‘Impossible’ Homework Assignment? Let Your Child Do It

The New York Times

Photo

CreditGetty Images

I really didn’t think my two fourth graders could complete their homework assignment on their own: Prepare a five-minute-long speech from a biography, to be delivered, not read, from notes on index cards, in costume and in character and with at least one prop. An impossible task for a 10-year-old, I thought, as I braced for the battle that would surely be involved in dragging them both through the project.

But life intervened. I had to travel for work and take care of issues involving their older brother and sister. My husband was tied up as well. We offered a little redirection to one child early on, a little last-minute glue-gun assistance to the other, and a whole lot of soothing and apologies throughout to two children who didn’t think they could do it on their own, either.

But we were all wrong. They did fine.

“I hear this time and time again from parents,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and the author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.” “It’s daring to step back and actually understand what your kids can do without your being present,” she said, especially when the children are clamoring for you to step in instead.

My soothing messages were fine, she said, but my apologies for being unavailable were unnecessary. “Take an interest,” she said, when they ask for help. “You can help them interpret instructions, you can help them procure materials, but when they’re turning to you and saying, ‘I can’t, I don’t know,’ you have to say, ‘Yes you can. This is the homework assigned, your teacher thinks you can do it, and I do too.’”

“You’re looking for evidence that while it’s out of their comfort zone, it’s not completely out of their capacity zone,” said Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist and the author, most recently, of “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success.” If you, as a parent, catch yourself classifying an assignment as impossible rather than challenging, and getting ready to don your superhero cape and leap in, “break it down into chunks,” Dr. Levine said.

Has the child done anything like this before? A child who can read and write reasonably successfully, she said, is probably ready for the next step of a book report; a child who has written book reports, as mine have, is probably ready to add the speaking component.

“It does mean tolerating not only your own anxiety, but your kid’s anxiety,” she said. Putting all of those skills together was just enough outside of what she called my children’s “safe zone” to make us all nervous, but it was exactly that challenge that their fourth-grade teacher felt they were ready to meet.

It would have been so easy, so justifiable, to involve myself more, and under different circumstances, I would have. After my unintentional hands-off approach, I am questioning my own judgment on when my help is really necessary, and when it’s only in the service of smoothing a path that should stay a little rough.

I still have no idea what facts my youngest son chose to convey about the life of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, although I do know that I could not personally read his illegible notecards. My daughter presented her final speech on Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school, to me when I came home late the night before it was due. Had I helped, the report would have been more about Dr. Blackwell and less about Ginger and Blackie, the horses she had during her childhood. (I wisely refrained from suggesting changes at that point.)

It didn’t seem to matter. Their teacher didn’t want the best oral book reports. She wanted their best oral book reports. Neither child got a perfect score, but both came home feeling mostly successful — and knowing that they had no one to thank for that success but themselves.

The challenge, said Ms. Lythcott-Haims, is to trust that our children are both capable and motivated. “We can be so beautifully surprised at how our kids step in, step forward, and really claim that agency and responsibility in their own lives,” she said.

And if they don’t? “We act as if it’s all make or break for their future, and we need to be involved, to make sure,” she said. “What’s the worst thing that can happen if you don’t intervene?”

Let the teacher be the teacher, she said. Let the student be the student. And let the learning happen. You’ve already been through fourth grade.

Want to Raise Successful Kids?

03/16/2016
Bill Murphy Jr.contact.billmurphyjr.com

DAN BARNES VIA GETTY IMAGES

If there’s one thing many parents want more than to lead happy, successful lives, it’s to make sure their kids lead happy, successful lives.

Now a former dean of Stanford University freshmen, Julie Lythcott-Haims, says many parents’ hearts may be in the right place—but they’re screwing things up big-time nonetheless.

In her New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Lythcott-Haims says the problem is a phenomenon we’ve been hearing about since the 1990s—one that’s now crashing hard into American society: helicopter parenting.

She summed up her experience in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:

“Working with the quote-unquote best and brightest, I was seeing more and more [students] who seemed less and less capable of doing the stuff of life. They were incredibly accomplished in the transcript and GPA sense but less with their own selves, evidenced by how frequently they communicated with a parent, texting multiple times a day, needing a parent to tell them what to do.

“I’d been scolding other people for five or six years. One night I started cutting my 10-year-old son’s meat and realized I was enabling dependence on me. I could see the link between parenting and why my college students, though very accomplished academically, were rather existentially impotent.”

“Existentially impotent.”
Ouch! That may be the most original and cutting insult I’ve ever heard.

What’s more, Lythcott-Haims said it applies largely to some of the most privileged kids in our society. Students from less affluent families—who statistically speaking might be more likely to join the military or work while attending community college—seemed to her to be at least as self-sufficient as their predecessors.

But the students she was dealing with as dean of freshmen students, who were attending one of the most elite universities in the world, and who were more likely to graduate and have amazing opportunities, were overwhelmed and unable to function as real adults.

No phone calls?
For example, Lythcott-Haims cited the idea that many Millennials—using her own daughters as examples—seem “paralyzed” by the idea of having to make a simple phone call, because they never had to do so while growing up.

(Her solution with her daughters was to give them tasks that could be resolved only by making phone calls—“because you need to know how to talk to a stranger on a phone and ask a question.”)

So what do we do about this? Her advice for parents, she said in a speech reported by the Chicago Tribune, is to “put ourselves out of a job” by doing a few specific things:

Remember the difference between “I” and “we.”
“If you say ‘we’ when you mean your son or your daughter—as in, ‘We’re on the travel soccer team’—it’s a hint to yourself that you are intertwined in a way that is unhealthy.”

Be your kids’ advocate, not their lawyer.
“If you’re arguing with teachers and principals and coaches and umpires all the time, it’s a sign you’re a little too invested. When we’re doing all the arguing, we are not teaching our kids to advocate for themselves.”

Remember that their work is their work.
Don’t do their homework, she said. “Teach them the skills they’ll need in real life, and give them enough leash to practice those skills on their own. … Chores build a sense of accountability.”

Bottom line, let them try things—and fail.
“We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm,” Lythcott-Haimes wrote in How to Raise an Adult. “It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”

The Best Way to Fight With a Teenager

The New York Times

Photo

CreditiStock

Lisa Damour writes about adolescent behavior.

When raising teenagers, conflict usually comes with the territory. A growing body of research suggests that this can actually be a good thing. How disagreements are handled at home shapes both adolescent mental health and the overall quality of the parent-teenager relationship. Not only that, the nature of family quarrels can also drive how adolescents manage their relationships with people beyond the home.

In looking at how teenagers approach disputes, experts have identified four distinct styles: attacking, withdrawing, complying and problem solving.

Adolescents who favor either of the first two routes — escalating fights or stubbornly refusing to engage in them — are the ones most likely to be or become depressed, anxious or delinquent. But even those teenagers who take the third route and comply, simply yielding to their parents’ wishes, suffer from high rates of mood disorders. Further, teenagers who cannot resolve arguments at home often have similar troubles in their friendships and love lives.

In contrast, teenagers who use problem solving to address disputes with their parents present a vastly different picture. They tend to enjoy the sturdiest psychological health and the happiest relationships everywhere they go, two outcomes that would top every parent’s wish list.

So how do we raise teenagers who see disagreements as challenges to be resolved?

Compelling new research suggests that constructive conflict between parent and teenager hinges on the adolescent’s readiness to see beyond his or her own perspective. In other words, good fights happen when teenagers consider arguments from both sides, and bad fights happen when they don’t.

Conveniently, the intellectual ability to consider multiple outlooks blossoms in the teenage years. While younger children lack the neurological capacity to fully understand someone else’s point of view, adolescence sparks rapid development in the parts of the brain associated with abstract reasoning. This leads to dramatic gains in the ability to regard situations from competing viewpoints. We also have evidence that parents can make the most of their teenagers’ evolving neurobiology by being good role models for taking another person’s perspective. Adults who are willing to walk around in their teenagers’ mental shoes tend to raise teenagers who return the favor.

But research findings rarely translate cleanly to the realities of family life. Conflict comes with heat, and we can only contemplate another person’s viewpoint when heads are cool. Imagine an adolescent announcing his plan to spend Saturday night with a former friend known for serious wrongdoing. Any reasonable parent might respond “Absolutely not!” and trigger an eruption, retreat or gloomy submission in a normally developing teenager.

An interaction that ends here is an opportunity lost. But hard starts can be salvaged if we allow for the possibility that first reactions can give way to second ones. The parent in this scenario might soon find a way to say, “I’m sorry that got ugly. I need you to help me understand why you want to spend time with Mike when you don’t even like him that much. And can you put words to why I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of you hanging out with him?”

No parent or teenager can, or needs to, turn every dispute into a thoughtful consideration of opposing outlooks. And some families weather toxic battles that go far beyond the squabbles inherent in raising adolescents. Still, the balance of research suggests that garden-variety disagreements offer the opportunity to help young people better understand themselves and others, building in them the lifelong skill of finding room for civility in the midst of discord.

No parent looks forward to fighting with his or her teenage child. But the friction that comes with raising adolescents might be easier to take when we see it as an opening, not an obstacle.

Interested in more Well Family? Sign up to get the latest news on parenting, child health and relationships plus advice from our experts to help every family live well.

Is It Really ADHD or Just Immaturity?

The New York Times

Photo

CreditGetty Images

New research shows that the youngest students in a classroom are more likely to be given a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than the oldest. The findings raise questions about how we regard those wiggly children who just can’t seem to sit still – and who also happen to be the youngest in their class.

Researchers in Taiwan looked at data from 378,881 children ages 4 to 17 and found that students born in August, the cut-off month for school entry in that country, were more likely to be given diagnoses of A.D.H.D. than students born in September. The children born in September would have missed the previous year’s cut-off date for school entry, and thus had nearly a full extra year to mature before entering school. The findings were published Thursday in The Journal of Pediatrics.

While few dispute that A.D.H.D. is a legitimate disability that can impede a child’s personal and school success and that treatment can be effective, “our findings emphasize the importance of considering the age of a child within a grade when diagnosing A.D.H.D. and prescribing medication for treating A.D.H.D.,” the authors concluded. Dr. Mu-Hong Chen, a member of the department of psychiatry at Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan and the lead author of the study, hopes that a better understanding of the data linking relative age at school entry to an A.D.H.D. diagnosis will encourage parents, teachers and clinicians to give the youngest children in a grade enough time and help to allow them to prove their ability.

Other research has shown similar results. An earlier study in the United States, for example, found that roughly 8.4 percent of children born in the month before their state’s cutoff date for kindergarten eligibility are given A.D.H.D. diagnoses, compared to 5.1 percent of children born in the month immediately afterward.

So how should we interpret data showing different rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis among populations of children who are similar in everything other than relative age at school entry? Cautiously, says Michael Manos, the head of Cleveland Clinic Children’sA.D.H.D. Center for Evaluation and Treatment.

“The kind of attention that you have to use in school is the kind of attention that’s difficult for a person with A.D.H.D.,” so attention deficits are more readily recognized in a classroom situation, he said. “If the diagnoses are performed accurately, then some kids are getting noticed sooner than other kids,” he said. If younger children with A.D.H.D. are starting treatment earlier because they’re starting school earlier, then that’s a good thing.

But that presumes the diagnosis is an accurate one. “When you take people who are in a 15-minute pediatric primary care physician’s office visit, and the mother describes hyperactivity and the physician automatically prescribes medication, that’s a problem,” Dr. Manos said. Many parents who describe concerns about children’s behavior “aren’t describing developmentally inappropriate behavior,” he said. “They’re describing behavior that does not meet certain expectations,” and that can be the issue in classroom settings as well, where some students are older than others.

“I think the link between age at school entry and A.D.H.D. diagnoses are not really about being young or ‘not ready,’” said Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education who has studied kindergarten readiness, by email. “Instead, I think they are about a child’srelative age. “

“In early childhood classrooms, where a month or two age difference can make a big difference,” she continued, “ teachers perceive the youngest children in the class as having more attention struggles, and behavioral struggles, than the older children, irrespective of the child’s actual age.” When those teachers flag those struggles, the path to a diagnosis is paved, but the diagnosis itself still depends on the expertise of the clinician.

Stephen Hinshaw, co-author of “A.D.H.D: What Everyone Needs to Know,” said that early recognition of attention deficits “could be an opportunity for early intervention for all kindergartners, as our society struggles to balance achievement gaps, ever earlier and stronger achievement expectations, and high student-teacher ratios in Transitional K programs, as well as for evidence-based intervention for 4-year-olds with bona fide A.D.H.D.”

“On the other hand, if this is the ticket for overzealous labeling of kids, mainly boys, who are simply needing more time to mature, that’s not what we need,” Dr. Hinshaw said.

Fidgeting May Help Students With ADHD Learn

Health Day

Study found symptoms increased when kids faced more challenging memory tasks

depressed boy

By Kathleen Doheny
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Feb. 29, 2016 (HealthDay News) — Students who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often get into trouble for fidgeting in the classroom, but that fidgeting may help them learn, new research suggests.

“The prevailing view has been and continues to be that hyperactivity is a core deficit in ADHD,” said study author Michael Kofler, an assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “When we think of it as a deficit, we are saying it’s a bad thing and it’s interfering [with schoolwork]. Our work has been challenging that thought.”

Kofler’s team gave 25 boys and girls with ADHD, aged 8 to 12, a series of working memory tasks, observing the amount of fidgeting as the children did them. In one set, the students had to remember where a series of dots appeared on a screen and then reorder them mentally, based on color. They had to then remember a series of numbers and letters, mentally reordering them, numbers first from smallest to biggest, then the letters.

In the easier test of dots on a screen, the children knew in advance how many items they would have to remember. In the more difficult test, the amount of items they would have to remember was random so they didn’t know in advance how many items they would have to remember.

The children fidgeted during all the tests, but fidgeted about 25 percent more when they couldn’t predict how many items they would have to remember. The tests were alike in every other way, so Kofler said this shows that demands on working memory affect the level of hyperactivity in ADHD students.

The fidgeting may increase “physiological arousal,” Kofler speculated, similar to what stimulant medication does for a child with the disorder. But the study didn’t prove that point, he said, and the researchers don’t know if the kids were fidgeting on purpose.

The study was published online this month in the Journal of Attention Disorders.

The findings echo some from a study published last year from the University of California, Davis. Researchers there looked at 26 children with ADHD and 18 without. They found that when the children with ADHD fidgeted more, they did better on a test. Fidgeting among kids without ADHD had no effect on test performance.

Dr. Trevor Resnick, a pediatric neurologist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, said, “We’ve known [intuitively] for many years that kids with ADHD often do better when they are fidgeting.”

However, Resnick said, the interpretation of why they fidgeted more has not been proven. “We don’t know whether they do it to help or because they are anxious, or whether it is helping,” he said.

Kofler agreed, saying his team next plans research “to link the movement with the arousal and the performance, to see if we are right about that is why the movement is helpful.”

Meanwhile, until more is known, students with ADHD should not have free rein to do what they want in the classroom, Kofler said.

But the new study does suggest that teachers and parents should focus less on whether a child is sitting still and more on whether the work is getting done, regardless of the movement level, he said.

More information

To learn more about ADHD, visit U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Michael Kofler, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor, psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee; Trevor Resnick, M.D., pediatric neurologist, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, Miami; Feb. 22, 2016, Journal of Attention Disorders