Archive for July, 2012

July 31, 2012

Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

I loved Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I read it only because two reviewers have compared my work with Joanne Foster to it. One described our work as an ‘antidote to the Tiger Mother’; the other commented that we provide a good balance between the Tiger Mother approach and laissez-faire parenting. We write about how parents can instill the good habits of mind that lead to high-level achievement over time—Amy Chua’s focus—while respecting their children’s individuality and nurturing their independence—which she decries as Western nonsense, at least in the first 3/4 of her book.

I loved the tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating tone of Tiger Mother, and found parts of it amusing, and other parts poignant. I also had the normal Western reactions to the verbal abuse Chua heaped on her daughters, and to the list of rules at the beginning. I was appalled that young children would be subjected to such draconian regimentation—three hours piano practice seven days a week, no free time for play, ridicule for anything less than first place in anything, no permission to participate in school plays or other extracurricular activities, and more. Over the course of the book, though, I came to like Amy Chua and her family. I found it interesting to read about their attempts to resolve the seemingly-impossible conflicts between the absolute brutal authority of a Chinese Tiger mother, and the kind, caring parenting of a Western Jewish father, in the context of a liberal American culture. Daughters Sophia and Lulu came through as wonderful personalities in their own right, making large contributions (eventually) to Chua’s development as a parent.

Chua is clear at the beginning of the book that there are lots of non-Chinese people, including many Westerners, who implement what she calls Chinese parenting practices, as well as some Chinese parents (mostly 2nd generation, and living in the United States, she says) who parent in what she terms Western ways.

Although not Chinese, I was born in the year of the Tiger myself, and admire Chua’s commitment to her children gaining self-respect and confidence through hard work and achievement, rather than hollow platitudes and praise. I also like her focus on perseverance, practice, and accomplishment, and agree with her that those are the most satisfying and self-esteem-building goals in the long run. I don’t like her attitude, however, that free play is a waste of time, her lack of respect for children’s individuality, and her disregard for children’s need to discover for themselves what it is they want to invest their time in. I found her status consciousness deeply troubling, including her belief that top-level prizes and awards matter so terribly much, and that anything other than Ivy League acceptance is embarrassing.

Chua makes some good observations about the differences between Western and Chinese parenting. For example, she writes “Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

These are not mutually exclusive values and attitudes, however. It’s quite possible to respect children’s individuality, and also support the development of good work habits. It doesn’t require a whole lot of yelling, pressure, and fighting, either, which (in my opinion) Chua’s home had way too much of. Finding that balance is about parents being flexibly responsive to their children—a concept that Chua would have an impossible time accepting, I suspect—while simultaneously setting age-appropriate rules and boundaries. One thing a parent has to give up if she’s going to achieve this balance is the demand that her children place first in everything the parent values—in Chua’s case that meant all the ‘important’ subjects at school, plus piano and violin, at extraordinarily high levels.

More than anything else, I think Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother provides a cautionary tale for high-achieving over-scheduling status-conscious parents. Lulu in particular, with her fierce need to assert her own will, forced her mother to back off, and let her children begin to create and live their own lives. To the extent that this book is about Chua’s growth as a parent, I applaud it.

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July 21, 2012

Victims, Bullies, & Bullying: Not always what you think

A post from Online Education Data Base, reviewing the research findings on bullies, victims, and bullying, with important implications for parents and teachers–

http://oedb.org/library/beginning-online-learning/10-telling-psychology-studies-on-the-nature-of-bullying

For me, the take-home messages are that (1) bullying is way more complicated than most people realize; (2) bullies need as much compassion, support, and attention as their (apparent) victims; and (3) zero-tolerance programs and punishments hardly ever do more than make the enforcers feel good about doing something

July 4, 2012

R&R for the Brain: It’s Good to Do Nothing Sometimes

July 3, 2012

New research is showing the importance to our brain’s best work of making sure we build time into our busy lives for reflection, introspection, and imagination—with electronic devices and access to social media turned off. This is as true for children as it is for adults.

In an article entitled “Rest Is Not Idleness” in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her colleagues consider what’s happening when our brains are wakefully resting. According to these authors, fMRI data shows that when there’s little by way of external stimulation or intellectual effort required, our minds wander, engaging in a default mode of restful neural processing that is usually suppressed when our attention is focused on the outside world.

In their survey of the literature from neuroscience and psychological science, they conclude that brain systems activated during rest are important for certain kinds of social and emotional processing. These systems are important for our intellectual and psychological functioning, and are associated both with mental health and with cognitive abilities like reading comprehension and divergent thinking. Learning, memory, and well-being are implicated; Immordino-Yang and her colleagues argue that research on the brain at rest can shed light on the importance of reflection and quiet time for learning.

They discuss practical implications of this research for education. “We focus on the outside world in education and don’t look much at inwardly focused reflective skills and attentions, but inward focus impacts the way we build memories, make meaning and transfer that learning into new contexts. What are we doing in schools to support kids turning inward?”

The authors observe that while outward attention is essential for carrying out tasks and learning from classroom lessons, the reflection and consolidation that can accompany mind wandering is equally important, fostering healthy development and learning over the long run. As with so much else, balance is the key. Attention to content mastery is critically important, but time spent reflecting and imagining—appearing to do nothing, to daydream, or waste time—can actually improve the quality of outward attention that people can sustain. Mindful reflection is also essential to our ability to make sense of the world around us. It contributes to the development of moral reasoning, and is linked with overall well-being.

Immordino-Yang and her colleagues warn that the high attention demands of urban and digital environments—very much including social media—may be distracting young people from looking inward and reflecting, and that this could have a negative impact on their psychological development. They write, “Consistently imposing overly high-attention demands on children, either in school, through entertainment, or through living conditions, may rob them of opportunities to advance from thinking about ‘what happened’ or ‘how to do this’ to constructing knowledge about ‘what this means for the world and for the way I live my life.’”

This research provides valuable information for parents. It suggests that children who are given the time and skills they need for mindful introspection, reflection, and contemplation, will be more motivated, be less anxious, perform better on tests, and plan more effectively for the future. It also suggests that parents should be modelling reflection and contemplation themselves, maybe even giving themselves permission for a bit of daydreaming now and then.

In Being Smart about Gifted Education and elsewhere, Joanne Foster and I emphasize the importance to children’s best development of what we’ve called ‘do-nothing times.’ It seems that current scientific research is providing compelling evidence for just that.

Journal reference:

Authors: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou, and Vanessa Singh

Article full title: ‘“Rest Is Not Idleness”: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education’

Journal: Perspectives on Psychological Science  http://pps.sagepub.com/content/current

Abstract: http://pps.sagepub.com/content/7/4/352.abstract

Article: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww-rcf.usc.edu%2F~immordin%2Fpapers%2FI-Y_et_al_REST%25202012.pdf

Thank you to Rebecca McMillan and The Brain Cafe for bringing this to my attention!

July 3, 2012

Emotional Attunement: Good Food for Babies’ Brains

Warm, caring, attentive human connection is as essential to babies’ developing brains as food and sleep are to their physical growth.

An emerging area of science is demonstrating something that most parents know instinctively, and that attachment theorists have known for a long time: When an infant’s mother is calm–even in the face of daily disasters such as the baby’s hunger, exhaustion, or discomfort–the child absorbs and acquires a capacity for calm self-soothing. When his mother is distressed or agitated, the baby absorbs and learns that.

‘Attachment neurobiology,’ ‘biological synchronicity,’ ‘limbic resonance,’ and ‘mommy mind-meld’ are some of the names being given to emerging findings that show the deep connections that are formed at the brain level between infants and their adult nurturers. All of these terms, including ‘mommy mind-meld,’ refer to an infant’s experience primarily with her mother, but also with any other adult with whom she has a strong, nurturing connection, including a father, grandparent, or other close, caring, and consistent person in her life.

In a recent blog, Mary Axness discusses the science behind this phenomenon. She cites the research of neurobiology pioneer Allan Schore, who describes the mother as ‘downloading emotion programs into the infant’s right brain,’ and the child as using the mother’s right hemisphere as a template for the imprinting and hard wiring of circuits in his own right hemisphere, giving the child a template for mediating his emotional experiences.

Axness also discusses problems with all of the electronic engagement-replacements available today—television, videos, Baby Einstein, iPhones, iPads, and other computerized programs designed for babies. These may appear to give a sense of engagement, but excessive use of these media devices is actually associated with delayed language development. In 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics went on record against using electronic media with children younger than the age of two, stating that they ‘probably interfere with the crucial wiring being laid down in their brains during early development.’ In the ensuing media debate on the topic, an AAP spokesperson declared that ‘parents hoping to raise baby Einsteins by using infant educational videos are actually creating baby Homer Simpsons.’

Understanding the power of infants’ connections to their parents as ‘mind-melds’, where babies are downloading certain aspects of their caregivers’ brains—is a great argument for parents and other caregivers to take very good care of their own mental health. In addition to all the basics for good physical and emotional health (good nutrition, regular exercise, as good a sleep regime as possible), caregivers might consider integrating yoga, journal-keeping, mindfulness, meditation, or other reflective, mind-calming practices into their lives.

Another practice to consider is conscious attunement to sources of gratitude. The fields of positive psychology and psychoneuroimmunology demonstrate the ways that the choice to feel appreciation for what one has in one’s life (and to combat feelings of entitlement and resentment) changes the level of oxytocin available, thereby changing one’s attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours. A parent who attunes regularly to her sources of gratitude provides a clearer, more positive mind for her baby to meld with, thus giving her baby a better start on creating a good life for himself.

For more information:

My inspiration for this blog: Mommy Mind Meld blog by Marcy Axness: http://mothering.com/all-things-mothering/mothering/nourish-infant-brain-development-with-the-mommy-mind-meld

A great background resource for people interested in the science behind these ideas:  Schore, A. N. Attachment and the Regulation of the Right Brain. Attachment and Human Development 2, no. 1 (2000): 23-47.

For more on the effects of media use on infants’ development, see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.01027.x/full  for an article by Dimitri Christakis, called The Effects of Infant Media Usage: What Do We Know and What Should We Learn? Acta Paediactrica 98 (2009): 8-16. Christakis’ conclusions: ‘No studies to date have demonstrated benefits associated with early infant TV viewing. The preponderance of existing evidence suggests the potential for harm. Parents should exercise due caution in exposing infants to excessive media.’

For more on the power of gratitude to change our minds, see Laura Markham: http://www.ahaparenting.com/_blog/Parenting_Blog/post/How_to_Change_Your_Happiness_Set_Point_with_Gratitude/

For more on similar topics:

Raising Smarter Kids blog: www.raisingsmarterkids.net

July 3, 2012

Playtime and Chores

March 21, 2012

Why is it that some children seem to enjoy doing household chores, whereas others do everything they can to avoid anything that looks like work? Many of the most successful and productive adults have described their work as feeling like play. There is emerging evidence that the roots of mastery and achievement lie in early play experiences.

We got some interesting responses to my blog on playtime, where I made a case for kids needing lots of unstructured time to do what they want to do. I cited some research showing its importance in children’s development, including the increased likelihood of kids happily and voluntarily involving themselves in clean-up when they’re given enough time for child-directed play.

From Luc, we heard this about his son, Felix:

“Unstructured playtime”, I think that’s what Felix has been doing all his
life. He didn’t want Pokemon or Playstation. As a toddler, he was always ‘constructing’ something, using carton boxes, home furniture, ropes…
I remember having breakfast standing up, because I didn’t have time to
untangle the chairs he had tied together in a ‘construction’.

One thing’s for sure: “to take ownership of their own learning and their own
environments” is happening right now. He’s studying “morphology”, “syntaxis”, “linguistic sciences”, ancient Greek, colloquial Norwegian… while reading many books.

However, it looks like I missed one part somewhere along the route:
“co-operate independently in cleaning up after a free-choice period”.
Perhaps that’s related to my office desk looking like a garbage dump most
 of the time?

The same day that this note arrived from Luc, I read a delightful blog posted by Kelly Bartlett, the author of a blog called Parenting from Scratch. She describes herself as a ‘Certified Positive Discipline Educator who lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, children, and way too many pets.’

In her blog on chores, Kelly laid out what I recognize (from years of work as a developmental psychologist specialising in gifted development) to be a brilliant step-by-step plan for helping children acquire mastery in anything. She’s applying her plan to chores, but the same concepts apply just as well to musical, mathematical, linguistic, athletic, or any other kind of mastery.

Kelly writes:

When it comes to doing chores, there is a positive approach that can be summed up in two words: Take Time.

To teach, that is. Chores, while seemingly straightforward to us parents who do them all the time, take time for kids to learn. And we need to take time to teach them. And to expect independence with them. And also to form a habit of them. Oh, and enjoyment of them. Well, we might be waiting a LONG time for that one!

But promises of rewards and threats of consequences aren’t necessary as long as the chore-learning process is cooperative and encouraging. In our house, “We do it together,” is our motto right now, with an addendum of, “(until you can do it alone)” to come later. Here are the four steps that help us get there:

1. Model. They see me do stuff first.

2. They help me. I get to have an assistant.

3. I help them. Now it is their turn to take the lead.

4. They do it alone. We’ve done it enough times together that it is not unreasonable to expect them to get a job done on their own.

Of course, the length of time to get through this 4-step teaching process depends on the task. Getting the dog her food is much less complicated than cleaning one’s bedroom.

For big tasks, break the job up.  Make the bed. Put toys away. Pick up clothes. Vacuum. Clear dishes. Throw away garbage. Wipe surfaces. Each one is its own learning process. That’s why it’s overwhelming to say, “Clean your room,” and expect it to be done quickly and without supervision/ direction/ guidance/ help.

Here are some jobs that my kids were able to handle alone at various ages:

Age 1-2 (not expecting perfection)

  • dusting
  • fruit & veggie prep (washing & drying)
  • choosing clothes

Age 3-4 (also not expecting perfection, and expecting some “No’s)

  • setting table
  • folding laundry
  • getting dressed

Age 5-7

  • vacuuming
  • measure ingredients
  • pack own carry-on for trips

Though my kids can do these kinds of jobs on their own, I still expect to give directions as to when they need to be done. I don’t expect them to notice on their own and take the initiative to do some chores (except when the toilet needs to be plunged…that takes no prompting for JJ). At their ages, they simply have other priorities than I do. I think the first time I started taking initiative for doing chores is when I had my own house! That’s when it began to matter to me.

What if they say “No,” or argue when it’s time to do chores? My answer is, “Yes, let’s do it together.” Even if it’s a task that I know they can do on their own, they may simply be needing some extra encouragement right then. So my answer is, “Yes, it needs to get done. Let’s do it together.” I break the job up into “You do this and I’ll do that…” No arguing, negotiating, reasoning, bribing or threatening…just cooperation and some re-teaching. I expect to remind my kids often to do chores. I expect to teach them (“do it together”) for a long time. I remind myself that their whole childhood is time for teaching. Like me, my kids may not exhibit “proactive-chore-behavior” until they’ve moved out into their own place. But because of the years I’ve invested teaching chores and instilling the importance of getting jobs done, it will be second nature to tackle their own chores with confidence.

To see Kelly’s entire blog (from which this was excerpted), including great photographs, go to

http://parentingfromscratch.wordpress.com/

Luc’s story illustrates the value of free unstructured play, and it also demonstrates the importance of parents’ modeling the kind of behaviour they want to see in their kids. As Luc says, the fact that his desk is a mess is a clue to why Felix doesn’t volunteer for clean-up. And sometimes—specially if the creative free play has gone on for a while and resulted in a giant mess—clean-up can be daunting, which is where Kelly’s blog comes in. Her approach to chores illustrates the scaffolding—step-by-step support— kids need for learning anything. The more complex the task, the more scaffolding is needed. When this is embedded in normal daily life, the way Kelly describes, it becomes second nature, and kids are given a giant gift—it will be easier for them to achieve whatever they decide they want to achieve.

For more about how important chores are, and how to help kids learn to do them happily, go to http://www.worrywisekids.org/node/125

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July 3, 2012

Playtime! Possibly the Best Learning of All

February 22, 2012

Children need more unstructured playtime in their lives. They need time enough to get bored. If they’re going to learn and grow and achieve as much as they can in the long run, they need ample opportunities to develop their self-regulation, imagination, self-awareness, and other important life skills.

Over the past few decades, playtime has become more about things—toys, educational puzzles, electronic games, etc.—than about imagination and activities that children invent for themselves. It’s also become a lot more adult-directed, with an eye on academic learning and productive use of children’s time, a lot less child-directed and apparently aimless. Instead of being filled with spontaneous improvisation and discovery, children’s time is increasingly being scheduled by adults and gobbled up by electronic devices.

While many parents think that an increased focus on the productive use of their children’s time will give their kids a leg up in the competitions to get into the best preschools, schools, and—eventually—colleges and universities, there is increasing evidence that it does the opposite. By robbing kids of ample time for imagination, exploration, and collaborative invention, we are taking away essential opportunities for them to develop the skills prerequisite to real achievement and fulfillment over time.

Self-regulation skills include managing and controlling one’s feelings, moods, behaviour, and intellectual focus. Like self-regulation, collaboration skills and self-awareness are key components of emotional intelligence, which is a much better predictor of academic, career, and other kinds of success than IQ or other intellectual or academic ability scores.

Kids who spend good chunks of their time building forts, playing house, or constructing narratives of pirates, paupers, cowboys, and circus clowns are more likely to take ownership of their own learning and their own environments. Interestingly, they’re also more likely to co-operate independently in cleaning up after a free-choice period in preschool. In an interview on National Public Radio in the USA, child development expert Laura Berk reported, ‘Children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that [clean-up] responsibility with greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting.’ (To see the complete article, go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19212514)

Although it may look like they’re wasting time or doing nothing much at all, kids involved in imaginative play may be investing their time as productively as possible for the long run. When they’re making up their own rules and their own games, they’re learning about themselves and others, exploring and finding out what they like doing, what they want to learn more about, and how to interact successfully with others. So, let’s not insist on giving kids the scripts and the props we think they need for their play, but rather, let’s allow them to find and invent their own ways of playing and learning, at least for good parts of their day.

Children do need planned stimulation and enrichment opportunities—classes, clubs, puzzles, building toys, educational activities, museums, performances, outings, etc.—but their lives shouldn’t be so jammed with these good things that there’s no time left for imagination and unstructured playtime. Somewhat counter-intuitively, too much focus on enrichment and achievement can actually impede their cognitive and emotional development. Do-nothing times can be the most productive times of all.

July 3, 2012

What Does It Mean If a Child Is ‘Scary Smart’?

January 17, 2012

‘People have told me that my little girl is “scary smart”. Is that going to be a problem for her as she gets older?’

‘Kids shouldn’t be allowed to get ahead of themselves. If someone’s already great at math, let him learn about reading or develop his social skills.’

‘I’d rather be normal than super-smart.’

In my work with families and schools over the years, parents have sometimes confided that friends, relatives, or even teachers have described their kids as ‘scary smart’. I’ve also heard similar ideas from teachers or parents who question whether or not it’s okay to let children learn more than what’s expected for their age levels, and from kids who experience being unusually smart as meaning they’re ostracized by other kids and even adults.

A lot of things can underlie observations and questions like these, but very often, what people are really talking about are their own concerns. They wonder if they have what it takes to parent their energetically curious child who surprises them with what they know, teach students who have IQ scores higher than their own, or “be” extremely bright. Sometimes they’ve encountered critical reactions from friends and family members, and sometimes they’re worried about the praise, suspicion, envy, or expectations that can come when kids are noticeably ahead of ‘normal’.

My response to observations, questions, and concerns like this is to talk about what very high intelligence is, and what it isn’t. A lot of people think it’s a mysterious gift that some people are born with, and that others aren’t. But, the more that scientists learn about how the brain develops, the more it turns out that intelligence is actually an ongoing process that depends very much on the temperament and will of the individual child, as well as the environment that the child experiences at home and then, later, at school. Intelligence-building does involve genetic predispositions, but it is also dependent upon all those moment-by-moment environmental influences and learning opportunities that make up infants’, toddlers’, and older children’s experiences of life and the world. It’s not nearly so mysterious – or frightening – as some people seem to think.

From where I sit, highly intelligent or unusually “gifted” children are not scary creatures at all, but rather they are young people who are actively engaged in interesting developmental processes that are more complex than—but not as mysterious as–often imagined. They are experiencing what’s been called a ‘rage to master’, and they’ve been blessed with the kinds of social support and opportunities to learn that they need in order to pursue whatever it is they are raging to master. In my opinion, exceptionally high intelligence is a healthy and positive developmental process, and totally ‘normal’ within the context of particular circumstances. By looking at it this way, fears and concerns about kids who are ‘scary smart’ melt away, and parents, teachers, and children become free to continue engaging in enjoying learning together.

For more thoughts on this topic, go to www.raisingsmarterkids.net

July 3, 2012

Children, Gifts, and Holidays

December 17, 2011

Another holiday season, another reason for buying presents. Or not. Another reason, maybe, to think about the kinds of gifts we’re already blessed with, and those we have to give, without buying much at all. There’s nothing new about this anti-materialistic perspective, but when I look around me, I realise it’s a timeless message, and one that bears thinking about once again this year.

Christmas is a stressful season for most of the people I know who grew up in a Christian tradition, certainly including myself. My friends and relations who come from Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and other traditions seem to have an easier and happier feeling about this holiday season. Many of them can say—without irony or wishful thinking—that they actually ‘like’ Christmas. I find it far too loaded with memories of Christmases past—times of sadness, loss, longing, and disappointment, as well as happiness, joy, excitement, and pleasure—as well as with perceived expectations and need for preparations, so that no one will be sad or disappointed this year—to feel anything as clean and simple as ‘liking’ for it.

One of the big seasonal stressors concerns gifts. Adults worry about finding the right gift for each of the people on their list. They worry about the price of everything, and how they’re going to pay for it all. In the hustle and bustle and stress of the season, they sometimes don’t see that their children can be worried, too.

There are children whose only worries concern whether or not they’ll be getting what they want for Christmas—the right doll, toy, bicycle, building set, or something else— but a lot of children have the same worries as their parents: will they be able to find just the right thing for each of the people on their list? And if they find something right, will they be able to afford it? And if they buy only what they can reasonably afford, will they look cheap? Will others think they don’t care? And I’ve also known a surprising number of children who worry deeply about people who don’t have so much.

By thinking creatively about what we give our children, we help free them from some of these worries. By providing a model of thoughtful expression of the spirit of Christmas –love, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit—we can help them relax a bit, and maybe even enjoy the season. What are some of the possibilities?

Gifts of presence. One of the best gifts we can give our children at this time of year is the reassurance that they are the biggest gift of all. That their presence in our lives is the biggest and best present they could ever give us.

Gifts of our fully present time. We can give them discussion time, to talk about and find out what they might like to do, and then do it with them. It might be time to take a walk together, do some cooking, go to an art gallery or zoo or museum or movie or bookstore together. Time to take a trip together, whether it’s to see the Christmas displays in the downtown store windows, or to somewhere else you’ve both been wanting to go. And then to be fully present to them during that time – we snatch the gift out of their hands if we’re irritable or impatient, or spend some of our together-time on a phone or iDevice.

Gifts of developing gifts. My professional life has focused on developing giftedness in children – finding children’s passions, interests, and abilities, and then looking for ways their parents and teachers can support them in developing those gifts. One of the best gifts to give children at this time of year is to acknowledge what it is that makes them special and unique, even if it is only a dream. It’s even better if we can also give them something to help make their hopes and dreams become real — a computer for the wannabe writer, ballet lessons for the child who loves to dance, paints and brushes for the child who is interested in art, a chemistry set for the aspiring scientist. And when money is tight, to look for ways to provide access to these opportunities in ways that don’t break the bank or overtax the budget.

Gifts of sharing.  In our family, we’ve stopped buying presents for each other, except for the smallest children. We still get together to share the season, enjoy some great food together, and be present to each other in ways that reflect the reason for the season –love, generosity of spirit, acceptance, forgiveness. Several of us also choose this time of year to give something—time, money, or something else— to a cause that helps others who aren’t doing so well. Children can derive huge pleasure in thinking about others at this time of year, and finding ways to make the world a brighter place for people who are struggling.

Gifts of doing. I remember one Christmas, one of my daughters gave me a package of tickets she had carefully printed out in her eight-year-old hand. The parcel included tickets for folding the laundry, being nice to her sister, going to bed when asked, clearing out the dishwasher, and a number of other gifts of doing, things she knew would ease my daily life. What a delightful and thoughtful gift that was, and one that kept on giving for many months.

Gifts of making. I’ve always treasured gifts that people have made for me—baking, sewing, woodworking, knitting—and I try to give handmade gifts myself, as much as time and my creative imagination allow.

It may be inevitable that Christmas is bittersweet for those of us who come from a Christian tradition– that the joy, the laughter, the food, the music, the expectations, the happy holiday gatherings—will always be shadowed by thoughts of absent friends and family, awareness of people who are having a hard time of life, and memories of sad and disappointing Christmases past. One burden we can let go of, though, and relieve our children of, is the need to spend a lot of money on gifts at this time of year.

 

July 3, 2012

The Intelligence Edge

December 3, 2011

We come back to a theme we’re encountering a lot these days: parents – stressed by the demands and insecurities they’re experiencing in their own lives— wonder how they can ensure their children will have the intelligence edge they’ll need in this fast-paced and rapidly-changing world. What can parents do to support their children’s ability to cope successfully with—and even welcome— the challenges they will inevitably encounter?

So much is changing so rapidly in the world right now, and in individual people’s lives. Very few of us feel as confident about the future as we once did, and when so little seems stable and predictable, it is easy to become overwhelmed by worries. Parents I talk to are concerned about the stresses in their own lives, and have questions like these about raising their children:

How can I make sure my children aren’t damaged by the sex and violence that surrounds them–in advertising, computer games, music, cartoons, television, and more?

Is it okay if my child has no interest in reading?

I’m feeling uncertain about my own job. How can I possibly prepare my child to earn a living one day?

The bottom line for these and many other questions concerns how parents can best prepare their children to thrive in a fast-paced and rapidly-changing world.

The answer to most of these questions is surprisingly simple, although not always easy to implement. The single best way to give children an intelligence edge—a well-developed ability to cope successfully with and even welcome the challenges they will inevitably encounter –is to spend time with them.

Listen patiently and respectfully to their concerns. Discuss your ideas and theirs, and do some problem-solving together. Convey a confidence in their ability to figure things out—with your help, as needed, and only in those areas where they have some reasonable age-appropriate control over the situation. Be present to their fears, their hopes, their worries. Help them see that managing change and meeting challenges can feel good.

There is more than this to being a good parent, of course, including supporting your children in developing habits of mind like perseverance, hard work, critical thinking, creativity, and flexibility; and in having character traits like honesty, kindness, loyalty, and integrity. Children need lots more than just being listened to — love, for example, and guidance, patience, social interaction, physical play, sensory stimulation, and intellectual challenge.

Joanne Foster and I discuss all these important things at length in Raising Smarter Kids, but if given the time and opportunity to make only one suggestion to a worried parent, it is almost always about the intelligence edge their children will have if they have someone with whom to communicate openly—someone who they can trust in order to share their perspectives and ideas. And, that is truer today than ever.

When the world is rushing along madly, children need to feel a sense of sanctuary, attention, and respect at home.

July 3, 2012

Wisdom in Children?

October, 2011

Although wisdom is often associated with later adulthood, its seeds are planted in childhood. The most important thing that parents can do to support the development of wisdom in their children is to model these attributes in their own lives. That means taking others’ needs into account, as well as one’s own, and doing that explicitly, sharing the reasoning processes with children.

“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of wisdom in coping successfully with turbulent times, and realising that wisdom is as important for children as it is for adults. Although it is often associated with later adulthood, the seeds of wisdom are planted in childhood. More than ever, now is a time for parents and teachers to help children learn to make calm, reasoned sense of what’s happening around them, and to make wise decisions in their lives. This is always true, of course, but the urgency of thinking and behaving wisely is accentuated in times of stress.

Think, for example, about the British campaign asking citizens to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ during the bombing raids of the second world war. This was an appeal to people’s wisdom, and the collective ability of the British population to respond positively to this message was almost certainly a factor in the outcome of the war.

Practically speaking, what can parents do to support the development of wisdom in their children? Because wisdom is an abstract idea like love or compassion, it’s a good idea to start with what it looks like in practice: ‘Wise people do not look out just for their own interests, nor do they ignore these interests. Rather, they skillfully balance interests of varying kinds, including their own, and [others’]…Wise individuals realize that what may appear to be a prudent course of action in the short term does not necessarily appear so over the long term.’ (from Explorations in Giftedness (2011), by Robert Sternberg, Linda Jarvin, and Elena Grigorenko)

So, we’re back to the question that motivated this blog: how can parents support the development of wisdom in their children? The quote at the top of the blog from Martin Luther King provides a clue: wisdom requires well-developed thinking skills (or intelligence), as well as a strongly developed character. I have addressed elsewhere the ways that parents and teachers can support the development of their children’s intelligence, and focus here on the ‘character’ component of wisdom. This is where Sternberg’s description comes in, suggesting that wisdom includes a focus on skillfully balancing interests of varying kinds, including one’s own as well as others’; and an understanding that one needs to consider the longer term, as well as immediate and short term, effects of a decision or action.

The most important thing that parents can do to support the development of wisdom and character in their children is to model these attributes in their own lives, sharing the reasoning processes with children, as they become able to understand some of the factors that are involved. ‘Others’ here is broadly inclusive, from immediate family members, out through extended family and friendship networks, and community, national, and global interests. That means, for example, thinking about the environmental effects of one’s actions. It means treating others the way one would like to be treated, and also being as good to oneself as one is to others. It means making a habit of asking, ‘What would happen if everyone behaved as I do?’

Modeling wisdom also means thinking about the long term consequences of any behaviour or action, as well as possible immediate and short-term consequences. It might be alright to eat one more chocolate bar right now, but in the longer term, too many decisions like that will prove unwise. The family might be able to afford an expensive holiday this year, but perhaps that will mean depleting resources, and having trouble if the roof starts leaking or the car needs repairs. Sometimes a holiday is badly needed—whether for physical or emotional or family-building reasons –and is the best possible way to spend the family savings. Knowing when it’s a good idea to push the limits, and when it’s a good time to conserve, is where wisdom comes in.

Second to modeling wise decision-making, the most important thing that parents can do is include their children in decision-making processes, as appropriate to the child’s age and abilities. This is best if it starts small and personal – should Maria do her homework when she gets home from school, for example, or can she wait until after dinner? By the time a child becomes a teenager, decisions are getting more complex and have bigger consequences, so it’s great if some wisdom has already been acquired. Because children of eleven through fourteen are going through extraordinary internal and external changes, they go through a stage when they may appear to have lost any wisdom they’d already gained, so it’s important that they’ve already consolidated some basics of wise decision-making before that.

Raising kids who are not only smart, but who are also wise enough to make the decisions that will lead to a sense of fulfillment and happiness across the life span, is a serious challenge faced by all parents. This is the challenge that Joanne Foster and I address in our work together, most explicitly in Raising Smarter Kids. We write there about what we think parents’ ultimate goals for their children should be. This includes a feeling of well-being, and, ideally, happiness. Integrity. The recognition that change and challenge can be good. The ability to welcome adversity, and to cultivate resilience in the face of hardship. The ability to think, communicate, and act coherently, responsibly, creatively, and decisively. A collaborative spirit. Ample capacity for fun and relaxation. And, a lifelong love of learning, fueled by a calm, self-assured motivation and drive. Wisdom, in other words.

As with creativity and intelligence, parents have a much larger role in their children acquiring wisdom than many realize. Parents can make a difference by providing the kinds of environments, challenges, role models, and social supports that increase the likelihood of their children making wise decisions, both in the short term, and in the longer term.

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