The Parent Talk Blog

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My child skates through life avoiding his responsibilities.  I have to wake him up and pick out his outfits even though he has an alarm clock in his room and can choose his own clothes.  If I don’t nag, threaten and bribe, homework won’t get done – He even needs special reminders to hang up his coat. Shouldn’t all these things be his responsibility and not mine? 

It’s the start of a new school year and the perfect time to take stock of how well your child is handling his responsibilities.  School, after all, is full of assignments, deadlines, and homework – not to mention he must also take care of his books, school supplies, and personal belongings – all without assistance from you.  If he’s having any trouble juggling these things, it can impact his grades, his teachers can become irritated, and even if he comprehends all his work, his self-esteem can be knocked down a notch or two. Has a teacher ever said, your child understands the material but he doesn’t get his assignments in on time?

Responsibilities touch virtually every aspect of your child’s life – from school to extra-curricular activities to his relationship with you at home.  So take a moment and reflect. How is he doing right now?

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Finally, after the coldest winter in years, spring is in the air! The warmer temperatures and sunshine are a balm to the spirit. While your kids are outside playing in the fresh air, it’s a perfect time to enjoy the quiet. Pour a cup of tea, put the laundry aside, and carve out some “me” time. I’ve spent the winter writing a new e-book that I think you’ll enjoy. I’ve always thought parenting books should be fun to read as well as educational so I’ve come up with something that’s aimed to entertain you as well as inspire.

The idea for this book came from a parenting workshop I held years ago. I was sharing a story about how hard it was to get my daughter ready for school in the morning. I joked that what I really needed was some invisible tape over my mouth to stop all the micromanaging. Everyone got it. This got us thinking about other magical tools that would be useful. We let our imaginations run wild and came up with all kinds of gadgets until someone suggested we invent a pill to make kids obey. We laughed . . . but we knew we had gone too far with that one.

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Your brother has never been sent to the office.
Your cousin Matthew remembered his Mom’s birthday.
Joanna is the athletic one.

Whenever you have two or more children it’s inevitable that comparisons will be made. One talks your ear off while the other barely says a word. One keeps her room neat and tidy while the other doesn’t.  It’s impossible to not notice the differences.  This kind of observation isn’t just relegated to families with more than one child. It’s just as easy for a parent of an only child to compare their child to a friend or relative, or even to themselves when they were young.

It’s important to consider how kids feel when we talk about these differences. Is it a way to spur a little healthy competition in order to bring out their best or does it simply create problems? As you’ve probably already guessed from the title of this article, I believe comparisons are heavily loaded with minuses and offer no real benefits to your family. They are powerful messages that can interfere with relationships and self-esteem, and their negative impact can be felt for a lifetime.

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Giving your child choices is a great way to help them feel empowered and independent, which helps them move confidently into handling more responsibility as they grow. Parents who give their child choices send a powerful signal that they have confidence in them, and that builds their self-esteem.  When you say,” You can decide”, it sends a message of trust. “I trust you to make a thoughtful decision.  I don’t need to be the boss over you, because I know you can think things through, and that you have good judgement.”  By handing age-appropriate decisions over to them, they also get the practice they need in learning about outcomes.  Since choices lead to consequences, it helps them learn what happens when they decide to handle a problem in a particular way.

Although there are many good reasons to use this approach with your child, it’s also important to remember that choices have to given to children in a thoughtful way.  Too many choices or inappropriate ones can backfire or create feelings of being overwhelmed.  Here are some things to consider when presenting choices to your child.

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Before your child goes to school for the first time, here are some things that should have already taken place.

Present a positive picture of school. This can be done by talking enthusiastically about how much they are going to be learning and all of the new friends they are going to make. Point out that the fact that they are ready for school shows how much they have grown. This is a right of passage for children and it should be treated like one – as a celebration.

Make a pre-first day visit.  If they have never been there before, children will have trouble imagining what school will be like. It’s harder to prepare yourself for something you have no first hand knowledge of. For that reason, it’s a good idea to take your child to their new school one or two times during the summer break so they can actually see where they are going and can get used to the environment. If possible, introduce them to the teacher as well. Explain cheerfully and confidently that this is where you will be dropping them off every day.  This helps your gives your child a concrete idea of what school is. Making it concrete makes it less scary.

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If you were about to start a brand new job or move into a new neighborhood, you may well have concerns about these unknown situations and demands. Your children are no different and starting school will cause a lot of questions and concerns to rise to the surface: What will I have to learn in school? Will it be too hard? Will I make friends? Who will I have lunch with? If I need help and my mom and dad aren’t there, who will help me? How will I get home?

These worries are not confined only to first timers either, and can occur in later grades as the demands intensify.

When you detect these kinds of concerns in your child, it’s very important that you become an empathetic and accepting listener.  But often when confronted with our child’s fears, we try and sweep them under the rug by simply giving a reassurance. Or we attempt to help by trivializing the problem: “Oh, you’re worrying over nothing. Everything will work out fine.”

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Your child is terrified of facing a bully at school.  He is being taunted and called names.  He was shoved into a locker as he walked down the hall. There is no question, he needs your help.  However, it isn’t always so easy to see when a situation is bullying and when it’s not.  Too many parents are interfering in run-of-the-mill social problems that are not true cases of bullying.  Aside from pampering through overprotection, this hyper-parenting is making it harder for schools to respond appropriately when they really need to.

Here’s a scenario that came to light in a local public school.

          A mother I know once got involved in a “bullying incident” at her eight-year-old daughter Michelle’s school. The incident?  Michelle wanted to play with a group of girls including Amanda, one of the more popular girls in her grade.  Amanda made it clear she didn’t want Michelle to join in on a particular game she was playing at recess. Michelle felt excluded and upset. Amanda and four of her friends had devised a game that they wanted to play with just the four friends.  Aside from not letting Amanda play with them, the four girls were not acting in an aggressive or hurtful manner.  They were not taunting Michelle or talking to her in a mean way.  There was no name calling or shoving.  Basically the problem behaviour boiled down to Michelle being told, “No, we don’t want any more people in our game.”  Furthermore, the four girls were not excluding Michelle in any other situation – they were all good friends and played together often.  However, the four girls were meeting at a corner of the playground at recess time where there was a small clump of bushes. Sitting inside the shade of the trees pretending to be a group of adventurers on a desert island; they had developed a kind of script with set characters. Michelle’s mother cried foul in the Principal’s office.  It was labelled exclusionary behaviour by the principal and this quickly put a stop to the schoolyard game.  Furthermore, the school created a new anti-bullying rule – no exclusive games allowed.  The little stand of bushes was also off-limits.  This stopped the “bullying” problem because the game came to an end.  The question is, should the adults have interfered?  Was this bullying?  We need to know the difference between what bullying is and what it isn’t.

           Nothing could be worse than being a bullied child.  Imagine going to school knowing you will be attacked -- taunted, punched, laughed at, stabbed with pencils, grabbed by the throat, shoved against the locker, even getting death threats.   Furthermore, imagine that there are no adults you can turn to.  You believe if you tell, no one will be able to actually help you – because the bullies are too clever.  And you are certain the torment will worsen because you have “ratted” them out.  

            A mother in Waterloo has decided to sue her son’s school board for not doing enough to protect her son from bullying. After trying the usual routes for solving the problem, she has decided to take legal action.  As the mother of a daughter who was bullied unmercifully in high school I can certainly appreciate why she’s doing this. 

            With all the light that is shining on the problem of bullying, it’s no wonder that parents are hyper-vigilant when it comes to heading off a potential bully.  Our job is to protect our kids - right? This new awareness is a great thing; except when we jump in when it’s not an actual case of bullying. Teachers and administrators are finding themselves getting involved in all kinds of minor incidences when parents overreact to each and every social mishap.  When this occurs, we can create an altogether different kind of problem. 

      Overprotection occurs when you go overboard with your protectiveness. Life is chock full of problems, misunderstandings, ill-advised words, and hurt feelings.  These things are to be expected.  Your child should have the resilience to weather these minor storms without needing your assistance beyond an understanding ear.  Overprotection saps your child’s confidence and leaves them feeling fearful and unable to handle the normal challenges in life.  The difference between protection and overprotection, particularly when it comes to our kid’s social lives at school, can leave the most astute parent confused.  When should your child cope on the own and when do you need to step in?  The first thing to remember is that a bullied child needs our help.  The second thing to remember is that not every social difficulty is bullying.

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Giving your child choices is a great way to help them feel empowered and independent, which helps them move confidently into handling more responsibility as they grow. Parents who give their child choices signal that they have confidence in them, which helps build their self-esteem.  When you say,” You can decide”, it sends a powerful message of trust. “I trust you to make a thoughtful decision.  I don’t need to be the boss over you, because I know you can think things through, and that you have good judgement.”  By handing age-appropriate decisions over to them, they also get the practice they need in learning about outcomes.  Since choices lead to consequences, it helps them learn what happens if they decide to handle a problem in a particular way.

    Although there are many good reasons to use this approach with your child, it’s also important to remember that choices have to given to children in a thoughtful way.  Too many choices or inappropriate ones can backfire or create feelings of being overwhelmed.  Here are some things to consider when presenting choices to your child.

Always Keep Choices Age-appropriate  

Although young children may have a limited understanding of how the world works, they can still make choices about things they do understand. If a child is under the age of three, it is helpful to offer choices between two concrete things. “Do you want to wear your track pants to daycare or would you rather wear your skirt and tights?”

Older children have a better understanding of the world around them. Give them open-ended choices. “Why don’t you step outside and see how cold it is? Then you can decide which jacket you’ll need.” This kind of choice helps them develop good judgement about caring for their own bodies.

Teenagers need a lot of practice in making decisions and dealing with consequences as they get closer to adulthood. This is why it’s important to negotiate decisions with teens. Discussions should take place that lead to agreements that you and your teen are comfortable with. “Let’s discuss together what time your weekend curfew should be.”

Use Choices to Defuse Power Struggles

        It is human nature to dislike feeling controlled, and most of us would always prefer having a choice.  If you are used to giving your child directions and commands, try replacing them with choices.  You may find you get better cooperation when your child feels she/he has a choice.  Sometimes, a choice is implied simply by the words you choose.

“Dinner is ready.  It’s on the table.”  (The child is not told what to do, therefore it is implied that they have a choice.)

“Would you like to have a big piece of shepherd’s pie or a small one?” 

“Are you ready to put your toys away now or would you like to do it after you have your snack?”

“It’s time for us to leave now.  Would you like to get in the car by yourself, or should I help you?”

Explain consequences clearly and accurately

      Your child will inevitably make some poor choices along the way but this will help them develop good judgement in the long run.  View these moments as learning opportunities and allow consequences to happen provided they are not dangerous or going to cause severe hardship for your child.   Your job is to sound the warning bell with a clear, accurate description of what consequences they can expect.  Then it’s up to them to figure out what they want to do.

“If you decide not to practice your spelling words, you might not be ready for your test on Friday.”

“If you decide to stay up and read past your bedtime you might be tired tomorrow morning.”

“If you decide to not finish your dinner, you might get hungry later.”

Choices shouldn’t interfere with the rights of others

Children shouldn’t have the impression that they are free to choose whatever they want without considering how it will impact the rights of others.  Life never gives us unlimited options so it’s best to try to present reality as it really is.  Instead, they have the right to make certain choices within reasonable limits.  For example, a parent may decide what to cook for dinner, but the child can be given the choice of how much he wants to eat, or even if he wants to eat it at all.  The child should not be given the choice to have his parent make a completely different meal for him.  That kind of choice would not be considerate of the parent’s time and work.

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“You are smart.” Vs. “I can see you worked really hard on this report.”

“You are pretty.” Vs. “I like the way you fixed your hair today.”

“You are a good boy.” Vs. “You remembered to take out the garbage.”

“You are talented.” Vs. “You certainly seem to enjoy playing your trumpet.”

We know that focusing on the positive is a great way to encourage a child, but there is a subtly important difference between praise and encouragement. Take a close look at the comments above. The statements on the left are praise; positive labels we reward a child with when she has done something special. Picture your child coming home with a perfect math test. “Look how smart you are!” you beam. Naturally, it feels great to hear such a positive evaluation.

But, even though many children love to hear praise, it can also produce some undesirable stress and pressure. Kids can easily get caught up in trying to keep the praise coming: “I need to always be the best; I can’t make mistakes; I must stand out and be better than others.”

When test-time rolls around again, the pressure is really on:  “Will I ace the test again, and will I still be smart in your eyes?” The essential problem with praise is that it teaches the child to be concerned about what others think of him. That is why children who are accustomed to praise can become discouraged when they don’t succeed and get the special recognition they expect. Some children even give up when they sense they are not the best. Since I’m not getting any special recognition, why bother trying at all? This is why many experts believe praise should be changed to words of encouragement. We want our children to feel good about themselves, even if no one is noticing how special they are, even if someone is not particularly happy with them, and even if they are not perfect, or high- achieving.

Those opening statements on the right are words of encouragement, not praise. Note the subtle differences. Instead of focusing on results, encouragement focuses on effort and improvement. A child with a not-so-perfect test score can still be feel good about what they learned, how much they enjoyed their task, and see where their mistakes are without losing self esteem. They are now primed to keep going.

Another important difference is that encouragement focuses on the child’s behaviour— what they do -- rather than the child herself:  “I can change what I do, but not who I am.”

Encouragement keeps kids focused on enjoying life, working towards improvement, and feeling a sense of belonging and importance.

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Many parents say:  “I always try to be fair to both my kids but they continually complain that I’m not. Where have I gone wrong?”

The truth is, every parent wants to be fair with their child, whether it’s settling arguments between siblings or making sure that no one is given more attention or goodies than their brother or sister. In fact, most of us put a lot of energy into keeping things as equal as possible. This is why it’s so hard to hear the oft-uttered phrase of a sobbing child, “You’re not fair!” It feels like a stab in the heart.

There are three instances when you are most likely to hear these dreaded words:

1. Getting involved in your children’s fights

Whenever you wade into the middle of a fight to listen to each of them explaining how awful their sibling has been, decide who’s guilty and mete out a punishment, you can be sure the one you ‘sided’ against will feel an injustice has taken place. They will believe you have not understood their side of things (even if you do) and may even see it as a sign of favouritism.

Mom: “You know you shouldn’t hit your sister even if she makes a face at you –that’s no excuse. Go to your room until you can say you’re sorry.”

Child: “But she’s always bugging me because she knows you’re going to stick up for her. You’re not fair!”

2. Making sure that everything is always equal

This can arise when you become overly concerned that everyone receives exactly the same amount of attention, hugs, things, treats, lessons, etc,. This type of ‘fairness’ encourages children to think about how much they’re getting instead of cooperating. When parents make an exaggerated attempt to keep the scales completely balanced, children tend to become hyper-vigilant about getting their due.

Dad (slicing the cake): “Now, don’t worry, I’m going to make sure you both get the same size piece.”

Sister: “Hey, his piece is bigger, that’s not fair!”

Dad: “Here let me put a little more on your plate to even it up.”

Brother: “Not fair! Now she’s got more than I do!”

Dad: “Okay, let me get out the ruler.”

3. Saying ‘no’

This is a prime opportunity for your child to pull out the “you’re not fair” complaint. This ploy often strikes at a parent’s sense of guilt and is surprisingly effective at making you rethink your decision, which is precisely the point.

Child: “Mom, can I go to a sleepover at Amanda’s tonight?”

Mom: “No, not tonight. We have to be up early tomorrow to go to your ringette game.”

Child: “That’s not fair! You always have an excuse why I can’t go to sleepovers. I won’t be tired, I promise. Everybody else gets to do things except for me. You’re always saying no.”

Mom: “Well, I guess if you promise not to stay up too late, you can go -- but I don’t want to hear any complaints if you’re tired tomorrow.”

Fairness basics

Remember that fairness is not necessarily about making your child happy at the moment but about prioritizing your family’s needs and making sure everyone’s rights are respected (including your own). No one in the family should be considered more or less important than anyone else, and following the rules and routines that you have all agreed on is always the fair way.

Being fair means not taking sides

Adopt the attitude that your children are capable of working out problems with siblings without your interference. It’s up to them to find a way to get along with their brothers and sisters. Each time you settle things for them, you take away an opportunity for them to learn about each other.

You also make tensions worse by creating feelings of favouritism. Instead, use family meetings to solve problems. Friendly discussions are more helpful than trying to settle each score for them.

Being fair means not worrying about making everything perfectly equal – that’s an unrealistic goal.

Have faith in your child that they can handle it when things aren’t exactly even. They won’t feel hurt or hard done by unless you give them reason to think they should feel that way. Give a good logical reason for why you aren’t treating them all exactly the same and leave it at that. “Your sister needs extra help with her homework because she’s having some difficulty with math this semester.”

“Your brother needs a new pair of shoes because he’s outgrown his old ones. Yours still fit you for now.”

Being fair means considering your decisions carefully before giving your answer, then following through.

When you stop and think before answering your child, you will have an easier time sticking to your decision. Consider why you are saying no. If it’s based on keeping to your routine, or helping your child keep up with responsibilities that have been agreed upon, you can feel more confident that your decision is ultimately fair. Also, it’s fair to consider how the request will impact the rest of the family. Give the reason why you are saying no; if your child is unhappy with it, acknowledge that she is feeling angry or disappointed. However, once you’ve made your decision, don’t do a flip-flop.

It’s important to stick to a ‘no’ when it’s needed.

 “I don’t think you can go to your friend’s house today. You have a piano lesson and it will mean a lot of extra driving for me to pick you up. Perhaps you can get together another time this week.”

Final Thoughts

If your child consistently accuses you of being unfair, it’s time to pull up a chair and have a heart to heart. Sometimes, without even realizing it, we do things that just don’t feel right for a child. Our job is to listen to our child’s ideas and feelings and create a dialogue. Ongoing problems should be addressed to keep your relationship strong and teach your child how to work through problems. Be willing to keep an open mind and admit mistakes if you feel you should, but also help your child reframe their ideas by asking good open-ended questions.

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Parents, please take a moment to answer the following four questions true or false.

1. You gave your child the latest video game for the holidays and ever since you’ve had virtually no conversation with him, and when you do his eyes glaze over in a haze of boredom.

2. She wants to sit for hours on end alone in front of her computer screen. Homework, chores, eating dinner – anything except the computer game -- is deemed “boring”.

3. He ignores your pleas to go outside and play with his friends, preferring to sit alone trying to reach level 19 in his latest computer game.

4. She sulks and cries when you even suggest taking a break from her screen.

If you’ve answered true to all of the above, the screens in your home have taken over and it’s time to take some action.  Like it or not, technology is definitely here to stay and the challenge of computer games, Wii consoles, Ipad’s, dsx, and smart phones are the new frontiers that we must all learn to navigate.  Unfortunately, new gadgets are being invented far faster than we can cope. 

Essentially, the challenge is to put technology in its rightful place in our homes.  All the latest studies show screen time is becoming one of the most time-consuming activities in children’s lives.  Providing limits within an agreed upon schedule is the key. Here are just a few excellent reasons to work on establishing limits for screen time.

Children develop self-esteem by doing and creating.

 Technology allows your child to be too passive -- it’s instant gratification. Just turn on a switch and an amazing screen world emerges that you are instantly drawn into. Compare this to an activity like building a tower out of Lego blocks.  The latter requires your child to imagine the finished product and create it himself.  He must use his hands to work with the building blocks, fine-tuning his motor control and coordination. It is much more challenging to create something out of nothing, solving the engineering problems as he goes. Too much passive entertainment can sap your child’s motivation to work at something that isn’t instantly gratifying.

Children need plenty of physical activity to stay healthy.

Children need to run and climb and kick a ball. Their young bodies require exercise to develop strong muscles, a healthy heart, and maintain an ideal weight.  Physical activity is also fun and helps them burn off some of their youthful energy.  Screen time, on the other hand is a sedentary activity.  Doctors are increasingly alarmed at the role of sedentary screen time in childhood obesity. 

Children need to spend time with other children to develop good social skills.

Children need social interaction to feel a sense of belonging and to make friends. Games that are played together with others help them learn the essentials of give and take, sharing, and cooperation.  Screen time is usually spent alone, depriving them of time to socialize with other kids.     

So what’s a parent to do? 

Put screen time in its place.  Together with your child, create a daily routine that takes into account everything that’s important in your family – chores, homework, play time, reading, and extra- curricular activities. Discuss why you believe there should be limits on screen time but be sure to get your child’s input too.  Listen to their ideas. Go online with your child and research what the experts recommend.  Have a debate, present your arguments, and listen carefully to their feelings and ideas until you come up with a time limit that you both feel is acceptable. Stress the idea of why these limits are important. Getting your child’s agreement on how much screen time there should be – and when, will increase the degree of cooperation you can expect. Also, it’s up to you to provide the toys, arts and craft materials, as well as opportunities to be with friends to replace those long hours in front of the screen.  Weekly family meetings to touch base on how it’s going will help you stay on track.  If agreements are broken, take it back to the family meeting and negotiate what kinds of logical consequences should take place.  Unplugging for a day or two is a reasonable consequence.

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The term “constructive criticism” is an oxymoron. Construction builds, criticism knocks down.

“You’re lazy”

“You talk too loudly.”

“You need to work harder at school.”

If you talk like this you’ve probably found that your kids don’t snap to attention and change their behaviour just because you’ve pointed out their shortcomings. Eye rolls, shoulder shrugs and tuning you out are more likely reactions.

Here’s the dilemma: You want your kids to be the best they can possibly be. When you see a problem, you feel it’s your duty to point it out so they can work on fixing it. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Most kids don’t react well to constructive criticism. When they’re criticized, they often feel bad about the negative feedback—even if they can’t articulate this feeling. It hurts to hear someone point out your mistakes and weaknesses, particularly if they’re true. To protect themselves from these uncomfortable feelings they put up a defence.

Arguing with you or tuning you out, are the two most common defensive reactions to criticism—both of which increase your frustration. So what do you do when you see something that needs to be addressed?

• Eliminate criticism, especially negative labelling from your vocabulary, and minimize your focus on mistakes. Instead, look for the positive and comment on the good things you see: “Wow, you got right to work on your homework today.” Encouragement is much more motivating than criticism.

• If there’s a problem that needs to be addressed, sit down at a quiet time and express your concern using “I” messages. “I” messages put the focus on your feelings—not on your child. “I feel worried when you don’t get your homework done because I’m afraid you are going to get behind in math. How do you feel about my concern?” By focussing on your feelings instead of what he’s doing wrong, he won’t feel attacked. This approach can lead to a problem solving discussion and stimulate real solutions.

• Ask—don’t tell. Ask your child what she thinks of her behaviour. Her self-evaluation is more important than what you or anyone else thinks of her. “What do you think of your report card?” If she’s not happy, ask her what she thinks she can do to improve her grades.

• Make rules together. When you do this with your children it leads to greater cooperation, but if you’re having a problem getting your child to comply with a rule, try reminding her a few times in a positive way, “Your jacket belongs on the hook inside the closet door.” If she continues to leave her jacket on the floor, use a logical consequence such as putting the jacket in a “lost & found” box in the basement. This will help you avoid nagging and criticism.

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The long leisurely mornings of summer are now over. One of the biggest challenges of starting the school year is getting your children onto a new schedule after they have had months of no schedule at all. For that reason, creating a routine is the most important aspect of getting your children out the door in the morning with the minimal amount of stress – for you and for them. Routines are important because they help children learn what is expected of them. It allows them to be as independent as possible because they know what they are supposed to do. And children always feel more comfortable in predictable circumstances.

There are many things that should be considered when setting up a routine.

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“It’s better to give than to receive.” The truth of this saying can only be appreciated by someone who has felt the happiness of giving; the deep thrill and great satisfaction of being the architect of someone else’s happiness. Giving is the best way to produce the feeling of being needed, of feeling useful, and essential; of finding your place in the world and your connection to others.  When it comes to our children, there is no better way to raise their self-esteem, empathy and connection to others than to help them learn about giving firsthand.

      During the holiday season when our kids are madly studying the toy websites and mailing off lists to Santa, we get fooled into thinking that children receive and adults give -- but we shouldn’t short change them so easily.  Children love to be givers every bit as much as adults do, and it’s so important for their burgeoning self-esteem and social interest for them to have this opportunity.  Giving boosts your child’s feelings of self-worth because they see and feel how their caring helps someone else.

       There are many ways to tap into their innate desire to care. Kids love to give gifts, they love to make gifts, and they love to see the reactions of their friends and family when they hand them something that is from them.  They are also happy to donate, to be part of a fundraising project that will give a less fortunate child something that they may take for granted.  They want to open their hearts and find a way to make a difference.  Here are some ways to share the true joy of the holiday season with our children, by giving the gift of giving.

Make Gifts Together

The internet is a vast resource for ideas on child-friendly hand-made gifts.  Surf the web with your child to get ideas on what they can make for friends, relatives and teachers. Then set aside a day in December to work on your home-made presents.  Crafts or food gifts are great fun to make, and your child doesn’t need to spend money and shop in a store to have something to give.  A prettily wrapped box of homemade cookies is always appreciated.

Donate Gifts

Many children receive more gifts than they need from well-meaning friends and relatives. This surplus can be shared with other, less fortunate kids.  The fire station in every community generally collects gifts to donate to needy families. Many newspapers collect toys for the underprivileged.  Encourage children to share their bounty.

Give Money

We know lots of children who enjoy making a donation from their allowance to the charity of their choice.  They may enjoy doing a little research about how these charities work and who benefits from their donations.  For instance, if they have a love of animals, they may wish to help the humane society or the WWF. If they are interested in science, they may like to help an environmental group.  If someone they know is suffering from an illness, they may want to help a hospital or foundation. Or, they may simply want to help needy children locally or in another part of the world.


Giving your time is a great way to make a difference.  Although some organizations accept only adult volunteers, many will accommodate children as well.  Check out religious or non-profit organizations, schools, shelters, Parks & Recreation departments, senior citizen homes, food banks, and local vets and humane societies.  These experiences can be both fun and serious, giving a child some first-hand understanding of needs in their community.  They will also meet some great people who help others, and these people can become positive role models. 

Used Toys and Clothing

As you head into the holidays, earmark a morning to go through closets and toy chests.  Donate used items to the charity of your choice.  Involve your child in each step of the process, including bringing the boxes of used goods to the shelter or drop-off centre.  This helps children understand where their things are going and who will benefit from the donation.


If you are planning on hosting some seasonal get-togethers, involve your children by giving them a role in the actual party itself.  For example, children can help decide which hors d’oeuvres to serve, how to decorate your table, or help guests with their coats and boots.  When parents tell their children, “I really need your help and ideas for the party,” kids are more than willing to pitch in.   If kids have a special musical or dramatic talent, a performance can be given.

Food Banks

Hunger is an ever-present problem in almost every community.  Food banks ask for extra donations during this time of year to replenish their stocks and meet the ever-rising need of people who cannot afford to feed their families.  Children can be introduced to the food bank, and be with you when you make a donation. 

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If you are a good listener, chances are your child will feel cared about and self-confident. That’s because listening shows your child you value what he thinks and feels.  But beyond this, it will also help him become an expert at solving problems in his own life. Good listeners help you figure out what you can do about your problem without lectures or unwanted advice.  They do this by making it safe to be open about problems and explore different solutions. All of this will help you enjoy a closer relationship with your child that will see you through even the roughest patches.  There aren’t many other tools in our parenting tool-box that can boast such powerful results.  Here are a few simple basics to get the communication flowing.

Mirror their feelings

            When your child talks to you, try to figure out what they are feeling and paraphrase it in your own words, reflecting it back.  There are so many different possible feelings a child can have, and when you label them, it’s like hitting the nail square on the head.  It makes them feel that you really understand them.  A good way to do this is to say something like: “It sounds like you feel ...”

For example:

“It sounds like you were really embarrassed when your teacher yelled at you in front of the whole class.”

“Yeah, everyone was looking at me and I could feel my face turning red.”

Don’t Give Advice

           This is a tough one for parents, but when you are listening, it’s best to not tell your child what to do, even if you think you have the perfect solution.  Usually, when we try to tell them what to do, they reply with an “Oh that won’t work.” Or a “You just don’t understand.”  Rarely do they say, “Gee, thanks for solving this for me because I would never have been able to figure it out myself.” Actually, no one likes to be told what to do.  The unspoken message you send is that you lack confidence in their ability to figure things out.  It will be more effective and encouraging to ask good open-ended questions instead.  “Hmmm, it sounds like you have a huge amount of homework and you’re feeling overwhelmed, how are you going to figure out what needs to be done first?”

Listening tips

  • Listening takes time.  Put down your newspaper and give your child your full attention.
  • It’s O.K. to not talk at all. Nod your head, say things like  “uh- huh”, have good eye contact and keep your body language relaxed and open.
  • Use door openers like “If you feel like talking about it later, you know where to find me.”
  • Be encouraging.  “I’m really glad you told me about this.”
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“Daniel, if you bother your sister one more time, the consequence is going to be that I take away your new video game for the rest of the week!”

What this parent is really talking about is a punishment, not a consequence. Many people use the words interchangeably, but it’s more than semantics; there is a real difference between punishments and consequences. Consequences are the direct result of a choice or action. They are connected to a problem by either a logical thread or as a natural result. Because consequences are directly related to an action or choice, they are educational. They help us learn how to act in the future by showing us the outcome of something we do today. This was driven home to me very forcefully a few years ago. I was backing out of my driveway and there was a car parked across the street. When I heard the sound of crunching metal instantly realized what I had done. Two thousand dollars later I learned to do a much better job of checking behind me before backing up.

Consequences are one of the best tools that parents have, especially if you don’t want to use punishment and rewards. There are two kinds: Natural and Logical.

Natural consequences are the things that Mother Nature takes care of without any involvement from mom or dad. The natural world is a great teacher. If we get too close to a flame we are burned. If we expose our skin to strong sunshine for too long we get a sunburn. Or if we forget to grab breakfast before dashing out the door, our stomachs are growling by mid-morning. The best thing about natural consequences is that children learn directly from them. Since you (the parent) are not connected to the consequence, they are not going to view it as something you are doing to punish them.

Logical consequences are arranged by the parent but are logically connected to the misbehaviour. For example, if a child won’t wear his bike helmet, the parent can take away the privilege of riding the bike until he is ready to comply with the rule that says they have to wear their helmet each time they ride.


“The arts and crafts supplies are in a box in the basement. They were left on the table and I had to put them somewhere. If you want to have them on the shelf to use, you will have to get them and remember to put them away when you are finished.”

In order to call something a logical consequence instead of a punishment, there has to

be this kind of logical connection. In addition:

  • Consequences are not carried out in anger.
  • Consequences build in a chance for the child to try again.
  • Consequences are less likely to trigger rebellion and revenge.
  • Consequences teach the child.

Punishments on the other hand are arbitrarily decided by the parent. Usually the parent removes the child’s favourite toy or activity until the child cooperates. Since there is no logical connection, the child is less likely to learn why they should cooperate. Instead, they learn how to avoid a punishment, which can lead to sneaky behaviour:

  • Punishments are often carried out in anger, which can create reciprocal anger and rebellion.
  • Punishments are not as effective as consequences in teaching cooperation.
  • Punishments are not effective in power struggles.
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If your child could give you a word of advice on how to raise him, it would include the following request:

 “Please Don’t Pamper Me!”

      Pampering is, and always has been, one of the major pitfalls in parenting.  Yet despite its long history, it is a very common problem that is exceptionally hard to avoid, particularly in today’s world. There have been some major social changes that have combined to create the perfect storm for pampering: Overwork  (and the accompanying guilt), a high divorce rate (again, more guilt), exhausted parents, a materialistic culture, compelling high-tech entertainment, anxious parents, and small families.  Combine all these with a trend towards a permissive parenting style that puts a high premium on children’s happiness –and you can easily fall into pampering without even realizing it.

     But how damaging is pampering really?  What could be the harm of a little indulgence?  You might be surprised to learn that Alfred Adler, the father of humanistic psychology, believed that pampering is at the root of most neurosis, and can be pinpointed as the cause of a great deal of  psychological and emotional suffering.

     Why is pampering so harmful?  Pampering gives the child a very poor preparation for the truly difficult challenges that life brings. It saps their courage, makes them dependent on others, and thwarts the development of empathy and compassion.  The pampered child also develops unreasonable expectations of life and of others, and thus is left feeling that the world is unreasonably hostile towards her.

       How can I prevent this problem from happening?  Being aware of the different forms of pampering is the first step. There are five different types of pampering:

1. Too much service (doing for a child what they can do for themselves);

2.  Too many things (providing children with an unreasonable amount of possessions);

3. Giving children their own way (always catering to their whims and wishes);

4. Too much attention (always making the child the centre of attention);

5.  Overprotection (holding children back by overplaying fears and risks).

You may only have difficulty with some of these.  Once you’ve identified your particular problem, effort should be made to eliminate the pampering.  For example, one of the common forms of pampering is giving your child too much service.  You may do things for your child because it’s easier and quicker than allowing him to do it for himself, particularly when you are in a hurry. This can be detrimental to your child’s self-esteem and motivation.  Every time you take away an opportunity from your child to do things for herself, you send the message that you can do things better than she can.  After a time, he may give up and resign himself to letting you do everything. This is why it’s important to allow her the extra time she needs to be as independent as possible.  Yes, it may take a full five minutes for your five-year-old to tie his own laces, but these small inconveniences are part and parcel of being a parent.  Set aside some time to teach him the new skills he’ll need and help him learn the ropes by doing it together for a while.  Encourage him to be independent, even if at first he is reluctant to take on new responsibilities.  In a short time, your efforts will pay off and he will rely less on you and more on himself.  This will help him feel competent and capable and closer to being the adult he dreams he will one day be. 

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“True happiness is inseparable from the feeling of giving.”

            - Alfred Adler

Social interest is having a feeling, or empathy, for other people and is at the core of cooperation and compassion. When you have social interest you are able to see with others’ eyes and feel with others’ hearts. It’s about caring about others, not more than ourselves but at least as much. We all have it to one degree or another, even though it doesn’t seem that way sometimes. We must have, or how else could all of us puny little humans manage to cooperate in killing all of those giant Woolly Mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers that roamed the earth when we were evolving?

As parents, it’s helpful to realize that social interest is built right into the psychological core of every child; but it has to be nurtured, not smothered by pampering and discouragement. There are many ways for parents to encourage social interest in our children; two of the best are:

  • giving children responsibilities around the house
  • modeling respectful, caring behaviour yourself
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Picture this: Instead of arguing and fighting over every problem your family has and every decision you have to make, you and your kids sit down and calmly work out your issues together.

Sounds like a hopeless dream? Absolutely not -- all it takes is a little skill, some power sharing and what has become the staple of the new, democratic approach to parenting: The Family Meeting.

The family meeting is a way to teach your kids how to solve problems, resolve conflicts and compromise with others in order to plan your family’s life. These are all very important life skills that were often ignored in the old autocratic “just-do-what- I-say” parenting style of the past. In fact, the family meeting is the where the rubber meets the road if you want a democratic parenting style that is based on mutual respect and consensus.

The Approach

If you are going to have a family meeting, the approach is very important. First of all, it must be very… well, democratic. Don’t march in one day and announce: “We have decided to have family meetings. They will be held every Friday promptly at 7:30. Those not attending can’t watch TV anymore.”

If you do that, these become your meetings, and what kid wants to cooperate with that?

Instead, tell your kids the truth: “We have just heard about a great new way we can plan our family schedule and solve our problems together. You guys have great ideas and we really need your help running the family. Would you like to try it?”

If they say yes, you are off to the races. If there is resistance, tell them you understand they are not sure about the meetings but would they be willing to try just one. Most kids will be willing to do that. If they still don’t want to, don’t get upset. Allow them the right to disagree but announce your plans to have the meeting anyway. And have them, even if only mom and dad attend the first few meetings. As soon as your kids learn that the meetings are now the place where things are decided – things that greatly affect their life – they will soon start showing up. And once they learn that they have an equal say in these family decisions – because there is no decision unless everyone agrees – they will start to see them as their meetings too.

Ground Rules

To make the meetings run well, there should be some ground rules.

  • Have regular meetings (once a week) and don’t let them go on too long, especially with young children (20 - 30 min.).
  • No put downs (this is, after all, based on mutual respect).
  • Revolve the chairperson, recording secretary etc. Once your kids have learned how to run and act at a meeting, let them run the show sometimes.
  • No talking unless recognized by the chair.

The Agenda

What you don’t want to do is call a meeting every time your kids do something you don’t like. This fosters the idea that meetings mean: “Oh oh. I’m in trouble again”. Instead, have them at regular times and write problems or other issues on an agenda that is posted in a prominent place. To keep it positive, only talk about the first three agenda items (which are positive or at least neutral) for the first for or five meetings, until the kids see how it all works and start to have fun with it. Here are the recommended agenda items:

1. What’s going well? This is a place for encouragement, for telling each other what is going right. This begins the meeting on a positive note.

2. Planning (family fun, schedules etc.). “Your birthday is coming up, where do you want to have it?” is a fool-proof way to get the kids onside. Use this agenda item to also plan the weekly schedule, meals, homework and bedtime routines etc.

3. Jobs. Kids should help out around the house, but if you ask them what jobs they want to do instead of demanding it, you have a much better chance of compliance. If they don’t do their jobs for some reason, use the next agenda item to address the problem.

4. What’s not going well? Every family has problems, but in the democratic approach it is every family member’s responsibility to help solve them, not just the parents. Bring problems up in a non-critical way: “I notice the garbage wasn’t taken out last night.” Then brainstorm solutions and work at it until everyone agrees to a try a particular solution. Review the solution at the next meeting to make sure it’s working.

5. Personal problems. This is an opportunity for any family member to talk about their own problems within the supportive atmosphere of the family.

It takes a little effort to establish, but the time saved and the stress avoided by solving problems at a family meeting are well worth it.

For more on having family meetings, see our bestselling book, Practical Parenting: A Common Sense Guide to Raising Cooperative, Self-Reliant and Loving Children.

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