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Stop Telling Kids: “You are SO Smart”

It’s so easy when your kid does something that impresses you to say something along the lines of “Wow, you’re really smart”. The problem is that messages of praise can bring a lot of baggage with them.

Adult praise:
• Discourages risk taking. When we are expected, by ourselves and others, to succeed at a high level it can make us unwilling to try new skills, especially when we don’t succeed quickly. We define the goal as “looking smart” instead of learning new skills.
• Discourages self motivation. When we become trained to look to others for evaluation, we don’t discover our own interest in the task. We flourish when we find our own passions.
• Defines intelligence as static, not something we can build by effort.
• Raises concerns about the “real message”. We may feel that the adult actually thinks that we need help or have reached our potential. Adults say these things because they don’t think we are doing very well and we need encouragement. Criticism can communicate that I think you can do better.
• Creates a fear of failure, a sense that our parents and teachers will be unable to deal with my not being “smart” about everything.

When we give a child or teen encouragement for effort we give them a sense of control. Kids know how to work hard, they don’t know how to be smart. Groundbreaking research done by Carol Dweck demonstrated the effect of adult praise on fifth graders. The children were given a test and then praised for either their intelligence or their effort. The ones praised for their effort did significantly better on a subsequent test.

Po Bronson elaborates:
“But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.”

For more details and a discussion of the studies read:
Bronson, Po. How Not to Talk to Your Kids,

So much of parenting advice is about what not to do. Let’s talk about what to do. The Adlerian parenting model makes an important distinction between praise and encouragement. Praise emphasizes the assessment of the adult while encouragement emphasizes the assessment of the child, it empowers the child with an inner voice.

Another important difference to consider between encouragement and praise is that praise can inspire vertical striving, where the child aims higher and higher to increase self esteem, sometimes perceiving him or herself to be above others. Encouragement, on the other hand, aims to inspire horizontal striving, where the child can more easily perceive him or herself to be on a level playing field, moving horizontally, picking up the tools they need to make their contribution to the community as a whole.

Here are some of my favorite adult responses:
• I’m happy for you.
• How do you feel about the game? (the paper? the project? your report card?)
• Do you wish you had done anything differently? What?
• You must feel good about….
• Nonverbal encouragement: slap five, pat on the back, hug

Alfie Kohn, author of Punished By Rewards, suggests these responses to a job well done. And what can we say when kids just do something impressive? Consider these possible responses:
* Say nothing. Some people insist a helpful act must be "reinforced" because, secretly or unconsciously, they believe it was a fluke. If children are basically evil, then they have to be given an artificial reason for being nice (namely, to get a verbal reward). But if that cynicism is unfounded – and a lot of research suggests that it is – then praise may not be necessary.
* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement ("You put your shoes on by yourself" or even just "You did it") tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: "This mountain is huge!" "Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!"
If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: "Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack." This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing
* Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking "What was the hardest part to draw?" or "How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?" is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying "Good job!", as we’ve seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.

This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life -- or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head.

Raising Resilient Children and Teens

How can we help our children develop the inner strength to take life’s ups and down in stride? We hope our children will be able to deal with disappointment, frustration and adversity. We hope they will take on challenges and adjust to change.

Building resilience is no easy task, when we think about our wishes for our children as adults – resiliency is a huge part of successfully reaching adulthood. Our happiness depends on our capacity to roll with the punches.

“Resilience is the capacity to rise above difficult circumstances, the trait that allows us to exist in this less-than-perfect word while moving forward with optimism and confidence even in the midst of adversity.” Kenneth R. Ginsburg

There are whole books written on this subject, just to get you thinking about your role and how you can assist your children, here is a list of things you can say and do.

What do I want my child to learn from this situation? (And how can I help make that happen?) Often parents react to situations with expediency (next time I’ll be sure my child takes responsibility for this task), or criticism (I can’t let the teacher see that homework project), or their own anxiety for their child (What if my child has no one to play with at recess?).

How can I communicate “I think you can handle that”? It’s very tempting to help your child solve problems – we’re supposed to do that. When is it better to back off? Give kids as much responsibility as possible for getting through the day’s tasks, resolving conflicts with friends and family and dealing with challenges.

“What options are you considering?” Sometimes we define problem solving as helping the child accept our solution. We need to let kids come up with solutions and then try them out.

“You’ve made progress, what’s the next step?” When people are faced with what they feel is an overwhelming task, it helps to break it down into small steps forward – and to notice those steps towards the goal.

Help your child deal with failure. Sports and games are good opportunities for people to develop skills for handling failure. Point out that if you’re winning every time you need to find new opponents. It’s supposed to be a challenge. When you purposely lose to your child – you are teaching him or her that you can’t handle their loss either or that you think they are not capable of handling it.

“I wish I had done better with that.” “I’m sorry.” Demonstrate and communicate the courage to be imperfect. Share your coping strategies when you’ve messed up or had a disappointment.

“How big is this problem? Rate it on a scale from mole hill to mountain. In can be difficult to get perspective when we are caught up in an emotional reaction. People often catastrophize – “this is a total disaster”.

“What the worst case scenario?” What’s the best case scenario?” “How would you deal with various outcomes?” Sometimes we feel like we just could not handle…… but in truth we can. Help your child realize that people do recover from even large disappointments and losses.

Role play situations that are causing problems for your child. Joining a group playing a game, dealing with a bully, talking to a teacher, avoiding uncomfortable situations with friends. You can also use role playing to allow a child to experience a situation from the other person’s perspective.

Interests in the interests of others. When we help someone else, our problems take on a different perspective. We also learn that we can make a difference in people’s lives.

Recognize the role of temperament. Some people are prone towards worry, some towards emotional outbursts. When you realize that you’re probably not going to get your “drama queen” to calmly present the latest disaster, it makes it easier to wait it out.

Ginsburg, Kenneth. Building Resilience in Children and Teens
Seligman, Martin et al. The Optimistic Child
Resilience for Teens and other information
Kurcinka, Mary Sheedy. Raising Your Spirited Child Workbook. Great resource on temperament.

Feeling Scroogeish?
As the holidays approach you may find yourself wishing for less stuff – maybe even a lot less stuff. Here’s some justification for shortening your gift lists and asking relatives to do the same. At the end are some more sites to check out for further support.

Why Fewer Toys Will Benefit Your Kids

“The potential possibilities of any child are the most intriguing and stimulating in all creation.” – Ray L. Wilbur
Toys are not merely playthings. Toys form the building blocks for our child’s future. They teach our children about the world and about themselves. They send messages and communicate values. And thus, wise parents think about what foundation is being laid by the toys that are given to their kids.

Wise parents also think about the number of toys that children are given. While most toy rooms and bedrooms today are filled to the ceiling with toys, intentional parents learn to limit the number of toys that kids have to play with.

They understand that fewer toys will actually benefit their children in the long-term:
1. Kids learn to be more creative. Too many toys prevent kids from fully developing their gift of imagination. Two German public health workers (Strick and Schubert) conducted an experiment in which they convinced a kindergarten classroom to remove all of their toys for three months. Although boredom set in during the initial stages of the experiment, the children soon began to use their basic surroundings to invent games and use imagination in their playing.
2. Kids develop longer attention spans. When too many toys are introduced into a child’s life, their attention span will begin to suffer. A child will rarely learn to fully appreciate the toy in front of them when there are countless options still remaining on the shelf behind them.
3. Kids establish better social skills. Children with fewer toys learn how to develop interpersonal relationships with other kids and adults. They learn the give and take of a good conversation. And studies have attributed childhood friendships to a greater chance of success academically and in social situations during adulthood.
4. Kids learn to take greater care of things. When kids have too many toys, they will naturally take less care of them. They will not learn to value them if there is always a replacement ready at hand. If you have a child who is constantly damaging their toys, just take a bunch away. He will quickly learn.
5. Kids develop a greater love for reading, writing, and art. Fewer toys allows your children to love books, music, coloring, and painting. And a love for art will help them better appreciate beauty, emotion, and communication in their world.
6. Kids become more resourceful. In education, students aren’t just given the answer to a problem; they are given the tools to find the answer. In entertainment and play, the same principle can be applied. Fewer toys causes children to become resourceful by solving problems with only the materials at hand. And resourcefulness is a gift with unlimited potential.
7. Kids argue with each other less. This may seem counter-intuitive. Many parents believe that more toys will result in less fighting because there are more options available. However, the opposite is true far too often. Siblings argue about toys. And every time we introduce a new toy into the relationship, we give them another reason to establish their “territory” among the others. On the other hand, siblings with fewer toys are forced to share, collaborate, and work together.
8. Kids learn perseverance. Children who have too many toys give up too quickly. If they have a toy that they can’t figure out, it will quickly be discarded for the sake of a different, easier one. Kids with fewer toys learn perseverance, patience, and determination.
9. Kids become less selfish. Kids who get everything they want believe they can have everything they want. This attitude will quickly lead to an unhealthy (and unbecoming) lifestyle.
10. Kids experience more of nature. Children who do not have a basement full of toys are more apt to play outside and develop a deep appreciation for nature. They are also more likely to be involved in physical exercise which results in healthier and happier bodies.
11. Kids learn to find satisfaction outside of the toy store. True joy and contentment will never be found in the aisles of a toy store. Kids who have been raised to think the answer to their desires can be bought with money have believed the same lie as their parents. Instead, children need encouragement to live counter-cultural lives finding joy in things that truly last.
12. Kids live in a cleaner, tidier home. If you have children, you know that toy clutter can quickly take over an entire home. Fewer toys results in a less-cluttered, cleaner, healthier home.

I’m not anti-toy. I’m just pro-child. So do your child a favor today and limit their number of toys. (Just don’t tell them you got the idea from me.)

From Frog Collecting to Number Crunching
Back-to-School Tips

Along with buying new pencils and notebooks, back to school means a return to routines, alarm clocks, and the responsibilities that many of our children left behind with the last bell in June. There are all kinds of systems families can use, and Vicki Hoefle offers a plan that is about progress, change, and the long-term goal of encouraging independence and self-reliance in our children.

Here is my “top 10” list for making the transition from frog collecting to number crunching a smooth one, for kids and parents alike. With these pointers in mind, you’ll help your children begin the school year on the right foot.
1. Ask yourself, “What will it take for my children to manage their schedules independently?” Work with your kids to make a list of everything that needs to happen in order for your kids to be ready for the school day.
2. Allow your kids to establish a routine that works for them, even if they flounder for a week or two.
3. Have faith that your children can handle the natural consequences of their decisions.
4. Show empathy and help your children work through any problems that arise, but don’t be their savior.
5. Set parameters about acceptable dress for school that you and your kids can agree on, and then bite your tongue.
6. Establish a framework for discussing the ups and downs that your kids are sure to encounter as the school year progresses. You want your children to know that you’re on their side, no matter what.
7. Create a roadmap with your children to help them set goals for the year and begin thinking about what it will take to achieve those goals.
8. Set up a time every week to connect as a family.
9. Figure out what you, as a parent, can let go of to encourage your childrens’ independence.
10. Go slow. Encourage progress and recognize growth, and remember that you are the best parent for your child.

Teaching Your Kids About Money:
Allowance, Summer Jobs and College

ALLOWANCE by Joe Lanza
Many parents start teaching kids money management through allowance. Giving your kids an allowance is not a guarantee of teaching monetary responsibility – in fact, you may be teaching them that money will just show up. How can you create an allowance system that also teaches responsibility?

I’m a fan of allowance. I loved watching my kids evaluate whether something they wanted was worth their money (of course it was worth my money!). But not everyone agrees that kids learn healthy spending habits. The great allowance debate roars on, and may have moved to a whole new level with a personal-finance scholar’s recent assertion that a “regular, unconditional allowance may be akin to cruelty to children.” Read more:

The challenge is to create an allowance framework that teaches budgeting, saving and credit concerns. Many parents also use allowance to teach philanthropy – what Adlerians call “interest in the interests of others.” Here are some guidelines: 

1. Separate allowance from chores. Allowance is given to develop a child’s responsibility, sense of the value of money; not as a reward for getting chores done.
2. Control the sense of entitlement in our culture of affluence. Do your kids tend to think that they MUST have the current popular item? Ask them how important clothes are when picking friends? Do they have friends who can’t afford cell phones, laptops, video games and how does that affect them socializing?
3. Setting amounts. Decide what you would like your child to pay for and how much you would like your child to have for discretionary spending. It’s important that it be enough to experience whimsical purchasing and then experience wishing you had some money left.
4. Let them make mistakes. Don’t bail them out. Don’t let them borrow money. Don’t make a lot of rules about what they can buy.
5. Require a percentage to savings and to philanthropy. I teach a “three-jar” system: “share,” “save” and “spend smart.” My 7-year-old daughter gets a $7 allowance every Friday. Each week, we require that she deposit two dollars into her “save” jar and one into her “share” jar. She can divvy up the four remaining dollars among any of the jars.

A summer job can be a real eye-opener for kids about the real world. They can learn:
• Why education is important (I don’t want to spend my life in jobs like this one)
• The importance of arriving on time, being focused on work, understanding what bosses are looking for in employees, what an 8 hour work day feels like!
• I can do it! Just realizing you can call or walk in and ask for a job (and survive rejection) is an important life lesson
• A new vision of themselves – I can succeed in the adult world of work
• The value of a dollar – when you work all day and end up with X, it’s a reality check
• Social skills of interviewing for the job, interacting with colleagues, bosses, customers.

Many kids end up graduating with debt, for their education and for their poor money management decisions. This website is from a 20-year-old and is a gold mine of ideas on spending decisions and credit card decisions. This link is to credit card information – but spend time on his other sections:

Summary: Make responsibility a part of the family dialogue:
• What options are you considering?
• That’s your decision.
• I think you can handle that.
• How do feel about how that worked out?


“You are the biggest financial influence in your child’s life. Most of what your children will learn about handling money will come from watching you handle yours.” Michelle Singletary

The Anxieties of Children and Teens
From the Monsters Under the Bed to Preparing for College

Regardless of age, there is always plenty to worry about. To worry is a universal phenomenon. Adults have bills to pay and a whole gambit of expectations to meet. The coupling of worry and concern tends to provoke action. Under normal conditions, this action is simply referred to as problem-solving. In other words, on the useful side of life, worry generates an important call to action.

Do the worries of children follow the same trajectory? Yes, of course. The school-age child may find he's worried about an up-coming exam or report. Ideally, the message becomes, “Get prepared!” and the child responds in kind. Child, adolescent and adult worries flow in and out of any given life. They differ in accordance with age or developmental stages, as well as the circumstances that surround the individual. They are transitory in nature. Anxiety is a higher grade of worry. It doesn’t have the same in/out flow. Anxiety has staying power. In children, it can be quite specific as when it is provoked by exams; before, during and afterwards. Or, it can be quite generalized as when concerns around being safe seem constant.

Anxieties are associated with the immediate or foreseeable future. They are related to obligations, demands, expectations of self or others or individualized fears that seem imminent or potentially dangerous. In almost all circumstances, the anxious individual, be it child or teen, has a perception of being unprepared to meet the life challenge, or even unable; as in the case of an upcoming audition or try-out. In this scenario, the child/teen is anxious weeks in advance. Anxiety has penetrated. Ultimately, the child/teen fails to appear for the audition or try-out.

Worries Become Anxiety When…
Anxiety becomes a boni fide disorder when it handicaps normal life functions. For example, when the child cannot bear to be separated from his mother and will not go to school. Or, when the teenager is so concerned about what “they” think of him that his constant awareness makes for constant discomfort leading to a refusal to partake.

Most commonly seen by a child or family therapist are the following types of anxieties, spelled out by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (Facts for Families, 11/12).

Symptoms of separation anxiety include:
• Constant thoughts and intense fears about the safety of parents and caretakers
• Refusing to go to school
• Frequent stomachaches and other physical complaints
• Extreme worries about sleeping away from home
• Being overly clingy
• Panic or tantrums at times of separation from caregivers
• Trouble sleeping or nightmares

Symptoms of phobia include:
• Extreme fear about a specific thing or situation, i.e. insects or needles
• The fears cause significant distress and interfere with usual activities

Symptoms of social anxiety include:
• Fears of meeting or talking to people
• Avoidance of social situations
• Few friends outside the family

Other symptoms of anxious children include:
• Many worries about things before they happen
• Constant worries or concerns about family, school, friends, or activities
• Repetitive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) or actions (compulsions)
• Fears of embarrassment or making mistakes
• Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence

Also important to underscore is an anxiety associated with 17 and 18 year olds, particularly prevalent in senior year of high school. This anxiety is characterized by an avoidance of the future. Symptoms of avoidance of the future include:
• Procrastination of anything related to that which follows high school
• Avoidance of all questions regarding “what’s next?”
• Seemingly indifferent to passing senior year
• Lack of motivation to secure a driver’s license
• Loss of self in drugs, alcohol use, or video games

So What is a Parent to Do?
The first task is NOT to minimize the child’s fears by responding with a cursory, “It’s nothing; you’ll be OK; just don’t worry about it!” The much better response is to embrace the concerns and position oneself as an ally with your child. The parent becomes a collaborator in helping the child to shrink the anxiety. If the anxiety can be seen as an entity, albeit an unfriendly one, that interferes with the child’s satisfaction in life, the team of parent and child now has an opponent. The parent has joined an effort to beat back the anxiety. As the child feels joined, the parent is likely to become even more aware of the anxiety’s hold on her child, and just how deeply the child wishes that he were normal, as in free of the anxiety. If the anxiety persists beyond the parent and child’s creative attack, the alliance allows the parent to suggest to the child the enlistment of a professional member to the team, a child or family therapist.

The job description of a parent who has volunteered to become an anti-anxiety agent includes:
• To be a voice of optimism and constant encouragement
• To be patient with a gradual and incremental pursuit of change
• To be a collaborative and creative problem-solver
Here are transgressions the parent is advised to avoid:
• To become impatient, angry and derogatory
• To succumb to the child’s fears and conclude that “Maybe this is too much for you.”

Most anxieties of childhood and adolescence are not life sentences. They can be overcome. Many parents used to be terribly afraid of the dark and sought safety in their parent’s bed. Many parents are amazed to this day that they finally left home and navigated life quite well on their own. Anxieties are a part of growing up. When posed as a challenge, even better a joint challenge, they become a problem to be surpassed. They are among the adverse circumstances in our children’s pursuit of life. If handled wisely, they build competence and confidence, the ingredients of full participation.

Steven J. Stein is a marriage and family therapist, practicing in Rockville, MD. He works with school-age children and adults on a wide array of mental health concerns. He is grateful to the YMCA’s Youth & Family Services for the opportunity to present on this topic.

A Different Approach to Bullying

“It places responsibility directly upon the shoulders of the victim, where it should be. Whether or not he is upset is entirely up to him, not the bully.” Izzy Kalman

There has been a lot of talk and programs and money addressing the issue of bullying, especially in the schools. There have been some promising results in schools that commit to the process with a significant amount of time – a difficult resource to find in the school curriculum. To find out more about successful programs in schools, click here.

I’d like to encourage you to consider an option for parents dealing with a child who is being verbally bullied. This is a plan to help your child take an active role in changing the interaction with bullies. One powerful deterrent to bullying is engaging other kids to intervene. This may not be a response your child can create. Bringing adults into the situation does not often succeed. We do need to encourage our kids to be aware of their role as bystander. For more information on this, please visit the Bullying Prevention Institute or Tolerance websites.

The different approach I would like to share with you focuses on teaching your child new skills in how they react to bullying. It’s an empowering model – just the opposite of how bullying victims feel. When we encourage kids to go to adults we are saying we don’t think you can deal with this on your own. The problem for adults is assessing the risk of harm and the risk of additional harm when the adult gets involved. But harm is already being done. How can we help our kids protect themselves? Here’s an idea that might work for your kids. It’s a large website with lots of information. I’ve pulled just a note from his website with his perspective.  This model is intended to empower NOT to discourage them from telling adults what is happening to them.  Be sure to empathize with the feelings or your child.  Be sure to present this model as a way for your child to let the bully get what he or she wants - to see you upset.  If you interested in Izzy's model, please visit his website.

A general note about bullies: The word “bully” has negative connotations. The general attitude of adults is that the bullies are bad and must be made to stop their bullying. I, though, am not judging the bullies. I refer to kids as being bullies only in the sense that they apparently have the upper hand in the bully/victim interactions. We are to consider them as being no better and no worse than victims. In fact, we are to consider them as necessary for the learning of social skills. Childhood is a time when children practice the skills they will need in their adult lives. If they don’t learn how to deal with aggression in their formative years, how in the world are they going to know how to do it when they are adults? It is more useful to see bullies as the social sparring partners of our children. Bullies give our children the opportunity to learn to deal with aggression, an essential life skill, and we are to be grateful to them rather than angry. Our job is not to protect the victims from the bullies, but to teach the victims how to defeat the bullies – by not getting upset.
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