What to do if you Suspect Your Child is Gifted (Part I)

You suspect your child is gifted. Actually, you pretty much know your child is gifted. You know it from observing your child. And you know it from all those articles you’ve found with their bulleted lists of gifted children behaviors—you’ve mentally ticked off most of the items.

So okay, now that you know, what should you do?

Dr. Shannon W. Bellezza of Triangle Behavioral and Educational Solutions, suggests that parents find out how schools in their area test for giftedness. “Some schools do universal screening around 3rd grade to see which children may be gifted. Sometimes there are options for parents or teachers to nominate children for testing to qualify for acceleration in certain subjects. Parents should find out how their school screens for giftedness and follow through with the appropriate procedures.”

Testing For Giftedness

Can’t wait that long? You don’t have to, if you don’t mind paying out of pocket. “Many private psychologists offer IQ tests for children as young as 3-4 years-old, including the Stanford-Binet and the WPPSI tests,” says Alina Adams, a school consultant and author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten.

Adams cautions that there are many variables to these tests, which means the results will vary, too. “An important thing to remember is that the tests are different, and it’s entirely possible for a child to test gifted on one, but not on another. Also very few IQ tests are reliable before the ages of 10-12, so it’s possible your child will test gifted one year, but not the next,” says Adams.

Before having children tested, parents should consider that “gifted” means different things to different people, says Parenting and Family Coach Dr. Richard Horowitz. “At times parents with reasonably bright kids latch on to the label ‘gifted’ without actually getting confirmation by a teacher or psychologist. There is no universally recognized standard for gifted. School districts will set criteria for admission into a gifted/talented program but again it is the school’s arbitrary standard rather than a definition based on research.”

Fostering The Gift

Some parents don’t bother with confirmation. Tobi Kosanke, for example. She and her husband just assumed their 13-year-old daughter girl was gifted and ran with it: did what they could to foster their child’s development. “We nourished her intellect as a baby and toddler with toys, music, and books.”

“Gifted,” by the way, is not the same as “genius.” Alina Adams points out that unlike the lack of universal school standards for giftedness, there are actual accepted distinctions that separate those in the category “genius” from the merely “gifted.” “Giftedness can be anything from the top 90th percentile, to the top 95th or 97th. Genius is the 99.99 the percentile. The needs of the two groups are different.”

“Those with IQs between 125 to 145 can basically handle anything they decide to do. Those with IQs of 145 plus often have a harder time making themselves understood, which can get in the way of achievement. There is also the concept of multi-potentiality. When people are good at most anything they try, it becomes harder to narrow down exactly what they want to do. So they end up doing nothing, like the metaphor of Buridan’s ass,” says Adams.

Gifted=Special Needs??

Laurie Endicott Thomas, author of Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, has a different way of looking at IQ. She thinks that children on either end of the IQ spectrum should be thought of and treated as special needs children. “Keep in mind that a gifted child’s IQ is at least 30 points above the average. You would not dream of putting a child with an average IQ (100) in a classroom for mentally retarded children (IQ of 70). Yet gifted children are expected to thrive in a classroom that is geared to children whose IQ is 30 points below theirs. Not only will the gifted children be miserable from boredom, they will be wasting their time and developing bad study habits. (There’s no need to take notes if you know that the teacher is going to repeat the same boring thing 10 times!)”

Here Adams disagrees. “It really depends on the child. Some children who have tested gifted are so used to being the smartest kid in the room, the one that everyone fusses over and praises, that being put in a situation where everyone else is as smart—or even smarter—than they are, is a horrible experience. Some kids shut down completely, and become depressed. If their entire self-image is based on being the best, learning that there are others like them can be devastating.

“Another problem with gifted programs,” says Adams, “is that most public school-based ones operate on the assumption that all gifted children are gifted at the same things in the same way on the same schedule. The whole point of being gifted is that you are uniquely talented in a particular area. I’ve worked with families where their extremely verbal child struggled in advanced math, while other children with incredible math skills floundered in advanced English classes where their very literal-minded approach made parsing the nuances of texts nearly impossible.

Adams gives the personal example of her gifted son, who, when faced with Hemingway’s iconic six-word short story, For sale: baby shoes, never worn, insisted that there simply weren’t enough facts available to draw a definitive conclusion. “Sure, you could assume the baby died. But you could also assume it was an ad from a baby shoe factory that was closing down.”

Educational Needs

Horowitz has a more general view of gifted programs versus mainstreaming gifted children. “The best advice for a parent is to make sure that their child’s individual educational needs are being met and the parents should arrange a conference with the teacher or teachers early in the school year to make sure this is occurring. If the teacher can meet the child’s needs in the regular classroom than there is no need for an additional program,” says Horowitz, adding this caveat: “If, however, the school has identified a child as eligible for a gifted program, I believe the parents should take advantage of the offering.”

Whether or not to mainstream your gifted child is likely to be determined, says Bellezza, by school policy and availability of resources. Bellezza details the various types of school instruction that might be available to a gifted student depending on the school. “Pull-out enrichment (when the child is removed from the classroom for specialized instruction), push-in enrichment (when the child remains in the regular classroom and is given specialized instruction via differentiation by the classroom teacher or from another teacher who comes to the classroom), or some combination are usually offered by schools.”

William Schlitz of Keller, Texas, and his wife, Dr. Myiesha Taylor, decided to bypass the school system altogether. “My wife and I have homeschooled our 3 children here in Texas. We did not make the decision for religious or conservative political reasons. The decision was made to specifically address the gifted status of our two oldest children and tailor their education to create an academic environment that allowed them to thrive. Part of that was our desire to create a secure environment where our kids felt safe, free from bias, and could focus on their education. Like many who start this process we were concerned if our decision would hurt our children’s future (college?). But in reality it served as a launching point for all of them to thrive.

Education Disinterest

Schlitz’s and Taylor’s eldest daughter, Haley Taylor Schlitz, is today a 15-year-old senior at Texas Woman’s University. “Haley made the jump to homeschool when we became concerned about her academic progress at a local middle school. It was Haley’s growing disinterest with her education that led us to have her formally tested for giftedness. Her tests demonstrated a very highly gifted person.”

Haley went on to become a Davidson Young Scholar, and a member of both MENSA and Intertel, graduating homeschool high school at age 13. The young woman has been on the Dean’s List of TWU for the past two years with a GPA of 3.7. Haley will have her BS degree in May 2019, when she will be 16 years-old, and plans on attending law school starting the following Fall semester. Another son is about to follow in Haley’s footsteps. Ian, at 12, has just passed the entrance exam at a local community college.

Having taken the journey of homeschooling her children, Myiesha Taylor has developed insight into gifted education processes around the United States, and has served as a resource for families traveling a similar path. To this end, Taylor created a Facebook group, Brilliant In Color, that helps families of color discuss how to navigate giftedness for their children.

Testing, confirmation of giftedness, and education aside, some parents wonder what being gifted will mean for their child’s emotional makeup. Will being gifted mark a child as different? Do gifted children have difficulty finding and making friends, and cultivating relationships? Will a gifted child, of necessity, always be lonely? How will being gifted affect the child’s world view?

Social Skills

“Gifted children are prone to problems with loneliness and depression. Often, the gifted children themselves are blamed for having ‘poor social skills.’ Yet the real problem is that children generally develop real friendships only with other children whose IQ is within 15 points of theirs.

“If your child’s IQ is 100, then 68% of the population falls within his or her ‘friendship zone.’ As a result, your child is likely to have lots and lots of (rather dim-witted) friends. But if your child’s IQ is 140, less than 2% of the population falls within his or her ‘friendship zone.’ You may need to get involved in some organization for the gifted in order for your child to find children whom they can befriend,” says Endicott Thomas, who suggests parents of gifted children visit the SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) website.

Endicott Thomas describes the emotional downside of being gifted. “Because of their abilities to use abstract reasoning, gifted people are often keenly aware that the universe is indifferent to human suffering, that many social institutions are stupid and cruel, and that many adults are hypocrites. For this reason, gifted people need to find some way to make a positive difference in the world. Otherwise, they can suffer greatly from a problem called existential depression.”

On Being Different

Alina Adams disagrees, suggesting that the real problem with being gifted (and knowing it) is watching out for inflated egos. “Professionally, I can tell you that gifted kids love feeling different, and knowing things other kids don’t. Personally, I can tell you my husband and I tell our kids, ‘You’re not that great. Even if you’re one in a million, there are 6000 people out there just like you. And many more who are better.’

“Some parents like gifted schools and programs so that their children can be with like-minded peers. We like them because they prove to our kids just how not special they are,” says Adams.

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Teens: Saying No When Other Parents Say Yes

How do you say no to teens when their friends’ parents say yes? If you think the activity is dangerous, you’re right to say no. But if all the other parents say yes—that their children can participate in an activity—you end up looking like the bad guy. You look like you’re saying no just to be arbitrary or mean.  It makes you seem like a control freak. Or just too strict.

Take the example of Lynn, age 51. Lynn’s 16-year-old daughter Randi begged to attend a weekend at a friend’s house. The weekend was to conclude with an all-night party. But there was a catch: the friend’s parents were out of town.

The friend’s parents had all given their permission for the weekend and party. The other invited guests, another eight children, had all received permission from their parents to attend. Lynn and her husband Jordan were the only hold outs.

Saying No For Protection

Lynn knew that her fun-loving daughter might be persuaded to take part in activities that could hurt her. There might be alcohol or drugs at the party. There could be, for example, a game of Truth or Dare involving risqué behavior.

Randi is a great kid, but she likes to have fun. She’s game to try anything once. Her parents imagined her at the party, surrounded by friends urging her not to be a prude. In this environment, would Randi have the strength of will to say no to drinking, taking drugs, or engaging in sex-tinged activities?

Lynn and Jordan weren’t judging the other parents for agreeing to allow their children to have a fun weekend. But they knew their daughter and didn’t think it a good idea to put her in a situation where she could end up getting hurt. They knew that the right thing to do was to say no: to forbid Randi from spending the weekend at her friend’s house.

They tried to be gentle and diplomatic as they said no, while being firm and absolute. The results were predictable. Randi pitched a fit. The girl screamed and cried. She accused her parents of being unfair. She dragged in the fact that all the other parents had said yes. That she alone had monstrous parents who were control freaks. She said it wasn’t fair. Randi also reminded them that her friend’s parents trusted the friend to keep things clean and safe.

Saying No: The Right Thing to Do

Randi begged, yelled, cried, and slammed doors. But Lynn and Jordan were determined to stick to their guns. They decided they didn’t care about anything but keeping their daughter safe. They knew that saying no was the right thing to do.

Lynn and Jordan made a wise decision. The teenage brain is undergoing changes, pruning away gray matter on the way to becoming fully mature. These changes mean that teens have stronger emotional reactions and may feel a sense of urgency about situations, a need to act. A teen’s impulse control is weak, compared to that of an adult. That tendency for poor impulse control is the things that worried Randi’s parents most.

Lynn and Jordan knew that when teens drink, they drink too much. Teens don’t know how to stop once they get started. The same with taking drugs or making out. Teens also have poor planning skills which is why so many teenagers get into dangerous scrapes.

But saying no to a teenager is different than saying no to a toddler having a tantrum. A teen has the endless ability to twist facts and lay guilt trips. It’s hard for a parent to stand firm in the face of a teenager’s crazed reaction to a parent’s dictate.

Saying No Can Be a Conversation

Dr. Ari Yares, a licensed psychologist, parent coach, and nationally certified school psychologist, believes that how you say no, and how you involve your child in the way the decision plays out, makes a difference. “When having the conversation, share with your child your reasoning and be as transparent as possible within the circumstances. Allow them an opportunity to voice their objections and, when possible, engage in some problem solving that might lead to a modified answer.

Family therapist Elisabeth Goldberg, LMFT, says the trick is to keep going over in your head the reasons why you said no. This can give parents something to do as the teenager screams and yells and help the parent remain firm in his or her resolve. After all, if you have a good reason for saying no, there is no reason to change your mind. The issue is wanting to avoid feeling bad as a teenager yells at you.

“It must be very hard to own your parenting style. With constant comparisons of wealth, health and happiness, it’s no wonder why so many parents give into their kids and go against their better judgement. Technology has made our culture obsessed with popularity like never before, and parents are not immune to that competition in the least,” says Goldberg.

Yares suggests parents minimize the embarrassment of being forbidden an activity by speaking to the child in private. “It can be tough when you are the parent saying no when everyone else says yes and your child may be mad at you for the decision that you are making. It’s important to make sure that when saying no in a situation like this that you minimize the public embarrassment of saying no. Pull your child aside for a more private conversation by saying, ‘We need to discuss this.’”

Saying No: Poor Distress Tolerance

Dr. Goldberg, meanwhile, feels that the most important part of saying no is to resist all the pleading and crying, to learn to let it roll off a parent’s back like water off a duck. “What makes parents say yes when they should say no is poor distress tolerance. The child asks and the parent is initially annoyed, then it progresses and goes deep, cutting into their core of self-worth as a human. When parents can’t say no to their kids, it’s because they can’t tolerate other discomfort; their threshold has already been crossed,” says Goldberg.

Any parent whose teenager pleads and cries for a long enough time is going to question whether they are doing the right thing in saying no. This is normal. But it’s important to remember that if you give in, your child will only make a stronger fuss the next time you say no. She already knows you’ll give way if she screams long enough and loud enough.

And of course, if you show weakness, you teach your child weakness. Standing firm, on the other hand, is a good example for your teenager. “Parents who stand firm and present themselves as authority figures through positive messages of respect and experience raise more secure children than those who fall apart at small signs of aggravation. Distress tolerance is a very undervalued skill for parents. Parents who cannot tolerate distress will teach this to their kids, who will grow up believing that hardship past a certain point is unacceptable. They won’t be very adaptable, and tend to make poor partners,” says Goldberg.

But how should a parent steel himself against all that begging and crying? “Saying no comes down to training yourself to tolerate various levels of distress by reflecting on the thoughts and feelings that come up when you try to say no and don’t,” says Goldberg.

Colorful animation of parents standing firm against annoyed teenage boy
The hard part is standing firm

In the case of Lynn and Jordan and their daughter Randi, though the girl reasoned and cried, her parents stuck to their original position on the subject of the weekend house party. No remained no and Randi stayed home. The girl moped and complained but once the party was past tense, she and her parents got past their relationship hump. It was only a few days before things were back to normal.

The moral of the story is: stay strong and remember why you’re saying no. If you wuss out and give in, you’re only setting yourself up for failure at a later date. And your child will have had a really bad example of weak character to follow.

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Serve and Return Parenting

Serve and return is a term coined by Harvard researchers for the back and forth interactions between a parent and a child. To understand the concept of serve and return, imagine a game of ping pong or tennis. Someone hits the ball, sending it over or serving it to the second player. The second player hits the ball in turn, returning it to the first player. Now substitute a conversation, a smile, or a gesture for the ball, and you’ve got an idea of serve and return.

As parents, we know that when a newborn looks deep into our eyes, he is asking us for some kind of attention. Depending upon the look in his eyes, it could be the baby just wants a smile. Or maybe he wants us to talk to him or play with him. We may not even know exactly what he wants, but we know he wants something. Most of us, as parents, will try hard to figure it out and give him what he wants, even if it takes some trial and error.

That look the baby gives the parent is a “serve.” To respond to it is the “return.”

Serve and Return Builds Brain Architecture

Serve and return interactions like this one have been studied by researchers. Studies show such parent child interactions are critical to brain architecture, or the shaping of the infant’s developing brain. Serve and return parenting is so important that a baby who does not experience this sort of back and forth with caregivers is likely to have stunted development.  According to Harvard:

Because responsive relationships are both expected and essential, their absence is a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. Healthy brain architecture depends on a sturdy foundation built by appropriate input from a child’s senses and stable, responsive relationships with caring adults. If an adult’s responses to a child are unreliable, inappropriate, or simply absent, the developing architecture of the brain may be disrupted, and subsequent physical, mental, and emotional health may be impaired. The persistent absence of serve and return interaction acts as a “double whammy” for healthy development: not only does the brain not receive the positive stimulation it needs, but the body’s stress response is activated, flooding the developing brain with potentially harmful stress hormones.

Erika Christakis, writing in The Atlantic, speaks about the high-pitched, grammar-simplified, over-enthusiastic baby talk a parent might use in response to a baby’s cooing. This sort of “conversational duet” is a type of serve and return parenting. According to Christakis, one study found that “Infants exposed to this interactive, emotionally responsive speech style at 11 months and 14 months knew twice as many words at age 2 as ones who weren’t exposed to it.”

In other words, if a child lacks serve and return parenting, the child may end up with developmental delays and worse. This would be a tragic outcome. The kind of outcome that happens to kids who are abandoned and end up in the foster care system. Not the kind of outcome we’d expect for our own children.

The only problem with this idea—that it can’t happen to our kids, we’re not those kinds of parents—is that increasingly, that’s not true. The thing that makes this a lie is our smartphones and screens. Our devices have turned us into distracted parents. The kind of parents who all too often miss a baby’s glance in favor of a Facebook PM or Whatsapp message.

Serve and return interaction between mother and baby girl
If your phone were to ping, what would happen to this moment?

Imagine your baby offers you that serve and return glance but at the same time, you hear a “ping” from your phone. How likely is that to happen? And how will that ping affect your serve and return interaction with your baby?

Let’s say you choose to ignore the ping and wait until the serve and return with your infant is complete before checking your phone. As you interact with your baby, the ping of your phone is still on your mind. It’s there in your head in reserve, reminding you it’s waiting for you to pay attention to it instead of to your baby. That’s got to affect the quality of your serve and return interaction with baby.

But what if you attend to the ping first, so you can then give your full attention to the baby? What happens to the serve and return interaction as a result of this delay? Is baby affected by being made to wait a bit longer?

The simple answer is that timing is everything. There’s a rhythm to serve and return interactions. As in tennis or ping pong, miss the moment, miss the serve, and the game could be lost. The baby’s glance or coo, unreturned, may mean baby gives up, acknowledges that a parent’s return just isn’t happening. The baby may look away, or space out, a kind of retreat from the perceived rejection of the parent.

Serve and Return Requires Full Attention

A father and baby serve and return interaction
This father is fully “present” for this serve and return interaction with his child.

There’s another possibility. You multitask! You ignore neither ping nor baby’s serve, dividing your attention between the two. No one gets your full attention. No one wins. Psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek comments that, “Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cellphones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens.”

Baby feels the difference, feels you are distracted, as you switch back and forth between the screen of your smartphone and your baby. Perhaps baby doubles down, tries harder, becoming even more attractive to you by doing something extra cute. Or perhaps the serve and return remains a lackluster failure so that it just sort of peters out. FAIL.

What about children beyond babyhood? Do they still require your full attention? Christakis mentions two studies that illustrate what happens when parents are too distracted by technology to engage in serve and return parenting with their children. In one of these studies, 225 moms and their 6-year-olds were videotaped as the kids were given new foods to try. A quarter of the moms used their phones, which resulted in fewer interactions with their children.

Phone Use and Learning

A second study tested the impact of a parent’s phone use on a child’s ability to learn new words. Moms were told they had to teach their 2-year-olds two new words: blicking, which was supposed to mean “bouncing,” and frepping, which was supposed to mean “shaking.” The researchers rang some of the moms from another room.

When the learning sessions were interrupted by a researcher’s phone call, the children didn’t learn the two new words. When left undisturbed, however, the new words took root. As it turns out, seven mothers were excluded from the analysis of the data, because they didn’t answer the researchers’ phone calls. In other words, they failed to follow the protocol! Christakis says, “Good for them!”

Indeed.

More Time for Children

It’s interesting to note that parents have never been so free to spend so much time with their children. Technology has made chores like cleaning clothes and keeping food fresh so much easier. We can walk into a supermarket to buy food, and clothing is ready-made. No one needs to milk a cow or churn butter. There are no longer accidents of the sort that were commonplace when moms were too busy to give baby much attention.

Those moms had no choice but to leave their babies alone much of the time. But our smartphones make us distracted moms by choice, limiting serve and return interactions with our children, and affecting their brain development. And make no mistake, it is a choice. Because it would be the easiest thing in the world to turn our phones off.

Minimizing Phone Distractions

With this in mind, parents would be well advised to do exactly that: shut off those phones when spending time with children. It’s the only way to be there for those serve and return moments. Here are 3 tips on how to minimize phone distractions:

  1. Put your phone on silent and out of sight in your bag or pocket when spending time with your child
  2. Experiment with shutting your phone off for a fixed time, say two hours in the afternoon, and try to be really present with your child during this time
  3. Stay off your phone while nursing or bottle-feeding your baby and during mealtimes for older children since this is an important time for socialization

That doesn’t mean you have to turn your phone off for your child’s entire waking hours. Nor must parents martyr out and feel deprived. It’s okay to check your voice mail and notifications from time to time. And it’s certainly okay to take time for yourself. It makes you a better parent.

Christakis says it best: “Parents should give themselves permission to back off from the suffocating pressure to be all things to all people. Put your kid in a playpen, already! Ditch that soccer-game appearance if you feel like it. Your kid will be fine. But when you are with your child, put down your damned phone.”

Because the stuff on your phone? It’s just virtual smoke and mirrors. While in the real world, nothing could be more important than those serve and return moments with your child.

5 Tips for Keeping Your Child Safe Around Dogs

Dogs can be wonderful companions for children. They are loyal, fun and provide unconditional love, so it’s not surprising many parents want their children to grow up with a family dog. Despite these attractions to the idea of a canine/child relationship, not every parent knows how to keep a child safe around dogs.

Children and dogs speak very different languages. The way a child shows affection may feel confrontational to a dog, which could cause the animal anxiety or stress. Children also find it hard to understand that a dog isn’t a cuddly toy and sometimes needs to be left alone.

Despite these issues with communication, most dogs tolerate human behavior. Bites are rare and almost never happen without warning. There are also plenty of things parents can do to reduce the chance of a bite, so here are five tips to keep your child safe around dogs.

Tip One: Teach Children How to Greet a Dog

There’s an expectation from some parents that all dogs should be friendly. This is transmitted to the child, who may not understand that strange dogs shouldn’t be approached. Keeping a child safe around dogs means teaching the child to approach the dog with caution.

As a dog owner, I’ve often had children run up to my pet at the park—sometimes screaming with delight—and pat him on the forehead. Their parents usually don’t ask permission or stop the child from approaching my dog, which is to them, an unknown dog. This is most definitely not the way to keep a child safe around dogs.

Despite the child’s good intentions, this sudden approach by a stranger can be a scary situation for a dog. Dogs don’t know what a strange child wants when the child approaches without warning. The dog often has no way to escape this unwanted attention. A dog’s attempts at communicating discomfort are usually missed or ignored.

little boy plays with dog in autumn park

Many dogs, including my own, are able to tolerate this sort of behavior. But some dogs may become defensive or even bite if they feel trapped, scared, or startled. For this reason, it’s important for all children to know how to politely greet a dog. This reduces the chance of a bite and teaches respect for dogs.

Here’s a simple four-step process you can use to teach your child how to greet a dog:

  1. Ask Permission: The first thing to teach a child is that he or she should never approach a strange dog without a parent’s permission. Similarly, the parent should always check with the owner before allowing a child near a dog. Never stroke (or allow a child to stroke) a dog if you can’t speak with the owner first—even if the dog is tied up in a public space.
  2. Proper Approach: Once the owner has given permission, show your child how to walk towards the dog with an outstretched arm and a closed fist. This protects the fingers and gives the dog a chance to communicate his feelings.
  3. The Dog’s Decision: The dog will sniff the child’s hand and either turn away or continue looking. If he turns away, he doesn’t want to continue with the interaction and you should leave him alone. This can be difficult for a child to understand, but it’s important to teach a child to respect a dog’s wishes. If the dog continues looking at the child or licks the child’s hand, the dog is giving his permission to be greeted.
  4. Stroking the Dog: Once the dog has signaled that he’s happy to continue making friends, the child can stroke him on the chest, shoulder or back. The child should avoid reaching over the dog’s head.
little girl offers dog food from her hand
Keep your child safe around dogs by teaching your child to seek permission to greet the dog.

Even if the dog has shown positive signals of accepting your child’s friendship, you and your child should watch for signs of discomfort. Signs of a dog’s discomfort might include moving away, yawning or licking lips. If you see any such signs, have your child move away. Doing so teaches your child how to read the dog’s body language, which is critical to keeping your child safe around dogs.

Tip Two: Dogs Don’t Like Hugs

With their fluffy coats and big round eyes, dogs can seem like the perfect cuddling companions. The sad truth, however, is that most dogs don’t like hugs. Hugging feels restrictive to canines and they often don’t see a hug as a sign of affection. This can be difficult for young children to understand, but it’s important children learn that a dog is not a teddy bear.

There are some exceptions to the hugging rule. I’ve known several dogs that actively seek hugs from their owners and even strangers. Dogs, like people, have individual likes and dislikes. The average dog, however, tends to shows signs of anxiety when hugged. The dog may make “Whale Eyes” or lick his lips. The child should look for these signs when hugging a dog and be honest with himself as to whether the dog is really enjoying the hug, or would rather have a back scratch. If the dog is not enjoying the hug, the child should stop hugging the dog, of course.

While most dogs don’t enjoy hugs, that doesn’t mean a dog will automatically become aggressive or bite when hugged. Family dogs, in fact, often tolerate hugs from children and adults. Even so, it’s not fair or kind to hug dogs  when it’s not in a dog’s nature to enjoy hugging. To hug a dog is to put him in a situation that makes him feel stressed and anxious.

Tip Three: Understand A Dog’s Discomfort Body Language

As a parent, the most important skill you can develop to keep your child safe around dogs is understanding the dog’s basic body language. This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Canine body language is surprisingly complex, but the signals for anxiety, stress or unhappiness are often easy to spot. The following signs tell you when a child’s play is becoming too rough and/or the dog should be left alone:

  • Repetitive yawning despite being well rested
  • Licking of lips when there’s no food in the area
  • Heavy panting
  • Turning the head away from the child
  • Giving “Whale Eye” by tilting the head away and showing the whites of the eyes
  • Moving or crawling away

These signals are the dog’s way of communicating he’s uncomfortable. If your child is the one causing the discomfort, it’s time to have your child give the dog some space. This is the smart way to keep your child safe around dogs.

There are, of course, other body language signals that dogs use to communicate feelings. In some situations, a dog will display the more obvious emotions of fear or aggression. Most people know that growling, teeth baring, and raised hackles are signs a dog shouldn’t be approached—especially by a child. In contrast, the classic “play bow” is a signal that a dog wants to play.

Such emotions are generally obvious even to humans who don’t understand canine body language. It’s the subtler signals of canine emotion that are often missed.

Tip Four: Supervise Children and Dogs at All Times

Dogs can make brilliant family pets. Many are patient, tolerant and loving around children, which is why the child/canine bond can quickly become so strong. Even so, parents should always supervise time spent between young children and dogs. Most dog bites happen when the parent or caregiver is nearby—and there are always warning signs that might have prevented the bite, if only someone had been paying attention. Except for the case in which there is a physical barrier between dog and child, for instance a sturdy fence, parents should actively supervise a child’s interaction with a dog.

“Active” supervision refers to parents watching the dog for signs of discomfort. The parent should be watching the dog without any outside distractions. No checking your phone screen, or watching television. You’re on watch. If the dog shows signs of anxiety or defensiveness—or if the play is becoming too boisterous—the parent should calmly step in and lead the child away.

Supervision isn’t only important when the child and dog are at play. Parents should always be on the watch for dangerous encounters between child and dog, such as, for instance, a child walking towards a sleeping dog. This can be hard work—always watching your child’s interactions with a dog—but active supervision is the best way to prevent a bite.

little girl huddles with dog on white rug

Tip Five: Show Your Child How to React to a Strange Dog

Just as I’ve seen children run up to dogs without first asking permission, I often see off-leash dogs approaching people with their owners nowhere in sight. This is often just a dog being playful, and wanting to meet new people. A boisterous dog can, however, be scary to a child. The child’s reaction can also sometimes make the dog mistakenly believe the child want to play.

To avoid misunderstandings, it’s important for frightened children to know how to react to a strange dog. The worst way for a frightened child to react to a dog is to run away screaming. Instead, the child should stand still with hands together and avoid making eye contact with the dog. The phrase “Be a Tree” is often used to describe this technique. A boisterous or playful dog usually becomes bored when someone behaves in this way. Once the dog loses interest, the child should calmly walk to an adult.

Admittedly, this is a lot to ask of a young child who is scared. But Be a Tree is a useful technique to teach children once they are able to understand how to behave around dogs. The Be a Tree technique also works well in the rare case in which a dog behaves aggressively towards a child.

Most dogs are brilliant companions and unlikely to bite. They should, however, always be treated with care, gentleness, and respect. For this reason, it’s important for children to know how to greet and interact with a dog. This helps keep the child safe while building a stronger bond between child and dog. Parents should also be able to identify common canine distress signals, so they can end an interaction before it becomes dangerous.

Do you have any questions about how to keep your child safe around dogs? Do you find it difficult to teach your child to behave politely around dogs? Please let me know in the comments and I’ll answer as soon as I can.

Top 10 Educational and Enriching Things to Do With Kids This Summer

School is out, or it will be within a few short weeks. Your children might be anticipating long, lazy days of watching Netflix and playing video games. You might be checking your calendar, not knowing what to do to get the kids off of their electronics and out doing something productive and fun. It can be hard to keep kids entertained all summer, which is why we’ve put together a list of the top 10 educational and enriching activities to inspire you and your children!

little girl enjoys summer library fun with books on head

#1 Go to the Library

Children often lose some of their reading skills over the summer, which sets them back when school starts up again in August or September. Visiting the library on a weekly or biweekly basis gives kids the chance to keep up their skills by reading books of their choosing. Encourage them to choose books that roughly correlate with their reading level, but don’t worry if they enjoy books that are easier to read. Any reading will help them stay on track.

daughter rides father's shoulders as they tour their toqn

#2 Explore Your Town

There are likely fun, educational places in your own city or town that you have never taken your children to. If you were going to host family members with children the same ages as your kids, where would you think about taking them? Play tourist in your own town and explore the nearby attractions.

mother daughter cooking lesson

#3 Teach Them to Cook

During the school year, it can be hectic to get meals made and on the table in time to get the kids off to soccer practice and leave time to get homework done. During the summer, however, you might have more time. Teach your children how to make your family favorites and explore some new recipes together, too.

#4 Learn How to Take Photographs

Do you ever see a beautiful bird, a stunning sunset, or even an interesting insect? All of these are worth pointing out to your kids. If you have a camera (or even a smartphone!), you can also teach them how to take good photographs. Take a photography class together if you’re interested in making it into a hobby; check in with your local community centers to see if this type of class is available.

children on parents' shoulders at concert

#5 Attend Music Events

Does your city or town sponsor free music gatherings on summer evenings? Many areas do; it might be held on a town green, near the city hall, or at a park. These types of events can consist of hired bands or simply members of the community getting together to play instruments, sing, and dance. These are great opportunities to introduce your children to music and to help them become part of the community. Pack a picnic dinner and encourage them to dance and enjoy the music.

animation of welcoming exchange student

 

#6 Host an Exchange Student

There are organizations that bring teenagers from other countries to the United States for a few weeks or a month during the summer to learn a bit about American culture and to practice their English. This is a great way to learn more about another culture while extending hospitality to another young person. If you enjoy the experience, you might even consider hosting a student who is here for the academic year!

mother daughter art lesson

#7 Make Time for Art

Letting kids do art projects can be messy and inconvenient, but it’s so important to let them express their creativity. Stock up on art supplies like paper, crayons, paint, colored pencils, glue, kid-size scissors, googly eyes, feathers, beads, and anything else you can think of. Use a plastic cover on your table or set the kids up in the backyard on a nice day, and let them experiment.

popcorn and family movie time

#8 Introduce Them to Old Movies

While you might be trying to minimize time spent in front of the television, watching old movies with a parent or grandparent can be a great way to spend time together indoors on a rainy day. Choose flicks you enjoyed as a child. One caveat: If it’s been decades since you have last seen a childhood favorite, check out the rating on a site like Common Sense Media. More than a few parents have been surprised by some of the content in movies they enjoyed as children.

family camping trip

#9 Go Summer Camping

“There is perhaps nothing that says childhood summer quite like camping,” says Angela Stringfellow, senior editor at Family Living Today. You can make it a week-long trip in an RV, find a camp that has air-conditioned cabins, or just pitch a tent in your backyard. Whatever type of camping appeals to you, be sure to roast marshmallows, catch fireflies, and sing around a campfire for memories that will last your child well into adulthood.

mother and two daughters volunteer at soup kitchen

#10 Volunteer Together

Making a difference in your community is a wonderful way to round out the summer and add some enrichment to your child’s life. Volunteering can include playing with kitties or puppies at the animal shelter, handing out groceries to food pantry patrons, or helping an elderly shut-in with chores around the house. Working together to serve the less fortunate will be a habit that your child can practice for a lifetime.

What are your best ideas for keeping kids busy, engaged, and learning this summer?

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Getting Kids to be Kind

Getting kids to be kind could be and probably should be the focus of the long summer vacation from school. After all, one large study found some 49% of children in grades 4–12 said they’d been bullied at school at least once during the past month. And if bullying by definition, is a form of cruelty, the antidote then, must surely be kindness and empathy.

Here’s the truth: we can’t fix the world. We can’t eradicate cruelty; can’t wipe out the bullies at one fell swoop. There’s no app for that. But we can and should be actively cultivating an atmosphere of kindness in our homes. And that is how we can face bullying and cruelty head on: we do it by getting kids to be kind.

Let this summer be a summer of kindness then. And in fact, just by making kindness the focus of your child’s summer, you’re more than halfway there. Because once you make kindness “a thing,” you’ve shown your children that for you, kindness is a priority. You’ve modeled your values for your kids. And after that, getting kids to be kind is a snap.

How you make kindness the focus of your children’s summer vacation is up to you. You might, for instance, begin by just saying it: “Let’s have a theme this summer: being kind to others!”

Getting Kids to be Kind may mean having them clean up the local park
Getting kids to be kind may mean having them clean up the local park

By saying it out loud: that you’re hereby dedicating the summer to kindness, you’ve already set the tone and initiated a discussion, too. Ask your children to talk about kindness. What do they see as kindness? Can they remember something kind someone did for them? How did it make them feel?

What about the opposite of kindness? What would that look like? Have they experienced that? How did that make them feel?

This is summer, remember, so you’ve got time on your side. It can be an ongoing discussion. In fact, you can say, “As part of our focus on kindness this summer, let’s talk about kindness every morning.”

This also gives your children a chance to talk about anything they did since the last discussion that was kind. Discussion time also affords you an opportunity to praise children for their kindness. Talk about positive reinforcement!

child hands elderly woman a daisy

Children can be directed to use discussion time to describe new insights they’ve had about kindness. You might say, “What have you learned about kindness since we last spoke?”

Directing the discussions in this manner can turn children into keen observers of kindness. They will actively look for things they might talk about during family discussion time on kindness. Daddy pulling out a chair for Mommy becomes a kindness rather than something they’ve come to see as rote behavior. They’d never thought about it before: how being polite is being kind. Now they’re thinking about it!

The discussions can be thought-provoking. Is it a kindness to tell a white lie? Was it right to tell a friend she looks nice in her new dress when actually, it looks awful on her? What if everyone laughs at her behind her back for how she looks? Would it have been better to tell her the truth so she might change?

Whose Act of Kindness Wins?

Of course, discussion can’t be the be all and end all of your summer focus on kindness. Getting kids to be kind and having a summer focus on kindness can take many forms. You might, for instance, turn it into a friendly competition: each family member must do a daily kindness. Then talk about whose kindness was the best: who wins.

Let your children see that some kindnesses take no time at all to perform, and make a big difference, while other kindnesses require an investment of time and effort. Both types of kindnesses are important. You may want to stress that some kindnesses may be more important than others, but all kindnesses have value.

Modeling kindness for your child should be your own focus during this summer and at all times. It goes without saying that your behavior should always be kind, as children learn by example. Tempted to say something snide about a third party in conversation with a friend? Remember that your children are listening and paying attention. Do you want them to become ugly gossips? Or do you want them to be kind enough to keep quiet when they’ve got something nasty on their minds?

And guess what? When you make kindness the focus of your summer—when you see getting kids to be kind as a goal, you’ll find you are more careful to be kind even when your children are not with you. You’ll find that being kind is contagious! (And that’s a good thing.)

Kindness Begins at Birth

Now it’s all well and good to make kindness a focus of the long summer vacation. But actually, getting kids to be kind begins at birth. “Empathy and compassion are learned best by experience. If the child is treated with warmth, empathy, and compassion she has a high likelihood of becoming an empathic adolescent and adult. Of course, this empathic relating must begin at birth when the new mom responds to each of her infant’s cries/needs. This warm maternal response should carry through into the early and middle childhood years,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV.

This idea naturally leads to wondering what happens when there is no such warm responsiveness in a child’s early life. Can you still make kindness a focus of a summer? Can it be taught, for instance, to a teen? “The answer and final outcome depends on a number of complicated things,” says Dr. Walfish. “Number one, and most importantly, the teen must personally want to become a compassionate, empathic person. Without that desire the change will not happen. To change requires a tremendous amount of motivation and hard work. If, indeed, the teen is motivated to change, he or she usually does best if they have a mentor.”

Parents may wonder about that: who is the best mentor to teach teenagers loving kindness?  Dr. Walfish suggests that the mentor can be a parent, teacher, relative, minister, rabbi, counselor, or therapist. “It must be someone the teen looks up to, admires, respects, and can trust. This opens the pathway for communication,” says Walfish.

“You can tell the teen to treat the other person the way they would want to be treated. But without the idealized respect and trust it will fall on deaf ears.”

Kindness at the Dinner Table

Perhaps the best place to practice getting kids to be kind, whether young children or teenagers, is at the family dinner table. “The dinner table is always a great place to practice taking turns talking and listening. Kids, and many adults, get excited about their own ideas and chime in or interrupt while someone else is speaking,” says Walfish.

“This is a golden opportunity for parents to mediate or referee and make sure each person’s turn to talk is not interrupted. This is also a chance for your kids to grow in front of your very eyes. Praise them for every incremental step toward respectful listening behavior,” because, as it turns out, getting kids to be kind is about being kind enough to take the time to tell them they’ve done good.

Saying “Good job!” to your child, may, in fact, be the kindest thing you do all day, every day this summer. It may be the most important thing you’ll ever do to model kindness for your children. And getting kids to be kind, by the way? Way to end those bullies, for good.

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Antagonistic Teachers Lower Scores, Hurt Academic Futures

Antagonistic teachers, or teachers who seem hostile much of the time, are a fact of life. We reassure school children suffering the misery of an unpleasant teacher who belittles them. We tell them that not every teacher they have will be amazing, that muddling through the year is just something they have to do. But a new study suggests that having antagonistic teachers not only lowers students’ grades, but affects their ability to learn in future.

Which suggests that the tack we’ve taken all along, as parents, has been wrong. Why would we tell our kids to put up and shut up with unpleasant teachers knowing this will not only affect their grade point average but sour them on learning, going forward? The simple answer is: we wouldn’t. We’d try like heck to get our children transferred to a different class, in order to avoid that awful, no good teacher.

The study, by researchers from West Virginia University, Morgantown, and California State University, Long Beach, and funded by the Taylor & Francis Group, defines the antagonistic teacher as one who belittles students, shows favoritism, or criticizes a student’s efforts. And while the participants of this randomized trial were college students, it seems likely the results could be even more profound among, for instance, adolescents whose brains are still maturing and whose behavior is more volatile as a result.

In this particular study, experts in communication set up a teaching experiment in which around 500 college undergrads watched one of two versions of a videotaped lecture. Half the students watched a version of the lecture in which the teacher antagonized students. The other half watched a standard lesson, without antagonism. The students then answered questions on how they felt about the lesson, and went on to take a multiple-choice quiz on the lesson content.

Lesson With Or Without Antagonistic Teacher

In order to make the student subjects feel like they were in a real classroom, the authors filmed the lecture to show four undergrad students, two guys in the front row, two young women in the second row. The study participants viewed the lectures as if they were students sitting in the third row, behind the students shown in the first two rows in the video. What happened next was very simple, very clear cut: the students who watched the video of the lesson served with a side order of antagonism, performed worse on the test than the students who watched the standard lesson, without an antagonistic teacher.

Just what kind of antagonism did the students face? Some examples:

Antagonistic teacher: “You should already know the answer to that question if you were paying attention to last class.”

Normal teacher: “We went over that last class, so it should be in your notes, but I can go over that with you later if you’d like.”

Teacher modeling positive behavior
Teacher models positive behavior

Antagonistic teacher: “Yup. Well, it looks like some people can keep up and pay attention.” [Looks at student # 1.] “Brian, you could try and be more like Brenda here.” [Brenda is student #3].

Normal teacher: “Yup. Thanks for keeping up and paying attention.”

In the video with the antagonistic teacher, the instructor belittled the students in the first two rows, criticizing their answers and showing favoritism toward one of the students while criticizing the others. It sounds quite bad enough, but the truth is, the antagonistic teacher never raised his voice. The study participants generally rated the instructor as more than “sometimes antagonistic,” but less than “often antagonistic.

And still, the results were significant. Even stunning.

Boy happy to be holding a stack of books
Students do well when they enjoy their lessons

The students who watched the class with the antagonistic teacher scored as much as 5 percent lower than those who watched the standard lesson. The implication seems obvious: students don’t do as well when they don’t enjoy their lessons.

And it would be a rare student indeed who would enjoy being belittled, criticized, or shunted aside in favor of other students. That kind of teacher behavior is arguably abuse. At a certain point, you’d tune out the lesson in order to tune out the abuse. You’d miss stuff.

Anyone would.

Antagonistic Teacher: Long-Lasting Effects

The thing is, this wasn’t just about a student’s score on a single test after one lesson that showed the effects of the antagonistic teacher. The effects were much longer-lasting than that. The students made less of an effort with their learning: after all, if you can’t please the teacher, what’s the point of working hard and doing well? The students with the hostile teacher, moreover, said they would never take part in a future course taught by that teacher, going forward.

Can you blame them?

Study author Dr. Alan Goodboy feels that the long-term consequences of having an antagonistic teacher are the real takeaway from this study. “Even slight antagonism, coupled with otherwise effective teaching, can demotivate students from being engaged and hinder their learning opportunities. So even one bad day of teaching can ruin a student’s perception of the teacher and create an unnecessary roadblock to learning for the rest of the term.”

In Dr. Goodboy’s opinion, teachers must therefore take particular care not to allow themselves to engage in this sort of negative and hostile behavior in the classroom. “Antagonism can come into classrooms unexpectedly and suddenly, even without the knowledge of the teachers themselves,” said Goodboy.

Antagonistic Teachers: Unaware of Their Own Behavior

Asked how an antagonistic teacher could be unaware of his own unpleasant behavior, Goodboy said, “We know that many instructors are unaware when they are misbehaving by antagonizing their students. We know this because they self-report at very low levels of misbehavior (or they don’t want to admit that they do it).”

Goodboy admits there is another kind of teacher who is very much aware of his or her own ill behavior in the classroom. For them it’s a choice. “There are plenty of instructors who are quite aware of their misbehavior and choose to belittle and put down their students in class. These instructors make the volitional decision to antagonize their students,” says Goodboy.

The results of this study, however, are without regard to the teacher’s intention. It’s all about the students’ perspective in relation to nasty teacher behavior, whether purposeful or otherwise. In general, explains Goodboy, the antagonism occurs at “very low levels, but when it does occur, it negatively impacts a learning environment as students do not enjoy learning the content and subsequently score worse on a quiz of that material.”

Dr. Goodboy believes that most teachers don’t engage in this sort of behavior, don’t antagonize their students. But where they do, learning is compromised. The researcher offers a suggestion that teachers be trained in self-awareness: to know when they are beginning to act in an antagonistic manner in the classroom. It’s critical for teachers to recognize and put a stop to this negative behavior that we now know can both damage a student’s grades and his or her attitude to learning in future.

Staying Positive No Matter What

Goodboy also suggests that teachers work at developing positive methods of interacting with students, maintaining an even behavioral keel, even when disagreements arise between student and teacher.

Will the researchers continue to pursue this topic further? Absolutely. The subject is too important to stop here. “These studies focus on instructor misbehaviors in a college context. We do not know that teacher misbehaviors in middle school or high school are similar to those with college aged adults. We believe that college instructors engage in hostility more than K-12 teachers, but without the data this is just speculation,” says Goodboy.

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Taylor & Francis Group. “Hostile teachers can lose students 5 percent on test scores.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 May 2018. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180510203744.htm

Underage Drinking: Having the Talk About Alcohol and Brain Health

Underage drinking can get in the way of the developing brain. And anything that gets in the way of the developing brain, for instance underage drinking, can interfere with academic performance. That means that kids who drink may grow up to be unemployed adults. If they don’t, for instance, get killed while driving under the influence of alcohol.

If you managed to follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion, your child can, too. It’s just that most parents haven’t thought to explain it to them, lay it all out on the table. Which is a shame, because doing so may just stop children from taking that first sip of alcohol.

That’s the conclusion of a new survey conducted by market research firm GfK on behalf of Ask, Listen, Learn, a program of Responsibility.org. More than 1,000 parents of children ages 10-17 took part in the November, 2017 survey, the results of which are in a report entitled, A Lifetime of Conversations: Kids, Alcohol, and the Developing Brain, issued just ahead of Alcohol Responsibility Month. The report also includes data culled from other research on the topic of underage drinking, along with important advice and perspectives from experts in the field.

Stunning details in the new report illustrate both how and when parents are having conversations with their children about underage drinking. This information helps us understand how we have managed to achieve a significant reduction in children’s alcohol consumption in the United States since 1991, when experts first began to track the point at which underage drinking begins.

Some conclusions from the report:

More Parents Are Talking the Talk.

The good news is that more parents are talking to their children about drinking alcohol. A majority (76 percent) of parents of children aged 10-17, have in fact, spoken to their children at least once during the past year about underage drinking. That represents an increase of 7 percent since 2003.[1]

Parents Wait Too Long to Have the Talk.

The report suggests that parents may be choosing to be reactive, rather than proactive in their conversations with their children about underage drinking and alcohol. Half of the parents surveyed wait until their children see something about drinking on television or social media, or until asked about underage drinking, before they begin the conversation about alcohol. They may be waiting too long at that: only 2 in 5 parents spoke to kids aged 10-14, though 23 percent of 8th graders (age 13 or so) have already tasted alcohol.

Too Many Parents Think: “My Kid Wouldn’t Drink.”

More than half the parents surveyed, 58 percent, or nearly 6 in 10 parents of children age 10-17, say their children won’t be needing to make any sort of decision about alcohol over the next three months. They think their children are too young to discuss drinking. This flies in the face of underage drinking statistics: 23 percent of 8th graders have drunk alcohol and 53 percent think it would be easy to get alcohol. These particular statistics only increase as children get to high school.

Parents Think Kids Are Too Young for the Talk.

Of parent participants of children aged 10-17 who have not yet spoken to their children about underage drinking, 46 percent say their children are too young to have a talk about drinking alcohol. This figure includes 60 percent of parents with children aged 10-14.

Parents Don’t Think About the Impact of Underage Drinking on Living a Healthy Lifestyle.

Only 15 percent of the parents surveyed listed avoiding underage drinking as a factor in children living a healthy lifestyle. Parents instead prioritized eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and staying away from smoking and drug use, as elements critical to living a healthy lifestyle.

Parents Don’t Talk About Underage Drinking and Brain Health.

Parents tend to speak to their children only about the immediate consequences of underage drinking, for instance alcohol poisoning or car crashes. Experts believe that parents should instead be discussing the impact of alcohol on brain development and the long-term effects of underage drinking, for example, memory issues and alcohol dependence. When asked to list reasons children shouldn’t drink, 4 out of 10 parents did not list brain health.

“Parents are the most powerful influence in kids’ decisions not to drink alcohol underage,” says Ralph Blackman, president and CEO of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, the survey sponsor. “Past research demonstrates that when conversations between parents and kids about alcohol go up, underage drinking rates go down, but there is more that can be done to improve the effectiveness of these conversations.”

Experts like Blackman would like to see parents starting the conversation about underage drinking earlier, and they’d like them to continue the conversation as the child matures. Parents should begin the conversation before children are afforded an opportunity to drink alcohol, which means having that first conversation when a child is around 10 years old. By age 14, many children have already been offered a drink.

Does this mean that most children have been offered a drink by age 15? “No, not necessarily,” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, family physician and youth development expert, who serves on the Ask, Listen, Learn education advisory board. “In fact, the overwhelming majority of kids this age have not tried alcohol. but as kids transition from middle school to high school, their chances of participating in underage drinking increase. According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2017 Monitoring the Future survey, 23 percent of 8th graders have reported drinking alcohol in their lifetime, which increases to 42 percent in 10th grade and 62 percent in 12th grade.

“While there is still work to be done, these numbers have significantly decreased since 1991, partly due to an increase in parent/child conversations around underage drinking. Ideally, parents should discuss the dangers of alcohol, including the impact of alcohol on the developing brain, early and often with their kids, so they truly understand the risks and can feel confident in saying no if approached with an opportunity to drink,” says Gilboa.

But some parents aren’t speaking to their children about alcohol at all. One in four parents surveyed said they either didn’t speak to their children about underage drinking, or can’t recall whether or not they had that talk. That’s a shame: children need to know about these things, about alcohol and its effects. Children are open, moreover, to hearing about what underage drinking can do to them, not just in the short-term, but over time. Learning the facts of what alcohol can do to their developing brains, appears to deter them from ever wanting to try alcohol in the first place, according to the experts.

The upshot: It’s great that more parents are having conversations about underage drinking with their kids, but experts wish they’d put a different spin on these talks, and speak about brain health as being the most important reason to avoid alcohol. “Create a foundation for these conversations with kids by answering their questions simply and clearly at any age, and actively discuss this topic by age nine or ten. At this time, kids are becoming very curious about their growing bodies and brains and are open to learning about how alcohol can impact both.

“Adolescence includes critical phases in brain development. The area of the brain that controls reasoning—helps us think before we act—matures later in the third decade of life. The sooner that parents speak with their children about the dangers of drinking alcohol underage, the better,” says Dr. Gilboa.

Survey Methodology

The Lifetime of Conversations study was conducted online with GfK’s Omnibus, using the web-enabled “KnowledgePanel,” a probability-based tool designed to represent the U.S. general population, not just the online population. The study consisted of 1,000 nationally representative interviews conducted between November 10 and 12, 2017 among adults aged 18+ with at least one child between ages 10 and 17. The margin of error is +/-3 percentage points for the full sample.

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[1] Responsibility.org, Wirthlin Worldwide National Quorum, May, 2003

How Should Kids Brush Their Teeth?

How should kids brush their teeth and when should they begin? The simple answer is that the minute that first pearly white tooth pops out of your baby’s gums, it’s time to begin brushing. At first, use a very soft brush and some water. Later on, at around 18 months, use a pea-sized glob of fluoride toothpaste. After the age of seven, children can be trusted to brush their own teeth, with a bit of supervision from parents.

No parent can doubt the importance of a child’s teeth. Teeth help children eat and speak and support the bones in their faces so they look nice. But teeth don’t take care of themselves. If children don’t brush their teeth, plaque can form in a thin coating on the teeth. Plaque (PLACK), is a sticky, thin film of bacteria that attaches itself to the teeth.

The preferred food of the bacteria in plaque is sugar. That may be the sugar in a piece of candy or a glass of soda pop, or it may be the sugars that develop from the carbohydrates we eat, for instance noodles, grains, and potatoes. Any time children eat starchy or sweet carbohydrates, they feed the bacteria on their teeth. As bacteria interact with starches and sugars, they turn into acids. These acids burn their way through children’s tooth enamel, making the holes in their teeth that we call cavities.

Mother brushes little girl's teeth

Brush Their Teeth: Gums, Too!

The bacteria in children’s mouths don’t just cause cavities. They also attack children’s gums. If kids don’t brush to remove the bacteria-filled plaque in their mouths, they may end up with gingivitis (jin-ja-VIE-tis), or gum disease. Gum disease not only looks and feels bad, giving children sore, swollen, red gums, but can also cause tooth loss. Gums, after all, are the tissues that hold and support the teeth inside the mouth.

Children should brush their teeth twice a day, after eating breakfast and again before bed. It doesn’t hurt to brush after lunch and after having a snack, too. It is brushing the teeth that removes plaque from children’s teeth, keeping them and their gums, healthy.

Cute little boy brushes his teeth

All of the teeth should be brushed, and not just those in the front. If children can think of their mouths as having four parts or quadrants, it makes it easier to cover all of them. Spend 30 seconds brushing each section of the mouth, beginning at the back and working toward the front, front and back of each section, gums and teeth, for a total of two minutes of brushing altogether.

Angle the brush 45 degree toward the gums from the upper and lower teeth. Move the brush back and forth using short strokes along teeth and gums, making sure to cover all the teeth and gums, front and back. Make sure the tip of the brush is upright when brushing behind the front teeth, both top and bottom.

Don’t forget to brush the tongue, too! Plaque sticks to tongues as well as teeth.

Brush Their Teeth: Two Minutes

It can help to play a 2-minute song as children brush, or to have them sing one in their heads. When the song is over, they’re done brushing! Alternatively, parents can use a two-minute hourglass to help children keep track of how long they should brush their teeth. Some battery-operated or electric toothbrushes have a built-in timer, and will vibrate when it’s time for the child to move along to the next quadrant.

Make sure to use a toothbrush with soft bristles. Get a new one every three months. Some toothbrushes have bristles that turn pale when it’s time to change to a new brush.

If children become sick with a cold or the flu, buy a new toothbrush once the child is recovered. It’s a good idea to have several spare soft-bristled toothbrushes on hand in the home for this purpose. Buy a bunch when they go on sale.

Brush Their Teeth: Floss ‘Em, Too!

Floss your child’s teeth as soon as there are two teeth that touch. Do this once a day. Slip the floss between the teeth to remove food that gets trapped between the teeth, where a toothbrush cannot reach.

To floss, take a strand of floss between thumb and index finger, wrapping the floss around a finger at each end of the strand for good control. Insert the floss gently and curve it around each tooth, sliding it up and down along the insides of the teeth and just below the gum line. Use a new section of the floss for each two teeth, so as not to transfer plaque from one tooth to the next.

Even when children do a great job brushing and flossing, it’s important to have their teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist (hi-JEN- 7i ist) or dentist twice a year. A professional cleaning gets the plaque we might miss, even with the best of efforts. The dentist or hygienist can also give children tips on better techniques to use when they brush their teeth.

Red-headed brothers get a lesson in tooth brushing from bearded dentist

Limit sweets and starches to starve plaque of its favorite source of nourishment!

Brush Their Teeth: Water or Toothpaste?

You can begin using fluoride toothpaste for a child of 18 months, using a pea-sized dab on a water-dampened soft-bristled toothbrush. Children should be cautioned not to swallow toothpaste when brushing. Make sure that children spit the foamy mess of toothpaste and loosened plaque out into the sink.

Children can rinse their mouths out with water, after they brush0 their teeth. This gives them more practice at spitting!

Brush Their Teeth: Infants

An infant’s teeth should be brushed with a soft-bristled toothbrush moistened with water.

For an infant or very young child, hold the child in your lap, facing away from you, or stand behind a young child. The head should be tilted back so you can see the teeth. Brush their teeth gently with a circular motion, angling the bristles toward the gums.

Infant has his teeth brushed

It’s important to make tooth-brushing a fun time for parent and child, in order to avoid a situation where the child fusses and fights when it comes time to brush their teeth. You want the child to develop good dental hygiene habits right from the beginning. That’s the best way to prevent painful cavities and expensive dental work.

Let your child see you brushing your own teeth, night and day. Doing so sends a message to your child that this is something that everyone does and that it’s important.

Brush Their Teeth: Make it Fun!

Make tooth-brushing a fun time by gargling noisily or trying to sing songs as children brush their teeth. Roll your eyes and make faces at your child as the two of you brush your teeth together! Tell jokes. Do whatever you can to reinforce the idea that brushing teeth is fun and represents quality parent-child time.

Think of keeping your child’s teeth clean as having the same importance as wearing a seat belt in a car, or putting on sunscreen. If you feel this way, your child will come to feel this way, too.

If you can’t find a toothpaste your child likes, have children brush their teeth with plain water. Your child will still get the benefits of brushing.

How do you make brushing fun?

How do you keep kids from fussing at tooth-brushing time?

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Roots of Empathy: Can Babies Heal Bullies?

Can spending time with a baby prevent bullying? One school program, Roots of Empathy, brings babies and their moms into classrooms. And research suggests that participating classrooms show a reduction in bullying and aggressive behavior.

Is it really just that simple? What is the exact nature of the Roots of Empathy program, and how can we reproduce these results in our own children’s classrooms? Because even one child bullied, is one child too many.

Roots of Empathy has developed a research-based school program for primary school children in which the teaching tools consist, in the main, of a local baby and parent. The program has spread across Canada and to 10 other countries, as well. More than 800,000 children have experienced the program since the nonprofit’s founding, in 1996. Roots of Empathy Founder Mary Gordon, says the long-term goal of the program is to build a “more caring, peaceful, and civil society, where everybody feels a sense of belonging.”

The Roots of Empathy program has local parents volunteering themselves and their babies, coming every few weeks to classrooms, so that children can witness a baby’s vulnerability and development over time. Gordon says she started the program because she wanted to find a way to help children talk about their feelings. “Roots of empathy is a bit of a trick. We use a baby to help children find the vulnerability and humanity in this little baby so that then you can flip it back to their own experiences.

“They realize this sudden universe of ‘everybody in the world feels the same as me. We’re not so disconnected.’

“It’s very hard to hate someone if you realize they feel like you. It’s very hard to be bullying someone if you realize that.”

Lisa Bahar, a licensed psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California, explains that the goal of the Roots of Empathy program goal is to realize that “we” are all the same, “in the sense of wanting to belong, to be loved and cared about. This kind of unique vehicle of bringing a baby into the classroom is what I consider a wonderful way to allow children to relate to someone who is nonthreatening, and who can give a young person the awareness of true connection to other human beings. This creates empathy, sympathy and compassion,” says Bahar.

But is this really something we need to have in our classrooms? Shouldn’t parents be teaching empathy at home? “If we are educating children who can read well and compute well but can’t relate well, we will have a failed society. Learning how to relate to one another requires empathy. You have to understand how the other fella feels,” says Mary Gordon.

Can It Heal A Bully?

Can the Roots of Empathy program help turn around a child who is already a bully? Bahar says yes. “Spending time with a baby activates the senses as we observe the eyes, the responses, the touch, and the expressions of the baby. These sensory impressions can be internalized and experienced through the baby. The pathology that exists within the bully will fight to resist the impact of these sensory lessons, the insight will nonetheless be gained, as the child experiences a sense of connection to another living being,” says Bahar.

Studies from 2000 onward, confirm that the Roots of Empathy program is effective, reducing bullying and aggression over the course of the school year and over time, in general. Children who take part in the program have an increased sense of positivity about the classroom environment. They feel more of a sense of belonging and acceptance. Students are also more likely to engage in “pro-social” behavior, for instance sharing with and helping their peers, and including them in their activities. Perhaps most important of all, the program appears to reduce fighting among classmates by 50 percent, on average. This is notable, since in general, classroom squabbles tend to increase over the course of the school year.

Roots of Empathy and the Root Cause of Bullying

But Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV, says that as a method of targeting bullies, Roots of Empathy misses the mark. “Roots of Empathy is a truly wonderful and beautiful program that by bringing a baby into the classroom teaches school age children about human relatedness, reading/understanding emotions, and human-to-human engagement. However, they missed the mark for targeting prevention of bullying. Clearly, the creators do not fully understand the root cause of all bullies,” says Walfish, who explains, “All bullies carry a secret that they, personally, have been the target of bullying, mistreatment, and mishandling by someone important within their family. That important someone is usually their father or mother, and in less frequent instances, an older sibling. Often, the mistreatment is abusive—emotionally or physically.

“The child who is the victim in his own family cannot ‘hold’ or contain the hostility and rage, and thus becomes the bully. He goes to school or out into the world and looks for an easy target. Then, he expels his hostilities onto another innocent victim.  It is a vicious cycle,” says Walfish, suggesting that playing with a baby is just not going to cut it, not going to stop that cycle, and is certainly not going to prevent that cycle from occurring in the first place.

Erin Clabough, PhD, a neurobiologist and author of Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control  (December 2018, Sounds True Publishing) sees Roots of Empathy program as, at the very least, a valuable tool in developing empathy, even among bullies. “Being a bully doesn’t mean you are pathological. Everyone can be a bully if they are placed in the wrong kind of situation. Part of our role as parents is to put our kids in roles where they can experience healthy things and feel how rewarding they are. Roots of Empathy is an incredible program that works to increase social awareness in kids and its effectiveness is supported by lots of peer-reviewed studies.”

But according to Clabough, the Roots of Empathy program isn’t enough. “Bringing a baby into the classroom to decrease the incidence of bullying in a school is a great start. But if that’s all we do, it will make as much meaningful change in a person as playing with a puppy for the afternoon. It’s a cute stress-reliever, a great wake-up call, and you can certainly learn a lot about nonverbal emotional communication from a baby, but these kids also need to practice cross-age relationships in an ongoing way.”

Buddy System

Clabough suggests that the buddy system is a great way to provide this sort of relationship practice and provides a means to build on the Roots of Empathy program. “Having a buddy in lower grades that kids see once a week is a great way to do this through the school setting, as is providing older mentors (for example, an 8th grader mentoring a 6th grader new to middle school). Our elementary school (Free Union Country School, in the Charlottesville, Virginia area) does a great job with this—every child in grades 2-5 has a smaller buddy in grades PreK-1. The buddy partnerships change each year, and as the children advance through school, they look forward to the time when they can finally be the big buddy,” says Clabough.

The practical benefits of the buddy system, suggests Clabough, are broad. “This buddy system normalizes having friends of different ages, it allows kids to grow meaningful connections to individuals outside their normal social groups, it creates a broader sense of belonging, and it strengthens every kid’s support network. Perhaps most importantly, it gives kids a chance to practice empathy through both teaching and looking at things from a different person’s perspective,” says Clabough, a mother of four, who concedes that, “The Roots of Empathy program has other components that are worth exploring.”