How to talk to your middle-schooler (so they might actually listen to you)

By Phyllis Fagell August 20

The Washington Post

(James Yang/for The Washington Post) By Phyllis FagellAugust 20 at 9:00 AM

My friend Michelle Hoffman’s son Alex, 13, was an open book when he was in elementary school. “If something good happened, we heard about it; if something bad happened, we heard about it,” she says. But in seventh grade, he entered what Hoffman calls “his grunting phase.”

“I’d ask, ‘How was school?’ and he’d say, ‘Eh.’ ” His processing shifted from external to internal, she explains, adding that, “suddenly, we weren’t part of it, and that felt really bad.”

Middle-schoolers need their parents’ support as much as — if not more than — when they were younger, but as a school counselor, I know this is when once-foolproof communication strategies can stop working. Tweens can bewilder their parents by toggling inconsistently between seeking affection and demanding privacy, soliciting advice and asserting independence.

Here are eight ways you can disrupt that dynamic, and stay connected to your child during a phase that’s defined by contradictions and flux.

Understand the developmental phase

Your middle-schooler is becoming less childlike, and “one of the forms this takes is wanting to share less with one’s parents because to kids, that can feel ‘babyish,’ ” says Lisa Damour, author of “Untangled” and “Under Pressure.” “A child who retreats to their room more often should be seen as a sign of developmental progress and not be taken personally.”

Tweens have to manage intense highs and lows and are micromanaged all day, so be prepared to talk on their time. “A lot of kids need time to restore themselves after school,” Damour says. “It’s not that they’re shutting the parent out, it’s that they need to not talk to anyone.” She adds that a common dynamic is that parents will pepper their child with questions when they first see them and the child is too exhausted to talk. Then, when the kid does want to talk about something that happened in math class or at lunch, the parent has turned their attention elsewhere.

Take the small stuff seriously

For middle-schoolers, even minor incidents can be distressing. When Sofia Flynn, now 16, attended a seventh-grade dance with friends from her old school, a few of them spent the evening making mean comments about kids across the room, saying one girl’s dress was “so ugly, it looks like a carpet.”

“I felt guilty for not saying anything, and also vulnerable, because I’d been excluded on and off in the past,” Sofia says. “That could have been me.” Later that night, she crawled into her parents’ bed and started crying. “I told my mom I felt like I didn’t belong, that I had known these friends since I was 5 and it was like outgrowing a favorite pair of pajamas.”

She still remembers how well her mother handled her distress. “She hugged me and let me blabber, and never once lectured me or said, ‘This is silly.’ ” Her mother also shared her own memories of feeling excluded. Sofia remembers thinking, “If my smart, awesome mom could be a teen and handle friend drama, then I could handle it, too.”

[Teen suicides are on the rise. Here’s what parents can do to slow the trend.]

Recently, her mother told Sofia, “I felt like I was able to help you that night, and I wish I’d been able to do that for you more in middle school.” Sofia told her she did just fine, and the moment was meaningful precisely because it was small. “When you connect on the simple, relatable things,” she says, “you lay the groundwork for talking about the big stuff.”

Find a neutral zone

The prevailing myth is that middle-schoolers seek drama, but most hate it, and they definitely don’t want to deal with drama from parents. Before engaging in conversation, assess whether you’re able to approach your child from a stance of curiosity, not criticism.

Middle-schoolers tend to be exquisitely sensitive to any sign of disapproval, so adopt a neutral facial expression and tone, give them your full attention and don’t assume you know best. Don’t pry into their personal life or ask accusatory questions such as, “Why did you do that?” While you’re at it, eliminate the phrase “I told you so” from your language.

If you come across as judgmental, “your child will feel as if you’re diminishing him or her,” explains social psychologist Susan Newman, author of “Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day.” The result, she adds, will be a defensive, uncommunicative child.

Know your triggers

The middle school transition can be tough for parents, especially if they’re used to being more involved in their child’s life. Parents also may bring their own painful memories to the table. Rachel Simmons, the author of “The Curse of the Good Girl” and “Enough as She Is,”cautions parents not to over-identify with their child’s struggles, whether they relate to appearance, friendship, academics or athletics.

“Ask yourself, ‘Am I revisiting my stuff or dealing with their stuff?’ ” she says. “What would you say if you knew everything would be fine? Say that.”

If you’re easily triggered, pay attention to the sensations in your body just before you lose your cool. Does your heart race? Are your shoulders tense? You may need to take a deep breath or process with a friend or partner before you talk to your child. If you do lose control, apologize.

Be clear your love is unconditional

Your middle-schooler is wrestling with identity issues and impossible cultural ideals at an age when they most want to belong and fit in. Make it clear your love is unwavering. Sofia recalls how good it felt when her parents sent her an article about LGBTQ+ issues right after she told them in seventh grade that she was questioning her sexuality.

“It was so validating,” she says, “especially in middle school, when it’s hard to know whether you’re experiencing romantic or physical attraction or a crush — or just want to be someone’s buddy.”

No matter what your child reveals, resist the temptation to say, ‘You’re too young to know.”

“If your kid is bold enough to talk to you, they just want to hear, ‘We support you no matter what, and it’s okay to try out different labels until you find the one that fits you best,’ ” Sofia adds.

Don’t put the burden on them to ask for help

Middle- schoolers often feel like an enigma to themselves, and they may not even recognize when they’re depressed, overwhelmed or need your help. That’s why 13-year-old Amelia Otte says parents should never ask a child, “Are you okay?”

“We’ll always say, ‘I’m fine,’ ” she says. “It’s the biggest lie we tell.” Once a child denies being upset, they may feel they’ve lost the chance to ask for support. Instead, Amelia advises saying, “Hey, I can tell you’re a little off. Let’s talk today.”

Experiment with different forms of communication

Talking isn’t the only way to connect. Identify interests you can explore together, whether it’s baseball, video games or dystopian novels. Sofia shares a love of music with her father and calls it “a neutral starting point for dialogue.”

“One sweet memory is the time we tried to introduce each other to the same indie rock band during a car ride,” she says, adding that her dad also once surprised her with tickets to see Taylor Swift. “He was obviously not interested in seeing Taylor Swift, but he went with me because he knew I wanted to go, and that meant a lot.”

Treat arguing and complaining as productive

“Middle-schoolers communicate by complaining, and that is them giving us a detailed account of their day,” Damour says. Rather than challenge or question their complaints, let them unload and then ask, “Do you want my advice or do you just need to vent?” One child told Damour, “When I tell my parents about my day, the only thing I want them to say back to me is, ‘That stinks.’ ”

“A complaining child is dumping the psychological trash of the day so they can go back in the next day unencumbered,” Damour adds.

Similarly, when your child argues with you, it’s because they respect you and want to know what you’re thinking.

Hoffman discovered a way to connect with her son by the time he finished seventh grade: “I told him we were curious about his day, period, and we weren’t looking for something to fix or to pry, because that’s what he believed.” She also stuck to impersonal questions, asking what his teachers had taught him rather than what he had learned. When that seemed to work, she said, “You’re talking to me again! Is it because I’m not asking anything too personal?”

“Well, yeah,” he responded.

Hoffman discovered it’s possible to connect with even the most uncommunicative middle-schooler — as long as it’s on their terms.

Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in the District, a therapist at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda and the author of “Middle School Matters.” She blogs at phyllisfagell.com and tweets @pfagell.

My friend Michelle Hoffman’s son Alex, 13, was an open book when he was in elementary school. “If something good happened, we heard about it; if something bad happened, we heard about it,” she says. But in seventh grade, he entered what Hoffman calls “his grunting phase.”

“I’d ask, ‘How was school?’ and he’d say, ‘Eh.’ ” His processing shifted from external to internal, she explains, adding that, “suddenly, we weren’t part of it, and that felt really bad.”

We Tell Our Kids That Hard Work Always Pays Off. What Happens When They Fail Anyway?

Time

BY RACHEL SIMMONS MAY 23, 2019

Rachel Simmons is the director of the Phoebe Reese Lewis leadership program at Smith College and the author of Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Happy, Healthy & Fulfilled Lives.

A star athlete at the college where I work recently stopped by my office. After committing a few unforced errors during a weekend match, she was — several days later — riven by self-criticism and distracted on the field.

“I can’t stop beating myself up,” she told me. “I’m at peak fitness, and I practice hard. How is this happening?”

This student, like many I teach, believes she should be able to control the outcomes of her life by virtue of her hard work. It’s a mentality verging on invincibility: a sense that all-nighters in the library, a jam-packed calendar and hours on the field should get her exactly where she needs to go in life. Nothing can stop me but myself.

I study and write about resilience in young adults, and I’m noticing a troubling spike in students like this athlete. Their faith in their own sweat equity confers a kind of contingent confidence: when they win, they feel powerful and smart. Success confirms their mindset.

The problem comes when these students fail. When they fall short of what they imagine they should accomplish, they are crushed by self-blame. If my accomplishments are mine to control, they reason, my failures must be entirely my fault, too. Failing must mean I am incapable, and maybe will be forever.This makes it incredibly difficult for students to move on.

We talk often about young adults struggling with failure because their parents have protected them from discomfort. But there is something else at play here among the most privileged kids in particular: a message transmitted to them by doting parents who have falsely promised them that they can achieve anything if they are willing to work for it.

Psychologists studying students in high-achieving schools have sourced this phenomenon to a misapplication of “mindset” research, which has found that praising children for their effort will increase academic performance. Developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her 2006 bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, mindset education has infiltrated the classrooms around the world. But a 2018 meta-analysisfound that while so-called growth-mindset interventions, in which educators respond to their students’ challenges by praising effort (“You worked hard!”) over ability (“You’re really smart!”), may benefit high-risk or economically disadvantaged students, they do not necessarily help everyone.

One possible explanation comes from psychologists Suniya Luthar and Nina Kumar, who argued in a research paper last year that teens growing up in wealthy, pressure-cooker communities are actually hurt by the message that effort equals success. For them, Luthar and Kumar wrote, “it is not a lack of motivation and perseverance that is the big problem. Instead, it is unhealthy perfectionism, and difficulty with backing off when they should, when the high-octane drive for achievements is over the top.”

The humbling, brutal, messy reality of life is that you can do everything in your power — and still fail.

When parents demand excellence in their kids while still promising them that effort is king, they tell them, wrongly, that they should be able to rise above any obstacle. But research has found that young people who push themselves onward in the face of unattainable goals experience physical and emotional stress. In a 2007 study by psychologists Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch, the authors determined that adolescent girls who refused to give up impossible goals showed elevated levels of CRP, a protein that serves as a marker of systemic inflammation linked to diabetes, heart disease and other medical conditions. A 2012 study by Luthar and Samuel Barkin showed a correlation between the “perfectionist strivings” of affluent youth and their vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety and depression.

The humbling, brutal, messy reality of life is that you can do everything in your power — and still fail. This is knowledge that comes early to underrepresented minorities on campus, including first-generation students and students of color. Their experience of discrimination and inequality teaches them early on to brace for what is, for now, largely beyond their control to change.

Yet for many others, the quixotic belief that success is always within their grasp is a setup. University of Chicago Professor Lauren Erlant calls this “cruel optimism,” or when the pursuit of a goal actually harms you because it is largely unachievable. The college admissions game promises young adults a meritocracy that will reward their hard work with entrance to the ivory tower – yet admissions scandals and ultra-thin acceptance margins make such a promise impossible to keep.

Adults help students pursue success in healthier ways in part by redefining failure as a feature, not a bug, of learning. At Smith College, where I teach, the Narratives Project asks students to explore how setbacks and missteps made them stronger or more effective. “It can be instructive to observe your own response when things don’t go your way,” said director Dr. Jessica Bacal. “It might reinforce your passion for the work you’re doing or send you in a whole new direction – and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Luthar and Kumar urge parents and teachers to spend time helping students find purpose, or goals they both genuinely love to pursue and that make an impact on the world. Researchers have found that adolescents with purpose report greater life satisfaction, have a strong sense of identity and are more psychologically mature.

Instead of allowing our kids to beat themselves up when things don’t go their way, we might all pause to question a culture that has taught them that being anything less than overwhelmed is lazy, that how they perform for others is more important than what actually inspires them and that where they go to college matters more than the kind of person they are.

The point is not to give our kids a pass on working hard and doing their best. But fantasizing that they can control everything is not really resilience. We are harming our children by implying that they can bend life to their will, and as students walk across commencement stages this year, we would be wise to remind them that life has a way of sucker-punching us when we least expect it. It’s often the people who learn to say “stuff happens” who get up the fastest.

Reflecting on Lisa Damour’s New Book About Stress and Anxiety in Girls

April 29, 2019

By Deborah Offner

As I read Lisa Damour’s latest book, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, I felt as if she had swooped into my counseling office and the schools where I consult to speak candidly about the girls I know. As a psychologist who specializes in adolescent girls, I counsel some patients whose symptoms—shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, rapid heartbeat, migraine headache, abdominal discomfort—are so debilitating they often spend extended periods in the nurse’s office or miss school altogether.

If you teach, advise, coach, or live with adolescent girls, then you are familiar with their unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety. According to Damour, 31% of girls and young women experience anxiety compared with 13% of boys and young men. Under Pressure puts anxious girls’ otherwise perplexing behavior in context. It is a pertinent sequel to the 2016 bestselling Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. This time around, Damour—who is consulting psychologist at Laurel School (OH) and executive director of Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls—integrates her deep understanding of girls’ inner lives from her counseling work and immersion in school life with her facile knowledge of empirical literature on adolescent psychology.

After reading her book and seeing her speak about it, I noted some key takeaways for educators and school leaders.

Stress and anxiety. Stress is necessary for growth. And school, Damour notes, is actually supposed to be stressful, in the healthy way; it challenges students in order to facilitate their intellectual and emotional development. Pushing students beyond their comfort zones—academically, athletically, and socially—is what the most thoughtful independent schools do well.

“Stress becomes unhealthy,” Damour says, “when it exceeds what a person can absorb or benefit from.” The point at which that occurs is different for everyone. “Whether stress becomes unhealthy depends upon two variables: the nature of the problem and the person upon whom the problem lands,” she writes. This explains to all of us who work with students why some whose lives seem so privileged and secure might struggle emotionally while others in “objectively” difficult personal situations may seem calm and content.

She also describes how anxiety can serve as an important signal or warning sign. Damour tells a story of a patient who found herself inexplicably anxious at an ill-fated house party. In response to her nervous feelings, she (uncharacteristically) accepted a shot of liquor along with the beer she was already drinking, as she thought it would help her calm down. She ended up getting so drunk she landed in the emergency room. Damour explains how she helped the girl see that her anxiety at the party was acting as an ally, not an enemy, signaling to her that she was not in a good environment and needed to find an excuse to go home.

I’ve found that teen and even tween girls are remarkably good at understanding what might be driving their anxiety. But to use their anxiety as a friend and informant, girls need adults to be curious with them and to assume there’s probably a reason for their feelings. Using health class or advisory time to help girls reframe stress as important information encourages them to listen to themselves and restores them some control.

Coping strategies. Damour notes that while girls should avoid some situations that are truly dangerous, running away from situations that simply make them anxious is not helpful. She explains, “Everything we know in academic psychology tells us that avoidance only makes anxiety worse.”

My advice to schools is that when students have panic attacks, they should be given a space (the nurse’s office or infirmary, an advisor’s office) to let the physical symptoms such as racing heart, shaking, sweating, and dizziness subside. Once that’s happened, students should move right back into their usual routines. Otherwise, their avoidance of the place where the attack happened—a classroom, the gym, or cafeteria—can turn into habit. The fear of having another attack can become a reason to stay out of class, off the playing field, or away from school altogether. 

At one school where I consulted, we assumed it best to send one student home when her panic attacks wore her out physically and emotionally (and distracted her friend group from their studies). After speaking with her outside psychologist, however, I learned that their treatment plan prescribed staying in school after panic attacks. We quickly reversed the school’s practice, and the therapist’s advice worked.

Negative stereotypes. Sometimes when members of a particular social group perform poorly on a task, it isn’t because they lack proficiency or knowledge but because they’ve internalized a negative stereotype about their group’s abilities. For example, if girls believe that they are, by virtue of their gender, not strong in math or science, they may undermine their own performance out of fear of confirming this negative stereotype. Girls often don’t know they’ve internalized the stereotype. Naming the phenomenon, Damour says, and even sharing ample evidence that contradicts the stereotype, can reduce its power over female students.

Sharing scientific evidence debunking this myth with faculty (and parents) can be useful as well. I encourage schools to assign psychologist Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi as a faculty summer reading book and to structure some conversations about how Steele’s research and concept of “stereotype threat” apply within the school community. I also recommend that schools offer a parent forum on the topic, with attention to how it affects girls and students of color in particular.

Sexuality. Damour encourages parents and teachers to talk candidly with girls about their sexuality. Talking to girls about their wishes and needs makes them less, rather than more, vulnerable to sexual coercion, she says.

High school (and some middle school) girls in my own practice describe boys requesting nude photos and sending unsolicited ones of themselves as a routine occurrence. Damour challenges schools to create technology policies that prohibit students from sending nude photos and requesting them.

I also recommend that schools include substantial technology training in a health and wellness class or advisory. This unit should detail the interpersonal and sexual aspects of digital communication and must be updated regularly, as this is a rapidly shifting and complex landscape. Keeping these conversations grounded in the complex dynamics of peer-to-peer relationships is important. According to Damour, “Experts note that adolescents aren’t enthralled by the technology—they’re enthralled by the peers at the other end of the technology they happen to be using.” I often remind parents and educators that students’ daily lives remain every bit as complex and challenging as they were before Instagram or cell phones existed.

Acknowledging that widespread anxiety affects at least one-third of female students’ ability to learn, work, and play can seem overwhelming for students and school administrators alike. Gaining a basic understanding of its mechanisms and effects can help school leaders support anxious students more effectively. Schools are uniquely positioned to help girls confront their fears and anxieties and to ensure they can utilize the stress they encounter to enhance their self-protection, motivation, and growth.

The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting

Raising children has become significantly more time-consuming and expensive, amid a sense that opportunity has grown more elusive.

Image
Renée Sentilles and her son Isaac eating dinner at their home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She is raising him in a much more hands-on way than she was raised.CreditDustin Franz for The New York Times

Parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be.

Over just a couple of generations, parents have greatly increased the amount of time, attention and money they put into raising children. Mothers who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much timetending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.

[Coming soon: A newsletter for parents with evidence-based guidance and personal stories for a transformed life with kids. Sign up to get NYT Parenting in your inbox every week.]

The amount of money parents spend on children, which used to peak when they were in high school, is now highest when they are under 6 and over 18 and into their mid-20s.

Renée Sentilles enrolled her son Isaac in lessons beginning when he was an infant. Even now that he’s 12, she rarely has him out of sight when he is home.

“I read all the child-care books,” said Ms. Sentilles, a professor in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. “I enrolled him in piano at 5. I took him to soccer practices at 4. We tried track; we did all the swimming lessons, martial arts. I did everything. Of course I did.”

While this kind of intensive parenting — constantly teaching and monitoring children — has been the norm for upper-middle-class parents since the 1990s, new research shows that people across class divides now consider it the best way to raise children, even if they don’t have the resources to enact it.

There are signs of a backlash, led by so-called free-range parents, but social scientists say the relentlessness of modern-day parenting has a powerful motivation: economic anxiety. For the first time, it’s as likely as not that American children will be less prosperous than their parents. For parents, giving children the best start in life has come to mean doing everything they can to ensure that their children can climb to a higher class, or at least not fall out of the one they were born into.

“As the gap between rich and poor increases, the cost of screwing up increases,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies families and inequality. “The fear is they’ll end up on the other side of the divide.”

But it also stokes economic anxiety, because even as more parents say they want to raise children this way, it’s the richest ones who are most able to do so.

“Intensive parenting is a way for especially affluent white mothers to make sure their children are maintaining their advantaged position in society,” said Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University and author of “Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School.”

Stacey Jones raised her two sons, now in their 20s, as a single mother in a working-class, mostly black neighborhood in Stone Mountain, Ga. She said she and other parents tried hard to give their children opportunities by finding affordable options: municipal sports leagues instead of traveling club teams and school band instead of private music lessons.

“I think most people have this craving for their children to do better and know more than they do,” said Ms. Jones, who works in university communications. “But a lot of these opportunities were closed off because they do cost money.”

“Parent” as a verb gained widespread use in the 1970s, which is also when parenting books exploded. The 1980s brought helicopter parenting, a movement to keep children safe from physical harm, spurred by high-profile child assaults and abductions (despite the fact that they were, and are, exceedingly rare). Intensive parenting was first described in the 1990s and 2000s by social scientists including Sharon Hays and Annette Lareau. It grew from a major shift in how people saw children. They began to be considered vulnerable and moldable — shaped by their early childhood experiences — an idea bolstered by advances in child development research.

The result was a parenting style that was “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive and financially expensive,” Ms. Hays wrote in her 1998 book, “The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.” And mothers were the ones expected to be doing the constant cultivation.

The time parents spend in the presence of their children has not changed much, but parents today spend more of it doing hands-on child care. Time spent on activities like reading to children; doing crafts; taking them to lessons; attending recitals and games; and helping with homework has increased the most. Today, mothers spend nearly five hours a week on that, compared with 1 hour 45 minutes hours in 1975 — and they worry it’s not enough. Parents’ leisure time, like exercising or socializing, is much more likely to be spent with their children than it used to be. While fathers have recently increased their time spent with children, mothers still spend significantly more.

Ms. Sentilles’s mother, Claire Tassin, described a very different way of parenting when her two children were young, in the 1970s. “My job was not to entertain them,” said Ms. Tassin, who lives in Vacherie, La. “My job was to love them and discipline them.”

Of her grandchildren, Isaac and his three cousins, she said: “Their life is much more enriched than mine was, but it definitely has been directed. I’m not saying it doesn’t work. They’re amazing. But I know I felt free, so free as a child. I put on my jeans and my cowboy boots and I played outside all day long.”

CreditAkasha Rabut for The New York Times

“My job was not to entertain them. My job was to love them and discipline them.”

Claire Tassin, 75

CreditDustin Franz for The New York Times

“There’s this sense that something is wrong with you if you aren’t with your children every second when you’re not at work.”

Renée Sentilles, 52

The new trappings of intensive parenting are largely fixtures of white, upper-middle-class American culture, but researchers say the expectations have permeated all corners of society, whether or not parents can achieve them. It starts in utero, when mothers are told to avoid cold cuts and coffee, lest they harm the baby. Then: video baby monitors. Homemade baby food. Sugar-free birthday cake. Toddler music classes. Breast-feeding exclusively. Spraying children’s hands with sanitizer and covering them in “natural” sunscreen. Throwing Pinterest-perfect birthday parties. Eating lunch in their children’s school cafeterias. Calling employers after their adult children interview for jobs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics promotes the idea that parents should be constantly monitoring and teaching children, even when the science doesn’t give a clear answer about what’s best. It now recommends that babies sleep in parents’ rooms for a year. Children’s television — instead of giving parents the chance to cook dinner or have an adult conversation — is to be “co-viewed” for maximum learning.

At the same time, there has been little increase in support for working parents, like paid parental leave, subsidized child care or flexible schedules, and there are fewer informal neighborhood networks of at-home parents because more mothers are working.

Ms. Sentilles felt the lack of support when it became clear that Isaac had some challenges like anxiety and trouble sleeping. She and her ex-husband changed their work hours and coordinated tutors and therapists.

“Friends are constantly texting support, but no one has time,” she said. “It’s that we’re all doing this at the same time.”

Parenthood is more hands-off in many other countries. In Tokyo, children start riding the subway alone by first grade, and in Paris, they spend afternoons unaccompanied at playgrounds. Intensive parenting has gained popularity in England and Australia, but it has distinctly American roots — reflecting a view of child rearing as an individual, not societal, task.

It’s about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” said Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis whose book, “Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving,” comes out in February. “It distracts from the real questions, like why don’t we have a safe place for all kids to go when they’re done with school before parents get home from work?”

In a new paper, Patrick Ishizuka surveyed a nationally representative group of 3,642 parents about parenting. Regardless of their education, income or race, they said the most hands-on and expensive choices were best. For example, they said children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.

“Intensive parenting has really become the dominant cultural model for how children should be raised,” said Mr. Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow studying gender and inequality at Cornell.

Americans are having fewer children, so they have more time and money to invest in each one. But investment gaps between parents of differing incomes were not always so large. As a college degree became increasingly necessary to earn a middle-class wage and as admissions grew more competitive, parents began spending significantly more time on child care, found Valerie Ramey and Garey Ramey, economists at the University of California, San Diego.

Parents also began spending more money on their children for things like preschools and enrichment activities, Sabino Kornrich, a sociologist at Emory, showed in two recent papers. Rich parents have more to spend, but the share of income that poor parents spend on their children has also grown.

In states with the largest gaps between the rich and the poor, rich parents spend an even larger share of their incomes on things like lessons and private school, found Danny Schneider, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues in a May paper. Parents in the middle 50 percent of incomes have also increased their spending. “Lower socioeconomic status parents haven’t been able to keep up,” he said.

Besides having less money, they have less access to the informal conversations in which parents exchange information with other parents like them. Ms. Jones recalled that one of her sons liked swimming, but it wasn’t until he was in high school that she learned about swim teams on which he could have competed.

“I didn’t know because I don’t live in a swim tennis community,” she said. “Unfortunately colleges and universities tend to look at these things as a marker of achievement, and I feel like a lot of kids who have working-class backgrounds don’t benefit from the knowledge.”

Race influences parents’ concerns, too. Ms. Jones said that as a parent of black boys, she decided to raise them in a mostly black neighborhood so they would face less racism, even though it meant driving farther to many activities.

This is common for middle-class black mothers, found Dawn Dow, a sociologist at the University of Maryland whose book, “Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood,” comes out in February. “They’re making decisions to protect their kids from early experiences of racism,” Ms. Dow said. “It’s a different host of concerns that are equally intensive.”

Experts agree that investing in children is a positive thing — they benefit from time with their parents, stimulating activities and supportive parenting styles. As low-income parents have increased the time they spend teaching and reading to their children, the readiness gap between kindergarten students from rich and poor families has shrunk. As parental supervision has increased, most serious crimes against children have declined significantly.

But it’s also unclear how much of children’s success is actually determined by parenting.

“It’s still an open question whether it’s the parenting practices themselves that are making the difference, or is it simply growing up with college-educated parents in an environment that’s richer in many dimensions?” said Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and director of the Time Use Laboratory there. “I don’t think any of these studies so far have been able to answer whether these kids would be doing well as adults regardless, simply because of resources.”

There has been a growing movement against the relentlessness of modern-day parenting. Utah passed a free-range parenting law, exempting parents from accusations of neglect if they let their children play or commute unattended.

Psychologists and others have raised alarms about children’s high levels of stress and dependence on their parents, and the need to develop independence, self-reliance and gritResearch has shown that children with hyper-involved parents have more anxiety and less satisfaction with life, and that when children play unsupervised, they build social skills, emotional maturity and executive function.

Parents, particularly mothers, feel stressexhaustion and guilt at the demands of parenting this way, especially while holding a job. American time use diaries show that the time women spend parenting comes at the expense of sleep, time alone with their partners and friends, leisure time and housework. Some pause their careers or choose not to have children. Others, like Ms. Sentilles, live in a state of anxiety. She doesn’t want to hover, she said. But trying to oversee homework, limit screen time and attend to Isaac’s needs, she feels no choice.

“At any given moment, everything could just fall apart,” she said.

“On the one hand, I love my work,” she said. “But the way it’s structured in this country, where there’s not really child care and there’s this sense that something is wrong with you if you aren’t with your children every second when you’re not at work? It isn’t what I think feminists thought they were signing up for.”

Claire Cain Miller writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Upshot. She joined The Times in 2008 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. @clairecm  Facebook

Confident Kids Come From Parents Who Do These 5 Things

Fatherly

Parents who want kids who know their strengths and play to them do these five things.

From the moment a baby is born, they start learning. They learn how to cry,  eat, sleep, they poop. They start to walk and grasp their hands and, as they become little capable children who can build blocks and read short words and go on the real potty, they start to become confident beings. But that sense of confidence needs to be fostered as little kids become big kids and encounter more complex challenges and are tasked with overcoming more intense challenges. So how do parents make sure their kids have a healthy sense of confidence? We spoke to Dr. Roseanne Lesack, a certified child psychologist and director of the Unicorn Children’s Foundation Clinic at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, about five things that parents can do to instill confidence in their kids.

They Tie Their Kid’s Work Ethic To Their Success

Parents should always compliment their kids work ethic, even if they don’t get an A on their math test or win the soccer game. By making sure that parents compliment their kids on their efforts alone, kids will get a healthy sense of confidence that is tied to their own sense of being a hard working person, not on the results of those efforts. “Kids should be able to say: I’m confident in these areas, because I’ve worked hard. I’ve practiced a lot. I really want to get good at this. That’s a good thing,” says Lesack. If parents don’t stress this, kids might forget their worth if they fail at a math test despite their best efforts, which can lead to a crisis of confidence in their own self.

They Compliment Themselves In Front Of Their Kids

Confident kids come from confident parents. So don’t be shy about talking about personal qualities, skills, and successes.“Parents should talk about their own accomplishments: ‘I put in a lot of effort at this project at work, and I did a nice job because I spent time on it,’” Lesack says.When parents model positive self-talk, kids absorb that sense of self-confidence.

They Compliment Their Kids On Their Skills

Parents who want to raise kids who have a healthy sense of confidence don’t just shout “Great game!” at them until their kid knows they’re awesome. They compliment them on specific things that they did well, like, “When you made that goal in the second quarter, you had some really great footwork,” or, “At the end of the game, you played really great defense against number four.” By complimenting their kids on specific moments, they don’t give their kids an outsized sense of confidence that they’re a star for the entire game. They also, per Lesack, give their kids the tools to talk about their own strengths with specificity.

They Are Honest With Their Kids About Their Weaknesses

Parents who want to raise confident kids (who don’t become arrogant jerks) don’t lie to their kids about where they need to work harder. Now, it’s not like parents should walk around and say “You’re bad at math!” That could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But parents might be able to say: “Some people need to practice more and work harder at math than the person next to them, and that’s okay.” Kids who know that they might have to put in more effort than their peers also continue to tie their self-worth to their work ethic, and don’t have an unearned sense of confidence. “Kids also need to know what they don’t know. You don’t always want your kid to be confident. In fact, you want the opposite. Because you don’t want them to be cocky,” says Lesack.

They Tie Success Back to Teamwork

Parents also don’t let their kids think that they and they alone were the reason they won the baseball or basketball game. When complimenting their kids all-star moments, they also mention their friends and say how good they did, too, and can even encourage their kids to compliment their friends on their efforts. According to Dr. Lesack, parents need to make sure that kids know that their own success didn’t occur in a vacuum — and that without the help of other, hardworking friends or study buddies, they might not have won the game or aced the test.

The Frenzied College Admission Race is Making Our Children Sick

NAIS

The news stories about parents bribing their children’s way into selective colleges is deeply unsettling on many levels, but there is—potentially—one small silver lining. These stories shine a light on what has become endemic among today’s affluent youth and their families: a single-minded, even frenzied drive to succeed in the college admission race. This pursuit of a narrow definition success is making our children sick.

In child development research, we have been watching this problem for many years. In 2009, child psychiatrists coined the term “affluenza” to refer to the costs, for children and their parents, of lifestyles excessively oriented to maximizing personal success.

The health consequences of this focus on success are real. Since the late 1990s, my colleagues and I have documented elevated rates of serious depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among teens at “high-achieving schools.” These are public and private schools with excellent test scores, rich extracurricular offerings, and students heading to the best colleges. These are schools that serve mostly well-educated, relatively affluent families.

We have learned, however, that it’s not necessarily family wealth, but rather the unfettered drive to succeed that seems to be at the heart of the high distress. It is living in a culture where there is inordinately high emphasis on personal achievement and status.

The pressures related to college admissions have ramped up considerably over the years as competition has grown. There are many more talented young people applying to the same number of highly sought-after spots, and too many youngsters live by the credo, “I can, therefore I must.” Kids feel compelled to take on one extra AP course, one more sport, one more round of tutoring for the SATs, simply because they can (their schools provide them, and parents can pay for them).

The problem is intensified when high-achieving schools overly focus on “just do more” messages for their students. In the rush to get those top-notch SAT scores and college acceptances, teachers, coaches, and administrators tend to want ever-more accolades. It is rare to have adult gatekeepers who deliberately stop talented but exhausted children from taking on one extra commitment, even though these children often show clear signs of fraying. Instead, the message most commonly conveyed to kids is, believe in yourself and your efforts, and keep at it. Persevere. Do more! Is it any wonder that rates of serious depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are on the rise among students aspiring to go to the most selective colleges?

There are some who talk of today’s young as being overprotected and lacking in perseverance. I believe, quite to the contrary, that in fact these kids are terribly overworked. There is little to no time for play, just for fun; even sports and dance become just a means to an end, with successes to be pursued with grim determination. By the end of high school, too many of our young people are exhausted. And too many have not formed healthy personal relationships, which is the most fundamental ingredient for resilience in the face of stress; they simply have not had the time to develop these.

At the end of the day, what does this frenzied pursuit accomplish for kids who do get into the most selective colleges? Increasingly, there are reports of serious mental health issues in some of our nation’s most prestigious universities and colleges. So it’s not as though kids who “win the prize” become happy; in fact, by all accounts, the distress levels remain as high, if not greater.

We could react to the recent news stories by saying this is the fault or problem of a small group of wealthy parents, but that is simply not true. This insane “college pressure” is in fact much more widespread; it is a problem that generalizes to all communities with mostly white-collar professionals. As a recent report in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology shows, increases in rates of serious depression among adolescents have been particularly pronounced in high income groups ($75,000 or more), with rates growing from 7.9 percent in 2010 to 14.1 percent in 2017; a relative change of 79 percent.

That this problem is reaching serious proportions is evident in a recent report on adolescent wellness from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Listed here were the top environments that compromise teens’ well-being. The first three, in order, were exposure to poverty, trauma, and discrimination; the fourth was exposure to high pressures to achieve, usually, though not always, seen in relatively affluent communities.

Addressing this epidemic will need collaborative efforts from all adults involved. Parents and educators must closely examine how intensely they prioritize academic and extracurricular excellence—and at what cost to students’ mental health. School communities need to come together to foster greater connectedness and less rank competitiveness among students. And universities must examine their admission criteria, ensuring greater transparency and fairness, reducing “legacy” admissions, for example, from wealthy donors, and considering lottery-based selections among equally qualified applicants.

About 20 years ago, the term “privileged but pressured” was tentatively suggested in child development circles in relation to family affluence. Today, the data clearly show that the problem of pressure is real, and it is in fact very serious. The well-being of a generation is at stake here. We adults must come together to do all we can, collaboratively, to re-examine the values and goals we hold up for our children.

Listen to a recent American Psychological Association podcast episode featuring Suniya S. Luthar talking about the college admission scandal and the pyschology of affluence. 

How Parents Are Robbing Their Children of Adulthood

Today’s “snowplow parents” keep their children’s futures obstacle-free — even when it means crossing ethical and legal boundaries.

CreditCreditIllustration by The New York Times

Nicole Eisenberg’s older son has wanted to be a star of the stage since he was a toddler, she said. He took voice, dance and drama lessons and attended the renowned Stagedoor Manor summer camp for half a dozen years, but she was anxious that might not be enough to get him into the best performing-arts programs.

So Ms. Eisenberg and others in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the affluent suburb where she lives, helped him start a charity with friends that raised more than $250,000 over four years.

“The moms — the four or five moms that started it together — we started it, we helped, but we did not do it for them,” Ms. Eisenberg, 49, recalled. “Did we ask for sponsors for them? Yes. Did we ask for money for them? Yes. But they had to do the work.”

She even considered a donation to the college of his choice. “There’s no amount of money we could have paid to have got him in,” Ms. Eisenberg said. “Because, trust me, my father-in-law asked.” (Ms. Eisenberg’s son was admitted to two of the best musical theater programs in the country, she said, along with nine more of the 26 schools he applied to.)

College has been on their radar since her son was in diapers. “We’ve been working on this since he was 3 years old,” she said. To apply, she said, “I had to take him on 20 auditions for musical theater. But he did it with me. I don’t feel like I did this. I supported him in it. I did not helicopter parent him. I was a co-pilot.”

Or was she, perhaps, a … snowplow parent?

Helicopter parenting, the practice of hovering anxiously near one’s children, monitoring their every activity, is so 20th century. Some affluent mothers and fathers now are more like snowplows: machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities.

Taken to its criminal extreme, that means bribing SAT proctors and paying off college coaches to get children in to elite colleges — and then going to great lengths to make sure they never face the humiliation of knowing how they got there.

Those are among the allegations in the recent college bribery scandal, in which 50 people were charged in a wide-ranging fraud to secure students admissions to colleges. According to the investigation, one parent lied about his son playing water polo, but then worried that the child would be perceived by his peers as “a bench warmer side door person.” (He was assured that his son wouldn’t have to actually be on the team.) Another, the charges said, paid someone to take the ACT for her son — and then pretended to proctor it for him herself, at home, so he would think he was the test-taker.

The parents charged in this investigation, code-named Operation Varsity Blues, are far outside the norm. But they were acting as the ultimate snowplows: clearing the way for their children to get in to college, while shielding them from any of the difficulty, risk and potential disappointment of the process.

In its less outrageous — and wholly legal — form, snowplowing (also known as lawn-mowing and bulldozing) has become the most brazen mode of parenting of the privileged children in the everyone-gets-a-trophy generation.

It starts early, when parents get on wait lists for elite preschools before their babies are born and try to make sure their toddlers are never compelled to do anything that may frustrate them. It gets more intense when school starts: running a forgotten assignment to school or calling a coach to request that their child make the team.

Later, it’s writing them an excuse if they procrastinate on schoolwork, paying a college counselor thousands of dollars to perfect their applications or calling their professors to argue about a grade.

The bribery scandal has “just highlighted an incredibly dark side of what has become normative, which is making sure that your kid has the best, is exposed to the best, has every advantage — without understanding how disabling that can be,” said Madeline Levine, a psychologist and the author of “Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies or ‘Fat Envelopes.’”

“They’ve cleared everything out of their kids’ way,” she said.

In her practice, Dr. Levine said, she regularly sees college freshmen who “have had to come home from Emory or Brown because they don’t have the minimal kinds of adult skills that one needs to be in college.”

One came home because there was a rat in the dorm room. Some didn’t like their roommates. Others said it was too much work, and they had never learned independent study skills. One didn’t like to eat food with sauce. Her whole life, her parents had helped her avoid sauce, calling friends before going to their houses for dinner. At college, she didn’t know how to cope with the cafeteria options — covered in sauce.

“Here are parents who have spent 18 years grooming their kids with what they perceive as advantages, but they’re not,” Dr. Levine said.

Yes, it’s a parent’s job to support the children, and to use their adult wisdom to prepare for the future when their children aren’t mature enough to do so. That’s why parents hide certain toys from toddlers to avoid temper tantrums or take away a teenager’s car keys until he finishes his college applications.

If children have never faced an obstacle, what happens when they get into the real world?

They flounder, said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.”

At Stanford, she said, she saw students rely on their parents to set up play dates with people in their dorm or complain to their child’s employers when an internship didn’t lead to a job. The root cause, she said, was parents who had never let their children make mistakes or face challenges.

Snowplow parents have it backward, Ms. Lythcott-Haims said: “The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

Helicopter parenting is a term that came into vogue in the 1980s and grew out of fear about children’s physical safety — that they would fall off a play structure or be kidnapped at the bus stop. In the 1990s, it evolved into intensive parenting, which meant not just constantly monitoring children, but also always teaching them.

This is when parents began filling afternoons and weekends with lessons, tutors and traveling sports games. Parents now spend more money on child rearing than any previous generation did, according toConsumer Expenditure Survey data analyzed by the sociologists Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg.

According to time-use data analyzed by Melissa A. Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, today’s working mothers spend as much time doing hands-on activities with their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s. Texting and social media have allowed parents to keep ever closer track of their progeny.

Snowplow parenting is an even more obsessive form.

“There’s a constant monitoring of where their kid is and what they are doing, all with the intent of preventing something happening and becoming a barrier to the child’s success,” said Laura Hamilton, the author of “Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College and Beyond” and a sociologist at the University of California, Merced.

The destination at the end of the road is often admission to college. For many wealthy families, it has always been a necessary badge of accomplishment for the child — and for the parents. A college degreehas also become increasingly essential to earning a middle-class wage.

But college admissions have become more competitive. The number of applicants has doubled since the 1970s, and the growth in the number of spots has not kept pace, remaining basically unchanged at the very top schools.

At the same time, it’s no longer guaranteed that children will do as well as their parents. Children born in 1950 had an 80 percent chance of making more money than their parents, according to work by a team of economists led by Raj Chetty at Harvard. Those born in 1970 had a 61 percent chance. But since 1980, children are as likely as not to earn less than their parents did.

It’s painful for any parent to watch their child mess up, or not achieve their (or their parents’) goals. Now, however, the stakes are so much higher.

“Increasingly, it appears any mistake could be fatal for their class outcome,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist studying parenting and inequality at the University of Maryland.

The problem is: Snowplowing is a parenting habit that’s hard to break.

“If you’re doing it in high school, you can’t stop at college,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said. “If you’re doing it in college, you can’t stop when it comes to the workplace. You have manufactured a role for yourself of always being there to handle things for your child, so it gets worse because your young adult is ill-equipped to manage the basic tasks of life.”

In a new poll by The New York Times and Morning Consult of a nationally representative group of parents of children ages 18 to 28, three-quarters had made appointments for their adult children, like for doctor visits or haircuts, and the same share had reminded them of deadlines for school. Eleven percent said they would contact their child’s employer if their child had an issue.

Sixteen percent of those with children in college had texted or called them to wake them up so they didn’t sleep through a class or test. Eight percent had contacted a college professor or administrator about their child’s grades or a problem they were having.

“Some of them think they’re doing the right thing by their children,” said David McCullough, Jr., a high school teacher and the author of “You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements,” who helped popularize the “snowplow” term. “Parents understand that going to a highly prestigious college brings with it long-lasting advantage.”

It’s not just the wealthy. Recent research suggests that parents across lines of class and race are embracing the idea of intensive parenting, whether or not they can afford it.

Often, that involves intervening on behalf of their children. In a recent study that surveyed a nationally representative group of parents about which parenting choices they thought were best, people, regardless of race, income or education, said children should be enrolled in after-school activities so they wouldn’t have to feel bored. If a child didn’t like school, they thought parents should talk to the teacher to get the child different work.

Still, true snowplow parenting is done largely by privileged parents, who have the money, connections and know-how to stay two steps ahead of their children. Families without those resources don’t necessarily have the money to invest in lessons and college counselors, and may not have experience navigating college admissions or ultracompetitive job markets.

Carolyn O’Laughlin worked as a director of resident life at Sarah Lawrence and Columbia, and now does a similar job at St. Louis Community College, Meramec. “I don’t talk to parents nearly as much here, where parents are down the street, as I did when the parents were across the country,” she said.

At the elite schools, Ms. O’Laughlin said, a mother once called her to ask her to list the items in the school salad bar so she could choose what her daughter should eat for lunch, and another parent intervened over video chat to resolve a dispute with a roommate over stolen peanut butter.

Now, many of the students she works with are immigrants or first-generation college students.

“As I read about the scandal, I feel for those parents, I do,” she said. But “first-generation students coming through here are figuring out how to navigate an educational system that hasn’t always been built for them,” she said. “It is changing the course of their lives and the lives of their families.”

Cathy Tran, 22, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, is the daughter of people who immigrated from Vietnam who did not attend college. “They do give me a lot of emotional support, but they haven’t really been able to tell me about what I should be doing, like next steps,” she said.

Clearing her own path to college had some benefits, Ms. Tran said. “I actually think that I have a sense of independence and confidence in myself in a way that some of my friends whose parents attended college might not have,” she said. “I had some friends who didn’t even know how to do laundry. I guess in some ways I feel like I was forced to be an adult much earlier on.”

Learning to solve problems, take risks and overcome frustration are crucial life skills, many child development experts say, and if parents don’t let their children encounter failure, the children don’t acquire them. When a 3-year-old drops a dish and breaks it, she’s probably going to try not to drop it the next time. When a 20-year-old sleeps through a test, he’s probably not going to forget to set his alarm again.

Snowplowing has gone so far, they say, that many young people are in crisis, lacking these problem-solving skills and experiencing record rates of anxiety. There are now classes to teach children to practice failing, at college campuses around the country and even for preschoolers.

Many snowplow parents know it’s problematic, too. But because of privilege or peer pressure or anxiety about their children’s futures, they do it anyway.

Felicity Huffman, an actress charged in the college admissions scheme, has long extolled the benefits of a parenting philosophy in which children are to be treated as adults. On her parenting blog, What the Flicka (which was taken down this week), she described raising children as “one long journey of overcoming obstacles.” In another post, she praised schoolchildren “for walking into a building every day full of the unknown, the challenging, the potential of failure.”

This week, Ms. Huffman was accused of paying $15,000 for an SAT proctor to secretly inflate her daughter’s test scores.

Claire Cain Miller writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Upshot. She joined The Times in 2008 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. @clairecm  Facebook

Jonah Bromwich is based in New York. He writes for the Style section. @jonesieman

Getting Kids Unhooked from Their Smartphones

Mindful

Setting guidelines around kids’ tech use starts with the habits and conscious choices of parents. Mark Bertin, MD, shares tips on how families can be mindful with their tech.

elena_fedorina/Adobe Stock

Kids and screen time cause considerable parental angst these days—and for good reason. Research shows children spend on average seven hours a day glued to computer, tablet, smartphone, or television screens. This reality has created such a stir that in the fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its decade-old recommendation on childhood screen time.

Far from a radical revision, the guideline newly suggests a little well-chosen time is fine starting near eighteen months, when used interactively with a care taker. Below eighteen months no time remains best, apart from maybe video conversations with grandparents. From two to five, an hour daily maximum is recommended, and for older kids, two hours total time tops, no different than before.

Why is screen time such a uniquely charged and challenging topic? Guidelines of this type are tough to implement in the real world. Kids don’t want to hear that outside of homework too much screen time actually impacts healthy development. However, since children lack mature executive function, cognitive skills required to manage life like a grown up,  wise decision-making around screens remains limited until they learn better. As strong a pull as children feel, healthy technology use relies on parents.

The Command Center of Life

Executive function is like the CEO of our lives. Anything regarding organization, planning, anticipating, focusing, and regulating behavior relies on executive function. Healthy development of executive function in early childhood has even been linked to life-longacademic and social success.

In large part, kids depend on parents to manage life while waiting for executive function to mature. Executive function represents the path toward complex problem solving and goal setting, and the ability to defer short term gratification for long term gain. The unsettling reality is that executive function doesn’t fully mature until around the age of thirty. That’s one reason kids and teens make not-so-smart decisions when it comes to social media. In a nutshell, even an independent-seeming teenager almost certainly lacks the full capacity to make long-sighted choices.

Immature executive function is a large part of what makes kids act like, well, kids. Around screens, think of it this way: Most adults have fully developed executive function and a strong ability to manage attention, prioritize, plan, and control impulses, and consider the future. They still struggle to keep phones and devices from becoming a distraction. What does that mean for the average child?

Because children lack the self-management capacities of a mature adult, they are particularly at risk when it comes to screens. For many, whatever feels best right now (I’m bored, where’s my tablet?) trumps health and well-being virtually every time. For teens immersed in their complex social world and drive for independence, volatile hormones and emotions create a perfect storm when joined with immature executive function and a smartphone. Sending naked selfies—hey, why not? The part of the brain responsible for reflection and foresight isn’t all grown up yet!

Putting Your Kids on a Media Diet

Like parents through the generations, our modern role is to love our kids, guide them, and teach them. Kids have always needed supervision, and there’s nothing unique about their fascination with technology. Parents before us managed a child’s behavior around driving, partying, curfews, and manners, and we now must keep track of technology, too. This means setting boundaries and giving them more independence as they earn it over time, not before.

Four Negative Impacts of Phone Addiction

Technology is a tool; it is not inherently good or bad. To keep it in a healthy place in our lives requires skillful use. Unlike passing trends that scared parents over the years, research shows poorly monitored screen time bluntly impacts kids for the worse. (Rock and roll was never shown to affect child development in any real way; it isn’t evil, as it turns out.) Well moderated activities may augment learning, but hundreds of studies show that when devices drive their own use, consequences follow. A few examples include:

  • Short- and long-term attention and executive function suffer. Laser-like attention towards a screen is an illusion; kids remain engaged because their attention constantly, actively shifts. That’s why it’s fun. Increased time in front of screens has been linked to long-term worsening of focus. Short-term use—like playing games on the school bus—has been linked to immediate decreases in executive function.
  • Sleep becomes disrupted. Studies show we all benefit from at least an hour without screens prior to bed. If you’re someone who falls asleep with the TV, you’re distracting yourself from restlessness but probably not helping yourself fall asleep.
  • Screen time can interfere with language, communication, and other forms of social engagement. Background television in homes has been linked to shorter social interactions. Even just having a phone on the table in a conversation has been shown disruptive. “Educational” DVDs used in one study not only failed to work—they caused language development to slow. Particularly in younger children, screen time should be an opportunity to engage, not disengage, with others.
  • Screen time breeds behavioral difficulties. One study showed nothing more than cutting inappropriate media content in preschool homes leads to better school behavior. In another, violent video games in teens were shown to decrease activity in parts of the brain that respond to violence. Of course, not every child playing video games gets swayed, but over any group of children there seems to be an influence.

Mindful Screen Management

Mindfulness means living life with more awareness and less reactive habit. For a parent, that means not trying for perfection but taking the time to monitor and readjust often. As children need our guidance around any other area of health, they need it with technology. If there’s one takeaway point around the entire body of technology research it is this: Strong parental involvement moderating screen time in and of itself correlates with academic, behavioral, and social success.

Strong parental involvement moderating screen time in and of itself correlates with academic, behavioral, and social success.

Staying involved means pushing back against mindless screen habits. The role screens play in life is driven by buckets of research and advertising dollars, an industry itching to make more and more money. Wherever technology helps, educates, or entertains in a balanced way, that’s perfect. When its use is driven by boredom, fear, or compulsion, mindfulness means pausing and redirecting our behavior.

Nothing much has changed through the years about how children develop or the role of parents. You wouldn’t let a child eat chocolate cake at every meal and you wouldn’t let them drive recklessly. By the same token, you can’t let them use screens without limits. Parenting in the digital age means the same thing as in the stone age: Children require affection, firm limit setting, and a mindful, aware, clear-sighted approach to guiding them, from sticks and stones through television and smartphones.

Six Ways to Be Mindful with Your Tech as a Family

Some basic family guidelines for screen time include …

  • Start with yourself. Children learn an awful lot just from watching their parents, and 70 percent of today’s kids feel their parents are on their screens too much. When you’re with your kids, try to put down your device and pay attention to your family. You are the first role model for screen use.
  • Parents decide how much. For all the debate about how much time is healthy, it comes down to parents prioritizing what they want to prioritize. Take a daily calendar, and fill in everything you value first. Start with bedtime, school hours, homework, reading, exercise, outdoor time, after-school activities, and down time for open-ended play. Whatever is left after that exercise is the maximum available time for screens, without exceeding the AAP guidelines. (An online tool to figure this out is available here). Another trick is to ask yourself: What percentage of unscheduled down time goes directly to a screen?

What percentage of unscheduled down time goes directly to a screen?

  • Parents decide when. Set guidelines around homework, meals, and a screen bedtime. Use allotted times wisely, scheduling so you can get what you need done around the house. Teach courtesy and manners too—meaning, when there’s an actual person around we pay attention to that person. One practice to stay engaged with others is taking a deep breath first when the phone rings or vibrates, pausing before deciding if it needs immediate attention.
  • Parents monitor content. The Internet can be an incredible, healthy, helpful source of information for curious kids. It also can expose them to much that is developmentally inappropriate. A handful of games may educate, plenty more clearly do not. Sites such as a Common Sense Media provide unbiased information for parents about what is age appropriate around various games, shows, and movies. Keep computers and screens out of bedrooms so you know what your kids are doing. Use content filters, teach healthy use, and keep an eye on overall habits. Aim to stay a wise, involved parent.
  • Remember that screens are a privilege, not a right. In generations past, kids used the family car responsibly and kept to curfew, or else there were consequences. Technology is no different. If children don’t follow family rules, there’s nothing wrong with a similar result—you’ve lost the privilege of your phone for the weekend. To disconnect for a time won’t destroy their social lives any more than getting grounded did all those years ago.
  • Make active choices. Awareness is the core of mindfulness, stepping from autopilot into active decision-making. For example, a trend has grown to give every middle school student a smartphone, although most parents realize how disruptive they often are at that age. Most experts think high school a better time for a smartphone, but the trend lives on. Around that choice or any other, pause, note what’s driving your experience, and then decide what you think best.
This article originally appeared on The Garrison Institute, one of Mindful’s partners. See the original article.

Media Guidelines for Kids of All Ages

Child Mind Institute

Rachel EhmkeTips for making sure your children’s screen time is healthy

Parents used to just worry about kids watching too much TV, or playing too many video games. We still worry about those things, but now the screen time list has gotten much longer. Phones, tablets, apps, social media, texting — they all can captivate kids (and adults) starting at a very young age. What’s a parent to do? Going back to bed isn’t an option, but taking a deep breath and encouraging rational moderation is. Here are some tips, broken down by age group, to get you started.

Very young children (0-4)

– Limit exposure. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding television and other entertainment media for children under 18 months. After 18 months parents can begin introducing “high quality” programming, but the AAP cautions that parents should watch with their children to answer any questions they might have. For children two to five, the AAP recommends limiting media consumption to an hour of high quality programming, again with the caveat that parents should be watching alongside.

– Start leading by example early. Even before your child has a phone or tablet of her own, show her how they should be used. Don’t check your messages at the dinner table. Look at people when they’re talking to you — not at your phone. Remember that your children are always watching you and young children notice everything — that’s how they learn.

– Don’t underestimate the value of traditional toys and open spaces. It’s important for kids to experience unstructured “free play,” which means that they decide what to do, and how to do it, and are playing simply for play’s sake—not to get to the next level in a game, or learn some specific skill. Children should experience the fun of making up their own rules — and breaking them — as they go along. This kind of play lets kids:

  • Move at their own pace, instead of being driven (or hurried) along by fast-moving media
  • Develop creativity
  • Get experience making decisions
  • Practice sharing and working with others
  • Learn to be a leader and self-advocate

Apps — however educational they claim to be — are no substitute for the kind of learning that comes to kids naturally if we let it.

– Do leave the tablet at home. While they are helpful during a long car or plane ride, tablets and other devices are out of place in the stroller or car on the way to preschool. It’s important for kids to have the opportunity to look around them and find entertainment (not to speak of learning) in the real world, too. And they should not be part of play dates!

Grade school age kids (5-11)

– Watch things together. If you’re worried that your kids are getting bad messages from the media, the best way to counteract them is to watch alongside your kids and point out when something isn’t right. Call out a female character if she only seems to care about boys, or how she looks. Provide context if you are seeing unhealthy relationships (including friendships) or unrealistic beauty standards. Besides reinforcing your values, this will teach your kids to watch television and movies actively, not passively, which is good for their self-esteem. Do this during commercials, too!

– Screen time shouldn’t be all the time. The AAP recommends that parents set sensible boundaries on how much screen time is appropriate for their child. Just as important: designating media-free spaces, like bedrooms and the dinner table. Establishing (and enforcing) these limits from a young age teaches kids to be healthy media consumers.

– Be discerning. Determining what is quality screen time and what isn’t might not be obvious, but look out for things that:

  • Are age-appropriate
  • Engage your child’s imagination
  • Have the right values

Common Sense Media has more pointers here. Conversely, if you don’t want your child playing a particular game or watching a particular show, explain your reasons why and be specific — don’t just say it’s “bad.”

– Don’t make screens the reward (or consequence). Technology is enormously appealing to kids as it is, but when we make screen time the go-to thing kids get for good behavior — or get taken away for bad behavior — we are making it even more desirable, thereby increasing the chances that a child will overvalue it.

– Encourage other activities. There are many ways to have fun. Running around outside, playing a sport, reading books, doing crafts — variety is important for a balanced life. Encourage your kids to develop a wide range of interests. Model yourself doing this, too. Let your kids see you reading a book and making things and having a hobby. Finally, present these things as just as rewarding as screen time — not alternatives to it. Equal billing is important.

– Be prepared for them to discover porn. Even if they’re not exactly looking for it, kids today can stumble onto pornography very easily. Curiosity is often a big motivator, so don’t be shy about having some frank, developmentally appropriate conversations about sex. If they hear it from you then they’ll be less likely to turn to the Internet for answers, and they’ll be more likely to ask you to explain what they see online or hear from friends. And if they do see porn, let them know what they saw was no more realistic than any other movie.

Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to Them at the Office

The New York Times

Hard work and discipline help girls outperform boys in class, but that advantage disappears in the work force. Is school the problem?

Lisa Damour

By Lisa Damour

Ms. Damour is a clinical psychologist.

CreditWenting Li
Image
CreditCreditWenting Li

From elementary school through college, girls are more disciplinedabout their schoolwork than boys; they study harder and get better grades. Girls consistently outperform boys academically. And yet, men nonetheless hold a staggering 95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies.

What if those same habits that propel girls to the top of their class — their hyper-conscientiousness about schoolwork — also hold them back in the work force?

When investigating what deters professional advancement for women, the journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman found that a shortage of competence is less likely to be an obstacle than a shortage of confidence. When it comes to work-related confidence, they found men are far ahead. “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,” they wrote. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.”

As a psychologist who works with teenagers, I hear this concern often from the parents of many of my patients. They routinely remark that their sons do just enough to keep the adults off their backs, while their daughters relentlessly grind, determined to leave no room for error. The girls don’t stop until they’ve polished each assignment to a high shine and rewritten their notes with color-coded precision.

We need to ask: What if school is a confidence factory for our sons, but only a competence factory for our daughters?

This possibility hit me when I was caring for an eighth grader in my practice. She got terrific grades but was feeling overwhelmed by school. Her brother, a ninth grader, had similarly excellent grades, but when I asked if he worked as hard as she did, she scoffed. If she worked on an assignment for an hour and got an A, she felt “safe” only if she spent a full hour on other assignments like it. Her brother, in contrast, flew through his work. When he brought home an A, she said, he felt “like a stud.” If his grades slipped a bit, he would take his effort up just a notch. But she never felt “safe” enough to ever put in less than maximum effort.

That experience — of succeeding in school while exerting minimal or moderate effort — is a potentially crucial one. It may help our sons develop confidence, as they see how much they can accomplish simply by counting on their wits. For them, school serves as a test track, where they build their belief in their abilities and grow increasingly at ease relying on them. Our daughters, on the other hand, may miss the chance to gain confidence in their abilities if they always count on intellectual elbow grease alone.

So how do we get hyper-conscientious girls (and boys, as there certainly are some with the same style) to build both confidence and competence at school?

First, parents and teachers can stop praising inefficient overwork, even if it results in good grades. Gendered approaches to learning set in early, so it’s never too soon to start working against them. Recently, as I read “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to my 8-year-old daughter, I stopped at a passage in which Hermione — the fictional poster child for academic fastidiousness — turned in an essay that was “two rolls of parchment more than Professor Binns asked for.” Hermione, I pointed out, doesn’t make great use of her time. She’s a capable student and could probably do just as well without working so hard. “Right,” my daughter said. “Of course she could!”

We can also encourage girls toward a different approach to school — one that’s more focused on economy of effort, rather than how many hours they put in. Whenever one of the academically impressive and persistently anxious girls in my practice tells me about staying up until 2 in the morning studying, I see an opening. That’s the moment to push them to become tactical, to figure out how to continue learning and getting the same grades while doing a little bit less. I urge my patients — and my own teenage daughter — to begin study sessions by taking sample tests, to see how much they know before figuring out how much more they need to do to attain mastery over a concept or task. Many girls build up an incredible capacity for work, but they need these moments to discover and take pride in how much they already understand.

Teachers, too, can challenge girls’ over-the-top tendencies. When a girl with a high-A average turns in extra credit work, her instructor might ask if she is truly taken with the subject or if she is looking to store up “insurance points,” as some girls call them. If it’s the former, more power to her. If it’s the latter, the teacher might encourage the student to trust that what she knows and the work she is already doing will almost certainly deliver the grade she wants. Educators can also point out to this student that she may not need insurance; she probably has a much better grasp of the material than she gives herself credit for.

Finally, we can affirm for girls that it is normal and healthy to feel some anxiety about school. Too often, girls are anxious even about being anxious, so they turn to excessive studying for comfort. We can remind them that being a little bit nervous about schoolwork just means that they care about it, which of course they should.

Even if neither you nor your daughter cares about becoming a chief executive, you may worry that she will eventually be crushed by the weight of her own academic habits. While a degree of stress promotes growth, working at top speed in every class at all times is unhealthy and unsustainable for even the most dedicated high school students. A colleague of mine likes to remind teenagers that in classes where any score above 90 counts as an A, the difference between a 91 and a 99 is a life.

To be sure, the confidence gap is hardly the only thing keeping women out of top jobs. Women also face gender bias, sexual harassment and powerful structural barriers in the workplace. But confidence at school is one unequal advantage that we can address right now. Instead of standing by as our daughters make 50 flashcards when they were assigned 20, we can step in and ask them why. Many professional men brim with confidence because they have spent years getting to know their abilities. Women should arrive in the work world having done the same.

Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, is the author of the forthcoming “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”