Required Reading

Amid the information overload of recent weeks, two articles have captured my fickle attention. Here they are, and here’s why.

What Happened to American Childhood?

“How do you inoculate a child against future anguish? What do you do if your child already seems overwhelmed in the here and now?”

The Atlantic, Kate Julian

How to Stop Thinking Your Teen is ‘Pushing Your Buttons’

“Do clothes on the floor make you crazy? Experts say that the tension is often about the way the parent responds.”

NY Times, Cheryl Maguire

The Atlantic article is a long one, but my favorite takeaway is this: “The more fearful parents become, the more they continue to do the things that are inadvertently contributing to these problems.” It’s not our fault. But our own parental anxiety prevents us from addressing our children’s anxiety.

The NY Times article provides a practical application. Parents know by now that their kids need to learn life skills, like picking up clothes off the floor. And they know what doesn’t get results:

  • nagging
  • doing it for their child
  • ignoring it and hoping the child will eventually fall in line, because everyone likes a clean room, right?

So what should parents do? Maguire suggests:

  • describe the problem differently
  • respond differently
  • act like a coach, rather than a boss
  • trouble-shoot with your child

How will I do that in my own home?

  • Communicate expectations clearly, like with a list or a chart
  • Tailor expectations to each child’s developmental level
  • Alter the environment, if it’ll help them comply
  • See how they respond, and adjust accordingly

Why is that so hard?

  • My children are oppositional, just like their father. He prefers to call them anti-authoritarian. Whatever.
  • One of my children functions at a much lower developmental level than would be expected, given that he’s 13. And what does that say about him? About me? About the future?
  • I have to change my house to accommodate my children? When can I change my house to accommodate me? Who’s in charge here?
  • Wait. If I start a new plan and immediately change it, doesn’t that undermine my authority?

Two great articles to read right now. But if you don’t have time, maybe I’ll have time to go into further detail about my takeaways from both.

Be the Executive Secretary, not the Teacher

There’s an important part of learning that’s essentially secretarial, known as executive functioning.

Another comment!! And another great one: “This type of homeschooling is definitely hard for (us). (My child) goes back and forth between wanting me to sit next to her and wanting a lot of support and wanting to do it alone. I want her to be independent, but she’s often stubborn and won’t listen to my advice.”

This mom has already done half the work of supporting a home schooler. She’s tuned in to what her child seems to want, in terms of support. The next step is to provide the support she needs, and cut off any well-intentioned support she doesn’t.

Parents should see themselves as executive secretaries at this time, not teachers. Our kids are lucky to still have their teachers, even if it’s just online.

There’s an important part of learning that’s essentially secretarial, known as executive functioning. Executive functioning develops gradually over the middle and high school years, even into young adulthood. Adults end up with varying skills in this area. Think of your most organized friend versus your flightiest one.

When I typed “executive secretary” into the title of this piece I cringed, because when I was in grad school I was often confused for my mentor’s secretary. It infuriated me, because I was a psychologist, dammit, not a secretary! I was focused on status, not usefulness. I didn’t realize at the time what a wreck my mentor would have been without his secretary.

My next post will explore the delicate balance between supporting your child and getting in their way. It might end up taking all week!

At times like these, the rule benders come out.

This is the problem with guidelines. They can’t account for individual circumstances. That’s the parent’s job now.

Third comment, from Cate:

“During the school closings, should you encourage your child to interact socially via FaceTime, etc. when he or she is uncertain or uninterested in that activity?”

The short answer to Cate’s question is “no” for my son, and “yes” for my daughter. And we’re all stuck in the same house, so it’s hard to hide the discrepancy.

Quoting the Middle School Continuity Plan emailed to us on March 16th: “Remove your child’s cell phone and any other smart devices from the room while your child is engaged in school work.”

Margot takes after her father, in that she can bend rules almost without thinking. James and I are rule-followers.

So imagine my discomfort when I entered the home office on the first day of online school to find Margot simultaneously on her school-issued Chromebook and chatting with a buddy. Remember this photo?

Okay, so the Chromebook is closed. But it was open when I walked in.

Now I have a lot of experience with rule benders. I remind myself it’s what makes them so much fun. So, I let Margot keep her phone. But then Cate asked her question, and I emailed Perrin Jones, Director of Middle School at Margot’s school, for clarification.

Did I throw Margot under the bus? Maybe. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the privacy of one for the benefit of many. Perrin wrote:

“Many middle schoolers don’t have the intellectual and emotional maturity to use a phone responsibly, which is why I recommended parents take them up during school work.  But they have to learn, so not allowing any phone use may not be the right way to go either.  It depends on your child.”

This is the problem with guidelines. They can’t account for individual circumstances. That’s the parent’s job now.

So here’s my thinking. Margot is allowed to use her phone during online school because I’m usually within earshot, she knows I’ll take it away if she misuses it, and she benefits from the social interaction that comes during school time. Thrives on it, actually. And this online school has stolen that bright spot from her days.

James isn’t allowed to use his phone, mainly because it’s one of a zillion distractions that assault his brain all day and prevent him from using it to his full capacity. And if I did allow him to use his phone with certain criteria in place, the distraction of rule-breaking would be too much for him to bear. He gets plenty of other opportunities to test the limits with his phone use outside of school time, trust me.

Soft skills: Just as important as academics

You can trust teachers to provide the right amount of academic work for the average child.

Second comment!

“I am particularly thankful for the sentence, ‘schoolwork takes a lot less time than you think it should.’ As this has been a major source of disagreement in our house. My son agrees with you! 🙂”

Thanks, Judith! For me, this was the biggest surprise that came with home schooling.

It’s particularly noticeable, I think, in middle school. The average middle schooler is working on a lot of non-academic or “soft” skills during middle school, and needs the chance to do this at a time they’re most interested, most ready, and most supervised. So skills like social interaction, back-and-forth chat, conflict, young love, ups and downs of friendships, staying organized, trying new things, coping with disappointment…. As you can see, I could go on and on.

These “soft” skills are just as important as academic skills.

Notice I referred above to “the average middle schooler.” By definition, there will be people past all this, and people not yet ready for it. In my professional and personal experience, people with Autism Spectrum Disorders are rarely ready for these non-academic skills at the same time as most of their peers.

A digression: I’m also one of those people who wasn’t ready for “soft” skills when most kids were. I was acing all my classes, but I struggled with managing anxiety, making idle chit chat, coping with crushes, and dealing with mean kids. I ended up working on these skills later in life, when I was ready and motivated to do so.

So, the takeaway:

You can trust teachers to provide the right amount of academic work for the average child. That’s what schools are meant to do. Some schools supplement on either end of average, with enrichment activities on one end and academic support on the other. That’s too much to expect of teachers right now.

What can you do? You can supplement. But that doesn’t look like you spending a lot of your own time expanding your child’s universe. It looks like, in my case, giving one of my children time to yammer with her friends on FaceTime and veg out on Tik Tok videos. And giving the other child time to decompress by shooting baskets ad nauseam and playing on his x-box way too much. But, bonus, he’s talking to his friends on the microphone and on FaceTime at the same time.

Imposing a Routine Against Their Will

The central paradox of my family life: That which they need the most, they fight the most.

First comment! Juli writes: “Should they still maintain their morning school routine while in this transition phase? Get dressed, brush teeth, eat breakfast, etc.? Mine doesn’t understand why it’s necessary so he’s fighting it.”

The central paradox of my family life: That which they need the most, they fight the most.

The short answer to Juli’s question is yes. It’s crucial to keep a morning routine, but you can modify it.

We delayed James’s school start time an hour, because that fit much better with his natural sleep pattern. It also created a tremendous amount of good will. In Margot’s case, 8:00am still works. But given her school’s online schedule, she could probably start at 9:00 and delay her first class a little bit.

Keep the necessary parts of the routine: brushing teeth, eating breakfast, getting dressed. Add in some fun twists: choosing own outfit, special morning snack, no shoes.

Any time I make concrete suggestions, I have to keep in mind that parents know their kids best. When I was a psychologist, I usually ended up troubleshooting concrete suggestions, because it’s hard to predict how a child will respond when you don’t live with them.

If I were asking myself Juli’s question, I’d follow up with, “What do you do if your child physically resists? Like hiding under the bed?” When things were at their worst last year, I had to “walk” James through his morning routine. I was his shadow the whole morning, gently reminding him of his routine, handing him needed items, and even holding clothes out for him to step into. Sounds like a nightmare, but it was temporary.

I’ve noticed something about my own psychologist advice when I put it into practice as a parent: Everything takes much longer than I thought it would. So acting as James’s morning shadow took weeks, not days. And there was a lot more yelling than I’m comfortable with. But look at him now!

Which brings me to the other paradox: As a psychologist, the best thing I could do for my child was to quit being a psychologist. Some kids need more mothering than others. Friends talk about how independent their kids are and you think, “What’s wrong with us?” First of all, sometimes your friends are lying. But also, the very milestones your child’s peers are enjoying at any given time might be your child’s major sticking point right now.

NOW IS YOUR CHANCE

Now is your chance to start from the beginning, or the bottom, or whatever you want to call it. When I decided to home school my son last year, it was crisis time. So, being the psychologist that I am, I removed every bit of removable stress or stimulation from his life. Picture moving from an apartment in Manhattan to a cabin in the Vermont woods.

Kids are schooling at home now. You might notice that they have some extra free time on their hands. That their schoolwork takes a lot less time than you think it should.

That’s fine.

Home schooling removes all the “noise” of the regular school day. I’m talking about stress and stimulation. For kids who need less stress, it’s a great thing.

Don’t look for “extra” or “more,” and don’t limit things like screen time that help your child decompress, until they show signs of having a low level of stress / stimulation level.

Here are some of those signs:

  1. Getting out of bed independently.
  2. Doing boring morning activities easily (tooth brushing, dressing).
  3. Happy mood, high energy level.
  4. Helping out voluntarily, in any way.
  5. Remembering to do chores usually forgotten.
  6. Creativity: drawing, singing, telling stories.

Give your child a chance to show you these signs! See if you can hang back where you’d normally jump in. For instance, give them some time to get out of bed before you go and check on them. Or shout from another room rather than going in and shaking them.

Home schooling changed James dramatically.

Before: fearing and dreading school, refusing every step of his morning routine, needing my maximum help getting ready, and needing to be walked to his locker every day.

After: even if I’m not home, he can wake up with an alarm, eat breakfast, take medicine, get himself totally ready, and be waiting on the front porch for his teacher.

Once I figure out how to add a comment section, I’d love to hear further signs of your child’s stress level lowering.

School is at home, but you’re not homeschooling

This week I’m trying something I haven’t done in awhile: Writing blog posts about an issue we’re all dealing with right now. I’ve encouraged parents from my community to subscribe to my blog, so we can build a forum about what’s on all our minds. So my writing will be less polished than I like it to be.

James, 13 and in 7th grade, has been homeschooled for about a year now. Margot, 11 and in 5th grade, just started online school on Wednesday. (Both pseudonyms.) So my take on this strange situation might be informative to some of you, and keep in mind that my professional experience with Autism Spectrum Disorders is always in the back of my mind, no matter what. That applies to any child who might seem to lag behind maturity-wise, for any reason.

Neither of my kids is home schooled right now in the traditional sense. When I withdrew my son from private school last year, I immediately hired a teacher to home school him. So I’m not his teacher. My daughter’s school has a well-organized online program that she’s following pretty independently.

One recent wrinkle is that my son’s teacher, the great Mark Gambino, has had fever and has been teaching him by Skype for the past two days. Because he’d already established a strong routine, it’s going fine. But James has still given me a hard time about going out to the back building where he does school every day and wearing shoes.

BIG PICTURE OBSERVATIONS

  1. Those who need the most help resist it the most. So a parent’s job is to decide what they need to push, and what they can let slide. One thing to push: school has a consistent time and place. One thing to let slide: anything “extra.”
  2. Often, the parent who is available isn’t the one who can work well with the children. That’s absolutely the case at my house and has been since toddlerhood. But my husband’s even worse than I am! Get well soon, Mr. Gambino.
  3. My friend Jen, Director of the New Orleans Health Department, said something really important the other day: “I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with that right now.” Keep in mind that your child has less bandwidth than usual right now. And s/he probably isn’t as polite as Jen when letting you know.
  4. When dealing with low bandwidth, start expectations low, and go even lower if they can’t meet them independently.
  5. Despite what you read on the Internet, this is not your chance to become a star home schooler and expose your child to all sorts of new ideas and take advantage of all the wonderful resources out there for free. Unless that’s what THEY want. That’s not going on in my house, for the record.
  6. This IS your chance to see how your child does with less stimulation in the learning environment. This situation would have convinced me to home school James much earlier than I did. You’re removing all of these overstimulating factors: locker, walking class to class, finding needed materials, remembering PE uniform and other equipment, social innuendo, the sheer length of the school day, after school activities, face-to-face interactions with multiple teachers, concerns about detention….

That’s all for now. Please comment and let me know what topics you might want more of. Comments will encourage me to continue!

Hang in there.

  1. That’s such a good question that I’m going to do some research today and write about it tomorrow. Thanks, Cate!…

  2. During the school closings, should you encourage your child to interact socially via FaceTime, etc. when he or she is…

BACK IN THE SADDLE

Your child will learn from her mistakes, yes, but also from your response to those mistakes.

7 Lessons a Parent Learns from Potty Training

After ten years raising my children, I’m returning to work in the same spot I started: the bathroom. In my first job, any potty-related referrals trickled down to the lowest psychologist on the totem pole: me. Later, I got into the complexities of diagnosis, consultation, and intervention. Then I had my own son and daughter, and there ended my ability to keep a straight face when using the words “parent” and “expert” in the same sentence.

Potty training shouldn’t be shunted to the office newbie. It’s an important chance for a parent to take on a teaching role. And your child’s responses might teach you something in return. 

1. It’s your child’s accomplishment, not yours.

Not all children are eager to please at all times. Potty training can be the first time you have to support self-motivation over parent-pleasing or compliance. You’ll need to do this over and over when your child learns skills you expect him to carry out of the home, like manners and tidiness. Kids love to hear, “I’m so proud of you.” But, “You got this” is even more powerful, and not just because they say it on YouTube.

2. Learning is about successive approximations.

The hardest part of potty training my own kids was letting them make mistakes. A skinned knee is one thing, but poop on the rug is quite another. This year, my daughter learned to play team volleyball. The shortest player on the team, she spent the whole season getting her serve closer and closer to the net. Psychologists call these “successive approximations.” At the last game, the crowd went wild when she finally made it over. Parents feel the same way when a child becomes independent with the potty. But first, they have some approximations to clean up. Think of them as part of the process.

3. The journey is more important than the destination.

Potty training is a metaphorical journey. Your child will learn from her mistakes, yes, but also from your response to those mistakes. Do you stay calm, take a step back, and problem solve as a team? “Oops! What just happened? I turned on the tub, and you peed on the floor. Hearing water makes you have to pee!” You’ll do this again later, with household chores: “Oops! Your favorite jersey is under your bed! Maybe that’s why it didn’t make it into the washing machine!” If you focus too much on the destination, it’s all: “Why can’t you ever put your laundry where it goes?” and, “Stop peeing on the floor!”

4. Learners need to test the limits.

How do kids learn how full a bladder can get before it bursts? Accidents. I’m flashing back to a tall geyser in the check-out line at Rouses. But you know what? They were lovely about it. Remember that everyone you’ll see pushing a grocery cart has been potty trained at some point.

5. Skills can be broken into sub-skills.

Potty training draws on multiple developmental skills your child is in the process of acquiring, each child at her own pace and in her own way. As she’s learning, look beyond complex skills to their simpler building blocks. Certain sub-skills will stand out as strengths or weaknesses for your child.

  • sensory: to recognize when she has to go
  • attention: to drop one activity for another 
  • social: to motivate her to avoid accidents
  • language: if she needs direction to the potty
  • gross motor: to get from the playroom to the bathroom 
  • fine motor: to pull the pants down
  • motor coordination: to control the stream
  • persistence: to follow through from peeing to wiping to getting dressed
  • anxiety management: to cope with variations in bathrooms
  • planning ahead: to stay dry on the road

6. Readiness is important, but not always essential.

I really tried to wait for my son to be ready. But as he approached age three, diapers limited his school options. I knew I’d need several weeks with no travel or other major disruptions. So he started potty training with his motor skills still inadequate, and with absolutely no interest in big boy underwear. And he still succeeded. I’ve had to think creatively when teaching other skills — like using a house key — as his motor skills continued to develop slowly.

7. Toddlers seek conflict. Parents don’t have to deliver it.

Personality is the X-factor in toileting readiness. If your child likes to be in control, to surprise you, and to do things “her way,” toilet training will become an intense social interaction rather than a developmental milestone. Focus on her accomplishments, not your reactions: “I bet those dry pants feel great!” The same will work later with math homework: “Wow. How good does it feel to get all those math problems done before dinner?” It’s not a chance for her to test your patience, but rather to exercise her skills. As independently as possible. 

There are many “right” ways to potty train. No matter how exciting the process turns out to be, your child will learn how the two of you are going to work together in the years ahead.

Potty Training Resources:

Healthychildren.org

healthline.com

JamieGlowacki.com

Pottyscotty.com

Books:

Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi

Potty Time! by Caroline Jayne Church

Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right by Jamie Glowacki

Toilet Training Without Tantrums by John Rosemond

What was I thinking, buying my sixth grader a Smartphone?

When I was a child psychologist, people used to pay for my parenting advice. My kids now find that hilarious. I mess up, but that sad fact shouldn’t prevent me from helping others.

My sixth grader has a smartphone. There. I admitted it. And my fourth grader has already saved up enough money to buy hers at the same age her brother bought his: fifth grade. It’s only fair.

Now I feel like I have to explain how this happened. So skip the following three paragraphs if you’re a sad sack like me. Parents of those without smart phones, read on for just one of the million excuses middle school parents have for this mistake.

As James started fifth grade, I vowed to hold out. I idolized a friend who’d reluctantly bought her eighth grader a flip phone to take on his class trip. But a few months in, James, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, asked to borrow my phone to call a friend. Then another friend, and another friend. Social interaction! When the friends’ parents answered their cell phones, he politely asked to speak to the friends. Maturity! Next thing I knew, he asked to take a solo bike ride on the levee near our house. Independence!

Years before, we’d given up our landline. To encourage James’s welcome burst of social interaction, maturity, and independence, the natural next step was his own phone. Still, I hesitated. Screen addiction is a major concern among teens and adults with autism. I pictured James degenerating from a sporty tween into a flabby, pallid barnacle on our sofa. What’s more, the dangers of social media in middle school are well-documented, autistic or not. 

As I researched phones, though, the simplest alternative by far turned out to be an older generation iPhone. So in addition to a phone I’d be buying James a mini computer. On which he could Google whatever he liked. And watch You Tube.

My husband discovered the Screen Time app on the iPhone, which allows a parent to set some restrictions. Control! We went ahead with the phone. Within a month, James figured out how to get around Screen Time. Despite his real efforts to follow my limits, James’s Internet urge was so strong that I had to hide the phone when I didn’t want him to use it. Like my own parents hid the bourbon. James turned out to be a good seeker. He can’t find his pants, but he can find his phone.

I hadn’t been looking for something new to argue about. But the genie was out of the bottle, and the phone had become yet another source of conflict. 

I should have known better. My own parents did, having bought me a 15-year-old Datsun rather than a 747 for my first car. Kids learn best when they start low and go slow. We roll over, then crawl, then walk, then run, then bike, then drive, then fly. Where is the Datsun of cell phones?

The good news is, innovators are starting to see the appeal of a middle ground between two stringed-up cans and an iPhone. Last week, I tried out Relay, which is a sort of combination walkie talkie and one-button phone. More options already exist, and more are on the way. The choice isn’t binary, as it seemed to me last year. 

If I want to, I can demote James from an iPhone to a device that’s more phone, less computer. Better, I can start my younger child with a more limited device than James’s. And face her wrath. Even better, I can encourage other parents to learn from my rookie mistakes and seek out their own Datsun phones in the first place. Cool kids be damned. 

By giving us the iPhone, technology solved a lot of little problems: getting lost, losing touch, missing out. Maybe technology can save our kids from the huge problems of screen addiction and the mental health sequelae of early smart phone use.

Relay is half-price for Amazon Prime Day, July 12-19! Click here for details.