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

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.

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!

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

Things Our Kids Say, Part 2: “Everyone Else Does!”

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.

“Everybody else does!” is another one of those phrases kids use a lot but is rarely true. Whether everyone in their class has phones, attends (or does not attend) an event, drinks soda, or has a Snapchat account, when a child uses this phrase, he/she is applying social pressure on you as his/her leverage. The implication is that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you are waaay off, or that you are responsible for loneliness, isolation, and/or deprivation.

What Kids Usually Mean
When the comment is emotionally sincere, kids mean that “everyone whose opinion they care about does this” (even if it’s only one or two people), or that “everyone who is judging me” does this.  At its worst, they just really want something and are grasping at any way to pressure you, so a small number can be exaggerated so that you feel like the odd man out. “Everyone is probably doing that… I think… maybe.” 

What Can You Say 
You have two options broadly speaking in this situation. The first is for when you feel strongly about the principle behind your decision. One of the biggest gifts you can give your kids is “We don’t need to do everything like everyone else.”  Sending them any sort of message that they have to fit in or that you feel that you have to fit in sets them up for all sorts of vulnerability when they eventually have to make unpopular decisions in their lives. The only way for them to build the strength to stand up for what they believe is by actually doing it… including surviving it when you require them to do it.

The second option (only for when there is no deeper principle involved) is to take their comment at face value and research it a little.  Maybe you want to call their bluff about the number of kids who are truly allowed to eat an all-dessert lunch or play Fortnite before their homework is done. When you call your child out on it and they can only honestly name two, you can help them reflect on the dependability and logic of their reporting and persuasion tactics. Or if you are truly curious about what other families do, ask for a list of “everyone” and reach out.  You can get some feedback from other parents, help your child feel that you are taking them seriously, and then re-evaluate your decision.

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

Things Our Kids Say, Part 1: “I Don’t Have Any Friends”

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 have no friends” is one of those statements. Kids rarely have no friends. If they truly don’t have any friends, they will not usually state it dramatically. It will be a much more serious issue that has gone on for a while, and they will likely have internalized it. This is something serious that we (faculty and staff at TFS) watch for. We will all collaborate and likely a child will need group and individual counseling if this is truly the case. If you are worried about this, reach out to your child’s teacher or advisor, and we will work with you to figure out what’s going on.

What kids usually mean when they say “I have no friends” is that they feel lonely or unsure of their belonging.  Maybe they didn’t know who to sit with at lunch or who to play with at recess. Maybe they don’t feel like they’re being themselves at school or worried that if their friends knew their “real self,” they wouldn’t be accepted. Many times kids are prioritizing the attention of one or two people and when they don’t receive the attention or affection they want from those particular people, they feel that all is lost — even though they may have many other possibilities.

What can you say?  Usually you just need to listen and sympathize. They are venting, and you don’t need to fix the problem — in fact you cannot fix the problem. You can also focus on helping them be a good friend. Most kids struggle socially because they focus on themselves more than their friends —  a natural and understandable ego-centrism for their age. Peers will teach each other what’s acceptable and what’s not through the School of Hard Knocks, and you should help them get through it but not undercut those lessons. Or if you notice your child hyper-focused on one or two people, they may need coaching to cast their nets wider, reach out to kids who don’t have friends, or to relationships that may be healthier or more welcome.

At the end of the day, not everyone clicks naturally, friendships are messy, everyone is doing their best with what they have in the moment, and you probably only have a quarter of the story. Our teachers and I are happy to help provide context or mediate conversations if it seems constructive, but there’s no doubt that sometimes the kids will simply have to work on getting through a hard time or disappointment with grit and grace. Learning to rebound, forgive, let go, and hold your head up are all important skills (almost like muscles) to develop as they grow up.  It’s SO hard for us to sit by and watch, but with most kids, there’s little possibility of avoiding it or solving it.

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!