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Home Alone? Fostering a Child’s Independence Safely.

latchkey kidParents are working longer hours than ever before. Providing supervision for their kids after school is a juggling act at best. Often, parents ask me… Is it ok for my kids to walk themselves home from school? Should someone be at our house to meet them? Will they stay safe and out of trouble until I show up later that afternoon? Is it ok for older sibs to watch them until I get back?

There are as many possible arrangements as there are different types of families and situations. Safety is naturally the first concern. But even when it’s safe, parents aren’t always sure their kids are ready to take the major step of being home alone. Parents need to consider a child’s readiness. Here are some tips to help.

1.  Check in with families around the neighborhood. What are they doing? What do they think is realistic and appropriate for their kids, and what arrangements have they found work best? You’ll get useful advice and learn about potentially helpful resources in your area that give busy working parents support.

2.  Age alone can’t be the only way to decide. There are children at nine or ten able to handle being alone for short periods of time, but many older kids aren’t ready. Rather than age, think about the maturity level of your child. How do they handle tasks? Stress? Can they carry out chores? Do they show good judgment when alone in another parts of the house? Do teachers tell you they are responsible at school? These are things to look for when deciding if your child is ready.

3. Being able to stay home alone is a developmental step for children. It’s about independence – and independence can be taught. Start small and build. Train kids to be independent while the family is together. Kids can be encouraged to spend more and more time in other parts of the house by themselves while playing or reading. Also, encourage them to make decisions for themselves. Before you remind them or do things for them, you might first ask, “what would you do if you were alone at home and needed to figure this out?”

4. Meanwhile, if you can’t find a sitter until you get home, consider the library. Certainly for mid-elementary and middle school kids, these are safe places that have trusted adult supervision. Many have after-school programs to encourage youngsters to come in, do homework in supervised groups, read, and some even allow quiet socializing. If your local library doesn’t have such programs, ask to help start one. There are also homework and science clubs, sports and rec centers, town swimming programs, and many after school organizations like Four-H Club.

5. I’m often asked, What if my child walks home alone? Are they ready to be home alone too? Children are sometimes ready to walk home a few blocks, along a safe route and in the company of others, but might feel afraid once they enter an empty house. These can be two very different developmental challenges. The goal is to help kids feel more relaxed at home while you’re not there. Again, think of this in steps. Maybe your child needs someone there for an hour, then in a few weeks cut it down to one-half hour, and finally, someone only needs to greet your child at the door and get them settled. Reward kids for taking on more freedom and responsibility. You can tie in a special “big boy” or “big girl” privilege to their willingness to handle more time by themselves and carrying it out maturely.

6. Older sibs can supervise, right? While some can, many cannot. Ask yourself if an older sib is the nurturing type, mature, and able to follow your guidelines while away. Ask yourself, would I let them be a babysitter to another family? That’s essentially what you’re asking of them. Not every kid is cut out to be in charge of younger kids.

7. Finally, have reliable back-up plans. In case of emergency, instructing your kids to call you or dial 911 makes obvious sense, but you’ll also need trusted friends, extended family in the area, and close neighbors willing to be available on-call to help should your child need adult help while you aren’t there. Rehearsing what to do if scenarios with your kids will help keep them feeling confident and safe.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


What’s the best way to promote healthy emotional regulation in children?

Question and Answers on speech bubblesAchieving better emotional regulation is a goal for all people (adults and kids). We have to work at this everyday. The basics of emotional regulation start very young in childhood. Emotional regulation should be something that’s woven into daily life… woven into the fabric of home and classroom. Controlling strong emotions and knowing where best to express emotions should be practiced throughout daily routines and lessons and organized sports.

What does this entail? What’s the best way to help promote emotional regulation in kids?

Children (and adults) must have moments to pause when overstimulated and when they show signs of high emotion. They need moments to breathe, opportunities to move and shift one’s view, and always given a few minutes to digest newly learned things. It’s important that the brain have brief spaces of time (I call these “mind breaks”) before going onto the next thing. Avoid multi-tasking. It doesn’t foster emotional regulation. It does the opposite. Juggling taxes the mind. Have you noticed you’re most likely to snap at people, lose your temper, get more easily frustrated when you’re trying to do too much at once?

Finally, if you want kids to have better emotional regulation, let them move about. Especially for boys, using their hands and touching objects while exploring the physical space around them plays to their neurological strengths (visual-motor systems and higher activity needs). Boys (and many men) are more likely to learn and be engaged in tasks not by sitting in front of screens or behind desks, but also by doing things and moving about. The prolonged sitting we ask kids (and many adults) to do isn’t helping them learn or do a task better, as much as it’s a way for teachers and bosses to try to squeeze out work more efficiently. But if you want creativity, intelligent problem-solving, better motivation in tasks… don’t keep kids and adults stuck in chairs or one spot too long.

Until we make changes, we will continue to see more and more kids (mostly boys) diagnosed and labeled with emotional disregulation – and along with that – more unnecessary diagnoses of ADHD. Those are labels. Those assign the problem to the child. That’s easier than admitting we may need to change the environment – and acknowledge what we have set up isn’t working.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


Need or Want? Teaching the Difference to Your Kids

Big stack of colorful Christmas presentsOn this Cyber Monday,we hear news of the billions of dollars spent during the holiday season. It’s all the more important to help children appreciate the difference between what they want and what they need. The two easily get blurred.

I recommend parents try a three-pile process. Before bringing any new clothes or toys into the house, take inventory of what you already have. Make three piles with the help of your children. Pile one: the toys and clothes used most frequently, most enjoyed, and certainly keep clothes that are needed. Pile two: what kids sometimes use or need, but may not be 100% essential. Pile three: what they haven’t touched or seen for a few months (seasonal clothing excluded of course).

Seeing piles helps kids visually appreciate the abundance of their good fortune. It often shocks parents to realize how much money is spent on things not appreciated. Box up pile three and put it aside. If you or your child doesn’t go into the box for several weeks, chances are you can part with those items. Giving unwanted and unused items to friends, neighbors, relatives, or donating them to the millions of people suffering in these tough times, teaches children to think of others and be thankful for what they have. Surprisingly, with less objects and possessions around them, children seem to like what they have more. The value of things goes up if we have less of them.

The value also goes up when kids split the cost. As the saying goes, they have more skin in the game! One teenager I know loves the newest and often most expensive Nikes that come out every year. He’s a terrific athlete and great student. He wants to feel proud wearing them. All great reasons to own them, but he doesn’t “need” them. His parents have a simple rule. Split the costs 50-50. He does special errands, baby-sits, saves birthday money, and pays half. His mother tells me this results in him taking better care of his sneakers. He keeps them clean and doesn’t leave them around the house.

Also, ask yourself who’s doing most of the buying? Parents today are very busy, working long hours, and often try to compensate by buying more things for their kids. We tend to make more out of holidays and birthdays than ever. It feels good to give and make kids feel happy, but its only temporary, and it sends the wrong message. We should be linking new toys, fun clothes, and electronic games to maintaining healthy behaviors, better school effort, and compliance at home.

Finally, watch out for begging. Kids who push and push to get something they want only learn to push harder should you cave in. I recommend that parents have a strict rule on begging. If begging gets out of control, then the whole discussion is put aside for a week. I know too many adults who push, plead, won’t take no for an answer… and we all find such people very challenging to deal with. We see how they make others around them uncomfortable and angry. I wonder what they were like as kids? Maybe their parents didn’t help teach the difference between want and need.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


The Three Boy Basics!

Question and Answers on speech bubblesA parent recently asked: One day my son follows directions fine – but then the next, it’s like he never learned our rules. Anything to help keep us all more on track – to be more consistent?

What this parent describes is classic in young boy development. Their skills seem to magically show up one day, only to disappear the next. Frustrating when you’re trying to get out the door on time or keep to a consistent bedtime. Parents describe it like a frayed lamp cord or switch. What’s really happening beneath the surface isn’t frayed or broken at all. It’s learning. His frontal cortex is developing and there’s lots of rewiring/pruning of neurons.

While waiting for the wires to tighten up, so to speak, stick to the three-boy-basics. If you follow my posts – you’ll see that I return to these basics time and time again. I know how important these steps are to boy success, so a reminder is always helpful.

The three-boy-basics are helpful for active girls too. Make this your mantra and know that change won’t happen over night – expect inconsistent behavior for a bit – at least until six or seven years old.

The Three-Boy-Basics:

(1) Have him always look up into your eyes every time you call his name. If you don’t, you’re accidentally training him to not make eye contact when you speak or use his name. Think ahead to the problems he’ll have when his teacher calls on him if he’s not been conditioned to look up. Make this mandatory and 100% of the time!

(2) Tell him to listen carefully, because you will be asking him to repeat back what you’re about to say. This is to teach sustained attention.

(3) Attach a consequence (which doesn’t have to be immediate). For example, “If you can say what I’ve told you and you follow through… you will get 10 more minutes on my iPad”… “If you repeat back what I’ve asked and go to bed now, then we can have story time – and if not that’s your choice and tomorrow’s another day to try.”

And this is key… always stay calm. That’s essential for these the three-boy-basics to work. If you look upset or get angry (and who doesn’t from time to time…) it will lengthen the time it takes to get him to a better developmental place. The reason? You’re accidentally dumping emotional stress and stimulation into your parenting. Parenting has to be dry, clear, consistent, not charged with emotion. It’s distracting to be in front of people with high emotion. It also gives boys a reason to engage in a fight. They dig their heals just to hold on to their power.

If you find yourself reminding, you’re also delaying his development. He won’t develop his own skills if you do the work. Very young kids need reminders and help… but I see many older teens with parents who can’t step aside and just let consequences happen. They try and try to coach and help their kids (with good intentions) but it always leads to failure in the end – and often a very angry young man.

Parents think all that reminding and helping and nagging will push their kids to the next level and success. It won’t. In fact, it has the opposite effect. Kids tune out, act lazy, get dependent on others to keep them moving along. They lose interest in doing things for themselves. So here’s the take-away. Keep to the three-boy-basics. Stay calm. Don’t engage in high emotion or fights. And never interfere with consequences (failing a grade, not making a team, losing a friend not getting into college) because you will only delay their development.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


Play should messy and clumsy and exploratory. None of that is ADHD

Question and Answers on speech bubblesA parent recently asked, “My son is 18 months old. He resists the structure of Gymboree class and prefers to run and climb. Is this the start of ADHD? Another parent inferred it might be… Should I be concerned?

No parent should have to worry that their child has ADHD at 18 months old. There is no way that a child so young could be diagnosed with this. Running and climbing aren’t signs of ADHD, they are signs of healthy motor drive and exploration. Perhaps classes like Gymboree aren’t for everyone. They are structured. Many boys prefer not to have adults impose program-like activities. They want – and need – free play.

I was fortunate to be trained by top clinicians in the country, and they cautioned not to go looking for ADHD symptoms in very young children – but to wait until 5 or 6, maybe 7 years old. The “symptoms” of ADHD are actually not symptoms, but normal behaviors all children do (especially active young boys). As long as a pediatrician or other experienced child development expert isn’t concerned, then parents need not worry.

Maybe we should be more concerned about gym classes for toddlers? Scheduling play. Being too involved in their movements and explorations. Nothing is generally wrong with that as long as free play is still available. Supervise for safety, but otherwise move back and let normal, healthy development take place.

That’s the way it’s been done for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s only been very very recently (since the late 1980s and 1990s) that adults began organizing children’s play and bringing it indoors. On the surface it seem harmless, but many child specialists question if this interferes with normal development of cognitive and social skills. Interestingly, this movement indoors with less free play coincides with the era of soaring ADHD diagnoses.

Better to offer your kids outdoor, natural environments that allow for safe but free movement. Offer the simplest objects (sand, stones, water, sticks, leaves, jungle gyms and swings, a bucket and pail, a ball) keeping it simple allows kids to invest their mental energy and imagination. Encourage mistakes made along the way. Crying or fighting is natural and the real way that kids learn to get along. Resist the urge to step in and teach or fix conflict. Don’t rob your kids of these real-life opportunities to learn.

In short – young play should messy and clumsy and exploratory. None of that is ADHD.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.