Helping your children in the wake of the latest school shooting

hug David Castillo Dominici freedigitalphotos 199x300 Helping your children in the wake of the latest school shootingIt’s amazing how routine it’s become to hear news of violence that affects children. Does news of yet another school shooting still affect you quite the same way it did when we heard about Sandy Hook?

If so, our first reaction on hearing the latest is to hug our children tightly. If not, if you’ve grown numb, keep in mind that young children who hear about it are learning of such things for the first time. And it’s hard to think they won’t learn about it without some extra consciousness on your part.

Because in the days and weeks that ahead, children will be exposed again and again to replays of the scary images from the original event. They will seek to understand what they see and hear, trying to put it into the context of what they know about the normal and expected.

The amount of information children need from parents in such situations differs depending on the child and, of course, his or her age. Here are a few resources to help talk with your children about recent news of school violence.

Blog post from The Hanna Perkins Grandmothers: Some insight into the questions children really have – though they may have trouble finding the right words. And how to answer those questions simply and lovingly.

Another perspective by Shari Nascon on talking to your kids when they hear of tragic news that in some way hits close to home.

Article from the Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood:  A three-part approach to talking with children about school violence …

  1. Protecting and supporting
  2. Discussing
  3. Individualizing

… and how to put it into practical use.

Fred Rogers’ advice on how to talk about tragic events in the news: An excerpt from Mr. Rogers’ last book before his 2003 death, offering practical suggestions for helping your children navigate news of the tragedy.

 Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Free Replay: 21st Century Parenting Webcast

21st cent parenting 300x168 Free Replay: 21st Century Parenting WebcastOur 21st Century Parenting Webcast, on managing your child’s behavior, provided insights on a wide range of questions – from separation issues to sleep troubles to struggles with organization to setting limits on use of technology. Relevant questions for parents of children from toddler to adolescent make this a helpful program for anyone.
You can replay of this event any time you want, and as often as you want.

The webcast was hosted by GlobalCast MD, and featured child development specialists from Hanna Perkins and The Lippman School. It was held at Hanna Perkins Center on Oct. 6, 2014.

Halloween: Please don’t scare the little ones

halloween fun phaitoon 300x199 Halloween: Please dont scare the little onesDear Grandmothers:  A few years ago, my 3-year-old Phoebe helped me hand out treats on Halloween and we were having a lot of fun until a child dressed as a witch came to the door. Phoebe was terrified—she ran and hid under a table and wouldn’t even go near the door the rest of the evening. What should I do to make Halloween less traumatic for her this year?            –Phoebe’s Mom

We answered:  First, let us congratulate you on taking your child’s fears seriously – and before October 30. So often, we are taken by surprise when all the hype — which begins just after the Back to School sales — begins to cause our children to become over-excited or nervous. We may not realize that such behavior is all about the upcoming season of scare.

Despite all our talk to our preschoolers about the difference between what’s pretend and what’s real, they are still too young to really know this. Even though they say “I know it’s not real,” they can still be confused and frightened when confronted by witches, skeletons, ghosts and monsters – all the scary props of the season.

You can help your preschooler if you can just remember that everything she sees is absolutely real to her.

Another way to help young children is to recognize that your memories of your childhood Halloween fun are not from your preschool years.  You certainly were in elementary school when you had so much fun trick or treating until all hours with your friends, watching a scary video, or visiting a haunted house.

Many parents remember only those school-age Halloweens and think that such activities are what it’s all about, even for the littlest children. But they’re not—those kinds of activities are way too much for preschoolers.

Don’t worry;  you have many years ahead of reliving your childhood Halloween fun.  Just don’t rush it with the little ones.

So, what can you do for Phoebe this year?

Protect her from scary TV (even many commercials are overwhelming and frightening—or, at the very least, confusing).

Be on the lookout for signs that she is overwhelmed, overexcited, scared.  Is she running around excitedly, or does she cling to you, have her fingers in her mouth? Any unusual behavior at this time of year should make you wonder if she’s confused or frightened and should prompt you to ask her if she is worried about something.

Just your recognition of her nervousness will reassure her and help her to calm down.

If you can get her to tell you what she is worried about, don’t try to talk her out of her fears; acknowledge them and try to figure out a way to help her manage.

Let her decide how much she wants to participate in Halloween activities, respect her wishes. And give her a calmed down, low-key Halloween:  a costume, no mask;  trick or treating at a few friends’ or neighbors’ houses;  pumpkins and cute black cat decorations;  protections from anything that is overwhelming and not understood—or at least acknowledgement of those things and reassurance from you that you will keep her safe.

So, have fun this year, but be on the lookout for things that are “too much.”  All too soon she’ll be 10 and begging you to help her put up a haunted house in the garage.

Photo courtesy of Phaitoon/

A sense of what matters at Hanna Perkins School

HP Classroom lowres 300x199 A sense of what matters at Hanna Perkins SchoolAn all-hands staff meeting at the beginning of the school year offered a good opportunity for Barbara Streeter, director of Hanna Perkins School, to remind everyone of the care given to the thoughts of preschool and kindergarten students.

She asked people to be conscious of magazines that are left in waiting areas throughout the building – removing any that contain scary images or content that isn’t appropriate for young children.

“It’s always important, but particularly so in the beginning of the year,” Streeter said. “They are working so hard at being independent human beings without their parents being here; they need a predictable, safe, comfortable and controlled environment.

“They notice everything and they hear everything,” she continued, “So please be aware of the conversations you have with other adults if there are children around.”

While the same courtesies could apply at any school, Hanna Perkins’ focus on the ability to discuss feelings provides frequent reminders how young children struggle with the unfamiliar and unknown.

Their effort to make sense of adult conversations or new sights is confined to their own, limited experience of the world, and it can lead to wildly inaccurate – perhaps troubling – interpretations. This is what development professionals are referring to when they talk about magical thinking in young children.

 A sense of what matters at Hanna Perkins School

Too close to home: Young children may overlook the fire-fighting action, focusing instead on flames in bedroom windows. Photo of drawing from “My Fire Engine” by Michael Rex.

As Exhibit A, Streeter held up a picture book about fire trucks – seemingly appropriate for preschoolers. Who, after all, isn’t fascinated by fire trucks and the heroes who drive them?

But it is no longer part of the classroom environment at Hanna Perkins because more than one child’s focus has been not on the drawings of trucks or firefighters, but those of  flames shooting from windows of a house that – to a 5-year-old – may be a very good rendering of their house.

Exhibit B was another book, Storm is Coming, by Heather Tekavec and Margaret Spengler, which Streeter skimmed through at the meeting.

It’s about a farmer who observes, out loud, “Storm is coming.” The animals – like young children – misunderstand his meaning. They think Storm is a person – and a scary person at that, based on the concerned tone of the farmer’s voice. As they wait fearfully in their cozy barn for Storm to arrive, the animals welcome the darkening sky, then the rain, wind, thunder and lightning – hopeful that each of these phenomena will scare Storm away.

It’s a book that Streeter predicts children will enjoy because they will get the joke early, and they’ll relate to the situation of misunderstanding information that comes to them from the world of adults.

 A sense of what matters at Hanna Perkins School

A book children will appreciate; it understands their misunderstandings.

The school occupies only a portion of Hanna Perkins’ facility, so Streeter also reminded staff members who are not involved in the school’s day-to-day activities that hallways and facilities in that part of the building are off-limits during school hours.

In explaining this, she cited the practice of one noted Northeast Ohio pediatrician to put a smock on all babies during well-baby visits.

If parents wonder why it’s necessary, Streeter said, the doctor’s response is something to this point: “When is a baby too young to deserve privacy and respect with regard to her body? When is it too soon to convey to a child that her body is precious, valued, belonging to her, and deserving of protection?” 

“We feel the same way here,” Streeter said. “When are children so young that they shouldn’t get the same respect that adults get? Walking into their classroom or onto their playground space is no different than when someone walks into your office.”

Finally, Streeter reminded the group that the facility doesn’t decorate for, or celebrate, Halloween.

Older children have learned to understand the concept of scary fun – though some don’t enjoy it as much as others.

But children in preschool and kindergarten are still learning the difference between real and pretend. “At this age, scary fun isn’t fun; it’s just scary.”

That doesn’t mean Halloween is ignored completely at Hanna Perkins. “We talk about it in class,” Streeter said. “The children may want to share their feelings. There are usually a lot of questions.”


Standing Up For Myself

fingerpainting girl  David Castillo Dominici freedigitalphotos 300x199 Standing Up For MyselfAsserting oneself begins at birth. We parents quickly learn the differences between the loud, insistent screams our babies make. We know when our one month old is saying, “I’m hungry, NOW” or “Something really hurts!”

Asserting oneself becomes all too evident during the toddler years when “Me do” and “No”, provokes nods from adults and we mutter knowingly, “ the terrible twos”. This strong push toward independence, although it tries our patience, is generally understood to be a predictable part of growing up and we look forward to the next stage when the child insists on independence in more subtle ways.

But what about a child like 4-year-old Sarah who is so “nice” and easily gives? She lets another child grab the doll carriage she is playing with and take off with it and doesn’t yell “No”, “Mine”, or run to get the help of an adult. What about the four- year-old who returns, uncomplaining, to building his castle after his two friends steal some of his blocks to build their own castle?

How Do We Feel?

We parents are often grateful for children who aren’t always raising a rumpus about their rights. We assess and label them as “easy going” and “nice”. There are times when it nags us a little that our four year old always gives in but a play date free of fights is what we value in this hectic, over-scheduled world. One adult watching the group of kids that included Sarah suggested she was simply the early version of the adult who doesn’t get “hyper” about little things and decides most things aren’t worth the hassle or fuss-up.

Where is the child Headed?

This behavior raises a red flag. What was really happening and how was Sarah feeling as she watched her carriage disappear? First of all, given her age, assuming she could make on-the-spot decisions about what things are important to pursue and what might not be worth the emotional expenditure is unrealistic. At age four, children are unable to think this way. That doll carriage was an important part of her play. She had chosen it and had a plan in mind as she pushed her doll in it. Her imagination was at work and she might well have been imitating what her Mommy does with the new baby. Just because she’s four and only “playing” does not mean the things she chooses to do are not terribly important to her. This play is the model for how she will one day treat her daughter or manage her business. Will she continue to give in and be so “nice” at 10 years of age when a friend urges her to be unkind to another friend or at fifteen when she’s offered drugs?


What is a good way to think about this interaction between two four year olds? We have decided Sarah’s play was important to her and so should ask ourselves why she didn’t stand up for herself. Why didn’t she object to her carriage being grabbed? Was the other child a frightening peer who always became aggressive when he didn’t get his way? Had she perhaps received strong messages from adults that nice girls share and keep unhappy feelings to themselves? Perhaps she felt very small and her feelings of inadequacy were powerful. They were so powerful that she was incapable of finding the strength to hold on to the carriage and say, “No.”

What to Understand?

We can begin by understanding that standing up for oneself is important but complicated. We can begin to be more aware of the times our children don’t assert themselves when it would be logical to do so and try to understand how they are feeling. We can observe our child who is so likeable and eager to please but quietly reluctant to assert herself. When everyone likes a child and they are no trouble, it’s easier to let it go or to interpret the behavior as the observer did, as deliberately choosing her fights.

What To Do?

How should we parents use this example as we nurture and raise our children? After all, sharing the things we have is a valued characteristic and one we praise among our children and their friends. If we see our three or four year old continually relinquishing a toy to another child we should observe thoughtfully and notice behaviors and expressions. Did she really want to share her carriage or did she hesitate, look uncertain and then move on to something else? Some children are frightened at the prospect of showing displeasure or anger so it’s important for parents to remain calm, be supportive and reassure our children that it’s all right to be angry particularly when something has been taken away from them that they were playing with. We must mean what we say. We can also help by giving our children the words to use even when their vocabularies are limited, such as “No!” or “I am playing with that!”

Understanding the importance of children’s play and taking seriously a child’s investment in a particular activity or toy is a first step in helping a child who has feelings of inadequacy or is afraid to stand up for herself. Right now, at four years of age, Sarah is worried about the loss of her doll carriage and her inability to hold on to this toy. She does not know how to make things right for herself and is afraid to try. Knowing this, we can gently move in beside her and help.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Dealing with stranger anxiety

anxiety  Arvind Balaraman freedigitalphotos 300x198 Dealing with stranger anxietyParenting has always been stressful, but now more than ever it seems. So my heart goes out to moms and dads who struggle with the issue of how to keep their children safe without instilling undue fear – fear that can lead a child to heightened levels of stranger anxiety.

Stranger anxiety is a normal part of development that occurs in most children around the age of 6 or 7 months, and it may last until the child’s first birthday or so.

At this stage, children are very attached to their primary providers, and they may experience considerable distress when in the company of people with whom they are unfamiliar. Often, they show this distress by hiding behind their parents, quietly peeking at the stranger and loudly protesting if he or she makes any overtures.

When this kind of behavior is seen in older children, I often wonder about angry feelings they may be experiencing. Are those aggressive feelings being projected outward and making the world seem like a very unsafe place?

This is typical of what you find in children who are terrified of the boogey man, burglars, ghosts, etc. As one savvy boy put it, “I think that’s just my mad feelings coming back to get me.”

So, what do you do?

First and foremost, keep your cool. Children are masters at picking up on their parents’ anxiety.

Very matter-of-factly reinforce the importance of not talking to strangers. But then, prepare the child in advance for situations where contact with strangers will be unavoidable – like at the airport, as an example.

You can say things like: “Mommy and daddy will be with you and keep you safe.” Or if a school field trip is planned, you might offer: “When you go to the museum, there will be strangers, but you’ll be with your teacher. And the school staff will keep you safe.”

Also, remind your child about police officers, whose job is to keep us safe.

If you suspect your child is projecting his/her own anger, encourage the use of words for feelings. “You seem angry; I wish you could tell me about it.” If your child seems scared of strangers to the point of panic, seek professional help.

More Parenting Tips available at

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman/


Helping babies and toddlers with sudden fears

serious talk  David Castillo Dominicifreedigialphotos 199x300 Helping babies and toddlers with sudden fearsBaby Fiona is so different now: after months of being passed around among all the aunts and cousins for admiring and cuddling, suddenly she protests loudly and wants only to stay with her mother. And going to the baby sitter’s house is now a big problem, where she was perfectly happy before. In fact, she gets upset whenever her parents leave the room for even a few minutes. What has happened to our good-natured, even-tempered little one?

Two-year-old Ryan never noticed the vacuum cleaner or the garbage truck before, but now he runs and covers his ears at every loud noise. He is afraid he will go down the drain with the bath water and thinks there is a monster under the bed and cannot go calmly to bed anymore. Is he going to be a fearful sissy all his life if we don’t toughen him up right now?

Jack has been running around the house, behaving in hectic, out-of-control ways, having a hard time playing with other children without chasing and scaring them. Could it have anything to do with his demanding to watch the Finding Nemo video over and over? But that can’t be scaring him because he says, “I’m not scared” and keeps asking to watch it.

All these are examples of typical baby and toddler fears that are more or less recognizable to parents and caregivers. It isn’t just the child who cries and looks afraid who is fearful, it’s also children who act silly, who bite their nails or suck their thumbs excessively, who insist “I’m not afraid,” or who show dramatic changes in eating and sleeping behaviors. Adults need to be detectives on the lookout for fears that may underlie disturbing behaviors.

Why Do Children Have These Typical Fears?

Fiona shows us that she now knows the difference between the people around her when she wants only to be with Mom; the more she is aware of the world, the more she needs help — time and growth–to figure things out. Ryan is taking a still further step in figuring out the wider world and the relative sizes of things when he sees that things go down the drain and disappear—“maybe I could, too.” Likewise, his fears of loud noises and a monster under the bed make us wonder if there is some big feeling inside of him which he can’t express, but instead attributes to these outside forces: “anything that loud must be really angry,” he thinks. Stress and tension can also make children fearful; as wonderful as a new house may be, moving may be too much of a loss of the familiar for a preschooler and may provoke fearful behavior. All change is hard for young children and must be carefully managed, and prepared for, to help minimize overwhelming feelings.

What Not To Do

First of all, do not scoff or dismiss your child’s fears, no matter how unreasonable they seem to you—they are VERY real to him. Do not tell him that big boys don’t cry; don’t tell him to buck up and be a man. Comfort him, let him know that you are the parent and that it’s your job to keep him safe. Try to discover exactly what the fear is about and calmly try to deal with it. For goodness sake, don’t say that you will chase the monster under the bed to make it go away—it just reinforces the child’s fear that there really is a monster. Better to look with him to see that there’s nothing there and sit with him to reassure him that you want to help him calm down and feel better.

Never sneak out on a child without saying goodbye; that only reinforces her fear that you might disappear at any moment. Be sure she knows when you are leaving, even if there are tears, and reassure her that you will return. Never say, when someone has died, that they have gone to sleep; imagine how hard it would be for a child to go to bed after hearing that.

Be especially careful about scaring young children, even by joking, to make them behave. Better to remind the child to keep himself safe than to say, “If you go too high on the climber, you’ll fall and crack your head open” or “Don’t run into the street—you could get killed,” which only terrorizes a child with no real improvement in behavior.

What To Do

Continue to protect your child by providing firm limits appropriate to his or her age. It’s up to parents to manage the schedule and surroundings as much as possible so that the child will feel safe and protected. Limit your preschooler to less than 2 hours of TV a day, and avoid programs with violence or those that have nothing worthwhile to teach a child. Even the TV programs and movies that you might think are for the little ones include scary fish or animals with big teeth and threatening behavior—avoid them entirely. Similarly, Halloween and holiday activities must be carefully screened so that very young children are not overwhelmed by scary costumes and situations. Witches, clowns, Santa Claus, anything in costume can be overwhelming and scary to preschoolers.

Understanding Fears

As your child develops, changes, and learns about the world, many experiences will cause her to be confused and anxious. Fears are a normal part of this process of growing up. Even if you don’t fully understand, show that you do realize how big and scary the world must look to him. Give your child respect, support, and comfort and have confidence in her growing abilities. Help her focus on things she can do, like wiping the table or washing the pots while you fix dinner, rather than exposing her to things she can’t do anything about, things which make her feel powerless and helpless like confusing TV shows. Several signs indicate that a child may be having special difficulties with fears. For instance, her sleeping or eating patterns change noticeably. Or he starts to have problems getting along with other children and won’t take part in preschool or play activities. Try wondering, with your child, where the scared feelings come from to help you understand what he’s experiencing. How-ever, if you find that your child is especially stressed, you should seek professional help from a person who specializes in working with young children and their families.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

A formula for a perfect kids’ summer

swing chris roll freedigitalphotos A formula for a perfect kids summerWarm, 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/






The separation process: Starting programs away from home

mother daughter David Castillo Dominici freedigitalphotos 300x199 The separation process: Starting programs away from homeWhen parents give over the care of their children to a pre-school, day-care center or kindergarten teacher, no matter how attractive the facility, it is an emotionally difficult time for all. 

Parents tend to stifle these feelings with bravado, telling their child, “There will be a lot of other children for you to play with;” “Look at all the toys and things to do;” “Your teacher will help you learn all sorts of new things.” But when the reality of the parents’ leaving comes, this encouragement usually cannot make up for the abandonment the child feels.

Out of sight, out of mind?

The personnel of some schools and centers believe that the best way to handle this difficult time for the child is to encourage her to “forget” Mommy and Daddy while there. They may try to divert the child’s missing feelings with activities and materials.

Children asked to “sit on” these feelings often react in a variety of negative or debilitating ways.

In more forward-looking schools, the teachers and caregivers know that asking young children to give up thinking about Mommy and Daddy is like asking them to give up a piece of themselves.

They help a child find ways to keep those closest to her consciously in mind to serve as a source of strength and comfort even when they are not with her.

Providing reinforcements

Take a picture of you (parent or parents) with your child for her to keep in her backpack or cubby at school.  During times of stress, the child can use the picture to comfort herself and to remind her that Mommy and Daddy are missing her, too.

Along with the picture could be a short note (perhaps a new one every few days) telling the child that Mommy and Daddy are thinking of her. They will be so proud when they hear about all of the things she did while at school/the center that day. Teachers can very effectively use these notes when the child’s missing feelings cause her to be disinterested in an activity or prevent her from finishing one.

For the very young child, personal items belonging to the parents may be even better than a picture. These can stand in for the parents’ physical presence and remind her of their love. Just knowing that Mom’s or Dad’s handkerchief, old billfold, scarf, old piece of jewelry, etc., is in her backpack, coat pocket or cubby to be checked on or touched occasionally (not played with) can be a tangible comfort. Infants and toddlers often prefer Mom’s unwashed T-shirt because the scent is a more intimate, direct reminder of her.

In the early days of the child’s entering a new program, a beloved security blanket or stuffed toy can help her feel less abandoned and alone.

Some parents write out a list of tasks they perform during their day whether at a workplace or at home. If the teacher notices the child’s attention, interest or self-control is waning, the schedule can be referred to so that the child can picture her parents doing their work as she does hers.

Short visits and/or phone calls

Short planned visits by one or both parents to the school during the early “settling-in” time may be very helpful. It could be that the visit would be to have lunch with the child, or to do one or two activities with her.

Having lunch, doing a puzzle, building a Lego or block construction together puts Mom’s or Dad’s “seal-of-approval” on their child’s new world. It will also provide a feeling memory of togetherness the next time the child engages in these activities without Mom or Dad.

If the early separation time is particularly difficult for a child, or if she is experiencing more stress from things going on in her home life, a planned phone call can help with anxious feelings. This should be talked over and planned with the teacher ahead of time. Initially, the sound of a parent’s voice on the phone may cause tears. This is all part of the process of being able to separate in spite of having huge feelings of being left.

In his writings,  Dr. Robert Furman, former director of the Hanna Perkins Center, identified these feelings as caused by:

  • Anxiety: “Will I be safe?”
  • Sadness: “I’ll miss you.”
  • Anger: “How could you leave me to do something without me?” 

With supportive help and reassurances from parents and teachers, the child will come to realize that she can manage these overwhelming feelings and not let them get in the way (and not let them get so big). When she no longer needs reinforcements of visits or phone calls, her mastery of her anxious feelings can be a source of pride for her – a sign of becoming a “big girl.”

Discussing the day

When parents talk over the child’s day when they are reunited, they can make a plan for what the child can do the next day when she feels lonely, angry, sad or frustrated. They can preface the plan by saying, “If that happens again…,” or “If you feel that way again…” – and end it by saying “…then you’ll be able to do it for yourself.”

This is encouraging the “growing-up” side of the child – giving her a method, by using thoughts of Mom’s and Dad’s words for support, to feel less helpless, to take charge of herself and move on. If the caregiver or teacher is aware of this plan, he or she can use it to advantage, reminding the child: “What would Mom or Dad say or do when such-and-such happens?”

When the child feels that her parents and her teacher are partners on her behalf, and that her parents like and respect the teacher, it paves the way for the teacher to become someone who helps her learn new things. The child will be better able to enjoy learning and develop new friendships when allowed to feel that thinking about her parents is OK and restorative.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/


Promoting self-esteem

self esteem marin freedigitalphotos Promoting self esteem“GOOD JOB!!!”
The heading on the sheet of stickers says “100 Ways to Say ‘Good Job!’”, and then all 100 – from “Awesome” to “Zero Mistakes” – appear with accompanying smiley faces and abundant exclamation points. These are sold to teachers as self-esteem promoters. Everyone, especially the children, knows them to be artificial at best. But at least they are evidence of the general awareness that self-esteem is an important commodity.

But self-esteem is not so easily created, and certainly not when imposed from without. Self-esteem by definition has to grow from within. Students who receive praise for work they know to be less than their best feel worse about themselves, in fact, not better, to hear a perfunctory “Good job!” Older students feel dismissed, unworthy of a more time-consuming and honest critique of their efforts. Younger ones just feel vaguely guilty.

The source of self-esteem
Self-esteem is created, of course, not by stickers but by daily loving care, and from birth. Infants learn to love their own bodies as their small selves are fed, cleansed, soothed, valued, whatever hour of the day or night it might be.

Toddlers achieve self-esteem by beginning to care for their own bodies during the stressful “Me do it!” years, when parents find themselves being continually pulled between hovering over their child to prevent him from drinking out of the cat’s dish and waiting the extra half-hour it takes to permit him to brush his own teeth, button his own buttons.

By age 3 or 4 he may not require constant vigilance any more, but now his self-esteem hinges on his pleasing others by learning to obey all those rules of good behavior: sharing, taking turns, and resisting the urge to crayon on the walls or smack his sister with a toilet brush. Constantly the parent or other caregiver is there – as Erna Furman, a child analyst with a deep Hanna Perkins association, and author of several books on child development, wrote – first “doing for,” then “doing with,” and finally “standing by to admire” until the child is ready to do by and for himself.

The trap of phony praise
It is in this last “standing by to admire” stage that it’s easy to fall into the phony “Good job!” trap. If the admiration is sincere, the child senses that. If he distrusts the praise, however, he will feel not encouraged but manipulated. And if he grows to depend on the adult for confirmation that he’s done a “good job,” then he has not gained in self-esteem.

Sometimes, in fact, words are unnecessary. If a child is absorbed in a project he might well feel interrupted, even patronized, if an adult bursts into his castle building, dinosaur drawing or playclay modeling with effusive burbles and coos. “Standing by to admire” can sometimes mean just smiling and nodding, and then going about one’s business as the child continues with his, permitting his satisfaction to come from within.

If words are called for, however, a better choice than “Good job!” might such praise as: “You must feel good about being able to climb up to the top of that climber. You have been working hard at that. Last week you had to stop half-way up and now you’re at the very top.”

The child will benefit from hearing what exactly is being admired, and also from reflecting on how he feels about his accomplishment – not how the adult feels. You certainly don’t want him to start doing a “good job” only to win your praise; he then might be just as likely to start intentionally disappointing you if he is angry.

Obstacles to self-esteem
But what if he sincerely tries, and sincerely fails? What if the climber is just too high, the puzzle is simply too difficult, his drawing of a dog persists in looking like a drawing of a duck, and he comes to the caregiver wailing his discouragement?

Then the admiring adult is called upon to notice the effort and intent, the tiny steps that might in time lead to an accomplishment of the difficult task, and admire those. In fact, the parent has every reason to admire persistence and patience more than the completion of a tricky puzzle – and the child will recognize that conviction, and be reassured by, “Try again tomorrow. Tomorrow it will be a little easier. Or maybe the day after that. Soon you will be able to do that puzzle.”

And then there’s the matter of what you say when the first words that pop into your head aren’t “Good job!” but “Terrible job!”

The toys he promised to pick up are still scattered all over the floor, he woke up the baby with a sneaky pinch, he gave himself a disastrous haircut with the scissors he wasn’t supposed to touch. If you tell him of your displeasure, will he have a permanently damaged self-esteem? Of course not.

In fact, the spirit of “terrible job” – although perhaps not those exact words – is the message you want to convey, as opposed to “terrible kid.”

If you can keep your wits about you, you might follow the format recommended for admiring his successes: Tell him exactly what he did that distressed you, and then suggest that probably he feels bad about what he did and will feel better if he can make amends somehow. And then help him find a way to do that.  He could get to work picking up those toys, or give the baby a cup of juice or a cracker to make up for having disturbed her, or sweep up the hair that’s scattered all over the floor.

Parents’ self-esteem
Our own self-esteem is involved in whether or not our child can climb to the top of the climber, finish that puzzle, or go all day without pooping in his pants.

We would do well to remind ourselves that while our approval or disapproval is enormously important to our children, we should seek to gain our own self-esteem not through their accomplishments but through helping them own their own successes and failures, without looking to us for the ultimate judgment.

As Mrs. Furman so aptly put it, “Our self-esteem can rise with the thought, ‘I helped him toward becoming his own person and liking himself.’”

Image courtesy of Marin/