Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Becoming Obsolete, Part II

Strategies for helping your child be independent and resourceful, and to maximize his ability to learn and to think critically.

The ability to learn and to think is grounded in movement.  As a baby begins to move through, and to explore, his environment, he develops his understanding of the world based on his physical relationship to everything and everyone around him.  Around the age of six, this understanding of the physical world deepens into reasoning and abstract thought.

In order to think critically and logically and to be available for learning, a child must have an organized body with a stable, reliable relationship with gravity, a mature, organized nervous system that allows the child to observe and respond to his world in a calm, flexible, reasoned, manner, and an organized brain that takes in and processes sensory information accurately.  The adults can help by making sure that he gets enough exercise and fresh air, sleeps well, eats a nutritious diet, and is accustomed to solving problems.

The child also must have a strong grounding in the basics of math, grammar, penmanship, and all of those other boring, old fashioned, outmoded necessities that modern education has decided to dispense with, having deemed them useless for the 21st century.  I vehemently disagree with discarding the basics.  They constitute the underpinnings of education, and without them, the acquisition of knowledge, and the ability to reason and think critically and logically, is compromised.

Think of learning to play an instrument.  To be able to make the most beautiful music, you have to spend a long time preparing.  You have to learn to sit and hold your body and instrument just so; you must practice hours and hours and hours of scales and fingering exercises with a metronome; learn to read and play musical notation fluently; follow time and key signatures; and translate the composers' instructions, which are traditionally in Italian. Only then will you be have the skills to get the music "up and off the notes."  If these technical abilities are not effortlessly in place when you play, you won't be able to express your musical ideas.  You will still be struggling with the mechanics.

Being a successful scholar requires the same preparation of the mind and the body to think, solve problems, and be creative.  To write the most elegant, articulate, persuasive essays and to be able to successfully tackle the most complex math problems, you have to have a strong, sturdy, healthy body to support the workings of your brain, your eyes, and your hands.  You have to have mastered and internalized the foundational rules of grammar, spelling, handwriting, and arithmetic so that they are securely  organizing and supporting your thought processes.  Without them, you can't easily solve problems, and you can't really fully formulate or express your ideas.

In order to make the most of his education and to function within both the academic world and the world outside, the child must have the basic rules of arithmetic solidly internalized and instantly accessible to him.  He should know his multiplication tables backwards and forwards, be able to add and subtract small numbers without a pencil and paper, do long division, add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions, understand decimals, and be able to calculate percentages.  He should know how many feet are in a mile and how many ounces are in a quart.  Ideally the child should be as comfortable with metric measurements as well as Imperial.

If the child's school does not drill in the basics, like addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, fractions, decimals, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and handwriting, you'll either have to do it yourself or get the PTA to insist that the curriculum be revamped.  These skills are vitally important, no matter what the current educational philosophy dictates, and don't let anyone tell you anything different.  They discipline and organize the mind. They arm the child with the principles and rules he needs to rely on for knowing how to spell, write grammatically correct sentences, and for being sure that his numbers will always do what he tells them to do.

  The rules for grammar, spelling, punctuation and arithmetical computation are the building blocks for learning. If the child does not have the basics, combined with legible, rapid penmanship, {which also has its own rules that should be learned} solidly in place, his ability to understand higher level concepts, think critically, manipulate numbers reliably, and to fully express his ideas in writing will be severely diminished.  Disciplined, organized, logical work can only come from a disciplined, organized, logically trained mind.

There are so many articles flying around the web these days about handwriting.  Some people advocate for it to be dropped  completely from the educational curriculum and others insist that it still matters.

I am solidly in the latter camp.  I still use handwriting every single day of my life, and most people do too.  Today, for instance, I had half a dozen telephone conversations and took notes while I spoke during all of them, jotting down addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, license numbers, etc.  

Handwriting is essential to humans who live in a civilized world.  A child who cannot write down his thoughts, organize his work on the page, or express himself fluently in writing is at a serious disadvantage at school.  Handwriting trains the brain and is essential to developing hand-eye coordination.  Make sure your child has legible handwriting.  If your school does not teach it, buy the materials to do it at home, or hire a handwriting specialist to help you. 

Read to your child regularly.

See that your child knows how to use the library.

Teach your child how to tie his shoes and to tell time on an analog clock.

Homework:  frankly, I'm not a fan of homework.  From what I see at the clinic, there is far too much of it, and a lot of it is just busywork.  I was thrilled to hear that a very prestigious, very rigorous, very expensive prep school in New York had made it a policy to reduce homework for the lower grades.  

If your child has difficulty focusing, make sure that his homework time is preceded by vigorous exercise outdoors, a big drink of water, and a protein rich snack.  Break up the time into small, manageable segments and give him a quick movement break in between each one. 

 If your child has a hard time doing his homework by himself, by all means have him sit at the kitchen table and work while you are cooking dinner.  

More detailed suggestions about structuring homework here.

Not academic, but worthwhile:

Help your child find a hobby or pastime that involves solving problems, like woodworking, knitting, crochet, sewing, cooking, putting together wooden models, etc.

Send the child to camp in the summer where he will learn outdoor survival skills like swimming, hiking, building a fire, cooking over an open flame,  paddling a kayak or a canoe, archery,  setting up and tearing down a tent, tying knots, and foraging.

Give your child plenty of opportunities to prove to himself that he is smart, strong, flexible, and capable, by challenging him, keeping him active, providing him with problems to solve, not automatically removing every obstacle from his path, giving him responsibilities, and setting high standards.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to Achieve Planned Obsolesence

My job as a therapist  and a teacher is to make myself obsolete, and so is a parent's.  We know we have succeeded when those who have depended on us for guidance, support, and help no longer need us, because we have provided them with the tools to be able to manage without us.

If you are a habitual reader of  advice columns, you have undoubtedly come across the same letter over and over again: aging parents whose children are still dependent on them long after they should have left the nest, draining them of their money, energy, and privacy. When I read those letters, I always wonder what the parents did to make their children so helpless. I suppose it's some combination of  overprotecting them and neglecting them.

It's a bittersweet reality that parents should start planning, from the moment the child is born, for the day that their child no longer needs them, and doing their best to make sure that it comes.

In order to survive and thrive in the world as a mature, responsible adult, a child has to develop sufficient inner resources to be able to handle himself at school and in the workplace, nurture his relationships, manage his money, and make sound choices about what he chooses to eat and drink and how he spends his leisure time.  This requires the adults to perform a constant balancing act between wanting to protect their child from pain, disappointment, and failure, and allowing the child to learn from his experience.

Some suggestions for helping a child become strong, self sufficient, and resilient:

Minimize the use of the stroller and let the child walk, or carry him on your hip.  Strollers promote passivity and isolation, and don't allow the child to develop trunk stability, dynamic balance, and head righting.  These are the essential physical underpinnings for vision, attention and learning.  Carrying a child on your hip allows you to talk to him while you carry him.  These conversations are crucial for the development of receptive and expressive language and social interaction skills. Put away your cell phone when you are with him and give him your undivided attention.

Never imprison a child in a playpen.  Playpens prevent children from developing and maturing their nervous systems and their intellects through movement and exploration.  Movement is the means by which a child develops his understanding about the world.  If a child is prevented from moving, he is also prevented from developing his ability to learn.

Always assume that your child is operating from a position of strength.  I can't tell you how many times I have started working with a child whom I privately thought was so impaired that I couldn't be of much assistance, only to be proven, yet again, that when it comes to young humans and their remarkable capacity for growth and change, no one can predict a thing.  Children possess resilience, intelligence, and energy in limitless abundance.  They are programmed in their DNA to achieve, and most of them will do whatever it takes, as long as they are not prevented from doing so, to drive their development forward.  When the adults work from this understanding, miracles happen.  Truly, there is nothing more motivating to a child than to be in the presence of a respected adult who sees greatness in him and demands it of him.

{If your child seems poorly motivated, he might benefit from occupational therapy  -- sensory integration therapists are specially trained to tap into a child's inner drive.}

Teach your child how to tolerate frustration.  Try not to step in every time a child gets frustrated or upset when he can't do something or can't manage his emotions.  Intervene only when absolutely necessary.  Be empathic and supportive, but encourage the child to solve his own problems. Being able self regulate and to struggle and stick with difficult tasks until they are mastered are essential life skills.   Without them, your child's chances of succeeding at school and work, and in his relationships, are compromised.  The most successful people are the ones whose temperaments allow them stay cool under pressure and to welcome a challenge.

Let your child fail.  This is hard, but necessary.  We all have to learn to cope with failure and to understand the limits of our abilities.  The late novelist Laurie Colwin wrote that in order to know true rapture, one must first earn it by having also experienced its opposite.  Failure and disappointment is an inevitable part of life. The child should know how to cope with it, and then be able to move on and look forward to, and appreciate, better times.

Don't micromanage the child's social interactions.  If you constantly intervene before he has a chance to work things out for himself, he won't be able to advocate for himself when you're not around.  Let children argue, lose their tempers with each other, call each other names, fight over toys, and vie with each other for dominance.  Stay out of it unless they ask you to mediate, and then help them come to consensus. Otherwise, restrain yourself from interfering unless you see that someone is about to get hurt or there is obvious bullying.

 Don't enable irresponsible behavior.  If your child doesn't do his homework, or forgets his lunch or his schoolbooks, let him sweat it out.  He'll have to deal with the consequences and will know better next time.

 Let him handle his own problems at school. Unless your child is being bullied or has an obviously incompetent teacher, or specifically asks for your help, let him manage his own affairs.  If he was assigned a bad grade, chances are he deserved it.  Instead of harassing his teacher to change his grade, help him come up with strategies to improve his performance.

Don't remove every obstacle from his path.  If you do, he won't be able to manage on his own. The more you can teach a child how to handle adversity, the stronger, more resilient, and better equipped he will be to face life's inevitable stumbling blocks.

Strictly limit recreational screen time.  A couple of hours on the weekend for TV and computer use is plenty.   Children should not be spending much time in front of screens.   Reading, making crafts, helping prepare meals and doing chores, playing games that promote eye hand coordination and improve social interaction skills, or riding a bicycle and playing outside with friends, are infinitely preferable to passively staring at a television or computer.

Have dinner together as a family. Ask the child about his day, and guide him to his own solutions for issues that come up at school and in his social life.

Assign chores and responsibilities so that your child understands about work, running a household, and what it means to have others depend on his contribution.

Teach your child how to manage his money.   It's never too early to learn to save, budget, and to think of others who are less fortunate.

Teach your child how to cook.  What better life skill could a young adult have than to be able to prepare healthy food for himself?  And who doesn't love a good cook?  This is an especially good strategy for picky eaters, who are more likely to eat food that they have helped prepare.

Next week I will outline some strategies and suggestions for academic achievement.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Therapist

In her book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua outlined her methods for raising her two daughters, and they were extreme.  She never allowed them to watch television or go on sleepovers or playdates, drilled them incessantly on their academics, forced them to spend hours and hours practicing their musical instruments, locked them outside in the middle of winter for disobeying her, rejected handmade gifts that didn't  show sufficient effort, and threatened to break or give away their toys when they couldn't master their music lessons.

She wrote the book in hindsight, not to show the world how much better  Chinese methods of child rearing work in comparison to ours in the West, but as an apology to her children.

  One of her daughters knuckled under, became a concert level pianist, and was accepted to Harvard.  The other rebelled furiously at every step, eventually forcing Chua to reexamine her methods.

Much of what she recounts is disturbing; she really was over the top, and she knows it.  But here's where I think Chua gets it much, much righter than many of us do:  she starts from the assumption that her children are strong, smart, capable and resilient, and so expects and demands nothing less than their absolute best effort, always.  And they usually deliver.  In the end, her two daughters both grow up to be disciplined, intelligent, highly accomplished, articulate, and successful.

I once met an Aikido teacher from Australia who told me about an ongoing conflict at the martial arts school where he taught.  One of the other teachers was a former ballerina who had a different style than his.  She made it a point of pride to flip and throw her students very, very gently and never to hurt them or leave a mark.  He, on the other hand, sparred strongly, without apology.  

The ballerina scolded him that his students were getting bruised in his classes, but he didn't see that as a problem.  He knew that that his boys, who loved to feel and appear tough, would point to their black and blue marks proudly and brag to everyone who would listen, "I got this in Aikido!"

 I have no doubt that this man was a very popular and sought after teacher.  By not coddling or babying his students, he was giving them the message that they were tough, skilled martial artists, able to compete with him at his level.  

Who were your favorite teachers in school?  I had a few I adored.  They expected us to be bold, smart, persistent, and creative, forced us to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and held us to extremely high standards. They saw only the best in us, and by getting us to believe that we were capable of great things, got us to see it, too.

How do you want the world to view you?  As someone who is strong, resourceful, and resilient, or someone who needs pity and protection?

We want to think of ourselves, and to be thought of by others, as strong and capable, able to handle with ease and grace whatever life sends our way.

Being able to cope well with adversity is a critical life skill.  In order for a child to be able to navigate his life successfully,  he needs to have the opportunity to develop his strengths and learn to rely on himself along the way.

Little lessons learned early add up to big problems avoided later on.  When parents continually intervene between their child and the world, give in to the child's every whim, constantly make the child the center of attention, jump in and solve his problems for him, and never teach  the child how to cope with frustration, loss, and disappointment, when it's time for him to manage on his own, he will have no experiences or inner resources from which he can draw.

I recently watched a video of one of my teachers, Sheila Frick, treating a little boy with neurological delays.  She wanted to trigger his protective extension responses, which were absent, so she rocked him forward and back over a large ball. He hit his head on the mat over and over until he finally figured out that if he didn't want to get hurt, he'd better get his arms out in front of him.  One of the students in the class was horrified at her methods.  Sheila explained that it was far better  for him to bump his head with her and learn how to protect himself in the controlled atmosphere of the sensory gym than have a big fall on the playground later on and get a head injury.

Doesn't this make total sense?  This could be applied to life in general.  Learn how to cope early with the small things, and be prepared later on when you are inevitably faced with the big ones.

I worry about what we are teaching our children {and how we are shortchanging them} when we passively stroll and carry them everywhere instead of expecting them to walk, let them watch hours and hours of badly written television every day, give them toys that don't encourage any creativity or imagination, dumb down their literature, stop requiring them to learn cursive handwriting, don't insist that they write legibly or learn the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling,  give them calculators instead of drilling them in the basics of arithmetic, inflate their grades, pad them up with protective equipment for every outdoor activity, remove the merry go rounds, teeter totters, and monkey bars from the playground, eliminate recess and physical education, dismiss the teaching of art, music, and theater in schools as a frill, give them shoes with velcro closures instead of teaching them to tie their laces, make all their food "fun" {while draining it of any nutrition}  don't insist on good manners and respect for elders, don't set clear limits or impose consequences for bad behavior, ignore them while we are absorbed in our Ipads and cell phones, and tell every child in the entire soccer league that they are all the winner.

I see children who can't struggle with the simplest obstacle without giving up almost instantly.  They immediately look to someone else to solve their problems.  They can't advocate for themselves, or resolve conflicts, because they have been so passive and so coddled and protected their whole lives that they have never learned how to rely on or assert themselves.   Many of my little acquaintances have no empathy for others, because no one has ever demanded it of them.  They can't negotiate, come to consensus, or defend themselves effectively, because the adults have generally stepped in and handled things before they have had an opportunity to try.

One of the biggest jobs I have with many of the children I treat is retooling their self images. I'm not talking about employing verbal techniques for building the child's self esteem, which I think is a bad idea, anyway.   Imagine what a rude shock it is to always be told as a child that you are so very special and wonderful, and then to go out in the world as a young adult and discover that you are actually quite ordinary!  And that your boss and colleagues are most decidedly not aware of the deferential treatment that your elevated status confers!

Instead of telling the child he is strong, I have to show the child what he can do. When I give a child ample opportunities to prove to himself, over and over, that he can move past his small comfort zone, stretch himself, do something a little scary, tackle a challenge or obstacle and succeed, when he is confronted with something unfamiliar, he doesn't always think to himself, "I can't do that."

The more he understands that he can rely on himself to figure out a problem and come up with a successful solution, the stronger and more capable he will feel, and his behavior and performance will reflect that.

In my next post, I will outline some suggestions for helping a child grow up to be resilient, self reliant, capable, creative, and strong.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Joy of Cooking

"Patriotism is the love of the food one ate as a child."  --  Lin Yutang.

I have a little boy on my caseload whose parents come from Jamaica.  They have a large extended family here in New York, and get together frequently.  A few weeks ago, I asked him what he did over the weekend, {hoping to hear that his parents had taken him outside to play, which, despite my constant nagging, it rarely occurs to them to do} and he mentioned a big family gathering at an aunt's home in Brooklyn.  "What did you eat?"  I asked, thinking of the marvelous coco bread, ackee and saltfish, callaloo, oxtail stew, jerk chicken and goat, escovitch fish, fried plantains,  pigeon peas and rice, and black cake I had enjoyed during my visit there.

 He had to stop and think for a minute.  "Pepperoni pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken," he said, with an indifferent shrug.

Of all the ways in which we shortchange our children, feeding them bad food is one of the worst. And since everyone is entitled to my opinion, feeding them crappy takeout at family gatherings is a tragic, short-sighted mistake.  There could be legitimate reasons for ordering in, like everyone working all the time, but it seems to me that moving to another country and leaving your food and customs behind is the quickest way to disconnect a child from his ancestors and his cultural identity, prevent him from truly knowing his family, and to rob him of a large part of who he is.

Family gatherings are where the children learn that they belong to a tribe, encompassing their family, their religion, and their country of origin.   By eating the food and participating in the rituals of their tribe, they are an integral part of of their tribe's traditions and customs.  The customs and food of their tribe in turn become an integral part of who they are. After all, we are what we eat!

The wonderful experience of smelling and tasting all of the special food that the elders lovingly provision at those gatherings is what cements the child's feeling of belonging firmly in place.

I remember my grandmother, who died when I was 19, mostly by the food I ate at her home, and at our family gatherings,  for which she always prepared her specialties.   We didn't have a very close relationship  -- she was unfortunately not capable of much warmth  -- but she loved to feed us the intricate, slow cooked delicacies of her own childhood back in Yekatrinoslav: knishes, chopped liver with gribenes and schmaltz, blintzes, brisket, lokshen kugel, chicken soup with kneidlach, kreplach, latkes, delco, kichlach, scherben, and mandelbrot.

Every time I went to her home for a visit, she would make my favorites and package the leftovers for me to take back to the suburbs.  No matter how many knishes she sent back with me, the bag was usually empty by the time I got off the train.

Despite the often contentious relationship I had with my grandmother,  Jewish food, which I always associate with her, tastes like love, belonging, security, and family to me.  I can always count on my grandmother's recipes, many of which I now make, to comfort me when I'm blue. The tastes from my childhood, dishes that have been cooked and eaten by my forebears for hundreds of years, instantly remind me, with an immediacy that nothing else can, of my connection to something much, much larger than myself.

 What if my grandmother had fed me meat loaf, instant mashed potatoes, Campbell's soup, Jell-O, Hydrox sandwich cookies, and Hawaiian Punch?

Tradition, ritual, and the powerful sensory memory of the smells, tastes, and textures of the special foods we eat when we gather together are what anchor us to each other and our collective past, and ground us in the present, ensuring that we are well equipped to face whatever the future brings.

Feeling like a part of a tribe is a fundamental human need.  If a child doesn't feel a connection to his own people through its food, traditions and customs, he is apt to go off and form a connection to something else.

Although it's true that so many old country recipes are labor intensive and time consuming, cooking doesn't have to be elaborate to be delicious and fulfilling.  It just has to start with high quality ingredients, some decent pots and pans, and a few basic, easily mastered  techniques.

If you don't know how to cook, can someone show you a few things?  If you don't have any food traditions in your family,  can you arrange, perhaps with some other family members, to start some?  Perhaps great aunts or grandparents have recipes or food memories they can share.

 What can you do so that your child's family food memories are not of mass produced junk, but formed by your own rich history, customs, traditions, choices, and sensibilities,  lovingly produced in your own kitchen, by your own hands?

{Two beautifully written, deeply felt memoirs about family and food:  "Miriam's Kitchen" by Elizabeth Ehrlich, and "The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken" by Laura Schenone.}