Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What Dory and Nemo Can Teach Us About Parenting

Summer is quickly coming to an end and ours has been a busy, enjoyable one. My boys (ages 3 and 7) are finally old enough to (mostly) sit through a movie in an actually theater (imagine that!). I took advantage of that feat this summer and we enjoyed a couple of kid movies during those long, hot afternoons. Like millions of others, we went to see Finding Dory.

At first glance, it appeared to be just another fun movie about fish on an adventure. However, later as I thought more about the movie I realized it actually illustrated some interesting parenting issues. As I discuss this, some spoilers might slip out, so take note if you haven't seen the movie.

In this latest adventure, Dory is still friends with Nemo and his dad Marlin. Early in the movie she realizes that she really wants to find her parents who she long-ago got separated from. You may remember from the first movie that Dory suffers from short-term memory loss. So most of the movie involves Dory trying to find her long-lost parents with the help of Nemo and Marlin. During the process, there are numerous flash-back scenes to the story of how Dory came to be friends with Nemo and Marlin.

Here's where it gets interesting from a parenting perspective--Dory and Nemo, as you may remember, both have physical challenges. Nemo has one fin that is smaller than the other, while Dory has short-term memory loss. What we see throughout the movie is how each of their parents handle their challenges in very different ways.

We learn from the flashbacks that Dory's parents realized her challenges with memory at a young age. They talked to her about her memory loss and explained with much repetition (as necessary with memory loss) and were very patient with her.

Nemo's dad Marlin handled his son's physical challenge in a very different way. In the movie he tends to be very overprotective and wanting to limit Nemo's activities and not let him go far from home.

What struck me about these two different fish families is that we can easily see ourselves in each of these scenarios. Regardless of whether our children have any apparent challenges or disabilities, we all at times have probably taken on the role of Dory's parents or Nemo's dad. 

What is even more revealing is how each of the "children" (Nemo and Dory) respond to the different parenting strategies. With the guidance of her very patient parents, Dory is able to learn to explore on her own and develops ways to find her way back home. Her parents give her tools and strategies like songs and sea shell trails to help her do things independently. They know they might not always physically be with her, but their voice becomes the mantra in her head to guide her home. Instead of limiting her, they give her the skills she needs to be brave and explore.

Nemo, on the other hand, has a very different response from Marlin's overprotective nature. He rebels. He feels that his dad is limiting him and his exploration. He knows he has a physical challenge but he doesn't want it to limit his abilities. Instead of listening to his dad, he simply rebels to the point of taking dangerous risks (e.g., touching a boat and getting captured). In other words, his dad's over-protection stifles him.

What can we learn about our own parenting from these two scenarios? Although it is just a movie, I think it portrays somewhat realistic situations. Being the child development geek that I am, I always return to the research. Is there research that can inform us about these two different parenting strategies?

Dory's parents took what I would call an authoritative parenting approach. Authoritative parents provide age-appropriate limits and guidelines but are not overly intrusive. They offer a balance of both responsiveness and control. Research dating back to the 1960's consistently shows that this approach (which is easier said than done) is most likely to give children the best chance at being psychologically well-adjusted. One of the most compelling aspects of this approach is that parents change as the child develops. They gradually give the child more autonomy and allow appropriate risk-taking as the child meets growing challenges and decisions. This is what gives children, like Dory, confidence. A real, lasting confidence that cannot be easily shaken.

Nemo's dad, in contrast, is what I would call a helicopter parent. Of course, given his history of trauma, it's not surprising that he took this approach. We know from research looking at recent generations of young adults, that this helicopter approach does not really serve our kids well. If they don't rebel, like Nemo, then they often reach college-age lacking the resourcefulness and grit to face tough decisions and challenges. As child psychologists describe it, the parents have become a "crutch" for the child.

There is a neurological basis for this too. When young children face challenges on their own, their brain actually becomes more complex and more neural connections form. One researcher describes it this way,
"As children explore their environment by themselves—making decisions, taking chances, coping with any attendant anxiety or frustration—their neurological equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated. Dendrites sprout. Synapses form. If, on the other hand, children are protected from such trial-and-error learning, their nervous systems “literally shrink.”
In reality, we've all had times when we were more like Marlin with our kids and other times when we took the approach of Dory's parents. It is good, however, to be aware of these different approaches and the impact they may have on our children's development.

Just keep swimming...

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Myth of a Stress-Free Childhood

I was struck recently by two seemingly conflicting articles that popped up in my social media feeds on the same day. One was entitled, Children and Stress--How to Create a Low Stress Environment for your Child and the other title was, "Children Need Some Stress in the Their Lives": The New Science of Resilience. Now, on the face of it, these seem to be two conflicting articles. What is a parent to do--help your child avoid all stress or allow your child to experience stress?

In reality, both of these articles had some really insightful and thought-provoking lessons about the science of stress in relation to child development. We mostly have negative connotations with the idea of stress. People talk about being "stressed out" at work or school. In reality, some amount of stress is normal and perhaps even beneficial. I remember the stress of starting college in a new town, not knowing anyone. It was stressful at times. I remember my heart racing as I went to my first class and met my first roommate. But what if I can avoided this stress and stayed at home? I would not have grown or learned new coping mechanisms and new skills.

Stress becomes negative and even life-altering when it is so intense that it affects your mental health, relationships, and overall well-being. As Miki Dedijers points out in his article, this is the type of stress that parents sometimes experience and the kind that can affect your children. As he says, "When you’re stressed, your child’s small body senses that there’s some unknown reason for her, too, to be on high alert. Her most trusted adult is wound up tight with apprehension."

This I think is the real wisdom we can gain from these two articles. The stress that comes with normal developmental stages or changes is what our children use to propel them to the next level. As Michael Rutter points out in his studies on resilience, "children need some stress in their lives, so they can learn to cope with it. Development involves both change and challenge and also continuity. So to see the norm as stability is wrong.” The typical process of development requires some amount of stress. If you try to protect your child from that, they will inevitably be hampered by it.

They key to coping with stress, in all it's forms, is finding coping mechanisms that work for the individual. What Rutter has found in his research is that relationships are one of the most influential factors in dealing with stress.

For children, the most toxic stress can often be the result of failed or dysfunctional relationships. Children who experience abuse, trauma or neglect at the hands of a once-trusted caregiver are dealing with a type of stress that is at the limit of their underdeveloped mental capacities. This is the type of stress that can be life-altering. However, as Rutter points out, the establishment of even one caring, consistent adult relationship can often be the key to resilience for these children, despite tragic situations they may have experienced.

For us parents too, relationships are one of the keys to coping with stress in our lives as well. As Miki Dedijers describes, overcoming stress is not a quick fix to be solved by a change in diet or meditation. It many times requires a change in lifestyle.  Our relationships help us navigate through changes in our lives. Just talking to someone else whom you trust can be the beginning of coping with stress. Isolation from others can be very stressful. As any new parent who spends hours at home alone with a newborn can tell you, a lack of social relationships can make for stressful living. Positive relationships can help buffer us against the stresses of life.

Ultimately we cannot create a stress-free life for our children. If we really think about it, we know this is not healthy for them either. Some of the stressful challenges many of us have faced have helped us become stronger, more resilient people. In order to help our children, however, we have to keep our stress at a level that is manageable. In doing so, we can help our children learn the skills they need to cope with the inevitable stress they will face. As in many aspects of parenting, you teach best by modeling.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Summer Learning Help: 101 Educational Websites and Apps

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We are already about halfway through the summer! If your kids are like mine, they like to play outside, with friends, etc. but they also need a little quiet time. I've been trying to sneak in a little learning this summer so my 2nd grader has been spending time on educational apps.

With this in mind, I wanted to share Educents' list of the Top 101 Educational Websites and Apps of 2016. This is really a helpful resource when you are looking for apps or online programs that actually offer some learning and fun.

This incredible round-up of educational websites, apps, online curriculum, and digital learning resources is your go-to guide for continued summer learning and the new academic year. You can browse the guide by subject to find the perfect resources for your kids to brush up on certain skills or learn something new!

There are literally 101 great options to choose from. Here are a few that stand out to me:

1. Kids Discover - Kids Discover Online is an interactive online reading platform, offering 3 Lexile(R) reading levels and over 1,000 science and social studies resources, vetted by subject experts.


2. Farfaria Unlimited Ebooks - FarFaria offers over 1000 ebooks for your children. Each story comes to your mobile device as a colorfully illustrated book that they can flip through, read on their own, or have read to them. If they choose to hear the story, each word is highlighted as a professional actor recites it.


3. Learn to Read App: Lifetime Subscription - With music, games, lessons, and stories, HOOKED ON PHONICS: LEARN TO READ is the simplest, most effective and most fun way to learn to read. Enjoy songs, games and interactive entertainment in a style that has never been seen before in an educational app.


Which ones have you tried or do you want to try? Comment below to let me know which ones are your family's favorites! And share with friends!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Summer Time Means Biking Time

Do you enjoy biking with your kids? We having been biking as a family since our oldest was still in diapers. He always loved motion so it was a big hit.

Now that we have two kids, biking altogether seemed challenging at first. But guess what? Even before our oldest could ride on his own, we managed to bike altogether thanks to all the cool bike carriers and harnesses available now.

The best thing about biking as a family is that it is one of the few physical exercises that you can all do together in which the adults actually get a workout too. From a research perspective, we all know that physical activity is associated with better overall health, especially improved blood pressure and cardiovascular health. We love hiking together too, but as you parents know, hiking with little kids isn't always much of a workout for the adults, since you usually stop about 10 times for every 30 feet you hike.

Now that we live in Colorado where biking is common and there are tons of biking paths, it has become a regular activity for us in the spring and summer.

If you are new to biking with kids, this infographic below is helpful in figuring out what gear might be right for your family.

Get out there and enjoy the feel of the wind on your face and the freedom of pedal power.

Source: Fix.com Blog