Breeding Bullies

Does a Parent Raise a Bully?

You probably know the child – the one who is always picking on others, taunting, shoving, or just being plain nasty. He is the bully. Maybe he is your child, or the classmate of your son or daughter. I wrote yesterday of how my boys and their friends recently met the bully. The one who just always seems to be aggressively and relentlessly bullying other children. Not only is this child (who is perhaps not even 10 years old yet) controlling social situations through bullying, but his older brother has been doing the same thing for years as well. Which means we have to wonder: Are parents breeding bullies?

Raising a Bully – Babyhood and Beyond

Studies conducted over the past decade indicate that bullying most often emerges when there is a lack of empathy for others. Empathy is that key ingredient that helps children (and adults) recognize the emotions of another, and act appropriately and accordingly. Signs of empathy emerge rather early, with infants crying when they hear another infant crying, and studies have even shown that toddlers with empathetic tendencies will do things such as offer to help adults who appear to be struggling to reach things (even though they don’t have the capacity yet to understand that there is no real way they will be able to help).

Empathy is developed in children through close, affectionate, and attached relationships. It is why children who are raised in stable and nurturing homes are more emotionally mature than those who are raised in an orphanage and without a consistent relationship with just one or two special adults. Almost 90% of brain development happens during the first 5 years of life – the interactions and experiences children have during these years are extremely important when it comes to their development of empathy and their ability to interact socially in positive and healthy ways.

So when I hear these numbers and read the research that says our children have such a strong imprint for social skills before they are even school-age, I think of that boy and his brother who are best known for their bullying ways. I don’t personally know their parents, so I can’t speak of their home environment. But I do know that when they are in public, the parents rarely smile at their children, and conversations between them are usually terse. Beyond that limited exposure, I don’t know what influences these boys to behave as bullies.

The research, however, shows that there are several factors that influence which children are more likely to become bullies. These are most often kids who

  • Lack social skills, compassion, and empathy
  • Have poor impulse control skills
  • Spend more time watching aggressive television programming and play more aggressive video games
  • Lack close, nurturing relationships with parents
  • Live in environments with inconsistent disciplineStruggle with academics
  • Lack strong peer relationships – bullying becomes a way to control social situations
  • Suffer from child abuse
  • Are the victim of bullies, including adult bullies (which can sometimes be parents)

What Can We Do to Help?

Kids who bully and have been raised in an environment that either supports these behaviors or results in these behaviors (a means of survival), are not likely going to suddenly change because one random and unknown mom sweet talks to them. Honestly, sugar coating things is not my usual M.O. – I am more of a “this is how I see it – deal with it and move on” kind of person. But in cases of bullying such as my sons and their friends experienced, perhaps dousing this bully with an overzealous amount of positive and warm affection might have made the difference, if just for the moment. Maybe we need to consider how these moments might add up to be a catalyst for change.

What can we do to help our kids and still have a positive impact on the bully?

I am the first to admit that it is very hard to consider the bully’s perspective when your own child is in pain from the teasing and shoving. However, the longer I parent, the more I learn that we can’t live in these snapshot moments where we “deal with it and move on.” If I take the time to consider the bully’s perspective, I am not only giving the bully a chance, but I am teaching my children even more about empathy.

We can’t just barge into homes and see if parents are raising bullies. We can’t demand parenting classes for parents of kids who repeatedly bully (but maybe schools, clubs, and other organizations need to consider this). Perhaps one of the most important things we need to do is interact with these bullies with consistent, firm, and respectful behaviors (I know – it is hard to do), and be role models for the behaviors we want to see. We can also be role models for other parents by how we interact with and react to our own children.

I later found out that as my children and their friends were being bullied, a father stood by watching the entire time, helping his young daughter on the slide. When I approached the bully and spoke to him, this father did not acknowledge the situation at all. As parents, educators, and community members, let’s stop doing nothing.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

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Taming Momma Bear and Confronting the Bully

Helping Kids Deal with a Bully Without Losing Your Cool

The playground bully – the one who seems to just be mean for the sake of being mean. Yesterday my sons and their friends met him, and he left his mark. It seems too stereotypical to be true – a bunch of boys playing at the park, and one of them is bent on making an impression – a bad impression. My sons and their friends didn’t even know his name, but that didn’t stop him from elbowing one, throwing rocks at another, and repeatedly pushing and banging into one of my sons. One of my other boys went into Big Brother Mode and realized this bully was not going to stop, no matter how they all reacted to him and he came around the corner of the building to get me. “Mom – there is this boy being mean to us. He keeps shoving and pushing and throwing things and he won’t stop, no matter what we say or do.” Now I’m in Momma Bear Mode.

What should I do?

  • Tell them to ignore him?
  • Tell them to fight back?
  • Tell them to walk away?
  • Go yell at this bully?
  • Run and find his mom and let her know what I think of her son doing this?

Suddenly, when you’re in Momma Bear Mode, all of these possibilities run through your mind, but then you have to get a grip. After all, bullying is sadly an everyday experience. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, 74% of 8-11 year-olds report bullying and teasing are commonplace behaviors at their schools. But I needed to do something right then and there to put an end to this, help my boys learn some lessons, and perhaps curtail this behavior in the future.

How to Stop a Bully

Some of the approaches for stopping a bully that are given by the National Crime Prevention Council include:

  • Encouraging kids not to use violence in response to bullying
  • Praising kids when they don’t respond in violence to bullying
  • Walking away
  • Helping others who are being bullied

Another list of ways to stop a bully, presented by Surf Net Parents, includes some of the following ideas. I can point out exactly which ones my boys tried, which ones worked, and why sometimes nothing seems to help.

Put on a brave face. Don’t give the bully power by showing it bugs you. After a while my one son did have the tears on the edge of his eyes, but only when he was retelling the incident and he told me the bully had hurt him. I asked him where the other child hurt him, and he responded, “My heart.” Yep – bullying usually hurts the heart the worst.

Have a friend around. Bullies are less likely to act when the victim has backup. This didn’t seem to matter for this particular bully. He was outnumbered 5 to 1 and it made no difference. He went from boy to boy, changing tactics and targeting each in a different way.

Ignore bullies. Bullies are often looking for a reaction – if you don’t react they don’t receive motivation to continue. My boys and their friends tried to play in the same area, avoiding direct contact, but it made no difference.

Confront the bully. Ask the bully why he is acting that way, and tell him to stop the behavior because it is bothersome. All of the boys told him his behavior was bothering them, and one of my sons said, “Please stop smacking me. It really hurts” but it made no difference.

Report the bullying. There are times when a parent, teacher, adult, or older child are the only ones who can intervene and make a difference, so don’t be afraid to tell them about the situation. One of my sons did come and let me know that there was a child bullying other kids on the playground.

Control your feelings. I am probably most proud of my sons for not fighting back in this situation. This was one of those times and one of those kids where it wouldn’t have mattered – it would only have made things worse.

Don’t bully back. My sons and their friends could have easily ganged up on this bully – they outnumbered him and a few of them outsized him. But they all acted respectfully in the face of really poor behavior.

How Should Parents React to Their Child’s Bully?

So there I was in Momma Bear Mode, seeing the tears in the eyes of my son, feeling the frustration that one little person could cause so much pain so freely on an otherwise beautiful afternoon. I honestly wanted to march up to this boy and give him a piece of my mind in a not very friendly voice. I wanted to track down his parents and do the same. But then I saw this boy, this bully.

I recognized him as a smaller version of an older bully I know, and I realized that his older brother is someone who torments tweens and teens. I also knew that his parents (based on previous experience) would react in one of two ways: they would deny and make a scene, accusing the other boys of lying about their son, or they would turn and humiliate their son in an attempt to discipline his behaviors.. The possibility of what might happen out of the public eye worried me even more. So I simply walked up him, calmly told him that the other kids at the playground were getting hurt and that everyone would like it if everyone acted respectfully towards each other. He never said a word, never looked at me, and just kept swinging.

  • I didn’t yell at him.
  • I didn’t blame him – I never once accused him of actually perpetrating the behaviors to which I was referring.
  • I didn’t track down his parents.
  • I did recognize that this kid was having more than a moment. He is being raised in a family where bullying is commonplace.
  • I did praise the boys for not ganging up on him in retaliation, for using their words to tell him how his behaviors were affecting them, for standing up for each other, and for coming to get an adult when all else failed.

So while I wanted this bully to know the pain he had caused, I knew that most likely, he just couldn’t. He didn’t have the tools to know any better. Which makes me wonder how parents and kids are supposed to react in situations like this – where parents seem to be breeding bullies. Join me for tomorrow’s discussion on making sure we are not breeding bullies in our own homes, and how we might be able to help those kids who are living in these homes where bullying is perpetuated.

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Bring the Olympics Home

Easy Ways to Enjoy the Olympics with Your Kids

Every time the Olympic games gear up in some part of the world, my family prepares for our own type of Olympic adventure. You don’t have to be as graceful as a figure skater or as agile as a gymnast to enjoy some Olympic fun right in your home.

For the Little Ones

Olympic Torch Craft
Getting preschoolers and early elementary kids excited about the Olympics begins with the opening ceremony. Take an empty paper towel tube and have your little ones decorate it with paints, stickers, or markers, or even cover it with aluminum foil. If you have red, orange, or yellow tissue paper, have the kids bunch of the end of a sheet and stuff it into one of the open ends of the paper towel tube (leaving part of the tissue paper sticking out to represent the flame).

Snacks for Little Olympians
The Olympics is a great time to discuss healthy living with your kids – after all, these athletes don’t get to where they are by lunches of soda and chips. Stir up some fun in the kitchen with your little ones by making health snacks to have during the opening ceremony or as you watch your favorite events.

Use this great recipe for honey whole wheat pretzels, but instead of making them into traditional pretzel shapes, have the kids form them into Olympic rings.

Make a snack we like to call Swimmer’s Delight by preparing a mix of sugar free blue Jell-O in an 8”x8” pan and allowing it to set in the fridge (this will represent the water). Then the kids can create a toothpick swimmer of fruit pieces – apple chunks, grapes, strawberry pieces – anything you have and the kids like to eat. Cut the Jell-O into squares (to represent the pool) and serve on a plate with your own fruit swimmer decorating the top.

Backyard Olympics
Build your own Olympic games in the backyard, using a large beanbag for a discus, landscape spray paint to mark off a running track, a badminton net that can double for a volleyball court (both in the Olympics), and an obstacle course for the bikes. You can even move the games inside with table tennis. Have the little ones in the family create your own Olympic medals by taking plastic lids from yogurt or similar containers and painting them with decorations. You can punch a hole in the lids and thread a ribbon through each. Don’t forget to sing the national anthem when the medals are presented!

For Your Tweens, Teens, and the Entire Family

They might not be into making Olympic crafts, but it can still be fun to get in on the action of the Olympics. You can do this in small, easy ways, or go to the extreme for a fun learning experience for the entire family. So let’s start small and work our way from there…

Make a chart with predictions – Which country will earn the most medals? You can break this down into different kinds of medals as well. Don’t forget to cast votes for most decorated Olympian of the year.

Make a chart to track progress – Hang a chart on the wall listing the countries that are participating in the Olympics. You can find that information here. Each day have the kids keep track, even just with tick marks, which medals were earned from which country.

Head to the pool or lake for a day of playing water sports. The summer Olympics include athletic events such as water polo (get a floating net and beach ball), swimming (you can hold your own races), and synchronized swimming (this might be the most entertaining to laugh your way through as a family).

Unit Studies – If you really want to take the Olympics to the extreme as a family from the comfort of your own home, you can get great Olympic themed unit studies. I am using The Summer Olympics 2012 – lapbook with study guideby A Journey Through Learning with my younger kids. There are wonderful free activities you can find online, too. Whatever resource you use or crazy event you hold in your own backyard, stand up and cheer for your favorite athletes!

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Cholesterol Tests for Kids: Necessary or Nonsense?

It’s time for your child’s check-up and you take him in to the doctor expecting his height and weight to be checked, and maybe an immunization for the chicken pox to be given. But are you ready for your pediatrician to order a cholesterol test for your 10 year-old who by all other accounts appears healthy? If a panel of government appointed health experts has its way, there will be widespread screening of children of cholesterol levels, and this could potentially lead to children taking statins – those cholesterol lowering drugs your parents might have in their medicine cabinet.

Panel Recommends Your Kids Have Cholesterol Screenings

Several months ago a panel of researchers weighed in and developed a set of guidelines, recommending that all U.S. children begin to undergo blood tests for cholesterol screening by the age of 9 years. This age would be lowered to even younger ages if your child has diabetes or a family history of heart disease. The goal is to catch the estimated 10% of children who do have unhealthy cholesterol levels and begin treatment to avoid future heart health issues.

The Critics Say Decision is Flawed

The critics, however, say that here is part of the problem – there is not enough evidence to support the idea that early identification of elevated cholesterol levels in kids will have effects on their heart health as adults. Widespread testing of children with no risk factors (such as obesity or diabetes) has not been proven effective that it will reduce future risks for these children of heart health issues. Not only does the testing appear to be unwarranted for the majority of the population, but it would also be costly and could potentially cause anxiety for kids to have these additional tests done.

Treating Kids with High Cholesterol with Grandma’s Medicine

While the current recommendations are that children who have high levels of cholesterol be treated with lifestyle modifications first, this widespread testing does open the door for children to be prescribed what is typically considered a drug for an older population. Statins, the drugs that block cholesterol (Lipitor, Crestor, etc.), have not gone through thorough testing for this young population. Even in adult consumers the statins have been linked to a rare muscle-damaging condition. As of today, the Mayo Clinic, a leader in healthcare, has not changed its recommendation on cholesterol screening: “…not all children need to be screened for high cholesterol.”

Beyond these direct implications for children is another deeper, somewhat darker issue. In an article published just this week in the journal Pediatrics, several researchers from the University of California at San Francisco criticize the panel’s motivations for their strong recommendations of widespread testing. Of the 14 person panel, 8 of the members have ties to pharmaceutical companies that could potentially benefit from a larger consumer base. In reaction to this criticism, proponents of the government appointed panel say that it is almost impossible to find anyone in the health field without ties to drug companies, and that the candidates were carefully vetted.

Widespread Testing is a Pandora’s Box

Is this conflict of interest in the best interest of my child? Absolutely not. I could start testing my child for anything and everything under the sun – there are many things for which they have a 10% or less risk of developing based on things like family history, gender, and ethnicity. It makes me very nervous as a parent that we might be moved to a time when we are mandated to test our children for other health conditions for which they show no signs or symptoms. What kind of Pandora’s Box are we opening?

  • Could children suffer adverse side effects from the medications that are far worse than the condition?
  • How will all of these tests be paid for, when in the United States we have a health care system that is monetarily already beyond repair at the current rate?
  • Could parents be criticized, or worse, for selecting not to have their children tested for this?
  • Could communities put to better use the funds for testing – such as toward athletic events for kids and other things that would encourage lifestyle changes needed for healthy living?

Until the benefits can be proven beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt, among a class of panel members who aren’t rubbing the backs of pharmaceutical reps, I would be hard pressed to allow for this testing on my kids. This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe cholesterol is a big concern – and we do have family history of it. But if I start listing the medical family history my children have, we might as well preprint the toe-tags and start asking for prescriptions for all of us. Instead, I plan to keep encouraging and providing healthy lifestyles for my kids, diligently watch them for signs of something amiss, and listen to some common sense before I sign them up for the next quick test and fix.

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Games for Family Night

The Family that Plays Together, Stays Together

The older the kids get, the more we have to make pointed efforts to have family night. Even on our recent wedding anniversary we celebrated by taking the time to just hang out together as a family – and that is no easy task when we have busy teenagers. It got us thinking and talking about some of our favorite family nights over the years, which inspired this list to share with you (and demonstrates our quirky tastes sometimes, too).

Why Kids Need Family Time

Research shows that connected family time, such as sharing meals and having family game night, directly contributes to the overall health and wellbeing of children. Kids are more likely to be better behaved, perform better in school, and develop personal communication skills that will benefit them their entire lives. In fact, in a European study (many nations struggle with bringing families together), children reported that they value family time more than material goods. So let’s listen to our kids and spend some time together!

Great Board Games for Families

Since the kids were tiny tots we have loved board games. There were the classics: Candy Land, Memory, and Chutes and Ladders. We’ve also stumbled upon some new favorites over the years. One of our ways to modify games so we can all play if the rules are a bit complicated for the younger ones is to play by teams, pairing younger ones with older ones.

Apples to Apples – There is a junior version, too, of this fun game that gets everyone thinking and laughing about comparing items. It’s an easy game to have around the house because it doesn’t have any small parts that will migrate to the bottom of the closet shelf!

Zingo – More for the preschool and early elementary years, this game still had me testing my reflexes. It is great for early reading skills, but kids don’t even have to be reading yet because they can just match the pictures. You want to be the first person to call out a match to your card as the “shuffler” reveals two new cards. Instead of BINGO – you’re hoping you’ll be the first to yell, “Zingo!”

7 ate 9 – This fast paced mathematics card game is geared for about 8 years of age and up, as basic mathematical skills are required. It promotes math skills, the ability to think on your feet, and the excuse to throw cards on the table.

Sequence – Again, this can be found in a junior version as well which is perfect for beginner or even non-readers because there are pictures to be matched. One particular power outage during a birthday party had us playing a marathon round of this game – adults included!

Scrabble, Scrabble Junior, and Upwords – The great thing about the junior version is that it is easy for non-readers to play as well.

Other Activities for Family Night

Sometimes we are all itching for a little bit more than a board game, and our family loves to head outside together for a game of ball, a bike ride, or a hike on a trail. We also like to mix it up a little and get creative in the yard.

  • Obstacle courses of hurdles, 3 legged races, balloon tosses, and balance activities
  • Good old fashioned “Mom and Dad squirt the kids with the hose”
  • Kick the Can – a retro game where an empty soda can lies waiting to be kicked, there is one person who is “it” and has to find the others who are hiding (while those people try to sneak back and kick the can before being tagged)
  • Flashlight tag
  • Bonfires with marshmallows for dinner (breaking the rules together in these small ways can be fun)
  • Treasure hunts – we develop maps and hide a treasure in the yard

Sometimes just hanging out together in the living room is the best family night option.

  • Go through old photographs and albums together.
  • Take turns sharing stories, or playing the game we call “Who Did This?” where my husband and I might describe something one of the kids did as a baby or toddler and seeing if the kids can guess which one of them did it.
  • Leave a puzzle on spare table so that spontaneous time together can happen as you merge to work on completing it.
  • Watch one of your childhood favorite movies or cartoons. We “wowed” our kids with old versions of Batman and Robin and old western films my dad used to watch when I was younger. Sometimes the kids scoff at the graphics and special effects (or lack of them), but we always have a good laugh.

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Raising an Overachiever

Raising an Overachiever

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How to Raise Kids Who are Always Reaching for the Stars

But Who Need to Learn How to Fall

I’m fairly certain I won’t be offending my daughter if I refer to her as an overachiever. This will also not be the first time someone uses that phrase to describe her and judging by her tendencies, it won’t be the last. Sometimes this characteristic leads to stress, anxiety, and nights like tonight when it is way past bedtime and she is up working on a project she feels compelled to finish. It also leads to many successes for her, which probably fuels her desire to continue to work so hard.

And I have to admit that I worry sometimes about her exuberance to do so much so much of the time. Overachievers get a bad rap – social psychologists say that they can have difficulty accepting their own failures, yet tend to criticize themselves most harshly. Add to those concerns the fact that according to researchers, moms like me are possibly contributing to raising overachievers and my parental guilt and worry is in full swing. Moms who work, are the “Domestic Engineers” (my coffee cup says so), and are active in their children’s lives might just be raising overachieving children because we are setting falsely high standards when all we really want to do is take a nap.

Adding Balance to Your Overachiever’s Life

Instead of trying to get my daughter to lower her standards and keep a more sane level of calm around our household, I’ve been noticing some things that work better to help her learn to accept both achievements and dejections with grace – finding something she loves so much she is OK with settling for less than perfection and changing her definitions of success.

Change the Definition of Success

So my overachieving daughter (and I say that with the most love and respect a mother has for her kids), has this crazy dog. And this crazy dog has taught my daughter that perfection with pets is just not possible. The first night of dog training ever for my daughter and her pooch ended with me saying, “Maybe it will just be OK to attend the classes and not worry about the competition. In fact, let’s not plan on showing her this year.” As the dog screeched and cowered for fear of her own reflection in the mirror.

Fast forward 4 years and my daughter has been able to train and show her dog, and take top honors in youth in the state. Some might think this is just another example of overachievement, but in reality it is just one of those activities where my daughter has learned to see the value in the small – not the over-amplified. Some days she’s just glad the dog looked like she was having fun (even if she completely bombed the agility course).

Find a Fun Way to Fail

Safe places to fail help overachievers balance their need for control and drive with the real need for calm acceptance. For my daughter it is dog training. For your kids it might be a hobby where they get to explore and get messy, like painting or sculpting. Art is a wonderful way to teach children how to accept things as is, no overachieving necessary.

  • Supply your kids with tools that are replaceable and changeable – such as clay
  • Encourage them to create something without directions – like developing their own recipe (even if it turns into an inedible piece of unrecognizable matter)

Make a List of Strengths and Weaknesses

Work with your overachiever to develop personal lists of strengths and weaknesses – you can each create your own for your own selves (this isn’t about judging each other).

Pay attention the traits your child listed. Are there more tangible traits (such as excelling at sports or music or struggling with math), or personal characteristic traits (such as being a team player or struggling with holding her temper)?

Talk with your child about which traits she most values, and which ones she would like to further develop. Encourage her to be OK with certain traits remaining average – she doesn’t have to become a great tennis player or always get an A in math. Self-acceptance is a powerful thing.

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Cancer Genes and Kids

Should You Tell Them You’re a Carrier?

Our children are living in a much different world than the one in which we grew up and explored. They have technology at their disposal and opportunities for travel and exploration that we never imagined. They are also living in an era where the tip of the iceberg in cancer research is just being reached, and the identification of cancer genes means that we as parents have to determine what, if any, information about genetic risks we share with our kids. And we have to make this determination before we even completely and scientifically understand what roles cancer genes play in our overall health.

Genetic Risks and Children

The breast cancer gene is one of the first genes to be identified in patients and family members, and studies thus far have shown that women with this gene are 50% to 80% more likely to develop breast cancer. And as genetics work, it is likely that these genes will be passed on to future generations – at least a 50% chance. However, some doctors are not recommending parents tell their children of genetic cancer risks until their children are much older and would be tested (perhaps in their 20s).

Recently researchers from Philadelphia looked at more than 250 parents who were tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 cancer genes (those genes representing increased risks for breast and ovarian cancers). The journal Cancer reveals that most parents shared the test results with their children, including children as young as 10 years of age. There were a total of 505 children who heard of their parents’ test results (and the following indicate the parents’ assessments of their children’s reactions).

  • 41% of the children had neutral responses.
  • 28% of the children had responses of happiness or relief.
  • 13% of children were concerned in general.
  • 11% of children were upset, scared, or concerned with death as a result of hearing the news.
  • 7% of the children did not seem to understand the information.
  • 5% of the children asked questions and appeared curious.
  • 4% of the children outwardly expressed appreciation for being told the information.

Should Kids be Told?

As with any new idea, discovery, or dilemma, there are opposing sides of opinion as to whether or not children should be told they could possibly carry a cancer gene.

Don’t Tell the Kids

Doctors and specialists who argue that parents should not tell their children that they are either carriers or non-carriers themselves, and there is a possibility they are carrying a cancer gene, say the rewards of knowing don’t outweigh the negative emotions. New York University’s Langone Medical Center’s Dr. Freya Schnabel does not support parents telling their children of the genetic risks. She says that the knowledge does the children no good and “isn’t constructive” in their childhood. Because children aren’t currently tested for the gene, they are unable to confirm or dispel their anxieties about whether or not they are carriers.

Some of the anxieties and fears that children might think include:

  • I am going to get cancer.
  • I know someone who developed cancer and died.
  • I don’t want my friends to know because I don’t want them to look at me weird.
  • I’m not in control of my own body.
  • My mom or dad is going to get cancer and die.
  • My brother or sister is going to get cancer and he or she will die.
  • How much does cancer hurt?

As with any discussions with kids, consider their ages, emotional intelligence levels, and the context of the information being shared.

Tell The Kids

Assistant Professor in the Department of Clinical Genetics at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, and lead author of the study, Angela R. Bradbury, MD, says that many parents tested for genetic cancer risks tell their children and the conversations are not negative. However, she also says that the full effect of telling children is not clear, and doctors have not yet agreed upon when and how children should be brought into the discussion of genetic risks for cancer.

While I have not been tested for cancer genes, I do know that I have a strong family history of cancer and if I ever decide to take a genetic test I would be honest with my children about the results in age appropriate ways. I have also shared this family history with my children from day one. They fact that my Uncle Pat died from melanoma is an added reason and motivation to use sun screen – and the kids do this without hesitation. We also have watched close family members struggle with breast, prostate, and brain cancer. One of my sons was tested for cystic fibrosis because of his symptoms and a family risk (thankfully negative). We have to mark those boxes at their childhood check-ups that ask for family histories of epilepsy, heart disease, and stroke.

I am raising my children to be conscious of their health – and this includes giving them the information they need in order to learn how to lead healthy lives. Health history doesn’t have to be frightening, but imagine how scary it would be to suddenly hear for the first time at age 20 that you are at a high risk for breast cancer. I’m guessing many children would feel betrayal and question other decisions and discussions along the way. Our children don’t have to know all of the frightening details and statistics, but they can be supplied with these terms, words, and genetic information as part of their growing vocabulary.

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5 Great Books for Kids

With Easy Activities and Lesson Plans

Yesterday I wrote about my disappointment in the article written by Elizabeth DeMeo, 10 Scary Books for Kids to Avoid at Bedtime. It is time for me to put my money where my mouth is and describe my list of 5 books that I have loved to read with my kids – and why they may become your favorites, too. As the eternal teacher and homeschooler, I’ve included some lesson plan ideas, activities, and extensions to help make these books come alive for you and your kids (which is why my list is just 5 this time around).

1. The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner

The first book in a series is usually the best, and while the first one in this series is a favorite, the rest do not disappoint. The chapters are short, there are minimal pictures (which gives them exercise for the brain), and the setting is decades ago in America.

  • Great for preschool and older (my 9-year-old and preschooler both loved it when we read the series)
  • Elements of suspense – orphaned siblings run away together so they aren’t separated, create a home in an abandoned boxcar, and are eventually reunited with family they didn’t know they had
  • Great discussion opportunities for safety, decision making, survival in the woods, etc. (but in a very tame environment)
  • Visit a train station, take a ride on a train, or look to your local historical society for information about trains (our town has a miniature replica in the local museum)

2. Poetry by Shel Silverstein

My parents read Shel Silverstein to me, and as a child in the hospital recovering from knee surgery his poems kept me smiling. The classic poems are funny, touching, whimsical, and sometimes on the edge of appropriate (which is probably why kids love them so!). Look for titles such as Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and The Giving Tree – but any of his collections will become your favorite.

  • Appropriate for all ages – the rhythmic rhyming was a favorite of my babies and toddlers as these poems were like spoken songs.
  • Silly and wonderful illustrations stretch the themes of the poems.
  • Have kids find the rhyming words and experiment with their own poems.

3. The First of Octember by Dr. Seuss

This whimsical story by Dr Seuss is appropriate for all ages, and my children grew up on the silly rhymes and premise of the book – there is no such month as Octember. Now that the kids are older, if they ask for something or want to know when something will happen, we often joke that is will be on the 1st of Octember, as the story pokes fun at a day and month that doesn’t exist.

  • Use this story with younger children as you teach them about the months of the year. Write down the 12 correct months of the year on 24 notecards (2 of each), and then write down Octember on the 25th one. You can play Old Month (version of Old Maid) and the Octember card is the Old Month.
  • Talk about things you wish you could do but likely wouldn’t happen until the 1st of Octember (never) – and let your imaginations run wild. Your list might be go back to 3rd grade, become an international spy stationed at the International House of Pancakes, etc.

4. Arnie, the Doughnut by Laurie Keller

Even for older kids and kids at heart this storybook is a hoot. The idea is that doughnuts are alive and one particular doughnut named Arnie isn’t so sure he wants to be eaten. The illustrations and side comments throughout the pictures are what make this storybook a treasure. It took our family several times of reading through to pick up on all of the jokes, silly sidebars, and extra story lines.

  • Arnie’s goal was to find a way to not be eaten. Make a list with your kids of all the things Arnie could do as a doughnut instead of being eaten (Arnie comes up with a partial list in the book).
  • Get an old fashioned recipe and make your own.
  • And of course – go to the bakery and buy some doughnuts!

5. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and Ronald Barrett

I mentioned this one in yesterday’s article and it bears repeating. The town of Chewandswallow is a fantastical place where weather in the form of food supplies rains down on the town – first in wonderful supplies, then in stormy seas on gravy and ginormous pancakes. Great for all ages!

  • Make and serve giant food. I surprised my kids by baking a pizza-sized cookie and leaving it on the doorstep. Then I feigned a knock and they went running to answer the door and find their treat.
  • Study weather together. Make a rain gauge and record rain for a month or longer and then chart it. Visit your local television station for a tour and see if you can check out the “green screen” – our kids got to sit in on the newscast as well.
  • Watch the cartoon movie – which is different from the book – but a great way to compare storylines and favorite parts of each.
  • Don’t forget to follow up Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with Pickles to Pittsburgh (by the same authors).

Keep reading to your kids long past the preschool years. We love exploring books together as a family – from my husband’s childhood collection of Encyclopedia Brown adventures to the Bible to the Hobbit. My husband sometimes takes the boys and has guy reading time, and my daughter and I will snuggle for a good read – sometimes taking turns. Just keep reading. What is favorite on your bookshelf?

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Read Scary Books at Bedtime

I just read a list of 10 Scary Books for Kids to Avoid at Bedtime, by Elizabeth DeMeo and I was cringing and laughing at the same time. Cringing because the list was so obtusely arranged with wonderful stories geared anywhere between preschool and high school and I couldn’t believe some of them made the top 10. Laughing because the reasoning seemed skewed and only really applicable on the surface. Time to dig a little deeper as to why this list might work – and why it desperately needs some help.

The list of books you shouldn’t read to your kids at bedtime according to DeMeo includes:

  • Hansel and Gretel by Jacob Grimm
  • The Witches by Roald Dahl
  • Goosebumps by R.L. Stine
  • The Little Mermaid by Hands Christian Andersen
  • Miss Nelson is Missing! By Harry Allard and James Marshall
  • Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault
  • Rumpelstiltskin by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  • The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett
  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Yep – I won’t be reading Goosebumps to my 3rd grader at bedtime (not his kind of book), but you can bet there have been years’ worth of some of these other titles shared at the precious hour of bedtime in our home. Stories like these are not the culprits – how our children see the world and the tools we give them to navigate their way are the bigger issues.

Why The List of Books is Wrong

And How You Can Read These Books and Still Sleep Through the Night

As I read the article and scanned the booklist put out by DeMeo I think I heard a little crackle of a fire – and had a flash of a beloved book being burned. Now I’m pretty confident this isn’t what DeMeo intended, but making sweeping generalizations about such an eclectic collection of bedtime stories is reckless. I’m not alone in my concern that parents will shelter their children from bedtime stories that come with a slight shudder and will take this list and begin to limit bedtime books to only sweet, tender, and unrealistically sappy books.

A research psychiatrist from New York University’s School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, Dr. Tony Charuvastra, reports that scary books and stories can actually be good for our kids. These sometimes frightening, morbid, and eyebrow raising tales can provide play therapy and give a child an outlet for their own typical fears.

According to Charuvastra, “The importance of bad things in stories is that they help create pretend space where bad things can happen. It’s better for your child to experience these feelings for the first time with you, in pretend space, than in non-pretend space.”

DeMeo writes that Miss Nelson is Missing! should be excluded from bedtime rituals because it includes a number of school related worries that might contribute to sleepless nights. Your kids already have worrisome thoughts about real life, but stories like Miss Nelson is Missing!, in which a sweet teacher is faced with a roomful of unruly children, and eventually replaced by a mean, forceful teacher, does not need to be at the top of your overprotection list. Mysteriously Miss Nelson returns when the children have learned to appreciate her – or was she ever really gone in the first place? This classic tale gives kids the opportunity to imagine what their own classrooms might look light with a different teacher, and how their behaviors might impact their classroom. It is much easier for children to deal with these considerations in the context of an imaginary tale within a classic storybook.

Fairy tales such as The Little Mermaid, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, and even The Lorax by Dr. Seuss do have darker sides, but psychologists agree that when children are exposed to these types of stories that they empower kids to control their fears and try to be the good guy. And how Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs makes the list is beyond me. Not only did I read that book to my kids at bedtime and naptime, but I even made a giant pizza-sized cookie that I set by the door for them to find as a surprise weather phenomenon at our own house – and there were never any nightmares!

Read Scary Stories to Your Kids at Bedtime

I do agree with DeMeo that if your child is prone to anxiety, some these books might cause them to be more restless if they hear them right before going to bed. However, it is a very individual experience as to which types of titles might bother each child. The list of bedtime books you should avoid should be developed by you, the parent, based on your own child’s needs. My own daughter could have listened to any of those stories at bedtime without issue, but would not have preferred Little Miss Muppet because of her intense fear of spiders. The list by DeMeo should have been about how to choose bedtime books for your kids instead of a one-size-fits-all bedtime book banning.

  • Consider the ages and unique perspectives of your children. Don’t sugar-coat everything, but be conscious of which stories really bother them. Chances are if they don’t like them at bedtime, they don’t want to hear them during the day, either.
  • Use bedtime stories to help your kids sort through their emotions. It is much safer to explore sadness, fear, and resentment through the eyes of other characters.
  • Include conversation in your bedtime routine. Don’t just read the book and declare “lights out!” – but allow for questions from your kids about the story and be honest with your answers.
  • Take advantage of the quiet stillness that bedtime brings to have meaningful conversations with your kids – books are wonderful catapults for great discussions. Choose books that might spark questions, encourage passions, or allow for discussions of difficult topics.
  • Consider other influences that might contribute to your children’s nighttime anxiety – TV, movies, and video games can be much more violent and frightening than a book.
  • Don’t take a random list developed by someone else to determine which books you shouldn’t read to your kids at bedtime. Let your kids be your guide – and allow books to open their imaginations and fuel their ideas.

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Are You Honest With Your Kids?

If you’re a parent – chances are you’ve lied. I have. Like the time I told my son “It’s really not that bad – just keep your hand on the papertowel and don’t move until we get to the ER,” when he fell from a tree and took a stick to his eye. Inside I was vomiting, screaming, and on the edge of parental sanity while on the outside my words, my emotions, and my body language lied and said I was calm and everything was good.

Why Do Parents Lie?

To protect their children from pain

I knew there was nothing in the van ride to the ER that the truth would provide other than anxiety. And my 8 year-old didn’t need to hear that he might not see again (thankfully his vision healed), that he might have scars (turned out to be true), and that it was very serious (yes, again).

These types of lies, according to experts, aren’t inherently damaging. Usually the truth is somewhere in the middle and we are just staying in the middle as best we can. The real, detailed, and drawn-out truth was that my son was lucky not to have a stick through his skull (so – in comparison it wasn’t really that bad). The truth was also that this was a very dangerous and scary thing. I opted for the middle road.

Because it is fun

Well – not the lying part, but the fun that goes along with it. Just for arguments sake, let’s say there is a Tax Day Blue Bird that supposedly delivers chocolate eggs every April 15th in honor of tax day. Maybe parents find that sort of tradition, rooted somewhere in historical facts that twisted and turned to look nothing like the original intention, to be a time for family joy. Family and friends gather and celebrate a bird that magically pays taxes, children have special moments of pure chocolate induced glee, and they don’t resent their parents later in life for hedging the truth. They thank them for indulging their imaginations and their sweet tooth. And by the time the kids start asking if the Blue Bird is real, it can be time to slowly and gently let them on to the truth.

To get out of awkward or annoying situations

These are the lies that tend to cross the line the most. Some can be socially good, others can lead down roads of avoidance. I know a mom who lies to her kids when she determines that the overall outcome doesn’t matter – the lie is saving the angst in between. In her house if the Girl Scouts troop is having a bonfire in the rain, this mom might lie and say the weather cancelled it and hope her kids don’t find out the truth (she just didn’t want to get wet in the rain). This is a dangerous path to take – because eventually the truth will come out for one of these lies and there could be an erosion of trust.

How Can I Avoid Lying and Build Trust?

Research shows that children are most affected by lies in childhood when these lies have long-term consequences, such as not telling your child that his father is ill and then your child grows up resentful that he didn’t know his time with his father was limited. Some parents believe that lying about things such as the Tax Day Blue Bird will erode the trust their children have with them, but psychologists generally feel that these types of miss-leadings and miss-directions are generally harmless. In order to build strong relationships built on trust with your kids, try asking yourself the following questions before you commit to a lie, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or something in between.

Do I really understand what my child is asking me?

  • If your 4 year-old asks where babies come from, she isn’t asking about the mechanics. She needs an age appropriate answer, and often the simpler the better.

Do I need to divulge all of the details?

  • Consider the ages of your kids and what their emotions and intellect are ready to process.

Am I shielding my kids from the truth because I truly don’t believe they are able to process it or because I want to shield them from the pain that the truth sometimes brings?

  • It would be lovely if we lived under rainbows all of the time, but our kids develop life-long coping skills when we give them opportunities to learn to cope with bad news.

Can I redirect their question so that it contains the truth, but under a different light?

  • If your child asks you if the Tax Day Blue Bird is real, it might be possible to respond with something like: Isn’t it fun to use our imaginations and believe in something as magical as a Blue Bird that delivers chocolate eggs and helps pay taxes? I wonder what kind of a nest the Blue Bird would make – what do you think?

Am I setting a good example?

  • If you see that your kids are lying – about anything and everything – this might be the most important question to ask. Research shows that lying is normal – but we have our work cut out for us as parents to make sure that our kids are developing honest and honorable characteristics.

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