Time Stood Still

“We trudged back into the house, our mittens hanging from their clips; the ones intended to keep us organized.  The mittens we were supposed to wear at all times, to heed frostbite warnings that blared from the television each night.  The mittens that were wool, and therefore stuck to the snow, making it impossible to craft the perfect snowball.  We abandoned them every single time.  We would take our chances, thank you very much.

We peeled off the snow day armor as quickly as possible, ignoring the faint request coming from behind the kitchen door, “wipe your feet, hang up your jackets, put your hats and mittens by the radiator.”  Instead we threw them in a soggy heap by the washing machine and made a run for it, racing to be the first to open the kitchen door.  The one that stood between the finished product and us.

We were immediately accosted by the telltale scents of the holiday season:  Gingerbread men, fresh from the oven, hot chocolate piled high with fresh whipped cream, and beef stew slowly simmering on the stove.  Beef, carrots, celery, and potatoes cooked until they practically fell apart.  “Yuck”, we whispered in hushed tones, “we will never make our kids eat that when we grow up.  NEVER.”  A statement that would prove almost true in years to come. Almost…”

Please stop by moonfrye to finish reading “Time Stood Still” and find out when my life came full circle.

“Daddy Time” Mommy Moment Post

Mommy Moment

This week on Mommy Moment I explore the differences in the ways that moms and dads play with their kids, and how that helps kids learn and grow.  Please stop by and check it out!

“Daddy Time”

Coming tomorrow…helping children develop a healthy body image.

Zero Tolerance for Bullies (Tips for taking a stand on bullying)

I want to start off by thanking everyone for the very positive feedback over the past few days.  On Wednesday, I opened a door to my past and shared my personal story about being bullied.  If you missed this post, please read it when you get a chance:  “Pour Your Heart Out” – Bullied.

Whether or not we want to accept it, we live in a culture that is highly focused on power and winning at all costs.  From politics to sports to simple running races, we, as Americans, want to win.  The catch is that we can’t all be winners all of the time.  Inevitably someone ends up on the losing end of the race.  Do we really prepare ourselves for that possibility?  Do we prepare our kids?

Incidents of bullying continue to rise.  The optimistic in me hopes that, at some level, higher percentages indicate that more kids are coming forward and reporting bullying.  The realist in me knows that statistics don’t lie.  They vary, but they don’t lie.

Bullying takes many forms.  The following are the most recognizable:  Verbal, social (isolation), physical, pack, cyberbullying, homophobia, and intolerance of disabilities. Research indicates that boys are more likely to be the targets of physical and pack bullying, while girls most often experience verbal, social, and cyberbullying.

The psychosocial affects of bullying are heartbreaking.  Students who are bullied are likely to experience:  Depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, increased school absence, physical illness, and suicidal and/or homicidal thoughts and/or actions. How many children have to suffer the consequences of bullying before we, as a country, get serious about this and truly take action?  In my opinion, we’ve lost too many kids already.

As of 2009, many states have anti-bullying laws.  The states who have yet to pass legislation include:  Alabama, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.  If you live in one of these states, it’s time to start flooding your local representative with email and phone calls.  They are falling behind.  The state that takes the most progressive approach toward bullying is New Jersey.  An “anti bullying bill of rights” was introduced into the NJ state legislature in October 2010.

There is currently a lot of talk about the fact that bullying is a national problem.  What we really need is action.  Below are some tips to help you take a stand against bullying in your community:


1. Know the facts: Many people choose to remain blissfully unaware of the level of bullying that occurs daily.  While statistics vary based on the study, it is important to know what’s really happening.  The 2009 Indicators of School Crime and Safety statistics reveal that 1/3 of teens are bullied at school, 4% of teens report cyberbullying, 44% of middle schools report bullying as a problem, females and students with disabilities are targeted the most often, and homosexual and bisexual students are the most likely to report bullying. For those of you thinking that 1/3 doesn’t seem that high, look around.  You wouldn’t want your child to fall into that statistic.  Other reports indicate that 160,000 students miss school each day for fear of being bullied, and that every 7 minutes a child is bullied. It’s worth repeating:  Every 7 minutes.  Adults only intervene 4% of the time.

2. Mutual respect starts at home: Research shows that families that are not loving, are not open to expression of feelings, are inconsistent with discipline and supervision, and include parents who bully (either each other or their children) are more likely to produce bullies. It’s our job to teach our children to accept differences.  It’s also up to us to teach our kids how to cope with feelings that might lead to bullying behavior.  They don’t have to be friends with everyone they meet, but they do need to show respect to all other people.  Parents need to model appropriate conflict resolution skills.  If dad bullies mom at home, you can bet that behavior will resurface with your children at school.  Point out times when conflicts are handled appropriately.  Use incidents where conflict was not handled appropriately as a teaching tool.  It sounds easy, but it can take some soul searching to really evaluate parenting styles and make the necessary changes.  There’s no room for sarcasm, physical punishment, or berating when it comes to child rearing.  Check your emotions at the door.

3. Know the “Don’ts”: Children struggle to come forward, even to their parents, when they are being bullied.  They experience a range of emotions, including (but not limited to): sadness, anger, frustration, embarrassment, and anxiety.  Parental response to reports of bullying can have a huge impact on whether or not a child reports future incidents.  Don’t blame your child.  Don’t tell your child to ignore the bullying (this often makes it worse).  Don’t tell your child to fight back.  Don’t call the parents of the bully to blame them (this often fuels the fire).  Don’t immediately pull your child from his school.  Don’t assume that the school isn’t doing anything (most school policies preclude the school from providing details about the aggressor and consequences provided).

4. Know the “Do’s”: If your child comes to you for help, try to remain calm.  Do listen and empathize. Tell your child that bullying is wrong.  Listen for the details.  Do know the school’s policy on bullying.  Contact a school administrator immediately. Many children fail to report bullying for fear of being blamed or for fear of future repercussions.  Do talk about a plan. If there is a teacher, coach, or school counselor who your child trusts, see if that person is willing to be a point person for your child.  Involve your child in meetings with school administrators.  Do get help for your child. Forget about stigmas, therapy can save lives.  Help your child as soon as possible to work on self-esteem, anxiety, and possible depressive symptoms.  Do practice assertiveness skills at home, including seeking help.

5. If your child is the bully: No one wants to get the phone call identifying your child as the bully.  It happens.  Try to avoid crafting excuses and instead focus on understanding why the event happened.  It might be an isolated event, or the latest in a series of events.  Either way, accepting that your child bullied another child is the first step toward helping him learn a better way to interact.  Set clear and consistent rules for behavior at home AND in the community. Standards of behavior shouldn’t change just because your child leaves the house.  Listen to the explanation. The best way to figure out how to help your child is to listen when he explains his behavior.  Supervise your child carefully. At home, during play dates, and out at the park, watch your child closely and be prepared to intervene.  Be aware of your child’s friends. Particularly if it seems to be an isolated event, you might want to be more careful about who your child befriends.  Get help. As much as bullying makes the bully appear to be a monster, it is also a cry for help at times.  Get your child into counseling immediately.  Work with the school. They don’t dislike your child, but they do need to stop the behavior.  Work with them to come up with a plan.  When parents repeatedly argue with school administrators, everyone loses.  Look for positive outlets. Everyone is good at something:  Music, art, sports, poetry, and the list goes on.  One of the biggest linebackers at my college later published a book of poetry.  Find your child’s strength and channel his energy there.

6. Focus on assertiveness: Studies show that bullies are more likely to back down if other kids intervene and stand up for the target.  Teach your child to help when others need it.  Help might come in the form of standing up to a bully with a quick (and witty) response or it might involve getting an adult.  Recent statistics indicate that peers only intervene 11% of the time, but when they do the bully is more likely to move on. Sean received a note in response to my personal story about bullying.  It was from an old middle school friend who said that he had helped her through some very difficult years simply by being nice to her.  Teach your children to reach out to others and offer friendship to someone in trouble. Even just eating lunch with another person who is going through a difficult time socially might change that person’s life for the better.

7. Be the adult: Bullying is starting younger and younger these days.  It currently peaks during ages 6-9 and during middle school.  But it starts as young as preschool and continues well into college and adulthood.  If you see a child bullying another child it is your job to intervene. I’m the mom at the park who has no problem speaking up.  I keep a close eye on my kids and when others don’t I jump in and redirect those kids when trouble begins.  I wouldn’t say it makes me popular, but it keeps (my) kids safe.  The fact that adults only intervene 4% of the time is alarming.  You are the adult.  You need to make it stop. Ignorance is not bliss.

8. For educators and schools: Back in my 9-5 days, I was a school administrator.  Due to my own experience with bullying combined with my frustration regarding students bullying other students, I made it my mission to design and implement the first bully prevention program at that school.  Although it has seen changes over the past few years, it remains in place today.  The research indicates three key areas of focus for schools.  Policy:  Schools need clear definitions of bullying in place so that incidents of bullying are easily recognized.  They also need a clear policy that each student and family reads and signs off on each year. It’s difficult to hold parents responsible when they argue that they didn’t know the policy existed.  Make sure they know.  Make it as black and white as possible.  Consequences:  Clearly defined consequences for bullying must be included in the policy to be read and signed by all students and parents. When grey areas exist, people find loopholes.  Avoid the loopholes by developing a comprehensive policy that covers every possible scenario.  Education:  Regular, mandatory staff training on bullying is important. Teachers are on the front lines.  They need to be able to recognize bullying and symptoms of victimization, and have a concrete action plan.  The best way to support your teachers is to offer them resources and education as regularly as possible.  Create award programs where students are rewarded for good citizenship.

9. Consider the causes: Bullying occurs for a variety of reasons.  In some families, teasing and bullying is the norm. Family behavior models teach children how to act/interact under various circumstances. It’s important to model assertive behavior as well as empathy, honesty, and appropriate ways to problem-solve.  Open the closed doors. Many families feel that what happens behind closed doors should stay there.  The problem with this approach is that eventually your children will bring those feelings and behaviors into the community.  It’s ok to ask for help.  In fact, it’s probably the most important step families can take.  Often kids get more social recognition for negative behavior, which easily creates a pattern. Focus on the positive behaviors displayed by your children.  Extra praise never hurts, but constant nagging and negative input can cause children to feel like they have no other choice.  Jealousy and lack of social skills to cope with feelings of jealousy can cause kids to lash out at one another. Social skills development starts at home and continues in school.  Focus on teaching your children how to cope when things don’t go their way.  Past experiences of social rejection can cause kids to want to “pay it forward” to other kids. If your child has experienced social rejection get help for him so that he can process his feelings and move forward with positive coping strategies.

10. Consider grass roots: Many large organizations once started as small neighborhood initiatives.  Wouldn’t it be great if it were hip to be FAB (Families Against Bullying)?  The fact that support doesn’t currently exist on a smaller level doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way.  Consider starting a neighborhood program.  Bring in local law enforcement and a child psychologist/therapist to provide parent educationAgree to a no tolerance policy for bullying in your community.  Enforce that policy when you see bullying in action. There is always power in numbers.  The only way for us to eradicate bullying is to come together as a country and stop tolerating it at all levels.

Bullying doesn’t have to be a part of our culture.  Kids don’t have to live in fear and hate themselves.  But we do have to come together and present a united front.  If you feel so inclined, please consider taking a very small first step by sharing this information with your friends and family.  Like I said, there is always power in numbers.   

Spoiler Alert! (Tips for increasing pro-social behavior)

One result of the high level of consumerism in this country is that parents seem to be questioning whether or not they are “spoiling” their kids.  Will the extra toys result in behavior deemed “bratty” by others?  Will they fail to learn the value of the dollar if they always get whatever they want?  Do they always get whatever they want?  Between birthdays, holidays, and other “special” occasions it can be hard to set limits when it comes to toy collecting.

While toddlers know only to throw a tantrum when they can’t have something in front of them, preschoolers are quietly learning the art of manipulation and scheming new ways to talk you into that coveted stuffed animal.  Preschoolers are also at the age where they really want to have the same clothes, toys, etc. as their friends.  Developmentally, they are learning that shared interests can equal friendship (ex:  We both like to play dolls at school, so we are friends).  When they see an interesting toy at a playdate they are likely to want that toy too.  It can make shopping trips difficult, that’s for sure.

People regularly ask me how to make sure that they’re not raising a “brat”.  They see other kids who they think appear “spoiled” and worry that their kids are on the same road.  I often tell moms that a good first step is to stop trying to evaluate other kids.  Yes, there are “spoiled” and “bratty” kids out there.  But there are also kids who are having a bad day, week, month.  Give the other moms a break and try to stay focused on how you can raise a kind, generous, and grateful child instead.  You never know what someone else is up against.  Below are some tips to help you raise a polite child:

1. It’s not all about the stuff: Whether you believe in a well-stocked toy cabinet or a few essentials, the important thing to focus on is behavior.  It’s not toys that make the “bratty” child, it’s how they choose to act in response to those toys and how you allow them to act that earns them the title.  Sharing is one of the most important social skills to teach, and also one of the hardest to learn.  Children feel like they have very little control in their lives; they like to have their possessions.  Start early.  Bring “share” toys to the park.  Invite friends over to work on sharing toys.  Have your child choose a few toys that don’t have to be shared, but make sure that they share the others.  Use an egg timer for toddlers to work on trading toys after two minutes.  Involve preschoolers in planning a playdate (create and post a checklist) so that they know what comes next and when to switch activities or toys.

2. Daily Manners: Manners need to be worked on daily.  Kids get busy and forget at times.  It’s our job to remind them.  Around here we always say please and we thank each other for everything, no matter how small.  Polite behavior starts at home.  When they master it at home, it comes as second nature in the real world.  Being grateful for what they are given is very important.  Always cue them to say “thank you”.

3. Set Limits: We all know that they don’t need everything they want.  The question is how willing are you to set the limit in order to teach the lesson?  If you are anything like me, you have no choice but to head to places like Target with two kids in tow.  Decide in advance on a treat (we always stick to the dollar rack) to avoid power struggles in the store.  And remember, fair is fair. If you bend the rules for one kid, you have to bend them for the other(s).

4. Keep a list: They can’t earn everything they see, and some coveted items are just too big.  Riley and I have a saying when it comes to wanting new toys, “put it on the list”.  We talk about how birthdays and holidays are times when they get larger gifts.  Who says the Santa list has to be written in November?  When things start adding up I remind her of the other items and we talk about what interests her the most and why.  She even helps Liam when he gets frustrated.  I recently overheard her saying, “it’s ok Liam, we can put it on your birthday list for your party” when he couldn’t get a racecar set at Target.  If they are always being shut down, they feel helpless.  If they know they can choose to keep it on a list for later, it gives them a sense of control.

5. Empathize: Toddlers and preschoolers want things.  The world is a huge place with a lot of stuff, and part of their developmental task is to ask for things and then learn to cope with the answers.  It’s how they learn.  I find it helps to empathize with them.  When Liam really starts to cry over a car I often say, “it sounds like you really wanted that car and you’re sad that Mommy won’t buy it.  I know how that feels.  Sometimes I really want something new but I know that I have to wait and I feel sad about it”.  A little understanding goes a long way in the mind of a child. Riley wants specifics, so we sometimes talk about the fact that I really like to buy new jeans but that they are expensive and I can’t just buy every pair that I like.  Give them concrete examples to help them understand.

6. Praise the good: It’s not that you have to praise every little thing along the way (although I probably tend to do so!), but praising them when they demonstrate pro-social behavior helps them to feel good about their choices and encourages them to repeat those behaviors.  A simple, “great job remembering your manners” when they don’t have to be cued makes them feel good.  Focus on the positive to encourage future positive behavior.  I recently challenged myself to avoid saying “no” for three days.  I only said it twice during those three days, and both times because one of the kids was in physical danger.  What I learned is that my 2 year old is the one saying no most of the time, and that the atmosphere does change when you focus on the positive instead of constantly redirecting the negative. They need to hear “no” when it counts, but otherwise positive reinforcement makes for a happier household.  While I’ve always been a proponent of positive reinforcement, we all hit a funk sometimes.  Take it from me and try the 3 day no “no” challenge. You might find that you really don’t need it much at all.

8. Books: Check out “The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies” and “The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners” by Stan and Jan Berenstain, “The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog” by Mo Willems, and “Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique” by Jane O’Connor for good reads on manners, delayed gratification, sharing, and other pro-social behavior.

If you focus on manners, delayed gratification, earning those coveted treats, and being grateful you will probably find that “bratty” behavior is not in your future.  Leave the “spoiling” to the Grandparents; it’s part of their job description…isn’t it?  Stay focused on the positive and watch the polite behavior unfold!

How do you set limits to avoid “spoiling” your kids?

Perfectly Imperfect (Tips for helping kids cope with failure)

“It’s RUINED!  It’s not right and it’s ruined!”  Dramatic?  Yes.  A regular occurrence for Riley?  Absolutely.  Many toddlers and preschoolers struggle to cope with disappointment and frustration when things don’t go as planned. Riley is an art perfectionist.  She spends a fair amount of time planning out her “projects” before she gets started, and then she works very deliberately to make things just right.  When something (or sometimes someone) causes her to miss a step and things look different than anticipated, she falls apart for a few minutes.   Cue the calming strategies (time to blow up balloons! See last post).  Liam isn’t so concerned about his art (fortunately he still believes that scotch tape can fix everything), but try to mess with his cars and you might end up hearing, “no!  That’s not right!  I like it this way!”  Kids are in hot pursuit of control at this age.  They have so little that they can control:  Their clothes (please tell me you are letting them choose their own outfits by now), maybe what they eat, and what they draw and play.  It’s not much, when you take into consideration that they probably endure a 12-hour day and might or might not take a nap during that time.  They really want things to go their way when they are creating and playing.  Riley has been known to burst into tears when a drop of water accidentally hits her painting, and Liam completely falls apart if someone knocks over the bridge he built from blocks.  They act as if they’ve been wronged (“why did you make me ruin this?”), but the truth is that they’ve just lost control…again.  Sean and I are both perfectionists.  This doesn’t bode well for our children.  When Sean gets off stage he’s generally in an adrenaline induced state of euphoria.  So basically he’s cracking jokes and talking non-stop.  But every once in a while (and by that I mean twice that I’ve seen in 11 years), he emerges in a funk.  Why?  Because he played an incorrect note.  One, singular incorrect note during a 90 minute show can ruin the whole the experience for him.  Similarly, I cringe every time I find a single typo in a post that’s been up for even one hour (chances are it hasn’t even been viewed yet).  Our poor little children have perfectionism in their genes.  The good news is that we are the masters of exaggerated accidents around here (so much so that the kids coined the term “oopsy Daddy” for even the slightest mistake made in plain sight).  We’re hoping to head it off at the pass before they start really putting pressure on themselves.  While perfectionism isn’t a medical problem (and some fellow perfectionists might argue that it leads to a better work ethic), it does cause kids to put undue pressure on themselves.  And the truth is, the world isn’t perfect and neither is anybody in it.  Below are some tips to help you help your kids cope with imperfection:

1. Empathize: Kids love to hear that their parents once felt like them.  The world is an overwhelming place at times; it’s nice to know that someone else has survived the same circumstances.  The logical thought is to want to jump in and help “fix” it when something goes awry.  Sean and I just discussed this very topic last night.  We want to be able to say, “look!  It’s all better now!” when the art project fails in some way.  What she needs to hear is that we understand what she is feeling (loss of control). Riley responds well when I say, “it looks like you’ve really been working hard on this painting, and you didn’t want that water spot there.  I remember when that happened to my painting when I was 4, and it really upset me”.  She almost always responds, “but how did you fix it?” after she dries her tears.  Which brings us to #2:

2. Problem-solve: Keep in mind that that the empathizing portion of events might take a few minutes, and you might need to take a little walk around the house while you tell your child just how well you understand the feeling of wanting that water spot to go away.  Once your child is calm, you can move into problem-solving mode.  Ask your child what she thinks will help first, then offer two suggestions of your own. Often times they can solve the problem independently once they are able to calm down and move forward.  Grab the pom-poms (metaphorically, of course) and praise her as she embarks on her problem-solving strategy of choice! Sometimes they just need to hear that they are capable of “fixing” mistakes, and that sometimes the finished product is even better than they imagined.  It never hurts to cheer them on a little when the chips are down.

3. Talk about imperfection: Newsflash:  We do not live in a perfect world.  It’s ok when things don’t go according to plan.  We were running late for preschool this morning and the kids just wouldn’t get their shoes on.  When I finally got them into the car and turned around to answer a question Liam asked, I got soaked by an open cup of water left in my car.  There was no time to change.  Riley looked at me, concerned, and asked, “Mommy, what will you do about your wet shirt?”  I smiled and said, “wait for it to dry!”  Certainly I have my moments where I’m ready to blow because everything seems to go wrong at exactly the same time, but I try to keep it in check and use it as an opportunity to teach the kids that you just can’t plan for everything.  Instead of making an excuse, talk about the events leading up to a playdate being cancelled at the last minute.  Point out your own moments of imperfection (appropriate to age and ability to understand).

4. Exaggerate small errors: Is there anything funnier than Daddy spilling ice cubes everywhere?  Not in my house.  Sean is the master of, “oops!  What did I do NOW?”  Liam, who fancies himself the comedian of the family, has really picked up on this and loves to exaggerate his own errors now.  Just this morning he misplaced his water cup and then spent a good ten minutes saying, “Mommy, look what I did now.  I put it on the couch!”  It’s much funnier when he says it, I swear.  Take the pressure off of small failures like spills, wet clothes, etc. by laughing at your own similar failures.  The other day I was making waffles for Riley (in state of complete sleep deprivation) and I forgot to spray the waffle iron before putting the batter in.  She looked like she might cry about the sticky waffles until I jumped in with the “oopsy Mommy” routine.  We had a good laugh about those sticky waffles while I made a fresh batch (and yes, I pointed out my problem-solving strategy of spraying the pan this time!). 

5. Talk about practice: Toddlers and preschoolers fail to understand that many things just take practice.  Riley can’t stand that she can’t play the guitar like her Daddy and ice skate like me.  While she loves to watch us excel at things, she is easily frustrated when she can’t just simply copy us and succeed.  We talk a lot about how much Daddy has to practice, even still, to play the guitar as well as he does.  I recently decided to teach myself how to hula-hoop in order to show the kids that some things just take practice (I’ve gotten surprisingly good over time).  I try a little bit each time when we are outside playing.  We laugh when the hoop falls to the ground and discuss the fact that I need to practice more often.  The other day Riley watched me for a few minutes and said, “look Mommy, your practicing is working!  You’re doing it!”  I wouldn’t say that practice always makes perfect, but often practice makes better.

6. Do copycat squiggle drawings: Riley loves this, mostly because she gets to give me directions.  I let her draw a “design” for a few minutes, without peeking.  When she’s finished, I try to copy her design.  It’s nearly impossible to make an exact copy of most of her complicated designs, so I often say things like, “wow, sometimes it’s hard to do it exactly the same way, but I’ll sure try”.  Then I let her tell me where to fill in the gaps, and we switch roles.  I try to really focus on just doing our best.

7. Don’t let them win: At around age 3, kids start to take an interest in games.  While early success makes it more fun, as they start to approach age 4 it’s important to let them come in second place sometimes too.  The truth is, they will start to play games with other kids in preschool and they won’t always have the deck stacked (note:  I have been known to stack the deck to make Candyland move along a little faster…that game is LONG!).  Instead of referring to winning and losing, we cheer when the first person gets to the finish and then wait while the other players get there too.  It’s not about competition at this age; it’s about finishing the game and enjoying the process.

8. Distract: If the feeling of failure is so overwhelming that the tears won’t stop, it’s time to move on for a little while.  Sometimes kids just need a break from what they’re doing.  If I’m knee-deep in something that isn’t going as planned and is becoming frustrating, I walk away from it for a while.  Sometimes kids need to do the same.  They can always try again later, but trying to force them to fix a mistake or just get over it might cause them to feel more overwhelmed by the situation.  Help them choose another activity and give that one a try another day.

9. Revisit: By revisit I don’t mean point out past failures, but it can help to remind little ones that they were able to solve a problem in the past.  I often remind Riley that she once felt like the rock wall at the park was just too hard, but she kept trying and now she can get to the top in seconds.  I tell her my own stories of practicing something to get better and better.  Use their past successes to help them face future difficulties. 

Feeling like you’ve failed is a tough pill to swallow when you’re little.  They have their whole lives to work on things but, like the rest of us, they want things to be perfect the first time.  Try to take perfect out of your home and focus on attempts and small successes instead.  You might find that it helps your child feel more in control, thereby increasing her success.

You tell me:  How do you help your kids cope with the feeling of failure? 

In Defense of Praise (Tips for increasing your child’s self-esteem)

There’s a lot of chatter out there about the potential pitfalls of praising our children “too much”. Some are seeking specifics. “When and how often should I praise my child?” Others are weighing in on what they consider to be “the best” parenting style. The truth is, we all have our own style when it comes to parenting. Children are individuals. They have different personalities, strengths, weaknesses, interests, etc. One of the most amazing things about being a parent is that we get to watch these seemingly helpless little beings grow into wonderful children with great ideas and non-stop energy to burn. Sure, we can shame them into following a specific set of standards and, most of the time, they will fall in line like good little soldiers. Why we would we want to? Self-esteem is what helps kids have the confidence to try new things, make new social connections, and take healthy risks. Feeling a sense of belonging enables kids to reach out to other kids in their age group at the park. Feeling capable causes them to try that puzzle independently or zoom down that giant tunnel slide at a new park. Everyday we have a chance to show our kids that we think their ideas are worthwhile just by listening and making eye contact. By showing genuine interest and praising their efforts (not just success) we are helping to build resiliency in our children. There will come a time when they won’t be successful and we won’t be there to pick them up and reset them. But if we praise them and help build their self-confidence along the way, we are leading them down the path toward a lifetime of self-confidence. Children who have high self-esteem aren’t as negatively affected by small “failures” as children who have low self-esteem. They are more resilient and better able to pick themselves up and try again. Riley loves to make new friends at the park. She’s just reached the stage where she eyes another girl and whispers that she would like to play with her. Just yesterday she saw a group of older girls playing and whispered that she wanted to meet them. We did a quick recap of how to make an introduction: “Hi, my name is Riley. What is your name?” and off she went. As it turned out, this particular gaggle of six year old girls weren’t really interested in playing with a four year old. Not all that surprising. Riley looked back at me, defeated. I gave her a big smile and said, “Riley, you did a great job introducing yourself! I’m so proud of you. Let’s see if anyone else might want to play.” Her smile returned and we headed for the swings. I suppose I could have told her to suck it up (or something even less friendly, I overhear some real winning statements at times), but what good would that do? She made a great effort, and that seemed worthy of praise. You know your children better than anyone, so your instinct will tell you when to jump in and praise and when to step back and let them work things out independently. But I think that, as parents, we can all help our children develop a positive self-concept if we are willing to shower them with praise and love regularly. Below are some tips to help you give your child the gift of high self-esteem:

1. Give love: This sounds like a simple one, but sometimes saying, “I love you” is something that we take for granted. Why not tell them how you feel? What’s the downside? I didn’t grow up in an “I love you” kind of family (that’s not to say that love wasn’t shown, it just wasn’t verbalized), but I’m enjoying raising one. I tell them every chance I get. Teaching your kids that you love them no matter what they do is a very important lesson. Riley was frustrated with Liam the other night. She’s actually fairly patient with him, but sometimes he just won’t take no for an answer. In grabbing a toy back from him she accidentally knocked him down and he bumped his head. I redirected her and took him to my room to calm down. She later started to tear up and said, “I’m worried you’re mad at me”. I took the opportunity to sit her on my lap and say, “Riley, Mommy always loves you, no matter what choices you make. But you do have to follow the rules.” Satisfied, she dried her tears and walked away. It’s hard being little. Sometimes they need reminders that they are loved, no matter the circumstances.
2. Praise often: Everybody loves to be encouraged. My day can completely turn around just by getting an encouraging text from my husband! When you praise a good effort made by your child you show him/her that you are proud. This increases your child’s self-esteem, thereby enabling him/her to keep trying. Try to be specific with your praise. Saying “good job” is ambiguous. Saying, “you did a great job sharing your toys with your friend” shows that you are paying attention and encourages your child to repeat that positive behavior.
3. Be a good listener: We’re all busy these days. Whether it’s work, lots of kids, volunteering, etc. life is just busy. Sometimes that means not taking the time to really listen. Since starting this blog and writing for others I am finding that I have to shut off my computer and put my phone out of reach so that I can really listen to my kids. When you stop what you’re doing to make eye contact and really listen to your child, you show him/her that you value what he/she has to say. When you use active listening by asking follow up questions, you teach your child how to communicate. And when they come to you feeling happy, sad, frustrated, etc. use the opportunity to label their feelings and help them learn to identify their own emotions. Listening to your child helps your child feel valued and teaches him/her how to listen to others.
4. Encourage (safe) risk-taking: The fact is that to be successful, you have to be willing to take a risk. Taking risks, of course, lends itself to the possibility of failure. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Encourage your child to take a ride down that slide he’s been eyeing at the park, ride the bike, make a friend at the park, try a new food, etc. Let them know that you think they can do it and will be there to cheer them on. He might fall off the bike a few times, but you can always be there to help him feel better and praise his efforts. The lesson here is that just giving it a try is the first step toward success. Riley was playing her guitar the other day when she threw it down and said, “I can’t do it like daddy!” We had a chat about how daddy has spent his whole life practicing his bass, and that he does it for a job. But when he started, it was just for fun. And when he realized that he could make a career out of it, he had to practice a lot along the way. He still does.
5. Teach rules: Knowing that rules exist increases the feeling of stability for your child. Despite their tendency to test limits and break rules often, they actually take comfort in knowing that you will follow through on that time out (or other consequence). Have a few established rules in your house and stick to them.
6. Focus on strengths: Try to notice the individual strengths in each of your children, and avoid comparison. Children develop at their own pace; it’s not a race. Telling one child that his brother is capable of something so he should be too only serves to make that child feel like a failure. Avoiding labels (“athlete”, “musician”, etc.) is also a good strategy. Chances are that your child will go through stages; they don’t have to be pigeon holed into athletics just because they can hit a ball. Let them explore various interests and choose their own path. Riley recently learned to say things like “I’m the winner” or “I’m the best” from a particularly competitive friend. We try to avoid this in our house. We try to praise them for their individual strengths and play for fun. We are currently playing a lot of games to work on playing for fun, not for winning. As someone who spent many years playing to win, I can promise you that it’s not actually all that much fun. In fact, it’s kind of stressful.
7. Arrange special time: I know I talk about this a lot. I have a husband who keeps crazy work hours, and sometimes travels a lot, so it’s hard for me to carve out individual time for each kid. I’m always working on it. Giving your child your undivided attention helps him/her know that you think he/she is important. It’s also a great way to connect and really listen. Riley and I went for a long walk and to the park yesterday while Liam and daddy napped. We talked about everything and had 1 ½ hours of uninterrupted playtime. We both returned happy and refreshed. Special time is important for both of you.
8. Work on your own self-esteem: I struggled with low self-esteem from my childhood clear on through college. As a result, I was sometimes afraid to initiate friendships and focused instead on trying to be the best at everything. It took a lot of work to improve my self-esteem, and it’s a pattern I most certainly don’t want my kids to repeat. We are always modeling behavior for our children. If your child sees you beating yourself up over small things, they are likely to repeat that. If all they see is competition and trying to win at all costs, they will probably head down that path. Try to keep your own feelings in check and show them that you feel good about your own efforts in various areas of your life.

High self-esteem is the greatest gift you can give your child. Starting them off on the road to self-confidence can help them live a lifetime of happiness and success. With the risk of labeling myself an “over-praiser”, I say take the time to cheer your kids on, love them out loud, and really listen to them. They will thank you later.

What do you think? Are we giving our children “too much praise?”