No R-Rated Movies in our Home!

Several years ago my family was advised to not watch R-Rated movies. Aside from the obvious mind pollution we have discovered some real wisdom behind this advice. This ‘rule’ applies to our children as well as to us as adults and parents.

One of the dangers of our children watching these movies, or being exposed to inappropriate behavior, is that as they see this behavior they accept it as normal. This applies to smoking, underage drinking, inappropriate relationships, disrespect, etc What they see are not movies but rather images of possible role-models.

Recently there was an incident at school where a student demonstrated that he/she possessed knowledge that was well beyond their years – and not in a positive manner. This has resulted in me thinking about the outside influences that may impact our families, and in particular children. When we hold ourselves to the same standards of behavior that we expect of our children we are much more familiar with acceptable, or normal behavior, based upon the influences around our kids. We can more easily recognize when their behavior has been influenced by outside forces that go beyond our limits. This can result in more easily identifying destructive behavior because it is behavior that we are not used to seeing in movies, etc.

When we subject ourselves to outside  depictions of destructive behavior it joins our sub-conscience and disguises itself as acceptable. When we allow our children to see these outside depictions we are tacitly endorsing these behaviors.

While we sometimes feel that we are missing out on an exciting movie the benefits of being on the same page as our children far out weigh any loss we may feel. And what have we really lost? Nothing. Unless you have experienced something you can’t feel a sense of loss.

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Race to the Top of what?

President Obama’s new program for school reform has been announced and it is being called, “Race to the Top.” It provides billions of dollars to prospective schools that are willing to jump through the hoops that the federal government is establishing.  It is touted as a way to reform schools that “can transform our schools for decades to come.”

This started me thinking, what are we racing to the top of? Is the top that is sought really something that will benefit our nation’s children?  And, if so, why are we in such a hurry to get there?

As a teacher with a background in early childhood development I have had many years of studying how kids learn best.  No matter what expert you listen to, or the age of the child you are studying it boils down to one thing, kids learn best by doing.  And, kids are most likely to learn the most, and retain the most, when they are taught things appropriate for their developmental stage.  No one in their right mind would try to teach a 3 month old to walk, a 9 month old to write their name or a 2 year old calculus.  But, in some ways that is exactly what some of our school systems are trying to do.

Recently my daughter with a degree in early childhood education had a job interview for a position teaching preschool in a public school.  To the typical question, “How do preschoolers learn best,” she answered with the classic answer, “They learn through play.”  Play is the work of a preschool aged child.  They learn about their world through experimenting and manipulating materials, songs, games, stories and imaginative play.  “Well,” replied my daughter’s interviewer, “I used to think that.  Now we teach them to read and write.”  Huh?  Are preschoolers different now than when the interviewer began her career?  Does a preschooler really need to learn to read and write?  Am I a bad parent if I don’t teach my 18 month old to read?  Will my child be terribly behind if he cannot add at age 4?  Well for all you anxious parents out there, and for this misguided preschool professional, I would like to tell you that if your child is a normally developing child it makes no difference if they learn to read at 18 months, 4 or 7.

Traditionally in this country we have taught children to read at about 6 years of age.  When I was teacing kindergarten there was a big push for kindergarten aged children to learn to read.  It seemed that kindergartens, and in turn preschools, had become more academic in response to a push for children to have traditional academics at an early age.  I was intrigued with this trend, and went to a seminar that reported the results on a new study that had been done to find the best age for children to learn to read.  I was stunned by the results.  The study found that although a child could often be taught to read at a very early age, it really made no difference when this teaching began as long as it happened in early childhood for typically developing children, generally by age 7.  In addition, it was found that in third grade (when most children are 8 years) it was impossible to tell which children learned to read at 18 months, 4 or 6 years.  By third grade the child who did not learn to read or write until age 6 or 7 caught up with the others.  So when was this landmark study done?  This study was done in the late seventies and early eighties.  Yes, you are correct, this information was discovered over 30 years ago.  And many more studies have backed up this research in the ensuing years.

This misguided push is not only seen in the early grades, it is also seen in later years.  In the State of California there is a push for every 8th grader in the state to take algebra.  Algebra is an important subject that helps establish higher order thinking skills, however a push for every 13 year old to learn this skill is misguided and ridiculous.  Research has shown that the section of the brain that is responsible for abstract thinking is not fully developed until early in the 20’s.  Performance of algebraic skills requires high development of abstract thinking skills.  Some teens develop advanced skills at an early age and are able to understand the concepts necessary for algebra at an early age, however most have great difficulty with this.  When students are required to master concepts that are beyond their developmental  level  it leads to frustration and feelings of failure.  This is especially true for young teens who often suffer from feelings of inadequacy.

So, why then, are we once again pushing to teach very young children to read and write?  I think there are three major reasonsFirst, there is research that backs up early learning for children with disabilities.  I think that some overzealous educators and parents have decided that if this approach is successful for children with disabilities, it must also be successful for the average developing child.  Which brings us to the second reason for this early push; what parent does not want their child to be the best and the brightest?  If my baby can be the next Einstein by teaching him early, why not try?  Don’t I want my kid to be the first to master algebra?  Parents often push their children because they feel it will lead to their child being the best.  The third reason that I see for this push in early learning is due to politics.  Who hasn’t heard the news that the US is far behind other countries educationally?  Or that larger percentages of students do not graduate from high school?  But, did the news point out that our educational system is so vastly different than that in other countries that there really is no comparison?  Did it point out that in most other countries not every child is guaranteed an education?  And that often the students that our students are compared to are the best and brightest in the country who have passed tests to be allowed to continue on with their education, not every child in the country?  Or did the news tell you that the statistics used to determine what percentage of students graduate from high school is vastly flawed?  Did they report that the numbers they use to determine how many graduated only count those that graduate on the exact date of most students in that class?  And that the statistics do not take into account students who move, graduate even one day late or even those who graduate early?  Of course not.

So, this brings us back to Race to the Top. Politicians often use catchy names and cash awards to prove that they take education seriously.  But catchy names mean nothing, and the cash awards are often so small when distributed over a large number of schools that it is meaningless.  And have we really determined that what is at the top is really worth racing toward?

What I call for does not have a wonderfully catchy name, and it won’t get me elected to anything.  I call for a return to developmentally appropriate standards for children.  What children need is an educationally rich environment and plenty of time to develop at their own pace.  I have very intelligent children, but their intelligences are extremely varied.  I had one that taught himself to read at 4, and one that would not read a book to himself until he got to high school.  I had children who naturally understood high mathematics at a very young age, and I had children who did not really grasp algebraic concepts until college age.  I had children who had no difficulty earning high grades in school, and children who severely struggled to earn passing grades.  I had children who took 4 years of full time enrollment in a junior college to get through, and I had children who commented that college was really easy.  But guess what, none of that really mattered.  My children grew up in a home with a significant amount of daily stimulation to develop their talents, and an emphasis on continuing education.  There was no race to top, just a gradual climb to their personal best.  Now, my three oldest children hold degrees or are well established in careers of their choice and my younger ones are on the path toward their goals.  None of them was ever the top in their class, the first in their age group to master a concept or received a scholarship to a prestigious university.  But they are happy, well adjusted young adults working toward building their own family units.  Shouldn’t that be the goal, instead a race to an indeterminate top?  Slow down people, and give our children an environment in which they can develop naturally, and at the appropriate pace.

How do you set curfews?

One of the challenges with raising kids is that as they turn into teenagers their social life changes and they start to separate their identity from that of being your child to being their own person. It is our job, as parents, to allow and encourage this separation and growth. However, we must also factor in our responsibility to their safety. And safety includes physical as well as emotional protection. Part of the process of ensuring their safety is that we must be comfortable with the company they will keep, the activities they participate in, and when they come home. Each family will have to determine what activities are appropriate.

The issue that always comes up is curfew or when our child needs to be home. Many parents have a rigid approach and have a very inflexible rule. The problem with a strict and rigid rule is that life is composed of different activities and some of them do not fit into a rigid curfew rule.

In our family we NEVER had a set curfew. So what did we do to keep our kids safe? We talked to our kids about the particular activity they were participating in, who they were going to be with, and then we asked them for what they thought was a reasonable time for them to be home. We didn’t always agree with their time but we negotiated a reasonable time. There were even times when they would suggest midnight and we would counter with 11. If they countered with midnight we would often counter with 10:30. 😉 We also discussed the next day’s duties to determine if there was a reason to be home a bit earlier. When our daughters were going out on dates we would have the conversation with their escort so that all parties knew and understood our agreement.

Our children also knew that because this was an agreement with us that they had a responsibility to keep their end of our agreement. They also knew that to avoid negative consequences they had to notify us of any changes in activity, destination, people or the time expected home. In this manner we were able to evaluate their safety, with them, on an ongoing basis.

The final step of this process was that they were to check in with us when they came home. Even if we were asleep.

As our children got older (18+ and living with us) we still asked them to tell us where they were going and when they would be home. As adults they are no longer bound to us as children, but as courteous adults. We often get text messages updating us to their activities.

How will you set your curfews or limits?

Student arrested for writing on desk. Excessive?

Recently Fox News reported about a 12-year old student who was arrested for writing on a desk.  Proponents of strict consequences for students who break school rules believe that if they are tough on early offenses, students are less likely to move on to more heinous crimes.  Unfortunately, the opposite is true.  Research shows that the best punishment is a punishment that fits the crime.  Punishment that is either too lenient or too strict is not effective.  When children are given punishments that are too strict they feel helpless and unsure of their environment.  The world does not seem fair and ordered, it seems arbitrary and unfair.  When children feel there is no fair justice or reasonable consequences they are more likely to act out.

This story reminds me of an incident with one of my own children many years ago.  My child was in high school, and was accused of defacing a textbook.  The book was shown to my husband and me and it had many words written in it, including quite a few offensive words.  As a teacher I know this is not uncommon.  Quite often I have students bring me books that have had inappropriate things written or drawn in them.  As a teacher, I also know it is nearly impossible to catch the actual perpetrator of the act.  Teachers are often in a room with upwards of 30 students (or more), and it is just impossible to monitor what each student is doing and continue to teach.  Our child took some of the responsibility for the defacement, but not all, and the school proposed suspension.  We felt that restoration of the item was a much more fitting consequence.  The school agreed that if the book was paid for by all offending students that this would be sufficient.  We paid the fee, and made arrangements for our child to work off the price.

A child who writes on a desk, or in a book, should be given a consequence that fits the crime.  In my room, that student would stay after school and wash all my desks.  This is a job that might take 10-15 minutes.  Writing on a desk, or on any other item, is not a terribly heinous crime, it is more a momentary lapse in judgment.  At some point in their childhood many of today’s upstanding citizens probably stooped to writing or carving their names into some surface.  If this sort of action is dealt with early, chances are it will never escalate into more heinous activities, such as tagging or seriously defacing public property.

The other element of this story that is problematic is the fact that the girl was arrested.  Some people in our society, including some parents, feel that if children get a taste of what it is like to be arrested early on they will be less likely to commit crimes.  Research shows that the opposite is often true.  Children who get a view of prison or prisoners up-close and personal, often start thinking that it is not really all that bad.  Years ago there was an approach called “Scared Straight” where young people were taken to prisons and told all of the terrors of life in prison, by the prisoners themselves.  It was thought that if prisoners told young people who were on a dangerous path just how terrible it was to be in their shoes they would change their ways.  Unfortunately, that was not the case.  Even though the program was touted as successful, and anecdotal evidence seemed to show promise, studies show that this was not true.  Studies not only showed that the program failed to deter crime, some showed that it may have escalated the incidence of it.

The best road to help children behave appropriately is to hold them accountable for their actions, teach them correct principles and behavior patterns and require them to make appropriate restitution for damage that they inflict.  This is true not only in school settings, but in family settings as well.

Response to Parenting Style quiz

On January 25th I posted the results of an online quiz that I took on identifying my parenting style. When my husband read the results he thought they were harsh, but clinically accurate. This parenting style is often described as the “no-nonsense workaholic” who is best at “emergency-mode parenting” and providing discipline where it is needed. Too often, however, strong-willed children eventually rebel against this parenting style if the parent doesn’t learn to balance expressive warmth with the authoritative discipline.

This does not sound like an ideal style to raising well-adjusted children. I thought long and hard about why my style is authoritative and yet we have had good results with our children. We have never had to operate in an emergency-mode. Rather the opposite has been our experience. When a strong structure is applied there tends to be less emergency-mode situations. Within our family guidelines we have a lot of flexibility. It is important to recognize the difference between authoritarian and authoritative. I really think the description for authoritative, as used in the quiz, describes authoritarian. I have been looking for a better (more accurate) definition.

Tonight I came across another blog that also discussed parenting styles. The author states: “Basically, there are four styles of parenting: authoritarian, authoritative (sometimes called egalitarian), permissive, and uninvolved.” I continued to read and found this gem in ther last paragraph: “Authoritative parenting is a balanced parenting style, with both high structure and high responsiveness. The parents are engaged and flexible, but they are still the parents. Structure rules, limits and boundaries is (sic) present, but not rigid.”

This is a much better definition than the one originally presented with the quiz.

For more details on a good article please visit http://motherguides.com/different-styles-of-parenting-which-one-is-best/

Teaching Behaviors without Values Leads to Failure

I had an interesting experience at the middle school where I teach that got me thinking about teaching kids to stay away from risky behaviors.  A teacher shared a letter with me written between two 8th grade female students.  The letter had some pretty explicit language about sexual experiences that these girls had been involved in.  Both girls commented that they didn’t think their parents cared if they had sex, just when and how they had it.  When I finished my conversation with this teacher I walked to another room where an 8th grade boy was having a conversation with a member of the school staff.  He explained to the staff member about a code of health that he followed based on his religious beliefs.  The staff member seemed shocked at the seemingly strict  code, but the boy seemed happy, almost excited, to follow the code.

These two contrasting incidents highlighted for me the importance of value based teaching.  Most parents want their children to abstain from sexual activity and dangerous substances.  Most parents teach their children to stay away from these things, at least while they are young.  Why then, do so many children become involved in risky behaviors at a young age?  The key is teaching values, not just behaviors. When children are taught that they should stay away from risky behaviors, but there is no underlying value to support their abstinence the pull to stay away is short lived.  The longest lasting lessons are those that are tied to stable belief systems and accountability checks.  Stable belief systems can be found in many religions and in some value-based organizations.  Those that require members to take an oath or promise, along with some system of accountability, are more likely to be successful.

So, if you want to teach your children to abstain, you will be more likely to find success if you tie those teachings to a stable belief system.