How To Make A Tricky Staircase Safe For Children

Question: We are moving into a split-level house (first-time home buyers) from an apartment so we are navigating the world of toddler-proofing stairs for the first time. The stairs have a railing on one side wall, and on the other side, nothing. The wall with nothing ends about three stairs above the ground floor, leaving an open space that strikes us as a hazard for an 18-month-old who is just learning about stairs. Installing a gate seems tricky in this instance since there aren’t two sides for the gate unless we put it across the third step. How would you recommend we handle this?

— Bethesda

Answer: “Wrap a gate around the bottom,” advises Bill Brooner, owner of Baby Proofing Montgomery, a company that does home safety evaluations and installs products that make homes safer for young children. He has a catalog of safety equipment that includes five or six pages of gates, and he can make a specific recommendation and give you a cost estimate if you email him with measurements and a photograph. Or, for $90 plus a travel fee of $25 when the location is outside Montgomery County, he will go to your house for a room-by-room safety evaluation that typically lasts 1½ to 2 hours. He’ll also leave you with a packet of safety literature covering everything from toy safety to poisonous house plants.

If you want to tackle the job on your own, start with an extra-wide safety gate or safety fencing designed for use around fireplaces and wood stoves. Many models also have optional extension pieces that allow you to create custom lengths. Fasten one end of the gate to the wall with the handrail. Extend the wrap across the base of the stairs and wrap it around the side of the steps where there is no wall. If you have room at the base of the stairs, you might want to position the fencing so it’s set out from the bottom step, allowing you to open and close the gate when you aren’t also negotiating the stairs.

Be sure to install a safety gate at the top as well as at the bottom.

Sure, opening and closing the gates is a hassle. But it’s not forever. Kids vary, but by age 3 or 4, they’re usually fine without gates, Brooner says.

Question: I have two old “bridge chairs” from my mom, probably from the 1950s or ’60s. They aren’t in horrible shape, but the wood (real wood) needs touching up. If I were to paint the wood, is there a type of spray paint that would look best on real wood? Or do you think I should touch up the finish? If so, what product do you recommend?

— Arlington

The chairs are classics and look pretty classy as they are. It’s basically your call about whether to just erase some of the wear and tear or to give the chairs a whole new look with paint. You can always paint later; it’s much harder to go back to unpainted wood.

If you decide to fix the existing finish, the best strategy depends on how bad it is now. (It’s hard to tell from the pictures you sent.) If the finish looks OK except for a few places where it’s scratched through to bare wood, a simple touch-up works best. Dab on a little wood stain with an artist’s brush or use wood stain packaged in a marking pen, such as Minwax Wood Finish Stain Marker . If there are deeper gouges, fill them with non-hardening wood putty in a matching color. This type of putty is oily or waxy, so it works well when furniture already has a finish, as your chairs do. It comes in jars or tubs, as well as in a pencil style (such as the Minwax Blend-fil Pencil) and in wax sticks (included in the Dap Wood Finish Repair Kit).

You need more than spot repairs if the overall finish is worn and scuffed up. Use a finish restorer, such as Howard Restor-a-Finish, which works on lacquer, shellac and varnish, the finishes most likely to be on your chairs. Finish restorers contain stain plus a little solvent and oil. The solvent helps the stain penetrate but doesn’t strip the existing finish. Rub over the wood, a section at a time, as directed on the label and you should wind up with a nice, even sheen where scratches aren’t very noticeable, if you can even find them. You can use a finish restorer instead of or in addition to the touch-up methods.

If you opt for painting the chairs, you can use any good-quality spray paint. Choose a gloss sheen if you want a traditional furniture finish. If you don’t have a good place for spray-painting, use brush-on, glossy, water-based paint. For that, lightly sand the chairs first with 100-grit sandpaper, just enough to scratch up the surface. Sand in the direction of wood fibers (meaning lengthwise on the legs and crosswise on the chair backs). Wipe up the debris, brush on primer paint and let it dry, then apply two coats of the finish paint.

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Tips To Get Your Kids Through The Holidays Graciously And Gratefully

A recent conversation between my 7-year-old son and my mother-in-law went something like this:

Mother-in-law: “I have a friend whose grandson visited last year for Thanksgiving. She had worked for days to make a big, beautiful dinner for everyone. After all of that work, she sat the food down at the table and her grandson said, ‘Ewww! I don’t want that. Yuck!!’ ”

My son sat wide-eyed, taking in her tale. He nodded. “Okaaaay.”

I jumped in and we talked about trying a bite of everything on the plate. And even more important, we talked about why that was not a nice thing to say to someone who worked so hard to make a beautiful meal. We told him that this is a special time to be together as a family, to sit and talk for a while. In other words, this is not the time to bounce out of the chair for one more game of catch. And hey, we added, the sweet potatoes will have marshmallows on top!

“I don’t like sweet potatoes,” he announced casually.

Well, we’ll see how this goes.

The holidays are a time of traveling, cooking, cleaning, planning, cooking more, making lists and counting chairs and napkins. But it is also the time of year when parents are considering how their 2-year-old will hold up during a Thanksgiving meal that starts at 7 p.m. Or how their 10-year-old daughter will react when she opens a present from Great Aunt Edna to find a puppy sweater that she would have liked when she was 3. Or whether their 7-year-old son will understand the importance of togetherness, love and thankfulness when the family gathers around a table.

It’s a stressful time for many people. And even though we love our kids and they are lots of fun, they often magnify that stress. Even worse, our stress can trickle down to them, turning a happy holiday into a Noel nightmare.

I tried to break it down (another list!) so we can all do more than just get through the holidays. Here are ways to help children — and let’s face it, ourselves — think about what it means to be generous, kind, loved and loving in the coming weeks.

Speaking of food . . .

Megan Barna is an outpatient dietitian at Children’s National Medical Center in the District. She often hears from parents who say that they want their kids to stop eating sweets but then admit they have a secret stash of soda for themselves. If you want them to eat well, she said, you have to eat well. Children model their behavior after ours. She shared several suggestions to encourage children to sit and eat (yes, really) with the rest of the family.

Depending on their age, take them with you when you shop for the holiday meal and ask for their input. Obviously, they don’t get to dictate what will be served. But this is the time to show them your list and then give them choices: Should our vegetable be carrots, broccoli or cauliflower?

Let this time of year be a big experiment. We want our children to appreciate food, and the holidays offer great opportunities, Barna said. So talk about the food, explain what’s coming and what it will taste like. So they don’t usually eat Brussels sprouts? I didn’t think I liked them either — because my mother used to boil (blech) the odd little veggie. I will talk to my kids about that and how we will prepare them differently, roasting them so they are crispy and tasty instead of dull and mushy, like when I was growing up.

Bring the kids into the kitchen. Not only will having them come into the kitchen help them understand and appreciate all the hard work that goes into family meals, but also, the more children are involved in the process, the more they will try new foods over time. And yes, children of any age can be involved. Give your toddler a spoon and ask her to help mix something. Have your second-grader tear up the lettuce for a salad. Give your tween a sponge and have him wash the table. “Make them feel like you’re on the same team,” Barna said. They will have pride and ownership in the meal, which will entice them to sit longer and, hopefully, try a few new things.

Eat normally leading up to the big meal. I don’t know about you, but I try to not eat much leading up to family dinners on big holidays, in an attempt to “save room” for all that good food. Don’t do that. Make sure that you — and the kids — eat normal meals and snacks that day, Barna said. Incorporate fiber and protein. You want kids to not feel crazed with hunger, particularly if they aren’t going to eat much on their rather different-from-usual plate.

They will follow your lead. Remember that your behavior will influence your kids. If you don’t want them to eat so many sweets, don’t go gorging on the pumpkin pie in the corner at cleanup time.

End the day on a healthy note. Take a walk with everyone after big family dinners. You can enjoy one another’s company, fresh air or the pretty neighborhood lights.

Minimizing stress

Eleanor Mackey, a child psychologist, also with Children’s, said parents need to recognize that as much as this is a time to enjoy, all of the hustle and bustle and togetherness also might create stress for kids. “Planning ahead can go a long way to help prevent problems,” she said. “The last thing anyone wants is a meltdown at a big family gathering.” Here are her suggestions.

Think ahead. Figure out what you can do to structure the event for the least negative impact on the family’s typical schedule, and prepare the kids for what to expect. In other words, don’t do dinner at 8 p.m. if you have children who go to bed at 7:30. Explain to them either before you go to a gathering or as the holiday nears how things will work.

Let kids know what your expectations are. Give them a timetable, such as: So when we get there, you’ll have time to play with your cousins. And then when it’s dinnertime, we all will sit at the table. I expect you to do that for at least 30 minutes. Then you can go play with everyone again. “Preparing kids ahead of time and coaching them about what’s appropriate goes a long way,” Mackey said.

About that weird present. Again, preparation is key. Kids have bad impulse control and may slip when they get a pair of fluorescent Santa socks for Hanukkah. But tell them before you go out that if someone gives them a present, it’s because “they like you, and sometimes they might guess wrong. It’s really important that they just thought about you, and they thought they were getting you something you would like,” Mackey said. Then demonstrate what you would say: It was so nice of you to think of me when you got this. Boom.

Be realistic. Set developmentally appropriate expectations of, for example, how long your child can actually sit. Or how much conversing with adults will actually happen. Think your child can realistically sit nicely for 15 minutes? Let that be the thing you focus on. Want your son to speak kindly to an aunt he doesn’t know? Practice that conversation in advance. It may help you, too, so you don’t get unreasonably annoyed when your 5-year-old wants to leave the table before everyone is finished.

Add a dollop of gratitude

Related: How to encourage kids to ‘give back’

Here’s the part that gets me the most about holidays. I want our sons to understand that there’s a reason it’s called Thanksgiving. And that just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean everyone who comes to our door will be bearing gifts (please, goodness, NO).

So I spoke with Richard Weissbourd, co-director of the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard. His mission is to help parents, educators and communities raise kind children. Here are his suggestions for serving up a side of gratitude with your holiday meal.

Have a gratitude action. Weissbourd suggests you ask your children to think about someone outside of the family who has helped them. Think about people you don’t normally thank — the custodian at school, the mail carrier, the bus driver. Then do something to express appreciation, whether that’s a note, a gift or an offer to do something helpful. “It’s like putting people on kids’ radar who they aren’t normally grateful for,” he said. And hopefully, these specific activities will spur ongoing activities beyond the holidays.

Commit to a service or organization as a family. Talk to one another about what you most care about. Homelessness? Animal welfare? Then find an organization you can get behind, and make a promise to do something monthly for that group or that cause. “I always worry about the one-shot things,” Weissbourd said. And that’s true — just look at the food-bank volunteer wait lists at this time of year. Spread it out, and remember that these places often are asking for help year-round.

Don’t inundate kids with gifts. When you give too many gifts, the appreciation goes out the window. “You want them to be thankful for gifts, including thankful to you,” he said. “They often assume gifts from the family don’t deserve to be noted. But kids should note them.” And kids of any age should say thank you when they get a gift, he said. Which they will certainly understand if we do the same, right?

Encouraging Your Child to Read

As parents, we know that throughout their lives, our children will benefit in so many ways from well-developed reading skills.  That’s why we start teaching them when they are little, sitting and reading to our kids, pointing out words and pictures.  And young children typically experience joy when first learning to read.  But as they get older, many kids stop being readers.

As an elementary school teacher, I would often hear from parents that getting their child to pick up a book was a huge challenge.  My first question was always: “Do you read?” Unfortunately, more often than not, the reply was “no.”  As parents, we all know that each minute of the day is precious, and that the to-do list is endless.  And we also know that children mimic what the adults in their life do.  So, if you knew that it would help your child become a reader, would you make time to read?  For most of us, the answer of course is “yes.”  And the reality is that if the parent is reading, the child often will as well.

Ways to Encourage Independent Reading:

  • Incorporate a half-hour of reading time into the bedtime routine.  Set up a designated space and time when you are both reading.  When you’re reading, you’re modeling the enjoyment and value of this behavior for your child.  Remember to keep distractions to a minimum.  You’ll quickly find that reading time becomes something you both look forward to.
  • Take your child to the library.  If you do not have a library membership, look into getting one; oftentimes they are quite inexpensive or even free.  Make going to the library a weekly adventure.  The library provides access to a large selection of material with various mediums and topics.  Allow your child to select what they would like to read, and make sure you are browsing the collection as well.  Take advantage of any programs the library has for younger children, as it allows them to interact with their peers and makes going to the library fun.
  • Use periodic rewards to keep kids interested.  Build a chart using construction paper that can be posted in a visible spot.  Let your child put a sticker, or color a square, each time they complete a book. You can use various forms of rewards, depending on the age of your child.  Some suggestions are a special snack, a movie night, a little extra time at the playground, or maybe a friend over to play.
  • Have kids keep a reading journal.  In the journal, put a column for the date, the title and the amount of time spent reading.  At the end of each page, total the amount; you’ll both be amazed by the number of hours and books!  Children often would come to school to tell me they had read 10 hours this month, or finished 20 books.  It was a great accomplishment for them.
  • Let kids read a variety of formats and materials.  One myth that surrounds reading is that it must be a certain type of material to be considered reading.  I totally disagree with this!  Does it really matter if your child reads a catalogue, a magazine, or a novel?  I don’t think it does.  All formats can encourage them to read.  There is nothing that dictates that reading material must be the same for everyone (at home, that is!).  Encourage sampling a variety of formats, including magazines and audio books.

Reading skills infiltrate every part of life.  Encourage your children at a young age to be readers, and it will serve them their entire life.

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4 Easy Ways to Build Your Child’s Self Esteem With Your Words

“If you want your children to improve, let them overhear the nice things you say about them to others.” – Haim Ginott

Children rely on us to interpret the world:  “That’s HOT, Don’t touch!… Now we wash our hands…We can walk now that the light is green…..We always… We never…. This is how we do it…..The sky is blue….”

What happens when they hear“You’d lose your head if it wasn’t glued on…..That was a dumb thing to do….You drive me crazy ….Why can’t you….You never….You always…..”?

Or overhear: You won’t believe the day I’ve had with that kid….He’s so irresponsible….She never does her chores without me hounding her…..He can’t control himself….She has such a temper….

They believe it. Even if they don’t show it, even if they act like they don’t care, on some level our children believe everything we say.

This could demoralize every one of us at times. But it doesn’t have to. Instead, let’s use our children’s trust in what we say to empower them to become their best selves. Our words don’t have to be perfect. But what if we practiced these four habits?

1. Empower your child by seeing her best self.  Research shows that kids’ beliefs determine their behavior.  When you observe something positive about your child, tell her what you see. “You’re working hard on that…. Hey, I saw you got frustrated with your brother, but you were able to stop yourself from yelling….Wow, you read that whole book yourself!….I’ve noticed that you’re remembering to brush your teeth now without being reminded most of the time.”  Notice that these are specific observations about what your child is actually doing, rather than global pronouncements like “You’re smart” which aren’t provable, and which kids may argue with in their own minds.

2. Empower your child by problem-solving instead of labeling. If you’re offering your child guidance about something, stick to what’s happening right now and empower your child to solve it. “You always forget to …” makes him the problem, and programs him to keep forgetting.  “How do you think you can help yourself remember tomorrow?”  helps him move from being the problem to becoming the problem solver.  Just focus on how he can remember this time, and he’ll start to see that he’s a kid who can support himself to remember, more and more often. Comment especially on any progress in the “right direction,” even if it isn’t perfect.  We all need encouragement to keep plugging away towards a goal.

3. Empower your child by helping her keep “failure” in perspective:  Kids are creating beliefs about the world from every experience. When things don’t work out as they hoped, they often draw global conclusions and “I got all these words wrong” becomes “I’m just no good at spelling….I’m not a good student.” Help your child reframe to see that any given setback is temporary and she has some control over whether things will work out next time: “You’re really disappointed that you didn’t know these words….What could we do next week so that you know the words before the spelling test?” Give your child as much support as necessary to be successful — which is very different than doing it for them. Seeing that their actions have a big impact on their success helps kids try harder next time, instead of giving up on themselves.

4. Empower your child by letting him overhear you saying something positive about him to someone else. When you try to convince your child directly, he may resist what you’re saying. After all, he sees evidence to the contrary. But when he overhears you saying it to someone else, he begins to believe it might be true. “She was so helpful today…..I think he’s finding that focusing on his homework helps him enjoy school more….He and his sister are learning how to work things out….I just so enjoy being with her….More and more often, she does her chores without me even reminding her…..I am so blessed that I get to be his mother!”

Your child believes everything you say.  And acts on it.
What an opportunity!

Enough said.

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Parent to Parent: When Play Dates Go Wrong

Sometimes, your child has a friend over, and things don’t go well.

That happened at our house recently. For the first hour of the visit, I heard heated voices, and finally, my child reported that the friends just could not get along. We sat for a while, working to come up with something they could both enjoy (besides “baking and frosting cookies,” but nice try), and eventually we did, but it was still an afternoon marked by constant tussles and not much fun.

When I dropped the friend off, my fellow mother came out onto the driveway. “How’d it go?”

I had been thinking about that moment the whole ride over. Should I say something? What? I didn’t want to damage the children’s friendship, which I perceived as slightly battered but certainly not broken. And I didn’t want to damage our friendship, either.

When things go wrong between your child and another on your watch, is it your job to give the other parent the play-by-play? Silence is generally golden in this instance, Andrea Nair, psychotherapist and parenting educator, said. “I don’t talk to the other parent unless it was something I really couldn’t handle, or unless it’s at the point where I”m going to stop inviting the child over.” Even then, she said, if the relationship isn’t close, the best tactic may be just to say, “Our children aren’t really getting along any more.” These are conversations that can too easily go wrong, as parents get defensive.

If you do need to talk to the other parent, Ms. Nair suggests a neutral, problem-solving approach: “Here’s what happened today, here’s how I handled it. Is that O.K. with you?” Or: “Our kids seem to be having trouble together. Can we come up with something to try next time?”

In this case, I decided to put it out there — not because we hadn’t handled it, or even because it had been that bad, but because my friend had asked, on several other occasions, if I would please tell her if there were problems. Because I knew (after several years’ acquaintance) that she meant it. And because I have a child who has more than once been returned from a friend’s house by a fellow parent with a shell-shocked expression — and never asked over again. I’d rather know (and in truth, I already know, but specifics can help), and I suspected my friend felt the same way.

Fortunately, I was right. We had a good laugh over the whole thing, and parted with some good strategies on both sides. But I still had to take a deep breath before plunging into that conversation.

That’s probably a good thing. Sometimes it’s tempting for parents to hash over every incident between friends, and sometimes our motives are not so clear. If what you’re saying isn’t “I really don’t know what to do, and I’d like our children to stay friends,” then it might come across as “do you know what a jerk your child can be?” or worse, “why haven’t you taught your kid better?” And if you’re not really looking for solutions, that might really be what you’re saying. That’s not a conversation that is ever going to end well.

The best practice? Have these conversations only when it would be more difficult, in the long run, if you didn’t have them. When that’s the case, don’t avoid the conversation or the other family. It may be awkward at first, Ms. Nair said, “but you’ll probably recover.” If we try to keep a spirit of collaboration alive, we dramatically increase the odds that both friendships will survive as well.

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5 Ways You Can Teach Emotional Intelligence & Social Skills Every Day

“When they were fighting over ownership of something I would say ‘Jacob, say… ‘Excuse me Sarah, when you’re finished may I have a turn please?’’ and then wait for him to repeat my words. And then I would turn to Sarah and say ‘Sarah, say… ‘Sure, Jacob.’ I did this many, many, many times and then one day to my delight I was cooking dinner and overheard them use these exact words unprompted to resolve an issue… It was a proud moment : )” – Deanne

How do children learn social and emotional intelligence skills? Practice, practice, practice. Parents have to explain, model, and repeat themselves, over and over. It can seem endless. But there are ways to help children learn faster, by taking advantage of the problems that come up in every family on a daily basis. Next time there’s a problem, think of it as a teachable moment.

1. Talk about feelings. Research shows that when parents reflect with their children about what everyone in the family feels and needs, children become more sensitive and emotionally generous to others, as well as more likely to understand another’s point of view. This is true even when children are very young; when mothers talk to their toddlers about what the baby might be feeling, the toddler develops more empathy for the baby and is less jealous. Questions work better than lectures: “I wonder why she’s crying? What do you think she needs?”

2. Ask questions about feelings, needs, wants, and choices. Any time your child makes a poor choice, you can ask questions to help him learn from his experience. Be sure to keep the exchange low-key; no one can learn when they feel on the defensive. These kinds of questions are useful from toddlerhood (when your child grabs a toy from a friend) right through the teen years (when your kid gets drunk with his buddies). You don’t have to use all these questions. You’re just helping your child reflect on what drove him to make his choice, and how that choice worked out for him.

  • “How did you feel?”
  • “What did you want?”
  • “What did you do?”
  • “How did that work out?”
  • “Did you get what you wanted?”
  • “Did the other person get what he wanted?”
  • “How do you think he felt?”
  • “Would you do the same thing next time, or do you think you might try something different?”
  • “What do you think you might try?”
  • “What might happen then?”


Listen, nod, repeat to be sure you understand. Stay warm and non-judgmental. Keep your sense of humor, so when your child says “Next time I’ll smash him!” you can simply answer “Hmmm….what might happen then?” Try not to jump in to evaluate or lecture. Reflection is how children develop integrity and judgment. Good judgment often develops from bad experience.

3. Model “I” statements, which means expressing what you need, rather than judging or attacking someone else.  So, for instance, when your child says “Well, you’re stupid, too!” to her friend, you might teach her to say “I don’t like it when you call me names.”

One formula for “I” statements is to describe what you feel, what you need, and how you see the situation. You might follow that up with a request that the other person take a specific action. “I feel______ because I want (or need) _________and I observe that _________.” So, for instance,

“I feel worried because I want to get there on time and I see that you aren’t ready to leave yet….Please put on your shoes.”

4. Model pro-social behavior. The way the adults in the home relate to each other sets a powerful example for the children. Use that to your advantage by role-playing how you’d like your children to treat each other. For instance, you might say to your partner “There’s only one banana left, shall we split it?”  Or model how to set limits respectfully, by saying to your partner “Excuse me, I was using that. You can have it as soon as I’m done” with a smile and a hug.

5. Don’t expect to be perfect, and don’t expect your child to be. Once we let go of being right and aim for being love instead, we get a lot more perfect. Talk at dinner about a mistake you made today. Open up room for your child to admit mistakes and repair. Model apologizing and self-forgiveness. You’ll see everyone in your family becoming more emotionally generous.

Of course, you’ll still have to repeat yourself incessantly. But you’ll raise a human who can advocate for his or her own needs while respecting the needs of others. That’s the kind of person we need more of in the world.  And it’s worth a little repetition.

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11 Things to Remember When Your Child Gets Angry

When our kids get angry, it pushes buttons for most of us.  We’re not perfect, but we try to be loving parents.  Why is our child lashing out like this?

Many parents send an angry child to her room to “calm down.”  After all, what else can we do? We certainly can’t reason with her when she’s furious. It’s no time to teach lessons or ask for an apology. She needs to calm down.

If we send him to his room, he will indeed calm down, eventually. He’ll also have gotten a clear message that his anger is unacceptable, and that he’s on his own when it comes to managing his big scary feelings–we don’t know how to help him. He won’t have worked through whatever led to his anger. Instead, he’ll have stuffed the anger, so it’s no longer under conscious control, and will burst out again soon. No wonder so many of us develop anger-management issues, whether that means we yell at our kids, throw tantrums with our spouse, or overeat to avoid acknowledging angry feelings.

What can we do instead? We can help our kids learn to manage their anger responsibly. That begins with accepting anger — without acting on it.

This is one of the most critical tasks of childhood–learning to tolerate the wounds of everyday life without moving into reactive anger. People who can do this are able to resolve challenges more constructively. We call them emotionally intelligent.

Kids learn emotional intelligence when we teach them that all their feelings are okay, but it’s their job to control their actions. How?

When your child gets angry:

1. Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that there is no emergency.  Keep yourself from moving into fight or flight. This will help calm your child, and model emotional regulation.

2. Remind yourself that tantrums are nature’s way of helping small people let off steamTheir brains are still developing and they don’t yet have the neural pathways to control themselves as we do.  (And please note that we don’t always regulate our anger very well, even as adults!)

The best way to help children develop those neural pathways is to offer empathy, while they’re angry and at other times. It’s ok–good, actually–for your child to express those tangled, angry, hurt feelings. After we support kids through a tantrum, they feel closer to us and more trusting.  They feel less wound-up inside, so they can be more emotionally generous. They aren’t as rigid and demanding.

3. Remember that anger comes from our “fight, flight or freeze” response. That means it’s a defense against threat. Occasionally that threat is outside us, for instance, when a big brother knocks down a block tower. But usually it isn’t. We see threats outside us because we’re carrying around old stuffed emotions like hurt, fear or sadness. Whatever’s happening in the moment triggers those old feelings, and we go into fight mode to try to stuff them down again.

Losses and disappointments can feel like the end of the world to a child, and kids will do anything to fend off these intolerable feelings, so they cry and rage and lash out.  If they feel safe expressing their anger,  and we meet that anger with compassion, their anger will begin to melt.  That’s when they can access the more upsetting feelings underneath.

So while we accept our child’s anger, it isn’t the anger that is healing.  It’s the expression of the tears and fears beneath the anger that washes out the hurt and sadness and makes the anger vanish, because it’s no longer necessary as a defense.

4. Don’t talk except to empathize and reassure her that she’s safe. Don’t try to teach, reason or explain. When she’s awash in adrenaline and other fight or flight reactions is not the time to explain why she can’t have what she wants, or get her to admit that she actually loves her little sister. Just acknowledge how upset she is: “You are so upset about this…I’m sorry it’s so hard.”

5. Set whatever limits are necessary to keep everyone safe, while acknowledging the anger and staying compassionate. “You’re so mad! You can be as mad as you want, but hitting is not ok, no matter how upset you are.  You can stomp to show me how mad you are, but I won’t let you hit me.” 

6. Set limits on actions only, not on feelings.  The more compassionate you can be, the more likely your child will find his way to the tears and fears under the anger: “Oh, Sweetie, I’m sorry this is so hard…You’re saying I never understand you…that must feel so terrible and lonely.”  You don’t have to agree or argue. Just acknowledge his truth in the moment.Once he feels heard, his truth will shift.

7. Keep yourself safe.  Kids often benefit from pushing against us, so if you can tolerate it and stay compassionate, that’s fine to allow. But if your child is hitting you, move away. If she pursues you, hold her wrist and say “I don’t think I want that angry fist so close to me.  I see how angry you are.  You can hit the pillow I’m holding, or push against my hands, but I won’t let you hurt me.”  Kids don’t really want to hurt us — it scares them and makes them feel guilty. Most of the time, when we move into compassion and they feel heard, kids stop hitting us and start crying.

8. Stay as close as you can.  Your child needs an accepting witness who loves him even when he’s angry.  If you need to move away to stay safe, tell him “I won’t let you hurt me, so I’m moving back a bit, but I am right here. Whenever you’re ready for a hug, I’m right here.” If he yells at you to “Go away!” say “You’re telling me to go away, so I am moving back a step, ok?  I won’t leave you alone with these scary feelings, but I will move back.”

9. Don’t try to evaluate whether he’s over-reacting.  Of course he’s over-reacting! But remember that children experience daily hurts and fears that they can’t verbalize and that we don’t even notice.  They store them up and then look for an opportunity to “discharge” them.  So if your kid has a meltdown over the blue cup and you really can’t go right now to get the red cup out of the car, it’s ok to just lovingly welcome his meltdown. Most of the time, it wasn’t about the blue cup, or whatever he’s demanding. When children get whiny and impossible to please, they usually just need to cry.

10. Acknowledging her anger will help her calm down a bit. Then help her get under the anger by softening yourself.  If you can really feel compassion for this struggling young person, she’ll feel it and respond. Don’t analyze, just empathize.  “You really wanted that; I’m so sorry, Sweetie.” Once you recognize the feelings under the anger, she will probably pause and stop lashing out. You’ll see some vulnerability or even tears.  You can help her surface those feelings by focusing again–repeatedly–on the original trigger:  “I’m so sorry you can’t have the _____ you want, Sweetie. I’m sorry this is so hard.”  When our loving compassion meets her wound, that’s when she collapses into our arms for a good cry. And all those upset feelings evaporate.

11. AFTER he’s calmed down, you can talk. Don’t start by lecturing. Tell a story to help him put this big wave of emotion in context. “Those were some big feelings…everyone needs to cry sometimes…You wanted….I said no…You were very disappointed…You got so angry….Under the anger, you were so sad and disappointed….Thank you for showing me how you felt….”  If he just wants to change the subject, let him. You can circle back to bring closure later in the day or at bedtime, while you’re snuggling.

12. What about teaching? You don’t have to do as much as you think. Your child knows what she did was wrong. It was those big feelings that made her feel like it was an emergency, and necessary to break the rule. By helping her with the emotions, you’re making a repeat infraction less likely.

Wait until after the emotional closure, and then keep it simple. Recognize that part of her wants to make a better choice next time, and align with that part. Be sure to give her a chance to practice a better solution to her problem. “When we get really angry, like you were angry at your sister, we forget how much we love the other person. They look like they’re our enemy. Right? You were so very mad at her. We all get mad like that and when we are very mad, we feel like hitting. But if we do, later we’re sorry that we hurt someone. We wish we could have used our words. What could you have said or done, instead of hitting?”

Accepting emotions like this is the beginning of resilience. Gradually, your child will internalize the ability to weather disappointment, and learn that while he can’t always get what he wants, he can always get something better — someone who loves and accepts all of him, including the yucky parts like rage and disappointment. He’ll have learned that emotions aren’t dangerous–they can be tolerated without acting on them, and they pass. Gradually, he’ll learn to to verbalize his feelings even when he’s furious.

You’ll have taught him how to manage his emotions.  And you’ll have strengthened, rather than eroded, your bond with him.  All by taking a deep breath and staying compassionate in the face of rage.  Sounds saintly, I know, and you won’t always be able to pull it off.  But every time you do, you’ll be making a small miracle.

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Surviving Shots: 12 Tips for Parents and Kids

In our family, ’tis the season for flu shots; in every family, shots happen — at nearly every trip to the doctor until age 4, and at intervals thereafter. Rare is the child who looks forward to the appearance of the needle, but there are things parents can do to make the experience of getting a shot easier, and reduce a child’s anxiety before the fact, and in anticipation of the next shot.

Amy Baxter, a pediatric emergency physician, pain researcher and the inventor of Buzzy, a reusable, natural personal pain relief device, has dedicated the second half of her career to preventing and relieving needle fear in children. “For most kids, needle fear comes from a traumatic experience between ages 4 and 6,” she says. Some children develop anxiety around shots even earlier. “Children who fear needles grow up to be adults who don’t get flu shots or update their own vaccinations, are less likely to donate blood, and in really severe cases, refuse insulin or delay diagnosis because they’re afraid to go for regular checkups.”

Dr. Baxter suggested 12 things parents can do to help prevent a child from developing a fear of needles, or help a child who is already fearful.

1. Don’t threaten. “You’d be surprised how many parents come to the doctor’s office and say to their child, ‘if you’re not good, you’re going to get a shot!’”

2. Don’t lie. Don’t tell your child “it won’t hurt,” or assure her that you “love getting shots” or lie about whether a shot is in the offing before or during a pediatric visit.

3. Do be warm, but matter-of-fact. Listen to the concerns of your child, but don’t leave the door open for any possibility of not getting a shot. Say, “I know you’re afraid, but we can make this easier.”

4. Do make a plan if your child is already anxious. Talk with your child about what you’re going to do if she needs an injection. Consider topical anesthetic or bringing distraction materials. Practice taking deep breaths.

5. Do use distractions. Counting and visual activities are the most effective. Look for phone or tablet games where children need to move or find things. Count ceiling tiles, or how many letters there are in a sentence.

6. Do offer sweets. For infants and younger children in particular, nursing or drinking cold apple juice right when they get the shot stimulates oral distraction. Older children can have something they don’t usually have as a treat during the injection.

7. Do try a topical anesthetic. Apply, then put Glad Press ‘n Seal over the medication — it really sticks to skin.
You can also give ibuprofen an hour before the visit.

8. Do sit up. When young children are sitting on a parent’s lap, they show less distress over a shot than when they’re held down and lying flat. A good position for an anxious child is straddling a parent’s lap in a hug.

9. Do space out shots if that makes sense for your child. The more successful shots, the less afraid they’ll be later. For some children it makes sense to do shots one at a time.

10. Do invite your child’s participation. Did the topical anesthetic or the distraction help? What could you do next time?

11. Do ask about shot order. For young children, distress is less if they get the least painful shot first. For adolescents, the more painful shot should come first.

12. Finally, do speak up. Advocate for your children, Dr. Baxter says. Ask for time to help your child, ask to hold or nurse your child. Many pediatric offices just want to get the shots done as fast as possible, but it’s important that children have a positive experience now, so that they’re more likely to have a good health care experience for the rest of their lives.

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The Mechanics of Homework

The homework wars among education wonks, teachers and parents don’t, as my friend and colleague Bruce Feiler writes in “The Homework Squabbles,” his This Life column for Sunday Styles, matter much on the scale at which most families are dealing with homework. To us, the question of how valuable homework is has to be set aside daily in the name of the backpacks, folders, binders and worksheets full of the stuff that our children actually bring home. And it’s worth noting that this idea of “too much homework” as a national problem is a myth. Instead, homework is something of an ironic twist in the American inequality story, with the more pressing problem being with the children who have too little rather than those who have too much.

But for the privileged families to whom homework unquestionably does not feel like a privilege (and mine is one of them), the mechanics of how to get the homework done loom large. Especially at this time of year, as parents and students are getting back into the groove of homework, questions of when and how and where can make us feel like we’re once again reinventing the homework wheel. That’s true at my house. In spite of a long-standing hands-off approach, and an attempt to set timers to focus my younger children on staying on task while limiting the time homework takes, homework is really wreaking havoc on our afternoons and evenings.

Bruce pulled together advice from experts and from parents whose experience makes them expert on everything from the when and where of homework to how involved a parent should be. How is the self-reliance we all hope our children will achieve best encouraged? What kind of help motivates, and what kind is too much? Is there any defense for the beloved teenage (and adult) habit of multitasking? Their answers are worth reading.

In spite of our timers (which we’re using more when necessary than as a habit, with two children relying more on them than others), and in spite of the fact that at the moment, homework is feeling like an instrument of torture designed to destroy my relationship with my two younger children, homework mechanics at our house haven’t changed much this year, and they won’t. It’s done in the kitchen unless you’d prefer to go elsewhere, or unless your method of objecting to the homework you’ve been given is detrimental to the ability of others to do theirs. Need help? I help sound out spelling on difficult words, but your teacher doesn’t want to know what I’ve learned through research about horse hooves. Frustrated with how much there is? I sing one song again and again in many keys: If you put the time into doing the homework that you’ve put into complaining about it, you’d be done by now. Just put one foot in front of the other, my friend.

Right now, two weeks in, it feels like I’ll be repeating myself all year. Like we’ll never pass another evening without a child strewn across the floor of the kitchen, screaming “but it’s too hard” or somehow managing to spend 90 minutes copying 20 spelling words 3 times each. Like every night, the homework, timers or no, will drag on past dinner, past soccer practice, toward bedtime and beyond.

But I’m relying on the curative powers of time and habit to work their magic. I know that what takes over an hour now will take far less time once my children stop spinning their pencils and get down to it. I know that once she knows it isn’t going to help, the child will get up off the floor and get it done. And I know that the homework habit, timers or no, takes time to develop.

We go through this every September. Some things change, some thing stay the same. The second grader who could gaze into space for hours at our house turned into the fifth grader who could buckle down, but couldn’t plan, who eventually turned into the eighth grader who knows that if it’s due next week, now’s the time to start, even if he doesn’t always pull it off. He still has plenty of room to improve, but he will. His siblings, I hope, will follow, but it doesn’t have to happen — it isn’t going to happen — today, or even this week.

What will happen is that the mechanics, like everything else, will evolve along with the children and the year. Some nights homework will progress in an orderly fashion in the kitchen; other nights someone will be stuck doing it in the lobby of a hockey rink. Some projects will happen in a timely way, others will be left until the last minute. Some homework will be a child’s best work. Some won’t be done at all.

When things go wrong‚ and they will, I’ll fall back on this: Learning to deal with your mistakes and roll with the things you can’t control is an important lesson. The one thing I know about homework at our house is that it’s pretty much guaranteed to offer my kids the opportunity to learn it.

Note: The original post stated that the author’s children were capable of spending 90 minutes copying 20 spelling words 30 times each. They have never been assigned so much; they are asked to copy the words 3 times each.

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Stop telling your kids to be fair. You’re making them more selfish.

“Make sure you play fairly,” parents often say to their kids. In fact, children do not need encouragement to be fair. It is a natural feature of human social life, which emerges in childhood. When given the opportunity to share sweets equally, young children tend to behave selfishly but, by about eight years old, most prefer to distribute resources to avoid inequalities, at least among members of their own social group.

Biologists are surprised by this tendency to behave fairly. The theory of evolution by natural selection predicts that individuals should behave in ways to maximize their inclusive fitness. So behaviors are only selected, and hence evolve, if they ensure the survival and reproduction of the actor or kin who contains copies of the actor’s genes. However, the behavior displayed by children seems to be at a detriment to themselves, especially when those who benefit from their selfless behavior are not the children’s kin.

A child’s sense of fairness, egalitarianism, or aversion to inequality can actually be hampered by instruction to “be fair” and rewarding of this behavior. That is because what is the child’s intrinsic motivation, becomes a need to follow externally imposed rules. And, as we all know, following rules we believe in is far easier than following rules that are imposed upon us, despite attendant punishments for not doing so.

Humans are proactively pro-social. We are often motivated to help others without those others signaling their need, such as begging, or displaying signs of need, such as crying.

As cultural practices are not responsible for children developing their initial pro-social tendencies, it is thought that a sense of fairness must have been under strong positive selection during human evolution.

In a new review published in the journal Science, Sarah Brosnan of Georgia State University and Frans de Waal of Emory University explore this topic by trying to explain how our response to fairness, and unfairness, evolved. Their review is based on a large number of studies with non-human animals regarding their responses to receiving more or less (inequity), rather than the same (equity), reward as others for undertaking the same task.

Species of primates, dogs, birds and fish have been studied. The overall results indicate that responses to disadvantageous inequity, say, protesting when another receives more banana pieces than you for pulling the same rope, are strongest in species that co-operate with others outside of mating and kinship bonds. This includes capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees and the ancestors of dogs. In other words, animals, including humans, that cooperate with non-kin have evolved sensitivity to detrimental unfairness so that they can avoid being taken advantage of.

However, what is less common in the animal kingdom, is sensitivity to advantageous inequity, or protest when you receive more reward than another for the same task. Such inequity aversion, at a cost to oneself, has only been recorded in humans and chimpanzees.

Brosnan and de Waal propose that the motivation to seek equal rewards, despite disadvantaging oneself, is to prevent dissatisfaction of the co-operative partner and avoid any negative outcomes that may follow. The main negative outcomes are the likelihood of conflict and loss of future advantageous co-operation with the partner.

Also, one’s reputation is tainted, reducing the chances of forming future beneficial partnerships. When we humans “play fair” we are doing so, according to Brosnan and de Waal, not due to a motivation for “equality for its own sake but for the sake of continued cooperation”.

Humans have enlarged brains, which enhance our ability to understand the benefits of self-control in dividing resources. We also have language, which allows for enhanced reputation building. Because responsiveness to advantageous inequity is only seen in humans and chimpanzees, Brosnan and de Waal hypothesise that its evolution, since the split from other primates, was the starting point for the eventual development of the advanced sense of fairness displayed by humans.

The many heroic and selfless actions of individual humans, for example rescuing strangers in mortal danger and money or blood donation, are inspiring and admirable. Yet, however distasteful to contemplate, it is likely that these individuals gain in terms of their reputation and future cooperation from others, known as indirect reciprocity. If extreme prosociality is a “costly signal” indicating one’s worth to future mates, it makes sense that highly visible individuals, such as celebrities, may feel the most pressure to act charitably.

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