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The Age of Anxiety

A little thought experiment:
 
You're not in charge. The people who are in charge are nice enough, I mean they seem to like you. But they don't seem to trust you all that much. They're always second-guessing you, telling you how you could be better, do things better. You have very little free time or down time because they're always finding things for you to do. They don't ask you what you think but assume that you're on board with plans. You don't have much room to roam or make decisions, and usually you're happy to go along. But...but.
 
Does this scenario make you anxious?
 
I've been reading and hearing so much lately about the state of children today, and that state seems to be: anxious. 
 
On the other hand, parenting in the past couple of decades has changed dramatically, from relatively free-range, kids-should-be-seen-and-not heard style to overbearing helicoptering.
 
Do you suppose there's a connection?
 
One thing we didn't have, those of us raised in the 60s and 70s, was a generation's worth of overstressed, overscheduled, overachieving kids who arrive at the cusp of adulthood unable to bear disagreement and hurt feelings. Or manage straightforward adult tasks and decision-making. Maybe letting kids roam, take risks, and screw up for their own account is a good thing. 
 
There's a reasonable-sounding theory in the medical community that posits that the dramatic increase in allergies in children may be the result of too much cleanliness-- all our years of Purell and sanitizing may have resulted in immune systems that are never tested, and never get a chance to mature.
 
Sound familiar?
 
When kids are overscheduled, overhandled, and overruled, I think the same thing happens to them on an emotional level.  
 
I'm hoping that the pendulum will swing back. That parents will stop making a career out of being in charge and let go some of the control and decisions, stop wondering and second-guessing themselves at every turn and get comfortable with mistakes. Theirs and their kids. That's the only way to nurture a growth mind-set, one that's willing to take  measured risks, and recover from mistakes.
 
Maybe that's the way to address the anxiety epidemic.

 

Punishment of Biblical Proportions

Two news items of late have an interesting-- and completely wrong-headed--idea in common:
 
That you can teach children what not to do by doing it to them.
 
One came from a workshop participant whose keen eye noticed this absurdity:
 
 
A Kindergarten bully had his teacher so frazzled that she arranged for a prison-camp-style punishment: she lined up his 24 classmates and had them hit or slap him at least twice. 
 
I have no idea what kind of trouble this kid caused in the classroom. Maybe he was just irritating to the teacher because he didn't follow directions. Maybe he truly was a bullying menace.
 
He's 6 years old. There's a better way to discipline.
 
Did the teacher stop and think about the irony of what she did? Using her authority and power to arrange the group beating of one of the students she was charged with teaching? In order to make the point that this was not the kind of behaviour  that is acceptable in polite society--or a classroom.
 
She's been fired in the consequent outrage. But these two "parenting experts", fundamentalists with an idea that God, through the Bible, demands that we use corporal punishment to "train up a child in the way he should go", are still going strong with their ministry:
 
 
They advocate applying the switch (a whip-like thin branch of willow) to children as young as 6 months. Hair-pulling of infants who bite during nursing as well. They call it obedience training.
 
Here's another look at their practices:
 
 
There's an obvious, inherent contradiction in these practices. What they reveal is an immature "authority" who, feeling powerless or overly-powerful, abuse that authority and impose punishment directly opposing the principles they purport to embody. They also reveal, in my opinion, a complete misunderstanding of the human spirit as embodied in a child.
 
A child is born without  a store of knowledge to direct their behaviour- thus they are constantly processing experience and sensory and emotional inputs and adjusting their behavior to accommodate.
 
What we demonstrate to them must be consistent with a loving and mature authority-- we can guide the behaviour gently, but firmly,  without condemning or humiliating the child.
 
STEP discipline is based on this wise and loving attitude as imagined by Alfred Adler. Not only does this approach bring about a loving and warm relationship between parent and child, it gives us the opportunity to teach children the kind of behaviours that serve them well as adults-- responsible, disciplined, cooperative.
 
 
 
 
 

To Serve or Not to Serve....

Parents of teenagers, a question for you.
 
Would you consider serving alcohol to your kids at home as a way to teach them the habits of “responsible” drinking?
 
This is a question tackled recently by a column in the Wall Street Journal, and I got to thinking how STEP would have us approach the issue.
 
Lots of parents follow the “inoculation” approach, meaning they prefer to expose their kids to a little of the disease (bad habits, the culture, etc) to give them an opportunity to respond in a healthy way, or make the mistake on a small scale and learn to discriminate between good and bad.
 
For the most part, serving alcohol to minors not your own is illegal and would expose you to legal liability; however 31 states allow parents to furnish alcohol to their own kids, including for religious ceremonies.
 
So does it make sense to model to your kids the appropriate way to manage and drink alcohol?
 
I think the answer depends on the type of behavior being modeled.
 
Some research  (a survey of o 6,000 teens published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2004) does indicate that the behavior being modeled is the important factor. For example, kids who attended a party where parents were supplying alcohol were twice as likely to have engaged in binge drinking--defined as more than five drinks in a single session for boys, four drinks for girls--as well as twice as likely to be regular drinkers themselves.
 
By contrast, teens who drank along with their parents (not in a party or peer setting) were only one-third as likely to be binge drinkers, and only half as likely as their counterparts to be regular drinkers.
 
Maybe the parents providing the alcohol to underage drinkers are the ones that think a party needs alcohol to be fun and who are more concerned about that than the legal liability--or the safety of the kids.
 
Maybe the  parents drinking alcohol with their kids (not in a peer or party setting)  are the ones who drink responsibly themselves and want their kids to understand that alcohol is an “adult beverage” which requires responsible behavior and manageable amounts.
 
There is no doubt that alcohol is damaging to the adolescent brain. Brain research has shown that heavy drinking in teens (defined as 20 drinks or more in a month) can lead to decreased cognitive function, executive function, memory, attention and spatial skills. (2009 study, Journal of Clinical EEG and Neuroscience).
 
I think there’s a better way to handle it besides actually drinking with your kids. While some parents might feel comfortable allowing their kids to taste small amounts of alcohol in a home setting, to get the "curiosity" factor out of the way, it could indeed lead to a confusing message for kids as to what is allowed or appropriate for them.
 
And while it's certainly worthwhile to have frank discussions with your kids about all the risks, it's more important to listen
carefully to their concerns about the pressures they face to take part.
 
Role play things they could do and say and specific ways they could avoid being put into pressure situations. Have them make plans for ways to get out of those situations. Most important, have them learn to think for themselves. So much of what we want them to avoid is the result of peer pressure, rather than
active choices.
 
Applying STEP principles promotes self-motivation and self-discipline:
 
--Replacing reward and praise with encouragement;
 
--Empathetic listening and communication skills, such as I-messages
 
--Replacing punishment with consequences for applying discipline.
 
All these methods will help teenagers become confident leaders instead of go-along followers.
 
Has this issue has come up in your home, and if so,
 how have you handled it? What do you think?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

What's the Point of Parenting?

What's the point of parenting?
 
We get caught up in the daily grind of getting everyone fed, washed, clothed, lunched, homeworked, driven here, picked up there. At the end of the day it's a success if we got through it, especially for parents who work outside the home as well as in it.
 
But is that the end of the story? We have, if we are lucky, about 18 years with our kids before they move out and move on. Is that what we've been working for?
 
My kids are now 13 and 14, and I'm midway between toddler madness and college applications. I try to cherish every day with them because this far in, I know how fleeting it really is. What seemed like an endless stream of days when they were both in diapers now looks a lot like the home stretch. I miss my babies, my toddlers and my preschoolers as much as I love being with my teenagers.
 
The point is, the fleeting blur of the go-go days is NOT the point of all this work. As I watch my children move toward adulthood, and I see glorious glimpses of who they are becoming, I know that the point of parenting is the creation of the next generation of adults. And I want them to be capable, caring, responsible, loving, moral, and happy. And I pray the parent's prayer that what I'm trying to give them each day-- love, encouragement, limits, discipline-- will get them there.
 
 

Are "Chinese Mothers" superior to the rest of us?

After I read the Journal article found here:
 
 
written by a Yale foreign affairs prof about her Chinese upbringing and approach to motherhood, I had to to respond.
 
Here's my letter to the editor:
 
As I read through the article featured in the Weekend Review on “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, I was alternately amused, chagrined, and alarmed. Amused at the pointedly provocative headline and smirking photograph. Chagrined at what I consider the wrong-headed assumptions that underlie Ms. Chua’s parenting approach. And alarmed at the idea that the answer to a child’s “substandard” performance is “always to excoriate, punish and shame the child”.
 
 
While I am Italian-American by birth and Irish by marriage—I am only partly a “Chinese mother”. But let me start with some premises I can agree with: that Western parents are extremely (and I would add, unnecessarily) anxious about their children’s self-esteem. That to get good at anything usually requires lots of hard work, regardless of natural gifts. That children benefit from high expectations; anything else can be insulting and condescending. And finally, that the supposedly Western idea-- that children didn’t choose to be born so consequently their parents owe them everything-- is foolish. We don’t owe them everything but we do owe them something, and that’s where Ms. Chua and I take a very different approach.
 
 
The idea that our children are some kind of validating experiment, that their progress in life reflects solely on us as parents, that their value as human beings should be totally measured by their academic excellence or virtuoso musicality—these ideas are simply awful. I do cherish my children because they are miracles, gifts from God that I am abundantly blessed to share. But that doesn’t mean they are perfect little darlings, above reproach and guidance. I don’t consider the point of parenting to turn out academic machines but the next generation of decent human beings: moral, caring, happy, responsible, and capable of much, including but not limited to all kinds of excellence. There’s no mention of goals such as these in the article.
 
 
Children desperately need adult guidance, limits and love, but they are unique creations and deserve the ability to learn to make choices, including bad ones, so they become capable of coping with these and all of life’s difficulties. Emotional growth is as or more important as mental growth, and that requires unconditional love for the child coupled with limits, choices and gentle correction.
 
 
Helping kids master difficult tasks can be done with encouragement and discipline, and certainly doesn’t require the kind of painful responses that Ms. Chua describes. Who on earth responds well to nastiness? You are more likely to foment rebellion or have your kids plotting revenge. For heaven’s sake, not only is it damaging to the relationship in the short run—but you are encouraging your kids to respond only to external stimuli, like lab animals. How will they learn to have self-discipline and self-motivation?
 
 
I respect any approach that demands excellence. But children are human beings, not machines, and are as complex and delicate in many ways as adults. Ms. Chua’s approach shortchanges them in assuming they are mere shells who need filling. That they won’t work unless prodded or scolded. That their emotions are somehow less important to their lives and relationships that those of adults. Somehow I doubt that Ms. Chua would manage her fellow department members at Yale this way.  
 
 
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