The Parent Practice is regularly invited to give parenting tips and guidance to the press and television about many aspects of parenting in today's world. The Parent Practice specialises in those everyday parenting issues which every family faces and has come up with tried and tested strategies for dealing with them. The Parent Practice is a leading voice on parenting matters in the UK and beyond.
By Juliet Richards, May 2009
Are you tired of being your children’s ‘Director of Entertainment’? Do you worry about how much they rely on the TV, computer, Nintendo or Play Station to occupy them?
The parents we meet at The Parent Practice frequently report that they would like their children to get off the screens and use their imaginations more. Often, the challenge is knowing how to make this happen.
Why is it important?
According to The Children's Society's “Play isn't a luxury, it's a fundamental part of a child's psychological and physical development.” The benefits of independent play, where children make up their own games, characters, situations, dialogues, outcomes without adult intervention or direction, are huge. This is because imagination is a really important learning tool and helps determine children’s ‘success’, not just as children, but also later in life as adults in all areas of life.
Imaginative and independent play helps children:
· Learn to solve problems – because it gives them scope to envisage different outcomes to various situations;
· Practice coping with difficult or new or strange circumstances – this can provide an outlet for some emotions and can also help children understand and develop empathy for others;
· Express themselves – explaining ideas, encouraging and responding to others all involve using a wide range of vocabulary within context;
· Develop relationship skills – how to initiate play, how to compromise, how to ‘read’ your friends’ reactions and adapt accordingly
· Learn real life skills – reading and writing and counting when shopping at pretend stores, emulating adult situations (we’ve all heard our children adopting our telephone manner in play phone calls), etc.
And yet, according to a survey by Persil called the Free Play Initative, 71% of over 2,000 parents “always plan the play and entertainment activities” of their children.
But, interestingly, more than half the children surveyed said they preferred having time to create their own games and most parents reported seeing a positive difference in their child’s behaviour after imaginative or independent play in terms of their children’s self-confidence, focus and general levels of behaviour.
So why don’t we let them play independently so much?
Probably because it’s neater, easier and more convenient and contained for us if we manage our children’s play. Independent play is usually noisy, invariably messy, they often stampede through the house, and we don’t understand it! Parents often feel their job is to manage every aspect of their children’s lives and worry that they’re not doing a good enough job if they’re not stimulating their children with educational toys or sending them to activities. We live in a pressured world we are expected to be busy all the time.
So how do we get them to play more independent games and use their imaginations more?
The key to success will probably be taking it easy to start with, particularly if you and your children are used to prescribed or organised entertainment. Ironically, you may need to set it up carefully beforehand – preparing a few toys or items, or ideas, and even having a talk through with the children to elicit their ideas, and gain their commitment. Then, let play commence!
Also, keep it short at the beginning – perhaps just 15 minutes, and then extend the period each day. It is better to stop while things are still going well, than risk going on too long, and then remember to descriptively praise the children for what they have managed to achieve: “You made up a great game with your brother just then, using your imagination and then you explained the game clearly to him so he could join in” or “you played all by yourselves for 10 minutes then which shows me you know how to make your own fun”.
If you find resistance to the idea of playing alone or making up their own games, without electronics or grown-ups, be empathetic. Reflectively listen that trying new things can feel uncomfortable and it is not unusual to be cautious about taking on new challenges at first. It may be that the children are concerned they won’t be able to think of something to do, and you may need to remind them about a time when they showed some creativity or ingenuity to keep themselves amused.
Of course, it will be much harder to encourage independent play while the TV or computer is turned on..... We recommend you establish some clear and positive rules, based on your personal values and views, to clarify when and how much TV or computer time your children are entitled to each day or week. As far as possible, ensure that TV or computer time is seen as a privilege rather than an entitlement, that children ‘earn’ beforehand by their good behaviour.
And then, when the screens are off and the grown-ups are at a safe distance, the real fun can start!
By Melissa Hood, Quoted in Familes Magazine, May 2009
We were asked recently whether we think children's self esteem is less robust than in the past. In fact we do think children's self esteem is perhaps more fragile than in previous generations which may seem strange given that there is now a much more child-centred approach to parenting than a generation ago and an increased awareness of how important a healthy self esteem is to so many outcomes for children. Parents almost universally say it's a good practice to praise their children and most try hard to do so. But we are very conditioned to notice what's wrong with our children's behaviour and we point it out to them and sometimes punish children. We do this because we mistakenly think this will make their behaviour change. In fact repeated criticism makes children tune out what the adults say and can diminish their self esteem.
Even when we do praise them the difficulty lies in the kind of praise we use which tends to be brief and evaluative. We say 'good boy' or 'clever girl' or 'well done'. If we're feeling upbeat we may say their behaviour or their achievements are fantastic or brilliant. The trouble with this kind of praise is that children don't believe it. The superlative words lose credibility and they may think it's nice that we praise them, but we're supposed to -it's our job. They may doubt our judgment when we say they're wonderful at maths when they know others who know their times tables better than they do. If we praise our children a lot for their achievements, as most parents do, children get the idea that it is the achievement that matters to us. This can make life very pressured for children. If their sense of self worth is tied up in their achievements it is a very precarious thing, always subject to ups and downs. Many children have become very afraid of making mistakes and become risk averse or are unaware of how to use their mistakes to improve. Children are also under far more pressure at school than they ever used to be with more exams than in the past and most schools operating a culture of comparison through grades and awards. (Head teachers have recognised the pressure imposed on children by league tables and SATs and given voice to their concerns about the loss of interest in learning these cause recently)
Another reason why we think children's self esteem is lower than in the past is that children have so much done for them these days, including their thinking. This generation of parents is more fearful than in the past and the term 'helicopter parents' who hover over their children is aptly used to describe many parents. (There are many reasons for this including delaying having families and having fewer children which means we can focus all our energies on them -if you're the youngest of three or four you just learn to do for yourself because there isn't time for the parent to do everything for you). We don't let our children just get on and play unsupervised as much as previously. The culture of fear in 21st century Britain is such that most parents don't allow their children to play outside the home except in supervised trips. The health and safety culture makes us more nervous of physical risk so we don't let children climb trees so much or try to do things for themselves like learn to handle a knife in the kitchen. We often organise so many activities and do so much for our children leaving them little opportunity to learn to be self sufficient. They don't learn the life skills that were learnt in the home in previous generations and they don't establish the kind of competencies that lead to confidence. A child who can see he's capable because he can put his own clothes in the laundry or help vacuum the carpet or feed the cat or help to cook is a confident child.
Another contributor to lack of self esteem is our expectations of children's behaviour these days. In the past it seemed children were expected to be children and to make mistakes while they were learning but now we have high expectations of their self control and maturity (often expecting them to be quiet and compliant and still which goes against the nature of many young children, especially boys). Many parents have unrealistic expectations of children's behaviour maybe because until they have their own children they don't have much experience of how children behave (apart from their own memories of childhood). Many of us are parenting in isolation in modern times, without the benefit of extended families nearby to advise us and help us out. We make children wrong for being children and try to coerce them out of natural behaviours. We get cross with them and tell them off for being curious or impulsive or behaving in a self-centred way, for being unable to share or consider others, for not wanting to tidy up or go to bed or do their homework and for wanting to play when we want them to get ready for school. When a person feels wrong a lot of the time their self esteem is not going to be strong.
A good parent contains her emotions, models desirable behaviour, and is consistent. Perhaps she has one child, a full-time nanny and unlimited leisure. I have three boys aged two, four and seven, no help and missed deadlines. My behaviour is worse than theirs.
Every inch is gained by threats: "Shoes on or I'll delete your programme." This saves repeating requests 90 times. Either I speak at the pitch of a bat and can only be heard by dogs, or my children have blocked me out. I can't blame them. When the four-year old calls me an idiot because he's been booked in for swimming at the wrong time and now isn't allowed in the water, I shout, "It wasn't my fault, it was that stupid pool man!"
By Juliet Richards, June 2009
We all have our own comfort zone as adults, and children are no different.
They will have a limit to what they feel comfortable doing, or trying, and this will come from a combination of nature and nurture. Each child’s comfort zone will vary in its range and depth and within each family, each sibling will be different – it is not unusual to have one child who is naturally cautious, even anxious, and another who is exuberant and seemingly carefree; or one who is resistant to joining in, to volunteering or to change and another who embraces anything new.
It’s important we celebrate their differences – and remember that each child’s individual temperament is an intrinsic part of who they are. It is not “wrong” and it’s certainly not misbehaviour. A child who is anxious is not BEING a problem. Instead she or he is HAVING a problem.
And, as loving and caring parents, we may decide to help them overcome some sensitivities which we feel limit their happiness or potential.
So, here are a few ideas to help you help your child extend their comfort zone – from wherever it is. Remember, you can only start a journey from where you are. Not from where you wish you were, hope you are, think you ought to be! Be realistic about your child’s capabilities in the present, and then slowly extend them. Be realistic too about the destination – the end product. Don’t expect a shrinking wall-flower to blossom into an It-girl, or a quiet thinker to become the centre of attention 24/7.
Practice, practice, practice makes perfect! Acutally, don’t expect perfection but improvement is a great goal to have.
Some children are nervous about going to a party, even going into their classroom, or saying hello to a grown-up. Or it could be about going to the dentist or doctor, or trying new foods or activities. Some of this may be simply because they feel uncomfortable not knowing what to do with themselves; or sometimes it’s because they don’t know how it’s going to feel or work out or worry that they may ‘fail’ in some way or might not ‘win’ in the case of competitions.
Have a chat-through where you and your child discuss the options – of shaking hands, looking someone in the eye, preparing something to say in advance. And talk about how they might feel, what they might do about those feelings, and what might happen and when. If useful, take time to act it out – many issues for little children in particular are physical, so it makes sense to DO it rather than just TALK about it. Children are more likely to be able to do in reality what they’ve practiced beforehand.
Make sure the practice takes place well before the event – going back to school, going to the cafe, or dentist, or playdate or party. Not in the car outside or at the gates. The further in advance you have the chat- through, and the more you can re-visit and remind, then the more it can de-sensitise the child.
Build up their confidence - use Descriptive Praise
Seek and you will find! Look out for and focus on ANYTIME your child displays a quality that will help them extend their comfort zone and be more confident in new situations. So, not just being brave or courageous, but more subtle qualities too, say, keeping things in perspective, showing a positive attitude or looking on the bright side, displaying self-control, being flexible if things change and making the best of a situation, also thinking ahead, showing self-reliance and being a solution-seeker. For those highly competitive types, take the focus away from whether they have won or lost whenever they enter things. Talk about the effort they put in or what they get from joining in and over time they will get the message that the most important thing is doing their best, rather than simply winning.
There’s nothing wrong in setting something up for them to succeed at – even trying a new flavour or shape of biscuit can be descriptively praised for trying something new and being adaptable. Or listening to different music, or wearing a different combination of t-shirt and trousers.
If children are concerned about trying new things, perhaps try something a little bit crazy! Having fun makes so many things so much easier. Why not try having breakfast for tea? Or having lunch under the table instead of on it? Why not wear your clothes inside out – that might have to be a weekend thing! Or walk backwards, or sing instead of talk all day long?
You will want to judge this carefully, making sure it doesn’t come across as a challenge or something that HAS to be done – instead it should simply be spontaneous and silly!
Model accepting Mistakes
Children make mistakes all day, every day. That’s how they learn. Children also laugh a lot – up to 400 times a day! And that helps them with the process of trying, failing, trying again. However, some children find making mistakes harder. They are more concerned than others about the effect of making a mistake – on themselves, and perhaps on others too.
Take extra care to model a willingness to admit your mistakes – yes, we make them too and it’s important for our children to know this – and demonstrate how you move on to learn from the mistake, and without blaming yourself. Don’t say ‘I’m such an idiot for not putting enough money in the meter –now we’ve got a ticket and Daddy will be so cross’. Instead say ‘Oh I wish I’d put more money in the meter because then we wouldn’t have got a ticket. I will write myself a note so I remember next time.’
Be sure to verbalise the difference between the mistake and the child – or yourself! The mistake may have been careless, or clumsy, or insensitive. The individual is none of these things.
Try not to panic if you see your child being nervous and worried. If this is a similar temperament to you, it will be hard because you will be aware of how these characteristics affected you. If this is a very different temperament to you, it will be hard because you will find it difficult to understand and accept.
If you find it particularly upsetting when they hang back or downright refuse to try something, think IN ADVANCE of something that YOU can do or say that will help you feel calm. As our tension and frustration rises, this adds to their predicament and, crucially, stops us being able to help them. It may be a mantra you can repeat inside your head “This is my son/daughter and I love them for who they are, not what they can do” or “He/she is not being a problem, but is having a problem” or “I can help here”. It may simply be that you need to take control of your breathing and not let it rise and speed up.
Let them know it’s OK – use Reflective Listening
When an individual is trapped in an emotion – whether they know what the emotion is or not – it’s a scary feeling and it stops the individual thinking clearly and finding a solution.
It may well be that your child does not understand why they start to fill up with tears, or breathe too quickly or their legs feel wobbly or their tummies flip over and over, when they have to do something new. They may not realise that many people feel like this, at some point or another, and it is something they can slowly learn to take control over.
As such, use Reflective Listening – a skill to show empathy – to help them identify and ultimately manage their emotions. Suggest things like “I wonder whether your tummy feels all funny now because you are worried about going to Emily’s house” or “I think you don’t want me to leave because you don’t like it when you don’t know where I am” or “Perhaps you feel unsure whether you should try this because you don’t know whether you will be able to do it properly”.
The real beauty of Reflective Listening is that, over time, it releases our children from being trapped by their feelings. Sometimes it has an immediate effect – when they realise that someone else ‘gets’ them, someone else understands these feelings and that can, sometimes, be enough for them to move on just a little bit....
©The Parent Practice, 2009. www.theparentpractice.com 020 8673 3444
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