A new book from psychologist, mother of three grown sons, and author Madeline Levine emphasizes ways to parent children so they can become independent adolescents with a strong sense of identity and values.
In “Teach Your Children Well,” Levine’s first book to follow her 2006 New York Times bestseller “The Price of Privilege,” she writes about her belief that schools spend too much time praising students’ SAT scores and grades. She admonishes schools that she says have become so competitive that they only acknowledge and commend the top academic students, while ignoring students with no less estimable talents in art, music, or the savvy ability to work with others. Levine says there are other factors to consider when looking down the road to a child’s success later in life.
“A major study conducted by IBM found that the single most sought after trait in CEOs is creativity,” she writes. “There are many different ways to be ‘smart,’ not all of which lend themselves to paper and pencil evaluations. Many of the characteristics that lead to success, particularly interpersonal skills and a robust sense of self, are never assessed in school.”
Another trend that Levine says she sees among families is the increasing amount of time parents devote to raising their children, instead of developing their own interests, friendships, and professions. She argues that when parents spend endless hours watching their children’s sporting events, sit next to them every night doing their homework, and spend money on prep courses and tutors instead of on a family vacation or a weekend away with a friend or spouse, they are teaching their kids that “the moon and stars revolve around them.”
“Entitled children are the inevitable outcome of time and resources that are wildly and disproportionately assigned to the children and not the adults in the family,” adds Levine.
Levine writes in depth about the emotional development of three different age groups. In regard to the elementary school years (ages 5 to 11), parents should focus on teaching children to be more in control of their impulses, emotions, and behavior. For example, parents often find themselves admonishing their child for eating cookies before dinner or telling their child to apologize to a sibling for breaking a toy. She also advises parents to limit their child’s screen time, be it a television or computer, to no more than two hours a day.
Elementary school is also a playground for children to learn about making friends, and Levine thinks it is essential that parents help their children navigate their way through friendships.
“Researchers have found that parents who use ‘reflective messages’ with their children have kids who are more socially adept. This means that parents encourage their children to think about the impact of their actions on others as well as on themselves,” according to Levine. As an illustration, she depicts an incident when a parent says to a child, “When you didn’t thank grandma for her present, how do you think she felt?”
Levine encourages parents to share stories with their children about their own friendships. Parents should remember that children internalize these stories to serve as templates for how they approach their own friends. Children need to be reminded of simple social graces, such as saying “hello,” smiling when they introduce themselves, making an effort not to say mean things, and not shouting when they get angry.
One of the most interesting tips Levine offers for this age group is to explore nature. Parents worry more than ever about their children playing outdoors, but violent crime has decreased by 50 percent during the last two decades, says Levine. Being outdoors takes children away from the computer and the television and gives them a learning environment for unstructured play. Children at this age love to learn from their senses — be it splashing in a puddle or falling into a pile of leaves. Nature also provides a quiet playground where children can escape the busy worlds around them and create their own private space.
One of the most tumultuous periods in a child’s life are the middle school years (ages 11 to 14), and Levine insightfully describes the rite of passage that parents dread most — puberty. As these adolescents are experiencing hormonal and brain changes beyond their control, they attempt in other ways to exert influence over their own lives. Most typically, they have power struggles with their parents.
“There will be conflict over clothing, music, curfew, grades, friends, and almost every other aspect of their lives,” describes Levine.
In regard to puberty, Levine believes it is important for parents to maintain open and healthy communication about sex with their children. Parents should let their children know that they are available to talk, but not to be too pushy if they get no response from their kids, she says.
“Most children will come to you for information and guidance when they’re ready,” she writes.
Many adolescents can become self-conscious with the inevitable weight gain that puberty brings, which can lead to eating disorders such as obesity, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia. Parents can ease this transition by acting as role models — eating three healthy meals a day and exercising regularly. Levine also suggests parents bring their kids to the grocery store to have them assist in making meals and preparing their own snacks.
In the electronic age of cellphones and laptops, a disturbing new trend among this age group and teenagers is sleep deprivation.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that preteens and teens get slightly more than nine hours of sleep a night,” Levine writes. “And the percentage of teens that actually get adequate sleep? That would be 15 percent, leaving 85 percent of teens sleep-deprived.”
Sleep deprivation in adolescents has been attributed to a list of problems, such as poor school performance, depression, a heightened risk of car accidents, and an increased likelihood for eating disorders and substance abuse. Besides lobbying your child’s school to push back the start time of morning classes, parents can insist their kids shut off all electronics a half hour before bedtime and fill that time with a relaxing ritual such as taking a bath, listening to music, reading, or writing in a diary.
One of the most daunting tasks a child in middle school faces is navigating peer groups. When adolescents join peer groups, they gain a sense of independence from their families. Parents, nevertheless, should be aware of their children’s friends and the social interactions affecting their child. When their child is being mistreated or bullied, parents should take action.
When a parent does confront her child about being bullied, Levine suggests a more personal approach.
“These situations … that come up during the middle school years are best addressed by respecting your child enough to bring him or her into the process of figuring out how to solve problems,” Levine advises. “This does not mean you give up your authority when your child is endangered; it simply means that in order for your child to learn, as well as to be protected, from an unhealthy or distressing experience, he needs to be included in the process.”
After weathering the tumultuous pubescent years, parents can approach the high school years (ages 14 to 18) as their child’s final step into adulthood. During this period, teenagers’ thought processes become more advanced. They learn to think hypothetically and understand the consequences of their actions.
Teens also have the ability to see their parents as people with their own strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, says Levine, they learn to self-reflect and to identify themselves as individuals with their own unique qualities. Parents can help their teen make more mature decisions by engaging them in debates, discussions and even arguments.
“One of your teen’s greatest accomplishments will be not only to think like an adult, but to behave like one,” she writes. Self-control at this age is a big issue and Levine says, “the longer your child abstains from using drugs, the less likely he or she will be to develop a substance abuse problem.”
Levine advises parents to let their teens know they are available to talk, but warns against “unnecessary intervention.” When parents intervene unnecessarily in situations, it prevents the teen from “strengthening his coping skills,” which will further his “self-control, self-esteem, and self-reliance,” she says.
Stating that the average age for first sexual intercourse among teens in the U.S. is between 16 and 17, Levine says “researchers find no negative psychological factors associated with being sexually active at this age. Having intercourse before the age of 16 is associated with a host of concerns.” Many younger teens are not comfortable with their bodies and their appearance until they are older and have a more kindly view of evaluating their attractiveness.
Parents should keep communication open with their children about intercourse and the consequences of their actions. Levine emphasizes how vital it is that teens learn about puberty and sexuality, since about only 60 percent of high school teens used contraception the last time they had intercourse.
Probably a parent’s biggest responsibility is giving their child a strong sense of identity and self-worth. Teenagers can receive gratification from a good grade or scoring a goal for their team, but it is ultimately chores, jobs, and volunteer work that provide them with opportunities to contribute something unique and meaningful to them and to their community, explains Levine.
When parents step away from their roles as caregivers and allow their children to pursue their interests with enthusiasm, they can also teach their teens the importance of hard work and setting and achieving goals, she writes. As teenagers reach these goals, they gain self-esteem. It is also the job of the parent to teach children about set-backs and failures but to never give up their hopes and lose sight of their dreams.
As Levine so aptly puts it, “The more coping skills children have at their disposal, the more likely they are to successfully meet the challenges of growing up and finding their own definition of success.”
Allison Plitt is a contributing writer for New York Parenting Media and lives in Queens with her 6-year-old daughter. Feel free to share your ideas with her about topics for articles or resources for families at allisonpli
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