Thursday, April 22, 2010

Beyond Bullying...

Last year, I wrote a post addressing the 10th anniversary of the tragedy at Columbine High School. Eleven years later and just today on the news they ran a story about two students from Miami who were brutally beaten in separate incidences but attended the same school. As well we see and hear the echoes of the devastating story of Phoebe Prince, the girl who committed suicide as a result of extreme bullying. I am re-posting this story because we as parents, teachers, school administrators and as students, are missing something. Our children are in terrible pain and it's not just the victims but the very offenders, the inflicters of this pain, are in pain themselves. I think many of our fellow parents are afraid to parent, are afraid of their children and for some, really don't know or don't care who their children are becoming. We are not learning as a society how to look for cues and communicate effectively based on those cues. The country has acted swiftly yet again with bullying seminars but I think we need to look beyond this. These incidents reflect the essence of what we are not talking about. Bullying is rooted in low self-esteem and it's not just the victim but the bullies themselves who have low self esteem and believe me, it is not school alone that creates these feelings of inferiority. We are raising a generation of children with little confidence and lots of anger. We must look at our children and ourselves and watch closely. I think we, as a culture, need to rethink what we feel we are entitled to, how we cope with stress, prioritize our wants and desires and develop some real strategies for how we deal with disappointment. Making sense of, or categorizing, these egregious tragedies is complicated and I am not going to try to explain why they may have happened but I know I can play my part and you can play yours too.

This week again marks the anniversary of the Columbine massacre. While I will not attempt to analyze the actions of the boys responsible or debunk any theories of why this terrible tragedy took place, I will comment on what the situation and other situations like this make me think my responsibilty is as an educator and parent.

Know your child

One of the greatest mistakes I see parents make is not understanding who their children are. This creates an inability to parent effectively. To be an effective parent we must try and learn who our children are and provide them with encouragement, access to tools and therapy to help them establish their self esteem and yes, provide them with discipline. Contrary to what many believe, discipline is not a "punitive" word, it comes from the Latin meaning, "to teach". We must teach our children, if they are to succeed. We must not be afraid to address our children's undesirable behaviors in an effective and honest way without cutting them down. Children need to learn what will be tolerated and practice acceptable behaviors. If we don't try to look objectively at our children, it is much harder to provide them with what they need.

Kids are different and we need to parent differently

If your child is aggressive and angry, then you must acknowledge it, discuss it and get professional help for both you and your child, if need be. Anger needs to be channeled into positive avenues and power and control need to be discussed as responsibility. If your child is shy or has social anxiety you must build them up and encourage them to be stronger. Look to find activities that they can succeed at, hook them up with strong mentors and coaches and provide opportunities to make friends that make them feel good. Discuss honestly about tools that will help your child so they are less likely to be a victim of bullying.

I have three children and their personalities are completely different. I sometimes try (I don't always succeed), to make decisions based on my child's individual needs rather than what might work for the group. For example, one of my children felt uncomfortable when we went to the playground on the weekends and going up to classmates and asking "do you want to play?" So I began allowing him to bring walkie-talkies, remote control cars and other inexpensive activities so that the group came to him. It helped break the ice and he left feeling good that he provided the day's activities. Parents need to think outside the box and try different strategies to reach their children. Your ideas won't work all the time but don't stop searching!

Teach Responsibility Now

While adults are the leaders in a child's life it is not too early to begin impressing upon school aged children that everyone is responsible for their own safety and behavior as well as those of our peers. Teach children that they don't have to feel alone or isolated and this little gem: "Tattling is to get someone into trouble, telling is to get someone out of trouble." When we make children responsible for their behavior we help them to develop self confidence, the root of of all happiness in its greatest form.

Media is not real life, teach the difference

My college education and technology professor said "It's not just the shows that are too much for kids, these days; it's the commercials that make promises to kids that are undeliverable." Every moment I feel we are marketed to and sent the message "you need, you want, you should be like, you have to have." And, if I don't get or don't become, I'll be left out. If I feel this way I know my kids feel it that much more. Be your child's reality check; not every icon, toy, video game or celebrity has it all. Talk about unrealistic incidents that are depicted on a show or in a movie, discuss unrealistic expectations, point out why you find a celebrities behavior inappropriate. Discuss honestly about why certain items are allowed into your home, certain articles of clothing won't be worn by your child and why some television shows or movies get a nod and others are forbidden. They may disagree but having an honest discussion does a lot more than just "I am the parent, that's why."

So in reflection of this heartbreaking tragedy and unfortunately the many others that have followed with terrible outcomes, I look to parents to learn, to know, to accept, to discipline and love their children so our children can learn, know, accept, discipline and love themselves.

I wish for all our children the ability to be confident. Only then, will they be happy.

Friday, April 16, 2010

It's Friendship, Friendship, just the Perfect Blendship

It has been a crazy week. I have been out every night this week including a Mom's Night Out. It was fun and as one mom exclaimed while I danced with great zest, "you can tell you really needed a night out!" No arguments here.

Question of the week, "What do you do when you don't like one of your children's friends?"

I think this is one issue that all parents have to deal with many times over and it usually is a slippery slope. I am answering this only in terms of the pre- school/ elementary school years since middle school and high school friendships have a host of other complicated factors.

Children are drawn to each other for many different reasons. Sometimes children become friends because their parents are friends or because they have certain likes or hobbies. Sometimes children become friends because they are opposites, one might be outgoing and the other a bit quiet, but it works. Friendships in young children tend to have their ups and downs and change as children mature. Parents tend to be very involved in the early years with whom their child plays and how often they see each other outside of school. It is hard to not want to micro-manage your child's rolodex of friends or to speak for your child when you feel that they are treated unjustly by a friend. As well, telling your child that you don't like their friend and don't want them to be around them will do little to give your child the tools to handle relationships for the future. Talking and modeling with your child about communicating and coming up with a plan for certain social situations are important strategies for your child to develop. The hope is that they will eventually be able to decide for themselves when a friend is no longer meeting their needs.

I have one basic rule with regard to keeping my nose out of my child's friendships. When something happens between my child and their friend on the school yard or on the playground out of ear shot of an adult, I encourage them to work it out on their own or help develop a plan for a future incident. If an incident occurs right under my nose and it is getting out of hand, I try to use the situation as a learning opportunity and try to give suggestions or model appropriate ways for my child ( and sometimes their friend) to better communicate their needs and behave.

Dealing with the parent of the child in question is also a really slippery slope. I lost a potential close friend that I thought would handle her son's questionable behavior in much the same way I would. I saw a consistent pattern of aggressive behavior towards my child and finally I set up, what I thought would be a teachable moment for both boys. What I did was offend her, so much so she never wanted to talk again. While I am not completely sad that our boys don't play anymore and I don't miss having her as a friend, it could have been much harder for me if I had offended someone who I might have cared deeply about. I have also heard about countless parents who call and tell other parents about what their child had supposedly done based on their child's account. The only time I would do this is if my child came home from a drop off play date and my child claimed they were hurt or very unhappy. I would call to find out if the parent or nanny knew anything about it and address it from there. Know that even your sweet angel, can misinterpret and get the facts wrong. If you are not present and did not see first hand what happened, don't be too quick to accuse another child of wrong doing. It's a surefire way to become enemies with the parent.

There are are a variety of different approaches you can take to deal with your child's friendship that you may not happy with, here are some ideas:

The Uneven Power Struggle:
In some friendships there seems to be one child that has a stronger will and often directs what will happen every time the children play together. While the more submissive child may agree to this at first over time, they tend to feel "ignored" and may even begin to get angry. Practice and role play with your child appropriate language like "I feel like you are not listening to me and it makes me upset." Or, "I'd like you to play one of the games I suggest this time". Children become worried that if they speak up their "friends" won't play with them. Our goal is to get our children to understand that if they are consistently ignored by their "friends" then maybe they are not "friends".

The Fresh Mouth Friend:
Everyone had one friend that taught them all the "bad" words. My parents still blame her for my filthy mouth! Kids usually learn the major curses by the end of kindergarten and can even begin to use them on each other. I remember when my son came home from pre-school and told me that a young girl (whose mother is still a friend of mine) told him "sh*t was a bad word." Instead of being outraged I said "Yes it is. Make sure you do not use the word at home and do not use it on other people." It was the best I could come up with. The fact is that kids will experiment with these words and we can just set firm parameters around when and how they use them. If you feel your child's friend is way too inappropriate be firm in telling your child that play-dates and other events will be limited if they cannot control themselves around their friend.

The Wild Child:
He taunts other kids, she is a "mean girl" and when your child hangs out with them they are virtually unrecognizable. This is one situation where parents have to make it clear for their child that they will not tolerate the behavior and have a firm talk about being "influenced" by another. I try to be pretty honest with my kids and pointing out that they are allowing someone to turn them into an unlikable person sometimes. Words and terms like "follower" and "making the decisions they know are right" , "leader" and even what's called an "I" message: "When I see you behave this way with your friend it makes me feel disappointed", can send a strong message that this relationship is bad news. Talk about options and what you child can do to monitor his own behavior and how she might remove herself from the child.

The Frenemy:
Many of us have been in toxic relationships. We want to be liked and accepted by those we deem to be "cool"or "popular". We hope to feed off their mojo and feel "cool" or "popular" too the more we hang out with them. This is the friendship that looks like it's tight but there is a lot of jealousy, competition and back stabbing going on here. Your child may come home angry, aggressive, moody or sad after a play-date. Your child will a feel a great deal of confusion around this relationship and getting out of it may cost a lot more then just this friend but a whole group. This is a tricky situation and the best we can do is talk about what is really going on and help our child to cope setting friendly limits. Learning the hard lesson of what friends they can really trust and who might be just an acquaintance will take time, practice and a bit of heartbreak but it is an important lesson to learn.

Finally, encourage your child to be friends with children from different groups and to not only count on just one other child but a few children. Continue to encourage and make it possible for children to have a play-dates and attend events with children that are positive. Continue to remind your child that friends should make you feel good. There will always be one in the crowd that you don't love. If your child continually falls into the wrong crowd or you think they are missing blatant social cues and your conversations are not helping, consider professional help such as an occupational therapist, child psychologist or developmental pediatrician.

Perhaps another post will address the friendship problem of "Nice Parent, Nasty Child" but for now I hope this post lends enough friendly advice!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Day Care Decisions

As soon as you find out you are pregnant and step into any Baby mega store, you realize very quickly that you are going to be faced with a lot of tough choices. It can be pretty overwhelming whether to buy the Graco or the Britax car seat or to choose the right type of bottle or nursing bra, and that is just the beginning, it gets worse! Finding a day care (if you can get passed the choice not to go the nanny route) can be downright daunting if you don't put it into perspective. As a mother of three children, 2 of whom went through day care and one to begin this fall, I've put together a post to help other parents know the types of day care out there, what they should be looking for and the right questions to ask. In the end, you'll be repeating this process over and over again if you stay in New York City. From what I hear, the Middle School, and High School application process put both parents and kids sanity to the test. Look for a post (most likely a rant) on that topic in about 3 years!

There are two main types of day care programs found in New York City:

Center Based Childcare – Usually a chain serving children ages 2 months - 4 years. Children are grouped by age. Full day programs often with additional hours if needed before and after school regular hours (for a fee). There will usually be 2 teachers per class; one head teacher with a bachelor’s degree and one assistant with an associate’s degree or less. Often a large facility with a Director that serves as both an educational head and sales associate. Assistant Director deals with administrative tasks. Tends to stay general on philosophy.

Family or Group Childcare – Usually established and run by an individual in their home. Children’s ages are often mixed but may have age requirements. May have limited flexibility in terms of hours and may close during school holidays. It is often a small and intimate setting, often in an apartment. Owner is usually the head teacher (may not have a degree in education) and there is at least one assistant. Usually mission of program is very strong and director looks for both children and parents who are the right fit.

Questions to Ask:

What time does the day begin? End?

How long can parents stay after drop off? Are parents allowed to visit throughout the day? (Just remember, if they allow you to do this, all parents can do this. This can create a lot of disruption throughout drop off and throughout the day if there are not limits put on this practice)

How is separation handled? Is there a phase-in period?

How is discipline handled?

What is a typical day like for children at this program?

Do children go out everyday? Where do you usually go? If they are very young do they play or go on the swings or do they just go for a stroll?

Do children receive music, movement, or visual arts time?

What is the food policy at the school?

What is the procedure for dealing with children with allergies?

Can I call a former parent or have them call me?

Keep in Mind:

No program is perfect.

Every program loses an administrator and/or teacher at some point.

An educated individual does not always equal a great educator.

Just because your child is shy or withdrawn does not mean that day care is not an option.

Working with teachers is an important task for the duration your child’s school career. Use every opportunity to listen, learn, grow, discuss, exchange ideas, find solutions and disagree with grace.

Children get sick, some more than others. It is not uncommon for children in their first year of day care to get sick often.

What to look for:

Clean, fun and safe. All programs in NYC are managed by the Department of Health and must require all staff to pass a CPR course, child abuse and a basic health course.

Are they certified by NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children)? A national, voluntary accreditation system to set professional standards for early childhood education programs – This is not necessary but if the school has this accreditation it has gone through a rigorous process.

Bright, decorated and updated holiday / monthly walls, all toys should have a place; room should not be too neat but should looked organized.

Varied materials and equipment made available for indoor and outdoor participation.

Teachers should be of mixed ages.

You should feel happy dropping your child off and so should your child.