Character Series, Part 8: Gratitude

This may be the most straightforward virtue to teach your kids.  It’s deeply linked to mental health and contentment and there is a lot of science supporting its practice. Some of the virtues we value go in and out of style, but gratitude is currently fashionable.  You can find gratitude references, life hacks, and suggestions all over the internet, in mental health/wellness magazines, Ted Talks (this is one of my favorites), etc. but they all come down to practicing it daily.  Literally practicing it every day.

Make lists of things you’re grateful for in a journal, at dinner, in the car after school, write them down and put them in a jar in the kitchen, etc.  A benefit of doing it daily means that you (and your children) move past the general good in your life like each other, a home, food, clothing, etc. and begin to notice the small things that happen each day.  An encouraging word from a friend, someone who helped you with a project, a stranger who let you step ahead of them in line, someone (maybe you don’t know who) hung your coat up when it was on the floor.  As we get really good at it, we can be grateful for good that comes out of hard situations: your scraped knee revealed the quick, kind, concern from a peer, your struggles with math has taught you a good work ethic, a tight budget has taught you to think through your priorities, hurt feelings have helped you be more empathetic to others.

The research shows that as we do this, our brains literally change and become more positive.  We begin to see good everywhere and develop a lifestyle of gratitude.  This is why there’s a link between mental health and gratitude; your brain tells you that you have lots to be happy about and that makes you happier!

Character Series, Part 5: Compassion

There are three elements to teaching compassion.

The first is living it. If you are living a compassionate life, your kids will imitate it.  And of course, there are many ways to be compassionate. Whether you’re serving food at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day or simply being kind to someone at the DMV, your kids are observing all of your behavior over the years and processing it as they get older. They will see major activities more clearly when they are younger, but as they get older they will notice details and subtle acts of compassion. They will remember what you do regularly — your habits and traditions.

Secondly, they need to practice it. Give them opportunities to choose some toys to give away, to clean up a mess so the janitor or waiter doesn’t have to, to give way to others. Take them to see different situations and circumstances, to serve others. Expose them to other compassionate people and go out of your way to encourage the ideas they come up with themselves.

Lastly, kids learn best when observations are paired with verbal processing. This means discussing it, reflecting on it, and brainstorming about it. Talk about what compassion means hypothetically and philosophically (as appropriate for their age) but also practically. How does it feel when you are compassionate and why? Yes, it feels good but might also be painful, requiring forgiveness or sacrifice. When they come home from school crying about another student being mean, discuss it. When they are annoyed with their sibling, a teacher, a stranger or a celebrity, talk about why they’re frustrated. When they don’t want to take care of their pets because it’s cold outside or they don’t want to visit grandma because they want to sleep in, come up with some pros and cons.

The bottom line is that the more effort we put in to making it part of their lives, the more likely it is to be a part of their lives. It’s hard, and none of us will do it as well as we hope, but whatever we can do will be so important for their future and the future of the world.

Character Series, Part 4: Responsibility

Responsibility requires meaningful practice (there’s definitely a pattern here) to develop. Dr. Montessori said that children seek independence by means of work. Having real responsibilities in the home and at school brings meaning and purpose to their lives and helps them prepare to shoulder more responsibilities as they grow, developing stamina and resilience.

Responsibility also teaches life skills–from laundry and cleaning (neither of which come naturally!) to time management and forethought. “The data emerging about the mental health of our kids only confirms the harm done by asking so little of our kids when it comes to life skills, yet so much of them when it comes to adhering to the academic plans we’ve made for them and achieving more, ever more academically.” -Julie Lythcott-Haims (Stanford dean and author of “How to Raise an Adult”)

Meaningful work means that there is a chance to fail; parents cannot follow behind their children fixing or changing their work. If the child forgets to take out the trash, the whole family needs to suffer until he take the trash out.  If she forgets her lunch or homework, don’t bring it to her. Let your children figure out a solution with the help of another adult. It’s not meaningful responsibility if nothing changes when they don’t do it. Their pebble has to produce ripples.

Kids who have true responsibilities may gripe or roll their eyes, telling you that no other parent is so mean, but there is no substitute for their pride at all they can accomplish and the maturity that develops as a result.

Character Series, Part 3: Self-Confidence

The key to self-confidence is knowing that you can do things, try things, complete things, and succeed at things.  It means being okay with yourself if you fail. This is something that we can discuss with children, but they really only learn it through experience. They cannot develop self-confidence without a certain amount of independence and freedom to take initiative. When we throw a rock into a pond, we see the ripples it produces.  Confidence comes from seeing the ripple effects of our actions. Positive or negative, we need to know that we have a real effect on the world around us.  When there are positive effects, we need to feel appropriately proud, and when there are negative effects, we need to feel appropriate regret, but also comfortable that we will survive the disappointment.

Two of the biggest threats to self-confidence are praise and too much assistance.  Disproportionate praise sets a counter-intuitive expectation that kids actually begin to feel they must meet.  When we say “you’re so smart” or “you’re so beautiful,” they begin to believe that they have to be smart or beautiful next time, and the ideal they have to live up to becomes crushing.  Secondly, as we touched on with independence, our assistance can send the message: “you cannot do this,” or “you are not good enough at this.” Even if we subtly remake their bed after they have made it, we are sending the message that they didn’t do it well enough.  There are times when we want to send that message, but more often than not we send it inadvertently and they learn that their efforts are not worthwhile.

Unfortunately we cannot “give” kids self-confidence.  They have to earn it or build it through their actions and repercussions.  The good news is that if we give them the space to earn it, holding ourselves back a little, it will come pretty naturally for most kids!

Character Series, Part 2: Independence

Dr. Maria Montessori believed that independence was the most important trait to develop in our kids.  She believed it was key to their self-confidence, their ability to learn, their sense of identity, and would enable them to contribute to the world.  Developing independence calls for a balance of hovering and neglect.  One mantra for Montessorians is remembering that the child is saying, “Help me do this all by myself.”  We have to create space for independence and then support from a distance. If the point of childhood is to become a functional adult, then we have to work backwards from 18, 22, 25 (when do you expect them to wear the full weight of adulthood?) and create steps for independence.

Dr. Michael Thompson, an expert on friendship, warns parents to let kids work things out themselves unless there is physical danger.  Dr. Julie Lythcott-Haims and Dr. Wendy Mogul both have best-selling books teaching parents how to balance their child’s academic needs with their needs for independence.  These authors and many others tie the national depression and anxiety epidemic in teenagers and young adults with a lack of independence (especially through disappointment and hardship) when children were younger.

When we do something for the child we are telling them, “You don’t do this well enough.” Sometimes we want to say that (sometimes they really shouldn’t have certain privileges), but other times we are focused on our own needs or standards and they actually completed the task well enough for their age. If we’re thoughtful and purposeful about it, we will find that there is a lot they can do on their own, while we stand back and observe and maybe encourage — patiently available.

Screen Time Series, Part 1

How do we know that screen time is not good for growing brains? There is a lot of research out there that demonstrates the challenges of screen time.  It’s too much for my little space here, so I’ll list some books below for those of you who want to dive deep.

It’s a tricky thing to test because quantifying any effects on our brains require human beings and ethical conditions.  It’s nearly impossible to pull off direct, controlled studies of anything when humans (especially children) are involved.  So we use a lot of surveys or other indirect studies.  I’ll highlight a couple of powerful findings.

A child under the age of 12 (maybe others, but the testing was on children under 12) has a lower metabolism when they are sitting in front of a screen, than when they are sitting alone in a plain white room.  This does not say so much about physical health (although that is certainly important), as it does about the stimulation of the brain and the overall physical effect on the child. It’s powerful.

On the other end of the age spectrum, multiple studies have linked increased depression and anxiety in adolescents with screen time.  This is pretty broad and can mean a lot of things.  Is social media making kids feel stressed and left out?  Is gaming isolating kids socially?  Are kids who spend a lot of time on devices less likely to develop social skills and interact with their peers?  Or are depressed/anxious kids more likely to go to their devices for solace?

The Montessori philosophy is that children are more stimulated and learn more from the actual experience, from having the concrete right in front of them.  So anything abstract or virtual is already less valuable to us curricularly.  Screen time falls into the category of  “not hands on” for the most part.  It’s not real life. The most compelling research is really our own anecdotal experience.  There is no doubt in our minds that students who experience limited screen time focus better, are more engaged in learning, and usually have a spark that kids who are in front of screens for unlimited amounts of time don’t. It’s difficult to prove scientifically, but it’s powerful when we see it over and over again.

Books like The Plug In Drug,  The Big DisconnectThe Narcissism Epidemic,  The Science Behind the Genius and Digital Minimalism are powerful explanations of this complex subject.

Homework Part 3: Help vs. No Help

Another homework question that comes up a lot for students of all ages is the question of parent help. The student may be too dependent on parent help, the student may resist parent help, or it all may be a very messy process of some help, some nagging, some yelling, and some crying (on all sides!).  To answer this question, we have to get back to the purpose of the homework and think about the type of help we provide.

If the purpose of the homework is preparation for class (usually this is reading or researching), then creating a situation where the child is doing that preparation effectively is the most helpful thing you can do.  Creating the time for the work or possibly helping them locate audio books or software to support this might be the best way to assist.

If the purpose of the homework is practice or a final project, then the child really needs to be able to do it without your help (aside from creating the time and space for them to complete the work).  If the child cannot complete this work on his/her own, then the teacher needs to know so they can address the needs in class.  If this is a chronic issue, then we may need to meet about providing the child with the proper plan and support for moving forward in that subject.  The most effective assistance will be offering supplies, time, and space.

The type of help we give is very important. The most important rule of help to remember is that every time you help, you send the message that “you cannot do this on your own.”  This is an okay message to send when it’s true and you want to send this message. Unfortunately, we often send this message when we don’t intend to and we create helpless dependence on us, an aversion to failure/risk, and lower self-confidence.

Dr. Montessori said the child’s perennial request is “help me do it by myself.”  Giving feedback, editing a paper, or looking over a math sheet might be fine if you challenge the child to think through what they already know. “You might re-read the first paragraph and look for appropriate capitalization.”  Or “You didn’t show your work on #9. Doesn’t your teacher require you to show your work?” This is empowering the child to develop good habits.  Sitting down to the computer to edit their paper or cutting out their science fair paragraphs is not empowering them… in fact it undercuts their growth.  The daily grind of hard work, making mistakes, and receiving feedback is developing cognitive and emotional habits they need for life.

Many kids won’t want their parents’ help.  This is fine too and displays a healthy sense of independence. Whether they feel vulnerable about the paper they wrote or they are just separating from their parents a bit, this is a healthy step for them to take.  It shows great maturity and executive function skills if they can do their homework and turn it in without parent  involvement — in fact this should be every parents’ goal before senior year.

If you have concerns about your child’s follow-through, you should partner with the teachers, letting the teachers know that you are hands-off and asking them to let you know if you should be more directive or if you should support them with any structure or discipline at home.  Your relationship will be better without the added conflict, and your child will develop more self-confidence, organizational skills, and independence necessary for college and life beyond!

Homework, Part 2: Time and Place

Homework is preparing kids academically, but it also serves a very important role for the development of executive functioning.  Executive functioning is a key task of the frontal lobe of the brain and one of the most important functions for our children to develop in order to function as an adult.  It’s the center of planning ahead, estimating time, making decisions, prioritizing tasks, problem solving, and organizing things and thoughts.  It comes naturally to a fraction of kids, but most will need to practice it. Aside from any academic value, homework provides one of the best opportunities for executive function development.

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Remembering that they have it, figuring out when to do it, how much time they need to set aside, evaluating later whether they set the right amount of time aside, figuring out the environment they need to work on it independently, what to do when they don’t know the assignment, what to do when they can’t complete the assignment, and figuring out how to get the assignments back to school and turned in are huge parts of the homework process.

As parents, how do we help them practice all of this without actually doing it for them?  We have to help create the time and space (Do they know the schedule in the evening?  Do they know the schedule for the week?) for the homework to get done, but ALSO to evaluate and problem solve the variety of obstacles that will inevitably get in the way. Instead of telling them when to do their homework, you can talk about the schedule and ask them when they want to insert homework into that schedule.

We can help them evaluate if their plans are actually working or not.  Did they get it done when they thought they would?  Was that the best time to try to do it?  If they don’t know what their homework is, challenge them to figure out how to find the assignment.  If they are likely to leave it at home, challenge them to think through alternate plans and use one (pack backpack the night before, email it to themselves, set it by the front door, put it all the way in the car).  If it’s still not getting done, your child may need to lose some privilege of making these decisions for themselves (or the privilege of having other fun activities in their schedule), but your goal should always be to wean your way out of the process as soon as you can, maybe letting academic and home-based consequences do your work for you eventually.

Working backwards from adulthood/college, if they are not going to live with you, they have to figure the above out. They will need their frontal lobe for a successful life… whether they have Shakespeare to read or not.

Kara Douglass
Head of School

Things Our Kids Say, Part 4: “We Didn’t Do Anything Today”

The teachers and I often get questions about dramatic statements that kids make at home. Parents may know they’re not true; some parents may be worried and have questions about these statements.  Some of us may even buy into them for a while. Mark Twain said that every feeling, if sincere, is involuntary.  Usually these dramatic statements feel true to the kids, but that doesn’t mean that we parents should respond as if they are factually correct. Dramatic but inaccurate statements are not lies, so much as they are vented emotions or disappointed hopes/expectations.

Parent: How was your day? 
Child: Fine.

Parent: What did you do?  
Child: Nothing.

Parent: What did you learn? 
Child: Nothing.

Some of us get one-word answers. Others might get a litany of negative spewing that may be hard to believe (Can things really be that bad?).

What kids usually mean: Most of the one-word-answers are coming from kids who are trying to end the conversation–they’re not in the mood to talk.  Maybe they’re exhausted from the day and just need some down time.  Maybe they’re still processing everything that happened.  Maybe they’ve been holding it together all day and just need to fall apart a little.  Kids who spew or vent (kids who have a long list of negatives) are often processing as well; they just need to let it out and then it’s done and over in their minds.  We’re not that different as adults.  Many of us probably collapse on the couch after a long day and need 15 minutes before we can start on dinner or the evening activities.  Or we need to go off on one event that bugged us (we *might* exaggerate as we vent) to get it out of our system, before we can see that the rest of our day wasn’t bad.  Whether they process internally or spew, kids usually just need some time.  You probably shouldn’t take any of it very seriously… maybe even give them some time before you start a conversation.  If you just make time together, they will often come around and share their thoughts when they’re ready.

What can you say?  It’s important to give kids the appropriate and accurate words for what they really feel.  If they are giving you one-word answers, you can request that they just let you know that they don’t feel like talking right then.  At some point when you’re having a good conversation, you can ask them if they prefer you not question them at the end of the day when they get in the car (or whenever it happens).  Ask them when would be a good time to talk about their day.  Adolescents often want to talk later at night.  Some kids may want you alone without a sibling listening.  It’s appropriate to communicate that you need to talk with each other at some point, but let them have a say about when.

If your child is one who vents, it’s important not to buy into it (assuming you don’t think there is a true crisis) anymore than you believe that the one-word child really did “nothing” all day.  Resist the temptation to get pulled in and believe it all or to try to solve the problem.  Depending how often it happens, you may even limit the sharing to something positive–something he did for someone else, something she learned, or something good that happened.  Otherwise you could be rewarding a pattern of negativity with your attention.  There is all sorts of research demonstrating that we have to train ourselves to be positive–and that we’re happier when we do.  Again, at some point when you’re having a good conversation together, you can point out the pattern of negativity and reflect on that with them.  The more they are thinking through what they do and why, the more self-awareness they will develop over the years.  They’ll usually need your help with this, but it will pay off.

Kara Douglass
Head of School


Things Our Kids Say, Part 3: “I’m Bored”

The teachers and I often get questions about dramatic statements that kids make at home. Parents may know they’re not true; some parents may be worried and have questions about these statements.  Some of us may even buy into them for a while. Mark Twain said that every feeling, if sincere, is involuntary.  Usually these dramatic statements feel true to the kids, but that doesn’t mean that we parents should respond as if they are factually correct. Dramatic but inaccurate statements are not lies, so much as they are vented emotions or disappointed hopes/expectations.

“I’m bored” is in a slightly different category than our first two phrases because kids generally mean it without any exaggeration or dramatization. But we hear it often enough when it shouldn’t be true, that I’m including it in this series. Whether it’s Christmas afternoon when they’ve played with every present for 15 minutes already, or standing in line at Disney World, we are often shocked to hear it.  It’s important to remember that boredom isn’t a bad thing for children, whether they are at the height of over-stimulation or enduring a monotonous few days sick at home. Pulling themselves out of their own boredom is really good for kids. They truly don’t get enough experience with this particular skill in our society.

What kids usually mean: If kids are bored in a stimulating situation, it often means they are overstimulated, like an emotional sugar crash. If kids are bored in a low-key situation like a lazy, summer afternoon, it is likely because they are in between activities and feeling aimless. Neither situation requires your intervention. They just have to work their way through the feeling. This builds up stamina for feeling the “blahs.” It builds creativity, curiosity, and resourcefulness in addition to links with improved executive functioning (planning) and responsibility. Sometimes we do need to intervene on boredom, but the signs will usually be misbehavior (making something more interesting in an inappropriate way) or disengagement (tuning out and shutting down).  In these cases we can teach the child skills for making something more interesting (creating a light-hearted game or connecting the duty to analyze poetry in class to something that matters to them) or remove them from the situation (let them quit that particular activity or limit the length of time visiting Grandma at the nursing home). They will not usually recognize the feeling and will call it boredom though.

What can you say? Simply not giving the child a whole lot of attention for this comment is often going to take care of the problem. If the whining continues, an offer of chores can do wonders. Explaining that boredom is good for them is an effective way to curb the whining as well. Offering up “fun” options — well, those usually get shot down, although solving the problem for them is not likely the best route since we want them to develop the ability to comfort themselves and push through. If the issue is constant, teaching them coping skills like making lists of options and duties, saying “complete three items on this list before you come tell me you’re bored,” or “draw one thing out of this jar and do that” can help them because you’re not solving the problem for them completely.  Kids who can work through quiet times without screens and other automatic entertainment will have an advantage in almost every area of life, the most important of which is being content in their own minds.

Hear a phrase all the time at home? Send it to me and we’ll talk about it. If it’s a common one, I’ll add it to this blog series!

Kara Douglass
Head of School