Parenting Challenges: Playing With a Full Deck

Posted on Tue, Apr 01, 2014 @ 06:00 AM


When we as parents see unwanted behavior in children, one of our first unspoken reactions may be "How can I use my authority to stop this behavior?" But is the authority card always the most effective one in the parenting deck? 

Following on from that question, if parents don't play that card in a given instance, does it mean they're giving up their authority in an attempt to become their child's "best friend"?

The answer to both questions, of course, is no. There are many more than two alternatives available to parents. Sometimes there's no scepter on the most powerful trump card, and "heart cards" can often be our best friend without undermining our position as parent. In fact, we can opt to use the unique bond we form with our children to help them make a number of important adjustments in attitude and behavior even when—or perhaps especially when—it's clear that the authority card isn't working.

One of the most important things for parents to keep in mind is that kids pick up the attitudes and behaviors they see in us, and not only the good ones. To a great degree, you might say, we've dealt them their hand. Have they seen us pout, or even melt down, when we don't get our way? Do we express disrespect for other people, whether in our face-to-face interactions or behind a friend’s back when we're alone with our children?

If we stop to wonder why kids pick up our attitudes so easily, we might come to the conclusion that they admire us—that they want to be like us. But whether they admire us or not, they have a deep-seated need for our love and approval. If we don't express positive messages in equal measure to the negative feedback we tend to offer with excessive generosity, that missing dimension in their lives will have a detrimental effect on their ability to function in relationships and in society.

On the other hand, a child's intense need to bond with us can actually be our parenting ace in the hole. If we remember to give them positive attention and approval when their behavior is appropriate—or, in some cases, when it has simply improved (for instance, if the behavior we're trying to change was deeply entrenched)—we can help them make swift and permanent changes even in behavior that has resisted the most consistent use of our authority card.

Unfortunately, most of us tend to ignore behavior until we see something we don't like, and of course, by then it's too late in the game to have much hope of easily changing its course. 

What's a good winning strategy? Shape good behavior by identifying the positive behaviors you want to see, setting the stage for them with the right cues, and then responding quickly to reinforce positive behaviors as soon as you see them by offering the affection and approval your child craves. Appropriate punishment, used sparingly, has its place; but if punishment is your primary childrearing strategy, you're only playing with half the deck.

What if your child is an adolescent? Is it too late to change a reactive approach and begin laying the groundwork for better behavior? 

If the whole family commits to making some changes, it's almost never too late. But some families have become so entrenched in negative cycles of interaction that finding the way out can be very difficult. It's rarely enough to send the "problem child" to a boot camp for an attitude adjustment. While we're all responsible for our own behavior, we are also deeply affected by others in our relationship network. People within family systems don't just act, they interact; we decide which card to play based to some degree on what others have played. 

Authentic, long-term change requires that parents engage in some honest introspection, taking as keen an interest in their own behavior as they do in their teen's. Your adolescent may be playing badly, but he or she is not playing solitaire.

As a plethora of research tells us, the bond between parents and children from birth all the way through adolescence is crucial to their brain development and to the quality of their mental and physical health as they mature. Considering that our children are our legacy to the future, it's clear that this is a high-stakes game, and when we teach our children well, everyone wins. Parents, are you in? It's time to ante up.



Parenting the Challenging Child
Difficult. Headstrong. Stubborn. If any of these describe your child or teen, an innovative set of parenting ABCs can help toward solving the problem. 

Tags: parenting, family relationships, child development

Why Social Relationships Matter in the Classroom

Posted on Mon, Apr 29, 2013 @ 04:06 PM


Dr. Louis Cozolino is a respected leader in the relatively new field of neuropsychotherapy and a psychology professor at Pepperdine University. The author of several books on social neuroscience—the study of how human brains are hardwired to connect with one another—Cozolino argues in his latest work that we can overhaul our approach to education using new understandings from this field.

Most would say that the American public education system could certainly use overhauling; few would disagree that it's broken.

Among popular ideas for fixing it is that of bringing the findings of neuroscience into the classroom. This approach may be referred to as "brain-based learning," but it often involves focusing on individual concepts taken out of context and applied piecemeal. It isn't that these research findings aren't helpful, but as Cozolino points out, "renaming teaching as 'brain-based education' while keeping the present model in place is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The challenge lies in identifying the most pressing problems of this model and where to begin in addressing them.

Three challenges that stand out to Cozolino are each related to the fact that the current educational model is based on the production industry. "This model has proven itself over the last 150 years and works exceptionally well for making automobiles, washing machines, and chicken nuggets," he says. But to make these products well, you need to use raw materials that are all the same, tools for stamping them that are all the same, and a clear vision for the end product. Our challenges are that our raw materials are children who vary widely in their makeup; their teachers—the tools used to form them—vary just as widely in their skills and approaches; and to cap it all off, we don't have a clear vision of our final product.

"Education is supposed to prepare young people for the future," Cozolino writes. "But what future?"

The mistake is not in the raw materials, the machinery, or even necessarily our assumptions about what skills children will need to succeed. Rather, Cozolino suggests, our primary problem is in mistaking human beings for industrial products. "When a teacher begins to think of his or her classroom as an assembly line, it's time to make chicken nuggets," he says. "If we are going to move forward, we will have to admit that a one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail the majority of students and teachers.”

So how do we equip children with the education and skills they will need—not only to make their best contribution to society—but also for lifelong success, whatever success might mean to them?

"What has been missed thus far in essentially all books on brain-based education," Cozolino proposes, "is the recognition that the human brain is a social organ of adaptation." In other words, the brain is equipped to adapt as necessary to navigate its environment, especially through linking to and learning from other brains "in the context of emotionally significant relationships."

A single human brain doesn't operate in a vacuum. The release of important chemicals in the brain is controlled by social interactions, and the quality of these interactions determines how well we learn.  As Cozolino puts it, "our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom."

Successful teachers stimulate students’ minds and brains to learn by creating an environment that is enriched with novelty, supported by positive expectations, and characterized by safety and acceptance so that anxiety is reduced. "Anxiety is the enemy of curiosity, exploration, and new learning," Cozolino writes. A mild sense of arousal is good for learning, but in higher states chemicals are released in the brain that shut down its ability to create new connections between neurons—that is, to learn.

Unfortunately, the industrial model of education promotes anxiety and fails to cultivate what Cozolino refers to as the human "natural habitat," which calls for a context of supportive, nurturing relationships where secure attachment bonds are cultivated. In such an environment, other brain-based research concepts have a chance to succeed. But they might as well be deck chairs on the Titanic without this foundation.

If the thought of attempting to cultivate this type of classroom seems daunting to teachers, Cozolino suggests it will be well worth the journey: "As human beings, we need to connect with our students as much as they need to connect with us." Those who come out on the other side, he says, will have a new vision of what it means to be a teacher, a new sense of passion and compassion, and "the empowerment that comes with engaging in and surviving a worthy challenge."



Tags: child development, social neuroscience, attachment relationships, mind and brain

I Do It Myself! Attachment, Autonomy and Resilience

Posted on Tue, Jul 10, 2012 @ 11:11 AM

individual autonomy


Parents who want to encourage good decision making in their children must also encourage one of the skill's important components: individual autonomy. But how? By pushing them to succeed in the supposed tradition of a "Tiger Mom?" By stepping back as a "Wise French Parent" might do to let their children "live their lives"? By shielding them from every possible hurt as some have characterized current American trends?

If anything, it seems the recent flurry of parenting books has clouded the question rather than clarifying it. Of course, you can't really blame the authors. To sell a book, authors have to convince publishers that they have something unique and important to offer, which means they need to stand out from the competition. They do this by emphasizing their differences—even exaggerating them if necessary. As readers identify with one author or another, friends and family can become polarized, especially if they cling to the conviction that one or another approach is the only "right" one. Views on parenting, in particular, can become very emotionally charged, which can create rifts in family relationships.

But let's consider parenting from a more fundamental perspective. Digging deeper than culture and opinion, what are the basic elements that the human brain needs to develop the capacity for autonomy and good decision making?

These capacities, say researchers, stem from secure attachment with early caregivers. Perhaps ironically, our ability to act responsibly and autonomously is rooted in the security of our relationship with someone who was attuned and responsive to our needs when we were utterly dependent.

Of course, there are genetic factors involved in our ability to develop these healthy skills. As UCLA researcher Daniel J. Siegel puts it in The Developing Mind, “Although it is important to be aware of the significant and very real contributions of genetic and constitutional factors to the outcome of development, it is equally crucial that we examine what in fact is known about how experience shapes development. Such a balanced view enables us as parents, for example, to have a sense of responsibility for the experiences we provide without the unnecessary burden of guilt generated by the belief that our actions are solely responsible for the outcome of our children’s development.”

If we're concerned enough about our success as parents to care whether we are tiger moms, French moms, American moms, or any other kind of mom (or dad, for that matter), we are likely to have cared for and responded to our children as infants. If we have slightly different parenting approaches, the common denominator would have to be that each child has the assurance of the parent's love, presence, and concern for their well-being, or these approaches wouldn't work.

This is not to say that variations in parenting approaches might not produce certain differences among our children, and we may perceive these differences as more or less preferable, depending on our culture. For instance, some cultures may encourage lesser or greater degrees of individual assertiveness or other traits. But as a baseline for mental health, we all need the ability to connect with other human beings and to form healthy relationships: a capacity that stems from secure attachment.

Even further, say researchers, there are certain core "competencies" that support lifelong psychological resilience and protect children from risky behavior. These include good decision-making skills, a positive sense of self, self-control, a moral system of belief, and outgoing concern and empathy for others (prosocial skills).

It's entirely conceivable that tiger moms, French mothers and granola moms alike want these skills for their children in abundance. Sure, it's interesting, even amusing, to ponder the cultural differences between us as we go about teaching these competencies to our children. But there are human needs that transcend culture. The need for secure attachment (which encompasses love, understanding, attunement and connection) is one of them: and it's as real as the need for food and water.

Tags: parenting, child development, decision making, children and autonomy

A Father's Day Gift for Dads: Exploring the Importance of Fathers

Posted on Thu, Jun 16, 2011 @ 09:08 AM

DIY FatherAs Father's Day approaches it seems the perfect time for mothers and children to remind dads that they aren't just a "third wheel" in our lives. Well, sure, I know families who get along just fine without dads, just as I know others who get along just fine without moms. Given balanced social networks, we can all richly bolster our children's development and well-being when we need to.

Nevertheless, those fathers who have the opportunity to be part of their children's lives need to know that the benefits fathers offer children are just as important as those mothers offer, even though mothers have long been assumed to be the only really necessary caretaker in the lives of children.

Further, contrary to other common assumptions, those benefits that fathers offer are not only for sons. The relationship between fathers and daughters is just as important as the more easily esteemed bond between fathers and sons. In addition, these benefits do not only relate to those traits in fathers commonly considered "masculine," such as rough-and-tumble play. Rather, children need nurturance and caregiving from fathers as well as from mothers.

Unfortunately, misconceptions that men are not naturally "nurturing" have handicapped fathers in performing this important function. Just ask Scott Lancaster, Stefan Korn, and Eric Mooij, founders of DIY Father, a fast-growing site dedicated to providing dads with useful parenting information and helping them become "the best fathers they can be." In their own families, these dads (and others like them) are living testimony to the fact that nurturance and caregiving are not the sole province of moms, and that dads are vital developmental resources for children, even from the early weeks of pregnancy.

Of course, as the following two articles demonstrate, policy-makers and employers may be far behind fathers themselves in recognizing this important family resource.

Working Dads' Top Priority is Giving Family Love

BOSTON, June 15 (Reuters Life!) - Many fathers these days want it all -- time with kids, promotions at work and a spouse who shares the parenting duties.


US moms feel overwhelmed by responsibilities

NEW YORK, June 15 (Reuters Life!) - Many U.S. mothers feel like single parents, whether they are married or not, and two out of three resent handling all the household chores even when they prefer their partners to stand aside, a new survey shows.

Tags: family relationships, fathers and daughters, child development, fathers day, fathers and sons

All I Really Need to Know I Learned Before Kindergarten

Posted on Wed, Nov 04, 2009 @ 06:06 AM
What Kindergarten Readiness Means to Kindergarten Teachers

"Contrary to popular conceptions of what it means for a 5-year-old to be ready for kindergarten," says New America Foundation blogger Lisa Guernsey, "most kindergarten teachers are not wishing for rooms full of children who can already identify the letters of the alphabet. What they want instead are children who have learned how to regulate their impulses, follow through on a difficult task and have the self-control to listen to the teacher's directions for a few minutes."

How are skills like self-regulation and self-control learned? 

"Research on the importance of building self-regulation skills in young children has been accumulating over the past few years, and some of it is starting to zoom in on the significance of playtime, particularly pretend play scenarios that are child-led but feature teacher input," notes Guernsey.

Just for a moment, however, let's assume parents are as important as teachers in building these necessary skills in children. Could parental input guide the play of children at home, from birth until school age (and beyond)?

A radical idea, perhaps. But it may be just crazy enough to work . . .

Tags: child development, kindergarten readiness, parenting preschoolers

Divorced Kid: A Documentary by MPR's Sasha Aslanian

Posted on Sun, Aug 30, 2009 @ 08:36 AM
Adult children of divorce look back on the past to offer lessons for the future
Divorced Kid by Sasha Aslanian

In a new four-part documentary titled Divorced Kid, Minnesota Public Radio's Sasha Aslanian reports on lessons learned from the divorce boom of the 1970s. A child of divorce herself, Aslanian admits that she felt as though "the sky was falling" during her parents' breakup. Nevertheless, she once bristled at hints that she came from a "broken home," and undertook her massive research project five years ago in order to prove once and for all that "divorced kids" aren't "all messed up." What she says she found instead was, "how deep this stuff cuts. The past stays with us as a cautionary tale."

While noting that some pop psychologists in the 70s believed that "staying together" for the sake of the kids was more harmful than walking away from an unsatisfying marriage, Aslanian counters, "We know more now."

Following is a brief excerpt from her in-depth coverage. However, it's well worth taking the time to visit the MPR News Web site to read more:

Nick Wolfinger is a demographer from the University of Utah who pores over giant data sets from the National Survey of Families and Households, tracking children of divorce.

"The bad news is that you really are much more likely to get divorced as an adult if your parents divorced, and parental divorce really does affect almost every aspect of your behavior in your own relationships," said Wolfinger.

Wolfinger's academic book has the ominous title: Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in their Own Marriages. It's like reading a mathematical proof that you're doomed.

"This is why I'm so much fun at weddings," Wolfinger quipped.

When people ask what the bride and groom's chances are, Wolfinger said he cherrypicks the most optimistic data for the happy couple. He does have some advice for the rest of us.

"If you want to stay married, marry someone just like you. Except if you're from a divorced family, marry someone from an intact family," said Wolfinger.

That's because Wolfinger found when either the husband or wife was a child of divorce, those marriages were almost twice as likely to dissolve as marriages where neither spouse came from a divorced family.

Marriages between two spouses from divorced families were more than three times as likely to fail. Wolfinger finds children of divorce are more likely to cut and run.

"If you experience relationships as transitory while growing up, that's what you'll do as an adult," he said.

Wolfinger finds children of divorce are about 50 percent more likely to end their own marriages. He breaks down the risk factors that many children of divorce bring into their marriages—marrying young, not finishing their education, living together first.

The age the child experiences divorce also matters. Wolfinger gives an example of a 4-year-old whose parents divorce.

"Most people remarry, so a couple years later that kid is going to pick up a stepparent," said Wolfinger. "And as you probably know, second marriages have even higher rates of divorce than first marriages, so that kid may experience a second divorce."

By contrast, if a 17-year-old's parents divorce, chances are by the time there's a remarriage, the child is out of the house.

"The age the child initially experiences divorce simply determines exposure to additional family structure transitions," Wolfinger concluded.

But Divorced Kid offers more than simple statistics: it's the personal stories that make the greatest impact. Aslanian's full documentary can be downloaded from the MPR News site.

Tags: family relationships, child development, divorced families, divorced kid, Sasha Aslanian

Where There's a Will . . .

Posted on Wed, Feb 11, 2009 @ 03:36 PM
There's a way to help children exercise it
free will

Eric Wargo's recent article in the Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), is a fascinating distillation of existing research on willpower and self-control.

In Resisting Temptation, Wargo notes that new findings suggest that willpower can be flexed and fatigued like a muscle.

"But the $64,000 question," says Wargo, "is this: If willpower acts like a muscle, can we strengthen it through exercise? Evidence so far suggests the answer is yes."

How does this square with 20th-century Behaviorist belief in determinism? It does throw some kinks into the machinery. And further investigation indicates that there may be some very good reasons to welcome back a belief in free will.

"Recent research suggests that a world that disbelieved in free will would be a worse place, not better," says Wargo. "In a study by [Kathleen] Vohs and APS Fellow Jonathan W. Schooler (University of California, Santa Barbara) participants who read a passage about free will's nonexistence by the biologist Francis Crick (the discoverer of DNA) were more likely to cheat on a subsequent arithmetic task than were controls who read a neutral essay. In another study, participants read a series of passages that either affirmed or denied the existence of free will and then answered a set of GRE questions; they checked their own answers and rewarded themselves monetarily for their number correct. Again, there was significant effect: Belief in determinism promoted cheating."


The upshot seems to be that if children are taught to believe they can control impulses while also learning how to control them, they are more likely to score higher in self-control and self-mastery as adults. As Walter Mischel's famous 1970s experiments in deferral-of-gratification have demonstrated, those who are able to control self-gratification as children grow up to be more well-adjusted and academically successful than their counterparts who lack this kind of self control.

So how does a childor anyone else, for that matterexercise the willpower muscle? Apparently it happens most effectively when we engage in fairly easy but regular self-control activities such as modifying our moods or paying attention to our posture. 

Mental re-imaging can also be an important tool for increasing willpower. Mischel's experiments suggest to Wargo that "viewing temptations abstractly—'cooling' immediate stimulihelps redress the here-and-now bias produced by temporal discounting [putting off immediate gratification for a later reward], enabling us to take a longer perspective. By the same token, making long-term priorities hot adds weight to those goals, helping them defeat our short-term impulses." In other words, when faced with temptation, the ability to weigh the alternatives and see the greater value in the long-term goal makes all the difference.

Another strategy is revealed through studies of implementation intentions. In 2004, researchers Peter Gollwitzer, Kentaro Fujita and Gabriele Oettingen found that if we use "ifthen" reasoning to plan specific reactions to possible temptations, anticipating and planning for likely obstaclesother mental capacities can be brought to the fight, reinforcing the willpower muscle.

Certainly these are thought processes parents can help children develop through small, self-regulatory "exercises." Of course, this might require spending enough time with children to become aware of the choices facing them on a daily basis.


Tags: child development, free will, self control, self regulation, willpower, willpower muscle

Chalk One Up for Technology

Posted on Wed, Jan 07, 2009 @ 03:46 PM
According to John Holt, the 60s and 70s education guru, children learn best when they're involved rather than sitting as mere observers. Are we there yet? 

Tags: child development, children education, family education

Child Abuse: The Ultimate Evil

Posted on Thu, Dec 11, 2008 @ 03:52 PM

This recent news item from Jeanine Benca of the San Jose Mercury News speaks for itself and defies commentary.

Tags: Social Issues, child development, child abuse, failure of social services

How Much TV and Web is Too Much for Kids?

Posted on Tue, Dec 02, 2008 @ 03:56 PM
According to Reuters? "Lots."

This Reuters story by Will Dunham is titled: "Lots of TV and Web Harms Kids' Health."  Though unlikely to be considered "news" to most parents, it's still worth a read.

Tags: family relationships, child development, children and television