Thursday, September 6, 2007

Thought: Learning How to Make Decisions is Like Learning a Language

Learning how to think about choices and make decisions is also a lot like learning to play a musical instrument, like learning how to do woodworking or how to ride a bicycle. The common connection with all of these is that we don't learn them primarily by having someone lecture us or tell us about them. We learn decision making skills by actually doing the messy work of making decisions...and then by enjoying, or coping with the results.

Mark Twain wisely said, "Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions."

It can be hard for us to let our kids have experiences that result from us supporting their developmentally appropriate decision making. We badly want our kids to do well. This can be a very tough world. We have tons more experience than our kids do. It is hard not to want to jump in and do the decision making for them so we can ensure that it gets done right.

The trick is to find things that our kids can handle making decisions about on their own and can handle living with the consequences of. We, of course, can't in good conscience give kids decisions about whether or not to go to school or whether to have vegetables or Skittles as a side dish. An appropriate decision for a four year old might be, "Would you like to wear your coat or carry it?" For a teen it could be "Would it better for you to have your chores done by Wednesday night or by Friday night each week? For all kids above four years old, it can be about how they spend their weekly allowance. Allowance is a wonderful teacher about decision making. You can see how this concept overlaps nicely with shared control.

Another important piece is how we respond when they've gotten themselves into a problem with a decision they've made. Here we can link back to a previous idea. This is a great time for us to show some empathy. The bigger the problem, the more important that our empathy has some depth. A big help here is reminding ourselves that even though the better decision looked like a no-brainer to us, our kids have at least a couple decades less of life experience. Also they are different people with their own profiles of strengths and challenges. So things that might have been easy for us to decide when we were our kids' age might be tougher for them.

Give it a try. Make sure to begin with choices that are going to be easier for you to let your child live with. If we give them the power to make the decision, and then swoop in and rescue them, we send a powerful message that we don't believe that they are capable. And these unstated messages have a way of being far more persuasive than the ones we say directly. The good news is that whenever we are able to provide empathy and support to help them cope with the results of their decision, we send an equally powerful message that they are the sort of kids who can handle making decisions and who can learn from their mistakes. That is one of the irreplaceable gifts that we can give to our kids.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Apple Updates iPod Line

Okay, now this post definitely gets filed under "miscellany", but I couldn't resist. It appears that the iconic classic white iPod has now gone the way of the dinosaurs. As one blog suggested, it seems appropriate to bow our heads for just a moment.

There is a lot for iPod fans to be happy about today. I'm not a huge gadget person across the board, though my wife might argue with me on this, but I do have to say that I have a weakness for Apple products. Today Steve Jobs did one of his over-hyped press conferences. I was impressed with the number of changes to the iPod line that some of the apple gossip sites had predicted that actually became reality today.

The basic changes are the Shuffle has a bunch of new colors. No changes in memory. The Nano has a new format for viewing cover art and can now play video. To make the viewing feasible the shape of the Nano has changed to shorter and wider with a larger 2" screen. It also has increased pixilation so the screen is not only larger, but more vivid than the one on the previous Nano. It is available in 4 and 8 GB sizes. The Nano as well as the larger iPod, now called the "iPod classic", both have a split screen feature now that previews cover art on the right side of the screen as you navigate the familiar menu on the left. Both also now can be navigated via "cover flow", which uses animated cover art that looks like flipping through an old juke box. Most iTunes users will already be familiar with the look of Cover Flow. The iPod classic is now encased in aluminum and is available in 80 and a whopping 160 G sizes.

Finally one of the bigger rumors fulfilled is the "iPod touch", which turns out to be essentially an iPhone without the phone service (or contract). It is very close to the same dimensions as the iPhone. The iPod touch comes with WiFi that allows users to download music as they walk around, so long as they're within range of a hot spot, rather than needing to be at the computer. Apple has started a partnership with Starbucks to make those hot spots more predictable. iPod touch users will be able to instantly download any music they hear at Starbucks with the press of a touchscreen button (this can also be done with laptops). iPod touch also has web browsing capability. The storage is only at 8 and 16 GB, which some are saying is too small for the price, and is not a good match for the beautiful wide screen and touchscreen experience. Presumably users would want to use the widescreen for video, but the memory won't allow for much storage. I've heard speculation, which seems plausible, that Jobs will announce larger storage sizes for the iPod touch just prior to Christmas. The touchscreen interface truly is remarkable. If you haven't had a chance yet, it is worth stopping by the Apple store to experience it even if you're not remotely interested in buying one.

On a related note Apple dropped the price of the 8 GB iPhone to $399, $200 lower than it debuted, and discontinued the 4 GB model. I will leave the more detailed analysis to the folks at Macworld and other gadget sites. Here is the lineup at Apple. I can't be held responsible for any impulse purchases you might make. Please weigh in on the the poll over to the right.

First Day of School

Today's the day. New sneakers, more carefully done hair than usual, new supplies...though we can't seem to locate the new lunchbox.

We have a tradition of taking a picture in the front yard every first day of school. A friend of ours takes one in the exact same spot every year, just like her parents did when she was a girl. It is really neat looking through the photo album from when the mother was a girl. Since she's always standing next to the same front gate you can see the changes in height and in her face from year to year from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Family rituals like that are a nice way to mark certain times as special, and to mark time as we move through life. Like our unique ways of celebrating birthdays and holidays, they can be a nice source of connection and meaning. Anything regular like a family ritual also is helpful for those kids who tend to feel a bit more anxiety when starting school. The familiarity of the ritual can be grounding for them.

I like the practice, which I don't recall happening as a kid, of starting the first week midweek, so the transition is a bit less traumatic. Three days and you're through your first week. Good luck to everyone with the the first day. Here's to a new year with new opportunities.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Quote: On Shared Control

"Control is a basic human need. We can either proactively share control on our terms, or we can force the child to take control from us on their terms."

Jim Fay

We'll be talking a lot about this one. Shared control is one of four central principles of Love and Logic. I don't always agree with the Love and Logic folks on each particular intervention that they might recommend for a given situation, but I do have to say that their four central principles, after more than well over a decade using them with children, hold up better, and more broadly than any others I've come across. It also turns out that they can be implemented in lots of different ways, which means that I'm not stuck with offering "Off the Rack" parenting advice. Instead, using the four principles along with other parts of my training, I am able to help parents tailor an approach that fits their child's temperament, each parent's temperament and personality, and the family's unique values, strengths and challenges.

Shared control often takes the form of using enforceable statements or choices within limits, which we'll cover on another occasion. Kids who feel like they have a reasonable amount of control tend to spend a lot less time fighting adults for control. Remember we're talking here about choices that affect the kids, not the adults. We don't give a kid the option to throw a big fit right in the middle of a family gathering, but we might give him choices about "Would it be better for you to get calmed down so you can be here with us, or would it better for you to have a bit of time on your own in your room?" Master this principle and you'll experience a nice shift in your ability to positively influence your kids.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Back to School, Temperament and Emotion Coaching

After today, only one day of summer left for my daughter. Hard to believe it's already slipped by. New beginnings are always a bit of a challenge for her, as they were for me. I've done much better as an adult with work that fluctuates according to the seasons than I did with an on/off schedule like school was. So for me seeing what going back to school is like for Hannah isn't all that big a jump empathy wise. Any of us with two kids, or who've closely observed kids, understands what the research has to say. Children are very different from one another from day one on at least nine different measures of how they react to stimuli and how they regulate their emotions (before learning or parenting has a chance to affect the measures). When our kids have temperaments profiles that are quite a bit different from ours, it can take a bit more work to see things from their perspective.

Having someone "get" who we are and what we are experiencing is one of the most important things to us in life. If we are surrounded by people who "get" us, our lives tend to be much happier. We also need at least one supportive relationship in our history in order for us to be relatively psychologically healthy.

It can be a good exercise to think back to a time when we went through something emotionally difficult as a child where our parents or caregivers weren't able to give us the empathy that would have been helpful. Can you remember what that was like? Experiencing a difficult emotion and feeling like you were on your own with it? What could the adult in your life have done or said that might have been helpful? All of us had those experiences where the adult was unable to be as helpful as we could have used. Fortunately, children don't need perfect parenting to do well in life. It is about what the pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnecott called good enough parenting. Our children don't need a completely supportive environment to turn out okay, just enough of one.

On the practical side, what we can do if our child expresses some reservation about school is 1) Listen, 2) Clarify and 3) Run by them your understanding of their experience. Then repeat steps one and two until they feel like you've more or less got it. The easy mistake for us to make is to respond to our children's reservations or distress by giving advice right off the bat. "You don't need to worry. After the first couple days you'll be used to your new teacher." Even if the advice is good advice, if our kids don't sense that we understand how they're feeling, the advice can feel dismissive.

If you've ever had a friend do this to you, you know that's usually not what we hunger for when we're having a hard time with something in life. If you do run through those three steps with your child though, when you do have any practical suggestions for how they might cope, they will be much more able to hear the suggestions and maybe even use a couple of them. What it boils down to often is our being able to be with them in their distress for a moment. See Our Most Important Job post a couple of posts back about this being one of our central challenges as parents.

Remember we don't always need to get this right, but it is worth shooting for an increase in how often we can meet our kids emotionally this way. It is one way to keep the connection open with them that at times can their lifeline.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Pause and Breathe

Pausing for just a bit and combining that pause with a slow, deep breath can make all the difference. If home life is hectic you can try pulling over a block or two before your house, turning off the ignition and just taking a moment for yourself. Just a few slow deep breaths can lower your blood pressure, give you a sense of calm, and smooth the transition from work to home. John Kabat-Zinn is a Professor of Medicine Emeritis at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of clinic that focuses on equipping patients with skills to improve their ability to heal from, prevent and cope with medical conditions ranging from psoriasis to cancer. He suggests that we use anytime we put the keys into the ignition as a cue to pause and breathe. Richard Carlson, PhD, the author of the Don't Sweat the Small Stuff series of books, suggests that we do this for a few minutes for every hour that we work. He makes a convincing case that when we cut down the harried pace and take the time to pause and breathe that our productivity as well as the quality of our work is likely to increase.

As someone who works regularly with parents, I notice that simply pausing before responding to something that our children do or say decreases problematic interactions and increases parent effectiveness. In conversation in our culture we tend to rush in to have our say, often thinking about our response as we try to listen. I'm familiar with this one because I can have a tendency to jump in too quickly. Experiment with pausing and taking a breath after the person you're talking with finishes their thought.

For more information on breathing to reduce stress (and on mindfulness) you might begin with one of Richard Carlson's books from hisDon't Sweat the Small Stuff series. To explore the link of breathing and mindfulness with medicine and health, John Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living can be a nice place to start. In...and...out. Slow and easy. Once you've experimented with that and maybe put up a couple of post its to remind yourself to use these skills (bathroom mirrors, closet door jamb, on the fridge), you can check out Pause and Breathe part II

Demotivation Posters has a whole series of these "Demotivational" posters. If you've ever had the feeling that your boss hung one of the "legit" versions of this sort of motivational poster in your office to squeeze extra work out of you, you'll likely enjoy these. If you find this one funny, check out their site. They have a whole series. Check out their Pessimist's Coffee Mug while you're there. You can probably already guess what it says. Once you've seen a couple of these posters you'll probably never be able to see a "legit" one of these again without laughing inside.