Raise an Independent Kid

It may be hard to hear, but there are times when your child is better off without you.

By Michael Thomspon, Ph.D. from Parents Magazine

For the last decade, I’ve worked as a consulting psychologist for a canoetripping camp in Canada. Every summer, I listen to kids tell horror stories about their first five-day canoe trip — getting stuck in mud, caught in thunderstorms, or attacked by mosquitoes. Having completed one of the scariest trips of their life, they look triumphant. But they also talk about having felt overwhelmed and unsure whether they’d be able to do it.

At many points in our children’s lives, we need to step aside, ask other adults to take over, and even send our children away in order to help them become loving, productive, moral, and independent young adults. For me, these four adjectives capture the universal goals of parenting. However, I have spoken with many parents who, out of the deepest love for their children, want to do more, not less, for them. They believe that the more time, energy, attention, and money they can devote to their children, the better.

In the final analysis, there are important things that we can’t do for our children, as much as we might want to. In order to grow in the ways they need to grow, children have to take the lead, and usually away from us.

1. We can’t make our children happy.

We wrap our arms around them. We want to protect our kids from all bad feelings, but struggle and suffering are part of life and children need to learn to manage their own emotions. As a child, you don’t know exactly what you feel when you’re with your parents because you interpret your experiences through their reactions. Away from home, it’s easier for children to learn what they hate and what they love, what makes them miserable and what makes them happy, because they are having experiences on their own.

2. We can’t give our children high self-esteem.

After promoting self-esteem for two decades, we are seeing more depression and anxiety in young people, not higher levels of self-confidence. It turns out that telling kids they are great all the time doesn’t help them that much; instead, it makes them suspicious of adults because they can see that they’re not as good at doing some things as other kids are. Self-esteem comes from building skills and mastering challenging tasks on their own. Your child’s greatest sense of achievement may come from succeeding in a situation where he had tasted defeat, had been really upset, and then had come back to triumph.

3. We can’t make friends for our children or micromanage their relationships.

Even when they’re babies, certain children are powerfully attracted to each other. Although we can arrange playdates, kids teach each other how to be friends. I would argue that the best friendships are the ones a child makes on her own with someone she’s met at school or in an after-school activity. “Mom, I made a new friend,” is one of the signature shouts of a child’s independence. You can support your child’s friendships, give the kids a place to hang out, and order the pizza, but you can’t control her relationships.

4. We can’t successfully be our children’s manager or coach.

When you and your child share a natural gift — be it for sports, music, or math — it may seem logical to play coach. Managing the peewee soccer team is one thing, but few parents can guide their child’s career to a high level without damaging their relationship. Parents already have so much power in their children’s lives, to add the role of coach tips the balance in a way that puts a child’s mental health at risk. I’ll never forget the boy I knew who quit the varsity basketball team in his senior year just to punish his sports-mad father. “That’s all he cares about in my life,” the boy said. Wise parents turn the job of coaching over to someone else they trust.

5. We can’t compete with our children’s electronic world.

We are living in the midst of a technological revolution that is dramatically changing family life. Parents ask me all the time about how they can limit their child’s use of electronic devices. However, all of us are spending equal amounts of time in front of screens — and children will do what we do, not what we say. In the last five years, the only place I haven’t seen children using cell phones is sleepaway camp, and they thrive. The lesson of living simply is one that children need to learn, and one that parents with a house full of gadgets are having trouble teaching.

6. We can’t keep our children completely safe, but we can drive them crazy trying.

We watch the news and worry about all the terrible things that can happen to our kids. One mother of three children, ages 11, 8, and 7, told me that they live only three blocks from school. “I know I should let my kids walk, but I just can’t,” she said. She believed she’s depriving them of an important childhood experience, but she’s only doing what most American parents are doing. Forty years ago, 41 percent of children walked to school; now only 13 percent do. Kids have also lost ten to 12 hours of free play per week. Many aren’t allowed to roam in the woods or even play in their own backyard; instead, they sit indoors near their parents, watching TV or using the computer. Parents are trying to do a good job of raising their children, but our constant focus on safety is making us anxious and suffocating our kids’ capacity for independence.

7. We can’t make our children independent.

A high-school swimming coach told me that her tenth-graders show up at meets without their goggles and say, “My mom must not have put them in my gym bag.” When 15-year-olds can’t remember their goggles, is it because they are disorganized or because their mother is doing their remembering for them? Every child needs to practice being independent, and every parent needs to practice letting her child be independent. Independence is like high jumping: You have to run and jump and sometimes fail, and then put the bar back up and run and jump again. As a parent, you’ll wince when your kids hit that bar, but you can’t jump for them. Ultimately, they’ll have a lot of sweet moments without you there to see them. But if you believe that your job is to raise your children so they will be ready to leave you, you need to be able to let them go and watch from a distance.

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Keyboards are overrated.

Cursive is back and it’s making us smarter

The proliferation of devices in daily life has led to an international handwriting crisis. Teachers, parents, and politicians around the world are debating why they should bother spending time teaching what some say is a dated skill. Accustomed as we are to speedy, wifi-connected devices, we’ve come to prize the efficiency of typing and there seems to be no point to picking up a pen and scribbling on paper when keyboarding is so convenient, neat, and easy to copy-and-send.

Yet print and its squiggly cousin cursive are making a comeback in some US schools after scientific studies have proven their cognitive utility and because parents are clamoring for the preservation of the practical skill. For example, starting this fall in Louisiana, third to 12th graders will again study penmanship after a law was passed making it a requirement in 2016 (teachers got one year to prepare). Fourteen states in total are now including cursive in curricula after a decade where it seemed doomed to become an abandoned and outdated art.

Busting penmanship myths

It’s not just nostalgia—the efficiency of the keyboard may be overstated, at least in some cases.
“There’s a myth that in the era of computers we don’t need handwriting. That’s not what our research is showing. What we found was that children until about grade six were writing more words, writing faster, and expressing more ideas if they could use handwriting—printing or cursive—than if they used the keyboard,” University of Washington professor Virginia Berninger told the Washington Post. A leading expert in the field of handwriting education research, Berninger’s extensive work with students in elementary school indicates that learning handwriting improves kids’ ability to think.

The reasons for taking handwriting seriously are worth considering even if you’re not a kid or a parent worried about education. Anyone can benefit from penmanship’s cognitive benefits, whether you’re taking notes at a meeting or just trying to figure out what you think.

Engaging the brain

Brain scans during the two activities also show that forming words by hand as opposed to on a keyboard leads to increased brain activity(pdf). Scientific studies of children and adults show that wielding a pen when taking notes, rather than typing, is associated with improved long-term information retention, better thought organization, and increased ability to generate ideas.

No one can say why this is exactly, though researchers surmise one reason may be because when we write by hand, every letter of every word demands different actions, engaging the brain more. When we type, we repeat the same moves over and over again, whatever the word.

It may well be that the physicality of shaping letters cements concepts in the mind. For example, to type the word “typing,” I made the same motion on the keyboard six times, choosing which letter to type but not forming them. But if I were to write the same thing by hand, I’d have to shape six different letters and put them together. That takes more effort and seems to both demand more of the brain and leave a deeper imprint on the mind than typing. That imprint appears to be critical when learning new things.

Making choices while we write

Another reason that penning is more effective than typing seems to stem from handwriting’s limitations. Handwriting when taking notes forces us to make choices.

Researchers from Princeton University concluded in three studies of adult students taking notes on laptops and in longhand that transcription was less effective than selective translation of the information. “We found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand…whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning,” they wrote.

Perhaps when we capture less of what is said verbatim, we pay more attention. Since we can’t scribble everything that’s being said as fast as we can type it, we end up forced to make choices when handwriting, processing the information as we take it in instead of putting it all down automatically.

Reading into the past and future

There are practical reasons to keep the art of penmanship alive, putting questions of cognition aside.

Louisiana state senator Beth Mizell introduced the cursive bill at a constituent’s suggestion after he told her that the high school students he hired for summer jobs couldn’t read old handwritten land-transfer documents. (She didn’t give details about what these particular jobs involved, but it is true, generally speaking, that even when old records are scanned into new computerized systems, they may still contain cursive.

Mizell also heard from parents that their kids couldn’t read old family letters or even sign documents. “People were really upset that kids were no longer being taught to write cursive,” she told the Shreveport Times. “They print where the signature would be. It’s just little things like that.”

Take it from the greats

For adults wondering why they should handwrite when they have no time, rarely have to take in information that comes in lecture form, and have already established a signature, there are also some unscientific reasons to pick up a pen. For one, great writers often drafted by handand then typed, even after the advent of the typewriter—Susan Sontag, Truman Capote, and Vladimir Nabokov, to name a few. Today, Joyce Carol Oates continues with this tradition, though she’s also on Twitter and doesn’t shirk technology generally. Same goes for Quentin Tarantino, who says poetry can’t be typed on a computer, and Neil Gaiman, whose novels are drafted in notebooks.

Plus, there’s the priceless benefit of limiting distraction. Technology can be a trap. The simple act of shutting your laptop and putting pen to paper can help you to improve focus. There’s less chance you’ll end up spending your time online reading tweets and articles when you should be writing.

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Listen Up! How to Get Kids to Listen to You

By Jeannette Moninger from Parents Magazine

Stop repeating yourself. Your child will be all ears once you start following these clever, attention-getting tips from the pros.

Ever notice how your child’s bionic ears pick up every word of your “private” conversations, yet when you really need him to listen it’s like he’s switched off his hearing? “Between school and home, kids this age commonly grow tired of paying attention and decide they need to tune out,” says Doreen Miller, a parent educator at the Institute for Parenting at Adelphi University, in Garden City, New York. But you need your kid to listen, so tailor the way you’re delivering the message to prevent a communication failure. Try these tips to break your child’s sound free barrier.

A void Information Overload

Your child’s brain can only process so much. Hit her with too many details — “Turn off the TV, then go upstairs, get changed, brush your teeth, and comb your hair” — and she won’t be able to recall anything past step one or two. Be too vague — “Get ready for bed” — and she won’t take your request seriously, or chances are she’ll probably skip a couple of steps. Instead, split your request into two parts, suggests Miller. Start with something like, “When Arthur is over, it’s time to turn off the TV and get ready for bed.” Then once the TV is off, continue with, “Okay, honey, pj’s
and tooth brushing are next. Do you want to skip or hop into the bathroom?”

Be Direct

When you dwell on a topic for too long, your child will tune out. For instance, if you say, “Honey, we’re meeting Julius in the park and you’ll want to climb at the playground. So you have to change out of your sandals before we leave home,” it’s unlikely that he’ll change into appropriate shoes. Instead, be concise and make the request up front: “Honey, put on your sneakers now because we’re going to the playground.”

Work on Your Delivery

Your child will listen better if you engage more than just her sense of hearing. A visual approach (looking her in the eye) combined with a tactile one (placing your hands on her shoulders) can help her focus better on what you’re saying, says Margret Nickels, Ph.D., director of the Center for Children and Families at the Erikson Institute, in Chicago. When Gractia Manning, of Dayton, Ohio, wants to make sure her 6-year-old daughter, Kate, is listening, she’ll ask her to repeat what she heard. “In the past, if I said ?There’s no eating in the family room while the babysitter’s here,’ Kate would say okay and then later — after she’d broken the rule — claim that she never heard me say that,” explains Manning.

Don’t Sound Like a Broken Record

If you feel like you’re saying the same things over and over, stop. Kids can become conditioned to wait to respond until you’ve said something for the fifth time. “Your words become nothing but background noise,” says Dr. Nickels. Besides, your child’s teacher doesn’t spend all day repeating herself, so why should you? Your kid will be more inclined to do what’s asked of him if he understands that his actions have clear, enforceable consequences. Give him specific instructions no more than twice, and be sure to follow through with appropriate disciplinary actions if he doesn’t comply. For instance, to get don’t sound your child to pick up his Legos you might say, “Jake, please go upstairs and put your Lego pieces in the blue bin.” If he doesn’t listen to you, warn him that he won’t be able to play with the Legos for the rest of the day if he doesn’t clean up, says Dr. Nickels. If he still blows off your request, take away the Legos. On the flip side, acknowledge when he follows directions the first time. Saying “Thanks for being a good listener” will reinforce his desire to pay attention.

Make Listening a Game

Your child spends a significant portion of her day being talked to – and that’s tiresome. Sometimes little ears need to tune in to some fun. Fine-tune your child’s listening skills by exposing her to a variety of auditory experiences. Take a walk together and listen for sounds like birds or insects, the wind in the trees, and the crunching of grass. Groove to kid-friendly tunes on your iPod and discuss what they mean.

Give Your Full Attention

You may think that you’re able to listen to your child while watching the news or texting your BFF. But what your child sees is that Mom is only half listening. And if you’re not paying attention, why should he? “My research shows that children as young as preschool age notice when adults aren’t fully engaged in their conversations,” says Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D., author of Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn. Of course, not everything your child has to say is a showstopper. Still, try to focus on one form of communication at a time. That means you can fix dinner while chatting, but you shouldn’t watch TV, Google, or text while your first-grader tries to tell you about his day. Give him your undivided attention: Make eye contact, acknowledge what he’s saying, and ask questions. Says Dr. Jalongo: “Kids feel appreciated and valued when you take the time to really listen, plus they learn to reciprocate.”

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