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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.


Understanding your Teen’s Development

BrainA parent recently asked are teens “crazy”… because she’d seen a book titled “Yes, Your Teen is Crazy”, which describes recent brain imaging studies.

In full disclosure, I haven’t read this book yet, but have perused it. The basic message is solid – but I caution folks to realize the main point is a bit overstated.

I’ve reviewed many brain imaging studies. They do suggest teen brains on average look different from adult brains (not in shape or size, but in the way they function). That only tells us that teens are in developmental flux, and that more development is on the way. Their development may continue into very early twenties in fact. But, that doesn’t mean teens are “nuts” (as one book reviewer joked). It doesn’t mean that teens are unable to make good, thoughtful decisions, or be responsible.

These brain imaging studies should never be used as an excuse for negative behavior in any teen, especially if the bulk of teenagers otherwise handle similar situations well. In America, we have a tendency to blame biology for our problems. And we have more than our share of problems with many teens growing up – not because their brains are wired funny – but because we adults have prolonged their childhood and adolescence. The fact is, kids here grow up very, very late. Anecdotally, teens act less mature in America than the average teen I’ve come across in other countries.

We hover. We worry. We often do too much for children who are capable. We give them to much attention and resources. We also stress and pressure them to be early top performers in everything they do. This combination between pushing them to achieve early at all cost coupled with doing too much for them to make them look mature and look smarter could make any teen feel and act “nuts!!”

How to understand your teen’s brain development? In short, teens on average will be more emotional. Many will be more impulsive. They will fight with you and their friends more (they call this having “drama”). They will need your close attention and help and certainly your love for years to come – but not all teens are the same. In my experience, many can mature earlier when their parents push them to be responsible and self-sufficient. Others need a longer road and more parenting/mentorship simply because they are late bloomers.

Let’s all keep an eye on our behavior as parents and educators. Early in childhood, don’t push them to achieve too much and don’t do too much for them if they are more than capable. Let them have ownership of their actions and choices. Don’t interfere with their sense of responsibility by fixing everything. Always give them opportunities to grow up in the real world.

Finally, brain-wise, don’t worry about what’s going on beneath the surface. The biology of the brain knows what its doing…. it will take care of itself.

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


Why Kids Tune You Out – and 5 Steps that Will Help!

iStock_000014442623Large (2)By middle school, kids tune out parents and tune into peers. They get defensive as soon as they hear a mom or dad’s’ voice. Shields go up and good advice can’t get through. How can you get your kids to listen? Here are five basic steps to help. I use them in my work everyday talking with children. You can too.

Step One: Don’t lead with advice. Don’t start off a conversation with solutions or directives. Kids automatically hear it as “you messed up” or “you can’t think for yourself.” That shuts down their active listening.

Step Two: Join in. Start a conversation by sincerely acknowledging how they feel and what they’re going through. For example, “Wow – that’s terrible you’re friend didn’t invite you… sorry… that must hurt a lot.” And stop it there. Let a few seconds or minutes of silence go by. This is how kids share problems with one another. I’ve heard it many times in my work. And I’ve found that using this style of interacting really helps when I need to communicate something very important and sensitive.

Step Three: Don’t lecture. In my work, I frequently see parents lecturing their kids about what they already know. The more a parent does this – the less a child listens.

Step Four: Pose questions (don’t offer solutions). This encourages children to think for themselves. I tell parents to¬†Position Yourself as a Learner. Truly listen and learn from your kids. Don’t interrupt. Show you want to learn about their world, who they are, and how they think. Bite your tongue when you get that urge to offer advice. Keep your anxiety at bay. Stop the impulse to teach and fix every problem because it makes you nervous.

Step Five: Ask permission to offer advice. Say, “I have an idea… you want to hear what I’m thinking… could help?” If they decline your offer, respect that. Wait. Try another time. In many cases, giving them a little space allows them to circle back to you when they’re ready to listen.

That’s when your advice gets through and takes hold.

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


Is It Shyness or Something on the Spectrum?

frightened little girlRecently I heard from a parent of an almost 4 year old boy, described as smart, but shy at school. The teacher is recommending testing to see if he’s “on the spectrum”. This is a classic case of teachers diagnosing through suggestion – and while trying to be helpful – it can create enormous anxiety in families.

Worse, untrained (good) intentions can send kids down the wrong diagnostic path. That’s because there are no objective tests for “the spectrum”, as there are no objective tests for the most common boy diagnosis, ADHD. The error rate in diagnosing these is high. Yet, getting the right help to kids early who need it is important. What’s the best approach?

As I say in my book, The Way of Boys, don’t rush the diagnostic process. And beware of your anxiety. The more you worry, the more you’ll likely move ahead without considering all possibilities, including a better school environment or different teaching style. If your teacher has a concern, the best place to start is with a trusted professional that knows you and your child – your pediatrician. Also, giving a young child time to grow and develop is very important. If the problem persist five or six months down the line, then it deserves further assessment.

In the case of this shy 4 year old, I’d start by having the parents address the teacher’s concerns head-on. If there are obvious developmental delays in language, great difficulty in making eye contact, playing almost always alone, and over-fascination with only one or two toys or non-play objects, then I’d be inclined to get him tested now. Otherwise, it’s best to teach him the social basics and see if those help address the concerns.

For shy boys, directly coach them on the steps of how best to relate to others. Teach them these basics, and practice over and over.

1. Walking up to other kids and saying hello

2. Looking kids in the eye

3. Announcing one’s name clearly – with a nice tone

4. Asking the other child his name – with confidence in their voice

5. And most important, asking to join in play or inviting other kids to doing something fun.

Go to parks and playgroups and make it happen. Arrange playdates and keep going to small positive group activities where they see some of the same kids everyday or afternoon. Gently push him away from you and into the company of peers. Keep calm and project confidence so he knows there’s nothing to worry about.

If a child comes back to you, hides, or refuses to leave you, step off. Ignore that behavior completely. Don’t console him. Then try again. Push and encourage him, and slowly walk off, fade into the background. Let him have more and more time away from you. Don’t interrupt the play or hover. Let his social life belong to him (mistakes and all) – that’s how he learns.

Shyness is often constitutional. but it can be molded and shaped. and shy kids often rush to their parents at very low levels of anxiety. Don’t pay it attention – if you do, that only makes future shyness worse. Reassuring too much suggests to your child that maybe there is something real and dangerous out there when there isn’t.

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