Archive for the ‘ Stories ’ Category

Why Music Matters For Kids

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

What do Chuck Todd (NBC) and Larry Page (Google) have in common? They are both successful – and they are both musicians. This point was made by Joanne Lipman – co-author of “Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations” – in an Op-Ed for the New York Times. She provides a nice summary of the role that music played in the lives of a number of very successful people.

While these stories may seem anecdotal, the argument is that they are not coincidental. Lipman highlights a number of skills that music can cultivate. Some that resonate with me include:

  • Creatively focusing on right now and what’s next: musicians have to hit their notes in the moment and know what’s coming up next and be prepared to hit – and perhaps create – the notes that will follow
  • Collaborating on a bigger goal: if you are playing together you need to figure out how you all sound good together. Even when the Beatles stopped getting along personally they could make their songs sound fabulous
  • Creatively fusing ideas: music involves sounds and timing and feeling and the synergistic merger that takes raw elements and creates something that’s more than the sum of the parts (not to mention the connection with lyrics and dance to name a few others)
  • Seeing the result of effort: you continue to play music, you get better at it – a very tangible life lesson

These are just some of the benefits. There is a long-standing interest in the links between music and math – some of which have been confirmed by research. This is an area waiting to emerge, as I anticipate seeing in the future breakthrough research that illuminates in greater detail the underlying neurodevelopmental processes that connect music and math.

While many school districts consider cutting music because of budgetary constraints, there is accumulating evidence that music matters more than we might think during childhood. Whether you read stories about how music played an important role in the childhood of many people’s lives, or look at pictures of how key brain areas light up when processing music, it’s hard to not see the primary role of music. As Keith Richards pointed out in his autobiography Life, we all follow the rhythm of the beat of the heart. Turns out that that beat connects in many fundamental ways with the workings of the brain.

Find fun, educational musical instruments at Shop Parents. Or find out how your kid’s talents may become her future career.

Australian Stamp Featuring Keith Richards via

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Helmet to Helmet: Is Football Too Dangerous For Kids?

Friday, September 27th, 2013

This country loves football. Kids love to play football. But is it too dangerous?

I’m tired of seeing headlines about teens dying playing football. Most times it’s because of helmet to helmet contact. There was a story last month about a teen who died after making a tackle. Now we have heard about a teen in New York who died after helmet to helmet contact.

I get that football is a rough game. I get that now and then unusual injuries happen. But it’s clear that football has become too dangerous for the brain. While the National Football League is paying some attention to the rate and consequences of concussions many still feel as if there is a lack of transparency or urgency about addressing the magnitude of the concussion issue. The game goes on, players suffer concussions, and we see what happens to a fair number of them over time.

But while there is an obligation to make the NFL safer for players, we really need to step back and figure out how to prevent high school kids from dying playing football. We take driving and texting seriously because it kills. We put in changes in practices to minimize that risk. Who is going to step up to try to make it safer for teens to play football?

Take a look at this image of an American football helmet. When two kids are wearing this, and these helmets collide, it is dangerous for the brain. And sometimes lethal.

American Football Helmet via

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Trophy Madness: When Adults Infiltrate Play

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

Maybe the trophy thing has really gotten out of hand. I continue to read articles – like Ashley Merryman‘s recent piece in the New York Times – about how kids get handed a trophy for doing nothing but showing up. This of course can apply to sports, dancing – or nearly any activity that kids participate in. The suggestion is made that only a few kids should get a trophy to recognize special achievements – and that most kids should get used to the idea that, in the real world, not every kid is, in essence, equally the best. 

All of this makes perfect sense and is backed up by research that goes back decades. But there’s a bigger problem. Our culture is predicated on the idea that kids have to be rewarded externally. Even our good discussions about how praise backfires spin off into the proper way to either nurture or reinforce a child for doing something – almost to the point that kids are going to be expecting constant reinforcement for effort.

We are obsessed with giving kids feedback. We’re spinning around from meaningless awards and misdirected praise to guides on how to externally validate effort at every turn. Yes, it is important to support kids’ efforts and not their outcomes. If you want to learn about this from the expert, check out Dr. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. She’s been doing this work for a very long time, and has found a nice way to distill her findings and perspective. But the thing is this should be reserved for moments – little and big – in a kid’s life when you want to give them a boost or just a little pat on the back.  Not every other minute.

We come at kids as if they don’t have an internal sense of reward. That’s not how the brain works. Kid’s are wired to experience pleasure from their effort and use it as fuel to try harder. If they are playing kickball, it doesn’t feel good if you don’t kick the ball well – and it feels great when you kick it better. You certainly don’t need an adult there with trophies to be handed out to everyone who has come to play – or to praise everyone for their effort. It’s nice to have an adult there to tell a kid who is struggling to not give up if kickball is something they want to play. But if that adult isn’t there, I think most kids would do alright. Most of them would keep trying to kick the ball. And therein lies the problem.

Kids don’t own their own play anymore. Adults regulate it. Young kids don’t just get together to play baseball – they are out in uniform on a Saturday morning at 8am with adults coaching them and watching them and reacting to every thing they do. Kids don’t just take dance lessons because it’s fun to learn to dance – there has to be public performances and competitions with adults providing flowers and applause. Kids don’t just sing anymore – they audition for reality shows or try to get discovered on YouTube. I’ll be honest – I never, ever want to see another 5-year-old on national television being judged by adults.

We can talk all we want about praise and trophies and effort and all that. But the fundamental issue is that adults seem to be around all the time to judge kids. Whether we’re judging their performance, or their effort, they are cut off from the opportunity to generate their own reinforcement. Guess what – kids are really good judges at who, at any given point in time, is “better” or “worse” at something. Many times they don’t care nearly as much about that as adults do. Why? Because they typically know, instinctively, that they want to do. It’s when their arena becomes infiltrated with mixed messages about winning and losing and praise and encouragement – when they become aware that they have an audience of adults who are constantly assessing them – that they lose their instincts and either stop doing or stop enjoying what they do.

Every kid needs encouragement. Some can use it more than others. They may need it when they are struggling. It’s nice for them to get it even when they aren’t. It’s nice to get recognition for an accomplishment. But the most powerful reinforcement schedule is variable – meaning now and then.  Can’t we pick our spots? A little now and then? And, most importantly, can we, for the most part, let kids just do without having adults there to give them constant feedback?

Trophy Cup via

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How Kids’ Lives Are Different Since 9/11

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

On September 11, 2001, I didn’t learn about the tragic events in New York until slightly past noon. My wife and I had spent the morning hanging out with our daughter – who was 20 months old – and we didn’t have the TV or radio on. It was a perfect September morning, and we had been going about our morning non-routine of playing outside, coming inside, going back outside, having a snack, and just enjoying the day. When her babysitter came, we  rushed out for work, and put on the car radio. What we heard was surreal – confused commentary about bombings and buildings collapsing and death tolls and mayhem. I thought at first it was some type of science fiction radio, as this was a rock station (WBRU in Providence) that was popular with college students. After a few minutes the events started to sink in, which I confirmed by listening to the New York AM news radio stations for first-person reports. 

It’s true that 9/11 changed everyone’s lives, and children’s lives as well. We felt it especially when we traveled – both in terms of the practical changes that evolved with security and the reverberations you felt taking a child on an airplane. We felt it when we spent time in New York – we had worked in New York/New Jersey and had moved from the area in 2000 and though we went about our city routine 9/11 would still come to mind. We felt it when we all saw “Ground Zero”  in 2011 – particularly the view of workers there late at night and early in the morning, viewable from our room at the downtown W Hotel.

But what now stands out is the 9/11 was just the start of a series of reminders that my daughter’s generation is growing up with the reality 0f unimagined violence and risk – often in places that we think are safe. Last December, she watched – with us – as we learned about the Newtown shootings. Again we had some personal and geographical connection. I grew up in Bridgeport, which isn’t far from Newtown. My brother lived nearby the principal who was slain trying to stop the gunman. Compared to Bridgeport, and the schools I went to, Sandy Hook Elementary School was one of those “safe” schools where you imagined nothing bad could happen. Now it’s a reminder that there are no inherently “safe” schools – and it stands now as an extraordinary example of how grief, courage, resilience, and remembrance permeate communities who have experienced horrific violence.

But that wasn’t the end of violence for my daughter’s generation. About four months after the Newtown tragedy, her day off from school – on Patriots Day in Massachusetts – turned into a nearly weeklong mixture of sadness and shock. I was driving home from the gym when I received an email from Michael Kress – my editor here at – asking if I might write about the Boston Marathon explosions. It was almost routine when I got home, flipped on the TV, and sat with my family staring at an evolving story of violence and death – and pulled myself away long enough to write about how parents will need to control the amount of information their kids would be exposed to on TV and the internet given the reality of graphic footage. But there was more. We learned on the following Friday morning that one of the suspects had attended college in our town (University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth), that UMass Dartmouth was in lockdown, and that our daughter’s school was also in lockdown. When we picked her up at school, we went home, and watched a massive manhunt unfold – one which finally resulted in the capture of the suspect.

Her generation is growing up with a kind of maturity and awareness that is beyond their years. They don’t live in fear but are prepared to respond to unimaginable acts. Looking back, 9/11 was a defining moment for them, one that resonates today. For kids like my daughter, who were too young to understand what was happening then but old enough to know they lived through it, it’s more of a historical signal that all kinds of things happen not just in the world, but where they live. And it gives them an interesting lens on other historical events. This summer, we drove cross country, and we spent a few days in Oklahoma City. While there were lots of fun things to do there – all of which we enjoyed – if you ask her what she remembers most about that visit, she will say going to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. There is a visceral understanding of that historical event for her that blends all the tragedies she has witnessed – a bombing, a building being destroyed, adults and children killed. She’s aware and pensive and integrates that imagery with the good times of hanging out in the Bricktown Oklahoma City district.

That’s her life. The events of September 11, 2001 intruded on a “normal” day in the life of a 20-month old. Now that she’s going on 14, they stand as a benchmark that connects her to what came before, what has happened recently, and what may lay ahead. Wisdom and empathy mix together underneath the typical enthusiasm for daily life.  This year, my daughter – now in 8th grade – will undoubtedly have lockdown drills at her school. She’ll know why they have them and why it’s important to know what to do when they have them. She’ll know that sometimes they are real. And when they are over, she’ll go back to class with her friends and resume her day.

Honor The Heroes via

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Should Schools Calculate – And Share – Your Child’s Body Mass Index?

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Schools in 19 states are calculating each student’s Body Mass Index – BMI – and sending the information to parents. The point, of course, is to inform parents if a child is clinically obese – or getting to that point. 

There are a number of opinions about this practice. Elisa Zied has illustrated – in her The Scoop on Food blog – the pros and cons of this approach as a method for combating childhood obesity. We know we need to do something to bring down rates of obesity in kids. But is this approach worth pursuing?

I suggest it isn’t.

The reason is that providing information without suggestions for change is typically not influential. I attended an early childhood summit at the Boston Children’s Museum last spring, and it was clear that public health experts believe that parents need strategies for handling a range of complex issues that face them and their kids rather than facts and figures. Simply telling them that their child is obese, without providing real support and ideas for changing that picture, will probably not do much at all. And some worry it will only encourage poor self-image. Look at it this way. If a child is doing poorly in school, the report card that gets sent him lets the parent know that. But without any information about why the child is doing badly (Is the material too hard? Do they need a different study routine? Is there a possible learning disorder? Are they goofing around in class too much?), and without conversation between the school and parents about the next steps, that information does not typically lead to a solution.

Schools do have the potential to educate and influence parents as well as their kids. Rather than sending home a BMI score like it’s another grade, it would make sense to consider educational programs for parents and kids that take on the causes of obesity. They could share strategic information such as the types and amounts of food kids should be eating – and illustrate the caloric realities of fast food. They could provide suggestions for parents who are struggling to buy healthy foods because of the costs – and give them some real options for changing their kids’ diets. Genetics is part of the cause for some – some kids are just more prone to putting weight on easily – and the reality of that should be discussed. More information about how much exercise kids need – and how they should get it – should be part of the mix.

I’m not saying that schools should do this. But I’m saying that if schools want to play a meaningful role in combating childhood obesity, they will need to do much more than just providing a BMI score.

Body Mass Index via

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