Tag Archives: family values

More on Family Values

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

I would like to add another piece to the posting of the previous post on family values. It is related to “truth” but what I am actually referring to is “pretend”. A recent Harvard Gazette (March 27, 2017) issue referred to a panel at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society discussing “fake news”. The panel noted the difficulty defining the term with clarity since it can encompass anything from an opinion piece cited as news to state-sponsored propaganda. What I found most interesting about the article was the focus on the idea that “fake news” has a “cultural logic” that appeals to a particular audience (Xiao Mina, ibid). Another scholar on the panel, Sandra Cortesi, suggested shifting the focus from the question of whether something was “true” or “false”, to the question, “What do you value?”(Cortesi, ibid). It seemed to me, reading the article, that this speaker was onto something.

In the past half century, our society has experienced a disorganization that has included a fracturing of traditional values. Maybe some of that fracture is due to the radical change in the way we communicate and even relate to one another at a distance through screens. Maybe it has to do with the related effects of globalization and the breakdown of the comfortable boundaries that affect our sense of safety. Maybe it also has to do with changing economic factors such as the loss of certain reliable jobs and the pressure to innovate. I am sure that economists, social psychologists, and sociologists have many more answers than I. However, it does bring me back to my emphasis on family values and how important they are. If societal changes create strain on traditional family values, what do we do? Living together in a civilized society requires certain rules; can we afford to give up values like “truth”?

I had an even more sobering thought. Being a child analyst, I am fascinated by and committed to the value of pretend. But pretend depends on truth for its existence. How many times has a child reassured me (or himself) by announcing firmly during a play session when the mother doll was getting skewered, “Don’t worry. It’s just pretend. It’s not true.” The difference between “pretend” and “fake news” is that pretend is a creative act that represents a meaning intolerable in its original form, such as a murderous wish. A pretend murder in play has fanciful elaborations – and most important – it has the flexibility to be undone. In its pretend form, it can be transformed to allow new possibilities. Whenever a child plays “good guys and bad guys”, I wait for that wonderful moment when one of the good guys switches over to the bad guy side. Then I might say to the child, “Hmm. If that good guy switched sides to become a bad guy, I wonder if a bad guy could switch to become a good guy.”

In his play, the child is creating a space for dynamic transformations that make possible positive change. That is not true for fake news. The political untruths and fake news spread by this political administration and some of its followers have none of these features. They are rigid, stark, and reductive. The false equivalency between the accusation of Obama’s foreign birth (the “birther controversy”) and Hillary’s misremembering a glorious but false event (the helicopter under fire incident) should be evident, even without the continued restatement of the former and the embarrassed retraction of the latter. Fake news makes a mockery of the idea of positive change.

We as parents and supporters of parents, which should include all of us, now face the challenge of reviewing our family values and growing them into the contemporary world. In many ways we need them more than ever. Truth – lies spread over the Internet have motivated anguish and even suicide in our youth. Responsibility – refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions – such as Trump’s accusations of Obama’s wiretapping, or inactions such as the poor preparation for replacing Obamacare, has degenerated into infantile assigning of blame. Respect – lack of respect for the beliefs of others, such as immigrants of other faiths and even for one another with different points of view, makes dialogue impossible. Protest – against offensive government actions, on the other hand, can invigorate us and force our elected representatives to behave according to our values. And I must add compassion, for those who would lose their safety net if certain government policies were enacted, and for those suffering the unimaginable horrors of war in other parts of the word. Yes, now is a time more important than ever to strengthen our family values – to live by them and to teach them to our children.

Sibling Rivalry

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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Here is another question posed to me by a number of parents recently: How do you deal with sibling competition and aggression?

This problem is common and has a simple answer. That does not mean it is easy to “fix”; it just means that it is easy to understand. The answer has three parts: (1) create a comfortable and relatively stress-free family environment; (2) create routines that teach children skills in sharing, turn taking, and negotiating; (3) separate siblings who cannot be together without fighting and then create short, parent-facilitated times together that have maximum probability of successful outcome, and practice them.

I am going to start by answering #2, then #3, and leave #1 – perhaps the most complicated one – for the last.

(2) This answer is a mixture of two of my favorite recommendations for parents – routines and family values. The routines function to put into place and practice the family values of sharing, turn taking, and negotiation. Remember that the power of “family values” is that you can’t argue with them. That is, you could try to argue, but the answer is always unarguable – “That’s just the way we do things in this family.” For example, if one child calls the other child a name or makes an insulting remark that the parents consider unacceptable, the response is, “In our family, we don’t use names like that or say insulting things like that.” That cuts through the child’s argument that another kid said the same thing – even if the other kid was in the same family. Or, if one child insists that he always sit in a preferred seat in the car, the response is, “In our family, we share.” Then the routine that practices the family value is something like – on the way to school X gets to sit in that seat, and on the way home from school, Y gets to sit there, or something like that. Another common conflict between siblings is fighting over the same toy. In that case, the family value of sharing is implemented by a negotiating process that is taught beautifully by the teachers in the Cambridge Ellis School. The child who wants the toy is helped to ask the child holding the toy, “Are you finished with the toy?” If the child holding the toy says no, then the other child is helped to ask, “How many more minutes do you need before I can have a turn – 1, 2, or 3?” (For older children, the time period is usually longer.) This scaffolds both children’s agency in the situation and supports the child who ultimately has to give the toy up.

(3) The third answer is similar to what I have recommended for play dates. Although parents certainly need relief, play dates are not primarily intended to serve that purpose but instead are meant to provide the child with opportunities to learn how to have fun playing with other children and learn to get along with them, among other things. The same can be said for the time siblings spend together, although sibling relationships are of course much more meaningful and intense than peer relationships. If siblings are going through a period of not getting along (this can happen for many reasons, including one sibling in particular having a hard time and taking it out on his or her brother or sister) then the time they spend alone together should be minimized (I realize this is often difficult) and they should be given short periods of structured play time together with parents facilitating the interaction. For example, the parent might say, “Since you guys have been having a hard time getting along recently, then X is going on errands with me while Y stays home to do homework with Dad, and then later this afternoon we will all go to the park together. It is important for the siblings to have enough good times together for them to want to spend time together in the future, which will motivate them to behave well with each other. While they are together in the relatively short enjoyable times the parent is playing the role of the teacher (above), scaffolding the development of sharing and good negotiating skills, as well as the respect for family values.

(1) Create a comfortable, relatively stress-free family environment. Of course this is not at all easy to implement. The reason I include it as #1 is because it is so important and because parents often forget that a major source of sibling conflict is preexisting tension within the family. Sometimes the original source of tension is in the marriage or between separated parents. Sometimes the tension is related to problems with extended family members, or to financial worries or job dissatisfaction. Other times tension is generated by conflict between one particular child and a parent, and the parent holds the tension within him or herself in between actual times of conflict. Then, when a demand has to be made on that child, the parent anticipates noncompliance and approaches the request in a negative frame of mind. Sometimes this tension is communicated by the parent’s facial expression, tone of voice and abrupt gestures, and aggressive choice of words.
Regardless of the origin of the tension, the children in the family pick up the stress, and often they will express the stress they feel by fighting with each other. Partly, this fighting response emerges from the irritability the family stress causes in the children. Also, the children unconsciously may be distracting the parents from the original source of their tension by calling attention to the problem they are causing in the moment. Interestingly, that can make everyone feel “better” because at least they know what the problem is – “fighting kids” – instead of living in a situation in which the cause of the unhappiness is hidden or unacknowledged. The answer to this problem of tension in the family is to refocus attention on the parents’ need for support. Remember the old directive of what to do with the oxygen mask in the airplane. First put it on yourself and then put it on the child sitting next to you. That is because the child will need you to be alert and strong in order to take care of him or her. In some cases, this need for support means getting more help from extended family and friends, or hiring someone to help take care of the house or the children. In other cases, the parents need professional help to manage the trouble in their lives.

Read this blog in Spanish.

Friendship: Antidote to Bullying

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In this posting, I will discuss the most substantial long-term solution to bullying. The best way to combat bullying is to support the capacity for friendship and children’s development of empathy. Empathy is a function of “theory of mind”, that is, the ability of the child to imagine the thoughts and feelings of another person and to realize that other people have minds of their own.

For example, the 5-yo boy (let’s call him “Sam”) described above was having trouble imagining the mind of his classmate (“Ben”). I discovered that earlier that day in playground time Sam had been involved in a running game with Ben and some other boys. Ben, who is a fast runner, was leading the pack. Sam has some motor insecurity that has held him back, and he has not developed the strength and skill to keep up with the other boys in running games. I am guessing that he was feeling like a “loser”, and his way of making sense of those “loser” feelings was to perceive Ben as being the cause of his “loser-ness” by claiming to be older than Sam was. Ben actually hadn’t said anything of the sort, but Sam’s feelings were so strong and unmanageable that he completely lost his 5-yo capacity for self-reflection (“mentalization”). He did not link his very sad and angry feelings to having been left in the dust in the running game of minutes before. He really perceived Ben as trying to best him by claiming to be older and thereby causing him to feel bad.

Empathy is a complex competency that begins in the early infant-caregiver relationship when the baby first comes to recognize and resonate with the emotions of the caregiver. Parents and teachers can continue to support the development of empathy by valuing empathic responses, by making “being a good friend” a family (and school) value. If this “family value” is established, parents and teachers can always fall back on it as a support when they are confronting bullying behavior. “In this school, we do not believe in treating others that way.” The reason this kind of explanation is such a showstopper is that you can’t argue with beliefs. Empathy can even be extended to the bully.

I would not call Sam a bully – nor do I think the term is appropriate for such a young child – but his behavior was definitely intimidating to Ben. If called into this situation with Sam puffing out his chest threateningly to Ben and calling him a baby and Ben quaking in his boots, his parent or his teacher might try to scaffold the recovery of Sam’s self-reflection, and therefore his empathy. They might try to help him imagine how Ben felt, and they might even elicit Ben’s help in doing that (“Tell Sam how you felt when he said that to you and stood so close to you”).

However, there is a potential pitfall. If Sam is too stressed, the adult’s words – kind and helpful though they might be – will not sink in. Sam cannot take in information when he is dysregulated. The kind words – if they are addressing the source of his distress – might even escalate his dysregulation, The adult must first help Sam (and Ben) calm down, feel safe, and then – maybe twenty minutes later – try again. There are many good children’s books that have friendship as a theme. Some classics are George and Martha, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and Freddy the Pig.

Brooks, Walter R, Freddy the Detective, Overlook Juvenile Press, 2010.

Marshall, James, George and Martha (especially, the story of “Split Pea Soup”), HMH Books for Young Readers, 1974.

MacDonald, Betsy, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Harper Collins, 2007.

 

Play Dates

good friendsPlay dates are the current solution in the U.S. – at least in many urban centers – to the lack of the kind of neighborhood experience in which children could gather spontaneously in back yards and play together. I am not proposing that the neighborhood situation is always ideal. In fact, I am aware of many stories of how without adult supervision children’s play can turn into bullying, exclusion, or exploitation.  But that is not the rule, and it has great advantages. For one thing, children have the chance to negotiate a common agenda without the usual structure of school or even family routine, and without adult intervention. Children learn to deal with competitive conflict between and among themselves. Children also learn to manage “empty” time or boredom when usual playmates are busy, without holding their parents responsible, since typically they are in charge of initiating arrangements with playmates. Even more, “neighborhood” play often includes children of different ages, and can teach children how to accommodate differences in competency, size, and experience. Perhaps ironically, this neighborhood spontaneous play is often replicated in good institutional care, in children’s homes. At Love and Hope, it is not unusual to see a small group of children playing soccer on the roof playground, or clustering together searching for treasures in the gravel, or other similar activities. This is harder to manage in city environments, when busy streets separate families and playmates and parents juggle busy schedules, barely managing to get home in time to get food on the table before helping with homework or putting the little ones to bed.

Often playdates offer a good alternative. Playdates are especially felicitous in the case of children who have trouble making or keeping friends. That is because a parent or other caregiver is available to scaffold the play. I often coach parents on how to do this. These are my general guidelines (Remember that the main goal of the playdate is for your child to have a positive experience) :

(1) Put yourself in charge. Do not offer to take care of the other child for an indefinite period of time. That may result in your babysitting for the other child, and your child may become fatigued or need time alone while the other child is still present. One way of safeguarding the situation is to provide transportation – “Joanie would love Rachel to come over and play. I could pick up the girls at school and drop them off at your house at around 3:00.” If your child has any vulnerability at all in peer relationships, do not invite (or allow someone else to invite) two children. Three really is a crowd. It is often best to keep the playdate short, and some younger children who have a lot of difficulty sharing may do better if you get together away from home, such as at a playground or a museum.

(2) Discuss the playdate with your child ahead of time. Make it clear to your child that, whereas you are going to take his/her preferences into account, you insist on a variety of children. That will not only establish a policy of inclusion as opposed to exclusion, but it will also help stretch your child’s friendship pool; some children get stuck in one particular friendship that may not be the best to help them grow, and you want to help them move beyond that. Also talk about your “family values” regarding guests. These may include giving the friend first choice in picking an activity or a toy, for example. Such specific rules are often better than general ones such as “be kind to your guest” because young children may find it hard to apply them and they are harder to enforce. It is also wise to discuss a few potential activities with your child before the playdate. While spontaneous play is an ideal, it is often more challenging for some children, and you want to put your child and yourself at ease by being prepared. Finally, in the case of young children, help the child decide which favorite toys that the child will have a hard time sharing should be put out of sight, and in the case of older children, talk to the child about how much time – if any – is to be spent in screen time (t.v., video, or computer games).

(3) If your child has particular challenges feeling comfortable and successful in peer relationships, then – as mentioned above – prepare ahead with activities that your child enjoys and that the guest would also be expected to like, such as simple crafts or baking or a new game. Then, if your child starts to have trouble – become irritable and non-collaborative or isolate him/herself, you can suggest something different and appealing to do. Do not hesitate to move in, in as friendly and non-anxious manner as possible if the children start to fight and seem unable to resolve it themselves. Don’t scold or correct your child in the presence of his/her friend; that is shaming and will only cause things to go further down hill. Instead, just move in with a positive attitude and change the venue, the activity, something.

Remember that your first goal is to help your child have a good time with a friend. That will motivate him/her to practice the skills and capacities that make friendships possible and gratifying.

 

 

Family Values

img_6893-scaled1000A subject that comes up often in my conversations with parents or other caregivers is that of values or beliefs. I bring it up here as an asset in caregivers’ endeavors to set boundaries or limits for their children. One of the great features of this asset is that – as all of know who have relatives or close friends with different political or religious persuasions from our own – you can’t argue with someone’s values or beliefs. Therefore, when caregivers establish what their family values and beliefs are, they can use them to support whatever expectations they have of their children’s behavior.

For example, suppose one of your family values is to treat guests well – with politeness and generosity. In that case, if your child has a play date and gets into a conflict with his/her friend about sharing or who gets first choice, you know exactly what your position will be. The guest gets first choice of what to play with or which piece of cake. Now, as in all cases, this depends somewhat on the context. If you have a very young child or a child who has particular difficulties with sharing, for example, you will want to prepare for the play date by putting away special toys that could generate extreme proprietary reactions. However, there is no argument. If your child tries to argue, you simply respond, “In our family, that is the way we treat guests.”

The child may object, but you do not have to explain or elaborate. That is that. Now, let me be clear. I am not advocating the enforcement of rules in a rigid authoritarian manner, so that children cannot register their complaints or different perspectives on the matter.  There are plenty of other opportunities to discuss these issues with children and many chances to listen to children’s objections or alternative points of view. What I am suggesting that one way for caregivers to avoid a struggle while trying to set a limit is to use family values as a basis for their decision.

Another time family values comes up is when siblings fight among themselves. If kindness and tolerance of differences is a value of your family (I am including children’s homes as “families”) you can also use those values to support your position in relation to the sibling conflict. If one child is criticizing the other, you can say simply, “In our family, we do not judge other people.” Or, “In our family, we do not talk to other people like that.” Sometimes, following that pronouncement, those words are enough. Other times, you have to take subsequent action, such as separating the two children or giving one or both of them a consequence.

The concept of family values is not a magic bullet, but it is important. That is because caregivers not infrequently become confused or ambivalent when challenged by the child. For example, “Why should Susie get to play with my new game when I want to go bike riding?” If the child is very persuasive or good as pressing his advantage, the caregiver might start to confuse considerations about the type of activity or the general issue of fairness with the main question – who should choose. In that case, the caregiver might hesitate, and that could lead to an argument. If, on the other hand, she has a simple rule to follow that supports her basic beliefs, she is clearer and more confident.The answer to this question might be something like, “I think you will have time to do both, but since Susie is your guest, we will play with the new game first.”

In another example, a child tells his sibling or playmate that he is stupid. The caregiver may say, “We don’t criticize others like that in our family (or home).” Even if the child who is criticizing does not retract the remark, the child who was criticized heard the caregiver pronounce the family values, and that is critically important.

In the next posting, I will talk about another issue in limit setting.