Bored Games

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

Use Your Words

“Use your words.” This has been a familiar refrain in my household. Maybe you can identify. We want our kids to articulate their feelings and their needs when they are able to do so. This often turns out to be more complicated than it seems.

First, the child has to be old enough to have the words. My daughters, through a combination of exposure to wordy adults and siblings and a steady dose of audiobooks (often read in an English accent), have a lot of words at their disposal and know how to use them. The assumption I often make as a parent, then, is that they are able to connect the words to their feelings: that they know what it is they are feeling and can identify to themselves what they need. You know what they say about assumptions, right?

Most behavior in children is the expression of an unmet need. We know that when they are cranky, suddenly burst into tears, are uncooperative with our requests, or are mean to their brother or sister, there is something they need that they either can’t put their finger on or don’t know how to tell us about.

  • The first step for parents is knowing that this is what is happening (and not, say, that they are being defiant or trying to manipulate or thwart us in some way).
  • The second step is helping the child to recognize this. In our therapeutic classrooms at the Relief Nursery, there is a lot of work put into helping kids distinguish their different emotions and what they look and sound like. If they can see them in others, they can better negotiate their tiny social milieu and know how to respond to kids and adults. If they can see them in themselves, they can develop a vocabulary for the changes in their own moods and emotions and, ultimately, tell us about them.

A toddler can tell us he is angry by biting us in the ankle. This is a very effective way of communicating a feeling, but for obvious reasons, it is not ideal. The goal is for him to be able to know that he is angry and to tell us in a safe and appropriate way: through facial expressions, body language, and ultimately with words.

As with pretty much any skill, there is a learning curve, and there are steps that we can take to bring us to understanding. Here’s how it works most often in my family:

Four-year-old: (taking swings at her sister.)

Parent: “You’re feeling angry right now. We need you to be safe. I’m going to help you move away from your sister.”

Four-year-old: (crying loudly.)

Parent: “You sound sad. Do you need a hug?”

Four-year-old: “YES!”

(Hugging ensues).

 

Or:

 

Seven-year-old: (Sitting at the table, making loud huffing sounds.)

Parent: “I can tell that you need something. Did you want to ask me for help?”

Seven-year-old: “No one is getting me oatmeal.”

Parent: “You’re hungry and you would like some help. What does that sound like?”

Seven-year-old: (Still clearly not amused) “Please can you serve me some oatmeal.”

(Eating ensues.)

 

Or:

 

Nine-year-old: “I’m COLD.”

Parent: “You’re feeling cold. Is there something we can do to solve that problem?”

Nine-year-old: “I can’t find any SOCKS.”

Parent: “You need help finding some socks to wear.”

Nine-year-old: “They aren’t in my DRAWER.”

Parent: “You didn’t find them where you expected them to be, and you’re feeling frustrated. How can we solve this problem?”

Nine-year-old: “But I’m COLD.”

Parent: “Have you looked in the clean laundry?”

(Dressing ensues.)

 

Just Playing

In the novel The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins), the protagonist, an extremely dignified but emotionally repressed English butler, resolves to learn the art of bantering in order to better relate to his cheeky American employer. Observing a group of strangers who are soon talking and laughing together as friends, the butler writes, “It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly… Listening to them now, I can hear them exchange one bantering remark after another. It is, I would suppose, the way many people like to proceed…Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically.”

For similar reasons, when I am working with a family and meeting kids who are unfamiliar to me, the first thing I often do is invite them to play a card game (a favorite, which I learned at a residential treatment facility for children, is King’s Corners). I have found that it is the quickest and most efficient way to put a young stranger at ease. Perhaps more importantly, it allows me to talk to them in a comfortable, casual, and gently joking way (in other words, to banter) that forms an instant sort of bond. It is then easier to draw the parents, who may be feeling the weight of their own expectations and anxieties, into this comfort zone as well.

I encourage parents to do this in their own families. Kids want to spend time with their parents, and playing card games, board games, charades, etc. (there are a variety of games appropriate for every age level) is a safe, pressure-free way to teach, converse, encourage, make jokes, and practice skills and simply, as I said, to be together. Which is always a valuable thing.

The benefits of playing games with our kids are many and varied. According to this article on the Scholastic website, games that are designed “only” for fun are also rich in educational opportunities:

They satisfy your child’s competitive urges and the desire to master new skills and concepts, such as:

  • number and shape recognition, grouping, and counting
  • letter recognition and reading
  • visual perception and color recognition
  • eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity

The aptly named Geek Dad identifies some of the higher-level skills that occur while playing games, among them Taking Turns, Thinking Ahead, learning Actions and Consequences, and Making Tough Choices. All of these skills are essential to social-emotional development and will serve kids well as adults finding their way in the world.

One thing I learned early on is that kids know, always, when an adult is “letting them win.” I am of the opinion that this is not only unhelpful and deceptive but can actually get in the way of practicing those other skills. I was pleased to find support for this elsewhere. Also, I like to win as much as the next guy. But somehow, it doesn’t always turn out that way. If nothing else, I can keep working on my bantering skills.

Free, and Priceless

This week’s guest post is by Julie Whitus. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Julie.

The other night I stopped and looked at my children playing. My youngest was dancing with a lampshade on her head while my nine-year-old was singing into a remote control. Then, my 11-year-old popped out of the clothes hamper to surprise me. I laughed to myself thinking how ridiculous this might have looked to an outsider while admiring my children for their imaginations.

I thought back to my childhood and played back some happy memories. I remember walking outside in the rain, catching earthworms for fishing, playing in a cardboard house, climbing trees, painting the garage with my dad, and exploring the empty field by my house. I realize that all these memories had two things in common: 1. My parents were spending time with me, and 2. these activities were free.

As a parent of six, I know that having children is costly. However, spending time with them isn’t. I have to admit that sometimes I get caught up with wanting to give my children expensive toys or take them on grandiose outings. The reality is I really cannot afford it and would regret it later on. As I evaluate my childhood I realize that the most memorable moments involved my parents spending quality time with me for free.

Right now, with summer vacation coming up, I am challenging myself to schedule time for free activities. Also, I challenge myself to forget the guilt of being unable to afford Disneyland, to picture my childrens’ carefree play with a lampshade and a remote control, and remember that making memories costs nothing and is priceless.

I encourage parents to respond to this blog by posting some low-cost summer activities that your family has enjoyed.

Julie Whitus is a Family Navigator at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Breaking out of the routine

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the importance of routines, and of keeping things consistent and predictable for children. I do think that this is one of the most important things we can do for them, in order to keep them feeling safe and nurtured. It helps them to sleep, to focus, to transition from one place to another.

Recently I was asked, when is it okay to break from the routine? How do you know when it is more appropriate to switch things up or to make exceptions to the rule? In other words, are there situations in which it is better to just let things go?

I have to admit that this is hard for me. Those routines, I think, are often at least as important for my well-being as for my kids. Or at least it feels that way to me. But I ran into a situation that made me question this. It was bedtime, and as usual, I was in charge of moving everyone through the pajama-donning, the tooth-brushing and the story-reading into the sleep zone. But my five and seven year-olds, who had spent the day immersed in the high energy of their Nana (my dear mother-in-law), were not having it. They could not calm down. My attempts to keep the energy calm and cozy were calcifying into a general sternness and lack of amusement.

I sent them to say goodnight to their mom, who at this point, having had them for the day, was taking a well-deserved break. Her part in the bedtime routine has been scaled back considerably, consisting mostly of this last round of hugs and kisses. My two girls went to her and almost immediately I heard a round of giggling and whooping. She led them back into the bedroom in this state of tickling and joking and dancing around, and I was, needless to say, not amused. I have trouble with what I regard as excess jollity, whether in children or adults, that I just don’t have time to go into here, or really anywhere outside of therapy (though I do like to quote Mel Brooks from The Muppet Movie: “I detest the surfeit of provincial laughter”).

It quickly became evident, however, that this method of going with their rollicking energy, rather than attempting to put the brakes on it, was exactly what they needed. They were now able to transition into bedtime feeling understood and valued rather than badgered and thwarted. Point to Mom.

How do we know when it is appropriate to switch up the routines? When what we’re trying is clearly not working, especially if it usually does, it may be time to switch tack. Often it involves simply waiting and giving kids time to do what they feel they need to do. After all, when they are ready, they will be eager to return to those comforting, predictable rhythms.

And sometimes the impetus comes from the parents, for whom the usual expectations are just not working. For me, the iconic example is that summer evening (you know the one), in which ice cream for dinner really is the only answer.

Regardless of where the dissonance is coming from, it can be valuable to know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, and when to let it go. They’ll come around to the routines when they’re ready, and be glad to do so.

Reading Ahead

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 a 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 than 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!

Daughterology

As a father with four daughters, there are certain things I have experienced that are unique to my situation. Some of them were expected and simply come with the territory. Others came as quite a surprise. The following is a list of some of the more prominent revelations; I’ll leave you to decide which is which. Feel free to share your own experiences.

It is possible to wash more than one entire load of pink clothing.

A lot of toilet paper is used. I mean, a lot.

Hearing “Just wait until they’re teenagers” (coupled with “You’re going to need a shotgun”).

Don’t get me wrong: they like to watch a backhoe tearing up the pavement just like anyone else. But the princess thing cannot be avoided. There will be princesses.

Beard-related kiss goodnight injuries (self-reported).

Bathroom time-sharing has not yet become an issue. But. I’m starting to imagine what it will be like, and I’m a little scared.

Explaining that, while it is not considered polite for little girls to burp in public, that was very impressive.

Not always knowing the difference between tights, leggings, and pants.

Ponytails I can do. Braids are still in process.

Explaining that of course you can be President someday. But you have to be 40.

Can you tell me how to get to Problem-Solving Mode?

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts by Esther.

Knowing how to solve problems is a valuable, life-long skill. That may be the understatement of the year. Finding solutions to mechanical or physical problems is hard, but finding solutions to problems involving several people interacting and getting along with each other is really tough. That process is a major part of parenting, though.

Here are some suggested steps for problem-solving family life challenges.

(These are designed for school-age and older children–and for adults!–but the process can be modified to use with younger children.)

Part 1 By Yourself

1. Acknowledge to yourself what is going on with you: What is your physical state? (hungry, sleep-deprived, wound up, …) What are your feelings? (frustrated, worried, fearful, …) What are your fears? (I’m a terrible parent; My child will never be able to go to sleep without me, go to school, be self-supportive, . . .).

2. Ask yourself: How is this affecting me? Can I list specific, concrete ways that this is impacting my life? Is this blocking my ability to achieve my goals or meet my needs?

3. Respond to yourself empathetically—“I hear you” “It’s hard to deal with this. ” Help yourself calm down by deep breathing or physical exercise.

Part 2 With the Other(s) (spouse, child, etc.)

Establish a connection. Essentially this is saying or conveying without words “I’m available to listen—now or whenever you are ready to talk.”

4. Bring up the problem in a neutral way; for example, “We always seem to end up yelling at each other in the mornings. It’s upsetting to me and I think it bothers you, too. Can we talk about how we might be able to do things differently?”

5. Use empathetic listening. The goal is to listen for understanding, not weakness. Trust that the other person is not lying or trying to manipulate you, but being honest. You DO NOT need to agree with him/her, just to accept that this is his/her perception. Help the other person go through the process you just went through of identifying feelings and needs and calming down.

6. With the other person’s help (when possible), identify out loud (and in writing if desired): how s/he feels; his/her need(s); and what s/he would like to happen. It’s important that you are able to state these and have the other person say (or indicate) “Yes, that is what I feel, need, and want.”

6a. There may be lots of things. Pick only one to deal with right now. You can get back to the others later.

7. Now state your own feelings, needs, and what you would like to happen regarding the issue at hand. Do this as briefly as possible. Remember this is what you would like to happen, NOT what you insist upon happening. If appropriate, ask the other person to state your feelings, needs, and wants in a way that you agree is accurate.

8. Sit with this for a while together.

9. Brainstorm together—come up with a list of possible solutions (whacky and totally unrealistic ones encouraged to get the creative juices flowing) and write them down.

10. Evaluate those solutions. Consider any other relevant factors and realities: developmental stage, temperament, safety, affordability, time, health, fairness, family rules, laws, moral considerations, etc.

11. Select one(s) that meets both your needs. Be open to change. You both have veto power over any of the suggestions and you both need to agree on the solution.

12. Be as specific as possible about your agreed-upon solution—when, where, what, and who.

13. Put it into practice for a specified amount of time. Then follow up with each other—how is it working out? How are you feeling now? Make adjustments as needed.

14. Problem Solved! Celebrate successes!

Repeat as often as necessary.

 

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

The “No/Don’t” Problem

There is something that comes up a lot in my work as a parenting educator. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is something that also comes up a lot in my work as a parent. I call it the “No/Don’t” statement.

You can guess what it sounds like. A child is grabbing something (your phone, the edge of the tablecloth, a sibling’s toy) and you say, “No!” Or alternately, “Don’t do that.” Or alternately, “Stop!” Sometimes it takes on extra dimensions, such as, “How many times have I told you not to do that?” You might even provide an answer to the question, giving a possibly spurious and invariable round number: “I have told you a hundred thousand times not to do that.”

Having fallen into this rut, again and again, myself, I believe that it is a response that comes fairly naturally to us. Just as every kid I’ve ever met will walk straight into the path of someone who is swinging, so every parent defaults to the negative when attempting to teach proper behavior to a child.

So what’s wrong with that? Are there occasions in which it is perfectly appropriate, or at least when it will do in a pinch? I can think of a few. When your child is about to walk into traffic, yelling “STOP!” with startling volume is probably the way to go (the nuances of why can come later when the child is out of danger). Similarly, if the child is currently holding the cat upside down by the tail, “Don’t do that to the cat!” may be the way to go, and will certainly be appreciated by the cat.

As a general practice, though, the “No/Don’t” statement runs into problems when we look at how we can teach things to our kids. Here are a couple of points (I’m sure there are other good ones as well).

  • Specificity. Younger children especially may not be ready to place actions, causes, and effects into different contexts. So, knowing to not grab, say, the doll stroller from a sister in this instance may not translate to the time five minutes from now in which the sister is still playing with the stroller and you still want it. Or taking the book out of her hand tomorrow because a book is nothing like a doll stroller. Here we get into philosophical conundrums as parents that we probably frankly don’t have time to go into.
  • Negativity. By this I don’t mean that it’s bad or wrong to say “no,” but simply that children respond better when we describe the behavior we do want to see rather than negate behavior we don’t. In other words, if we can help the child to see what it is we want, they are much more likely to accomplish it. “Put the cat down” is a start. That’s an action. They can do that. Then, “Pet him like this. He likes that. There. Nice kitty,” etc. Or, “Let’s make a sling for your doll so you can take her for a walk.” Or even, “See if your sister will trade the doll stroller for this toy.”

I have found that the extra work we put into describing what we want to see or providing a positive alternative, is almost always worth it. And as a bonus, the child has learned something. Just as importantly, they are able to accomplish something. Kids want to be helpful, after all. They want to do the right thing. It’s so nice to give them the opportunity.

Rest Time, Anyone?

A couple of weeks ago I told you about a typical day in home school. I stopped at what is, to me, the most amazing part of the day: what we call rest time.

Rest time is a magical thing. It serves as a sort of hinge upon which the whole day turns. And I don’t know how or why it works so well. But I’d like to tell you about it.

Rest time, as I understand it, grew out of the days (actually the several years) during which we had one or more children young enough to need a nap in the middle of the day. As you probably know, it’s kind of important for the kids that are not sleeping to be, you know, quiet, and not jumping on their younger siblings’ beds or undertaking construction projects right outside their door. So, that’s a challenge.

The solution was to set up a routine for the others in which they had the opportunity to engage in a quiet, peaceful activity for the duration of naptime. As the little ones grew older and the need for naps subsided, we continued the practice of rest time for the whole family. Here’s how it works:

Like any routine for children—or anyone, for that matter—the transitions are the tricky part. It’s hard to move from one place or activity to the next, and this is precisely where many behavioral issues, tantrums, and resistance to adult expectations come about. So there are built-in rituals for moving into and out of rest time.

  • To set the stage, the kids know there are certain things they have to do when lunch is over: wash hands and face, make their beds, and tidy the area. Those that need help with these things may receive it, but at this point, even the four and six-year-old are able to undertake these tasks with minimal interference.
  • Once everyone is ready, rest time can begin. In our house, the two youngest and two oldest share a bedroom, so there are two separate activities going on at once. Many parents find it easier to give everyone a separate space, or to keep them together; in our case, this is what works best.

The idea of rest time is to spend an interval in some form of tranquil concentration, without a lot of movement and without noise or talking.

We listen to a lot of audiobooks in our family, and rest time is a good opportunity for them to catch up on their stories. Right now the younger pair is listening to The Secret Garden, an old favorite, while the two oldest are deep in the latest book in the Redwall series. While they listen they remain in their room, and may have paper and drawing supplies, books to look at, or puzzles to assemble.

On other days, this would be a good time for them to watch something: a movie on Fridays, or a couple of episodes of Sesame Street, or (for the eldest girls) a documentary series like Edwardian Farm (their choice, I swear).

  • If you are wanting to establish a routine like this, you might try starting out with smaller chunks of time—15 to 30 minutes, especially if you have toddlers or preschool-aged kids. At this point, our grizzled veterans engage successfully in rest time for an hour to 90 minutes a day.
  • It’s just as important to have a way out of this activity and into the next, so in our house, the end of rest time means afternoon tea (or snack, as the Americans call it). After that, there is usually an outing of some sort, or it’s time to play outside. The upshot is that now it’s time for some movement and activity.

How does this work so well for us? Frankly, I’m baffled every time. Like any routine, consistency is the key. And of course, for a homeschooling family, this is more or less a daily practice; you might want to try it on the weekends and experience the magic for yourself.

By the way, while the kids are in rest time, this is a great time for the adults to catch up on housework, pay the bills, or paint the porch, right?

Not so fast, pal. You should be resting.