Archives for February 2016

Reading Ahead

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I’m about to come across as not only a curmudgeon, but a hypocrite. Let me explain.

I learned to read quite early. I credit the constant presence of books and, of course, Sesame Street for helping me along with this. And as soon as I could I started reaching for books that were way beyond my emotional maturity. I may have been able to read, as an eight year-old, my dad’s James Bond and Conan novels, but I was not able to process them. This trend continued as I grew up, with the result that I had “book knowledge” of the adult realm of drugs, sex and the intricacies of suffering that I was in no way prepared to live in reality. If I always felt that I was getting away with something, it’s because I was. Only in later years—and especially now that I’m a parent—did I realize that, rather than gaining something from my transgressions, I actually gave up a fair bit of my childhood.

Things are different now after the explosion of what is now called Young Adult literature, or YA. Spurred on by the success of the (wonderful) Harry Potter novels, the category of books featuring adolescent protagonists, largely under the umbrella of science fiction, horror and fantasy but sometimes taking in historical fiction or even stark realism, increased exponentially. As with most styles in popular art, some of it is brilliant, much of it quite good, and most mediocre to awful (this is not the place for me to weigh in on the relative merits of YA books you have probably heard of and/or read).

The new thing about this, and something I have been noticing more and more, is how often younger readers have been encouraged to pick up YA books under the assumption that, since they are not adult books, it is always a good idea for kids to read them. But more than ever before, there is such a wide spectrum of psychological and emotional content, relationship and identity issues in YA literature that it is risky to assume that a given book is appropriate for your young reader simply because of the section of the library or bookstore it was found in.

Let me be clear: the concern here is not that there are books that address all of these things, or that kids may benefit greatly from finding them portrayed in fiction, because both of these are, I think, very good things. The issue is that readers who may be intellectually, but not emotionally, ready to take on particular subject matter will at best not get anything out of it (as I came up empty with the adventures of James Bond) and come away with confusion or misunderstanding, and at worst could be traumatized. Heck, even the Harry Potter series becomes increasingly dark and emotionally complex as its characters age toward adulthood.

As a result, it’s more important than ever for parents to be aware of what their children are reading. There are summaries and reviews online for every book that’s out there, though this can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to look (in my experience nothing is more full of contradictions that two reviews of the same novel). A reliable place for this information is Common Sense Media, a website offering “independent reviews, age ratings, & other information about all types of media.”

Another great way to find out about what our kids are taking in is much more low tech. You can take a look at the book, of course: read the jacket copy and see if there is a recommended age range. Skim it if you can. Or better yet, talk to them about it!

Deliciousness

 

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I’m going to let you in on a secret family recipe. We call it cheesy egg toast, or egg and cheese toast, or sometimes just deliciousness (as in, “What’s for breakfast?” “Deliciousness.” “I know what that is,” etc).

There are a variety of reasons why it is so successful. For one thing, it’s incredible fast and easy. For another, it’s a great way for me to get a certain daughter to eat eggs without complaining (she knows who she is).

But most of all, it’s the perfect meal in whose preparation everyone can take part. The little ones can do the toasting and buttering; the eight year-old can grate the cheese (generally, they all taste some to make sure it’s okay); the eldest can scramble the eggs and take it out of the oven. Sometimes keeping the kids occupied during this time is of paramount importance. Am I right?

 

Deliciousness

Some bread

Some butter

Some eggs

Some cheese

 

  • Toast bread. Butter it.
  • Turn broiler on low.
  • Scramble eggs. Grate cheese.
  • Place toast on a cookie sheet. Scoop a portion of eggs onto each piece (we use an ice cream scoop because why not). Sprinkle cheese on top.
  • Place cookie sheet under broiler until cheese melts. Serve.

One Love

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I’ve been thinking a lot about one year-olds. I haven’t had one at home for a few years now, but at work I seem to be surrounded by them. I don’t mind.

The one year-old comes with a unique set of bonuses and challenges. The bonuses are so great it’s as if it’s your birthday whenever they’re around. They love to laugh, and it’s easy for you to be the funniest person they’ve ever met. They are working on their words and are delighted to share them with you. Walking, jumping, throwing things: these are great discoveries and the one year-old acts as if they’re the first one to get there and plant a flag.

The challenges, as with children of all ages, are a matter of timing. I know many well-intentioned parents who want to create structure and set boundaries who become frustrated when this doesn’t seem to be working. Here’s how it breaks down.

There are some things that a one-year old is just not ready to grasp at this point:

  • “No” and “don’t.” I have written about this elsewhere; how there are usually more effective ways to set limits. With the one year-old in particular, they simply don’t know what it means. Saying “no” in a firm voice will often stop them in their tracks, but this is because they know that the parent is displeased. They are not able to make a connection between the “no” and the behavior in question. Cause and effect is not yet part of the wiring.
  • As for directions such as “Don’t drop that applesauce,” The one year-old, scanning madly for meaning in your words, will catch “drop” and “applesauce” and will hear it either as an instruction (after all, testing gravity is a favorite activity at this age) or will simply be confused.
  • Positive directions have a much better chance of getting through. Putting out your hand and saying “Give me the applesauce” may get us to where we want to go, with at least a smaller percentage of applesauce on the floor.
  • Your rules. Parents are eager to articulate the rules of the family, laying out what is acceptable and what is not. But in the present moment of the toddler mind, rules (and their exceptions, because there are always exceptions) are too abstract to take root. So what works? Repetition, repetition, repetition. Give the same instruction enough times in context and eventually it will stick. Remember to keep stating, and praising, the behavior that you want to see.
  • What does work with a one year-old? Distraction will be your best friend. Trading out one toy or object for another, or simply changing tracks with a song, or a hug, or a funny noise, will reset the situation.
  • Ready to leave the house? Calling to the toddler to put their shoes on will look to a bystander like absurdist theater. Going to the toddler with the shoes is a better bet. And actually walking to the door is a pretty clear indicator that it’s time to go. One year-olds love to go in and out of rooms. You might want to let them close the door.

Don’t Dream it, Be it

Gabe first day

Here’s something. Research indicates that children are much more likely to learn skills and thrive if parents praise them for “being” rather than “doing.” What does this mean? Basically, if you want to encourage your kids to help around the house, then instead of telling them, “It was so helpful when you cleared your dishes” or “You did such a good job with that,” you can say, “You are such a helper.” The difference here is that you are focusing not on what they did but on what they are: a helper. Sounds simple, right?

But wait a minute. Isn’t that “labeling?” And aren’t we supposed to avoid doing that? I have to admit that for this reason I have had a hard time getting my head around this. Especially since, as a new parent, I had read psychologist Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting, in which he insists that while criticizing our children is clearly not helpful, neither is praising them. According to Kohn, the best kind of discipline is intrinsic (coming from within) rather than from others. This stuck with me. So when in recent years I have learned more about what works with kids, I have had to adjust my thinking on this.

In addition, I have always been disturbed by what I saw as an overuse of the phrase “Good job.” As in, the child has climbed the steps of the play structure at the park and the parent calls out, “Good job!” The child goes down the slide and the parent says, “Good job!” Etc. Too much of this, I thought, would give the child an inflated sense that everything they did was valuable, special, amazing. Is this good for the child’s sense of self? I don’t think so.

Is there a place for “Good job?” Sure! When a child is working on a developmental milestone, such as reading or potty training, or even learning algebra, it is good and appropriate to acknowledge this.

The best way to do this, however, is to praise them for who they are, for being. “You’re such a good helper.” “You’re always so thoughtful.” “You’re such a good brother.” The research indicates that a child is much more likely to do helpful, or thoughtful, or brotherly things if they understand that it is part of who they are. This quality is not contingent upon their having accomplished a task well (how frustrating, then, when they are not able to do the good thing, or when something else—tiredness, hunger, a feeling of hurt, an unmet need—gets in the way). Rather, if doing these things is a quality they possess, the default setting, they will do it when they can. It’s simply who they are.

There is a practical side to this for parents. We don’t have to coax, or bribe, or cajole, or coerce, a child to do their chores if the chore is what they do because they are helpful, and helpful people do chores. The expectation takes care of itself. When I realized this, I was able to align it with Kohn’s ideal of intrinsic motivation: they will desire, on their own, to do the good thing if it is simply what they do. How cool is that?

Of course, there is always room for a well-placed “Good job.” Or just a hug.