A young child climbed on the kitchen table and threw a glass on the floor.  His mother came into the kitchen, gave him a quick spank, and swept up the glass.  The next day, a chicken jumped on the kitchen table and knocked down a glass.  The little boy was delighted.  He couldn't wait to see the chicken get spanked.  But when the mother came in the kitchen, she simply shooed the chicken away and swept up the glass.  "Why didn't you spank the chicken?", he asked.  A chicken is just a chicken.  A boy can learn to be better.

Limits and their consequences are set by parents, and vary widely from home to home.  To be most effective, limits should be reasonable.  Each rule should have a clear, logical purpose.  For example, we limit the amount of candy our children can eat because they need healthy food to grow.  We don't let them handle fire or machinery because it's dangerous.  We set an early bedtime because sleep is essential to their well-being.   Before deciding to impose a rule or limit, it is important to ensure that it aligns with our values and goals in raising our children.  Too many, unreasonable restrictions can be harsh and cause  children to rebel and  lie.  On the other hand, parents who don't set limits risk raising selfish, rude young people.  Our goal is to find a balance.  To insist on behaviors that lead to a healthy mind, body, and spirit. 

As parents, we have the monumental job of raising a new generation. We love our children more than anything in the world.  But they are not our equals.  They are not our friends. They are our responsibility. They have been entrusted to us.  Children need us to create an environment with healthy limits and consequences so that they can grow to be principled, self-disciplined adults. Self-control is the mark of maturity.  What better gift can we give the world?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

My Child Hates to Read!

Learning to read is an exhilarating milestone for young children and their parents, much like the first step in learning to walk. Reading is an entryway to literate, educated adulthood and we are astonished to see our baby toddle his/her way to its threshold.  Parents who are themselves avid readers may be especially thrilled to share this cherished interest with their children.  And certainly every parent is excited to see their child  achieve an important tool for success. But not everybody likes to read.  What happens when our children aren't interested, or worse, dislike reading? 

 Many adults I know lead happy, fulfilling lives without reading much.  More introverted people (like me) thrive on alone time and reading is a perfect pastime. While I read, I mentally interact with the author, transcribing his/her concepts and imagery to feed my own thoughts and mental images. I developed a love of reading as a young child, as a place to explore the world of ideas, where I found myself to be most comfortable. During elementary school, there were times when I would  spend an entire day reading a book from cover to cover.  Even today, I probably read a book a week.

Among my friends, I was in the minority.  Many people prefer more action in their free time:  interacting with others, chatting on the phone, playing sports or card games. They are less comfortable engaging in the quiet act of reading.  There's no value judgment.  In my own family, some of my children and grandchildren enjoy reading for fun and others don't.  Readers and non readers are equally intelligent, happy, successful.  The problem for children who don't like to read is that they must be good readers to succeed in school.  So, how can we encourage them to read at home when they find it a chore?

The very best strategy to help our children along their path to reading is to read to them. An emotional connection to reading develops from the warmth and closeness of mom and/or dad sharing special time with their child. Moreover, reading aloud to children introduces them to important reading strategies.  For example, they learn that we read top to bottom, left to right.  (If you think that's a small detail, consider the fact that my 2 year old flipping the pages of her picture book backwards was the impetus for my conversion to Judaism!)  They learn meaning through our tone and expression, and with picture cues.   In books with repetitive text (such as "and he was still hungry" in Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar), children learn to predict, and often begin to associate letters with sounds.

If a young child does not enjoy books, it may be that the selection is too wordy.  Try paraphrasing, or just pointing to the pictures and describing what you see.  Wordless books can be lots of fun, as are song books:  "Old Macdonald", "Baby Beluga", "Over in the Meadow".  And most children love pop-up books like  "Where's Spot?" and nursery rhymes and songs, "Mary Had a Little Lamb", "Humpty Dumpty".  So many childhood memories are crafted around these books for little ones, and each of them builds beginning reading skills.

Reading aloud is just as valuable for children who are already readers, particularly for those who don't like to read . They also benefit from the special attention and close bonds of reading with mom or dad.  For an older child, choose a topic that interests him/her.  Reading a chapter a night before bed, perhaps of a classic children's book, will allow his body to rest and leave his mind free to think and imagine. He will gain all the benefits of reading without having to struggle to sound out words or intone expression.  Eventually, he may decide to pick up the book on his own. 

A child should not be coerced to read independently.  Reading should never be a punishment. It's fun! Recognize any steps your child takes toward independent reading with interest and positive reinforcement.  And know that reading is not exclusive to books. Comics or age-appropriate magazines work just as well at building reading skills.

Even people who don't read a book a week find pleasure in reading.  Share that with your children.  Keep lots of reading material around the house. Take pride in their steps, and enjoy the journey.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Separation Anxiety: Parents

In one of my previous posts, "Back to School", I wrote about easing the anxieties of young children who are entering school programs for the first time. It's important to acknowledge that parents also experience anxiety when separating from their children.  In fact, parents' anxieties probably outweigh the children's fears. Moreover, our separation anxiety is not limited to starting school.  We'll have to say goodbye to our children many, many times as they grow up.  And it does not get easier.

Leaving a child in a daycare or toddler program is often the first prolonged separation.  We choose the program that best fits our family.  We're comfortable with the facilities, agree with the program's mission and educational philosophy, and trust the faculty. We've done our homework.  We've prepared our child.  Now the time comes to say goodbye.  Ouch.

As an early childhood educator, I have found that the very best way to say goodbye is to make it short and sweet.  The worst thing to do is linger.  One memorable mom brought her 2 year old to the first day of school.  He joined a group at the play-doh table and quickly engaged in play.  But the mom couldn't tear herself away.  She stood near him for several minutes saying, "I'm leaving";  "Goodbye"; "See you later"; "Here I go"; until he finally broke down in tears.  Is that what she secretly hoped for?

It will always hurt to say goodbye to our children.  But that's our job as parents.  We learn when and how to let go, bit by bit, until they're fully independent.  The first day of school will be followed by the first play date, first sleep-over, first time crossing the street, first time at sleep-away camp, first time home alone, first time driving..........

Parenting is incredibly hard work, usurping all of our resources:  physical, mental, emotional, financial.  It brings both great joy and deep pain.  We want our children to grow up as independent, capable, emotionally healthy adults; and the only way to do this is to let them go.  It hurts to separate from our children because of our deep, eternal connection to them.  But when we do our homework and let them go, we gift them with their purpose in life---to grow, to thrive, and to find their own path.

Ironically, children who are raised to be independent never really leave us.  They recognize and appreciate our trust and support in their journey toward independence.  As that appreciation strengthens over time, they become our life- long "friends".

Regardless of the age/stage of separation, your tears are normal.  Your baby is growing up.  Gird yourself before you say goodbye.  Put a smile on your face.  Pat yourself on the back for sending a self-sufficient citizen into the world.  Then go home to a box of Kleenex and a quart of ice cream.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Sibling Rivalry

I had very dear friends in high school who were identical twins.  The first time I ever saw them, they were fighting in the hallway.  One yelled at the other, "You're so ugly!"; and her sister responded "Oh yeah, well look in the mirror!".  I thought it was hysterical.

Siblings fight.  It's natural.  And fighting breaks parents' hearts, every time.  If my children ever asked me what I'd like for my birthday or Mothers Day, I always gave them the same answer:  "Peace.  I want one day without fighting".  I never got my wish. But now that they are parents themselves, they absolutely understand where I was coming from. One of my daughters recently told me that she never understood why the fights upset me so much.She thought it was obvious that they really loved each other.  Now however, she knows the heartache of listening to her children fight.  It hurts!  I believe that is why the Golden Rule, "Love Your Neighbor As Yourself" is so prominent across cultures and religions.  Fighting among His children pains our Father in heaven. 

I do not believe that we can prevent siblings from fighting with each other. It's easy to understand the underlying jealousy of sharing one's parents, the most beloved people in the world to a child, with someone else. A child knows she is loved, and unconsciously thinks, "Why aren't I enough?".  When my daughter was very pregnant with her second child, her three year old tried to put his arms around her big belly and sobbed, "I don't want a baby!".  She and I both broke down in tears.  How can a child understand a parent's love?

I once learned in a psychology class that sibling relationships are practice for social behaviors outside the home.  At home, with brothers and sisters, children can test different actions and behaviors and learn how others might respond.  Though it's sometimes hard to see, deep down they really love each other, so they feel safe to experiment.  They are definitely more on their guard with people outside the home.  But that's no comfort to a harried parent whose children seem to be at each other's throats much of the time.  If we can't prevent sibling rivalry, how can we manage it so that our home is not a war zone?

Children are complex individuals, just like us.  There's no one-size-fits-all remedy for challenging behaviors.  But over the years, I've figured out a few strategies that can help. The goal is not necessarily to stop the fights, but rather to teach our children appropriate ways to express their anger, hurt, and frustration.  Here are some tips:

1.  If at all possible, do not get involved.  The ideal scenario is children reconciling their differences independently.  

2.  Do not buy into "But she started it".  Everyone is responsible for their actions.  If a child is unhappy with the way his sister is treating him, he needs tools to control his reaction.  Anger is okay, frustration is okay, emotions are real and should be acknowledged.  But violence is not okay.  We can give our children the words they need and actions they can take to respond without violence.  Starting a fight is wrong, but so is fighting back. 

3.  Control your own emotions.  Sometimes, children's fights can push all our buttons, sending us into a screaming frenzy. We are intimately connected to our children, so being objective is impossibly difficult.  But that's what we should strive for in managing their strong emotions.  Understand that fighting among siblings is perfectly normal.  It's unlikely that our children are sociopaths.  They are not purposely trying to "get us".  And their fights do not make us "bad parents".  We need to be most in control of ourselves when they are out of control.  

4.  Saying "sorry" is not enough.  Most of the time, children are not sorry for their actions, especially very young children who can only see life through their own eyes.  "Sorry" often becomes a magic word that children thoughtlessly verbalize in order to erase their mistakes.  It might be more effective to challenge our children to find a way to make their brother feel better, and to think of more appropriate ways to behave next time they're faced with a particular situation.  Actually replaying that situation with new behaviors can be a powerful learning experience, and once the tears are dried, children usually find it fun.

5.  With very young children, try to have doubles of favorite toys.  Turn-taking and sharing are learned skills that take time to master. While it's nice for a child to share her toy, she should not be forced.  Private property is a democratic right, and having control over some possessions is empowering for young children.  Our job is to guide them to share, demonstrating kindness, and to applaud their efforts.

Sibling rivalry is as old as Cain and Abel.  As they grow, children learn to manage their feelings and even appreciate their once annoying siblings.  Working with them along the way and maintaining our own sense of peace is one more of the many challenges of parenting.