Give them something to look forward to!

"Delayed gratification" is the psychologist's way of saying "business before pleasure." A child who learns to delay gratification for a better outcome is a child well on his way to success in school and life. Studies as far back as the 1960s show that the ability to delay gratification is directly linked to success for kids. One way of learning whether a child understands delayed gratification is to give them a choice between a small treat now, and a bigger treat later. But parents can't really raise their kids with cookies. There's a difference between giving your child a reward, and teaching her the benefits of self regulation.

For example, you don't want your children to associate traveling with you with getting yelled at or with getting a triple scoop ice cream cone, especially if you must do so every day. You want them to enjoy learning how to regulate themselves, to enjoy time with you, and whatever you're doing together. But how do you get from pulling your hair out trying to navigate your day with them, to feeling successful as a parent, to helping them become smarter, more self sufficient and engaging people?

The secret is to strategize ahead of time. There are a series of steps to making a daily plan. Identify the known factors and the wild cards of your day and your children. Know your child, know her ups and downs, and her temperament. How long does he go before he's too tired to avoid a meltdown? What triggers her misbehavior?

Now think about what you want to do today, how long it will take, and how it syncs with your child's routine. Like any good plan, you should include a mental list of options to address potential trouble, mayhem and chaos that may arise. If your child tends to lose it right before nap time, make sure you have planned in a nap. And don't get mad if they fuss and cry when they're exhausted.

One helpful way to soothe your child and make the day run better is to save the most fun part of the day for after the trying parts. Let the child know what's going to happen, and when, so they don't feel confused or overwhelmed. For kids under 2, keep as close to routines as possible, stay calm, and distract and redirect when you can. For older children, let them know what the fun thing is going to be, and when it's going to happen. Give them a developmentally appropriate responsibility during the less fun times, like shopping. Even a toddler can help you find the orange box in the detergent aisle. Tell children ahead of time that you will not be buying candy, and never deviate from that, no matter what. The more consistent you are with what you say, and how you schedule, the less often you will see misbehavior.

This doesn't mean bribe your child with the promise of your attention. In fact, it's better not to associate this fun time with their behavior at all. Reading their favorite book with you, stopping at the playground for some exercise, or helping you choose her favorite cereal at the grocery are examples of positive schedule enders. It can be soothing to an upset child to simply say, don't forget, we're going to say hi to the doggie on the way home, or mommy will be coming home when we do! The more time you spend with your child, the better you'll be able to anticipate difficult moments and avoid them. The older your child gets, the more self regulation skills they will learn, from you, from their caregivers, teachers and peers. Remind yourself of this when you're about to melt down, yourself. That's a fun time for parents to plan for at the end of a child's day, or at the end of a trying developmental stage. In other words, your own ability to delay gratification and look forward to positive outcomes, will help you behave better, too!


A Special Saturday in New York

Governors' Island is always a fun visit for kids, with its historical buildings, including a fort, beach and concessions. Even a quick trip on the water taxi makes for an exciting excursion. But this Saturday kids can experience firsthand science with the World Science Festival. Events will include a hands-on visit with the harbor ecosystem, including the amazing eco-engineering of oysters. Timothy Farris and NASA telescopes will help you and your kids learn firsthand about sunspots and solar weather. Another option is the great Bug Hunt (my favorite!) with Jay Holmes of the American Museum of Natural History. There's a botanical safari, and a birdwatching adventure, meteorology for all ages, and kite flying for all-- including a kite tough enough to lift a grown person.

Best of all is a ride on the Mystic Whaler, setting sail twice tomorrow, with a tour for all in between.

It's easy to get to Governors' Island from Manhattan: just take the Governors' Island ferry, right next to South Ferry at our southern tip. From Brooklyn, take the Pier Six ferry from Brooklyn Bridge Park. See you there!


What to do with the kids this weekend

...that will amaze, entertain and educate the whole family? AND most of the events are free! This year's World Science Festival has a lot family oriented events.

Two great bets are the events that will take place at Governor's Island on Saturday, and Washington Square Park on Sunday. If you're night owls, tomorrow night's free event is stargazing at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

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How to listen so your children will, too

One of the most important discipline skills children can have is the ability to listen to parents, teachers, and friends. Listening is an intergral part of learning, safety and relationships. A certain amount of a child's attention is natural, they can't help wanting to listen, to hear things, to understand them. It's our job to encourage this and help them focus and improve.

But how are your listening skills? You can't teach what you don't know, so let's check the definition of "active listening" -- a tool for letting kids know you hear them, and a skill they can learn, to let you know they hear you, too.

When you're actively listening, you give the other person your full attention. No wandering eyes, no loss of focus. When the other person is talking, don't be so caught up in thinking of your response that you don't actually hear what is being said. Don't assume you already know what they're going to say. Even if you do.

Another aspect is to give the other person cues that you are listening: nod your head, acknowledge their points, make eye contact (but don't stare).

Listening and not allowing yourself to be distracted gives your child the message that they are important to you, that their needs and wants are understood and considered, even if they don't get what they want. Modelling active listening helps your children learn to listen respectfully too. Even if you have to remind them how!


Learning is a necessary part of development

Which comes first, the stage or the learning? Vogotsky and Piaget differed somewhat on this question, but for us parents, the important thing is this: provide a variety of experiences for your child, allow her to make her own decisions, participate with her in discovering the world, and above all, communicate with, not at, your child.

Why am I talking about "learning" on a blog about parenting? Because everything you do in your child's presence is teaching your child something. Every action requires a decision, whether you realize it or not. So think about what you are teaching your child in the moments when you're not really thinking about what you're doing. An aware parent is a better parent. That's how you --and your child-- grow best.


A sense of control

Recently I was having a discussion with a friend about choices. Why, she wondered, when I know I can try something different, do I feel better about what I'm doing? It's the sense that you have some control over your situation, I told her. When we have options, it's easier to cope with whatever we must do. It works the same way for kids. When you give a child choices that lead to the behavior you want, it's easier to guide the child to a good decision without argument. That's why, when getting ready for bed, for example, you can keep a toddler in relatively cooperative spirits by planning ahead a bit.

"Would you like to put on your jammies first, or brush your teeth and then jammies?" is one example. You can ask if they'd like a story while they're getting ready. This not only gives the child that choice, but offers a distraction. I'm a big fan of distracting children from overthinking onerous tasks like washing up. It doesn't have to be a formal story, you can just start with "Once there was an explorer fairy prince(ss) who had just eaten a delicious dinner and the Queen said it was time to wash hands, and what do you think happened?" All the while guiding the child through the process as you describe it.

As children grow older they can learn skills like this for themselves. Grade schoolers can be given a choice of which homework subject or chore to start first, when to take breaks and whether the break is five minutes or ten, and so on. Problem solve with older children to come up with ideas to help them develop coping skills and prevent frustration.

Just like having something to read while you're waiting at the doctor's office, or choosing when to take a short break at work; distraction, and choices that lead to good behavior are part of the self regulation skills that help us-- and our kids.

Engaged parents, happy babies

Engaged parents, happy babies