Practicing Reverence for the Wild

This is a submission in our monthly contest. January’s theme is “Wild.” Enter your own here!
Rows and rows of pansies. Blue, yellow, red. Tulip swirls, concentric circles of prim rose bushes. Butchart Gardens in British Colombia gets thousands of visitors every year, each coming to ooh and ahh over the neat rows and patterns, beautiful flowers and plants, all tightly arranged in a breathtaking presentation.
But I was just bored. Not because I don’t enjoy greenery. On the contrary, I love flowers and plants, but I prefer a more unfettered beauty.
When I visit such places, I crave more nature, less human dominance. I find myself longing for wildflowers careening down hillsides, bowers draped in greenery, ferns as tall as your shoulder, and leaves as big as your head. I yearn for thick piles of needles in redwood tree groves and waves crashing against rugged, rocky outcroppings, where lonely cypress trees stand sentinel.
My soul sings when I see Earth bursting forth in all its wild holiness. There is a sacredness in wilderness, a reverence the soul feels at witnessing the beauty, power, and life cycle of nature.
One of the greatest compliments I ever received came from someone I respect deeply. He referred to my kids as “those wild and holy children you mother so deliberately.” At first, I was not entirely sure what to make of his comment. As I reflected on the person speaking it, I understood that he really saw me and my kids and what we are doing. I realized his words were a great compliment.
When my eldest was just a baby, I found myself at a crossroads I did not expect to reach until much later in my parenting journey. It became apparent to me that parenting was either going to be about control, or it wasn’t.
I had had a good deal of experience controlling things in my life. I had succeeded academically, in my career and my hobbies, by exerting control over the things that I could control. This practice had served me well.
But I knew in that moment, looking at my infant son, that using the same approach in this new stage of life could damage my child and our relationship with one another.
Our boy was a free spirit. A curious and energetic explorer. A passionate lover of life. He would crawl at four months. Walk at eight. Into all the cupboards, the Tupperware, the pots and pans. Then toddling, then running laps around us everywhere. His expansive spirit quickly endeared others to him. His joy was contagious.
He came to us with a fiery will of his own – a strong and undeniable life force, sacred and wild all at once. In those early months, when we had our first encounters, his acts of defiance caused me to pause and remember my decision to try not to control him.
“Don’t you dare break him,” the thought would come to me. Somehow, my heart understood that his life would require all of his strength and will, whole and unbroken.
And so I didn’t. I played with him, taught him, and administered consequences as needed, trying hard to be consistent. I let him climb and explore and run and use his joyful voice. I set high expectations and strived to help him learn discipline, respect, and the significance of choices and consequences.
But I refused to control him, or to use harshness to dull him or break his spirit.
Our magnificent boy continues to challenge me with his strong, wild heart. Now he has two sisters, who I am also trying to raise responsibly, without breaking. It is a challenge. I find it much harder to be intentional with them – giving them the space they need to grow in a natural kid environment – rather than controlling them or numbing them with distractions.
Muting the vibrant colors of their souls for my own convenience is not an option. I have too much respect for who they are. Because this I know: In the world we live in today, my kids will need their strong, wild hearts.
Have you ever noticed how wise children are? Intuitively, they know whom they can trust. They understand what is really important in life. Their compasses keenly discern right from wrong. Children have a purity that surpasses the world around them. It is the same purity and wildness that I see reflected in nature, unbounded and unconquered.
All children are beautiful, holy, and teeming with potential. Some children may be rows of pansies and tulips nicely arranged in tidy, white planter boxes. They will likely elicit oohs and aahs throughout their lifetimes.
Lest you feel concerned that I should peel back the vines and start in with the garden shears, please know that these are my magnificent, natural children. They are wild and holy, and I mother them deliberately.

How Process Praise Helps Our Kids

To put it simply, process praise is praise that emphasizes the work, effort, or actions of the child.

A child’s first step, first jump, first song – each is a momentous occasion in a little one’s life that naturally elicits praise. Even eating all those peas (with a spoon, no less!) calls for a “good job.” Busy praising all those firsts (and seconds and thirds), we may have no idea how much our praise contributes to our child’s development.
It’s often said that young children are little sponges, soaking in their environment and learning from it. “Kids pick up on messages that parents are giving that parents may not even realize they’re giving,” says Elizabeth Gunderson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Temple University.
For instance, researchers found parents’ use of a type of praise called “process praise” with one- to three-year-olds predicted their child’s “growth mindset” and desire for challenge five years later. Gunderson is the lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Child Development
So what exactly is “process praise”? And why is a “growth mindset” so important?

Process praise

To put it simply, process praise is praise that emphasizes the work, effort, or actions of the child. When we tell our daughters “good helping” for helping put away toys or “good singing” for singing a tune, we are using process praise. Even a simple “good job” is considered process praise.
By contrast, when we say “good girl,” “big boy,” or “you’re so smart,” we are using person praise. Unlike process praise, person praise is praise that gives a fixed label to a child.  Consider the child who helps put away her toys or sings. Where process praise is “good helping” or “good singing,” person praise is “you’re a good helper” or “you’re a good singer.”

Growth mindset

Many of us are likely unaware when and why we gravitate toward one type of praise over the other. But those parents who use process praise are helping their children adopt a “growth mindset.”
Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, has spent decades studying “growth” and “fixed” mindsets. With a “growth mindset,” people believe that basic abilities, like intelligence or talent, can be developed through dedication, effort, and hard work.
In contrast, with a “fixed mindset,” people believe those qualities are fixed traits (i.e., you’re only born with so much). A growth mindset leads to a desire to learn, embrace challenges, and persist whereas a fixed mindset leads to a desire to look smart and therefore avoid challenges and give up more easily.
There’s a lot of research showing the kids who have growth mindsets tend to do better academically, says Gunderson. For instance, researchers found that first and second graders’ growth mindsets at the beginning of the school year predicted greater improvement in math over the course of the year.
“If you believe that your intelligence is malleable and something you can change with effort, that tends to make you have a positive attitude towards effort,” she says, explaining that those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be improved with hard work.
If you have a fixed mindset, you may believe working hard is evidence that you’re not very smart, and that belief can decrease your motivation and drive. “In the real world, working hard actually does get you to better results usually, so having a positive attitude towards effort is really important,” says Gunderson.
Gunderson also notes, however, that having a fixed mindset isn’t necessarily a bad thing until children face some kind of challenge or failure. In fact, a fixed mindset can be motivating…for a time. “Thinking ‘I’m smart. I have a lot of intelligence’ can actually be motivating, but as soon as you face any kind of challenge or failure, it tends to be a much more fragile way of thinking.”
When kids who think they have fixed ability suddenly aren’t able to do something, they think they must not be that smart after all and tend to give up. Kids with a growth mindset, on the other hand, see challenges and even failures as opportunities to learn and improve their intelligence.

“Good try”

While praising effort is a good thing, telling children “good try” over and over again, especially when they aren’t successful in reaching their goal, can lead to overpraising.
As Dweck writes in a commentary for Education Week, “Too often nowadays, praise is given to students who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment: ‘Great effort! You tried your best!’ It’s good that the students tried, but it’s not good that they’re not learning.”
As Gunderson explains, parents still have to consider whether the praise is warranted. “You don’t want to overpraise because kids are savvy. If you say ‘good try’ and they didn’t really try, then that’s not good. Or if you say ‘good try’ but they failed, then it’s like that’s a consolation prize and they know that.”
A better route is to acknowledge your child’s struggle or failure and encourage a positive attitude about it to help your child learn.

“Keep trying” or “try harder”

It’s also not helpful to tell kids “keep trying” or “try harder,” says Gunderson. “They could be spinning their wheels.” Adults need to explain the kinds of strategies that would actually lead to success. For instance, if your toddler gets frustrated because she can’t put together a puzzle, simply telling her to “try harder” or “try again” is not going to help. Of course, putting the puzzle together for your child isn’t going to help either.
Instead, you may ask, “Can you try it a different way?” and point out different parts of the pieces, like the straight edges and corners to instruct your child while allowing her to actually put the pieces together herself. If your child overcomes that challenge and is able to get the pieces together, a way to praise the effort would be to say “great job trying it lots of different ways,” or “I liked how you worked really hard at that and didn’t give up,” or simply “great work.”
In sum, when children are successful, the praise should be directed at the effort it took to reach that goal. Praising the effort shows children that adults value hard work. “The idea is that when [children] succeed at something, the praise about that should be directed at the fact that they worked hard to get to that success,” says Gunderson.

Talking about hard work

Process praise isn’t the only way to help your child adopt a growth mindset. Simply talking about the importance of hard work and how it leads to success can help. You can even explain to your child how your mind is like a muscle and you can always make it stronger, says Gunderson.
“When you feel like something is hard and you’re being challenged, that’s like the ‘no pain, no gain of exercise.’ When you don’t feel that sense of challenge, then you’re not learning.”

Healthy, Happy Kids: What You Can Do to Promote Resilience

There are four protective factors that are core to promoting emotional well-being, resilience, and reducing the risky behaviors you may fear as a parent.

Parents often fear their child’s passage from adolescence to adulthood. You may have concerns about the risks of your child binge drinking or using drugs, driving safely, the risk of violence and inappropriate sexual behavior. When you hear stories of teens and young adults taking their life, you may worry about whether one day your child be tempted to suicide. You may wonder how to help your child be resilient to these risks and the many challenges that children face as they grow.
You can offer much in the early parenting years to help promote resilience. Psychologists like me, call the factors that are core to promoting emotional well-being, resilience, and reducing the risky behaviors that you may fear, protective factors. The good news is you can shape the development of these protective factors in your children. These four protective factors are:

1 | Connectedness to individuals, family, community, and social institutions

A sense of belonging is the foundation of well-being. We parents know the importance of belonging. It’s why most parents work hard to make sure our child is happy at school and has friends. We may fret when things aren’t going well or our child is feeling lonely and sad.
The first place of belonging is in the home. For many children, this is a source of strength when things are tough for them in other social arenas. Having a good connection with your child throughout their growing years is vital. The relationship with parents is both a springboard into the world and a safe place to fall when life inevitably presents difficulties.
Good relationships with children occur when you provide consistent care and love. Connection comes from providing for basic needs, being attuned to your child’s emotions and being available to help soothe and protect if needed. Creating your own family rituals and spending time together having fun as a family helps to make family seem worth belonging to.
Try to see the positive qualities of your child even when you are struggling with them. Some children, as a virtue of their temperament or unique needs, are more challenging to parent than others. If you are experiencing difficulties in your relationship with your child and it feels like more than just the day-to-day frustrations of parenting, for example, you dislike spending time with your child or most of your interactions are negative, seek professional help via a community parenting group or private practice professional. It is easier to work on this before the teen years when peer interactions are a priority, so do it sooner not later.
If your child is having difficulty belonging at school, enroll them in other activities to give them an opportunity to belong elsewhere. Belonging to a team or group is beneficial for your child. It will help your child build a positive connection with other children their age and lessen the sense that they are the problem. Some children move school in response to social difficulties.
Sometimes this is the best solution but often the same problem will follow to a new school due to a child’s personality factors so it is better to resolve your child’s difficulties at the same school if at all possible. If your child is not being protected and is at real risk of harm, a change of school is beneficial.
You will always have a place with me. Communicate to your child that while you expect they will leave home as an adult, they will always belong to your family unit. Although I hope that my children will leave my home and become responsible adults, one message I give is “if you ever needed to, you can come home; you have a place with us.”

2 | Problem-solving skills

Children who can problem solve tend to have better resilience. If you are reading this and panicking because your child struggles with problem-solving, take a deep breath. Problem-solving is a skill that takes time to build. Children’s ability to problem solve increases with age and continues to develop with improvements in logic and reasoning skills occurring until the age of 25.
You can influence the growth of problem-solving by offering opportunities for your child to problem solve. When your child is angry, upset or despairing spend a little time settling their emotions with understanding and care and then ask questions such as “what can we do to help? What might work?” This is helpful to develop the idea that all problems have solutions if we look for them.
Reduce the amount of control you place on your child’s day to day life where possible and give them opportunities to make choices and decisions. Some parents try to control much of a child’s day to day world from what they wear, to what they eat and play with. This type of parenting doesn’t provide children with opportunities to make choices or name what they need. Reducing choices will not help your child develop problem-solving skills and will also likely impact negatively on your relationship as they become a teen and dispute your control. If you struggle with giving your child choice, start with one choice a day and then build from there.
Model effective problem solving. When I ask parents of anxious children who forecast the worst “When things go wrong how you handle minor problems such as running late?” the answer is often with great stress and the use of statements such as “ this is a disaster, my day is off to a bad start, I can’t handle this.” Instead, model calmness and try statements like “I wasn’t expecting this, oh well I will work it out” or “it’s just a hiccup, what can we do about it?” Be optimistic in your approach to solving problems.

3 | Contacts with caregivers

Being able to contact you (or another caregiver they feel safe with) when your child is in difficulty provides a stable base. From a young age, make it clear to your child that you don’t just want the good news, you want to know when things aren’t okay. “Nothing is so awful that we can’t talk about it,” is a helpful mantra from a protective behaviors program.
Be calm and focused on your child’s feelings. When your child messes up and they come to you, be calm and stay with their feelings. As a teen or adult, your child is more likely to come to you if they know from past experience that you will hear them and help them problem solve rather than judge, shame or fall apart because you can’t handle your own feelings. Be your child’s rock; don’t make your child be your rock – ever. If you struggle with this, make a rule not to lean on your child emotionally. Counseling can also help.

4 | Effective mental health care

Seek professional help. If your child or teen is showing signs of depression, has fears that are restricting participation in daily life, are angry and upset often or seems disconnected from life, it is important to seek professional help. Your doctor or school psychologist is a good place to start. Find an effective mental health provider who provides evidence-based treatment. If the first practitioner or agency you try is not a good fit for your child, do try other options.
Keep in mind that parenting is a journey with daily opportunities to create connection and promote skill building. It is often frustrating when your child is struggling. Avoid excessive self-blame and instead remind yourself that consistent efforts over time are what count and that we all need a little help from time to time. In each day promote resilience by finding a way to connect with your child, letting them know they belong, give them opportunities to problem solve and show them that you see their innate worth even when they struggle.
What techniques have you used to promote resilience in your kids?

3 Ways Your Kids Can Find Mindfulness Through Nature

From visualizations to nature sound apps, there are so many ways to experience mindfulness using nature even from inside the comfort of your home.

Are your kids stressed about homework after school? Or maybe they are having trouble quieting their mind in the evening at bedtime? Both mindfulness and nature help bring a sense of calm to your children when they need it most.
“Nature meditation can help you cultivate a loving connection with yourself, the earth, and the entire web of life,” according to Buddhist meditation teacher Mark Coleman of Awake in the Wild. Through techniques like sights, sounds, and stories, we can help our children harness the calming aspects of nature during bedtime, dinnertime, car rides, and other moments throughout their day.
The best part is that nature meditation does not always have to be performed outdoors; from visualizations to nature sound apps, there are so many ways to experience mindfulness using nature even from inside the comfort of your home.

Sights

Amazingly, just looking at pictures of nature scenes can make us feel similar to actually spending time outdoors. A recent study found that you can reduce stress by simply looking at images of nature. When participants viewed pictures of natural scenes, their stress level decreased because their parasympathetic nervous system (which helps us calm down) was activated.
Another experiment proved this by observing brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The researchers discovered that when participants viewed scenes from the natural environment, the parts of their brain associated with empathy and love lit up. On the other hand, when they looked at urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated.
There are so many ways for our kids to feel mindful from looking at nature:

1 | Get outside

Visit zoos, mountains, forests, hiking trails, beaches, waterfalls, botanical gardens, canyons, and caves, and enjoy clear starry nights, rainbows, sunsets, and sunrises. Help your kids capture these moments by taking pictures so they can look at them anytime they want to relax.

2 | Observe nature using various media tools

This can include videos, photographs, slideshows, and even 3D or 4D movies at an IMAX theater. Check out these nature documentaries, Jason Silva’s “Shots of Awe,” and Louie Schwartzberg’s “Gratitude Revealed.”

3 | Practice meditations that tap into nature scenes

For example, the Over the Rainbow Breathing meditation instructs children to breathe in each color as they visualize a rainbow and then say a positive affirmation either silently or out loud.

4 | Add a fish tank to your child’s room

They will love lying in bed and watching and listening to fish swimming around a tank. A colorful fish tank adds to the natural atmosphere in the room and provides something tranquil and soothing for your child to enjoy as they try to fall asleep.

Sounds

For hundreds of years people have known that the sounds of nature can soothe our soul and improve our mood. I recall how happy and relaxed I felt while sitting on the beach and getting lost in the pattern of the crashing waves, walking through El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico and focusing on the gushing of the stream below, and hearing the lovely chirping birds in an arboretum we visited. But until recently, scientists did not understand why nature sounds have such a powerful effect on our bodies and minds.
A group of researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) in England just discovered that these sounds physically alter the connections in our brain, reducing our body’s natural fight-or-flight instinct. Their study, published in “Scientific Reports,” is the first to use brain scans, heart-rate monitors, and behavioral experiments to identify an actual physiological cause for how nature sounds impact us.
After observing adults who underwent functional MRI scans while listening to various soundscapes of natural or artificial environments, researchers found that activity in the brain’s default mode network, such as mind wandering and task-free states of wakefulness, varied depending on the background sounds being played. Listening to artificial sounds, for example, was linked to inward-focused thinking like worrying, while nature sounds were associated more with external-focused attention that is more calming. In addition, heart rate data showed that the nature sounds led to a decrease in the body’s fight-or-flight response and an increase in parasympathetic response that helps the body relax.
Not all nature sounds have the same calming effect. The best sounds are those that give us a sense of natural space and mimic the biorhythms of an ecosystem like a forest. Studies show that it’s based on how our brain interprets different noises. Loud chirping and croaking is just not going to cause the same calming feelings as sounds of water, which are very soothing because of their slow, rhythmic whooshing noises from crashing waves, the pitter patter of rainfall, or the rush of a flowing river.
By listening to soothing sounds of nature, children can feel more mindful. Ask them to sit back and close their eyes while they listen to the relaxing noises they hear. Teach them how to use visualization techniques and their own imagination to feel the full effect. We can bring the serene sounds of nature into our daily lives using the following tools:

1 | Nature meditation CDs and apps

There is an entire industry focused on selling relaxation music. You can choose from a variety created specifically for children or focused on the types of sounds included. Try out a few different kinds to see what your children likes best. Some have music along with nature sounds and others are just the sound like rushing water or chirping birds.

2 | Record your own

Take along a recording device during a nature walk, trip to the beach, or other excursion out in nature. Capture those relaxing sounds to play again later.

3 | Indoor water fountain

One of the local spas by my home has a relaxation room with the most soothing man-made waterfall on the rock-covered wall. Consider adding a small waterfall to your home to enjoy.

Stories

Throughout history, poetry has fascinated readers and inspired them to understand the world in a deeper way. Many nature lovers have used poetry to communicate their connection to the environment. We can inspire our children’s sense of awe for the natural world by reading descriptive stories and poetry that essentially transport them from their bedroom into a tranquil forest, mountaintop, or other amazing place. When we witness the beauty and vastness of nature, even through words on a piece of paper, it can trigger a number of powerful positive emotions like awe and relaxation.
Try these ideas with your kids:

1 | Library

Have fun checking out different books from the library known to have colorful descriptions of nature.

2 | Poetry

Introduce your children to a variety of nature poetry and challenge them to write their own. Some of the most famous nature poets include: Robert Frost, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Wordsworth, P.B. Shelly, and John Keats.

3 | Journaling

After visiting a beautiful outdoor location, such as the beach or botanical garden, encourage your kids to journal about their observations so that they can refer back to it for some mindful moments based on those memories.

The Question From My Five-Year-Old Daughter That Froze Me

The weight of her question hit my heart like Thor’s Hammer, shattering ribs and going straight for the kill.

“Mommy, am I pretty?” asked my mousy-haired, keen-eyed, and kind-hearted five-year-old. She was shoving her over-sized glasses up the bridge of her tiny nose when she caught a glimpse of herself in the bathroom mirror, the one that I’ve always thought she was too short to see.

Her question: “Mommy, am I pretty?” immobilized me. It hung in the air on a busy school morning, amidst a flurry of lunch-packing and shoe-tying. The weight of her question hit my heart like Thor’s Hammer, shattering ribs and going straight for the kill.

“Mommy, am I pretty?”

“Little Bug, you are so much more than pretty. You’re kind. You’re clever. Your heart shines like gold in the sun, and your smile warms up the world.”

“But am I pretty?” She has this look. In it I see a reflection of myself when I’m frustrated. It’s the same look that I’m certain my own mother saw regularly. It disarms me.

“Why are you asking?”

“Because I have to be pretty.”

The world stopped. The world’s barbs suddenly started to chip away at the stronghold I thought I’d created. This very stronghold was designed to guard her from the expectations that a girl’s value was in what she wore and the way she smiled.

“Mommy, please. Tell me that I’m pretty.”

I get down on my knees, still knowing that time can’t stand still for these deep talks, and that school starts soon so her jacket has to be zipped up and her backpack has to sit comfy. “Little Bug, you are beautiful. You are beautiful because of all that I know you can do. You are strong, and funny, and smart. Yes, you are pretty. But that’s not the most important thing.”

“But a boy said it was.”

Motherly fear shifted on its axis, morphing into righteous fury that had to be swallowed because my daughter is five and does not understand words like “patriarchy.” This faceless boy suddenly looked like every man who’s ever commented on my appearance as if it’s the only thing I possess that they value. His face became the face of every man who has said pretty is all I could offer.

“Listen to me, Bug. The next time a boy says it’s important that you’re pretty, you ask him if he thinks his mama is pretty. Then you ask him if she is a better mama because of it.”

“You’re a good mama,” she says. “And I say that before I say you are pretty.” The epiphany was visible. “You are more than pretty, mommy! You’re a good mama! And I am a smart girl!”

We leave home. We leave shelter and expose ourselves to the world for another day. I choose not to wear makeup, and I let my brilliant girl wear her favorite ripped jeans. I would have gleefully let her shout, “Fuck the patriarchy!” if she knew the weight of those words. Instead, we listen to the Muppets sing their silly songs, and went over her letters and spelling before finally getting to school.

School: the place where I hope she learns that her mind and heart are what matter the most.

How to Rekindle Your Kid’s Love of Learning When Motivation Wanes

Many children lose their intrinsic love of learning once they start school. So, how do you rekindle your child’s love of learning?

Does your child love to learn?
Or has he stopped caring?
Most young children possess an intrinsic love of learning. They dive into their play, eager to challenge themselves, driven by the joy of discovery. But when they enter school, expectations and rules increase, and their interests and curiosity may take a back seat. Success becomes entangled in grades and test scores rather than creativity and new adventures.
Their love of learning may seem to vanish overnight.
As a psychologist, I have witnessed the apathy and hopelessness children feel when they have lost their creative spark – and how this can linger beyond high school. Researcher Beth Hennessey has identified intrinsic motivation as an essential component in creative expression. She has commented on how traditional schools often abandon creativity in the service of expedience and formal instruction:

“In their present form, the majority of American classrooms, from preschools through high schools and colleges, are fraught with killers of intrinsic interest and creativity.”

Once motivation wanes, parents and teachers sometimes resort to praise and extrinsic rewards in an effort to rekindle enthusiasm. Yet, self-esteem-building initiatives – such as trophies distributed for essentially just showing up – tend to backfire. Many children (and adults) require an inordinate amount of praise, refuse to take risks, and never learn that failure can be a character- and skills-building experience. They expect praise for minimal effort, and lose their drive to excel.
Our society often focuses on outward markers of success, and especially on the stand-outs – famous athletes, America’s Got Talent winners, the Bill Gates’ and Mark Zuckerbergs. In a culture that glamorizes achievement, it is easy to forget that many of these successful folks reached their goals through passion and dedication. Not from star charts, trophies, and assembly awards. Intrinsic motivation (coupled with a generous sprinkling of raw talent) drove their focus – not rote praise or striving to please others.
A meta-analysis of studies comparing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation found that rewards can actually hamper intrinsic motivation. One study even highlighted the undermining effect of extrinsic rewards on brain functioning as well as behavior. An interview with growth mindset advocate Carol Dweck also cautions that too much praise can sap a child’s motivation and instill feelings of insecurity.
So, how do you rekindle your child’s love of learning?

1 | Encourage autonomy

Even at a young age, children benefit from learning to trust their own instincts and reasoning ability. They can master this further by understanding how they make decisions. Encourage your child to weigh the pros and cons of a situation, outline strategies, and ask herself meaningful questions. If she makes a mistake, ask her to review what happened and to brainstorm alternative solutions. Carefully and compassionately helping her to understand what went right and what went wrong in any endeavor is key to mastering future challenges.

2 | Help your child set realistic, fun, and challenging goals

Helping your child identify and set a meaningful, challenging goal that he can work toward and eventually achieve will build resilience and true confidence. It is also a lot easier when the goal is both challenging and fun. Help him “find the fun” in any task – even rote and boring assignments. This might involve finding creative, innovative solutions, attempting to complete a task more quickly each time, composing a song about the assignment, or drawing pictures that describe it. Direct him toward “realistic” goals, though, and help him regroup and devise new strategies when he encounters setbacks.

3 | Encourage activities that provide optimal stimulation and control

In one study, Middleton and colleagues found that intrinsically motivated students showed interest in a task if they felt a sense of personal control and if it seemed stimulating and challenging. If either of these conditions were not present, intrinsic motivation waned. Creativity and challenge are critical components to keeping your child invested in learning. School can be boring for everyone – at least some of the time. But the more we encourage challenging and stimulating outlets for our children, the more they will discover what ignites their passion for learning – regardless of what may unfold in the classroom.
Expensive extracurricular activities are nice, but not always necessary. Any activity – cooking, chess, gardening, bug collecting, finger painting – can be a learning adventure. And encourage your child to seek out what is challenging within the classroom. Asserting her interests, when appropriate, may offer her some sense of personal control at school.

4 | Praise your child’s efforts – not just accomplishments

Support any attempts to work hard, try something new, and take risks. Dweck suggests complimenting the “process” your child uses to get results rather than innate abilities. This can include working hard, trying out various strategies, learning from mistakes, staying focused, and showing improvement. Yet, it is important to focus on what is truly praise-worthy. Most children know when their efforts deserve recognition. Many feel uncomfortable when praised for something that comes too easily. So let him know when you are truly proud of his efforts, but hold the praise when it seems forced and unnecessary.

5 | Create a “no-shame” zone where mistakes are welcome

Creativity and passion for learning come to a screeching halt when children believe that their efforts will be criticized or belittled. Everyone struggles the first time they learn something new. Some children are very self-critical and feel shame over even the slightest misstep – and your reactions to your child’s efforts have an impact. Even well-meaning laughter over her “adorable” attempts at a new task can evoke feelings of embarrassment. For some children, academic problems are not due to learning difficulties, but self-doubt, fear of failure, and a refusal to take risks. Role model graciously handling your own errors, encourage learning from mistakes, and help your child problem-solve how to grow and learn from new experiences.
Many children lose their intrinsic love of learning once they start school. The spark of joy that energized their play seems to disappear as they adapt to classroom structure and rote homework assignments. As a parent, you can advocate for changes at school. However, your child will gain the most from you as you role model enthusiasm for learning, and offer encouragement and support for his curiosity, academic risk-taking, and creativity.

Seven Cost-Free Ways to Foster School Readiness

Here are seven ways to nourish childhood and, at the same time, help your child be ready for school.

In our hurry-up, competitive world, it’s no longer left to the Six-Million-Dollar Man to be better, faster, and stronger. We’re pressured to expect the same from our young children before they’ve even entered kindergarten.

In interviews with teachers in both public and private schools, a consensus emerged about school readiness. Summarized by Lisa Marshall, “In my class, I had children who came to school already reading but were otherwise entirely unprepared. Other children, who had prepared by climbing trees, listening to stories, engaging in free play, and doing chores were socially, emotionally, and intellectually ripe for every kind of learning.”

The bottom line: take a deep breath and pause, worry less about worksheets and flash cards, and focus more on your children’s childhood. Children do childhood really well when we let them, and – bonus –a healthy childhood is more than enough to prepare them for school. Here are seven ways to nourish childhood and, at the same time, help your child be ready for school:

1 | Surround your child with stories and language

“Children who have been surrounded by stories at young ages are better readers and writers. Having an internal and deep understanding of ‘narrative’ makes a huge difference in developing literacy,” notes Theresa Souchet.

Stories are seeds: of imagination, of play, of empathy. Tell stories. Tell the same one over and over until your child can say it with you. Read stories. Sing to and with your child. Recite nursery rhymes and snippets of poems – or whole ones, if you can remember them. Your child doesn’t need to be able to make absolute sense of a poem to benefit from the language and rhythm.

2 | Encourage imaginative play

“The research on play is unequivocal: it is the essential work of childhood. Nothing else serves children’s development better. In my classroom, children with the richest experience of play, of nature, of household chores, were the best prepared to take on every kind of learning challenge,” states Lisa Marshall.

Play lays the groundwork for later learning. The child’s body and mind are engaged in so many different ways: sorting, constructing and de-constructing, imagining scenarios and their outcomes, experimenting, developing fine- and gross-motor control, noticing patterns, succeeding and failing and trying again and giving up, cooperating and fighting…the list is endless.

Provide access to open-ended toys, sticks, rocks, boxes, pieces of fabric, and the like. These objects can turn into anything or everything with a dash of imagination.

3 | Provide time in nature

“One of the most important issues facing young children is their increasing levels of stress and anxiety. Many children have a hard time coping with the demands of school. Children who have a more balanced lifestyle, one that includes play and time outdoors, seem much happier and better adjusted. If I could make one recommendation to parents it would be to encourage their children to unplug and go outside,” explains Mary Jo Wood.

Unstructured time outside in nature is a tonic for the child’s soul. It also instills a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, which will serve well as a platform for a lifetime of learning. Let your child experience the forces of nature: the implacable weight of earth, the power of fire, the persistence of water, and the ever-changing wind.

4 | Establish family rhythm

“A home filled with routine provides a sense of predictability that reduces stress on the young growing body and mind. This prepares an inner foundation upon which intellectual development can begin. A school-aged child who enters the classroom from a home that is filled with a reliable rhythm has typically developed the fundamental inner order for success in academic learning,” states Regina Selig Mason.

In addition to a regular schedule of events, routines can be especially helpful during those tricky transitional times of the day: waking and sleeping, meal times, leaving the house, and returning home again. 

5 | Invite your child into the world of chores

“When I taught in a small farm community, the children were more responsible and self-disciplined. I attribute this to a life of rhythm and chores, a life circumstance that required they participate in the daily functioning of their homes. They carried this sense of responsibility into the classroom,” notes Theresa Souchet.

Young children don’t need assigned chores (those are more appropriate around age six or seven), but they do need to be around while you are engaged in chores, and they need you to invite them into that world of work. Let them join you in cooking, cleaning, fixing, and maintaining. Let them see you enjoying those things so they can imitate your actions and your attitude.

The sense of accomplishment and belonging that children derive from doing real work together is essential to their sense of being worthy and able to contribute to the world.

6 | Model self-discipline and good manners

“Parents have to be ever vigilant of their behavior and demeanor in front of children, who respond immediately to the models in front of them, mimicking positive and negative behaviors. When parents and teachers are self-disciplined, children feel safe and comfortable, an important prerequisite for learning,” explains Theresa Souchet.

Harness the power of imitation, which is at its strongest in the young child. They will do what you do. They will also say what you say. Make sure you are worthy of their imitation!

7 | Minimize choices

“When a young child is given too much freedom of choice in areas that are better decided by adults, he has been forced to make sense of complexities beyond his capacity for understanding, which is overwhelming and confusing,” Regina Selig Mason notes.

Reduce the number of choices you offer to your young kids. Let your children experience the reassuring certainty of living in a world in which caring, experienced adults model good decision-making. Let them see that you know how the world works and that you have learned how to navigate through life. This will inspire them to learn from you, from others, and, ultimately, from their own experience.

When You and Your Spouse Disagree About How to Raise the Kids

The first year or two was mine to call the shot. But as they became toddlers, I had to cede control.

In the beginning, I didn’t realize how different the parenting styles of my husband and I were. We wanted to imbue our children with the same values (kindness, respect for others, enthusiasm for learning) and had the same goals (getting them out of the house and independent enough to schedule their own doctor’s appointments by the time they graduate).

When your children are babies, let’s face it, there’s not a lot of actual parenting that goes on. Aside from loving them unconditionally, at that stage parenting is mostly care-taking: changing diapers, wiping runny noses, and the like. Yet, at that point, we still had the same values (discussing how our children were the cutest on earth) and goals (getting them to sleep for more than two hours at a time).

The first year or two, we rarely disagreed. We had the same opinions on baby-wearing (great for naps), breastfeeding (free food), and vaccines (as many as advisable, as soon as possible). But as our children grew from babies to toddlers, things began to change.

I sewed the boys handmade stuffed animals. He brought home Hot Wheels with names like “Blade Raider” emblazoned on the sides. I read them “Peter Rabbit.” He introduced them to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When their wrists stretched past their sleeves this fall, we both bought them new shirts. Mine had pictures of polar bears and foxes on them. His were football jerseys.

I’ll give you one guess which ones they preferred.

When I was discussing the idea for this article with my husband (after all, it’s a good idea to check in before writing publicly about disagreeing with your spouse’s parenting style), I tried to give him examples of how we differed.

“You know, things like how I cook them oatmeal for breakfast and you give them Pop-Tarts.”

“But they like Pop-Tarts!” He retorted.

Therein lay the problem. The first year or two was mine to call the shots. I chose who I saw for my pregnancy (midwife), what kind of births to have (one with an epidural, two without), and what baby food to feed them (homemade). But as they became toddlers, I had to cede control.

The kids were growing up. My husband introduced them to baseball, soccer, and basketball. Having been a hopeless athlete as a kid, I preferred our backyard time to be unstructured play. Whereas I had wanted to minimize brand influences to encourage their own creativity, my husband was excited to bring them into the world of Superman and Wonder Woman. While I tried to minimize screen-time (or at least I told myself I did), he bonded with them over Mario Kart.

(“It’s not Mario Kart,” he will tell me upon reading this article. “I don’t know the names of any other video games,” I’ll reply).

The simple, natural childhood I pictured for my children was shifting. The one where they sat peacefully on the floor playing with wooden blocks and listening to indie kids’ music was fading away. The one where they jumped off the couch yelling, “Cowabunga, dude!” was becoming a reality.

(“You’re the one who lets them jump off the couch, not me,” my husband will point out. “I’m trying to illustrate a point,” I’ll say. “Besides, where do you think they got the idea?”)

I couldn’t put my finger on what I found so annoying about this situation. Was I worried about losing my sweet and innocent boys? Hurt that they always seemed to prefer their dad’s interests over mine? Did I truly feel my way was better?

After all, had I been parenting 50 or even 30 years ago, I would’ve had complete say over what my kids wore, ate, and read. He would’ve been in his office, oblivious to what was going on with the kids. They would’ve been completely under my domain, and shouldering that burden alone would have frustrated me even more than having to share it.

Besides, his way isn’t really so objectionable. Sports provided some structure to the boys’ boundless energy. Their love of superheroes gave us the opportunity to discuss the importance of standing up for those who need help. The more I thought about it, the more I realized we could instill the same values and achieve the same goals whether we went with my naturalistic approach or my husband’s more conventional one. Sometimes I even wondered if I truly thought my way was better, or if I simply wanted to fit in with the parenting trends of the moment.

At the end of the day, I think my frustrations might be more centered on them preferring their dad’s world over my own. Every parent dreams of passing on their interests to their child. To see those interests passed over can sting a bit. In all honesty, the more they turn out to be like their dad, the happier I am. He’s a wonderful person and, as far as I’m concerned, the more like him they are, the better.

(“Yeah, I don’t care if you write about that,” he told me. “Just as long as you really emphasize that last part,” he said smiling.)

In the end, we can’t control who our children will become. In a year or two when they enter school, they’ll have a whole new world of influences. All we can do is point them in the direction we want them to go and hope that the path they inevitably choose instead is still a good one.

7 Signs You're Parenting Right According to a Clinical Psychologist

In my work as a clinical psychologist, there are seven signs I see that tell me a child has an awesome parent.

Parents often worry that they are failing their kids. Modern parents hold themselves to higher standards as we guide our children to adulthood. It’s easy to get caught in a comparison trap with other parents or look for outwardly measurable signs of our success.
In my work as a clinical psychologist, there are seven signs I see that tell me a child has an awesome parent.

The seven signs of being an awesome parent

1 | Your child displays a range of emotions in front of you

Sometimes the timing of our child’s big emotions is difficult. We may not wish to see as much of the big emotions as we do, but your child’s ability to express anger, sadness, or fear in front of you is a good sign that she feels emotionally safe with you.
It worries me greatly when children hide their feelings from their parents. Often, this is a sign of big problems in the parent-child relationship. Avoid shutting down or distracting your child out of her feelings. Instead, pay attention and show appreciation for them.
“I can see from how you’re kicking the wall that you’re very angry. And you’re telling me this is because your sister won’t let you play.” This tells your child you can handle her feelings and you understand her perspective.

2 | Your child comes to you when hurt or facing a problem

I know that a parent is doing an awesome job when their child comes to them as a first port of call for their problems. This means you have provided a secure base that your child can return to when he needs help.
A good way to encourage this is to welcome your child with open arms and listen to his problems, even if small or the problem seems petty to you. This sets up the relationship to be open to communication about things that are difficult in your child’s life.

3 | Your child can discuss thoughts and feelings without fearing your reaction

This is a positive sign of an accepting, open, and flexible parent-child relationship. Some parents  unwittingly restrict communication with their child through their behavior, such as over-reacting to thoughts or feelings they don’t like or those that question their behavior as a parent.
Other parents appear so fragile to their children that they don’t want to burden their parent with their thoughts and feelings. I get concerned when parents say, “My child is my rock.” Parents are the rocks; children should never be their parent’s rock.
You can support this by accepting your child’s thoughts and feelings without making it be about who you are. If you need additional support for your feelings, do that with another adult – not with your child.

4 | Your feedback is non-critical and non-labeling

Awesome parents give non-critical feedback about behavior and avoid labels such as ‘bad’, ‘naughty’, ‘greedy’, and ‘lazy’.
If your child eats all the chocolate biscuits before anyone else has a chance to share them, an awesome parent focuses on the behavior: “You ate all the biscuits without sharing. It is important in our home that you share with your siblings. How do you think you could make this up to your family?”
This is very different from saying, “You greedy girl. Go to your room.”

5 | You encourage your child to pursue interests and talents

Pursuing interests and talents helps children feel a sense of mastery and achievement. It can positively engage children through the teen and young adult years, teaching persistence and helping protect against risk-taking behavior. It’s a wonderful thing to excel at something you love.
Sometimes, I see parents directing children’s interests to fulfil unmet dreams and needs of their own. When you force a child to excel for your own reasons, all sorts of things can go wrong, even when they look like they’re going right. This can set children up for feeling like a failure, feeling intense levels of pressure, and feeling controlled.
Also, if they fail and a narcissist parent’s ambition is behind it, children wear the burden of disappointing their parent on top of their own disappointment.

6 | You create boundaries on behavior to keep your child safe

Awesome parents guide their child’s behavior by setting considered boundaries and limits. Children without limits and boundaries often end up in a lot of trouble or lost.
Boundaries help children feel loved and valued, even if they don’t like the boundaries some of the time. Some examples of helpful limits include a bedtime routine, respectful language towards family members, and not permitting teens to attend parties where alcohol is supplied.

7 | You repair your mistakes

Being able to repair relationship ruptures with your child is a sign of being an awesome parent. If you yell, over-react, or call your child a name, it is important to repair that rupture with your child.
Talking with your child about how you wished you had handled the situation can help. Explaining that your big feelings got in the way of you being able to respond in the way you should have also helps.
Although it’s tempting to look for signs of successful parenting, such as reading levels, whether they eat the “right foods,” or win on the football field, successful parenting is about providing a secure base for your child. This creates a place from which your child can thrive. It consists of an ongoing lifelong relationship not contingent on external results, but rather on love, respect, and connection.
That’s what being an awesome parent all is about.

Nine Going on Nineteen

This is a submission in our monthly contest. January’s theme is “Wild.” Enter your own here!

By all accounts, I’m very lucky. My nine-year-old son, Jack, is a great kid. He’s polite, kind, compassionate, outgoing, and does well in school. He even still lets me sneak kisses and hugs in fairly regularly.

Lately, though, things have been tough. I forgot how difficult the “odd” years are. Jack never went through the Terrible Twos, so when he turned three and his behavior drastically shifted to that of a wild child, I was shocked. By the time his fourth birthday rolled around, he was back to his gentle, sweet, and mild-mannered self. This cycle has continued every other year since Jack’s third birthday.

The long, unstructured days of winter break, augmented by dangerously low temperatures, have proven extremely difficult. My once easy-going, polite, and mild-mannered child has become moody, lazy, and way too quick to talk back. His insistence on getting the last word in just may drive me crazy by the time school rolls back around in one short week.

To combat this wild child behavior, my husband and I have had lengthy conversations with Jack, explaining to him that if he can’t get his behavior under control, we will have no choice but to cancel both the tennis and sailing camps he looks forward to all year. We’ve taken away all electronics: his phone, his iPad, his laptop, his XBox, and even his television privileges. So far, nothing has worked.

Out of sheer frustration, I began doing some research. My goal was to learn how I could better handle Jack’s newly-developed attitude. What I learned shocked me! Much to my surprise, nine-year-olds are considered “tweens,” and in the early stages of puberty! I had no idea my baby was so close to becoming a teenager. If his recent behavior is any indication of how his teenage years are going to be, I’m certainly not looking forward to them!

While I understand it’s completely normal for a nine-year-old to desire independence, I refuse to accept blatant disrespect from my child. Furthermore, I refuse to allow him to grow into a spoiled, arrogant man with a sense of entitlement.

As I’ve reflected on Jack’s behavior and all I’ve learned through my research, I’ve come to realize I carry a lot of the blame for Jack’s current attitude. He’s my only child, and I dote on Jack endlessly. Anything he asks for, he gets, and on the rare occasion that my husband or I actually tell him “no,” a meltdown immediately ensues.

I’ve come to realize that we absolutely have to stop giving into Jack. We’re not doing him any favors; we’re spoiling him. If he continues to get whatever he wants when he wants it, what incentive will he have to improve his behavior? Only time will tell how our plan of scaling back will work. I have a sneaking suspicion this is going to be harder for us than it will be for Jack.

Wish us luck!