Everyone Appreciates A Snowplow in the Winter…

The psychology profession has never been shy about shaming parents who have children who struggle with behavior.  Pithy, judgmental terms are the frequent weapon of choice in communicating blame.  We are all familiar with the “Helicopter Parent,” i.e., the parent who swoops in from on high to rescue their child at the slightest hint of struggle (or so these judgmental coiners of the phrase tell us.).   Parents of struggling children already feel bad enough without having to endure a succinct term to throw at them under times of frequent stress.

Well now there is a new term with which to shame parents – The Snowplow Parent.  The notion is that much like its real-life counterpart, the snowplow parent pushes ahead in front of their children removing any and all obstacles so that their child does not have to face any hardships or barriers in their lives.  The argument goes that in removing these obstacles, the parents are depriving their children of the opportunity to learn how to overcome hurdles on the road to becoming independent, responsible adults.  But here is the interesting thing; snowplows are actually pretty helpful.  How many of you during a blizzard have said “No thanks, Mr. Plow. I would rather trudge through this dangerous, snow-laden road on my own, because what I am most interested in doing is building my character?” 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do believe it is helpful to learn how to navigate obstacles and overcome adversity.  But as we frequently see in this kind of situation, people often fall victim to an all-or-none type of thinking that ends up actually preventing that exact goal to which we are striving.  Yes, it is helpful for children to learn how to deal with obstacles, but some obstacles may be too difficult for them to handle at times and there may be situations in which it is absolutely appropriate to remove them.  Do I need the snowplow to drive down my street when there is an inch or two of snow?  Certainly not.  Do I need the snowplow to drive down my street when there is a foot of snow?  Yes, please!  Making things more complicated is the fact that if I am an inexperienced or poor driver, I may need the snowplow when there is less snow than an amount faced by a more experienced driver.  The degree of difficulty that a situation presents is not absolute, but rather is determined by the level of cognitive and social emotional skill required by the situation relative to the particular person’s skill set.

It is this relativity that we must always keep in mind.  We must constantly assess the degree of difficulty of a situation relative to the level of skill which the child possesses.  And if the difference is too great, we must accommodate accordingly.  One example of this is a child who has very poor frustration tolerance.  If the child’s frustration tolerance is considerably lower than what we would expect for his or her age, then we might need to modify the environment so that this particular child does not have to encounter as many frustrations throughout their day as a another child who has a better developed ability to manage frustration.  Think of it as learning how to lift weights.  If your child can only currently lift 5 pounds, but is required to lift 20, you may have to spot him/her the other 15 pounds, or at least maybe 10.  People get stronger incrementally.  As they continue to practice, they slowly get better.  Removing some of the “weight” helps them proceed and grow at a reasonable pace.

So, the next time someone accuses you of being a “Snowplow Parent,” you may want to ask them to think about the implications the next time they are facing a blizzard. 

 

 

Just Listen...

“A child seldom needs a good talking to as a good listening to.”

Robert Brault 

The more I meet with children, their parents, and their teachers, the more I hear a common, recurring theme.  Children, like adults, simply want to be heard.  They want to be understood.  Although this may seem like an obvious statement, we often take for granted how truly hard it is just to listen.  This is particularly true when our children are struggling.  Children have a very difficult time communicating when they are struggling.  They often say or do things that lead us adults to scold, reprimand, threaten, etc. rather than try to understand.  When our child says, “I’m not going to school today!” and we say, “Oh yes you are!” we are not listening.  When our child screams, “It’s not fair!” and we respond, “Get used to it, life’s not fair,” we are not listening.  When our child slams their door and we threaten, “If you do that again, I am taking away your cell phone for a month!” we are not listening.  When our student says, “I suck at math!” and we respond “No, you don’t,” we are not listening.  When our student says, “Nobody likes me,” and we counter with, “I’m sure that’s not true,” we are not listening. 

Listening is difficult and complicated, even under the best of circumstances.  Listening to a child who communicates in a less than ideal (and sometimes “disrespectful” or unsafe) manner is even harder.  When our child screams, hits, curses, defies, etc., we need to tune in to what he or she is trying to communicate and then help him or her communicate it better.  When our child says, “I’m not going to school today!” we might say, “I understand that you are stressed about your test.”  When our child screams, “It’s not fair!” we might respond, “I know you are disappointed that the field trip was canceled.”  When our child slams their door, we might state, “I’m sorry you are so frustrated.”  When our student says, “I suck at math!” we might respond, “I know that math has been difficult to understand recently.”  When our student says, “Nobody likes me,” we might say, “It sounds like you have been feeling pretty lonely lately.”

Listening is hard.  Unfortunately, the children who need to be heard the most, often behave in ways that make it very difficult for adults to listen to them.  So, when you see your child behaving in ways that concern you, remind yourself, “My child is not giving me a hard time, my child is having a hard time.”  Frequently, the child is having a hard time communicating and it is therefore up to us as adults to help them communicate better.  When we do that, they will feel heard and understood.  When they feel heard and understood, we will begin to see fewer problematic behaviors and more communication.  When we continue to provide this support and understanding, our children will begin to communicate more and more on their own.  Ultimately, they will be able to communicate without our support.  So, if you want your child to behave, to follow the rules, and to learn how to handle life, just listen.

Feel free to share your thoughts below.

All in Good Time

Today I am starting a series of (approximately) weekly blog posts discussing commonly occurring situations and frustrations faced by many of the parents and educators with whom I work.  The goal of these posts is to build empathy and perspective for the struggles that our children and students face in their day to day lives as they try to learn how to navigate life’s challenges and obstacles, so that we can approach them with as much calm and compassion as possible.  My hope is that these posts will generate some helpful thinking and dialogue that will improve our ability to help our struggling children as best as we can.  Today’s post is entitled “All in Good Time.”

 

So often we end up in conflictual situations with children because we want them to do something that they are simply “not ready” to do.  I do not mean “not ready” in the sense of needing a few more minutes to finish what they are currently doing (although that certainly can be the case fairly often), but rather “not ready” in the sense of not being ready developmentally.  Children progress at different rates, both compared to other children as well as within their ow different skill sets.  We understand this when it comes to young children.  We know that not all infants and toddlers learn to walk, speak, and use the potty at the same time and that there is a range of what is considered “typical” development for these different milestones.  However, this range of development does not stop once children leave toddlerhood.  Throughout their lives, children (and grown-ups, too!) continue to develop various skills at different rates.  Skills such as handling frustrations, managing anxieties and worries, considering the results of one’s actions when making decisions, etc. all develop at different rates for different people.  We know that many of these skills are actually not fully developed until well into our mid-20’s, and yet we often expect children to be good at these skills well before they actually are.  This can play out in areas such as eating a variety of foods, sleeping well and in one’s own bed, completing schoolwork and homework, and participating in sports and performances.  When we don’t attend to the fact that children progress at different rates, we run the risk of pushing our children to do things long before they are ready, which often results in stress, conflict, and resentment (both on our parts as well as on the part of our children) and can negatively impact the relationship we have with our children/students.

 

When working with parents and educators, I frequently use the phrase “go slow to go fast.”  When we push children too fast, it can often end up backfiring, taking us further away from our goal.  If we allow children to proceed at their own pace, in the long run they will frequently get there more quickly.  Now, some will argue that we if we set the bar high, children will rise to the occasion, but that if our expectations are too low, children will not make progress, and thus we are doing them a disservice by not holding them to a high enough standard.  Parents who try to attend to these issues can often be accused of being “helicopter parents” or the more recent term “snowplow parents” (a controversial term that I shall be discussing in a future blog post).  For what it’s worth, and as a quick tangent, parenting and teaching are hard enough jobs, and there is no utility in wasting time and energy engaging in blaming and calling names.  Anyway, I believe it is important to have “reasonable” expectations for our children.  Finding that point where we push just enough but not too much can be a difficult task.  Trust your gut.  If your child does not seem ready, it may be because they are not ready.  Sometimes, being a parent means meeting our children where they are and giving them the space they need to develop at their own pace.  So, slow down, be patient, and they will get there in due time.

 

Feel free to leave appropriate and respectful thoughts and comments below.