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!”


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.

Positive Parenting Defined

Positive parenting: is it just one more meaningless buzz word or phrase? The first time I heard that phrase, I went blank. “What are we talking about here?” I wondered. “What is positive parenting defined?”

It turns out that I am not the first or only person to be confused about positive parenting. Most folks think it’s about parenting without spanking. But positive parenting goes so much deeper than that.

Positive Parenting Defined

Positive parenting is focused on developing a strong, deeply committed relationship between parent and child based on communication and mutual respect. Positive Parenting focuses on teaching children not just what but also why. Positive parenting means training children toward self-control.

There are three major components to positive parenting:

  • Rules and consequences are laid out, discussed often, and followed through.
  • Parents focus on helping children internalize discipline, rather than obey orders based on fear of punishment, in order to develop self-discipline.
  • Parents use active listening to understand children’s thoughts. This allows parents to correct misunderstandings or mistaken links of logic.

Active Example Of Positive Parenting

Let’s look at an active example of positive parenting:

Jim’s 10-year old-son Eric comes to him with a problem. Robby the next-door neighbor (who is 12 and bigger and stronger than Eric) took Eric’s ice-cream cone along with Eric’s change from a five-dollar bill at the ice cream truck. Jim listens to Eric and hears his son’s frustration, anger, and feelings of helplessness. Jim repeats back what he hears and asks Eric how he wants to handle the situation.

Eric tells Jim he wants to confront Robby, but that he wants Jim nearby. Jim tells Eric he thinks this is a good idea and to let him know when he is ready.

Jim does not mention, however, that Eric took money from his piggy bank without permission, which goes against a family rule. Nor does Jim mention Eric getting ice cream when he’d been restricted from sweets because he took cookies at Grandma’s house without permission.

Positive Parenting Defined

Two hours later, Jim stands by Eric as he confronts Robby and asks for his five dollars back. Robby’s Dad overhears the conversation and makes Robby give Eric ten dollars for pain and suffering. He also discusses bullying with Robby and Eric.

Jim goes back into the house with Eric and tells him how proud he is at how Eric has handled the situation. Jim then sits down with Eric to discuss the two rules he broke and how he could avoid making bad decisions the next time. He also adds a week of no sweets and confiscates Eric’s ten dollars and piggy bank for a month for breaking the rule. Two weeks later, when sweets are reinstated, Jim takes Eric to his favorite ice-cream place and they have a long talk to plan out an upcoming a fishing trip.

Here’s a step-by-step review of our active example of positive parenting:

  1. Jim listens to Eric, concentrating on the issue at hand.
  2. Jim offers Eric his support while the boy handles his issue.
  3. Jim places his relationship with Eric, and the boy’s current problem, before disciplining him for his wrongdoings.
  4. Jim doesn’t ignore Eric’s wrongdoings, but points them out and talks them through with the boy at an appropriate time.
  5. Jim ensures that Eric experiences consequences for his behavior.
  6. Jim refocuses both of them, father and son, on their relationship, after consequences are served.Positive Parenting Defined

Positive Parenting Defined: End Goal

So, how does one apply this example to using positive parenting in everyday life? We begin by changing the focus. We keep in mind the goal: to help children develop the tools they need to become healthy, thoughtful, and authentic adults.

Positive parenting begins with parents as adults: parents who serve as living examples to their children. Positive parenting means sharing your thoughts and beliefs with your children. Once you decide to practice positive parenting, there are four things you can do to foster your efforts:

  1. Be consistent
  2. Create a nurturing environment
  3. Learn about child development
  4. Remember your end goal as a parent is to raise a fully-functioning adult

Positive Parenting Defined: Use Tools to Maintain Consistency

Dr. Phil says, “Children should be able to predict with absolute certainty, what will happen as a result of their behavior, 100% of the time.”

Creating this sense of certainty may be the greatest challenge of parenthood. It is, however, the most important part of helping children to learn and create self-imposed boundaries; the precursor of developing self-control. Children are constantly learning and testing what they learn. If a parent sets a boundary, children are genetically predisposed to check it out. They do not yet have the ability to say, “This is the line I should not cross.”

Positive Parenting Defined

Instead, children cross the line to see what will happen.  They push the boundary until they find the fixed line. Once they find it they no longer need to test that boundary. The issue arises again only when the line moves and children must start the process all over again.

Positive Parenting Defined: Set Boundaries

Parents need tools to help them set boundaries and keep them in place so children can learn where they are and move on. There are several tools that can be used for this purpose. The one I recommend is the Family Covenant.

The Family Covenant is a set of rules and consequences the family develops together. The rules and consequences are written and posted as the Family Covenant. Once the covenant is established it must be reviewed and learned.

I find the best way to do this is by reviewing the covenant daily for one month, weekly for another month, twice the third month, and finally, once a month on an ongoing basis. The rules should be broadly stated and positively worded.  It is much better to be told what you can do rather than what you cannot. (Example: Be Kind, Be Safe, Be Neat.)

Child Development Knowledge—Six Domains

When I worked toward my master’s in Early Education, the bulk of my learning was in understanding child development. Since my emphasis was parenting education I concluded rather early that understanding child development can be a key tool for parents. Child development looks at six domains (areas) of development per child. Here’s a quick look at each area:

  1. Intellectual Development—the growth of thought and thought processes
  2. Social/Emotional Development—understanding ourselves and others, experiencing emotions, having interpersonal relationships, and developing self-esteem
  3. Language Development—developing communication skills (speech, reading, writing, and body language)
  4. Moral Development—developing empathy and the ability to decipher right from wrong.
  5. Physical Development—the growth and development of the body including fitness, nutrition, and dental health
  6. Sexual Development—awareness of the differences between male and female bodies, emotions, and attitudes; the desire to cuddle and be close to others; later hormonal changes that allow for conception and childbirth; and finally, physical desire

Each area develops along a particular path from birth to adulthood depending on the child’s personality, temperament, and experiences. Each area has a beginners, intermediate, and advanced level. Once parents have a solid understanding of each level they are better able to help their children grow.

Positive Parenting Defined

Erickson’s Psychosocial Development

In addition to the six domains, parents can benefit from knowing about Erickson’s five areas of psychosocial development from birth through adolescence.

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust (birth-18 months): children learn to trust the world.
  1. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (18 month-3 years): children show they are separate people and begin to do things for themselves.
  1. Initiative vs. Guilt (3-6 years): children begin to find life’s boundaries
  1. Industry vs. Inferiority (age 6-12): children want to feel successful in everything they do. Especially in school, children want to feel they are learning and growing and that adults are pleased with their accomplishments.
  1. Identity vs Role Confusion Adolescence: children learn to pull away from Mom and Dad and begin to craft their own brand of adulthood.

Each stage of psychosocial development can have either a positive or a negative outcome. Parents can benefit children by providing them the tools they need to develop positive outcomes. Understanding both the domains of development and the psychosocial stages of development gives parents the tools they need to help children thrive.

Positive Parenting Defined: Create a Nurturing Environment

Creating a nurturing environment begins with meeting a child’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Nurturing, however, goes beyond physical needs and extends to offering acceptance, love, encouragement, and true discipline.

Acceptance—children need to feel valued for who they are. It is the concept of: No matter what I do, whether right or wrong, I am loved.

Love—love is giving of yourself to someone you care about. Parental love is acted out by giving time, care, and undivided attention to a child in every facet of his life. Parents show love by helping children positively overcome every social conflict.

Encouragement—is being supportive in concrete ways that help children avoid or correct mistakes. Encouragement includes helping children figure out what they’re good at and encouraging them to pursue passions.

True Discipline—is using parenting tools to teach children self-control. Self-control is the ability to control one’s actions no matter what.

Positive Parenting Defined: Effective Discipline

Discipline is a teaching process and teaching only happens when adults are calm and thinking clearly. Never try to apply discipline if you are not fully in control of your mind, body, and emotions. Here are four steps to effective discipline:

  1. Ensure children know the rules and the possible consequences of breaking them.
  2. Help children figure out how to make decisions that help them maintain rules while doing some of the things they enjoy.
  3. Apply consequences as needed. Always review rules and reinforce expectations before applying
  4. Re-establish the relationship by doing a relationship-building activity. Take a walk together. Go for ice cream. Read a book.

Positive Parenting Defined: Raising Adults

Parents in delivery rooms holding newborns for the first time, don’t realize the bulk of the relationship they will have with these beautiful new people will be as adults to adults. Yet this is a fact. Moreover, the relationships parents have with adult children is completely based on the relationships they build as their children are growing up.

The Harry Chapin song, Cat’s in the Cradle, perfectly illustrates this concept. The song lyrics speak of a father too busy to spend time with his son as the boy grows up. In his adulthood, the son is too busy to spend time with his now retired and elderly father. The son has learned from the father to be too busy to spend time with loved ones. As parents are raising their children, they need to remember they are building relationships with lifelong repercussions.

Positive parenting defined is about finding and using tools to help adults shepherd children through the six areas of development. At the same time, positive parenting is giving children tools to overcome obstacles in positive ways throughout the stages of their psychosocial progress. Finally, positive parenting  is about creating a loving, positive, and supportive environment that allows children to grow and develop into adults who can turn around and pass these same tools on to the next generation.

When Your Child Is Ready For Overnight Camp


It’s that time of year when you begin to think about “gasp” summer and what you’re going to do with the kids during the long, hot days of summer. When the kids were little, you splashed with them at the neighborhood pool. You schlepped them to half-day sports programs offered through the local community center or you took them to the library, to nature centers, or to touching museums where they could explore and wear themselves out for a few hours. You arranged “play dates.” You took them on outings.

But your babies are no longer babies and the sage wisdom of prominent child psychologist, Michael Thompson, rings in your ears.

“You cannot make them happy (if you try too hard they become whiners); you cannot give them self-esteem and confidence (those come from their own accomplishments); you cannot pick friends for them and micro-manage their social lives, and finally you cannot give them independence.”

When your kids reach a certain age and developmental stages, your kids can only develop certain life skills if you place them in empowering, independence-building settings like overnight summer camp.

Up until now, they haven’t been ready. You haven’t been ready; and you’re still not sure if your kids are there yet.  How can you tell?

Signs your child is ready for overnight camp

Can your child do sleepovers? According to Dr. Michael Thompson, this is a good indicator. If your child is willing to sleep over at friends, at grandma’s house, or with cousins, it means your child has a willingness to leave home. When this readiness happens is child-specific but the average age range, according to the American Camp Association, is between the ages of seven and nine.

Does your child relish the idea of making his own decisions? We’re not talking about where to live and what bills to pay. These are simple choices. What will I wear today? Will I eat peanut butter and jelly or the camp eggs and oatmeal? Will I sit through the campfire ghost stories even though I’m afraid or will I hide in my sleeping bag? Being away at overnight camp means that a child must be comfortable making fundamental decisions. Decision-making is an initial sign of independence and overnight camp builds on that independence.

Can your child take care of herself? The basics, I mean. Brushing teeth. Getting dressed. Bathing. Making beds. Putting about laundry. That sort of thing. If the answer is yes, your child can probably do fine in an overnight camp setting. If not, it may be too soon.

Is your child enthusiastic camp discussions, about the unknown of being away from home, of meeting new people and trying new experiences?  If your child actively talks about the unknowns of camp and is willing to give it a try or is willing to deal with the inevitable homesickness, that’s a good sign. It means that your child is becoming aware of his insecurities but has a wiliness to face them. Keep in mind, even if your child seems worried or anxious, encourage your child to talk, help her identify the source of the anxiety, and give her tools to deal with the anxiety. Homesickness and separation anxiety are normal when a child goes away to overnight camp. After a week, those feelings usually subside. If your child knows how to handle those feelings when she’s anxious, she will mature from the camp experience and come home more confident.

If your child is forced to face his fears, he will return home from overnight camp more confident and independent.
If your child is forced to face his fears, he will return home from overnight camp more confident and independent.

What camp is right for your child?

The point to sending your child away to a sleepaway camp is so they can develop maturity, independence, can learn cooperation, interpersonal skills, and a whole host of other benefits. It’s not so that your child can be insulated and pampered. When you pick an overnight camp, keep that in mind. Your child won’t develop life-altering skills if their every whim is being indulged at camp. They need to get dirty. They need to be pushed out of their comfort zone. And they need to do it “off the grid,” away from you, away from social media, their smart phone, and school.

You also need to research the right camp in terms of accreditation and references. The American Camp Association recommends you consider the following factors when choosing a camp:

Does the camp have a history? New camps might have newer facilities and “bells and whistles” but an older, established camp with staff that has worked for the organization for a long time says more about the camp. It means stability. It also means that the camp values its employees. An older camp should also have loyal families who have sent one or more children or generations of family members to the same camp. Ask for references. Also ask to talk with a staff member who has worked for the camp for a long time.

What is the camp’s philosophy? Is it activity driven, centered around leadership development, focused on building communication and collaboration? Make sure the philosophy is one you’re comfortable with.

Does the camp have a strong community? Does the camp foster teamwork, community, and inclusion? These skills are life skills and you want your child to learn that collaboration, teamwork, relationship building and communication.

Does the camp staff have longevity and credibility? Look for a camp with low turnover rates for counselors and staff members. Staff members should have references, should be well-trained, and should have had a background check.

Can your child make choices about activities? A child who learns how to make choices learns independence. Choose a camp that encourages decision making.

Does the camp have a communication plan for the parents? If you child is a camper, it’s not in his best interest if you call the camp daily, if you demand to be in touch with your child. A child sent to overnight camp will not form meaninful relationships, will not learn independence, self confidence if you the parent are always involved in the mix. On the other hand, the camp should have an open channel of communication, a way for you to see what’s happening periodically. Many camps now post photos of campers on a daily basis. A picture of smiling camper does much to allay an anxious parent..

Is the camp accredited? Accreditation through the American Camp Association is more important than you realize. It means that a camp operates according to certain standards, is accountable, and transparent. Look for a camp with a high accreditation. The American Camp Association maintains a list of camps and their accreditation. posts reviews by parents and former campers.

After you’ve done the research, factor in other wants and needs.

Does your child have special needs? Does your child have special needs? ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Tourette’s, cancer, for example? There are many camps specifically geared toward campers with disabilities, disorders, and illnesses. Many all-around camps can accommodate campers with special needs as well. If you find it overwhelming to sift through the thousands of overnight camps, go through a camp advisory service such as The Camp Experts or The Camp Connection. Many advisory services are free and can pinpoint overnight camps that best fit your child’s needs.

Does your child have special talents that you want him to develop? Is she a dancer or singer? Does she want to be in theatre? Is he into gymnastics or sports? Is computer programming his passion? Sending your child to a specialty overnight camp can help your child foster friendships with others who share her passion, can teach your child a discipline or a mastery of a skill that she was unable to conquer during the school year.

Is religious affiliation important? Would you prefer a Jewish camp, one affiliated with the Catholic Diocese or a Protestant house of worship? If religious observance is important, there are many camps that are affiliated with a religious institution. American Camp Association, BunkMates, and endorsing agencies for your house of worship as well as local community centers can provide directories.

If you still aren’t sure, read Michael Thompson’s book, Homesick and Happy. It’s an insightful yet light-hearted narrative that addresses the importance of camp in a child’s overall development.


When Teens Reject Religion

teens rebel1


Rebellion is a normal part of adolescence. As children morph into pre-teens and then teens, they seek greater independence, push boundaries, oppose rules, argue more, reject authority, and detach from the people who love them most. You, mom and dad. The parents.

And everything you believe in, everything you’ve been teaching your darling daughter or son is now subject to argument or outright rejection. Even religion, the family rituals, customs, traditions that have been part of your family lore for generations are under attack. All those family memories engrained in your family’s history are also subject to invalidation. That can be difficult for any parent and you might be wondering why? Why is my darling child attacking the very core or essence of what we believe in?

There’s a good reason and it’s based in cognition and development. According to David Elkind, PhD, author of All Grown Up and No Place to Go, your child’s brain is under “construction.” The area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex is developing rapidly, neurons are multiplying wildly and firing it seems all at once or in an illogical order.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for thinking, judgment, self control, and regulation. In adolescence, kids are developing their own ideas. Suddenly, your children see everything more realistically. They’re acutely aware of unfairness, injustice, of rules that shouldn’t apply to them because they’re practically grown up. Kids are also seeing their parents as flawed beings too.To define herself as a separate entity, your daughter must question who she is and that means questioning who she is in relationship to you. The reason why she questions is part of brain anatomy and development.

The result is that your teen is seeing you through a whole new lens. It’s a reality that awakens your child, scares them, can anger them. Don’t worry. They still love you and they certainly need you. But suddenly, you aren’t the ideal, the larger than life parents who brought your children comfort, who could solve every problem, who uttered the absolute truth. You, the parents, when compared to other people’s parents just aren’t that cool. When compared to the television parents, you’re kind of dowdy. And compared to what your child thinks? Well, you mom and dad simply fall flat.

If you’re not who they thought you were, then everything you taught them must be subject to question. Your teen, while moving through adolescence must scrutinize what you’ve taught them.

Your child is suddenly more aware of his surroundings and beginning to ask what’s real and what is truth?

And that can include religion, your religion. Though your child knows no other customs, was raised in the values and ideals since birth, a.nd seemed perfectly content, embraced, and fulfilled by your faith, by function of your child’s development he or she must question.

And that can be very difficult especially because things don’t right themselves for a long time. A very very long time until your child completes passes through development and develops their own sense of identity as an adult, separate and detached from you.

While this development is occurring, your child might argue with you. All. The. Time. According to Elkind, that’s also because of the changes in the prefrontal cortex at work. “As a child evolves into a teenager, the brain becomes able to synthesize information into ideas. Teens want to exercise their new skill — and they tend to practice on their parents. “It may seem that they argue for the sake of arguing. But really, they’re practicing their new abilities.”

It can be trying time for parents. It’s especially trying if what your child is rejecting is so much a part of your family traditions, rituals, and habits. If your adolescent child reject your religion, the practices he or she was raised with since birth, it’s not just difficult. It can create family discord and personal heartache.

But rejection of your religion, opposition of practices, questioning doctrine and whatever else a teen does to disrupt the status quo are really all a part of developmental rebellion. As Dr. Carl Pickhardt explains it, around mid-adolescence (13 to 15 years), your teenager might “declare that religiously believing and participating is no longer for them. He may argue that religious practice is restrictive, that he doesn’t believe in a god, that practicing the religion without believing is hypocritical. Your child might refuse to attend holiday dinner or worship services. He may criticize other family members who choose to remain observant. He may become belligerent. And you, well, you will be the target of his rage, opposition, debate, and defiance. While you might feel under a personal attack, keep in mind. This stage of adolescence is a period when teens question authority—parental, professional, spiritual, etc; and it’s completely age appropriate.

During adolescence, your teen might reject religion and other values you taught them.
During adolescence, your teen might reject religion and other values you taught them.

But even the rejection of religion is part of developmental rebellion common in adolescence. How you handle it depends in large part on your child age and developmental stage.

According to Pickhardt, psychologist and author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, there are four stages of adolescent rebellion. How you address the rebellion is based on your child’s age but also on their emotional maturity. Some kids hit stage later than others.

Between the ages of 9 and 13, “rebellion… is primarily a process through which the young person rejects the old child identity that he or she now wants to shed to clear the way for more grown up redefinition ahead. Rebellion at this early adolescent age proclaims: “I refuse to be defined and treated as a child anymore!” Now he knows how he doesn’t want to be, but he has yet to discover and establish how he does want to be. Pickhardt recommends firm insistence. Set up the guidelines and work your budding teen down through attrition. At the same time, try to help them verbalize objections through dialog rather than action.

  1. Set up some firm family guidelines for your rebellious teen, guidelines that are non-negotiable that clearly defined expectations and consequences for not meeting those expectations. While your child is rebelling, some of the acts of aggression might be destructive—self destructive. You want to keep your budding adult safe. Setting up a behavior contract with clear expectations, goals, and consequences for failing to meet expectations should be included. There should also be a reward section of the contract. If your child complies, he can go to that swimming party.
  2. Keep in mind that your teen is really still a child in a developing body. Some behaviors aren’t going to change through discussion, punishment, or head-to-head combat. You have to keep your child safe and relatively compliant until he developmentally works through some of the internal confusion he has with religion or whatever else he’s objecting to. If a young child was threatening to jump out of a moving car, would you discuss it? NO! You implement rules and consequences to keep them safe.
  3. Make yourself available to talk. Make it clear to your child that you want to listen to his objectives and you need your child to help you understand. Listen without commenting. Validate his complaints by mirroring his sentiments. “I can see how you might feel that way.” At the same time, give him constructive ways to verbalize his anger, frustration, and internal struggle.

When a child moves into the next stage in mid-adolescence (ages 13 through 15) Pickhardt describes rebellion as a need for differentiation of identity from the parents. It’s how teens develop identities. In order to do it, they have to develop a resolve and determination to break off and differentiate themselves from the expectations.

While the teen might seem oppositional, he still needs to know that he can depend on the parents and that they still love him.

This is a good time to challenge a teen. Instead of confronting them which drives them to do the opposite, empower them with a creative challenge, one that teaches them lessons about personal responsibility and consequences. It also challenges the teen to explore some of his notions about the world and how he thinks it really works. This is a good time to address questions or objections your child. Perhaps take your child to a learning group, one where a moderator can address questions and objections with liturgy and its application to real life. Involve your child in a learning quest where he’s forced to learn more about his religion. Learning frequently brings about internal change and helps a child discover answers independently. Make yourself available during the learning process and show your teen that you respect his or her questions, objections, and decisions.

In later stages of adolescent rebellion, your teen is demanding greater and greater degrees of freedom. It might mean pushing back on expectations you have of your child. Perhaps your child no longer wants to worship with you or no longer wants to join family holiday dinners. The key during the 15 to 18 year period is to set firm guidelines and expectations. You should make it clear what responsibilities are commensurate for privileges of independence. For example, you can make it clear that while you appreciate your child’s decisions and personal opinions, there are standards to adhere to in the family. As long as your teen lives under your roof, you expect him to attend a religious service. And then you give him a choice, two or three choices that are satisfactory to you. You can also solicit suggestions from your teen and include them in the options if they’re reasonable.



Teaching Kids to Make Mistakes

Children who learn from their mistakes, who learn how to improve and understand that mistakes are part of the learning process become more adaptive, resilient learners. That’s a conclusion made by Dr. Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford University. In one experiment, Dweck asked “400 5th graders of diverse backgrounds who were enrolled as students in New York City schools to take an easy short test.” Nearly all performed well.

Half of the children in the experiment were praised for “being really smart.”  The other half were complimented for “having worked really hard.”

Students were then asked to take a second test and were given the option to choose between a simple test, one they could ace; or they could choose a more challenging test, one they might make mistakes on. Among students complimented for effort, more than 90 percent chose the harder test. Of those praised for being smart, the more than 60 percent chose the easy test.

Based on this study, Dweck made two conclusions. When a child is complimented on talent such as intelligence, that child will do everything possible to maintain the believe that he or she is intelligent. Any failure or mistake in a child’s mindset could change that believe system. On the other hand, if a child is complimented on working hard, on the process, that child is more willing to sustain the effort of working in order to sustain the compliment.

Dweck termed these two mindsets into “Fixed” and “Growth” mindsets. Children with fixed mindsets believe they’re either good at something or not. If they believe their not, they’re less willing to try after a failure. In contrast, children with growth mindsets are more adaptive. Because they believe they must work hard at the process, they learn to expect failures along the way as part of the learning process. These children also learn that intelligence is linked to process and their own efforts.

In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck talks about ways schools, parents, and educators can foster a growth mindset and why a fixed mindset that fixates on testing and grades can predispose kids to self-limiting behaviors. She also talks about why so many kids don’t have growth mindset and why parents should work to change that trend.

Her findings come on the heels of more than 30 years of research into over-indulgent, helicopter parenting styles. The findings are discouraging not just because of the fixed mindset, but because of the consequences of a fixed mindset on an entire generation of adults and subsequent children.

Dr. Tim Elmore, an author, international speaker, and president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that helps develop emerging leaders under the philosophy that each child is born with leadership qualities, concurs and discusses the seven ways parents prevent their children from developing a growth mindset.

1. We protect our children from risk. It’s hard to see our children hurt. By not allowing our children to engage in some level of risk, we are preventing them from exploring, from figuring out their own mistakes. Some of the greatest comebacks are solutions our children discover themselves after potentially serious mistakes. Does that mean we let children walk on the roof? No. But as my grandmother used to say, “Sometimes you have to let your kids believe that you’re not watching even if you are.” Sometimes you have force your children to make the mistakes and deal with the repercussions themselves.

2. We rescue them too quickly. Scenario: Your child falls off a tricycle. Stunned, he looks around to see if he’s in one piece. Secondly, he looks to you for your reaction. Do you a) swoop him up and tell him, “oh poor thing. Mommy’s so sorry you got hurt,” or b) do you wait, hide behind your boring novel and pretend that you didn’t see it, or c) do you watch him fall, pause to react, and encourage him to get up, to get back on that bike? If you want to encourage growth mentality, the correct answer is “c” unless he’s legitimately injured..

3. We indulge them with praise. A little praise is fine. A lot loses its effectiveness. Working on a ten-page research paper and turning it in by the deadline is not the same as a four-year-old crayon and watercolor art project. As parents, we have to modulate the praise based on the process and act. A parent needs to modify praise based on the process. Consistent, over-indulgent praise loses its credibility and power. Saying that, too much criticism tells a child that no amount of effort on their part will win praise.

4. We feel guilty. Guilt is a useless emotion unless you’ve genuinely done harm. Then guilt is a powerful motivator for remorse and restitution. Parenting requires some emotional distance and effective parenting means you have to rein in the guilt, at least the guilty feelings your child sees. If you always feel guilty, your child will become an expert manipulator in getting what he or she wants.

5. We don’t share our own stories of failure and triumph with our kids. Yes, you should share age/developmentally appropriate stories with your children to show how you’re human, that you made your fair share of mistakes, and how those mistakes shaped you. For example, one of my children has ADHD. I told her about my struggles with attentional issues and how I learned how to adapt and overcome those hurdles. that I have struggled with attentional issues my entire life. But I also told her that I never quit and that she musn’t too. My children also know that I have a terrific fear of heights. I hate walking on bridges that span rivers and gorges. I don’t like chair lifts, no longer ski. I also have a phobia of driving across water-bound bridges such as the Cheasapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, a 10+ mile long span across the Cheasapeake Bay. However, on a bet, I jumped from an airplane. It was sheer terror being thrown backward out of a twin-engine at 13,500 feet. Yes, I was tethered to an experienced jumping instructor who had clocked more than 10,000 jumps as a KGB soldier. Yes, I did have a parachute. But I did it anyway and my children stood on the ground and applauded because I was afraid and did it anyway. Sometimes children need to see those vulnerabilities in parents.

The author faced her fear of heights by jumping from a plane.
The author faced her fear of heights by jumping from a plane.

6. We confuse talent and intelligence with emotional intelligence. There is IQ, or intellectual intelligence. There is also EQ, emotional intelligence. Children with innate talents don’t necessarily have the emotionally intelligence. Emotional intelligence comes from making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and overcoming obstacles,

7. We don’t live up to our own standards. If you set a standard for your child, you better live up to that standard especially as a role model. The child hears the words, see the actions, and decides that the words have no value.

But there’s more. Raising healthy children with growth mindset happens when a parent recognizes boundaries, when a parent sets a standard, reinforces it, and understands that a child is a malleable being who must be trained, shaped, and prepared for the adult world. The child is not an extension of the parent’s successes or failures and not a contributing factor of a parent’s sense of wholeness.  A child, to be emotionally healthy, independent, and willing to learn must be taught to experience risk, mistakes, and the ups and downs of the human experience.

And that only happens if a parent is warm and loving, willing to set limits and unwilling to breach a child’s psychological boundaries by invoking shame or guilt. Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety. Your job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation


National Mentoring Month: Mentoring for Change

“Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” It’s a timeless saying. It’s reminiscent of a little kid tagging along with the “big kids” if only to be like them. It’s implied when a small child imitates a parent in play or mannerism.

It’s also a saying that aptly describes a mentoring relationship.

Anyone can be a mentor–a parent, a teacher, a coach, an older student, or even a perfect stranger. Mentoring is key in shaping behavior. It’s how babies and young children learn survival and adaptive behaviors such as walking, eating different foods, hygiene, conversational skills, and academic skills. Parents who are doctors tend to have children who become doctors. Actors tend to give birth to future actors. As mentors, we pass on the knowledge and habits that we know best.

Sometimes a mentor is a rock star. When my cousin Donna was ranked in 2009 as one of the top female executives in sports by Forbes Magazine, it came as no surprise to me. As kids, I remember how much Donna adored rock stars, entertainers, and emulated them. She had this floor-t0-ceiling poster of Donny Osmond on her wall. In fact, she had so many posters of stars, not a postage-stamp-sized space of wall remained uncovered. As part of her ritual, she used to say goodnight to Donny Osmond as part of her bedtime ritual. I used to giggle, but in hindsight, I’m convinced Donna took the path she did (she worked for the NBA and World Wrestling Entertainment) because of those mentors.

Sometimes mentoring is unintentional. When a child adopts bad habits from an adult, a manner of speaking, a ritual, in many cases it can be traced back to a parent or mentor. If the behavior is maladaptive, it can become detrimental to the child. The following clip illustrates how we as parents serve as mentors to our kids. When our children pick up certain habits, we have to reflect on our own behavior and wonder how we contributed.

Take this anti-smoking ad that ran from 1967.



Is mentoring effective? Based on a study conducted in conjunction with The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Over five years, researchers tracked almost 1,000 children and teens registered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada. Those who had a mentor were more confident in academics and less prone to behavioral issues. An interesting finding was among teenage girls. Girls with mentors were “four times less likely to bully, fight, lie or express anger than girls without a mentor.”

The most telling results of mentoring programs were compiled by researchers, Carla Herrera, David L. DuBois, and Jean Baldwin Grossman. The report, “The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles,” funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, tracked more than 1,300 youths from seven different programs in Washington State. The following statistics are sampling of the findings:

  • Students who meet regularly with their mentors are 52% less likely than their peers to skip a day of school and 37% less likely to skip a class.
  • Mentors help with homework and can improve their mentees’ academic skills
  • Mentors help improve a young person’s self-esteem.
  • Youth who meet regularly with their mentors are 46% less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs and 27% less likely to start drinking.
  • About 40% of a teenager’s waking hours are spent without companionship or supervision. Mentors provide teens with a valuable place to spend free time.
  •  confirms what we know anecdotally or intuitively — that mentoring works.
  • The strongest program benefit, and most consistent across risk groups, was a reduction in depressive symptoms — a particularly noteworthy finding given that almost one in four youth reported worrisome levels of these symptoms at baseline.

And mentoring programs aren’t solely for kids at risk. Mentoring programs affective with kids with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and other developmental disabilities. It is widely used in corporate environments to help managers develop improved leadership skills. It’s also used in schools as “study buddy” programs that promote acceptance and improve academic outcomes. There are even mentoring programs for physicians in practice.

So, in honor of National Mentoring Month, consider becoming a mentor. If not for your own child, consider volunteering an hour a week to someone in need.

Snap Circuits: A Toy That Fosters a Love of STEM


This holiday season, buy gifts that encourage a love of learning, that teach problem solving, design, process, and electricity. This season, invest in a snap-circuit kit.

I know. This week’s blog post sounds something like an advertisement, a promotional piece that could have been written by the owners of Elenco, the makers of snap-circuits. But no. It’s written by me, your faithful writer, a former science teacher, a licensed ham radio operator, a parent, and a major supporter of STEM learning.

What does STEM mean? It’s not a botany term. It’s not the fibrous support system that transports water and nutrients from the soil to the plant. It’s not a medical acronym. It actually stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It’s also an area most students show a deficit, especially girls. And it should be a major concern to any parent.

In a recent study of 15-year-old students who took a STEM-based achievement test, the “US ranked 28th in math literacy and 24th in science literacy. In addition, the U.S. ranks 20th among all nations in the number of 24 year olds who earn degrees in natural science or engineering.”

Statistics also indicate that the U.S. educational system is failing to prepare students and teachers in areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and that a majority of secondary school students fail to meet proficiency in math and science. Worse yet, many teachers who are expected to teach STEM-based subjects lack adequate subject matter training.

The news is grimmer for girls. According to a report published by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee,  “women are less likely than men to pursue degrees in STEM.  In 2009, women “earned 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded, up from 54 percent in 1993. At the same time, the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in mathematics and statistics declined by 4 percent and in computer science by 10 percent. Consequently, while women have comprised a growing share of the college-educated workforce, their share of the STEM workforce has not increased. Only 14 percent of engineers are women, as are just 27 percent of individuals working in computer science and math positions.”

The report concluded that if female participation in the STEM workforce increased, it would alleviate the demand and cover the shortage of STEM workers.

How do we as parents and educators encourage children to embrace STEM areas of study? How do we stem the tide (for lack of a better analogy)?

While we can encourage schools to hire more STEM professionals, especially women who could serve as role models for young girls interested in science, math, engineering, and technology, we can do a lot at home. By encouraging our children to play with toys or by engaging them in STEM-oriented activities, we can do much to plant a seed of interest. As parents, we can also help to demystify the misinformation that these target areas are too complicated or too hard to learn.

Snap circuits, a relatively recent arrival in the toy industry, are building blocks with snaps and embedded electrical pathways. When snapped together, the blocks create countless unique circuitry that power lights, sound, movement, or a combination of outcomes. An adept child, even an elementary school child can build an entire “Rube Goldberg” replete with lights, sounds, and movement. The company, Elenco, has designed more than a dozen kits, some basic starter sets for younger children, and educational and teaching kits for middle and high school teachers.

Snap Circuit kids introduce kids to foundational concepts of engineering through design and application.
Snap Circuit kids introduce kids to foundational concepts of engineering through design and application.

The company also provides free online manuals for parents and teachers as resources. It also offers replacement parts, which as a parent with young children and dogs, I certainly appreciate. Sometimes dogs will chew up a resister or capacitor. And while the snap circuits are pretty durable, they do break if stepped on.



Snap circuits has won numerous awards including The National Parenting Center-Seal of Approval, Dr. Toy 100 Best Children’s Products, Dr Toy Best Educational Products, the Award, and countless others.

Snap Circuits teach many principles of engineering and physical science, and introduce children to the components of basic circuitry including electronic flow, positive/negative poles, resistors, capacitors, serial and parallel circuitry, and many others. While children do learn these concepts in middle school, the toy’s design encourages children in inventive design and problem solving, spatial orientation, and electricity at an age when fear isn’t necessarily partnered with learning.

The toy is successful because of its hands-on nature.

According to the National Academy of Engineering, learning STEM through design and hands-on approaches is more effective than through bullet-point presentations and text. Learning early foundations and concepts of engineering can be dry and boring. That’s the first repellent to kids. If it’s boring, if I can’t understand it when I read it, I’m not going to do it.

Students find design engaging and learning how the foundations and concepts apply to an overall design helps learners of any type absorb information. Designing circuitry through snap circuits can be a vehicle by which foundations of engineering and electronics can be learned. Also, if students are involved in the design, if they can take basic designs formats and then learn how to build above and beyond, they begin the educational process known as metacognition. Knowledge is learned and the applied to higher-level thinking.

It’s also believed that an early interest in engineering (or math, sciences, or technology), one that occurs in the early and middle school years can affect career choices down the road. And since much of a child’s formative education starts at home, as parents we can affect learning and activity choices well before trends and misinformation does its damage.

Note: The author purchased the propeller kit for her eight year old. Initially adverse, the eight year old became captivated when the author built the first kit, launched the propeller, and got it stuck on the light fixture.

Autism Spectrum Disorders: Lights! Camera! Action!

Seth Shulman, a 29-year-old, self-taught film editor, cinematographer, documentary film maker, and writer is also staff editor and post production supervisor at Futures Explored Practical Film & Media Workshop in Sacramento, CA, one of four film production workshops Joey Travolta consults with. The goal of the workshops is to expose adults with developmental disabilities to film production. The ultimate goal is to train and prepare them for jobs in the the film industry.

During the summer, Seth works as a film and production assistant at Joey Travolta’s short-films camp. Like Inclusion Films, the camp exposes grade-school children to the film production process. But the campers walk away with more than an understanding of the process. During those two weeks of camp, they develop self-esteem, confidence, and life skills.

At the Tenafly, NJ camp, where I’m collecting research, Seth moves like a hummingbird probing for cinematic perfection with his camera. Thin, wiry, and small in stature, he’s self contained and to himself. Ask him for an interview the way I did while visiting on-site one day, and he comes alive. He is like a talk-show host–charismatic and in command. His perceptiveness, artistic acuity, philosophy on life, and wildly funny sense of humor washes over you like a tidal wave.

First impressions can be deceptive.

Here are some aspects I found most interesting about him.

  • He never chooses favorites. That applies to films, people, places, or even food for that matter. When I asked him why, his response was almost Zen-like. Everyone and everything has feelings (a soul for lack of a better explanation). If he chose one favorite over another,  he might offend someone (or something). “Are you suggesting that your hamburger would be offended if you admitted out loud that you preferred steak?” I asked him. “Um, yeah, I guess so,” he said. Even if it no longer resembles the original plant or animal, it still has feelings.
  • He lives by the mantra, “face your fear and do it anyway.” For many adults, it’s a tough philosophy to live by. But for someone like Seth, it’s particularly profound. Like the kids he films, he was part of the special education system and dealt with challenges that come with having a developmental disability and ADHD.
  • Though he’s reticent to acknowledge it–to campers, to summer interns who work at Joey’s short film camp, and to subjects in his films, he’s somewhat of a rock star, someone who achieved his dreams. He is a symbol of what others autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disabilities could achieve. He does what he loves. He is a success.

According to Joey Travolta, a film director, actor (yes, he is John Travolta’s older brother), special needs teacher, and founder of Inclusion Films, kids with autism spectrum disorder have great potential. But, they need to be embraced and to feel accepted. They need to be shown. Film production requires the same skills as life and is an ideal medium for teaching developmentally disabled kids necessary life skills. It requires collaboration, role playing, flexibility, communication, process flow, creativity, and problem solving.

While in Tenafly, NJ in August 2014, Seth decided to test those skills. Despite Joey’s reservations, Seth thought it would be a great opportunity for Austin, Elliot, Jeff, Nicco, and William, new summer interns working at the Marble Jam Kids in New Jersey (Inclusion Films collaborates with them and other therapeutic centers around the country) to put those skills to work. He challenged them to organize their own day trip to Manhattan and he would chaperone. The deal was this. They had to do the research, decide where they wanted to go, collaborate with each other, plan the itinerary, learn the bus and subway routes from Tenafly to Manhattan, and work within a budget (each intern was paid a per diem amount for food and minor expense). Though Seth considers himself an experienced urban traveler, on the day of the trip, he didn’t lead. He followed.

Seth Shulman is a production assistant with Inclusion Films.
Seth Shulman is a production assistant with Inclusion Films.

Even for a seasoned traveler, New York City is a challenging maze of subway and bus systems, boroughs, intricate neighborhoods, chaos, noise, filth, and congestion. For someone diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, like the five interns, the difficulties are compounded. But, Seth had faith in them. All five been involved with some type of film production, either through Joey’s camps or through workshops he consulted with. All had learned valuable life skills. Would they be able to translate those skills?

Armed with subway maps and smart phones, they embarked on one of the greatest adventures without family and friend to guide and support. Elliot was the most anxious. So many of the new experiences required flexibility. There were so many unknowns. In addition to being in a supervisory role as an intern, no longer a camper, he had to work with new kids in a new location. In fact, other than a brief commuter plane ride, Elliot had never been on a real plane trip. The ride from LAX to New York is approximately five hours. Elliot was struggling.

Before attending one of the film production camps, Elliot could barely make eye contact or hold a conversation. At age 20, he had yet to graduate high school and though he had the intelligence, he simply couldn’t function in a high school environment. He had become a recluse of sorts, had gained weight, and rarely left his room. According to Seth, Elliot lacked confidence in his own abilities and had low self-esteem.

The New York trip, though exhausting and anxiety-producing, would be a game changer for all of them, especially for Elliot.

Seth had prepared them beforehand. On an earlier trip, two days before the start of camp, he took them into the city to visit B&H Video, a superstore on 9th Avenue, down the street from the Empire State Building. It’s a massive superstore that attracts photography, film, and lighting professionals, hobby enthusiasts, and just plain tourists. Though the interns had worked with lighting and editing equipment as campers, Seth was sure they didn’t realize that the equipment came from a store.  Like a student who seems shocked to learn that their teacher doesn’t live in a school, the interns really had no concept where their equipment came from. “What was their favorite equipment at the store?” According to Seth, they loved the “3-D printers and ARRI lights that change colors based on environmental lighting needs.” Currently, when filming in an environment, interns use a gel sheet in front lights to achieve the right colors. The ARRI light kits at B&H changed the lighting automatically. The guys were in awe.

He showed them how to buy tickets for the bus and subway from the vending machines; and how to walk through the turnstiles. The rest, he left up to them.

On the day of the trip, the ones who had paid attention during the first trip show the others what to do. Once in the city, they caught the right train headed in the wrong direction. Seth accepts fault for that one. Nicco nearly missed one train until Austin blocked the doors and pulled him into the train.

First stop was the Nintendo Store at Rockefeller Center. Then they went to Central Park and the Central Park Zoo because Elliot’s dad, who had lived as a musician in the East Village in the 1970s told  him how the zoo used to be free. When Elliot realized the admission was $12/person, he made a point never to listen to a man who hadn’t been to the zoo since the 1970s.

Summer interns in Central Park, August 2014. Elliot is on the far left.
Summer interns in Central Park, August 2014

The Freedom Tower was Jeff’s choice. He ended up calling his grandparents in Michigan to help him with the directions, but then he navigatged the group by himself. By the time, they arrived at the Freedom Tower, Austin’s legs hurt and he was getting frustrated. For awhile, he thought about heading back to the hotel on his own, but worked through the frustration and stayed on. At the 9/11 Memorial, Seth remarked how all were emotionally moved. William took off his hat as a sign of respect.

From the memorial, they went to the Empire State Building. On the Observation Deck, they marveled at the vastness of everything and how much larger Central Park was than they originally thought. Elliott talked about the myth how dropping a penny from the top of the building could kill someone below. (Sorry, Elliot. Mythbusters debunked that one.)

For dinner, they went to an Italian place near Times Square. Jeff wanted a food chain and negotiated with the group. After finding a Subway a couple blocks away, he walked by himself through crowds of people and met up with the others after dinner. The final stop, Times Square at night was Austin’s choice. Though he’d had a hard time managing his frustration, it was all worth it to see the lights.

Though the day was exhausting, it changed the dynamics of the group; and for Elliot it changed his perspective. Though he had been anxious and fearful, supported by the group, he pushed through it and it really helped his confidence. It also made the interns closer as a group. They had faced a challenge together.

Joey Travolta noticed it too. By the end of the New Jersey film camp, he had decided he’d help Elliot find a job with one of the production companies, but on one condition. Elliot would have to satisfy high school requirements and obtain a certificate of completion.

So he did.

Last Monday, Elliot started his new job. On his Facebook page, he posted the following note:

“I would like to formally announce that as of Monday, I will be working at Futures Explored Livermore Film Workshop full-time as an assistant editor and classroom aide. Not a year and a half ago, I worried if I would ever be employed, if I would just be a fat nerd who lived in his parents’ house for the rest of his life, unable to hold responsibilities or relationships. But now I’m part of an amazing team and I’m doing what I love. But to be honest, it won’t be long until the rest of the students find permanent employment in the film industry or otherwise. They are all talented, if not more talented than I.”

A documentary highlighting the 2014 Marble Jam Kids Film Camp and more about Elliot and the other interns will premier on Sunday, November 9 at the Tenafly Bow-Tie Theatre in Tenafly, NJ.

My Child Has a Crush on an Adult

Yes. It’s true. My child does have a crush on an adult, his summer camp counselor. When he first confessed it, admittedly, I felt a little jealous. I mean, wasn’t I supposed to be his first and only crush, his first love until he grows up, falls in love and jilts me for another woman?Come on. Admit it. Wouldn’t you?

Then I remembered my own crushes on adults: the diving coach who convinced me to do a back dive off the medium-level diving board; Miss Carol, my Bunk One counselor at sleep-away camp; and, Mr. Waronsky, a swarthy, Russian-immigrant, a teacher at my Sunday school who came to our house for coffee because he liked my mother but pretended he really liked to listen to me play the piano.

This was different. This was MY little boy, the one who cried when he thought “what if you die?” The one who never ever wanted to leave home to marry and start his own family. The one who still begged me to cuddle with him at bedtime so he could fall asleep. He was now lying on the couch, moaning with heartache over this camp counselor with curly hair, brown flowing curly hair. Though I know that a camp crush or even a teacher crush, is perfectly normal, I still felt a little icky. I mean, how did he love her?

And then I did a Face Palm. What was the matter with me? I was imposing a sordid picture on an eight year old’s crush. His love and adoration was pure, without malice or manipulation. Intuitively I knew that. But then I worried. What if other people didn’t know that? What if other adults thought that MY baby was inappropriately pursuing his camp counselor.

See where I’m going? Society is like that. Remember that five-year-old kindergartener in a Waco, Texas school. He hugged his teacher assistant and she accused him of touching her inappropriately.

A bigger concern, as a parent, was my child’s welfare. Would he move through this crush, through these intense feelings unscathed? How long would it take? What could I do to mitigate his pain?

After too much obsessing and neurosis, I decided it was time to contact an expert. I went to one of the best–Carleton Kendrick, a licensed therapist and author of Take Your Nose Ring Out, Honey. We’re Going to Grandma’s. He’s also the expert who visits the homes of various families in a series called “Let’s Fix Dinner.” In the series, Carleton emphasizes the importance of the dinner table and the benefits to the family dynamics.

Carleton Kendrick is a veritable source of sage wisdom, balanced approaches, and deep-seated compassion. To talk with him is liking eating a slice of warm homemade bread slathered with butter at grandma’s kitchen table. It’s comforting and so easy to swallow. And his advice, thoughtful and pragmatic, is easy to integrate in any parenting style.

The first bit of advice he shared was this. Children, even those as young as four, can feel love as intensely as an adult. When my son told me he loved Kelly the camp counselor and wanted to marry her, he was showing love the only way he knew how. His feelings weren’t any less intense than adult love and shouldn’t be reduced to “puppy love.”

Secondly, a parent’s role is not to impose a sordid or adult view on a child’s expression of love. If a child says he loves a teacher or a counselor, he doesn’t mean in adult terms to include physical intimacy. Young children aren’t developmental programmed to think of love in those terms. While it’s easy to jump to that conclusion, especially in our explicit society, it would be an erroneous assumption.

A parent's role is to help a child understand and identify his feelings.
A parent’s role is to help a child understand and identify his feelings.

A parent’s job is to help a child identify feelings associated with a crush, what labels he can use to identify those emotions, and socially healthy ways to express those feelings. I’m lucky. My son, child number thirteen in a blended family is fairly in touch with his feelings and quite expressive. He knows what he thinks, knows how he feels, doesn’t always understand those feelings, but he can express himself. The difficulty for me was helping him to understand the boundaries between his world as a camper and the adult world where his counselor resided. Over a family dinner, I applied Carleton’s advice.

When my son asked me to research his camp counselor’s home address so he could drop in for a visit, I looked at him, smiled, and redirected the conversation. “You know, I can see how much you enjoyed having Kelly (names have been changed to protect the unknowing) as a counselor. From all the things you tell me about her, she seems like a terrific counselor. I can see why you loved being at camp with her.”

As if the therapist had a mike in my son’s ear, my son said on cue, “Yeahhhhhh.” And then I added, “You know, I bet she loved being your counselor at camp too.” He nodded, forked some food into his mouth, and talked to his father about something completely unrelated. Needless to say, I was stunned!

Since that dinner, nearly a month ago, the subject of Kelly the camp counselor has come up only sporadically. My son’s requests for a play date or a video chat have also diminished. Occasionally, when talk of summer comes up, my son asks to return to the same summer camp. I get it. He hopes and prays to see her.

And I hope and pray he doesn’t have another crush on an adult or fall in love until he’s a little bit older. I’d like to enjoy and protect his childhood just a little bit longer.

School Anxiety: Fear of Failure

To many, I present as a calm, composed individual. There are times when I can be a bundle of nerves. I’ve been through child birth six times and two combat deployments as an army wife. Yet, there are two things that send me into a full-blown panic attack–the sound of the dentist’s drill and heights. So when one of our daughter’s convinced me to jump attached to a tandem instructor out of an airplane with her, I panicked. I did it anyway and held my breath for the first 5,000 feet of the free fall. It’s the unknown that makes me anxious. Will it hurt THIS time? Will the parachute fail?

Not everyone reacts to stress-inducing situations the way I do. Not everyone reacts to the same triggers.

For many kids, school can be an anxiety-producing trigger.  In preschool and early elementary, separation anxiety can create stress and worry for kids. For older kids, it’s the fear of not making friends and fear of failure that can induce worry and anxiety.

A little anxiety isn’t a bad thing. Adrenalin, the hormone our body produces during a “fight/flight” situation can be quite helpful. It helps with focus and sustained concentration during exams, athletic events, or school performances. With too much adrenalin, physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, heart palpitations, and sleeplessness can result. If your child has back-to-school anxiety caused by separation anxiety or fear of failure, there are things a parent can do, according to psychologist and professor at UConn, Golda Ginsburg.

Create some familiarity. If your child is switching schools, take her to orientations where she can meet her teachers. If you can, walk her around the new school. Show her the classrooms, the lunchrooms, bathrooms, and any other places she might use as a student.

Set up social networks. If your child has friends attending the new school, set up dates with the friends so your child will know someone on the first day. Ask your child’s friends to talk about the school, their likes, about the teachers, even the mundane and annoying.

Prepare early and buy school supplies. A few weeks before school, make a list with your child’s needs and wants for school. Have her choose one comfort item that helps her feel more at ease when she’s away from home. If the new school has a uniform, order it early and buy school shoes your child LOVES. But, remind her the shoes are for school and she can only wear them on the first day.

Show her the list of school activities. Talk about the clubs and activities available at the new school. Take her to the baton twirling competition and introduce her to the coach. Take her to a theatre production and show her all the special things she can do as a student.

Practice trial run-throughs. At least a week before the first day, do a run-through. Get your child used to the school routine. During the run-through, have her lay out an outfit and pack her NEW backpack for the next day. In the morning, wake her up as you would on a normal school day. If she “brown bags” it, post a special lunchbox menu on the refrigerator.

Create a homework environment. If you child has a fear of failure, create a designated area and time where you want your child to do her homework. Some children with executive functioning issues do better if they with homework cues such as a set time and place.Be sure to stock your home with supplies–markers, construction paper, tri-fold boards, rulers, index cards, etc. so your child has what she needs to complete homework and projects.

What happens if the anxiety doesn’t pass months into the school year? If the anxiety persists or if your child refuses to go to school, it might be wise to seek a professional opinion. An endless sense of dread or worry not linked to a specific event could be symptomatic of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). According to Boston Childrens’ Hospital, a licensed therapist can teach your child effective coping mechanisms in anxiety-producing settings such as school.

With a little planning, you can do much to avoid anxiety-producing pitfalls and you can create an environment of consistency and support.


Are You Sabotaging Your Child’s Summer Camp Experience?

Are you sabotaging your child’s summer camp experience?

“Of course not,” you laugh. “What parent does that?”

You throw your head back and laugh off the ridiculousness of that premise. You are, after all, a hip, more in-touch parent. You talk to your child about everything—drugs, peer pressure, STDs, and bullying. You’ve read the latest parenting books—Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child’s True Potential and NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. Your kids have sophisticated palates and eagerly sample a wide range of organic fruits and vegetables, kimchi, sushi, and veggie meat. They’re sensitive to animals and to the carbon footprint they leave on the planet.

Your inner child
Your inner child could be interfering with your child’s summer camp experience.

But are you in touch with yourself? Are you in touch with your “inner child?” According to pop psychology, the “inner child” is a subconscious collection of all childhood experiences from conception to puberty. If something traumatic happens in your childhood and you don’t feel at peace with it, the emotions of that event can play out into adulthood. For example, if your parents left home without you, you might have felt abandoned. If left unresolved, those feelings of abandonment can surface at any significant life event, like when you send your child away to summer camp.

For example, you might feel a sense of abandonment when the camp rules say, “No cell phones, iPads, computers, or technology of any type…” To feel better, you covertly pack up two iPhones—one that’s a decoy to be taken away by camp officials and one that works so your child can secretly call you.

If the camp rules explicitly say “Do not send candy or food care packages,” you might hide a stash of candy in a box of maxi pads and send it to your child to make your feel better.

If your child complains about a counselor who reprimands her for leaving the bunk at midnight to raid the mess hall’s pantry, you might make irate phone calls to the camp director, the division head, and the camp social worker.

Overnight camp is an ideal opportunity for your child to build life-long character traits. By conquering homesickness and other fears, your child develops self-confidence. By learning how to overcome failure without fear of disappointing you, your child can learn resiliency. And, by developing close attachments to other campers and adults, your child learns interpersonal and communication skills that can benefit them in the adult world.

All these well-intentioned expressions of motherhood, could be sabotaging your child’s summer camp experience. Which is a shame because overnight summer camp is an ideal opportunity for personal growth for your child.

So what can YOU do to ensure that you don’t stand in the way of that?

According to Teresa Aubele, Ph.D. and coauthor of Train Your Brain to Get Happy, your brain is impressionable and can form new neuron pathways and you can train your brain to “bury the unproductive, depressing thoughts and habits that drag you (and your brain) down.” By reinforcing productive, cheerful thoughts and activities, you can become a happier and healthier parent. Aubele recommends tools such as journaling, meditation, visualization, and nurturance.

Journaling: Keep a daily chronicle of your day-to-day activities. If you ate a pizza, write down how you felt. If you sent your child to camp, note specific feelings. By journaling, you can look for patterns in your moods. When are you happy? What makes you angry, stressed, or depressed?

Meditation:  If the Dalai Lama meditates daily, why don’t you. When you meditate, you tune out extraneous thoughts and focus on a single point. Sometimes a single word, phrase, or mantra can help you to focus. Combined with deep breathing, it can produce a state of deep relaxation.

If the Dalai Lama meditates daily, why can't you?
If the Dalai Lama meditates daily, why can’t you?

Visualization: High-powered executives visualize themselves reaching goals. When you visualize, you focus on a mental image. Like meditation, it can help you to tune out negative thoughts.

If the behaviors are increasingly hurtful, see a therapist. A therapist can help you deal with underlying emotions and can teach you constructive ways to deal with life events that dredge up old fears.

You are the most important mentor for your child. If you demonstrate positive, productive ways to deal with fears, you will be raising a happier, more empowered child.