The beginning of independence

One thing that’s oddly both refreshing and disturbing about young kids is their selective truth filter. On one occasion one of my sons cut off another kid on the way to the water fountain, right in front of mom. When she said his name, the beginning of the scold, he didn’t miss a beat and immediately grabbed the handle and said, “I was going to hold the handle for him.”  Faster than the speed of light, a lie flew right out of his mouth. While I was disappointed, as most parents would be, I was also sort of impressed that he could think that fast on his feet.

Fast forward to a few weeks later and my other son off-handedly asks his older sister if she’s going to eat so much food that she’s going to get fat. Yup, that went over well. But how do you teach the fine art of discretion and having respect for each other, because you know, the kids will need those skills in order to work and play well with others.

In the book, Teach Your Children Well, Madeline Levine talks about the importance of your child having a sense of who they are, establishing some independence from their parents and understanding what it means to be a nice person. She says that one of the challenges is figuring out how much oversight and how much freedom to allow our kids. Since we live only a few miles away from where Jessica Ridgeway was abducted and murdered last year, this has become a very important question.

I grew up mostly in the 70s and 80s – computers were new and had a whopping 5k memory (remember the Vic-20 compadres?), no one had ever heard of a thing called an “internet,” and the only kind of mail was dropped off daily by the USPS carrier. I had an Atari 2600, but the vast majority of my growing up time, my parents had no clue where I was – that was by design. I took my first clue after hearing the words, “go outside and find something to do.” I think I came back home when I was 16 and could drive. Well, not really, I guess I was home nearly every night for dinner in those interim years, but I certainly didn’t spend a lot of time in my own home – and no one ever heard of a ‘playdate.’ However, ,most parents today, including us, struggle to let our 7-9 year olds out of our sight, much less telling them at 9 am to “get outside,” and not worrying about where they’re at until dinner.

I know times have changed, but its during these elementary school years that kids must start to learn independence. We can prepare them for new situations by describing the environment, the sights and sounds, and doing a little role playing. Setting expectations on behavior and limitations, helps as well.

Kids can also self regulate to an extent. Today, if two elementary age boys get too rough with each other while, well, rough-housing, parents and in some asinine cases, even the cops, can be involved. However, the boy who gets too rough typically finds that others are soon unwilling to play with him – lesson learned (and no criminal record or odd tattoos. . .just yet). At this age, girls friendships are characterized through emotional connection, while boys need to basically pound on each other (Levine 51). It’s the way we relate.

Parents can help these transition times, like when someone is becoming too aggressive, or when someone says something mean. The use of “reflective messages,” (Levine 57) can help a child see the consequences of their behavior. We use these all the time – “When you didn’t thank your friend for the gift, how to you think he felt?” Also, Levine says that having a father involved is a strong predictor of a child’s level of empathy. “Dads, who often take the lead on making the outside world enticing, appear to grease the wheels and make this transition easier,” says Levine.

Creating a warm and responsive, and respectful household will contribute to warm, responsive and respectful children.

This is also the golden age of learning, you know, when kids still think its fun to learn new stuff! “Until they enter elementary school most youngsters are motivated by the challenge itself, not by stars or grades or rewards. This is called ‘mastery motivation’ and is the form of learning most likely to lead to both engagement and persistence, and ultimately to expertise,” (Levine 59).  Therefore, it is important to encourage the effort no matter how bad the result. There will come a time, around the age of 7, when children come to a whole new mind, one that has the capacity to think logically, realistically and strategically – it is often termed a “cognitive revolution,” and allows children to tackle problems that were beyond their reach just a year earlier, (Levine 60).

Unfortunately, a big change is coming. As children get beyond the first couple years of elementary school learning stops being fun. Levine contributes this to the fact that kids begin to compare themselves and each other and they suffer the effects of excessive standardized testing (Levine 61).

We can help our kids by first encouraging a growth mindset (great book by Carol Dweck on this subject that I’ve already read and is in the cue to discuss in a few weeks), and not insisting that only a narrow range of skills and interests are required for success in life. Encourage kids to be mastery-oriented, meaning they are in it for the learning experience, whereas performance-oriented kids focus more on the grade and the pat on the back, than actually learning the material. Kids who are more willing to take academic risks do better on tests and stay more engaged with learning (Levine 67).

Children are incredibly curious, so capitalize on that. The fastest way kids can gather information about the world is to ask an adult (Levine 66). Who needs water-boarding, just send in a six-year-old to ask an endless series of “why” questions and the bad guy will tell us where the money is hidden!

Our job as parents is to keep kids curious about the world, and to help them interpret what they are observing. Our job is to (a) provide answers and (b) help children learn the process by which they can answer their own questions (Levine 66). Ultimately, the ability ASK the right questions is a sign of intelligence and creativity (Levine 66). So next time your kid asks, “why,” hit the Mute button on the remote and answer them.

Levine, Madeline. Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success. New York: Harper, 2012. Print.

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