Thinking Parent, Thinking Child

Turning Everyday Problems into Solutions

Second Edition

The "I Can Problem Solve" Program

Thinking Parent, Thinking Childby Myrna B. Shure, Ph.D.

New Excerpts from the 2nd Edition:

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Cruising the Information Superhighway: Internet Safety

The U. S. Census, reported in the year 2000 by Eric Newburger, informed us that more than 66 percent of school-age children nationwide had access to the Internet at home. By 2010, as reported by Martin Valcke and colleagues, up to 91.2 percent of primary school-age children surfed the Internet at home. Is your child among them? If yes, it's probably because you want your child to enjoy the advantages — both educational and recreational of this challenging and exciting technology. But you're probably also asking yourself a series of questions: How much access is enough without being too much? What age should your child begin surfing the net? And just how safe is the Internet?

I propose the following guidelines.

Introduce the computer and Internet early. Let your preschooler sit at the screen, learn how to click the mouse, and become acquainted with any number of excellent educational games. Surfing the net isn't really a problem for kids this age; they're pretty content to stick with the games you give them. But beware — even preschoolers can become addicted. Carefully balance the time your child spends in front of the screen with other pastimes. Make sure she interacts with materials she can touch and manipulate and with people she can talk to in person.

Soon after kids start getting homework, they can use the Internet to research topics, organize information for reports, and obtain bibliographies to expand their ideas. They can also find games for their age level and websites that foster artistic and other creative endeavors. Kids are enthusiastic about the Internet. As one 12-year-old told me, "I can hear and watch things. There's a whole encyclopedia, and that's a lot cheaper than buying all those books. And I can hear my Bar Mitzvah songs sung to me." He then added, "I can play games with my friends, and the pieces don't get lost or broken." As with younger kids, though, try to monitor time on the computer so kids don't spent all their free time there to the exclusion of other activities.

Through email and instant messaging, children can keep in touch with classmates and friends, meet new people who share their interests and hobbies or perhaps have a similar disease or condition, and keep in touch with friends who live far away. You may want to give your OK to their buddy list and supervise any new contacts that your child makes in cyberspace.

With all the good things, however, there are potential dangers lurking in cyberspace, and children need to be aware of them. As for safety, research by Zheng Yan found that up to age 8, children have a limited understanding and limited direct online experience, so highly restrictive filtering programs are appropriate. It is important to select websites that are free of external intrusions. After age 8, filtering alone is not enough, and Yan suggests educating children on how to use the Internet safely.

Here's how you can use the problem-solving approach to do that.

Regardless of your child's age, find out what she already knows about issues of safety on the net. Then you can fill in the gaps in her knowledge. Make sure she understands the fundamental ground rule about the Internet: that she must never give out personal information such as her name, address, phone number, school she attends, or day-to-day schedule.

If your child doesn't understand the need for this, ask, "What might happen if you talk to a stranger and tell him where you live?"

In addition, talk about a situation in which your child may want to actually meet someone she's met on the net. Ask questions like "What might happen if you go to meet someone you don't know?" Your child may respond, "You won't let me go online anymore." This is indeed a possibility if your child fails to follow the rules.

By being consistent with the problem-solving approach, I believe you can prevent this type of danger from becoming a reality by encouraging your child to think of consequences that relate to safety. That is, ask questions like:

"How do you know your new friend is really a friend?"
"Why might someone want to know where you live?"
"What could happen if that person turns out not to be a friend?"

Through this series of questions, your child will come to understand that meeting someone we first made contact with on the Internet in person is no different from being lured into a car by a stranger we meet on the street. "We just don't do that," you can tell your child. By encouraging your child to tell you what might happen, you don't have to tell her why. Your child will come to understand that she's never to meet someone she's met over the Internet by herself — that you will always accompany your child and the meeting will only take place in a public area.

To short-circuit problems from developing, many parents tell me that they feel most comfortable keeping the computer in the family room, where they can monitor what their kids are doing and how long they are doing it. Even safety filters aren't foolproof, and savvy kids can get around them when they get older. Another benefit is that using the computer becomes a family activity. As one 11-year-old girl told me, "I get excited because we surf the net together."

Meeting someone we first made contact with on the Internet in person is no different from being lured to a car by a stranger we meet on the street. "We just don't do that," you can tell your child. By encouraging your child to tell you what might happen, you don't have to tell her why.

By the time most kids enter their preteen years, they may want to assert their independence by arguing that they don't need filters on their computers. "What's the matter" they ask, "don't you trust me?" This question is sure to put parents on the defensive. But it doesn't stop parents from worrying that their kids will be exposed to unsavory, even dangerous, websites, such as those that try to lure kids to pornography, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and even violence.

As I mentioned in the introduction to Part 2, children may avoid disclosing dangerous behaviors because they fear being grounded, having their privacy invaded, or receiving other unwanted consequences from parents. As Faye Mishna, Michael Saini, and Steven Solomon learned, children in grades five through eight who are victims of cyberbullying also may avoid disclosing — in this case because they fear that their parents may remove their Internet or cell phone privileges. As these authors explain, youngsters this age view parents' attempts to protect them from harm by removing their connection with their social world as extremely punishing.

Martin Valcke and colleagues report research that confirms that parenting with warmth, receptivity, and listening results in safer Internet usage, more positive online interactive behavior, and a better understanding of the complexities of the Internet.

Austin, 12 years old, argued for more freedom on the Internet and ultimately came up with a solution that he presented to Mom and Dad: "Let me pick the sites I want, and I'll tell you about them," he proposed. "If you don't like what I pick, you can tell me to stop, and I will."

Dad's knee-jerk reaction was to say, "Son, you're just not ready to surf the net by yourself." But after talking with Mom, he agreed to try Austin's idea. It was a good decision. Austin felt that his parents trusted him, and the time they spent together talking about the sites he likes to visit as opposed to the sites he doesn't led to further discussion about what he learns on the Internet. As Austin's dad told me, "I spend more time with my son than I ever did before." Perhaps most important, this family is now used to talking to each other, which bodes well for the years ahead. When Austin becomes a teenager and wants to surf the net freely, he and his parents will know how to talk about this subject together and how to negotiate new boundaries.

The point of discussing Internet safety isn't to scare your child, just as you don't want him to worry that every stranger he passes on the street has something evil in mind. The point is to make your child aware that some dangers exist and to teach him how to take precautions so that he's free to discover the challenge and excitement of being online.

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Help Your Picky Eater

Does your 3-year-old balk at the peas? Does she squish her spaghetti with her fork rather than eat it? Does your child just refuse to try anything new, no matter what it is? Does she say "Yuck!" or "No!" when given a plate with food she doesn't recognize?

How much picky eating is a result of genetically determined predisposition or infant feeding practices is beyond the scope of this book, but Sylvia Scaglioni, Michelle Salvioni, and Cinzia Galimberti report that mothers who restrict specific foods may create a greater attraction to the foods not allowed (the "forbidden fruit" syndrome), and putting on too much pressure to eat healthy foods may create picky eaters too. (Work by Jae Eun Shim and her team, referenced at the back of this book, informs the relationship between genetically determined predisposition or infant feeding practices to picky eating.)

Some of the most difficult moments of family life unfold during mealtime. Trying to get children to eat the foods we know are good for them or bring variety to their diets can become a pitched battle. We end up saying things we never thought we'd say, like "If you don't eat your broccoli, you won't have any dessert!" or "You're not leaving the table until you eat every last piece of fruit" or "Do you know how long it took me to make this meal?"

Nagging children won't help them eat; in fact, it may make them more resolved than ever not to let the offending food cross their lips. You can't force a child to eat any more than you can force him to sleep. I know. When I was 10 at summer camp, my counselor wouldn't let me leave the lunch table until I ate the blueberry pie. I hated blueberry pie. I thought if I sat there long enough, she'd give up. But she didn't. Finally, I put some in my mouth, and she let me go. As soon as I was free, I spit it out.

Here are some suggestions that might help your picky eater.

First, make sure that your child is hungry before introducing a new food. He'll be more likely to try eggplant if he's not already full on chips and soda before dinner.

With very young children, you can play a series of word games, not just at meal time, but at any time during the day. Begin to play games that use the words some, all, and not. You can say things like:

"Show me all of the chairs in this room."
"Now show me some of the chairs."
"Show me something that is not a chair."

You can play this game with any objects in the house. You can also go into the kitchen and say:

"Tell me some of the things in here that you can not eat."
"Tell me some things you do in the bathroom that you can not do in the kitchen."

Then, when you're at dinner together, say, "Point to some of the peas on your plate. Now point to all of the peas on your plate. Point to a food on your plate that is not a pea."

Having associated these words with fun, you can now say, "I bet you can eat some of your peas. You do not have to eat all of them."

Your child may eat only two, or even one — but that's great news if it's the first time he's eaten any.

If your child can handle going with you to the grocery store (when he's not hungry, of course), let him pick out one veggie or any new food. Let him help you prepare it, even if he just adds some salt or holds it under running water. Klazine van der Horst supports this way of overcoming picky eating behaviors, finding that helping to cook the meal not only exposes the child to a wide variety of foods and a feeling of ownership and pride, but also adds to the enjoyment of eating. Some children are much more interested in eating food that they have had a role in preparing than food they are simply served.

Involving children in food preparation has another advantage: It can help clear up mysteries. For example, every time chicken was served, 8-year-old Belinda defiantly announced, "I hate this!"

Her exasperated mother would then say, "This is not a restaurant. You'll eat what's on the table!" At that point, Belinda would leave the table, run up to her room, and eat nothing at all.

The following week, Belinda happened to be in the kitchen while her mom was preparing chicken, and she noticed her mom generously sprinkling lots of seasonings on it. "That's why I don't like the chicken," Belinda exclaimed. "You make it so spicy!"

Belinda's mother knew just what to do. She asked Belinda which piece she wanted and didn't season it. That night, Belinda ate chicken with the rest of her family.

If your child eats a particular food away from home but not when you serve it, it may be because of differences in preparation. For example, Dominique, age 4, never ate beans at home but always ate them at Grandma's house. When asked why, Dominique said she didn't know. Mom felt hurt. One day, Mom asked Grandma how she prepared beans, and Grandma explained that she seasoned them with garlic salt. When Mom tried this at home, Dominique said, "These taste like Grandma's" and ate them without a problem.

You can also try to be creative with food presentation. Peter, age 8, was a huge baseball fan. One evening, his mom was inspired to give him a plate on which she'd arranged the peas as "little green baseballs," which she placed near "bats" made out of cut-up raw carrots. Another mom whose son loved animals put little animal crackers around the carrots, which she'd laid out in a square to form a "fence." Then she said, "This farm is just for you."

Ideas like these may well change "Yuck!" and "No!" into smiles. Your child may even agree to try something new — at least some, maybe even all, of it.

If your child is really resistant to a particular food, she may not respond to these suggestions for quite some time. In fact, she may never want to try it. Some kids just refuse to eat certain foods. It's not worth fighting over. Experts agree that if you provide a balanced diet, most kids will choose enough healthful foods — maybe not at each meal, but over the course of the week — and they'll be fine.

By the way, to this day, I have never again tried one more bite of blueberry pie.

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Is Your Child Physically Fit?

Obesity in children — even young children — is emerging as a new national health problem. As Jeffrey Koplan and colleagues inform us, thousands of American children eat fattening foods and don't get enough exercise to stay healthy. Citing a report by the Institute of Medicine, they report that over the past three decades, obesity has more than doubled in preschoolers, children ages 2 to 5, and adolescents ages 12 to 19. It has more than tripled in children ages 6 to 11. As the ancient Romans used to say, "Healthy body, healthy mind": In other words, our physical and emotional health are intertwined.

It's easy enough to see how we got into this predicament. With more parents working longer hours, we just don't have the time to prepare healthful meals every day. At the same time, many children lead busy lives themselves. Even if they are active, picking up a burger and fries on the way from football practice becomes an attractive alternative to a home-cooked meal — but of course it also undoes any benefits gained from the afternoon's physical activity.

Meanwhile, we're all watching more TV and spending hours in front of the computer, which may exercise our fingers and maybe even our brains, but not our bodies. As Rae Pica, author of Your Active Child, reports, increased hours in front of the TV result in increased body fat and lower fitness levels. Not only are kids not burning calories while watching TV, they often eat during that time. Pica adds that consequences of gaining too much weight include not only physical hazards - such as high blood pressure, later diabetes, poor bone development, even some forms of cancer — but emotional ones as well, as recently verified by Koplan and his team. Kids who are overweight are often the target of teasing and ridicule at school, and as Teresa Graves, Andrew Meyers, and Lisa Clark add, subject to peer rejection, negative self-concept, and some forms of pathology. These children often do not want to go to school and suffer from failing grades because they're not interested in doing assignments and can't concentrate on tests.

What's the remedy? Telling kids to get off the couch, stop eating so much, and nagging them won't help. How can we get our kids off the couch, away from their computers and video game consoles, our of the arcades, and into more active pursuits?

You can begin by instilling a love of movement in your children when they arc very young. Pica, who lists age-appropriate safe movements for children beginning in infancy, tells us that simple activities like walking, running, jumping, and climbing have many benefits, not the least of which is that they stimulate the heart, lungs: and other vital organs.

One way to help your child learn to love activity is to check out work-out videos, many available on the Internet: Yoga, for instance, is very popular these days. And some videos are targeted for children as young as 3 and 4. Yoga is gentle but also strenuous, and kids enjoy it because in doing the postures they can turn themselves into trees and mimic familiar animals like eagles perched on a branch, frogs squatting by a pond, and dogs stretching their legs.

Stretching and breathing exercises can help you, too. Include them in your workout time at home and encourage your child to join you. These exercises increase strength and flexibility and help you to relax. When you practice these techniques regularly, you may find that you have more equanimity and emotional resilience during the day, making you better able to cope with emotionally upsetting incidents.

In her charming book The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls, Valerie Lee Schaefer shows us how yoga and other forms of fitness build self-confidence and energy, strengthen the cardiac system, increase muscle tone and power, and deepen our ability to relax and sleep through the night. Her book is particularly helpful for young girls who are poised on the cusp of puberty and sensitive about their changing and vulnerable bodies.

In conversation, Dr. Eric Zillmer, Drexel University sports psychologist and director of athletics, told me that children and adults view physical activity quite differently, Zillmer suggests the following guidelines, which take these differences into account, as a means of making fitness a part of children's everyday life:

  • Activities for young children should be nonstructured and spontaneous, though guided by an adult.
  • Prolonged, strenuous physical exercise should be discouraged. Children should be allowed to stop whenever they feel the need to.
  • Fitness should be viewed as a way of life, a part of leisure time.

Importantly, Zillmer reminds us that "physical exercise, in moderation, is very healthy for young children and adolescents. It builds self-esteem, brings them together with friends, and gives them a sense of mastery over their own bodies.”

Teresa Graves and her colleagues conducted a study exposing 6- to 12-year-olds and their parents to a program involving problem solving, in which the parents thought of solutions to problems related to weight control, listed and evaluated possible alternatives, and developed plans. For example, if the parents identified eating when depressed, lonely, or bored as a problem, alternatives might include leaving the house, calling a friend, putting a plan into action (such as how, when, and where to implement these solutions), and, after evaluating these solutions, thinking of more ideas, if needed. Compared to families exposed to information or behavioral techniques alone (for example, nutritional data or self-monitoring), the problem-solving group had a significantly greater decrease in body weight and body mass indexes.

Our own research found that parents of 4- and 5-year-olds who are more competent problem solvers have kids who are better problem solvers. I suggest involving the children in finding and evaluating solutions to problems related to obesity, and, by age 8, in planning steps toward the goal (weight loss), anticipating obstacles that could interfere with reaching that goal, and appreciating the length of time it may take to reach that goal. Some interesting questions you can ask your child, beginning at about age 7 or 8, might include:

“What is your goal?" "What is the first thing you can do to reach that goal?" "What might happen that would make it difficult to do that?" "Then what can you do next?" 'How long do you think it will take to reach your goal?"

Your child can make up a story about a fictional child if talking about himself is too anxiety provoking. You can start by saying, for example, "Let’s make up a story about a boy your age who wants to lose a lot of weight. The story ends up with this boy losing lots of weight. You fill in the middle. Include step-by-step what he can do, anything that might get in the way of carrying out the steps, and how long it might take to reach his goal."

Here is a story that Paul, age 10, made up:

David said he would stop eating so much chocolates, but his friend baked him a chocolate cake for his birthday. He didn't want to hurt his friend's feelings, so he decided to just have one bite and told his friend why he was only having one bite. He decided to give the rest of his cake to his neighbors, but they didn't like chocolate. So he brought the cake to school and anyone in his class who likes chocolate could eat it. David told his friend how much the kids at school liked the cake and his friend liked that.

In Paul's story, David started with a step toward the goal (stop eating so much chocolate), met by two obstacles (friend baked him a cake for his birthday and he might hurt his friend's feelings). He added a step to circumvent these obstacles (explain to his friend why he had only one bite and give the rest to his neighbors). This last step was met by an obstacle (neighbors didn't like chocolate), circumvented by bringing the cake to school. Finally, David made his friend feel good by telling him the kids at school liked the cake. While Paul didn't include a thought about how long it might take David to reach his goal, this was a good start.

While physical activity is critical, I believe that teaching parents and their children problem-solving skills regarding any problem beginning at a very early age can be helpful in dealing with specific problems of obesity in later childhood.

When you work out with your child, you give her a good example to follow. That, in combination with competent problem-solving skills, is far more effective than simply exhorting her to "get off the couch" or "stop eating so much" and nagging her to spend less time at the arcade. Best of all, working out with your child provides a wonderful way to spend time together.

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Love of Music Goes Beyond the Sounds

I recently overheard a man at a party give a friend some advice that he gives his children: “Find what you love and do it." It sounds like good advice to me. What the man may not realize, though, is that anything you love to do and can do together with your kids strengthens important emotional ties that helps them connect with other people — now and later in life as well.

Connecting through a love of music accomplishes this, says Dr. Beth Bolton, chair of the Music Education and Therapy Department at Philadelphia's Temple University and sponsor of the Join the Music, Join the Circle program for kids from birth through age 4. When I attended one of these workshops, I saw children as young as 5 or 6 months cheerfully bouncing up and down and clapping along with their parents, imitating animal sounds they heard and joining other families in musical games and activities.

In addition to a love of music, such activities help children learn timing and important listening skills. "Music can be soothing,” Bolton notes, “and in the presence of Mom and Dad, help the child feel relaxed and safe." And more than that, Rebecca Parlakian and Claire Lerner tell us that singing a lullaby while rocking a baby can stimulate early language development, enhance parent/baby attachment, and, as the baby's body moves in space, support growing spatial awareness.

Parents I spoke with at the workshop concurred. Julio Gonzales helps his daughter Rosita, 22 months, "find joy in life" through music. "We dance together," Julio says, "and we clap hands and laugh together. Right from the day she was born, we played CDs for her and sang to her — and not just lullabies. When she was 4 months old, we noticed that when we put on the same music, her expression changed. She smiled and showed more emotion. Even now, she sings the songs she heard practically from birth. The music soothes her. It calms her down.” This is just what Parlakian and Lerner describe can happen. As babies are being soothed, they can learn to soothe themselves, an important step in learning to manage one's emotional state. And, as children get older, some have difficulty expressing their emotions. Connie Dow reports that these children can find an outlet in movement, stimulated by music — and release of emotional tension that would inhibit the ability to think and solve problems such as those described in this book.

Music can also play an important role in promoting physical fitness, an important life skill discussed in Chapter 19. Peter Werner and his colleagues show us how to encourage vigorous, fast movement by moving with the music, adding to the enjoyment by acting out activities such as jumping and turning while "ice-skating," putting on "boots," stamping feet in "puddles,” or walking, hopping, and jumping in the “snow." Slower music can encourage us to stretch our limbs to become more flexible and to explore slow movements such as reaching for the "sky" and slow]y bending down to pick up a "ball" — exercises that can calm a child down. And, as Parlakian and Lerner describe, music stimulates dancing, and any movement that can build muscles on the arms, legs, and trunk — and encourage movement of hands and fingers — can support development important for later writing and drawing.

Not only can music calm a child but, as Joy's mom, Betty, told me, helps me forget my problems!” While Joy, 5, learns to be creative by making new sounds with such homemade instruments as acorns in a can or rice in a film canister, Betty relaxes. “It helps me live in the present moment, and I stop worrying about things,” she said.

Homemade instruments helped another family survive a long car trip. The children, ages 5 and 7, made up songs about what they saw and where they were going, accompanying themselves on plastic eggs filled with tiny pellets. The kids were so involved in the songs they were creating that they forgot to whine and argue.

Marion, mother of 3-year-old Sandra, said, “I want Sandra to learn to enjoy life in natural ways. Dancing and singing together bonds us, too." She also believes that in the years ahead, her daughter will have to work to master music skills and that "making this effort will help to master a love nurtured at an early age that will help to build character."

Music and dance have other important benefits, too. The notion that creative movement stimulated by music has value has been supported in rigorous research by Yovanka Lobo and Adam Winsler, who found that in only eight weeks preschoolers guided in creative dance movements, compared to those engaged in free-play only, became better able to maintain flexibility, achieve peer acceptance, and, in general, become more socially competent. Initially aggressive children became less aggressive, and initially withdrawn/anxious children became less anxious and withdrawn after they had been guided to move to music in creative ways.

Music can have important benefits for older children, too. Olivia, 12, finds that playing the piano relaxes her. When I come home from school, I practice for about an hour. I can think about things that happened today. If something good happened, I can play perky music. If something sad happened, I can play something slow that sounds sad. Then I feel relaxed and I can do my homework."

Two youngsters I spoke with told me how playing music influenced their social lives as well. Katrina, age 12, is the violinist in a string quartet at school, an experience that has taught her many lessons about teamwork and how to settle disputes. These four kids have learned to meld their individual voices into one. They discuss each piece as they rehearse it, trying to reach consensus about how fast or soft, and how loudly or quietly, to play each passage. They also discuss the composer's vision of the piece and how they can best approximate that vision. This kind of accommodation and consensus building is an important life skill that we need to get along with others.

Drew, age 10, found benefits from music without playing an instrument. A big country music fan, he heard a kid at school talking about a country singer who was recently on TV. Drew started talking with the boy, and they ended up going to the local music store together to compare their favorite CDs. Today they enjoy a close friendship.

There are many ways children and their families can find joy and feel relaxed and safe while learning important life skills. From talking with parents and kids, I have come to appreciate how music can be one of them.

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Copyright © 2016 Myrna B. Shure