Tablets, Transitions, and Tantrums

Transitioning out of screen time doesn’t always go so well. Luckily there’s plenty of research to help ease the turmoil.

For a while, I thought letting my son watch PBS shows on our tablet was a great choice.  We had control over what he was watching because we knew the menu of available shows; and we trusted these shows because of their educational value.  I mean, what parent wouldn’t be proud that their son preferred learning about “creature powers” (on Wild Kratts) to playing video games?

But somehow, despite the high quality of these shows, tablet time was not going well in our house.  No matter how clear we thought we were being, our rules (the tablet could only be used two days per week, only for educational shows, and only for a limited time period), each time we took the tablet away from our son his behavior was surprisingly challenging.  He whined or yelled about having to stop, didn’t know how to listen to our directions on what he should do next, and often misbehaved physically or had trouble controlling his body.

Recently, we took the tablet away completely for a few weeks.  Yet, in the back of our minds we knew this drastic approach also wasn’t really the answer.  Kids need to learn about technology; would we be putting him at a disadvantage by keeping him away from it?  Would we evoke equally bad behavior by saying no every time he asked about the tablet?

My gut told me watching TV shows wasn’t the way to go, so we started telling him he could only use the tablet for activities that kept him active or helped him learn.  We got an account on gonoodle.com, a site for exercise, dance, and even meditation and yoga videos all designed for kids.  We downloaded an app for him to create his own books using photos and voice recording.  And we occasionally let him play a simple video game that requires him to build and race Lego vehicles.

We also started paying more attention.  Instead of using the tablet as a babysitter while we tried to get other things done, we were attentive to what he was doing (even if we also did dishes), we gave him plenty of time warnings and worked with him to decide when would be a good stopping point (“ok, so you have three minutes left – do you think you have time to build another vehicle or do you think you should stop now and just use the coloring app?”).   I even did a few Go Noodle exercise routines with him – not a bad thing for this busy mom who never has time for exercise!

Not surprisingly, this new approach has led to much more positive experiences with the tablet and much smoother transitions from tablet time to the next activity.

Screen Time and Kids

As it turns out, there’s research to back up what we’re finding to be useful in our household.

There is a great deal of research in the education field showing that children sometimes struggle with transitions from one activity to another and that “children may engage in challenging behavior when they do not understand the expectations for their transition” (Hemmeter et al, 2008).  While much of this research focuses on how day care providers or teachers can plan for transitions in the classroom, especially with larger groups of kids, the concept that transitions can be challenging for kids is just as useful for parents.  For children who have significant challenges transitioning from one activity to the next, Hemmeter et al (2008) suggest things like giving a signal before the transition is coming (a time limit warning for example); modeling transitions; and being prepared for the next activity before starting the transition.

Dr. Laurel Bongiorno, Dean of the Division of Education and Human Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont is often asked about how kids should use technology and was inspired by these conversations to write 10 Technology Tips for Preschool Parents.  I had the opportunity to talk with her as I researched this topic.  Bongiorno noted that whenever kids are really focused, whether that be in building a block structure or watching something on the tablet, you have to give them time to switch gears.  “Think about how you would feel,” she said, “if someone walked in and turned out the lights in the middle of what you were doing and said, ‘time’s up’.”  In fact, Bongiorno watched parents who used tablets to entertain children at restaurants and realized that often those who had been given tablets actually ended up behaving worse than those who had been “passed from person to person until the food arrived”; she suggests that this may be because children who had the tablet taken out of their hands weren’t able to continue what they were doing (listen to her podcast on this topic).

Bongiorno noted we can help children transition away from screen time more smoothly by choosing activities that have some sort of predictable end or pausing point.  For example, she recommends choosing games for kids that can be broken up into levels or episodes to which they can return to the next time they use the tablet.  She also suggests that we create a ritual or routine about putting the technology away.  “When a child has reached his or her time limit,” she suggests, “walk them through putting the tablet away in its case or plugging it in so it can get recharged for the next time.”  If we want our child to put their technology away, she noted, we also have to look at our own use of technology; are you checking your phone at dinner, checking your email every five minutes while you cook?  As with many things we want our children to do, we have to practice what we preach.

Dr. Alexandra Samuel translated these tips for transition directly to the concept of screen time in her 2015 article “How to end Screen Time Without Tears” – a must read if you too are dealing with this issue.  I was pleased that Samuel’s tips aligned with the things we had been trying, like giving warnings on time limits (or even using a visual timer) and staying nearby.  Samuel suggests scheduling screen time right before another desirable or planned activity.  She also notes that we should “observe our children’s reactions” and “remove meltdown triggers” – in other words, if we notice that certain activities lead to worse behavior in our children we should try eliminating those types of activities.  This is just what we had discovered in switching from television shows to active and educational tools.

Some researchers worry about even more extreme long-term impacts of screen time.  In 2015, Dr. Victoria Dunkley published a book called Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-TimeThe first thing she promises after completing this four week plan?  Fewer meltdowns.  Dunkley summarizes her claims and findings in an article titled “Screentime is Making our Kids Moody, Crazy, and Lazy.”  While Dunkley’s claims may be more applicable to higher levels of screen time than my family allows, the links she proposes to impacts on children’s brains and to their ability to interact socially are important areas for further study.

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees that we should be cautious on screen time, and has advised parents to limit screen time and offer non-electronic formats in their updated recommendations on Media and Children.  Among their recommendations: limiting screen time for children over 2 and teens to no more than two hours a day of high quality content and establishing “screen-free” zones at home.

As tempting as it is to use technology as a source of entertainment while we get other things done, I’ve realized this isn’t doing us any favors if it leads to worse behavior in the short term or even longer-term impacts on mental health or brain functioning.  Technology should not be off limits, but it should “used for good” just like any other super power.  Parents have to take responsibility for teaching that.  We can start by being more engaged with our kids when they are using technology and being more intentional about the ways they (and we!) are using it.

PS – We still love the Wild Kratts.  My son and I now try to watch it together on the big screen about once or twice a month, talking throughout and after the episode about what we’re learning.

5 Things Parents of Four (or More) Kids Want You to Know

Yes, I have four kids, all boys from age 3 to 14. While most of the time it’s a happy jumble, there are a few things those of us with a lot of kids want you to know.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan, now a father of five, said the following about having four kids, “You know what it’s like having a fourth kid? Imagine you’re drowning, then someone hands you a baby.” Yup.

Yes, I have four kids, all boys from age three to 14 and here’s a little secret: I’m not Mary Poppins and my husband and I drink. Sometimes a lot.

Four times the laundry of one kid. Four times the mess, schoolwork, sports and activities. Four times the food and four times the noise and bickering. I have a Ph.D. in people management and do roll calls in the minivan to make sure I haven’t left anyone behind.

Most of the time it’s a happy jumble but there are a few things those of us with a lot of kids want you to know:

1. The Myth of Built In Playmates.

“Oh you’re SO lucky, you have built-in playmates!” people say to me. My response is a short two words: bicker brothers. Yes, I have four human children under one roof so in theory they would be putting on plays and puppet shows but with age differences and varied temperaments playing often leads to misunderstandings, arguments, fights over rules, who is or isn’t playing fair, and who just bailed in a huff as someone always bails.

Sometimes the stars align and they all get along which typically lasts about a half hour then they’re back at it. The other day my three older sons had a very heated argument about the Mexican-American War. I also overheard an argument about the pronunciation of heirloom tomatoes.

Son #1: “It’s pronounced AIRloom…the H is silent” Son #2: “It’s HAIRloom, there’s an H there so what’s it there for if you don’t say it??” Please tell me who fights over this stuff?

2. Chaperoning the “Challenging”

Yes it’s happened on virtually all of the school trips I have chaperoned over the years. Because I have a bunch of kids, including a special needs son, everyone thinks giving me the criers, bolters, pant-wetters (or poopers…I’ve had both) and the behaviorally challenged is a no-brainer because I can handle it. I can handle it just as well as any parent of one perfectly behaved kid with no issues so please spread the wealth! Managing two kids about to wet their pants while I run after the bolter headed to the corn maze with four bags of apples strapped to my body makes me want to drink even more and maybe even pack a flask for all future school trips.

3. Traveling and Camps? Bwahahahahaha!

I’m frequently asked, “You don’t do camps? Why are you always home?” When you have a lot of kids a simple run through of a fast food drive-thru can cost a fortune so traveling is almost totally out of the question for many of us unless we are camping someplace then that brings on a whole other set of issues including my hatred of camping. Whether it’s renting a cottage, going to a motel or (gulp) flying somewhere it’s a world created for the family of four. The cost of flights, tickets to theme parks and meals out is staggering. Hop on the Disney website right now and figure out the cost of park tickets for two adults and four kids. Yes, that’s why we’re “always home.” Camps (including the Y) are just as expensive so we do something called Camp Home Starring the Bicker Brothers.

4. Our Home is Not a Drop-Off Daycare Center.

“I have errands to run, do you mind watching #1 daughter for a couple of hours? I kind of need a break.” Here’s a news bulletin that should seem obvious but for some reason isn’t: *I* have errands to run too but I have four kids so that means putting off errands and staying up late and never being able to ask you to take my kids “for a couple of hours.” I love kids and I do love your daughter but I am often nearing my tipping point well before your kid crosses the threshold. I suspect the thought is I have so many, what’s just one more? Slipping your kid into my brood is something I do notice as then it’s FIVE kids now.

5. Stress, Stress Everywhere.

Sorry folks but those of you with one or two kids are absolutely, positively NOT, NOT, NOT busier than us. Nope. Complaining to no end about how busy and stressed out you are while our four (or more) kids are swinging from the rafters behind us just isn’t cool. Did you see what is going on behind me? Everyone is stressed and busy and we’re all in this business of parenting together so let’s just keep it at that.

PS: Having pets isn’t just like having kids either but that’s another rant for another day. Unless you’ve breastfed your cat, save it.

33 No-Tech, Super Fun Activities to Keep Kids Busy on Winter Break

It’s time to get (modestly) creative with cheap, tech-free activities for elementary school-aged kids.

Winter break is upon us and it’s time to get creative. Here’s a quick list of cheap, low-tech ways to entertain an elementary school-aged kid over winter break.

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  1. Make easy popcorn balls (with marshmallows or corn syrup).
  2. Make duct tape wallets (hey, even Martha’s doing it) or a bunch of other oddball duct tape crafts).
  3. Buy cheap notebooks or use some sticky notes to make flipbooks.
  4. Get out the camping gear and set up a backyard winter explorers base.
  5. Write some Star Wars fanfiction (or Harry Potter, etc).
  6. Experiment with making your own personal ultimate ramen recipe (ramen tips, more on Pinterest).
  7.  Go for an epic walk.
  8. Throw a housecleaning party – complete with music and snacks. Get creative and invent a point system for certain tasks.
  9. Same as above, throw a thank you card party for all those Christmas gifts. (I do not know, it’s worth a try).
  10. Make epic blanket forts.
  11. Try some new winter crafts.
  12. Have fun with simple baking recipes. (Or just make these pretzels from a box mix.)
  13. Go sledding – on a homemade sled (or, take your normal sled and give it a rad new paint job).
  14. Let the kids plan and put together a family game night. (Don’t worry – you can still bring your own beer.)
  15. Make a Rubber Band Guitar.
  16. Create a scavenger hunt with your leftover Christmas candy.
  17. Score some old board games at the thrift shop and let the kids mix and match the pieces to create their own games.
  18. Likewise, invest in some all-day board games to keep the kids busy. With snacks, of course.
  19. Use toys, string, and recycling materials to make a breakfast-cereal pouring Rube Goldberg machine.
  20. Make simple kite that really flies out of newspaper or a simple kite out of foam.
  21. Print your own fake Apple Watch. That way your kid can go back to school with some bling.
  22. Make a homemade lava lamp with salt and oil.
  23. Write funny captions in old magazines or newspapers with a sharpie.
  24. Make some awesome magazine collages.
  25. Have a prank party – set up a bunch of pranks to play on the other parent or siblings. Pranks for kids. More pranks.
  26. Homemade pizza night! Or lunch.
  27. The old standby of making homemade play-doh is still fun (easy play-doh recipe one, easy play-doh recipe two).
  28. If you have some of those silicone oven safe muffin trays, you can recycle all those broken crayons into new ones.
  29. Look at all the things you can do with cardboard. Some of them might be fun. More here.
  30. If you live someplace cold, freeze stuff outside, Han Solo-style.
  31. Go to the library and borrow a mountain of books – for free.
  32. If you live someplace with snow, grab some food color send your kids out to create snow graffiti (more here).
  33. If you have access to a stick, some pipe insulation foam and duct tape, you can make a pretty legit sword / lightsaber that you can use to battle.

Check out the Unbored series of activities, ideas, and adventures for great activities not listed above!

5 Bonus Tech Activities

  1. Make a video game with Hopscotch
  2. Download some podcasts and set up an audio theater
  3. Explore the posts on Today Box
  4. Take a virtual tour of art museums around the world
  5. Experiment with learning piano with Pianu or drop beats with Patatap

What are your go-to “entertain the kids at home” ideas? Post in the comments below!

Teaching Kids to Give Thanks Is One of the Best Things You Can Do for Them

Research shows that expressing thanks has incredible outcomes for health, happiness, and productivity. Fortunately, there are many simple ways that you can instill gratitude in your kids.

Teaching your kids how to practice gratitude is one of the very best things you can do for them.

This isn’t just a nice thing to say; decades of research shows that people (including kids) who feel gratitude and give thanks are more productive, happier, and mentally and physically healthier.

Measurable Benefits of Gratitude in Kids

According to a 3-year study at the University of California, people who practice gratitude consistently have:

  • Stronger immune systems and healthier blood pressure.
  • Better psychological health, with fewer toxic emotions.
  • Better sleep.
  • Increased mental strength.
  • Greater happiness and optimism.
  • More generosity and compassion.
  • Less loneliness and feelings of isolation.
  • (See footnotes below for links to further sources, studies and research on this topic.)

Kids who understand gratitude have better grades and are less likely to get depressed. They also have greater resilience and empathy.

In  “Making Grateful Kids,” Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., and Jeffrey J. Froh, Psy.D. write:

“Evidence from our own research suggests that grateful young adolescents (ages 11-13), compared to their less grateful counterparts, are happier and more optimistic, have better social support, are more satisfied with their school, family, community, friends, and themselves, and give more emotional support to others. We’ve also found that grateful teens (ages 14-19) are more satisfied with their lives, use their strengths to better their community, are more engaged in their schoolwork and hobbies, have higher grades, and are less envious, depressed, and materialistic.”

Before Science, Religion Understood Gratitude

If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, it will be enough.” – Meister Eckhart

“In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”- 1 Thessalonians 5:18

“Birkot ha-Shachar,” the Jewish prayer of Dawn Blessings recited at the start of each day are a “litany of thanksgiving for life itself” – “Modeh/Modah ani, “I thank you” 

“Allah will reward the grateful.” – Quran 3: 144, Shakir translation

“You have no cause for anything but gratitude and joy.” – The Buddha

“Gratitude is exalted as one of the most important virtues (dharma) in many Hindu texts,” says Dr. Vasudha Narayanan, Distinguished Professor of Religion, University of Florida.

Gratitude is central to every world religion. Indeed, lack of lack of gratitude is frequently considered one of humanities greatest sins.
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others. – Cicero

The opposite of gratitude is entitlement. Entitlement stunts resilience and self-sufficiency.  Also, people who lack gratitude also tend to lack empathy. Like “gratitude,” empathy isn’t just a feel-good word: it’s a critical skill for success for our interconnected world.

Every parent knows that young kids are among the least grateful creatures on Earth.

They totally take for granted the nourishing food, warm shelter, education, and entertainment we work so hard to provide for them.

We also know that one our main responsibilities is teaching our kids to give thanks. Almost all kids have to learn how to do this — it’s not something they’re born knowing (though they may be primed for it). They learn how to practice gratitude — and reap its rewards —  through a mix of intentional lessons, practical experience, and exposure to role models.

In an interview with Time Magazine, Christine Carter, director of the Greater Good Science Center Parenting Program at UC Berkeley said that “gratitude only arises naturally without cultivation under conditions of scarcity.”

But a recent study highlighted in the Wall Street Journal showed that gratitude is indeed a mindset that kids can learn. (Research Finds Real Benefits for Kids Who Say ‘Thank You’)

Studies also show that gratitude is strengthened through practice. Teaching gratitude at home can be an intentional practice, backed by simple, practical lessons woven into family life.

Gradually learning to give thanks is part of healthy childhood development.

Most babies are born wired to pay attention to other humans around them. But it takes a few years before they can truly understand or express gratitude. As they grow older, gratitude becomes a sign of emotional maturity.

For young kids, start with having them about the good things that happened in their day (the classic roses and thorns question).

Middle-grade kids are focused on gratitude for gifts and physical goods. Parents can help them extend their gratitude by showing appreciation for non-material things.

High school kids can understand the greater meaning of gratitude as they begin to relate their lives to the context of the greater world.

Tips For Instilling Gratitude in Your Kids

Grandma happily talking and spending time with her grandchildren

1. Model Gratitude

Embodying a grateful attitude might be the most important part of teaching it. That’s because everyday actions can be more impactful than a few big efforts.

In a profile in the Wall Street Journal, University of California, Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons says, “The old adage that virtues are caught, not taught, applies here. It’s not what parents want to hear, but you cannot give your kids something that you yourselves do not have.”

2. Make Sure Kids Are Contributing (aka, Chores)

Household chores have many proven benefits—academically, emotionally and even professionally.

But it also teaches kids to feel gratitude. One of the reasons kids (and grownups) can’t feel or give gratitude is because they simply don’t understand the hard work that goes into making things happen. Chores help teach them that. That’s part of the reason that doing chores is a strong indicator for future success in life.

3. Give Your Kids Allowance – And Let Them Spend It

Just as chores teach kids to appreciate work, allowance teaches kids to appreciate the value of money. When your kids spend your money, it has no meaning. They’ve never put in the hard work to cook, clean, earn, themselves.

Research shows that allowance can lower intrinsic motivation and performance (aka, chores). Read more about the benefits of allowance.

4. Make Time to Give Intentional Appreciations

Appreciation and gratitude are connected. You give it, and you get it.

Family Meetings are a perfect opportunity for sharing appreciations with your family. Corny, but it works.

Creating an intentional space to give appreciations also teaches kids to be specific when they give gratitude and say thanks. Being able to express exactly what one is grateful for is an advanced skill that takes practice to develop.

 5. Create Intentional Family Gratitude Activities

Make a list of all the things each person is grateful for. Hang it someplace highly visible in the house. Pin it up and add to it.

Or, create a gratitude journal. Again, sounds corny but it works. Numerous studies have shown that writing down things we’re grateful for helps people improve happiness and health.

6. Volunteer & Donate to a Cause as a Family

Religion and psychology agree that practicing sacrifice is essential to gratitude.

Service is a key element in fostering gratitude. Everyone needs a helping hand from time to time. Research shows that people feel more grateful as givers rather than as receivers. And volunteering also gives a chance to see how much they may have in contrast to others.

A Practice or an Emotion?

Finally, it’s worth considering what gratitude is in the first place. The classic definition is “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” A.A. Milne.

But is it an emotion, a mindset, a practice or a discipline? Perhaps it’s all of these things. Above all, it can be passed down to your kids and nurtured in the world.

10 Links For Further Reading:
  1. The Science of Gratitude
  2. The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier
  3. Why Gratitude is Good For You
  4. Teach Kids Gratitude With These Tips At Different Ages
  5. Teach Your Child the Importance of Appreciation
  6. Tips for Every Age How To Raise Grateful Kids
  7. Gratitude Activities for the Classroom
  8. In Praise of Gratitude 
  9. Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude 
  10. Seven Ways to Foster Gratitude In Kids

8 Life Skills to Teach Your Kids to Avoid Digital Dependence

Make sure your kids have these old-school skills to keep them from becoming totally reliant on technology.

In a world of technological innovation and interconnectedness, critical learning of essential life skills is increasingly consigned to apps and the internet.

Children aged eight to 18 average over seven hours per day of screen time, often while accessing multiple forms of media and social networking sites simultaneously.

Add on an extra one hour and 35 minutes of texting and today’s tweens and teenagers are spending over nine hours per day on digital devices.

To avoid translating this technological consumption into total digital dependence, help your child develop the following eight life skills.

1 | How to read maps

Yes, GPS is widely used and easily available – as long as the battery is charged, and your device has service. Teaching kids to navigate using landmarks, maps, a compass, and by estimating distance is essential when technology isn’t available. The effect of reliance on GPS has yet to be fully realized, but it’s possible that GPS dependence could deprive children of sensory feedback that fosters spatial awareness.

2 | How to make a telephone call

Though teens and adults default to texting and emailing, the ability to talk on the phone remains essential. The ability to memorize phone numbers, make appointments, and conduct professional and appropriate conversations are critical interpersonal skills that kids need to practice.

3 | How to handwrite neatly

Handwriting has vastly suffered from technological convenience that no longer requires us to physically write. The common core program implemented across 45 states does not even incorporate old-fashioned cursive. Yet the ability to write, legibly, is integral for learning first and foremost how to read and communicate, skills which are then transferred to keyboard typing.

4 | How to write a letter

The US Postal Service indicated that in 2010, US homes received only one personal letter over seven weeks, whereas nearly 30 years ago, the average was one every two weeks. Letter writing is inherently a more time consuming and painstaking process, devoid of grammar and spell check. However, a handwritten letter is a valuable, more permanent communication tool that can convey a greater range of emotions and genuine appreciation of relationships.

5 | How to look up info (offline)

The ability to find information, whether it’s looking a word up in the dictionary or researching information at the library, is an integral skill lost to a generation dependent on Google for instant answers. Yet, traditional research can offer more thorough, authoritative information. In addition, it encourages kids to explore different ideas and resources.

6 | How to connect face-to-face

Nowadays, it’s easy to take for granted the social skills derived from just interacting with the world. Even ordinary social experiences like going to the grocery are replaced by online shopping and ordering take-out with just a few clicks. Children’s increased interaction with non-reciprocal devices prevents them from learning important social skills.

Face-to-face interactions, whether dinner conversation or an awkward elevator ride, are increasingly more difficult and uncomfortable when we depend on devices to avoid socializing. The ability to read social cues and nonverbal communication is also negatively impacted when a child is not engaged in social interaction and conversation, which can ultimately lead to depression, anxiety, and exclusion.

7 | How to understand emotions

Though similar to interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence is a separate skill for adults and children alike that suffers in this progressively technological era. Where social media has broken down barriers of communication, identifying emotions and developing empathy becomes more difficult to internalize, especially when self-esteem is linked to ‘likes’.

Teaching kids how to manage feelings and stress, to foster a sense of self, and problem solve are a few components of emotional literacy. Lower levels of emotional intelligence have also been connected to higher instances of bullying behavior. Jimmy Kimmel’s ‘Celebrities Read Mean Tweets’ highlights this coldness of modern technology and distancing of words and emotional impact.

8 | How to disconnect and enjoy the outdoors

Outdoor play, which provides general health and psychological benefits in addition to greater academic success, is also related to an evolving life skill that even adults have to learn: disconnecting in the digital age. A study conducted in South Korea involving over 1,000 children between 10-15 years old reinforced the importance of the skill. Kids’ digital dependency, the potentially harmful ‘over-use and abuse’ of the internet, lessened with more time spent outdoors.