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Two Words I’ll Stop Saying to My Kids Right Now

Friday, August 8th, 2014

My daughter and I were finishing up lunch in a diner. As the waitress cleared my empty plate, recently the scene of a large pile of greens and grilled chicken, she said, “Good job on that salad!”

“Right?” she then said to my girl, who gave that polite smile kids do when they’re expected to respond to the adult speaking to them, but don’t know what they’re supposed to say.

“I learned how to ride a bike last year, Dad. You can stop saying ‘good job!’ now.”

When we got outside, I asked my daughter, “What did you think when our waitress told me ‘good job’ for eating my lunch?” Meanwhile, I’d already quickly made the sanity-saving decision to mentally suppress any possible subtext in our waitress’s comment (something like, oh, I don’t know: You slob).

My daughter shrugged and said, “I thought it was weird.”

Weird. That’s what I thought, too. It was my lunch. I ordered it. What was I supposed to do, if not eat it: stare at it? I’d smiled at the waitress politely, too, in lieu of I-don’t-know-what she expected me to say (“thanks?”).

Yet we say “good job” to our kids all the time, for things they’re supposed to be doing anyway, even routine, unspectacular stuff. We say “good job!” to them for getting their shoes on or for drinking their milk or for scaling the monkey bars or for using the toilet paper. Yet research shows all this praise isn’t really helping kids. Overpraise may even undermine kids’ efforts and commitment to whatever they’re doing, according to experts like Stanford psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck, a pioneer researcher on kids and motivation, and author of  Mindset, and Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: the Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Rather, children should be motivated by their own enjoyment of the task at hand.

I recently had another occasion to hear I was doing a “good job!” during a group training class at the gym. No sooner had we pushed the start button on the treadmills when the buff, baby-faced trainer in charge—let’s call him Zac Efron—said, “Good job, everyone.” Excuse me, Zac? I haven’t even started walking yet. How could I possibly be doing a good job? Throughout the one-hour class, he must have said through his mic “good job!” no fewer than 30 times. No doubt Zac meant well, but I felt irritated. Irritated because I knew his praise was not sincere, which of course must be how kids feel when they’re being good-jobbed everywhere they turn. All of a sudden, my youngest child’s cranky retort after I had told her “good job!” for going down the big slide—she said , “No, I’m not!”—made sense to me.

That’s not to say I’m above a lift from praise. Who doesn’t like a little pat on the back once in awhile, something I remember felt especially in short supply before I returned to work full-time, when I was instead home day after day doing the demanding, sometimes-lonely job of raising little kids. But praise feels good only when it’s special, and deserved. When a trainer at the gym tells me, just once, I’ve (finally!) achieved good form on my running-man, I feel he means it, because I know how ridiculous everyone looks trying to get the hang of running man.

I’m about to embark on vacation with my kids, and if I can get them through a week of new adventures, from sampling clams to paddleboarding, without overpraising them, maybe then, and only then, I can look in the mirror and say to myself, “Good job.”

Using Positive Reinforcement
Using Positive Reinforcement
Using Positive Reinforcement

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Could You Use a Break From Facebook?

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

Have you ever taken a break from Facebook? I’m in the middle of a weeks-long one now, and I’ve got good company:  A surprising 61 percent of Facebook users take a hiatus from the site for a few weeks or more, according to the Pew Research Center. Their reported reasons probably sound familiar: “I was tired of stupid comments.” “Too much drama.” “People were posting what they had for dinner.” If you’ve been feeling that checking your feed has been a timesuck, it probably is: Americans spend an average of 40 minutes per day on Facebook.

Stop liking everything!

Facebook’s been good to me—reacquainting me with old friends and keeping me connected to others I might’ve lost touch with. I especially love seeing pictures of my friends and their children. (But not a picture of their glowing report cards. Seriously? What happened to sharing them with grandparents?) I’ve gotten actual, paying work because of Facebook. I helped set up a couple, through Facebook, who later got married.

So why turn my back on Facebook? I had my reasons:

Lazy friendships. I felt like I’d allowed too many of my real-life relationships get downgraded to lazily clicking the “like” button on one another’s posts, or making only the “safe” kind of comments you can when you know your respective 200-plus friends are listening. But that’s no substitute for thoughtful, intimate conversation, so I vowed to make more of an effort to see people, or at least call them.

Attention vampires. If I’d gotten lax about keeping in touch with people I’m close to, I had the opposite problem with other friends: people I don’t know well, but who post and comment a lot. Sometimes I’d feel guilty if I didn’t acknowledge their latest post about whatever they were facing in their lives—from the mundane (the laundromat ruined their duvet cover) to the potentially serious (like tests to rule out or detect a medical problem). But then I realized all my friends have such ups and downs, and they’re not posting everything. The ones who do, though, start to feel like attention vampires, and being their Facebook friend is work. Facebook creates an artificial alternate reality that way, where you’re attuned to the lives of people who post the most. Sure, that’s what the “unfollow” button is for. But it doesn’t make the friends I want to hear more from post any more. I needed to get in touch.

Family-time interference. I’m a mom, to three, and it bothered me when my oldest recently asked me if I was looking at my phone “again.” Part of that phone time was spent checking Facebook, minutes I could be spending with my real-life loves. To make it less easy to log on, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone, for now.

Feeling left out. You ever see a picture on Facebook of friends with arms draped over one another, oversized wine glasses in hand, or of a big party to which you or perhaps your kid, um, didn’t receive the invite? Yeah, that. It doesn’t matter that you’re often in group pictures having fun—like an elephant, you remember the times you’ve missed out. Related…

Old-fashioned jealousy. Facebook exposes me to the privilege of those around me; and yes, to the hardships of others too—but really, mostly the privilege. Yes, yes: Count one’s blessings and all that. But during summer especially, when I’m working, and my news feed overflows with pictures of awesome vacations, or friends taking their kids to the beach, or blueberry picking, or setting up the slip n’ slide in the backyard…. Oh, I know it’s irrational (I do those things, too, on my time off) and even they’re not having that much fun every day. But there’s something about seeing all those pictures collectively, day after day for weeks, that can make one feel like everybody else is on an extended summer vacation, ‘cept you. Not healthy. A dad acquaintance admitted to me the other day, “Sometimes when I look at Facebook I think, Come on. Your life can’t be that great.”

Seeing double. I originally liked looking at Facebook for the pictures. Then as more friends joined Instagram, I would see their photos posted in both places. Checking one account once per day does the job fine.

The fighting! Politics, especially. A fight breaks out, friends of the friends pick sides and pile on, then someone gets unfriended. But I haven’t seen anyone change their stance yet because of something someone wrote on Facebook, which makes reading all that “discussion” seem like a waste of energy.

At first I deactivated my account (different from deleting it)—you can safely do this and reactivate by simply logging in again, with everything left exactly the way it was. But I wanted to check the Facebook page of a friend whose child is battling a long-term disease, and deactivated/reactivated a few times to do just that. The first few days without Facebook were weird—what a part of my daily (er, bihourly?) routine it had become! But now, I’ve weaned myself off Facebook just enough to leave it active, without feeling the urge to look at it. And I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would.

The downside: I do hate to think about missing friends’ major life events and news, and in between all the clutter, Facebook really is the place where people announce the important highlights of their lives. (My youngest was a Facebook baby. A friend of a friend posted the news of her birth before I could!) But mostly, now I’m blissfully not spending time weeding through inspirational quotes and “LOLs” and third-party videos and plenty of other things that don’t interest me. What I’m most surprised about, though, is how much news I’ve missed—I hadn’t realized how much I’d come to depend on Facebook for what’s “trending:” major headlines, juicy celebrity gossip, and news analyses. But I don’t mind being a little bit out of it (or checking Twitter more frequently now, ha) while some of the things in my world I’d been neglecting during time I spent on Facebook, or talking about what I saw/liked/didn’t like on Facebook, shift back into focus.

Having to take a Facebook break—and announcing it, and assuming people care—is slightly embarrassing. (I did question whether I was being a little too dramatic. Um, attention vampire?!) My friends Erin and Suzanne, who have never joined Facebook, don’t have this problem. In the early days of Facebook, I thought they were crazy. What? But why?! How do you know anything that’s going on? Now, I envy their just-don’t-wanna-deal, who’s-got-the-time coolness. I also admire the restraint of the friends in my feed who rarely log on, when 63 percent of users look at Facebook at least once per day, while 40 percent cop to checking it multiple times a day. The fact that I even had to think about tearing myself away—something that had been in the back of my mind for weeks—was surely a sign I needed a breather.

How long will I stay away from the conversation? I could be at the beginning or nearing the end—I haven’t really put an exact expiration date on this little hiatus.

But I already feel freer, almost as if I’d spent every day this past week at the beach, blueberry picking, or slip-sliding under sunny skies.

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The Nicest Thing You Can Do for Another Parent Today

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

After you become a parent, there are some people you meet who you’ll never forget. You may not have caught their name at the time; you probably couldn’t even pick them out of a lineup. But they did something for you that you’ll remember forever.

This mom’s got it down. Hey, why not tell her?

Years ago, I was checking out at Target; my two children were bickering, I was hugely pregnant, and I was trying to keep everyone (including me) calm. I knew a woman was behind me in line, but only in that vague this-poor-innocent-who’s-subjected-to-our-circus-routine sense. I waddled out of the store, kids whining, as quickly as I could. When we got to the parking lot, the woman who’d been behind us at checkout approached me and said, “I just want you to know that you’re doing a really good job.” Someone else might’ve found such an unsolicited opinion, as positive as it was, patronizing. But given that I was having the sort of trying day when I felt like I was most definitely not doing a good job, I could have hugged that kind stranger for giving me a lift when I needed it.

I asked friends if they’d also experienced stranger kindness in tough parenting moments. I loved their stories:

“Once when my son was a baby I put him in his infant carrier and went for a long walk. It started to rain. Out of nowhere a young man appeared and gave me his umbrella. He insisted I take it, and I was so grateful. I had that umbrella for years—it always reminded me of his kindness.”

“I was upgraded to first class with my 7-month-old. As soon as the flight attendant set down a full can of soda, my daughter kicked it and sent it flying. The can landed just perfectly to spray most of the first-class cabin—except me—and doused one man in particular. Everyone, incredibly, laughed it off, assuring me that they had kids, too. I couldn’t even buy them a drink, because drinks were free!”

“Where I live in New York City, there are lots of subway stairs: Imagine carrying a stroller up a long flight of stairs with a 20-pound child in tow. Over the years many strangers have helped me up or down the steep subway stairs all over New York. Now whenever I see someone struggling with a stroller, I try to help.”

“On a boat trip in Bermuda my son, then 2, was climbing on and off a wooden bench, when an older woman next to us asked how old he was. I told her and said, ‘Sorry, he can’t sit still.’ She said, ‘He’s adorable and a perfectly normal 2-year-old! If your 2-year-old wasn’t doing that you should be worried.’ I was so grateful I started tearing up.”

“I went to pick up my daughter’s new school books and had both kids, ages 7 and 2, with me, and my 2-year-old was being cranky. When 11 books were put on the counter in front of me, a woman in line handed me her canvas bag and said, ‘Here, use this.’ I said, ‘But how will you bring your books out?’ She said, ‘I don’t need to, so it’s perfect.’ She made that moment in my day a whole lot easier.”

“One time in Starbucks my son gagged on a bit of muffin, and threw up everywhere. The lady at the next table immediately leaped up, said ‘Poor thing!’ and got napkins to help me clean up. I’ve never forgotten her.”

I remembered my angel at Target this weekend when my older daughter, now 9, and I were celebrating her birthday with a just-us-big-girls lunch at a sidewalk cafe. Beside us was a couple with their sweet baby, who had managed to sit nicely quite awhile in a wood high chair, and was then passed back and forth between her parents while they finished eating. At the end, she’d had her fill and started protesting more loudly, and the couple quickly gathered their check and paid.

As they packed up, the dad turned to me and said, “We’re sorry!”

“Ohmigosh, don’t be! She’s adorable!” I said, genuinely, adding I was impressed by how long she lasted. (If she’d needed to bail earlier, it wouldn’t have mattered, of course. She’s a baby!) I think her parents puffed with a little more pride as they walked away.

Now that I’m not the newbie parent on the block anymore and can offer up something kind to say to a parent having a tough moment in my midst, I should probably do that more freely. I don’t know why I haven’t—maybe it’s the reluctance to seem like a busybody—but I know how good it made me feel when a stranger said something nice to me about my parenting. I still appreciate any positive reinforcement I can get these days. Isn’t it always nice to be reminded, I’m not doing this parenting thing so badly or, yeah, my kid does kind of rock!

How about you? Has a stranger ever done anything to make your day as a parent a little better or brighter?

Crafts for Kids: Cozy Critters
Crafts for Kids: Cozy Critters
Crafts for Kids: Cozy Critters

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Tags: | Categories: The Parents Perspective

Schools Need Air Conditioning!

Friday, June 13th, 2014

It amazes me that in 2014, many schools still don’t have air conditioning. How can children concentrate, much less learn anything, sitting in a room with temperatures hovering in the mid 80s to the 90s, as many U.S. kids whose schools are still in session are doing right now?

“I have a question: Why no air conditioning?”

While technology and other projects have taken priority, physical comfort during the warmer weeks of the beginning and end of the school year, it seems, still lags on the list. “If prisons have AC, then so should schools!” says my friend Linda, a mom and former teacher who’s passionate about this topic.

Last week at my son’s spring orchestra concert, I wish I could have focused on the kids’ beautiful performance. But I was distracted by how uncomfortable they looked in the heat of the school’s un-air-conditioned auditorium. While parents fanned themselves with their programs and checked the time, children onstage blew hair out of their eyes, wiped their foreheads on their bare arms, and tugged at their shirt collars. Last night, I attended a literacy celebration at my younger child’s school, in a 100-year-old building, where we were encouraged to write notes of “warm feedback”—code for positive commentary, but could have just as easily referred to our pencil-smeared, sweat stained Post-Its.

I thought about these kids, and the school staff, who have to work in hot classrooms through the end of next week in our New Jersey district, and wondered how many other schools still don’t have air conditioning. In asking a few friends whether they had air at their schools, a theme emerged: If you were lucky enough to get some state grant money, and/or if your school had a strong enough PTA, and generous donations from parents, air conditioning is a popular project at the moment, with passionate supporters. Still, cooling a school is quite an undertaking: paying for individual wall units, updating electrical work, purchasing compressors and air handlers, and so on. Understandably, it’s been slow coming. But it’s also overdue.

In one of my favorite classic movies, The Seven Year Itch, a straight-and-narrow New York businessman’s summer gets interesting when the new girl who’s moved into the apartment above, Marilyn Monroe, comes downstairs to bask in his air conditioning. His wife and child are away in the country for the summer, as was customary in 1955, because it was too darn hot.

It’s been nearly 60 years since Marilyn famously stood in a white dress over a subway grate to catch a breeze. Our local elementary school is in the process of getting cool air flowing in classrooms—but not the large gym/auditorium/lunchroom—in time for next year. Schools that don’t have active PTOs, or in districts where parents can’t afford to make the contributions necessary to install air, are left behind. This is unfair, and not just from a comfort and health standpoint: Not surprisingly, studies have found that students working in stifling-hot conditions perform worse on exams.

I think about New York City schoolchildren—the many who don’t have air conditioning—who will have sweltering days in their classrooms through June 26th. Chicago is ponying up $100 million to meet Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “sudden mandate to air-condition classrooms in 206 schools, even as CPS [Chicago Public Schools] faces a $1 billion shortfall and many other pressing capital needs,” as the Chicago Sun Times reported in April.

I detect judginess of Chicago’s mayor in those words. But as a mother who, like most parents, is sympathetic to sweaty, red-faced kids and teachers, I’m with Rahm.

Air conditioning, now!

Help your child keep track of her progress in school and shop kids’ backpacks for the fall.

What Kids Like (And Don't Like) About School
What Kids Like (And Don't Like) About School
What Kids Like (And Don't Like) About School

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How Young Is Too Young for Kids to Text Their Friends?

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

With our first child, my husband and I had pretty strict rules. No TV until age 2. Bedtime at 8 pm, firm. Then our next kid came along, and all that flew out the window. Our second watched her big brother’s favorite cartoons from her bouncy seat, and bedtime became more like 8-ish

All parents of two know the second child gets perks sooner than the first does. So while my oldest, 12, got his first phone and began texting friends at the start of this school year (he’s a sixth-grader), his sister’s asking for the same privilege—specifically, to use iMessage on her iPod Touch—even though she’s a whole three years younger than he is. Then again all kids, whether they have an older sib or not, are tech-savvy at increasingly younger ages. How else to explain how well my 2-year-old can deftly swipe her way around an iPad?

But back to my dilemma at hand: How young is too young to allow your child to start texting friends? My son was ambivalent about messaging pals, but our second, who’s nearly 9, is eager for her dad’s and my permission. “All my friends do!” she said. I checked around, and indeed, her girl buddies are texting and FaceTiming.

I talked to a friend who’s been there, and this was her take: “It starts out innocently enough. You check her messages, and in the beginning it’s a lot of, ‘Hey. ‘Sup.’ And you think, OK, this is all pretty boring.

“But you can’t get lax,” my friend continued, “because then they start sending pictures. And at first it’s just animals, but then the next thing you know, their friends are writing or sending inappropriate things.” I was thinking of another mom pal whose fifth-grade daughter and her friends initiated a contest on Instagram to determine the prettiest girl in their circle. Their moms moaned a collective, “Ugh!” and promptly shut it down. Another mother I know has a blanket “no selfie” rule for her kids—no selfies of any kind, ever. Their house, their rule.

Right now, my third-grader just doesn’t want to be left out of deep discussions about Littlest Pet Shop and the like, and I sympathize. Texting is a way to socialize, after all, and I know it’s inevitable. (So far, her only texts have been occasional ones to me at work, from the babysitter’s phone.) Today’s children are “digital natives”—as Hanna Rosin wrote in this eye-opening story last year in The Atlantic, the “touch-screen generation” has never known a world without electronics, so no wonder my kids’ gen and mine will likely never see exactly eye to eye on what’s too much. I’m hardly anti-tech myself (I sleep with my iPhone beside my bed), but it feels all too personally familiar when I read that studies show kids ages 8 to 18 are spending more time on their electronic devices than any other activity. As Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D, writes eloquently in her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Families in the Digital Age: Parents and children may be enjoying “swift and constant access to everything and everyone on the Internet,” but they are losing “a meaningful personal connection with each other in their own homes.”

We’re a happily pro-tech family, but my kids are on their devices plenty already. (Ditto.) Allowing my daughter to text a moment sooner than she needs to feels like one more pull down the deep digital rabbit hole. (Related: She also wants a YouTube channel.) Selfishly speaking, it will be one more thing for her dad and me to monitor. And if kids continue to adapt these practices at younger ages, at what age do you absolutely draw the line? In a few years will our toddler be messaging friends about what they’re wearing to kindergarten graduation?

I’m curious: How old were your kids—or how old do you think they’ll be—when you allow them to text, Instagram, and use other social media to keep connected with friends? Do you, or will you, check up on their activity?

I’d <3 to hear ur thoughts on this. ;)

Controlling Your Child's Digital Interactions
Controlling Your Child's Digital Interactions
Controlling Your Child's Digital Interactions

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