Dream Parenting: It’s 80% Atmosphere

After being in the parenting education field for over two decades I have come to realize that the most effective parenting strategies are those that focus on the atmosphere in the home and not behavior modification of children. If you want to create the family of your dreams, you have to spend more time on changing the atmosphere in your home. Too many parenting programs focus on manipulating children’s behavior to gain compliance. They strive for a position of leverage of parent over child that often ends up in child over parent. The objective is to make the parent more powerful and the more children submissive. This might work in the short run but after a while the home has a negative atmosphere that suffocates everyone!


A friend of mine sent me a comic strip that said: “Don’t yell at your kids. Lean in and whisper. It is much scarier.” There is some truth to this pictorial pun as so many parents rely on force of will and voice instead of building relationship and attachment. Of course there are times where you will have to stand your ground with a child. You absolutely need to give consequences for inappropriate behavior but you cannot do this without some sort of emotional balance. Over time, the more you order your child around and expect blind obedience or choose to yell louder because obviously he wasn’t listening the first time, will create a climate of hostility and resentment. Is this the type of dream home you were picturing?

Research on attachment and neuroscience validates this need for emotional balance. Children with secure attachment styles are more cooperative, make better morale decisions, perform better in school, and have more empathy toward others, just to name a few positive qualities. Children without healthy attachment styles appear to have little conscience, poor academic performance, and severe behavioral problems. Although these are two parenting extremes, my personal observations are that most parents lean to the lack of emotional warmth and attachment style of parenting. Spending a half hour coloring with a child or watching a cartoon with them once in a while will not make up for hours of yelling and power struggling. 

To achieve this type of dream family, you have to wake up in the morning with a dedicated intentionality to shift the atmosphere in your home. Call this new idea your new parenting mission statement. Call it whatever you want, but you have to make it job number one until you achieve the home life you have dreamt about. You cannot begin the day thinking about how you will “get” someone to do what you want him or her to do today. Although you need to get your child to school on time and you may need to get all the days chores completed, you have to keep the bigger picture in mind that you are going to create a new and better atmosphere along the way. 

In order to change an atmosphere, you have to start working with your child from the inside out. Put your emphasis on their internal motivations and not on behavioral expectations. This will require you to spend some time getting to know your child better. Really, getting to know them. This will cost you time and energy from other tasks like laundry, work or television programs. Yes, television! It will also cost you some preconceived ideas about what it means to be a “good parent” in today’s society (we aren’t going to go into those today however). 

When heated moments come up with your child, and they will, you have to kneel down, look your child in the eye, and whisper words of direction and encouragement. As the comic strip suggested, this may be scary to your child, not because of the evil tone you take in your whisper but because they have never heard you lower your voice and talk in such an intimate manner. This is guaranteed to get their attention!

You also have to start a practice of nurturing your family members “inner gold” to see a substantial return on relational investments. This will require you to focus on the atmosphere of your home more than control strategies or chore charts. Try making a chart of each person’s unique qualities and attributes. I know you may have to think long and hard but anything is worth noting. Once you have a list of them, how can you create an atmosphere to build on those qualities? What encouragement can you give each family member? How do family members talk to one another? What will make your home safe enough for the other family members to put this precious trait or gift out in the open for examine and nurturing? Once you have started this process, most of the battles you have been (unsuccessfully) fighting will no longer necessary. 

Spend 80% of your time developing this atmosphere. The other 20% can be spent on chore charts. Here’s a quick example about how this can benefit mom, dad and the kids:

Johnny is the typical teen. He has a habit of putting his large feet on the coffee table. Mom doesn’t like his size 13 feet on the table and this turns into a huge argument every day. Mom now decides to change the atmosphere or to be more specific, change the living room. Now, there is no coffee table. It holds mom’s quite holiday items in the back room. Mom sits on the couch and asks Johnny about his day. He mumbles in confusion at this new tactic mom is taking. Mom shows empathy for his long day at school and sport practices after school. She offers to make him a snack and sits back down and eats it with him instead of complaining how this snack will ruin dinner. She also hasn’t commented once about how his feet stink after practice. He lets slip that a friend got dumped by his girlfriend. Mom never moralizes or tries to teach a lesson on how to treat a girl. Instead she asks questions to encourage more conversation from Johnny and just says ‘Uh-huh" to the parts of the conversation she has an opinion about. Frequently, mom states: “Tell me more…” about parts of the story to draw about out more conversation and information. After the snack is over, Johnny surprisingly takes his plate to the kitchen without mom “reminding” him to do it. Maybe it is because there was no coffee table to leave it on but mom is just glad to not have the battle with him. Mom gives Johnny a choice to work on homework before or after dinner time instead of telling him to get it done now since he just had a snack. Johnny just walks to his room to start on it, slightly bewildered by what just happened but with a smile on his face.

Here’s another example:

Sally is just 6 years old and very impulsive. She often runs instead of walks, leaves her toys all over the place and rarely finishes a project once started. Trying to get her to eat her dinner without talking or getting up from the table is a constant source of frustration for her parents. Dad decides to try something different and instead of yelling at Sally to pick up her toys or not run through the house, he puts left over toys into a “buy back bin”. When Sally completes her dinner without getting up from the table, he lets her “buy back” her toys to play with. If she doesn’t sit with the family, they stay in the bin over night for safe keeping. Tomorrow is another day and another practice at sitting down during dinner. When Sally runs through the house, dad asks her to do a “redo.” Sally has to go back from where she ran from and “redo” this behavior by walking. This seems to work well for Sally, not just in the area of running, but in many behavioral areas she struggles with. When Sally talks at the dinner table, dad doesn’t remind her for the hundredth time to be quiet and eat her food, he engages her in more conversation. Sally loves this opportunity for attention and finishes her food in record time which has been another source of contention with her parents. She even ate her broccoli which she said tastes like dirt. After dinner, mom and dad turn off the television and wait on doing the dishes till she is asleep. Instead they work on her homework together versus having her sit at the kitchen table alone to do it and then they read a book and get ready for bed. They make getting on her pajamas a race between her and mom to see who can change the quickest. Sally always wins and gets 17 kisses as her prize. They have a set routine ever night now instead of bedtime being somewhere between 8 and 10 pm! Now mom and dad have more time together too. 

* The two examples above utilize Parenting Toolbox tools entitled: Talk Tools, Moving the Furniture, Time Cushions, Choices, Redo’s, Energy Drains, Homework Hassle Helpers, Following the Leader, and Bedtime Routines. You can get them and more by ordering my ebook here!

Take a moment right now to reflect on the current atmosphere in your home. Is it warm and cozy or cold and unbearable? What is one thing you can do differently by changing up the tone, routine or focusing on the inner “gold” of your child? How can you work with your child’s behavior instead of against it? What new tool or tip can you incorporate versus yelling louder? What needs to be physically moved, turned off or reordered to bring a more positive atmosphere in your home?

Share your successes and frustrations by posting a comment on our Facebook page here!

Dream Parenting: Asking Ourselves Tough Questions

In this Dream Parenting series so far we have explored some introductory ideas, such as “Doing More of What Works” and “Finding An Audience of Appreciation.” These two ideas provide a foundation to doing some deeper dream parenting work. It is time now to ask ourselves some tough parenting questions. 

The first question is “Why did you become a parent in the first place?”

This is an important question to ask because it gives you a glimpse into your motivations and drives. It allows you to recognize why certain triggers create explosions of anger and frustration in your home. If parents were truly honest, many would answer that they didn’t want or weren’t ready for parenting. They may have come to parenting by accident or coercion or because they thought they should. 

I personally came from the generation that believed you should marry young and start your family right away. I am not blaming anyone since I made that decision myself. However, I realize now how immature I was when I started my family and how many challenges I have had to overcome from making that decision. I also recognize that I am a much younger grandfather and can actually chase after my two grandsons without risking physical damage!

Other parents may have started their family in hopes that the child would fulfill a need in the parents life. Parents own loss or emptiness in relationships or a lack of a sense of purpose can get projected into our children placing a huge disadvantage on to them. 

Nontraditional families, such as step parents, grandparents raising their grandchildren or adoptive/foster parents start their families after some sort of trauma has occurred. Rescue fantasies or beliefs that “love is all you need” will quickly dissappear when the behavioral problems begin. 

Asking this question about our original motivations make us honest for the hard work we need to do next. It puts us in perspective to deal with the pros and cons of our reasons for parenting in the first place and provides a clear path for ourselves and our families.

The second question is “Do you really want to change?”

The fact that we may have made a poor decision to parents does not alter the reality that we have to now manage that decision. Living in a parenting state of delusion that things should be different or resentment about why we parented in the first place will not aid us in making necessary changes. We now have to ask ourselvs if we really want to have the dream family we deserve to have or are we going to keep doing what we have always done that no longer works for us. 

Perhaps you had the right motivations about parenting and the timing and circumstances were ideal to start your family and yet you are still having family problems. That doesn’t make the second question any easier. Change often means pain and the majority of people avoid it for that reason. 

This question is important because it means work. It means feeling uncomfortable. It requies repairing some broken areas in our lives. The good news is that change is possible. 

If you answer “yes” to this question, you must then ask a the second part: What will be your first step to building your dream family? It won’t happen over night so what one thing will you start doing differently today to start the change process? What resources, support, and information can you make a plan to engage in right away? 

Share your answers to these questions on our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/parentingtoolbox

Mary Hartzell | Parenting from the inside out

If you are interested in learning more about relationship based parenting, you can go to Mary’s website at MaryHartzell.com, where you will find parent education CD’s on Parent/Child Relationships that help parents make positive, practical changes in their everyday life with their children. 

Q: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to First Presbyterian School in Santa Monica.

Mary Hartzell:

A: “I went to graduate school in UCLA where I completed my master’s degree in Early Education and Psychology. While I was there I was invited to join the teaching staff of the Early Childhood Unit at the UCLA Elementary School. This wonderful opportunity gave me a very strong foundation of integrating theory and practice. Because the school is part of the UCLA Graduate School of Education, I was involved in research projects and mentoring student teachers. The aspects of visibility, team teaching, dialogue, research and innovation that I learned there have continued to inform my work as a teacher and a director of a school to this day.

I became the Director of First Pres 26 years ago and had the opportunity to work with the teachers to evolve the school in a way that supported children’s thinking and development in social, emotional, physical, and cognitive areas. When I read an article in the journal of The National Association for the Education of Young Children, called “Beautiful Spaces, Caring Places,” I became very intrigued about what was going on in the schools in the municipality of Reggio Emilia, Italy, and set out to learn more. It’s a philosophy that is constantly evolving. We never say we are a Reggio school—because we are not in that part of Italy—but we have been inspired by their philosophy.

*While I was at home with two young children, I organized a parent education class for a group of my friends that met with success. After starting at First Pres, I began an individual consulting program as well because I found that some parents wanted more personal support. I continue to teach parenting classes and consult with parents as well.”

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about Reggio Emilia and how this approach to education works within a school?

A: “At First Pres, we have been inspired and working with the Reggio Approach for 13 years. We continue to consult with Amelia Gambetti, a liaison between Reggio Children and schools in the U.S and throughout the world. She encouraged us to embrace our identity within our own context and community.

The Reggio Approach sees the school as a system of interactions and relationships and the daily life of the school reflects and values children, teachers and parents as protagonists in the learning process. The system is about facilitating children’s own powers of thinking. In doing that, there’s a sense of the expressive and the communicative and cognitive capacities that each individual has. The environment is rich with many materials, which can give form to their ideas. They are learning through all their senses. It is a pedagogy based on listening. Teachers listen to children’s ideas, document and reflect with them as they formulate, test and revisit their theories while building knowledge and skills. When children come to school, they already have their own theories and ideas developed through their early experiences. We begin with a strong image of the child as capable and competent. Children are protagonists in the learning process and learning is co-constructed with the teacher and other children as they work together in small and large groups sharing their ideas and listening to others’ ideas.

There is a pedagogy of listening that gives respect to each individual’s ideas within the context of the community and a give and take between children as they talk and solve problems together. Most of the learning takes place in small groups, which promotes deepening levels of thinking. Children are provoked by others’ questions. Everyday there is engaged, dynamic learning!”

Q: You co-wrote Parenting from the Inside Out (which I would recommend as required reading to any parent) with neurobiologist Daniel Siegel, M.D, and if you had to sum up what this style of parenting is, how would you describe it?

A: ““Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Helps Us Raise Children Who Thrive,” is a parenting style based on relationships. Becoming a parent can trigger unresolved issues that we may unknowingly carry from our relationships with our own parents, and can interfere with us being the kind of parent we want to be. I work with many parents who are stuck in ineffective relationship patterns with their children. Because our book integrates both left and right brain processing, offering both narrative stories and neuroscience research on the brain and relationships, it offers a hopeful message to parents. The feedback I receive from parents often includes that their other relationships become more satisfying as well.

Learning to communicate is at the core of effective parent/child relationships. Reflective dialogue supports the child in feeling understood and strengthens their core sense of selves. When we are able to listen with an open mind and open heart, our child feels understood even if they are not getting what they want. Respectful communication is very important to develop, because when we have children, one of the things that we’re doing is we’re essentially telling them who they are. We are giving them an image of themselves, and we want to give them an image of themselves as being confident, capable and lovable.”

Q: What are some simple exercises we can think about as parents to help us overcome our own negative patterns and not hurt our children?

A: “I think we have to start by being self-aware and honest with ourselves. It helps if we check in with ourselves to see how we are feeling to help us slow down our reaction. We are then less likely to act in a way that we might regret later. If we don’t take care of our own feelings, they will most likely come out in indirect ways, which disconnect us from our children and family.

When everyday routines aren’t working well, talk with your children about the problem and include them in a conversation about possible solutions. Ask them what they think would help solve the problem. When we include children in the process of making a plan they are more invested in its success because they have been given the respect of being part of a collaborative problem solving process. Here’s an example of how you might begin:

What do you think would help us get out of the house on time in the morning because we’ve been late the last three days. It’s just not working. It seems like every morning I’m getting mad and raising my voice and you probably don’t like that. Let’s make a plan so that we can have a pleasant morning and everyone can be ready to leave the house on time.

Inviting your child/children to offer some ideas of what they think could help, makes a significant difference. It helps to have an honest conversation with kids about what’s not working, rather than getting angry at the same thing over and over again every morning. Stop doing what isn’t working. Getting angry at our children in the morning is unlikely to have any positive results. When we’re angry at our children, they’ll often defend themselves by getting angry at us. Sometimes children get mad at us because they think we’re going to get angry at them. When both we and our children are defensive, communication breaks down.

I often advise parents who feel stuck in a negative pattern with their child, to stop doing what isn’t working, and observe and reflect on both their child’s behavior and their own before making any change.

This is a good time to journal. Journaling can be helpful as it gives witness to our thoughts and feelings. The very act of writing can begin movement towards calming and healing and we are able to become more compassionate to our children and ourselves. When we are angry at our child, we may also be angry at ourselves because our child’s behavior makes us feel like an incompetent parent.

Another good time to journal is when you become more aware of what triggers a negative, unsuccessful response. When you notice that your reactions are more intense and extreme than the situation might merit, this awareness gives you an opportunity to change. The disruptive issue may have more to do with leftover or unresolved issues from your own childhood than with your child’s behavior. Writing your thoughts and feelings can be very helpful and begin to give us a deeper understanding of our child and ourselves.”

Anna Quindlen: Why parents should take a Picasso-like approach to raising kids

Earlier today, I posted an excerpt from the new memoir by Anna Quindlen, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” (April, Random House).

When she shared that piece, I asked her about her thoughts on parenting. 

Given her book’s attention to the generational shifts in child-rearing attitudes, I asked the expert at introspection, also a mother of three, which parenting trend from the past should be most embraced now and in the future.

Her response: Teach manners.

“When children are small, parents should run their lives and not the other way around,” she said.

Choices are much too confusing for them: It’s not, ‘What do you want to drink?’ It’s ‘Apple juice or milk?’ ”

“You want to have fun with your kids, and no one has fun with someone who runs roughshod. Raising a child is a little like Picasso’s work; in the beginning he did very conventional representational things. Cubism came after he had the rules down pat. Children should have enough freedom to be themselves — once they’ve learned the rules.”

What is the single most important parenting lesson you learned from your own mother or father?

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-parenting/post/anna-quindlen-why-parents-should-take-a-picasso-like-approach-to-raising-kids/2012/04/30/gIQAgebLsT_blog.html#

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The Terrible Twos – Myth or Reality?

boy kicking toys
© Jon Whittle

Two-year-olds get all the buzz, but the truth is, tantrums and mayhem can strike at any age, for a variety of reasons. “Most toddlers begin testing limits shortly after their first birthday and continue until about age four,” says Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411.

So how did the Terrible Twos become such a pop-parenting phenomenon? “It’s an old-fashioned idea and not supported by research,” says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Center at Yale University. The term was coined in the 1950s, perhaps because so much pressure was put on families to be detergent-commercial perfect that the moment a child grew out of compliant infancy, moms were freaked out. But modern parents agree—every kid is different, and every year presents new joys and challenges. Read on for a fresh perspective on each stage.

Age 1

What’s to Love: They can be wonderfully cuddly. And since many 1-year-olds haven’t yet realized the power of the word “no” to antagonize you, they can often be more compliant than their 2- to 4-year-old sibs. Their distractible nature means you can get them to stop fiddling with the oven knob by giving them a pot and a spoon to bang with.

What’s Tough About It: Establishing good sleep patterns is still a struggle throughout this year, as you drop the morning nap, lengthen the midday one, and solidify bedtime. All that snooze drama can make for an overtired, cranky kid. In addition, his limited vocabulary makes for misunderstandings. (He says “nana.” You put him on the phone with Nana Helen. He wanted a banana. Cue meltdown.)

How To Make the Most of It: They need about 13 hours of sleep (11 at night and 2 during the day), so try to make it happen, suggests Bronwyn Charlton, Ph.D., co-founder of SeedlingsGroup, a collective of child-development experts in New York City. Inadequate sleep stacks the deck against you: A tired toddler is a cranky toddler.

Age 2

What’s to Love: There’s no denying it—2-year-olds are stinking cute! Their curiosity about the world is infectious. And while they certainly get into trouble, their mishaps feel accidental, making them easier to forgive.

What’s Tough About It: Two-year-olds are fully mobile. Translation: They’re into everything. And that means this is the first time you’ve had to set limits (no climbing the bookcase, crossing the street, or picking up cigarette butts off the sidewalk). Your child has never heard “no” so many times in her short life—and she doesn’t like it. To top it all off, 2-year-olds don’t yet have the language to express feelings, so they resort to pitching fits. Their young brains can’t handle extreme emotions without going a bit haywire.

How to Make The Most of It: Praise often: “You didn’t throw any toys today! Great job!” When she blows her stack, ignore her, as long as she isn’t hurting anyone. Yelling or attempts to subdue—even with affection—make tantrums last longer. Kazdin notes that a tantrum is a futile time for discipline. “Wait until your child is able to absorb what you say.”

Common Reactions to Being a Stay and Home Dad and How to Deal with Them

In one study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2005, researchers from Yale University looked at the attitudes of our culture at large towards traditional and non-traditional families. The researchers defined traditional as a family with a working father and stay-at-home mother, and non-traditional families as families with a working mother and a stay-at-home father. The results of these studies were quite interesting, and they just go to show what some of the common reactions to stay-at-home dads are.

The researchers in this study found that people liked traditional families more, and that they expressed negative attitudes – usually very openly! – towards non-traditional families. Stay-at-home dads were somehow viewed as less-than by other people, and working mothers were not well-respected or well-liked unless they were working because of financial necessity rather than for personal fulfillment.

If you’re already a stay-at-home dad or have talked with people about the possibility of becoming one, this all probably seems like a no-brainer to you! It’s not at all uncommon for people to have a distinctly negative, know-it-all attitude towards stay-at-home dads. But then, of course, there’s the opposite extreme of those who paint you to be a hero just because you stay home with your kids. What’s a guy to do? Here are a few of the most common reactions to being a stay-at-home dad and what you can do about them:

The Hateful Reaction
When it comes to parenting, you simply can’t please everyone, nor should you try to. While every parenting decision from whether or not to breastfeed a child to whether or not to spank a child can come with hateful reactions from certain quarters, nothing seems to draw so many of these reactions as being a stay-at-home dad. (At least, that’s how you probably feel when you tell people that this is what you do!) Some people just don’t get it and never will agree with your decision.

The best way to react to this one is to ignore it! You don’t owe anyone else (not even your own mother-in-law!) a justification about why you’ve decided to stay home with your kids. If you’re getting a hateful reaction from someone you don’t even know, just walk away. In touchier situations – like when you’re dealing with family members – perhaps you can come up with a one-liner such as, “It just works better for us this way,” that you can throw in before you pointedly change the direction of the conversation.

The Effusive Reaction
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have those very liberal people who think that being a stay-at-home dad makes you a hero. While it can be nice to be praised rather than vilified for your current career choice, it can also be quite annoying because you know you’re just doing what’s best for your family and yourself at this particular moment in your history.

Dealing with those who think you’re a total hero for taking care of your kids can be tricky. Of course, you don’t want to offend them purposefully, but you might also want to just change the subject yet again. Again, having just a little something to say about your role as a stay-at-home dad and then changing the subject can be helpful.

The Advice-Giving Reaction
Part of the problem with our world’s perception of the roles of men and women is that people assume dads don’t understand how to take care of children by virtue of the fact that they are male. This is, of course, no true. Some men are just as much “naturals” at caring for kids as some women are, and every parent has at least a little bit of learning curve, no matter what their gender!

Just because men can’t give birth or breastfeed certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t competent enough to care for a child.
With that said, as a stay-at-home dad, be prepared for more than your fair share of parenting advice. It will come from moms at the playground, your family members, people you know a little, and complete strangers in the grocery store. There are a myriad of ways to handle the advice-giving reaction to your role as a dad, and the option you choose depends on your personality, how well you know the advice giver, and your mood on that particular day.

You could, for instance, just let the advice roll off your back with a polite, “Thanks for the advice” and, of course, a quick change of subject if you’re stuck in an actual conversation with the advice-giver. You could also become a little sarcastic, which is especially fun when you’re dealing with those who have much less parenting experience than you (or, in many cases, who aren’t parents at all and just happen to be of the female gender). Of course, if the person you’re speaking with has a similar parenting style to your own and is genuinely trying to help, it can be helpful to listen and learn! It might eat at your pride a little to take unasked-for advice, but sometimes you really will learn something helpful!

Reactions to being a stay-at-home dad can be difficult to get used to and to deal with at first, and if your career had previously been a big part of your identity, things can be even more difficult. However, learning to deal with these common reactions in a way that is helpful for you and for the people involved otherwise is a good way to make your time as a stay-at-home dad more successful.

By Daniela Baker

Daniela blogs at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison site. She blogs about family finance and as a mother of two, she firmly believes in the idea of having a bit of an emergency fund saved up just in case.

Ron Huxley’s Reaction: I love this post by DIY Father.com as it addresses some very common reactions to stay at home dads. I have known several families where the wife makes more money and has a more stable dad and this was the logical conclusion for their family. It seemed to work for them. I think it would drive me crazy.

10 Discipline Tricks from Teachers

Ron Huxley’s Remarks: Ever wonder why your child behaves at school but not at home? In this very informative article, parents.com lists 13 ways your child’s teacher uses to gain control:

1. Give them a “do-over.”

2. Set up a take-a-break space.

3. Get on your knees.

4. Channel their superpower.

5. Change “go” to “come.”

6. Say their name first.

7. Let them swap chores.

8. Let them make the rules.

9. Give them a piece of the rock.

10. Do a countdown to liftoff.

Real world math: put kids in charge of their money

Spending money! The perfect setup for real-world learning and natural consequences!

There are many methods for giving kids an allowance – tied to chores, tied to age, bonuses-for-extra-work, etc. How (or if) one gives an allowance is rooted in one’s family culture, and doesn’t lend itself to pat directives. But, no matter how you decide to give your kids an allowance, I find the key to increasing its power as a teaching tool is to put your kids in charge of how they spend their money.

Putting buying decisions in my kids’ hands has done wonders for their money savvy, consumer awareness, and math skills. Specifically:

  • Addition and subtraction (“How much to I still have to earn to buy x? How much will I have left if I buy y?”)
  • Percentage (“Hey, Mom! Museum members get 10% off in the gift shop!”)
  • Fractions (“Hey, Mom! X is on sale for half price!”)
  • Decimals (dollars and cents)
  • Quality vs. value (“It’s cheap, but it might break the second time I use it.”)
  • Needs vs. wants…or wants vs. other wants (“I want that video game, but maybe I should save my money for an iPad 2.”)
  • Long-term goals (“I want to buy a car when I get my license.”)

A few key details make this strategy work:

Allowance must be big enough to be meaningful.

I got two bucks a week when I was a kid, but it was more of a token payment than anything else. We pay our kids an allowance equal to their age. Half goes to “spending money,” and half goes to “long-term savings” which they get when they move out. They choose what to do with money they receive for jobs or gifts (spend it all or save part of it).

If they ask, I also “cash out” gift cards. That is, if they receive a store-specific gift card but would prefer the cash, I buy it from them, knowing it’s a matter of time till I shop at that store myself.

We choose not to formally tie allowance to chores or work, except for specific jobs such as lawn mowing or washing the car. For us, changing the context from “family responsibility” to “cash for work” decreases teamwork and increases conflict and loophole-finding.

We no longer buy treats and trinkets.

This is essential. No more lollipops in the checkout line. No more cheap toys. The only way kids learn to assess value is to pay for impulse purchases themselves.

This also goes for “upgrades” to purchases we cover. For example, we have a certain budget for school clothing. If our kids want the too-expensive pair of shoes (or whatever), they kick in the extra.

We advise our kids on purchases if they ask, but we don’t judge what they buy.

My kids decide what’s valuable to them. Beyond the most basic guidelines (nothing unsafe or offensive), they can buy whatever they want with their own money. Sometimes they buy candy or crap toys, but rarely…they decided early on it’s a waste of money.

We track allowance and spending electronically.

The roadblock we kept hitting was the actual handling of cash. We never had proper change when it was allowance time (or we’d forget to pay it). Someone would forget their wallet, or forget to put their money in the wallet, etc. We’d buy stuff for the kids, forget to get paid back…you get the picture.

An iPhone app solved the problem: Kiddy Bank. This simple app is little more than a smart ledger, automatically adding allowance each week, with the ability to debit for purchases and credit for earnings and gifts. We’ve created separate spendings- and savings “accounts” for each of the kids, as their allowances and savings rates are different. The app is not connected to an actual bank account, so no money actually moves around.

So there you have it…our allowance strategy. I’d love to hear what’s working for you.

Ron Huxley’s Remembrance: I remember getting $1 every Sunday, as a child, for my allowance. I would walk my brother and sister down to the corner market and we would spend that dollar. I would get three comic books and a chocolate malt. The day the comic books went from twenty-five cents to thirty-five cents was devastating for me. I had to make an important decision. Did I buy one less comic book or skip the malt? I ended up getting one less comic book.

This was math for me as a child. The ideas in this article can help you teach some simple life skills to your child as well. It covers some of the common obstacles and manipulations that might come up.

What 9/11 has taught us about trauma

Scientific American has a useful piece on how the immediate treatment of psychological trauma has changed since 9/11. The issue is interesting because recent progress has turned lots of psychological concepts on their head to the point where many still can’t grasp the concepts.

The article notes that at the time of the Twin Towers disaster, the standard form of treatment was Critical Incident Stress Debriefing – also known as CISD or just ‘debriefing’ – a technique where psychologists would ask survivors, usually in groups, to describe what happened and ‘process’ all the associated emotions by talking about them.

This technique is now not recommended because we know it is at best useless and probably harmful – owing to the fact that it seems to increase trauma in the long-term.

Instead, we use an approach called psychological first aid, which, instead of encouraging people to talk about all their emotions, really just focuses on making sure people feel secure and connected.

Although the article implies that 9/11 was a major turning point for our knowledge of immediate post-trauma treatment, the story is actually far more complex.

Studies had been accumulating throughout the 90s showing that ‘debriefing’ caused harm in some, although it wasn’t until around the turn of the century that two meta-analyses sealed the deal.

Unfortunately, the practice of ‘debriefing’ by aid agencies and emergency psychologists was very hard to change for a number of interesting reasons.

A lot of aid agencies don’t deal directly with the scientific literature. Sometimes, they just don’t have the expertise but often it’s because they simply have no access to it – as most of it is locked behind paywalls.

However, probably most important was that even the possibility of ‘debriefing’ having the potential to do damage was very counter-intuitive.

The treatment was based on the then-accepted foundations of psychological theory that said that emotions always need to be expressed and can do damage if not ‘processed’.

On top of this, for the first time, many clinicians had to deal with the concept that a treatment could do damage even though the patients said it was helpful and were actually and genuinely getting better.

This is so difficult to grasp that many still continue with the old and potentially damaging practices, so here’s a quick run down of why this makes sense.

The theoretical part is a hang-over from Freudian psychology. Freud believed that neuronal energy was directly related to ‘mental energy’ and so psychology could be understood in thermodynamic terms.

Particularly important in this approach is the first law of thermodynamics that says that energy cannot be created or destroyed just turned into another form. Hence Freud’s idea that emotions need to be ‘expressed’ or ‘processed’ to transform them from a pathological form to something less harmful.

We now know this isn’t a particularly reliable guide to human psychology but it still remains hugely popular so it seemed natural that after trauma, people would need to ‘release’ their ‘pent up emotions’ by talking about them lest the ‘internal pressure’ led to damage further down the line.

And from the therapists’ point of view, the patients said the intervention was helpful and were genuinely getting better, so how could it be doing harm?

In reality, the psychologists would meet with heavily traumatised people, ‘debrief’ them, and in the following weeks and months, the survivors would improve.

But this will happen if you do absolutely nothing. Directly after a disaster or similarly horrible event people will perhaps be the most traumatised they will ever be in their life, and so will naturally move towards a less intense state.

Statistically this is known as regression to the mean and it will occur even if natural recovery is slowed by a damaging treatment that extends the risk period, which is exactly what happens with ‘debriefing’.

So while the treatment was actually impeding natural recovery you would only be able to see the effect if you compare two groups. From the perspective of the psychologists who only saw the post-trauma survivors it can look as if the treatment is ‘working’ when improvement, in reality, was being interfered with.

This effect was compounded by the fact that debriefing was single session. The psychologists didn’t even get to see the evolution of the patients afterwards to help compare with other cases from their own experience.

On top of all this, after the ‘debriefing’ sessions, patients actually reported the sessions were useful even when long-term damage was confirmed, because, to put it bluntly, patients are no better than seeing the future than professionals.

In one study, 80% of patients said the intervention was “useful” despite having more symptoms of mental illness in the long-term compared to disaster victims who had no treatment. In another, more than half said ‘debriefing’ was “definitely useful” despite having twice the rate of postraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a year.

Debriefing involves lots of psychological ‘techniques’, so the psychologists felt they were using their best tools, while the lack of outside perspective meant it was easy to mistake instant feedback and regression to the mean for actual benefit.

It’s worth saying that the same techniques that do damage directly after trauma are the single best psychological treatment when a powerful experience leads to chronic mental health problems. Revisiting and ‘working through’ the traumatic memories is an essential part of the treatment when PTSD has developed.

So it seemed to make sense to apply similar ideas to those in the acute stage of trauma, but probably because the chance of developing PTSD is related to the duration of arousal at the time of the event, ‘going over’ the events shortly after they’ve passed probably extends the emotional impact and the long-term risks.

But while the comparative studies should have put an end to the practice, it wasn’t until the World Health Organisation specifically recommended that ‘debriefing’ not be used in response to the 2004 tsunami [pdf] that many agencies actually changed how they went about managing disaster victims.

As well as turning disaster psychology on its head, this experience has dispelled the stereotype that ‘everyone needs to talk’ after difficult events and, in response, the new approach of psychological first aid was created.

Psychological first aid is actually remarkable for the fact that it contains so little psychology, as you can see from the just released psychological first aid manual from the World Health Organisation.

You don’t need to be a mental health professional to use the techniques and they largely consist of looking after the practical needs of the person plus working toward making them feel safe and comfortable.

No processing of emotions, no ‘disaster narratives’, no fancy psychology – really just being practical, gentle and kind.

We don’t actually know if psychological first aid makes people less likely to experience trauma, as it hasn’t been directly tested, although it is based on the best available evidence to avoid harm and stabilise extreme stress.

So while 9/11 certainly focussed people’s minds on psychological trauma and its treatment (especially in the USA which is a world leader in the field) it was really just another bitter waymarker in a series of world tragedies that has shaped disaster response psychology.

So unusually for a psychologist, I’ll be hoping we’ll have the chance to do less research in this particular area and have a more peaceful coming decade.
 

Link to SciAm piece on psychology and the aftermath of 9/11.

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This isn’t a typical piece for a parenting blog but seeing as how I work with so many traumatized children and since today is 9/11 it seemed appropriate to share a couple thoughts.

One of the first things I teach my clinical interns is that you have to “stabilize” before you can do “interventions.” As therapists and parents we want to help a child talk about their traumas and get it all out. As the article explains above, this is an out dated and incorrect hypothesis about how to manage trauma. What children need FIRST is to know that they are safe and connected to others. This is the first law of attachment if you will and the very thing that so many traumatized children lack. Think about it: trauma destabilizes your sense of safety, so what would be the best intervention? Recreating safety.

It is a common problem for new therapists to want to talk it out. I get social workers and parents pressing me to do this all the time. The fact is that it is the worst thing for the child at first. Before working out issues, let’s create safety and stability at home and school. Build more support system. Give more hugs. Stay longer in the room at night and read that extra book or two. Be more tolerant of the meltdowns and resistance to changes in routine. Follow a routine if you don’t have one. Give back rubs and an extra scoop of ice cream.

What do you do to create safety and stability after a child experiences something traumatic?

Why can’t your child pay attention?

In my last post I talked about how parents can change a child’s brain. Hopefully you can begin to believe that this is possible. I think it suggest a very different approach to parenting. Instead of trying to “manage” a child’s behavior, we can begin to explore how to “train” a child from the inside out. One of the areas parents might really benefit from this approach is to help them pay attention. I am not talking about dealing with diagnosable Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorders but that might be applicable as well. I am simply thinking about ways to get your child to look up from the cell phone or hear your request to come in for dinner, the first time, when they are engaged in play outside. Would you like to say something the first time and be heard without repeating (yelling) it again? How about on a more personal level: Wouldn’t you like to be able to focus on your families needs without feeling overwhelmed and stressed? How many things try to capture our attention in a day? How many times do our children have to ask a question before we turn to focus on them? This is what Amishi Jha, the brain scientist,  is talking about in the short video clip (see below).
People in today’s society have so much demand on their attention that they are constantly battling what to pay attention to. This is true for our children as well as ourselves! Unfortunately, what occurs is that we live our life in “instant replay” mode. We are constantly having to go back and review what someone said or someone did.
We hear our children fighting from the other room and have to go back and rewind our mental tapes to understand what is going on and how we are going to intervene. We don’t have the luxury to live in the moment and deal with only one thing at a time. Consequently, we engage in shortcut strategies to survive. Our children do the same. The brain has an Executive System to deploy attention and memory resources to problems as they occur around us. This is probably why so many of us parents work on crisis mode with our children. We may miss good things our children do as our emotional resources are concentrating on putting out fires. We feel we don’t have the capacity to focus on what is working due to so much focus on what is going wrong. As you can imagine this creates a vicious cycle for parent and child.
How do we keep the play button of the brain on the present moment instead of being focused on the past moment or future moment (on what we need to do next)? Mindfulness researchers would ask this question by saying “how do we pay attention to our present moment without judgement and stay calm in the midst of stressful demands of life?” There are a lot of books that look at mindfulness out that can inform parents on this. My favorite is the book “Parenting from the inside out” by Daniel Siegel. We also have the knowledge of our spiritual practices that can inform a more mindful, present-focused parenting. It may be useful to start meditating on how to pay more attention to our children, in the moment, and model better attentional skills in our children simultaneously. Click link here to watch Amishi Jha talk about how to train brains to pay better attention: Amishi Jha: Building Attention Learn more on this topic and other real life parenting tools in our ParentingToolbox Newsletter. Click here now!