Go play! It’s the key to success in school

The old days

Finally research has vindicated the mothers of half-a-century ago who routinely opened the screen door in back and told their kids to go play – and not to bother coming back until the street lights came on or they heard the dinner bell (whichever came first).

Turns out these mothers were not being abusive and neglectful. The moms of the previous century didn’t know it, of course, but they were ensuring that their children developed a critical cognitive skill called “executive function.”

What kids did when their hours were not filled with TV, video games and electronic toys (or yoga classes, soccer games, and tiny tot gymnastics) was regulate their own activities, mostly in improvised imaginative play. They played “cops and robbers,” house,” or “school” – their own reality-based dramas. They also became the characters in fantasies involving queens and dragons, cowboys and horses, flying caped heroes and tall buildings, pirates and sinking ships.

And as they did this, researchers are telling us now, they were developing “executive function,” the ability to self-regulate, the measurement of which turns out to be a better indicator of success in school than the results of an IQ test. Kids with good self-regulation skills are better able to control their emotions, resist impulsive behavior, and become self-disciplined and self-controlled.

Times have changed

Those were different times, of course, and there’s no going back to them. Kicking one’s kids out of the house is no longer considered good form. No one rings a dinner bell at the back door to call the children home anymore. The kids are already home, bickering over which channel to watch, perhaps, or gobbling down a quick supper so they won’t be late for t-ball practice.

There are a couple of reasons for this shift. First, we now seem to be afraid to permit our children to play unsupervised. We are worried about all the terrible things that could happen to them if we’re not watching their every move.

Second, we now feel that we have to give our child every possible opportunity to add to his repertoire of skills. How can he become a soccer star if he doesn’t join the team as soon as he can walk; how can he get into Harvard if his parents don’t very nearly bankrupt themselves buying him very expensive “educational” toys? We can’t let him waste his time “just playing,” can we?

According to experts and our own common sense, we can and should.

So, how do we reconcile today’s anxious parents and the highly structured environment with our children’s need for unstructured, self-regulated play?

What to do

Let’s start with the givens: We’re not going to cancel all his activities, and we’re not going to let him play totally unsupervised. But we can certainly limit the number of activities we sign him up for. The primary requirement for unsupervised play is uninterrupted stretches of time, and we could easily cut back on all those classes and practices in order to give our children a little more of it.

No adults allows

And while we’re not going to let our children play entirely unsupervised, we don’t need to be hovering over them, intruding into their play, either. Even the youngest children are quite capable of entertaining, even educating, themselves. We can stay nearby, assuring ourselves that we are keeping them safe, but at the same time go about our own business and not intervene, not offer solutions to problems until it becomes quite clear that such help is needed.

We can limit TV to an hour a day, tops, and start buying our children uncomplicated toys and fewer of them. We can encourage complex imaginative play by offering simple props and play ideas, but then withdraw so the children can plan their own scenarios and act them out.

Even the smallest toddler, given the opportunity, will start feeding the baby, or driving his car down the highway. Older children will become family members, characters from stories, powerful heroes, animals in the jungle, royalty – all the while devising plotlines and scene changes worthy of the most skilled dramatist.

Imagine your children along with those of your more enlightened friends enjoying whole afternoons of such brain-enriching, creative play. Then imagine your snoopy neighbor observing them and starting to brag about how her 3-year-old excels in karate, chess and ballroom dancing. You needn’t be intimidated. You can tell her that your 3-year-old, who appears to be feeding dryer lint to her teddy bear, is actually improving her “executive function.”

Your neighbor will surely be impressed. And you will be confident that your child is spending precious time at the activity that children need most and love best: playing independently and imaginatively.

 Image courtesy of Valdas Zajanckauskas/Geras via stock.xchng

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A formula for a perfect kids’ summer

Warm, sunny days! Aren’t they great after having been cooped up all winter? Everyone is so ready for fresh air and freedom.

And freedom is what we grandmothers wish for your young children during spring and summer.

Yes, we know we must be concerned for their safety and we understand that the work week continues for most parents. But please, we implore you, try to provide some sense of freedom and independence for them this summer.

Take advantage of this time – when some routines change and nature beckons – to make this all-too-short season a time of growth and happiness.

The rules

At the start of the outdoor play season, think about the ground rules that are appropriate for your children now; they can do so much more than they did last year. Decide how to set the limits that will allow a young child to realize how much he has grown, how competent he is becoming.

Figure out the boundaries that will allow you to be comfortable without having to be constantly on guard. “You can ride your trike as far as Mrs. Smith’s house, then turn around and come back.” How exciting is that for the 3-year-old who couldn’t even ride the trike last year?

And for the 5-year-old: “You can walk around the block to your friend’s house; just call me when you get there.” She will feel as adventurous as if she had gone to the moon.

Even the toddler will feel like a big boy when you get him out of the stroller and give him a paper bag to fill with his discoveries as you walk slowly to the vacant lot down the street.

Using the things he picks up to make a collage, or sorting them into an egg carton when you return home, extends the sense of discovery even further.

The freedom

When you go to the playground, don’t stop your children from challenging themselves in new ways. Children need to try new and harder things – climbing higher, jumping further, pumping their legs to make the swing go without Mommy or Daddy always pushing them.

If at all possible, provide a safe, enclosed place in your yard where your children can play without your constant supervision. Sure, you’ll check on them from time to time, but the main idea is to let them make up their own activities and allow lots of time for their play.

Ideally, this is a place where they can make a mess with water, dirt, sand and weeds to mix into a mud pie.

Ideally, there is some place where they can pretend they are in a hideaway or fort or ship. Use your own imagination to provide the basics, but allow plenty of leeway for them to use their imaginations—you won’t believe what they come up with.

Anything with water: Help Daddy wash the car, run through the sprinkler, “paint” the side of the house or a wall with a bucket of water and a real paint brush. And how about bubbles? They can provide hours of experimentation using kitchen utensils. Visit Bubblesphere to find a recipe for the best bubble mixture and for ideas of items to use to make different kinds.

The props

Anything you can do to help your children experience nature will help them grow in appreciation of our wonderful world.

Planting a garden, putting up a bird feeder, walking in the woods at a nature center, feeding the ducks at a duck pond, or going to a spot where they can see and experience our Great Lake: these are all experiences that will enrich them now and throughout their lives.

One last thing: try to remember what made summers wonderful for you when you were little. Maybe you can’t remember back to toddler and preschool age, but go back as far as you can.

When you recall the whole family riding bikes together to get ice cream on long summer evenings; when you experience again the thrill of climbing what you thought was a huge tree; when you remember how you and your best friend spent hours under the back porch making pretend meals in battered old pots and pans, you’ll realize what opportunities you should provide for your children so their summer will be one of pleasure, discovery and satisfying growth.

Image courtesy of Chris Roll/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

 

 

 

Excitement vs. Fun

In most circles excitement is a positive word – often considered synonymous with fun.

A movie, a television program, even an activity for young children, is praised for being exciting. Using the common definition, the opposite of exciting is boring, and boring is to be avoided at all costs.

Excitement, however, can also refer to agitation, over-stimulation and loss of control – the opposite of calm.

Parents, observing their over-excited children running around in circles – coming close to knocking over the birthday cake, Christmas tree or each other – exhort them to stop and calm down. These moments are definitely not fun – especially when a child, in addition to the cake or the tree, suffers some damage.

The term fun can also refer to activities that are not necessarily exciting. Reading a book, even a quiet one like Goodnight Moon, for example, can be fun but not exciting. Reading one of those books with all the built-in computerized quacks and sirens, on the other hand, can be exciting but not much fun after the novelty has worn off.

Clarification and perspective

We find that clarification of the difference between fun and excitement can help assess which activities are and aren’t helpful to our children in the process of growing up; which activities bring pleasure and mastery and which activities lead to distress and loss of control.

This clarification seems particularly helpful to address during times of celebration, holidays and birthdays, when the media and family customs tend to promote excitement as if it were fun, when it isn’t always.

Is it really fun to be bombarded with advertisements and floor-to-ceiling rows of toys – the majority of which you are told you can’t have?

Is it really fun to have your home invaded by dozens of children you don’t know very well who want to play with your most precious belongings and eat up all that beautiful cake, including the part with your name on it, and then smash with a stick that lovely piñata your mom bought for you only yesterday?

Is it really fun to put on a costume with a mask you can’t see out of and walk up and down the streets with terrifying-looking creatures who shove you out of the way if you can’t say “trick or treat” fast enough?

Is it really fun to be at a party with 40 other adults and children where so many things are going on that you can’t make sense of anything and you end up racing some other child up and down the stairs over and over until you slip, fall down, and end up with a bleeding lip?

And what if, in the midst of one of these “fun” activities, you lose control in your over-excitement, hit somebody and get yelled at? How much fun is that?

Stimulation and agitation

Excitement is a physical/emotional state that occurs in response to stimulation.

Some call excitement an impulse. It can be pleasurable when the degree of stimulation is manageable. But it stops being fun when the stimulation becomes bigger than a person can manage – that is, when the excited impulse takes over and propels a person into doing something he or she wouldn’t otherwise want to do.

On the adult level, as an example, a person can sincerely regret a sexual escapade, remarking, “I don’t know what came over me – it was just so exciting!” Similarly, a child might say, if he could find the words, “I really didn’t mean to bite him! We were just having fun wrestling and it happened.”

You’ve already learned to spot the signs that your child is getting over-stimulated. His voice raises both in pitch and volume, his eyes narrow and his teeth clench with aggression. Or if he is the victim of some other overexcited child, his eyes widen with fear and approaching tears.

You feel the need to jump in and stop the running, the wrestling, the tickling, before the loud laughter turns to loud sobs.

You can hear your mother’s words from your own childhood coming out of your mouth: “Now, just stop before someone gets hurt!” But part of you may want to squelch that impulse because you don’t want to spoil the “fun.”

Go with your first reaction and stop the escalation of excitement before it takes over and the “fun” ends in Band-Aids or broken table lamps or worse.

Your child may even protest that he and his friends were just playing, that no one will get hurt. But he in fact is not enjoying this scary excitement and will quickly accept a substitute activity that you suggest.

Providing a sense of control

Your child will enjoy holiday and other special celebrations the most when he feels sufficiently in control of his experiences. You can help in this by providing ways to be an active participant in as many parts of the celebration as possible. He can help make the decorations and set the table for the guests. He can be told ahead of time exactly what will happen and when (no surprises) and be allowed to make choices where possible.

You can protect him from becoming over-stimulated by pacing the activities and choosing ones appropriate to his age level.

Have fun having fun together.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Bedtime Struggles

Children who resist bedtime are noted for their determinedly open eyes and, usually, loud protests at being put to bed, often at the hour when the caregiver is most desperate to have the child fall asleep. Unfortunately, such wakefulness is not something that occurs once and then is outgrown forever but is a stage that can appear at several different ages and for different reasons: in infancy, in toddlerhood, and quite possibly at regular intervals after that. Some children, for no reason that anyone has been able to determine, always sleep well; others appear to be born requiring little sleep. All parents seem to need sleep, however, so stubborn wakefulness on the child’s part can be troubling indeed.

Where the Child is Headed

What parents hope is that after the appropriate bedtime rituals, the child will be able to go to bed and fall asleep, without undue objection, in her own bed, and to remain there sleeping without summoning a parent except in the case of an emergency, until a reasonable wake up time. The parents role is not to put the child to sleep but to encourage the child to learn to do this for herself.

Cause

The wakeful infant has learned to associate sleep and rocking, or sleep and feeding, or sleep and sucking. When the child wakes up to discover that he’s alone in his crib, not being rocked or fed any more, or that the pacifier has fallen out of his mouth, he can’t go back to sleep unless someone feeds him or rocks him or replaces the pacifier.

The wakeful toddler has separation anxiety. He wants you by his side by night as much as he does by day – even more so, because he feels a loss of control and vulnerability at bedtime, much as you do when responsibilities and concerns that you can easily handle at 3PM have you staring at the ceiling in the dark at 3AM. So he tries to lure you back with requests for a drink, a kiss, one more story.

Wakeful children of all ages may be afraid: of the dark; of monsters under the bed; of very real monster-like behaviors that he’s witnessed during the day at home, school, or on television; of his own angry feelings that haunt him with terrifying thoughts when awake and nightmares when asleep. Additionally, children often show their feelings about daytime separations when it’s time for the night time separation.

How You Feel

Depending on when your bedtime is, you are either irritated that the child is interrupting your adult time with your spouse, a book, or a hobby you enjoy, or you are somewhere between tired and exhausted. Your patience is short, and you have difficulty being sympathetic with your infant’s wails or your older child’s insistence that he’s thirsty or that there’s a dragon in his closet. At the same time, you are feeling guilty at your very own irritation, not to mention at having left him all day in the day care center or with a sitter. So you are tempted to invite him to stay up another hour or to sleep in your bed where at least you’ll be together and he’ll be quiet and you can both get some sleep.

What to Understand

You are absolutely right: you both need your sleep, and you also need your child-free hours. Most children who are having trouble sleeping just need reassurance that you are there, that you will keep them safe, and that bedtime is a good and necessary thing. They do not need to get into bed with you because then you will have another problem: getting them out.

What to do

Make bedtime as pleasant as possible. Do not rush it, no matter how much of a hurry you are in. Whatever the child’s age, take time for relaxing and comforting routines such as tucking in a favorite doll, singing a special bedtime song, reading a story or two. A beloved stuffed animal or special blanket is often helpful in keeping a child content through the night. Recorded music, perhaps the same familiar tunes each night, can become intuitive signals for sleep. Nightlights can be comforting to children who express a fear of the dark; older children can be permitted to read to themselves and turn out their own lights when they are ready. But whatever the bedtime props, when it becomes time to say goodnight, say it with conviction. If the child fusses for a while, let him fuss. If he continues to fuss, go to him with reassuring words and pats, but not with an invitation to join the grown-ups either in front of the TV or in bed. If necessary, sit beside the child’s own bed for a while until she is calmed.

Next Time

Start perfecting your bedtime routine. Prepare your child with a half hour warning, and if possible devote that half hour to an activity the child particularly enjoys – a quiet and calming one, of course – giving him your full attention. Then make actual bedtime a pleasurable time of conversation, cuddles, songs and stories. Assure him that you will keep him safe through the night, and express confidence that soon, possibly tonight, he will be able to fall asleep right away, and sleep until morning.

Thinking Further

Trust your own sense of whether your child is protesting bedtime only in the hopes of squeezing a little more activity into his day, or he is truly distressed, sincerely frightened. Remember your own childhood fears at bedtime, and how vivid they were. If, after your best bedtime routine performances and your repeated reassurances that all is well, your child is still unable to sleep, consider consultation with a child development specialist. You and your child both may need help in understanding the causes of his persistent wakefulness.

Image courtesy of Ambro/Freedigitalphotos.net

When little ones learn of the bad things in the world

Try to remember what it was like when you were small and you lay in bed in the dark at night, afraid. If you have a better than average memory, you can recall the monster under the bed, the witch in the closet, the skeleton that tapped at your window with a bony finger.

Maybe you smile now when you remember those fears, because of course there was no monster, no witch, no skeleton – only shadows and a tree branch being blown by the wind.

You were probably 3 or 4 years old. You called for mom or dad to come protect you and maybe they came and sat beside you for a while; maybe they came and yelled at you to go to sleep; but whichever, mom or dad was there, and pretty soon it was morning.

Fast forward through a year or two of mornings, to the day you realized that while they could protect you from monsters under the bed, there were real monsters in the world against whom they just might be helpless.

  • How were they going to protect you from a kidnapper climbing in the window if they were sound asleep in their bed down the hall?
  • How were they going to save you from a fire suddenly engulfing the house; hadn’t you seen a father crying on the evening news because he’d been unable to get through the flames to rescue his little boy?
  • What if a robber broke down the door, and that robber had a gun?
  • What if there were a flood, or a tornado, or an earthquake, bigger and stronger than any grown-up could possibly be?

At those memories, we bet you stop smiling. That’s a terrifying moment – the one in which you discover that your parents aren’t gods.

Now you’re the parent of course, wondering what to say to your fearful child when he realizes that you’re not godlike. You are confident in your ability to comfort your child when he is younger and afraid of the products of his own imagination, but you are unsure of what to say when he asks about something he’s seen on television or heard about from his friends – something all too real. Is it true? he might ask. Did that really happen?

You don’t want to lie. But listen to the question. What is he really asking? Probably what he wants to know is, “Could that happen to me and to my family?” And what he needs to hear from you isn’t that bad things don’t happen, but reassurances that you are not helpless; that you know what to do.

Yes, houses catch on fire, but you have a smoke detector, you know how to call the fire department, and you know how to get everyone out of the house.

Yes, there are tornados, but you know the part of the house where the beams are strong and the family can go until the storm blows over.

You know how to keep him safe. Those things are not for him, but for you to worry about.

Your attitude and tone of confidence will be as reassuring as the words you use. By the same token, if every time there’s a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder you visibly cower and rush to switch on the weather channel, it will be noticed. Try to take control of your own fears even in a potential crisis and certainly in an actual one. Your reaction is vital to your children’s sense of security, so for their sake, continue if at all possible to exude confidence and constancy. Collapse later, in private.

And then there’s the Big Question that they are going to ask sooner or later: are YOU going to die?

A Victorian parent might have answered, yes, I am going to die and you are going to die; everyone is going to die, so you’d better be very, very good every day because you never know if it’s going to be your last; you could very well die in your sleep tonight.

Those Victorian parents must not have realized what the children were really asking, which was, surely, “Are you going to die when I am still little and so desperately in need of you?” Knowing that, your answer would be more like, “I’m not going to die for a very long time, and I’ll be here to take care of you until you are grown up and have children of your own.”

Pardon us for a diverting story about one of the Grandmothers’ adorable grandchildren. One very precocious just-barely-3- year-old girl asked her grandma when she was going to die. Grandma took the girl on her knee and gave her several paragraphs about the seasons of life, and how she planned to be around until the child had children of her own – until her mommy was a grandmother, in fact, and that all this was very beautiful and not at all sad. The little girl listened quietly, and then asked, “When you die, can I have your shoes?”

So we are advised to listen carefully to our children’s questions, and also to what they say when they don’t know what questions to ask, or if they don’t seem to feel reassured by our reassurances.

Ask, “Why do you think it could happen?” or “You look worried; I’m wondering what worries you.” Try to find out what he or she has observed or been told – and certainly don’t dismiss those fears, not even the monster-under-the-bed ones.

Do both: take his worries seriously but also offer reassurances that you know how to keep him safe.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Helping children learn about death

Dear Grandmothers:

My 3-year-old son Billy’s hamster is looking sickly and I don’t know what to do if it dies. Should I run out and get another one so Billy won’t know what happened? I don’t want him to be sad and upset, so I want to be prepared for this situation.

Worried Mother

 

Dear Worried Mother:

This may sound odd, but you should be grateful Billy has this opportunity to experience death in a relatively simple way, rather than with the death of a loved person. It is a chance for him to see what death is, what is done with a dead body, and how we grieve the loss rather than ignore it.

This basic understanding of death can begin when a child is as young as 2 – when he notices dead things like insects or worms. If we use the word “dead” and explain that the bug will never move again because it is dead, we are helping him to have a concrete understanding of death in a situation that is not so emotionally charged as the death of a person he knows.

Knowing what is done with a dead body can be learned through the death of a pet. A child may want to hold the dead pet, even want to keep it. We must let him know that it will begin to smell, so we have to bury it. Putting Billy’s hamster in a box with a soft cloth around it and burying it in a protected spot in the back yard, with a flower planted on the grave, allows everyone to show their feelings of sadness at a death – even of a pet.

Allowing time to feel sad and miss his little furry companion without rushing out to buy a replacement gives Billy an opportunity to learn to cope with these feelings. Of course he misses his pet; of course it is sad when someone dies.

These are feelings he can bear – in fact, they are feelings he should be allowed to have, not denied by a well-meaning parent who wants him to be happy always. If a child is allowed to have these sad feelings and gradually learn to live with them, he builds emotional muscle.

We grandmothers certainly understand a parent’s wish to spare children any distress. We also know that it’s often because the parent doesn’t want to have those sad feelings – it’s just too hard – so they try to avoid them for the child and for themselves. But we are doing the child a disservice if we do not allow him to learn that he can bear even distressing feelings.

When there is a death in the family, or the family of a friend or classmate, Billy will at least have an idea of the answer to one of the inevitable questions: What is dead? The other questions that all children have are: Can it happen to me, and can it happen to you, Mommy and Daddy?

Here, you can be truthful but still reassure Billy that, “No, I won’t die for a long time; I’m healthy and I take care of myself. You’ll be a grown-up; I’ll be a grandmother for many years.”

Parents may think they should be totally truthful and acknowledge that, “Yes, I will die,” because, of course, they will. But to a child, that means it could happen tomorrow or next week, because children have such an undeveloped understanding of time.

What about spiritual answers to the question of death? Here again, children’s lack of development in the area of abstract thinking means the best thing is not to give religious explanations about death to children under the age of 7; until then, such explanations are only confusing and unhelpful.

Think of how confused a child is when he hears that Grammy’s in heaven. “Why wouldn’t she come down from there and play with me?” the child thinks. And imagine how scary it is for a child to hear that Grandpa “went to sleep.” How can he close his eyes at night when he imagines that death is what happens when you go to bed?

If the child hears others talking about heaven or God taking people away, you can answer, “Many people believe that. Many people believe other things too, and as you get older you will learn about them and will understand them better. Everybody has such a hard time understanding death. It’s hard to believe that someone is never coming back, so some people talk about heaven and god. But I like to remember the person who died and think about things we did with her when she was alive.”

So, Worried Mother, I know we’ve told you much more about young children and their understanding of death than you were asking in your question. But we couldn’t resist this opportunity to talk about such an important issue for all parents of young children.

Thank you for bringing it up. And good luck to you as you help Billy deal with the many issues of growing up and help him build the emotional muscle that he will need throughout his life – starting with the death of a pet.

 Image courtesy James Barker/Freedigitalphotos.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benefits of play

Finally research has vindicated the mothers of half a century ago who routinely opened the back screen door and told their kids to go play, and not to bother coming back until the street lights came on or they heard the dinner bell, whichever came first.

Turns out these mothers were not being abusive and neglectful. The moms of the previous century didn’t know it, of course, but they were ensuring that their children developed a critical cognitive skill called “executive function.”

What kids did when their hours were not filled with TV, video games, and electronic toys (or yoga classes, soccer games, and tiny tot gymnastics) was regulate their own activities, mostly in improvised imaginative play.  They played “cops and robbers,” house,” or “school,” their own reality-based dramas. They also became the characters in fantasies involving queens and dragons, cowboys and horses, flying caped heroes and tall buildings, pirates and sinking ships. And as they did this, researchers are telling us now, they were developing “executive function,” the ability to self-regulate, the measurement of which turns out to be a better indicator of success in school than the results of an IQ test.

Kids with good self-regulation skills are better able to control their emotions, resist impulsive behavior, and become self-disciplined and self-controlled.

Times have changed

Those were different times, of course, and there’s no going back to them.  Kicking one’s kids out of the house is no longer considered good form.  And kids shooed outside into a modern day subdivision would probably quickly come home bored anyway, because there wouldn’t be any other kids out there for them to play with.  No one rings a dinner bell out the kitchen door to call the children home any more.  The kids are already home, bickering over which channel to watch, perhaps, or gobbling down a quick supper so they won’t be late for t-ball practice.

There are a couple of reasons for this shift.  First of all, we now seem to be afraid to permit our children to play unsupervised.  We are convinced that there are child molesters outside wanting to grab them, and accidents of all sorts waiting to happen to them, outdoors or in.  In vain do statisticians tell us that our children’s chances of being molested are no greater than they ever were, and that accidents are even more rare than previously. And secondly, we now feel that we have to give our child every possible opportunity to add to his repertoire of skills.  How can he become a musical prodigy if he doesn’t attend toddler Suzuki classes; how can he become a soccer star if he doesn’t join the team as soon as he can walk; how can he get into Harvard if his parents don’t very nearly bankrupt themselves sending him to the very best preschool?  If we don’t make sure he has these opportunities we will be putting him at a disadvantage compared to all the other children who are on all the right teams, in all the best classes.

So, how do we reconcile today’s anxious parents and the highly structured environment with our children’s need for unstructured, self-regulated play?

What to do

Let’s start with the givens: we’re not going to cancel all his classes and sports activities, and we’re not going to let him play totally unsupervised.  But we can certainly limit the number of teams and classes we sign him up for. Very young children don’t need anything extra outside of the occasional playdate, if that.  Toddlers might enjoy an hour or so per week at a class designed for kids their age where they could run and move freely, either to music or on gymnastics mats and 6-inch high balance beams, but no more.  Older preschoolers would probably benefit from attending, 3-5 mornings per week, a preschool where the bulk of the time is given over to free play.  A kindergartener might join a soccer team where cooperation and not competition is stressed, but only if he expressed interest.  The primary requirement for unsupervised play is uninterrupted stretches of time, and we could certainly cut back on all those classes and practices in order to give our children a little more of it.

No adults allowed

And while we’re not going to let our children play entirely unsupervised, we don’t need to be hovering over them, intruding into their play, either.  Even the youngest children are quite capable of entertaining, even educating, themselves.

We can stay nearby, assuring ourselves that we are keeping them safe, but at the same time go about our own business and not intervene, not offer solutions to problems until it becomes quite clear that such is needed.

We can limit TV to an hour a day, tops, and start buying our children uncomplicated toys and fewer of them.

We can encourage complex imaginative play by offering simple props and play ideas, but then withdraw so the children can plan their own scenarios and act them out.  Even the smallest toddler, given the opportunity, will start feeding the baby, or driving his car down the highway.  Older children will become family members, characters from stories, powerful heroes, animals in the jungle, royalty, all the while devising plotlines and scene changes worthy of the most skilled dramatist.

Imagine your children along with those of your more enlightened friends enjoying whole afternoons of such brain-enriching, creative play.  Then imagine your snoopy neighbor observing them and starting to brag about how her 3-year-old, who takes karate, chess and ballroom dancing, excels in all three. You needn’t be intimidated.  You can tell her that your 3-year-old, who appears to be feeding dryer lint to her teddy bear, is actually improving her “executive function.”  Your neighbor will surely be impressed. And you will be confident that your child is spending precious time at the activity that children need most and love best: playing independently and imaginatively.

Learning to apologize

bullying_Arvind Balaraman_freedigitalphotosJoel and Andrew, 4-year old friends, were playing with Lego when suddenly, Andrew howled, “I was just going to use that—it’s mine!”

Joel had snatched one of the pieces Andrew had in his pile beside him. When Andrew protested, Joel knocked down his building and Andrew began to cry. Joel looked at his mother wide-eyed.

What To Do?

“Oh, no,” thought Joel’s mother. Normally, he was not a selfish boy, but lately he’d done some very unkind things. What should she do this time – demand that he immediately tell Andrew he is sorry, make him have a time-out in his room, take away his Lego set for a week, tell him he couldn’t have anyone over to play until he could manage better?

On other occasions, she had tried one or more of these options but unhappy situations were still occurring. Besides, she was realizing that a parroted, “I’m sorry,” was just that – saying the words with no feeling behind them. When she had made him go to his room, there was usually a fight with Joel in tears, yelling and acting as though he were the victim. When he had to put a toy or game away for a period of time, it didn’t bother him very much because he would start playing with another toy and seem to forget about the stored one.

What could make a difference, make him want to change his behavior? Make him feel truly sorry when he had been unkind to someone?

Sincere and compassionate

How does a child get to the point of sincerely apologizing – in other words, with feeling and compassion?

Joel’s mother might begin by saying, “I know that Andrew is your friend and you like to play with him. When you take something he’s using and knock down his building, he feels bad and doesn’t want to play with you anymore.”

She could remind Joel, “Remember when you and Sue were playing and she wouldn’t let you have a turn? You felt picked on and angry”. Mother comforted and talked with him; he had stayed angry with Sue and called her “mean.”

She could ask him, “Is that how you want your friend to feel about you?” Joel would be better able to feel compassion when connecting Andrew’s feelings with ones he has experienced; he could be sensitive to the way he made Andrew feel. This will make his words, “I’m sorry,” much more healing for Andrew and for Joel himself.

Remorse and repair

Mother’s help in realizing another person’s bad feeling or hurt, and knowing that he caused it, will also lead the way to a feeling of remorse on Joel’s part. He will wish he hadn’t been so unkind. He will wish that Andrew wasn’t so angry with him and would still be his friend.

He will want to do something to make things better. He will also like the approval he gets from his mother and other adults when he does the kind thing, instead of causing disappointment and anger.

This can open the way for Mother to help him think about what he might do to repair what he has caused. In this case, it might be to gather the pieces of Lego that fell and, if Andrew wishes, help him re-build his building.

Sometimes repairing might mean doing some other act of kindness – drawing an “I’m sorry” picture, getting a tissue for a crying playmate, getting tape to repair something that was torn, etc.

Doing something kind will help restore Joel’s good feelings about himself instead of getting stuck in the misery of being the “bad guy.” He will feel better when he can sympathize with others and help them feel better, too.

The power to choose

Each time Joel is helped to realize how his actions have affected someone else or have turned a pleasant time into an unhappy one, he is forming convictions of what he wants for himself and how he wants to be thought of.

Does he want to be a bully who snatches whatever he wants, who destroys other people’s things, who spoils a nice time with a friend by his unkind behavior?

Or does he choose not to do those things he knows will hurt his playmate and end a fun playtime?

He will need help from the adults around him to think about what kind of boy he wants to be and to realize that only he can make that choice for himself. Four- and 5-year-olds are beginning to struggle with their developing consciences and the increasing capacity to empathize with others’ feelings.

They feel better when they learn their mistakes can be corrected, and then they are able to move on.

Image courtesy of Arvind-Balaraman_freedigitalphotos

How young children learn to protect themselves

Every day brings new reports of adults in some position of responsibility who take advantage of the trust that children place in them.

All of us have to worry about our children’s safety, and it’s easy to wonder what we should be doing to safeguard them from predators.

Parents of school-age children can talk about the importance of speaking up whenever anything feels uncomfortable. Parents of adolescents can talk even more directly with them about sexual assualt.

However, dealing with the issue of self-protection with preschool children is very different.

We want to caution parents against scaring or confusing very young children with lectures about not speaking to strangers, or protecting themselves against improper advances from anyone other than Mommy, Daddy or grandparents.

These messages can be utterly confusing to little children. It can be scary and upsetting, and can cause them to overreact in many ways.

For instance, they can become afraid of going to sleep, of the dark, of speaking to anyone. They can become overly excited and engage in mutual sexual play; or pretend to go looking for imaginary molesters, which shows that they are acting out what they are trying to understand.

Needing to protect oneself is a big responsibility that young children cannot possibly take on by themselves. We must be with them at all times, or place them in the care of family members or someone who has been checked out thoroughly and found to be completely trustworthy.

But there are things parents can do to help young children resist the advances of people who want to take advantage of them – though children need a long time to achieve mastery of the care and protection of their bodies.

They learn these skills by observing the things we parents do every day.

For example, they observe how we behave with strangers, who we talk to and who we avoid.

A young child goes from being totally cared for by his parents to wanting to do things for himself: feeding, washing, toileting, and dressing himself. And parents welcome this evidence that he is growing up and wants privacy and control over his own body.

Here is what Barbara Streeter, Education Director of the Hanna Perkins School, says about helping children protect themselves:

“What protects a child best is a sense of self-worth, an ability to know when he is being treated disrespectfully, and a sense that he has the right and ability to defend himself.”

To help a child develop those attributes and abilities, Streeter offers the following thoughts:

  • Always treat the child with respect, physically and emotionally.
  • Listen to and observe what he likes/dislikes and respond accordingly.
  • Protect her from intrusions of other adults – such as unwanted kisses, hugs, tickles, jokes, teases, insensitive doctors, salesmen, etc.
  • Support a child’s “no” to others when spoken or communicated non-verbally.
  • Assist a child in finding ways to defend himself when playmates and siblings are unkind in any way.
  • Show respect for – and support – a child’s need for privacy and control over what gets done to his body (eating, toileting, dressing, administering medications, etc.).
  • Avoid activities that make a child feel helpless (for example, adults overpowering a child by showing off their physical strength or engaging in excessive tickling).
  • Assist children in developing respect for “personal space”.
  • Carefully assess any person a child is being left with, and seriously consider any doubts you or the child might have.
  • Listen to what children have to say; let them know that we don’t automatically assume people in authority are right and they are wrong.

When children learn how to protect themselves, it’s not through our lectures or admonitions, but by observing the way their parents respect them and take care of them.

It’s a big job, but no one ever said being a parent was easy. We salute you and wish you well in doing that big job.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A collection of holiday wisdom: All the Grandmothers’ seasonal writings in one location

The holidays are a wonderful time of year, but all the excitement and traditions of the season can create stress in young children that grownups, in their own enthusiasm, can easily overlook.

Here is a collection of previously published articles by the Hanna Perkins Grandmothers that may help you see the holidays as they really look through a child’s eyes – so you can create the best kind of memories for the young people in your life.

  • Excitement vs. Fun In most circles excitement is a positive word – often considered synonymous with fun. A movie, a television program, even an activity for young children, is praised for being exciting. Using the common definition, the opposite of exciting is boring, and boring is ... Read more
  • The Santa Question This is a controversial subject, so we’re going to work up to our main point gradually. The Tooth Fairy No parent that we’re aware of takes great pains to protect the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. Maybe that’s because by the time a ... Read more
  • Keeping holidays focused on the children It’s happening again. We’ve all seen it before: A mother rushing along the sidewalk or through the mall, pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a 3-year-old who is pasted along her thigh, half-walking half-trotting in an effort to keep up. The ... Read more
  • Handling holiday disappointments Grumpy Ballerina“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sings Andy Williams over the PA system in Walmart – and as we pile gifts in our shopping cart we halfway believe it. The kid riding in the cart, eyeing the decorated artificial trees and ... Read more
  • The spirit of giving: How children’s gifts are recieved It was Christmas morning. As the family sat around the little tree, under which was a modest pile of wrapped gifts, Nina could not contain herself. She ran to the tree, pulled her gifts away from the others and distributed them; one for ... Read more
  • How little ones learn to love giving We Grandmothers are certainly aware that today’s families live in times of “Hurry Up” – that mothers and fathers both work and have to deal with malls filled with gifts of every shape and color. We recognize time is a precious commodity, so ... Read more
  • A holiday wish: Simple delight in your children What quality would we Grandmothers most ardently wish for you parents of young children in this final, bustling season of the year? Well OK, you didn’t ask, but we’re going to tell you anyway. Not patience, not insight, not mediation skills, not tolerance for ... Read more