As a psychologist who specialises in Developmental Neuropsychology, I am constantly made aware of how much emphasis is placed on academic learning in this day and age, often at the expense of experiential learning, particularly in young children. There is now so much focus on internalising the rules of spelling, for example that it is often overlooked how important play is for brain development.
Working with little ones, particularly when I’m working with a group, I am made acutely aware of these tiny little bodies squirming in their seats or on the carpet. I watch how they keep shifting forward, or are suddenly to be seen lying on their backs or practicing over and over the skill of tying a shoelace. It takes me back to when I was much the same. I can recall the sense of the others around me, the smells of my classroom, the colours and sounds. I have a distinct memory of the large windows in my classroom and all the light that flowed in. I was particularly a lover of reading (I still love the shape and sound of words) and the mastering of “See Spot run” held a particular sense of joy for me. I have to admit I don’t recall mathematics or counting, or any particular volume of work or topic. As a Sub A (South African Grade 1 many years ago) child my afternoons were filled with games and drawing and sometimes being bored. I became so envious that my sisters had homework to do (Grade 1’s didn’t have homework in those days) that there was even an occasion when I asked my teacher if she could give me homework. She was standing at the chalkboard just after school and she looked at me surprised (and I seem to recall a little annoyed) and said, “Nonsense, go and play”.
Being a Grade 1 child today is a whole new ball game.
Parents and teachers are under pressure to ensure little ones manage to digest a large amount of work before the end of Grade 1. For the child who cannot do this, there are sometimes far reaching consequences. Parents, particularly, are often anxious, stressed, and even depressed over the academic performance of their school starters. They ultimately feel that their child’s performance is their performance and the cycle of anxiety and pressure is complete.
However, I’d like to take parents back to that little one squirming on the mat because children are the same as they have ever been. They need to move, to run, to climb, to fall, to win, to lose, to be bored, to be dirty in the mud, to refuse to wear shoes, to fight over a toy, to learn to share, to make friends and be a friend, to get scared, to get scratched knees, to cry and to laugh. All these wonderful activities stimulate brain development – they teach behavioural and emotional regulation, patience, curiosity, creativity, develop physical ability, cognitive ability, and learning ability. They teach children to think.
As parents, when you are feeling the pressure of academic performance, when both you and your child feel overwhelmed by the pressure to learn, stop for a moment. Look at your little one. See the squirm, the eager eye for an outside game. Put aside the books, the television, the tablets and cell phones, the gaming stations. Perhaps take your child by the hand and go and play. Just for a bit. Commit yourself to a moment of exploration and curiosity. Put some toy cars in the sand and make a road, populate a sand city with leaves and twigs, make tunnels and bridges, a moat and a castle.
Play is an opportunity for allow your little one’s brain develop as it is naturally designed to do. While education is most certainly a gift to all children, don't forget to take regular breaks, to dispense with the books in favour of unstructured time with your child. That will be a gift to you both.
This quote recently popped up on Facebook and it got me to thinking about parenting in our modern age. It’s tricky, at best. There is no textbook parent, there is no textbook child. Together with this, we are in a digital age where advice comes thick and fast through social media, a million blogs, webpages, from professionals, and from parents and non-parents alike. So let’s talk about some of the basics. In the field of psychology we talk about three different styles of parenting (originally identified by Diana Baumrind in 1967. These are:
Parents who utilise a permissive parenting style tend to be very loving but tend to not set limits on behaviour and they provide few rules. When rules are applied, they are often inconsistent. This often leaves the children of permissive parents to feel insecure as they don’t know where the boundaries are. These children are also often demanding and self-involved. Permissive parents often seem more like a friend to their children than a parent.
Parents who utilise an authoritarian style of parenting often have rigid rules and display very little warmth. The children of authoritarian parents can grow up displaying increasingly aggressive behaviour and have poor problem solving skills.
Ideally, parents do better when utilising an authoritative parenting style. These parents are warm and caring but also provide healthy boundaries and limits. Boundaries indicate that parents care enough to say no, care enough to teach children acceptable behaviour and social skills, and care enough to limit children in order to keep them safe. These children tend to cope better academically, tend to have more healthy coping skills and feel generally more secure.
From a neurological perspective, the brain continues to develop well into early adulthood. Basically what this means is that parents need to be knowledgeable on their child’s developmental level so that expectations on their children regarding problem solving and decision-making are developmental and neurologically appropriate. Telling a three-year-old that he or she can decide on where the family should have their holiday/vacation places unrealistic demands on the child while simultaneously giving the message that the child can dictate what the family does and where the family goes. This then leans toward permissive parenting and may make the child feel unrealistically powerful or overly responsible.
As children get older, parents may wish to involve them in some areas of family decision-making but it is advisable to keep these democratic moments within boundaries of what can and what can’t be ultimately decided by the growing child or teenager. No fifteen-year-old should be deciding whether Dad takes a new job or which house parents purchase. Adult decisions should remain so, leaving children to remain children for as long as they possibly can. However, parents need to strive for some balance. Teenagers need to be given a certain amount of decision-making power in line with their development. You may want to sit down with your teen and ask for their input on what the punishment should be for a particular indiscretion, or what an appropriate curfew should be. These show faith in your teen’s ability to make healthy decisions and also avoid leaning towards an authoritarian parenting style where rules are made to be followed with no space for negotiation. Teens of authoritarian parents are more likely to rebel in order to right some of the power imbalance.
Not everything is a negotiation and as mentioned, an authoritative parent will ultimately set the limits and boundaries in order to provide a safe and healthy environment in which their children can grow and develop.
As a parent the tricky part is not allowing the disapproving looks and comments of friends and family keep you from being a parent who is a parent and not your child’s best friend. Friends do not generally pull rank on us but parents need to do so on a fairly regular basis. The friend parent who pulls rank is likely to confuse a child, make them feel insecure and unsure of the relationship, and lead to resentment. Focus on making your relationship with your child one that is unambiguous, and based on love and limits.
Of late I have given a number of talks on Wellness. “What is wellness?” you may ask. Any decent psychology textbook will tell you it is not the absence of disease (as the name implies). No, Wellness is a conscious process of living life to your full potential, even if you may be coping with illness, loss and struggle. It is what we like to refer to as ‘holistic’ because Wellness is not purely about physical (physiological) health, but mental, spiritual and environmental health as well.
We talk about the six dimensions of Wellness. These are:
To this we can also add Environmental Wellness (hence 7 dimensions of Wellness).
To explain further…
1. Occupational (which includes financial health) Wellness – Not only is this about what my job offers me but also what I can offer my workplace and those that I work with. Do I need to be thinking about a career change? It’s also about taking finances in hand and taking more control of my financial future.
2. Emotional (including mental health) Wellness – Are there past hurts that are preventing me from moving forward? Do I acknowledge all aspects of myself, all feelings even if it feels uncomfortable? Do I contribute to the emotional wellbeing of those around me? Do I need to speak to someone, be it a pastor, a psychologist, a close friend in order to put myself in a better emotional space?
3. Physical Wellness – Am I getting enough exercise? Enough sleep? Do I rest in between the busy times? What is my relationship with food? Do I nourish my body? You should be getting between 8 and 10 hours of sleep at night. Lack of sleep increases appetite, slows down metabolism, raises stress levels, makes us generally less able to cope, can cause depression, can make us physically ill, and can weaken our immune system. Not sleeping? Why? See your doctor, see a counsellor, talk to a friend. Beware of relying on medication. It may be necessary but try to get to the root cause of your sleep problem and start from there. Take naps, slow down, breathe, hug a tree.
4. Social Wellness - We are social creatures. We exist in families, friendship circles, neighbourhoods, housing estates, social clubs, religious groups. Being isolated puts us at risk of depression and anxiety, and loneliness. Do you need friends? Are you spending too much time on your own? Do you have healthy, generally happy relationships with those around you? Are you able to communicate your needs, do others feel they can be honest and communicate with you?
5. Intellectual Wellness – Do you read? Do you feed your mind, your brain with knowledge, with challenges? Do you contribute to or participate in community or cultural activities? Do you foster creativity and intellectual pursuits in others?
6. Spiritual Wellness - If you feel you don’t have a reason to get up in the morning, create one. Get a pet, get a plant, set a goal, set 10 goals. Take care of your spiritual life whether it be church, prayer, God, meditation. “If you can’t figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose” (Bishop TD Jakes)
7. Environmental Wellness – Are you living a life that is respectful to the environment that surrounds you? Do you contribute to environmental health, do you make choices that are protective of the world we live in?
As laid out here, these are very simplistic ways of looking at these seven dimensions. You can unpack each one and spend days getting to the heart of it. Ultimately, Wellness is not purely, “What am I getting out of this?” but also, “What am I contributing?”
When I give my Wellness talks, they can be momentarily energising to those present in the room. I might even hazard an ‘inspiring’ but once out of the room, and back in the throes of life, it is difficult to stay focused. Wellness is something that needs to be regularly revisited, redone, re-internalised.
I recently picked up a beautiful book of soul-defining stories by author Rachel Naomi Remen called Kitchen Table Wisdom. In her book physician and counsellor Remen recounts anecdotes from her own life as well as stories told by her patients that speak of healing. As I have been reading this wonderful book, I cannot help but think these wisdoms cut to the heart of Wellness. Wellness is not a recipe to live by, it is something that is in the heart of all of us and it just needs a voice. That voice is unique to each of us, a fingerprint if you will. Time to make your mark.
I found this post on Facebook this morning and I thought how much it reflects the pressure so many parents feel, of having their children perform academically. Hours of evening homework to be ready for the following day's assessments and then the pressure is really on, to perform in those assessments. I think a lot of parents feel they are writing those assessments themselves. Take a step back parents, breathe a little. No one is going to remember your child's results in Grade 1, Grade 4 or Grade 7 for that matter. Have fun with them, teach them life skills, those valuable ones you learnt through playing outside when you were young, through the childhood games and fights, the wins and the losses, the punishment and the praise. Have a little fun. Take the emphasis off academic achievement and put it on life learning.
Anxiety is becoming increasingly more prevalent in societies across the world. In the United States alone, it is estimated to affect 18.1 percent of adults (roughly 40 million adults between the ages of 18 to 54) (National Institute of Mental Health). Anxious parents can often, unintentionally, create anxiety in their children and it can present in a variety of ways. These may be children who tend to struggle to detach from their parents in new social environments, they may be children who struggle to sleep on their own, who avoid academics for fear of failure or who struggle to perform academically because of the interfering anxiety. These children may also be unwilling to try new things and may even socially isolate to avoid the anxiety.
Parents, to assist their children, will often be overprotective and try to shield them from anxiety-provoking situations. However, this can be counterproductive and perpetuate the anxiety cycle. Children need to know they can do it on their own and they look to adults to support them in their exploration. As a parent there are empowering messages that you can give your child that communicate to them that they are indeed capable and able individuals.
As the parent of an anxious child, begin by exploring your own anxiety. Psychcentral (http://psychcentral.com/quizzes/anxiety.htm) offers an anxiety screening quiz. Please note that this is NOT sufficient for a diagnosis but may give you some indication of which anxiety symptoms you may have. You can always explore this further with a professional. Understanding any anxiety you may have is likely to help you understand if you are possibly creating any anxiety in your child and also when this might be occurring. Once you understand this, there are many things that you can do improve your child’s situation and help them to develop into a more confident child, adolescent and adult.
Email me if you would like a list of suggestions for alleviating anxiety in your child. Also check out my Pinterest site (my Parenting board) for more information.