PracticalDad:  Praise versus Overpraise

If I want to hear how wonderfully I’ve done, I take my essay to my mom.  But to really know how it is and how to improve it, I take it to my dad.

– Leah, age 17

Kids thrive with praise as it helps them learn to believe in themselves and their capabilities.  Praise to a child is akin to fertilizer to a plant.  But there has to be common sense applied or the praise goes from fertilizer to just another load of manure. 

I’m cognizant, both anecdotally and from dealing with kids, that there is a gap between what young people actually can do and what they think they can do.  My wish for my own kids is that they have a good sense of self-worth without thinking that every stroke of pen to paper is another Shakespearean Sonnet.  But that won’t happen if I simply offer blind, blanket praise.  So what are some things to consider on rendering praise?

  • When praising a small child for something that they’ve done, try to be specific and concrete on what you’re praising.  Show your child that you’ve paid attention because rendering blanket compliments teaches that nobody is paying attention.  With that comes a greater willingness to attempt to slip something past you when they’ve grown older. 
  • As your child ages, praise can be accompanied by constructive criticism but that’s purely a judgment call as to when to start.  Instead of offering constructive criticism however, one possibility is to sit with your child and then explore other ways of doing something.  How would it look if you did this?  How else might you do this?  This way, your kid starts to look at different alternatives without feeling as though he hasn’t done a good job.
  • Once your child is in school, you can praise but you have to consider whether this is indeed what the teacher is seeking.  Kids don’t listen well and they can do great work that simply isn’t what’s required.  So ask if there’s a rubric to guide the child.
  • Don’t be afraid to not praise the child if it’s not deserved.  This will typically happen with schoolwork and continuing to praise when it’s not warranted is a disservice.  Constructive criticism is a good place to start, mixing the critical comments with legitimately worthwhile remarks.  And if there’s an obvious lack of effort, call it that.  Full disclosure:  I once told one of my assignment-resistant kids that what was shown to me was crap.  However, this child was in the sixth grade at the time and not in preschool.
  • As your child grows, be sure to determine whether you’re being asked on a matter of style or a matter of fact.  There’s no bending if something is factually or technically wrong.  But kids will grow to develop different tastes and I try to be careful with the commentary if it pertains to the writing style.
  • Kids are not equal to one another in talent and skill; don’t make it a point to go overboard on praise if there are others who are clearly superior in that particular arena.  Praise for what they’ve done but don’t lay on the stuff about best on the field if they’re clearly not.  Temper yourself. 

Kids love to know that someone is behind them and paying attention to what they’re doing.  But as they age, they’ll be like Leah and appreciate that paying attention also means helping to teach them to be their best.

PracticalDad and Family Meals

I’m a firm believer – along with many others – that children gain much from having the family gather together regularly to sit down for family meals.  It’s a topic that’s been seriously researched and covered by the mainstream media and multiple family advocate organizations.  Both my wife and I remember growing up in families that had family meals that could last for two hours as we hashed around school, family and societal issues.  But while everybody discusses the benefits and joys, what about the process that it takes to get to those benefits?

Most of our memories are from a time that we can reliably and consistently recall, which is typically from the primary grades onwards.  We have no recollection of the years before then and I doubt that many of us ask our own parents about those years.  The result is a repetitive cycle of frustration as each generation doubts and is forced to rediscover what their preceding generations learned.

So what have I had to (re)learn about family meal times?

  • Understand that family meals are learned events since children have to be taught almost everything.  Those memories of family meals are the culmination of considerable effort and work to get you to the point that you knew rudimentary table manners, knew how to sit for more than a few minutes, and could carry a reasonable conversation.
  • There are far more activities available to children today than when we were children, so our childhood family mealtimes weren’t competing against sports, dance and theatre practices.  When we were teens perhaps, but not at as young an age as today.
  • Preparing a family meal requires some forethought when you have two or more small children.  It then becomes a function of when parents are able to make it  home from work as well as the body clocks of infants and toddlers, which aren’t always the same.  On more than one occasion, the family meal didn’t happen because one or more children was simply too tired to hold off until waiting until their mother made it home.  In that case, I had to eat with the child(ren).
  • Most small children don’t have an innate ability to sit still, let alone carry a conversation.  Because of this, some of our meals – and conversation –  simply focused on the rudiments of eating:  working with the utensils and learning basic table manners. 
  • It’s better to cut mealtime shorter if an adult’s frustration level is growing so that the kids don’t come to view family meals as something to be endured or feared.  Kids are perfectly capable of torquing you – by accident or on purpose – into all manner of unique and entertaining shapes.  It’s sometimes the old "how far can I push him?" game.
  • As they grow, conversations have to be kid-friendly.  Many of our family discussions stem from just asking what they did in school that day.  Don’t expect younger kids to be able to engage in wide-ranging conversations since all of them think that Plato comes in a small yellow can available in the toy section at Walmart.  The discussions will change as the kids grow and are exposed to more.
  • No child should eat alone.  Even when we’re in family mealtime hell with competing activities – Eldest has soccer, Middle has dance and Youngest has baseball – I try to take the opportunity to sit with them, singly or any combination.  The conversation might be minimal but the opportunity to talk has to be present.
  • Family meals are a family event, which means that while the parents have to bend to the necessities of childhood, the kids should likewise be expected to rise to our level as they grow.  On more than one occasion, we’ve made one or more kids sit back down and at least listen as another child or adult talks about their day.  The child doesn’t have to like it but the message has to be clear that this is a shared event.  And there are topics that simply have to be discussed for the child to learn.

The point to remember is that like everything else with raising children, this is a process and a marathon.  When the children are very young, there may not even appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel.  But they will learn and there will be an increasing  number of meals that you can plug into your memory banks for future reference.

And still, there will be meals that you won’t.

PracticalDad:  Training Children to Dine Out

While fewer are eating at restaurants, it’s still a nice change from the kitchen table.  But it isn’t so nice when the little ones are carrying on and drawing nasty glances from other diners and the restaurant staff.  But what can you do to teach good restaurant behavior so that it again becomes a pleasure worthy of the money being spent?

First,  understand that it – like almost everything else with a small child – is a learned behavior.  The typical child is utterly egocentric and wants to run roughshod while having fun and having to behave at a table while waiting for food is simply a bore.  So she is going to have to learn and that’s going to take time, effort and consistency.  That being the case, be sure that the training takes place at a restaurant that is neither fast-food nor haute cuisine.  The child needs to learn to use even a rudimentary menu and also wait for service.

Second, be clear about what you’re trying to teach.  Most kids are finicky eaters and the intent isn’t to expose them to different foods.  Your intent is to teach and reinforce a series of behaviors that will later permit trying different foods without the stress.  If Mac and cheese makes her happy now, that’s fine.  Also know that good behavior isn’t going to be perfect behavior.

Third, remember that this is going to be a process.  Expect that you’re going to have to step out of the restaurant to correct repetitive misbehaviors until she learns.

So, what can you do?

  • Set your child up for success by thinking ahead.  Most people go out for dinner during what is the witching hour for children, that time of day when they’re wearing out even if they’ve had a nap.  If she’s appearing overly tired, then consider shelving the dinner for another night. 
  • Think about what restaurant serves the purpose.  Consider a local family restaurant or a chain restaurant with decent lighting and a children’s menu.
  • Throw some crayons and notepaper in your pocket to occupy her in the event that the restaurant doesn’t have diversions of their own to offer.  Learning to sit and wait doesn’t mean that she can’t be quietly occupied.  Likewise, you have to be ready to spend time interacting with her and not just ignoring her.
  • Clearly talk about what you expect before you enter the restaurant and also talk about what happens if there are problems. 
  • Be prepared to routinely take her out of the restaurant for brief walks if things drag on.  This isn’t the same as disciplining her, but just giving her a brief break from the wait.  She needs to learn how to be patient and wait, but you have to also remember that she’s a small child with a finite capacity.  I routinely took the kids for brief strolls outside when they began to appear near their limit and these brief breaks helped control their behavior.
  • When she becomes disruptive, warn her clearly about the consequences.  Once, twice or three times is entirely at your discretion but remember that warnings without enforcement can lead to a sense that you aren’t serious.
  • If she doesn’t heed the warnings, remove her from the restaurant.  I’d take my kids to the car where I’d strap them in the carseat for several minutes while I waited outside the car.  They could scream, cry or sulk but they spent the time out of the restaurant and in the car.  After that interval, I’d talk to them, calm them and reinforce the rules before returning inside.  If necessary, I’d repeat the process although that rarely happened because they learned that if it did, there was no returning to the restaurant.
  • When the meal is finished, talk about the experience.  How was the food?  What did she like best?  Would she like to return there?  And part of the talk has to be praise for how well she did, provided that she did well.  Even if she had to be removed, find a way to praise her for how she did afterwards.  The more that she enjoys the experience, the likelier that she’ll behave the next time around.

It is a process and it does require work, because a child isn’t an adult.  But the effort and persistence are worth the effort when you find that you can take them to the nicer restaurants and actually enjoy the food, experience and company.


PracticalDad and Re-evaluating the Electronics

I’ve been, and continue to be, an Electronics Nazi.  Yet I still have to constantly fight and re-evaluate the use of electronics in the household.  This isn’t going to change but I’ve become aware of an additional problem with the electronics:  multi-tasking.  I admire people who can multi-task.  My wife and her best friend are queens of the skill, but does that carryover to the use of electronics?

We have one family computer that remains in the family room, open to viewing by all.  Both my wife and I have laptops for ourselves, but we only permit the kids to utilize them if the family PC isn’t working.  If it’s working, then the kids just have to share and wait their turn and they generally do well with that situation.  But what happens when the kid spends time multi-tasking the electronics?  Does the television need to be run while the kid listens to iTunes, texts their friends while sending IM messages to another batch?  How much is too much?  That’s the source of my present concern.

Certainly, I’ve tossed the kid off of the computer while multi-tasking.  If there’s homework, turn off the IM and cellphone and get the job done so that the PC is available to others.  If there’s no homework and you’re just messing around, then get off of the PC and let someone else use it while you content yourself with texting and music.  But what if there’s no other demand for the machine?

I have two concerns about this, even though I have nothing to substantiate them.  The first is that the multi-tasking will have an impact upon the critical thinking skills.  Yes, the child can handle two simultaneous conversations amongst multiple persons, but what’s the quality of those conversations?  It’s akin to saying that I can juggle and ride a unicycle simultaneously, but I can’t handle more than two balls.  Will the children develop thinking skills that permit them to penetrate to deeper understanding of an issue or situation? 

The second concern is more social.  I was raised to be able to speak well, but with the notion that good manners required that I actually pay attention to someone with whom I was conversing.  Flitting back and forth amongst two different conversations was actually rude and indicated to the other person that he wasn’t really worth my time.  Indeed, I once walked out of a date when the woman refused to turn off her television and contended that she was perfectly capable of paying attention to our conversation while simultaneously watching The Dukes of Hazzard.  Sorry, but I’m not coming over to share you with John Schneider, Tom Wopat and Boss Hogg.  If the kids believe that they can skip blithely back and forth on the screen, why can’t they do it in real-time? 

I have no answers.  Yet.

PracticalDad:  Paying for Grades?

As more people strive to enter college in an effort to further their economic interests, the pressure is on for good grades.  Good grades for better schools and good grades for more scholarship money.  But how far do we, as parents, go to foster the drive for good grades?  Do we go as far as paying for performance?

My wife and I have opted to not pay for good grades.  Our stance has been good grades are expected because that’s just part of what they’re supposed to do.  Their job is their schoolwork before anything else – activities, part-time job, volunteerism – and that’s what has to take precedence. 

We know others however, who’ve installed a pay-for-performance system, starting at the middle-school level.  Their belief is that if good grades really do matter, then the student can best understand that by being rewarded for the extra work that is typically required to obtain the higher grade.  In this view, the prime motivator is financial, which translates into greater savings or buying power.  The additional argument is that this is a foretaste of the real world in which good performance is rewarded with greater income.  Additionally, it is positive reinforcement

While I understand this rationale, I disagree with it.  There are things that we have to do simply because they are what’s required; that includes doing our best in all facets, including grades and studies.  It is like the definition of character; doing your best regardless of whether someone is watching or not.  It is also one of the hallmarks of parenting:  you can look at all of the arguments and pros/cons of a particular situation and adopt a stance that might appear to be outweighed by the other positions.  Simply because that’s not who you are.

So we’ll continue to stress good grades and good effort.  And the money for grades will wait.



Disposable Gloves

Guys love action flicks with lots of blood and gore and taking care of kids will provide you with lots of that, so you have to be prepared.  This doesn’t mean that you have to garb for Level IV decontamination, but you should take a few basic precautions if your kid is sick.

One of your foremost defenses against catching what the kids bring home is to thoroughly wash your hands.  After you leave the child’s room, take a moment to wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer.  This will help prevent the spread of germs and cut down on your taking ill.  But something that you should also have available are disposable pairs of latex gloves.

I’m prone to dry and cracked skin in the winter, which leaves my hands a mess; pile on the typical scrapes and cuts and my hands are a waiting recepticle for infection.  When your child is sick with a stomach or intestinal virus, you’re likely going to have to clean up body fluids in quantity and the mess is laden with germs and bacteria.  So I’ve taken to keeping disposable gloves in the house for those times that I am cleaning up such messes.  I pull out the gloves to address the situation at hand and then dispose of them in plastic grocery bags which I tie up and deposit in the trash.  I’ll also use them when I clean the child’s bathroom, wiping down the surfaces that I’ve had to disinfect.

But remember that the gloves only come out when you’re cleaning up because a sick child will be sick enough without feeling like a leper.  So take care of the child and then break them out.


PracticalDad:  Discipline Tips From Tony Soprano

Sometimes you can find instruction in the oddest places and I’ve noted that Tony Soprano provides some valuable insights for fathers.  Not in regards to the physical side since what he’s got to offer is unacceptable.  However, he does have something beneficial ot say about getting someone’s attention and compliance.

Tony – and others like Don Vito Corleone – understand the value of leverage.  Like the physics principle, leverage is used to multiply an existing force to provide the maximum output.  It’s a tool that’s used to overcome inertia and cause a motionless object to move; the lever can be a simple block of wood or it can be far more sophisticated.

My wife and I have occasionally disagreed about whether there are moments in child-rearing when it simply comes down to a contest of wills.  I believe that while a parent shouldn’t have to go head-to-head with the  youngster, there are moments when the child is simply going to have to knuckle under and do what he’s been told.  And in these moments, when other means fail, it’s helpful to know what leverage is available to insure that the child obeys.  It’s not pleasant, but it is necessary.

What is it that matters to the child?  Is it a toy or an activity?  When you realize what it is and decide that you have to use it as a lever, there are several things to consider.

  • Is there another alternative to the situation?  If the item is a toy that provides quiet entertainment and you’re looking at an event at which the kid’s liable to be bored, are you creating later problems by removing what will help occupy him?
  • Has there been sufficient warning of what could be lost if he doesn’t comply?
  • Does the child truly understand what’s at stake if he doesn’t comply?  It does no good to make an offer he can’t refuse if it’s one that he can’t understand.
  • Is the consequence commensurate with the situation?  If it’s a privilege or toy, is it going to come back again or is it gone forever?
  • Will the child have the opportunity to earn it back afterwards?  Depending on the situation, we’ve sometimes allowed the possibility of earning it back.  Frankly however, it also depends on how torqued I am.

Leverage isn’t the be-all and end-all of disciplinary methods and it’s not one that has to see the light of day every time the kids are out of control.  But it is another tool that can go into your pocket for use when you deem it necessary.