Tis the Season

November 27, 2012 by · 8 Comments 

Last week was about gratitude or being thankful.  Now we move on to the season of giving (or getting?).  All over the world parents are trying to help their children stay in the spirit of the holiday, whatever holiday you celebrate. Hanukah has been influenced by the gift giving of Christmas, and African-Americans have Kwanza.  I must confess that I don’t know what Moslems do at this time of year, but I am sure that their children are influenced by the mighty media blitz that encourages us to commercialize these holidays.

So, what do you want your children to understand about the holidays?  Many of us would like children to think about the giving as much as the getting.  Young children are naturally self-centered, so they are very interested in the getting part.  It takes effort on parents’ part to communicate that there is value in giving.

This morning I found a brief mention of a piece of research that indicates that toddlers feel happy when they can give something to someone else.  The researchers found that the children were more happy when they gave away one of their own crackers than when they were given a cracker to give away.

I know that a piece of laboratory research is hard to generalize to the real world, but the basic idea is appealing to me.  If we can give our children opportunities to give something that they feel some ownership over, they get more satisfaction.  This is the part that takes planning.  I think it is important to take the time to involve children in planning their gift giving.

Some children have allowance that they can take to a store to buy something for a family member.  Even if the gift is very small it has meaning for the child.  I remember being told that my grandfather needed Scotch tape for Christmas, and I was able to buy that when I was very young.  I think that I must have felt good about it, because I can still remember him being pleased with the Scotch tape.

Some parents and children are good at crafts, and there are lots of ways that children can make useful items for gifts.  If you lack ideas, just start searching the internet for suggestions.  Getting to make something definitely adds to the sense of ownership.

Engage your children in planning their gift giving early so that you have time to involve them in the purchasing or making.  They will still be very concerned about what they will receive, but they will also experience the pleasure of giving a gift truly from themselves.


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Photo credit:  Gunna on Flickr

Can You Make Gratitude Go Viral in Your Family?

November 20, 2012 by · 10 Comments 

It may seem trite to write about gratitude this week on the eve of Thanksgiving, but I want to raise it as more than a holiday-related exercise.  An article in The Boston Globe this past Sunday described research findings that coincide with my own naïve observations about human nature.

The author, David Desteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University, describes his research that shows that people who feel grateful for assistance they just received are more likely to be generous to someone else in need—thus spreading the gratitude and generosity and gratitude and generosity.   It could go viral!

Here’s a quote:

Such occurrences of indirect reciprocity — the extending of help to new people — is known to kick cooperation in a group into high gear. In the face of individual or societal tragedies, then, any phenomenon that can enhance such indiscriminate paying-it-forward stands as a key to resilience.

DeSteno is interested in helping people recover from natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, but my interest is in helping family members become more cooperative and generous with each other.

When parents come to me for help with children who are uncooperative, I often tell them to start by thanking their child profusely whenever he or she does something right, whether asked for or not.  This could be, “Thank you for getting down to breakfast on time!”  Or it might be, “Thank you for starting your homework when I asked.”  Even, “Thank you for playing nicely with your brother.”  The last one might require you to think to offer thanks before the interaction goes sour.

Often after a week or two of this simple intervention parents report to me that their children are already more compliant and cooperative.  It doesn’t solve everything, but it really gets the wheels turning in the right direction.  I think of gratitude as keeping the oil changed in your car.  Everything just works better together that way.

Some experts have warned against over-praising children.  I think that the problem comes when parents praise for no apparent reason.  I’m not saying that it’s wrong to tell your children what a great kid he is or that you love him to bits.  But praise that is directly related to a behavior that just happened really teaches your child how to behave in the way you want.  It doesn’t lead to a swelled head—just a child who knows what you expect and how to earn your gratitude.  Then he or she feels more generous.  And on it goes.

So, consider starting this viral cycle in your family, and let me know how it goes.  I’d love to know.


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Photo credit:  Michigan Municipal League on Flickr

Why Does He Do That? Could a Learning Disability Be Involved?

November 13, 2012 by · 5 Comments 

In talking to a colleague today about a family we both work with I was reminded again about how confusing it can be to have a child with significant learning disabilities and how helpful it can be to parents to work with a clinician who gets the whole picture.

Say your child has a weakness in processing nonverbal information. You might even have a test report that tells you that.  But what does that mean in real life?  For one thing it can mean that this child does not understand sarcasm because he isn’t sensitive to tone of voice.  If you only hear the words, sarcastic comments sound mean.

For instance,

Child:  “Are you going to pick me up after school?”

Parent: (joking) “No, I’m going to Europe instead.”  (meaning, “Of course I’ll be there.”)

Child:  (wailing) “What?  How will I get to my lesson?”

Parent:  Sigh….

It is very helpful once parents and children understand this problem.  I know children who now ask trusted adults, “Are you being sarcastic?”  when they think they’ve heard something out of character.

A different type of problem arises when a child processes verbal information very slowly.  This can look like inattention or even disrespect if you get really annoyed by having your child tune out when you’re talking to her.  Once you understand her learning style, you can purposely keep your verbal instructions and explanations brief.  Actually, it is always helpful for parents to be brief, in my experience, but especially so in this situation.

Then there is the child with ADHD.  This and other types of learning disabilities can be confusing because they have an uneven effect on children’s behavior.  Parents see a child who does not sit still long enough to do homework carefully and yet can play video games intently for long periods of time.  Parents will say, “He could do it if he’d try.”  Parents might also see uneven work in school.  In some subjects where the child has more natural interest and talent, grades are good and the work is not too hard.  But in another subject there are daily battles about work.  It is truly confusing.  People with ADHD are drawn to novel information, and that is what a video game serves up over and over.  Doing the same type of math problem twenty times is pretty dull to someone with ADHD.

I tell parents that kids with learning disabilities do well when the planets align—when they are interested, the task doesn’t challenge them in their weakness, they are well-rested, and so forth.

Parents and children in these situations have my sympathy because often it is evident that the children have average or above intelligence, but their performance is puzzling.  If you are wondering why your child acts they way he does, consider contacting a professional who understands cognitive as well as emotional difficulties.  The cognitive problems nearly always lead to emotional upsets, but this can be managed with good education at home and at school.


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Photo credit:  Elizabeth S. on Flickr

Pets are the Best Medicine!

November 6, 2012 by · 10 Comments 

This week I have been thinking about the benefits of owning a pet, a dog for me.  Ironically, I’ve been more aware because our dog has been sick.  This morning I was able to bring him home from the veterinary hospital where he had been for two days to treat pancreatitis.  Our family was sad and disturbed that our dear little friend was in such pain.  My husband and I slept poorly.  It reminded us of having a sick child back in the day.  Friends and extended family offered sympathy and encouragement.  Having him home, snoring on the living room floor, has restored some order to our home.  But he’s a dog, right? Why the emotional fuss?

Many times in my work I have found that children who are upset by problems in school or at home are comforted by their pets.  I am sure that many of you have seen this in your families.  There is something about a dog’s steady, patient attention that is consoling and calming.  (I’ll talk about dogs because I’m allergic to cats and that has severely limited my contact with them.  I understand from feline lovers among my friends that cats offer similar benefits.)

If you have a young dog who likes to play, playing with the dog offers a great break from homework or other stressful activity.  I find that just sitting on the floor to pet my dog, gives me a good cognitive break from work.  It refreshes my brain. Playing with a dog can get a couch potato child outside to throw a ball.

Recently I even saw a report of a study that shows that dogs in the classroom can help children learn to read!  A study done at the University of California, Davis showed that children who got to read aloud to therapy dogs in their classroom for ten weeks improved 12% more than their counterparts who did not have the same opportunity.  A dog is an attentive listener who does not criticize.  This is what many children need for them to practice reading and become more fluent.  Another report tells of a five year old program at the New York City Public Library in which dog and trainer teams visit branch libraries monthly.  Children can choose a book to read aloud to the dog, and children and adults are seeing similar benefits to the young readers.  This is definitely something to try at home if you child resists her daily reading assignment!

A report last summer in the Huffington Post reported research that children who grow up from infancy with a dog or cat in the house are actually more healthy—fewer colds and ear infections.  The post goes on to cite other research that shows that children and adults who have dogs have higher self-esteem, and they are less prone to depression.

I close with a salute to the four footed friends who enrich our lives.  I imagine that you also have good stories about how a dog or cat has offered you solace or given you a cause to smile when you needed it.  Give that animal a pat for me.  I’m going to take a break with Max.


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