Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mission Minded

As the holidays are quickly approaching, I've set out to help my children become more mission-minded.  My daughter, in particular, has a case of the "I-wants."  Like many kids her age (who are also immersed in a material-driven society), she's fascinated with having stuff.

Now as her mom, I'm partly to blame.  Aside from the grandparents, I'm the guilty party who is primarily responsible for buying my kids stuff.  So it's important that I also take responsibility for being part of the solution.  It's important to me to raise kids who value people over things.  Kids who give back.  Kids who are mission-minded.

My husband and I have always tried to give when we can.  Depending on our ability and availability, over the years we've given our time, our money, and our resources.  Sometimes all we had to give was time.  But as we've learned, it's not what you give, or where you give it.  What's important is: you do what you can, when you can, to help someone who is less fortunate.  And we sincerely hope our kids heed this principle.

Why Teach Children about Giving

To raise future generations of philanthropists, we must teach our children how to give to and serve others.  Research shows that service learning occurs when a child witnesses a primary caregiver or other influential adult modeling voluntary behavior that is intended to help others (Bjorhovde, 2002, p. 9).  More specifically,  this learning is strengthened when the adult helps the child understand the cause and effect of philanthropic behavior and when children are given the opportunity to engage in giving and serving activities.

Ways Children Can Practice Philanthropy

There are countless ways to teach children to care for, serve, and give to others.  Children begin to learn compassion from birth as they connect with their primary caregivers.  As children grow, parents and teachers can be mindful to treat others respectfully and lovingly.  Together with your child, practical ways to give include: volunteering your time in community missions such as food banks, hospitals, nursing homes, or shelters; giving money or other donations such as assisting in charitable fundraising efforts through non-profit organizations, or even canned food drives; or donating resources such as giving outgrown shoes, clothes, and toys to those in need.

Thought for today:

In what ways are you teaching your kids to be mission-minded?

Practicing What I Preach:  This holiday season my kids and I decided to organize a larger-scale packing effort to benefit Operation Christmas Child.  We raised money from family members to sponsor international shoeboxes, we hosted a packing party with school friends, and we helped organize a children's shoebox project at our church.  To date, we have collectively packed 51 shoeboxes!  This year I wanted to show my kids that while philanthropy begins at home, it doesn't end there.  I wanted to help them see that when you work together for a cause that's important to you, great things can happen.   
(A huge THANK YOU to the family, school friends, and church members who helped support our effort to make Christmas a bit brighter for these children!)

Snapshots from our Packing Party

Reference: Bjorhovde, P. O. (2002). Teaching philanthropy to children: Why, how, and what. New Directions For Philanthropic Fundraising, 36, 7-20.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Gatekeeper

When I first became a mom, like many newbie parents, I thought I had to do it all.  That if I wasn't at the forefront of every parenting decision made, well then, things wouldn't be done correctly.

I know, it's hard to believe that I was ever a control freak or a perfectionist. :)

(To put things in context, though, that was also during the life stage when I organized my linen closet by color, size, and style -- and made sure everything was folded perfectly and that all folds were facing the same direction.)

Clearly those days are long gone, and I had WAY too much time on my hands.

Yes, parenting has fully changed my perspective on a lot of things.

You see, one day I had an epiphany: I married a man who was fully capable of making parenting decisions on behalf of our kids.  I had a partner in the parenting process.  (In reflection, however, he probably wishes I'd go back to those days of me doing a little more and him doing a little less!)

I was reminded of this tonight.  As I type, I'm supposed to be at church volunteering in our Wednesday night children's ministry.  But, alas, I'm at home recouping from a doctor's appointment and catching up on work.  So, my gracious husband is filling in for me---as one of the teachers in the Pre-K through 2nd grade class.  That's love, folks.

Five years ago, by my accord, this wouldn't have happened.  But little by little I learned to stop being a gatekeeper and start embracing help from others.  Now I frequently quote the "It takes a village" mantra as I humbly recognize all that others can offer my kids (and me!). With the help of grandparents, extended family, church family, teachers, school parents, colleagues, and most of all, my husband, together we make things work.  And my kiddos are loved by many.

Thought for today:  Embrace your village.  And if you don't have one, start networking.  Get to know the other parents in your kid's class; lean on family or community friends.  And unless you have a valid reason not to, trust your spouse or co-parent to be a great parent too.  Life's too hard to go at parenthood alone.

Practicing What I Preach:  I have to admit, I've become increasingly bad at paying attention to detail.  A life lesson in slowing down.  But whether I overlook a detail or misread the fine print... thankfully my village keeps me going. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Why Novelty is Necessary

Last week I participated in a two-day professional development "experience."  (I use the term professional development loosely, as this wasn't your typical PD workshop or seminar.)  This one was a little different.  It wasn't directly related to child or family development, or even best teaching practices.  This was, instead, an agricultural bus tour.

As part of the NCSU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (I'm part of the "Life" portion of CALS), Dean Linton invited a handful of junior faculty to join him on a two-day Discovery Tour of Eastern North Carolina.  So, beginning at 6am last Thursday, I set off to discover a few of the reasons this State is such a research and agricultural mecca.

We toured agriculture and meat farms, research stations, and crop production facilities.  We met local farmers, industry professionals, college stakeholders, and Extension personnel.  (And we ate quite a bit of barbecue and seafood!)  Hushpuppies aside, it was the best professional development experience I've had since joining the faculty at NC State.  Which says a lot coming from a family researcher and not a crop, soil, animal, or plant scientist.

Not long into the tour, my mind was racing with research possibilities.  As I connected with other professionals (from butchers to agents to farmers to scientists), I felt my professional passions skyrocket as I witnessed their passion and productivity.  Subject matter ceased to matter.  I was surrounded by a group of field and industry professionals who were driven by passion, purpose, and precision.  I, too, wanted to join their ranks.

As I often do, I couldn't help but connect my experiences with the experiences I offer my children.  Why offering them novel experiences is vital to their cognitive and emotional development.  The Dean's Tour got my mind racing in ways that touring child development centers couldn't.  The newness and the novelty of my Discovery Tour experience helped me think outside of the box.  In the words of Dr. Seuss, "Nonsense wakes up the brain cells."   It was exactly what I needed to wake up my mind and help me sharpen my focus.

Thought for Today:  In childhood, as the brain develops, it is constantly being wired and re-wired.  New experiences produce synapses between neurons that combine to form our brain's thought networks.  Because a child's brain produces many more synopses than it needs, those that are repeatedly used are seen to have a purpose while others are pruned away.  According to zerotothree.org, "The brain operates on the use it or lose it rule."  This "use it or lose it" principle is why parents and educators should continually work to stimulate a child's mind, especially during early childhood and the elementary years when little brains are deciding just how much "gardening" should be done.

Practicing What I Preach: Although our brains experience critical periods in development, such as infancy and childhood, thankfully learning is a lifelong process.  Participating in the Dean's Tour reminded me of the universal need to keep our minds awake.  To keep our neural synapses firing.  With my kids, I try to balance what is repetitive (e.g., schoolwork, academic concepts, social etiquette) with what is novel (e.g., museums, trips, hands-on educational experiences) so that I'm helping to reinforce both types of cognitive engagement.  For example, yesterday was full of novelty.  We visited the North Carolina State Fair where my kiddos milked cows, attended a concert, and viewed tons of educational and agricultural exhibits.  It was a Discovery trip all their own!

A few Snapshots from the Dean's Discovery Tour

Roanoke Tar Cotton, Inc.
Acre Station Meat Farm
Upper Coastal Plains Research Station
Sweet Potatoes at Nash Produce

And, Extension, what ties it all together.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Belly Laughs

Over the weekend my daughter asked me to download a few new apps on our iPad.  After a quick search, we added Talking Tom 2, among others, to our collection of kids' games.  (For those unfamiliar with Tom, in short, he's an animated cat who comically repeats what you say.)

Now, I am in no way professionally endorsing the appropriateness of this little cat.  (Or the flatulence, the mild violence, the treatment of animals, etc., etc., etc., associated therewith.)  In fact, Tom is unlike anything I've ever let my kids play with (and He has required quite a bit of debriefing!). But my daughter was right about one thing in her sales pitch for the app: Tom is soooo funny, Mom.

And my 4-year-old, who met Tom for the first time that day, couldn't agree more. 

Later that evening, my husband and I overheard our son in the kitchen. He was on the floor, iPad in hand, laughing hysterically at this mocking Tom Cat.  I mean, doubled-over, tears in his eyes, holding his side, belly laughing.  He was beside himself.  And before long, we were beside ourselves too.  Not at the Cat, but at how happy the Cat was making our son.  It was the most we've seen our son laugh in one sitting.  And for that, I will forever be a fan of Tom.

The Importance of Humor

In childhood, the development of a sense of humor can serve to socially and emotionally enhance a child's well-being and optimize his overall health.  According to KidsHealth,

"Kids with a well-developed sense of humor are happier and more optimistic, have higher self-esteem, and can handle differences (their own and others') well. Kids who can appreciate and share humor are better liked by their peers and more able to handle the adversities of childhood — from moving to a new town, to teasing, to torment by playground bullies."

Research shows that humor also reduces levels of cortisol (a.k.a., stress hormones) as it improves our immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems.  The endocrine system is instrumental in regulating mood and metabolism, as well as human growth and development.  As laughter raises our spirits and eases our tension, it creates a mental divide between us and stress.  In children, especially, the experience of joy and laughter promote the development of securely-attached relationships. And if all this wasn't enough, humor engages our brains differently than formal thought processing.  It activates neural spindle cells that distribute feelings of bliss across our brains and throughout our bodies. Perhaps laughter is, indeed, the best medicine.

Thought for today: When was the last time you and your child shared a good 'ole belly laugh?

Practicing What I Preach:  By nature I default to being too serious.  Too often I get wrapped up in responsibilities and don't take time to unwind and laugh. Thank goodness I have my kiddos to keep me grounded.  Their joy is contagious. Our six-year-old, especially, loves telling jokes.  From jokes printed on popsicle sticks, to joke cards I stick in my daughter's lunchbox, to introducing us to apps like Talking Tom, my daughter is constantly testing "new material" to get a laugh.  In her words, she is egg-ceptionally skilled at quacking people up!   
Help your child unlock a sense of humor too.  As comedian Yakov Smirnoff once said, If love is the treasure, laughter is the key.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Demystifying Supermom

Birthdays. They always get me. Or, should I say my birthday always gets me. The kids' birthdays? Give me a Pinterest Board and a few trips to Hobby Lobby and I'm an excited mommy on a mission! But on my birthday I trade the festive hoopla in for Kleenexes. It's never planned, but around September 14th of every year, like clockwork the tears trickle as I reflect on me. On where I'm going and where I've been.

This year it all started on Friday as I stood in my closet faced with that common 21st Century female dilemma: To wear a regular cami or Spanx under my outfit? *deep sigh* Feeling somewhat defeated already, I shimmied into my Spanx as I had an isomorphic epiphany. (Isomorphism = One of my favorite PSYC 101 words for when a given incident reflects a larger theme in your life.) In my case, here I was (quite literally) trying to squeeze into someone else's mold for who I should be.

And then the first birthday tear fell.

And the second. And, okay, maybe a third fell too before I composed myself and swapped my Spanx for a camisole that allowed me to fully breathe. With the next deep, real breath I took, my mind was awash with this concept of fitting into societal molds. I decided in that moment that this would be the year I stopped shimmying into something that was never meant to fit right in the first place.

In that reflective, pre-birthday moment, I started to laugh at myself as I recounted a comment someone made to me the day before. They referred to me as "Super Mom." Oh, if they could only see me now. Not in my business clothes, coffee in one hand, presentation "clicker" in the other. But the mom who races work deadlines, juggles school emails about cheerleading practices and cafeteria balances, and texts pictures of allergy-safe margarine brands to my son's Pre-K teacher so he can join the class as they make edible birds' nests during science time.

The mom who, yes, had coffee in hand during her work presentation, but who just moments before spilled it down the front of her dress. The mom who, despite the ump-teen trips she makes to the grocery store in a month, NEVER has food in the pantry. The mom who uses her dining room table to sort and store laundry for the week (who has time to hang clothes up, anyways?). The mom who lives for yoga pants and caffeine. The mom who loses her patience during homework time. The mom whose kids are causing the scene at Target (and, um, the restaurant and probably the grocery store too).

I'm not Super Mom. I'm more like Super Grover.

Sure, I don my Super Here Cape... but then I trip over it going out the door.  I set out to conquer the world... and crash into a brick wall because instead of looking ahead, I'm glancing sideways at one of the many distractions that cross my path in a given moment. Try as I might, I'm not refined and polished and debonair.  I'm clumsy and awkward and I juggle my own insecurities, anxieties, and fears. But one thing is certain... no one will ever say of me, Super Grover, that I do not give things my best effort.

Sometimes my "best" is 100%. More than likely, however, my best is whatever combination of practical effort and resources and time I have available at the moment for that given task. The older I get, the more comfortable I am with not sweating the small details. Instead trying desperately to take life one day at the time, focusing on the bigger picture. I pride myself on my accomplishments as a mother and wife and professional. But, as it became clear to me on Friday (Thanks to Spanx), somewhere in the mix, I stopped taking pride in me. I stopped giving me the same "best effort" that I give everything and everyone else.

As a parent, I work to be a great role model. I want my kids to see that with hard work, dedication, and practice, anything is possible. I don't want them to see perfection, but perseverance. What I'm afraid they don't see, however, is a woman who stops to take care of herself. A woman who is proud (not of what I do, but who I am). In the last year or so, in my work-life balance, I've stopped taking the time to make me the best that I can be. 

Thought for today: As this year's birthday (and accompanying tears) have come and gone, my goal for the year is to be a better me. To embrace my Super Grover-ness for all it's worth. Instead of squeezing into Spanx, to eliminate my need for them. To get healthy. To make better life choices. To have me-time, and friend-time, and rest. To truly take care of my mind, body, and soul. To stop trying so desperately to fit myself into a prescriptive mold. Societal expectations and their added stressors make it hard to breathe. And if anything's going to take my breath away this year, it's not going to be an isomorphic pair of Spanx.
Practicing What I Preach: My goal for this year isn't about Spanx or a number on the scale. Moreover, it's about what these things represent. I can't expect myself to be a good mother or wife or professor or (insert role here) if I'm not taking care of me. I'm not shooting for being Supermom. But a healthy, strong, vibrant mom. When we give of ourselves without replenishing our tanks, we constantly run on empty. Over the past year, as my work-life responsibilities grew, I let a healthy lifestyle take a backseat to everything else. And it's left me feeling anything but super. Here's to changing this, to another year, and to the wisdom that comes through reflection.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Childlike Faith

This past weekend my family and I attended our first NCSU football game. It was the season opener, and prior to kickoff we joined the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) at its annual Tailgate in the Dorton Arena. (A plug for the College: It was such an impressive event! Delicious food, festive music, Mr. and Ms. Wuf, the pep band, giveaways, TONS of activities for children, and Departmental displays.)

One of my favorite moments at the CALS Tailgate was when our 4-year-old, Drew, spotted "Santa" among the crowd. He insisted we go say hello to a man whom he truly believed was Santa. Our conversation went something like this (before being taken by a small hand and enthusiastically led towards, quite literally, The Man in Red).

D: Mommy, look! There's Santa! I want to go say Hi.
M: Yes, Drew, that man does look like Santa.
D: No, Mommy, it IS Santa. Come on!

As we approached the Agriculture and Resource Economics table, Drew's face lit up when he said Hi to Dr. Ron Campbell, NCSU professor. I silently mouthed, unknowingly, "He thinks you're Santa." Without missing a beat, Dr. Campbell swooped Drew into his lap and spent several minutes talking with him about all things kid-and-Christmas-related. It was if no one else was in the room. Drew was mesmerized.

Much to our surprise, as it turned out, Drew's child-like, innocent instincts were spot-on. Dr. Campbell (whose gracious and generous spirit exudes) is the same Santa you'll see throughout the Triangle this (and every) holiday season. It was a surreal, Miracle-on-34th-Street moment. You can read more about Dr. Campbell here.

Since the Tailgate, I've been reflecting on Drew's experience, on his childlike faith, and why it's an example of a necessary marker in child development. 

Sure, Dr. Campbell looks like Santa, so on one hand Drew's assumption wasn't that far off base. But understand the context of the day. We were at at football tailgate. In August. Dr. Campbell wasn't in Santa garb. And he was one of a few hundred people in a big arena. Instead Drew was relying on his 4-year-old instincts and on his past experiences to shape his perceptions. The day's context was of little importance to his imagination. He didn't need December or snow or jingle bells or a Santa suit to be convinced. To him, he met Santa on Saturday.

Children need to imagine. They need to make-believe. And they need to believe in the magic created by their assumed realities. Exercising imagination is pivotal to a child's cognitive development. It promotes language skills, complex thought, and emotional and social development. 

(Side note: Obviously St. Nick is embraced in our home -- and after meeting Dr. Campbell, I may be a believer again! -- but there are other ways to encourage children's imaginations, such as playing dress-up or reading fairy tales, if parents choose not to promote the belief in fictitious characters.)

Thought for today: There will come a day when your kiddo no longer believes in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or Mickey Mouse. And today's society is too quick to rush kids through childhood right into adolescence. I don't know about you, but I want my kids to stay kids as long as they can. I want them to believe in the magic of make-believe, to dress up as princesses and pirates, and to revel in the lands of their imaginations. They will be grown soon enough. 
Practicing What I Preach: On Labor Day, after a busy and HOT weekend, my kids and I spent the day relaxing indoors. They were too busy playing to stop for lunch, so I suggested that we play restaurant. I put out a table cloth, lit candles, made menus, and assumed the role of hostess/waitress while my kiddos dressed up (my daughter was a fancy mom; my son was Buzz Lightyear, a firefighter, a baby, and a daddy -- all within an hour's span -- each character requiring an outfit change, of course). It was the funniest, most fun lunch we've had in quite a while. I laughed at their imagination and role plays. The kicker was when my daughter pulled a new cowbell from her purse (a giveaway from the CALS Tailgate) to summons me back to the table to ask me if their meal would be dairy-free! *smile* My son paid for his meal with a kiss and a high-five. My daughter paid with a pink coin and a penny. Gratuity included.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Peer Pressure

I'll admit it... I tweet. I joined the "Twitterverse" a few years ago and have recently made a concerted effort to use Twitter more in my professional work with students and families. (www.twitter.com/soapboxmommy in case you're wondering...)

A few weeks ago, I was intrigued by a tweet from @BookQuotes: You can’t soar like an eagle when you hang out with turkeys. I was immediately struck by this poignant, philosophical use of 140 characters or less.

As I reflected on these 60 characters, I couldn't help but apply them not only to my own life, but to the lives of my kids. Especially as they're beginning a new school year. As a mom... I want to steer my kids towards eagles, not turkeys. (And more importantly, I want my kids to be eagles themselves.)

Luckily my kids are blessed to be surrounded by great peers, many of whom I know or am getting to know their parents. Their school works to foster parent involvement and to support parent-teacher communication. But, despite my best efforts now to control their immediate environments, as they grow and develop into more dynamic and independent individuals, there will come a day when the choice will be theirs: the eagle or the turkey?

To help your kids (from preschool to high school) soar despite peer and societal pressures, consider these tips for promoting self-discipline and personal discernment:
Communicate continuously. Know who your kids are with and what they're doing. Ask about their day, their friends, their interests. Make time to meet your child's friends and their parents. Be a class chaperone, host a play date, or attend sporting events and practices. Meet your child's teachers and coaches. When it comes to your kids, get in the loop and stay in the loop.
Convey your expectations. When your kids know what you expect, they're more likely to act accordingly both in and away from your presence. Children develop the ability to reason around age 5, but they understand rules (spoken and unspoken) much earlier. For example, my kiddos are quick to let a sitter (or grandparent!) know if a TV show comes on that isn't allowed. Or they're quick to point out if they hear a word that's not okay to use at our house. For better or worse, the external dialogue that you have with your children about what is and isn't acceptable becomes their inner voice. As they grow, this inner voice becomes their conscience that governs their choices when you're not around.
Encourage positive choices. Be sure that you're giving credit and praise when it's due. When children are small, recognize and celebrate the little milestones. Sharing with a friend, being quiet in the library, helping a sibling without being asked (or maybe after being asked a dozen times!). Nevertheless, praise their effort! All too often parents (myself included) are quick to point out the negatives -- What not to do -- but don't celebrate the positives as much as we should. It's far easier to do more of what works than it is to change what doesn't. As your child ages and matures, they'll notice that you notice.
Thought for today: Eagle or Turkey?
Practicing What I Preach: This past year we moved mid-school year. (It's not something I'd recommend if you can help it!) Needless to say, we all had to adjust and adapt to our new environments... which included making new friends. Now, believe it or not, I'm an introvert at heart. I'd rather give a lecture to 200 people than chit-chat with a select few. Thankfully the novelty of our move has worn off and we're beginning a new school year on Day #1. My resolution: To move outside of my comfort zone and volunteer more in my kids' classes beginning with my new role as a Room Representative (with duties such as calling and emailing the parents to organize class parties and events). Sure my schedule is booked to the max... but that's all the more reason for me to get in the loop and stay in the loop where my kids are concerned. I want them to know that I'm never too busy to keep an eye on what's going on in their lives.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Improving Focus and Attention

Last weekend I charged my husband with sitting down with our 6-year-old to work on her first homework assignment of the school year. (Yes, an assignment before school has officially started!) It was time to tackle the Back-to-School packet our daughter received in the mail and I had a project to finish for work. So, the hubs was on Daddy-Duty. Mission: Help our daughter write and illustrate a 3-4 sentence story about something fun she did this summer. Piece of cake, right?

Not so much.

Although I was in another room with my computer and coffee, even Pandora wasn't powerful enough to drown out the wails coming from our breakfast table. If you'll recall from my last post when I discussed my daughter's quest towards the Marbles Museum, she perceives schoolwork as a punishment. This assignment was no exception. There were tears. And outbursts. And many tries and attempts... But when all was said and done, the story just didn't get written that morning.

Technically we're on Day 17 of our 21-day Summer Slide project. So far my kiddo has earned 11 tokens towards her reward. And while we're not quite ready to visit the Marbles Museum this weekend as planned, we will go as soon as she hits token #21. Consistency is key, I keep telling myself.  Some progress is better than no progress. (And I'm proud to say that my kiddo wrote her story today. She just needed to do it at her pace...)

My daughter, like some 5.2 million children between the ages of 3 and 7 in the United States, struggles to pay attention. Her inability to focus sometimes interferes with her ability to learn. I have little doubt that this has contributed to her negative perception of schoolwork. Prayerfully this school year will be different. And the 11 Smiley Faces she's earned over these past two weeks represent an encouraging shift in the right direction.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, most children with attention deficit disorders face one of three types of ADHD: (1) an inability to pay attention; (2)  hyperactivity/impulsivity; or (3) a combination of the two. If your child struggles with one of these three types, there are some things that you can do to help.
  • A - Activity
The same child who finds it difficult to pay attention during class likely has little trouble paying attention when watching their favorite TV show or playing a fun iPad app. But too much screen time can intensify ADHD symptoms throughout the day. Children need physical activity -- not just for their bodies, but for their minds. Research shows as little as 20 minutes of consecutive exercise can improve a child's ability to concentrate. 
  • D - Discretion
As a parent, using discretion is crucial. Set limits on screen time, on the types of TV shows watched, and on the type and length of computer and video games played.  Set limits on extra-curricular activities. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and a well-balanced diet.  Pay attention to your child's stress level and emotions. When life gets off-balance for a child, their ADHD symptoms can worsen.
  • H - Hope
It's easy to become frustrated with your child when he or she has an attention deficit disorder. But when you're frustrated, your child becomes frustrated too. This trickle-down effect can be discouraging for a child who may internalize their attention deficit as a personal deficit, which is not the case. Make sure to encourage your child in their journey.  Be their champion.
  • D - Dedication
Parenting is a lifelong process. Be dedicated to the journey. When all is said and done, I pray my kiddos look back and realize how dedicated we were to them. Everyone (myself included) has good days and not-so-good days. And our daughter's concentration-related struggles are such a minor blip in the bigger picture. As parents, we are dedicated to seeing her through "this" (even if,  *gulp,* it continues to high school graduation and beyond).  Just as we're dedicated to championing for our son's food allergy.  Any and all.  And everything in between.
Thought for today:  Of all the voices that play in your child's head, is the loudest voice they hear yours?  Are you cheering them on or wearing them down?

Practicing What I Preach:
  • Activity - When my kiddo loses focus during "learning" time, we head outside to run sprints. My daughter runs from one end of our fenced-in yard to the other 3 times, for a total of 6 "laps" (There's no particular formula -- that's just her favorite number now because she's 6 years old). We make exercise fun, sometimes by racing her, or by cheering her on. She loves being active and is not only more focused when we resume homework time, she's in a better mood too.
  • Discretion - We have become pretty strict lately about enforcing our daughter's 8pm bedtime. She needs her sleep and concentrates better the next day when she's well-rested. We're also trying hard to become more mindful of her diet and in making sure she starts the day with healthy proteins, which aid in optimal brain functioning. 
  • Hope - Above everything (and all frustrations aside), we want our daughter to know how much we believe in her. Sure we want her to do well in school, but in that quest, we don't want her to become discouraged. Offering encouragement and praise is vital. While we're working hard to strengthen certain academic areas, we purposefully recognize and celebrate what our daughter does well (she is the trendiest little fashionista you've ever met; she's a sweet and caring friend; she's welcoming, inclusive, and thoughtful; she's creative and talented in all things art-related, etc., etc.).  
  • Dedication - I'm learning to change my tactics... "Formal" learning isn't fun to my daughter. So, I'm dedicated to making it as fun as I can by showing her how to apply what she's learning to her everyday life. For example, instead of just practicing a handwriting sheet, I recently helped her write a letter to her grandmother in Kentucky. We then stamped, addressed, and mailed it (with a "please write back" included). My daughter was thrilled last week to find a handwritten reply awaiting her in the mailbox.  

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tackling the Summer Slide

August.  It's synonymous with the end of the summer and the return of school.  And as per my soon-to-be first grader, it also means the return of stressful, busy weeknights of dinner, homework, bath, and bedtime routines that are typically so taxing on my husband and me that we're in bed shortly after the kids go to sleep...  And that was just with kindergarten.

You see, my daughter has a love-hate relationship with school.  She LOVES all social aspects of formal education, but struggles with, well, formal education itself.  She just doesn't like to learn if it means sitting down at a desk, writing, being quiet, and focusing.  She thinks homework is punishment (her words), and because somewhere along the way she equated the word "school" with "playtime,"  she was disheartened when kindergarten included actual schoolwork.

This attitude towards learning is foreign territory for me.  I loved (and still love) school.  Which likely explains why I've chosen a profession in higher education.  As a child, I never had a problem with concentration or focus.  I breezed through any and all assignments, and could sit for hours at a time reading or writing creatively.  But as opposites often attract, I married a man who clearly passed along his genetic distain for all things formal-school-related to our daughter.

When school dismissed for the summer, I gladly welcomed the respite from "formal" school and nightly homework fights.  My daughter started a series of weekly-themed summer camps, which were perfect for her approach to learning: experiential, hands-on, creative, and fun.  She truly enjoys learning about different topics (animals, cooking, drama, gardening, etc.), and soaks up every new fact with intensity and concentration.  But, (there's always a "but"), the fun of summer camp has done little to reinforce her writing, reading, and math skills.  In other words, we've fallen victim to The Summer Slide.

Luckily we've got three weeks to transition our out-of-the-box learner back into a more formal learning routine.  We're tackling the Summer Slide with this responsibility chart.  We are primarily focusing on  the top three goals: (1) Do Homework, (2) Stop Whining, and (3) Show Respect.  For the next three weeks our daughter has the opportunity to earn one Smiley Face a day if she has done these three things.  Each day we'll spend 30 minutes to 1 hour focusing on blending, site words, math, writing, reading, etc.  The catch: She must be a willing, engaged participant (hence the "Stop Whining" and "Show Respect" goals).  At the end of the three weeks, her reward is a Back-to-School Celebration.  She's chosen a family trip to the Marbles Kids Museum as her prize.

Thought for today:  Has your child fallen victim to The Summer Slide too?  If so, what are you doing to prepare your child for the upcoming school year?  Together with your child, create a responsibility chart.  You can use a store-bought one like ours, or better yet, make one with craft supplies that you've already got at home.  Stickers or simple checkmarks serve as nice tokens.  Also, allow your child to set a goal to work towards (that's parent-approved).  Great suggestions are rewards that also foster family togetherness: parks, museums, picnics, movie theaters, plays, libraries, etc., or something that reinforces learning like a new book or fun school supplies.
Practicing What I Preach:  We've just started our three-week Summer Slide mission.  And each day hasn't been smooth sailing.  Take yesterday, for example.  While my daughter did her homework, she ended the day with a colossal meltdown (and did not earn her token for the day).  But, as I assured her while tucking her in: Tomorrow is a new day.  You have the chance to start over.  A key to the Responsibility Chart being successful is allowing a child to truly earn his/her reward (this is the concept of Operant Conditioning from PSYC 101).  It teaches kids to take responsibility for their actions and engages them in social and cognitive learning processes.  Hopefully by the end of our three weeks, our kiddo will be more prepared for 1st grade, and we'll get to celebrate her efforts as a family.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Boredom Busters: Teens and Tweens

Contrary to what my 6-year-old thinks (and how she sometimes acts), we do not have a teenager living in our house just yet. Thankfully we've got a few years before then to brush up on our parenting prowess. But I've spent enough time with teens and tweens--and their parents--over the past decade (as a teacher, therapist, researcher, etc.) that I've learned a thing or two about adolescent development.

Much of my recent research has focused on how parents and teens communicate. Or, rather, how they don't communicate. It's a two-sided coin. Teens don't feel heard; parent's don't think their teens are listening. Teens say they can't talk to their parents about "certain" issues -- which are, ironically, the same issues that parents say they aren't sure how to broach with their teens.

Anyone who works with teenagers, has a teenager, or has been a teenager will attest: adolescence is one trying phase. For all parties involved.

While I could write for hours on adolescence and all it entails, I'll try to stick to July's topic: Kids and Boredom. So, just where do teens and tweens fit in the mix?

As you know, adolescence is a transitional period. Namely, it's the awkward years that turn a child into an adult. Biologically-speaking, we're talking puberty. Psychologically-speaking, however, we're talking about redefining oneself, one's identity, and one's relationships. Naturally, the parent-child relationship shifts during this process.

In order for teens to adjust to their new roles and responsibilities, their brains need to be pretty flexible. This is called neural plasticity (which is just a fancy way to say that the teenage brain is in the process of being rewired). This cognitive reorganization is a good thing, as it paves the way for adult independence and stability. But during adolescence, it leaves teen minds susceptible and vulnerable. Neural plasticity makes it challenging for teens and tweens to think through choices, and it lends itself easily to adolescent boredom. Teens crave (and need) more independence, but once granted, they're not quite sure what to do next...

This is where proactive parenting becomes so important. If teen independence isn't monitored -- and channeled into healthy outlets -- adolescents are at greater risk for substance abuse, sexual activity, even suicide. A teen pondering his purpose will ultimately identify voids in his life (e.g., gaps between who he's been and who he wants to be), and will work to bridge the two. Teens become more vulnerable to peer pressure and may experiment with new ideas, explore new activities, and hang out with new social circles.

Thought for today:  It's important that parents and professionals remember: Teen experimentation and exploration aren't necessarily bad things.  Teens, once they identify with something or someone, are pretty passionate.  If you see your teen "searching" (which may come off as boredom, or even depression), encourage him to rally for something he believes in. Volunteer for an organization. Join a club.  Mentor.  Adolescence is a good time for youth to figure out what they believe and why. The internal grappling teens do during these transitional years often influence the adults they become.

Practicing What I Preach: A portion of my faculty appointment at North Carolina State University includes work as an Extension Specialist. This entails collaborating with North Carolina 4-H.  Now being from the South, if you're like me, your first thoughts may be of livestock shows and the State Fair. Which is a part of 4-H.  But not all of it.  Encourage your teen, tween, or younger child to explore 4-H and all it has to offer in addition to the extra-curriculars offered through your school, church, and community.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Boredom Busters: Preschool and Elementary Years

Over the weekend we took a whirlwind road trip to surprise my father-in-law who retired after 40 years in his company.  We stayed less than 72 hours (and 24 of them were spent driving).  Needless to say, after 11 years of marriage, my husband and I have perfected the art of marathon drives.  My kids, by default, have too.

To prevent boredom from engulfing our four- and six-year-olds, I have learned to plan ahead.  My usual weapons: DVDs, books, art supplies, digital learning games, and a few toys for creative play.  I mix things up by packing toys, books, and movies that haven't been played with or viewed in awhile.  It's all about novelty.

But see, novelty is a Catch-22.  On a road trip it's a necessity.  In day-to-day life, however, novelty has cognitively spoiled today's children.  Preschoolers and elementary-age kids are accustom to new, novel, and varied experiences.  (My children included.)  Technology is at their disposal--and attention-deficits are on the rise.  Kids jump from channel-to-channel, game-to-game, and activity-to-activity with little time for reflective thought and minimal need for elongated attention spans.  Children have trouble concentrating, but many of their daily activities require little need for concentration.  Technological task-jumping often begets boredom.

As I discussed in a previous post, boredom isn't a bad thing.  Neither is technology.  But moderation is imperative.  Kids today are being raised on tech-toys, smartphones, tablets, and television.  On one hand, immersion in technology is training their young brains to be nimble and learn quickly; but on the other, children aren't being challenged to problem-solve with any depth.  They have less human contact, interaction, and collaboration; smaller vocabularies and fewer meaningful discussions; and minimized opportunities for concentration and reflection.

During elementary school, between the ages of 7 to 11, neuron growth rapidly occurs in the brain (nearly as quickly as that occurring in infancy and toddlerhood).  Parents and educators need to capitalize on this peak period for learning, imagination, and creativity by stimulating these growing minds.  Practical ways to do this include imposing limitations and encouraging exploration.

Limit your child's time on computers, smartphones, tablets, videogames, and watching TV.  Encourage independent reading, play, and creative outlets (such as art or writing).  Limit extracurricular activities.  Kids (and parents) are over-extended.  Encourage your child to chose one or two favorite "extras" that they enjoy most and do well.  Limit idle time.  Although kids need rest, they also need daily physical activity.  And finally, encourage family time that allows for discussion, laughter, reflection, problem-solving, and play.

Thought for today:  For the next week, keep a written log of your child's activities.  Make a schedule that tallies the time they spend learning, playing creatively, being with family, being physically active, socializing, using technology, and watching TV.  How balanced is their schedule?
Practicing What I Preach:  When we travel on long car trips, I try to break up their time in the car.  After my kids watch a movie, I'll turn off the DVD player and we'll sing songs or talk.  Or I'll encourage them to play with their toys independently.  I switch between allowing them to play with something that engages them (a DVD or a video game) and something that they engage with (art, books, make-believe toys).  I try to apply these same principles throughout the week as well, being sure to incorporate time for learning, physical activity, and family/friends.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

Boredom Busters: Infants and Toddlers

If you read my last post, then you know that July's blog topic is kids and boredom.  (And if you're wondering, my own personal experiment in boredom totally worked.  After leaving my kids alone (figuratively speaking) with just their imaginations, each other, and all of their toys, the boredom woes were soon replaced with playing dress-up, making a "city" out of our guest room, and even {*gasp*} playing together nicely!) 

Luckily I know my kids (who are now 6 and 4 years old) and their stages of development well enough to know that they just needed to be left to their own devices.  They were bored because their need for creativity had been muffled by atypical, holiday fun.  Sometimes parents need to take a step back.

With infants and toddlers however, more often than not, parents need to stay involved.  From birth to age three, child brain development is occurring rapidly.  It's pivotal that parents foster experiences that capitalize on this exciting time in their tiny minds.  Nature and nurture work together to shape a child's brain, as genetic predispositions interact with a child's daily experiences and exposures to influence cognitive capacities.  In other words, kids are born with aptitudes that may flourish or fade based on his or her mental stimulation.

Neural connections are formed when babies are exposed to sensory stimulation: sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell.  As your infant grows into a toddler, the latter two will take on more importance.  But in the beginning, parents can provide opportunities for their little ones that include sight, touch, and hearing.


From early infancy, allow others to hold your baby for extended periods of time.  While nursing or feeding, a baby will stare at mom's face, which aids in bonding and attachment.  But make sure she sets her gaze upon others too: dad, grandma, big sister, etc.  Not only will this begin to build baby's trust and comfortability with additional caregivers, it will provide her with the chance to study new faces, hear new voices, and feel new embraces.

As baby develops, it's important to vary his exposure to different visual stimuli that are bold, bright, and colorful.  During tummy time, while laying or sitting assisted, looking up at a crib mobile, playing under or on an activity mat, going for a stroll in the neighborhood, looking at a mirror.  Mix things up so that your tiny tot isn't always looking at the same thing.  (And remember to be a Narrative Parent -- as you expose your baby to new things, talk about what he's seeing.  "See the doggie.  Dog.  Dogs say "woof, woof.")


Between 3 and 4 months of age, babies begin to reach for and grab objects.  So be sure to put plenty of safe objects in their reach.  Soft toys and rattles, infant keys, teethers.  Vary textures and temperatures, describing them as you go.  Help her pet the cat (soft) or touch daddy's 5 o'clock shadow (scratchy); place his hand on your water bottle (cold) or coffee mug (warm).  This is also a good way to introduce opposites and increase your child's vocabulary.  As a bonus, touch introduces cause and effect.  For  instance, offer toys with buttons that light up or play music.


To aid in a baby's understanding and production of spoken words, he needs to be spoken to.  A lot.  Talk to your baby and give him time to respond with a coo or smile.  Read to your baby or toddler daily.  Sing songs.  Play patty-cake.  Play music.  Offer musical toys (or a recycled plastic bottle filled halfway with dried beans for the baby to shake).  "Toys" don't need to be elaborate or expensive.  And don't forget that it's important to fill baby's ears with pleasant, interesting sounds.  Be mindful of sounds that may elicit adverse affects, such as yelling or arguing.

Thought for today:  If you have or regularly interact with a little one, take inventory of baby's sensory stimuli.  What can you do to promote sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste?
Practicing What I Preach:  In March, I became a proud, first-time aunt (not once, but twice) of a niece and nephew as both sisters-in-law gave birth one day apart.  It is wonderful to have little ones around again!  A week ago, my husband's family was in from out-of-state, giving me a reason to dust off more baby toys as I introduced them to my nephew.  His favorite?  Sitting up in the Bumbo and playing with a rattle that I attached to the lap tray.  This new experience allowed him to (1) sit up assisted, which employs new muscles and offers new views of his surroundings, and (2) to touch a "new" toy, which demonstrated cause and effect as he spun, shook, and pulled it.   
Early attempt at being Fun Aunt Nichole was a success. :)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Boredom Busters

Less than a week has passed since my son's 4th birthday party.  It was a small, family affair -- but one in which he racked up some major presents including a train table and a LeapPad2 (and Nerf guns, Legos, golf clubs, and several others -- too many to mention by name).  To boot, in the days following his party, we hosted out-of-town family, went to the beach, and to the movies.

But today, in the lull following a busy week, I hear that fingers-on-chalkboard-parenting-phrase, "Mom, I'm bored."


"How can you be bored?" I ask, reminding him of all of his new toys (and his old ones) scattered throughout our house, birthday banner still hanging on the mantel, and deflated party balloons on the floor (our living room resembling the summer lovechild of Toys R' Us and Party City).

All that we've done over the past few days, and all the new birthday loot, and still -- boredom.  If my grandfather was at our house now to overhear this conversation (who, by the way, continues to provide a vibrant 80-something presence in our lives), he would lecture me about all that ails today's generation of children who have more than they need, not appreciating things as they should, and that we are the generation of parents enabling their spoil.

And he would probably be right.

But, shy of going back to yesteryear and restituting first-world problems such as these, there are a few simple things that parents can do to remedy the boredom bug when it bites.  During the month of July, I will explore causes and solutions for boredom in kids, starting at infancy and continuing through late adolescence.  As kids grow, developmentally their needs for parental stimulation is cyclical.  As with all things, with boredom, too much or too little parental involvement can be problematic.  In the weeks to come, I'll share ways to balance the boredom continuum across these different phases of child development.

Thought for today:  Today I've decided that I will allow boredom to flourish in our house.  I will not attempt to pacify it with television, video games, or trips around town.  I will not make a blanket fort, or help them "discover" hidden toys tucked away in their closets otherwise forgotten.  Nope.  Today, instead, I will let my fully-abled kids resolve their boredom woes sans mommy's help.  I will challenge them to find something to do using their innate, creative abilities and imaginations.  I will help them reach toys and will fetch art supplies.  I will supervise.  But I won't lead.  Won't you join me?
Practicing What I Preach:  Days like today (when I know my son's boredom isn't the result of too little adult interaction and play, but rather the result of too much involvement and stimulation over the past few days), I have learned to take a step back.  When a child has constant adult interaction (for example, his paternal grandparents were in town and at his disposal for 5 consecutive days), or the result of constantly being on-the-go and entertained (uh-hum, the trip to the beach and movie theater), or too much newness and novelty (the birthday presents now decorating our den), a child has no need to entertain himself.  Over time, the ability to self-soothe and self-entertain becomes desensitized.   
(Think of it like muscular atrophy: You don't use a muscle, it weakens.  Creativity is much the same way.  Constantly being entertained by someone or something else will weaken a child's ability to imagine or explore on his own.)   
Today's boredom buster: A little mental workout in creativity.  To build and strengthen his imagination, I will allow my kiddo to wallow in his boredom blues until his creative, independent juices start flowing again.  Happy "Independence" Day!  :)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mommy Fail

A few months ago, I stumbled across what has become one of my favorite parenting memes on Pinterest.

I was all the more excited about this JPG find because I often joke that my life resembles a comic strip whose main character has two left feet.  The many spills, falls, and awkward life moments over the years have taught me not to take myself so seriously.  After all, to quote the great philosopher Jimmy Buffett, If we couldn't all laugh, we just might go insane.

Last week, my six-year-old daughter played hookie from summer camp.  On the agenda?  A mommy-daughter lunch date and a dentist appointment.  After working from home that morning, like usual, I was running late.  Especially after I stepped in a huge pile of puppy poo when trying to leave the house.  *sigh*  Lunch at a local Mexican restaurant would have to be swapped for Wendy's. (FYI, we live in the country. Our dining options "heading into town" are pretty limited!).  After having already turned around once to retrieve something I'd forgotten, we arrived at Wendy's only to realize that I'd forgotten my wallet too.  Back to the house we go.

My sweet girl was pretty talkative in the back seat trying to understand why we had to go back home and why we didn't have time for lunch.  She was STARVING (with dramatic six-year-old emphasis) as her breakfast consisted only of a small frozen pizza.  *deep sigh*  Clearly I needed to go grocery shopping too.

We made it home (again) and grabbed my wallet, but now we had to be at the dentist in 15 minutes and our pantry was bare.  Solution?  An improvised to-go lunch from the convenient store.  My lunch?  A Twix and a Dt. Dr. Pepper.  My daughter's?  Mini M&Ms and Bug Juice.  (And a child-like lecture from my kid as to how unhealthy our lunch was, and how the dentist would be disappointed in us for eating candy without brushing our teeth).  

Mommy Fail.

As it's often said, "There is no one way to be a perfect parent, but a million ways to be a good one."  And, standing on the coattails of grace and the knowledge that kids are pretty resilient and forgiving, I try to approach parenting much like I do everything else in my life: with a sense of humor.  Clearly, last Wednesday was not my day.  But, my daughter and I made it safely to the dentist, and three hours later than promised, we finally made it to the Mexican restaurant where we had an overdue lunch.  And some giggles.  And some fun taking pictures and texting them to her daddy to rub it in a bit that we were having a fun girl's day out.

Thought for today:  Many of us are super busy juggling a million and one responsibilities.  Whether you're a SAHM or one who punches the clock, we're all exhausted from walking our thin parenting tightrope (pleading desperately to make it from sun-up to sun-down, day in and day out without stumbling too badly).  The more I work with families, the more I'm realizing how (typically) we're all doing the best we can with what we have.  When it's all said and done, my kiddo won't remember my mommy fails, but rather a mommy who tried her best, loved her wholeheartedly, and laughed in spite of it all.  My challenge for you today is to wipe the figurative puppy poo off of your shoe too.  Take a deep breath, and give yourself a little credit for being a good parent.
Practicing What I Preach:  Using Narrative Parenting, I indulged my daughter's conversation on the way back home and then to the dentist, and we laughed about how it just wasn't mommy's day.  I apologized for forgetting my wallet and for feeding her "junk" food all day, explaining that mommy was doing her best given the circumstances.  I affirmed her "lecture" about healthy eating and good dental hygiene (apparently mommy had taught her something after all! Mommy win!), and together we brainstormed a healthier grocery list that included more than frozen pizza and candy.  We ended up having a great afternoon, and had a pretty funny story to tell everyone that evening...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Best Behavior

"Remember, kids, we have to be on our best behavior."  

It's a phrase I utter quite often.  Because, despite my training in child development and parent education, I'm a normal mom with normal kids who behave in normal ways.  I like to think of my kiddos as...

One bosses takes the lead, while the other wreaks havoc gets into innocent mischief.  Together they're a lovable force to be reckoned with--even for this mommy!

Often when talking with other parents and educators, the most frequent questions that arise pertain to applying discipline techniques.  What behaviors are expected in "kids just being kids"?  When are misbehaviors a cause for deeper concern?  And, probably most importantly, What should I do when my kid misbehaves?    

Years ago when reading The Parent's Handbook, a phrase stuck with me that I continue to use as my personal and professional philosophy for how to approach childhood discipline:  

"We discipline our children to teach them self-discipline."

We discipline our children so that they become more and more self-disciplined as they mature.  Discipline is not intended to punish, hurt, or try to embarrass our children.  We don't want to instill fear in our kids -- we want to teach them to respect usthemselves, and others.  

Teaching children to become self-disciplined is a process that takes a fair amount of consistency and patience.  Below are a few suggestions for approaching discipline using Narrative Parenting techniques:
  1. Pick your battles wisely.  When it comes to discipline, I try to pick my battles wisely.  There are a few non-negotiables in our house.  (Namely, fighting with one another, hurting or putting yourself or someone else in danger, and blatantly disobeying or back-talking).  For "minor offenses," I'll give a small verbal warning or a non-verbal eye glance.  For other things, I make sure my kids clearly know my expectations.  By focusing on a few clear rules at a time, the minor things tend to resolve themselves. 
  2. Don't be a bluffer.  If you issue a warning, be sure the consequence will be carried out.  Kids know when you're bluffing.  Make sure the consequence for a misbehavior is explained clearly.  And if you say no TV, no video games, no going over to a friend's house -- stick with it, offering reminders as needed.  
  3. Set timers.  My timer on my microwave has become one of my greatest allies.  I set it for time out periods or if I'm trying to get my kids to do something quickly (like pick up their toys).  It helps to establish limits and clear boundaries.  "I'm giving you 5 minutes to pick up your toys in the living room if you want to go outside to play." 
  4. Debrief after any applied consequence.  If I set a "time-out" timer (or if a kiddo has to go to his/her room for a "chill out" session), we always talk afterwards about why it was they got in trouble.  I have them explain in their words what they did, issue apologies when necessary, and we talk about what we can do better next time. 
  5. Offer second chances.  Any time my son or daughter gets in trouble, I try to remind them mommy loves them very much, I just didn't like that particular action.  I give hugs.  And kisses.  And do-overs.  And when I lose my cool (because sometimes I respond impatiently and raise my voice in anger or frustration too), I ask for their forgiveness.  "Mommy is sorry for yelling.  I shouldn't have gotten so mad.  But do you understand why it's important that we don't do X, Y, or Z?  Because someone could have really gotten hurt."
Thought for today:  Parenting is tough.  I get it.  And believe me, every time I think I have some aspect of parenting figured out, my kids prove me wrong.  I often joke that they've intercepted my playbook and can anticipate my parenting moves before I make them.  My challenge for you today is to pay attention to how you narrate discipline in you house.  Do you sound like a broken record?  Do you yell or respond impatiently?  Do you talk with your kids after applying a consequence?  Focus on being a narrative parent.  The more self-disciplined we can become as we discipline our kids -- the easier it'll be for them to learn from our example.

Practicing What I Preach:  Recently we got a new puppy.  And as several people forewarned, it's like having a toddler in our house all over again.  As we're working to train our puppy not to bite, destroy things around the house, and potty inside, I'm constantly reminded of the patience and consistency it took when first beginning to discipline my children.  To firmly (but in a gentle and loving way) explain our house rules.  Over and over and over using reasoning and redirection.  Now, eventually we could reason with our kids.  The dog, not so much... But I find myself using a narrative parenting approach with her as well.  "No, Belle, we don't bite mommy's pants.  Here, chew on your toy instead."  (As I pry open her firm grip on my hemline and redirect her to her ball.)  It's a simple analogy, but the same approach can be applied to childhood discipline.  Explain to your child what shouldn't be done and why, and then redirect the child to something that is appropriate.  Eventually, your kiddos will catch on.  Fingers crossed our puppy will too! :)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Being Different

If asked to describe my almost-four-year-old son, I'd use words like smart, shy, creative, handsome, mischievous, sweet, and special.  Very, very special.  See, at 11 days old... at what now seems like a bad dream suppressed somewhere in the back of my mind (and etched forever in my heart), we almost lost him.  But, by the grace of God, the help of my mother and husband, and the EMT personnel who responded to our 911 call, we didn't.  What we now know is that our son has a rare food allergy to milk protein called FPIES (Food Protein-Induced Entercolitis Syndrome).  That mid-summer July evening, he had his first reaction.

In the days, months, and years that have passed since that night, I've become an unofficial advocate for kids' food allergies.  Not only did I have to fight for a proper diagnosis, but once we received it, I've had to work to keep my son safe.  Every. Single. Day.  My biggest weapon: education.  I quickly had to educate not only myself about his condition, but my husband and daughter, our family, friends, teachers, babysitters, medical professionals, and anyone that interacts with our son.  Most importantly, as my son has grown, I've also had to educate him.

Through all of this---at the wise age of three---my son has learned that he's different from most other kids.  After all, most kids can go trick-or-treating and eat the candy.  Most kids can have cupcakes at their class party.  Dinner out at a restaurant.  A donut on National Donut Day.  Most kids don't have to BYOB (Bring Your Own Brown-Bag) to birthday parties, weddings, and any other social function where food may be served.  Most kids don't have to sit in a "special" seat when they eat snack and lunch at preschool.  Most kids don't have to ask with a trusting but scared voice, "Mommy, does that have milk in it?" or "Can I have that?" before they take a bite of food in fear of becoming sick.

As I've educated my son on FPIES using Narrative Parenting, it's allowed us to embrace what it means to be different.  To be special.  Maybe your child is different too.  Maybe it's a food allergy.  Or maybe it's ADHD.  Autism.  Aspergers.  Dyslexia.  A leg brace.  A hearing impairment.  Maybe your child has a physical challenge, or a learning disability.  Whatever it is---big or small---that makes your child different from most.  As our children grow, we want them to be different.  We want them to develop into unique, dynamic individuals.  But... when they're small, sometimes---as parents---we just want them to be like everyone else.  We want them to fit it; to feel unconditionally included.  Or at the least, we never want them to feel the pang of feeling excluded.  From a special snack, to a game of tag on the playground, to a mainstreamed classroom in elementary school. 

Thought for today:  If your child is "different," chances are you already know everything there is to know about his or her difference.  My parenting challenge to you today is together with your child, reach out to someone else who may feel excluded.  Not sure where to start?  Talk to your child's teacher or summer camp counselor.  See if there is someone in your child's class or school who could use a friend.  Maybe they're like my son and have a food allergy.  If so, learn of a safe snack that you can bring to the next school function.  Maybe they're having trouble academically and need a study-buddy.  Maybe they're shy and need a pal on the playground.  Have your child brainstorm ways they can be a better friend, one who can make a difference.

Practicing What I Preach:  Between the ages of two and five, children begin to incrementally notice differences.  Whether it's gender, race, or size -- kids notice and seek explanations as they become more acutely aware of how they differ from others (and how others differ from them).  With practice and patience (and a few embarrassing outtakes -- even now), I've tried to teach my kids that it's okay to be different.  If they notice someone "different" or "unique" when we're out in public, wait and bring it up to me (or their dad or grandparent) in private.  We don't stare, we don't point, we don't yell descriptives, and we don't hurt feelings.  For example, my daughter may ask on the car ride home about someone she saw in a wheelchair.  Or a lady without hair.  By encouraging discussion, we've had the chance to talk about embracing many differences while also talking about being polite and inclusive of others. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Narrative Parenting

I have a six-year-old who doesn't hush. Ever. She was born talking -- or at least that's the story I tell her, as her wide-eyed head peered around the delivery room ready to note every detail of her new world. She started speaking as early as developmentally possible... and really hasn't stopped since.

But I have to confess: the apple didn't far from the tree. I doubt anyone would describe me as quiet, and as a parent, I'm purposefully just as talkative. I'm engaging in what's known as narrative parenting.

So, what is narrative parenting exactly? It's the deliberate act of narrating your child's world to them. Beginning from birth, it's the act of talking to your children. "Mommy's opening the window." "This is Daddy's nose." Narrative parenting goes beyond teaching your child single words; it's a process of describing things to your children, using adjectives and complex thoughts. "It's beautiful outside today. The sun is glistening." And as your child grows, it's continuing to talk with them as you explain new, challenging, and abstract concepts.

The simple act of talking to (and with) your kids may seem like a given, but if you casually watch parents interact with their children (from babies to teens), you'll notice that--in general--little conversation exists. In a world filled with technology, the act of engaging with one's children is becoming less commonplace.

By talking with your children, you are helping them to grow cognitivelysocially, and emotionally. You are helping neural schemas (or pathways) form in their brains. You are expanding their vocabularies. You are enhancing their imaginations (turning a simple "ball" into "a pretty round ball, that's red with purple polka dots, and bounces high in the sky"). And most importantly, you are bonding with your child. The baby that mom and dad talks to becomes the teen that talks to mom and dad.

During the month of June, I'll continue to explore the concept of narrative parenting, including talking with children of all ages about a variety of topics (e.g., food allergies, differences, discipline).

Thought for today: Introduce a new concept to your kids. Share something with them that's just beyond their realm of understanding, and then help to scale it back to their level.
Practicing What I Preach: In the grocery store last weekend, my children were being, well, WILD. My six-year-old daughter is the oldest, and often the ring-leader, so I asked her to please use some "restraint." "Do you know what restraint means?" I asked her, knowing she didn't. I then explained it was practicing self-control. We talked more about what "self-control" meant, and in the days that have passed since, I have reminded her of that conversation, encouraging her to practice using restraint in places where it was important for her to be on her best behavior.