A Good Question to Ask When Kids Misbehave (Kids and Strong Emotions Part II)

2362008376_839662bff0_zMy son was losing it in the middle of the Super Target. He was whining for a new pair of shoes. When that wish was denied, he demanded a candy bar. And if that was not going to happen, he announced he was planning on watching TV for the rest of the day and I could not stop him. As I continued to say no, he started to growl like a threatened dog, tugging at the side of the shopping cart until it almost fell over. It was awful and embarrassing, and I was prepared to lock him under the stairwell when we got home (Harry Potter style), or, better yet, sell him to the first caravan of traveling gypsies I met in the parking lot. Then it struck me: he and I were actually feeling exactly the same. My son was not acting crazy. He was acting out how I felt! I just had enough of a developed brain to override my desire to tip the cart and weep.

Kids are not that different from us when it comes to emotions. As adults, we are just expected to control ours better. On this day in the store, I was tired and hungry, too. It had been a long day. This was our last errand. I wanted something and could not get it, too, and because of that I was already promising myself a long list of rewards to make up for the misery I’d been through (when I get home, I’m gonna eat cake, drink beer, and stream Flight of the Conchords online for three hours).

I wanted to growl at somebody just as much as he did. The only difference between us was that he lacked the adult skills (and brain development) necessary for containing his feelings. His less than complete brain circuitry meant that his self-control mechanism had shut down.

A wise education professor once told my class, “we all have emotional and behavior disorders…sometimes. The kids in your class just have them more often and can’t control them as well.” This idea that we are not so different is worth remembering the next time our children or students begin acting nuts. When they do, check in with yourself with this question: how much of their behavior is actually an (almost) appropriate response to this situation? A situation like:

  • They’ve been sitting in a car for six hours.
  • They’ve had testing all day and been given no recess.
  • They skipped a meal and got harassed in the halls.
  • They had to sit through a long, boring dinner at a relatives house and now they’re forced to go grocery shopping.

In many of these situations, we would want to throw a fit, too. There are days when I want to put a chair through a window at work, but I know it would cost me my job. There are days I want to knuckle-sandwich the sixteen year old punk in charge at the customer service counter, but I’ve worked enough in the correctional world to never want to go there. In any given situation, if we see inside ourselves similar emotions to those our children or students are acting out, we know that they need compassion, coping resources, a change of scenery–not punishment.

This is especially true in schools. It is hard to know what our students go through before they reach our doors. This demands compassion for the unknown traumas in their lives.

And with my own kids, it’s often so obvious that I’m dumbstruck. When I take a moment to step back from their behavior and check my own feelings, I often find I’m right in tune with them. I feel the same way they do. I’m tired, stressed, bored, hungry, and it’s only my adult sense of shame that keeps me from lying down in the middle of the candy aisles to kick and scream with them.

In fact, a lot of the time it is my fault! I’m the one who booked the flight with two lay-overs (never again), brought my kids to that late night, formal sit-down wedding (never again), decided we could drive all the way from Memphis to Austin in one day (never again).

Yes, as parents and teachers we need to handle bad behavior. There should be consequences. But before we unleash our wrath, it is always worth asking the question: How much of this behavior is actually a fairly appropriate response to this situation? Do I feel similar emotions, which I’m just containing a little better? This will help us be more compassionate in the moment. Maybe they’ll still kick and scream, and maybe all you can do is tell them you feel the same while modeling a more appropriate response.

And maybe that candy bar is just what the kid needs.


This is a three part series on emotions and kids. Next week I’ll go into what happens in kids’ brains when they lose it and how a few mindful exercises can help them better learn to handle strong feelings. Subscribe if you don’t want to miss it. Last week I wrote about the practice of solidity, which can really help in these situations where kids are losing it (and we are about to lose it). Here’s a short video I made of the solidity meditation I use before my own work with kids at the detention center. It helps me remain a solid presence in a chaotic environment…some of the time.

Helping Children Manage Strong Emotions

Human children are a very unprofitable investment. They require a lot of time and labor. They break stuff. They’re expensive. And they yell and throw fits. Most other animal babies—ponies, rats, chickens—are fully capable of adult living by the age of one or two. They even move out, or at least they start catching their own food. We’re stuck with our lazy human kids until they’re eighteen (though I’ve heard rumors they can stick around longer), with no return on our investment. A cow is fully self-sufficient by age one, at which point, if it were mine, I could milk it and make some money at a milk-stand on the corner. My five-year old daughter, on the other hand, still sometimes needs help in the bathroom, and her lemonade stand never turns a profit.

Of course, there is a long boring explanation involving evolution and brain development and a lot of other “science,” which explains why our kids require eighteen years and a half a million bucks in order to grow into productive adult, but I don’t have time to research all that, because I have kids.

(And even all our hard work turns out to be a crap-shoot: my oldest son’s stated aim in life is to devote his adulthood to playing video games and drinking Mountain Dew, since those two joys were denied to him in childhood. So much for those piano lessons and extra math tutoring).

Truth is, we love our kids so crazy much, we are willing to give them practically anything they want for eighteen years. So let us make sure we are giving them one of the most important things we can: Our calm, stable presence within the storms of their life.

I’ve had the great pleasure of participating in Mindful School’s Mindfulness Curriculum Training for Teachers, and the one huge takeaway I’ve gotten after four weeks of the class is this: we are the grounding force for our children and students. Beyond anything we say or do or teach or give, our literal presence in the room, the house, the halls is often the key ingredient in how well the children we work with manage their feelings.

Mindfulness education for children starts with the adults. Adults are the missing link in a child’s ability to self regulate, to control strong emotions. Human kids cannot contain all that goes on in their little heads and big hearts, and they look to us, their care-givers for that stability.

Chris McKenna of Mindful School’s says that a child’s “ability to downshift and regulate strong emotional states is incomplete by design, from an evolution point of view. The completion of that circuit happens through adults, the voice of the caregiver, the steady presence, the attunement, the ability to really be there for the child.” In other words, we are the substitute for our kid’s still developing pre-frontal cortex.

I began a practice Mindful School’s calls “Solidity” in my classroom, which carried over at home. It starts in the morning with a few minutes of sitting and focusing on feeling strong, detached but compassionate, non-reactive, like a large tree in the forest or a mountain above the cloud line. The idea is to carry this sense of strength and peace into the lives of our children, so that when I stand in front of my kids at school, no matter where they’ve been or what they’re feeling, they’ll sense in me a calm and stabilizing force, a compassionate presence.

We all know this truth in our hearts. The more out of control or anxious we feel, the more it can come out in the children around us. Taking some time each day to ground ourselves, to find our own center, will translate to our children. Mindful School’s makes a big point of telling teachers and parents that even if they never decide to use the curriculum, their own mindfulness practice will have an impact on the home and classroom.

So add that to your long list of jobs. Not only do we have to wipe butts, buy sneakers, fill out endless permission slips, and encourage kids not to play in the street, we have the most important job of being the self-regulation barometers for our kids. By regulating and grounding ourselves and our emotions, we teach our kids self-regulation.

The good news is that this means we can be better parents and teachers by taking care of ourselves. Again, Chris McKenna says “if we want self-regulation in the children we care for, these are not optional skills in us.” The first rule of teaching mindfulness and self-regulation to young children is to have an on-going practice yourself.

By giving ourselves a chance to stay grounded, calm, and peaceful, we are helping our kids stay grounded, calm, and peaceful.

So I’m giving all the adults in the world who take care of or teach young kids permission to take a break, get a babysitter, and do some crucial grounding activities like yoga, a quiet walk, fishing, exercise, napping, working on that antique car sitting in the garage, cooking an extravagant meal, hanging with the Bronies, whatever helps you calm down and regulate your own strong feelings.

Top Tech Execs Limit Kids’ Screen Time More than Average Parent: What do they know that we don’t?

In 2010, when New York Times’ tech reporter Nick Bilton asked Steve Jobs what his own children thought of the new iPad that was sweeping the nation, his response was a suprise: “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” Shocked, Bilton asked other top executives at tech companies what they do at home with their own kids. What he found was that while we are handing out iPads like candy to our first graders, many of the execs behind these electronic goodies are severely limiting their kids’ access.

What do they know that we don’t? Perhaps they believe what all the studies are saying, that too much screen time is bad for kids. It’s addictive. It takes away from reading, schoolwork, and other high-quality learning activities; And it causes social, health, and attention problems.

At the time of the interview quoted above, Jobs’ two youngest daughters were not three and five. They were twelve and fifteen! Yes, that’s right: they were at the age when most tweens and teens have already fully integrated their phones and tablets into their circulatory system.

Bilton found that this was not a strange anomaly in one eccentric man’s world, but a real trend across Silicon Valley. Turns out many big tech innovators, from the founder of Twitter to an editor at Wired Magazine—in other words, people who work in the wired world and know it best—have strict limits for their own children.

The New Technological Divide

In education, it is popular to talk about the technological divide in terms of the haves and have-nots. We worry about those students who cannot do homework or apply to college because they don’t have access to the internet, computers, or printers at home. We worry that they have a disadvantage. In my own city, we are getting ready to hand out electronic tablets to every kid in the district as part of our personalized learning network and equity plan.

But I think we’ll start seeing a new technological divide, a divide between those who put limits on their kids’ screen time and those who don’t. I already see this divide in my classroom. This is the divide between those kids who have attention problems, can’t sit still, lack focus, can’t follow simple directions, are always distracted, never finish books, text incessantly under the desk, think Facebook is a reading activity and Tweeting counts as an essay, and often rely on medications to keep them calm; and on the other side are the kids who can sustain their attention on a difficult task for a significant amount of time, can read and comprehend a newspaper article or a complex novel, can write a multi-paragraph essay with nuanced ideas. Kids who can think deeply and with fixed attention on a topic.

What the tech CEOs of the world know is that the kid who makes the next iPhone or Apple Watch is probably not the “average” kid who spends 5-7 hours passively in front of a screen.

This divide, according to a new study out of UCLA, will also separate the kids who know how to empathize and show compassion from those who have difficulty reading emotions in others (check out the full article in Newsweek, “Screen Time Makes Tweens Clueless on Reading Social Cues.”)

I see bits of this in my own home, as screens take over more and more. My family struggles as much as any in setting the right limits. The good news is that much of this is reversible. In the study mentioned above, five days at an outdoor, unplugged camp had a dramatic impact on kids’ social skills.

One problem is that there is a new normal we have not had much time to think about. It’s normal for our kids (and for us) to be almost constantly engaged in media. In fact, it’s hard to find a place where kids are not wired in. I brought home some Nooks from school thinking my kids could download library books on them. They figured out how to watch TV and play video games. With the Apple Watch arriving soon, Time magazine says we are entering the world where we will be permanently “on-line.” This is the singularity that futurists talk about. But is it the future we want?

Household Media Rules at Top Tech Execs’ Homes

So let us take a lead from those who know, the ones who run the tech business. During his research, Nick Bilton found that across the board certain rules held true when he asked those in the tech business how they handled electronic gadgets at home:

  • In many tech giant’s own households, children under 10 (yes the zero next to the one is not a mistake) are restricted from all gadgets and electronics during the school week. On weekends, limits range from 30 minutes to two hours on pads, TVs, and phones.
  • In general, 10-14 year-olds are allowed to use computers on school nights only for homework. Clearly there is the message that education is a priority for these top tier techies, and they understand that texting and homework don’t mix.
  • Many top tech parents Bilton polled totally forbid their own teenagers from using social networks. There was a deep concern over protecting their kids from saying something online “that will haunt them later in life.”
  • A big surprise for me was the phone rules. In my world, phones can be found on kids eight and younger, and my own boys are always making a case for why they should have one now. For the top execs, 14 is the magic age when they give their own kids a phone, and that’s without a data plan! They’ll wait until 16 for that.
  • And the number one rule that Bilton found in the homes of technology CEO’s and venture capitalists across the board: no screens allowed in the bedroom. Even the chief executive of Twitter only allows his teenage kids to use their gadgets in the living room.

These are some strict standards, and certainly, perhaps, unrealistic for many of us (I know some young kids who need a phone because they don’t have a chauffeur and a nanny and all the school’s pay phones have been removed). Some might think, as I do, that it is a little hypocritical to be working in a field that pushes social media and phone apps at our children while limiting the same things for their own children. (Just as I wonder how often the top executives at McDonald’s take their kids through a drive-thru or let them crawl around in a play land.)

I find it scary, too, as if these tech industry leaders have some inside knowledge we don’t have. When I informally poll my own students who come from economically struggling neighborhoods, most tell me they have unlimited access to a staggering amount of technology, from phones, to multiple video game systems (my average male student has two stand alone game systems and two handheld), electronic tablets, computers, and, of course, full cable TV. And that’s just what’s in their bedroom. These kids are media rich, living the dream that Steve Jobs’ kids never had, and yet they can barely make it through a day of school let alone a difficult math problem, a complex text, or an extended lecture. My colleagues and I trouble over how we can teach big concepts in 1-2 minute chunks before, unfortunately, we lose their attention.

Technology is not evil. It just needs limits. And there is definitely a difference between passive and active media, between watching TV versus creating computer art, recording music, or coding.

Also, limiting too much could lead to over-indulgence in the future, like my son who wants to devote his adult life to video games and Mountain Dew—the two things he does not get enough of now.

But it should give us pause if the ones who are creating the media-saturated world we live in are also wary of its effects on kids.

For more, read Bilton’s original article, “Steve Jobs was a Low Tech Parent.”

Go Back to School Right with 15 Easy Mindfulness Exercises for the Home or Classroom

The first weeks of school are busy; so busy that I couldn’t even get to this welcome back post. (Welcome back from Tall Trees Grow Deep!) The start of school is exciting, but unfortunately schools are often kinetic environments filled with noise, interruptions, and a barrage of information for both kids and adults. We are not doing our kids any favors by teaching them that life is about constant busyness and chaos. Kids also need time to process, slow down, lay around, relax, chill, unwind and unplug (without a screen!). It’s our job to scatter throughout our kids’ days some mindful moments of contemplation and relaxation. I’ve challenged myself to start off every class this year with two quiet, mindful minutes with my students; and my wife and I are trying to integrate similar moments into our children’s lives at home. Even small doses of mindfulness can build self-control, increase attention and focus, aide in relaxation, and help with mood regulation. And it’s not just for the kids! We need it, too. So whether you’re a teacher or a parent, here are some simple ideas to get you going.

1. Ring a chime and have your students concentrate on the sound, raising their hand when it disappears. Do this daily, followed by five deep breaths led by a student, and you’ve got a simple routine.

2. Set a timer and have students simply count how many breaths they take in two minutes. As a bonus, track their counts over the week. See if they can slow down their breathing by a few beats each day.

3. Give each student a small chocolate or yummy fruit and have them silently eat it for a full two minutes, noticing everything, the flavors, textures, and smells.

4. As a family alternative, start dinner with two minutes of quiet, mindful eating so that you have a chance to really notice the tastes and smells of the food (and also so you can calm down enough to have a conversation).

5. Have students hold an ice cube and notice the sensation as it melts.

7. Have students recall a time when they were very happy and content. Have them sit with that memory for two minutes, noticing how it feels in their body.

8. Similarly (with older kids you know well), have students recall a time when they were angry and have them sit with this feeling for two minutes, noticing how it affects their body. I do this with my boys in detention as a way for them to practice being with their anger. This helps them learn to notice their anger before it blows up, and teaches them to move from “reacting” to “responding.”

9. Use our Draw the Sound Contemplation Activity to get students to draw pictures and patterns that visualize different songs you play. This is a fun way to get students to look at sound differently, while pausing the monkey mind of incessant thinking.

10. Try out some of the great scripts and soothing audio guides at Anxiety BC Youth, a great site for helping teens work with anxiety. I’ve noticed that even my most talkative and hyper students will sit and relax during some of these simple guided meditations.

11. Or use a few of our mindfulness/meditation starter audios for kids and adults.

12. Have your students reflect on how they feed the best and worst of their personalities using The Two Wolves Contemplation Activity.

13. Games like checkers and chess are mindful games. They develop focus, calm, and concentration. They give the brain a break from thinking about the past and the future. Alternatively, making a domino run across a table or around the floor is a great way to get younger kids to develop focus and mindful concentration. I was amazed at how still and concentrated my spirited eight-year-old son got while we worked out a domino pattern across the cabin floor.

14. Two minutes of quietly noticing one sense very closely, be it sight, sound, smell, or taste, is always an quick way to get mindful.

15. For longer mindfulness and relaxation audio guides, check out some of these great tracks courtesy of Dartmouth College.

Frankly, the web is full of great resources and ideas that are just a click away. But it all can be overwhelming. Simple is sometimes better. Simply practicing with your students  and children (notice you’re practicing with them, not teaching to them) to sit quietly and notice how you are breathing, for as little as two or three minutes, is all that is really necessary to begin. Sure they’ll balk and giggle and complain and roll their eyes, and sometimes you’ll be the only one who gets anything out of it. That’s okay. You’ll be a better teacher or parent because of it. For sure they’ll notice that.

More resources and ideas at Tall Trees Grow Deep. And please tell me your great suggestions.

Rich or Famous? Teaching Kids the Right and Wrong Reasons for Doing Something

My humble folk band, The Falderals, got a write-up in our neighborhood paper. My son asked if this meant we were now “as famous as Justin Bieber”? Before I could figure out how to reply (because it’s really too close to call), my other son said, “no, probably only about as famous as a minor league baseball player.” So that’s the modern fame continuum for boys: minor league baseball player to Bieber. These days fame can be pretty quantifiable. We can check stats and likes and count “followers.” And our young people know this well. My son was disappointed by the paltry number of hits he got for the YouTube video of him getting his cast off. His grandparents could only watch it so many times. It’s good fun. But there is a danger when fame, recognition, and notoriety become our full measure of success. How can we make sure our kids pursue things they are passionate about, things they love to do, not just activities that will make them famous, well-liked, or go viral? Emily Dickinson can help.

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Two Questions That Will Change Your Life (and an activity for teens, families, adults)

Here’s a really good question I was recently asked:  why would you feel distressed over a situation you can change?  Why worry about something that can be fixed? Just fix it. If you plan on fixing it later, then do that. But don’t waste time with worry. Good point.Obvious, right? But here’s the follow-up question: why would you feel distressed or worried over a situation or problem you can’t change? If it can’t be fixed, changed, or altered, why spend your time being worked up about it? Good point. Obvious again. But it turns out, those are the only two types of situations that exist: things you can change and things you can’t. So there’s nothing to worry about. Right? Of course, it’s easier said than done. But helping kids see the difference can steer them towards contentment.

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