As I continue to work on things away from this blog (which is a collection of Free-Time/Casual Online Writing, Remarks, And Notes By ME Whelan) and continue to figure out what goes and what stays of my existing online-writing, the de-emphasizing of one or another continues as well....

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tips for Keeping Kids Unplugged in an Electronics Age

Even in a world where "the latest thing" is ever-changing, what is not ever-changing are the parts of childhood that help children develop the skills they need to be well balanced adults. To choose an old fashioned approach to make a point, if Nature wanted kids to be "wired" they would be born wearing an over-the-ear, Blue Tooth, headset (a bad example, perhaps, since Blue Tooth requires no wires). Technology or no technology, children need a certain amount of time to interact with family and friends in more conventional ways. They also need some time to engage in interests that are not associated with electronics.

Debates and studies about how much it too much or possible negative consequences aside, common sense should tell parents that when kids are tuned out to their immediate surroundings, and instead tuned in to something else, there is obvious some "break" in the natural order of childhood experiences. Common sense should also tell parents that the younger the child, the more "unplugged" time he needs.

The good news is that it isn't difficult to manage a younger child's time spent with electronics. The even better news is that nurturing a child's other interests, as well as face-to-face relating, can help develop patterns of behavior that may naturally reduce (at least some of) the time spent with electronics in later years.
Keeping the following tips in mind can help parents keep some degree of control over the time their child spends "plugged in":

1. Take Advantage of the Control You Have Over Preschoolers' Activities

Limit preschoolers' exposure to activities involving electronics, and don't use the PC or other electronics-related activities as babysitter. It's one thing for Mom or Dad to sit with the child and let him learn to use the PC. It's another to leave him sitting at it alone, or to allow him to head for his favorite program whenever the mood strikes. Allowing a preschooler to play a cell phone once in a while can seem like a special treat. Allowing him to pick up the cell phone and play games on it whenever he wishes sends a different message.
The interests parents encourage in their preschoolers are often interests they bring with them into their school years. Whether it's love of reading, fascination with science, or the fun of taking some kind of lessons with other children; parents have the chance to build "a lot of foundation" for the years that will follow the preschool years.

2. Don't Be the One Who Encourages More Electronics Than is Wise

Don't fall into the trap of believing that the latest electronic toys are "the most educational" for your preschooler. Overlooking classic childhood activities and toys is overlooking a child's developmental needs. Overlooking a preschooler's needs for one-on-one interaction with parents and others, as well as their need to learn to socialize with other children their own age, is overlooking some very important aspects of development. Parents have complete control over the activities they offer preschool children. This is a time when they should take advantage of their complete control.

3. Take Advantage of the Built-In Structure of the School Day

Just as parents can take advantage of the complete control the preschool years offer, they can do the same with the built-in structure of the school years between grades 1 through 9. Establish a few rules about when electronics will be used.

It isn't difficult to set up a rule that there will be no electronics in the morning, before school. Establishing that the afternoon hours following school are for other activities is usually easy. Between children's natural wish to go outside and play or participate in after-school activities, and their need to do homework, discouraging computer use during these hours can be relatively effortless. Allowing school-aged kids to use the PC or play electronic games on a rainy afternoon isn't likely to dissolve into a habit when parents make it clear it will not.
A "no-electronics" during dinner is usually a rule kids can easily accept/understand, which leads to the hours between dinner and bedtime. In most families, these are the hours where homework that hasn't been done must be finished, some television-watching may take place, and/or a child may head for the PC or video games.

Assuming the homework has been done, parents may find that a half hour or hour of family television (even if only a few evenings a week) offers a little more "together" time. Of course, if parents have to run an errand, or if kids have an early evening activity, this further eliminates the time available for electronics.

Today, kids younger than high-school age often have cell phones. One way to keep their use to a minimum is to establish that calls are for emergencies or quick transportation arrangements, and limiting the amount of available talk time.

4. Talk to Children About the Importance, and Joys, of Well Balanced Activities and Even Possible, Negative, Consequences of Too Much Being "Plugged In"

Most kids don't need lectures on the importance of having friends, or the fun of having a special collection of athletic activity. Still, having parents show they value these things (by talking about how important such things are, how proud parents are that their child is so "well balanced", etc.) can help reinforce, for the child, that the non-wired aspects of life are, in fact, very important.

5. But What About High-School Aged Kids?

Let's face it - trying to keep kids of this age from being too electronics-inclined" can be a losing battle. Kids who were encouraged to be well balanced in earlier childhood may be a little less likely to have too unhealthy an attachment to video games; but "wired" is the way of the world these days - for everyone. The PC, video games, iPods, and cell phones are all just a way of life these days. Kids who have reached high-school before seeming too "electronics-inclined" could be considered their own, or their parents' accomplishment. The picture changes for kids this age, though, because some of that electronics social interaction for kids this age is not necessarily a negative thing.

While parents and family are always important in even an older kid's life, the teen years are the years when the focus is on friends, school, and future plans. The ten-year-old, who "should be outside, playing Hide 'n Seek" but who is, instead, inside playing video games may be trading a more valuable activity for one that offers little (other than, perhaps, a hand/eye-coordination exercise). The teen who is chatting with friends online is, in a lot of ways, actually engaging in the kind of socializing and relating that people that age need to do. The point is that, at this age, being "plugged in" is not the negative thing it can be for younger kids. Some may say, too, that it not as undesirable as it is can be for people past their teens. In other words, for kids this age, parents may to raise the bar with regard to how much is too much. Still, regardless of anyone's age, it's never good for people to allow themselves to be completely removed from family.

Parents of kids this age may find that changing their own expectations, as well as altering some of the earlier rules, works best:

Expecting anyone who is home in the house to eat dinner with the family is one way to guarantee at least some family time. Another good idea is for families to agree that things like iPods and cell phones won't be used where family members are gathered. If a teen heads for his bedroom before making his calls it won't, of course, mean he's using his phone less. It can help, however, not to establish a family practice of having everyone gathered in one place but communicating with people outside the home.

High-school students have homework and early school days. While kids this age can't be expected to follow the same kind of rules that are right for eight-year-olds, establishing that school nights should include a "decent" bedtime, and that homework must always be handed in when due is a reasonable expectation that may naturally cut down some of the electronics time.

Just as it always helps for parents to talk to younger kids about priorities, values, and balance; talking to teens about the same things, and offering reasons for not allowing electronics to "take over life" is also important for more grown-up kids.

Kids this age usually have more time outside the house than their middle-school-aged siblings have, so their age sometimes builds in a certain amount of face-to-face socializing and other activities.
Besides altering the rules as kids get to be this age, parents may want to ask themselves whether it's such a bad thing that a sixteen-year-old who is home all evening spends that time socializing online, provided his homework is handed in on time.

One other way parents can encourage older kids to have a more balanced approach to electronics is that time-tested approach of setting a good example. When parents turn off the cell phones, and get away from the PC's, long enough to show kids they value them enough to have some real "in-person" communication, kids will see an example of how people who care about one another treat one another. Parents need to keep in mind, too, that balance isn't just achieved by cutting down on one thing. Sometimes it can be achieved by adding more of something else.

The "latest thing" may be ever-changing, and technology may have changed our lives dramatically over recent years. What has not changed is the fact that when families build in lots of love, care, and enjoyable time together even the most amazing technological gadgets tend not to have the power to pull loving family members too far apart.

A Secure Baby Sleeps Better

Most parents are more than familiar with their own sleep problems that occur after a frazzling day. The truth is, even though babies don't have to worry about nasty bosses, paying bills, and a water heater than needs to be replaced; they, too, can get frazzled and anxious. They, too, are likely to have trouble going to sleep, or staying asleep, when their day has not been one during which they have felt calm and secure.

While adults' threshold for becoming anxious is much higher than that of babies, the principle of anxiety causing sleep problems is the same. One of the biggest mistakes any parent can make is to assume that, because a baby "only eats, sleeps, and plays all day" , stress and anxiety can't play much of a role in sleep problems. The truth is that we, adults, generally take for granted that we are safe and secure during our days. Healthy adults don't get anxious unless there are those stressful worries, such as bills, sick family members, or any number of other things. Babies, on the other hand, require the close-to-constant reminders that they are, indeed, safe and secure. The perfectly happy and comfortable baby who feels safe and secure as he plays will suddenly feel less sure when hunger sets in. In other words, a baby's days are filled with "ups and downs" when it comes to feeling safe and secure. Too many "downs" will lead to a particularly frazzling day.

With their immature central nervous systems, their helplessness, their inability to understand language, and their general need to have a sense of equilibrium; babies can also be prone to becoming over-stimulated too. Each baby has his own disposition, and some babies are more sensitive to "too much going on" than others; but all babies, to some extent, can suffer a sense of anxiety when life gets to hectic. Whether it's too many bright lights, too many different loud noises, being brought around to too many unfamiliar places, or being passed around by too many people; babies can get frazzled and anxious from over-stimulation. Even too much "active play" can lead to a baby's feeling frazzled; because although a baby may enjoy such play, there can be a sense of feeling a little too unsure about what is coming next. All of these things that can contribute (sometimes in small ways, sometimes collectively) to a baby's having a frazzling day are likely to also contribute to his having sleep problems. Many of a baby's potentially "frazzling" activities/situations during any day may actually be pleasant experiences. That does not, however, always translate into being experiences that are most likely to contribute to a sense of sureness and security.

Sureness and a sense of security come from those quieter, surer, calmer, interactions between parent (usually mother) and baby. A sense of security comes, too, from knowing that Mommy is always there to respond to needs and distress. For a baby, a sense of security also comes from having his needs met and from experiencing a caretaker's calming, gentle, touch and voice. Until a child has grown enough not to experience some of the more active parts of some days as frazzling, it's important that he experience enough time feeling super-secure and super-safe to balance off some of the more frazzling times in his day.

In general, most of cannot make the leap from feeling anxious to being asleep without having some time in-between to bridge the gap. Some adults may simply stay up until they're ready to "pass out", but that doesn't work for babies. Babies get over-tired, which means they get yet more distressed. Feeling yet more distressed means they feel that much less safe and secure. Even when a baby has been over-tired and distressed, once he does "pass out" he is likely to have a fitful sleep and wake during the night.

Babies who feel safe and secure are babies who are generally happier babies, who are also easier to care for in general. They're usually happy with whatever is going on, and being putting in their crib for the night can just seem like one more pleasant part of their day. Some secure babies will have those frazzling days that make them feel a little less secure for a brief time. Some babies, however, will live all their days feeling a little anxious because some parents may not be quite as skilled as others at helping their baby feel safe and secure. Essentially, whether a baby feels a little less secure on a particularly frazzling day or is a child who lives feeling a little less secure, the root of the problem is that when any of us is anxious our brain chemicals change in a way that is not conducive to getting a good night's sleep. To make the problem worse, a baby who does not get the right amount of the right quality sleep will begin the following day at a disadvantage, when it comes to feeling safe and secure.

When it comes down to it, babies require very little in this world. With the exception of getting their nutrition, the need to feel safe and secure is the most crucial need any baby has. When such an important need is overlooked, or when parents are not skilled in meeting that need, that is certainly a problem big enough for anyone to lose sleep over.

The Myth of the Perfect Discipline Strategy for Children

During one of the many screening interviews that took place prior to my adopting one of my children, the social worker asked, "Could you tell me what your parents did as far as disciplining their children went?" It was the only question she asked that left me feeling as if I didn't have an immediate answer.

As I searched my mind for what to say, I could feel my eyes "looking" for an answer and my shoulders shrugging. After a few awkward "ums" and the realization that no answer had come to me, I said, "I don't really know. Nothing, I guess. They just talked." I was incredibly horrified and terrified by an answer that seemed so inept and unsure. The social worker wrote something down in her notes and moved on to the next question. I worried that my "horrible answer" had destroyed my chances of passing the screening. I hoped she would realize that my seemingly inept response was rooted in the fact that my own parents had been loving, skilled, and kind parents.

Thinking back as far as I can remember, I recall how kind and loving my parents always were; but also that they simply let us know what was expected of us, the difference between right and wrong, and that - if nothing else - we were to treat them with the respect with which they treated us and each other. Before becoming old enough to go to school, my siblings and I were all pretty well behaved kids at home. There was about five years between us, so we got plenty of attention.

We absolutely adored our parents, who were (in the words a young child) "so nice". We didn't view what they expected of us as "unreasonable", because they never expected anything unreasonable of us. The simple rules by which we were expected to live involved things like not breaking things, behaving well when we went somewhere, not fighting, and "NEVER, EVER" talking back to our parents. (It's important to note that they did not yell at us either.)

Once we got to be school-aged life got a little more complicated. Children of school age often just do things they shouldn't do because it "seems like a good idea at the time". When our parents found out we had done something we shouldn't have they would (as I would eventually tell that social worker) talk to us. They would talk about why what we had done was wrong, how disappointed in us they were, how they couldn't understand how we would ever do such a thing, and what other people would think of us if we ever did that thing again.

They would talk about integrity and reputation. They'd talk about how "being sneaky" would make people think very little of us. They talked about honesty, self-respect, being a good friend, what kind of person they wanted us to be - and on and on and on. It was always one of the most uncomfortable experiences of our lives, and when they'd wrap it all up with a reminder of how disappointed they were in us it pretty much sealed in the guilt rather effectively.

Upon thinking about it, though, I realize how, even though something had seemed like a good idea at the time, I, for one, had my own guilt long before I had been caught. So, when my parents did find out and would begin on one those marathon talks about the misdeed, it became quite clear what a good idea the deed WASN'T.
Still, my clever parents had managed to raise three kids without any real "discipline strategy" and by simply ad libbing as the occasion called for it. They had managed three decent, caring, people who didn't get into trouble while creating the impression that they had never really used any discipline strategy.

As an adult, and recalling the degree of "feeling rotten" that my parents managed to create in me; I have to say that I think they could have lightened up a little on the guilt. After all, I had my own conscience (thanks to their doing a good job in my preschool years) and was only a kid. Kids mess up. It wasn't that they were abusive or demeaning or belittling. It was more that they over-estimated the seriousness of the offense and let us know (or at least led us to believe) that they were worried we would turn into criminals. When you're ten years old, and you know that just because you and girlfriends rang a few doorbells it doesn't mean you're headed for a life a crime; you don't know how to reassure your parents they don't need to worry. It may not be the best thing for a child to have to think, "Wait until I grow up, and they'll see that I didn't turn into a criminal". (Then again, it was, I suppose, an effective thing.)

Once I had grown up and knew I would be building my own family I thought quite a bit about my own parenting approach. For the most part, I wanted to do things very much as my parents had, with the exception of attempting to make my children feel guiltier than they already did if they did something wrong. I would let my children know when they had done something unacceptable. I would talk about most of the things my parents talked about. If they were old enough, and if the occasion called for it, I may even impose some consequence that seemed appropriate (such as taking away a toy or not allowing television). My plan, however, was to try, too, to help my children know that even if I did not approve of their unacceptable action I understood (and they should as well) that kids mess up. It's all part of being a kid.

29 years after that interview with the adoption worker, I still don't know what she thought or wrote down when I gave my "horrible" answer that day. I passed the screening, so I like to think that my utter inability to describe my parents' approach to discipline showed that I had been raised by loving, good, parents who understood the importance of setting some reasonable rules, telling children right from wrong, and further elaborating when the occasion seemed to call for it.

I suppose the reason I essentially told that social worker my parents didn't really have any "approach to discipline" was that my parents just knew their role as parents (and how much they loved us) and never viewed "discipline" as a separate "category".

When it comes down to it, the reason there is no "perfect discipline strategy" for children is that strategies are for things like finances, business, and football games. Being a good, loving, capable, parent is about so much more than strategy - so very much more.