Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thinking Outside the XBox {An Old Curmudgeon's Guide to Holiday Shopping}

Why don't I think electronic toys are a great choice for holiday gifts?  Let me count the ways...

Electronic toys are addictive, violent, and don't require or encourage creativity.

Children don't acquire critical skills like depth perception, hand eye coordination, problem solving, motor planning, joint stability, or balance while playing video games.

Electronic toys encourage isolation, not socialization.  They don't require making conversation or eye contact.  They don't teach social skills like turn taking, patience, or sportsmanship, they don't require the child to plan and strategize against a human opponent, and they require nothing in the way of negotiation or compromise.

Video games encourage hyperfocusing instead of fostering the development of flexible attention.  Flexible attention, the ability to concentrate on one thing while maintaining awareness of, and selectively responding to, everything else, is absolutely essential for success at school, the workplace, and in social situations.

Children who spend all their time sitting indoors playing on electronic toys are at risk for delays in their neurological development.  In order for a child to acquire a strong, stable, vigorous, healthy body with reliable balance and good vision and perception, he has to freely explore and interact with his physical environment, not sit staring at a screen for hours on end.  He needs  constant opportunities to move and use his body in all kinds of ways.  To be physically healthy and mentally and emotionally sane, he needs a great deal of regular activity out of doors so that he can breathe fresh air,  absorb the sunshine, and have contact with the natural world.

Why is this necessary?  An immature, inefficient nervous system that does not allow the child to respond to his world in a strong, healthy, flexible manner has a profound negative influence on learning and behavior, and sets the child up for being at risk for learning and behavioral problems.  A sedentary child is at risk for all kinds of health problems including obesity, and, later down the road, diabetes.

Recently, the mother of a little boy I have been treating decided to put away all of his electronic toys and to spend the time with him outside instead.  In combination with the work we are doing in the clinic to help him catch up neurologically, the change in his behavior and his ability to function in school was immediate and profound:  he went from being a serious behavior problem to being a class leader.

The best toys are ones that are open ended and encourage creativity and artistic expression, have problems to solve, and allow the child to develop and refine fine motor coordination by manipulating materials in three dimensions.

Some suggestions:

Art supplies are always a big hit with small children. Suggestions include but are not limited to rubber stamps, colored pencils, paint, sequins, glitter, feathers, pipe cleaners, stickers, construction paper, scissors that cut scalloped edges, modeling clay, Sculpey or Fimo, beads for stringing, scrapbooking supplies, a chalkboard easel with lots of colored chalk.

Crafts:  weaving potholders, woodworking, leather lacing, coppertooling, beading, perler beads, tessel tiles, suncatchers, kits for sewing your own puppet or stuffed animal.  For an older child, an introductory kit that teaches knitting or crocheting, or a little frame loom, can be an introduction to a meaningful pursuit that will last across the child's life span.

Games:  I particularly like Jenga, Connect Four, Operation, Tier Auf Tier, Scrabble, Boggle, and Monopoly for teaching social skills and fine motor coordination.

Musical Instruments:  Harmonicas, whistles, recorders, kazoos, drums, bells.  Toy stores or music stores usually have a great selection of inexpensive instruments.

Cooking:  A little chef's kit or set of children's baking ware can be a wonderful way to get a child interested in eating good food and cooking.

Outdoor fun:  The possibilities are infinite:  balls, skates, jump ropes, a scooter, a telescope for looking at the stars at night, some camping equipment and a promise to use it when it gets warm.

Indoor fun:  A little trampoline, a Sit N Spin, a Zoomball, a hula hoop.

What was your favorite book as a child?  Chances are the children in your life will enjoy it just as much, especially if you read it to them.

{Here is last year's post, with more suggestions.}

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Therapist, Verse Four

This series is divided into four parts.  The first, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Therapist, suggests that instead of automatically shielding children from the inevitable obstacles, failures, and disappointments that they will face in their lives, we instead teach them to be strong, resilient, and able to handle adversity.  The first step in this process is basing our actions and expectations  on the understanding that children are starting from a position of strength, not weakness. 

The second part, How to Achieve Planned Obsolescence, outlines strategies for teaching children how to be strong, resilient, flexible, independent, responsible, creative, and resourceful, think for themselves, and solve their own problems.  

The third part, Becoming Obsolete, Part II, discusses the value of a solid academic education, with an emphasis on the basics.  The rules of penmanship, arithmetic, spelling, phonics, punctuation, and grammar provide a stable foundation for everything that follows.  The rules of reading, writing and arithmetic are the academic equivalent of playing scales, and, like scales, should be practiced and drilled until they are completely automatic.  They ground the child's brain and body in order and logic. With this  secure base of skills and knowledge underlying and supporting his thought processes, the child's intellect is then free to to soar, unencumbered.

When a child can swiftly read and comprehend what is written in a book or on a blackboard, write rapidly and legibly, construct a grammatically correct sentence, and effortlessly add, subtract, divide, and multiply numbers without a calculator, he can freely and easily recall and formulate an opinion about what he reads, organize and express his thoughts and ideas elegantly and articulately in writing, and tackle complex math problems with zest and confidence.  

This last section is about providing the child with structure.  For a child to develop a strong, solid internal structure, from which springs his sense of discipline, his motivation to achieve and succeed, and his moral compass, his parents and teachers have to initially provide an external structure, composed of predictable rules and routine, which consistently contains him and forces him to consider how his actions affect those around him. 

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Therapist, Verse Four:

Act like a grownup.  You, the parent, are in charge. A family with small children should not be run as a democracy, but as a benevolent dictatorship.  Not everyone gets an equal say in the decision making; that is the privilege and the responsibility of the adults, who after all, are older, wiser, more experienced, have better judgment, and pay the bills.

Don't ask his permission to be the grownup.   Don't ask "OK?" at the end of the sentence when you tell him to do something or correct his behavior.  This undermines your authority.  Don't ask him if he "wants" to do something when he doesn't really have a choice.  Save yourself from arguments and oppositional behavior by just telling the child "It's time to brush your teeth" instead of asking him, "Do you want to brush your teeth?".

The adults lead, the children follow. Don't habitually make your child the center of attention.  The grownups should be the ones who make the rules and family decisions on behalf of everyone, and have the final say. Don't constantly seek the child's input about where to go on family outings, what to have for dinner, what to buy while you are shopping, etc.  Small children feel insecure when the grownups solicit their opinions before making decisions.  It makes them wonder why the adults can't manage.  They would prefer to play and let the grownups do the heavy lifting.

When the family's decision making continually revolves around the child's wishes, it conditions him to think that his wants and needs should always come first, before anyone else's.  This is not a healthy attitude to bring into mature relationships, and it won't get him very far in the world.

Have clear expectations, firm limits and high standards, and expect your child to adhere to them. Small children thrive with strong boundaries and clear expectations.  They want and need the grown ups to contain them, and to teach them, by rule and example, how to comport themselves.  Want to raise a strong, wise, compassionate leader?  Be a strong, wise, compassionate leader, and the child will model himself after you.  

Maintain control of your emotions.   Be mindful about what you do and do not respond to when a child is trying to wind you up.  Stay cool. Children instinctively understand that grownups who can't contain themselves can't contain them. For a child to feel secure, he needs to know that the grownups are calm, strong and in control of themselves.  Then he knows that the grown ups are stronger than he is and can keep him safe.

This book is very helpful if you are easily triggered and engage in unhealthy communication patterns with your child.

 Be an alpha dog. Lead your pack and command respect. Be "S/he Who Must Be Obeyed."  Don't allow your child to interrupt you when you're speaking, order you around, forget to say please or thank you, insist on getting his own way, or speak to you disrespectfully.   By being a person to whom respect must be shown, you are establishing a hierarchy and ensuring that the child's world is in its proper order.  This allows him to feel secure.

Don't give in to every whim and demand, and don't be afraid to stand your ground, set limits and to say no. There is a big difference between wanting to delight your child and give him pleasure with an occasional indulgence, and acceding to his every wish because you don't want to rock the boat, can't deal with a temper tantrum, or are afraid he won't love you when you say no. In the long run, he'll like you much better if you do say no. Children don't feel comfortable when their parents are too permissive.  It makes them feel neglected and insecure.  They  want to know that the grownups who are responsible for them are strong, know what's best, and can make appropriate decisions on their behalf and keep them from harm.

Love your child like crazy, but don't always be so easy to impress.  Don't continually tell a child he's smart, or special, or wonderful, and don't praise him for every little thing. That gets you less than nowhere.

Have regular bedtimes, mealtimes, and homework times.  Make your child's schedule as predictable as possible so that he is not using up his emotional reserves on coping with unexpected changes in his routine.  This is especially important if you have a sensory defensive child who has a tough time transitioning between activities.  {And I feel compelled to say it here, again: strictly limit computer and television time and keep your child active and out of doors.}

Insist on good manners.  People who exhibit good manners are well liked and get along with others.  People who lack social graces are operating at a disadvantage.   It's in your child's best interest for you to enforce good table manners, insist that thank you notes be written, and make sure that the child says please, thank you, and excuse me, does not interrupt when others are speaking, and can wait his turn.

If you have a special needs child, you must still set limits, insist on good behavior and good manners, and have high standards for achievement and comportment.  Always assume that your special needs child is strong, not weak.  Believe in him relentlessly, and he may surprise you. My young clients still amaze me all the time.

Teach a special needs child to lead with his strengths instead of focusing on his weaknesses.  Find a way to help him develop  the internal resources to meet a challenge thinking "I can!" instead of "I can't."  {Your child's OT can be very helpful here.}

If your child has a physical disability and must depend on others for his basic care, it is absolutely essential that he learn good manners.  When I lived in Berkeley, a city with a huge population of people  who live independently despite severe disabilities, I had many acquaintances and friends who used wheelchairs, and could not dress or toilet or feed themselves without total assistance.  Some were so lovely to be with, and had such exquisite manners, helping them felt more like a social call than work.  They had warm relationships with the people whom they hired to assist them at home with their personal care, and could count on them to stay for years.  Others were not so charming, and they had a difficult time being independent because they couldn't attract or maintain a high quality, reliable staff.  Manners in this case can make or break your child's ability to manage his care when you're not around.

Always, in the back of your mind, plan for the day when you're not around.