The hurried child: Are you willing to swim upstream?

As August moves forward, school settles into a familiar rhythm and the pace of family life quickens. School. Practices. Foreign languages. Clubs. Tutors. Private lessons. Games. Church activities. Homework. And the list goes on…and on…and, well, you get the picture. Our homes ring with the words, “Hurry up, we’ll be late” and we rush our kids from one activity to the next. We zip through the drive-thru and throw processed food at our kids as they attempt to finish homework in the backseat. We sacrifice their nutrition and our own sanity to the rush of one more practice or game or commitment. As parents, we have a choice to make: do we follow along with our hurried culture and sign our children up for yet one more activity (who said peer pressure vanished with high school?!) or, do we swim upstream?

Many modern day American parents have fallen victim to this underlying system of beliefs: My children deserve to be happy and successful. It is my job to make them happy and successful. If I give my child more “opportunities” (also known as classes, lessons, tutors, etc.) to obtain experience and knowledge they will be more likely to grow up to be happy and successful and I will have done my job. If we (and I definitely include myself here!) as adults recall the most happy, carefree days of our own childhood it is likely that those memories do not involve structured, organized “opportunities”, but rather (gasp!) unstructured free play with friends and/or siblings. Our children today are stressed-out, over-scheduled, and under-played.

Research is overwhelmingly in support of slowing down the pace of our children’s daily lives and of giving them back the chance to get bored, to find something to do on their own and to relish in pretend play. I could name book after book written by prestigious authors who support this notion, but, at the end of the day it comes down to this: Are we, as parents, willing to swim upstream? It is hard work. It can be exhausting. It is not fun or easy to hold to a different set of beliefs from our culture (pesky peer pressure again!). Are we willing to stand our ground and say “no” to countless “opportunities” that present themselves to us time and time again? Are we willing to listen to our kids bickering and fighting as they attempt to plow through their own boredom to find something to do? It is far easier to sit in the bleachers checking your own email as your child runs up and down the basketball court than to stick it out at home on a Saturday morning as your child struggles to find a new mode of entertainment. Remember, we have created this culture of hurriedness for our children and they will have to “detox” and adjust as we slow the pace.

Okay, you are still with me so I will assume you might be willing to swim upstream. How do we do this in a practical way?

  • Just say NO! Limit your children to one or maybe two activities at a time, depending on their age. If it is soccer season and your child really wants to be on the team, go for it! But let that be the activity for that season. I will warn you, and I speak from experience here, this is hard. There will be times when you think you are depriving your child of the chance to be the next Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Julie Andrews before he or she turns 10. You worry that you are not helping your child find his or her “thing.” Hang in there. It gets easier.
  • Unplug on a regular basis. Have technology-free time as a  family: play a board game together, go for a walk, collect items and make a collage or sculpture, take turns asking each other “what if” questions (What if you could jump into a book…which book would you jump into and why?), bake something yummy and share it with a neighbor.
  • Make family dinners a priority. The research here is so strong! Families who eat a meal together on a regular basis have kids who perform better in school and hold up under peer pressure when it comes to big stuff like drugs, alcohol, and sex.
  • Fight the urge to plan every moment. Allow for chunks of time in your child’s day that are not filled with activities and events.
  • Resist the urge to buy every latest and greatest toy or electronic gadget. Provide your child with toys that encourage open-ended play: blocks, blank paper and crayons/paints/markers, play-doh or clay, dress up clothes, boxes of varying sizes that can become anything, etc.
  • Pay attention to your child. Ask your child which activity he or she would most like to engage in right now. Watch for signs of your child being overwhelmed or stressed-out (fatigue, anxiety, irritability, poor sleep habits) and be prepared to scale

Summer’s Almost Here! Now What?

Alice Cooper’s iconic song “School’s Out” has the tendency to elicit one of a few specific emotions, especially during the months of May and June. For children and teenagers, the song prompts a sense of overwhelming joy and general youthful jubilance. No more school, no more books, no more bedtimes or alarm clocks, and no more homework- who wouldn’t be excited about that? For most parents, on the other hand, that song (along with a strange shift in their child’s behavior right around the end of school) can elicit pure, unadulterated angst. What the heck are you going to do with your kid(s) all summer? Sure, many families will split up the summer with a couple of well-timed vacations to Galveston or some beautiful Texas lake where hopefully the kids will completely wear themselves out and maybe you’ll get a few minutes of peace. But what about those in-between-vacation days when no day camp is scheduled, the overnight camp you signed them up for 3 years ago doesn’t start for another few weeks, and the caffeine your kid had at the end of school party a week ago STILL hasn’t worn off yet? I’ve compiled a list of tips, ideas, and general guidelines to help parents stay at least somewhat focused during these crazy summer months.

First- the general guidelines. Research on brain development has regularly shown that routine matters. For kids, this can apply to nearly every aspect of their lives including having a consistent bedtime, gathering the family for meal times, Saturday morning waffles, or 10 minutes of TV time before bath, book, and bed. Concerning regular bedtimes, researchers at the University of London followed 11,000 children from when they were 3-years old to the age of 7 to measure the effects of bedtimes on cognitive function. The research showed a significant negative impact on test scores in math, reading, and spatial reasoning for those children who had consistently irregular or late bed times. I realize that maintaining a consistent bed time is much easier said than done, but even having lights out at midnight is better than waking up the next morning and realizing your teenager is still on the couch watching the 28th episode of Breaking Bad on Netflix. Let’s be honest- every hour of sleep counts. Speaking of watching TV for hours on end, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should watch no more than two hours of TV per day after two years of age, and none before that. Can we just take a second to think about that? Studies all over the world have shown that more than 2 hours of television viewing a day is a valid predictor of poor performance in vocabulary, math, and motor skills development later in life. How many hours a day does your child watch TV? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure those Baby Einstein videos are less brain-frying than Sponge Bob but allowing your child to watch it all day long? Probably not the best idea. So what are you supposed to do instead?

Here I’ve gathered some fun– and more importantly, time-consuming– ideas for entertaining the kiddos during the summer months. We can go ahead and assume that you know about (or have already tried) simply turning on the sprinkler in the back yard and letting the kids go wild. Depending on the age of your child, pulling out the sprinkler just may do the trick. However, for older children, fighting off boredom may prove to be more difficult. Here’s where a little work can go a long way. No, I’m not suggesting that you try to get your 15 year old a sales internship that you think will prepare them for their future career (unless they are passionate about it, that is). What I’m suggesting is this: does your teenager love animals? How about volunteering at the local animal shelter? Could your garage benefit from a thorough spring-cleaning? Have your teen set up a garage sale- and promise him or her a portion of the cash! Perhaps your hallway bathroom needs a new paint job or maybe you’ve always wanted a small vegetable garden in the backyard. Planning out and building a vegetable garden can teach the kids about agriculture, healthy eating, and the value of getting your hands dirty. Not to mention the satisfaction of literally experiencing the fruits of your own labor! Stuck inside on a rainy day? A disco party (complete with mom or dad flicking on and off the overhead lights), putting on a play or musical (don’t forget the video camera), or a trip to the IMAX at the planetarium are just a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing. This is a perfect time to create life-long memories with your family- so get outside, have fun, relax, and don’t forget the sunscreen!

If you need some more fun ideas, check out this website of 50 summer activities for the kiddos!   http://kidsactivitiesblog.com/13269/50-summer-bucket-list

10 Stress Busters for Finals Week

Finals are just around the corner! But there’s no need panic. In fact, when studying for finals, panicking is totally counterproductive. So if you feel your blood pressure start to rise, try some of these strategies to stay calm under pressure.

1. Breathe!!! – When you hold your breath, you increase the neurotransmitter adrenaline. Adrenaline is great for regulating your metabolism, making roller coasters exciting, and helping you run quickly if you are ever chased by a tiger. But, adrenaline is the enemy when you are anxious, it can induce panic!  Try breathing in for 7 seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, breathe out for eight seconds.  Then repeat four more times.

2. Start studying early – The earlier one starts studying, the better. There is nothing worse than cramming the night before the test and realizing that you are out of time and you can’t find your study guide. Insufficient study time is one of the biggest underlying problems for students who suffer from test anxiety. When you start studying early and hit a roadblock, you will have time to ask for clarification or tutoring.

3. Find a furry animal – Playing or snuggling with a dog or cat has been so effective in reducing stress that many universities around the world have started having a “puppy room” during finals week.  It’s a room full of puppies!  How can that not be relaxing???

4. Go for a walk or a run – Whether you are a marathon runner or a strolling through the park kind of a person, get outside and go.  It’s great to step away from the books intermittently and moving around will increase the blood flow to your brain.

5. Drink plenty of water – Many people overload on caffeine during finals week.  Caffeine has been linked to increased anxiety and panic attacks.  Drink plenty of water!

6. Make time for your passions – Take a 15-30 minute break to do something you are passionate about.   Taking time for music, dancing, friends, and sports can rejuvenate your soul.

7. Get plenty of sleep – People think that it is wise to pull all-nighters when studying for finals.  It’s real simple: you don’t sleep, you can’t think.

8. Take a social media break – Anxiety is contagious.  If you are reading all about your friend’s anxiety about finals, you will start to feel it too.

9. Study with friends – Choose a (not completely anxious) friend and study together.  You can divide the work, quiz one another, and help each other when the work is confusing or difficult.  Also, one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to someone else.

10. Get your parents to chill out! (Tell your parents to read this part.) “Are you studying?” “Why aren’t you studying?” “Do you care that finals are just around the corner?” “You don’t have time for that, start studying!” CHILL OUT PARENTS!!! Anxiety is contagious! Students are hearing about finals from every teacher, all of their friends, their friends’ parents, and all of your neighbors, etc. Your child is fully aware that finals are approaching and EVERYONE is anxious about them! In a calm manner, ask your child what you can do to help them. Offer to bring them healthy snacks, quiz them, take a walk with them, and help them get organized. Finally, find something absolutely ridicules to laugh about. Laughter is a wonderfully fun stress reducer!

A back to school thought from Jules: The Man Who Thinks He Can

If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don’t.
If you’d like to win but think you can’t,
it’s almost certain you won’t.
Life’s battles don’t always go
to the stronger or faster man,
But sooner or later, the man who wins
is the man who thinks he can.

– Walter D. Wintle

Thanks to Coach Edd Burleson, this inspirational poem, painted in large purple and gold letters, lived on the locker room doors of our small Central Texas school gymnasium. I saw it every day for 12 years. Under the strong leadership of several wise administrators and numerous compassionate and gifted teachers, that small town school has a long history of athletic, academic, and artistic successes.

More importantly, I left that educational environment with a strong sense of who I am; passionate about pursuing whatever might lie ahead, confident that I could try anything (at least once), and a desire for lifelong learning. PLEASE HEAR ME— without parents and educators instilling (and sometimes insisting on) strong values, this would not have happened.

As another school year begins, we want to encourage you to be involved in setting your children, and the children around you, up for success. This month, Jill offers insights on adjusting the parent tool box, using her expertise as a former classroom teacher. Additionally, Samantha shares some helpful tools for maintaining healthy communication within your family during this often chaotic season, and Patrick discusses very practical guidance regarding concussion safety for our student-athletes.

Our Best to You and Yours,

Jules